Focal Points Blog

Belgrade: Gritty City

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

The Turkish bath of Milos Obrenovic, now a bathroom and storage space for the Monument restaurant.

The Turkish bath of Milos Obrenovic, now a bathroom and storage space for the Monument restaurant.

Sometimes that person you immediate dislike becomes, over time, a close friend. In fact, the very things you disliked about that person can end up becoming his or her chief virtues in your eyes.

That’s been my experience with Serbia. The first encounter was certainly not auspicious. I first visited Belgrade in 1989, on my way south from Poland to the beaches of the Croatian coast. Or, at least, that’s where I thought I was heading. I arrived in Belgrade that July only to discover that all the bus and train tickets to Dubrovnik were sold out. During that summer, even with the Yugoslav economy in difficult straits, Dubrovnik remained a popular destination. Air tickets were available, but I didn’t have that kind of money. So, I ended up staying in Belgrade, disgruntled.

Belgrade seemed to me quite ugly, and I couldn’t wait to leave. I rescheduled my flight but still had to pass three days there. I could never get the hang of the city’s geography. Even with a map I was always getting lost. And everywhere I went I ran into the same two guys. Next to all the pictures of Tito hanging on the walls of restaurants and newsstands was this other fellow, Slobodan Milosevic, who looked like an apparatchik from central casting. I couldn’t wrap my head around all the signs that proclaimed “I [heart] Serbia.” I naively thought the creation of Yugoslavia had meant the death of nationalism. I obviously hadn’t been following recent events in the country.

My next visit to Belgrade was a 1990 flight with Yugoslav Air that passed through the country on the way to Poland. In those days, JAT was the cheapest way to get to Eastern Europe, but many of the flights with connections to points north required an overnight stay in Belgrade. On that particular night, we arrived late at night, near 10 pm, and were driven from the airport into the city to a reasonably nice three-star hotel. Sixty or seventy very hungry people crowded into the hotel lobby, waiting for the distribution of room keys. We waited. And waited. After an hour, it turned out that the hotel didn’t have rooms for us.

“Not to worry,” said our JAL representative. He packed us back into our bus, and we drove in the direction of the airport again. Near midnight, the bus stopped at a no-star hotel. Again we waited for an hour for our room keys to be distributed. The hotel had rooms for us, just not enough. I spent a restless night in a small room in a double bed with another guy, sleeping head to foot. Dinner that night was a huge platter of grilled meat that, because we were all ravenous, we tore into with abandon. There was plenty of alcohol to make us forget our ordeal and then, the next morning, to remember it in painful detail.

They woke us early enough to get to the airport three hours before our flights left. The airport wasn’t even open. I sat on a hard plastic seat and tried to sleep. Finally, it was time to check in.

“Ah,” said the young woman behind the counter, “you have to pay the airport tax.”

“Airport tax? No one had said anything about an airport tax.” I didn’t have any Yugoslav dinars, so I offered dollars.

“Oh no,” she said, “it has to be in dinars.”

“But the exchange booths aren’t open,” I pointed out.

She shrugged.

It turned out that I had a 15-minute window to exchange money, pay the tax, and, running with several other unhappy travelers, get onto the plane before it left. Goodbye and good riddance, I thought as Belgrade retreated into the distance.

An acquaintance later told me that she’d been in a similar situation at the Belgrade airport with one important difference: her early-morning flight left before the exchange booths opened. She waited until the last moment, walked up to the ticket-taking official, and threw a crumpled bill in his direction in lieu of the airport tax receipt. Then she ran through the turn style, down the ramp, and onto her plane just before they closed the doors. She became breathless all over again in the retelling, which made the improbable story believable.

Later that same year, I finally made it to Belgrade as part of my multi-country tour of the region. As soon as I arrived in the city, all of these bad memories flooded back. I had only one contact in the city. I called her up, interviewed her, and left for Zagreb the next day. There were even more pictures of Milosevic around, and the news of confrontations between Serbs and Croats in the Krajina region of Croatia were filtering in. Foreboding was thick in the air. The woman who owned the private flat where I was staying told me in a mix of Serbian and Russian that the Croatians were all fascists and the Albanians produced too many children. Civil society activist Sonja Licht, my one interviewee, provided me with an incisive critique of Milosevic and suggested that civil war had become increasingly likely. I couldn’t wait to leave.

Now, on my return to the region to retrace my steps, I’ve decided to start with Serbia. This might seem strange, since it’s the place where I talked to the fewest people. But I felt that I had been unfair to Belgrade. On a trip to the city a few years ago, I discovered that it wasn’t such a bad place after all. In fact, the pedestrian area in the downtown was charming and festive. I talked with artists and activists who were doing difficult and important work. But this visit in 2008 had also been brief, and I still felt that I hadn’t really seen Belgrade or Serbia.

I’ve already had several interesting encounters on this latest trip. I interviewed Sonja Beserko, once a member of the Yugoslav foreign ministry and long a sharp critic of authoritarian and nationalist politics. I ventured by bus to Pancevo, a suburb of Belgrade that NATO bombed repeatedly in 1999, to meet Sasa Rakevic, who writes comic strips under the name Alexander Zograf and published the wonderful book, Regards from Serbia. Later I’ll write more about these fascinating conversations along with a return visit with Sonja Licht.

But this Sunday I had a chance to wander around Belgrade and appreciate its intriguing tangle of streets. The city has been repeatedly destroyed over the years, by the Ottomans, the Austrians, and most devastatingly during World War II. Some buildings damaged during the 1999 bombing have been left standing as a reminder. Despite all this destruction, you can still find some lovely architecture – an art nouveau building, an old palace, an stately Orthodox church.

I had dinner at a restaurant called Monument, located in an addition to an old haram, or Turkish bath, that once was part of the extensive quarters of Milos Obrenovic. The placards hanging near the restaurant describe Obrenovic’s key role in Serbian history as a participant in the first uprising against Ottoman rule, a leader of the second uprising, and then a ruler who established the country as an autonomous dukedom.

