February 28, 2011

Bad timing for US to withdraw from the world

Once again, the United Nations plays a role in the world. Changes throughout the Middle East have underscored the Secretary-General's potential as a moral voice. International sanctions against the Qaddafi regime were rapidly adopted through the Security Council. The Human Rights Council, often reduced to slavish condemnations of Israel, has issued condemnations of the massacres in Libya. Major powers are debating whether to refer Libya to the International Criminal Court (ICC) or send in UN Peacekeeping forces, or "Blue Helmets".

The UN has been useful in other crises, including the Haiti earthquake. But more than crises, 99.99 percent of the UN's budget has nothing to do with condemning Israel (OK, so what if it's only 99.8 percent...). World health, hunger, economic development, literacy -- these are global causes that require a global response.

As the situation in Libya reminds us (especially those of us so "blessed" to have interacted with Qaddafi!), a large number of nations are not run democratically. That may be a good reason to support democratic evolution, and even revolution (or counter-revolution) in a few dozen countries, but it is a poor excuse for trashing the UN itself, or walking away from the whole diplomatic exercise, as various UN critics routinely advocate.

February 25, 2011

So you really want a nonprofit to run like a business?

Business and philanthropic leaders have been known to openly encourage the nonprofits they support to operate more "like a business". The premise, that businesses are run so well, is itself debatable. But more than that, many of these volunteer leaders have themselves abandoned sound business practice in directing how their charities should be run. They also seem not to have noticed that many real-world businesses have gone under during the past few years, or that for-profit enterprises cannot succeed if they are under-capitalized.

Their behavior includes favoritism in putting friends and allies on the payroll; deference to their own whims and to the perquisites of charismatic professionals; and... Madoff. Few if any professionals were involved in decisions by boards and investment committees that swung hundreds of millions of dollars to funds managed by Bernie Madoff. The investment committees were peopled by too many big-money VIPs who didn't care about conflicts of interest, since in many cases Madoff or one of his cohorts was a member or the chair of the same committee (or they were Madoff investors themselves).

Decisions about program and strategy are often taken based upon a donor's own gut feelings and personal experience, rather than relying upon objective analysis of what may advance the organization's overall mission and goals.

February 24, 2011

Recalling the king of kings' speech of speeches

The following is excerpted from a blog entry I posted September 23, 2009, after watching Muammar Qaddafi address the United Nations General Assembly. I can't say I foresaw this month's events, but at least I wasn't taken in. I did tell his UN ambassador that -- unless we were to break off diplomatic relations with Libya -- the man should be allowed to stay anywhere he likes within these United States. I also got to show Qaddafi a few things about modern Orthodox Jews. More on that later...

February 23, 2011

How not to prevent mass murder in Libya

Some well-meaning human rights advocates, among them supporters of Israel, are responding to Qaddafi's mounting campaign against his own people with calls to investigate human rights practices in Libya. This reminds me of the evangelist sporting a sandwich board with the words "Repent Now," as an asteroid is about to obliterate New York City.

There were some noble and tactical efforts to expose Qaddafi's human rights violations over the years, especially while Libya has been a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. But right at this moment, the actual and potential loss of life in Libya is staggering. Auditing tax returns and dispatching a special rapporteur -- even expelling Libya from the Council -- will have zero impact on how many thousands Qaddafi massacres in a desperate bid to preserve his rule or exact revenge.

February 22, 2011

Qaddafi runs out of realpolitik

It is fitting that members of Libya's UN delegation have resigned in protest against the ongoing slaughter of hundreds of protesters at the hands of Muammar Qaddafi's regime, and that the Security Council is finally convening (privately) to address the situation on the ground. In fairness, the Council first needed to go through the motions on a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, though everyone knew the United States would veto that, anyway.

All this begs the question: Why now? Qaddafi has been a ruthless dictator for four decades. Washington restored relations with Libya a few years ago, when Libya agreed to pay compensation for a string of terrorist attacks including Lockerbie (the bombing of Pan Am 103) and to abandon its dubious nuclear weapons program, while the United Kingdom has sold Libya millions in "crowd-control" equipment

Over the years, it's probable that Qaddafi has supported various insurgent movements across Africa, though in recent years he has supported regional security and the status quo. Just last year, however, behind closed doors, he stunned his fellow Arab leaders by going around the table assigning each a specific number of tanks and jets with which to destroy Israel.

