Saturday, August 29, 2009

Response to the defender of the "Iron Hand"


In my last two columns, I tried to unearth the top hidden agenda of the Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak's visit to Washington, and argued that the visit was mainly used by the Egyptians to introduce Mubarak's son, Gamal, to the White House and to the Washington elite, an angle that almost no other news outlet has dwelt upon. Unsurprisingly, these two columns annoyed some. Reading the letter to the editor of Mr. Tamer Abdelaal, (Hürriyet Daily News, Aug. 22) I saw no other option but to respond. Before I discuss the contents of the reader's letter, some house-keeping items need to be addressed:

First of all, it needs to be established that the reader's letter is an interesting mixture of confessions and personal insults. Certainly, these insults have no bearing on what I have said in my column. But let’s leave these personal attacks aside. Unfortunately, in the Orient, discussions of opinions tend to turn into personal insults, especially when the idea one is defending is grossly erroneous and out-dated.

Yet, I still do not understand why the reader is so angry, as it seems he doesn't have any qualms with the principal premise of my columns, which stated that Gamal Mubarak is on sale in Washington.

Another point the reader raises is why I used, “for almost 30 years,” to describe the length of Hosni Mubarak's regime, since it has been only 28 years to be precise! Anyhow, I thank Mr. Abdelaal for the correction.

The reader also tries to inject doubt on my sources, pointing out that he has never heard of Fahema Newton. I repeat, Ms. Newton is a very prominent Egyptian-American journalist who has been working in Washington for more than a decade and covers the news for several Arabic networks, as I mentioned in my previous columns. She had to opt for an alias for certain reasons, reasons which I believe Mr. Abdelaal would know very well as an Egyptian-American who follows news and columns about his native country's and its leader so closely.

Though I would like to apologize for misspelling Deena Rashwan, it was supposed to be Diaa Rashwan, a leading Egyptian analyst, and thank you for his help to spotting my mistake.

When it comes to the substance of his letter, I cannot however, be as polite as I have been so far. Since writing for these pages for some time, I have learned to overlook personal insults. However, defending a tyranny and arguing for more of it with a western-oriented fancy language package, is something that I cannot pass without rebuking every bit.

As we all know, the military dictatorship in Egypt starts with the 1952 coup of Colonel Nasser and his military cohorts and continues with Sadat and now with Mubarak. Both came from the army like Nasser. As the Mr. Abdelaal states, “… all were military officers. Questioning authority is not permitted. And this is exactly the way they have governed.” This is the reader’s first confession. I had used the word “tyrant.” Mr. Abdelaal objects. According to Webster’s Dictionary, tyrant = absolute ruler. Mubarak, unlike Sadat and Nasser, has persistently refused to appoint a vice president, which further signals his absolute authority. In the end, all three did not permit any questioning of authority, hence they ruled, without transparency, without accountability, as they saw fit. What other word describes their rule? The reader says the same things as I have said, but re-packaging it and making it look little more palatable. Perhaps, indirectly, he confesses that the rule in Egypt is tyrannical, or a dictatorship. Let’s not quibble over a word.

Then comes another confession. “A true and free election, at this point of time, after 50+ years of military rule would be an enormous risk by giving … votes to a mass of illiterate and easily coerced voters.” Well…well…well! Who else but a dictator or a tyrant says, “I know better than you do”? I cannot help but ask: Why 50+ years after dethroning King Farouk, and 50+ years of revolutionary fervor, the mass is still illiterate? Is this not a confession of failure? The reader seems to argue that the biggest problems of today's Egypt are illiteracy and corruption, yet he fails to recognize that those illnesses have been on the rise with the Mubarak regime.

Mr. Abdelaal also argues that the passage from a military rule to democracy requires the elimination of corruption in Egypt. That is another confession. This simply means that those who govern, run, and administer Egypt are misusing political power for personal gain. But may I ask him: Who is going to eliminate corruption? Is it Gamal Mubarak, who will be merely an extension of his father, and who is going to inherit the presidency? He argues that Gamal is the best choice; I wonder what magical powers Gamal has that make him different from his father and that the majority of the Egyptian people fail to see.

To redress many ills “an iron hand [read it as iron hand = dictatorship = tyranny] is needed,” says the reader, and adds “the population is growing by one million every 11 months.” First of all, it is despicably sad to see a fellow Egyptian, who lives with freedom of America, wish more oppression for his fellow countrymen back home so openly. Secondly, I also fail to see the relationship between “iron hand” and population growth. According to this twisted equation, India must go back to find its own dictator as soon as possible and give up on democracy, since it has added more than 100 million people to its population in the last 8 years. Moreover, after almost 30 years, if the reader still expects Mr. Mubarak is the solution for these problems, and that the current and future iron hand of the Mubarak’s is needed, as he argues frantically, I leave his distorted argument up to my readers' judgment. All in all, a poor justification indeed for iron hand.

This polemic ends here. Mr. Abdelaal’s letter speaks for itself.

