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Wednesday March 9th 2011
American politics
Lexington's notebook
Lessons from the Arab revolt
Libya and the higher bilge (2)
Mar 4th 2011, 19:58 by Lexington
I'VE already vented about the way some Western pundits on the left use the present Arab revolt as a club with which to bash Western nefariousness of one sort or another. It is only fair to add that the left does not have a monopoly on jumping to odd conclusions. A spate of articles in the American media now say that the Arab uprisings show that those who argued for a peace deal in Palestine were barking up the wrong tree. Here, just by way of unsurprising example, is Marty Peretz in the New Republic:
Israel was supposed to be the combustible element on which the entire region teetered. It now turns out that Israel actually had not the slightest allusive presence among the protestants of Tahrir Square. Nor in the successor outposts of the other rebellions. Some of us intuited this all along. Whatever popular conflict there was with the regimes—the kind of conflict that could and would actually undermine and overthrow them—it was not over Israel, because almost all of the regimes had no contact with Israel and hewed closely to the generalized Arab line against it, that even Mubarak and his regime also embraced. There was plenty of raw anti-Semitic claptrap coming from Egyptian official media, much of it comparable to Der Sturmer.
I don't get this. Is the Peretz inference that because the other Arabs want self-determination for themselves they can't want it for the Palestinians too? If he thinks  Arabs don't care about Palestine he needs to get out more. As to whether Israel is a combustible element in the region, I offer this list of dates: 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 2006, 2009. I don't blame Israel for all these wars—far from it. But when Peretz asks, as he does, "So what?" if there's no peace agreement, I invite him to try saying that to the widows.
By the way, he also adds, en passant, that the Arab League's Amr Moussa has been The Economist's favourite for more than a decade "probably because he can be trusted to hate Israel". Rot. For the record, here's a little something I wrote about Amr Moussa, Palestine and Arab democracy.
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Westerners against the West
Libya and the higher bilge
Feb 27th 2011, 18:49 by Lexington
AT TIMES like these people do say some daft things. Most irritating have been the Western pundits whose first reaction to any sequence of events anywhere is to blame the West. First to catch my eye was repeat-offender Robert Fisk of the British Independent. He's an excellent writer, but his opinions are frankly loopy. Consider this:
The docile, supine, unregenerative, cringing Arabs of Orientalism have transformed themselves into fighters for the freedom, liberty and dignity which we Westerners have always assumed it was our unique role to play in the world. One after another, our satraps are falling, and the people we paid them to control are making their own history – our right to meddle in their affairs (which we will, of course, continue to exercise) has been diminished for ever.
Gimme a break. When in recent history did "we Westerners" think freedom, liberty and dignity should be uniquely ours? America and the European Union have tried for years to promote reform and democracy in the Arab world. We didn't pay the local "satraps" (neither Mubarak nor Qaddafi were our satraps anyway) to control their people. We paid them as part of the Camp David peace treaty not to make war on Israel (Egypt) or for their oil and gas (Libya).
Next up is the egregious John Pilger, who thinks the Arab revolts show that the West in general and the United States in particular are "fascist":
The revolt in the Arab world is against not merely a resident dictator, but a worldwide economic tyranny, designed by the US Treasury and imposed by the US Agency for International Development, the IMF and the World Bank, which have ensured that rich countries such as Egypt are reduced to vast sweatshops, with 40 per cent of the population earning less than $2 a day. The people's triumph in Cairo was the first blow against what Benito Mussolini called corporatism, a word that appears in his definition of fascism.
I don't know why the formerly serious New Statesman gives Pilger house room (actually I do: depressingly, they sell a few more copies when he's on the cover). Maybe he hasn't noticed, but what most of the Arab protesters say they want are the very freedoms that they know full well, even if Pilger doesn't, to be available in the West. No doubt he believes they are labouring under some massive mind-control delusion engineered by the CIA.
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America and the Arabs
The Kuwait war plus 20
Feb 12th 2011, 19:04 by By Lexington
A REFLECTION. Twenty years ago this week, and just like this week, I was glued to my TV set watching enthralling news from the Arab world. In mid-February 1991 the American-led war to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait was at its peak. So, it seemed back then, was American power in the Middle East and the world. In contrast to his son's clumsy diplomacy before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, George Bush senior had responded to Saddam's conquest of Kuwait with a brilliant sequence of economic and military moves. He raised a great international alliance, put Iraq under half a year of economic siege, persuaded the United Nations to authorise force if sanctions failed, and when the ground war finally started finished the whole business in a mere 100 hours of fighting.
