Focal Points Blog

Al Qaeda Has Its Own “Superusers” and “Badges”

Nothing if not web-savvy, al Qaeda has learned to exploit gimmicks devised by Western game and social network developers to expand and inspire its base. Jarret Brachman and Alix Levine explain in a Foreign Policy piece titled World of Holy Warcraft.

The counterterrorism community has spent years trying to determine why so many people are engaged in online jihadi communities in such a meaningful way. . . . Explanations from scholars have ranged from the inherently compulsive and violent quality of Islam to the psychology of terrorists.

But no one seems to have noticed that the fervor of online jihadists is actually quite similar to the fervor of any other online group. The online world of Islamic extremists, like all the other worlds of the Internet, operates on a subtly psychological level that does a brilliant job at keeping [its users] clicking and posting away — and amassing all the rankings, scores, badges, and levels to prove it. Like virtually every other popular online social space, the social space of online jihadists has become “gamified,” a term used to describe game-like attributes applied to non-game activities. It turns out that what drives online jihadists is pretty much exactly what drives Internet trolls, airline ticket consumers, and World of Warcraft players: competition. . . . Users can now earn status for the messages they post and the quality of the messages as judged by other members. In many of the forums, members can only receive points after they have posted a certain number of messages, enticing users to post more messages more quickly.

Are these techniques capable of producing actual terrorists? According to Brachman and Levine, they’re liberally used by the web designers for former imam turned regional al-Qaeda planner Anwar al-Awlaki, who inspired the Fort Hood shooter, the Times Square bomber, and the Christmas Day airline bomber.

Last year badges and levels popped up on Huffington Post in the form of “HuffPost Badges.” Still in beta, it encompasses various levels of “Networkers,” “Superusers” and “Moderators.”

It seems unlikely that progressives will take to such a juvenile system. But this author, for one, will be all too happy to stifle his condescension if badges and levels prove capable of generating Middle-East- or Wisconsin-style protests in the United States.

Taking R2P to the Next Level

On Monday, April 18, Citizens for Global Solutions ran a full page advertisement in the New York Times that calls for three essential actions for the U.N. to take in Libya. We are reaching out to Americans because we now live in a new age where the international community has accepted its responsibility to protect. But you can’t protect babies from 30,000 feet nor should this be the job of the U.S. and its allies alone. The United Nations must have the support and tools that it needs to get these jobs done:

  1. Deployment of U.N. Peacekeepers On the Ground to Protect Libyan Civilians;
  2. Provision of Food, Water, Medicine and Shelter for Displaced People in Libya;
  3. U.N. Sponsored Elections to Bring Democracy and a Legitimate Government.

Take action now – sign the petition.

These goals are in line with the Opinion Editorial written by President Obama, UK Prime Minister Cameron, and French President Sarkozy. In a joint editorial published in the Times, they declared:

The United Nations and its members should help the Libyan people as they rebuild where Qaddafi has destroyed — to repair homes and hospitals, to restore basic utilities, and to assist Libyans as they develop the institutions to underpin a prosperous and open society.

U.N. Peacekeeping

Today 64% of Americans supports a standing peacekeeping force led by the United Nations. Such a force would have the strength and legitimacy to halt the fighting in Libya without having to rely on NATO ground forces. While a standing U.N. peacekeeping force does not yet exist, this is the moment for the international community to establish it. This force could integrate within its ranks all those Libyans who desire peace, the protections of civilians and a legitimate government within their nation.

Sixteen U.N. peacekeeping operations are currently deployed worldwide, involving nearly 100,000 troops and police from about 120 countries. Peacekeeping has proven to be one of the most effective tools available to the U.N. to assist countries navigating the difficult path from conflict to peace. U.N. peacekeepers provide security and the political and peace building support to help countries make the difficult, early transition from conflict to peace.

Historically, peacekeeping missions have done vital work in helping countries torn by conflict create conditions for lasting peace. For example, the U.N. mission to East Timor in the early 2000s helped the country recover from a bloody Civil War and transition successfully to a relatively stable democracy. In Côte D’Ivoire, the U.N. peacekeeping mission has done similar work, helping to remove the brutal dictator, Laurent Gbagbo, put an end to the 2nd Ivorian Civil War in the past decade, and facilitate the peaceful transition to democracy.

In Haiti, U.N. peacekeepers helped in the recovery following the 2010 earthquake by restoring a secure and stable environment and by facilitating a legitimate election, the results of which are soon to be officially released. Now U.N. peacekeepers are looking to continue aiding people as Haiti looks to rebuild its economy and transition to democracy.

In Sudan, U.N. peacekeepers have worked to enforce the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army. U.N. peacekeepers there have provided much needed humanitarian aid to the Sudanese people and helped oversee the election on the referendum to make Southern Sudan an independent state.

Humanitarian Assistance

The United Nations refugee agency has warned that a lack of funding could undermine its ongoing efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to tens of thousands of people displaced by the unrest in Libya, saying it has so far received slightly over half of the funding it requested for the operation.