New times will bring more democracy, human rights and freedom for all. Whoever opposes the realities of the coming age will leave nothing but a bad name for future generations. They will be remembered as the ones who tried to stop the evolution of life.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Gamal Mubarak on sale in Washington, D.C. (II)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


In my last column, I started to discuss Egypt's aging leader Hosni Mubarak's and his son and likely successor, Gamal Mubarak's, visit to Washington. It must be noted that Hosni Mubarak's visit to the White House was originally planned in May; and at that time, like many world leaders who visit Washington, The prestigious Blair House was prepared for Mr. Mubarak. However, this time around, it would seem the intense pressure by human rights and democracy advocates was successful enough to land Mubarak and his entourage at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown.

Egyptian Americans and human rights workers were enraged by President Obama's decision to host the Egyptian leader for a number of reasons. According to human rights advocacy group, Amnesty International, there are about 18,000 political dissidents currently in Egyptian jails. The reports also revealed that since 2007, over 30 Egyptians were killed while in the custody of Egyptian police as a result of torture. The widespread use of torture by Egyptian police became so prevalent in 2007, disturbing videos of tortured women and sodomized men began to pick up heavy viewership on the popular video uploading website.

The New Media has contributed immensely to the uptick opponents of the National Movement against the Mubarak regime. The strikes last year, which later amounted to the protests of April 6, witnessed the bloodiest crackdown against the opposition in years. Since Mubarak's notorious state of emergency laws prohibit any form of protest, a basic element paramount in any functional democracy, the Egyptian police dispersed the crowds by all means. However, for the Egyptian government, subduing the Egyptian opposition is much harder on the digital front lines where the bloggesphere world has exploded, exposing the rampant corruption, torture and criminal misconduct of the Egyptian judicial system. In order to pry intensely into the daily lives of average computer savvy Egyptians, Egypt's Ministry of Intelligence receives the largest amount of funding from the government and intricately wired into the latest computer technology.

Egypt is also the second largest receiver of US funds. But, interestingly, in Obama's first budget request for Fiscal Year 2010, aid to Arab civil society groups is dramatically down. This left the Egyptian rights groups in awe. Currently they are looking into other financing means since the U.S. government reserves its funding for Egypt's military purposes.

According to the July 2009 report of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based research center, titled “The Federal Budget and Appropriations for the Fiscal Year 2010,” the Obama administration reduced its bilateral foreign assistance support for civil society in the Arab world, while adding funds to State Department tools specifically designed for such work. "Overall bilateral democracy and governance aid to key Arab allies Egypt and Jordan is cut by more than 40 percent, with even sharper cuts to funding allocated for civil society organizations."

Human rights advocate groups in Washington sent several letters to the State Department and to the White House to focus especially on three critical matters when talking to Hosni Mubarak. The first was to cajole Mubarak to conduct presidential and parliamentary elections (in 2011 and 2010, respectively) under international and independent Egyptian supervision with judicial oversight. The second was to press Mubarak to amend Article 76 of the Egyptian Constitution, which was adopted in 2005, and which legitimizes the ruling party's full control of who runs for President. According to the experts, this amendment makes it nearly impossible for anyone to run for president due to multiple onerous requirements. And the last one was to urge Mubarak to take action on religious freedom.

Obama's Cairo speech resonated greatly across the Muslim world. This positive reflection was not because Obama quoted Koran as 'holy' or his family ties with Islam. Obama's rhetoric has resonated in the Muslim world owing to its bluntness, even if the speech contained many parts that the Muslim peoples disagreed with. During that speech, Obama defended the 9/11 policies, argued for the invasion of Afghanistan, and exclaimed the “unbreakable” ties with Israel. Though his very brusque rhetoric still gained many hearts and minds as it created the impression that Obama means what he says, and he says what his administration thinks. Baring in mind of course, his message as an important bridge for Muslims in the Middle East, who have been, on many occasions, told one thing in the past, but have seen other things done.

Now Obama seems to be getting caught in the same trap. Obama speaks for the freedom of the people, transparency of governments or more democracy and human rights for Muslim nations, yet he meets with the very rulers who have done the opposite; and this double play is also noted in Arab streets. Ms. Newton argues that to reach his top foreign agenda item, Obama puts the 83 million Egyptian people’s quest for democracy and basic human rights on the back burner, "It's simply political," Newton cries. The Obama team calculates that if they cannot get a breakthrough in coming months, with the looming midterm election next year, it will be even harder to pressure both Israelis and Palestinians to commit to the process and then he will be seen as a failed president in foreign affairs. And to prevent this from happening, Obama takes a chance on the democracy deficit in Egypt to placate to a ruler whose country remains key in the Palestine/Israeli quagmire. In two years, regardless of who attempts to run against father Mubarak's successor Gamal, if the U.S. government does not demand their client state implement a more democratic system, the Egyptian people will remain under the heavy hand of fear.

