Saturday, January 31, 2009

Iranian Revolution at 30

Today Iran began 10 days of festivities marking the 30th anniversary of its revolution.

The Middle East Institue has produced a volume on the occasion of this anniversary in which 53 contributors, including me, reflect on the significance of the 1979 Revolution and its positive and negative ramifications. Short essays dwell on gender issues, education, media, the environment, energy, foreign policy and so on. There is really nothing like it around. Complementing the essays is an extensive resource section of maps, statistics, a timeline, and selected bibliography. The full document can be found here. Read more on this article...

Saturday, January 24, 2009


By: Philip J Cunningham
(published in the Bangkok Post 24/01/2009)

Anyone familiar with the dangers of nationalistic group-think - especially in Japan where a weakness to such thinking once led to a militant rampage across Asia that left 20 million dead on the mainland and eventually took Japan itself as victim - will appreciate that little acts of civil disobedience and the airing of contrary, disrespectful, even insolent, views are signs of a healthy system.

The power of the state is ever in danger of becoming overwrought and corrupted. As such, it needs a panoply of checks and balances, not just those provided by a neutral judiciary, not just the see-saw balance provided by the dynamics of a ruling party wrestling with the opposition, not just the clamour of self-interest from vested interest groups, but on the part of rugged individuals who buck the popular tide, and even outright eccentrics.

In any society it is the rare individual who chooses to sit down when everyone else stands up, or vice versa, because peer pressure is one of the most powerful and ubiquitous social control mechanisms known. Anyone with the temerity to march to their own drummer when everyone else is marching the other way, is apt to be seen as an obstruction to traffic, if not a menace to the glory of mass delusion.

Not all individuals who stake out unpopular positions are politically minded or intellectually savvy; some are gadflies who revel in being different, others seek to bring attention upon themselves, others yet may act for reasons unknowable not only to others but even to themselves.

But society is better off for its dissenters, cranks and eccentrics; most especially when calls for conformity of thinking reach high pitch.

Compassion for - or at least benign tolerance of - non-conformists helps fend off fascistic tendencies and makes society more fully human and humane.

Even when an act of civil disobedience is committed with every intent to challenge a taboo or make a pointedly politically incorrect statement, one does not have to agree with the implied statement to support the right of the individual to such idiosyncratic expression.

Looking through the long lens of history, lone dissenters and gadflies who challenge mainstream thinking have as much a role to play in keeping society balanced, stable and viable in the long run as upholders of the status quo, revered institutions and enforcers of the law.

Consider a headline from Japan this week: "Court rules refusal to rehire teacher who didn't stand for national anthem was illegal."

Mainichi Shimbun reports that a Tokyo teacher who refused to stand when the Kimigayo anthem was played at his school, was awarded over 2 million yen as compensation for the unfair punitive actions of the Tokyo Metropolitan Board of Education which refused his application for continued employment.

The Saruya Yuji case is a small victory, not so much for free expression, or more specifically in this case, the freedom not to stand - a thorny issue which was not technically addressed - but rather as a slap against the over-reaching hand of the city authorities eager to punish dissenters.

Hundreds of Tokyo teachers have been disciplined since 2003 when arch-nationalist Mayor Ishihara Shintaro made mandatory the previously controversial and sporadically observed flag and national anthem rituals in Tokyo schools. The school teachers who expressed themselves by refusing to stand - many close to retirement, with pensions and post-retirement options at stake - were punished in irregular and ad hoc ways by zealous city bureaucrats who acted in concert with Mayor Ishihara's uncompromising stance.

Deliberately refusing to comply with what might fairly be construed as obligatory state worship, the teachers who refused to stand made themselves stand out all the more. Subject to the national glare, they clung to their convictions as stubborn individuals in the best sense of the word, hardy individualists in a society where following the crowd is the norm.

Nezu Kimiko, a junior high school teacher in Tokyo, told John Spiri in Japan Focus that her refusal to stand was an act of defiance against militarism, imperialism and authoritarian edicts everywhere.

The Rising Sun flag has a complex political pedigree; it adorned Japanese fighting vessels and kamikaze craft during the war and was planted in conquered territory to mark Japanese rule. Likewise, the mournful Kimigayo, which means "In Your Majesty's Reign," was thoroughly associated with Emperor Hirohito, though the simple lyrics are sufficiently ancient and ambiguous to construe other meanings. More to the point, both these national symbols survived World War Two intact, unlike the hated flags and anthems of Nazi Germany.

That might explain the palpable ambivalence of many Japanese citizens who, either out of reticence or hard-learned lessons of the lost war, are rather diffident about their flag.

Still, judicial opinion and public opinion continue to be split on the issue. Previous court challenges in June 2007 and February 2008, one of which ruled in favour of the Tokyo administration's position, are still under appeal.

For what it's worth, the liberal-minded Emperor Akihito himself has indirectly expressed sympathy for the dissenters, not that militant defenders of the Emperor system necessarily care what the real Emperor actually thinks or feels.

Beware of those who punish others in the name of the nation's most revered symbols, for they are often hewing to their own vindictive agendas.

The January 18, 2009 Tokyo court ruling is not the last word on the matter, but it shows the health of Japanese democracy; there remains ample room for dissent against mandatory rituals of allegiance, even regarding the potent and highly-revered symbols of nation and emperor.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Strangers in the Night

Yesterday, at her Senate confirmation hearing, Senator Clinton faced a number of questions about Pakistan and Afghanistan. Her most detailed conversation was with Senator Kerry - who will head the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Kerry spoke about his trip to South Asia, in the immediate aftermath of Mumbai attacks.

We do not live there. We don’t live in the community, in a hamlet, in a small town, pocket, whatever you want to call it. And so we’re not there often at night. They are. And the night often rules with the insurgencies.

It is a profoundly illuminating statement. The interplay of light and dark, day and night. The reference to hamlets and pockets. Insurgency - the lexical contribution of the Iraq War which continues to hold sway. They live there. We don’t. That language of globalization which rules the pages of Wall Street Journal and New York Times is distinctly absent. These are not interconnected communities that stretch across national borders, these are inwardly focused, pre-modern histories. To further explain, Senator Kerry mentioned that he has been doing a lot of reading recently - readings that impressed upon him the importance of “tribalism”, "We honored tribalism when we dealt with the Northern Alliance and initially went in to Afghanistan. We really haven’t adequately since." He recommended that Senator Clinton read Rory Stewart’s travelogue of walking across Afghanistan and Pakistan, The Places in Between. And also Janet Wallach’s biography of Gertrude Bell entitled Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia. Let that title wash all over you. Luxuriate in it.

