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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How good were my weekend predictions?

I was occupied with other things this past weekend, so on Wednesday night I posted a few predictions about what the weekend might have in store. Let's look at how I did:

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Yemen - "Saleh is out by Monday or a full-fledged civil way will be underway"

Correct.

I know I hedged my bets with two possible outcomes, but between Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula taking over a town in south yemen, the entire Hashed tribe taking up arms against Saleh’s troops, Yemeni air force jet fighters doing air strikes on the Al-Qaida holdings and the Yemeni military attacking protesters elsewhere, I'd say this looks a lot like a civil war.

Interestingly enough, the opposition has insisted that they will continue to fight Al-Qaeda after Saleh is removed (and will even make a deal with the US to that effect). One of the reasons why the US has been tentative in its actions regarding Saleh is because he has actively participated in the US-led war on terror, particularly against AQAP. If the opposition can convince the State Dept that they are sincere in this offer it won't just peel the last vestiges of American support away from Saleh, it will actually earn the opposition some support (and probably some reconstruction funds from the US as well).

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Syria - "High profile military defections and major violence on Friday"

Relatively accurate (but pretty vague too).

There have been several defections, but nothing high profile. As far as major violence, the horrific torture, murder, and mutilation of 13 year old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb by Syrian state security has spurred larger and angrier protests. Syrians are beginning to take up arms against the military which means we may see something more akin to Libya unfolding over the next week.

Here's the facebook page - We are all Hamza Ali al-Khateeb

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Israe/Palestine - "Israeli Military strikes on Gaza within 24 hours of the permanent Rafah/Egypt border opening. Protesters get shot somewhere. Rockets from Gaza fail to hit anything."

I was off on all three points. This was a pretty pessimistic prediction on my part, and I’m happy to be wrong about this.

A few additional points on this topic - there haven’t been any missile attacks on Israel from gaza since the start of unity talks between Hamas and Fateh. This suggests two things -

1. Hamas doesn’t want to risk the talks falling through, so they’re keeping a tight lid on things.
Or
2. The assholes with the rockets are just waiting for the right time.

As far as protest-related violence, the Israeli military is expecting some next week in connection with the anniversary of the 1967 war (AKA the Six-day war).

***

Libya - "Tunisian troops exchange fire with pro-Gaddafi forces along the border. 3-5 more countries recognize the NTC by Monday"

I was wrong on both counts, probably because other things are finally moving forward. Lots of big stuff is finally happening, I’ll have a new libya-specific blogpost up on Tuesday to bring you up to speed.

***

Iran - "Ahmadinejad holds on to his authority for another week...barely."

Yea. His time seems to be rapidly running out, but he’s a pretty good at navigating the byzantine convolutions of the Iranian power game. After a week of bad news, Iran's supreme leader finally seems to be taking some of the pressure off of President Ahmadinejad.  If the President has convincingly been brought to heel he still has some life in him, but Khameni may just be setting him up for a bigger takedown.

***

Pakistan - "Three more major domestic terrorist attacks by Monday"

Another one where I’m happy to be wrong. There was only one attack.

***

Saudi Arabia - "More women driving in protest this weekend."

Nope. Just wishful thinking on my part. They formed a facebook group and tweeted about driving.

***

USA - "Obama will say/do something that is immediately declared to be the worst thing ever by several Republican Congressmen and Fox news."

He chewed gum in public. Truly he is history's greatest monster. 

***

Bahrain - "Nothing. No one will do anything to support the Bahraini people. Why? Because people suck sometimes."

Pretty much spot on, but the US has recalled a Human Rights diplomat from Bahrain due to a string of violent threats against him.

***

So. There you have it. Not a great showing, but not a terrible one either.

Look for a post on Libya later today...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Weekend predictions

I don't usually go for predictions, but I'll be out of town this weekend, so instead of trying to liveblog from my brother's wedding I'll just do some predictions now and see how I did on Monday.