On April 1, U.N. High Commissioner António Guterres said it was “essential that humanitarian access is provided to all people in need throughout Libya.” Speaking specifically on the coastal city of the coastal city Misrata, Guterres said, “This is a situation where life-saving humanitarian access should be guaranteed.” According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), since mid-February more than 320,000 Libyans have fled to neighboring countries to escape the violence in Libya.

The UNHCR, along with the World Food Programme, UNICEF and other U.N. entities, have been able to supply some aid to the Libyan people, but the work is difficult. In late March a World Food Programme convoy delivered 5,000 blankets and 5,000 sleeping mats to the people of Benghazi, the Libyan opposition’s stronghold. However, the UNHCR reported “shortages of medical supplies and basic commodities” in the city.

In the cities of Tobruk and Benghazi in eastern Libya local authorities have identified at least 35,000 displaced people, mostly from Ajdabiyya and Brega. U.N. sources believe the actual number is likely to be around 100,000, since the population of Ajdabiyya is 120,000 and most people are thought to have left. While a few thousand have crossed into Egypt, the majority are displaced in Benghazi and Tobruk.

The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a fact sheet on April 15 reporting that at least 250 people including 20 children have been killed since hostilities began in Misrata. The report also stated that “Humanitarian needs are increasing amidst the ongoing heavy fighting inside the city of Misurata [Misrata]”; “There are reports of shortages of medical supplies, food and water”; and “the water supply to Misrata City has been cut off.” International medical organizations including the World Health Organization and Doctors without Borders have provided some medical assistance to the people of Misrata, as have other U.N. entities such as the World Food Programme and UNICEF. However, additional aid is desperately needed. A more concerted effort by the U.N. in coordination with individual nations and NGOs is essential to adequately address the humanitarian needs in Libya.

Elections

In their editorial, Obama, Cameron, and Sarkozy stated, “it will be the people of Libya, not the U.N., who choose their new constitution, elect their new leaders, and write the next chapter in their history.” They are exactly right, but without the United Nations the people of Libya will never get the chance. The end result in Libya, as demanded by the Libyan people, must be a democracy with free and fair elections, government accountability, and rule of law. We ask the U.N. to take it upon itself to call for such elections and oversee the election process when fighting lessens and Muammar Gaddafi has been dethroned.

On April 14, the U.N. called on Somalia’s transitional government to hold democratic elections before the end of its term in August. A U.N. sponsored conference of Somali officials, the European Union, and the African Union has agreed that elections must take place within the next four months. Somalia has not had a legitimate, stable government in over 20 years. Thanks to the efforts of the U.N., E.U., and A.U., upcoming elections could help with Somalia’s transition to peaceful, stable democracy. And this is just one of many examples of successful U.N. sponsored elections.

Once democratic elections are held in Libya, the nation can finally move forward and look to a future where leaders are accountable to the people and human rights atrocities, like those committed by the Gaddafi regime, no longer have a place in Libyan society.

Citizens for Global Solutions believes that these three actions are necessary to ensure that we are living up to our ideals as Americans, as citizens of the world, and as human beings. The world has already shown the commitment to the responsibility to protect — the responsibility the global community has to step in when the government of a nation cannot or will not protect its people. If the three actions outlined above are taken, we believe that Libyan lives will be saved and the future of the country hopeful.

Take action now – sign the petition.

Don Kraus is the chief executive officer of Citizens for Global Solutions.

Enhanced Drone-Strike Accuracy Makes Accidents Look That Much More Suspicious

Pakistan drone strike(Pictured: Site of a drone attack in Pakistan.)

“When the US began drone strikes in Pakistan in 2006, drone attacks were notoriously inaccurate,” wrote retired Pakistani military officer Shaukat Qadir at Counterpunch in an article about the release of CIA contractor Raymond Davis.

Their kill ratio was approximately 2 militants to 8-10 ‘collateral damage’. . . . However, from about March/April 2008, they became increasingly accurate, probably due to more accurate HUMINT [intelligence on the ground]. In recent times, the kill ratio swung dramatically; 8-10 militants to 2 in collateral damage.

Then Qadir explained

About a month ago, some helicopter-borne snipers killed nine children in Afghanistan who were out gathering firewood. An ex-marine turned journalist accused the snipers of deliberate murder. He argued that, with the technology available, it was impossible not to be able to differentiate between children aged nine to thirteen, carrying sticks, and armed militants.

But another reason beyond improved technology led Qadir to conclude that a subsequent drone attack, on March 17, in which 41 individuals, including women and children, were killed, was deliberate.

. . . the CIA was furious over the deal negotiated between the two militaries [Pakistan and the U.S.] to oust them from Pakistan. Given their record of pretty consistent accuracy for over two years, during which, never more than a total of twenty people have been killed, the majority being militants, and the manner of the attack, no other credible conclusion comes to mind.

In other words, Qadir maintains that the March 17 attack was a petty vendetta. Meanwhile, at Wired’s Danger Room Richard Wheeler wrote last week of U.S. Air Force attempts to improve targeting:

The Air Force has problems distinguishing men from women and adults from children. Which means pilots sometimes target — and kill — the wrong people. The air service’s solution: a nationwide contest, to help the military pick out kid from grown-up.

