Monday, August 18, 2008


Pakistan is in dire straits. It is a nation at a crossroads. Extremism is around the corner. The politicians are corrupt. The nukes could end up in the hands of bin Laden.

Pakistan is in dire straits. Its people demand accountability. Those who claim to protect it and make it prosperous seem busy keeping themselves in power. There is no hope for change since the people have no power. They are stuck under a dictator. If the citizens of Pakistan are to be real agents of change, they need a way forward. They need democracy.

In March of 2007, when lawyers came out on the streets, there were only two available narratives. Those who held a results-based approach argued that Musharraf's dictatorial regime was the best case scenario, the lesser of the two evils. The evil being, of course, justice, accountability and democracy. They raised the specter of rampant jihadism spreading through the populations. They pointed towards the economic development that had occurred on Musharraf's watch. They warned that Pakistan had some amazingly corrupt politicians. And that US needed a stable ally, a dependable ally, in our war against terror(ism).

Then there were those of us who trusted the people of Pakistan. We knew that jihadism is not some air-borne virus that people can contract by simply inhaling. We knew that it wasn't Musharraf who had brought about economic development but the people themselves. We knew that politicians are corrupt everywhere - including the US - so why the exception of dictator for Pakistan? We knew that a partnership can only be among equals. And the will of the people needed to be heard.

Ah. But this so-called Lawyer's Movement was a big sham, we were told. These are just elites. Where are the "people"? Why can't the Lawyers bring out the masses? Why do they insist on democracy and justice when the people are more concerned with food and security.

Well. Pakistan just had a slow-burning, people-powered, secular revolution and they forced a sitting dictator - who had the complete confidence and support of the only superpower in the world - out. Peacefully. Without any bloodshed. Without any crazy mullah grabbing the nukes and blowing up the world. Without inflation hitting 10,000,000%. Without any riots. With suicide bombings in Lahore. With two regions embroiled in near civil-war. With the same corrupt politicians in charge. With the unshakeable faith, the belief, that they deserved justice. That they deserved the right to have the power to act. That they were citizens of their country, not keeps.

This is unprecedented. This is historic. This is a momentous time in the history of this nation. It has successfully forced accountability - through peaceful and legal means - on its leaders. The people of Pakistan - lawyers and all - have exercised their agency.

And like every other such exercise - be it the election of 2000 or the upcoming election of 2008 in the US - the outcome is up in the air. And hence, the hope is not in the fate of this particular dictator, it is in the accountability to the Pakistani publics, of their representative. If we really want a secure ally in Pakistan, we would do our best to strengthen the people of Pakistan.

PS. If you are curious about Musharraf's speech, I live-blogged it. Well, most of it.

PPS. If you have further curiosity, you can hear me on Chicago's excellent Worldview with Jerome McDonnell. Read more on this article...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008



BEIJING While China has been dazzling the world with its economic prowess and Olympic pyrotechnics, a very unpopular US president has quietly dazzled his Asian hosts with uncharacteristically diplomatic behavior.

It may be a case of too little too late, but nuanced diplomacy from a man best known for swagger and war-mongering comes as a counter-intuitive surprise. Has the self-styled cowboy president finally learned to walk the walk and talk the talk of diplomacy? Can small gestures of humanity from the poster boy of a generally inhumane administration reverse the self-inflicted decline of American values at this late hour?

Consistently courteous, even going out of his way to make a show of compassion, and speak in favor of peace, President Bush in recent days has given us a glimpse of what his administration might have been like had he been more like his father, had he not, in some kind of weird Oedipal rage, stacked the deck in favor of Dick Cheney and the neo-cons.

In recent days Bush Junior, sometimes with Bush Senior standing at his side, has spoken up in favor of core American values such as free press, religion and assembly with his usual degree of certitude but without the haughty neo-con triumphalism that threatened to make freedom, as in freedom fries, an empty Orwellian word.

After seven years of belligerent posturing and mangling of the English language, Bush shows up in Asia relaxed, affable, almost reasonable. It’s as if he never truly wanted to be president in the first place and is relieved to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Going to South Korea, as he did, at a time when incipient anti-Americanism threatens to explode takes a certain degree of political courage, as did his initially unpopular decision to attend the Beijing Olympics. Putting Thailand on his itinerary was an important diplomatic gesture to an old friend and ally of whom much has been demanded as an outpost in the war on terror but for whom little compassion has been evident since the economic crisis of 1997.