Qaddafi has finally gone too far, even for the Security Council, even for Brazil which holds the rotating presidency of the Council this month, even for Russia, China and the other permanent Council members. Libya's now-former envoys are safe enough in New York, especially with Qaddafi's assassins probably seeking new clients.

Rather than transforming his regime, Qaddafi appealed to the international community's sense of cold realpolitik. That succeeded for a time, but now realpolitik and its incentives have swung around in his face. Isolating Qaddafi may be convenient, and it may be politic in anticipation of his opposition taking power, but it is still the proper course of action.

February 21, 2011

At the UN, Palestinian timing falls flat

What’s the secret to telling a good j-- TIMING!

A month ago today, I blogged here that Israel’s Foreign Minister couldn’t seem to get a break. Now the timing has turned against Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. 

Egged on by the Arab League, Abbas has dropped the ball on direct negotiations with Israel that might have delivered some new concessions for Palestinians, or would at least put the Israeli side in a tough spot. At the insistence of the Palestinian Authority, and Lebanon as the sponsor, the United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity. The United States exercised its veto, as one of the five permanent members of the Council.

Not only is Abbas in the process of losing some or most of the same old faces around the Arab League table (Tunisia and Egypt and Libya? Oh my!), Israel is starting to look a little better than it did two months ago. At this moment in Mideast history, it would be hard to dispute that the most reliable, stable country is, in fact, Israel. No one would suggest any possibility of Israel's government being overthrown except in the Knesset or at the ballot box. It's an imperfect democracy, but it is a democracy nonetheless. And perhaps the contrast has never before been so widespread, obvious, and accessible. 

This also makes the spectacle of last Friday’s vote even more absurd than usual.

Defying the United States once again, Abbas forced President Obama into vetoing the resolution, which undercuts U.S. credibility going forward, when Abbas may need it. By emphasizing settlements now at the United Nations, when President Obama is still recuperating from two years of pointless refereeing between Israelis and Palestinians, Abbas has hardly endeared him to the Palestinian cause. 

February 18, 2011

Why Bahrain matters

I was very flattered to be invited to last December's Manama Dialogue, in Bahrain, and the experience itself was unique: Iranians and Arabs, Americans and Europeans, ministers and experts, all sharing perspectives and strategies for regional stability and security -- and all on a small slice of sand between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

No one who visits Bahrain, or any country, for just a few days can get behind all the posturing and pathos -- no matter how small or large the country, regardless of whether one has 500 Twitter followers or one million. But here is how I see the outcome so far.

I am deeply saddened by the loss of life. I had really thought that Bahrain could turn a corner this week for the entire region, that engaging in open and peaceful dialogue would offer an example of how monarchies need not fear peaceful dissent; that the Iranian regime would be more strongly repudiated by comparison with a sophisticated, confident and tolerant Bahrain; that the whole region might see that Bahrain's courtship with the West helped its rulers find a golden path to consensus-building and moral inspiration.

The particular challenges facing Bahrain had made its achievements that much more impressive. It is the Gulf state most vulnerable to Iran's regional machinations. Without trivializing this week's protesters or their grievances, it's inconceivable that Iran hasn't found some way to manipulate elements of the native Shia opposition. Bahrain is small, not among the wealthiest of oil nations (yes, there is the U.S. Fifth Fleet), and it has pushed to embrace the West on all fronts while maintaining an absolute monarchy. 

February 17, 2011

Why Israel can still rely on U.S. support at the UN

Why am I not worried about a possible vote tomorrow in the UN Security Council on a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity?

First of all, I don't happen to think new settlement activity is worth all the trouble (unless the goal is to close off any future peace deal), but I don't see how Washington does better messaging Israel through the Security Council than by hitting speed dial on 1,000 U.S. Government cell phones.

I am not worried about the United States letting the resolution get adopted by withholding its veto as one of the five permanent members of the Council. Despite all the speculation and hyped fueled by progressive foreign policy wonks and further leveraged by conservative critics of most of the Obama administration's global agenda, the USG has displayed no signs that it will let the resolution go through. Quite the contrary.

Without breaching protocol by broadcasting that it will definitely veto the resolution, U.S. officials have said everything but.

It was reported late yesterday that U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice had floated a proposal to the UN's Arab bloc for a toned-down Presidential Statement (issued by the Council Presidency by consensus of all 15 members) reaffirming the Council's opposition to settlements, etc., and condemning rocket attacks from Gaza against Israelis. There were a few minor concessions from the U.S. side, as well. Despite some of the conclusions of the press report, this did not constitute some radical departure from U.S. practice.

