Focal Points Blog

Isn’t It Time Israel and Palestine Understood Each Other’s Dispute-Resolution Customs?

AbbasAbbas Calls For Terrorists’ Release Before Peace Talks,” reads a recent headline in an Israeli political blog. “Abbas … sees great opportunity in using the precondition of releasing terrorists as leverage for just beginning peace talks,” says the text.

The idea that Palestinians are presenting preconditions to negotiations is a prevalent view in Israel. Officials usually respond by stating that Israel is not going to give “presents” to Abbas just for joining the peace talks. For example, a recent article in a major Israeli online news outlet quotes “senior officials in Jerusalem” as saying, “Talks yes, gestures of goodwill no.”

Those of us familiar with Muslim/Arab customary justice practices see in Abbas’ “leverage” something else. A major part of a ubiquitous Muslim/Arab dispute resolution practice called sulha (settlement) calls for the perpetrator’s side to make a gesture towards the victim’s side using a ritualistic tool called atwa (token of good will). The standard practice, in case of a dispute among Arabs (Muslims, Christians, and Druze), is for the atwa to be extended through a symbolic amount of money, demonstrating the seriousness of the intentions of the perpetrator’s side as they enter the settlement negotiations. At the same time, accepting the atwa signals the victim’s side’s agreement to join the settlement process. This arrangement bonds both sides into a process designed to replace conflict with forgiveness and demands with a settlement.
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Cyberwar and Nuclear War: the Most Dangerous of All Conflations

CyberwarfareFormer counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke, famous for criticizing the Bush administration’s lax stance toward terrorism before 9/11, and former Clinton administration National Security Council official Steve Andreasen addressed the wisdom of responding to a cyber attack with nuclear weapons in a recent Washington Post op-ed. They wrote:

The Pentagon’s Defense Science Board concluded this year that China and Russia could develop capabilities to launch an “existential cyber attack” against the United States. … “While the manifestation of a nuclear and cyber attack are very different,” the board concluded, “in the end, the existential impact to the United States is the same.”

Yes, I know. How can you conflate the effects of a nuclear attack with that of a cyber attack, no matter how devastating? Clarke and Andreasen continue.

Because it will be impossible to fully defend our systems against existential cyberthreats, the board argued, the United States must be prepared to threaten the use of nuclear weapons to deter cyberattacks. 
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Egypt: The Deck Is Reshuffled (Pt. 1)

“Do you hear the people sing, singing a song of angry men, it is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.”Les Miserables

32 million Egyptians in the streets can’t all be wrong

EgyptDemonstrationThis time the Egyptian people did not wait 41 years to bring down what could be called the Sadat-Mubarak government. With a little help from their friends in the military, they did it in less than a year. Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government is history.

As in 2011 when their mass demonstrations forced out Hosni Mubarak, once again, in extraordinary numbers, the Egyptian people took to the streets of Cairo and virtually every other Egyptian city to protest the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi. Two years ago, impressive enough at the time for sure, it was over a million people who converged on Cairo’s Tahir Square forcing Mubarak, a long-time key American partner in the Middle East, from power.

Two years later – a mere week ago – this time, an almost unbelievable 32 million – let’s write that out long-hand –32,000,000 Egyptians took to the streets demanding Morsi’s resignation and a change in government. To believe that Morsi could continue in his presidency after such a resounding public rejection borders on the delusional. It was over. The people had spoken and far more decisively than those 12 million who had voted for Morsi in Egypt’s national election. Other than the faithful of the Moslem Brotherhood and Qatari money, Morsi had completely lost his legitimacy in the eyes of the nation.
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From Egypt to Syria: Is the Gulf Cooperation Council the Tail That Wags the U.S. Dog?

For U.S. policy-makers, the annual allocation of 1.3 billion dollars provided to Egypt has been a vital tool for maintaining its sphere of influence with the Egyptian government.

GCCWhen I read that the Egyptian military had issued an ultimatum to the Morsi government to resolve the social crisis in the country or, by implication, it would step in to solve the crisis, it was not apparent to me why the U.S. would give the green light to a military coup with all of the complications that would entail for U.S. policy-makers.

Along with the social upheaval and increased instability that would be generated by ending the democratic process in the country, U.S. law requires an automatic suspension of aid to any country when state power is assumed as a result of a coup that disposes a democratically elected government.