So when 9-11 came around and the US tried to paint the world into two camps, "with us or against us." Prime Minister Thaksin’s response was loaded with a kind of passive-aggressive ambiguity. “We’re neutral.”

The mere visit of a US president can't change all that but there are signs of healing, no where more evident than in the photo-op of President Bush gently embracing a sick child at Father Joe Maier's mission for the poor in the slums of Bangkok.

While the sight of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and President Bush conferring is enough to cause a university cynic to take umbrage, wondering how two decidedly second-tier intellects could actually become national leaders, one might also extract something positive from that fact that two legal, if not fully competent, representatives of two friendly peoples are offering a toast to continued Thai-American amity.

Since arriving here in Beijing, his performance has soared. He has deftly balanced pressures from home to speak out on human rights while not unduly offending the Olympic hosts, who also happen to be legal representatives, fully competent or otherwise, of the most populous nation on earth.

Chastising China on human rights from a podium in Bangkok may have sounded like something of a pot shot, and Chinese authorities immediately feigned indignation with a mild boiler-plate denunciation of his denunciation, but his hosts were clearly pleased that he got most of that out of his system before arriving at Beijing Airport.

Commandeering the spanking new Westin Hotel for the traveling White House, which just happens to be across the street from the brand-new US embassy where Clark Randt, an old buddy serves as ambassador, Bush quickly set an amicable tone for a visit that, in media terms at least, has been hard to distinguish from a family vacation, albeit, that of an extremely privileged family.

What sports fan wouldn’t envy the magic pass to any Olympic event that strikes his fancy, with VIP seats and brisk motorcade access via emptied streets guaranteed? Bush attended the opening ceremony, much to the pleasure of his hosts, along with his family and old, doddering Henry Kissinger in tow. At the founding ceremony for the new embassy he exchanged quips with his father, who he had briefly resided with at the American mission in Beijing in 1975, and spoke with credibility about how China has changed for the better since then.

Bush Senior seems to have finally instilled some understated Yankee restraint in a quasi-rebellious son prone to fits of Texas bragging, the productive result being a more nuanced China policy than the anti-China Cheney cabal would ever be capable of.

The presence of Russia's paramount leader, not to mention 80 other heads of state in Beijing, offered the American president a rare opportunity for personal diplomacy, most especially with the man whose soulful Russian eyes he once gushingly approved of.

Vladimir Putin's impatient, pale countenance at the stunning opening ceremony held at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing reflected pressures other than the oppressive heat --his country was exchanging bloody strikes with Georgia as he sat through the interminable introductions in French, English and Chinese of sweaty athletic delegations from 204 countries.

The message Bush had for Putin in the days that followed was simple; so simple one wishes Bush could have heeded the same advice on Iraq: make peace not war.

The family vacation trope continued to tickle the news media regardless of political tensions mounting behind the scenes. There’s something about faraway Beijing, where the hospitality for visiting heads of state is first-class, that appeals to presidents unpopular at home. That it imparted a second life and legacy for Nixon’s career cannot be disputed. Bill and Hillary Clinton famously spent a full week in China in 1998, visibly reluctant to face the heat back home due to the minor but memorably salacious Lewinsky scandal then creeping into US headlines.

In tourist mode, Laura Bush got to wander around an empty Forbidden City, a stunning privilege I can vouch for as I once had rare access to the same locale while in the employ of Bernardo Bertolucci during the filming of “The Last Emperor.” Meanwhile the president, who can’t be bothered with reading the first draft of history in newspapers, let alone thick tomes, remains admirably active for a man of his age and elected instead to hit the biking trails for some exercise.

The light-hearted tone of the Bush visit continued, mixed with soft-spoken prods on human rights mixed and respectful comments about China finding its own way. The US president found himself in a decidedly less-than-presidential dilemma at the beach volleyball venue at Chaoyang Park when a sexy bikini-clad US athlete invited him to smack her backside. It’s best left to the reader to surmise what Bush's immediate predecessor might have done with such an invitation while noting that Bush handled the crisis-in-opportunity well, patting the sportswoman high on the back like he does with Putin, Hu Jintao and everyone else he wants to establish alpha-male status with.

All in all, a compelling performance from a man whose historical legacy hovers near “worst ever”, a man who conned a frightened nation into war while blithely ignoring the worst natural disaster in recent US history, a man who trampled on US human rights and racked up credible charges of war criminality in his treatment of foreign enemies.