Obama seems to put all his eggs in one basket for an Israeli-Palestine peace breakthrough, Newton claims. The Muslim world hailed him for his courage to pressure Netanyahu, for his unyielding support for the two-state solution and sincere efforts to reach a peace deal. However, trying to reach that deal at the expense of the Egyptian people's current misery under Hosni Mubarak, the future under Gamal Mubarak doesn't look right and just. All the goodwill he has built with his bluntness and apparent sincerity is now at great risk of forgetting the principles of his straight-talking fashion in Cairo. Instead, questions arise as to whether Obama wants to realize this peace process for his own political agenda, to get re-elected in the next elections.

The impressions of a photo-opt of Obama with Hosni Mubarak does not give much hope for the future of the Egyptian people.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Gamal Mubarak on sale in Washington, DC (I)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

It is summer and very hot in Washington, D.C., and the American newspapers often run headlines about people who have been unemployed and do not know how to get through these tough times. According to these headline stories, some of these people sell everything they have, including their cemetery plots in graveyards, just to survive.

In these deserted days, the city had a visit from a foreign leader, Egyptian president for life Hosni Mubarak this past week. Mubarak is known as one of the ruthless heads of state in modern history, who has been running his country for almost 30 years with the state of emergency laws, which is to say, he suspends any law he sees fit. His country has over 80 million people with about 20 percent unemployment, a low literacy rate and rising poverty that cuts the Egyptian people's livelihood.

This leader, with his relentless political skills, has been able to buy out or prevent any democratic movement so far, says Fahema Newton, an Egyptian-American journalist, who covers Washington for several Arabic news networks. Hosni Mubarak's hidden top agenda in Washington, according to many who follow Egyptian politics closely, was to transfer his power to his son, Gamal Mubarak, who is seen as the most likely successor to his dad. Hosni Mubarak had meetings with almost every single high official, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Adviser James Jones, and concluded these meetings on Tuesday with President Obama.

According to eye witnesses, during this visit, Gamal Mubarak hid behind the scenes and yet was more visible than his father both between the White House and the State Department. According to one source, father Mubarak could not make many of the meetings because of his deteriorating health, instead he left his son in charge of various delegations and meetings. American newspapers ran scores of commentaries on this Egyptian visit, contrary to many other foreign visits in recent times that went unnoticed. The sad part is that there was hardly any mention of Gamal Mubarak's presence in the Egyptian entourage, leaving aside his hand shake with and introduction to Obama by his father, according to press sources. Introducing Gamal to the president was not on the official agenda of the meetings, according to many. However, despite the busy schedule discussing regional issues, the most important agenda item for father Mubarak, was selling his son to Washington's political elite.

According to the news reports by National Public Radio, which was one of the very few news reports that merely mentioned Gamal's presence in the visit, without making further comments on what Gamal's presence means, the Egyptian officials played a big role in the timing of this visit to make it go under the radar, since the members of Congress are in recess in August as well as many reporters. And according to Ms. Newton, this tactic worked quite well. No member of the American press was present at the press conference that was organized in the city. According to sources, who witnessed the flawless public relations role of the Egyptian press secretary’s office throughout Mubaraks's visit, the press conference setting and the journalist selection scheme was so carefully prepared so as to prevent any “wrong” questions on the Egyptian government’s human rights abuses, democracy deficit or the police torture that has been widely terrorizing the Egyptian dissidents back home. Instead, carefully selected journalists, who were mostly from the Egyptian press corps, asked over and over again how the Egyptian role would play out in the Middle East peace process and help Obama's number one foreign policy agenda. For example, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Michele Shune, was not invited to the press conference that was organized by the press secretary of Hosni Mubarak's office in Washington, D.C. I will discuss in more details why Obama seems to be in need of Hosni Mubarak's support for the Israeli-Palestine peace process so desperately in the next column, though I would like to talk a little more on why it is so important to dwell on Gamal's presence in this visit.

Gamal Mubarak's meeting with Obama was important, because even though he is not president as yet, he is already known for his ruthlessness and links to many scandals, amid his rising profile in Egyptian politics. The 46-year-old Gamal, a leading figure in Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party, has seen several of his associates, many of them former parliamentarians, charged with corruption and murder, the World Tribune reports, in November of 2008. The interesting part of the scandals is that, as the Egyptian analyst Deena Rashwan comments: "Scandals have played into the hands of the old guard in the ruling party. After all, Gamal Mubarak is widely seen as the one who has ushered businessmen into the top ranks of the party."

There are so many more reported scandals that are linked to Gamal that in order to write just a few of them would fill this column several times. I believe the reader gets the idea: There is another Hosni Mubarak in the making, and Obama seems to have given the green light for this transition.

The question is: why did Obama have to host this dictator, and, moreover, meet with the next dictator in the line, while his predecessor kept him away and tried to use some pressure on this tyrant. After all, didn't Obama earn much praise and wasn’t he hailed as an honest man in Cairo while he spoke with tough love rhetoric to the Muslim world? Obama had said: "... I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose."

