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INFORMED COMMENT: GLOBAL AFFAIRS

GROUP BLOG ON CURRENT EVENTS
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2011
The Egyptian people have toppled Mubarak, an extraordinary moment, but the regime has not been toppled, not yet.
The military has taken power, but in reality the military has--even since the 1952 coup-- held the balance of power in Cairo.

The Egyptian military has always lurked in the shadows of the Egyptian regime. The levers of influence were seldom exposed to view.  Yet, when senior civilian politicos, such as Osama al-Baz, reflected on the regime and its prospects for reform, they often pointed to the powerful role of the generals and vetoes they held in their back pockets.  For years, as expectations grew that Husni Mubarak's son Gamal would succeed his father, it was the military veto that thwarted him. 

Now the power of the generals is in the sunlight.  There are some reasons to be optimistic: the army generally showed commendable discipline in its response to the last three weeks of demonstrations, and the demonstrators--whether intuitively or shrewdly--embraced the soldiers; the officer corps is highly professional, promotions are based on merit not connections, and no officer or soldier wishes to be seen as an oppressor of the nation that it is pledged to defend; a skilled group of opposition figures is poised to negotiate a transition, and the Ikhwan have wisely forged consensus with the non-Islamist elements while also remaining in the background; and, the actions and misactions of the military will be in full international view.

Nonetheless, the senior officers have a big stake in the existing system, not least economic interests.  In retirement, many senior officers move to industries dominated by the military, and others move into the thriving private sector.  But many others infiltrate the civilian branches of government.  They will want to protect their prerogatives.  The military leadership will prove cautious about dramatic changes, and they will be nervous about permitting a powerful civilian government to challenge their privileges, or hold officers accountable for their misdeeds. The deep suspicion of the Ikhwan will not be erased, so the generals will want to be assured that the Ikhwan (still an illegal entity) will gain no more than a marginal role in politics. 

When Presidential elections are held, you can be sure that the military will have satisfied itself that its interests will not be jeopardized.  It is too early to determine who all the contenders for the Presidency will be, but it is now clear that Amre Mossa, is a front runner.  He is widely respected, and, indeed, is a man of integrity.  He was the popular Foreign Minister of Egypt, so popular that Mubarak that "promoted" him to become Secretary General of the Arab League in order to keep him well distant from Egyptian politics.  But a lot may happen in a year of transition, and many secrets will be exposed, so keep your bets in your pocket for now.
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POSTED BY ARN AT 1:57 PM 1 COMMENTS
LABELS: 2011, EGYPT, ISLAMIC REVOLUTION
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2011
EMBRACING THE OPPOSITION
BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

A powerful regime, facing a rare moment of vulnerability, is all of a sudden interested in reform and willing to talk. It invites its arch-enemies to the negotiating table. But once the crowds are gone, what guarantee remains that the police state will not regroup and retrench and strike back with a vengeance?

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman met with members of the opposition over the weekend. What remains unclear is if the Mubarak regime is sincerely extending an open hand of peace to the opposition, or trying to draw them in close enough so they can be slapped or lured into a trap. Is the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood a heartfelt bid to hear all sides or a plan to sow division in a protest that to date has been notable for being leaderless, secular, spontaneous and youthful?

Given the low esteem with which the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed in Israel, Europe and the US, extending an olive branch to the banned, radical opposition might seem paradoxical at first. But it is sometimes easier for entrenched power to deal with its arch-enemy, the enemy that it knows, and not only knows, but probably needs, as an existential doppelganger. On a certain functional level it may be easier for a ruthless power to deal with, if not respect, another ruthless, tightly organized entity, rather than deal with a random mass of peaceful moderates without a hierarchical political organization.

Certainly in other places, at other times, this paradoxical embrace of the opposite can be seen in effect. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US found it easier to work with Japan’s old wartime elite than the communists, pacifists and trade unionists who opposed Tokyo’s war on Asia. In recent decades, Beijing’s rulers have found it easier to engage the Communist Party of China’s arch-enemy represented by the KMT party on Taiwan, rather than deal respectfully with rag-tag individuals such as Liu Xiaobo, and many thousands of others, who demonstrated at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Thus, what appears at first glance a gesture of inclusion on the part of the Egyptian regime might in fact be a bid to exclude the moderate core demonstrators and keep the focus on mutually antagonistic extremes instead.


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POSTED BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM AT 7:57 PM
LABELS: EGYPT, MUBARAK, MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD, SULEIMAN, TAHRIR SQUARE
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 2011
EVERY UPRISING IS DIFFERENT


Philip J Cunningham


Every uprising is different. But given shared human strengths and weaknesses, the dynamics of crowd behavior, crowd control, and crowd chaos play out in ways that strike a common chord. Having written about popular protest, cultural clashes and street marches in East Asia for two decades now, there are certain commonalities that come to fore as the events in Cairo, as reported by Al Jazeera and other Internet sources, unfold in real time on my computer screen.

-Truth is an early casualty of any conflict, and the media comes under pressure almost immediately. Competing media narratives diverge wildly, usually the storytelling of the government pitted against the storytelling of the protesters. Distortions to the truth range from outright lies and censorship, to mudslinging, misdirection and deliberate prevarications. There is obfuscation and startling clarity. There are also moments of heartfelt expression, courageous calls for change and sometimes shocking clandestine reports from the frontlines of the conflict.

