Monday, December 29, 2008
First, Israel is about to exhaust obvious and legitimate military targets, especially those available for aerial bombardment, even under their broadest interpretation. Admittedly Hamas never seriously tried to separate its political and military wings--unlike, say, the Basque nationalist ETA (who have had both the clandestine ETA and various incarnations of the Hari Batasuna Party) or the Irish Republicans (who had the IRA and the Sinn Fein Party), partly because it does not really have a political strategy distinct from its military one. Even so, bombing Hamas police stations and Hamas's organizational structure is different from striking the Hamas broadcasting center, let alone the Islamic University in Gaza City. Attacking distinctly civilian targets and the infrastructure of civil life is a potential war crime. It is also counterproductive. The number of civilian casualties will rise, and the international community will be mobilized to chip away at the immunity Israel now seems to possess in targeting Hamas.
Second, the degree of tacit support Israel has so far enjoyed for this operation is fragile. It is remarkable that Mahmoud Abbas, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia (through its semi-official Asharq Alawsat) blame Hamas for the Israeli operation even though none of them justifies it. All three were involved in either arranging the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel or promoting Fatah-Hamas talks and, consequently, hold Hamas responsible for ending the cease-fire with a bang and, by so doing, inviting Israel to undertake this operation. Indeed, it is becoming ever clearer just how grave Hamas’s miscalculation was in taking control of the Gaza Strip through a local coup d’êtat in June 2007. As a result of the coup Hamas has isolated itself in the Arab world and is viewed as a surrogate of Iran. Its Arab “allies” are keen to see it weakened, even if through Israeli pounding. But it is doubtful how long Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be able to withstand the pressure of the demonstrations throughout the Arab world that call for closing the Arab ranks behind the Palestinian cause. Hamas's ability to draw support from reluctant Arab governments will increase the longer the Israeli operation goes on.
Third, and most crucial, Israel has already attained many of its narrower military aims and is not likely to accomplish its larger political goals. Contrary to much wishful thinking that presents itself as realism, a genuinely realistic analysis has to begin by recognizing that violence against Israel is Hamas’s raison d’être. Its non-military goals, such as they are, call for Israeli concessions without tying its own hands in the future. Furthermore, by casting its “truce” proposals not in international diplomatic terms that can be monitored and enforced by the UN but in Islamic terms (hudna) that may be interpreted only within Islamic jurisdiction, it removes the possibility of an agreement with a non-Islamic adversary. All this might, hypothetically, change in the future, but Hamas is not going to suddenly transform its core identity under military pressure.
Hamas's alleged pragmatism has evaporated since its coup and we are left with the reality of an exclusively military world view. The consequences have been disastrous for Palestinians, not just for Israelis. But deploring this reality is less important than facing up to it. How else can one explain the fact that instead of hunkering down after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005 and letting Kadima implement its planned withdrawals from the West Bank, Hamas chose to allow the rocketing of nearby Israeli towns thus effectively destroying the Kadima plan. How else can one account for the fact that Hamas defends the firing of rockets that are singularly ineffective and cause more psychological than actual damage in Israel? At a strategic level, Hamas is not interested in political alternatives to armed confrontation. But whether one wants to call the Hamas strategy resistance or terrorism, the lack of a serious political plan to accompany military strategies is always counterproductive, as it is has been for Hamas and for the people of Gaza.
It will be equally counterproductive for Israel. It appears that Israeli political leaders and military planners labor under the illusion that there is a military “solution” to Hamas. The extended military operation in Gaza is expected to serve as a pedagogical tool for moderating or eliminating Hamas. But this will not work, and the idea that a ground invasion of Gaza could actually eliminate Hamas as a force in Palestinian politics is delusional. The Israeli approach is every bit as driven by militarism as Hamas’ strategy is. Beyond a certain point, it can serve no realistic political goals. In fact, I would offer a concise definition for militarism as not knowing when to stop. Israel is in danger of recapitulating in Gaza the last few weeks of the war against Hezbollah, which increasingly turned into a war against Lebanon.