And since President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had demonstrated their political allegiance to the U.S. and Anne Patterson, the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, giving clear support to Morsi just a few weeks ago, reversing course and taking on the headache of a military coup did not make sense to me.
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A New and Improved FPIF





This past week, as many of you have probably noticed, FPIF rolled out a brand-new redesigned website. We’re still in the process of transitioning a few things, but it’s my great pleasure to show you what we’ve done so far.

Foremost of all, we’ve modernized our front page to put FPIF content front and center. We’ve got a stylish new slideshow display to feature more timely articles, but we’ve also left more space to keep newer commentaries up front so they don’t disappear after a few days. And while preserving front-page space for our regular columnists, we’ve also carved out a new section for blog posts, which represent about half of FPIF’s output. The goal is to make sure you don’t miss a thing.

Just as importantly, we’ve streamlined our archiving of older pieces, making it easier to browse commentaries and blog posts by subject, region, tags, and author. And if you don’t see what you’re looking for right away, we have a brand new Google-based site search that outperforms our previous search function by a long shot.

I’m also excited to announce that FPIF is now fully compatible with mobile devices, which means our content should be readable and accessible no matter what your screen size.

Our new site design also comes with built-in features designed to enhance social media sharing and search engine results for FPIF articles, which I hope will bring our progressive perspective on global issues to more people than ever.

FPIF has always been at the forefront of foreign policy analysis in the 21st century, connecting writers and activists working to make the United States a more responsible global partner. I’m happy to say we finally have a website that looks the part.

Abbottabad Evidence of Pakistan’s ‘Governance Implosion Syndrome’?

The Abbottabad CommissionIn the wake of the American raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in 2011, the Pakistani government formed what came to be known as the Abbottabad Commission. Its mission: to investigate two security lapses, one more embarrassing and indicative of incompetence than the other. One, how did U.S. forces violate Pakistan’s sovereignty with such impunity? Two, how did bin Laden manage to spend over a decade in Pakistan undetected?

In a report published July 9 by AlJazeera, Asad Hashim does an outstanding job of summarizing the leaked report. He writes:

During the course of its investigation, the Commission found “a shocking state of affairs”, where local governance had completely collapsed, as had the ability of the military, intelligence and security services to perform their jobs.

After reading Hashim’s account, one can’t help but conclude that local authorities were demoralized by how the army and ISI lorded it over them. That was illustrated by how they were elbowed aside after the raid at Abbottabad.  For its part, the ISI seemed to lose interest in searching for bin Laden both because it believed him dead and because, at a certain point, the United States discontinued sharing information about its search for him.
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Egypt: Islamist Style of Governing Should Be Familiar to Americans

New York Times columnist David Brooks was rightly taken to task for his July 4th column about the current upheavals in Egypt. Writing about what happens when groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood assume the leadership of a nation, he makes sense at first.

Muslim Brotherhood

President Eisenhower meets with representatives of the Muslim Brothers.

Democracy, the argument goes, will eventually calm extremism. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood may come into office with radical beliefs, but then they have to fix potholes and worry about credit ratings and popular opinion. Governing will make them more moderate.

But, as is his tendency – such a master of column-craft of the column, such a perverse mind – he can’t help himself and writes:

It has become clear — in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza and elsewhere — that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government. … Islamists might be determined enough to run effective opposition movements and committed enough to provide street-level social services. But they lack the mental equipment to govern.

The fiendish deviousness of the 911 plot should have settled questions about the “mental equipment” of radical Islamists for all time. Also, Brooks should have swapped the offending phrase for the word “disposition” – it seems more in accord with the point he was making anyway. Instead, he proceeds to compound his offensiveness.

It’s no use lamenting Morsi’s bungling because incompetence is built into the intellectual DNA of radical Islam.

Then, just when you think he can’t go any lower, Brooks writes: “It’s not that Egypt” – by which he seems to mean the Muslim Brotherhood – “doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.”

Okay, we get it: radical Islamists suffer from “incompetence” and lack the “mental equipment” and “basic mental ingredients” to govern. Surely, in light of the Islamic world’s intellectual and cultural achievements over the centuries, an educated man such as Brooks isn’t suggesting that Arabs are an inferior race. But using a phrase like “the intellectual DNA” can’t help but sound like he’s invoking the specter of eugenics to make just that case.

To give the devil his due, Brooks makes one good point when he speaks about potholes and credit ratings. How exactly do Islamists intend to govern?

