Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Pillow Talk With Hugo
As a reporter, I've conducted interviews in myriad places: in a closet, in a church pew, in bars, steam baths, back alleys, jail cells, and often in the back seat of a car. But I've never done one in bed, at least not while simultaneously embracing my subject.
That was apparently the methodology employed by professor and writer Greg Gandin in this pillow talk session with Hugo Chavez.
About the only thing missing from the edited transcript are notations when puffs of post-coital smoke were being emitted. Oh yeah, one other thing missing: any real questions!
Gandin, who is a published expert on Latin America, was so smitten with his partner that instead of posing any substantial questions, he was happy to serve as little more than a human TeLePrompTer. He merely uttered periodic cues allowing the Venezuelan caudillo an opportunity to continue what was essentially his uninterrupted and unchallenged and self-serving monologue. Frankly, Larry King did a much better (and not at all antagonistic) interview with Chavez last week and Larry ain't no tenured prof.
Now, Gandin has the perfect right to dissent from my critical view of Hugo and be as ardent a supporter as he chooses of Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolution. But, I swear, if I were literally on the payroll of the Venezuelan government I wouldn't put out a piece of embarrassing fluff like this. I would, for my and my employer's own propaganda purposes, at least pretend to be asking a few critical questions...if for no other reason than to be teeing up soft balls for my client to whack out of the park. Wasn't that Tim Russert's perfectly honed method of appearing tough while really being a pushover for the powerful? You ask all the critical questions, but you do no follow up -- thereby allowing your subject the opportunity to knock down all his or her critics.
Gandin is not an employee of Chavez and I am not even vaguely implying that. He's just an ideologically-driven, starry-eyed instrument for Chavez and, in the end, apparently lacks sufficient confidence in El Presidente to be able to handle the most manageable of challenges.
I'm a contributing editor to The Nation where this piece appears but I am completely outside of the editorial loop (I have not been an employee of the The Nation for nearly two years). But it leaves me somewhat baffled why the editors allow this sort of foolishness to take place under their name. It only undermines their credibility. And even as a partisan journal of opinion, even if there is a conscious pro-Chavez consensus as an editorial position, you don't advance it by publishing such unabashed pablum.
I will be using this interview in my classes on interviewing as a prime example of how NOT to do one.
Hat tip to my old pal and former Nation U.N. correspondent, Ian Williams, who sent around an email calling attention to this piece.
Sunday, September 27, 2009
September 24, 2009 Tribune
Considering primary-style elections to select Labour candidates is just the latest episode in the recent sordid history of unthinking emulation of the United States. The American political system is bogged in complete unwillingness to catch up with the rest of the world in healthcare and it is worth remembering why Congress is gridlocked – or rather lobby-locked. Primary elections are the primary cause of that.
The British emulation of US deregulation that brought about the financial crisis was a secondary effect of the primary system. American bankers pay even more than the health industry to candidates, and they bought deregulation from Congress – cheaply.
To be elected, an American politician must first win a primary election against other candidates nominally in the same party. Anyone who registers as the supporter of a party can vote: they do not have to pay dues to it or even pledge support to its objectives. In around half the states, there are open primaries. That means registered Republicans can pick Democratic candidates.
There is no party money available for primary elections, so it is up to the candidates to finance their own campaigns. In fact, in the absence of any serious party organization there are no membership cards, so anyone with a chequebook can run on any party ticket. For example, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was a registered Democrat, until he decided he could win the Republican nomination more easily – not least because of his own substantial personal fortune. The biggest expense is buying television and radio time for candidates in the primaries.
Less well-endowed politicians have to raise money to compete in primaries. Unsurprisingly, they get their cash from people with money. So in the case of the swing vote of “fiscally responsible Democrats” sabotaging healthcare reform, this means after receiving backing from the health insurance lobbyists. When Senator Max Baucus introduced a healthcare bill last week that totally negated a public insurance option, let alone a single payer system, some lobbyists were bowled over with admiration – he had actually given them more than they had thought politically sustainable.
Senator Baucus proposes compulsory insurance policies that have to be bought from the very companies that give the US the most expensive and least assured and worst covered health system in the world. It must be totally coincidental that last year the health industry provided him with more than $1 million in campaign contributions. This would count as bribery and corruption in most countries, but it is just business as usual in the US and, it would appear, increasingly so in Britain.
Bill Clinton, when he was pioneering “Third Way” politics with his chum Tony Blair, made such fundraising his hallmark – not least because it freed what passed for the Democratic Party from its traditional supporters, unions, working people, and minorities, whom he dismissed as “special interests.” As we know, Blair learned his lessons and sadly Britain is halfway towards the American system. Labour reduced the role of party members and structures, so that the leadership could overlook their opinions and interests. Individual members deserted the party in disillusioned droves, traditional Labour supporters did not vote or, even worse, voted for the British National Party.
In order to weaken the trade unions’ representation, prospective peers, racing car magnates and sundry special interests were tapped for funds. Whereas union officials, local councillors and the like could once enter Parliament, the Labour leadership winnowed out lists to ensure that docile apparatchiks cruised into safe seats.
It is worth remembering that the leadership elections which took place among Labour Party members cost a lot of money – of course, there were more members at the time. Blair’s leadership campaign was in part financed by a magnate who thought he would be good for Israel and was rewarded with a position dealing with the Middle East. Imagine if the constituency were extended even further to all voters, as is being proposed now for parliamentary candidates. It could hand over candidate selection to the likes of Rupert Murdoch or anyone else with the cash to buy a megaphone loud enough to reach the voters. Forget door-stepping candidates: it would be door-stepping hacks, inventing scandals.
Since a primary election would not be an official election, would candidates be able to buy television and radio time to win support? It would be tantamount to returning to the era before the Reform Acts and would effectively put the candidacy for sale to the highest bidder.
Labour should abandon primary elections and get back to primary causes. It should be attracting back those disillusioned members and the only way to do that is to make membership more significant than joining a fan club for whoever the lobbyists have blessed as the Labour candidate, whether for Prime Minister or Member of Parliament.
Elections should be inside the party and they should be open and transparent, with clear rules on finance and the sources of finance for candidates, and rigorous guidelines against conflicts of interest. Labour should address the needs and wants of its natural constituencies if it wants to spur people into voting for it. Otherwise, look across the Atlantic and despair. It should be “Westward no”, not “Westward ho”.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Come on guys, now is the hour! The Green Revolution is way past its sell-by date, green mouldy. Retirement and care in the community surely beckons for the King of Kings of Africa!
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Ian Williams, senior analyst Foreign Policy in Focus
Judge Richard Goldstone's report on the war in Gaza threatens the Obama administration's global public diplomacy options and its scrupulously graduated approach to whatever passes for a Middle East Peace process. State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly complained that Goldstone opted for "cookie-cutter conclusions" about Israel's actions, while keeping "the deplorable actions of Hamas to generalized remarks." However, Kelly urged the Israeli government to investigate further.
And that is in essence what Goldstone's commission asked for: investigation with the proviso that the Hamas-controlled authorities in Gaza do the same.
Susan Rice, Obama's envoy to the UN, said in the immediate aftermath of the report's publication that the United States had "very serious concerns about many of the recommendations" and pointed out a "very serious concern with the mandate that was given by the Human Rights Council prior to our joining the Council, which we viewed as unbalanced, one-sided and basically unacceptable." In fact, Goldstone refused to accept the position until he was assured that its mandate included looking into possible crimes committed by all parties in the conflict.
It was the mandate, not Goldstone's report, that Rice said was unacceptable, however. The report was still under study. She added, doubtless crossing her fingers for luck, "We will expect and believe that the appropriate venue for this report to be considered is the Human Rights Council (in Geneva) and that's our strong view. And most importantly, our view is that we need to be focused on the future," she said. However, how the administration reacts to the report could well be crucial to the future of its global credibility.
The Report's Recommendations
Rice understandably does not want to stand up in the Security Council to defend the indefensible, not least on behalf of a government that has so doggedly pushed back against the White House on settlements in the occupied territories. Indeed just as the White House has scrupulously restrained itself to asking Israel to honor its previous commitments on settlements, many of the Goldstone Mission's recommendations only reiterate previous Israeli commitments from Oslo onwards.
The core of the recommendations is that Israel itself conduct an impartial inquiry into the allegations made against it, or face a Security Council referral to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Admittedly, given experience of the Israeli Defense Forces' strategic reserve supply of whitewash kept in hand for just such occasions, the mission recommends that the Council set up an international commission to monitor the Israeli inquiry. The same applies to Hamas.
The report presents both a crisis and an opportunity to Obama's Middle East peace strategy. Hitherto Israel has relied on an automatic U.S. veto on its behalf. The reflex action has been to defend Israel, but the optimistic could detect some signs of nuance in the administration's response.
A U.S. abstention in the Security Council, let alone a positive vote, for a referral to the ICC would send a seismic signal high up the Richter scale to Israelis about what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing to relations with their only ally in the world. His provocations on settlement activity are eroding the White House's credibility. Although it may be difficult to get, for example, a cut in aid money past a Congress still mesmerized by the Israel lobby, the administration could indeed abstain in the Council without reference to lobby-tied Capitol Hill.
A U.S. veto might indeed protect Israel from the ICC, but a report with the credibility of a revered and honored jurist like Goldstone will certainly help mount prosecutions across the globe in other countries, particularly Europe. Indeed, his report already contains that fallback position (once again for Hamas too), invoking the universal jurisdiction of the Geneva Conventions as well as referrals to the UN General Assembly and other avenues. Many Israeli military and civilian officials already have to check with government lawyers before setting off on international trips. There will be many more, whatever happens in the Security Council.
