Opinion

The Great Debate

Obama is picking his targets in Iraq and Syria while missing the point

U.S. President Barack Obama makes remarks on the situation in Syria, in Washington

“We are now living in what we might as well admit is the Age of Iraq,” New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks recently wrote.  There, in the Land of the Two Rivers, he continued, the United States confronts the “core problem” of our era — “the interaction between failing secular governance and radical Islam.”

Brooks is wrong. For starters, he misconstrues the core problem — which is a global conflict pitting tradition against modernity.

Traditionalists, especially numerous in but not confined to the Islamic world, cling to the conviction that human existence should be God-centered human order. Proponents of modernity, taking their cues from secularized Western elites, strongly prefer an order that favors individual autonomy and marginalizes God. Not God first, but we first — our own aspirations, desires and ambitions. If there’s a core problem afflicting global politics today, that’s it.

U.S. soldiers of 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment stand at attention during a change of authority ceremony in SamarraThis conflict did not originate in nor does it emanate from Iraq. So to say that we live in the Age of Iraq is the equivalent of saying we live in the Age of Taylor Swift or the Age of Google. The characterization serves chiefly to distract attention from more important matters.

To the limited extent that we do live in the Age of Iraq, it’s because successive U.S. presidents have fastened on that benighted country as a place to demonstrate the implacable onward march of modernity.

from Stories I’d like to see:

What we don’t know about Qatar and what we don’t know about key Senate races

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks with Qatari Crown Prince Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha

1. Inside Qatar:  the terrorists’ benefactor and America’s friend

As the war in Gaza continues, we keep hearing that one pipeline for negotiations with Hamas goes through Qatar, the tiny, oil-rich kingdom in the Gulf that has friendly relations with Hamas. In fact, Qatar hosts the leaders of Hamas and provides financial support.

According to the online Times of Israel, “Qatar continues to fund the movement’s terror apparatus abroad, enabling tunnel digging and rocket launching.”

The United States, like Israel, has branded Hamas a terrorist group and, over the weekend, stepped up its criticism of the Qataris’ support of Hamas. Yet Washington maintains friendly relations with Qatar. The bond is so tight that the largest U.S. military base in the region is there.

The war in Gaza threatens Egypt too

A Palestinian woman wearing clothes stained with the blood of other relatives, who medics said were wounded in Israeli shelling, cries at a hospital in Gaza City

Cairo’s efforts to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, according to conventional wisdom, have largely been dictated by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s animosity toward Hamas. After all, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sisi’s government has declared a terrorist organization and regards as a serious threat.

That is why, this argument goes, the Egyptian ceasefire proposal ignored Hamas’ conditions and why the Israelis so quickly supported it. The proposal called for an immediate ceasefire. Only then would the terms be negotiated, including Hamas’ demands for an end to Israeli attacks, an end to the blockade of Gaza and the release of rearrested Palestinians who were freed in a prisoner 2011 exchange.

The story is far more complicated, however, for both Sisi and Egypt. Because the longer the war goes on, the more Gaza becomes a domestic problem for the Egyptian president. One he does not want.

from John Lloyd:

Are we at war? And why can’t we be sure anymore?

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron poses for group photograph taken with G8 leaders at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen

The question -- “Are we at war?” -- seems absurd. Surely, we would know it if we were. But maybe we’re in a new era -- and wars are creeping up on us.

In the decade after the collapse of communism, the United States and its allies seemed invulnerable to challenges, from military to technological to economic. All changed in the 2000s, the dawning of the third millennium: an Age of Disruption. Russia, under a president smarting publicly at the loss of the Soviet empire, has now delivered an answer to decline: aggressive claims on lost territories.

China, admired for its free-market-driven growth since the 1980s, is feared for the strategic expansion that now accompanies it. This happens in its own region: a dispute between Beijing and Tokyo over disputed ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands remains tense. It is also at work far beyond -- in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America -- where it seeks energy and natural resources.

Why Egyptians voted for Sisi

sisi55

Former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is set to win the presidential elections in Egypt this week, almost a year after Egypt’s military reasserted formal control following widespread revolts against Mohamed Mursi.