The Egyptian people have been deprived of these human rights for 30 years by father Mubarak, and now there seems to be another Mubarak who will continue to go on, with a possible Obama blessing. I will try to answer in my next column some of the reasons why Obama hosted the Egyptian leader and needs his support so desperately. The reader should judge whether it was worth it for Obama to risk all the good will he has able to build so far.

No, we can't?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

“Yes, We Can” was the slogan of the American people who really wanted to change America. There was apparently something missing or going terribly wrong with America, many thought, and so they elected Obama. Not only the Americans, but even the younger generation of other countries weighed in to the discussions to express that there was a shortage of a different type of leader to lead the world. Otherwise, how can one explain why hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Berlin to listen to Obama, and many more around the world in front of their TVs or computers rooted for him? Everybody thought America has been mismanaged for years, and this battered not only America, but also modern Western democracies and their moral credibility.

Obama has been a different politician right from the beginning. He is young and practically millions of young Americans identified themselves with him, and so did I. He uses a Blackberry, plays sports and takes his wife on dates. In contrast to the majority of other countries' leaders or previous American leaders, he can apologize when he makes mistakes. He is one of those new leaders who can grasp the power of information and is aware that even if he refuses to apologize, in this day and age, people easily can get the facts right or listen to different arguments and find out the reality anyway.

And maybe this outright approach is one of the reasons why his ratings still relatively stand tall, although he has not been able to make so far the changes he promised to deliver. Instead, he still continues to live in a campaigning mode, as we see in recent town-hall meetings around America. Many observers have started to ask whether the problems of America are really too big to solve. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been injected into the American economy, which increases the public debt to unsustainable limits, but yet unemployment is skyrocketing. Obama virtually gathered all of the current economic prophets around him to get the economy back on track. Even trying to understand how this president makes decisions out of these strong economic gurus' diverse opinions is mind-boggling.

Obama also wanted to make a “clean break” with the hawkish foreign policy of the past. But everybody knows that once Obama got into the office, there was practically no other choice but to put some kind of a timetable of withdrawal from Iraq, as the late Bush administration had been talking about for years. He followed that path and also applied the “surge” policy of his current defense secretary Robert Gates, of the past administration, to boost American security forces in Afghanistan. After more than seven months, the left of America now is appalled; their most radical anti-war candidate that came out of Democratic primaries keeps investing in Afghanistan with more troops, money and political capital.

In the Middle East and Israel-Palestine peace process front, Obama the hawk has been dueling with Netanyahu, the hawker, for quite a while. The White House's Middle East central region team was bolstered by Dennis Ross a few months ago, who was transferred from the State Department. Ross became a point man for the White House's Iran policy and also for the Israeli-Palestine peace process. As Roger Cohen vividly articulated in his New York Times magazine article a week ago, Obama's engagement policy with Iran is in an impasse after the Iran's elections. Ross' previous Jewish baggage also seems to be still containing many Middle East discussions. In addition, the tumultuous time of post-election Iran, and Obama's open hand to the Iranian supreme leader, unsettled Ali Khamenei, who has steered his country for more than 20 years on this very relation of good and evil rhetoric, which was ambitiously embraced by the Bush administration. The supreme leader has tightened the ranks with the problematic leader Ahmadinejad, and this latest tightening up has made everything even more complicated, which is to say, more difficult for Obama.

Domestically, Obama speedily passed the stimulus packages at the beginning of his presidency while presenting nightmare scenarios and a catastrophic end for America. Those spending packages did not provide the jumpstart the economy needed. However, Obama the changer then decided to go for the big prize, to overhaul health care, to realize the dream of every Democratic presidential candidate or president while his approval ratings are still high and the American people also are still in shock because of the extraordinary times they are going through. Observing this situation, the Republicans did not waste any time to declare that this fight is Obama's Waterloo, in other words, to make or break his magic journey.

Extending the health care discussion to the August recess, while the members of the Congress are traveling back to their own election regions to discuss with their constituents what they are doing in the Capitol, all of a sudden the average American citizen got fiercely involved with this health care fight. Especially, the rumors of the “death panels,” that is the health care reform will create panels to decide who should get to live and die because of old age, handicap and sickness, mobilized seniors to hall meetings before dawn to talk to their senators and representatives about chucking out these new ideas.

The religious segment of society also was agitated because of the abortion discussions. According to many commentaries on the government-run heath scheme, abortions will be funded by the government with taxes collected from everybody. In addition, expanding the government further, this will absorb the health care sector, a sector that accounts for more than one-sixth of America’s economy, also irked Wall Street financiers. However, since this overhaul is being pushed by an economic team that consists of free-market prophets, the worry has been somewhat lessened.