Continuing the reciprocal militarisms of Hamas and Israel can do no more than prepare the ground for another and probably more lethal round. Hamas is not about to change, but Israel now has the opportunity to act in a way that is realistic and might limit the suffering inflicted on the civilian Palestinian population. Olmert and Livni have both stated that they are fighting Hamas, not the Palestinians of Gaza. To show this, rather than just state it, Israel should now stop its military operation for a stated period while indicating that they are doing so to give Hamas a chance to return to a de facto cease-fire. At the very least, that would demonstrate the alleged good will of an Israel seeking to defend its citizens, rather than harm the citizens of Gaza. If Hamas ignores or rejects that opening, the gap between Hamas and the real interests of the Palestinian civilian population would become even more visible. But an Israeli initiative of this sort would also put Hamas under tremendous pressure to reciprocate by restoring is side of the cease-fire. And once the rocket attacks on Israeli towns have actually been stopped, after having provoked this massive Israeli retaliation, it would not be easy or costless for Hamas to allow their resumption.
The strongest argument in favor of such an approach is that all the available alternatives--including the currently stated Israeli policy of seeking ‘to educate’ or eliminate Hamas--lead nowhere and can only yield disastrous and counterproductive results, along with unnecessary human suffering. Israel has made its point. Now it should know when to stop. Read more on this article...
Thursday, December 18, 2008
The U.S. Institute of Peace has published a concise discussion of policy concerns and options for the incoming Obama administration. The document, which entails the input of a number of scholars, experts, and former officials, offers 15 recommendations, some of which are especially thoughtful. The signatories include a number of the people who advised the Iraq Study Group.
Cross-posted with From the Field.Read more on this article...
(published as "Heed the poor as democracy starts from the ground up" in the Bangkok Post, December 17, 2008)
Thailand has taken a small but significant step on the road to normalcy after a long period of instability and intense factional struggle.
Newly selected Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva certainly has his work cut out for him, but he brings to the job a mannered civility that has been sorely lacking in recent Bangkok dust-ups. As such, his elite overseas education is both asset and liability depending on which Western values he draws from; will it be a cool, condescending noblesse oblige or democracy in the more egalitarian sense of the word, recognizing the equal rights and equal worth of all citizens?
After seeing the country immobilized with invective, wobbling close to the brink, moderate, common sense voices are needed to restore balance and order; if they succeed, things will start looking better than they have for a long time.
Abhisit, like US president-elect Barack Obama, strikes a public pose that is rare in the rough and tumble world of politics. From the personal one might infer potential political strengths; a calm, collected and humble leader is just what a rife-torn country needs to reach out across the political divide and reduce the bitter factionalism that has almost made the country ungovernable.
Abhisit, again like Obama, is youthful, well-spoken and well-educated, but has a modest record in terms of accomplishment outside of academia and remains untried. Yet at this critical juncture in history, when the global economy teeters, when massive unemployment looms and communal tensions flare, new leaders are not granted much of a grace period; they must learn to ride in the saddle.
Both men face challenges that would be daunting to even the most seasoned politico, which might explain why both men find themselves surrounded by seasoned politicos, not all of whom are savory or deserving of emulation.
But as the example of Abraham Lincoln shows, sometimes a leader has no choice but to embrace rivals. Lincoln was one of a kind and very much a product of his era, not unlike his accomplished Thai contemporary King Mongkut. But even a century and a half later, lessons can be drawn from the life of great men whose passion for justice helped end slavery in both America and Siam.
As illustrated in Doris Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," a popular book which has had a marked influence on Obama team-building, Lincoln pulled it off because he was humble when necessary but never lost sight of his humanitarian mission and steadfast political values. The humility with which "Honest Abe" listened to his erstwhile rivals had a great healing effect and the strategy is applicable even to those born of the silver spoon.
An unexpected but so far efficacious example of embracing a rival has already been accomplished in Thailand with the unusual case of Abhisit foe-turned-ally Newin Chidchob. If the energies of rural power broker of mixed repute can be tapped for the common good, if a meaningful partnership can develop that is not about sharing the spoils but sharing the burden, then the differences, not just between urban and rural rivals but between the city and countryside can effectively be bridged.
