29 November, 2007

More Lolcrime

And again, not so funny if you are the person on trial.

In Iran, Mehrnoushe Solouki, a French-Iranian national resident in Canada, is in custody awaiting trial. She is a documentary film-maker, and is accused not of actually doing anything, but of intending to make a film critical of the Iranian regime (it was thought that she might be intending to include footage of mass graves of people massacared by the regime in 1988. She has received one piece of good news while in jail awaiting trial - the prison authorities have said that they probably will not torture her to death, like in 2003 they did Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian-Iranian journalist. Thanks to Randy McDonald for alerting me to this disturbing story.

Meanwhile, in Sudan, Gillian Gibbons has been jailed for letting her pupils vote to name a teddy bear Mohammed. She was apparently lucky to escape receiving 40 lashes. The people who run Sudan are pretty funny guys - I remember reading some years ago that they were planning to deploy Jinn against the rebels in the country's south (I really wish I had a source for this, other than "I read it somewhere").

24 November, 2007

Infrastructure Diplomacy

I was talking to a guy at a conference yesterday. He was telling me that the EU is slashing the amount of money it spends on health and education in Africa; instead, the money is going to be focussed on infrastructure projects. There might be sound reasoning behind this, with some sort of calculations leading to the conclusion that spending on infrastructure is a more effective way of moving African countries towards sustainable development and self-reliance. However, it is widely believed that the real reason for the change in spending priorities is political. China has over the last couple of years earned itself a lot of kudos with African regimes by building roads and bridges for them. The EU now feels the need to compete – it is important that when an African looks at a bridge, they know it was built by the EU and not by China.

20 November, 2007

Russians Can't Get Enough of Vladimir Putin

The BBC reports that a petition calling for Vladimir Putin to remain "national leader" has been signed by 30 million Russians; this is more than a fifth of the country's total population. The constitution currently prevents Putin from seeking re-election when his current presidential term expires next March. However, Vladimir Voronin of the For Putin group points out that constitutions can be changed, as only God's law is immutable. Putin has always said that he would not seek re-election, but as previously noted, there is nothing to prevent him becoming the country's prime minister and transforming that office into the country's main leadership position.

11 November, 2007

Pakistan: Lolcountry

Just over a week ago, Pervez Musharraf decided to once more tear up Pakistan's consitution. Even before that I had been pondering why Pakistan is such an unsuccessful country, largely triggered by discussions of its progress since independence in articles commenting on it being 50 years since the British left it and India. India, on the other hand, seems to have done pretty well, at least when compared to Pakistan. OK, so India does have its problems (grinding poverty and communal tensions spring to mind), but Pakistan has these problems and a load of crazy other ones as well. I am thinking of things like Pakistan's inability to embed democratic rule, and its having an army that sees itself as having a divine right to intervene politically whenever it feels like it. Or the country's venal and shortsighted political elite. Or the country's secret service (the ISI), who seem to run their own separate foreign policy only tangentially related to the official policies of the state's notional leaders. Or the state's general inability to see its writ run through large tracts of the country.

And so on. Pakistan seems particularly unsuccessful in the world of high international politics, managing to get stuffed out of it in at least two wars with its larger neighbour. One might, of course, see these outcomes as being largely inevitable, given the balance of resources between the two countries, but the Pakistani military went into both of these struggles expecting to triumph. Failure in the second of these saw Pakistan lose more than half of its population to Bangladesh.

In contrast, India has actual achievements to point to since it became independent. It has managed to run itself constitutionally, with its army never intruding itself into politics in the manner of Pakistan's generals. In recent years it has even become a major force in the world economy, and I think it has managed to make progress in the area of poverty reduction. The state as an institution suffers from a lot of the problems that afflict states elsewhere, but it does not seem from this distance to be so completely chaotic as that of Pakistan.

So, why has India succeeded, albeit modestly, while Pakistan has failed? The two countries would have had similar starting conditions, being both large heavily populated multi-ethnic societies. Perhaps the organising principles of the two countries are significant, with India being set up as a secular country containing people of various religions and cultural backgrounds, while Pakistan was intended as a Muslim state (or a state for Muslims). One could argue that shared religion is actually a weak glue with which to hold a society together, contrary to what the likes of Samuel Huntington would say. Or maybe there are other material factors of which I am unaware.