Senator Clinton responded warmly to Kerry’s literary suggestions.
Sitting here today, when I think about my trips to Afghanistan, my flying over that terrain, my awareness of the history going back to Alexander the Great and certainly, the imperial British military and Rudyard Kipling’s memorable poems about Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, which put in more troops than we’re thinking about putting in — I mean, it calls for a large doze of humility about what it is we are trying to accomplish.

The historian in me is fascinated by these teleologies at display: Alexander to the British to the Soviets to US. A timelime of invaders and conquerors who, I assume, only abided the day, and not the night. There is the unapologetic emphasis on the romantic and the Orientalist - a vocabulary of time and space that does not mesh, at all, with our own. I do not know if our Senators realized that this is also, explicitly, a teleology of failed imperial enterprises. Not the precedent, I am sure, they'd want to invoke.

But the tribalism espoused by Senator Kerry is also part of this now-defunct mode. It stands for those "others" every colonial power has ever imagined into being. To fight their wars. The burden of tribalism is the burden of violence on colonial subjects – be they the Hindus and Muslims under British colonial rule in the early decades of the twentieth century, or the Sunnis and Shias in Baghdad under the surge. The colonial histories are written in that particular language of violence. These are the violent colonial solutions to political problems, to be exact.


Reading the US Press, Senator Kerry and Clinton, on Pakistan is to know that Pakistan does not exist as a coherent nation-state. It seems to comprise of undifferentiated security actors (Musharraf/Kayani, Karzai, Northern Alliance, Taliban, Pakistan military, ISI) operating in a volatile soup. It is constantly claimed that the state - whether civil or military - does not control its own western and south-western territories. A claim that enables US to conduct drone attacks, as well as military incursions into the country. In the first seven months of 2008, there were five drone strikes inside Pakistan. Since August, there have been over thirty. Some as deep as 25 miles into Pakistani territory and deadly - killing 50 people in four attacks in September, alone.

But Pakistan does have a history as a nation-state, in fact. And it is not the history of Alexander’s arrival to the Indus. Let me give you a brief recount. From 1999 - 2008, we supported the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf - he was the devil we knew and liked. From 2002-2008, the same devil presided as vast swathes of his country converted into a war-zone. In 2005, to suppress the proto-nationalist uprising in Baluchistan, he used the same tactics that were being practiced across the border in Afghanistan: bombing over civilian enclaves, missile assassinations, heavy military foot-print. As he methodically destroyed the claimants for an engaged and equal partnership for Baluchistan in the federal regime, he created the political space for the emergence of new actors - the Mehsud tribe in Waziristan. As a result Pakistan, by the end of 2008, faces several civil wars - in the north-west, it faces the development of self-declared taliban regime which is hoping to enforce Shari’a. In the south-west, it faces the proliferation of both proto-nationalist and terrorist groups. In the city of Karachi, there is the systematic effort to expel Afghan/Pakhtun immigrants by the ethnic party, MQM.

Previously, we supported two other decade long military dictatorships, General Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988) during whose tenure we fought our hot Cold War in Afghanistan and during whose tenure we excused a rampant policy of Sunnification and militarization. And Field Marshal Ayub Khan (1958-1969) whose tenure saw the effective killing of democratic institutions and the highlighting of Kashmir as the central issue of Pakistan. We supported all three men. They came to our capital, spoke to the Congress, enjoyed days and nights as our esteemed friends. Overall, in the 61 years of existence, we supported 30 plus years of military rule in Pakistan. Let me restate this: The United States has consistently supported the elimination of any democratic development in Pakistan since 1947. During the civilian administrations, we routinely ignored Pakistan or imposed sanctions. If Pakistan lacks coherence as a nation-state to Senator Kerry and Clinton, they can look to these specific histories for explanation. Alexander the Great cannot help them.


In the aftermath of Mumbai attacks, the world has found yet another reason to doubt the sustainability of Pakistan, doubt the intentions of the people and the State, doubt their commitment to being a peaceful global citizens. These doubts, those proclamations, some of the harsh denouncements of the Indian media were heard loudly and clearly across Pakistan. The bellicosity - apparent even in the flyer for this panel - generated its own predictable response. The military, which had finally lost all credence, is slowly coming back in business. It is the protector. It is the sustainer of the national myths.

The Pakistanis are also attuned to the silences. They note that in the teleology of modern terror - NYC, Madrid, London, and now Mumbai - there is no mention of Lahore and Islamabad. The September 20th blast at the Marriott, Islamabad is a clear precursor to the tragedy at Taj, Mumbai. It, too, was a site where the local elite gathered for daily mingling. It, too, catered to the foreign visitors. It, too, was a sign of Pakistan's growing economy. Yet, while NYC and Mumbai are forever linked, the victims of Islamabad and Lahore find themselves on the other side of history.

The Obama administration will need to stop reading Rudyard Kipling and start reading even the wide-circulation daily Urdu and English press from Pakistan. It is quite easy, they are all online. It will have to know Pakistan’s hopes lie with civilian institutions, civic bodies which protect women and minorities, elementary and secondary education for all, strengthening the judiciary, invoking land reform. It will have to know that the military is the largest land-owning entity, one of the biggest business entity and the greatest consumer of US AID. The Obama administration needs to focus on the people of Pakistan, in the PRESENT and not in some distant past surrounded in unknown terrain, if it hopes to combat escalating extremism in the region. Collectively, there are over 200 million inhabitants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are mega-cities like Karachi with populations over 19 million. We are not dealing with hamlets and pockets. And the global context is certainly clear to the terrorists in Mumbai. In the violence they spread, over three days, and their targets and their statements, they drew upon this language of political violence. Nariman house to Gaza, Kashmir to Taj Hotel are not teleologies of tribalism and we make a grave error if we read them wrongly.

Ironically, 2008 began with one of the greatest moments in the history of this nation. After a year-long civic protest, led by the Lawyers Movement, the people of Pakistan democratically voted out this military dictator. The February elections in Pakistan were a resounding dismissal of a decade of military dominance, as well as the religious parties. Yet, we failed to engage with this flowering of democracy. And we need to engage with the civilian government of Zardari – however flawed that particular person is.