Coincidentally, I was reading over dinner Helen Leah Reed’s 1916 book, Serbia: A Sketch. Just as I started in on my trout, I came upon the passage about Obrenovic. Reed adds something that the placards leave out: that Obrenovic had likely betrayed Serbian resistance leader Karadgordge to the Ottomans. So, it is fitting perhaps that all that remains of Obrenovic’s once vast estate – he was reputed to be one of the richest men of the Balkans – is this modest stone bathhouse, which now serves as a bathroom and storage facility for the restaurant.

Belgrade is not Prague. It’s not a beautiful city set up to accommodate tens of thousands of tourists. You have to work a little harder to appreciate the charms of the city. You have to dig a little to uncover its quirky history. But in the end, this struggle becomes perhaps this gritty city’s chief selling point.

If Drone Strikes Are “Surgical,” the U.S. Is Guilty of Military Malpractice

In his latest salvo at the U.S. drone campaign, Conor Friedersdorf, the Atlantic’s resident anti-militarist, writes about his exasperation with the terminology “surgical” when applied to drone strikes. The Obama administration, he writes, has “successfully transplanted the term into public discourse about drones.”

I’ve been told American drone strikes are “surgical” while attending Aspen Ideas Festival panels, interviewing delegates at the Democratic National Convention, and perusing reader emails after every time I write about the innocents killed and maimed in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

It is a triumph of propaganda.

But, Friedersdorf points out:

Using data that undercounts innocents killed, The New America Foundation reports that 85 percent of Pakistanis killed in drone strikes are “militants,” while 15 percent are civilians or unknown. What do you think would happen to a surgeon that accidentally killed 15 in 100 patients? Would colleagues would call him “surgical” in his precision?

No, he’d likely be named a defendant in medical malpractice suits. Friedersdorf again:

… it is a downright dishonest metaphor when invoked by an administration that could make their strikes more like surgery but doesn’t. For example, the Obama Administration could make certain of the identity of the people it is “operating on.” Instead it sometimes uses “signature strikes,” wherein the CIA doesn’t even know the identity of the people it is killing. It could also attempt autopsies, literal or figurative, when things go wrong. Instead, it presumes sans evidence that all military-aged males killed in drone strikes are “militants.”

Friedersdorf’s criticism, of course, isn’t constructive; he isn’t seeking to assist in legitimizing our drone strikes. He’s just pointing out that the program is even worse than it has to be.

What President Obama’s UN Address on Free Speech and Extremism Means for the “Incitement” Debate

Innocence of MuslimsIn his speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, September 25, President Obama denounced the now notorious film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad as “crude and disgusting.” He also declined to call the film a catalyst for the tragic deaths of four Americans on September 11 at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Instead, President Obama rightly reaffirmed America’s commitment to freedom of expression and shined a light on extremists.

At the heart of the discourse over the incident is the position that Islam forbids any depiction of its founder. This belief should be respected. In her initial speech condemning the deaths, Secretary Clinton noted that America has always stood for religious tolerance. And so we stand today.

Yet, rather than seizing an opportunity to explain the significance of depicting Muhammad and to explore various perspectives on the violence, some commentators and even world leaders, such as newly-elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, suggest that the film constitutes incitement. The implication is that by providing a representation of Muhammad – just like burning a Quran – the creator is inciting Muslims to commit violence. This argument conveniently shifts the blame to the filmmaker.

As last week’s speech makes clear, however, the incitement debate doesn’t work. Along with our acceptance of people of all races and religions, America also honors a strong tradition of respect for freedom of expression, grounded in the U.S. Constitution. This tradition allows criticism of religion, including President Obama’s own Christian beliefs, as he stated in his address. But violence holds no place in this equation.

Societies do place limits on rights of expression, and these conditions vary based on community beliefs. There is no absolute right to free speech – even in the United States. To push the debate forward, we must understand these relative norms. The internationally recognized crime of incitement, however, generally prescribes that there must be direct incitement to commit a crime. To be direct, the alleged inciter must have intended to induce his audience into the commission of the crime, or at least have been aware of the likelihood of its commission due to his conduct.

To call these actions incitement begs the question – what crime did the filmmaker induce or know he was likely to induce his audience to commit by lobbing it out into the Internet? Murder? The film may have been distasteful, insensitive, and created to inflame certain viewers. Accordingly, in a free society, protests against it should be permissible and legal. A disturbing assumption, however, anchors the incitement argument with respect to events in Libya: Islam permits individuals to commit violence in response to representations of Muhammad. It follows that the filmmaker knew acts of murder might be a consequence of his actions.

The “depiction equals violence” scenario puts the filmmaker on the legal hook. It seems incredulous, however, that the second largest religion worldwide would condone the murder of innocent civilians – diplomats from the very same nation that supported them, along with France and the United Kingdom, through the revolution. The alternative is too ridiculous, and horrifying, to entertain. As President Obama noted Tuesday, “There is no speech that justifies mindless violence. There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents.” Reactions in Libya to the violence, including the statements of their newly elected Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur, indicate that many Libyans agree.

The more likely scenario, promulgated by President Obama, is that these murders are the work of extremists. Recent acts of destruction throughout Libya and in its neighbor Mali – in which Salafists have used bulldozers and pickaxes to damage Sufi mosques considered idolatrous, including ones in UNSECO World Heritage Site Timbuktu – support this phenomenon. The splintering of Islam, just like the factionalized components of modern day Christianity, is on the rise. As with relative free speech norms, the current state of Islam must enter the dialogue.

Blaming the filmmaker is not the answer. This approach is futile not only for its dangerous precedent for free speech and condemning views on Islam, but also because it is impractical in a digital era. As President Obama told the UN General Assembly, “In 2012 … the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete.” We must therefore drop the illusory incitement debate. The consequences of failure to do so are grave. Without an acknowledgement of the true causes of this violence, Libyans will continue to face the risk of being high jacked by extremists seeking to hinder the journey to democracy. In his speech, President Obama reminded us that when Ambassador Stevens died, Libyans said he was their friend; and so the United States should make the Libyans ours.

