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Your humble narrator is...
...a research analyst at a think tank in the Washington DC area. Born in Israel, raised in Kentucky, movie fanatic and sports nut.
My first-hand account of the Palestinian divestment conference at the U. of Michigan

:: Friday, September 12, 2003 ::

Ariel Sharon and company never seem to run out of ways to convince me of their stupidity. Their latest stunt of issuing a cabinet decision to expel Arafat "in principle" is just absurd. Independent of the merit of the actual policy in question--and although no one wants Arafat to disappear more than I do, I find the idea of exeplling him to be wholly without benefit to Israel--this new tactic clearly, obviously, brings with it almost all of the potential downsides of executing the policy, and none of the potential upsides. Arafat takes center stage and becomes a hero, the US essentially sides with him over Israel, whatever momentum might have come from the Europeans finally coming to their senses and blacklisting all of Hamas gets marginalized for the time being, and Israel gets nothing positive out of it. What, you're "sending Arafat a message"? Yeah, the message that he's still the center of attention in the whole conflict.

Even aside from the tactical stupidity, there's the schoolyard bully aspect here that really bugs me. "We're going to expel him! Uh, but not quite yet...we're just saying that we can do it whenever we want to..." Well, duh. You could have done it anytime in the last two years if you'd decided it was worth it--and now you want me to write songs about the amount of steel you have in your spine because you say that you're really serious this time? That is nothing short of pathetic.
4:44 PM
:: Thursday, September 11, 2003 ::
What I was thinking on 9/11
After realizing what had happened/was happening, I remember two major thoughts. The shock and the horror naturally led to, "who would be evil enough to do something like this?", but that didn't last too long. What seemed like a more relevant thing to consider after that was, "who would be stupid enough to think they could get away with attacking the US like this?" That didn't fully get to the heart of the matter, either, since there weren't any specific demands or messages attached to the attacks. As Tom Friedman says, "they didn't leave a note"--the attacks themselves were the act, the note, the message, all rolled into one nightmarish event. It certainly was an act of war, and we had to respond in kind, but the socio-political and cultural conditions that produce such things from within them, or allow them to happen, are ultimately resolvable only by the people in that part of the world themselves. War on our terms after 9/11 was part of the answer, but it's not going to be the whole of it.
11:18 AM
:: Wednesday, September 10, 2003 ::
As if they have any red lines
Not sure exactly what to make of this new rhetoric from Hamas:
The military wing of the Islamic militant group Hamas threatened on Wednesday to change tactics by attacking Israeli houses and buildings after Israel tried to kill a Hamas political leader in his home in the Gaza Strip.

"The targeting of civilian houses is a violation of all red lines. Therefore the Zionist enemy will have to shoulder responsibility for the targeting by us of houses and Zionist buildings everywhere in occupied Palestine," the Izz el-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's military wing, said in a statement.
For one thing, Hamas leaders have been targeted at home before, most notoriously in the summer of 2002 when Sheikh Shehada was killed in an IAF bombing in Gaza along with more than a dozen other people. Also, since terrorists are almost always trying for the maximum impact with each strike, they try to kill people efficiently, i.e. public places where there are lots of potential victims. Going to someone's residence isn't such a great strategy in that sense for various reasons--people might not be home, their doors might be locked, etc. Still, they might try such attacks now in the hope of making some sort of greater psychological impact in Israel or among the Palestinians, who knows. It certainly wouldn't affect Israel's determination to fight terror.
3:36 PM
:: Monday, September 08, 2003 ::
Misguided thinking
Bush went with the prevailing neo-con view of terrorism more explicitly in his speech last night than he has before:
In the past, the terrorists have cited the examples of Beirut and Somalia, claiming that if you inflict harm on Americans, we will run from a challenge. In this, they are mistaken...

We have learned that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength -- they are invited by the perception of weakness. And the surest way to avoid attacks on our own people is to engage the enemy where he lives and plans. We are fighting that enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan today, so that we do not meet him again on our own streets, in our own cities.
Here's a big problem--the biggest one--that we have with fighting terror that comes from the Arab and Muslim world: we don't understand how people in that part of the world think about these things. I don't just mean the terrorists, I mean pretty much everyone in the Islamic world. Bush says that "terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength," and by that he essentially means that the "fighting wars against Muslim countries and supporting Israel makes Muslims angry and provides the main cause of terror" argument is wrong. I certainly agree with that--but I'm not so ready to agree with the conclusion he gives about terror attacks, that "they are invited by the perception of weakness." The reason I'm shaky about that is because perceptions of strength and weakness in the Arab and Muslim worlds are often very different from our own perceptions of those concepts, or what we assume their perceptions to be.

