Sunday, September 30, 2012

What Really Drives U.S. Middle East Policy

For several weeks now newscasters have admitted they don’t understand why the United States appears to be supporting groups linked to Al Qaeda,  such as the Salafists - or at the very least the Muslim Brotherhood, which is often considered little beter. To understand what is going on, we need to consider the fundamental difference between the Sunni and Shi’a versions of Islam and its relationship to the political divide.

The Sunnis - to which belong the Salafists, Wahhabis, Muslim Brotherhood, the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and other Gulf monarchies - have traditionally represented the ruling classes, while relatively large segments of their populations espouse Shi'isn, the form of Islam traditionally favored by the lower classes.  (The Sunni/Shi’a divide has roots in the poitical rifts that occured after the death of Mohamed.)

But it’s more complicated than that: Iran is ruled by a Shi’a theocracy installed by a revolution whose roots go back to a socialist Prime Minister deposed in a CIA coup in 1953. As for Syria, it is ruled by Alawites, a small Shi’a sect long associated with the Ba’ath Party, an Arab socialist party which also ruled Iraq until we deposed its leader, Saddam Hussein; and Libya’s recently deposed leader Muammar Ghaddafi also considered himself a socialist. Whatever one may think of these various leaders (to the extent that we, as outsiders, are entitled to assess their validity as rulers of their respective peoples...), it should be clear that America’s determination to effect regime change in the Middle East is not only about oil.

Whatever the official doctrine may be, the ideological war between capitalism and socialism is not over, but merely confined to Third World countries which, during the Cold War, were aligned with either the Soviet Union or the United States. As the Arab Spring shows, the conflict between recognition of community responsibility toward its most vulnerable and the conviction that it’s each man for himself, is no longer limited to secular ideologies, causing the United States to no longer know who its friends are.

One thing is certain: Washington prefers the Saudi and Qatari Wahhabi regimes because they are part of Sunni Islam’s Western oriented consensus based on the supremacy of money, as opposed to the Syrian and Iranian regimes which are welfare states. (Syria continued the secular educational system it inherited from France after the Second World War, and Syrian women are the most liberated of the Arab world. Until the 1960s the Alawites were not considered true Muslims either by mainstream Shi’a or Sunnis, because their version of Islam incorporates elements of other religions and is often practiced sitting and in silence rather than prostrated and voiced.)

When it comes to countries like Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s political class is ill-equipped to see beyond the fact that these are Muslim countries. They are unfamiliar with the ideological currents that have marked their recent history.

Perhaps the most glaring example of America’s ideological handicap is it’s view of Hezbollah: the Shi’a leader Nasrallah has a sophisticated knowledge of Western philosophy and ideology, and in the 2006 war with Israel he instituted the ‘flat’ systems of the Argentinian cooperative movement. Yet he is seen as a ranting representative of a benighted ideology.

Moving now to Egypt, a longtime American ally, its new President, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood supports freedom of religion, peace, democracy and the Palestinian cause, opposing American imperialism. As a recent analysis by the French journalist Thierry Meyssan pointed out, Morsi talks to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, but will not organize Egypt to suit the United States or Israel.

Although the Cold War is officially over, a United States dominated by neo-conservatism and the financial sector, is still determined to stamp out any regime that espouses a socialist ethos. It is no coincidence that besides being the homeland of the Jews to whom the U.S. refused entrance when they were being gassed by Nazi Germany, Israel is the only neo-liberal country in the region.

Less obviously, the socialist ethos partly explains why both Russia and China oppose U.S. policies: Just as our ideology harks back to our genocide of the Indians, the two former (to all intents and purposes) Communist countries are still influenced by the basic socialist ethos of solidarity and peace. And that is why both support Ahmedinejad, who expounded on these principles at the U.N. General Assembly this week.

Following the pattern I’ve been describing here, The Iranian president’s speech could only be greeted by cynical derision by Western officialdom, which cannot for a nanosecond appear to recognize his sincerity, at the risk of being expected to emulate him.

Unfortunately for these severely handi-capped politicians, Ahmedinejad’s ideals are recognized by the European 99%, from Spain, to Greece, to Italy and France, as they demonstrate ever more determinedly against IMF-inspired austerity. Washington blames the Europeans for the crisis of their common currency, passing over the world-wide penetration of crooked Wall Street financial institutions. The American public’s ignorance of other countries’ history and politics make it gullible, but your average European or Middle Easterner knows otherwise.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

William, Kate and the Prophet

The escalating crisis over the YouTube release of a despicable film ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed is supposedly about freedom of speech. America’s sacred First Amendment enshrines it as a basic right, while in other parts of the world, that freedom, like any other, is deemed to have limits.

The recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United stating that corporations are people and that money is speech is widely seen by progressive Americans as unjustifiable under the First Amendment. They honor the principle famously expressed by Voltaire: ‘I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” but admit that it should be against the law to cry ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. In other words, all good men should defend another’s right to voice his opinions, however unpalatable. But as in the fundamentals of a free press, fact (a possible fire) should be separated from opinion (how one views another person).  This boils down to saying that opinion is sacred, but acts are not.

Here again, as in the definition of democracy in my previous post, the socialist tradition differs.  There is no such thing as absolute external freedom; our only absolute freedom is that which we carry within ourselves.  Therefore, we cannot be punished for our thoughts. However, if voicing an opinion can be as dangerous to some lives as crying fire, the public expression of opinion must have limits.

Today a satirical French paper published cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohamed, and as a result, the French government has had to put a number of its embassies on alert. Knowing the French for having lived among them for thirty years, I would venture to say that most of them consider this an abuse of ‘freedom of the press’!

The difference in attitudes toward freedom of the press can also be seen in Third World demands for a new Information Order that began in the seventies, and are being revived by the newly vocal Non-Aligned Movement. Though no longer ‘socialist’, Russia and China - both supporters of the NAM - believe journalists, like banks, should have a code of ethics. This means reporting on events that concern responsible citizens wanting to weigh on decisions, while ignoring cheap ‘human interest’ stories.

Do we really need to see William’s wife in the nude? The paparazzo who took the pictures and the magazines that published them are of the same ilk as the perpetrators of Innocence of Muslims. Tabloids - or TV coverage of women wrestlers - do not foster inner peace. All religious leaders call for that peace and ridiculing any of them can only be the work of people whose vision of humanity is twisted beyond recognition.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Two Versions of Democracy

One of the most regrettable yet enduring aspects of Cold War rhetoric in the United States has been the claim that the other side hides imperialist goals beneath siren calls for cooperation and compromise.

In reality, we’re dealing with two different definition of democracy: for Americans, democracy is all about about voting and competition, while compromise and cooperation are part of the socialist tradition.

Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders continue to call for dialogue and compromise in conflictual situations, such as the current crisis in Syria, while the United States, true to its own tradition, calls for military solutions.  (Competition is about winning...)

The latest example of this tendency is the dispute over a couple of small islands claimed by both Japan and China and which are rumored to sit on sigificant gas and oil deposits. While only a few weeks ago Japan was featured in an important Chinese trade show, suddenly, Chinese are rioting in the streets against their neighbor and the United States signs a new missile defense deal with Japan. Washington says it’s about protecting its ally from North Korea, but critics suggests that’s like claiming the European missile defense system is aimed at Iran, and not at Russia.

While the Syrian conflict could plausibly be attributed to a real desire for change from one family rule, the Japan/China island dispute hardly appears to warrant military escalation. One has to wonder whether gearing up for war on several fronts is all about the United States trying to save the cowboy capitalist system from a final crash, as Russia and China, with their respective versions of regulated state capitalism, indulge in a bit of schadenfreude.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Innocence of the West

Following on my previous blog, I think it’s important to understand the way in which the reaction to Innocence of Muslims is a ‘clash of civilizations’. Twenty-first century religion is linked to morality and ethics through the facet of our culture known as consumerism. The adultery portrayed in The Scarlet Letter was not mediated by any commercial activity; today it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the costume of a stripper and the wardrobe of an inner city high school student.

The reason for this is that our corporatocracy is dedicated without nuance to selling stuff, from weapons to use against those who sit on oil, to the ever bigger TVs that have replaced ever bigger automobiles, to the latest fashions made in Third World sweatshops, to infinite variations on breakfast cereals and a lipstick for every outfit.

This culture has just reached its nadir in the shape of a film portraying Mohammed as a childish skirt-chaser surrounded by dumb and dumber acolytes. The media understandably focuses on pictures of the riots the film has provoked. But the words used to describe it are studiously mild. No commentator has suggested that if a similarly mocking and denigrating film were made about Christ, Christians would be horrified. Today, playing it safe, American, French and Russian TV are all referring to the film as ‘controversial’, telling us what it has done, but not what it is.
 Rather than talk patronizingly of a clash of civilizations, we need to realize that our ‘civilization’ is not what most other peoples would call civilized. Worshipping individualism, modern society sees freedom rather than ‘virtue’ as the highest moral value. Westerners are so used to vulgarity that we no longer see it. The  populations all over the world that are attacking our embassies and burning our flag may not have college degrees, but they know disgusting when they see it.