Annie Castellani is a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit law firm, the Public International Law & Policy Group, where she focuses on transitional justice, constitution drafting, and civil society development in Libya and other post-conflict nations. Her views are independent.

Washington’s Problem in the Middle East: Policy, Not Personality

AbdullahBushA reference to “personal” relationship appears five times in the headline story “In Arab Spring, Obama Finds a Sharp Test” by Helene Cooper and Robert Worth in the September 25 edition of the New York Times and there is an additional reference to the President’s alleged “impersonal style.” It seems, the report says, that much of the quandary the U.S. finds itself in the Middle East derives from the fact that Obama “has not built many personal relationships with foreign leaders.” One piece of evidence cited is that he was not on good enough terms with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Reading all this, my mind quickly went back to late April 2005 when the Times reported, “Mr. Bush even held the crown prince’s hand, a traditional Saudi sign of friendship, as he guided Abdullah up the steps through a bed of bluebonnets to his office, the very picture of Saudi-American interdependence.”

The Cooper-Worth story cites an unnamed U.S. diplomat in Bahrain as saying that had Obama cultivated a closer relationship with the Saudi monarch “he might have bought time for negotiations” between the Bahraini authorities and the opposition. “Instead, the Saudis gave virtually no warning when their forces rolled across the causeway linking Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the ensuing crackdown destroyed all hopes for a peaceful resolution.”

I suspect the word “virtually” is important here because Washington was warned in advance by Riyadh. In any case, if U.S. intelligence agencies remained unaware as the Saudis rounded up troops from other Gulf monarchies for the invasion of Bahrain, their powers of observation are woefully inadequate.

Can the success of the Saudis and their Bahrain cohorts and much of the problems that have arisen in the region be even remotely traced to Obama’s alleged “character trait” and “impersonal style”? A dubious proposition at best. There is, however, another matter the Cooper-Worth history reveals that is of great importance: the inadequacies of major media reporting while events like the brutal crackdown in the gulf was transpiring.

“On March 14, White House officials awoke to a nasty surprise: the Saudis had led a military incursion into Bahrain, followed by a crackdown in which the security forces cleared Pearl Square in the capital, Manama, by force,” wrote Cooper-Worth. Sure. “The moves were widely condemned, but Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton offered only veiled criticisms, calling for “calm and restraint on all sides” and ‘political dialogue’,” they continued.

“The reasons for Mr. Obama’s reticence were clear: Bahrain sits just off the Saudi coast, and the Saudis were never going to allow a sudden flowering of democracy next door, especially in light of the island’s sectarian makeup,” wrote Cooper-Worth. “Bahrain’s people are mostly Shiite, and they have long been seen as a cat’s paw for Iranian influence by the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In addition, the United States maintains a naval base in Bahrain that is seen as a bulwark against Iran, crucial for maintaining the flow of oil from the region.”

“We realized that the possibility of anything happening in Saudi Arabia was one that couldn’t become a reality,” William M. Daley, President Obama’s chief of staff at the time,” told the Times reporters. “For the global economy, this couldn’t happen. Yes, it was treated differently from Egypt. It was a different situation.”

The problem is that neither the Times nor any of the other Western mass media told the story that way at the time. Why? Go back to the story about the hand-holding stroll through the garden at Bush’s Texas address.

The April 25, Times Story by Richard Stevenson noted that while many things were discussed at the Crawford ranch, “the focus was on oil prices.”

“Officials from both sides emerged from the meeting to say there was agreement on the value of Saudi Arabia’s signaling to global markets that it would push down prices over the long run as demand for energy increased,” the report said. “American officials said they hoped the Saudi policy might put immediate downward pressure on oil prices, even though the expansion plan has been public for weeks.”

“The crown prince arrived at the Bush ranch late Monday morning from Dallas, where he had met Sunday with Vice President Dick Cheney, who was briefed on the Saudi production plan,” read the Times story. “Reflecting the importance of the meeting to the administration, Mr. Bush was joined for the meeting here by Mr. Cheney; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Mr. Hadley; Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff; and Fran Townsend, the White House’s homeland security adviser.”

What the Saudis got or requested in return for the never-stated-explicit promise to increase oil production is unclear but the report said “the two sides cited progress on a variety of fronts” and “Saudi officials said only technicalities remained in negotiating a trade deal with the United States, a big step toward Saudi Arabia’s goal of joining the World Trade Organization. The two governments agreed to work toward making it easier for Saudi students and military officers to study and train in the United States.”

Saudi Arabia became a full WTO member December 11, 2005.

Unnamed Arab officials told Cooper and Worth that Obama is “a cool, cerebral man who discounts the importance of personal chemistry in politics.” “You can’t fix these problems by remote control,” said one Arab diplomat with long experience in Washington. “He doesn’t have friends who are world leaders. He doesn’t believe in patting anybody on the back, nicknames.”

More likely what they really meant is that Obama doesn’t get it on too well with despots. He seems to have hit it off quite well with the likes of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio da Silva and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

As the UN General Assembly session was getting underway, Cooper and Worth wrote, “In many ways, Mr. Obama’s remarks at the State Department two weeks ago — and the ones he will make before the General Assembly on Tuesday morning, when he addresses the anti-American protests — reflected hard lessons the president had learned over almost two years of political turmoil in the Arab world: bold words and support for democratic aspirations are not enough to engender good will in this region, especially not when hampered by America’s own national security interests.”

Or the price of oil.

For that U.S. Presidents have for decades shown a willingness to hold hands with just about anyone.

President Obama is no anti-imperialist. And our country’s standing and reputation in the international community is being ill-served by the continuing drone attacks that take the lives of innocent women, men and children. The same can be said for framing the one-sided framing of the Israel-Palestine conflict the way the President did in his UN address September 25. Ditto for the continued suggestion that tyranny should be met with stern outside interference in Libya or Syria but not Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. The cause of Washington’s problems in the Islamic world is not personality but policy.