The Arabs rejected the U.S. proposal, for the same reason the U.S. offered it. They don't care whether the Council issues anything, be it a full-fledged resolution or a less formal statement. They care about forcing the United States to veto a tactical resolution now so we'll have less credibility later on when a vote on Palestinian statehood comes before the Council. And we care about avoiding any unnecessary vetoes along the way, which is why Ambassador Rice's proffer made sense when I read of it.

February 16, 2011

Between Bucharest and Cairo... freedom

"Mr. Leamas! Go back, please! To your own side, Mr. Leamas!" ["The Spy Who Came In From the Cold"]
Romania, 1971
Freedom is a fundamental human yearning, and yet it is often as banal as the tyranny it displaced. Recent developments in the Middle East have stirred some old memories of travel behind the Iron Curtain.
On a visit to Romania in the early 1980s, I met our old friends Millie and Otto in their modest apartment, just as I remembered it, with starched lace doilies draped over most of the surfaces. Millie showed off the double stainless steel sink which a surreptitious plumber had installed in their kitchen. (My family had smuggled it in atop our camper some years earlier, inverted to look like an air-conditioning unit. It was transferred to the trunk of Millie & Otto's Dacia sedan in a lightning operation, behind a stand of thick evergreens on the side of a highway, while my big brother and I kept a lookout for... Big Brother.) 
Later, Millie served us classic stuffed peppers, with a special dessert of sliced pineapple. At my hotel the next morning, I feasted on pineapple juice and pineapple chunks. I figured out that a freighter must have arrived from Cuba, bearing pineapples, since Romania was still fairly isolated except for the purer Marxist-Leninist revolutions (Cuba and China yes, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia no).
Millie took me to the Bucharest ticket center to book the rest of my trip, a ticket out which Millie and Otto could never hope for themselves. The processing seemed more involved than acquiring a driver's license (which I had accomplished a few months earlier before departing the United States). I noticed that most of the same people who completed their purchases would return a short while later with a box of chocolates or some other favor for their respective ticket clerks. Hardly a bribe by Western standards, but a decent box of chocolates was a rare luxury in those days.

February 15, 2011

As Government holds back, nonprofits must open up

Philanthropy: Love for mankind

America's social safety net is in real jeopardy, and philanthropists and the non-profit sector have an obligation to respond. Government support is diminishing, just when many families and seniors remain without jobs or savings. For the next couple of years, until the economy and government functionality get back on track, the philanthropic community needs to focus on immediate needs, even at the cost of abandoning some visionary initiatives.

Between President Obama's domestic spending freeze and some significant cuts in his proposed federal budget, and Republican calls for still deeper reductions and ever bigger tax cuts for those with means, the budget for the 2012 fiscal year will fall short on many essential services. The individual states, which actually deliver most of the social services, are getting even less back from Washington, and few have the luxury of running at a deficit the way the U.S. Government has become accustomed.

Many individual donors often have favorite causes, from the environment to cultural exchange, to capital projects (i.e., more buildings). I propose scaling back all these agendas, and retasking organizations as much as possible to ensure that children, elderly and the underprivileged are able to weather the coming storm. 

Call it a moratorium on non-essential services and campaigns.

February 14, 2011

Why Iran hopes Egypt's waves hit Bahrain ASAP

[Update: Since posting the entry below, I learned that one death resulted from today's confrontations. The loss of life is tragic and my thoughts are with the people of Bahrain, but my analysis has not changed.]

Every country has restive populations with legitimate grievances, and that includes the United States. Bahrain is no exception, either. But today's demonstrations by members of the Shia majority are extremely convenient for those clinging to the status quo in Iran, barely half a tankful of gas across the Gulf from Manama.

The Bahrain police put down the protests, at the same time Iranian police were putting down a massive opposition rally in Tehran with even more violent means. Iran's subversive strategy across the Gulf -- and in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza -- raises significantly greater concern in Arab political circles than anything Ahmadinejad's regime could be developing in its declared and undeclared nuclear facilities.

The irony of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government -- lacking international legitimacy since his farcical 2009 "re-election" -- extolling the Egyptian revolution while denying the right of its own opposition to rally in solidarity with the people of Egypt is sadly unremarkable. Suppressing democracy rallies at home may be necessary for his regime, but it's not the best messaging. Enter the latest Shia protests in Bahrain, and just in time.