-Television stations are a coveted resource for those seeking political control. State television, even when it is reduced to producing propaganda, is such an effective transmitter of information, (including mis-information, mis-direction, taboos and telling silences) in regards to an escalating crisis that it can inadvertently help fan the flames of nationwide protest. Even when the details of a mass incident in progress are garbled or distorted by heavy-handed censorship, the fingerprints of the heavy-handedness are visible for all to see. The odd, Orwellian quality of manipulated news, what with its revved up nationalistic fervor, glaring contradictions, threatening reassurances and a rather too loud pleading of innocence, is politically charged enough to betray meta-truths about the abject nature of the regime.

-Reporters and citizen Journalists are at risk. Be it for their truth-telling capacity or simply a vengeful way of blaming the messenger, journalists often get roughed up as public disturbances unfold. Journalists are detained and denied access to key locations, often in the name of safety. Western journalists are especially easy to find as they tend to hole up in luxury hotels where they are subject to surveillance, harassment, and confiscation of film, memory chips, cameras, etc.

-Al Jazeera TV. The upstart TV station based in Qatar has come of age, although it observes, like every news service on the earth, certain ground rules and avoids certain sensitive topics. Its unique take on world news is largely ignored by US cable TV providers, but luckily Al Jazeera Internet streaming can reach a truly global audience, providing a service to viewers whose television and cable service is tilted in favor of the national agendas of the traditional media giants such as CNN, BBC, Fox and ABC. In what might be understood as a backhanded compliment, Al Jazeera has been accused of meddling by the Egyptian government.

-The Internet. Online news services, specialist blogs, Twitter and social networking tools have helped get the story out as well. Advanced information technologies, and the costly, complex devices required to view the news on, are convenient when they work well, and they work especially well across borders at global distances, but remain largely out of the reach of the poor and can be rendered momentarily worthless when the plug gets pulled, as was the case in Egypt when the Internet was turned off. The technology itself is neutral, and there are various ingenious ways to get around blocking, but despite the freedom of expression hype, modern tools are no different from the printing press or radio in the sense that they can be used to further things good and bad and can be used to promote the cause of either side through skillful public relations and information control.

-Word of mouth. Fortunately, the information ecosystem is full of diverse platforms and incidental redundancies; if one technology fails, or is blocked, other ways of transmitting information remain. This includes everything from hardy, traditional technologies such as landline telephones and fax machines to hand-painted banners, chants, slogans and word of mouth.

-Rumors. Rightly or wrongly, rumors take the place of reliable information when reliable information is hard to come by. Rumors serve to excite people to action. The more severe information control at home, the more likely agitated citizens are to turn to the latest gossip on the street.

-Crowd dynamics. When a large crowd manages to gather and assemble, especially in an environment where political gatherings are generally banned and ruthlessly suppressed, success breeds success. If ten, a hundred, a thousand brave individuals get away with the impossible, it inspires others to follow.

-Something in the air. When a large crowd asserts itself in public space and coalesces on symbolic ground, a window is opened to possible political change, an opportunity not normally evident. An indefinable “something in the air,” combined with concrete opportunities for assembly, adequate channels for expression and a broad consensus that change is desirable if not necessary, helps kick-start a major public uprising. When this takes the form of staking out contested ground in the heart of the capital its significance is magnified in a way that enables a crowd to grow exponentially. Under the natural evolution of such circumstances, the crowd is likely to be diverse and composed of people from all walks of life.

-Safety in numbers. When the numbers soar to the hundred of thousands, not only do individual members of the crowd begin to feel uncannily safe –however illusory that protective aura might be – but it gives rise to a sense that a historic turning point is at hand. Suddenly, due to a confluence of rising frustration, mutual reinforcement, strength in numbers and chance developments, there’s a perception that an unprecedented and largely unexpected overhaul to the status quo just might be possible. It’s a bid to hit society’s reset button.

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POSTED BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM AT 6:29 PM
LABELS: AL JAZEERA, CHINA, CROWD DYNAMICS, DEMOCRACY, EGYPT, THAILAND
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2011
Hard truths in Hardtalk
posted by Philip Cunningham

There's a telling moment in the February 1, 2011 BBC Hardtalk interview when host Stephen Sackur asks US publisher and billionaire Mortimer Zuckerman if he supports democracy. He does but he doesn't. The non-verbal shift of gears is comical, but the subject itself is not. The hypocrisy brings to mind another wealthy publisher, self-styled human rights activist and opinion leader, Robert L. Bernstein, formerly of Random House, who recently attacked Human Rights Watch, a group he himself helped to found and fund, for having the temerity to criticize Israel.

An excerpt of the exchange below sums up an attitude that permeates America's "democratic" elite.


Sackur: Do you believe in democracy?

Zuckerman: Totally...

Sackur: Totally?

Zuckerman: Without question.

Sackur: In the Middle East?

Zuckerman: Ah, well, no. The Middle East....


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POSTED BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM AT 1:25 PM
LABELS: BBC, BERNSTEIN, EGYPT, HARD TALK, ZUCKERMAN
SUNDAY, JANUARY 30, 2011
Egypt: Sentiments vs. Advice

[Cross-posted with From the Field]

“Some may argue that the events unfolding in the Middle East now are too unpredictable to warrant a wholesale shift in U.S. foreign policy, that transferring support from loyal satraps to an untested popular opposition may backfire if that opposition fails or is put down, that the U.S. needs reassurances of friendly allies (often at the expense of democracy). But America is not simply a bystander in all of this -- its actions and words will affect the outcome. They will signal to opposition and regimes alike how far each can expect to go in challenging -- or repressing -- the other. Opposition movements (and would-be opposition movements) secular or Islamist are not only waging a battle against authoritarian oppression -- but a battle against the ways in which the U.S. manifests its quest to secure its geo-strategic interest."