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.

P5+1 Stacks the Deck Against Iran

At Sic Semper Tyrannis (Pat Lang’s blog), Dr. Christopher Bolan of the U.S. Army War College wrote about “the relative ease with which the US and Iran could now easily drift toward war with dire consequences for both sides.” He cited five reasons:

Fear and honor, “rational” or not, can motivate as much as interest [can].

Iranians and Americans remain largely ignorant of each other’s history and culture.

Economic sanctioning can be tantamount to an act of war.

The presumption of moral or spiritual superiority can fatally discount the consequences of an enemy’s material superiority.

Inevitable” war easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

This last point correlates with my theory that sometimes the simple need to relieve the mounting tension of looming war leads to war. As with a temptation that gnaws at you, in the end you give in less to what’s tempting you than to just rid yourself of the relentless feeling of being tempted.

Greasing the skids to war can also occur if one party appears to be conducting negotiations in good faith, when, in fact, it’s sabotaging them. At IPS News, Gareth Porter explains in a piece titled Iranian Diplomat Says Iran Offered Deal to Halt 20-Percent Enrichment.

Iran has again offered to halt its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, which the United States has identified as its highest priority in the nuclear talks, in return for easing sanctions against Iran, according to Iran’s permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Ali Asghar Soltanieh, who has conducted Iran’s negotiations with the IAEA in Tehran and Vienna, revealed in an interview with IPS that Iran had made the offer at the meeting between EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and Iran’s leading nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Istanbul Sep. 19.

Soltanieh also revealed in the interview that IAEA officials had agreed last month to an Iranian demand that it be provided documents on the alleged Iranian activities related to nuclear weapons which Iran is being asked to explain, but that the concession had then been withdrawn.

“We are prepared to suspend enrichment to 20 percent, provided we find a reciprocal step compatible with it,” Soltanieh said, adding, “We said this in Istanbul.”

Soltanieh is the first Iranian official to go on record as saying Iran has proposed a deal that would end its 20-percent enrichment entirely, although it had been reported previously.

“If we do that,” Soltanieh said, “there shouldn’t be sanctions.”

Makes sense, right? Not, apparently, to the P5+1 nations (U.S., Russia, China, France, U.K. plus Germany), nor even the IAEA.

Even if Iran agreed to those far-reaching concessions the P5+1 nations [U.S., Russia, China, France, U.K. plus Germany] offered no relief from sanctions.

The uranium enrichment facility at Fordow, near the city of Qom, is a sticking point (emphasis added).

“It’s impossible if they expect us to close Fordow,” Soltanieh said.

The U.S. justification for the demand for the closure of Fordow has been that it has been used for enriching uranium to the 20-percent level, which makes it much easier for Iran to continue enrichment to weapons grade levels.

But Soltanieh pointed to the conversion of half the stockpile to fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor, which was documented in the Aug. 30 IAEA report.

That conversion to powder for fuel plates makes the uranium unavailable for reconversion to a form that could be enriched to weapons grade level.

Soltanieh suggested that the Iranian demonstration of the technical capability for such conversion, which apparently took the United States and other P5+1 governments by surprise, has rendered irrelevant the P5+1 demand to ship the entire stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium out of the country.

Also …

Soltanieh revealed that two senior IAEA officials had accepted a key Iranian demand in the most recent negotiating session last month on a “structured agreement” on Iranian cooperation on allegations of “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear programme – only to withdraw the concession at the end of the meeting.


The issue was Iran’s insistence on being given all the documents on which the IAEA bases the allegations of Iranian research related to nuclear weapons which Iran is expected to explain to the IAEA’s satisfaction.

The Feb. 20 negotiating text shows that the IAEA sought to evade any requirement for sharing any such documents by qualifying the commitment with the phrase “where appropriate”.

… Former IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei recalls in his 2011 memoirs that he had “constantly pressed the source of the information” on alleged Iranian nuclear weapons research – meaning the United States – “to allow us to share copies with Iran”. He writes that he asked how he could “accuse a person without revealing the accusations against him?”

In answer to ElBaradei’s question: only if you wanted to stack the deck against that party. Another unresolved issue, according to Soltanieh is “whether the IAEA investigation will be open-ended or not.”

The Feb. 20 negotiating text showed that Iran demanded a discrete list of topics to which the IAEA inquiry would be limited and a requirement that each topic would be considered “concluded” once Iran had answered the questions and delivered the information requested.

But the IAEA insisted on being able to “return” to topics that had been “discussed earlier”, according to the February negotiating text.

Furthermore …

“The objection we have is that the DG [IAEA Director General Yukio Amano] isn’t protecting confidential information,” said Soltanieh. “When they have information on how many centrifuges are working and how many are not working (in IAEA reports), this is a very serious concern.”

Iran has complained for years about information gathered by IAEA inspectors, including data on personnel in the Iranian nuclear programme, being made available to U.S., Israeli and European intelligence agencies.

In other words, it seems as if there’s no way that Iran can win unless it entirely abrogates its self-respect and lets the P5+1 walk all over it.

Khaled Meshal and Hamas Go Their Separate Ways

Meshal and friend.

Meshal and friend.

The news that Hamas leader Khaled Meshal is resigning his leadership post is an ominous sign that Hamas is heading toward more confrontation with its Palestinian rival Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the near future. Meshal is reported as seeking a bigger role for himself within the PLO even perhaps as its leader replacing the ageing and discredited Mahmoud Abbas.

As a leader of Gaza-based Hamas, Meshal should have been leading his organization from Gaza, which is free of Israeli control, and work to improve the lives of the people of Gaza, which his organization has been controlling since 2007. Instead Meshal has opted to place himself in the mold of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat taking comfort in hoping from this Arab capital to one day replace Arafat as a “symbol” of the Palestinian struggle against Israel albeit with very little results.

Even though Meshal lacks the personal charisma Arafat enjoyed for over 40 years, which later proved to be a disastrous trait for Palestinians leaders, he might find the regional alignment in his favor, especially in Egypt and Iran, should he decide to pursue plans to lead the PLO later on.

