Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A few snacks for thought

  1. The War on Terror in the eyes of ordinary Pakistanis - http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7972055.stm
  2. How would a modern depression look like? - http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123836938251967565.html
  3. A thrilling article exploring the Israeli-American intelligence (un)cooperation with regards to Iran's nuclear program - http://www.metimes.com/International/2009/03/31/israels_covert_war_on_iran_faces_disapproving_white_house/3407/
  4. Mulling over Dr. Samuel Huntington's theories and what he 'really meant' will not stop simply because he has passed away - http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/needtoknow/2009/03/samuel_huntington_misunderstoo.html

Monday, March 23, 2009

AIG and the American taxpayer

So AIG's top guys wanna get their pay, is that really a crime? Not at all, they are simply acting in their 'rational self interest'. But the taxpayers that bailed out the company are also acting in their self interest and demand for the billions dished out to be used to remedy the situation without rewarding the failures of AIG managers. And as for the 'contractual obligations' excuse to allow the millions of retro-bonuses to be dished out, well this post explains why it simply doesn't stand to careful scrutiny.

Yet I can't help but wonder why Americans are so up-and-arms over this. Shouldn't they be desensitized to getting ripped-off the past 8 years? Billions continue to be spent in Iraq - a counterproductive war abroad - when most of that money should have been spend on healthcare, education and reducing inequality at home.

I'd like to think that the outrage over AIG heralds the rise of the enlightened American taxpayer, who starts to seriously hold Washington accountable for the use of public funds. Yet something tells me the furor will soon subside, complacency will creep back in, and as the economy start to recover, today's awoken taxpayer will slumber back into the comforts of every day life and away from the responsibility to be the avant-guard of responsible government spending.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

It's just so simple isn't it?

To all of you who have trouble understanding how human beings can come to kill en masse other human beings without shame or remorse, a good starting point would be the following poem by American poet Sam Keen:

How to Create an Enemy

Start with an empty canvas

Sketch in broad outline the forms of

men, women, and children.

Dip into the unconsciousness well of your own

disowned darkness

with a wide brush and

strain the strangers with the sinister hue

of the shadow.

Trace onto the face of the enemy the greed,

hatred, carelessness you dare not claim as

your own.

Obscure the sweet individuality of each face.

Erase all hints of the myriad loves, hopes,

fears that play through the kaleidoscope of

every infinite heart.

Twist the smile until it forms the downward

arc of cruelty.

Strip flesh from bone until only the

abstract skeleton of death remains.

Exaggerate each feature until man is

metamorphosized into beast, vermin, insect.

Fill in the background with malignant

figures from ancient nightmares – devils,

demons, myrmidons of evil.

When your icon of the enemy is complete

you will be able to kill without guilt,

slaughter without shame.

The thing you destroy will have become

merely an enemy of God, an impediment

to the sacred dialectic of history.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Middle East as it is: nothing more, nothing less

The Obama Administration is in the agenda-setting stage of its Middle East foreign policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to the region was a chance for the top diplomat to get her feet wet. She met with Turkish, Arab and Israeli leaders, as well as numerous civic groups and organizations, all in an effort to get a feel for the realities on the ground and in the minds of the region's inhabitants.

This begs the question. What should the U.S.'s approach be with regards to the world's most volatile and complicated region?

To begin with, let's remember that what we characterize as the 'Middle East' is far from being a geographic, economic, political, social, linguistic, ethnic or religious monolith. On the other hand, the region is bound by a shared history, deep linkages, as well as distinct sets of challenges and opportunities. For this reason, any attempts to over-simplify, or over-complicate, perceptions of the region are bound to backfire.

Having said this, the game of geopolitics will not stop simply because President Obama may be willing to see the region in an intellectually more honest manner. Nonetheless, it is possible for the U.S. to position itself more favourably vis-a-vis global competitors such as Russia and China without further contributing to regional instability and by securing its fundamental interests such as access to energy.

This can be achieved by adopting a strategically flexible approach that maximizes the U.S.'s ability to maneuvre - getting bogged down in Iraq was the worst decision in this regard. Both allies and adversaries must also be given room to maneuver. Adopting a hardline approach towards Iran would not be in the U.S.'s interest. By extending his hand and offering Iran a "new beginning", Obama has calculated that dialogue with Tehran offers the best chance to reach a settlement on its nuclear program as well as striking a grand bargain regarding its role in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Let's remember that it is very unlikely for any peace deal, or even stability, to be achieved between Israel and the Palestinians without Iran's support and that Iran has the ability to make serious problems in Iraq following the relative stability of the past year.