Everyone's life story has something to teach; the challenge for the urbane Abhisit is to encourage the better impulses of homespun, self-made men such as Newin, without compromising core civic values.
Newin has already offered some sage advice. "If the Democrats can perform in a way that wins over the hearts of the people in Isan," the Buriram politico reportedly told his new allies, "the people there will soon forget Thaksin."
While observing grass-roots campaigning in rural Isan during the run-up to Thaksin's first big electoral victory, I noticed village women folk clamoring for Abhisit's poster, asking for copies at every stop. When I enquired about this they said they liked him because he was "handsome," and considered his local proxy to be a decent man, but would vote instead for Thaksin's local proxy because he was wealthier and more in a position to "influence" things.
This is not a question of voter ignorance in Isan, it's the way democracy, an imperfect but generally worthwhile system, works. Voting for someone based on looks or because of a perceived ability to deliver the goods is not the height of intellectual sophistication, but it can be found everywhere; physical charm was vital to the success of both John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, and Ronald Reagan and both Bush Sr. and Jr. all racked in votes on promises of handouts in the form of tax cuts.
Thai author Khamsing Srinawk wrote incisively about the cavalier vote-buying techniques of politicians trawling impoverished Isan nearly half a century ago, citing the gift of one rubber slipper, and the promise of a second one to be delivered upon a certain electoral result. In Thailand's chronically impoverished Northeast, the vulnerability of poor and marginalized people hasn't changed much since. People take what they can today because, in their experience, the generosity of those who seek to rule in their name is contingent and doesn't last for long.
Thai politics has never been short of strange alliances, and unexpected twists and turns are the norm, but the polarity has now reversed for the better. Still it will take much forbearance to restore confidence in the country, not just on the part of investors and tourists but among the divided populace itself.
If Abhisit wants to heal the deep-rooted political malaise facing the nation he would do well to devote himself to the needs of the most down-trodden, for true democracy starts at the ground up. Read more on this article...
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
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Pakistanis Hold Vigil for Mumbai Victims
Call Upon India and Pakistan to Work Towards Peace
When: Saturday, December 13th, 4:00 pm
Where: Union Square NORTH (16th Street) – across the street from Barnes and Noble
(New York, December 8, 2008) - Action for a Progressive Pakistan (APP) condemns the violence of Nov 26th which claimed the lives of over 180 people in Mumbai, and expresses solidarity with the people of India. The group calls upon the democratically elected governments of India and Pakistan to work together in bringing the perpetrators of this heinous act to justice.
APP will hold a vigil this Saturday, December 13th at 4pm in Union Square to express sorrow at the loss of innocent life and call for peace and stability in the region. It demands that measured and deliberate steps be taken to ensure the safety and security of all the citizens of India and Pakistan, who remain the true targets of these extreme agendas. The group also calls upon the governments of India and Pakistan to work for a peaceful resolution of the current crisis, and asks that the world community support the two countries in this endeavor.
"The people of Pakistan stand in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in India because we also bear deeply the scars of terrorism," said Assistant Professor of Sociology Saadia Toor who’s also a founding member of APP. In 2007 alone, 1500 people were killed in terror attacks in Pakistan. This year, forty people were killed and as many as 350 injured including school children when bombs destroyed a federal government building in the heart of Lahore on March 11th. Another fifty were killed by a terror attack on the Islamabad Marriott hotel in September. These acts of violence, whether in India or Pakistan, are a backlash to the global War on Terror by non-state forces seeking to destabilize the region and derail long-overdue peace initiatives being pursued by the two countries.
The only defense against terrorism is a prosperous democracy. Pakistan has just elected its first civilian government in over a decade after a protracted struggle against the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf. The civilian government has already taken several key steps towards de-militarizing the domestic political sphere, and has made overtures towards trying to solve the issue of Kashmir. The civilian regime has managed to impose some limitations on the military but it must do more. To ensure peace and security in the region, the world community must support Pakistan's democratic institutions. This support must include development assistance geared towards addressing the needs of Pakistan's poor. APP calls for an immediate end to US airstrikes inside Pakistan's borders, as they are contributing greatly to the destabilization of the region and causing hardships for innocent civilians.