Yemen - Saleh is done. My guess is he'll be gone by Monday (or there will be a full-fledged civil way underway).

Syria - High profile military defections and major violence on Friday..

Israe/Palestine - Israeli Military strikes on Gaza within 24 hours of the permanent Rafah/Egypt border opening. Protesters get shot somewhere. Rockets from Gaza fail to hit anything.

Libya - Tunisian troops exchange fire with pro-Gaddafi forces along the border. 3-5 more countries recognize the NTC by Monday.

Iran - Ahmadinejad holds on to his authority for another week...barely.

Pakistan - three more major domestic terrorist attacks by Monday.

Saudi Arabia - more women driving in protest this weekend.

US - Obama will say/do something that is immediately declared to be the worst thing ever by several Republican Congressmen and Fox news.

Bahrain - Nothing. No one will do anything to support the Bahraini people. Why? Because people suck sometimes.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Iran vs. Saudi Arabia

There is a war going on in the Middle East.

Yea, shocking, I know.

But it’s not the one you’re thinking of. No, not that one either. No not that one.

The big struggle in the Middle East is between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

And Saudi Arabia is winning.

The conflicts in Bahrain and Syria are genuine expressions of popular rebellion and reflect a sincere desire for dignity and freedom, but external powers are trying to twist them into sectarian struggles that fall along Sunni/Shi’a lines as part of a larger power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia

If Assad falls – (more a matter of when, actually) - Iran loses their strongest ally in the Arabian Peninsula. Alternately, if the Bahraini royal family were to lose their monopoly on political authority it would put an unpredictable neighbor in Saudi Arabia’s back yard (which is already untenable by benefit of Iraq’s continuing instability, and is becoming more so thanks to Yemen’s ongoing collapse).

The Saudis have been trying to peel assad away from the Iranians for years using their favorite tool – cash. They’ve been ramping up their investments in Syria for quite some time and they’ve been careful not to denounce Assad during the past few months of protests, despite the degree to which the collapse of his regime would favor Saudi Arabia (Having a weak and threatened Assad-led Syria align with Saudi Arabia would be even better for the Saudis than a Syria with no Assad)

The good news here is that no matter what happens, Hezbollah will probably come out on the bottom. (unless, of course, the potential loss of power spurs them to ambitious military action in Lebanon, in which case we will likely see a resumption of the Lebanese civil war)

Regardless, a major power shift in Syria will cause serious problems for Iran, and right now Iran – or at least the Iranian government - is tearing itself apart. This might sound like good news, but the removal of Ahmadinjad’s power base won't make the government less conservative, it'll just make them conservative in a different way. In the long run this may be good for the reformers (if the process of weeding out Ahmadinejad's loyalists leaves the pro-Kameni religious hard-liners with a less than stable base) but frankly, when this sort of thing starts to go down it impacts everyone that’s not in the winner’s tent – the Mensheviks didn’t get a pass just because Stalin was purging the Trotskites.

That said, Saudi Arabia is a serious and much more real problem for America than Iran. This has been the case for years, but due to a variety of public policy issues, no one in the state department can say this publicly. Not only can they cripple the US economy with little more than the twist of an oil pump, they spend millions of dollars in dozens of countries to propagate their hyper-fundamentalist Wahabist brand of Salfi Islam. (I’ve got a post on Salafism coming up soon) Worst of all, however, is Saudi Arabia's ongoing sponsorship of violent extremist groups throughout the muslim world, something that they are notorious for (and on a scale far greater than anything Iran has ever aspired to)

http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/terror/RL32499.pdf

Saudi Arabia and their UAE lapdogs want the Middle East revolutions to end post-haste, and they’ll do whatever needs to be done to stop the spread of anything even vaguely resembling democracy. As part of this effort they’ve invited Morocco and Jordan to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC ) which currently includes Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.