There are no military solutions to a decades old political problem. Because military solutions mandate that the language of political violence be the only language left (be it in Kashmir or Islamabad or Mumbai).

x-posted at Chapati Mystery
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Rubin: A Tribe Apart -- Afghanistan's Elites

Above is a photo (click on image for full photo) of a mosque built by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jehan (who also built the Taj Mahal) in the memory of his grandfather, Babur, founder of the dynasty. The mosque (now restored from war damage) stands on the slope of Bagh-i Babur, the formal garden built by Babur in his beloved city of Kabul.

This garden is the setting for several of the scenes described in an essay I have just published in the Boston Review, "A Tribe Apart: Afghan Elites Confront a Corrosive Past." An excerpt, set in the garden:

After we told the boys we knew [Amrullah] Saleh [head of Afghanistan's intelligence agency], one of them, a blue-eyed tough wearing a black and white kafiya tied as a scarf, stepped forward as the group’s spokesman. He began telling us how the garden was destroyed. “The mujahidin were up there,” he said, pointing to the bomb-wracked heights above the garden, “and Hizb-i Islami was down there.” He pointed to the ruined houses below. Malikyar and I looked at each other: only Massoud’s forces were “mujahidin”? Hizb-i Islami, the Islamic Party, was one of the several officially recognized mujahidin parties, but its leader was Massoud’s main rival in the anti-Soviet resistance, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar—the favorite of the Pakistani intelligence agency. “Mujahidin,” once a near-sacred term, had become a another factional category.

Far below, on the road at the foot of the ruined garden, several Kamaz trucks rumbled past, their ancient diesel motors grinding. “Those are Russian trucks,” the boy said. “Rus khub mardum hastand,” “Russians are good people.” Malikyar was taken aback: “What kind of mujahid are you, praising the Russians?” Russia, together with Iran, had supported Massoud in the fight against the Taliban.

He paused and looked [Helena] Malikyar in the eye. “Do you know why the Americans can’t find Osama Bin Laden?” he asked. We had some idea, but wanted to hear his view. “Because Bin Laden is sitting safely in America. The Americans sent Arabs to kill our King (padishah-i ma), because they knew that if Massoud was alive, they could never enter Afghanistan.”

The essay is organized aroudn a memoir of my first visit back to Kabul after the overthrow of the Taliban, in March 2002, but it reaches back in history and returns to the present to show some of the informal sources of understanding on which I base my analyses.

Below: a gardener at work
(click on image for full photo) .

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009




(as published in the Bangkok Post, 14/01/2009)

I had a vision of the future of Thailand the other night at Sanam Luang, and though the picture wasn't a pretty one, it gives cause for both hope and despair.

Ever since the world economy was sent into a tailspin by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Wall Street's Black September, the spectre of massive unemployment and economic depression has haunted the world from Iceland and Poland to America and Russia; no major economy is likely to be spared, not even manufacturing heavyweights China and Japan, certainly not tourism and export-dependent Thailand.

Sanam Luang, as the ground zero for revolutionary upsurge and reactionary crackdown, has seen its share of tragedy and transformation, from the rise and fall of political fortunes and from free speech and peaceful demonstrations to blood-curdling violence.

Like Beijing's Tiananmen Square, it is an open place where people can gather, surrounded by architectural icons of state power and memorials to populist uprising.

Like the Mall in Washington DC, the semi-enclosed space is an uplifting tourist photo opportunity spot by day, while it becomes a rather more sordid and spooky site at night.

But Bangkok's traditional central plaza is both more exotic and down-to-earth than its heavyweight counterparts overseas, its rounded curves more on a human scale, its scrawny lawns and stained footpaths more alive with people round the clock.

Over the years, it has seen petty markets ebb and flow, from the glory day of fruit stalls and used book stalls to the current state as a modest market for used goods that doesn't really come alive till after sunset.

Midnight merchants man the sidewalks, paying fees of 5 or 10 baht a day to unofficial protectors, swelling the sidewalks, selling inexpensive food and recycled goods.

In recent months they have seen their ranks swell, joined by newly arrived homeless men and women who sit huddled around small fires or wrapped up in blankets to fend off the unusually cool seasonal winds.

The midnight market might be shabby and dark but not without warm smiles and occasional laughter. Life, conducted out in the open, for everyone to see, is life stripped free of fashion and narrow pretences of social propriety.

Existence is focused on the here and now, making enough to eat another day, getting through another night, an existence reduced to bare necessities - food, drink, a modicum of protection from the elements, and what safety and comfort can be found in the company of friends and relatives.

The spectre of poverty enveloping the nation is frightening enough, especially to those too young or too rich to know the pain of loss, but everyone can learn from the example of people who have already been hit by calamity, everyone has something to learn from the resourcefulness of those already poor.

Their example, easily neglected in boom times, teaches the important lesson that life goes on, with or without fancy cars, clothes and shopping malls; life goes on, with or without brand names and designer goods and canned entertainment.

In the simpler, harder life long known to those eking out a living in city slums or a dry patch of land in a rural province, there may even be an upside unknown to those made unhappy by excessive consumption and alienation: the possibility of shared grief and joy, of community and fellowship.

When times were good, Bangkok's poor and downtrodden were the ultimate "others", their human needs somehow less pressing, their poverty a problem apart from our lives.

When times get bad, which most indicators suggest to be the trend, the callous social distinctions between the poor and the middle-class begin to collapse. Increasingly, we are them and they are us.

Only the rich are different - entrenched, cushioned and cocooned by the generational accumulation of wealth and an inherited ruthlessness that permits them to think they are somehow entitled to much, much more than their share.

The economic downturn has only just begun; more unemployment, broken contracts and broken dreams are to be expected. Those people who are poor already know a few things about what the rest of us will be learning with time.

Life is tough, lived one day at a time. Poverty is ugly, but the wit and persistence of those with nothing left to lose has its lessons for all of us; life lived on the streets is not without moments of inspiration and beauty.

As money grows scarce and incomes shrink, homes and cars are abandoned, so too will the range and radius of "normal" activities be reduced.

Jetting off on vacation, staying at fancy spas and partying at five-star hotels will fade, big luxury malls are bound to go bankrupt, even the automobile-centric lifestyle, with its waste of oil and ruination of the air itself will come to be questioned.

One reason why an abysmally weak tourist season looked okay on the surface over the New Year's holiday was a sudden surge in travelling closer to home. Neighbourhood hotels saw increased bookings even as luxury giants grew as empty as echo chambers. Instead of travelling abroad, Thais went to visit relatives or domestic resorts in the mountains and by the sea.