If only he could make the first seven years of his presidency go away, he’d be on track to re-invigorating US-Asia relations. Where was George W the diplomat when the world needed him most? Read more on this article...

Friday, August 8, 2008

John K. Cooley--R.I.P.

From the field: John K. Cooley--R.I.P.: "One of the great old hands has died. Younger readers will not know this, and older readers may have forgotten, but there was a time when the Christian Science Monitor was a giant of a paper for its foreign coverage. More than three decades ago, the paper was a broadsheet published six times weekly. In those pre-Internet days, people in the U.S. interested in following events in far away places would have a mail subscription to the Monitor. The paper never rivaled the NYTimes in circulation, but it had a loyal readership of informed readers. I remember walking through the corridors of the State Department in 1975, when I was there on a fellowship, and outside every office you would see the discards of the day's papers for recycling. There would typically be copies of the Monitor right there in the pile with the Times and Post. One reason the paper was so popular was that the paper had great correspondents of the caliber of John K. Cooley. He was a Middle East hand, and wrote fairly and honestly about a range of topics, especially developments in the Arab-Israeli zone. His 'Green March, Black September' is a seminal account of the fedayeen (to use his spelling), but his old accounts of the some of the marking moments of the 1970s also remain invaluable.

He deserves a moment of quiet thanks for his contributions." Read more on this article...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Iran's Majles Confirms All Three of Ahmadinejad’s Ministerial Candidates

Farideh Farhi

What a strange pandemonium the confirmation hearings for Ahmadinejad’s three proposed candidates for the ministries of interior, economy and finance, and transportation turned out to be. Despite vociferous opposition to two of the candidates, all three were finally confirmed in a session publicly described by one deputy as “Isfahan’s Monday Bazaar” for its lack of order. Left unanswered are questions about what happened, Larijani’s leadership capabilities in maintaining some sort of Majles decorum, and whether the results were influenced by the public announcemnt of Ayatollah’s Khamenei’s preferences.

Majles rejection of ministerial candidates is not unheard of in the Iran. In fact, four of Ahmadinejad’s initial ministers were rejected when he first became president. But it is the combination of public charges made and the eventual confirmation that makes this Majles fracas unusual.

The day began with literally no one speaking in opposition to the proposed candidate for the Ministry of Economy and Finance(217 out 271 eventually supported his candidacy), which is strange given the controversy that surrounds Ahmadinejad’s Economic Transformation Plan. But the candidate’s promise to not rattle the foreign exchange market by increasing the value of Iranian Rial, as was proposed by the previous ministerial candidate, may have calmed some nerves. Majles deputies may have also resigned themselves to the fact that less than a year prior to a presidential election is no time to make a fuss over economic policies that they have very little impact on anyway.

But the debates, which as all Majles proceedings were aired live on the Iranian radio, turned patently bizarre with the discussion over the candidate for the Interior Ministry, Ali Kordan. First the attempt by several conservative deputies to close the session, so that opposition to his candidacy could be voiced frankly, was rejected by Majles Speaker Larijani who was then angrily accused by well-known conservative deputies, such as Ahmad Tavakoli and Elias Naderan, of going against the rules and making decisions on his own.

Then several other conservative deputies held little back and effectively accused Kordan of being a charlatan; that is, someone who has lied about his honorary doctorate degree from Oxford (he has none), received salary from the government on the basis of that degree, and taught law at the university level with a mere associate degree. One conservative deputy and long-standing Ahmadinejad supporter even went so far as to suggest that Kordan “believes that our system is a leader-based system and does not believe in elections,” a serious accusation against a person who is expected to head the ministry in charge of conducting elections. Another conservative deputy identified Kordan as extremely political and partisan: “even if we consider him to be a principlist, he is partial toward a specific group and this is not right for the country.” He went on to say, “I do not say he is corrupt but he may have made mistakes.”

Despite the public airing of all this dirty laundry by very conservative deputies, Kordan, who was previously Larijani’s deputy at Iran’s radio and television broadcasting, was approved by a vote of 169 out of 271 present. It is really hard for me to explain what happened. If the vote was the result of a pre-arranged compromise between Larijani and Ahmadinejad, after the latter’s previous candidates were deemed unable to get through Majles, then why allow the public airing of such damning charges?