Almost as bad as a veto in the Security Council for Obama's reputation and his broader diplomacy would be any visible pressure at the Human Rights Council to thwart the recommendations. At the very least the administration could defend Goldstone against the fervent witch-hunt now being mounted by a government that refused to cooperate with the inquiry and yet assured him that this refusal should not "in anyway be taken as an aspersion on your integrity or commitment to impartiality."
While Goldstone is indeed a revered jurist, a human rights stalwart from South Africa, a staunchly independent member of Paul Volcker's Oil For Food Inquiry, and a longstanding prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, such a disclaimer from the Israeli government is unusual. But of course there are reasons. Goldstone is Jewish and Zionist. He is chair of Friends of the Hebrew University, president emeritus of the World ORT Jewish school system, and has a devoted Zionist Hebrew-speaking daughter who made aliyah to Israel.
Yet, critics have derided his report as "one-sided" and, even more hilariously, "anti-Semitic." Apparently, even if he came to the conclusion that Hamas' activities bore examination as well, he didn't give as many pages to the evidence against them as he did to allegations against Israel.
Anyone who has ever met Goldstone, or had dealings with him, knows him to be a person of deep integrity, as the Israeli government had previously affirmed, firmly committed to human rights and very sensitive to suggestions of bias. He must have really screwed his courage to the sticking place to take this position, and on all evidence of his past career, weighed every word very carefully.
He deserves support from anyone who has called for justice in Rwanda, in the Balkans, in Cambodia or in Darfur. He deserves support from all those who pursue universal jurisdiction against Nazi war criminals.
The administration would do well to note what Goldstone said in his op-ed in The New York Times. "Pursuing justice in this case is essential because no state or armed group should be above the law. Western governments in particular face a challenge because they have pushed for accountability in places like Darfur, but now must do the same with Israel, an ally and a democratic state. Failing to pursue justice for serious violations during the fighting will have a deeply corrosive effect on international justice, and reveal an unacceptable hypocrisy."
It is up to Obama. Does he want to build on the good work he started in Turkey and Egypt and send a signal to Netanyahu and the Israeli electorate? Or is he prepared to let the ethical dimension of his entire foreign policy be hijacked by unprincipled but powerful lobbyists?
"So why did the Israeli government boycott the commission?" Israeli dissident Uri Avnery has asked. "The real answer is quite simple: they knew full well that the commission, any commission, would have to reach the conclusions it did reach." And any adamantine refusal by Israel to carry out the impartial investigation that Goldstone called for, and any administration support for that refusal, would carry the same implication across the world.
Senior Foreign Policy In Focus analyst Ian Williams is a journalist and author.
Friday, September 18, 2009
A good place to start a history of the current economic debacle would be Nick Leeson’s destruction of Barings. It should have sounded the alarm for bankers, regulators and governments alike with its demonstration of the dangers of opacity in the financial system, the perils of undeclared trading and the leveraged toxicity of the derivatives themselves. But the Barings case may also suggest a solution.
Some years before Leeson’s spree, I interviewed one of the Baring brothers at the firm’s London office, whose walnut display cabinets held memorabilia of the firm’s venerable M&A history. The cabinets did not, however, display any relics from 1890, when Barings pioneered the concept of ‘too big to fail’ and the British government had to rescue the bank after its Argentinean loans evaporated.
Barings was also pioneering in other ways. The brother explained how, in 1969, fearful of being nationalized by the Labor government, Barings had basically given itself to charity in the form of the Baring Foundation. The family controlled the foundation, which owned the bank, which in turn the family managed. The charity actually put some money into good causes, but not nearly as much as the partners paid themselves in salaries and bonuses.
Barings did not list its shares, so its situation was different from the current state of all those major banks on Wall Street. Or was it? One independent analyst estimates that in general, US bank employees took ‘65 percent of the value created in good years, and even more in bad years, so there is only 15 percent to 20 percent for the shareholders.’
Now that shareholders are down to widows’ mites for their stock values, that managerial looting is of huge concern, even more so for taxpayers than shareholders. The rush to pay off troubled asset relief program funds, and thus set free bonuses, substantiates that. Bank executives know once they have the government off their back they will face few constraints from complaisant shareholders, even allowing for the legal obstacles investors face in exercising any real ownership of their corporations.
Could this be because so many institutional portfolio managers are paid on a similar basis and so have no incentive to rock the gravy boat? One would be shocked indeed if it were so. But it is amazing how the same pattern of diversion of earnings from shareholders to management has been spreading out from the financial industry to others. The trend is one of dividends down, perks up.
Nonetheless, with all Washington’s Bolshie talk about shareholder rights, the shareholder worm may be about to turn. Surely it is time for the US banks to follow in Barings’ footsteps and deed themselves to a 501(c)3 corporation so they can carry on as normal? The holding foundation would need a genuinely charitable purpose, but there are lots of good causes, such as relief of down-on-their-luck prisoners like Bernie Madoff, saving the art collections of companies in Chapter 11, or preserving historic corporate aircraft.
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2009, pages 33-34
United Nations Report
By Ian Williams
TIME WAS when Israeli politicians ignored the U.N. Now they turn up in droves—and then ignore the international body. In the last month or so, President Shimon Peres, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and, finally on June 19, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman all made the pilgrimage to New York to greet Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and bend his ear. Once can’t be sure whether this was out of a new-found deference to the world organization, or an opportunity to line up campaign donors in New York while visiting on “government” business.
In any case, each Israeli politician used the occasion to make the usual suspect Likudnik-style demands: against Iran, against Hamas. The Israeli desire to enforce every jot and tittle of U.N. resolutions on Hamas, Iran, Syria, or Lebanon is refreshing—until contrasted with their unspoken assumption that no resolution, whether admonitory or mandatory, applies to Israel.
Each subsequent press statement from the Israeli side detailing its demands received lots of media publicity, despite the total omission of what Ban told them. He is a person of almost infinite patience, but his quiet exasperation with Israeli deafness is growing, not least since he went to Gaza earlier in the year and saw for himself just how much disrespect Israel has for both the U.N. and Palestinians.
He sees his role as an interlocutor, however, so he tries to remain non-confrontational and refrains from giving the lie to his visitors. Sadly, to outsiders, there are times when he bends so far backwards that his tightrope walk looks almost like limbo dancing—as with his diplomatic refusal to release his own organization’s report on Israel’s attack on Gaza.
The media tended not to pick up information from U.N. press releases—for example, that the secretary-general told his visitors to stop settlements, to stop blockading Gaza and to allow the U.N. humanitarian agencies to operate there. Ban even called for a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Maybe he should shout, and the media might listen.
Of course, Ban Ki-moon can draw strength from the fact that President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the rest of the White House team are now effectively saying the same thing. While one applauds that, it would be interesting indeed if the White House started framing this not just as previously agreed Israeli commitments, but as the law: i.e., binding U.N. decisions and international law and conventions.
Of course, for domestic reasons, to defang the lobby on Capitol Hill, where Congress has traditionally displayed extreme insouciance to U.N. decisions about Israel, the Obama administration has cleverly framed all of its pressure on Netanyahu in terms of Israel’s own commitments under Oslo, the road map and the bipartisan policy of the U.S. for many years. Washington has never denied the illegitimacy of the occupation or settlements: it is just that successive U.S. administrations have connived at the Israeli evasions of its promises. Obama’s welcome change is crucial to his administration’s credibility. He cannot collude with the traditional Israeli smoke and mirrors over settlements that, while pleading compliance, has doubled the settler population in the occupied territories.
Since the Quartet line, as in fact reiterated by Shalom to Ban Ki-moon, is that Hamas must renounce terrorism, recognize Israel, and accept previous engagements, one does have to wonder why the secretary-general, or Hillary Clinton, let alone the EU, are meeting with politicians who ignore previous agreements to abide by the law and stop expanding settlements, refuse to renounce armed incursions into the Palestinian Authority, and above all do not accept a Palestinian state. But it is a good excuse to meet them and speak truth to power.
As Ban told a U.N. gathering on Palestine in June, “I remain seriously concerned about the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. Nearly five months after the end of the hostilities, nothing beyond basic needs such as food and medicine is allowed in. Essential recovery efforts and long-term development initiatives are impossible in these conditions. I call on Israel to allow in the fuel, funds and materials that are urgently required to repair destroyed and damaged schools, clinics, sanitation networks and shelters and to restore a functioning market.
“In the West Bank, there have been encouraging developments by the Palestinian Authority toward building the institutions of an independent state and improving the security situation through the newly trained Palestinian Authority security forces. However, routine incursions by the Israel Defense Forces are a hindrance to progress. Palestinians continue to endure unacceptable unilateral actions, such as house demolitions, intensified settlement activity, settler violence, and ever increasing movement restrictions due to permits, checkpoints and the wall and fence barrier. The time has come for Israel to fundamentally change its policies in this regard, as it has repeatedly promised to do. There must be a full settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including from natural growth, and settlement outposts must be evacuated. Furthermore, I am extremely worried about intensifying Israeli actions to alter the status of East Jerusalem.”
Somehow, this strong, strictly factual and legal dressing down never appears in the Israeli press communiqués, nor much in the U.S. press reports of the meetings and the ministerial briefings afterwards.