With the “Remote Human Demographic Characterization” challenge, the Air Force is looking for descriptions of a system “that can determine approximate age (adult, teen, child) and gender of small groups of people at a distance.” The challenge “requires a written proposal only.” So if your idea works and you can get the technical details right, you could walk away with $20,000.

Along with manned aircraft attacks, this system is intended for use in drone attacks. But the military better file it under Watch Out What You Wish For. Once designed and implemented, accidents will look even more deliberate. Whatever remains of the U.S. relationship with Pakistan will go the way of the wind.

New Nuclear Project Distracts From Existing Safety (Read: Seismic) Issues

“The vastly ambitious CMRR project has greatly detracted from the attention needed to solve existing nuclear safety problems at LANL,” writes Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) in its latest newsletter. LANL, of course, is the Los Alamos National Laoratory, one of the United States’ two nuclear weapons-design laboratories. The CMRR, about which I’ve often written about in conjunction with LASG’s attempts to retard its progress, is the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility, intended to expand production of plutonium pits (where the chain reaction occurs in a nuclear weapons).

In a cruel joke at a time of supposed disarmament, the CMRR promises to be the most expensive construction project in the history of Los Alamos. As for those safety problems, Mello writes, “LANL harbors many buildings which do not meet even the optimistic seismic hazard assessment of 1995.”

In a press release, the LANL admits as much, announcing

. . . that it has self-reported to the National Nuclear Security Administration a new preliminary analysis of structural load capacities at [PF-4 plutonium processing facility]. That analysis, which incorporated new geological data and sophisticated computer modeling, showed that a large earthquake that might occur in north-central New Mexico every 2,500 years could cause significant damage to some parts of the facility.

In response, LANL’s associate director for nuclear and high hazard operations, Bob McQuinn said, “While the latest calculations revealed some new areas to improve, we will quickly incorporate those into our ongoing facility improvement activities.”

But Greg Mello says:

On 3/25/11 I spoke with a senior NNSA official in DC who offered the opinion that PF-4 would “never” meet modern seismic and safety requirements. It is not clear to me that any large-scale plutonium processing facility can be built at LANL, for any reasonable price, which does meet those standards.

Hey, look at the bright side. At least there’s no danger that Los Alamos, on a plateau in the middle of desert country, will be overcome by a tsunami.

From Baghdad’s Own Tahrir Square to Mosul: The Friday of the Free

Lieven De Cauter presents a letter from his colleague in Iraq, Asma Al Haidari:

April 15th. What am I to write to you about today? It is the Friday of the Free! For this is what our young revolutionaries have called it. I will start with the demonstrations on Tahrir Square in Baghdad. Of course all the bridges and streets leading to Tahrir were cut off but people came all the same and are still there. They are chanting that Maliki is a liar and a thief. They are chanting that whoever does not say Tahrir, “Liberation”, his life is a loss. They are daring the security forces who are there in great numbers to detain them. I have always known and told you what we are made of, how could the Americans have ever thought that they can colonize us? You can feel the atmosphere of Tahrir. You can see and feel the life that is Tahrir. Tahrir belongs to the People.

A man of 50 who cries, says: ‘Death to Iran! Death to America! Death to Maliki! 80% of Parliament and the people who rule are Iranians, there is no loyalty to Iraq. Long Live Iraq! All our sons are in detention centers, my 16 year old son is in prison. Iraq is the crown on our heads. We will all die for Iraq. Iraq will live forever!’ Then there is a young man who shouts: ‘Down with sectarianism! Down with the Quota System! Death to Iran! Let all Iraqi Young Men rebel and fight for Iraq! If Mohammed is a Sunni then I am a Shia, but we are all one. We are all brothers. We all have the same blood!’ Women cry and men, grown up men shed tears of agony and anguish for Iraq and for our sons and daughters, for our country that has been raped and pillaged.

Ah, the scenes in Tahrir were phenomenal, because Maliki and his henchmen yesterday ordered people to demonstrate in two football grounds, again on a sectarian basis, can you imagine? But he is a stupid man and so are his advisors. The Iraqis are much too intelligent and clever for all of this and proved that they are now at the point of no return in their rebellion and revolt. They assembled in Tahrir and told Maliki and his parliamentarians to go and play football in the stadiums he has assigned.

The young man who said let’s all unite and fight also said that he was sure a massacre was going to be committed by the security forces against the demonstrators today. But these same security forces could not stop them from coming to Tahrir. Men, women, and children, Muslims and Christians who are speaking out about the “government’s” criminality against them – it was amazing and enthralling. The crushed Iraqi middle class in all its colours and hues is out and will remain out. This is the beginning of civil disobedience, all very peaceful but full of force. The women who are in Tahrir are in the hundreds, all women whose sons or husbands have disappeared in the secret prisons of Maliki and the Occupation. But Iraqis have broken the chains. The world should watch this. But the world is silent and apparently deaf and blind. Where is the free western press? Reading the New York Times one would believe that their correspondents are living on another planet. All the mainstream press is silent, in fact.

