Archive for June, 2009

LeVine: Obama’s Iran Strategy Failing

Over at Al Jazeera, historian Mark LeVine today gives a pretty brutal assessment of President Obama’s handling of the Iranian election and it’s aftermath. In a rather wide-ranging analysis, LeVine criticizes the President for being overly quick to extend a hand of friendship to authoritarians in the region and at the same time unduly slow to recognize nonviolent calls for democracy and freedom. From the article:

Imagine the sight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian men, women, and children marching to the so-called “separation wall” or innumerable Israeli check points and, like East Germans a generation ago, dismantling them apart brick by brick through disciplined non-violent action.

Consider what would happen if, instead of staying on the sidelines in Iran while playing softball with Israel and trying to woo other autocratic regimes into our orbit, Obama could look the Iranian leadership in the eyes and make the same demand of them that he should be making of all the leaders of the region: democratise and grant freedom to the peoples under your control.

At least then the brave Iranians risking their lives for democracy, and the long-repressed peoples of the region more broadly, would know that the US stands up for them.

Ultimately, it is the reality of the Obama administration’s support for a discredited status quo across the region, and not the actions of the Eisenhower administration half a century ago, that makes it impossible for the US to play a forceful role advocating for democracy in Iran at this crucial moment in the history of the Islamic Republic, and ours as well.

It’s an interesting critique from an unusual philosophical quarter (how often does one hear that the US is too easy on Iran and Israel in the same article?). Certainly if we do not follow the author in calling President Obama’s strategy in Iran a failure, it could hardly be called at this moment a success. That’s an unpleasant fact, but one I can’t see any way right now of avoiding.

Categories: Iran

Indonesia’s Vice Presidential Debates Satisfy

It is safe to say that the hemming and hawing of Indonesia’s presidential debates lowered public expectations for the VP round Tuesday, but the topic worked in Boediono’s favor. The running mate of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and a former central bank governor, Boediono employed the topic of national identity to throw some decisive barbs at his opponents.

Reuters reports Boediono’s most comprehensive statements.

“To increase prosperity, we must increase economic activity. Our vision is to create clean government to improve our national pride.

“We cannot create a national pride with indoctrination, repression and violence.

“We need to repair the infrastructure that has been left behind whether that’s roads or trains. Many of these problems come back to the problem of clean governance.”

His perpetual reference to “clean government” was no doubt a subtle way to remind viewers that both of his running mates were generals under oppressive and ruthless dictator Suharto. Indeed, Megawati’s running mate, Prabowo, is an alleged war criminal accused of ethnically-based exterminations, among other things.

To understand the weight of Boediono’s statements, one must remember that Indonesia is a former colony and dictatorship, and these experiences have made economic openness and ethnic cohabitation central concerns. On that account, Boediono’s seemingly-lackluster comments coaxed these memories from the recess of the minds of many, including Indonesians of Chinese descent, who were particular targets of both VP candidates Prabowo and Wirianto under the former regime.

According to Reuters, a number were convinced by Boediono that a man of military background will not herald the age of economic development or progress in human rights.

M. Noer Yusuf, private businessman in Banda Aceh, Aceh:

“I agree with the concept of SBY-Boediono that there has to be a mix between a people’s economy and a free market. I also saw that among those three vice presidential candidates, two of them are enemies of human rights. Indonesia will not develop if Europe and America regard us as their enemy.”

— Tina Carter, Trinity ’10
Categories: Uncategorized

Azerbaijani Scholar Niyaz Yagublu on Iran

Niyaz Yagublu is Chairman of Development Watch Research Center, Research fellow of Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences and Professor of International Affairs at Odlar Yurdu University Azerbaijan – Baku.

At first, I would like to begin with some of my notions about the events taking place in Iran following the presidential elections. Here in my comments for our local media, I have predicted that the results of the elections would be falsified as a strong probability based on the last parliamentary elections held there.

The regime of velayat-e faqih ruling Iran is not and cannot be open to any change and criticism, and few gleams of democracy such as TV debates of candidates and their meetings with the population during the campaign was intended to show vital capacity of the regime and to justify and ground following frauds and falsification of the results. In the beginning one could assume that the Islamic regime would allow Mir Hossein Mousavi to win as an interchange tactics between its reformist and hardliner supporters as all of the candidates were among the founders and supporters of the Islamic regime, in other words, their own men (as it is expressed in Persian khudi-ha). But the experience with M.Khatami’s presidency especially his first term had convinced the spiritual leader’s team not to run risks with a cosmetic change that could result in larger and maybe unpredictable radical shifting in the format of governance and rule.