With hindsight, it becomes apparent that the liberation of Kuwait was the beginning of America's dominating moment in the Middle East. The collapse of the Soviet Union had left the United States in pole position. "Desert Storm" gave America its first chance to demonstrate how its command of precision weapons made military resistance to the superpower futile. After the war, a triumphant President Bush proclaimed his desire to build a "new world order" and a new Middle East. He bullied the Israelis and Arabs to attend a peace conference in Madrid to sort out the Palestine conflict once and for all.
If the Gulf war of 1991 marked the beginning of America's moment in the Middle East, does the Egyptian revolution exactly 20 years later mark its end? You can certainly make that case. America did not achieve a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace in Madrid. Contrary to expectations, Saddam was not pushed from power after America pushed him out of Kuwait. We now know that the arrival of American troops in the Arabian peninsula radicalised a certain Osama bin Laden and so led indirectly to the felling of the twin towers. The younger Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003 caused colossal loss of life and inflicted grave damage on America's standing in the region. Now along comes a popular revolution that topples Hosni Mubarak, one of America's most reliable allies.
And yet I am disinclined to join the great hand-wringing in which some are indulging over America's declining power, or the alleged danger posed by the Muslim Brotherhood. The most striking thing about the current mood of this region is that, more than ever, it is in the throes of a great struggle of ideas. Arabs (and Iranians) look around them and see many different political systems claiming ascendancy. These range from Shia theocracy (Iran and Hizbullah), Sunni Islamism (Saudi Arabia, Hamas, al-Qaeda), secular dictatorship (Syria, Libya) and traditional monarchy (Morocco, Jordan, the Arab Gulf). But guess what? By far the strongest of the ideas currently on offer—and the one for which most Egyptians seemed to be clamouring these past few weeks—is none of the above. It is liberal democracy. Most of the others, I humbly submit, have already discredited themselves or are on their way into the dustbin of history. Just observe the burning desire of so many Iranians to emigrate to the lair of the Great Satan.
In other words, for all its many missteps of the past two decades, America is remarkably well placed to win the war of ideas now unfolding in the Middle East. This is not because Arabs are fond of America. Most aren't, right now. But thanks to globalisation, education, satellite television and the palpable failure of the local alternatives, most Arabs (and Iranians) are fully aware of what sort of societies the Western democracies are, and they would like some of the same fresh air for themselves. Is America less powerful today than when its pilots were shooting up Saddam's Republican Guard on the highway out of Kuwait 20 years ago? It has certainly learnt the hard way that it cannot shape the Middle East just as it wants. But its power of example remains strong in an Arab world whose people want most of all just to breathe free.
(Photo credit: AFP)
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Predicting Egypt
In journalism, timing is everything
Feb 11th 2011, 19:32 by Lexington
IN THIS joyful moment for Egypt, I can't resist drawing attention this deliciously wrong piece from this morning's New York Daily News. Some choice bits:
Mubarak took direct swings at Obama, saying that he needed and would follow no outside dictation. American intelligence leaders openly announced that Mubarak would be stepping down. Obama gave what might be called a victory speech for the success of reform in bringing down a dictatorship.This is the most obvious and immediate humiliation for a U.S. President in a very long time. Obama must have been steaming while watching the speech. What will he do now, try to overthrow Mubarak or savage the alliance? The Obama administration is spinning this as Mubarak’s resignation in practice. But Egyptians are seeing it as Mubarak still being president and the regime still being in power, setting the terms for any changes to be made.What will people in the region conclude? Other moderate Arab regimes and Israel are going to contrast Mubarak's toughness with Obama's panic in the early days of the crisis. America's enemies are going to be angry and disappointed. Yes, they will now try to stoke violence and revolution in Egypt. But do they have any prospect for success? Doubtful.
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Influencing Egypt
A strike against the know-alls
Feb 9th 2011, 17:47 by Lexington
I'M LATE on this but George Will's column on Egypt in this morning's Washington Post is a peach. One of his targets: those Republicans who feel obliged to find fault with Barack Obama in every circumstance:
Those Americans who know which Republican will win next year's Iowa caucuses can complain about those who did not know that when a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire, he would set a region afire. From all other Americans, forbearance would be seemly.It also would be amazing, because there is a cottage industry of Barack Obama critics who, not content with monitoring his myriad mistakes in domestic policies, insist that there must be a seamless connection of those with his foreign policy. Strangely, these critics, who correctly doubt the propriety and capacity of the U.S. government controlling our complex society, simultaneously fault the government for not having vast competence to shape the destinies of other societies. Such critics persist because, as Upton Sinclair wrote in 1935, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
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The use and abuse of Islam
Bush, democracy and the Muslim Brothers
Feb 4th 2011, 16:38 by Lexington
IN MY print column this week I felt I owed it to George Bush to remember that he was a keener promoter of Arab democracy than Barack Obama.