Mideast myths die hard, but when they do...

The USSR and its satellite states were all premised upon a common ideological myth and an interlocking security framework, so when Poland pushed back and the Berlin Wall fell, there was no stopping it. Each Mideast state has its own form of monarchy, Ba'athist or theocratic underpinning, and military coordination has been shoddy since… forever. So it won't be so easy, though some countries are already far more open economically and culturally than anything that existed behind the Iron Curtain.

Many of the region's leaders have used fears of Israeli or imperialist threats to maintain their regimes. Their opponents have used the same tools to try to discredit them and the corrupt status quo. Recent developments in Tunisia and Egypt have been relatively free of such paranoia and thought control, or at least the people have broken through it. One of the Egyptian military's first acts since shedding its golden Mask of Mubarak was to reaffirm the peace treaty with Israel.

February 13, 2011

Has Israel given up on history?

The New York Times Sunday Magazine has an informative look at how far Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas had progressed toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, before Olmert stepped down as Israel's Prime Minister under a cloud of financial allegations. Since the Egyptian uprising started gaining steam two weeks ago, various voices -- including Olmert -- have insisted that now is the time to push forward with the Palestinians, instead of hunkering down. I happen to agree on a wishful, geopolitical level, but practically this cannot happen.

First, the reasoning for taking a break: The revolution/coup in Egypt underscores the ephemeral nature of any peace agreement with either a dictatorship or an Islamist-influenced Arab state, including the Palestinians -- in other words, no existing or future Arab state is presumed to be a reliable partner. That's quite a prison term for an isolated Israel. And it's a caricature of the reality, where Israel has used a 30-year respite from existential threats (Iran's someday nuclear weapons notwithstanding) to absorb one million post-Soviet immigrants and occupy the top tier of high-tech industry and economics.

Next, the reasoning for pushing forward now: It's precisely the negative potential for any changes that makes it urgent to push for peace now, while Abbas (and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad) still retains some control of the situation. Because Sadat committed Egypt to the binding peace treaty in 1979, and the United States committed to bankrolling both the Israeli and Egyptian concessions in effective perpetuity, no Egyptian government can ever afford to abrogate the legal arrangement. If Egypt's military rulers ever hand over power to a democratically elected government, it's unlikely that such a coalition would be inclined or focused enough to agree to such a deal today. And the absence of Mubarak as a regional broker makes it less likely that both sides can bridge the remaining gaps, or that Hamas will ever sign on.

Now, why this won't work: Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel, has proven by his actions that he is less interested in a final arrangement with Palestinians than with postponing any day of reckoning for as long as possible. U.S. President Barack Obama might have used Mubarak's resignation as an opportunity to yank Netanyahu forward, but he already gambled his political capital on a settlement freeze -- twice -- and now Netanyahu's Republican allies on Capitol Hill have the White House playing defense on domestic issues.

February 11, 2011

What the...?? My Mubarak scenario

Mubarak's primary constituency has always been the military, of which he was a prince. When it became clear that the army needed a change of CEO in order to continue, they agreed to let him step down gracefully. The U.S. Government reinforced that option, both publicly and privately.

Last week, the army refused to crack down on peaceful protesters, partly because they weren't ready to be seen backing Mubarak. Mubarak used his own loyalists to turn the demonstrations into battlefields, and the military lost its resolve -- but only temporarily. Yesterday, at a meeting conducted in Mubarak's absence, the Supreme Military Council deliberated, with some supporting Mubarak but the majority determining that either Mubarak would go or the military would no longer be in control (especially with seemingly all of Egypt clamoring specifically for Mubarak to resign).

Mubarak's address last night was supposed to be his swan song, but instead he doubled down and said he's not going, and the demonstrators are a bunch of misguided youth. This morning, the military informed Mubarak that his services are no longer required, and the next general in line would be taking over.

Hurray! Democracy carries the day...

Egypt loses its rallying cry

Mubarak has stepped down - wonderful!!! He has transferred power to the military, though last night he'd transferred most powers to his new Vice President and recovering intelligence czar -- in other words, that constitution we were so worried about using is no longer in effect.

There is both good news and bad news. The United States can now force the Egyptian military to comply with democratic changes (if we so choose) without appearing to betray Mubarak the Ally, while the Egyptian people have lost the personification of their grievances.