Action for a Progressive Pakistan stands with the people of South Asia in their struggle for peace in the region.The group, comprised of concerned Pakistani professionals and academics, is committed to ensuring peace, democracy and development in South Asia.
Saturday, December 6, 2008
An addendum to Rasmus’ post is that Iran's minister of higher education had announced last week that Ayatollah Khamenei was going to attend a student gathering at the Science and Technology University (the university Mahmoud Ahmadinejad graduated from and occasionally taught at) for the first time on Student Day. But his plan was suddenly cancelled without any reason given. In all likelihood, concern about protests - even someone shouting something that shouldn’t be uttered or singing a song that shouldn’t be sung - was the reason for the cancellation.
The same worry is the reason for the government not to give most student organizations, with the exception of conservative ones, permission to hold rallies this year.
Former president Mohammad Khatami was also expected to come to the University of Tehran tomorrow but his plans were postponed until next week due to “certain considerations” and in order “to prevent the occurrence of probable interferences and misuse.” His worry must have been that his presence at the university on this particular day would turn into a support rally for his candidacy for president and then get out of control.
Student Day in Iran
by Rasmus Christian Elling
Today, it is Ruz-e dâneshju or ‘Student Day’ in Iran: it is time to reassess the status of and situation for the Iranian student movement.
Revolution, reformism, repression, revival
Since ‘modern’ universities were established in Iran in the 1920s and 30s, they have been key centers of political dissidence, arenas for ideological battles and homes to alternative voices. Universities played central roles in the revolutionary movement that ousted the Shah in the late 1970s and in the reformist movement that brought Khatami to power in 1997. Indeed, during the so-called ‘Tehran Spring’ of 1997-99, it seemed as if a democratic student movement was ready to burst out of university and revolutionize Iranian society.
However, the severe clampdown on students – and in particular, the violent attack on Tehran University dormitories in July 1999 that resulted in widespread riots throughout Iran – curtailed this movement. The repression eventually seemed close to completely wipe out the Iranian student movement through juridical and extra-juridical measures, violence and threats. The state apparatus placed legal obstacles on student groups and partially seized their organizations, harassed and intimidated their spokespersons, and closed down their facilities and newsletters.
However, instead of disintegrating, the key organizations of the movement – the so-called Islamic Student Societies (anjoman-hâ-ye eslâmi-ye dâneshjuyân) and their umbrella organization, The Office to Consolidate Unity (daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat, hereafter DTV) – underwent a painful divorce from the parliamentary reform movement, its institutions and its head, Khatami. DTV succeeded in distancing itself from the waning image of the reformists and has since struggled to transform itself into a platform for a wide variety of grass roots and civil society groups. The aim of DTV today is to reach out beyond the walls of universities and into Iranian society.
While the process of bridging the intellectual and theoretical discourse of a student movement with general discontent in other layers of society has been quite difficult, the greatest challenge came with the election of the neo-conservative hard-liner Ahmadinejad in 2005.
Since this election, government has sought to ‘re-Islamize’ and control universities by discharging critical professors and appointing loyal managers, by segregating facilities in certain universities, by installing CCTV surveillance and by burying ‘martyrs’ of the Iran-Iraq War right on university campuses and thus imposing the militant ideology on students. Student activists all over Iran have faced official and unofficial reprimands, abductions to secret interrogation facilities, mock trials, torture, incommunicado detention and heavy sentences that span from exclusion from university and forced transfer to other universities to fines and jail sentences. Individual students are even given ‘stars’ depending on his/her level of political activity in a ludicrous evaluation scheme aimed at intimidating and punishing student activists.
However, the difficulties facing the student movement are not just political. Students are also confronted with a wide array of problems including the fierce competition for enrollment in prestigious universities, the dwindling quality of teaching and research in Iranian universities, the severe problem of brain drain, social problems such as drug addiction and suicide as well as issues related to everyday student life such as appalling conditions in dormitories, lack of pastime facilities and, of course, the prospect of post-graduation unemployment.