Therefore, Obama, in this August recess, is not only fighting with the Republican Party in the pure political arena of the Congress, but basically with many segments of American society that are mobilized by Republican grass-root organizations. Despite this apparent fight, Democratic youngsters who helped Obama cling to his country's historic presidency have withdrawn themselves from the public discussions so far. The youth of America, who chanted “yes, we can” for years, now seem to have abandoned the real fight to the American senior citizens and the establishment, who now chant “no, you can't.” Really, we can't stop but asking, where are the “yes, we can” sayers?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"Arabs have to meet halfway"

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on August 15, 2009-
-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 15 Agustos 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

Hisham Melhem was the first journalist to interview new American President Barack Obama in January, only one week after his inauguration. Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, the Dubai-based satellite channel, and the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. He received wide recognition with the Obama interview, though he is known in Washington for many of his other interviews, including previous President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Melhem's Obama interview made much impact around the world and especially in the Muslim world in many respects, and one of them, was because for the first time Obama had a chance to extend the olive branch to the Muslim world after he took office. So, I was very curious what Melhem thought about Obama's performance since then and if he thought Obama has been truthful to the promises he made at the beginning of his presidency.

I first asked Hisham Melhem how he saw the Obama administration's new policies of “listening” and “talking” to friends and foes alike so far. These new mottos had started to be heard with the Obama administration and his top advisers so as to display the difference between his and the previous administration's “dictating” policies. These messages were also important signals he gave to the Muslim world during Melhem's interview.

Melhem answered: "Obama indeed is listening to the Arabs, Turks and Iraqis. He uses a different language than the Bush administration, for the last six months, promising to close Guantanamo Bay, taking steps to stop torture, giving up using “war on terror” and many other offending terms and definitions when describing the Muslim world.” The flammable language Bush used, Melhem thinks, made many Muslims angry across the world. On the other hand, Obama seems to be seriously trying to understand the Muslim world and be sensitive to their needs. Though, Melhem switched the gear at this point and said that it is time for Arabs to respond to his rhetoric and "meet halfway."

I would like to emphasize that Obama's public confrontation with Israel's position on the settlement issue puts all the pressure on the Israeli side for some time. After this uplifting rhetoric, we have been unable to hear much from the Arab leaders on the Middle East peace process. The leaders of Palestine seem to be sitting on a fence and watching how this duel will play out by itself. Melhem says, for the sake of rapprochement, the Arab and the Muslim world also have to move closer to Obama's courageous oratory. With the ongoing impasse between the Netanyahu government and the Obama Cabinet over the settlement issue, in my opinion the Arab world would grab the upper hand, and help the process, if they can make some symbolic gestures in light of Melhem's insightful observations.

At the same time, Melhem continues, there are other parallel promises that were made by Obama; these also must be upheld. For instance, Obama has to show the audacity of hope to keep up with the troop withdrawal timetable in Iraq. So, I asked him if he thought Obama can really keep up with his unbending posture over the demand of freezing the Israelis’ illegal settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. I also reminded him about the recent mounting pressure on Obama from the U.S. Congress and the American press as I argued in my last column.

Melhem plainly said that "that is what we hope." He pointed out that two weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's tough statement and calling the Israeli security forces' eviction of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem a "provocative act" also shows that Obama and his Cabinet are serious about stopping some of the unjust behavior of Israeli security forces.

"If Obama buckles under the pressure from Netanyahu and his friends, especially in Washington, D.C.,” Melhem says, “then Obama will lose all his credibility" and the hope that he has built with the Muslim world. "Obama knows the stakes are high" and such a U-turn would be disastrous, Melhem vividly articulated. Therefore, the only way forward for Obama is to go from here on the path shown so far. There is no other alternative, if this administration really wants to do something drastic about the Middle East peace process.

Though it will not be easy, according to Melhem, Netanyahu will try to drag this out as much as possible and wait for other urgent domestic issues to face Obama. As is known, America nowadays has real economic and social problems to deal with. As I tried to argue in recent weeks in these pages, when the members of Congress return from the August recess in the fall to work on health care reform and other issues, Obama will need Congress to back him up desperately, given his plummeting job approval ratings and tough summer break he and his party members are having while trying to push the health care overhaul.

Melhem also argued that "friends of Netanyahu's," or in other words, the soft power of Israel, will be even more pressuring in the coming months and in the next year, considering there will be a mid-term election. Then the Democrats will pressure Obama not to alienate the Jewish voters and other interest groups. Therefore, Obama has to make some real headway as soon as possible during the rest of this year and the beginning of the next year. Melhem thinks that Netanyahu will do everything to drag on this process to the America's mid-term elections. Then, probably, the mighty arm of the Jewish lobby will take care of the rest. In this scenario, if Obama bows to Netanyahu's friends, Netanyahu will probably get some kind of compromise on the settlement issue and use it as a “tactical victory” for his own political purposes.