Can even 10 million Egyptians really take power from "the military"? Possibly, if they can push enough soldiers to defect or a least stand down. Without serious pressure from the United States (apologies to Europe), the people may not have much of a chance. Much of the decision remains in the hands of the military-turned-junta -- are they willing to gun down hundreds of peaceful but determined demonstrators? And what would be Washington's response in such a case?

On Mubarak, a choice between credibility or legitimacy

The Obama administration is in an awkward situation. By not clearly calling for Mubarak's rotted regime to vacate the national institutions and hand over power to a genuine transition government, the United States is rapidly losing credibility both in the region and back at home. But to step in and force an outcome could instantly undermine the legitimacy of our own global role, much as the U.S. invasion of Iraq did under George W. Bush. 

I have been blogging in recent weeks in support of democracy in Tunisia, and now in Egypt (though Tunisia already needs a booster shot). So it is with disappointment (but not yet resignation) that I note: Hosni Mubarak's status under international law has not changed since the "January 25" protests started. He has been an autocratic leader with shaky legitimacy for three decades. Cracking down on peaceful protesters and news media should carry consequences, but what if President Obama had spontaneously called last year for an orderly and immediate transition to democracy in Egypt? Did we need the Tahrir events to know he has no popular mandate? And hadn't he already scheduled elections for September 2011?

By what right in international law can the United States suddenly step in? Convenience and opportunity are incomplete responses. Waiting for massive bloodshed provides a casus belli, but that's morally indefensible. And it's already arguable that Mubarak's continued presence contradicts his claim to be a force of "stability" for his nation.

By intervening to unseat a dutiful American ally, however corrupt and despotic, the United States also risks losing credibility among dozens of allies and clients around the world, specifically those who make Mubarak look enlightened and urbane by comparison. Will America ditch them as soon as their own people rise up, or some better catch rides through town? Remember, Saddam was once our man, too.

Of course, "stepping in" does not require smart bombs and embargoes. The United States has a range of public and discreet tools at its disposable. But it will be seen as interference either way, and don't expect China to allow the United Nations Security Council to authorize any action against a kindred, undemocratic regime.

I hope the Administration finds its way to doing the right thing, and soon, regardless of the uncertain risks and definite costs. In the long run, we shall gain both credibility and legitimacy.

February 10, 2011

Arab Putin? Or real Mideast democracy?

Before stepping aside, a President abruptly annoints a veteran intelligence officer as his transitional successor. Where have I heard this before? Yes, I remember now:  Around 6 a.m. on New Year's Eve, the last day of 1999, I was jolted out of bed by news that Boris Yeltsin had thrown in the towel on what might have become 11 post-Soviet time zones of democratic evolution.

After centuries of feudalism and decades of Communism, Russia had a shot at pluralistic democracy. Now that corporatist, ideology-free technocracy has taken hold, there's little chance that human rights and free markets will be instituted for the next few generations. If the Middle East is to move forward and begin reclaiming its heritage as a crossroads and incubator of civilization, it will need more than failed states, oil platforms, and duty-free hubs.

By trying to stop Egypt's revolution halfway, through an "orderly" transition guided by Hosni Mubarak's own loyalists, we now risk losing democracy where it matters most. There are no second chances, no do-overs, no new post-War shake-ups to anticipate.

Egyptians have seized an opportunity to set a new course. It will not be easy, nor its success assured. But half-measures run the risk of squandering a once-in-a-century chance, not only for Egypt but for the entire Middle East. The Cold War and de-colonization ended one and two generations ago, respectively. The house that Nasser built back in the 1950s and '60s can either fall entirely or merely change owners. 

February 9, 2011

Mideast revolutions, one at a time

Visiting Romania in the 1970s and '80s, it was impossible to understand how one sector of the population could completely stifle all dissent and resistance. But it was equally inconceivable that someday the people would rise up, and the dictator would be subject to their swift justice. Then suddenly, one day it happened.

Recent events across the Middle East defy easy explanation. As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, no single empire or coordinated ideology is holding back Arab and Middle East nations -- not Ottomans, French, British, Communists, mullahs. Each country has its own unique set of circumstances and personalities, its own culture and identity. There is no unified tsunami of freedom sweeping the region, but there was obvious inspiration from Tunisia, reinforced by widespread solidarity with Egyptians. The stronger, indirect impact of events is already being felt in the Mideast peace process, between the rival Palestinian factions, and among leaders in the region.