For example, I did a post back in January about Hamas and the Israeli election. Some Hamas leaders--I think it was Rantisi in particular--cited Amram Mitzna's success in gaining the Labor Party's number one spot on his unilateral withdrawal platform as "proof" that Hamas' violence was panicking Israelis into making previously unoffered concessions. But right after the general election, Sheikh Yassin said that Sharon's victory was evidence of Israel's inevitable collapse because Sharon "failed to achieve what he promised the people [i.e., security], and the people re-elected him." Those two positions directly contradict each other, of course--Mitzna's withdrawal plan and Sharon's hard-line stance couldn't simultaneously demonstrate Israeli weakness. Some people in Israel cited the Hamas comments about Mitzna as evidence that his plan would invite more terror, "by the perception of weakness," like Bush said about Iraq--but nobody in Israel made the claim that Sharon's re-election would also be perceived as a sign of Israeli weakness, even though Sheikh Yassin himself said so. What I'm getting at is that for Hamas, strength and weakness mean something quite different from what we usually tend to think those concepts mean, or even what Hamas' statements might indicate from time to time. For them, strength derives from their belief that they have a heavenly command: all Zionists are infidels who have to be killed. Anyone who doesn't follow their thinking is against the will of God, and therefore weak. They don't differentiate between strong-willed Zionist infidels and weak-willed Zionist infidels--whether the government is Labor or Likud, the suicide bombers keep on coming. The same is surely true of al-Qaeda: does anyone really think that they wouldn't have planned 9/11, or found converts to their cause, if they didn't have the Beirut and Somalia examples of "American weakness" that Bush cited?

The area where we're the most clueless is in understanding how Arabs and Muslims in general react to terrorism and the American/Western response to it. A really important point here, especially given Bush's invocation of recent history with Beirut and Somalia, is the pervasive influence of history in the Islamic world--and I'm talking history, as in more than a millenium's worth of events. The article I've linked to more often than any other one on this blog is Bernard Lewis' New Yorker article from just after 9/11:
The Muslim peoples, like everyone else in the world, are shaped by their history, but, unlike some others, they are keenly aware of it. In the nineteen-eighties, during the Iran-Iraq war, for instance, both sides waged massive propaganda campaigns that frequently evoked events and personalities dating back as far as the seventh century. These were not detailed narratives but rapid, incomplete allusions, and yet both sides employed them in the secure knowledge that they would be understood by their target audiences—even by the large proportion of that audience that was illiterate. Middle Easterners' perception of history is nourished from the pulpit, by the schools, and by the media, and, although it may be—indeed, often is—slanted and inaccurate, it is nevertheless vivid and powerfully resonant.
Both Saddam and bin Laden (at least a tape attributed to him, in the latter case) have made references to the Mongols when talking about various Bush administration officials. Not being familiar with those 750-year old events, I never knew what the hell they were talking about, but you can be sure that their intended audiences in the Islamic world did. So if terrorists point to America's withdrawal from Beirut and Somalia as evidence of weakness, as some of them have, is that the only perception we need to correct to gain ground in the Islamic world as being tougher than the terrorists say we are? I seriously doubt it. Why can't some terrorists portrary a narrative where the American presence in the Middle East is a new round of the Crusades, and bin Laden or whomever is the new Saladin, poised to defeat the infidels a la the events of 1189? Would that sort of thing resonate in the Islamic world and build support for jihad against America, any more or less than invocations of events in Beirut and Somalia, or in Iraq if things don't go well for us there? I don't know--but neither do Don Rumsfeld, Victor Davis Hanson, Howard Dean, George Bush, or anyone else who talks about this stuff, because we can't understand--or predict--how people in the Islamic world think about these things.