Why would two countries that don’t border the Persian Gulf be invited to join a gulf focused organization? Because Saudi Arabia is trying to form a bloc of states that will support each other in the face of domestic unrest. (they could change their name from the GCC to "The Nondemocratic Arabic-speaking Monarchies of the Eastern Hemisphere", but it doesn’t have the same ring to it)

At this point the die has not yet been cast.

Meanwhile, the maverick in the GCC is Qatar, who seems far more invested in social change than their fellow members. Qatar is still pumped from the goodwill of the Arab street (thanks to the fact that they host Al Jazeera, an integral component of the arab spring). Additionally, they’re bursting at the seams with cash from high oil prices (and the less money you have to spend bribing and repressing your own citizens, the more you have to spend on other things) has decided that “up with people” is their watchword (though it’s a bit muffled when it comes to Bahrain).

Kuwait also seems to be trying to project a pro-proletarian image, pushing for global health initiatives. Clearer evidence of Kuwait’s reticence to toe the Saudi line can be seen in their recent diplomatic resolution with Iran (though this is causing some problems in the Kuwati establishment) Kuwait, however has its own problem, and some strange power plays are underway right now...

Even Saudi Arabia may be developing a bit of a problem, however.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Some quick thoughts on Obama’s speech.

Nice speech. Thoughtful and nuanced, which means it’ll be slagged by everyone who didn’t hear exactly what they wanted to hear.

The two biggest complaints that I’ve heard in response to the speech are the absence of any mention of Saudi Arabia and the issue of the ’67 Israel/Palestine borders.

Frankly, I thought that Saudi Arabia’s name was pretty clearly written between the lines of most of Obama’s comments on Bahrain and many of his other comments (and the Saudis certainly heard it).

The problem is that Saudi Arabia is currently helping us out in Yemen (a prospect that I have very little faith in, but one where our options are extremely limited). Given that Yemen is the Afghanistan of the Arabic speaking world, right now would not be a good time for Saudi Arabia to become the Pakistan of the Arabic speaking world.  (Okay so it’s a terrible analogy, and anyway, Saudi Arabia is already the Pakistan of the Arabic speaking world).

Regardless, Saudi Arabia got the message.  The fact that Obama’s speech pissed them off is evidence enough that they knew exactly what he meant.

(sidenote -  I almost wish that Saudi arabia’s army would just straight up invade and occupy Yemen for a few years so they could be on the receiving end of what American troops have been handling for the last 8-10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan).

As far as Obama’s comment about Israel’s 67 borders,  I’ll just repeat what Middle East Journal editor Michael Dunn said on this issue:

Using the 67 borders as a basis for negotiation is nothing new, and the people who reacted the most strongly to Obama’s statement were those who had the most to gain from making Obama look bad in the eyes of Israel’s American supporters.

And that’s what Obama said. He said that the '67 lines should be where the negotiations should start.

And that was his central point.

Negotiations have to start.

I understand that Hamas is a terrorist organization. They’re also blatantly corrupt and hopelessly ideological in their day-to-day operations.  The Palestinian people know this.  In fact, the only reason why the prospect of a Palestinian unity government is in the works is because Hamas and Fateh both know that their legitimacy as representatives of the Palestinian people is deeply in danger.  Personally, I suspect that Fatah is doing it because they know that it’ll screw over Hamas more than themselves in the long run, and Hamas is committed because they know their time in the driver’s seat will end with the next Palestinian election, and they need to make sure they are poised to preserve some small modicum of power.

But here’s the thing about the speech: 

If Obama says something his critics disagree with they can wail about his naïveté, or fundamental wrongness. If he happens to say something they agree with, they can dismiss it by just saying, “it’s just a speech, actually carrying it out is something entirely different”

If Obama moves to support the anti-government protesters in the Middle East, his critics can say, “He’s selling out our longtime allies/partners!”

If he doesn’t move quickly enough, they can say “He only sided with the forces of freedom and democracy when he had no other choice!”