Last year's post-election demonstrations in Iran clearly had some influence on Tunisians, and perhaps some of the Wikileaks cables did as well. There was no way to predict when (or even if) the Ben-Ali regime would fall, precisely because it appears to have been spontaneous -- the right martyr, at the right time, with the right combination of popular forces. Many Egyptians were already anticipating a showdown next September, when Mubarak was expected to let his son succeed him through the usual fixed election, and then Tunisia happened.

Beyond Egypt, the Hashemites in Jordan have survived far worse than last week's demonstrations, and King Abdullah retains the loyalty of the military and key tribes -- and without 50 million hungry mouths to feed. In Yemen, President Saleh hastened to announce his retirement in another two years -- anyway, Yemen has already been suffering from an insurgency and civil war, so revolution will have to take a number. The Gulf states are too wealthy, with too few people, to invite much "revolution", and palace coups happen on their own timetable. 

February 8, 2011

Barack, Barak, and Mubarak (and Bibi, too!)

President Obama spent his first two years in the White House listening to many voices on Middle East policy. Two of the real veterans from the region have been Ehud Barak and Hosni Mubarak. Like most forty-something Americans, myself included, Barack Obama did not happen to serve in the military. But these Israeli and Egyptian former generals have a command of strategy, diplomacy, and personal charm. What they did not have, it turns out, was a stable political base. 

Would the White House have acted differently if Barak and Mubarak were not supplying ideas and tactics? Perhaps not. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not seem to have let Ehud Barak's status as his defense minister affect the policies of his government. Both Israelis, the right-wing retired lieutenant colonel and the left-wing retired Chief of General Staff (and both commandos at heart), have their own personal connections to Mubarak, each having served previously as Prime Minister. They also know the new Vice President of Egypt, the former head of military intelligence.

Netanyahu himself may have led on President Obama, or at least the White House followed his lead. At this stage, the current Israeli government has scarce credibility in Washington on anything to do with Palestinians.

Omar Suleiman is not only the handpicked deputy of President Mubarak, he's also the least likely democratic reformer in the Nile Delta. But the Great Powers have spoken, and the best our heroes of Tahrir can hope for at this stage is a transitional government, possible revised constitution followed by new elections, and an uneasy power-sharing arrangement among Western-style democrats, Islamist politicians, and the military. This might work, but it will take time. 

The daily demonstrations may need to be adjusted, and perhaps they are already shifting from blanket calls for Mubarak's immediate departure to demands that credible and legitimate leaders of the masses be allowed into the carefully scripted "negotiations".

Having captured the attention and imagination of Western audiences and governments, Egyptians may now have to listen in return. Careful what you wish for.

One Partisan Nation, Divisible

Democrats and Republicans will always have plenty to fight over (or better, "respectfully disagree"). In the quest for votes, and especially in our increasingly static political landscape dominated by safe districts, politicians from both sides find it pays off to find new issues to label as "ours" or "theirs". This is too bad, because these are issues that deserve responsible treatment by our political leaders, issues that could determine our physical survival and moral worth, issues that do not intrinsically belong to one side or the other.

GUNS. Many Democrats as well as Republicans support gun rights, and the National Rifle Association gives generously on both sides of the aisle. Sensible gun control was not always a partisan issue, and it just makes sense. Members of Congress are now being advised to surround themselves with police protection and metal detectors, which would be less necessary if high-volume ammunition clips weren't freely available. The rate of gun deaths in America is staggering on its own, even without comparison to the low numbers in other industrialized countries. And yet, "gun rights" are still seen as a Republican cause.

ENVIRONMENT. PCBs, arsenic, lead and other toxins pervade our ecosystem, and global warming is an objective fact -- the aggregate temperature of our planet is increasing at an alarming and consistent rate, and it's impacting our climate and raising sea levels toward an eventual showdown with hundreds of millions of unlucky coastal dwellers. Teddy Roosevelt was an environmentalist, so this should have been easy.

CIVIL RIGHTS. Republicans extol the virtues of individualism, they're "the Party of Lincoln," and yet the last 60 years have been a partisan showdown over African-American voting rights, the right to abortion, the right of gays to serve in the military. What happened to "all men are created equal" and government not interfering in people's lives? Perhaps the combination of racist southern "Dixie-crats" dumping the Democratic Party for the GOP, and the Democratic President Lyndon Johnson pushing so hard on voting rights and Great Society programs, was too polarizing and too beneficial to Republican candidates to resist (and Democrats locked in the African-American vote for two generations).

February 7, 2011

Whose "Twitter revolution" is this?