Of course, when he visited the U.N., Lieberman threw in the Netanyahu gambit: the prime minister’s “acceptance” of a Palestinian state. Despite his lithe exterior, the Israeli prime minister conceals within him a Humpty Dumpty, who when he uses a word, means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Netanyahu’s Palestinian state would make the South African Bantustans look like superpowers. It would be demilitarized, and as he commented afterward, would have to accept Israeli military incursions to keep it so. It would have no control of its own airspace above, and very little of its water resources below, and it would have to give up its internationally accepted legal rights to any part of Jerusalem, let alone the settlement blocs. In fact, as has been pointed out, it would have all the autonomy of the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Chutzpah Front
On the chutzpah front, Israel’s chief delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) complained that chief Mohamed ElBaradei was refusing to meet Israeli officials on alleged Syrian nuclear activities and was “biased.” Coming from a nuclear non-member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), this was enriched beyond measure. ElBaradei actually took it for granted that the Israelis had bombed the alleged Syrian reactor, and quite rightly pointed out that they had no right to. Indeed, he is so biased he has declared on the record that an Israeli strike against Iran would be “insane.” It was not for nothing ElBaradei got a Nobel Prize.
International concern was muted by Syria’s reticence on the issue of the Sept. 6, 2007 Israeli attack. Damascus does not want to confirm how vulnerable it is to Israeli air strikes and was almost certainly being evasive with the IAEA about its nuclear program. It is worth remembering that a nuclear enrichment program is neither illegal nor against the NPT or IAEA charter—although concealing it, not declaring it, is.
But the legal response is to report it, not bomb it, and ElBaradei forcefully told the Israeli delegate, “You, sir, did not allow us to do what we are supposed to do under international law. You are not even part of the [non-proliferation] regime to tell us what to do. We would appreciate that you stop preaching to us.”
There is one side-effect of Israel’s new love affair with the U.N., combined with the change of administration in Washington. After almost 30 years of shilly-shallying with the U.S. dues to the U.N., the House in June passed H.R. 2410 to authorize full payment of back dues to the U.N. going back a full decade.
Beginning in the 1970s, under pressure from mostly pro-Israeli legislators, grandstanding American politicians have tried to use non-payment of dues to browbeat the U.N. into a more “acceptable” Middle East policy. The campaign, which united otherwise liberal Democrats with rabid conservatives, has caused profound international embarrassment to U.S. diplomacy—not least when a private citizen, Ted Turner, actually paid several hundred million dollars out of his own pocket on behalf of the delinquent U.S. Treasury.
The U.S. paid some of its dues—almost always on the last possible day—to avoid losing its vote in the General Assembly. Recently, Congress refused to authorize sufficient funding for peacekeeping operations that the White House and State Department were pushing for in the Security Council. It did not add to Washington’s diplomatic credibility, even though allies and the U.N. were sympathetic to the plight of administrations hog-tied by a lobby-bound legislature. Less sympathetic nations, generally ignorant of how democracy works, and understandably bemused by the sight of its Washington version in action, simply saw it as yet another example of American double standards.
As of this writing, H.R. 2410, introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Howard Berman (D-CA), awaits its Senate counterpart. The Sanity Clause is long, long overdue.
Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations and has a blog at <www.deadlinepundit.blogspot.com>.
Uzbekistan: The Former Soviet Republic’s Silk Road Glory Days a Faded Memory
By Ian Williams
Bukhara’s Kalon Mosque and Minaret, from which condemned prisoners were thrown (photo I. Williams).
OTHERWISE unknown, the British Arabist diplomat James Elroy Flecker immortalized the Central Asian cities of the Silk Road with his poem, “The Golden Journey to Samarkand.” His merchants sing as their caravan embarks from Baghdad:
We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
Symbolizing the antiquity of the Silk Road oases strung along the sere Central Asian desert is the Magok-i-Attari mosque in the Uzbekistan city of Bukhara. A palimpsest in brick, the mosque has served at different times throughout history as a Zoroastrian fire temple, Buddhist shrine, Arab mosque, Mogul tomb, and now a carpet museum with all the layers visible inside.
Even if they were not to be found in that building, Nestorian Christians and Bukharan Jews lived in the neighborhood as well. The latter are sometimes suggested to be the descendants of the converted Khazars, but even though there are now more of them in Brooklyn than in Bukhara they keep alive their own distinctive traditions—which include being custodians of Uzbekistan’s musical history. They left for opportunity, not because of persecution, and maintain friendly relations with the regime in Tashkent.
Over the millennia, Persian kings of kings, Alexander the Great and his generals, Sassanians, Arabs, Iranians, Mongols and most recently Russians have been through, leaving their marks behind them. For some untold centuries what is now Uzbekistan was a center of learning, where ideas passed to and from India and between China and the Arab lands along the Silk Road.
Although for thousands of years Uzbekistan has been a crossroads country, under its perpetually “re-elected” President Islam Karimov it has been stalled at the junction for almost two decades. As a result, for far too many Uzbeks the real golden road is the one that leads to construction jobs in Moscow, store counters in Qatar and kitchens and hotels in London. Getting out is the main aim of most of the educated young people we met.
This, however, requires a Soviet-style exit visa, as well as an entry visa to get into another country—which is no easy task, since the foreign consulates are well aware that there is more money to be made washing dishes in Brooklyn than in being a professor in Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan’s President (seemingly for life) Karimov began his career as a loyal Soviet apparatchik and became an Uzbek nationalist almost inadvertently, when it became clear that Moscow was no longer interested. Thus the first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan became the president of the independent republic and had to play off the various forces within the society. Essentially, he renamed the Communist Party, let Lenin lapse, but kept Leninist discipline.
A Fossilized Political Structure
* Samarkand, before and after restoration (photo I. Williams).
The regime’s political structure is fossilized in Soviet times, and since independence it has been more concerned about maintaining power than expanding the economy. At least on paper, it maintains all the pervasive regulation of communist times, such as the internal passports and exit visas for its citizens and registration for visitors, domestic or foreign. Rather than being the basis for an efficient police state, however, these regulations serve more as profit points for the government, which levies fees and fines for imprisonment, or, just as commonly, for the individual bureaucrat or police officer who will overlook their flouting for a bribe.
On the way out my wife was held at the airport in Tashkent for not registering her presence in her mother’s house with the local militia. They tried to shake her down for $20 or so (it would have been $700 for me, as a foreigner), but she pointed out that she had no money, two children, and a foreign husband—who was busily taking notes in the corner on his laptop. The inspector eventually sighed and entered in long hand in a big ledger that she had been warned.
* Wads of cash for a meal (photo I. Williams).
“Foreigners don’t understand these things,” my wife was told when we went for airline tickets and were told there were no seats available on the flight to Khiva. She was called back so the clerk could explain that for a small token of appreciation, $10 in fact, the tickets would suddenly be there. It would be pointless going to the police about it. The green-uniformed militiamen are everywhere, zealous in stopping drivers for real or imagined infractions, but every time one of my drivers was stopped, there was nothing that a dollar or so in bribes would not excuse.
In fact since the biggest banknote, a 1,000 soms, equals about 70 cents, it is an effective counterinflationary restraint on bribery. Even a restaurant bill involves bundles of notes looking like a Medellin cocaine transaction, so it would be difficult to pay larger bribes discreetly. As it is, the resigned citizenry looks upon them more in the nature of tolls and tips than amoral bribery.
Similarly, although the country has also preserved some aspects of the Soviet social net such as a universal health service, it is generally accepted that medical staff deserve something extra from the patients and their families to supplement their abysmal salaries. And while across the country the government is building new schools and universities, additional payments—bribes—to teachers and professors may be necessary if you want to graduate. I met alleged university lecturers in English who could not speak the language. Luckily I did not have to call upon the services of a recently graduated brain surgeon.
* Colorful clothes and a traditional puppet show reflect Uzbekistan’s Silk Road heritage (photos I. Williams).
Insofar as there is an ideology for Karimov’s state, it is a resentful nationalism. While this does evoke a sympathetic response from a proud population, it is not enough for him to risk an election. Of all the ‘stans, the Uzbeks have been more intent to reassert their identity against the Russians. With the twin spurs of local chauvinism and economic immiseration driving them, most Russian expats have hightailed it for home. The Russian language is rapidly being replaced by Turkic Uzbek, which has adopted its fifth script in 70 years: from Arabic, to Roman, to Cyrillic, then to Turkish Roman and now to a more standard Roman script. (Karimov did not like the Turkish version.)
Replacing Lenin with Timurlaine as the national hero may have a certain gruesome appropriateness for those who consider the Bolshevik leader a ruthless mass murderer, but even so Timurlaine, the builder of skull pyramids and destroyer of cities, is not everyone’s idea of a 21st century icon. His wooden coffin is on display in the Samarkand museum—as part of a display of Uzbek woodwork!—but his body was reinterred in the lavishly restored Gur Emir, his tomb. Timurlaine’s statue has replaced Lenin’s in many of the de-Sovietized town squares.
Unlike neighboring Kazakhstan, whose nomadic Islam was worn lightly, the cities of Uzbekistan traditionally have been architectural and intellectual monuments to Islam—and the Gur Emir is just one of a huge complex of mosques, madrassas, and khans for wandering dervishes and merchants, and monuments.
With no reliable supplies of building stone nearby, the architects used mud brick for the massive but delicate piles, which they protected with ceramic tiles in predominately blue shades. Those huge minarets towering above the desert must have been like lighthouses for the caravans of two-humped Bactrian camels trudging their way through the scrub, although the biggest one in Bukhara served a more nefarious purpose: the emirs used to throw from the top condemned prisoners sewn in sacks. These are deservedly world heritage sites—the Registan in Samarkand is like having three cathedrals surrounding St Peter’s Square, but the buildings, while huge, are not intimidating. They are open and welcoming, with garden courtyards, wells and fountains to shield worshippers and travelers from the desert blasts outside.
