Sunday, March 25, 2007

Peace in the Middle East? Why Not!

This week Arab leaders meet in Riyadh to discuss a number of burning issues, including Iraq, Lebanon and Iran as well as the Arab peace initiative.
An American reporter asked me when I think the Middle East will get over the current turbulence. Soon, I told him. And I have my reasons. Let me explain.
Conflicts over interests stop when the parties reach a point beyond which more fights mean more loss to all and everybody realizes that only negotiations offer any chance of better deals.
Let’s start with Iraq. The US, Iran, Turkey, Syria and the Gulf nations are losing out as a result of the continuing turmoil in Iraq. Without peace, America cannot deliver any of its promises to Iraqis. No security means no freedom, democracy or prosperity.
Failing on all these counts and eluding stability will present the US administration with a host of no-go options. To withdraw now and leave Iraq in chaos will certainly mean a near-future return to save “the World’s Gas Station.” Staying the course and playing the role of fireman means unbearable cost in souls and dollars. Add to this the long-lasting stains on the US image and the loss of business contracts for oil, arms, and construction corporations. Peace, then, is a must.
Iran, too, has hit a bottom. More war means more American, Turkish and Arab involvement in Iraq and too many threats. The Iraqis are cutting each other’s throats, almost equally. To achieve its goals in Iraq, including political influence and Shiite dominance, Iran now needs peace.
Turkey will have to interfere militarily if Iraq is broken and the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey pursue their dream of a united Kurdistan. A strong central government running a peaceful country is the best guarantee against such a project.
Syria is under tremendous pressure — from Lebanon and Israel to the west and from Iraq to the east, plus America and company from all over. Peace and quiet on all fronts is urgently needed to survive the day.
The Arab Gulf nations have most to lose if chaos continues in Iraq. Theirs is a volatile region. You cannot play with guns or fireworks in a gas station! Besides, with similar religious and ethnic demographics in each country, similar fires may break out. Tribes and families are split over borders. How can you prevent help going from one part to another? Besides, nuclear Iran and fiery Iraq will still be there long after America leaves. Grab peace as long as a strong power is in place, or lose it for ages.
The Iraqis, too, cannot win in a prolonged sectarian war. Their country will turn into another Lebanon: A free arena for neighbors’ disputes and fights. Development will be postponed, peace and prosperity forsaken. Their best and brightest are being killed, turning into militants or immigrating. More of such loss and the country’s future will be left in the hands of hooligans.
In Lebanon, all parities have reached a dangerous stalemate. An unfortunate accident or event, like the recent student fight in the Arabian University, might trigger a civil war. No Lebanese will benefit from more wars in a country that was finally edging toward normality, stability and economic prosperity.
Syria cannot sustain its isolation. It has never been so cut off from the world. Except for Iran, it is now estranged from all. Peace in Lebanon is its return ticket to the world.
Even Israel, if cool heads prevail, cannot benefit from this state of affairs. The situation in the occupied lands and Gaza is getting more dangerous. More pressure on the Palestinians is delivering more militants and suicide bombers to the resistance. The situation in Iraq is similarly hazardous. If Americans leave, chaos will produce more anti-Israel forces that will make life harder for Israel. An extremist Shiite government will bring a powerful anti-Israel Iran closer to the border. Peace promises a much better deal to the Jewish state.
That’s why I believe we have a good chance of a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. The good omens are plenty. Saudi Arabia is leading the march toward reconciliation — King Abdullah is meeting with Arab leaders, Prince Bandar undertakes frequent trips to regional capitals and Dr. Abdulaziz Khojah (Saudi ambassador to Lebanon) continues mediation efforts in Beirut.
The Makkah Agreement ceased the bloodshed in Palestinian territories and paved the way for a unity government. Now comes the Arab Summit in Riyadh and the revisited Arab peace initiative. If all parties played their cards right, the peace cake will serve all a good feast.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Muslims Mute on Terrorism?

It is very easy to give simple answers to difficult questions. Anyone can do it, even George W. Bush. Why do they hate us? Because we elect our leaders. Why Muslims kill Muslims? Because they hate each other. Why young Muslims turn into suicide bombers? Because they hate life. Why no progress in the Middle East? Because Arabs are born lazy and backward. Why Islamic terror? Because Islam inspires violence and condones terrorism. Where is the Muslim outrage? Don’t hold your breath! They all support terror.

Past victims included Jews, blacks and Native Americans. Jews were demonized to justify discrimination and extermination. The African brain was “found” to be less capable. Millions were enslaved, misused and killed because they were lesser humans. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” the invaders discovered. So genocide claimed the lives of millions of natives in North America.

Now it is the Muslims’ turn. Push them to the limit; if they fail it is because of their religion and race; if they react stupidly or violently, it must be their faith and genes. Either way, you win.

Since those who fight back follow the same faith or come from the same race, we are all responsible. We should not only dissociate and condemn them, but also fight them along with the invaders. Neutrality is no longer an option. The problem is if we do so our people will curse us, if we don’t the crusaders who are looking for an excuse to oppress us will find one.