As for U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, any sign of U.S. flexibility towards Iran will force them to loosen their positions as well. This is good. The U.S. has to find a way to untangle the geopolitical deadlock between Arabs and Iran on one hand, and between Arabs and Israel on the other if it hopes of making progress on the region's most pressing issues. Engagement is the best bet to begin a reversal of years (in some cases decades) of horn-locking by the region's power-players.

Democracy and Economics

It would be fancifull to hope for long-term geopolitical changes that would be favourable to U.S. interests without taking into account the domestic political and economic conditions of Middle Eastern countries.

With regards to democracy promotion, the Bush Administration went after the saddle before the horse. They proselytized about democracy before seriously committing any efforts to economic justice and development in the region. Evidently, the men and women who were crafting policy for George W. Bush forgot history. Remember Germany after World War I? Democracy but no democrats. Angry and humiliated peoples can be dangerous at the ballot box. This is not to argue against democratic promotion - the region sorely lacks it - but to remind people about the imperatives of economic development if radical groups are to be discredited at election time.

It will be difficult to convince the masses about the benefits of democracy if they don't feel economic benefits at the same time. People who argue for one before the other are missing the point, democracy and economic development should not be regarded as mutually exclusive but must support one another from the get go.

Although unlikely in the current economic crisis, the U.S. should seriously consider the strategic imperatives for a Middle Eastern Marshall Plan. For all the money and resources that the U.S. and its allies have spent on military ventures, would spending half that amount on reconstruction, investment, education and job-creation, without of course forgetting democracy building, not bring more value added? Opening new markets for Western companies by raising the standard of living and thus of consumption of millions of Middle Easterners would not only benefit both sides economically, but severely undermine the influence of radicals and extremists.

I realize that my comments at this point are very crude and poor on detail, but I sincerely believe in the need to rethink the fundamentals of the U.S.'s policies towards the Middle East. As the most powerful actor in the international system, Washington can afford to think beyond the narrow-minded geopolitical interests of weaker states and be an entrepreneur for a better, more prosperous and peaceful Middle East.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The right to think independently and critically is a bedrock of Canada's freedom

The statement below was rejected as an op-ed by the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, according to a March 16, 2009, statement posted at Independent Jewish Voices (Canada).

Jewish Canadians Concerned about Suppression of Criticism of Israel

We are Jewish Canadians concerned about all expressions of racism, anti-Semitism, and social injustice. We believe that the Holocaust legacy "Never again" means never again for all peoples. It is a tragic turn of history that the State of Israel, with its ideals of democracy and its dream of being a safe haven for Jewish people, causes immeasurable suffering and injustice to the Palestinian people.

We are appalled by recent attempts of prominent Jewish organizations and leading Canadian politicians to silence protest against the State of Israel. We are alarmed by the escalation of fear tactics. Charges that those organizing Israel Apartheid Week or supporting an academic boycott of Israel are anti-Semites promoting hatred bring the anti-Communist terror of the 1950s vividly to mind. We believe this serves to deflect attention from Israel’s flagrant violations of international humanitarian law.

B’nai Brith and the Canadian Jewish Congress have pressured university presidents and administrations to silence debate and discussion specifically regarding Palestine/Israel. In a full-page ad in a national newspaper, B’nai Brith urged donors to withhold funds from universities because "anti-Semitic hate fests" were being allowed on campuses. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff have echoed these arguments. While university administrators have resisted demands to shut down Israel Apartheid week, some Ontario university presidents have bowed to this disinformation campaign by suspending and fining students, confiscating posters, and infringing on free speech.

We do not believe that Israel acts in self-defense. Israel is the largest recipient of US foreign aid, receiving $3 million/day. It has the fourth strongest army in the world. Before the invasion of Gaza on 27 December 2008, Israel’s siege had already created a humanitarian catastrophe there, with severe impoverishment, malnutrition, and destroyed infrastructure. It is crucial that forums for discussion of Israel’s accountability to the international community for what many have called war crimes be allowed to proceed unrestricted by specious claims of anti-Semitism.