I know and respect the three authors (Amaney Jamal, Ellen Lust and Tarek Masoud) of this piece, but I do not fully share their prognostication.  No doubt, the Obama administration like its predecessors has been complacent about the stability of Egypt, as a number of scholars and analysts have warned.  Nonetheless, despite a few misstatements along the way, including by VP Biden and SecState Hillary Clinton, the Obama administration has handled the Egypt crisis sensibly, if not deftly.  When the demonstrations began on January 25th, it was not clear how much momentum the protests would sustain.  It is unreasonable to expect the U.S. to turn its policy on a dime, and the administration would have been derelict to do so.

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POSTED BY ARN AT 9:40 PM 4 COMMENTS
LABELS: DEMOCRACY, DEMONSTRATIONS, EGYPT
SATURDAY, JANUARY 29, 2011
Mubarak chooses a familiar general as the first Vice President in thirty years

“My analysis is, the government will leave them until they reach a level of exhaustion---Abdel Moneim Said, who heads the state publishing house al-Ahram.
Egypt is in a moment of enthusiasm when the people are propelled by adrenalin, coffee and anger.  Don’t stay up waiting for them to nod off to sleep in exhaustion.  The Mubarak regime has relentlessly worked to depoliticize society, but the people are now highly politicized, meaning that they share the view, many of them at least, that there is a political solution—Mubarak must go.
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POSTED BY ARN AT 12:26 PM 0 COMMENTS
LABELS: 2011, DEMONSTRATIONS, EGYPT
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 5, 2011
Fascism as a Family Affair
by Murat Cem Menguc

A September 2010 Turkish referendum on constitutional reforms was an occasion for Turkish people to also express their political opinions outside the official polls. Internet based social networks like Facebook were swamped with posts in favor of or against constitutional reform. Some Turks argued the reforms would undermine Turkish sovereignty, and the US/Israeli alliance was using the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Kurds and the European Union and promoting constitutional reforms to achieve its own ends. Some people on Facebook expressed even more radical opinions, showing that Turkish fascism is still a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these expressions was that they came from friends and family.

Internet-based social networks put us in touch with the people we already know. Unfortunately, people act more open and edgy on the Internet.[1] Since 2009, my Turkish friends and family started to embrace Facebook, along with, I discovered, some of their radical political tendencies.[2] During the aftermath of 9/11, many people became unreasonably critical of the US.[3]

According to some Turks, events like Ergenekon trials, which were almost exclusively about Turkish internal corruption, were also designs of outsiders like the US and Israel. When the Mavi Marmara incident occurred, and Israeli troops killed nine Turkish citizens, it was further explained in these premises.

Also, most Turkish nationalists saw the September 12, 2010 referendum as an attack on their secular-national identity. During the build up to the referendum, many changed their Facebook profile pictures to the Turkish flag, an image of Atatürk or to the simple word Hayır (no), indicating that they were against the reforms. For example, my aunt M began to spend hours on Facebook posting nationalist literature denigrated AKP’s credibility.[4] Another trend was inviting people to join Facebook groups against the reforms. Most popular among these had around half a million members, a remarkable number if one considers that most popular Facebook games like FarmVille had less than 60 million players.[5]

During this time my friend T also changed his profile picture to the Turkish flag and started posting anti-AKP propaganda. T cross-listed anti-Kurdish Facebook groups and argued that the referendum was designed by EU to free Abdullah Öcalan and give unlimited legal rights to the Kurds.[6] He shared derogatory images of the Kurdish MPs, like Emine Ayna.[7] One of his favorite videos showed a group of Turkish soldiers beating a Kurdish man.[8] T’s friends celebrated these posts. When one of his female friends wrote, “This is not the right way to treat these people. It is too violent,” she was quickly rebuked. I saw that she eventually gave up under peer pressure and decided that the best thing to do was de-friend T. Under the video, I wrote that T was a racist, and we could not be friends anymore. T was very angry, accusing me of not knowing anything about Turkish politics. Perhaps having lived in the US for so long, he argued, I had become a sympathizer of the US/Israeli alliance. T had clearly forgotten that it was the US/Israeli alliance that handed to the Turks the most valuable trophy of the war against Kurds: Abdullah Öcalan himself.

By de-friending T, I realized that I had to be more careful on Facebook or I could lose access to my own words. When I cut myself off of his network, my words and name remained on his side of the conversation, but I could not see or edit them. Ironically, T could not erase my words either, unless he also erased the video and his friends’ celebratory remarks.

I was also disappointed for having lost my small window to Turkish racism.  Luckily, I soon became friends with my cousin K, who described himself as a ırkçı/faşist (racist/fascist). I decided to act cautiously. K was a true family member and M’s son. He had previously told me that he considered me a role model and wanted to move to the US. I asked him why he considered himself a racist/fascist. He boldly wrote that he was not a universal racist; he only hated Israeli Jews. I told him social networks were not safe places to declare radical political opinions. After all, you are in the tourism business and want to come to US, I told him; if you want to reap the benefits of US capitalism, you have to renounce your racism and fascism. To my surprise, K agreed. He cleaned his profile; however, he continued to post announcements promoting a no vote for the referendum. K believed AKP and the Kurds, along with the EU, were pawns of a larger conspiracy designed to destroy Turkish sovereignty.