Now, it is possible that some deputies thought that it is counter-productive to keep a government without effective ministers for too long and voted on that basis. Perhaps others, as suggested by a couple of conservative websites, were moved by Ahmadinejad’s words relaying Ayatollah Khamenei’s support for Kordan. Still the lack of synchrony between the charges aired and the final vote is bound to cast a pall on Larijani who proved quite inept in controlling his own conservative flank and Ayatollah Khamenei who seemed unable to stay above the fray and was once again dragged into a partisan fight solidly, at least in appearance, on the side of Ahmadinejad, in this case for a minister with serious questions about his honesty.

The only winner, not surprisingly, may be Ahmadinejad. I cannot really remember a public official in Iran ever quoting the leader in support of a candidate as bluntly as Ahmadinejad did in today’s session. There are of course always rumors about who Khamenei supports but the direct reference to his support led at least one member of the parliament to say that he was moved to give support because of what Ahmadienjad said.

At this point, whether Ahmadinejad had the support of Ayatollah Khamenei or not may be irrelevant. His blunt approach is actually quite brilliant politically and will be of great use to him as he runs for his second term as president in June 2008. It is convincing others that he has Khamenei’s support, if not he would not speak in such direct terms.

Whether Ayatollah Khamenei will remain silent on this blatant use of his name for political purposes is yet to be seen. But the editorial by hard-line Hossein Shariatmadari of Kayhan suggests that Ahmadinejad's move did not go unnoticed and even some of his avid supporters have been taken aback. In his editorial, Shariatmadari, based on "reliable and detailed information," accuses Ahmadinejad of distorting Khamenei's words of not objecting to the nominations and turning it into a statement of support. More importantly, he chastizes him for using the leader for political purposes. This verbal distortion, Shariatmadari suggests, questions the legality of the vote taken and necessitates a re-vote!

It could be that Ahmadinejad just went one step too far but unless a re-vote is actually in the cards, one has to give this round to Ahmadinejad, yet again. Read more on this article...

Sunday, August 3, 2008

MIT-EJMES--a PDF download

This theme issue of the Electronic Journal for Middle Eastern Studies is titled "Commemorating the Naksa [calamity], Evoking the Nakba [catastrophe]", and it is edited by Maha Yahya.
Contributors include Alain Gresh, Islah Jad, Salim Tamari, Ilan Pappe and several other accomplished scholars and writers. The sober, thoughtful contributions emphasize the lived experiences of the Palestinians. Read more on this article...


by Philip J Cunningham

Beijing August 3, 2008

“Where’s the Forbidden City?” a blonde-haired woman asks at an Olympic information kiosk. The Beijing volunteers sporting blue and white T-shirts take so long to come up with an answer that I am almost tempted to intervene.

“Forbidden City? You’re in it!”

Beijing, under strict watch and privileged as the capital to begin with, has become a bit more forbidding than usual with all the Olympic rules, regulations and tight security precautions. The clean, spruced up streets have become further rarified by sending hundreds of thousands of rural workers back to the provinces while restricting the number of foreign tourist with new visa regulations. For those of us privileged enough to be here, there are still boxes within boxes to negotiate, as the city is carved up into forbidden zones of privilege to accommodate the Olympics in impeccable style.

There’s the vermillion walled grand palace once occupied by the purple and yellow clad Qing emperors of course, known to most Chinese as “gu-gong”, but even that sweeping architectural monument is dwarfed by the sheer number of forbidden zones in the modern city. There are vast walled compounds for leaders, party officials, military, police, diplomats, foreign residents, and now, for the time being at least, strictly guarded zones related to the Olympics which go beyond the Olympic Village to include dozens of major hotels, and college campuses.

Even Tiananmen Square, that once open and unbounded plaza located smack in front of the entrance gate to the feudal Forbidden City, putting old China in symbolic counterpoint to the egalitarian promise of the new China, is now reduced to a heavily guarded, fenced-in site with limited access.

If the people of China sometimes grumble or shrug their shoulders about being "put out" by playing host to the world, their discomfort is mitigated by a shared cultural imperative to do the right thing when “having company.”

That’s not to say that treating guests differently from locals is not without its awkward moments. When I arrived in China by boat from Japan in July, disembarkation was delayed an hour by due to a safety check. Far more discomforting than the muggy heat was the announcement that travelers had to line up by nationality.

As an American I was directed to the head of the line, followed by Japanese, followed by the majority of passengers who were Chinese. The intent may have been Olympic-style courtesy in name of international harmony, but it created a sense of unease instead, especially for families of mixed nationality.