On current events in particular… before Musharraf's latest autogolpe, there was an interesting article in the London Review of Books on Pakistan by Tariq Ali ("Pakistan at Sixty"). Ali is the kind of leftist writer whose work you have to be careful with, but I was very struck by some of the points he made. Over the last year, the Pakistani regime has had some face-offs with Jihadi Islamists, and also with members of the legal profession, following an earlier attempt to remove the Chief Justice from office. Contrary to what you might assume, however, it was the attempt to crack down on judicial freedom that excited the most public reaction in Pakistan, with the legal profession spearheading mass demonstrations in many Pakistani cities. The lawyers have been at the forefront of attempts to stop Musharraf's latest plot, with Pakistan's lazy politicians largely following in the rear but nevertheless finding themselves swept into the strugge by public outrage. This is perhaps a hopeful sign, in a country where lawyers have previously been only too happy to roll over whenever it suited their military rulers.

Shooting the Messenger

Shaul Mofaz, Deputy Prime Minister of Israel, has called for the sacking of International Atomic Energy Agency head, Mohammed ElBaradei . Mr ElBaradei has reported that there is no immediate prospect of Iran developing a nuclear weapon or evidence that it is trying to do so. The Israeli leadership would like Mr ElBaradei to report that Iran is close to building nuclear weapons, as this could trigger US military action against the Islamic Republic.

Mr ElBaradei is no stranger to controversy. Prior to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he was criticised for reporting that the Iraqi nuclear weapons programme was non-existent. No evidence for Saddam Hussein possessing a nuclear weapons programme has yet been found by Iraq's occupiers.

Unlike Iran, Israel is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel is the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East.

10 November, 2007

Fascists are rubbish

Every so often fascists from across Europe try to get together to promote shared ultra-right wing values. One factor that bedevils such projects is constant argument over which of Europe's nations is the actual master race. I recall reading anecdotally of some gathering of Fascist meatheads that descended into an all-in swedgefest in which the various master races attempted to settle the issue with their fists.

More recently, various far rightist parties have managed to gain more than no support at the ballot box. As well as having some representation at the national level in several European countries, they have managed to get some people elected to the European Parliament. The rules of that body give extra privileges to parliamentary groups whose members are drawn from several EU states. Thus the Identity, Tradition, and Sovereignty group was formed, as various far-right nutjobs came together to campaign against immigrants and various groups they consider reprehensible.

Unfortunately, this attempt at far-right trans-national cooperation has foundered. One big problem it faces is that the European Union is so big now that many people in the older member states now hold unsavoury racist attitudes towards people from the newer states, with far-right parties reflecting these opinions. In Italy, there is a bit of a flap on about immigrants from Romania, as a person from Romania living there recently committed a crime (Italian nationals never commit crimes). Prominent Italian fascist MEP Alessandra Mussolini has caused dismay among her Romanian colleagues by proclaiming that Romanians were "habitual law-breakers". She also caused great offence to her allies in the Greater Romania Party by saying that Italians see little difference between Romanians and members of the Roma community.

Mussolini's comments have led the Romanian MEPs threatening to withdraw from the Identity, Tradition, and Sovereignty group, leaving it below the level that would allow it to qualify as a European Parliament group.

Alessandra Mussolini is no stranger to controversy. The former topless model resigned from the allegedly post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale in 2003, after its leader visited Israel, described Fascism as "the absolute evil", and denounced the racial laws introduced by her grandfather. She had previously ran unsuccessfully for leadership of the party, when its leader had declared himself no longer a supporter of Benito Mussolini's rubbish dictatorship.

The picture comes from the BBC News article "EU far-right bloc faces collapse"

BOOKS ABOUT THE MIDDLE EAST: "The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World" by Avi Shlaim

Before discussing the book itself, I need to quickly talk about the Israeli New Historians. These fellows set themselves the task of approaching their country's history the way historians are meant to – by looking at documents and the historical record to establish what had actually occurred in the past, rather than by simply regurgitating self-serving national myths. In a young country like Israel, with a carefully cultivated narrative around its founding, this kind of approach proved rather contentious, uncovering as it did events and counter-narratives that many would prefer to see forever buried.