Of course, if Thais are thinking that way, it should not be surprising that Europeans and Americans and Japanese are thinking in similar terms - staying close to home to tide themselves through tough times - and if so, then the tourism boom is over.

Instead of looking forward to tourist arrivals increasing each year by a million, it may be a million fewer each year for several years to come.

Political disturbances and gnawing uncertainty indeed may reduce the attractiveness of Thailand on a month-by-month basis, but bigger downshift factors are at play, factors beyond the control or ken of any political actor.

Sanam Luang has a pointed political history and rumours have it that it will soon be flooded with armies of the poor of another sort: mobs for hire, idle and angry youths, dispossessed workers. Whether their shirts be red, yellow, purple or green, the fraying of Thailand's legendary civility, the gullibility in following false prophets and the readiness to put lives on the line, is underwritten by frustrations of increasingly impoverished and besieged lives.

In good times, when cash is flush and there is fun to be had, getting people to demonstrate in the streets day and night, a provisional form of homelessness, would be a hard sell to all but the most desperate. The harsh life once endured only by hardy and wizened activists such as the Assembly of the Poor, is now becoming routine; increasingly, people from all walks of life willingly walk the line of civil disobedience.

Most of Thailand's leadership comes from a small political oligarchy of extremely well-to-do families with deeply vested interests.

Those leaders who are serious about healing the nation's ills should spend a night or two at Sanam Luang to better get the pulse of a nation both proud and fearful. The Thai social fabric is being torn asunder, brother and sister citizens have been abandoned like the detritus of a civilisation in decline. There is all the more reason to be anxious for the future if people can't learn from the hard lessons of the present and the recent past.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Imagine a war in Los Angeles with armor, jets, artillery [Cross-linked with From the Field]

The IDF has been dropping leaflets in Gaza urging that civilians flee from their homes. Some people who flee their homes for other districts of Gaza find that the same warnings have been dropped in the areas where they have sought refuge. In the Lebanon war of 2006 the IDF used its warnings as a rationale for killing zones where anyone moving was considered to be an enemy.

It has frequently been noted that the people of Gaza are trapped. They have nowhere to run, but I suspect that many have no idea how densely populated Gaza really is and how difficult it is for many people to find safe shelter. Thanks to one of my bright graduate students at Boston University, I offer the following data:

Think of Gaza as a single city. Gaza's population density is variously estimated at between 3,823 persons per sq. KM and 4,270 per sq. KM. The high-end estimate of 4,270 would make it the 54th most dense city in the world, just behind Warsaw at 4,300 persons per sq. KM and only a few spots behind Tokyo/Yokohama at 4,750 persons per sq. KM. The low end estimate of 3,823 persons per sq. KM would place it just ahead of Birmingham, UK (3,800 persons per sq. KM) or Berlin (3,750 persons per sq. KM). The Gaza strip is a good deal more densely populated than the cities of Paris (3,550 persons per sq. KM), Rome (2,950 persons per sq. KM), Dublin (2,950 persons per sq. KM), Beirut (2,800 persons per sq. KM), Los Angeles (2,750 persons per sq. KM), San Francisco/Oakland (2,350 persons per sq. KM), Sydney (2,100 persons per sq. KM), and New York (2,050 persons per sq. KM). Finally, Boston, which has just 900 persons per sq. KM is a veritable park-land when compared to Gaza. The city of Tel Aviv has a population density of 5,050 persons per sq. KM, by the way.

Now imagine conducting a military campaign with field artillery, tank guns and thousands of bombs in Tokyo, Birmingham or Los Angeles. Add the fact that the people living in those cities cannot flee, but are stuck there.

Here are the links used to find the data reported here: Jewish Community Online, CIA, and City Mayors. Read more on this article...

Israel, Gaza War, Return of “Emboldened Iran,” and Obama

Farideh Farhi

A curious pattern characterizes the recent military adventures in the Middle East. Overwhelming and disproportionate force is utilized in the name of at least temporarily popular objective – combating terrorism, preventing WMD proliferation, restoring deterrence, bringing democracy and so on. But once the human costs and efficacy of attacks in terms of stated objectives begin to be questioned, the narrative shifts and the argument for the sustenance of war, refusal of ceasefire, or even the need for “victory” begins to rely on the line that if a certain party or organization in question is not crushed, all the extremist forces in the Middle East led by Iran will be emboldened.

The justification for the continuation of reckless and indefensible violence shifts and the putative objective becomes, above all, to ensure that Iran does not expand its influence in the region as the leader of regional “resistance.” Even if one objected to the initial military foray, it is said, there should be agreement that leaving the mess in the middle and not finishing the job – whatever that means – will lead to the worst of all possible worlds: an angrier crowd that is allowed to survive and cause mischief at the direction of hegemony-seeking Iran. In its latest version, we are told by no less a figure than Israeli president Shimon Peres, “Our goals are clear. We do not want to make Gaza a satellite of Iran.”

I am not going to dwell on the insanity and immorality of violence imposed on a defenseless people based on a future possibility. The callous squander of lives and livelihoods in Iraq, Lebanon, and now Gaza speak for themselves. And, as far as know, no one is claiming that the lengthening of violence in Iraq or Lebanon stopped the presumed process of emboldening Iran.

My bet, like almost everyone else’s at this point, is that whatever the result in Gaza, it will do little to shift the narrative one way or another. There is nothing in the cards that suggest that what has not worked in the past will magically work today.

Hamas as an organization is likely to survive. And in an era in which mere survival against what is perceived to be an uncontrolled Behemoth is considered victory, its fortunes or the fortunes of elements even more bent on “resistance” will rise within Palestinian politics and this will be considered yet another feather in Iran’s – or “the leader of the resistance camp” – cap; a feather Tehran’s bickering leaders will happily or grudgingly accept depending on circumstances and political positions probably with little concern or inability to do much for additional Palestinians who lose lives and are made miserable in their names.

Even if Hamas is dismantled - remember the PLO was also forced to pack its bags once and move to Tunis - there are still others left and a standing, even if presumably weakened Iran, will continue to be a problem. In the midst of an angry region, even the crushing defeat of a foe such as Hamas and sacrifice of a good number of people for the purpose of weakening Iran does not assure a strategic overhaul.

It is true that we are told that such a crushing may help build a better Middle East in which the adversary will be weakened and hence will become more pliant and passive. But common sense tells us that it is difficult for violence to give birth to passivity; not when it is watched in living rooms and squalors alike all over the world and in the Middle East.