The West’s cultural inability to recognize the boorishness and ugliness of the film has prompted a desperate search for another explanation of the violence we are witnessing. If neither poverty nor the theft of resources have stocked such deep anger, why a ‘mere’ film? Because the film is seen as reflecting the West's true attitude ttoward Islam. Muslims who granted the U.S. ‘attenuating national security circumstances’ for its repeated invasions of their lands now feel they were duped. The fact that Washington dissociates itself from the film is irrelevant because its actions seem to condone it.  Like the proverbial butterfly effect, the sick creation of a convicted felon has turned a significant number of people against what has hitherto been the most powerful country in history.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Why So Surprised?

When 9/11 happened, I remember wondering why most Americans were surprised.  Having recently returned from living abroad, foreign resentment was obvious to me.  I had observed it in half a dozen countries over a period of forty years.

Surely it’s no coincidence that American embassies in the Muslim world are being targeted soon after the 11th anniversary 9/11. What is utterly beyond belief is the way in which the daily and spreading escalation of hostile acts toward the United States are reported and commented.

It’s as if the events of the last few days are located in a different mental drawer from the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, the special forces advising rebels in Syria, the troops in Afghanistan (increasingly the brunt of ‘blue on green’ attacks), the victims of a senseless war in Iraq, the continued refusal of Israel to accept a Palestinian state, etc., etc.

What is surprising is not that Muslims are demonstrating violently against the United States and its allies such as Germany, it’s that this hasn’t happened sooner.  As the country that sells more arms than all others combined, that has close to one thousand foreign bases, that ‘sends in the Marines’ when Others refuse the neo-liberal package we would press on them, our indignation at their violence can only be feigned.

We ‘give’ them all that money, cry our representatives.  How dare they?  Really?  We ‘give’ them billions to spend where and as they please?  I don’t think so.  The foreign policy version of corporate socialism consists of sending money to weak foreign governments so they can buy our products - including our arms.

Eleven years after 9/11, we still don’t have a clue about the rest of the world.  Several commentators today seemed to believe that the current violence would die down ('Friday after prayers is the time when Muslims are most likely to vent their anger').  This is to ignore both the irreversibility of the arrow of time and the increased flow of energy within the system called Islam.

The last few days represent a watershed in  the history of Western/Islamic relations.  Thanks to the advances of digital technology, more and more individuals around the world - particularly Muslims - are realizing that they can reject our ‘message’, and stand up to our implicit and explicit threats.

Instead of arguing over whether to apologize for our own wanton behavior, our presidential candidates should consider the wisdom of abandoning it.  Alas, the irreversibility of the arrow of time suggests that this is not going to happen.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Democratic Convention: A Magic Eraser

The well-intentioned hosts of MSNBC’s news programs were right to point out the difference between the atmosphere at the Republican and Democratic Conventions: the former, angry and bellicose, the latter exuberant and dedicated.

But just as the Republicans passed over in silence the war in Afghanistan, the Democrats behaved as though the man they were supporting had no such thing as a kill list;  that authorizes the assassination of American citizdens without trial had not taken unto himself full power over all means of communication in the event of a ‘national security emergency’ (; supported Israel’s bellicose stance vis a vis a country that has never started a war, countenanced the rise of private prisons and privatized education - and promised that the United States would never lose its status Uber Alles.

Confronted with the evidence that it is too late for the United States to undo the damage it has wrought around the world - damage brought on by his predecessors - and unable to impose a new ethos on his masters, President Obama has closed his eyes and driven full speed into deeper conflicts: a desperate attempt to control the Middle East in the face of popular opposition - all the more determined that it comes after decades of resignation - and as if that were not enough, picking up the Chinese gauntlet by sending Marines to Australia and conducting exercises in the South China Sea.

Obama’s Middle East policy harks all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt. But he alone will own his Pacific policy, and it will be doomed because unlike Roosevelt, he will be unable to justify it by a domestic policy of freedom from fear and freedom from want.























Sunday, September 2, 2012

You Won't See it in the NYT

Today's item is a poorly redacted press release issued at the closing of the !6th Summit of Non-Aligned Nations, also known as the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which was held throughout the past week in Iran's capital, Tehran.  I'm posting it here because I could not find it in the New York Times.  (In the Washington Post I found articles focusing on Egyptian President Morsi's speech at the conference in which he declared his support for the Syrian opposition, but nothing on the fundamental principles of the NAM, which were reiterated at the meeting.)

When assessing Morsi's statement, which caused the Syrian delegation to walk out, keep in mind that he represents Sunni Islam while Assad represents a dissident form of Shi'ism that allows for the country to be ruled by a Socialist Arab Party, the Ba'ath. As I have said before, too little attention is paid to the political aspect of the Sunni/Shi'a divide.  It is important to remember that the Iranian regime considers itself to represent the lower classes, as does the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood represented by Morsi.