In the end, Turkish people overwhelmingly voted Evet (yes) for the reforms. I was relieved that these friends and relatives were a minority. M went back to playing FarmVille, and K started posting Rhianna videos. Meanwhile, I accepted the friendship request of F, another cousin. As soon as I clicked on F’s profile, I discovered two pictures of Hitler. I asked him what he liked about Hitler in particular. He wrote that in Turkey, it was not a crime to like Hitler. I let this comment pass and pressed him: Why Hitler and not Atatürk? He wrote that he liked many people, along with Atatürk, but his real hero was Hüseyin Nihal Atsız, a valuable historian of the early Ottoman historiography. Unfortunately, he was also a leading voice of Turkish racism. I told F that Atsız and Hitler were shallow political thinkers who did not understand that hating ethnic groups destroyed the culture and economy of multi-ethnic societies like the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. Atsız, I wrote, disliked everyone, including Boşnaks like us. My suggestion that he had Boşnak origins made F furious. He wrote that he was the grandchild of Ottomans and a true Turk. He argued that because I lived in US, I probably had Jewish friends and liked them, but one day they would surely betray me. My conversation with F died after this post, and my comments just lingered beneath the image of Hitler.

Obviously these incidents do not constitute a large enough sample group to analyze contemporary Turkish fascism, nor do they mean that during the recent months Turkish fascism gained a new momentum. Nevertheless, they underlined one irritating fact: When we become members of social networks, we also expose ourselves to the opinions of others. In the discourse of my Facebook account, Turkish fascism emerged as a recognizable strain of what Ernst Renan called “the daily plebiscite,” and AKP and Kurds represented a union of collaborators serving under a larger conspiracy designed to undermine Turkish identity. The same discourse shared common elements with its historical brother, European fascism; it was anti-Semitic and admired people like Hitler. Nevertheless, the hatred of the Jewish people and admiration of Hitler came as a reaction to a so-called covert US/Israeli alliance against Turkey. Most unfortunately, this discourse belonged to people whom I considered friends and family.


[1] Although it focuses on intelligent humor, following website underlines some of the general personality disorders found in Internet users. http://www.cracked.com/article_17522_6-new-personality-disorders-caused-by-internet.html
[2] Following website discusses the appeal and growth of Internet based social networks in Turkey. http://eu.techcrunch.com/2010/01/23/turkey-the-land-that-embraced-facebook-friendfeed-and-startups/​[3] One interesting group in this respect was dedicated to accusing the leading pro-reform newspaper Taraf as an American spy organization. http://www.facebook.com/TarafIcimizdekiAmerikadir​[4] One of the most popular authors was Banu Avar. http://www.ilk-kursun.com/konu/ilk-kursun/banu-avar/
[5] http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Referandumda-HAYIR-Diyoruz/125815394100922
[6] http://www.facebook.com/#!/Kurtacilimiistemiyoruz​,
[7] Following image depicted Emine Ayna with flies hovering over her backside, which was an obvious gimmick. www.network54.com/Forum/248068/thread/1276674790/1277331987/Confederation+of+Turkey-Kurdistan
[8] A search of the phrase “PKK leşleri”, which means PKK corpses in derogatory form brings up around 95 entries. Almost all of these entries are accompanied with hate speech.

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POSTED BY MURAT CEM MENGUC AT 10:58 PM 3 COMMENTS
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 1, 2010
.......THE POWER BEHIND THE CURTAIN.......



by Philip J Cunningham


Wikileak's online dump of US State Department cables is interesting to peruse but not especially revelatory so far. From what documents have been made public to date, it looks like the messy work of diplomacy as usual. As veteran whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg pointed out on “Democracy Now”, the material comes from a database which has been given a security classification so low in the hierarchy of US intelligence briefings that he wouldn't even have bothered to look at it when he worked as a mid-level intelligence analyst, given the priority accorded to truly secretive and sensitive documents.

That’s not to say the data trove is irrelevant; it's the sort of raw material that makes diplomats cringe and historians intrigued. It's a random, grab-bag snapshot of official US thinking about friends and enemies, diplomatic challenges past and present. It has shed rather more humiliation than light, sort of like a bathroom stall being suddenly kicked open.

The unflattering material ranges from sordid to insightful, from Machiavellian finesse to blunt bullying, but it’s the methods of Hillary Clinton’s State Department, which call on diplomats to cull biometric data and engage in virtual stalking, that really raise eyebrows.

Much of the information is awkward but not at all secret, rather like transcripts of friends talking about friends behind their backs.A significant portion of the “statecraft” described in on-line posts certainly has an odor of hypocrisy and deception, but what foreign ministry could survive without a certain amount of double-speak?

In due time, the sheer volume of data to come may help to better determine as to whether the US government has so lost sight of its espoused ideals as to allow deception, petty thuggery and double standards to be the new norm.

The US State Department is quick to perceive skullduggery when dealing with others but it apparently cannot see the same in its own behavior.

(to read the essay in full, please visit Frontier International)


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POSTED BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM AT 11:20 AM
LABELS: GUANTANAMO, HILLARY CLINTON, STATUE OF LIBERTY, WIKILEAKS, WIZARD OF OZ
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 2010
So what is new?



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POSTED BY GERSHON SHAFIR AT 4:26 PM 0 COMMENTS
LABELS: AND SADAT WITH ABBAS., JUST REPLACE GOLDA WITH NETANYAHU, NIXON WITH OBAMA
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 5, 2010
FISHING FOR TROUBLE FAR OUT TO SEA


BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

China, Japan, Russia and America are vying to assert influence over a handful of disputed isles and islets lying off East Asian shores.

At first glance, the recent China-Japan spat concerning a boat collision followed by a Russia-Japan spat concerning a presidential visit to a remote outpost, seem like much ado about nothing; but they follow in the wake of a smouldering US-Japan conflict over the disposition of US forces in Okinawa.