Today, there were also large demonstrations in Basra, all over Anbar province and in Babil as well. In Diwaniya they were threatened by the security forces that they would all be detained. Of course, in Sulaymaniya the crowds are in the tens of thousands on Azadi Square. The scene is developing and the protest is building up. Then there is Mosul, where for the past 6 days a huge demonstration and gathering has been gradually grown in numbers and today there are 5,000 people in The Square of the Free, the old prison square. All the tribal sheikhs who had not sold themselves to the occupation came from the very south of Iraq, from Nassiriya and Basra. There were tribal sheikhs and leaders from Kut, Diyala, a contingent of Kurdish demonstrators from Sulaymaniya. They came from Haweeja and Tikrit. The Christians in the north as well as tribal leaders from Anbar, Kubaissa and Fallujah. We have come together again, this time publicly, for all the world to see.

But what is most amusing is that today the American Occupation’s helicopters made a great entrance on the stage demonstrating that the American Administration really does believe the democracy it alleges it brought to Iraq is in fact equal to garbage… literally! It was funny and it is all on film: daily, since the vigil and demonstration started in Mosul, American helicopters buzzed the demonstrators and the demonstrators answered back by throwing their shoes at them in disdain! Today, the helicopters performed what they considered their coup de grace, by flying very low over their heads and throwing down bags of garbage. When the people were asked for comments they answered that the Americans throw garbage every day since the occupation: all the depleted uranium, all the white phosphorous, all the drugs, all the disease, tyranny, oppression, plunder, theft, lies and illiteracy they brought with them. So we, Iraqis, know everything and we will have justice at the end of the day, when a new dawn comes. The feeling is that it is going to be quite soon.

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011). He is initiator of the BRussells Tribunal.

Nuclear Disarmament Can Be a Very Disarming Experience

“Is Zero realistic, possible?” asks Ron Rosenbaum in his provocative new book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III (Simon & Schuster). After listing reasons why it may not be, he writes:

But the Zero advocates have answers. They concede that the moment of Zero won’t arrive instantaneously tomorrow. . . . But the most persuasive argument they make is a cultural one: that as the world moves toward Zero by means of sharper and sharper reductions, and works together each step of the way toward solving the problems of inspection and verification procedures, presumably including the development of advanced detection technology, this diminution of the role of nukes and concomitant cooperation will draw the world into a different mind-set.

As often happens, when gazing at a distant goal, not only those critical of it but those drawn to it find that the obstacles loom larger than interludes of smooth sailing. Few foresee that, in and of itself, facing hardship together might have a transformative effect on all concerned that facilitates the success of the enterprise.

Rosenbaum writes that former Cold warrior Richard Burt turned Zero advocate

. . . admits the final stage will be the hardest to conceive much less execute, but he argues that the cumulative trust-building effect of the arms reduction to near-Zero will encourage confidence in the final step across the final line.

Skeptical realists might be better off kept in the dark about the transformative powers of the collaborative process, at least in this case. Should they be privy to advance knowledge that they might wind up meeting disarmament advocates halfway, or further — as with Burt, their resistance fallen way like a molting carapace — they may not embark on the journey. After all, disarmament can be a very disarming experience.

Want to Die in a Fire? No? Then You’re Opposed to Nuclear Weapons

What’s the worst way to die? Most will agree that perishing in a fire is at or close to the top of their list.

A number of factors inform those members of the America public who are in favor of the United States maintaining nuclear weapons to deter other nations. On one level, they fear the loss of liberty, which, during the Cold War, translated into life under communism should the Soviet Union defeat us. (Of course, the fall of communism begs the question: to which form of government do we fear being subjected should Russia defeat us today? A nominally more flagrant plutocracy than currently rules in the United States?)

Meanwhile, those subject to fear of a nuclear-terrorism attack by Islamist extremists tend to operate under the assumption that only death awaits us. Faced by an equally plausible scenario in which we’re held hostage to their demands, we’d instead fear shariah law. (Just a cut below Stalinism, according to the hard right.)

Much of the public believes that even if nuclear weapons fail to prevent an attack by another nuclear-weapon state, at least we’ll be able to use them to retaliate and ensure the survival of the United States. Of course, this reflects an ignorance of just how damaged the United States would be after a first strike by another country, as well as a disturbing acceptance of mass death in warfare to the nth agree (a topic for another day).

To reiterate, at the most primal level, we fear fire. But, the implications of it are too dreadful for most of us to contemplate. Instead we erect a firewall, if you will, in our psyche that insulates us from the knowledge that nuclear war likely means death by fire.

Nor does our lack of knowledge of history help. Hiroshima aside, how many have learned or recall learning of the firestorms created by the bombing of Hamburg and Dresden in World War II? If war is a nightmare, firestorms are the stuff of horror films.

Fire has a way of reducing matters to the essentials. In other words, if being consumed by flames ranks as the most frightening form of death, ergo, avoiding death by fire outranks avoiding life under communism or under shariah law. But there also exists among the American public those who seek not to escape death by fire, but actually embrace the prospect of an apocalyptic conflagration. This theatrical means of escorting them to the afterlife will also, they believe, purge the planet of its wickedness.