There are limits to advertising. Timothy Hutton should have known better than trivializing the sacrifice, aspirations and beauty of Tibetans just to promote "Groupon.com" (which itself sounds like a cause of mad cow disease) during the Superbowl. Last week's outrage was Kenneth Cole trumpeting its disregard for democratic struggle and suffering in Egypt. #TwitterFail. Hopefully, Hutton will be subject to suitable opprobrium from the Hollywood set. There's nothing illegal about either ad campaign, but don't expect me to be a customer in this century.

Has our TV-addicted/Facebook-captive/hashtag-based multi-tasking lifestyle so removed us from reality, that it's reasonable for marketing experts to treat us all like star-struck adolescents? Are politicians also reading us correctly? Perhaps the past week's pair of offensive ads will provoke us to evolve beyond the superficial, point-and-click infancy of our cyber-topia.

Also clear from the past few weeks, is that Tunisia and Egypt have not fit the model of "Twitter revolution", or Facebook, or any "social media" other than word of mouth and spontaneous outrage. However, these new media have allowed millions worldwide to follow and support the emergence of democracy on the ground. It is helping to sensitize us and break through our WiFi- and BlueTooth-inspired haze. What we read on our feed can have a deeper meaning, and help us match names to faces, and real people with real consequences.

We've been slapped twice across the face, once by Kenneth Cole and once by Timothy Hutton. Thanks, guys, we needed that.

February 6, 2011

Iran, Israel (and the U.S.) face up to Egypt

Is Egypt all about the rest of us, or isn't it? Iran has high hopes for the Egyptian revolution, but they may be running out of revolutions (Stuxnet pun, sorry). Israel is more in damage-control mode, while also figuring out how to remain low-key. The United States has stakes and responsibilities in Egypt, plus a score to settle with Iran and deep bonds with Israel.

How dangerous is the potential for Islamist influence in a future Egyptian government? The Iranian regime is now scrambling to protect against the possibility of a new round of protests inspired by the Egyptian uprising. The chances of the Islamic Republic taking over the Egyptian revolution while also defending its own are... remote.

Israelis do have good reason to be concerned about the willingness or ability of the next Egyptian government to enforce all terms of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, as well as stopping weapons from reaching the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. It is unlikely that any Egyptian leader would abrogate the treaty and risk the wrath of Israel's military -- and Egypt's military will probably maintain control over national security regardless of who's running the country (see under: Turkey). But Israel is in no position to dismiss any contingency.

There have been specific warnings about Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which could end up joining a transitional coalition. It is on record opposing the peace with Israel, and one of its leaders recently reaffirmed this position. But those so concerned about what leaders of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood say might take comfort from the experience of Avigdor Lieberman, who notoriously said Mubarak could "go to hell" if he didn't want to pay an official visit to Israel. This wasn't just some fringe member of Knesset, and no religious fanatic, and subsequently -- and currently -- Israel's foreign minister. (He has also been known to stress Israel's capability to bomb the Aswan Dam, should the need arise.)

February 4, 2011

Egypt's Greatest Generation

A big lesson from my childhood experiences behind the Iron Curtain has been a deep gratitude for the freedom and relative prosperity we enjoy in the United States. I actually get "warm and fuzzy" when I see the American flag flying over one of our embassies overseas, or when I hit passport control upon my return. 

I have watched people risk prison just to stand outside a U.S. Embassy, let alone to enter and use the library. And if they really could swim here, many would. Regardless of any developments or negative propaganda, the United States of America remains a beacon of hope to billions worldwide.

This week, watching the courage and anguish of ordinary Egyptians -- amid systemic poverty -- I am reminded again of what sacrifices came before me, here in America and among my forbears in the Jewish dispersion. And again, this reinforces the tremendous gratitude to live in 21st century post-industrial liberty, security, and comfort.

Waiting on the station platform for my express train to arrive, I look across to Battle Hill -- today just another middle-class neighborhood, but 225 years ago the scene of a pivotal battle between American and British forces. Even World War II is a pensioner's memory. We have it pretty good over here.

Battle Hill, 1776-2011
Clearly, the United States has a duty to its own principles and an obligation to its recent past to play a constructive role in Egypt's evolution as a pillar of Middle East civilization. And obviously we face momentous decisions and policy challenges here at home, and an eternal struggle to defend our own rights. But we should never lose sight of the unprecedented and unparalleled benefits of living here and now.