Disputed islets may appear to be mere points on the map; but depending on which points you lay claim to and how you connect the dots, a nation's outline shrinks or swells far beyond its shores, its periphery defined by vanguard islets that extend territorial waters far out to sea.

The disputed islets are a cacophonous crossroads in the cross-hairs of powerful regional actors. Because the islets have changed hands and flipped political polarity more than once in the past, every claimant has at least a half-convincing story to tell.

The islets and islands in the news are not merely geographic markers staking out bold territorial claims in three dimensions; they are also historical markers staking out the fourth dimension: time.

It's hard to discuss any of the fiercely disputed islets that were once part of Imperial Japan without bringing back divisive memories of a war that took tens of millions of lives.

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POSTED BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM AT 12:38 PM
LABELS: DIAOYU, KURILES, MAEHARA, NOTHERN TERRITORY, SENKAKU
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 20, 2010
CHINESE PROPAGANDA
by Philip J Cunningham

It's not easy being a propaganda chief these days. What with all the new-fangled technology, and talk of democracy, the spectre of yesterday's suppressed news keeps coming back to haunt you.

You shred a story and throw it down the memory hole and it bounces back with a vengeance - a hundred stories where there was once just one.

Your job is to serve the party, and the secretary-general of the party most of all. All sorts of people, inside and outside the party resent your influence; some even challenge your right to exist.

When you do your job skilfully, nobody notices. When you screw up, it's there for all the world to see.

Take the case of Liu Xiaobo.

You were under the impression it was your job to make the story go away, a mission impossible in PR terms. So, instead, you make yourself look foolish. Failing to suppress the news of a dissident getting the Nobel Peace Prize, you double down and go into over-drive. You attack the poor, imprisoned convicted criminal Liu, of course, but also castigate the arrogant award-givers. Then you attack the small Western country that is home to the handful of old, white men sitting on the committee that made the "blasphemous" award decision. Then you attack the Western world in general.

As was frequently the case during the Mao years, a vilification campaign is as hurtful as it is absurd, but ultimately it makes a mockery of its advocates and legends of those sorry souls it targets.

Those not destroyed by vilification often come back stronger than ever, emerging as influential figures in their own right, thanks to the initial drop-kick that made their name a political football in the first place.

The Maoist vilification of Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehuai drove both men to early graves, but it turned them into the stuff of legend. Getting whacked by an endless stream of words ultimately enhanced the reputation of two hard-core communist operatives who were, until the moment of their fall, loyal henchmen of the party and Chairman Mao.

Deng Xiaoping, who was dislodged from power three times, and each time duly vilified in the propaganda organs of the day, not only emerged with a "name" but with a body of sayings. Even off-the-cuff quotes such as: "It doesn't matter if it's a white cat or a black cat..." that were once bandied about as supposed proof of Deng's perfidy, have been memorialised and become part of the legend of the man.

Zhao Ziyang was cut from the same cloth as his tough communist colleagues at the pinnacle of state power until his fall from grace, after which he assumed a largely undeserved democratic halo.

The way the Beijing authorities have fumbled the Liu Xiaobo case is enough to ensure that this mild-mannered academic, who was but one of many comparable dissidents, will now stand head and shoulders against the rest, eclipsing rebel elders such as Wei Jingsheng, who endured even greater suffering with even greater equanimity and resolve.

The Nobel Prize committee chose to turn the spotlight on just one man in a collective cause, casting a disproportionately large shadow, but it is China's flummoxed media czars, who, by overplaying their hand, are assuring that Liu Xiaobo will be seen as larger than life.

The Chinese Department of Propaganda hasn't always been so clumsy, nor has it always been on the wrong side of history.

It has played a role in maintaining civility in public discourse, especially in advance of, and in the aftermath of, the poisonous reign of "free" speech known as the Cultural Revolution.

In the early 1960's, one of the main functions of the central propaganda apparatus was to keep the doddering old Mao, and his increasingly insane ideas, in check.

Mao, hungry for some vengeful political action, famously complained that he couldn't get a word in edgewise in Beijing, so he had proxies such as Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao publish in Shanghai the first of a long series of veiled vilifications and outright ad hominem attacks that launched the Cultural Revolution.

A wave of suicides, vigilante roundups, public humiliations, torture and extrajudicial killings convulsed the nation for years to come, bringing the life of individuals, and the nation as a whole, to a virtual standstill. Millions died, hundreds of millions were traumatised.

It's enough to make one wish that Beijing's mayor Peng Zhen and the propaganda chiefs had constrained Mao's "right" to free speech, and thus stemmed the tide of invective, winning the day for the silent majority.

While human rights organisations understandably see censorship as a unique threat to them and theirs, an idealistic egotism causes them to miss the point inasmuch as it's really not about them. At least half of the function of the propaganda department is to keep inner-party conflict out of the news, to keep Politburo rivals and wannabes from each other's throats and to prevent insider coups and political campaigns from ripping the country apart at the seams.

In more recent times, the much-maligned department served a stabilising role when the reigns of power were reluctantly handed to Hu Jintao by the ambitious and not-quite-yet-ready-to-retire Jiang Zemin.

By controlling access to the public megaphone, the propaganda department effectively reined in yesterday's leaders, thus enabling the changing of the guard. It's China's equivalent to term limits in US politics.

Were Hu Jintao to completely dismantle the party's propaganda apparatus tomorrow, we would probably learn more about Hu than we know now, but it would likely prove a hollow victory for the free press. Were it not for the restraining hand of the propaganda department, Jiang Zemin and Li Peng would still be in the news, and in the game, using prestige media to advance their coteries and causes.