While I was reading Robert Dreyfuss’s Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Metropolitan Books, 2006) shortly after it was published, this passage jumped off the page. Regarding the infusion of oil money into the Arab world he writes (emphasis added):

From 1974 onward, the Islamic banking system served as the financial backbone of the Islamic right [which] had long made clear that it preferred capitalism to atheistic communism. None of the important Islamist movements, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to Pakistan’s Islamic Group to the Shite fundamentalists in Iraq, preached social and economic justice. Instead, they opposed state ownership, and social welfare programs.

Actually, the Muslim Brotherhood runs its own social welfare programs, apart from the government. Meanwhile, a couple of months after Mohamed Morsi was elected president of Egypt in June 2012, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution wrote:

The broad strokes of what the Brotherhood wants are relatively straightforward. …The first and most obvious priority is economic recovery and its various constituent parts: boosting employment, reducing income inequality, and combating corruption.

But reversing “the economy’s downward trend” is “not just an end but a means.” To what? Hamid again.

If the Brotherhood manages to, then Egyptians will be more willing to tolerate controversial interventions in the social and moral sphere (something which Turkish Islamists came to learn over time).

Equally as detrimental to democracy

… the Brotherhood will use its growing role in the economy to bind Egyptians to it through interlocking patron-client relationships. In this sense, penetrating the state machinery, including in education and the media through the Ministry of Information, helps the Brotherhood with its long game; further cementing the organization’s role in public life.

Throw in cronyism on top of love money and a theocratic state. Who does that remind you of? Oh, Republicans.

Speaking Openly in Serbia

Cross-posted from John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Dragoslav Popovic, a lawyer who works on HIV and AIDS issues.

Dragoslav Popovic, a lawyer who works on HIV and AIDS issues.

The incidence of HIV/AIDS in Serbia is comparatively low: 0.1 percent of the population compared to 0.6 percent in the United States, 1 percent in Russia, and 25 percent in Swaziland. Nevertheless, those who live with the disease report that they are stigmatized, ostracized, and have difficulties gaining access to treatment. Some are fired from their jobs; others are kicked out of their families.

Dragoslav Popovic is a lawyer who has worked for quite a few years on HIV/AIDS issues. He reports that the situation has marginally improved for people with the disease.

“The public perception was worse than it is nowadays,” he told me in an interview in Belgrade last October. “Stigmatization and discrimination were common. From the point of view of treatment, it was even worse, because they had to pay for their treatments and nowadays it’s free. Not many people were in a position to afford that, so it was added stress for them. Even nowadays, when I’m doing consulting with them, they don’t even know their rights as a patient, such as the right to confidentiality. If you don’t confront the doctors and the medical staff, they’ll just continue to do what they’re doing. You have to stand up and tell them, ‘You’re not allowed to do that. That’s confidential information.’ So it’s better nowadays in terms of people speaking more openly, which is as important as making them stronger.”

Speaking openly has been a consistent theme in Dragoslav Popovic’s life, from his self-assertiveness in grade school to his political activism during his university days in the movement to oust Slobodan Milosevic. Speaking openly has also meant taking somewhat unorthodox positions, at least compared to other democracy activists. He has taken a dim view of the Hague Tribunal, and he views Kosovo as Serbian territory. But he has also taken strong stands against Serbian chauvinism and homophobia.

During our conversation, we talked about the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the role of the Church in Serbia, and his attempts to change the minds of two of his friends, one a Serbian nationalist and the other a diehard follower of Milosevic’s party.

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Burma President’s Dangerous Refusal to Condemn Buddhists for Violence Against Rakhine Muslims

Buddhist monk-rakhine MuslimsFor the past year, Myanmar’s Rakhine State has been overwhelmed by rampant sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims. Besides fighting each other, the two communities are also battling global media outlets and the Burmese government for control over the world’s perception of the violence that is permeating their own lives.

Time magazine’s July 1 issue has been one of the most controversial attempts at framing the violence. The cover condemns Buddhist monk U Wirathu, leader of the Buddhist nationalist 969 Movement, as the “face of Buddhist terror.” In reaction, Myanmar President Thein Sein promptly banned the issue for allegedly misrepresenting Myanmar’s Buddhists and the situation in Rakhine. A closer examination of the Rakhine state violence reveals that the issue is much more complex than both Time and the nation’s president make it out to be.