The truth is simple, we are in uncharted territory.

When the Soviet Union collapsed it resulted in the restoration of individual statehood to a multitude of entities that had previously been bound to a single institutional core.  In the case of the Arab Spring we are watching dozens of individual countries transform themselves into something they’ve never been before.

Frankly, this is the biggest challenge did any president has had to face since Roosevelt (FDR, not Teddy).   
The scope and scale of we are watching is literally unprecedented.

Say what you will, but for me (as someone who spends an inordinate amount of time attending to the cultures and politics in the Middle East and North Africa) I can say without reservation that although I don’t agree with every policy action that Barack Obama has made in response to the Arab Spring I’m glad he’s the man making those decisions.  I don’t think anyone else that was in the 2008 US presidential runnings would have handled it as well.

It should come as no surprise to those of you who have been reading this blog with any degree of regularity that I tend to be favorably inclined towards the US State Department's strategy in the various Middle East and North African countries.  As much as rapid reactions might be appealing, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the events on the ground, and every single country has its own unique challenges.  Although I tend to be fairly optimistic about the long-term outcome of the Arab spring, there is still a tremendous amount of uncertainty and danger inherent to the situation.

This raises an important point, and one that is easy to lose track of in the overwhelming onslaught of instantaneous news updates and widespread upheaval: we are witnessing a transformation that is unprecedented.  We must not let our impatience inure us to the magnitude of what is happening.

This although the seeds were sown long before Mohammed Boazzizi set himself on fire or Khaled Said was beaten to death by the Egyptian police, those events are only months old.

As we watch the daily and weekly reports for more than a dozen past and passing dictatorships it is easy for us to yield to impatience, and wonder “what’s taking so long?”

Remember this – today was only day 95 of the Libyan revolution.

The Egyptian revolution is only four months old.

The Bosnian war of independence took three years. The Croatian war of independence took four years.

Who knows where we’ll be in a month, much less a year.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Interpreting Ahmadinejad

Last week, in the wake of some contentious actions by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatolah Kameni ordered that the president retract his recently appointed intelligence chief and reinstate the predecessor or tender his resignation. At the same time, the regime accused three of the president’s close associates of sorcery and demanded that they be removed from their political positions.

These events came on the heels of a period of silence on the part of Ahmadinejad himself (relative silence, at least - I suspect the man is incapable of actually shutting up) Subsequently, Ahmadinejad made some seemingly straightforward pronouncements insisting that the Iranian people loved the supreme leader and that he himself was committed to the supreme leader, while kowtowing to the leader’s authority by removing his controversial appointees. It seems that he has lost this particular power struggle, and he sat down for an interesting interview two days ago where he ranted for a while about how great everything in Iran is without really saying anything new or particularly true.

Ahmadinejad has long been notorious for his provocative and often outrageous rhetoric. Comments like “this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” have inspired public debate over their actual and perceived meaning. As the global audience attempts to interpret and understand Ahmadinejad’s true intentions they will do well to keep the Iranian concept of “Zerangi” in mind as a tool for decoding his pronouncements.

On the surface, zerangi can be simply translated as “cleverness”, or “wiliness”. A man who is able to make more money doing less work is zerang; so is a man who successfully cheats on his taxes. This, however, is an overly simplistic understanding of zerangi that fails to capture the essential Iranian-ness of the term. Writing on the topic of “Iranian national character”, anthropologist William Beeman states, “zerangi is an operation on the part of an adroit operator which involves thwarting direct interpretation of one's own actions or deliberately leading others to an erroneous interpretation of those actions while being able to successfully interpret the actions of others.”

In Iranian linguistic culture, context is oftentimes more important than content -- a single sentence can carry a multitude of meanings. As a result, zerangi enters into every interpersonal situation as a potential, foreseeable communication element. At its most sophisticated, effective zerangi allows control over messaging to multiple audiences without ever revealing true intent. Ahmadinejad has shown himself to be a sophisticated practitioner of zerangi, which helps to explain his seemingly erratic proclamations towards not only the West, but towards his own people, and towards the wider Islamic world.