The difficulty that nuclear disarmament advocates face is opening up Americans (those who don’t embrace the end times, anyway) to the fear of fire that nuclear war represents. Unfortunately, Americans seem only to respond to scare tactics from the right.

Tunisian Jews Resist Pressure From Israel to Emigrate

Tunisian fathers of independence(Pictured: Fathers of Tunisian independence Mohammed Masmoudi, Mongi Slim, and Albert Bessis.)

1.
Writing in his journal on June 7, 1967, in the aftermath of anti-Jewish vandalism in Tunis following the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli Middle East War, Albert Bessis, a Jewish community leader and collaborator with Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia’s anti-colonial pro-independence movement, wondered, “What is the future of Tunisia’s Jewish Community? The old ones are dying off, our youth is leaving.”1, 2

When Bessis was writing in his diary, the Jewish population of Tunisia had already plummeted from perhaps 120,000 on the eve of independence in 1956 to a modest 5,000.3 Today it has shrunk to 1,500, among an overall population of 10.5 million. Despite the drop in Jewish numbers, the historically relaxed nature of Jewish-Muslim- relations that has characterized Tunisian society before the outbreak of the 1967 war comes through vividly in Ferid Boughedir’s film A Summer In La Goulette.

That spirit of tolerance, of a Jewish place in Tunisia’s past and present, never died. It remains alive and well in the post Ben Ali era that has just begun to unfold. The youth-led revolution that is sweeping through the Arab world is not driven by Islamic fundamentalist themes. Its referred to by some as ‘the third wave’ (the first the anti-colonial movement; the second the Islamic wave beginning in the 1980s).

Although not anti-religious, this revolution rejects the ideological approaches of the first wave and the narrow religious fundamentalism of the second. The movement instead is profoundly democratic, recognizing the legitimate place of the country’s minorities which make up a small percentage of the overall population.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that manifestations of anti-Jewish prejudice are not taken lightly. This past February 11, two months ago, 40 demonstrators, posing as Islamic fundamentalists, chanted anti-Jewish slogans in front of the main synagogue in Tunis. They were immediately condemned by the Tunisian government transition Interior Ministry as extremists inciting racial violence. In the United States, Los Angeles based ‘Free Tunisia‘ joined in the criticism:

What occurred outside the Jewish synagogue in central Tunis last Friday should never happen again. The Quran defends the right of religious expressions and defends religious institutions.(Quran, 5, 69) There should be no tolerance for hatred in the new Tunisian State. The oppression of religious minorities and the language of hatred towards the Jewish community must not be tolerated. It’s the Tunisian pride that one of the oldest Jewish Synagogues in the world is located in Tunisia.

Suspicions abounded among Tunisian social activists that this anti-Jewish outburst, so untypical of Tunisia’s uprising, was orchestrated by deposed President Ben Ali’s security apparatus to sow confusion and discredit the Tunisia revolt as Islamic-fundamentalist driven. There are indications that the crowd included members of ‘Tahrir’, a small splinter Islamic movement still banned in Tunisia that has barely a few hundred members. Tahrir’s goal is the establishment of an Islamic caliphate that unites all Moslem countries. Anti-Jewish and anti-Christian – indeed anti-everything that is not Islamic, it is also banned in most Arab countries. Movements like ‘Tahrir’ are often heavily infiltrated by security forces.

While such actions sent a temporary chill through the country’s tiny Jewish community, its message fell flat. As elsewhere throughout the Arab World, the Tunisian protests are youth, labor movement and student driven with a generally secular and democratic orientation. Islamic fundamentalists have played a limited role, if any. Established Islamic groups in Tunisia let it be known that they were not behind the synagogue protest. No public Islamic figure took part, and underneath their traditional Arab garb, protesters wore modern European garb typical of the security personnel.

2.
It appears that through its contacts – Israelis who previously lived in Tunisia – Israel has exerted pressure on Tunisian Jews to emigrate. Given that Tunisia’s Jewish population is so small, one would think it is not worthwhile for Israel to engage in such a misguided ‘public relations’, or more precisely, ‘disinformation’ campaign.

At least one major American based Jewish organization, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, also participated in its own way, embellishing the situation all out of proportion, suggesting Tunisia’s Jewish Community is in danger. Without the myth of radical Islamic threat to guide them, the Center seems at sea. Ideological blinders prevent them from appreciating the obvious: that there is very little – no – there is no place in Tunisia’s great democratic upsurge for the kind of anti-semitism that the Center argues is lurking in every Tunisian olive grove.

In Tunisia itself, it turns out, the situation is viewed quite differently. One month into the revolutionary upsurge in Tunisia, one of the country’s Jewish leaders, Roger Bismuth, a prosperous developer, was interviewed by JTA (the Jewish Telegraphic Agency is an influential U.S. Jewish source of news and opinion) about the situation. Although a long time advisor to deposed President Zine Ben Ali, Bismuth’s comments were not what the Israelis wanted to hear:

“The community is fine,” Bismuth told JTA by phone from Tunis. “Up until now we’ve had no problems. This is not really a matter of religion; it’s a popular revolution. The Jewish community is very well taken care of.” “He was behaving like a crook,” Bismuth commented about his former boss. He went on to reinforce what is now common knowledge. “He (Ben Ali) and his family stole property from people and the state, and they destroyed everything they could put their hands on.”