The recent clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims began in June 2012 with the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya attackers, which initiated a violent backlash from members of the Buddhist community. Since then, around 250 people in the Rakhine region have been killed and several thousand, mostly Muslims, have been forced to flee their homes. Everyone agrees that the conflict is horrific—President Sein issued a state of emergency in the region back in March. But what remains contested is who should be held responsible for the violence. Who is really attacking whom?

Many, including Time, are pointing straight at U Wirathu, whose anti-Islamic 969 campaign has hit city streets with posters, CDs, and graffiti to advertise its disturbing platform. Wirathu dreams of a religiously segregated Myanmar and has drafted a law that restricts inter-faith marriage. Only 5 percent of the Burmese population identifies as Muslim, and yet the 969 campaign views this narrow demographic as a burden and threat to Burmese Buddhists. Wirathu’s following of Buddhist monks is growing, and his sermons seem to be inspiring hate and violence, despite the campaign’s claim to have non-violent intentions.

Other groups in Myanmar, like this purportedly Muslim Facebook group, insist it is not the Buddhists who are causing violence. However, the emerging correlation between the campaign’s increasing size and influence and an increase in anti-Muslim riots is difficult to deny. One Muslim resident expressed his fears, saying “the more we see the ‘969’ signs, the more we feel unsafe.” From the other side, Wirathu expresses concerns for his own safety. In an interview with the Irrawaddy, he claimed that Muslims “want me to be arrested, or killed. That’s why they put me on the [Time] cover, I think. … Extremists are trying to turn Burma into an Islamic country.”

In the midst of this blame game, President Thein Sein refuses to publicly choose sides. When questioned by ABC News, Sein denied that the violence in Rakhine is at all ethnic, racial, or religious, claiming that the portrayal of the violence as such only polarizes the communities further. He has also defended the campaign, calling U Wirathu “noble,” which exposes the government’s bias and excuses the hate-speech that, if not directly inspiring violence, undoubtedly encourages the further bifurcation of communities.

So far Sein’s tactic of forcibly denying the ethno-religious charge has not made situation easier to resolve. Order has not been restored to the region and hopes of reconciliation between groups recede as the violence increases. If Sein continues to support a campaign that preaches hate, he will effectively obliterate the nation’s chances of restoring peace and creating unity among its diverse peoples. We can only hope that the growing urgency of the situation will force the Burmese government to drop the act and start promoting tolerance and integration now, both for the sake of those suffering in the Rakhine state, and for the nation’s future as a transitioning democracy.

Emma Lo is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Poison Gas and Arabian Tales

“It is not unlike Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark. It’s not just that we can’t prove a sarin attack, it is that we are not seeing what we would expect to see from a sarin attack.”
– Jean-Pascal Zanders, former senior research fellow at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies

Allegations of sarin use by the Syrian government are bedeviled by chain-of-custody issues.

Allegations of sarin use by the Syrian government are bedeviled by chain-of-custody issues.

Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, cracked the case of the “Silver Blaze” by concluding that a murder and theft had to be an inside job because the watchdog never barked. It would be a good idea to keep this in mind when it comes to determining whether the Syrian government used poison gas against its opponents. And since the Obama administration is citing “proof” that the chemical warfare agent sarin was used by the Syrian government as the basis for escalating its intervention in the two-year old civil war, this is hardly an academic exercise.

Like Holmes, start with the facts.

According to French, British, Israeli and U.S. intelligence services, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad used sarin on at least 10 different occasions, resulting in the deaths of some 100 to 150 people. The “proof” for this is based on tissue and blood samples—British intelligence claims contaminated soil as well—from victims of the attacks. The samples were gathered in Syria, taken to Turkey, and turned over to the intelligence services and the United Nations.

The French newspaper Le Monde also reports that one of its reporters suffered blurred vision and nausea during one of these attacks, and the paper has published photos of purported victims being treated. There is, as well, a video of insurgent fighters donning gas masks. Besides the photos and video images, no evidence has been released to the press.

What about the beast itself?

The chemical was invented in Germany in 1938 as a pesticide. It is a nerve agent—as opposed to a “blistering agent” like mustard gas—and kills by blocking the body’s ability to control the chemical that allows muscles to turn themselves off. As the Office of Emergency Management puts it, “Without an ‘off switch,’ the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function.”

You suffocate.

Sarin is a colorless and odorless liquid, and it is “volatile”—that is, it quickly turns into a gas. Even in small concentrations, it is very deadly and can kill within minutes. It is absorbed through the skin or lungs and can contaminate clothing for up to 30 minutes. The British created a far deadlier and less volatile variant of sarin called V. It was an errant VX cloud from the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground that killed some 6,000 sheep in Utah’s Skull Valley in 1968.