We recognize that anti-Semitism is a reality in Canada as elsewhere, and we are fully committed to resisting any act of hatred against Jews. At the same time, we condemn false charges of anti-Semitism against student organizations, unions, and other groups and people exercising their democratic right to freedom of speech and association regarding legitimate criticism of the State of Israel.


Abigail Bakan, Adam Balsam, Sharon Baltman, Julia Barnett, Lainie Basman, Jody Berland, Sam Blatt, Geri Blinik, Anita Block, Elizabeth Block, Sheila Block, Hannah Briemberg, Mark Brill, Stephen Brot, Meyer Brownstone, Eliza Burroughs, Smadar Carmon, Gyda Chud, Charles P. Cohen, Nathalie Cohen, David Copeland, Natalie Zemon Davis, Eliza Deutsch, James Deutsch, Judith Deutsch, Abbe Edelson, Jack Etkin, Elle Flanders, Danielle Frank, Ursula Franklin, Dan Freeman-Maloy, Miriam Garfinkle, Alisa Gayle, Jack Gegenberg, Mark Golden, Brenda Goldstein, Sue Goldstein, Cy Gonick, Marnina Gonick, Rachel Gotthilf, Amy Gottleib, Kevin A. Gould, Daina Green, Lisa Frances Greenspoon, Ricardo Grinspun, Cathy Gulkin, Rachel Gurofsky, Deboran Guterman, Yesse Gutman, Freda Guttman, Judy Haiven, Michael Hanna-Fein, Jean Hanson, Jan Heynen, Maria Heynen, Adam Hofmann, Jake Javanshir, Jeannie Kamins, Marylin Kanee, Howard S. Kaplan, Gilda Katz. Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta, Mira Khazzam, Bonnie Sher Klein, Mark Klein, Martin Klein, Naomi Klein, Joshua Katz-Rosene, Ryan Katz-Rosene, Judy Koch, Anton Kuerti, Jason Kunin, Aaron Lakoff, Michael Lambek, Natalie LaRoche, Richard Borshay Lee, Andy Lehrer, Gabriel Levin, Gabriel Levine, Joel Lexchin, Kim Linekin, Abby Lippman, Lee Lorch, Martin Lukacs, Audrey Macklin, Elise Maltin, Richard Marcuse, Wayne Mark, Gabor Mate, Arthur Milner, Anna Miransky, Dorit Naaman, Joanne Naiman, Neil Naiman, Michael Neumann, David-Marc Newman, David Noble, Clare O’Connor, Robin Ostow, Andre W. Payant, Jenny Peto, Simone Powell, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Fabienne Presentey, Yacov Rabkin, Diana Ralph, Naomi Rankin, Judy Rebick, Ester Reiter, Jillian Rogin, Richard Roman, Joseph Rosen, Herman Rosenfeld, Martha Roth, Marty Roth, Ruben Roth, E.Natalie Rothman, B. Sack, Ben Saifer, Miriam Sampaio, Jacob Scheir, Fred Schloessinger, Alan Sears, Shlomit Segal, Edward H. Shaffer, Noa Shaindlinger, Ray Shankman, Eva Sharell, Elliot Shek, Sid Shniad, Max Silverman, Samuel Singer, Elizabeth Solloway, Susan Starkman, Greg Starr, Jonathan Sterne, Jeremy Stolow, Rhonda Sussman, Vera Szoke, Joe Tannenbaum, Howard Tessler, Marion Traub-Werner, Ceyda Turan, Sandra Tychsen, Cheryl Wagner, Jon McPhedran Waitzer, David Wall, Naomi Binder Wall, Kathy Wazana, Karen Weisberg, Barry Weisleder, Paul Weinberg, Judith Weisman, Suzanne Weiss, Abraham Weizfeld, Ernie Yacub, B.H. Yael, Yedida Zalik, Melvin Zimmerman

Monday, March 16, 2009

Hats off to the IPE Journal

An intelligent and witty commentary on the world's most pressing and hot-ticket issues. The International Political Economy blog is recommended reading to be sure. Check it out.

Sojourn in Sofia

Well, I'm back in Istanbul following my three day sojourn in Sofia, Bulgaria. So what are my impressions of one of the European Union's newest member states? I must admit that I was not very surprised by what I saw.