The bottom line is we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

American columnist Thomas Friedman, in a recent article, wants to know why Muslims are mostly mute toward suicide bombing. He fully knows why 1,300 million Muslims are angry, and he also knows that only a few thousand Muslims are in a violent mode. As an “Israel-First” American, he must have known that his uniformed terrorists in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan kill thousands of civilians for every enemy combatant they eliminate, and destroy towns and villages for every enemy cell they demolish.

The terrorists in nice suits and cool uniforms are the ones who drive young men and women to so much desperation that life equals death to them. Some find no weapons to fight back the superpowers of the day but their own bodies. In World War II, the European resistance fighters were called martyrs when they jumped the enemy’s guns. The Japanese, who did similarly, were called maniacs. In our case, they are called terrorists. Victor’s justice includes name-calling.

“Where is the outrage?” Friedman “innocently” asks. Answer: The public outrage due is against your wars on Islam and Muslims. Our terrorists fight us as much as they fight you, and we are fighting them back. Listen to our mosques and follow our media and you will find lots of battles, speeches, fatwas and articles against them — that is if you don’t limit your readings to Israeli MEMRI (founded and run by a former Mossad colonel).

This is our outrage, but where is yours? Where is the outrage against the US soldiers who randomly shot and killed 16 Afghan civilians on a highway in revenge for an earlier Taleban attack? Or against the Marines who raped innocent Iraqi women and killed family members in retaliation for a roadside bomb? Or against the killing, maiming and displacing of a million Lebanese civilians in response to the capturing of two Israeli soldiers?

We are fighting our terrorists, but are you fighting yours? Our bad and ugly are taken to court, humiliated and hanged; when are yours going to be tried and punished? We call our terrorists “terrorists,” you call yours presidents, prime ministers and patriotic “men and women in uniforms.” We don’t blame your religion and race for the crimes against us, but you blame ours to justify collective punishment.

Yes, we have our hate speakers and fear merchants, but they are mostly in caves and prisons, hunted and doomed. Yours, however, are members of legislative bodies. They lead legitimate governments, businesses, churches, synagogues and media organizations. Friedman is trying to compete with a league of villains like Ann Coulter, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James C. Dobson, and Franklin Graham. Google them out and see what kind of hate speeches they make against Arabs and Muslims every day. Our extremists are civilized in comparison. If you want us to go out of our way to denounce our extremists, you should show us the way by denouncing yours. It takes two to tango.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Wrong Comparisons, America!

I asked two US officials the same question on two different occasions and received the same response. They were Liz Cheney (Dick Cheney’s daughter), assistant secretary of state for Middle and Near East, and Lorne W. Craner, assistant secretary of state for human rights, democracy and labor. Both were supposed to explain why America’s human rights record today is so poor; how the American conscience tolerated Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib; why the leader of the free world sends prisoners to dictatorships for torture; why the US kidnaps suspects, ships them to secret prisons in bases around the world, even without the knowledge of host countries.
Without flinching, the two top officials started by pointing to Arab police states and human rights records. They were basically saying: “You are in no position to criticize us on such issues because you fared worse!”
Lorne Craner went further to compare the American justice system with that of the worst Arab and Muslim countries in his defense of his administration’s treatment of Muslim and Arab prisoners. He also compared citizen rights in America to ours.
The argument goes like this: “Before you point a finger at our systems take a minute to examine yours! We are still way ahead of you. Learn and follow. Once you are our equals, then you may be qualified to discuss our shortcomings!”
This was so disturbing because I might accept it from an ignorant demagogue, but not from high-level representatives of the Land of the Free.
“So now you are comparing your superpower, world-leader nation with our Third World countries?” I answered in disbelief. “If so, who are you to preach to us? If we now refer to the same value system, then please come down from your high moral ground and stop showing us the way?”
When I asked about the colossal collateral damage American forces caused in Iraq and Afghanistan, Craner made another comparison, this time to World War I and II. Imagine that! After 60 years of progress, after the UN, the Geneva Conventions and all the rules governing war and occupation, comes the representative of the great nation that led that progress to take us back to square one!
I also asked other American officials about the phenomenal corruption in Iraq. Again, the comparison was made to our corruption. And whenever I mentioned the propaganda campaign in Iraq that involved bribing writers and journalists to publish “made in USA” editorials and stories, I am reminded of Arab propaganda.
Even when I ask about the slow process of visa issuing or the way some Muslims are treated in US airports and FBI custody, a comparison is made to the situation in Arab embassies and countries.
“Look at your press! Look at the way Arab governments are using the media for propaganda. At least, in America, the government cannot directly use or abuse the media. We are free to criticize the president and his administration any time. Can you?” the argument goes.
When I wrote the column, “The Myth of US Freedom of Press” two weeks ago, many American readers reminded me of the Arab record in this area. I anticipated this familiar reaction and ended my article with this loud and clear statement: “We, in the Arab world, never claim to have true free press, but American media brag about it.” Still many missed the point or insisted on missing it.
Sorry, but I refuse, on behalf of the admirers of the American Bill of Rights, to accept this lowering of a flag that has been for centuries a symbol of freedom, democracy and justice. America and the world deserve better!
US officials are not the only ones making this kind of argument. The French did it, too.
When they banned the hijab for schoolgirls, they pointed to a similar ban in two Muslim countries, Tunisia and Turkey. Wasn’t the human rights the biggest concern France cited for voting against Turkey’s membership of the European Union? What moral difference is there if we now compare records of human rights abuses in a leader of the civilized world and that of Third World countries? Besides, we hold up France to its great constitution, secular traditions and freedoms, not to the value system of lesser nations.
What a shame! Where are we going to look for inspiration and enlightenment if the guardians of the City of Light and the Statue of Liberty are acting like the worst of us?