As President Obama affirmed last week in his State of the Union address, "I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth." A benefit, and a responsibility.

February 3, 2011

Mubarak can stay, but only in disgrace

For many years, Hosni Mubarak has sold himself to the West and the Israelis -- and the Egyptian people -- as a force of stability and moderation.Since Tuesday, he can no longer make this claim with even a veneer of credibility, nor present himself as a hero to his fellow Egyptians. His violent crackdown against peaceful and overwhelmingly anti-Mubarak protesters moves him from tolerable autocrat to embarrasing pariah.

This may sound heartless, but many countries find themselves allied with dictators, especially in regions with few if any democratic governments. It's a Devil's deal -- keep your repressive enforcement tactics below the radar, make some pretense of representative government, and we'll focus on your positive attributes. 

A line is crossed when a leader openly overstays even his own pretext for power. In Tunisia, the revolt happened too quickly for most nations to renounce then-President Ben Ali. In the case of countries like Cote d'Ivoire, Zimbabwe and Belarus, we don't need their friendship enough to keep looking the other way when that line is crossed. Because of Mubarak's role in sustaining bilateral peace with Israel and promoting broader Mideast efforts -- and the inextricable billions in U.S. assistance -- it will not be so easy to break with Egypt and our leverage over him is limited. But neither can we keep looking the other way. The genie is out of the bottle.

Mubarak has lost the confidence of his own people, and he is willing to attack and impoverish them. He is willing to sack the Egyptian Museum's 5,000 years' worth of Egyptian cultural heritage. He is willing to take Egypt down with him. Unless he loses the support of his own military sponsors or gives up on his own, Mubarak will probably get to stay in power, but without the aura of domestic legitimacy and international respectability.

February 2, 2011

On Egypt, Obama is being presidential

A few hours ago, President Obama made a brief and eloquent speech about the situation in Egypt [VIDEO link]. He is making the best of an uncertain situation, and one in which the United States necessarily is not in control. When Hosni Mubarak steps down, it will be due to a combination of popular uprising, military disenchantment, and White House resolve.

There has already been a good deal of finger-pointing over who "lost Egypt", alternating with lists of those who "saw it coming". On some level, everyone saw this coming. But no one in a position of influence had come up with any good option for managing the inevitable departure of the ailing, aged, autocratic leader of an impoverished and indispensable nation.

Should a new U.S. President facing a catastrophic global recession and collapsed Mideast peace process have forced Mubarak to liberalize and open up to opposition voices? How? Should the United States have cut off over $1 billion in assistance that is predicated upon Egypt's strategic partnership and lasting peace with Israel?

And what would some experts and scholars have Obama do right now: Keep Mubarak in power to avoid the possibility of an Islamist takeover? Most actually agree he is making the best of an uncertain situation by publicly reaffirming democratic principles, privately telling Mubarak to quit, and not trying to belatedly stage-manage the transition.

On the bright side, Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979. Egyptians are revolting against Mubarak, not some corrupt "American Satan". The animosity toward the United States and Israel is not driving the popular uprising. It will not define future Egyptian grand strategy. Egypt has plenty of its own economic and political challenges. Also, Egypt's military is playing a different role than Iran's did, and that will prove decisive -- note President Obama's praise for their "professionalism and patriotism". However weakened or conflicted its emerging order may be, we will not be "losing" Egypt anytime soon.

Even a smart, successful American President can face difficult situations not entirely under his control (see under: Israeli settlements). His speech Tuesday evening was brief and eloquent, and masterful. It reflected a President being... presidential.

February 1, 2011

Egypt, Tunisia, and shifting options for Israel

Unlike Iran, Egypt's revolution is not primarily a revolt against foreign domination. The next Egyptian government will have no reason to pick a real fight with Israel. The United States will not cut off vital cash assistance to Egypt, since most of the funds constitute a perpetual offset for Egypt sticking its neck out in the Arab world to make peace with Israel. Israel will not violate the terms of the peace treaty.

One lasting lesson of Camp David may be that Israelis could never get such an agreement with whatever government replaces Mubarak, but the treaty they have will be honored by Egypt and guaranteed by outside powers -- so lock in your terms now, while you still can.

Whether from a sense of necessity or opportunity, the Israeli Government may see this as the right moment to reassess its approach to negotiations with the Palestinians. Until this week, the assumption of the right-leaning coalition and its right-leaning voters has been that time is on their side. However unrealistic that may have been in the long run, now the short run is rapidly catching up with them.