But the narrative of emboldened Iran and the need to weaken it by crushing its so-called proxies persists because the picture of a threatening and emboldened Iran is not only necessary for a dysfunctional Israeli polity always in need of leaders showing their martial grit but also for another fight; the fight over how to deal with Iran.

As usual nothing occurs in a vacuum. In all the three countries heavily vested in the drama –Israel, the United States, and Iran – there are folks who for whatever reasons – it really doesn’t matter anymore whether the reasons are justified or not – are ideologically, institutionally, politically, and economically vested in the continuation of animosity.

Call them hardliners, hawks, radicals, demagogues, economic profiteers or ideologues, polarization is to their benefit and each has its own fears, including loss of power. They operate in the midst of societies in which the population is also divided – again for whatever reason - and they are contenders for influence. Theirs is politics of fear, worry, as well as actual and advocated violence. They are not necessarily a united bunch in their respective countries. In fact, in all three countries, the art of bickering has been perfected. But bickering should not be confused with withdrawal and lack of power.

At the same time, in all three polities, there are also a good number of people and leaders who are either tired of ideological thinking or just simply tired of the consequences of never-ending animosity. In Iran, ideologues were set aside for a few years and there is good reason to believe that the kind of politics and foreign policy that was practiced during those years would have had a better chance of lowering tensions in the region after 9/11 had the Bush Administration approached Iran in a more conciliatory manner than it did after the two countries cooperation based on their shared interest in Afghanistan.

But bygones are bygones. What is at hand today is that a reformist or pragmatist is the elected president of the United States backed by a good chunk of American people who have invested in him their hope for re-direction, common sense, and human decency.

For someone like me, an Iranian-American with vested interest in the reconciliation of the two parts of my identity – for mundane reasons such as easier travel and money exchange as well as bigger ones such as fear of a military attack against the rather large family I have left behind - the question is whether trends in the United States will have a better chance at lowering tensions and reducing violence.

The answer obviously rests not in who Obama is - notwithstanding his palpable human decency that has allowed many us to pin our hopes on him - but what he does. It is not the question of goodwill begets goodwill, as George Bush the father once famously said but whether still the most powerful country in the world can lead by setting example and itself becoming less ideological, violent, and insecure at a time of global economic crisis that is bound to get worse; whether the United States can become a more or less competent seeker of solutions or will it remain wedded to and chained by reactive and reactionary institutions and ideas and dysfunctional relationships.

Having watched Iranian politics and foreign policy closely for years, I am convinced that despite all the hurled insults and maneuvering, a change of direction in American foreign policy will impact Iran in significant ways. Iranian leaders of all variety have been sending messages that they are ready to engage in serious conversation about redefining Iran’s role in US’ regional policies. The point they are trying to make is that instead of the attempted pitting of the region against Iran and search for security at its expense, the United States will be better off accepting Iran’s appropriate regional role which should be commensurate with its geographical size, resources, and regional political clout.

Tehran’s reaction to events in Gaza confirm this message and has included a combination of theatrics, genuine expression of sorrow, a bit of diplomacy - much of it with Syria which has a bigger stake in the Israeli-Gaza conflict and Turkey which also has a bigger stake because of its close relations with Israel in the face of a population angered by the Gaza tragedy - and a good dose of wait and see attitude. This is a bed Israelis have made for themselves and they are the ones that have to figure out a way to tidy it. This is why Iran's chief of Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corp (IRGC) rather calmly rules out providing military support to Hamas, saying "Gazan resistance does not need other countries' military help."

Iranian leaders are not stupid. They also worry about Israel being "emboldened.” But generally speaking they think that Israel is digging its own grave by going into Gaza. This is what Iran’s president Mahmud Ahmadinejad means when he says that Israel will wither away in the pages of history; it will fall based on its own contradictions and policies.

Iran's game is one of expression of genuine anger and resentment - it is hard to be from that part of the world and not be angry at what is being seen on television - and playing to the crowd. On this latter front, the real targets are Arab regimes - Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia and not Israel per se. The intent is to use the support for Iran's anti-Israeli position in the Arab street as an instrument in preventing the creation of anti-Iranian front by Arab governments. Iran’s leaders would be stupid and delinquent to only play the wait and see game and ignore the possibility that the Obama administration will essentially follow the Bush Administration policy of trying to pit the region against Iran and search for security at its expense.

But playing to the crowds has its limits, at least inside Iran. People were encouraged to demonstrate and volunteer to be sent to Gaza after supreme leader Ali Khamenei declared that anyone dying for the cause of Gaza will be considered a martyr. But after the demonstrations began to entail attacks of foreign embassies, they had to be told publicly by his representative to the universities to calm down and respect international laws and treaties.

And when volunteers for Gaza sat in Tehran airport and angrily demanded from government officials to be sent to Gaza “to fulfill the leader’s command,” again they were told in no uncertain terms by that their task was conscious-raising and moral support. The supreme leader himself acknowledged Iran’s hands were tied while blessing and thanking the volunteers for their dedication in a simple one liner.

The bottom line message: Palestine is not as important to us as you think. It only becomes important for ideological purposes and in response to what we consider to be attempts that are intended to create regime or territorial insecurity. If you don’t believe us, just compare our energetic behavior and policies in Iraq and Afghanistan – countries of high interest for security reasons – to our rather lackadaisical approach to the Gaza conflict.

Another message: We are not about to let excited crowds run our foreign policy.

As is often the case, the Iranian regime may be over-playing its hands and expecting too much. Perhaps the Bush Administration’s support for the continuation of violence in Gaza is intended as a parting gift to Obama. A crushed Hamas, the thought goes, will weaken Iran’s hand in the impending talks with the Untied States and as such must be accepted as an Israeli gift. Surely the people of Gaza are the not first sacrificed at the altar of geopolitics.

Given the added drop in oil prices and the disaster Ahmadinejad’s presidency has brought to the Iranian economy, the Obama Administration may even be tempted to go further and play hard ball, thinking that a weaker Iran is an Iran that will finally say yes to demands that it has said no to throughout the Bush Administration.

Within this frame, Obama’s new Iran policy will just be a variation of the policies that have been going on for many years. In this new iteration, the presumption is that a little more pressure along with more incentives will do the trick. Perhaps! One can never speak in absolute terms about the future.

But if it doesn't, we will be facing an uglier Iran in the future that is bound to be even more restrictive at home and problematic in the region, indeed risking war. In short, a weakened Iran pressured to do what it does not want to do, in all likelihood, will also be an angrier and more hard-line Iran.