Yet despite all these obstacles and challenges, there is still good reason to argue that student activism is alive and kicking in Iran today. Indeed, students have staged small but vocal demonstrations and sit-ins, and some have even attacked Ahmadinejad’s policies directly. Recently, it seems students have become particularly active. Tensions have been felt as far away as Sistan-Baluchestan on Iran’s southeastern border, where students have clashed with security forces. In the provincial capital Hamadan, students have reported a wave of intimidation and threats by local authorities that are concerned with student activities.
Student Day 2008
Thus, the Iranian student activists are to mark Student Day today – a tradition that dates back to 1953 when 3 students from Tehran University were killed by the Shah’s security forces. This year, students have not limited themselves to Student Day itself but have indeed declared December 2 to 9 a ‘Students Week’. The last month or so, Iranian media have claimed that students are secretly preparing unrest and mayhem around Students Day. A Basiji student group has claimed that ‘violence-seeking’ individuals are ‘planning riots’ on Khajeh Nasir University in Tehran. And on the conservative website Tâbnâk, journalists reported that ‘some domestic extremist groups’ have been planning to provoke unrest, including melli-mazhhabi proponents (Religious-Nationalist, i.e. the domestic opposition of moderate ‘Islamo-nationalists’), who have allegedly called for a student-led riot like that of July 1999. The journalists even claimed that students from ethnic minorities studying in Tehran are planning disturbances to further their ethno-nationalist aims and that DTV has been in contact with opposition activists in exile. DTV denied this report and criticized it together with a series of accusations and rumors published by state-run dailies and news agencies.
With the severe security measures installed by the neo-con government and its cohorts in the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militias and the police forces in mind, it is difficult to see how students could indeed create such unrest. ”Students are under attack from all sides by the government and the fundamentalist media”, Bahare Hedayat from DTV’s public relations bureau stated recently. Hedayat, who has been imprisoned for her activities several times, argued that “the stored-up concerns and discontent amongst students over the last three years” were the result of “the clampdown by authorities outside the universities” on student activists and “the erroneous [university] management of officials selected by the Ministry of Science”.
According to Hedayat, ‘unrest’ is simply a negative term hyped by media controlled by ruling forces who are afraid of student activism: “The sick minds who cannot tolerate even a student protest gathering in university, are referring to peaceful meetings and protests within the milieu of the university as ‘unrest’”, she stated. Even ISNA – the Iranian Students News Agency, which was founded to reflect the voices of students – has “been turned into a platform for anti-student organizations”, Hedayat argued.
Student activists, in particular those at Amir Kabir Technical University, have reported that pro-government groups, Basiji students and university authorities are coordinating a counter-strike in case of student unrest on or after Student Day. These reports surfaced while DTV a week ago published its call for marking Student Day. In a thinly veiled attack on Ahmadinejad’s government, DTV stated: “[O]nce again, we will rise and sound the call of protest against oppressors who are busy stripping Iran and the Iranians of their national resources, honor and integrity, and whose erroneous policies have resulted in pervasive corruption, widespread poverty, disregard for civic rights, destruction of Iranians’ prestige all over the world, international sanctions, unemployment, and thousands of other problems”. DTV has called for a demonstration in Tehran University tomorrow and Khatami has said that enshâ‘allâh, he will come to speak. Four years ago, students heckled Khatami when he came to Tehran University on Student Day. It could become an interesting moment when Khatami and the students come face to face.
The students and ‘the reformists’
With the 2009 presidential elections looming on the horizon, the so-called ‘reformists’ seems to be looking to the student movement, hoping it could again play a significant role. Indeed, the ‘reformists’ would benefit from a re-activation of the huge potential among Iran’s two million university students. Yet, significant change is needed: since Khatami’s ‘lame duck years’ as president, and in particular, his reluctant and belated response to the state clampdown on students in 1999 and subsequently, the activist milieu has been marked by a profound skepticism towards the ‘reformists’. Indeed, the spokeswoman of the DTV stated that “reformists should know that the students are watching their behaviors and will not forget”. In other words, reformists will certainly have to redefine their ambitions and strategy in order to attract the much-needed votes of Iranian students. It seems the students, despite previous boycotts, have not yet rejected the idea of participating in the elections – so it might pay off for reformists.