For example, in his most recent address to the United Nations Ahmadinejad presented three alternative 9/11 scenarios thusly:

1- “A very powerful and complex terrorist group, able to successfully cross all layers of the American intelligence and security, carried out the attack. This is the main viewpoint advocated by American statesmen.”

2- “Some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grips on the Middle East in order also to save the Zionist regime. The majority of the American people as well as other nations and politicians agree with this view.”

3- “It was carried out by a terrorist group but the American government supported and took advantage of the situation. Apparently, this viewpoint has fewer proponents.”

Nowhere in this or any other part of the speech did Ahmadinejad ever actually reveal his own opinion regarding which of the three scenarios he believed to be true. Assumptions about his opinion can be made, but he speaks carefully enough that there is rarely any guarantee that these assumptions are correct -- if directly challenged on any specific point he always leaves room to qualify his statements after the fact.

When attempting to understand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements we must remember that he is actively sending multiple messages to multiple audiences as part of a larger process of misdirection and manipulation. To take his public statements at face value is to fall victim to his mastery of zerangi.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Bad craziness in Egypt and other chaos elsewhere

Too much happened this past weekend for me to really cover it effectively, and much of my time was spent just keeping track of everything.

Syrian protests kept moving forward with substantial protests in every major Syrian city. The Syrian government deployed troops and tanks everywhere, and responded with violence, killing several but stopped short of outright massacre. I think Assad has realized that his use of lethal force against the protesters has brought him dangerously close to the point where his military will turn on itself, and there have been many reports of that very thing happening. That being said, Turkey (one of the only countries that has any notable leverage with Syria) has finally been taking steps to try and rein Assad in. America’s response to this has been lackluster, but we don’t really have much in the way of options. The withdrawal of our ambassador is really the last measure available to us, and that would severely limit our view into the actual situation on the ground and limit our avenues of communication with elements within the government and elsewhere. I’ll try to write more on that later. In the meantime, here’s an interesting piece on the dynamics of the political situation describing Bashir Assad as a “George W Bush surrounded by Dick Cheneys”

Israel’s fuel supply was tainted this past weekend, causing a few hours of paralysis at Ben Gurion airport. In a country where air travel is the primary means of leaving and entering the country an airline shutdown has disastrous implications. More on that here. Other things are afoot in Israel. The strategic balance seems to have shifted, most notably where Iran is concerned. Iran has been continuously touted as an existential threat to Israel for the past two decades, but most recently former Intel Chief Dagan came out and said what many of us have been insisting on for years – Iran just isn’t that big of a threat to Israel. Certainly their support for Hezbollah (and Hamas to a lesser extent) has caused tremendous strife and the shedding of no small amount of Israeli, Palestinian, and Lebanese blood, but the spectre of Iranian-caused nuclear destruction is absurd (and the idea that Israel could successfully destroy the Iranian nuclear program with airstrikes is rather far-fetched as well). Regardless, Israel has much more pressing issues to address right now. May 15 is Naqba day, the Palestinian counterpoint to Israeli independence day, and no one quite knows what to expect, but there will be a big march from Egypt to Gaza (some of the marching will be done in buses, apparently).

Iran’s weird leadership soap opera continues as well, and although Ahmadinejad has not yet tendered his resignation it seems pretty clear that the supreme leader feels that the president has outlived his usefulness. Outstanding analysis of the situation here,

I don’t really have time to cover it in any substantial form at this point because of the events elsewhere, specifically Egypt. Bad craziness. At least a dozen people dead, and two Coptic churches burned down by angry crowds. The whole mess was the result of a circulating rumor about a young woman who had converted to islam, but was being held captive in one of the churches. The most important piece written on this issue can be found over at the blog “rantings of a sandmonkey” who not only explains why the situation occurred, but points to a way forward for Egyptian muslims and Christians. This is, hands down, one of the best single blogs I’ve ever read on any topic ever. It’s long, but reading it will give you more insight into modern Egyptian culture and poilitics than any nagazine or newspaper article ever could – heartfelt, direct, and simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring. READ IT.