Those of us who advocate some sort of compromise with Iran, based on a process of give and take, do so on the premise that such a compromise will be good for Iran, the United States and ultimately the region because it will have to be based on a process in which broad spectrums of the public and elite in both countries end up being okay with the compromise.

Reaching such an acceptance inside Iran is harder because it is the country under pressure to give in on what its broad public considers a right. Even if Iran's leaders buckle under, without such an acceptance, a group of unhappy trouble makers will continue to exist, constantly intent to undermine the new equilibrium which to them will be mainly a concrete and unhappy manifestation of the American will egged by the Israelis. Were these folks an insignificant member of the Iranian society, in terms of numbers and power, I wouldn't worry. But they are not.

The Obama Administration can continue to ignore this domestic predicament and negotiate in order to put Iran in its place in the same way the Israelis and its American enablers have continued to ignore the Palestinian predicament and reality of occupation and have repeatedly pinned their hope on breaking the Palestinian will to resist.

Or, it can change course. It can seriously begin approaching the region with the objective of solving conflicts, rather than picking fights and sides. It will of course not be easy to go against interests that are vested in conflict. But given the disaster that the Middle East has become, no one is asking for a lot at this point; just a sense that a different kind of approach is being contemplated and hopefully tried.

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

End Game in the Gaza War? (Part III)

Go to Part I
Go to Part II

For the fighting to end on Israel’s terms, Hamas must accept blame for provoking the Israeli assault without winning any acknowledgement of the humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding in Gaza ever since Hamas won the U.S. promoted elections in January 2006. For almost two years, a concerted effort to isolate and overthrow Hamas and to undermine the Gaza economy has been encouraged by the U.S. government and the European Union and implemented by Israel and the PA. Hamas leaders were told they could lift the siege only by abstaining from anti-Israeli violence, acknowledging the legitimate existence of Israel, and accepting the agreements signed between Israel and the PA.

Hamas has consistently refused, arguing that recognition of the peace agreements with Israel would be equivalent to recognizing occupation, particularly against a history of Palestinian concessions that not only failed to end Israeli occupation but deepened it. After Hamas defeated PA military contingents in June 2007 and established a rival political authority in Gaza, the siege of the strip tightened. Hamas, despite its espoused enmity toward Israel, has indicated its willingness to negotiate. It has voiced support for the 2002 Arab League’s declaration offering Israel permanent peace in exchange for returning to its internationally recognized pre-1967 borders. Hamas chief Khaled Meshal and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya similarly confirmed Hamas’ willingness to accept 1967 borders and a two-state solution should Israel withdraw from the occupied territories.

A ceasefire is likely to be in place when Barack Obama is inaugurated on January 20th, but we expect that the outcome of the Gaza fighting is likely to underline the self-delusion that has framed the U.S.-Israeli perspective on major groups like Hamas for years, namely that Israel may choose its Palestinian interlocutors, and marginalize and criminalize those who are unwilling to negotiate on Israel’s terms. While Hamas by no means speaks for all Palestinians, it is fatuous to assume that Hamas may be ignored politically or diplomatically.

In 2006, the Olmert government went to war to defeat Hezbollah and failed. A quarter century prior, Israel launched a major invasion of Lebanon to defeat the PLO and quash Palestinian nationalism. That attempt also failed. We expect that when the Gaza war ends a battered Hamas is likely to emerge stronger politically than it was when the fighting began. Yet, the already decrepit Gaza infrastructure will be in rubble, and the reestablishment of public order will be a formidable challenge for Hamas, even if the group remains in nominal control of Gaza. There is also the very real possibility that more extreme Islamists groups will strengthen, vying with Hamas for control (as they already do in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon).

The Gaza war will change the political landscape of the Middle East. As such it presents an enormous if not unwelcome challenge for President-elect Obama. The new president will have to address renewed Muslim enmity toward the U.S., as well an arduous challenge of peace-making between a deeply fragmented Palestinian leadership and an Israeli government even less ready or willing than its immediate predecessors to bow to the inevitable sacrifices that peace requires. History has taught that peace in this region—if in fact that is the goal—can be imposed neither with bombs nor rockets.

Go to Part I

Go to Part II
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End Game in the Gaza War? (Part II)

Part II. (Cross-linked with From the Field)
by Augustus Richard Norton and Sara Roy

Go to Part I
In rhetoric reminiscent of the Israeli campaign in Lebanon in 2006, Israeli officials, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, have denied that the Palestinians of Gaza are facing a humanitarian crisis. The evidence shows otherwise: as of January 2, according to a report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), “80% of the [Gazan] population cannot support themselves and are dependent on humanitarian assistance. This figure is increasing. According to the World Food Programme, the population is facing a food crisis [with] food shortages of flour, rice, sugar, dairy products, milk, canned foods and fresh meats. The imports entering are insufficient to support the population or to service infrastructure maintenance and repair needs. The health system is overwhelmed having been weakened by an 18-month blockade [and] utilities are barely functioning: the only electric power plant has shut down [leaving] some 250,000 people in central and northern Gaza [without any] electricity at all due to the damage to fifteen electricity transformers during the air strikes. The water system provides running water once every 5-7 days and the sanitation system cannot treat the sewage and is dumping 40 million liters of raw sewage into the sea daily. Fuel for heating . . . and cooking gas are no longer available in the market.”

Yet Livni, the Kadima party candidate for prime minister in the February elections, refers to the Israeli battle with Hamas as a struggle between moderates and extremists, and portrays the war as a chance to strike a blow against Islamist radicals in the Arab world, not least the venerable Muslim Brethren. She suggests that Israel is finding common purpose with “moderate” Arab regimes.

A recent Jerusalem Post article by veteran journalist Herb Keinon argues that Israel’s objective in Gaza is to undermine and delegitimize Islamist power by creating a state of chaos that will make it impossible for Hamas to rule, hence, the destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure. This state of chaos will have the added benefit of weakening Iran’s influence. Other Israeli analysts have suggested that by devastating Gaza and Hamas, Israel may provoke an attack by Hezbollah or Iran, which would justify an Israeli counterattack.

Go to Part I
Go to Part III

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End Game in the Gaza War?

Part I. (Cross-linked with From the Field)
by Augustus Richard Norton and Sara Roy

Although diplomatic discussions about a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel have begun, the Gaza war will continue for days, maybe even weeks to come. The U.S. and Israel insist on a “durable and sustainable” ceasefire, in the words of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. This means that Hamas must not only stop the firing of rockets into Israel, but also re-subordinate itself to the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by Mahmoud ‘Abbas whose silence while Gaza burns is astonishing.