In fact, most of the people in these cities of the Silk Road are actually Farsi-speaking Tadjiks, although most of them also speak Uzbek to avoid upsetting the new nationalism of the republic. Although ethnic Uzbeks in the north tend to combine impassivity of expression with generous hospitality, in Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva their welcoming smiles survived Soviet suspicion and Uzbek tradition. The great miracle and ice-breaker was our six-month-old, carried in a back harness—universally regarded as the greatest innovation in transport since the local camels got their extra hump.
But in Bukhara the local kids happily accepted our five-year-old in a soccer match in the shadow of the minaret from which malefactors were thrown. Much more welcoming, they made sure he had easy runs at the goal—he was a guest, after all!
Water is a big issue for Uzbekistan. When our friend who met us at the airport told us, “The water in Tashkent is quite good—you can drink it if you boil it,” we should have taken it as a warning. We saw what he meant at the Saramboy Choikhana, or teahouse, on the road between Khiva and Bukhara. Deep in the desert, the brackish water is trucked into this waystation for travelers on the long trek. The outhouse was two planks that ran into an open pit, visible and smellable just on the other side of the wall. Our driver recommended distillation before drinking the water, and bringing one’s own food.
Even Marco Polo in his day would have had problems with water on the road, but it has become worse for the same reason that the Aral Sea is now a shrinking pond whose former seabed is being blown toxically about the region, while the irrigation techniques are causing salination of croplands.
An Ecological Disaster
The water problem is a hangover of the Soviet era dependence on cotton, which in turn is dependent on massive irrigation works diverting rivers to the fields. Moscow is now blamed for this ecological disaster, since it is not often mentioned that Karimov was a leading figure in the Uzbek Communist Party when these environmental atrocities were perpetrated. He now must balance the immediate social and financial costs of curtailing the government’s main source of revenue—and the mainstay, albeit at not much above subsistence, of the rural population—against the long-term environmental costs.
The cotton industry epitomizes the handicaps of incomplete reform. While it once was large-scale, mechanized and industrialized, privatization led to small plots, and most cotton now is harvested by hand. In an odd hangover, schoolchildren and college students alike are forced to pick the crop, and their labor became increasingly vital as the former Soviet machinery broke down without the resources for replacement.
But the state buys the cotton at a fraction of the price it sells it on the world market. The state gets assured revenue but, in an overwhelmingly rural country, the results do not percolate down to the farmers. Quite apart from the pervasive anti-entrepreneurial bureaucracy and corruption, this hybrid private-commandism is no way to create a dynamic modern economy.
There is little sign of a Karimov personality cult, which is just as well—he is about as charismatic as you would expect a former Brezhnev-era apparatchik to be. The government is concerned about what its citizens do, not what they think. However, its paranoia reflects its own deep feelings of insecurity. When the citizens of Andijon dared to protest in 2005, up to two thousand of them were gunned down—and posthumously accused of being Muslim fundamentalists.
Indeed, any unauthorized prayer meetings or uncontrolled congregations will bring the robustly fatal hand of the secret police down on the heads of people deemed to be Islamic militants, a catch-all phrase which covers all dissident activity.
Since Uzbek nationalism contained a strong element of Islamic reaction to Soviet-era atheism, that involved setting up what is almost a state “church.” In the Soviet era, the few mosques and the seminary for training imams were under strict state control. They remained so under the new dispensation, but greatly expanded in numbers.
At prayer times, especially in Ferghana, the small neighborhood mosques are packed with men covering their heads with the chopon, the square, easily folding hat that is traditional Uzbek headgear. Interestingly, there is no provision at all for women to pray in the mosques.
As in Iran, however, the old Zoroastrian tradition of Noruz is still a major festival, so strong that even the ayatollahs have been unable to stamp out this pre-Islamic fire worshippers’ fest.
The older Sufi traditions of the Silk Road prevail in Uzbekistan, with few headscarves on the women, and a general liking for beer and vodka. Oddly enough, several hosts recommended Kyrgyz vodka as preferable to and safer than Uzbek spirits, although that was in Ferghana—a fast smuggler’s drive across the border to Kyrgyzstan.
Uzbekistan’s place on the Silk Road and away from the puritanical Wahabi tradition is reinforced by its ubiquitous brightly colored silks and woolen rugs. A bride’s dowry begins with chests full of bolts of silk, and furniture for homes is mostly carpets on the walls and floors, with silk-covered cushions around the walls.
Karimov’s security is reputedly provided, or at least boosted, by Israelis. Despite the Episcopalian Islam of most Uzbeks, the regime was the first in the region to recognize Israel, and one of the few in the world to vote alongside the U.S. and Israel on Middle Eastern issues. That was in the early days, however, when Tashkent tried to counterbalance Moscow with Washington. Human rights issues put the brake on that rapprochement, but after 9/11, Karimov happily booked a seat on the Islamic Fundamentalist bandwagon. Casting itself as in the front line in the war against terrorism, like so many other autocratic regimes, any dissidence was conflated with fundamentalism and terrorism.
Location is everything in geopolitics. Being at the crossroads of Central Asia, and sitting on vast reservoirs of natural gas, gives a president for life a strong hand. After throwing out the Americans when they protested the Andijon massacre, Karimov is now being rewarded with overtures from Washington—not least since Kyrgyzstan took the Russian ruble to throw out its American base. (U.S. blandishments seem to have succeeded, however, as Kyrgystan’s parliament approved in late June an agreement allowing the base to remain open.) Karimov is under similar blandishments and pressure from Russia, while keeping close relations with China. The president seems happier now that he can use Beijing as another counterweight to Moscow—and happier still that he can use both to counter Western concerns about human rights.
Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations and has a blog at
Friday, September 11, 2009
I moved from midtown to lower Manhattan in late August 2001. South Street Sea Port seemed like home to someone who left Liverpool twelve years before. Indeed in some ways I had hardly left. The plaque on the esplanade mentioned that it built on rubble landfill from blitzed London that returning supply ships used as ballast.. Those ships actually came from bombed Liverpool. I’d used it to illustrate my thesis that American civilian experience of war was vicarious and inaccurate compared with that of Europeans, even younger ones like me brought up playing in bomb sites and listening to tales of evacuations and bomb shelters from older family members.
I had developed a routine in the new apartment. A brisk cycle ride round the southern tip of the island, past Battery Park and up the new bike up the Hudson that begins by running through the dark valley between the World Trade Centre and the World Financial Centre. On the morning of September 11, I began my day as usual by checking my email as I swigged my first mug of tea, sitting, I must confess, in stark naked comfort.
The email brought several promising commissions, and so I decided to postpone my daily ride, even though the blue skies and equable temperature outside promised one of New York’s few sweet spots between its more customary extremes of frigidity and torridity. Instead I began work on an article for Punch, on the underlying wobbliness of the American economy.
I had written “The” was when I heard the bang. It sounded like a building collapsing, so I ran to the window to look out. The fish porters from the Fulton market were standing in the square of Peck Slip staring up as if at the Second Coming. I pulled on clothes and ran down with a cell phone, recorder, binoculars and a camera. If this wa sindeed the second coming, it was the early stages, the arrival of Satan on Earth. The World Trade Centre’s north tower had an exit wound some three quarters of the way up, with flames erupting from the north east corner , and thick black smoke framing the brightness.
“Look there’re people jumping” a woman shouted in anguish. As far as I could see, what she thought were people was in fact metal siding drifting downwards on the wind. However, my reassurance was premature: shortly afterwards, that’s just what people trapped in the upper floors began doing.
I began trying to call various newsrooms on my cell phone, to no avail. Either everyone else in Lower Manhattan was hitting their dial buttons at the same time, or, I suspected, the antennae were on top of the Twin Towers.
I ran inside to call from my desk phone, but Canadian Broadcasting’s Toronto newsroom was already calling. Ducking between my fire escape platform and the phone, I began to tell them what was happening. The other tower exploding at a slightly lower level. Then the apocalyptic crash as it collapsed.
Up the East River Drive, the FDR. I could see along the shore line as ambulances, fire trucks and police cars fought the rush hour traffic to get closer. Then the evacuees began to trudge by. I had seen refugees in war zones before, but to see endless columns of necktied office workers was a new experience. Most of them marched onwards stolidly without a backward glance, perhaps not realizing that this stretch of their route offered a direct view of the disaster they were fleeing.
On the Brooklyn Bridge, the marching files were silhouetted against the sky like a scene from an Eisenstein film. But then, even those who still stood transfixed in the square had no view. A white cloud, like Pliny’s description of Vesuvius spread from the tower. Heavy choking white ash which fell like snow over the area. By then, most of the rubber neckers had joined the majority marching out the city. A few optimistic ones tried to stop yellow cabs, which sensibly wanted nothing to do with them: just to get out.
In the square some young Indian women had lost their shoes in the rush, and were bleeding from head wounds. My girlfriend invited them to wash off in the bathroom and phone relatives before setting off. A young African man, probably illegal since he did not want to give his name, waited anxiously. He’d been taking his three year old son to pre-school and had lost him in the stampede. In one of the day’s happy stories, he found him, intact at the nearby hospital where some passer by had taken him. He stood in the square in front of us, hugging him thankfully and staring at the column of smoke that marked the site.