More coming soon...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bahrain Part 1 - what's going on?

When the initial protests in Pearl Roundabout started I did a bit of writing on Bahrain and I’ve mentioned it several times in a few of my blogs and in my twitter feed, but I haven’t addressed it in a little while so I’d like to remedy that. Partially because I think it’s an outrage that the Bahraini government has escaped the scrutiny and criticism that it deserves for the brutal repression of its own people, but mostly because of the tragedy of the Bahraini people themselves.

In preparation for writing this blog I asked a Bahraini acquaintance which blogs or twitter feeds I should be following, his response was that there are none left.

They have all been arrested or they are silent because of fear.

The aspect of Bahraini culture that gets the most attention is the notable disparity between the Sunni/Shia ratio. Although exact numbers are ambiguous, the conventional wisdom holds that the Shia Bahrainis make up about 65-70% of the population. In and of itself this is not unusual, several other countries in the region have large (1/3 or more) Shi’a populations, including Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran. Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Syria, and Nigeria have significant (1,000,000+) Shia populations as well.

In the case of Bahrain, however, the issue is not the Sunni/Shi’a divide, but rather the haves and have-nots. Certainly there is a significant disparity between the country’s rulers and most of the Shi'a population, but in fact there is a significant disparity between the ruling class and EVERYONE else (though the Sunni population is treated a bit better).

The main organizers behind the protests have been pushing for Bahraini unity for several years, and despite what the government of Bahrain has been saying, the initial protests were nonviolent and nonsectarian in nature. In fact, one of the factors of discontent was exacerbated by a document that was circulating a few months ago: Notice that the focus of the document is the wide disparity between the royal family and the general populace – nowhere are the terms Sunni or Shi’a mentioned.

There are certainly justifiable complaints on the part of the Shi’a majority, but the primary complaint has been one of general disenfranchisement, not sectarian disenfranchisement. The call for greater representation and less corruption and nepotism is one that is universal to the Bahraini middle and lower classes, and one that has support from many members of the Bahraini family including crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa (unfortunately, his opinion seems to be an outlier at this point).

Unfortunately, the demographic realities of the Sunni/Shia divide in Bahrain have been used by the leaders to paint the opposition as fundamentally sectarian, while targeting moderates, unity leaders and human rights advocates. The insistent mantra of the ruling class that the protests are sectarian in nature is a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to a hollowing out of the middle. The events of the past month have made it painfully clear that the goals of eliminating corruption, limiting nepotism, and increasing political representation for the general Bahraini population are probably impossible without the ouster of the ruling family.

The nature and scale of the repression is not widely visible to the outside world, but the litany of offenses is long and horrifying. Click on the links at your own risk:

Peaceful protesters have been gunned down in the streets, police shoot pedestrians from cars, doctors have been attacked, beaten and arrested for treating wounded and dying protesters. As I mentioned before, bloggers, tweeters, and journalists have been arrested, jailed, and sentenced to death for writing about the violence against the protesters and the doctors. Newspapers have been shut down. Even Pearl Roundabout, the initial site of the unity rallies and protests has been deliberately destroyed and renamed.

The violence of the past two months has been accompanied by a much more far-reaching campaign of oppression. The state-run media has, predictably, served as a mouthpiece for the regime, but its actions have gone far beyond simply parroting the lies about the violent and sectarian nature of the protests. The press attacks are reminiscent of 1930s Nazi propaganda against German Jewish businessmen or the Maoist rhetoric against counter-revolutionaries in the 50s and 60s. This article gives some very important examples.