The Middle East process is a rocky road and embedded with many thorny issues. Mr. Melhem suggests that Obama started off well and has done some confidence building within the Arab and Muslim world. But this rocky road has to be walked as quickly as possible and cleaned from the thorns. If it will drag on more than it is supposed to, I fear that the sides will get back to square one and say “good bye” to the peace process.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The era of the global war on terror is over

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on August 13, 2009-
-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 13 Agustos 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

The background of Obama’s national-security team, and of his top intelligence officers, has been one of the biggest reality checks that many of his supporters still cannot come to terms with.

Obama’s appointing Leon Panetta, who represents the establishment more than a “clean break,” to head the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA; his assembling a national-security team consisting of people who all supported the Iraq war in the past; his ruling out of any kind of investigation into intelligence officers who helped lay the ground for torture and enhanced interrogation techniques; and his continued application of some of the most criticized pillars of the war on terror have appalled these liberals.

Perhaps for the first time since the beginning of the new administration, Obama’s counter-terrorism tsar John Brennan publicly tried to explain the administration’s counter-terror policies and how they differ from past practices in a meeting at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, a leading Washington, D.C., think tank, last Thursday.

Brennan’s talk was especially important since it came after the publication of an article by Panetta in the Washington Post’s Aug. 2 online edition. In this opinion piece, Panetta essentially called on Democrats to recognize that the “reality” of Sept. 11, 2001, is what steered the operation of the George W. Bush administration in the subsequent months and used that to justify not looking into suspected crimes from that period.

“The question is not the sincerity or the patriotism of those who were dealing with the aftermath of Sept. 11. The country was frightened, and political leaders were trying to respond as best as they could,” Panetta wrote. “Judgments were made; some of them were wrong. But that should not taint those public servants who did their duty pursuant to the legal guidance provided. The last election made clear that the public wanted to move in a new direction.”

With this, Panetta plainly asked the U.S. Congress not to investigate any past wrongdoings, and justified the CIA senior leadership’s management under George Tenet, who helped design and implement the policy of then-President Bush.

After Panetta’s opinion piece came out last week, criticism of Obama’s national-security policies increased even further. Since it was known that Obama’s national-security team had already decided to continue implementing many of the previous anti-terror policies, the CIA director’s arguments were seen as implying also that the “war on terror policies” of the past administration were legitimate and fair, given the circumstances of Sept. 11. Hence, the remarks by Brennan, who holds the highest staff rank within the White House and has decades of intelligence background at the CIA, were especially important in finally distinguishing the policies of the two administrations.

Yet there is one little problem. Brennan is also known for his association with and support of the CIA’s infamous “enhanced interrogation” techniques. That was why his name was withdrawn from consideration for the position of CIA chief during President Obama’s transition period.

During his presentation at the CSIS, Brennan summed up the Obama administration’s national-security outlook and conveyed some important messages, saying that the period of the “global war on terrorism” and “war against jihadists” is officially over. In explaining why the United States will also stop using the terms like “fight against the jihadists,” he showed that U.S. intelligence officers and bureaus are finally getting the hang of some of the most important “Islamic” terms, and that they have started to understand some of the intricacies and sophistication of the world they are dealing with.

Brennan acknowledged that calling people jihadists, a term referring to a Muslim who strives to purify himself by fighting with evil forces of the inner or outer world to reach moral heights, is not the best way to describe your enemies. On the contrary, this definition legitimizes their undeserved claims.

Though Brennan still received some harsh questions about his role during the previous administration, he did not let these questions distract him from the main theme of his talk.

In light of Brennan's speech, we now see that America’s new administration is trying to define combating terrorism from a different angle and wants to address it accordingly. For example, Brennan said that there is no global war on terror, adding that such a definition gives ammunition to Al-Qaeda militants, who recruit youngsters with the idea that there is a war between good and evil. The Bush administration confirmed for years that the globe is indeed divided into two, and that people or countries are either with Americans or against them – rhetoric that made many ordinary Muslims swing to the other side. It was amazing to hear Brennan say that this aggressive tone and rhetoric of is now out of date.

Critics of the Obama administration’s national-security policies have, I believe, gone too far in blaming him for continuing with national-security officials of the past. One should rather ask: From where could Obama have brought, all of a sudden, all the capable people needed to run an intelligence agency, or, indeed, the country’s entire national security, which requires experienced people who are familiar with highly sophisticated intelligence techniques and challenges? They could not fall from the sky; they had to come from the field and had to have deep knowledge of the developments of recent years.

U.S. intelligence personnel did what they were asked to do over the past eight years, Panetta said in his op-ed column in the Washington Post. Now, Brennan suggested, their qualifications will have to be put to good use to “promote dignity” in U.S. foreign engagements around the world. Brennan’s name may have disappointed those who expected too much from Obama, but his talk summed up quite well the US officials’ new and better understanding of Islamic terminology and its respectful engagement with the Muslim world.

After seeing years of top American intelligence officials and lawmakers who could not distinguish between Sunni and Shiite, hearing a good analysis and understanding of Islamic terminology and deferential language seems like a very good start.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Israeli soft power is on the move in Washington, D.C.