I’d been describing the scene from my fire escape for CBC in Toronto, who told me to stand by for ninety seconds for “local announcements.” As they did so, the second tower collapsed. It was the first time I lost my calm. I bellowed down the phone, cursing them and telling them what to do with their local announcements, but to no avail. I had to hold the line open as it was transferred from editor to editor, producer to producer, mostly ignoring the call waiting signals which represented the more successful attempts of friends and family to check on our safety. As the news spread, inward circuits were blocked as people across the world tried to do the same.
A second cloud headed across Manhattan, adding more white ash to the dust that drifted like snow across downtown. By now I was recounting the morning’s events for the BBC, while wrestling with an illustrative side issue. I had mentioned to another editor earlier that Mayor Rudy Giuliani had built his $16 million dollar command and control centre for emergencies and disasters in the World Trade Centre. She commissioned an immediate piece.
I thought it was a potent metaphor for the inefficacy of expensive Star Wars defence systems against this type of attack and spent several hours alternating between radio interviews by phone and checking my memories. It was true. The “bunker,” widely derided as a grandiose folly when it was built, was indeed on the 23rd floor of number 7 WTC, already aflame and later to collapse.
I clicked the send button and as the call volume fell, the adrenalin aftershock set in. Coughing and hoarse with dust and talking, I decided I could take it no longer. I had to go to see what was happening closer to the scene.
The Pompeii parallels became more apt outside. On Fulton Street, the local deli’s display of flowers was shrouded in ash. A fish porter’s breakfast lay in its foil tray, similarly coated, and the little mobile hot dog stands stood abandoned, their bagels and buns buried in a drift of grey dust.
Smoke streamed across towards Brooklyn, and the emergency vehicles stirred up dust devils as if on a desert road as they sped through the police lines to the epicentre. Looking straight down Fulton St, I expected to see a stump, a pyramid of rubble. But who’d a thought the old towers had so little substance in them. It was clear that despite the column of smoke, there was nothing to be seen.
I could flee, or carry on working. Firstly I wanted to pay my debts so we went to the downtown hospital to give blood. They were not accepting it, and what’s more, there was what I thought of as a “fee fo fi fum” warning out. The blood of Englishmen smelt of mad cow disease and was not acceptable.
So brandishing a tape recorder I approached Alex MacLain, a junior doctor at NYU hospital. She had been on duty forty hours, recalled just as she was leaving. She described an early rush of burn victims, “glove injuries,” she said, and explained. “Like one woman came in, and all the skin on her arm and shoulder came off.” Then there was a rush of impact injuries and fractures: followed by an ominous hiatus. She had come to the corner of Fulton St to see what was happening.
As we spoke, behind us I could the lighthouse shaped Titanic monument. In front of us the world was ending in fire, not ice. Coughing despite the masks that the local hospital was distributing, I suddenly had a terrible thought. We were breathing people. There was no way that everyone could have escaped. This smoke, these ashes, were from a massive funeral pyre: the Windows on the World had become a peephole into Hell.
Blowing around in the ashes, the memories of the world’s life were flashing by in form of charred and chewed papers. Plans for environmental projects financed by Wall Street bonds, cheques for unimaginable numbers of zeroes, bunkering invoices from Pakistan, Japanese investment reports, and personnel files. I learned from a police deposition that a Ms Watkins earned $500 a day in a massage parlour, charging $40 for a hand job, $80 for oral sex and $150 for full sex. But it had done her little good since her pimp took the lot. Down by Wall St, in front of Federal Hall, where George Washington was proclaimed the first president, his statue overlooked his handiwork, his hair appropriately powdered like a Georgian wig for the first time in two centuries.
The NYPD working press pass says it entitles the bearer to cross police lines. It had never worked before, so I was not surprised to be greeted with customary brusqueness when I probed the police perimeter to get closer. I moved south and discovered a motley Dunkirk style line of tour boats and tug boats at Battery Park, waiting for evacuees. It was a weak link in the cordon and I sidled through.
On the Hudson side of Manhattan, the debris, smashed vehicles and even deeper ashes made for an even more apocalyptic scene. We were closer and the wind blew from the west into the fire, giving a clearer view of the firefighters trying to control the blaze in the surrounding buildings. Next to us, lines of hoses led from the fireboats which normally only seemed to provide water displays for the visiting cruise liners. Now they were pumping thousands of tons of Hudson water into the ruins.
I lent my cell phone to several exhausted firemen, checking on children, wives and friends. Someone had forced open a local Deli, and they were helping themselves to water and snacks. Even though it was technically looting, no one took more than they needed, except one young man, who looked like a local resident. He helped himself to a pack of cigarettes, paused, and then took two more. Tobacco does that to a person, I thought, even as I wondered at an ash covered fireman who came out with a huge lit cheroot in his mouth. How much smoke can you take!
Another fireman came out of the store. Caked in dust and sweat, he was voraciously stuffing a banana into his mouth in between gulps of water. He looked around with a sort of pugnacious puzzlement at the ash, the debris, the mud, and the smoke. “Can you believe it?” he asked me, “I’m looking for a fucking garbage can!” He threw the peel at the ashes on the floor as if it were a demonstration against the lack of civilization in the neighbourhood.
One of the firemen who had used my phone was telling me bitterly “you know, three hundred of guys got caught when they collapsed.” He then said. “I don’t want to offend anyone, but we just gotta go in and nuke the whole fucking Middle East now.” It was timely reminder. It was early days, and no one had fingered the perpetrators, but somehow, I didn’t want to remind him of Timothy MacVeigh and the anti Arab hysteria that the media had perpetrated before it had happened.
It was now eight hours from the first crash. I had enough local colour, and thought that I was in danger of degenerating from a reporter to a rubbernecker, so I decided to make my way back and file. I headed south only to meet a more than usually implacable police cordon on the Hudson River promenade, “Get on the boat, “they said. pointing to a tug whose bow was nudging the sea wall. “No thanks I said politely,” waving my press card. “You have to. It’s dangerous.”
“I’m press- it’s my job to take risks. I’ve been in Beirut and Balkans. No one’s shooting at me here, I told him, brandishing my press card.
“Get on, or we put you on. We already put two of you guys on.” he said with “make my day” relish. The tug took us to New Jersey, and dropped us at a pier with large signs saying “Condemned structure. No trespassing.” I had no idea how to get back into Manhattan to file, or to wash or change for that matter.
The view from the boat was almost worth it. The Sun setting behind us was lighting up the intact windows of lower Manhattan as if they too were on fire, and tingeing the column of smoke with an appropriately bloody hue. All weekend I had been sailing on the Hudson from the Manhattan Yacht Club out of the North Cove in the shadow of the WTC. We had used the two towers as our navigation aids as we practiced tacking up and down the Harbour. Their absence was even more striking. And I remembered, so was that of my fellow crew member, a Brit I had met for the first time, who had just arrived and was working on the 25 floor of one of the towers. He only had an office number. Death moved from wholesale to personal.
In New Jersey, waiting on the pier were police, paramedics, Red Cross, waited for casualties. They had spent hours watching the pyre burn across the Hudson: they wanted desperately to help, but we were disappointments for their eleemosynary instincts, deportees more than evacuees. The lines of ambulances and doctors waiting on the other side, no casualties emerged, except as smoke.
Hours later, a train from New Jersey to midtown, and a long hike down the East River side brought us home. The police manned checkpoints on all the roads, but as so often in New York the bike paths and foot paths are invisible to drivers. The police overlooked the route along the esplanade, and it became my own personal route for several days. At home, the power was gone, so were the phone lines. And a week later they still were.
Downtown reminded me of divided Berlin or Beirut. To the North of the police perimeter, there were bright lights, shops, bars and restaurants open for teeming crowds. To the south the inhabitants stumbled about in the dark. If they trudged North to resupply, they were shaken down at innumerable checkpoints by a motley array of military and police uniforms. I suspect, despite rather than because of them, there was little of the looting or lawlessness that the stereotype of New York City would suggest. The only vehicles moving were official vehicles with flashing lights on top. Looking for light relief, I suggested ”Hey, if aliens were looking on, they’d think it was the lights made them move!”
At the end of the week, the Police commissioner reported that crime was way down. Even the criminal classes rose to the occasion. Radio reports dwelt on the few crimes. A man appropriated a fireman’s jacket, a retired warder stole some watches while someone else broke into Brooks Brothers. Brooks Brothers! Did he need a suit to start work on Monday? One thing was sure. He would pay some small part of the price for the absent perpetrators when the courts opened.
Our recently stocked refrigerator was thawing rapidly. On the first night, exhausted , dusty and thirsty I made an executive decision was made. There was a bottle of champagne in the fridge still cool. We knocked it back before it could warm and sank into fitful sleep, punctuated by long vigils at the window watching as the first convoys of armoured cars and troops arrived along the FDR, and noting the absence of ambulances among the sporadic bursts of traffic.
We began an ironic tribute to Paris Zoo menu from the siege of 1870. A born again carnivore with a cholesterol problem, I had stocked up on venison, buffalo burgers and ostrich loin. No fricassee of elephant trunk at the back of the freezer, but we ate our way through the rest.
Just around the corner, our problem was writ large, much larger in fact. There was no power for the Fulton Street fish market, where millions of dollars worth of fish waited in freezers without power. Never particularly sweet smelling, I quailed at the thought of their eventual exhumation.
Two days later, the police allowed in generators for them, and trucks to ship some out. I went down to check. “Is this fish being dumped or sol?” “It’s still in ice, it’s fine,” they told me, as I made a mental note to drop fish from my menu for a few weeks. In a way, it was a reassuring sign of the return of the commercial impulse. One bleak reminder of the shock of the tragedy was that no umbrella sellers appeared on the streets to sell their wares when the rain of dust fell. After two days, in China town, a store keeper was selling visitors photo postcards of the explosions at 2 for three dollars. And of course there were flags, a dollar each.