Arabic language media outside of Bahrain haven’t been much help either. Despite their embrace of the Arab spring elsewhere, coverage of the protests in Bahrain by the two big arab news networks al Jazeera and al Arrabiyya have been half-assed at best. Despite their generally high journalistic standards, the close ties between their home countries (Qatar and Dubai, respectively) and the rest of the GCC has severely hampered their ability to address the situation in Bahrain in an open, objective or honest fashion.

Here’s a good initial documentary piece by al Jazeera from two months ago before they backed off of the issue under pressure.

The American response has been similarly lackluster. Unlike Syria, where America has almost no leverage, the state dept has robust ties to the Bahraini establishment. The US fifth fleet – the core of our military presence in the Persian gulf - is based in of Bahrain (an extremely rewarding situation for bahrain’s economy - last year alone the US government gave bahrain almost 20million dollars). The virtual silence of the white house (relative to their positions on Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran, and Yemen) is unconscionable. A few words dribbled out from the State Department on Monday, but given that the protests in Manama started in Mid February it is tragic that so little progress has been made by the US.

As I have mentioned before, the violence committed against the protestors has not just been committed by Bahrani police and military, but by troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This raises a much more far-reaching concern regarding the intensifying rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for dominance in the Persian Gulf and the wider middle east.

More on that in part 2.
(Pic at the top is creative commons from al Jezeera)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Reflecting on the end of the Osama era.

It seems strange to look back at the past decade and realize how much my life was shaped by the events of 9/11. When the planes hit the towers I was a dope-smoking rock musician and waiter/bartender who was studying ceramics and anthropology part-time at a local community college.

All of that changed almost immediately. The restaurant I worked at shut down in the post-9/11 economic downturn and my academic work swelled to crowd out most of my recreational activities and musical aspirations. Even the books that I was reading from day-to-day changed as the histories and languages of the Middle East expanded to occupy most of my attention. I didn’t know what I was going to do with what I was learning, but as the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq inexorably rolled forward I watched idiocy seep from the seams of the world around me and I set myself against it.

The more I learned, the more I was appalled by the blissful ignorance of the President as he was controlled by the agendas of the men he looked to for guidance – men like

Paul “We will be greeted as liberators” Wolfiwitz
Richard “They’ll name a grand square in Baghdad after Bush” Perle
Donald “use of force in Iraq won’t last six months” Rumsfeld
Dick “Go f*** yourself” Cheney
Douglas Feith (who general Tommy Franks called “The dumbest f***ing guy on the planet”)
and so many others...

They looked at the Middle East and saw only what they wanted to see - blind to the human realities on the ground. I will not waste my time enumerating the colossal follies of the Iraq invasion or the tragedies of neglect that brought Afghanistan to where it is today. The frothy mix of ignorance and ideological certainty that I saw in my country's leadership was visible at all levels, and it drove me deeper in my studies.

Where I went to school, where I lived, what I studied, where I worked – all of these factors were heavily influenced by the events of 9/11 and the choices I made in its aftermath.

So now, almost a decade later, I find myself wondering where I’d be if the towers never fell.

A question with no answer, but one that gives me pause.

Regardless, my takeaway from the assassination of Osama bin Laden is not a sense of justice or vengeance or retaliation. The best thing of all, as far as I'm concerned, is that his death is no more than a footnote. The Arab Spring has been in full swing for months, now.

For decades, radical fundamentalism has been making promises that they still haven’t been able to fulfill, while a single self-destructive act by a Tunisian fruit seller did more to positively transform the Muslim world than all of Al Qaeda’s suicide attacks combined.

During the last four months of Osama bin Laden's life, he was doubtlessly receiving updates on the total transformation throughout the middle east…and he knew he couldn’t take credit for any of it.

That, for me, is the sweetest part.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A joyous start to May.

Osama Bin Laden has been forcibly removed from this plane of existence.

I'm sure the details will trickle out over the next few days, but for now I'm just simply delighted.