However, when evaluating the ‘potentials’ of the student movement, one should keep in mind that since they ‘divorced’ from the parliamentary reformist faction, DTV and its local cells have focused on social, cultural and civil society activities – indeed, DTV declared in 2005 that it would henceforth function as a ‘Civil Society Watch’. In an interview with Roozonline.com two days ago, DTV secretary, Mehdi Arabshahi, stated that the new DTV would not repeat the fault of earlier generations in this organization: that is, to act as a political party and to play the role of opposition within the boundaries of the political system. Thus, we should not expect the students to act as a sort of ‘youth division’ of any political faction, including the reformist, in the future. Indeed, stated Arabshahi, the new DTV would not repeat the old mistake of seeing elections as “a remedy for all the nation’s troubles”.
Yet, at the same time, Arabshahi would not rule out the possibility that the election of a new government could bring about better conditions for social movements. Hedayat, the spokeswoman mentioned earlier, also explained in a separate interview that the situation had changed dramatically since the DTV boycott of the presidential elections in 2005: now, said Hedayat, a fresh analysis was needed. In other words, DTV might not boycott elections. Whatever the DTV chooses to do, Hedayat stated that the organization would strive to have its demands and issues reflected during the elections.
DTV and the student movement in general has been criticized for not participating in the 2005 elections and thereby having contributed to the loss of votes for the reformists and thus, indirectly paving the way for a neo-con victory. However, student activist spokespersons stand by their old decision. The former DTV figurehead, ‘Abdollah Mo‘meni, who is now spokesman for DTV’s alumni division, Advâr-e tahkim, stated in an interview that he would defend the decision and that the failure of reformists to mobilize voters could not be reduced to the role of students. Indeed, said Mo‘meni, the reformists had much graver problems than DTV’s election boycott: the fact that they couldn’t even agree on a single candidate to represent them, that they had made their constituencies disillusioned and that they participated willingly in a ‘commando-election’ – these were more likely the reasons for their failure.
In other words, the reformists will have to ‘deliver’ if they want to have any hope of regaining the confidence of the young generation: they will need a strong and charismatic leader, a clear and resolute program and they will need to address the key issues championed by social movements, the women rights movement and the student movement.
A student movement?
So, the question remains: can we speak of an Iranian student movement today? ‘Ali-Reza Raja‘i, a melli-mazhhabi, recently argued that “the activist atmosphere has been restricted to some extent. However, it is perfectly clear that if there is an opening of the political environment, [the student] movement will take on more visible forms”. In other words, Raja‘i thinks that the student movement right now is not a movement per se, but rather a potential movement waiting for a window of opportunity to become active again and develop into a broad-based movement.
However, the wounds inflicted over the years upon the student movement, and indeed the tormented history of democratic struggle in Iran, has left many pessimistic. Indeed, there is a widespread feeling that it will take more than a new government and more than a student movement to change Iran. “Democratic struggle is eating itself from within”, wrote the renown dissident Taqi Rahmani recently: without an active civil society and without organizations representing, for example, professional, labor or ethnic minority interests, any democratic movement is doomed to failure, Rahmani argued. This is why Iranians are prone to be disillusioned when they see that their votes have not brought about a miracle. This is why the Iranian voters are tired and weary: the constant impediments and numerous obstacles placed in front of democratic movements by the rich and powerful elites throughout history. Only by creating a strong and vibrant civil society can Iran move towards democracy.
While DTV has yet to announce its position vis-à-vis the presidential elections, it is clear that people like Raja‘i are warning the students not to boycott the elections. Indeed, Raja‘i and his ilk – the tolerated ‘opposition’, ‘the reformists’ and ‘the moderates’ – still believe that it is possible to reform and change Iranian politics and society through elections. Even though DTV earlier seemed to reject the possibility of the Islamic Republic reforming in a democratic direction, they have, as stated, not rejected a possible participation in next year’s elections. It remains to be seen what the student activist milieu would do if Khatami – or another key reformist figure – was to run for president again; and it remains to be seen what measures the neo-conservative government and its supporters in the clerical and paramilitary elites would take to obstruct the reformists. No matter what happens, it is too early to rule out a revival of the Iranian student movement. Read more on this article...