April 28, 2011

Egypt fiddles, while Gaza burns?

My fellow think-before-you-blogger Micah Halpern has noted that Hosni Mubarak's name is being removed from buildings, monuments and signs all across Egypt, and soon he will be expunged from the schoolbooks. This reminds me of the ancient practice by Pharaohs, who would obliterate all references to -- and likenesses of -- their immediate predecessor. But will the Old Egypt really disappear into the night, like cursive writing in the age of iPads and SMS? (No.)

The Army is still running Egypt behind the scenes, and the not so brand-new foreign minister, Nabil El-Araby, served as Mubarak's UN Ambassador not so many years back. One likely prospect to be the new President is Amr Moussa, one of El-Araby's predecessors as chief diplomat -- under Mubarak -- and a highly adaptive tell-you-what-you-want-to-hear overnight champion of Mideast democracy (e.g., "Tonight's specials are...").

El-Araby has now announced that Egypt's border crossing with Gaza, at Rafah, will be opened permanently. This may mean easier access for the rockets and missiles Hamas regularly launches against Israeli homes and schools, or it could allow desperate Palestinians to spill across the Sinai and into Egypt proper. Good luck with that...
Timing the border opening to a new reconciliation between the Gaza-based Hamas and West Bank-based Fatah (negotiated by the Egyptians mostly before the January 25 counter-revolution) may just be intended to incentivize the agreement and maybe even lure Hamas into peacekeeping, if the new guys have the same grand ambitions as Mubarak did. But more likely, the Egyptian Army will let the political lightweights (which every politician has to be when the generals still rule) have some fun and then shut things down. They military is probably waiting to see who wins the upcoming election before taking drastic steps like turning off the Internet again. 

It's also an opportunity for the Republic of Egypt to gain some lasting advantages over Israel and the United States, since everyone is giving the popular uprising a wide berth, lest we derail democracy or -- even worse -- further soil Brand America. And with 2-1/2 wars just the other side of Arabia, we REALLY need that Suez Canal to stay open. REALLY.

It is just possible that the border opening will allow Palestinians to let off some steam in a direction other than Israel, which is why the military will keep such matters on a tight leash. Either way, there is little the West or the Israelis can do about it at this point. And by the way, somebody just blew up the natural gas pipeline into Israel...

April 27, 2011

Fatah-Hamas deal is a defeat, but no orphan

Now that Fatah and Hamas have reached an initial reconciliation, there's little room left to pile on the wave of condemnations against Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for even thinking of such a deal. Hamas is definitely reprehensible, but it also controls Gaza, partly thanks to an over-zealous, pro-democracy President named George W. Bush. For so long, we Israel supporters have pointed out that Abbas cannot speak for Gaza when he negotiates for peace. And yet, now that they are consolidating, it is objectively worse for stability and for reconciliation with the Israelis. 

That fact should not distract us from the glaring truth: That it was easier for Abbas to find common ground with religious extremists bent on mass murder -- and who have ritualistically massacred Fatah fighters in cold blood -- than with the democratic and enlightened State of Israel.

Wow. Talk about a dramatic put-down.

In reality, there has always been a faction within Hamas that seeks not only to destroy Israel and murder Jews, but also to be a player in any eventual settlement with Israel and the resulting Palestinian state. This does not mean Israel should let its guard down, but it also means there may be a light at the end of the tunnel... a long tunnel.

Palestinian statehood - no brains required

I blogged a few months ago about how Israeli-Palestinian negotiations might still forestall a unilateral declaration of statehood by the Palestinians, along with the likelihood that only a U.S. veto would stop the United Nations from formally recognizing such a state. Now, barely five months before the UN General Assembly convenes for its annual high-level kick-off, such a U.S. veto seems unavoidable. Those seeking to gain from a reinforced sense that Israel stands alone against the world will feel very vindicated, if a little disappointed that their White House bogeyman came through for the Jewish State in a pinch.

President Obama will be facing a tight re-election campaign, if only because the American people are increasingly divided along partisan lines, which suits the career politicians. It's no longer astonishing that, as recently as last August, one-quarter of all Americans didn't even believe Barack Obama was born in the United States. So backing Israel against premature Palestinian statehood is a no-brainer. 

Unfortunately, lack of brain function is what defines all Israeli-Palestinian dealings these days. We have shifted completely into the realm of political reflex.

April 26, 2011

Quote of the Day

Just because something's never been tried before, doesn't make it a good idea.

April 24, 2011

April 18, 2011

Democracy is the goal, whether by revolution or evolution

A few years ago, when the United States signed a bilateral cooperation agreement with an "emerging democracy", it included language committing both sides to human rights and democracy -- and one could assume that was Washington's way of promoting some American values. But it turns out, it was the other country's own foreign minister who insisted on the language. As he explained, he needed it to convince his government that Washington takes progress and transparency on these issues seriously.