Israel will stress its acceptance of a ceasefire in-principle but will continue to pummel Gaza while the U.S. stiff-arms growing calls for an end to the war. Hamas will on principle refuse any ceasefire that denies its political role or demands its surrender. Meanwhile, the toll in civilian victims escalates in densely packed Gaza, which is already suffering an immense humanitarian crisis ludicrously denied by Israel.

Hamas’ strategic miscalculation in rejecting an extension to a six-month truce with Israel was a gift on a “golden platter” to Israel, as Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit wryly noted. The Israeli security establishment has been intent since its flawed 2006 war in Lebanon to reassert Israel’s hegemony and its deterrent power. But the attack on Gaza may also have deeper causes. Lost in most of the coverage is the fact that the Israel-Hamas truce was working—a fact fully acknowledged in a recent intelligence report released by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). According to that report, “Hamas was careful to maintain the ceasefire.” Furthermore, “the lull was sporadically violated by rocket and mortar shell fire carried out by rogue terrorist organizations in some instances in defiance of Hamas.”

Yet on November 4, when the world was focused on the U.S. presidential election, Israel effectively ended the “period of relative quiet” to which the MFA report refers by attacking Gaza, killing at least six Palestinian militiamen. Hamas responded to the killings with salvos of rockets. Israel believed that the group was planning to abduct Israeli soldiers through a tunnel it was digging near a border security fence, but whether Hamas wished to risk a successful truce and the possibility of political progress in order to abduct Israeli soldiers is debatable.

The extensive report released by the MFA acknowledges that most of the rockets and mortar shells fired at Israel during the six-month lull fell after November 4.

Why would Israel want to end the truce? The success of the Israel-Hamas truce tacitly legitimized political dialogue with the Islamists, something that Israel (as well as the U.S. and Egypt) vehemently rejects. Equally important, while the truce was holding there was greater talk internationally about possible negotiations and freezing illegal Israeli settlement expansion and moves to boycott products made in those settlements. There were also growing calls for compromises that successive Israeli governments have been unwilling to make. Despite recent comments from outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert linking Israel’s survival to withdrawal from the occupied West Bank, Israel has consistently rejected a viable two-state solution because it insists on maintaining control of the West Bank.

The periodic rain of rockets from Gaza into Israel since November 4 provoked broad public support for military action against Hamas. With President Bush soon packing his bags for Texas, there was also a strong incentive on Israel’s part to capitalize on support from a predictably pliant White House.

Go to Part II
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Thursday, January 1, 2009


Samuel Huntington's most famous book raises the spectre of cultural intolerance, but in the classroom he was both inclusive and tolerant.

(published in the Bangkok Post, December 30, 2008)


The truth is often elusive in politics, perhaps necessarily so.

Studying the Clash of Civilisations in a seminar with Samuel Huntington was an exercise in trying to detect an underlying order on a slippery and sometimes outright uncooperative reality. As such, there was lots of argument and debate, but the clashing was never less than civil. The soft-spoken professor would put forward strident ideas with an impish grin until someone in the small seminar, usually from somewhere far from Harvard, would disagree. The professor would listen attentively, take notes and continue the discussion.

What I would like to say as an appreciation of Sam Huntington, who passed away on December 24, is that he was an excellent teacher, not because he taught at Harvard for half a century and wrote many books but because he was such a good listener. No matter how senior he was or supremely knowledgeable about world politics before his students were even born, he was willing to consider new ideas, to discuss and digest them, if only to fine-tune his arguments with inclusions and counter-arguments.

We spent many an afternoon in his office arguing the pros and cons of what to some seemed like a cookie-cutter view of the world. When he advocated expanding Nato right up to the borders of Russia, I strongly disagreed, citing his own arguments about the natural boundaries between civilisations, Western and Orthodox in this case, urging him to view the problem as it might appear to the Russians.

We had similar disagreements about China, Japan and Thailand. Why is Japan a civilisation in its own right, while Korea or Vietnam or Thailand are not? What about rifts within civilisations, clashes among Muslims or Hindus or Christians responsible for heartbreak comparable to the "bloody borders" between civilisations?

The professor never got defensive, it seemed he never stopped grinning. He would hear you out, all the while jotting your ideas on his notepad, and he would incorporate some of it in what he had to say next.

His most famous book, like any book, is composed of words frozen in time. It is easy to disagree with many passages in a think-piece as provocative as Clash, perhaps even disagree with the book's entire premise, but what the snapshot of the printed work fails to capture is the restless mind in motion of the author, a good scholar and teacher, who continued to work on ideas put forward in the text with sufficient humility to let go of things that really didn't work and build on things that did.

That's not to say the seminal issues about culture, identity and the future of mankind raised in Clash were settled any easier in discussion than in the final draft of a book.

This was driven home to me a few years later when I was teaching at Chulalongkorn University and co-hosted a discussion with Dr Surin Pitsuwan at a lecture hall packed with dozens of ambassadors, some from countries in conflict.

"What's your take on the Clash of Civilisations?" I asked.

"Let's not get into that now," the former foreign minister, in semi-retirement at the time, said good-naturedly. "We'll never get to the end of it."

Dr Surin, who holds a degree from Harvard, is no stranger to Professor Huntington's ideas, but as a Thai Muslim who had been educated in America and served as foreign minister of a predominantly Buddhist country, his life is an affirmation of cross-cultural negotiation and peace-building. One might say the very concept of civilisational clash is an affront to the kind of civilisation synthesis that has characterised his own remarkable career, from AFS exchange student to secretary-general of Asean.

An armchair analyst and a roving diplomat not only experience the world in significantly different ways, but by need talk about it differently. For one, setting the terms of intellectual debate with bold pronouncements and startling new paradigms is the height of achievement, while minding one's words and finding common ground is the lifeblood of the other.

Professor Huntington's insights and prejudices have travelled far considering their roots are hard to separate from a cloistered intellectual life centered around Harvard Square with summers in Martha's Vineyard. The "culture" of Huntington's world is not only indelibly American, but echoes peculiar Boston-area values of conservatism and tradition; a quilt-work of distinct neighborhoods distinguished by economic class and ethnic origin.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a population of about 100,000, has racial demographics typical of America as a whole mapped into a jigsaw puzzle of rich and poor neighbourhoods, ethnic clustering and tight-knit enclaves. Might not half a century in such an environment have led Mr Huntington to see the larger, largely imagined world in similarly bundled terms?