It reminded me of China in the early eighties when Chinese and foreigners lived side by side in parallel worlds, moving with apparent freedom but never intersecting, like bishops of opposite color on a chessboard.

What is it about China then and now, that makes being forced to inhabit a no-Chinese zone the highest honor that can be bestowed on foreigner who ostensibly wants to see China and rub shoulders with its people?

At Tianjin train station, the segregation was strictly economic, the “soft” waiting rooms of the sort once reserved for foreigners and VIPs now available for a fee. From that modest enclave we were whisked to Beijing on a sleek Chinese bullet train named Harmony only to encounter intense chaos at Beijing Station due to a taxi-queue monopoly and the sealing off of the subway entrance, explained by exasperated locals as an Olympic-related move to inhibit the flow of provincial arrivals.

Is it a triumph of traditional hospitality or a failure of confidence that a city be cordoned off for the “convenience” of guests?

The customary street-life of the Beijing neighborhood where I’ve lived on and off for twenty years has been oddly subdued in recent days. The habitual sidewalk vendors, beggars, buskers, DVD touts and lookers-on have vanished without a trace, replaced by a trickle of foot traffic watched over by police and security guards resting under red and yellow umbrellas sporting the “I’m Lovin’ It” logo. The best cafĂ© and best restaurant in the area had to halt business, fenced off inside a sterile zone created for the American delegation, but the adjacent fast food joint remains open.

Even if members of the American delegation were to step beyond the comfort zone created expressly for them to grab a burger or perhaps take a walk for a taste of quotidian life, they might find it hard to appreciate that what they see and don’t see is a direct result of their presence.

The American footprint on campus and the surrounding neighborhood is so heavy it has altered the topography.

Twenty-two years earlier I had been assigned “foreign” housing on the same campus, but being a student of Chinese history I bristled at the idea that I live in a habitat created for foreigners. It took a letter of introduction from the widow of a former PLA war hero to secure a place outside of foreign-designated zone, and even that “breakout” put me in an anomalous situation. I dined and bathed in shabby communal splendor with local students, but was under curfew and close watch in the “Inside Guesthouse.”

Over time I’ve come to appreciate that this leafy campus is not just about students but is also the de facto public park for the neighborhood, a place where old timers take walks, kids frolic in front of library where the Mao statue used to stand and joggers enjoy free run of the tracks.

No more, at least not until the Olympics are over. Campus is under a kind of double lock-down, outsiders can’t get in and insiders are denied freedom of movement within. Resident families are carded at every gate and uniformed guards are posted every hundred steps along the leafy campus thoroughfare. Outside nearly every building or sports ground an American is likely to use, temporary tents house X-ray machines and inspection teams. The Inside Guest House was razed, replaced by a modern amenity center for American athletes. The twin campus running tracks are wrapped in opaque blue shrouding.

The uncanny stillness at the normally bustling East Gate of campus brings to mind Brandenburg Gate in the days when Berlin’s main thoroughfare was divided by a wall, only now, in the spirit of openness, economy and flexibility, vermillion walls and stone turrets have been replaced unsightly wire fences of the sort used to keep North Korean refugees from scaling embassy walls.

Security concerns are real and athletes intent on being the best in the world require privacy in habitats that are familiar and convenient.

So, if it’s inconvenient it is mostly understandable, though some of the rules, such as bans on outdoor parties, kite flying and nightlife are at best only tenuously linked to the welfare of visiting guests.

Athletes and foreign dignitaries, including the US president, will also move inside narrow sterile zones within wrapped in forbidden zones, seeing Beijing without seeing Beijing.

It is a testament to how much China has and hasn't changed in the last quarter of a century that forbidden zones abound and access remains defined by status.

Although the foreigner-only Friendship Stores and Friendship Hotels are dinosaurs of a by-gone era, new elite comfort zones create a modern equivalent of the same, based more on money than passport.

Today’s draconian rules are resented but not resisted because of the unspoken compact that things will loosen up again when the honored guests leave. But in a city as status-driven as Beijing, forbidden zones have an innate appeal. Even after the shrouds, facades and temporary fencing come down, one wonders if the playing fields that count the most will ever be level.

pc Read more on this article...

Friday, August 1, 2008

Rubin: ISI supports Taliban and Other Revelations

I know I should write something about the startling revelation that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) appears to be supporting insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan, but I am just too shocked, shocked to comment at the moment.

In other news, Captain Renault has uncovered an illegal gambling ring at Rick's Cafe in Casablanca. Read more on this article...