Other powerful actors, who, by virtue of wealth and position, would come to hog the limelight, making an easy transition to a freewheeling press system that would allow them to exercise power by buying newspapers, TV stations and advertising influence.

But if the opening of the floodgates were so unregulated as to lead to an "anything goes" neglect of media standards, then the vilification, mud-slinging and poisonous hate speech that hurt China so much in the past, would return with a vengeance.

The ensuing chaos would give foreign reporters and local scribes much to report on and write about, but little security or social stability in which to enjoy the fruits of free expression.

Philip J Cunningham is a freelance writer and political commentator. Read more on this article...
POSTED BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM AT 12:46 AM
LABELS: LIU XIAOBO, NOBEL PEACE PRIZE, PROPAGANDA, WEI JINGSHENG
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 1, 2010
A new Israel-Lebanon war?
A variety of intellectuals and scholars comment on the possibility and logic for new Israel-Lebanon war centering on the prospect that Israel will launch a new war.  Contributors include Rashid Khalidi, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finklestein, Helena Cobban, John Meirsheimer, Mu'in Rabani, Michael Desch, 'Ashaf Kafuri,  and me.  The war would be a punitive campaign that enacts great punishment on Lebanon, but would be likely to strengthen not weaken Hezbollah, as well fomenting much anti-U.S. sentiment. There is also doubt expressed, notably by Meirsheimer, that the Obama administration would behave very much differently than the recent Bush administration in terms of preventing or ending the war.

As published in al-Akhbar.

Here is my contribution:


We can construct a very rational argument for Israel to maintain the status quo vis-à-vis Lebanon rather than attacking for the ostensible purpose of disarming Hezbollah.  Notwithstanding the tree incident in early August, the border has been very quiet since the 2006 war ended.  With the exception of contested areas of the occupied Golan Heights, notably the Shiba’ farms, the border area was also quiet from the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 until the July 2006.  Since the 1990s the Hezbollah-Israel rules-of-the-game have been well understood and both belligerents have been generally measured in their actions (as opposed to their rhetoric) and reactions.  July-August 2006 was an exception, of course.  
Roiling inter-sectarian tensions, particularly between Shi’is and Sunnis, have erupted in deadly clashes, as they did this week between Hezbollahis and Ahbashis.  Even so, Hezbollah’s resistance narrative is widely supported in the Shi’i community, even if it is derided in some other Lebanese quarters.  The November 2009 ministerial statement that launched the current government embraced the right of “resistance”, while simultaneously and incongruously committing the government to the enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.  Although naïve commentary in the U.S. focuses on the need for the Lebanese Army to disarm Hezbollah, it is obvious that resistance to Israel is popular in the ranks and in the officer corps, and the prospects for Hezbollah being disarmed by the army are zilch.  
If Israel were to attack Lebanon with the objective of weakening, if not defeating Hezbollah and destroying a significant proportion of the group’s arsenal of rockets and missiles, it runs the risk of falling short.  If so, Hezbollah’s resistance narrative would not be undermined but validated, again.  Israeli military sources have argued recently that Hezbollah has “bases” in  more than 100 villages in the South.  This suggests an Israeli campaign that would wreak even wider destruction than the 2006 war.  A landscape of smoldering ruins across southern Lebanon is more likely to inspire not dampen support for Hezbollah.
In addition, Israel would not be unscathed.  Withering rocket fire in northern Israel would cause the displacement of a million or more Israelis.  If Hezbollah makes good on the promise to retaliate-in-kind for Israeli strikes on Lebanese cities then the dangers will cascade for Israel.
This adds up to a rational case for not attacking Lebanon.  
Perhaps, but there is good reason for concern that the Israelis will not be deterred.
Israel—with very generous U.S. support—is committed to maintaining its military superiority over any combination of regional foes.  In addition, Israeli strategic culture emphasizes the need for Israel to “maintain its deterrence”.  This means that Israel’s foes will not seriously contemplate attacking Israel because their defeat is certain and Israel will inflict disproportionate military power should they try.  The punitive campaign against Gaza in December 2008-December 2009 is an example of the latter.  
Particularly in the case of Hezbollah, Israel faces a re-armed foe that flaunts its contempt for Israeli hegemony.  Given a pretext or a miscalculation, it is not far-fetched to imagine an Israeli war plan premised on a fierce and rapid ground attack and an accompanying devastating air campaign designed to overcome Lebanese resistance in a matter of weeks.  Israel would ostensibly demonstrate that it will not be deterred by Hezbollah.  
If Israel launches an air campaign on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, it is axiomatic that a pre-emptive attack on Lebanon would be on the menu because it is assumed that the first wave of Iranian retaliation would come in the form of Hezbollahi rockets. Both the Bush and the Obama administrations have firmly counseled Israel against bombing Iran, and there is little enthusiasm in the Pentagon for starting a war with Iran.  
Given Israel’s strategic culture and its fixation on “maintaining its deterrence”, an Israeli onslaught into Lebanon would also be justified as thwarting Iran’s hegemonial ambitions while reducing the threat posed to Israel by Hezbollah.  In the Bush White House, Senior National Security Council officials actively encouraged the Gaza War.  The Obama White House is far more likely to urge restraint on Israel, but this will not stop Israel from starting a new war if it elects to do so.
Prudent counsel may prevail, and the tense conditions along the Israel-Lebanon border may persist for some time to come.  Unfortunately, unwise and counter-productive decisions by Israel have become increasingly common. Plus, Israeli officials have often succumbed to the fallacy that inflicting pain on Lebanon reduces support for Hezbollah.  This usually does not work, and often has the opposite effect. 