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on August 4, 2009-

-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 4 Agustos 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

Over the past week, Obama's new Israel policy has attracted heavy criticism in America's leading newspapers and television. It is true that Obama, right from the beginning, has shown a cautious love for the new Israeli administration. Although he made trips to the region more than once and visited several countries, including Turkey, seemingly he did not find time to visit Israel. In his Cairo speech, Obama unequivocally asserted that America's historic relations with Israel were 'unbreakable', yet with his open fire on Israel's settlements and demanding that Israel must freeze them before anything else, and that Netanyahu should accept the two-state solution as the only vision, the relationships were strained.

America and Israel also have been at loggerheads over the Iran policy. Whilst Obama and the Secretary of State Clinton were advocating direct talks with Iran, Obama called not only Iran, but all countries, including Israel, that they should give up nuclear weapons in his Cairo speech.

Last week, a crew of senior U. S. officials visited Israel to make progress on the Middle East peace process. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell, National Security adviser James L. Jones and White House's point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, visited Jerusalem, tried to smooth the strained relationship and gave 'a big hug' to the Israelis. After these meetings, however, the press corps mostly heard about the Iranian threat and how Israel keeps all options on the table, rather than how the progress on the Middle East peace process can be made.

At the same time, "Why Israel Is Nervous", "Tough on Israel" or "U.S., Israel at odds over 2003 settlements accord" were some of the few commentaries that were made last week in the American media targeting Obama and his policy on Israel. The latest polls also show that only a fraction of Israeli people believe that Obama is Israel's friend; similarly the polls around the world show that Israel is the only country among more than two dozen surveyed the public’s image of the United States was getting worse.

But what it is that Obama really wanted to achieve by making his disagreements with the Israeli leaders so obvious amid unusual public confrontation? One plain aim is to force an Israeli withdrawal while building credibility with the Arab governments and capture the affection of the Muslim public opinion. However, there can be also a bigger issue, which is not being talked about openly, as a drive force behind the administration's policies on Israel. And this is that, Obama wants to change America's heavily biased policy in favor of Israel, because he sees that this is an impediment to a rapprochement between America and the Muslim world. Therefore, what makes the Israelis even more nervous is that Obama might not stop his even-handed policy over the settlement issue, but a whole other set of issues will ensue.

The key motives behind the 9/11 attacks, as the bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report pointed, were America's arbitrary support for Israel. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, who directed and planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks, told that his disagreements with the US policy stemmed mainly from the U. S. foreign policy favoring Israel. Also many former CIA officials came on the same conclusion. Michael Scheuer, a former CIA Bin Laden Unit Chief between 1996 and 1999, or Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, pointed out exactly the same key motives.

These claims were not being discussed at length as others in the past. One of the reasons, the experts claimed, this was because such arguments would have pushed the American policy makers to reconsider 'unqualified US support for Israel.' Since his campaign days, Obama repeatedly said that he will reach out to the Muslims and try to create the bridge once more. And so far, he seems to be willing to confront Israeli leaders. With an economically and politically weakened US, he might have concluded that in order to make real friends with the Muslim world, and go to the heart of the causes of terrorism activities, it is time to reassess the American policy towards Israel more seriously. This will not mean America will abandon Israel, though it means that Israel will not find America as its supporter when it wages raids on the defenseless Palestinian people and such other activities.

This new outlook of America's Middle East and Israel policy has had some unintended consequences already. According to the polls coming out from Israel, the shaky relationship between the Israeli coalition leader Netanyahu and Obama triggered the unexpected support of the Israeli people for the current Israeli administration and caused to lend more support for Netanyahu's unbending policies on the settlement issues. In fact, in recent days, we hear more often from Israeli officials that the natural growth of the settlement will go on.

Still, in case of using its perceived power in Washington, DC, Israelis will have to gamble big. If the goals of Israel and Israel's mighty lobbying arms in the capital of the US seem to be conflicting with America's security and long-term interests in the region, an unexpected backlash might occur among the American people, which are to say that basically the representatives of the American people will have to think about America's interests first, even if the love of Israel is rooted deeply among many Americans.

The Obama Presidency campaign had relied heavily on Obama's personality, his high ratings and also on the attitude of the American people. Now that his ratings are in a free fall and public mood is changing, Obama will need the support of the members of the Congress more than ever in the fall, and it will be even more interesting to see how much the Israeli soft power will play a role in Washington, DC in respect to even domestic American policy issues. The heavy commentaries of the last week may be taken as the first signals of that soft power as gearing up. On the other hand, National Security Adviser James Jones's meeting with Mossad and other Israeli officials in Israel last week over how the Ahmadinejad government can be cracked, were also leaked to the outside world by the Israeli sources. It must be noted that these leaks only made Obama's position weaker towards Iran's administration.

America's biased support for Israel has made conditions worse in the Middle East for some time and it is obvious that the present American administration wants to change it at some rate. How far the administration can go and how big a threat the Israel's soft power would see this new American foreign policy attitude is still remain to be seen.