An American expatriate writer in Thailand once pointed out that one enjoyed greater access to the world media in Bangkok than in Boston, especially in terms of cable television and newspapers. Boston is indeed parochial and insular in contrast to Bangkok - a messy, overflowing, dynamic, tolerant and cosmopolitan city if there ever was one - and one suspects that if a book on the clash of civilisations were to be written in the heart of Bangkok it would be a differently book, lacking the conceptual quilt of discreet cultures so prominent in Clash of Civilisations.

The true value of Clash, an oft-cited work translated into dozens of languages is not to be found so much in the book itself as in the quality of discussion prompted by its tentative and sometimes over-reaching text, itself an expansion of an article knocking down claims made by Francis Fukuyama regarding the "end of history". Despite its arbitrary appointment of civilisation zones, reminiscent of the bizarre world-map in the board game of Risk, Clash is a compelling corrective to the supposed triumph and centrality of Western ideals.

Huntington's ideas shaped discussion, and continue to shape discussion, not because he nailed the argument but because he raised it.

It takes only a glance at the day's headlines to realise that culture and identity continue to unite and divide the world in unpredictable ways, and borders are often the scene for conflict, because culture can be a font of inclusive harmony, or exclusive antipathy, depending on where you stand and how you look at it.

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Bakshi: Why Should We Care About Gaza?

After months of tension between Israel and Palestine, the end of 2008 has been more disastrous than we imagined. Now Israel’s continued strikes on the Gaza strip threaten to derail peace processes in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. In this article, Gitanjali Bakshi presses upon the importance of addressing the Israel Palestine conflict if we ever want to see a more tranquil Middle East.

Why Should We Care About Gaza?

By Gitanjali Bakshi

Israeli air strikes in the Gaza strip have brought a dismal end to peace efforts in the Middle East in 2008. It seemed as though potentials for peace in what many consider to be the epicentre of the region had taken a hard enough blow with: the collapse of Hamas-Fatah peace talks in Cairo, a break down of a six month cease fire between Israel and Hamas, rioting by Israeli settlers in Hebron, a humanitarian crisis due to the blockade on residents of the Gaza strip and to top it all off, constant fire of Qassam rockets into Southern Israel. But just when we thought that it couldn’t get any worse before the year’s end, we are now confronted with a shocking death toll of over 360, more pain, more suffering, more innocent deaths and - most damaging to any hope for peace - more anger.

Anger – unbridled, irrational and seething anger - is spilling into surrounding countries in the Middle East and threatens to affect overall peace efforts in the region. The recent uprisings in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria over the air strikes in the Gaza strip are troubling. They stand as an obvious testament to the fact that the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians will affect overall stability in the region. Ultimately, an unstable Middle East will spell disaster for the United States and its allies.

So for all those who argue that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not at the centre of the problems in the Middle East, for all those that believe that it is simply a ruse set up by political despots to avoid national and local issues – The First Gaza war cannot be ignored. We must end the conflict between Israel and Hamas if we look forward to peace in the Middle East. Peace in the Middle East – a thought that seems far away from any tangible truth right now.

The Israeli air raids and a rising count of 900 injured Palestinians seem like a kick in the face to all previous attempts by Cairo to broker peace. The Muslim Brotherhood, a close ally of Hamas in Egypt, has accused the Egyptian government of complicity to Israeli injustices on their Palestinian brethren. Harsh criticism by the Brotherhood, a political group that has secured a sizeable majority in parliament and is considered a popular movement in Egypt, threatens to de-stabilise an already ailing Egyptian administration.

Hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have taken to the streets in protest of the air strikes. With over 400,000 refugees in Lebanon, this situation could prove to be extremely explosive. Peace in Lebanon is already hanging from a tenuous thread – evidenced by the Hezbollah-Israel war in 2006, the uprising in a Palestinian refugee camp -- Nahr El Bared -- in 2007 and the violent exchange between Hezbollah and the March 14th alliance in 2008. Now the swelling anti-Israeli sentiment in Lebanon after the attacks portends a hazardous condition for the country in 2009, both in terms of internal as well as external security.

As for Iraq – until now the country was still reeling from years of sectarian violence, harsh militant uprisings and its own foreign occupation. But the Israeli air raids have kindled a strong and unanticipated reaction from Iraq towards the Palestinian predicament. The attacks have fuelled anti US sentiment and Iraqis are threatening to increase resistance against US forces as a show of solidarity with the Palestinian cause. If the US continues its support of Israel in further attacks against Gaza, this will jeopardise any potential steps toward a process of normalization in Iraq and a smooth US troop pull out in 2009.

Perhaps the only peace treaty that showed signs of remarkable improvement recently was the Israel-Syrian agreement over the Golan Heights. The indirect peace talks brokered by Turkey were hailed by many as a breakthrough for peace efforts in the region. Analysts viewed the talks as a soft approach that would bring Syria back into a positive light with Western powers and end years of diplomatic isolation. Now these talks have been called off indefinitely and it would be an understatement to say that it will be hard to breach this gap between Israel and Syria once again. With Syria retreating back into isolation there is a strong potential for a return of Iranian and Syrian ties and this will not be favourable for peace in the region.

The effects of the first Gaza war will spill over and impinge on other countries in the region – Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria are particularly susceptible to escalating tensions. The United States needs to keep this in mind. Its interests in the Middle East are heavily dependent on these four countries. The Egyptian government is a close ally of the US and stands as a model for Arab peace with Israel. The March 14th alliance is considered open to engagement with the West and provides a tempering force to Hezbollah which is gaining political power in Lebanon. Stability in Iraq will allow the US to disengage from what has proven to be an extremely costly war. Lastly, a responsive Syria will weaken Iranian influence in the Middle East and reduce the possibility of another large scale battle.

The recent air strikes in Gaza and a potential ground assault will fuel further hostilities between the Arab World and Israel and the US (if America chooses to continue to stand by its Middle Eastern ally). A disproportionate use of force by Israel will only encourage the escalation of extremist measures, which in turn will pose a greater risk for Jewish state and the Middle East as a whole. How is this in any way a move to ensure a better future?

So, once again, at the end of yet another year, peace efforts in the Middle East have become a distant dream for pacifists, a cruel joke for cynics and a trifle endeavour for the millions who believe that war and violence are a necessary way to resolve conflict. And yet, inspite of this, we will simply have to pick up the pieces and keep on trying.

Gitanjali Bakshi
Strategic Foresight Group
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