Monday, March 05, 2007

Miscalculation, the Middle Eastern Curse

It seems miscalculation is a Middle Eastern curse. This has been the case throughout history.

In the last century we kept the tradition alive. Conflicts, like Iraq-Iran and Gulf wars, were born out of Arab, Iranian and Western miscalculations. This and other ones left millions dead, maimed, poor and homeless.

Our best and brightest went either down with desperation or immigrated. Some of the most successful ethnic groups in America today are Arab-Americans. Arab immigrants achieved similar success in the rest of the world from Australia and Indonesia to Africa and Brazil, but not in the Middle East.

Here we go again, as Ronald Reagan would say, in the new millennium.

Even though the century has just begun, we are already caught up in vicious circles and circus of dire miscalculations.

The party began in 2001 with an attack on America that was as foolish as it was criminal.

As intended, this action provoked a chain of disastrous reactions. The neocons were looking for an excuse to jump-start their plan to rule the Middle East.

The 1996 “Clean Break” scheme called for invasion, regime change and map redrawing. To put the plan to work, a powerful alliance led by the neocons was made with the Christian right, the Zionists and the arms, oil and construction businesses.

Everything was ready, only a good pretext was missing. Enter 9/11. Enter the nonexistent link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda. Enter the manufactured scare of nuclear mushrooms over New York and Washington. Enough! Ready. Set. Go.

However, this was a colossal and embarrassing miscalculation. The “cakewalk” turned into a quagmire.

The Iraqi population, instead of throwing rose petals and “hurrahs” at the “liberating armies”, welcomed them with roadside bombs and suicide bombers.

The “Iraq-first, neighbors-later,” became “please, neighbors, Get Me Outta Here!”

Saddam’s regime miscalculated, too, when it underestimated the American threats. True, it didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, but it didn’t do a good job of convincing the world of its innocence. Hezbollah and its backers in Tehran and Damascus miscalculated when they provoked Israel. They expected a reaction, but not on such massive scale.

The Israeli and their allies miscalculated, as well. They thought Hezbollah could be erased; and Iranian and Syrian business in Lebanon could be shutdown with one masterstroke. Instead, their political and military cards were burned. Hezbollah and backers came out singing and dancing.

Today, both Iran and USA are miscalculating their face-off. The Iranians went way beyond what would be tolerated in their intervention in Iraq. The Americans went extreme with their reaction to the Iranian nuclear program. With a blind eye to the decades-old Israeli program that produced hundreds of nuclear heads and a network of advanced delivering systems, America exaggerated the danger of the Iranian program as they did with the Iraqis’.

Experts, including Americans, reached the conclusion that Iran would not be able to make a bomb in ten years. So, why all the fuss, now? And why it was OK when the American ally, the Shah, was starting this very program with Western assistance?

Iran, too, is miscalculating when it thinks that having over 150,000 American soldiers under its thump in Iraq, and an overextended US military will prevent a gung-ho administration from hitting it. What Iran fails to understand is that this US president is badly in need of refocusing his peoples’ attention on a new enemy, new danger, new justification for more wars and war expenditures. And he is badly in need of a legacy — something that has eluded him so far.

Neglecting the Palestinian problem is another US miscalculation. This administration thought they could win both the war on Muslim countries, and the hearts and minds of 1,300 million Muslims without giving them back their Holy Mosque in East Jerusalem.

The result is the lowest-ever approval ratings for US in its history.

Mirroring a similar global trend, the US that was among the world’s most popular nations only six years ago is now bracketed with Israel as the most dangerous country threatening world peace and stability. The so-called Axis of Evil — North Korea, Syria and Iran — fared better.

The Arab leaders miscalculated when they relied on corrupt regimes, police states and Western support for survival.

Instead of winning their constituencies with true democracy, better education, economic development and political reforms, they played for time with fake, reluctant and half-hearted, half-baked reforms.

Yes, they succeeded in riding out Western resolve and pressure; but they lost what’s left of their people’s trust, support, respect and loyalty. Now, that is the “Mother of All Miscalculations!”