Avi Shlaim is one of these New Historian people. His back academic work was the book "Collusion Across The Jordan", about the then largely obscured negotiations between the Israeli leaders and King Abdullah of Jordan around the time of the Israeli state's founding. "The Iron Wall" is a more general work, covering the relationship between the Israeli state and the Arab World; in this context, the Arab World includes both the various Arab states as well as the Palestinian people living inside what became Israel and in the territories it came to occupy. In time, the book covers the period from the foundation of the Zionist community in Palestine in the early 20th century to the election of Ehud Barak as prime minister in 1999. At this stage of the game the book cries out for a second edition, given subsequent events and the rather naïve note of optimism on which the book ends.

Shlaim's book takes its title from an article written in 1923 by Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Jabotinsky was committed to the establishment of a Jewish state in what was then Palestine, but he acknowledged a key obstacle to the project – the Arab majority population in Palestine (and, the Arabs generally beyond the territory's borders). Other Zionist leaders had fudged the issue of what to do with these people and how the emerging Jewish state would deal with them. Jabotinsky called a spade a spade, and foresaw that as the Israeli project advanced the Arabs would increasingly resist their expropriation. Jabotinsky argued that attempts to conciliate or negotiate with the Arabs were pointless, at least initially, as their wish would be to destroy the Zionist colonies and re-establish their authority in the country. Jabotinsky proposed instead to erect a metaphorical "Iron Wall" of military might around the Zionist project. Eventually the Arabs would realise that this Iron Wall was unbreakable, that the Israelis could not be defeated, and then it would be possible for the Zionists to negotiate with them and reach some sort of accommodation (that would presumably see them permanently reduced to second class citizenship or some such status).

Jabotinsky remained an oppositional figure within Zionism, but Shlaim's assertion is that his Iron Wall doctrine became the established model on the Israeli side for dealing with the Arabs. Shlaim sees this in the tendency of the Israeli state for much of its history to make early resorts to force and to happily choose escalation over the defusing of tensions. Part of Shlaim's argument, though, is that successive Israeli leaders have had a less sophisticated understanding of the idea than Jabotinsky himself, in that they have failed to register that the Iron Wall has done its job and convinced the Arab World of Israeli permanence, in that the Israeli state has been slow to pick up on opportunities to pursue negotiations and non-violent options with its neighbours.

OK, so that is the theoretical underpinning of the book. What you actually get when you read it is an account of Arab-Israeli relations based on documentary research and interviews with many leading figures. The story is mostly told from the Israeli point of view, probably because of the difficulties an Israeli researcher (or indeed anyone) would have consulting archives or conducting serious research in most Arab states. It is basically an account of interstate politics in the Middle East, from an Israeli point of view. The Israeli point of view is one of perspective rather than sympathy, however, in that Shlaim is not an apologist for his government's actions. He does not gloss over situations where Israel appears to be in the wrong, and where he feels the situation warrants it he is happy to criticise Israeli actions (one criticism sometimes made of this book is that it is too critical of Israel).

The section of this book I found most interesting was the one dealing with Israel in the 1950s, perhaps because I am more familiar with the later periods. In this period, after Israel had won the war that led to its formation, the Israeli state is generally seen as being surrounded by enemies hell-bent on its destruction, but Shlaim argues that this perspective is somewhat illusory and one deliberately cultivated. He suggests that this period was one in which Israeli leaders, wedded to the militarist ideas of Jabotinsky, missed numerous opportunities to move Middle Eastern politics onto a more pacific course. He talks in particular about various back-door negotiation channels open in the early 1950s with Nasser and about how countries, ultimately buried by an Israeli raid against an Egyptian military position (in retaliation against an attack on Israelis by Palestinians). He also asserts that Jordanian and Syrian posturing against Israel was reactive, whereas Israel was always keen to escalate any encounters.

And so it goes. While the section on the 1950s was the most interesting to me, I reckon that anyone with a beginner's interest to the Middle East would find all of this book very interesting. One thing, though, that I would like to read is a more pro-Israel book, albeit one written subsequent to this and to the work of the New Historians – that is to say, a book which is still putting a pro-Israel slant on events, even if, unlike earlier books, it is not just ignoring or explaining away events that do not fit its narrative. Can anyone recommend me such a work?

The Iron Wall also features a fascinating photo of Kissinger leering at Leah Rabin.