In order to respond to overwhelming Israeli power Palestinians need political managers skilled in statecraft and clean-handed politicians, not charismatic leaders who will inevitably turn into corrupt dictators and stay in power for decades. Neither Meshal nor Abbas can be described as clean-handed or competent.

Palestinians, much like their Arab brethren in the Arab States have yet to produce the kind of leadership that will hold itself accountable to the people and to the law. This is perhaps one of the key differences between Israeli and Palestinians whereas Israelis were able to develop an able pool of diverse leaders who acted in the best interest of their state and citizens even before they established their state in 1948. Palestinians on the other hand were stuck with the same leaders for generations who led them from one disaster to another.

Meshal, who has been leading Hamas since the mid-nineties, might have come to see himself as a leader of all of the Palestinian people as part of larger strategy by Hamas to control the overall Palestinian leadership. This could be a plausible scenario given the deteriorating conditions within the Palestinian territories and the discredited leaders of the PA and the relentless Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Ever since its inception in 1987, Hamas has played the spoiler in the now defunct “peace process” and as a competitor to Fatah in its quest to lead the Palestinian people in their struggle to achieve their independence and end the Israeli occupation.

Helping Meshal in his goal is the rise of Islamic leaders in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab World who he sees as his natural allies and who obviously share his ideological background.

The problem with Meshal and Hamas, however, is that they behave much like other Palestinian organizations, past and present, by being beholden to the interests of their pay masters and political allies in Iran, Qatar, Egypt and Syria. Hamas’s continued control of Gaza strip and its refusal to relinquish its grip on power there is also part of a regional struggle that involved the same regional and international actors who pay money to both Hamas and the PA

Acting as pawns of other Arab states and its leaders has been the story of the Palestinian leaders even before 1948. Clan-based Palestinian leaders of the Husseini and Nashasheebi families of the 1930s and 40s were more consumed with fighting and plotting against each other than fighting off the British and the Zionists at that time. As a result they were caught off-guard and totally unprepared militarily and politically when Zionist leaders declared their state of Israel in 1948 in what was once Palestine.

Arab states meddling and corrupting the Palestinian leaders and organizations continued even when they founded the PLO to function on their behest against each other. Hamas is no different than other more secular organizations.

In July of 1967 a mere month after Arabs were defeated and lost the West Bank and Gaza along with Sinai and the Golan Heights, Israeli cabinet member Yigal Allon proposed the “Allon Plan” offering the Palestinians (then under the control of Jordan) autonomous populated areas within the West Bank and Gaza while Israel retained much of the West Bank and Jerusalem and overall military, political and economic control

The fact that both Hamas and Fatah organizations have resigned themselves, and fighting each other at the same time, to control different semi- autonomous parts of the West Bank and Gaza while remaining under an overall Israeli military, political and economic control — exactly like the “Allon Plan” — shows how shameless, irresponsible and incompetent those leader are. Palestinians simply deserve better leaders.

Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: [email protected] and on Twitter at @clearali.

Japan v. China: Smoke or Fire?

Chinese activists on the Diaoyu Islands.

Chinese activists on the Diaoyu Islands.

Could Japan and China—the number two and three largest economies in the world—really get into a punch-out over five tiny islands covering less than four square miles? According to the International Crisis Group, maybe: “All the trends are in the wrong direction, and prospects of resolution are diminishing.”

That the two Asian superpowers could actually come to blows seems unthinkable, but a devil’s brew of suspicion, anger, ham-handed diplomacy, and a growing US military presence has escalated a minor dispute into something that could turn very ugly if someone makes a misstep.

And so far, the choreography in the region has ranged from clumsy to provocative.

A few examples:

On the anniversary of Japan’s brutal 1931 attack on China, Tokyo purchased a handful of islands in the East China Sea—known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China—whose ownership is in dispute. In response, China accused Japan of “stealing” the islands, and anti-Japanese demonstrations and riots broke out in 80 Chinese cities. Several major Japanese companies, including Toyota, Honda, and Panasonic were forced to shut down for several days.

Amidst this tension, Washington announced that it will deploy a second anti-ballistic missile system (ABM) in Japan, supposedly to guard against North Korea, but which the Chinese charge is aimed at neutralizing their modest nuclear missile force.

“The joint missile defense system objectively encourages Japan to keep an aggressive position on the Diaoyu Islands dispute,” charges Shi Yinhong, a professor of international studies at Beijing’s Renmin University. Tao Wenzhao, deputy director of United States studies at China’s Academy of Social Science, adds, “It is highly inappropriate and counter-constructive for the U.S. to make such a move at this highly sensitive time.”

Timing-wise, the island purchase and the ABM announcement seem almost consciously provocative, but Tokyo and Washington are hardly the only capitals guilty of inept diplomacy in the Pacific.

Two years ago China declared the South China Sea a “core interest area,” which means Beijing essentially claimed sovereignty over 80 percent of one of the most heavily trafficked waterways in the world. China also insisted that several island groups—the Spratleys, Parcels, and Macclesfield Bank—were Chinese territory, and it backed this assertion up with ships and even a small garrison.

Some in China have gone as far as to claim sovereignty over the Ryukyu chain, which includes Okinawa, an island hosting several major US bases, with a population of 1.4 million Japanese citizens. Japan took control of the island group in 1879, but several hundred years earlier the independent Ryukyu Kingdom had paid tribute to China.

On top of all this, the Obama administration last year announced an Asian “pivot” and beefed up its military footprint in the region, including plans to send 2,500 Marines to Australia—the first time US troops have been deployed on the sub-continent since the end of World War II.

Not to be outdone, China launched its first aircraft carrier, introduced a new stealth fighter, and is apparently upgrading its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Dongfeng-41. According to the Pentagon, China has 55 to 65 ICBMs and 240 nuclear warheads. In comparison, the US has over 1,000 ICBMs, 1,737 strategic warheads, and over 5,000 nuclear weapons.