© 2009 Hurriyet Daily News

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Universal consolidation messages for better democracies of the future times

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on August 1-2, 2009-

-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 1-2 Agustos 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

This summer we have been witnessing various kinds of democratic consolidation processes in progress around the world. One universal course and three local ones are making the oldest democracy even stronger and the newer and weaker ones more "secure extending their life expectancy beyond the short cycle against the threat of authoritarian regression." These struggles remind us once again what kind of a democratic future is on the horizon. These messages of new times tell us one way or another that the masses want their rights and won’t easily give up until they get them. The changes of these new times are carried through in various ways and means, but serve the same end.

The first signs of a plausible consolidation process are coming from Iran. The protesters, who bravely refused to back down and took to the streets until they regained their democratic rights, finally started to receive some real concessions from the Islamic regime. The Iranian Supreme Leader felt compelled to order the closure of the prison that reportedly held and tortured post-election protesters. What is more, it was also agreed to free more people who were arrested during the continuing rebellion. Many are hopeful that the concessions will continue to gain momentum from this point on and will not die down. We still haven't heard whether the president of Turkey or the foreign minister will make a trip to witness the historic second inauguration of Ahmadinejad, who they congratulated so enthusiastically, though reports from Iran suggest that "Ahmadinejad's cabinet is falling apart; of his original lineup of 21 ministers, only nine remain at their posts. A dozen have either resigned or have been sacked." We can safely predict that greater consolidation news is on the way. 

Turkey is also going through a long overdue consolidation process of its democracy. With respect to the Kurdish issue, the Turkish government has held talks recently with its allies – the U.S. and Iraq -- and is working to expand the cultural and educational rights of the Kurdish people and address the break up of the PKK terror organization in the Turkey’s southeast region. Although some skeptic arguments about the timing of this leaping forward makes sense, still I want to praise the Turkish administration for preparing to take such radical steps to address this historic challenge. According to reports, with some historic reckoning, the Kurdish segment of society is looking forward to receiving greater respect and voice for a set of human rights. Almost anything seems preferable to the 25 year counterproductive militaristic approach to the conundrum. Turkey still needs to take more democratic steps if it wants to sustain itself and spread its influence further. 

In America, the oldest existing constitutional republic in the world, President Obama decided to make health care reform his first and most important 'change' policy. Therefore, for him, not being able to pass this legislation in Congress is not an option. For a man, whose speeches and slogans made millions believe that he was going to 'change' the system, to fail at the first important turning of a corner on the path of this big change would be a fatal blow for his presidency. Knowing this, Obama has been pushing for this systemic overhaul with everything he’s got, to make this change as fast as possible. He even went a bit too far by setting a deadline and basically telling the members of Congress and the American people what to do and when to do it. He has traveled across dozens of states and voices his magical words to tens of thousands of people around the country in order to force Congress to accept his terms and get down on its knees. 

I have been reading about everything on the health care debate for some time now and know that on the one hand the cost of American health care is almost double that of any other Western country. On the other hand, with the current budget deficit, I just cannot bring myself to support extra costs and higher budget deficit, which this systemic transformation will seem to bring. If the current deficit continues growing, there will be no funds to pay for any kind of health care system anyway. The representatives of Middle America; the Democratic Blue Dogs coalition in the House of Representatives and the Moderate democrats in the Senate finally told Obama to stop rushing this enormous overhaul. It was time for the American people to read, to discuss, hear and understand what is being proposed, rather than speeding up the reform proposal in Congress without even fully understanding what the bill entails. And with their opposition, the health care discussion is postponed until September. In one of the largest democracies in the world, despite the fact its very strong president wanted to pressure the system to change, for better or worse, the people of America, through democratic means, once more, push their Congress to heed their voices. 

And in the global sphere, the Great China arrived in the U.S. capital this week with their immense presence. This single G-2 meeting showed in all frankness how the balance of power is changing rapidly in today's world. Although the Chinese president did not even show up at the meetings, the president of the United States, with his most prominent secretaries were present and worked in the meetings. There were no reports leaking to the media that American officials insisted on human rights problems in China or urged China to take on a greater stakeholder role in the world, as was the case in previous years. This time the reports were saying that Chinese officials continually asked their American counterparts why the U.S. economy is being managed so badly and what they plan to do about it. The U.S. banker was there to ask questions this time, not give answers to questions, and then decide whether to continue bailing out its partner. In the global arena, America is now consolidating its sole power status, and the world is becoming multi-polar once more, and this is good for the global struggle of democracy.

Consolidation is the most important vaccine to sustaining the democratic system. And it is in progress in various corners of the universe. Maybe it will be a long struggle before futher progress is visible for democracies, though as Cetin Altan, a famous Turkish writer and columnist, claims frequently: “enseyi karartma" (do not blacken the nape, or in other words, don't be pessimistic), better futures lay ahead. 

© 2009 Hurriyet Daily News