Crossposted with "From the the Field".
Read more on this article...
POSTED BY ARN AT 1:00 PM 1 COMMENTS
LABELS: ISRAEL, LEBANON, WAR
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, 2010
LOST IN TRANSLATION, LOST AT SEA

An aerial view of one of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands in the East China Sea, claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan.

by Philip J Cunningham

From the moment a Chinese fishing trawler and pair of Japanese coast guard boats came into contact at sea on Sept 8, 2010, the waters were instantly muddied, not so much by the minor maritime incident itself, but by bouts of mutual recrimination.

Confusion and concerns raised by the incident were ramped up and amplified by the weight of history, fears about the future, and cultural differences.

Sino-Japanese relations remain sensitive and subject to sudden downturns due to the gravity of historical horrors that continue to haunt the present.

Each side's self-righteous response serves to further irk and annoy the other, setting off a chain reaction in the direction of a meltdown, if not outright conflict.

Accidents happen, as do "accidents on purpose". But even when no provocation can be proven, a collision at sea plumbs deep emotions. A calm, rational handling of the matter is elusive because the slightest misstep or chauvinistic statement resonates with painful memories of the past.



Chinese artist's rendition of the sinking of the chartered transport ship Kowshing by Togo Heihachiro's cruiser, the Naniwa

For example, Japanese naval luminary Togo Heihachiro became a "celebrity" in Japan in 1894, when he ordered his cruiser, the Naniwa, to fire upon, and sink, the Kowshing, a British-flagged transport ship chartered by China. The son of a samurai turned naval hero went on to humiliate the Russians at Port Arthur using a strategy of stoic stealth to defeat an over-confident and under-prepared enemy, which decades later inspired Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku to execute the1941 Pearl Harbour attack.

Admiral Togo was widely feted in his lifetime, not only in Japan but also in England and even in America, though he was understandably unpopular in China for having summarily dispatched a thousand Chinese young men to a watery grave.

Divergent cultural norms have a bearing on the disposition of such a case. Not following the rules _ in this case a demonstrable reluctance to surrender _ was a breach of order and propriety sufficient for the Japanese cruiser captain to perfunctorily blow a few big holes in the hull of the uncooperative craft and watch it drop beneath the waves.

One man's war hero, another man's war criminal. Arguably there was a method to Togo's mad lack of compassion, so much so that even the British, infuriated that a ship piloted by one of their own might be treated in such a fashion, reluctantly acknowledged that the Japanese naval man known as "Johnny Chinaman" during his studies in Britain, had scrupulously followed the rulebook the British themselves had written.

When Togo sank the Kowshing, there was no declaration of war between Japan and China, nor was the British-piloted transport ship in any position to attack. Togo, under instructions to intercept, destroyed the defenceless transport ship, not because it posed a palpable threat, but because it didn't follow orders.

Tasked with preventing the Chinese troops from reaching Korea, Togo followed orders with alacrity, offering a choice of sink or surrender, then bailing out of the water only the British captain and a handful of non-Chinese crew.

Japanese troops intent on taking control of Seoul subsequently overcame their woefully undermanned Chinese rivals, paving the way to the eventual takeover of the entire Korean peninsula and Manchuria.

The naval war that ensued ended with China ceding Taiwan and other territory to Japan. Over the next five decades, China and Japan descended gradually but inexorably into a protracted war that cost tens of millions of lives.

Seen from inside the norms of Japanese naval culture, Togo was not a cold-blooded killer, but a discriminating man, both patient and polite, obedient to authority and fanatic about decorum. Certain things simply had to be done a certain way _ hoisting signal flags, issuing formal salutes _ and he could see no two ways about it.

Togo's refusal to save the drowning Chinese was not viewed as a breach of naval etiquette, because the Chinese, growing mutinous, had proven themselves unwilling to follow the most basic rules as they even turned on the hired British captain, whom they suspected to be in collusion with the Japanese.

Protocol trumped emotion and the Japanese won, not just the one-sided battle to sink what was basically an unarmed ship, but the rather more complex trial in the court of Imperial British opinion and jurisprudence, which concluded that Togo had followed the letter of British-style law to a "T", a triumph of form over substance which left little regard for 1,000 human lives lost in the water.

The victims' lack of discipline, order and decorum presumably put them beyond the pale of naval compassion.

China's future strongman Mao Zedong was just a baby at the time, but he and future generations of patriots would find in the long sorry chain of such calamitous events the inspiration to restore China's pride with a vengeance.

The bumps and scratches of the Sept 8, 2010 Sino-Japanese boat collision incident are indeed trivial in comparison, but the subsequent arrest and detention by the book of the Chinese captain has inflamed the emotions of a Chinese public well-educated in the exploits of Imperial Japan and its predations against their homeland.

Once history is invoked, the wild card of public opinion has to be taken into account.

The United States, like England during the heyday of its imperial might, currently enjoys a strategic alliance with Japan.

Although there have been serious frictions in the US-Japan relationship as of late, due to onerous US military demands for operating space in and around Futenma in Okinawa, it is unlikely that the US will show much sympathy for Chinese sentiments about the contested waters around the Diaoyutai/Senkaku islets so long as Japan is an ally that remains largely observant of American-style military protocol.

As Greenpeace anti-whaling activists and other "emotional" opponents of contemporary Japanese maritime behaviour have learned to their detriment, common sense and compassion are not necessarily extended to those who fail to abide by protocol _ the law, as Japan sees it _ when encountering a Japanese vessel on the waters.