The flags began to appear two days later. CBC wanted a series of interviews for their local stations, so I got up at 6 and went down to the river side so my cell phone could get a strong signal from across the East River in Brooklyn. Half an inch of rain had fallen, and more was bucketing down I shuddered at the thought of the murky slurry that the rescuers would be working in.
In the grey morning light, the low clouds obscured the smoke and the rain even quelled the ubiquitous smell and dust. Under the shelter of the elevated highway, life had returned to normal. Elderly Chinese from nearby Chinatown did their exercises, and one solitary man brandished a sword in an intricate series of balletic movements. He did not pause as a column of a steel workers formed up in bright yellow water proofs and hard hats with their union Local number written on the side. Led by a large stars and stripes they headed south into the inferno.
About a dozen homeless usually live in the vicinity and four of them who seemed to make a virtual family were inspired to mount their own surreal march. Pushing the one in a wheel chair, they paraded with a placard, “United We Stand, Divided We Fall. New York City/The World.” Pausing in between radio interviews, I asked “Why?” “Gotta a ciggy?” one replied in an London accent. “No, sorry!” I apologized as the phone rang, from, of all places, Iquiluit in the Inuit new territories.
I’ve never understood flag fetishism, but I could see why people would want to respond. Over the next few days, the flags proliferated, but in almost reverse proportion to the distance from what the news reports were calling Ground Zero. “Positive patriotism” is all too often sullied with Xenophobia, which is never an exact science. Maronite Churches were firebombed along with Sikh temples. Maronite and Sikh enthusiasm for Islam, let alone Islamic fundamentalism, has been historically someone tenuous, as anyone should know. But few voters in the world’s only superpower ever take time to study the world, which was perhaps precisely why I was standing in a disaster zone.
Another friend called, with semi light relief, but again with a dark side.
His friend Mohammed worked in a restaurant where 11 of the 14 waiters were also called Mohamed. They used their colleges as names. “Hi Princeton! Hi Columbia!” He was earnestly seeking advice on how to change his name. Quickly
You could almost tell how foreign a storekeeper, or a yellow cab driver felt from how many flags they are flying or sticking like talismans on their doors and windows. And the more I spoke to people, I could see solid reasons for the fear. “Someone must be punished,” is a universal cry. I did a radio interview for the left wing station Pacifica in California. The anchorman on the other side of the continent said “We have to punish them.” Inhaling the smoke from what was after all a near miss for me personally, I asked, “ How do you punish eighteen people who have just killed themselves? And if they had accomplices, can you trust the ideologues round this administration, the Cheneys and Rumsfeldts, to identify the real perpetrators rather than use the opportunity to hit at their own perverse enemies’ list?”
I could trust Powell, who knows that even gestures have their price, but the others worried me. Each day, the news brought more suggestions of right wing wish lists being tacked across the stable door after the Trojan horse had already exploded. More wire taps, tougher immigration, more defence spending, and calls for action all the more ominous for being so nebulously targeted.
I had seen the best side of New York and America in the long lines of volunteers, the heroism of the rescuers, the donations of food, clothes, and money and the flood of resources available when the will was there. But the urge to do something could be as innocuous as standing on street corners with candles, or it could lead to applause for the incineration of other faraway cities of which they know or care little.
As Sunday drew on, Mayor Giuliani opened the way to Wall St. Back to normalcy. Radio advertisements told Americans that the way to show their patriotism was to show their support for American companies. “Buy Stock,” the broker harangued. I did a double take: it was genuine, not some subversive parody. And within sniffing distance, an army of rescuers used muscle power to sift the still smouldering ruins, looking with almost certain futility for survivors among the five thousand lives snuffed out in less than an hour on bright sunny morning in Manhattan.
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
By Ian Williams
Asia Times September 10th
WASHINGTON - United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon has been under attack in the Anglo-American press. This is perhaps why, despite a recent global poll  showing him to be the second-most popular political figure in the world after President Barack Obama, his ratings are not so glowing in the United States and Britain.
In August, the leak of a negative assessment from Norwegian deputy ambassador to the UN, Mona Juul, seemed to suggest that the criticism extended beyond the Anglo-Saxon neo-liberal consensus, but its effect was rather countered by a previous Norwegian invitation to the secretary general. Norway provided the UN's first secretary general, Trygve Lie, and helped organize Ban
Ki-Moon's visit to the North Pole last week to see the effects of climate change.
The Norwegian leak is puzzling. Unsourced, relying on gossip and clippings from conservative press outlets, the "highly confidential" report  to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry was relentlessly negative, calling Ban "spineless and charmless".
However, for UN insiders, its effect was somewhat mitigated by the recent, unsuccessful but active interest of its author, Juul, in an assistant secretary general's job under the same direly assessed Ban. That her husband, Terje Rod-Larsen's expectations of a UN position had also been allegedly frustrated by Ban did not add to her credibility.
Half-way through Ban's first term there is indeed room for a critical assessment of the former South Korean foreign minister, but the sources cited by Juul in her report bear similar examination of their motivation. For many of them, like Rupert Murdoch's London Times or the National Interest's Jacob Heibrunn - who wrote a blistering assault on Ban in Foreign Policy magazine (which in fact looked like the main reference for Juul's report) - the UN is always wrong.
Indeed, their attacks could suggest that Ban has in fact outgrown the do-nothing role that former US envoy to the UN John Bolton allegedly scripted for him on his election. This has led to him joining the long line of UN secretaries general to be excoriated by the conservative press for not following orders.
There are many odious comparisons made with former secretary general Kofi Annan, whose charisma is contrasted with Ban's. In fact, to some observers, Annan was not "charismatic" in the real sense of the word. His soft-spoken oratory style was not aimed at firing up the masses, despite the intensive efforts from his team. Rather he was "numinous". A charismatic leader can incite people to run over a cliff: Annan's demeanor reassured people that he would never allow that to happen. He exuded trust. And while he stood by his principles, he was no more forward in seeking out gratuitous enemies than Ban is.
One may remember that Annan drew down furious conservative fire for suggesting, under pressure from a BBC interviewer, that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was illegal (as did, incidentally, the late senator Ted Kennedy). But he had not exactly used the bully pulpit on which he stood to push that view.
Many analysts beleive Ban is most certainly not "charmless and spineless". He is remarkably affable, charming and has shown strong attachment to principle - which may be one reason for the neo-liberal disaffection. He went on the hustings to campaign for the seat and while running explicitly avowed support for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept - a new international doctrine on the responsibility of sovereign states and the international community to protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes - and the International Criminal Court. Neither of these moves were calculated to win the affections of president George W Bush or Bolton, who were in office at the time - nor indeed of China. He has maintained those stands, and recently steered the R2P concept away from the shipwreck planned for it by the Nicaraguan president of the General Assembly.
Since taking office, he has made climate change his pet issue - once again not music to the ears of his original Republican nominators, nor the Chinese, and he has not eschewed berating the powers for not taking it seriously.
It was hardly spineless to chide the US for being a "deadbeat" over its UN dues arrears, as he did this year, and even if there is no direct causal relationship, he cannot be accused of sabotaging diplomatic efforts. The US is now paying up. In London, he was one of the major players in the successful incorporation of the needs of the developing world into the global stimulus response.
And just as Annan excited obloquy for going to Baghdad to avert a war, Ban is now under fire for going to Myanmar to persuade the junta to see sense. The recent Western style of what passes for leadership is that politicians will not take any steps until they are assured of success. Historically, this is not very effective. Ban went to Myanmar with the support of the UN Security Council, and returned to its applause. He had after all successfully pressed the murderously myopic junta into accepting foreign assistance after Typhoon Nargis in 2008. It is surely better to risk his reputation by trying than by keeping out in case it failed.
Where he has shown the most rapid learning curve has been on the Middle East. As South Korean foreign minister, surrounded by Japan, Russia, China and the US, not to mention North Korea, it is understandable that the issue was not top of his agenda. Under those circumstances, it is not totally remarkable that his initial stands took the Israeli point of view. Ironically, he deepened and consummated the purge of "Arabists" at UN headquarters who upheld UN resolutions, which Rod-Larsen had attempted under Kofi Annan.
However, even without them, exposure to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reality on the ground seems to have brought him a long way towards the UN view on the issue. Although his burying of the recent report he had commissioned on Israeli actions in Gaza is part of a long secretariat tradition of protecting Israel and shows that he still has some way to go.
There are valid criticisms of Ban's administration, but in fact he has shown other signs of learning from experience. Part of the problem is indeed cultural. He suffers in the West from his "Confucian" background, which avoids public, and thus newsworthy, confrontations. However, aides and others report that in closed rooms with leaders he can be very forthright. One might think that "kick and tell" was not a desirable trait in the world's arch-diplomat, but the Western press differ. Despite his affability and accessibility to the media, Ban's refusal to deliver controversy or sound bites appears like evasiveness to the Western media.
Annan achieved great amplification by allowing his team to speak freely and occasionally controversially on major issues. One only has to think of former deputy secretary general Mark Malloch Brown's eminently reportable speeches and comments or former under secretary general Shashi Tharoor's ubiquity in the media. Disownable if they went too far, their media presence enhanced Annan's.
However, Ban's uncollegial administrative style and, in some cases inept appointments, have muffled his genuine achievements. All secretary general's have to be cliquish: their senior officials are foisted upon them by the permanent five (P5) and by major donors and under the circumstances it is remarkable how independent of their sponsors many of them are.