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is rumored to be searching again for safe haven somewhere in Africa, while also insisting he'll never give up. Laurent Gbagbo, the former President of Cote d'Ivoire, is locked up tight. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak has been questioned in an investigation into corruption during the three decades he served as President (while his military comrades continue to call the shots). And so on. This is all truly inspiring, and no doubt more longtime despots will follow suit.

Africa and the Middle East will never be in the same, and mostly in a good way. But just mostly.

Gbagbo's democratically elected -- and Great Power-delivered -- successor, Alassane Ouattara, is no champion of democracy. For the most part, the heroic opponents of Qaddafi's rule are more rival tribes than a movement for pluralistic respect for human dignity. 

Not every freedom fighter ends up governing like a Nelson Mandela, and not every opposition leader is an Aung San Suu Kyi. In too many cases, Europe included, "democratic" activists only want a free election in order to get into power. They make long lists of promises to sincere Westerners. If human rights advocates openly assist the opposition in its bid to unseat an autocrat, why should the regime cooperate? Much of our work is convincing the autocrats that they can open up and respect fundamental rights (if not yet the one about popular rule) without losing their hold on power. 

The latest revolutions and uprisings are a positive trend, but it is too early to know the outcome in any affected country. And the threat of ignoble ejection definitely weighs more on the minds of the remaining dictators. But it's still worth facilitating interim progress, WHERE POSSIBLE, especially if it can mitigate death and destruction while paving the road to eventual peaceful -- and sustainable -- transition.

April 14, 2011

September target for Israeli-Palestinian agreement? Right...

The United Nations has just issued a glowing report on the readiness of Palestinian institutions and capacity for statehood. The target date for concluding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, after all, is September 2011... The Palestinians' idea has been that they'll declare statehood and get nearly all members of the UN General Assembly (and most of the UN Security Council) to endorse the move, which will go through unless the United States (or France, or the United Kingdom) vetoes it as one of the "P-5" permanent members of the Council.

In fact, there has been significant progress in the West Bank toward building institutions, infrastructure, and rule of law. If one looks at sovereign states these days, the bar is not really that high, anyway. But then, Gaza is included as part of these calculations, which stretches credulity. When people mention "the Palestinians", they still need to specify whether that's the West Bank / Fatah / Palestinian Authority Palestinians, or the Gaza/Hamas Palestinians -- the nation-builders or the tunnel-diggers with rocket launchers. And there may as well be a competition to see which negotiation track is more tenuous -- Palestinian-Israeli or Fatah-Hamas.

The Arab League strategy has been to play the Israeli-Palestinian track as a justification for declaring a state -- if negotiations work out, great; if they fail, even better, since the Palestinians can then show they tried but the Israelis were unwilling. As long as Israel keeps expanding settlements, the Palestinians get a free pass.

April 13, 2011

French democracy - for export only?


Let there be no doubt, democracy was advanced yesterday in Africa. And payback is aways nice, too.

The French just apprehended Laurent Gbagbo after weeks of brutal fighting and negotiations. Gbagbo was the President of Côte d'Ivoire who consolidated the country and led it out of a deadlocked and deadly civil war, only to lose the first free election since... But more importantly, the French had to enjoy the moment, since they have long backed the other side, in this case the side whose candidate won last November's vote. My question is, whether the same tanks that knocked through Gbagbo's palace in the name of democracy were the same ones France was using just a few years ago to try to get their rebel allies into power by sheer force. 

Somehow Gbagbo managed to head off France's interference long enough to get his country back on track, only he forgot that too much of a good thing, c'est trop. Instead of taking the villa in exile with trust fund, he'll now get a condo with bars.


Meanwhile, back in the birthplace of Liberté, Égalité & Fraternité (i.e., Ile de France), the popular national ban on public display of full veils went into effect. Some months ago, an online video ridiculing this initiative went viral [warning: contains dangerous post-modern dichotomies and moral complexity]. French tolerance has gone from ridiculous to medieval, in under one year.

April 12, 2011

Will the real "deficit hawks" please stand up?

I have no problem with Republicans espousing their tax cuts doctrine, as long as they don't call themselves "deficit hawks". The term "hawk" implies an uncompromising commitment to a single doctrine, which in this case is directly cutting the deficit -- the current cost of federal operations -- above all else. Even if the "trickle-down" model were realistic, by definition it makes no direct dent in the deficit -- it increases the deficit without reducing the burden on those hardest working and hardest hit. 

Those who argue there's no better time for tax cuts favoring wealthier Americans do have a legitimate theory, albeit one that has never been proven. After all, when have high-income tax cuts actually fueled a sustained economic recovery? Economic stimulus, on the other hand, has always generated economic activity, jobs, and consumer confidence. Deficit-funded economic stimulus has also been proven to restore economic balance.