Anti-whaling activists have seen a catamaran craft rammed and capsized; the Japanese side claims it was an "accident"; while in 2008 the Lianhe, a Taiwanese fishing vessel, was struck and sunk by the Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat Koshiki, which managed to rescue the crew.

Similar near-clashes have been reported this month involving boats from Taiwan.

The potential wealth of the contested waters, rich in fish, with a seabed underneath that may well prove rich in oil and minerals, adds to the mounting tension.

Given the deep wounds of a past that saw Japan invade and wreak havoc on China, even the most minor of scrapes in contested waters is a critical event that must be managed with political care and cultural sensitivity.

Given the Japanese tendency to play it by its own rulebook and the Chinese penchant to play it out in public, each side predictably thwarts and infuriates the other.

If the two dominant powers of East Asia once again find themselves on a collision course, history suggests that things will get much worse before they get better _ and no one wins in the end.

Still, it's not too late for all claimants to the contested waters to step back, put aside seemingly intractable claims, and take the long view.

Instead of shedding blood over rocky islets, give back to nature the sea and the seabed until future generations can equitably sort out what belongs to whom.

(first published in the Bangkok Post, September 25, 2010)

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator. Read more on this article...
POSTED BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM AT 1:25 AM
LABELS: ADMIRAL TOGO, CHINA, DIAOYU, JAPAN, SENKAKU
FRIDAY, AUGUST 20, 2010
OUT OF HISTORY AND INTO THE PRESENT
BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM
(from the Bangkok Post, August 21, 2010)


There is the story of a provincial politician, unique to his time and place but universal in resonance, who came to electoral prominence by rousing the poor and trampled-upon into a veritable political army.

He talked the provocative talk of the populist, if not the demagogue; one could even say he talked his way into power, but he made good on some of the promises. He recognised the latent power of the poor, though not always in good ways or with the best of intentions.

Neither handsome nor heroic, he was likeable in a corny, folksy way.

Despite his gift of gab, he was not a good listener, but he didn't drink and he worked hard and went to great lengths to get his name in the paper. From the start, he treated rural areas as his rear base and the media as a hand-maiden to personal ambition.

When he first announced his desire to lead, he was ridiculed and scorned by the established elite and their henchmen. When he vowed to deliver free health care and access to education for all, he caused panic among vested interests.

He had his lucky breaks, but was also supported by powerful establishment figures who did not see the bold maverick as a threat. He had a crack staff of assistants, including media minds, paid agents and security muscle.

He travelled the hinterland by train, bringing the drama of government to remote places where a face-to-face between leaders and the led was known primarily by its absence.

"Make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em hate you," his advisers urged, anything to keep him at the centre of public attention. He wanted fame and power badly, yet acknowledged it was something deep inside him that even he did not fully understand.

As his circle of power and influence spread, flames of populism were fanned. There were fiery speeches, huge gatherings in public places, torches being waved in the night.

He ran a modern, media-savvy campaign, and liked to have journalists in his pocket, not just to dominate the newspapers and airwaves but to conduct "research" on his political foes. He kept a black book on the vulnerabilities of others to keep them in line. Some could be bought simply with money, as in absolving a bank debt; others could be gradually entrapped in the web of their dreams, by exploiting their passion for ideals.

He could be generous, bestowing wealth, privilege and power on his loyal crew, and he could take it away at whim.

Posters bearing his likeness were everywhere, his witty slogans distributed widely. At rallies one could expect a carnival atmosphere with free food, giveaways and entertainment.

(PLEASE CONTINUE READING HERE) Read more on this article...
POSTED BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM AT 10:36 PM
LABELS: ALL THE KING'S MEN, BANGKOK, POPULISM, THAILAND
TUESDAY, JULY 6, 2010
Populism, the political opiate of the people


(from the Bangkok Post, Published: 29/06/2010)


by PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

Populism pits the "people" against the "elite" in order to foment change. Demagogues use half-truths, truisms and outright lies to make it happen.

For better or worse, populism has been on the upswing in Thailand in the last 10 years, roughly corresponding to the rise and fall of Thaksin Shinawatra's rule.

Although Thailand has seen populist behaviour before, most especially under the boot of Plaek Phibulsonggram who was a contemporary of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, and who was to some extent influenced by the rabid populism that transmuted into fascism at the time, it wasn't until Thaksin's arrival on the national stage that the Thai term prachaniyom was coined to replace the English-loan word for populism.

The good news for a Bangkok establishment fearful of red shirts taking to the streets again is that populist movements tend to fall apart rather quickly, typically due to the lack of sustainable infrastructure and hard-to-resolve internal contradictions, or, more simply, just by becoming unpopular.

Even populist leaders such as Thaksin who managed to scale the heights of power tend to fall, and fail, rather quickly, because taking over the top slot instantly converts them into a symbol of a new, unjust elite, an easy target for a fresh wave of resentment on the part of those who feel betrayed or excluded from the spoils of power.

The bad news for the establishment is this. Populism isn't conjured up out of thin air or pulled out of the ether. It is rooted to the earth, a reflection of real and perceived problems on the ground. It clings to pre-existing fault lines, makes claim to them, manipulates them, exacerbates and explodes them, in the hopes of triggering a seismic shift in power.

(full article posted here) Read more on this article...
POSTED BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM AT 8:52 AM
LABELS: POPULISM, RAJPRASONG, RATCHAPRASONG, RED SHIRTS, THAILAND
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