As long as we try to simplify what is in reality a highly complex situation, which I described in a June blog ( as a sort of Islamic Reformation, we will find it difficult to grapple with the new Middle East.  For the Washington Post, the fact that Morsi criticized Iran's ally, Syria, in Tehran, is proof that the international gathering of countries representing more than half of the world's population was a flop.  Morsi's message was described as a 'sweeping statment' and his support of Syrian rebels a 'blindside blow' to Iran.  It's as if America's allies never disagree with us on specific matters, while agreeing on basic principles.  Or as if Morsi himself had not come to power via a popular uprising demanding more democracy.  (Egyptians were rebelling against a far-right regime, while Syria's Assad has brought many socialist-inspired reforms to Syria, which is why he continues to have the support of much of the international left.)

Here is the press release on the NAM Final Document:

Tehran, Iran – At its concluding session on Friday The 16th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit, adopted the Tehran Declaration, the Final Document and a separate report on the work of its Palestine Committee. The Tehran Declaration reiterated the goals and principles of the movement and rejected western hegemony, which sought to impose its will through coercive measures.

The 120 participants also affirmed their firm support and solidarity with Syria in its just fight to restore its sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights based on the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. They emphasized that the steps taken by Israel to change the legal and demographic situation of the occupied Syrian Golan violate UN Security Council resolution 497 of 1981 which declared Israel’s annexation of the Golan as null and void and called on Israel to withdraw to the June 4th, 1967 line. The NAM condemned US sanctions on Syria, stressing that they violate international law and the UN Charter.

NAM delegates expressed their appreciation of the efforts by former UN envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, and welcomed Lakhdar al-Ibrahimi as the new international envoy, calling on members to facilitate his mission.

The declaration reiterated NAM’s principled stance on the non-use of or the threat of force against the safety and territorial integrity of any country.

It also reiterated the movement’s support for the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, calling on Israel, the only country in the region that has not joined the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to do so without delay and put its nuclear facilities under the Comprehensive Safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Tehran Declaration also stressed the NAM leaders’ deep concern over Israel’s possession of nuclear energy which they said constitutes a constant threat to the security of neighboring and other countries. The NAM leaders condemned Israel for continuing to develop and stockpile nuclear weapons.

Recognizing that terrorist acts are a violation of international law, affecting safety, territorial integrity and stability, and threatening regional and national security, not to mention destabilizing legitimate governments, systems and the political unity of individual countries, they called on all countries to cooperate in confronting the funding of terrorism.

The  leaders condemned all forms of terrorism and called for refraining from any political, diplomatic, moral or material support to terrorism, urging all countries to make sure that the situation of refugees or any other situation not be used by perpetrators, organizers and facilitators of terrorist acts.





Saturday, September 1, 2012

Desert Toys

If you still think of the Middle East as an obscure backwater, read the figures posted by the Congressional Research Service for recent U.S. arms sales as reported by Stieven Ramdharie, a political writer in Brussels.

Thanks to the the so-called ‘threat’ from Iran, the U.S. took in an unprecedented 66.3 billion dollars selling arms in 2011, three times more than in 2010. By selling record numbers of F-15s, Apache helicopters and Patriot missiles, Boeing and Lockheed Martin made up for cuts in military spending in the U.S. and Europe.

Qatar, which played an important role in the Libyan conflict, is about to sign an agreement for 58 latest model Apache helicopters, while Oman, whose crucial role is in the Straits of Hormuz, bought twelve F-16 fighter jets last December that can neutralize their aging Iranian counter-parts. Qatar will spend 2.5 billion to buy 200 German Leopold tanks, and Saudi Arabia is expected to put out 12.6 billion for 600 or 800 of these beasts. Together with Israel, the Kingdom has the most modern planes in the region. Having  added 7.2 billion dollars forth of European fighter jets to its Air Force in 2007, Riyadh recently purchased another 84 Boeing F-25 fighter jets while modernizing another seventy. Last year it spent nearly 33 billion in the U.S., helping to shore up the American export balance.

As for the Emirates, their 2010 defense budget of 16 trillion put them in second place in the region, ahead of Israel, and they recently acquired American antimissile defense systems and transport helicopters worth 4.5 billion.

The battle for the future of Syria is recognized primarily as the first step in a campaign to neutralize Iran, and the players are identified as Israel and the United States. However, it is a mistake to think in terms of a neatly contained “surgical strike” that would leave neighboring countries intact.

The Middle East has never experienced a regional-wide war comparable to those that have devastated Europe time and again. But the fact that Persian, Shi’ite Iran has never attacked another country and would have everything to lose by doing so, is obviously irrelevant in the present situation: As the American economy declines perhaps terminally, the ruling military-industrial complex, remembering the economic benefits it reaped from the Second World War, is going all-out to bring conflict to an area whose wealth is counted not in factories and farmland, but in barrels of oil preserved underground.