It was a Republican President, George W. Bush, who pushed us into unprecedented deficits and unprecedented tax concessions to the wealthiest 1-2 percent of Americans. And now, finally, Republicans are complaining about big deficits...

The rhetoric of Republican leaders makes clear that a real goal is to further enrich wealthy Americans and private businesses, period. And to shut down the poster children of liberal politics -- Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Protection Agency, health coverage, et al. 

Most mystifying of all, millions of hard-working, middle-class Americans support tax cuts as revealed word. And they support the right of corporations to pay negligible taxes and employee benefits while engaging in unlimited opaque campaign spending to ensure the election of friendly legislators. The diminution of representative democracy is not good for America (which should be our number-one concern), nor is it good for most Americans -- at least, not if real household income has anything to do with it. 

It's bad enough that politicians use their influence to discredit and block proven economic first aid. But cloaking it in terms of cutting the deficit -- even while pushing it higher without measurable benefit to most Americans -- is simply audacious.

April 11, 2011

In Russia, the house always wins – always.

Last year, the arrogance of British Petroleum took the form of a devastating and preventable oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This year, it is manifest by BP doubling down on its Russian escapade.

BP’s new CEO, Robert Dudley – an American, no less – seemed to believe that his own extensive trial-by-fire Russia experience made him the right foreigner to go toe-to-toe with the Russians at their own game. A few months ago, BP signed an $8 billion stock-swap agreement with Russia’s government-owned oil giant Rosneft. An arbitration panel has now ruled that the swap can’t go through because BP has prior commitments to its local partners, TNK-BP.

When BP originally invested with TNK-BP, the idea was to develop oil fields and market position using local partners who knew the right people and Russian business culture. It’s an open secret that most Russian billionaires made their fortunes by being brilliant and by having the right connections high up in the Russian government. They carved up state assets like oil, minerals and infrastructure, at bargain prices, and otherwise low-income bureaucrats got upgraded to trust fund babies and members of the board. By American standards, that’s either a kickback or a "conflict of interest", or both.

The unwritten understanding between Russia’s oligarchs and the Kremlin are that privatized enterprises will serve the interests of the state, and that the state and its officials will profit. TNK-BP has leveraged its local influence to win earlier judgments in Russian courts and gain control over what was supposed to be an equal partnership with the UK-based parent company. And if BP was looking to recoup its oil-spill losses by gobbling up Russian opportunities, TNK-BP has been using BP's post-spill weakness to start moving in on BP's own core holdings. What's Russian for "chess"?

Russia’s intimate and implicit dynamic between state and business pre-dated the Communists and it has survived them. It is closed to outsiders, and especially to Westerners. The most riskiest business decisions are made by Westerners who think they have what it takes to win in Russia on their own terms. The trick to engaging or investing in Russia is to realize that Russians will be calling the shots and that – one way or another – they will get the better end of the deal.

BP’s leadership was so invested in the Russia option that it thought it could go around TNK and cut its own deal with the Kremlin. For the Kremlin, it was a win-win – if the BP deal went through, the Kremlin would get its cut; if TNK-BP gets to keep its role as BP’s Russian agent, the Kremlin makes money on the back end (see above). When Russian Prime Minister muttered his doubts as to whether TNK-BP would allow the swap deal to go through, he was both serious and unconcerned, because the house always wins.

April 4, 2011

Mideast democracy will show up former Soviet Union

As the Middle East finally begins catching up to the spirit of democratic change that first swept the West 250 years ago, our own anti-Arab prejudices and post-imperialist disdain are giving way to guarded optimism and even admiration. The Arabs’ newfound fame as democratic revolutionaries could finally underscore the failure of democracy across the euphemistically labeled "emerging democracies" of the former Soviet Union (FSU). Americans have had a vested interest in ignoring or forgiving this colossal disappointment, since we see ourselves as having liberated those nations after 45 years of Cold War confrontation and competition. I prefer the term "receding democracies", as the post-ideological, perpetual-motion political systems bear little resemblance to genuine democracies.

As a result of the dramatic events still unfolding throughout the Middle East, the FSU could finally be recognized as the industrialized world’s undisputed "left behind". In Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbayev just won re-re-election to yet another five-year term, but at least he promotes religious pluralism (if no other democratic principles). Azerbaijan is under the control of second-generation hereditary ruler, whose father ruled the republic 13 years under the Soviets and another ten as President of independent Azerbaijan until his death of natural causes (or, as the insiders say, he died from 30 years of Soviet medicine). Eduard Shevardnadze effectively ruled Georgia as a dictator, until a popular uprising (and Kremlin plotting) forced him to step down, and now his enlightened successor runs the country with equal parts whim and fiat – making it easy for Russia to dominate.

Countries that for thousands of years have never had culture of freedom then endured three-quarters of a century of Marxist-Leninist indoctrination by the Soviet Union... What can one expect?