As a result, at the UN kitchen, cabinets are the name of the game. In Ban's case, it is a very small, Korean kitchen. He has appointed some very able senior officers who should really be encouraged to speak out more. He certainly needs to reassure UN staff that "thought-crime" will not result in the termination of the short-term contracts on which far too many of them are working - and contrarily, like all previous incumbents he needs to show that long-term contracts for incompetents can and will be terminated.
That a South Korean should be so popular in Japan and China indicates some serious diplomatic talents, as does his public espousal of views that irritate the permanent members on whom his second term depends.
Somehow, he has to combine the style that allows him to do that with the presence that moves the hearts and minds of other publics. But if the neo-liberals and unilateralists in the English language press attack him, it is worth considering that he may well be moving in the right direction.
1. Obama Rockets to Top of Poll on Global Leaders WorldPublicOpinion.org, June 29, 2009.
2. Norwegian UN diplomat slams Ban Ki-moon Foreign Policy, August 21, 2009.
Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, (Nation Books, New York).
(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)
Response to Chomsky II
Ian Williams | September 8, 2009
Editor: John Feffer
Foreign Policy In Focus
I look hard but fail to see a moral or logical compass in Chomsky's fast and loose recital of dates and deaths. In the end, his argument reduces to two basic principles. If someone other than the United States commits mass murder they did so with American encouragement, and so the guilt is ultimately Washington's. Or they did it in response to American actions, which either exonerates them or in some way mitigates their crime.
The second principle is that intervention to stop mass murder is wrong — particularly if the only powers with the economic and military strength for effective intervention, i.e. the "imperialist" powers, are behind it.
I am well aware of the dangers of humanitarian intervention as a doctrine. It was I, after all, who recorded the comment of a UN legal officer at the time of the Kurdish crisis post-Desert Storm, that the only legal precedent for "humanitarian intervention" was Hitler's invocation of the plight of Sudeten Germans.
However, the Axworthy Commission, whose consideration of the issue laid the groundwork for the Responsibility to Protect principle adopted at the 2005 UN General Assembly, considered those dangers and recommended a set of tests to avert politically expedient abuses of the principle — which, incidentally, clearly cut the legs off Blair's retrospective attempt to justify the Iraqi invasion as humanitarian intervention.
Like surgery, humanitarian intervention is only to be used as a last resort, but it is occasionally beneficial. I agree with Chomsky's comment to David Barsamian in Class Warfare: "I don't think you can give a general principle about when the use of military force is legitimate. It depends on what the alternatives are. So there are circumstances in which maybe that's just the least bad of the available circumstances. You just have to look at things on a case-by-case basis. There are some general principles one can adhere to, but they don't lead to specific conclusions for every conceivable case." But the professor doesn't seem to agree with himself. In this context, Chomsky is a political Seventh Day Adventist, opposed to military intervention in absolute dogmatic terms. Such attachment to state sovereignty is touching for him and his acolytes — but it suggests that their appeals to traditions of left internationalism are spurious at best and disingenuous at worst.
In Chomsky's Alice in Wonderland world, causality has been reversed: NATO intervenes to stop massacres and is accused of precipitating them. By the same looking-glass logic, my agreement with the UN General Assembly that the international community has a responsibility to prevent mass murders such as those perpetrated in East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan, and Rwanda, puts "blood on my hands" — and, according to at least one Chomskyite acolyte, makes me an "apologist for mass murder."
For a sense of Chomsky's own relaxed attitude about such mass murders, one just has to look at his breathtaking comments about Kosovo: "Up until the US/NATO bombing March 24th, there had been, according to NATO, 2,000 people killed on all sides, and a couple of hundred thousand refugees. Well, that's bad, that's a humanitarian crisis, but unfortunately it's the kind you can find all over the world." "Shit happens" seems to be Chomsky's motto to excuse his insouciance about other people's suffering — if they had the misfortune to be killed by an inappropriate enemy.
Chomsky has a neo-imperialist position of his own, disdaining the views of the victims. That is why in Pristina there are streets named after Clinton and Blair, but you would probably have to go to Belgrade to find a Chomsky Boulevard.
Apologizing for Milosevic's crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo, Chomsky pontificates that "much more shocking are Williams' continued efforts to deny U.S.-UK crimes in East Timor." Since he so often refers me to his writings, I take the liberty of referring him to mine, where I have regularly raised the question of U.S. involvement both at the United Nations and elsewhere. In contrast to Chomsky, however, at no point did I assume that the crimes of the United States, whether in East Timor or in Cambodia, in any way excused or mitigated the crimes of the Indonesian military or the Khmer Rouge.
In his cynical employment of the tragedy of East Timor against international action to stop Milosevic, Chomsky disdains the views of East Timorese leader Jose Ramos-Horta, whom I frequently interviewed over the years of the Timorese struggle and who, in his politically impure concern for humanity, was at the time calling for intervention both in Kosovo and in his own country, precisely to redress the actions of previous American interventions.
This leads neatly to Chomsky's accusation that I do not understand "the difference between 'perpetrate' and 'precipitate.'" He really should quote General Wesley Clark less selectively. The general considered that he had good reason to believe that Milosevic was going to kill more Kosovars whatever the response, and wanted to stop him.
More to the point, Chomsky is once again evading the issue. A linguist should know better. I can indeed tell the difference between perpetrating and precipitating. His use of "precipitating" in this context is an outstanding example of the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc: after this, so because of it. Hence, all the atrocities that followed the bombing are to be attributed to the bombing. Once again, he is faulty both in logic and in fact.
As Human Rights Watch reported about Serbian government actions in 1998, before the NATO attacks:
Some of the worst atrocities to date occurred in late September, as the government's offensive was coming to an end. On September 26, eighteen members of an extended family, mostly women, children, and elderly, were killed near the village of Donje Obrinje by men believed to be with the Serbian special police. Many of the victims had been shot in the head and showed signs of bodily mutilation. On the same day, thirteen ethnic Albanian men were executed in the nearby village of Golubovac by government forces...
The government offensive was an apparent attempt to crush civilian support for the rebels. Government forces attacked civilians, systematically destroyed towns, and forced thousands of people to flee their homes. One attack in August near Senik killed seventeen civilians who were hiding in the woods. The police were seen looting homes, destroying already abandoned villages, burning crops, and killing farm animals.
The majority of those killed and injured were civilians. At least 300,000 people were displaced, many of them women and children now living without shelter in the mountains and woods. In October, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identified an estimated 35,000 of the displaced as particularly at risk of exposure to the elements. Most were too afraid to return to their homes due to the continued police presence.
And since Chomsky is so fond of the testimony of military men, perhaps he should refer to the testimony of General Naumann about the meeting he and Clark had with Milosevic when they were delivering the NATO ultimatum, and the latter looked forward to a "final solution" for the Kosovars, invoking the 1946 Drenica massacres, where, he obliging explained, "We got them all together and we shot them."
Equally unsustainably, and one might add, pointlessly, Chomsky avers that "the crimes in East Timor — carried out with decisive U,S,-UK support throughout — were vastly greater than anything charged in Bosnia, coming as close to authentic genocide as anything in the modern period."
While the professor blithely elides time to shape his polemic, the estimate total number of deaths in East Timor resulting from actions of the Indonesian army and its militia proxies in 1999 was 1,400 — around one tenth of Milosevic's butcher's bill in Kosovo the same year.
As for comparing East Timor and Bosnia, the truth and reconciliation commission in East Timor calculated that approximately 18,600 civilians were killed or disappeared between 1974 and 1999, 70% of them at the hands of the Indonesians and their surrogates. Additionally, at least 84,200 people died from hunger or disease resulting from the Indonesian occupation. The figure may be as high as 183,000.
In Bosnia at least 39,000 civilians were killed or disappeared between 1991 and 1995, 86% of them at the hands of the Serb forces. Additionally, over 57,000 soldiers died as a result of Milosevic's ambitions. These figures do not take into account people who died indirectly, of hunger or disease, as a result of the conflict.
The numbers cannot meaningfully be called "vastly" different, but the numbers do not affect the moral issue at stake. Mass murder is wrong — whoever commits it and regardless of the relative size. Those East Timorese did not die to make a rhetorical rod for ivory-tower polemicists to beat other victims. In Chomsky's ghoulish calculus, East Timor was worse than the Balkans, so failure to act and indeed even encouragement in the one precludes anyone acting to stop the other. This is a complete non sequitur.
Chomsky says that "it would have been outlandish" to raise that question of intervention in East Timor, and I did not do so." In fact, he did, in The New Military Humanism, where he complains that "no call has been heard from the New Humanists for withdrawal of Indonesian military forces or for sending a meaningful UN observer force." Indeed, he is doubly inaccurate, since there were many such calls, in response to which the Australians — with a fairly dire record of their own in East Timor — did intervene.
When I say that Clinton's role in East Timor deserves some "some grudging credit," Chomsky upgrades this measured assessment to unqualified "praise" for Clinton's termination of U.S. participation in the aggression and atrocities. He continues, "By Williams' logic, he should praise Russia for intervening in Afghanistan by withdrawing its troops in 1989." Well, yes, one does "praise" — or at least acknowledge something positive about — governments for doing the right thing eventually, even Clinton, whose reluctance to intervene in Rwanda and Bosnia caused untold suffering and whose public renunciation of ground force intervention in Kosovo at the beginning of the crisis did so much to hearten Milosevic. And yet Chomsky ignores my criticism of the bombing campaign as counterproductive, a function of Clinton's unwillingness to risk U.S. troops.