Feeling a little nervous? You should be. The tensions are real even though it is hard to imagine countries in the area letting things get out of hand. But when you combine overheated rhetoric with gunboat face-offs, a clumsy move, a misinterpreted act, or plain stupidity could spark something that might be difficult to contain.

So who is to blame for all this sturm und drang?

Depending on your perspective, the crisis is either triggered by the US and Japan trying to smother a rising rival in a resurgent China, or by Beijing’s aggressiveness in the region creating dangerous tensions. Actually, it is a little of both and a lot more complex than it appears. First, China, Japan and the US are not the only actors in this drama. Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Russia and South Korea all have pieces on the board.

South Korea, for instance, is locked in a fight with Japan over the Dokdo Islands (called Takeshima by the Japanese). Taiwan and China have a grievance with the Philippines over the Seaborough Shoal, and Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims on a host of islands, shoals, reefs and tiny coral atolls. Japan and Russia are at loggerheads over the Kuril Island chain that Moscow occupied in 1945.

Nor are issues in the South China Sea the same as those in the East China Sea. In the south the disputes are mainly economic: fishing rights and energy reserves. In the East, imperial history and the echo of World War II play an important role. For example, the Senkaku/Diaoyu and Dokdo/Takeshima islands were seized by Japan in its early imperial days, and neither China nor Korea have forgotten or forgiven Japanese occupation of their countries.

Countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei view the Chinese as heavy-handed bullies who throw their weight around and routinely arrest their nationals for fishing in disputed waters. They would like Beijing to negotiate boundary issues with them as a group through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), while China insists on talking with them individually. This standoff has allowed the U.S. to reassert itself in the region by presenting itself as a “fair broker” (and thus enraging China).

China, on the other hand, sees the US as surrounding it with potentially hostile allies, shifting yet more aircraft carrier battle groups into the region, and drawing up plans to spend $352 billion modernizing its nuclear weapons arsenal. What China doesn’t want is an arms race with the US, which already out-spends the Chinese five-to-one on defense. But the new US ABM system in Japan will force China to respond.

While China’s economy is in better shape than that of the US, its growth rate has plunged further than Beijing had hoped, and increased military spending will come at the expense of economic stimulation, energy efficiency, and infrastructure improvement. The Chinese smell a whiff of the Cold War, when the Americans hobbled the Soviet economy by forcing it to divert many of its resources to defense in order to keep up with the US.

So if the Chinese are feeling a little paranoid these days, one can hardly blame them.

There are a number of ways the current atmosphere of tension in the Pacific can be defused.

First, China should back down from its insistence that it will only negotiate boundary and access issues country by country. It is perfectly valid for smaller countries to collectivize their negotiating strategies, and ASEAN would be the obvious vehicle through which to work. That would have the added benefit of strengthening a regional organization, which can then be used to deal with other issues, from trade to terrorism.

Second, while the US is a Pacific power, it is not a western Pacific power. Putting warships in Beijing’s home waters is asking for trouble, and feeds a strong nationalist current in China. There should be a gradual de-militarization of the region, and a reduction in the number of US bases. And the US has to recognize that ABMs are trouble. They have soured the atmosphere for military reductions in Europe, and they will fuel a military buildup in Asia. The ABM Treaty produced sensible policy until the Bush Administration unilaterally withdrew from it. It should be revived and adhered to.

Third, provocations like China’s bluster over Okinawa, Japan’s purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Washington sending 2,500 Marines to Australia, and general chest-beating via gunboats needs to stop.

On one level it is unthinkable that Japan and China would actually come to blows, a conflict that could draw in the US though its mutual support treaty with Tokyo. China is Japan’s number-one trading partner, and Japan is China’s number-two partner (the US is Beijing’s first). Polls indicate that the average Chinese and the average American have favorable views of one another. A study by the Committee of 100, a Chinese-American group, found that 55 percent of Americans and 59 percent of Chinese had favorable views of one another.

It is a different matter with Japan and China, which makes the tension between the two countries much more dangerous. Some 70 percent of Japanese had an “unfavorable” view of Beijing, and those figures are matched in China. The islands crisis has brought out a powerful current of nationalism in both countries. It was the right-wing mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishimara, who kicked off the crisis by trying to buy the islands. Rightwing politicians from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have since seized the dispute to bludgeon the current government, and the LDP is likely to win the next election.

Passions are running high, distorted by bitter memories of the past, and fed by fear and political opportunism. “There is a real possibility that if diplomacy fails, there will be a war,” says Kazuhiko Toyo, a former career Japanese diplomat.

One hopes this is smoke, not fire.

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.

Why Hasn’t West Responded to Beheading Videos as Some Muslims Do to Anti-Islamist Videos?

It’s tough to deny that Denis Hamill (younger brother of Peter) makes a good point in his September New York Daily News column titled Radical Islamic terror ‘flicks’ insult humanity far more deeply than an idiot film about Muslims by a felonious con man. He’s referring, of course, to the video Innocence of Muslims that’s poured gasoline on fire in the Muslim world.

Suppose New Yorkers decided to retaliate and storm all their diplomatic outposts, killing ambassadors and other innocents because we were outraged by an Islamist film that we found offensive? … And, believe me, we have lots more than one dopey fictional film to be offended by.

Go online and you’ll find authentic real-life footage detailing radical Islamist atrocities that any rational person would find far more blasphemous to the human spirit than anything in the YouTube trailer that has set the Muslim world ablaze.

Start with these … videos:

1) The beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl on an Al Qaeda website, perhaps one of the most evil videos ever shot.

2) American hostage Eugene Armstrong being beheaded in Iraq.

3) Hooded terrorists killing Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

4) The second plane smashing into the South Tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

5) Human beings leaping to their doom from the Trade Center.

6) The collapse of the twin towers as people are obliterated inside.

7) A woman being stoned to death for adultery in Saudi Arabia.

8) The bodies of four U.S. contractors hanging from a bridge above the Euphrates River in Fallujah, Iraq.