Tunisian Jewish sources in contact with the author take Bismuth’s comments further. They note that to date, Tunisian rabbis have resisted the pressure to discredit the changes unfolding by crying wolf about anti-semitism and setting the stage for a Jewish stampede to Tel Aviv. Precious few have responded to Tel Aviv’s siren call. According to press reports only 10 Tunisian Jews – one family – have moved to Israel since the protest movement started on December 17, 2010 when Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in Sidi Bou Zid. Reports of vandalism against Jewish property (beyond the Tunis synagogue demonstration cited above) have proven either exaggerated or fabricated. For example:

  • There was a report that circulated widely in the Israeli press that a synagogue in the southern Tunisian city of Gabes was burnt down. Not mentioned is that Gabes’ small Jewish Community had sold the synagogue to a private party more than 25 years ago.
  • Another rumor which proved less than accurate concerned an alleged burning of a Torah in a synagogue in El Hamma, a conservative Muslim community further south of Gabes. Minor detail: El Hamma hasn’t had a synagogue for nine centuries. El Hamma does have a ‘Jewish cemetery’ consisting of a one room mausoleum which was not vandalized and in any case did not contain a Torah.

3.
It was with surprise and some anger that Tunisians learned that Israel is urging Tunisian Jews to emigrate. Recently the Israeli government approved a funding package to help Tunisian Jews move to Israel citing ‘the worsening of the Tunisian authorities’ and society’s attitude toward the Jewish community; it its offer, Israel also noted the difficult situation that has been created in the country since the revolution. Despite an absence of proof, the Israelis are suspicious that Islamists are somehow driving the Tunisian revolution.

The Tunisian government did not take Israel’s call to gather Tunisian Jews lightly.

Tunisia’s post Ben Ali foreign ministry condemned Israel’s interference in the country’s internal affairs by offering Jews financial incentives to emigrate. The ministry “expressed great regret”, labeling the Israeli offer “a malicious call to Tunisian citizens to immigrate to Israel in an attempt to damage the image of Tunisia after the revolution and to create suspicion about its security, its economy and its stability.” In unusually strong language it continued:

Tunisia is outraged by the statements…(from) a country which still denies the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland, shamefully defying international law.

Interestingly enough, spokespeople for Tunisia’s Jewish Community have publicly rejected Israel’s offer, suggesting that as a community, they too are upset with this pressure. A spokesperson for the Jews of Djerba (where half of Tunisia’s Jewish population resides) echoed the foreign ministry’s comments:

We are Tunisians above all, and we do not have any problems. We live like everyone else and no Jew is going to leave the country.

Do Tunisian Jews face problems? Of course, the short-term economic woes that Tunisia is unlikely to avoid will impact Tunisia’s Jews as well as the rest of the country, especially on Djerba where tourism to the oldest synagogue in North Africa has been an important source of income. Tunisia’s Jews, like the rest of its citizens, are likely in for economic hard times. But it appears those remaining will stick it out – as they have for 2000 years – with their Muslim brothers and sisters.

Footnotes

1. Juliette Bessis. Magreb: La Traversée du Siècle. Harmattan:Paris: 1997. p 361

2. A Peace Corps volunteer in Tunis at the time, I witnessed this disturbing spectacle. Several days prior, the Jewish Community was warned by the Bourguiba government itself to stay away from the synagogue and Jewish owned businesses. The vandalism was well organized. A man with a list was directing his rag-tag mob. I still remember his voice: ‘not, that shop, no! no!, the next one .’ Juliette Bessis suggests that the vandalism was organized from the Algerian and Iraq embassies at the time. I thought differently, concluding that the Tunisian government itself had orchestrated the disruption as a diversion, to take the attention off of the mounting criticisms of the Bourguiba presidency itself. The vandals themselves were mostly lumpen elements, poor, many homeless, recruited by Tunisia’s security forces, trucked to the town’s center, paid a few dinars and directed to do property damage. Later some were arrested, tried and given prison sentences. The government reimbursed the damaged shop owners and the synagogue. But a psychological barrier had been breached and a sense of malaise, already present among Tunisia’s Jews, grew deeper.

3. Bessis, p. 283

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Robert Kaplan Continues to Flog His Tribal Ruler Meme With Gaddafi, Gbagbo and Saleh

Robert Kaplan has never shied away from bad ideas. A seasoned and sometimes shrewd observer of international affairs, Kaplan’s chief failing has always been his unwillingness to analytically retreat when he’s out of his depth—a weakness that often leaves readers stranded between mind-numbing banality and outright erroneousness.