But the most apparent feature of this election is linked to more explicit rifting among those who are at the helm of the state, and between them and the reformist Islamic. This situation is getting more complicated, especially taking into consideration the long-lasting implicit rivalry between Khamenei and Rafsanjani, who is enjoying larger authority and economic and political influence. All the while, antagonism between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad has clearly been rising. Ahmadinejad is considered a puppet of the leader and executor of “Hojjatiyyeh” ideals. Ayatollah Khamenei began a speech during Friday prayer in Tehran (it is noteworthy that he delivers speeches in Friday prayers rarely) by threatening those who would organize and protest with blood shed in the streets. This shows once again that even if the unrest escalates, the regime is ready to punish those who spread fear among the populace, and it will not compromise. Nonetheless, the non-official information about the Experts Council carrying out referendum on results of the election does not seem convincing.

Another aspect of the current situation which is not touched upon, is related to massive support of Azerbaijanis living in Iran, whom number above an estimated 30 million, for Mousavi. Mousavi and Karrubi promised radical changes in national policy of the state towards non-Persian population which is very crucial for Azerbaijanis.

Analysis of the situation indicates that even in the case that the regime manages to quiet the current anti-government fever with repressive methods and mass arrests and killings, the situation will not be fully under their control and will get more tense. Iran never will be as it was before June 12, 2009.

Barack Beat would like to thank Mr. Yagublu for his commentary and Kelly Jarret for passing it on to us.
Categories: Commentary, Iran

Obama Sends Ambassador to Syria

Al Jazeera is reporting the somewhat surprising news that President Obama is sending an ambassador to Syria. The United States has not had an ambassador to that country for the last four years. From the article:

By returning a senior US envoy to Damascus, Barack Obama, the US president, is seeking to carve out a far larger role for the US in the region as he works to rehabilitate relations with the Islamic world and the Arab Middle East, the [Washington Post] said.

A senior administration official told CNN: “It’s in our interests to have an ambassador in Syria.

“We have been having more and more discussions and we need to have someone there to engage.”

I say “surprising,” but it shouldn’t be, as relations between the US and Syria have been improving in recent months. What’s surprising is the timing, considering what’s going on in Iran right now, as Syria and Iran are often assumed to be close by US observers, and are connected in the public mind. Perhaps President Obama (or Syria?) is trying to break that link.

In any case, the presence or absence of an ambassador-rank diplomat is largely a symbolic move, and if nothing else gives a bit of leverage to the Obama administration in that the ambassador may now be recalled, which is always a dramatic bit of international theater. Not an overwhelmingly important event, then, but worth noting.

Categories: Syria

Indonesia: Where VPs Matter

Debates among Indonesia’s vice presidential candidates will be held tonight, and many are hoping that they will be more substantial than last Thursday’s presidential debates, which the Jakarta Post called an exercise in “insipid lip service.” Of the presidential debates, Singapore Institute of Internal Affairs reported,

The first televised debate between the presidential candidates… was a disappointing moment for audiences and pundits alike, as the 3 candidates failed to engage in significant debate about the substantive issues that face Indonesia, the caliber of the candidates or the substance of their electoral platforms.

The outcome of the first debate is likely to play in Yudhoyono’s favour, who currently leads the other presidential candidates in the polls, and whose party won the general elections that just passed with a wide margin. If the other presidential candidates and their running partners fail to use the following televised debates to distinguish their electoral platforms, Yudhoyono’s current popularity will be undiminished.

Given the popular failing of the presidential debates, candidates have also been conducting grassroots campaigns, appealing to farmers, business men…and journalists. The Jakarta Post reports,

Under the contract, Megawati agreed that, if she and her running mate, Prabowo Subianto, were elected in the election on July 8, her administration would ensure adequate provisions of fertilizer and irrigation water were made available for rice paddy fields. Agriculture is one of the Megawati ticket’s top development priorities.

… [Incumbent] Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also promised local businesspeople that, if re-elected, he would simplify the procedure for obtaining business licenses.

Before his speech, SBY bought fish from local fishermen as part of a meet and greet with fishing communities along Padang’s west coast.

While SBY and Megawati worked hard to convince the grassroots they are worth their salt, presidential hopeful Jusuf Kalla worked a room comprised of an entirely different echelon of society, discussing the importance of a free press with thousands of journalists in Jakarta.

Generals Prabowo Subianto and Wiranto and former central back governor Boediono will debate on issues of national identity tonight.