The city is quiet. Most of the tourist attractions are located in the city centre within a geographic area of no more than a few kilometers in radius. The people are friendly and quite pleasant to chat with.

The country has obviously made great strides in transitioning from its difficult Communist past to a liberal democracy and free-market economy. I witnessed the contrast firsthand at a demonstration by police and firemen in front of the President's Office - something quite rare in the tightly controlled political system of Communist Bulgaria.

Of course, the changes have not been kind to all. The city's older generation, mostly Russian speaking, are finding it difficult to adjust to the new capitalist era away from the reliance on the state for food and shelter. Many poor seniors can be found selling hand-crafted souvenirs and other menial products on street corners and in the main Bazar just to get by. They seemed dejected and out of touch with the modern world.

For the young it's another story. Most of the younger people that I met were perfectly capable of conversing in English, a sign of the new emphasis of the country's education system away from Russian influence. The girls and boys were trotting around in typical European fashion and most seemed quite hopeful for the future of Bulgaria.

Less positive however, is the dirtiness of the city's streets. Liter can be found almost everywhere - even in front of the massive Presidential Office!!

Also, the crime situation is still very bad. Organized crime groups have obviously benefited from the economic liberalisation process and one policeman I talked too was considering quitting his job because in his own words "combating the criminals is simply no longer worth it unless we receive better weapons, training and a higher salary to compensate for the risk."

I will post more thoughts on my trip if they come to me. Please forgive the quality of this post as I am quite tired from my very bumpy 14 hour train ride!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Blogging will resume in a few days

I have been unable to post blogs for the past few days and will not be able to until at least Monday.

I will be in Sofia (Bulgaria.) Blogs should resume next week.

Cheers from Istanbul!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Good fortune in economic downturn for some

In hard economic times it becomes hard to soak in all the negative and depressing news. So as hard as it may be, let's look on the bright side for a change.

Who is experiencing good fortunes during this crisis?

1. Safe manufacturers and sellers (as trust in banks and financial assets wanes, what is more reassuring than stuffing those hard-earned savings into a personal safe at home - just like the old days?)

2. Sports-stars (people need heroes to give them hope and sports-stars become rallying flags for national morale)

3. Wal-Mart (ever the bargain-hunter's destination when wallets are strapped for cash)

4. Financial media (everyone wants to know "what the heck is going on and when will all this be over?")

5. Organ meets (who needs a luxurious steak when you can opt for cheaper and equally delicious tongue or tripe meat?)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Protectionism - Italian style

This is an interesting way to protect your domestic agricultural industry - simply claim that foreign dishes are 'ruining' your ethnic cuisine. It's protectionism a la Italia.

International justice and the ICC: the case of Darfur

The International Criminal Court's (ICC) arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has unleashed a firestorm of controversy around the world and actively threatens the legitimacy and effectiveness of the ICC moving forward.

According to the Rome Treaty, all 108 governments that have ratified it, creating the court, are obliged to help bring him to justice should he step foot in their territory. If only everything was so rosy. The case against the Sudanese president is fraught with political implications on numerous fronts.

For one, the tensions between countries who have refused to sign and/or ratify the ICC Treaty and the rest of the international community are particularly glaring. Major powers such as China, Russia and the U.S. have not ratified the treaty and as such do not recognize the legitimacy of the ICC. For the Chinese and the Russians, the strategy is simple: condemn the ICC's ruling - the first against an active head of state - as an infringement on state sovereignty (the bedrock of our present international order.)

For the U.S., the equation is more complicated. Washington has made claims in support of bringing President Bashir to justice. As we all know, Khartoum and Washington do not exchange best-wishes on holidays. However, as a non-signatory to the Rome Treaty, the U.S. is forced to tip-toe around the issue without supporting the ICC ruling too directly. This is problematic. When the world's premier power-player adopts such a wobbly position, it ultimately weakens the ICC's legitimacy in the eyes of many. People ask, "why should we recognize such a court when the world's most powerful nation does not?"

This is also opening a diplomatic fault line between the West and the Rest. Scouring the international media, blogs and official pronouncements reveals a steady supply of criticism at the current application of the ICC's legal proceedings. Many wonder how justice can be served when it is only pursued against the leaders of weaker states in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe while the rich and powerful in Western capitals enjoy immunity.