Case in point: Kaplan’s new essay at Foreign Policy. Posing a reasonably interesting question—“Why is it so hard for strongmen to say goodbye?”—Kaplan offers an answer that is as intellectually flimsy as it is poorly presented. The reason, Kaplan argues, that Laurent Gbagbo, Muammar al-Qaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh just can’t bring themselves to leave political office is because…they’re “tribal warriors”!

The concept of warrior politics is familiar ground for Kaplan, who devoted an entire, and entirely absurd, book to the subject. Indeed, its only notable feature was the famous conclusion that “The short, limited wars and rescue operations with which we shall be engaged will…feature warriors on one side, motivated by grievance and rapine, and an aristocracy of statesmen, military officers, and technocrats on the other, motivated, one hopes, by ancient virtue,” a statement that stands out for being both nonsensical and patently wrong no matter how you slice it.

You might think that the book’s poor critical reception would make Kaplan think twice before resurrecting the “warrior” leitmotif in attempting to explore the Yemen, Libya and Cote d’Ivoire crises. After all, the notion of warrior politics, and attendant claims of ancient hatreds and the like, have been scoffed at and dismissed as being racist, unhelpful, and politically dangerous since at least the end of the Cold War.

But then you’d be wrong.

Things get off to a rotten start, and quickly. “By any rational standard,” Kaplan opens, “it would seem that the fighting and power struggles in the Ivory Coast, Libya, and Yemen should have been over weeks ago.” Really? What rational standard is that? And what precedent do we have to base it upon? Kaplan doesn’t bother with these sorts of considerations, but steams ahead to the observation that

the fact that they have already gone on as long as they have is an indication that there is a basic truth that those in the West fail to grasp about the individuals involved…[based on] reasoning [that] assumes that what divides these strongmen from their adversaries are issues as benign and susceptible to compromise as, say, Medicare and tax rates.

It’s not clear that anyone is assuming any such thing, but the basic point is fair enough. What, then, drives leaders? “They have been fighting for something far more age-old, basic, and less susceptible to compromise: territory and honor.” One need not bother pointing out Kaplan’s “the-barbarians-are-at-the-gates” racism to appreciate the fact that his driving thesis—that “their world is not one of institutions and bureaucracies [but] of dominating scraps of ground through dependence on relatives and tribal and regional alliances”—is already coming apart at the seams.

First off, according to Kaplan’s frame, “in such a world, figures like…Hosni Mubarak, are without virtue. They ruled in the Western style through institutions and bureaucracies, and when those institutions—the military and the internal security services—refused to shoot people in the streets, [they] had no choice but to meekly resign and quickly go into…exile.” Funny, I don’t remember Mubarak’s fall being quite so speedy. But this is largely beside the point. The real question here is: what does this have to do with anything? Nothing, it would seem, especially as Kaplan conveniently ignores the host of other cases where virtueless authoritarians operating through institutions and bureaucracies have stood fast in the face of popular protest—Iran, Bahrain, and Syria to name but three recent examples.

But it gets worse from there. According to Kaplan’s taxonomy of warrior thugs, “a figure like Gbagbo is especially despicable.”

In his mind, he fought an election and garnered close to half the votes. And those votes were not because of his position on this or that social or economic issue, but because of what he represented tribally and regionally…In places without sufficient economic development, like the Ivory Coast, elections often end up reifying differences based on blood and belief. To fight it out until he was cornered in the basement of his palace…is not a sign of moral weakness from his point of view, but of manly virtue.

Kaplan offers exactly zero evidence to support this claim, assuming that its truth is apparent on its face. Instead, he follows with the observation that

The same, of course, might be said of the sons of Saddam Hussein, Uday and Qusay, who were killed in a gunfight with US troops near Mosul in 2003—except that they, the spoiled-brat, gangsterish sons of the Stalinesque ruler, were by no means self-made men. Thus, they belong in a lower category of specimen than Gbagbo, Saleh, and Qaddafi.

Here again, Kaplan succeeds more in revealing his own class antagonisms and biased assumptions than he does in offering a coherent argument to explain the behavior of thuggish political elites under threat.

Seemingly sensing that readers might be scratching their heads in confusion, Kaplan gently admonishes his audience. “Remember, we are not talking about politicians so much as about warriors.” Oh, of course! How silly to forget! Except this is exactly what Kaplan does himself in the paragraph immediately following.

Take Saleh. The Western media labels the Yemeni president a recalcitrant tyrant whose stubbornness in clinging to power has, like Gbabgo in the Ivory Coast, threatened to unravel his country. [As if Yemen was the model of state stability before the recent protests.]…Saleh is clearly a man of steely nerves and subtle skill who, for decades, has dealt with levels of stress that would psychologically immobilize the most hardened Washington politico. The game he is playing now—negotiating the terms of his departure—is not just about him, but about the fate of his near and somewhat distant relatives. So, in a sense, who can begrudge him if he hangs on still longer, grasping for better and better terms?

Hold on. A moment ago, Kaplan was arguing that the manly ethic of tribal virtue militated against compromised solutions to political crisis. But now, Kaplan would have us believe that Salah is simply a crafty politician looking to work the angels for an optimum bargain. But never mind. Kaplan wraps up his discussion of Saleh by warning that “A few years from now, we may even look back on his rule as one of relative stability and cooperation with the West. Just because he deserves our condemnation now does not mean from an analytical perspective that he should be sold short.” Huh?