— Tina Carter, Trinity ’10

Incoming Professor Mohsen Khadivar Speaks with Wall Street Journal

Mohsen Khadivar is a reformist clergyman who was arrested for agitating the regime of the Shah as an engineering student and jailed for 18 months by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 1999. Now he and other clerics are fashioning the theological opposition to the Iranian theocracy. Wall Street Journal reports,

Why is this significant? Take a look at the color Mr. Mousavi’s supporters have chosen for their movement: Green is the color of Islam, meaning the demonstrators are taking on the regime on its own terms. Part of that challenge is to Iran’s republican pretensions, mocked by voter turnout that the regime itself admits exceeded 100% in some 50 districts.

… any revolution carried out in the name of God is also susceptible to being challenged in the name of God — and God has many names. As with the Communist revolutions of the 20th century, which were ultimately answerable to the verdict of History in which they placed so much stock, the ideological foundation of the Islamic Revolution rests with the prevailing views of a Shiite clerisy. Thanks to people like Mr. Kadivar, those views now tilt increasingly against the regime: So far, he notes, two of Iran’s four major seminaries have refused to endorse Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “victory.”

Whether they’ll succeed will depend partly on their willingness to continue their protests — possibly through crippling work stoppages — but mostly on the willingness of the regime to enforce its will. Mr. Kadivar is convinced a large segment of the regime’s all-important Revolutionary Guards side with the demonstrators. But they have their own perquisites to look after, and liberal revolutionaries are often crippled by their own innate distaste of violence.

This interview came on the cusp of the Supreme Leader’s brusque warnings to the opposition at Tehran’s University Friday and Obama’s fourth formal press conference, in which he called the government crackdown of the opposition and the widely-publicized death of Neda Agha-Soltan “heartbreaking.”

— Tina Carter, Trinity ’10

S Abdallah Schleifer on Obama’s Speech

Sheikh Abdallah Schleifer is a former NBC Cairo Bureau chief, present Distinguished Professor of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, and Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.

The first time I met S Abdallah Schleifer, my fellow DukeEngagers and I were at Cairo’s Garden City Club for a roundtable discussion with Naguib Mahfouz translator Raymond Stock. However, once Abdallah took his seat,  Stock and Schleifer were in a world of their own, remembering and conjecturing the very history of Egypt, unfurling the rind from Mahfouz to Muhammad Ali Pasha and back again. Needless to say, I learned then that he is a man of great experience and conviction.

The following is Schleifer’s  sincere reflection on President Obama’s Speech June 4th.

It was at Cairo University’s Festival Hall that the great diva of Egyptian song, Umm Kalthoum, held her greatest concert triumphs in the 1950s and 1960s.
In the hall with a massive beige dome that made it look like an elegant concert hall or even opera house, she moved educated, influential Egyptian men and women to tears and ecstasy – a joy that has not been felt in this crowded and often chaotic city for years.
Until today.

Barack Obama entered from the far right of the stage and the audience of a few thousand of Egypt’s great and good rose almost as one body.

Ministers of state, Coptic bishops and Muslim imams, senior Egyptian journalists – supporters of the regime and its critics – successful businessmen and leading academics, along with a large contingent of carefully chosen students from Cairo University and the American University of Cairo, applauded and waved back to the US president as he strode with an athlete’s grace to centre stage.

Moving speech

An Umm Kalthoum song could go on and on without losing its intensity for more than an hour, and Obama sustained the rapt attention of his audience – most relying on simultaneous translation and the earnestness of his body language, his lean, appealing physical presence – for nearly as long.

Obama’s speech was watched live by millions around the world [AFP]One minute into his speech he won nearly every heart and mind in the great hall, announcing his pride to be carrying “the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace Muslim communities use in my country: asalaamu alaikum.

The audience rose to its feet and I was not the only one in that vast hall with tears in my eyes.

I never imagined, as an American and a Muslim, that I would ever hear an American president invoke the blessing of Islam or to go on to quote from the Quran, as he would do several times with great relevance.

Or to refer to Muhammad as “the Prophet upon whom be peace”.

But this extraordinary event was more than superb pacing and performance, more than the soaring, almost classic oratory Obama is famous for and that translates so well into modern literary Arabic.

It was more than soothing and conciliatory words for a predominantly Arab audience here in the Festival Hall, or the millions who watched and listened at home and the office, at universities and cafes courtesy of a dozen live Arab satellite feeds.

A vast Arab audience nursing the grievances of decades sharpened by the blows of the past eight years that preceded Obama’s presidency – the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process, the brutality of the siege and war on Gaza that cry out for justice and conciliation.

‘New beginning’

Obama vowed that he was in Cairo “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world”, a new beginning based  on respect – a word that figured significantly in this speech – as well as “mutual interests and shared values”.