Many countries have chemical weapons, but some, including the U.S. and Russia, are in the process of destroying them under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Sarin is considered a “weapon of mass destruction” under UN Resolution 687, although that label is a bit of a misnomer. It is certainly bad stuff. In 1988 Saddam Hussein used sarin to kill several thousand Kurds in the city of Halabja, and sarin and mustard gas were used during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). It is estimated that gas inflicted about 5 percent of Iran’s casualties in that war.

But poison gas is generally considered more of a nuisance than a weapon capable of creating large numbers of dead and wounded. It only accounted for one percent of the casualties in World War I, and doesn’t compare with a real weapon of mass destruction. The two nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed some 250,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands more. And by today’s standard of nuclear weapons, those bombs were tiny.

While chemical weapons are scary, they are no more indiscriminate in what they kill than 1,000-lb bombs and cluster weapons, indeed much of the arsenals of modern armies. Small arms, for instance, inflict 90 percent of civilian casualties.

In any case, President Obama made the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war his “red line,” a barrier he claims has now been breached.

Has it?

Philip Coyle, a senior scientist at Washington’s Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has his doubts, telling the McClatchy newspapers that from what he has observed of the evidence, it doesn’t look as if sarin was used.

Jean-Pascal Zanders, former head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm international Peace Research Institute questions some of the reports in Le Monde. For instance, the newspaper reports that victims traveled a long distance for medical care, which he suggests is unlikely if sarin was used. He also points out there are no reports of medical workers dying from exposure to victims, even though sarin clings to clothing for up to a half hour. He also questions a Le Monde report that one victim was given 15 shots of the antidote atropine, a dose that would surely have been fatal.

“In a world where even the secret execution of Saddam Hussein was taped by someone, it doesn’t make sense that we don’t see videos, that we don’t see photos showing bodies of the dead, the reddened faces and the bluish extremities of the afflicted,” he says.

While the French claim they have an “unbroken chain of custody” from the attack to the lab, even experts who believe the intelligence reports disagree. Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association says that while his “guess” is that the poison gas was used, there is a lack of “continuous chain of custody for the physiological samples from those exposed to sarin.”

One “Western diplomat” told the Washington Post, “The chain-of-custody issue is a real issue,” in part because the “red line” speech was an incentive to “prove” chemical weapons had been used. As Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish scientist who headed the UN’s weapons inspections in Iraq, said, “If you are the opposition…you have an interest in giving the impression that some chemical weapons have been used.”

According to a report in the New York Times, samples gathered in Aleppo were carried by a civilian courier from that city to the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, “a journey that took longer than expected. At one point,” reports the Times, “the courier forgot the blood vials, which were not refrigerated, in his car. Ten days after the attack, the vials arrived at the Turkish field office for the Syrian American Medical Society.”

In short, the samples were hardly secured during the week and a half it took them to get to Turkey, and they were delivered into the hands of insurgency supporters.

Carla del Ponte, former war crimes prosecutor and currently a member of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, says it was the rebels, not Syria, who are the guilty party.

Damascus refuses to allow the UN to test for chemical weapons inside of Syria, which certainly raises suspicions. On the other hand the UN has not exactly been a neutral bystander in the civil war. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon has demanded “unfettered access”—an unlikely event in the middle of a war—and while sharply condemning Iran and Russia for supplying arms to Assad, has muted such criticism of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the main arms suppliers for the rebels.

There is a certain common sense factor in all this as well. Would the Assad government really “cross the red line” in order to kill 150 people?

When U.S. Special Forces invaded Syria in 2008 to attack what they claimed was a “terrorist gathering”—it turned out to be carpenters and farmers—the Syrians protested, but did nothing. At the time, Syria’s Foreign Minister told Der Speigel that Damascus had no wish to “escalate the situation” with the U.S. “We are not Georgia” he added, an illusion to Georgia’s disastrous decision to pick a fight with Russia in the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.

Nor has Syria responded to three bombing raids by Israel, knowing that challenging the powerful Israeli air force would be suicidal.

Western intelligence services want us to believe that Damascus deliberately courted direct U.S. intervention for something totally marginal to the war. Maybe the Assad regime has lost its senses. Maybe some local commanders took the initiative to do something criminal and dumb. Maybe the whole thing is a set-up.

Shouldn’t we wait until the dog barks?

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

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