Earlier in the piece he said:

I’m having a hard time believing that Islamic extremists from more than 20 countries actually hold 300 million Americans responsible for a single amateur film, an incoherent anti-Islamic screed made by a convicted felon on parole for credit-card scams.

Okay, maybe one or two offended people could be that dumb. But no way could tens of thousands of folks in 20 countries believe the same line of nonsense that this film is representative of the entire American people.

It’s tough to deny that, as a progressive, it’s difficult to explain the response of many Muslims. But those protesting may be under the impression that the video was the trailer for a mainstream film allowed to be distributed to movie theaters in the United States, as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was.

At al Jazeera, quoted at Race for Iran, Flynt Leverett provides a likely explanation.

If it hadn’t been this film, it would have been something else that triggered an outburst—a manifestation of very, very deep-seated, longstanding resentment in Arab and Muslim societies about many important aspects of American foreign policy toward the region. When Americans think about this, they will tend to want to say that this a cultural issue—that there is something about Islam or that Arabs are insufficiently modernized to be able to keep something like this film in proper perspective. I think that it’s Americans who are having a cultural problem here, and who aren’t really able to keep things like this film in proper perspective. The proper perspective, at least from the vantage of the Muslim world, is that the United States has been, for many years now, an aggressive and a repressive force in the region.”

Also, it must be recalled that it probably wasn’t Innocence of Muslims per se that elicited the most violent responses, but extreme Islamists using it to stoke reaction to the film for their own purposes. As Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday (September 23), “news reports have suggested that there was no video-related anti-US protest before the armed attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the three other men.”

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Return to Adversity

In the 1970s and 1980s, the nascent civil society movements in East-Central Europe leveraged their marginal position in society into a form of social power. Because they were largely disconnected from an unjust power structure – and suffered considerably from the repression of that power structure – they commanded what Vaclav Havel famously called “the power of the powerless.” The eventually successful campaigns of Poland’s Solidarity, Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, and East Germany’s New Forum proved the “uses of adversity,” in the phrase that Timothy Garton Ash borrowed from Shakespeare to title his 1989 collection of essays. Repression produced rebirth.

The collapse, when it came, was rapid, spectacular, and relatively bloodless. The Warsaw Pact monolith, which was never quite as monolithic as Moscow would have preferred, fell apart in 1989, and the region experienced what Joseph Rothschild described as a “return to diversity.”

As I prepare to retrace my 1990 journey through East-Central Europe, as I attempt in other words to step into the same region twice, I suspect that time and hardship have fused the phrases of Rothschild and Ash. The region is now experiencing a return to adversity.

Governments in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and elsewhere are showing signs of greater authoritarianism. Right-wing populists populate the parliaments, and their brothers-in-arms patrol the streets. Has liberalism reached its high-water mark in East-Central Europe? Or, to use a different metaphor, is this return to adversity a short detour or a more involved journey to an unknown location?

On March 17, 1990, I set off from Brussels for East Berlin to begin what would be seven months of wandering around the region. It was wandering with a purpose – to help the Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee, to establish an office in this newly tumultuous part of the world. Now, thanks to the Open Society Foundations, I am returning to track down the people I interviewed back then to see how their lives, their families, and their countries have changed.

Of course, I too have changed. I’m no longer a footloose 26-year-old looking for a life-changing experience of my own. Back then, I carried a week’s change of clothes in my college backpack, along with an early version of a laptop, one of the first portable printers, a shortwave radio, a tape recorder, and a copy of Terra Nostra by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes (the nearly 800-page paperback accompanied me all the way through Slovakia where I finally finished it).

Back in 1990, I had a handful of names and contact numbers, but not many. As soon as I hit the ground in a new country, I quickly scrambled to locate interesting people to interview. There was no Internet, no Facebook, no cell phones. The first thing I did in a new place was to determine what coins the public telephone took. I came to dread these cold calls. I had no idea whether the person on the other end spoke English (or Russian or Polish, the other two languages I could use). They didn’t know who I was, and I had to very quickly describe my project. Most people were sufficiently intrigued not to hang up. In some cases, just being an American was enough to open doors, for this was before the rush of American backpackers to Prague and Budapest. Where I lacked contacts, I would visit the places that housed the new civil society organizations – Haus fur Demokratie in East Berlin, for instance – and marvel at how quickly the new world was taking shape.

Every week, I wrote up a report of my conversations, including many transcribed interviews. I printed them out on the portable printer. And I sent the hard copies back to the AFSC office. It’s difficult to remember a time when news was not instantaneous.

Today, I travel very differently. I have my Mac Air, and WiFi will never be very far away. I’m taking a video camera this time to record my interviews. And I’ll be writing periodic blog posts (available at I can now carry a library in my pocket. My smart phone carries several audio books, the film The Hurt Locker, and a number of books on Kindle, including a novel by Dubravka Ugresic, several early memoirs of travel in Serbia, Chuck Sudetic’s book on Carla Del Ponte, and Tony Judt’s massive history of postwar Europe. After 15 years of studying East Asian affairs, I have a lot of reading to catch up on.

I’m no longer footloose. My wife remains at home, where we have lived now for a decade. I’m no longer looking to transform my life. I can concentrate instead on how historic events have transformed the lives of others.

I will begin my travels this time in Belgrade. I’ll continue to Bulgaria, where I expect to visit Varna and Plovdiv as well as Sofia. I’ll return to Serbia and then on to Croatia and Slovenia. In 1990, I concentrated on the issue of ethnic minorities in Bulgaria and the disintegration of the central state in Yugoslavia, and these were the topics of the chapters on these countries in my 1992 book, Shock Waves: Eastern Europe after the Revolutions. I’ll revisit these issues in 2012.

Almost everyone that I interviewed in 1990 has responded to my emails. They generally don’t remember me – and why should they? – but they are willing to sit down and talk just as they did 22 years ago. Some people have died; some have moved to distant countries. To augment my original list and avoid the trap of talking only to a narrow demographic slice of society, I’ll be reaching out to a lot of people for the first time: young people, artists, representatives of new social organizations.