As for Qaddafi, “the fact that he has not gone quietly is a sign that he, too, is not fighting about any particular issues, per se, but about a vision of honor that strikes us as primitive, connected as it is to region, tribe, and territory.” I don’t know about anyone else, but Qaddafi doesn’t seem to me so much primitive as just plain nuts. Kaplan, however, isn’t all that interested in actually grappling with Qaddafi’s nature. Instead, he shifts gears entirely to set up new arguments of even greater incoherence.

And while we are on the subject of tribe and territory, it is important to recognize that the particular kind of tribalism that is one background factor in the rules of Qaddafi, Saleh, and Gbagbo is actually not a primitive, before-the-modern-state tribalism at all, but, as the late European anthropologist Ernest Gellner defined it, a tribalism that constitutes a conscious rejection of a particular government in favor of a wider culture and ethic…life under these men was hell, no doubt, but there was an identifiable logic to their madness, however much I have simplified it. Indeed, nobody captures the attraction of life outside the state as brilliantly as Yale University anthropologist James C. Scott in his book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Tribes today, Scott suggests, do not live outside history, but have “as much history as they require” in order to deliberately practice “state avoidance.” That is to say, tribes are rich in traditions and consequently do not seek the intrusion of government officialdom.”

This may offer an explanation of Qaddafi’s historic troubles getting control over the eastern regions of Libya, but hardly explains his own decision-making behavior. After all, for all intents and purposes, Qaddafi is the state, not an actor trying to escape it.

But no matter. Just when it seems like Kaplan’s analysis is about to crash and burn, he ejects from the cockpit and parachutes to relative safety with the limp and, at least in the case of Gbagbo, inaccurate conclusion that the three warrior rulers “have lived within this complex and ambiguous reality their whole lives and have thus not been state builders, yet another reason, in addition to the moral ones, that they have not found sympathy in the West. But that is no argument against trying to understand them.” That may be, but this essay surely offers good reason to give up trying to understand Robert Kaplan.

Impact of Fukushima Continues to Inch up to Chernobyl Levels

New radiation leaks at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant spurred Japanese nuclear regulators to raise the level of how great an accident it is from five to seven (“major”). Since that’s the highest on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s scale, it’s now on a par with Chernobyl.

Of course, Fukushima has emitted only a tenth of the radiation as Chernobyl, according to the Associated Press. In other words, if Fukushima is 7.0, Chernobyl was 7.999. But, AP writes of the Fukushima radiation leaks, “they eventually could exceed Chernobyl’s emissions if the crisis continues.”

This came hot on the heels of news that five communities had been added to the 12-mile suggested evacuation radius. In addition, citizens were urged to keep the ill, pregnant, and very young outside an 18-mile radius. In fact, reports the Japan Times, the Fukushima radius “will soon be turned into a legally binding off-limits zone,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. “Officials suggested Sunday that they will now be able to force anyone out of the evacuation zone who refuses to leave.” A commentator on PBS, whose name I failed to catch, suggested that Japan may use eminent domain with the residents relocated and somehow provided housing elsewhere.

Meanwhile, at ABC News, Stephen Brozak and Henry Bassman, executives at WBB Securities, wrote about the consequences of Fukushima for the world, business and otherwise. They point out that the enlarged 18 miles-plus evacuation radius is “the same distance as the exclusion zone around Chernobyl in Ukraine.” But less radiation than Chernobyl aside, in other respects, the implications are as or more serious.

. . . Japan is neither as large or as sparsely populated as Ukraine. Close to 73 percent of Japan is unsuitable for agricultural, industrial, or residential use.

Presumably, the authors mean that was already true before the disaster. Though it’s difficult to understand why since three-quarters of Japan certainly isn’t park land. Nevertheless, Brozak and Bass write:

The Japanese government and Japanese investors comprise the second largest holders of U.S. Treasuries, at $885 billion. The Bank of Japan also is reported to hold $493 billion in its reserve balance to avert credit problems. Some financial observers have speculated that the earthquake and tsunami may force Japan’s government and investors to liquidate much of the U.S. debt they hold.

In other words, Japan may call in what the United States owes it. While the United States is staggering from that roundhouse right, neither will the rest of the world be immune from the economic ripple effects of Fukushima.

Farmers have been forced to destroy crops and dispose of dairy products. Because of continuing contamination of seawater, the healthfulness of seafood from the Pacific Ocean is in question. Japan is already a net food importer. In response to a continuing shortage of Japanese home-grown food, the Japanese government may encourage importation of even more foreign food, which is likely to increase the price of food in a nation where food is already an extremely expensive commodity. Worldwide, increased competition for food is likely to affect prices, causing some people in marginal economies to go hungry.

No matter how desperate we are for energy, it’s difficult to understand how people can still proselytize for a form of it in which one accident can cause waves at home and elsewhere as powerful as, well, a tsunami.

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