While a popular uprising preceded the military’s intervention last June, the counter-revolutionary crackdown that followed over the past nine months has soured many Egyptians against the current order. So why is Sisi going to be Egypt’s next president, and why would the same Egyptians who ousted Hosni Mubarak now clamor for another authoritarian military man to take power, rather than support a more inclusive democratic process? Is the clock being turned back?

Few observers outside Egypt understand the reason for Sisi’s popularity, which is based largely on the desire for security. Many Egyptians feel that the country has become chaotic: if forced to choose between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, they prefer the military. While both are authoritarian organizations, the military has more experience, national loyalty, and respect for Egypt as a country, rather than part of a wider pan-Islamic region. Its view of Islam is more mainstream.

The other Egyptian crisis

Like most artists, I often wonder what art’s place is in a world that seems consumed by violence during these times of social upheaval.

It frequently seems like hell is breaking loose in the world while I work in the serenity of my art studio in New York. Like most people, I’d rather believe that what takes place outside of my comfort zone is only a fiction, that the terrible images and footage of people suffering are all fabricated. However, my daily conversations with my mother in Tehran are my constant reminder of how removed I am from reality. Indeed it is I who lives in a fiction, not them.

When the Rauschenberg Foundation invited me two years ago to develop an art project with a humanitarian focus, and donate profits to charity, I jumped at the challenge. I assumed I would make another conceptual project with some footing on socio-political reality.

Human Rights Day: Still pursuing religious freedom

December 10 marks Human Rights Day, the 65th anniversary of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), signed by 48 nations — with just eight abstentions.

Sixty-five years ago, naysayers insisted it was nobody else’s business how governments behaved within their borders. The declaration confronted this cynical view — and continues to do so today. Human rights abuses and their consequences spill beyond national borders, darkening prospects for harmony and stability across the globe. Freedom of religion or belief, as well as other human rights, are essential to peace and security. They are everyone’s business.

Each signatory nation pledged to honor and protect these rights. For example, the declaration provides the foundation for much of the agenda of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on which we serve.

U.S. Mideast policy: Keeping our friends closer

It is time for Washington to change the parameters of the debate on its foreign policy toward the greater Middle East. It is not a choice between human rights and security — rather, the two goals should go hand in hand.

The United States does not need to lose its longtime allies in the Middle East and beyond in order to promote human rights and democracy. In fact, U.S. allies will be more likely to undertake political reform if they feel that Washington is a close partner.

A number of U.S. allies in the Middle East have recently expressed concern regarding Washington’s frequent flips in policies toward the region. The Obama administration’s policy toward the challenges arising from the Middle East has indeed been a series of zigzags: bold moves and initiatives, accompanied by retreats and withdrawals.

Seeking ‘good-enough-governance’ — not democracy

Only rarely have American leaders been able to reconcile the nation’s democratic values, material interest and national security.

Despite these tensions, promoting democracy has always been a lodestone for American foreign policy. Sometimes its attraction has been weak, very weak, overshadowed by more immediate national security concerns. During the Cold, War, for example, the United States backed many autocratic leaders in exchange for their support against the Soviet Union — or at least for pretending to be democrats. Sometimes, very rarely, as in the case of Germany and Japan after World War Two or Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all good things — freedom, security, economic prosperity — have gone together. But these moments are exceptional.

Often the most effective way to increase the chances of freedom in the long run is to improve the prospects for security and economic growth in the short run — rather than pressing for direct democratic reforms.

Everything is negotiable in Egypt

As Egypt’s military-led government appears to be solidifying its gains, and Cairo largely succumbs to its harsh measures, talk of civil war has, for now, abated. One big reason for this is because in Egypt everything is negotiable.

An old Egypt hand told me this in 2011, when I moved there to work at the American University in Cairo. I thought his advice referred to navigating turbulent academic waters. I soon realized, however, that it applied to the entire country. Throughout my two years in Egypt, this advice helped me make sense of the head-snapping events taking place in the political arena. It can also help predict a likely outcome of Egypt’s current situation.

When everything is negotiable, there can be no fixed prices, or fixed principles. Opportunities for deals abound. This includes political support, alliances, ideologies — even constitutional articles. Mortal enemies one day are allies the next.

  •