I’m not exactly sure what will come of all this. But then, I had no idea in 1990 either. I am open to possibilities, just as the region was in 1990. But, as I did 22 years ago, I feel a certain urgency. In 1990, East-Central Europe was on the verge of economic austerity, resurgent nationalism, and, in the case of Yugoslavia, outright war. Today, the region has largely survived these traumas, but they have left their mark. And although much of the region has joined the European Union, or is currently negotiating accession, a return to adversity threatens. What worked in East-Central Europe and what did not work: I am eager to hear what the people of the region have to say.

Liberal Hawk Poised to Swoop Down on Iran

On Wednesday (Sept. 19) I posted about how disappointing award-winning Washington Post reporter Dana Priest’s recent nuclear-modernization series (parts 1 and 2) was. I had thought she was poised to investigate the need for it, as well as for nuclear weapons themselves. After all, that’s what she had done in the past with the U.S. intelligence and classified activity system, as well as CIA detention sites overseas.

Turns out that, for whatever reason, Ms. Priest felt compelled to sound the alarm about what she calls “the decrepit, neglected state of the aging nuclear weapons complex,” apparently in order to drum up funds for it, like, yesterday! She writes that federal officials and many outside analysts maintain:

Failing to act before the end of next year … is likely to mean that there won’t be enough time to design and build the new systems that would be required if the old arsenal is no longer safe or reliable.

Tuesday, September 18, brought another, comparable disappointment. Historian Dan Plesch is the Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at University of London’s School of Oriental and Africa Studies. You can tell where he’s stood on issues by the titles of some of the pieces, alone or with others, he’s written for publications like the Guardian and the New Statesman: What a mess our military has made, Making the Middle East nuclear-free, and Occupy London is reviving St Paul’s history of free speech. And, in May of this year: Disarmament is more practical than we are conditioned to think.

Tuesday’s piece, written with Martin Butcher and Ian Shields, is posted at esteemed British progressive site Open Democracy and is titled Reconsidering war with Iran. I only just realized that the title is a play on the title of a lengthy paper he wrote with Martin Butcher which was published exactly five years ago (September 2007): Considering a war with Iran (emphasis added).

One who had read neither piece and only knew Plesch’s reputation from his other work would naturally be puzzled. What’s being reconsidered? Previous counsel to attack? To refrain from attacking? Neither seems comprehensible in light of Plesch’s reputation as a nonproliferation and disarmament advocate. Hold that thought for the moment.

The authors concluded the earlier piece thusly:

If the attack is “successful” and the US reasserts its global military dominance and reduces Iran to the status of an oil-rich failed state, then the risks to humanity in general and to the states of the Middle East are grave indeed.

The two world wars of 1914-18 and 1939-1945, the creation of nuclear weapons, and the advent of global warming have created successive lessons that humanity and states cannot prosper or survive long unless they hold their security in common — sharing sovereignty and power to ensure both survival and prosperity.

A “successful” US attack, without UN authorisation, would return the world to the state that existed in the period before the war of 1914-18, but with nuclear weapons.

The self-styled realists argue that this is an inevitable and manageable world, the naivety of imagining a nuclear armed world without nuclear war is utopian in the extreme.

Obviously, in 2007 Plesch and Butcher were opposed to attacking Iran. Let’s now turn to the recent Open Democracy piece, which, at first, I thought was seemed simply to be presenting a scenario:

This article (drawing on open source material) will challenge the notion that America will not attack first, and demonstrate that the US has the wherewithal to destroy the Iranian military capability.

They write:

Conventional wisdom is that the US is unable to, or unwilling to risk, a pre-emptive attack and that Tehran is calling all the shots.


The US military, and likely political, readiness for a war using minimum ground forces indicates that the current seeming inaction surrounding Iran is misleading. The United States retains the ability – despite commitments to Afghanistan – to undertake no notice major military operations against Iran that could remove Iran’s ability to retaliate and remove the regime’s ability to function at all.

The enthusiasm with which Plesch and Butcher made their case was somewhat disconcerting. But, after all, this was Open Democracy. Certainly they weren’t suggesting an attack was advisable. Let’s jump ahead to the authors’ conclusion (emphasis added).

America certainly has the firepower to undertake such a mission, and could do so with little or no warning or additional build-up: this would be Shock and Awe on a new scale, while the advantages of a successful campaign – which we believe to be very highly likely – outweigh the potential disadvantages of either doing nothing or prevaricating.

… The US military machine, particularly for high-technology, full-spectrum conflict – as epitomised by air power – offers a President the option of an overwhelming advantage through the use of military force: this remains a viable option that should not be disregarded.

Where, you may be asking, is the disarmament and nonproliferation advocate Dan Plesch in this picture? In fact, his views may be a symptom of his commitment to nonproliferation, if not disarmament in this case. Just as liberal hawks supported invading Iraq both to divest it of supposed WMD and to free its people from a tyrant, Plesch is countenancing an attack on Iran to abort another — thus far imaginary, like Iraq’s –nuclear-weapons program.

But nonproliferation was never intended to be used as a pretext to attack another state. It only convinces the state that’s attacked, as well as its neighbors, that their security depends on acquiring arms commensurate with the attacking state. It’s disturbing to see someone whose previous work has been on behalf of peace sign on to such a project.


On September 26, Dan Plesch wrote us:

The authors oppose an attack on Iran, this piece is written to demonstrate that from within the US government the perception is that war is a far more viable option than is usually recognised and the article is written to explain that perspective”. Plesch commented that anyone familiar with his work would recognise this and that he has had several Iranians commend him for putting in the public domain an all too real scenario. Plesch added that people should note that the US and UK publics re-elected Bush and Blair despite the war in Iraq, so that the precedent is that even a disaster on the scale of Iraq need not have electoral consequences. Wiser counsel must prevail to stop war but wishful thinking over ill thought through disaster scenarios is worse than useless.

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