Chomsky persistently evades the issue of the direct responsibility of the regime in Belgrade for carrying out the massacres in Kosovo. In fact, he also evades the core issue that motivated the framers of the Responsibility to Protect: When faced with a recidivist regime massacring civilians, what is the appropriate response of the international community? The Genocide Convention, and indeed arguably the Apartheid Convention, both created a duty, a responsibility, for signatories to act, but they clearly were not enough (not least, admittedly, because of Anglo-American complicity in South Africa).
In my original article, I gave Chomsky credit for admitting — as so many of his acolytes have refused to do — Milosevic's murderous nature. But he still has not suggested how Milosevic's crimes might have been stopped, or indeed whether they should have been. Perhaps Chomsky imagines that he can evade his own responsibility with such Pilatean hand-washing. But every time he refuses to answer the question, his hands would in Macbeth's words "rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red."
Such a burden of responsibility kept Macbeth awake at night. I hope that Chomsky loses some sleep over it occasionally.
Senior Foreign Policy In Focus analyst Ian Williams is a journalist and author. Much of his work can be found on his blog, Deadline Pundit.
Thursday, September 03, 2009
Prelude to an Obama Peace Plan
By Ian Williams
Long-time observers of the Middle East will note the sound of silence. In fact, the sound of two related and almost harmonious silences. Most mainstream Israel supporters in the United States have been silent about the Obama administration’s obduracy towards the Netanyahu administration, while the Obama administration has been completely silent about international law and United Nations decisions regarding the settlements and the Occupied Territories. It’s a bit like the episode of the John Cleese TV show, Fawlty Towers, where his mantra “Don’t mention the War!” prompts Freudian slips galore to a party of German guests.
U.N. resolutions, from the 1947 partition onwards, are at the core of the Middle Eastern situation, quoted and defied by all parties, yet central to any solution. It is very hard not to mention them.
Instead of invoking the U.N.’s decisions, the Obama administration has been rigid and repetitive regarding Israel’s own previous commitments to stop the growth of settlements in land recognized as a future Palestinian state.
President Obama and his team have maintained tight discipline, as the vice president, the secretary of state, Middle East special envoy George Mitchell and others have held the line. They have reiterated to their Israeli counterparts that Israel and all other parties in the “Quartet,” including the U.S., accepted the 2003 Road Map to peace, which mandates a two-state solution and an end to settlement building. For example, when Israel evicted two families from their homes of fifty years in East Jerusalem this July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton forcefully condemned it as “not in keeping with Israeli obligations.” She did not mention the Geneva Conventions, or the U.N. resolutions deeming East Jerusalem occupied territory.
In contrast, U.N. Special Coordinator for the Peace Process Robert H. Serry declared, “These actions are contrary to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions related to occupied territory.” The Swedish Presidency of the EU condemned them even more categorically: “House demolitions, evictions and settlement activities in East Jerusalem are illegal under international law.”
Diehards on the left and the right assail the Obama policy as unprincipled. It is in fact very astute. By framing its demands around the Israeli government’s previous commitments, and in terms of policy accepted by almost all pro-Israeli legislators—and even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—the White House has negated opposition to its Middle Eastern policy and also headed off attempts by single-issue lobbyists to ransom its domestic agenda.
The success of this strategy is evident in a July 24 head line in the Jewish Weekly Forward: “Jewish Leaders Give Obama No Push-Back on Settlement Freeze.” American Jews voted for Obama, and those who did not are almost certainly supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu and his right-wing Likud Party.
In the past, “official” representatives of the American Jewish community uncritically supported Israeli government decisions—whatever the government and whatever the decision. Their support was unwavering even as proportional representation in Israeli elections has given zealous minorities, including the settlers, disproportionate power in the motley coalitions that have run the country for decades. In effect the U.S. Israel lobby lent proxy support to the settlers, which influenced official U.S. statements. Washington moved from outright denunciation of settlements as illegal, to describing them as obstacles to peace, and finally under former President George W. Bush to acceptably created facts on the ground. However, it is worthwhile to recall the Israeli government’s covert position on the settlements.
In January, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz published the contents of a secret Israeli Defense Ministry report. According to Ha’aretz “in the vast majority of the settlements—about 75 percent— construction, sometimes on a large scale, has been carried out without the appropriate permits or contrary to the per mits that were issued….[I]n more than thirty settlements, extensive construction of buildings and infrastructure (roads, schools, synagogues, yeshivas and even police stations) had been carried out on private lands belonging to Palestinian West Bank residents.”
Three years earlier, Talia Sasson, from the Israeli State Attorney’s office, reported that the outposts, like the settlements, had water, electricity, education and security provided by government agencies—even as governments pledged to stop them. Recently, the settlers’ own behavior has done much to alienate many Israelis and many of Israel’s friends abroad.
Similarly, the American peace lobby’s work was made easier by the election of the abrasive Netanyahu. The inclusion of the overtly racist Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister has handicapped any public diplomacy, not least with the over whelmingly liberal majority of American Jews. The minority Likudnik wing of Israel’s supporters in the U.S. fervently supported the Republicans in last year’s U.S. elections, while 78 percent of American Jews voted for Obama.
A new generation of American Jewish organizations lobbying for peace and implementation of the Road Map —such as the rapidly growing J Street, and Peace Now—not only gained influence with the election of “their” candidate, they now have access to the administration while the Likudniks do not. Most genuine friends of Israel, those who want the state to survive in peace as a democracy, long ago accepted the “two-state solution” broadly based on the 1967 boundaries, with some form of shared authority over Jerusalem.
The 2002 Arab Summit in Beirut offered normalization of relations with Israel in return for it. In effect, the Arabs—while still thinking that Israel should never have been created at the expense of the Palestinians—reluctantly came to accept the reality of Israel within its 1967 boundaries and were prepared to recognize Israel if it reciprocated with acceptance of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians have indicated flexibility about negotiating changes in the precise boundary and even about the actual exercise of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
This basis for negotiation now has broad support among supporters of Israel and the Palestinians. Yet Netanyahu and Co. have continued to overestimate their political standing in Washington, pushing for war on Iran instead of peace with Palestine. Wrestling with the most serious economic crisis in eighty years, healthcare reform, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration has shown an ability to chew gum and walk at the same time. It recognizes that the unresolved Israel-Palestinian issue is a catalyst for unending conflict and American unpopularity in much of the world. In the fever dreams if the Neocons, a democratic Arab world would immediately kiss and make up with Israel. In the real world, the plight of the Palestinians is a popular concern for a majority across the Arab world.
Obama astutely reached out to the Muslim and Arab world, with visits to Turkey and Cairo. Many Arabs are suspicious of Americans bearing gifts, and what Obama said would have been unexceptional had any other Western leader said it. But for an American president to attempt such outreach, and to visit the Muslim world before the obligatory pilgrimage to Israel, was a clear signal to many Israelis.
The White House may entertain some hopes that Netanyahu will be pragmatic enough to take the necessary steps for peace. After all, it was Likud premier Menachem Begin who was dragged to Camp David to make peace with Egypt and to withdraw from Sinai. Obama must know that this is a not a high probability, and that Netanyahu does not really want peace, but a big piece, ideally all, of the West Bank. So one must presume that there is a fall-back plan, which has to involve the Likud-led Coalition’s loss of electoral support in Israel for alienating the U.S.
Peacenik Israeli novelist David Grossman recently commented in an interview how difficult it is for outsiders to understand Israel’s vulnerability. He may exaggerate—much of the Western world has factored that in for decades. But he is probably accurate about the state of mind of Israeli Jews, even with the automatic support of the world’s superpower. The Israeli leader who puts that that safety net at risk is unlikely to remain long in office. In the same interview, Grossman pointed out the solution: “We need a mediator from the outside. I think Obama is much better equipped than his predecessor, George W. Bush, because of his multi-focal look at reality. I wish Obama would stand up for his vision. I wish he would impose on us the solution that we all know it is inevitable.”
That solution, as the Obama administration has hinted, is based on the Beirut plan steered through the Arab League by Saudi Arabia, which in turn is based upon the U.N. resolutions: accepting as the basis for negotiations the U.N. resolutions which call for a return of the border to the pre-1967 “Green Line.” It would be better received from Obama than from the U.N. But no matter who addresses the envelope, the contents are the same.
The sedulous care with which Obama has marshaled domestic and international support indicates that he does have a clear strategy, which is probably not dissimilar to what EU foreign minister Javier Solana explicitly, and Grossman implicitly, call for: the imposition of a U.N.-mandated solution on both parties if they can’t come to an agreement.
Negotiators on both sides are vulnerable to stabs in the back by zealots accusing them of selling out. The big advantage of a U.S. intervention is that it alone can guarantee a solution, whether implementation of the U.N. resolutions or any adaptation of them in way that no other entity can.
That is why, even when the U.S.—under Presidents Clinton and Bush pretending be an honest broker— acted like surrogate negotiators for the Israelis, the Palestinians wanted the Americans on board. They trusted a U.S. signature much more than an Israeli one. Unless the Israeli electorate is auditioning for a replay of Masada, an offer of secure borders and peace with an explicit security pledge from the United States is as good as it gets. New U.N. resolutions would give the state legal, internationally recognized boundaries for the first time – and the U.S. could legitimately guarantee them.
For the Palestinians, as long as the plan does not go further than their negotiators were prepared to go, it is likely to be acceptable—the Green Line with compensation in land for any adjustments and a presence, whether shared or not, in Jerusalem— even if they have to abandon their understandable longings for their original homeland.