In addition, the most dangerous potential repercussions of the ICC's warrant will be on Sudan itself. Many voices have criticized the move against Bashir due to the implications it will likely have on Sudan's fragile internal political and security situation. Already, upon hearing of the ICC's actions, a major rebel group announced they were pulling out of peace negotiations with Khartoum. Bashir's government for its part has reportedly expelled some 13 international aid organizations, affecting an estimated 4.7 million people living in Darfur. Stealing words from The Economist, "where justice has to be weighed against the urgent need to end violence, peace must sometimes come first."

Last but not least, there are serious reservations about the strength of the ICC Prosecutor's case against Bashir. While most observers don't dispute the heinousness of the crimes committed at the hands of the regime in Khartoum, some seriously question the feasibilty of a legal conviction at the present time. Alex de Waal a prominent human rights lawyer and Sudan expert concludes that:
"...if the Prosecutor were to prosecute President Bashir for genocide
using the arguments contained in the Public Application, then he would most probably fail to obtain a conviction. Bashir would be acquitted... [and that] if the Prosecutor were to prosecute President Bashir for warcrimes and crimes against humanity using the mode of liability, ‘perpetration by means,’ he would also face a high likelihood of failing to obtain a conviction."
The ICC's ruling makes a difficult situation all the more complex in my opinion. It will have political ripple-effects that threaten to, not only disrepute the court itself, but bring more hardships to suffering millions affected by the conflict. This is not in any way a defence or even justification of Khartoum's many crimes against its own people. I remain supportive of bringing any and all war criminals to justice, including Bashir. However, pragmatism must sometimes take precedence, especially when people's lives are at stake.

The matter in my opinion remains firmly political, and attempting to apply international justice in such a way, especially following the blatantly illegal war on Iraq, only strengthens the arguments of those that were already skeptical of the ICC's ability to apply its mandate in a fair and equitable way. The ICC prosecutor should remember that the Court is only as powerful as the strong countries of the world allow it to be. Unless the world's great powers suddenly decide to change the rules of international relations that have been practiced for ions, I see no reason why the ICC, in its current configuration will ever be able to play God-trick and operate as a truly objective institution free from the forces of international politics.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Intellectuals in contemporary Islam

Allow me to share with you what in my opinion is a very stimulating talk on the position of intellectuals in modern Islamic societies. Mohamed Arkoun, Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, explains why free intellectualism has been gradually and systematically suppressed during the past three decades across the Islamic world.

The following are some points that I found particularly interesting:

  • As Arkoun expresses, "an intellectual must keep a distance from what he studies, even from his religion."
  • Since the end of the 18th century, Islam has accumulated sets of challenges that have become so complex, so pervasive, making it extremely hard to face, analyze and address them effectively today (which in my opinion does not mean that they cannot be adequately resolved, but it will take much more effort on the part of both Islam and the rest of the world than is currently being made.)
  • Intellectuals in the Islamic world have faced two pressures in the past 30 years. One from above coming from the state, and one from below coming from the revivalism of popular Islam and its varying fundamentalist interpretations. These twin pressures have forced intellectuals to practice self-censorship and in the process have prevented them from meeting their professional and ethical obligation to society, namely free speech and uninhibited critical thinking about pressing issues.
  • Although the 'Ulama (Muslim clerics), have more of an audience today than the intellectuals, there remain issues in Islam which only intellectuals have the possibility to access and address through social scientific lenses and methodologies.
  • There exists an area of religious study and thinking that remains off-limits to questionning and analysis. The level superseeding the consensual points of Islam's religious and traditional cannons, doctrines, texts and narratives cannot be adequately and freely intellectually explored, debated and reconsidered (think of Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses")
  • The language barriers between European and Arabic tongues causes a problem for cross-cultural intellectual debate. Arabic intellectuals today conceptualize their ideas and arguments using the social scientific lexicon of European languages which reflects the historical/cultural experiences of the West and not those of Arabic/Islamic peoples. This creates misunderstanding and even confusion when trying to reach out to the non-Islamic world at the intellectual level while attempting to transmit the Arab/Muslim's natural identity and characteristics.
I know that the material is a bit heavy but I find it highly stimulating, especially when one considers the complexity of the issues it is addressing.