We have to fight terror and meet threats whenever we can identify them, and we have to be on the lookout for them before they develop, no doubt about that. But we can't solve this problem by ourselves, and we might make some big mistakes if we think we have all the answers. Last night, Bush returned to a familiar theme from other speeches he's made:
The terrorists thrive on the support of tyrants and on the resentments of oppressed peoples. When tyrants fall, and resentment gives way to hope, men and women in every culture reject the ideologies of terror, and turn to the pursuits of peace. Everywhere that freedom takes hold, terror will retreat.
I don't think there's much doubt that a healthier political climate in the Arab and Muslim world--and it's hard to get much worse than it is now--is one of the keys to resolving the problem of terrorism. But is toppling tyrants all there is to it? Plenty of people around the world live, and have lived, with great resentment as oppressed people under tyrannical regimes. But outside of the Islamic world, none of them have mounted an international campaign of suicide bombing and hijackings. The various ways that the Muslim peoples perceive today's reality in light of their nearly 1400 years of history--not just the 20 years of history covering Beirut and Somalia--form just part of the major social and cultural differences between the Islamic world and all other regions of the world with oppressed people. We don't have anywhere near all the answers of how to deal with that, and the more we forget about that, or the more we assume that we have the right understanding of how they think, the more liable we are to make bad choices in what we do.
2:58 PM
:: Sunday, September 07, 2003 ::
Several things
There's a lot of really interesting stuff in this panel discussion/press briefing from last week at the Brookings Institution about Iraq and the Middle East. In response to the "everything's going great in Iraq because some US soldiers say so, don't listen to the treacherous media" line of thinking, Ken Pollack says:
There are dozens and dozens, if not hundreds and hundreds of examples of little local success stories, where US soldiers are getting out and interacting with the Iraqi people and helping them and turning on lights and purifying water and helping them to start up local democratic councils. They're all over the place.

But the problem is there's no one coordinating it. There is no one who's directing the operations, there is no one who is feeding them resources, there's no one who's learning from it, who's saying, you know, we heard about a battalion from the 101st Airborne who tried this out here in Amara, and it seemed to work really well; so you guys up in Beiji, why don't you try the same thing? No one in Baghdad, no one in Washington is doing that. So these guys are all left to their own devices. And as I said, there are lots of little local success stories. No one is really knitting those things together...

There's no plan. The absence of a plan is critical for a whole variety of reasons. No one has sat down and said here is how we intend to move Iraq from where they are now to where we would like them to be two or three or five years down the road. That plan is problematic for the US personnel who are out there in the field trying to make this stuff happen, because they don't really know where people want to go, they don't have a sense of what the long-term plan is, and so they're just kind of making it up as they go along, and coordinating with Baghdad or coordinating with Washington as best they possibly can on a very ad hoc basis.
Pollack also has a nice analogy for the administration's UN strategy in the past few weeks:
The initial tactic that the administration tried last week or the week before, right after the UN bombing, was they said we're going to go back to the UN and we're going to ask for more troops--which, you know, I equated with basically when you're in a foreign country and you don't speak the language, you try saying something repeatedly but louder and slower in the hope that somehow that's going to be meaningful. It was the same thing. The administration wasn't changing what it was saying; it was simply doing it louder and slower. Now it sounds like they're actually going to try to use a few words in the foreign language. But, you know, we have yet to see what that actually means.
There are also some interesting comments from Flynt Leverett, who left the administration earlier this year. His bio says that he was "National Security Council, Senior Director for the Middle East Initiative (2002-2003); State Department Policy Planning Staff, Middle East/Counterterrorism Expert (2001-2002)," so he seems to have been fairly high up in planning a lot of this stuff.
In the immediate aftermath of Afghanistan, the paradigm we were going to follow elsewhere, possibly in Yemen, possibly in the Philippines, [was] we were going to work with regimes that were, in varying degrees, perhaps willing but not really able to deal with terrorist-supporting environments within their own borders. But we abandoned that paradigm, I think prematurely, in order to ramp up for the war in Iraq. And we shifted the paradigm from a failed-state paradigm to a paradigm that focused on the nexus between WMD capabilities and a regime that had links to terror networks. That seemed to be the new paradigm for using force in the war on terror. But obviously a paradigm that only covers single cases isn't really a paradigm.
Emphasis added to that last sentence to pat myself on the back--because I said almost exactly the same thing about the war a month ago.
11:44 AM

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