The US president vowed a “new beginning” with Muslims worldwide [AFP]But it quickly became clear that he was basing that new beginning on acknowledging realities and speaking hard truths – to Americans and to Israelis as well as to Arabs and Muslims.

He went well beyond the at-best well-meaning but almost meaningless platitudes about Islam as the religion of peace, to call his distant American audience’s attention to Western civilisation’s debt to Islam, “that carried the light of learning through so many centuries paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and enlightenment”.

He recalled a Muslim civilisation that was based on innovation, science, mathematics, printing, medicine, the fine arts, and in general, religious tolerance and racial equality.

But for his audience here and throughout the Arab world, he insisted that the impulse behind the creation of the state of Israel was a tragic history that could not be denied, alluding to the persecution of the Jewish people for centuries, culminating in an unprecedented Holocaust.

And he denounced Holocaust denial just as he denounced Israeli indifference to the suffering and the hardships of the Palestinians and the daily humiliations of occupation.

Finally, hard talk that his audience was ready to meditate upon.

Perhaps it is Obama’s deep reading in philosophy that led him to seek synthesis of apparent tension and conflict.

Even in his opening words, he honoured his official hosts – Al Azhar, the citadel of Sunni orthodoxy, and the University of Cairo, the launching pad in the 1920s and 1930s for secular education – as two remarkable institutions “that represent harmony between tradition and progress”.

Obama differentiated between the invasion of Iraq, which he had opposed, and the war in Afghanistan which he defined as a war of necessity, and repeated his pledge to pull out all US combat units from Iraqi cities by next month, and all troops by 2012.

Broad alliance

He continually stressed the importance of broad alliance and international support that the US had when, in the wake of 9/11, it went into Afghanistan in pursuit of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Obama, left, was hosted by Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, during his Cairo visit [EPA]But he engaged rather than denounce those in the Muslim world who doubted America’s intentions, in effect renouncing that overbearing theme of his predecessor that “whoever is not with me is against me”.

So when Obama condemned al-Qaeda for killing innocent men, women and children, it was not just American victims of 9/11 but the murder “of people of different faiths – but more than any other, they have killed Muslims”.

He acknowledged that in response to the trauma of 9/11 America had in some cases acted contrary to its best traditions and ideals and he spoke of “concrete actions to change course” by unequivocally prohibiting the use of torture and ordering the Guantanamo prison to be closed by early next year, drawing significant applause.

This was also a moment for giving assurances.

Obama insisted that the US sought no military bases in Afghanistan and he acknowledged that military power alone would not solve the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Rather, he was committed to spending many billions of dollars partnering both countries to build schools, hospitals, roads, businesses and to help the many displaced by war.

Obama was clearly responding to those supporters newly turned into critics who claimed he had been co-opted by the lure of a military solution in Afghanistan and by extension, in Pakistan.

The range of the US president’s speech was broad, reaffirming his commitment to human rights, democracy and women’s rights, but also stressing the importance of development, job creation and extending education, particularly to women, that is problematic for much of the Muslim world.

Middle ground

As usual he sought the middle ground, saying that America has no business imposing its own system on different societies, but he insisted on basic human rights – the rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom to practise one’s religion, equal justice, a voice in government that is free of corruption.

Obama is pushing for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [AFP]Typical of his instinct for ethical realism, however, instead of threatening or denouncing his ultimate host – the Egyptian government – or any other state in the region practising political repression, he said governments respecting those universal rights would enjoy more stability, security and prosperity.

Along with the hard truths there were some very significant, if subtle, messages.

An idea circulated by Israeli official circles and Americans enthralled by the Jewish state, that Obama was in the Middle East to put together a Sunni Arab-Israeli alliance to isolate and combat Shia Iran, was nowhere to be found in his speech.

Nor did Iran occupy an equal amount of concern or time with the Afghan-Pakistani issue, the Iraqi war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But slipped into a most unconfrontational discussion of American-Iranian relations that included an acknowledgment of America’s role in overthrowing a legitimately elected nationalist government in Iran during the Cold War years, Obama reaffirmed an early election campaign commitment, too controversial at the time for him to pursue, that the US government was ready to talk with the Iranian leadership without any preconditions.

Even more significant was his acknowledgment that Hamas enjoyed popular support among Palestinians and it was in this context that he made the usual call for Hamas to renounce violence, recognise past agreements between the Palestinians and Israel, as well as recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Suddenly he was advising Hamas, not denouncing it, to accept the responsibility of governing. Perhaps historians will remember this speech as the moment America’s engagement with Hamas began.

S Abdallah Schleifer is Distinguished Professor of Journalism at the American University in Cairo and Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

This essay is also posted on Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.