One of the (politer) commenters asked how dangerous the Muslim Brothers might be. Ha! Here's one I wrote earlier (2003):
THEY are not “failed states”. Both are “pro-American”. But they are a mess. At opposite corners of North Africa, Egypt and Morocco are swamped by social problems. Both have parliaments and elections, but neither is remotely democratic. In Morocco ultimate power rests with a king, Muhammad VI, with the power to appoint the prime minister and cabinet. Egypt is run by a president, Hosni Mubarak, who has sat on his perch since 1981 with little check on his authority. Both have secular opposition parties, but in both places the only serious challenge to the regime comes from the Islamists. What do the Islamists want?Abdul Moneim Abul Fotouh is a doctor, the head of the Egyptian Medical Association and a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organisation to which Sayyid Qutb belonged, and which is now tolerated, within limits, by Mr Mubarak's government. It has not dabbled in violence since the 1960s, but the Brotherhood is banned as a political party—though 17 of its members sit as “independents” in the toothless People's Assembly.Dr Abul Fotouh will never be the toast of Washington's neo-conservatives. He argues that the West has turned against Islam mainly because “the Zionist colonial-settler project” (Israel) needs western protection and so has poisoned western attitudes to Islam. On the other hand, he does not subscribe to Qutb's notion that the West is in a state of jahiliyya. “In general, I don't find the western way of life at odds with Islam,” says the doctor. “At the end of the day, we have a set of common humanist values: justice, freedom, human rights and democracy.”​Saeddine al-Othmani is vice-president of the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), which everybody will tell you is the only legal Islamist party in Morocco. Everybody, that is, except the party's members. On meeting The Economist, Mr al-Othmani and his colleagues disavow the Islamist label. Yes, the party puts somewhat more emphasis than others do on Morocco's Islamic identity. But it is dedicated to democracy, not Islam. “For us”, they say, “the problem is that 50 years after independence Morocco is way behind on justice and economic development. So our two priorities are to fight corruption and put ethics back into public life, and then to diminish flagrant social inequality by investing in human capital.”From Cairo, Dr Abul Fotouh sends the same message; the people demonised in the West as wild-eyed Islamists are just democrats in search of justice. He swats aside questions about the role the Brotherhood would want for sharia in a perfect Egypt. Of course sharia should be honoured. However, Egypt's crisis is not the absence of sharia but the lack of freedom. The Brothers have faced torture and prison; he himself was jailed for five years. “The West has to understand that these regimes are crooks and thieves who just want to sit on their thrones. They worsen the image of Islam in the West and create Islamophobia.”​Along with the PJD, Morocco also has a bigger Islamist movement, Adl wal Ihsane (Justice and Charity). This one is banned from operating as a political party and its charismatic leader, Sheikh Yassine, is under house arrest. Its explicit aim is to turn Morocco into an Islamic state. But this, says its spokesman, Fathallah Arsalan, is for the long term. In the meantime, it concentrates on education and welfare. “The present social crisis is not the time for political competition,” says Mr Arsalan. “What we need now is a transitory period when Islamists, leftists and rightists should all be involved in making conditions better.”Such encounters show that political Islam is no monolith. The mild spokesmen of the PJD, Adl wal Ihsane and the present-day Muslim Brotherhood seem a world away from the violent men of al-Qaeda. So why do people bundle such movements together under the label of “political Islam”? Because they are linked, even if in no other way, in the minds of the regimes.Take Morocco. Last May, suicide bombers in Casablanca killed 45 people. The perpetrators were said to belong to a group called the Jihad Salafists. No evidence links the attacks to the PJD, which was quick to condemn them. And yet the attacks prompted a clampdown on the PJD. Some palace officials said the bombings showed that the king's cautious political reforms were moving too fast. At one point, the government was said to be thinking of banning the PJD from this month's local elections.This reaction is no surprise. In Morocco, Egypt and many other Muslim countries the regimes tend to arrange Islamists along a spectrum in which they are all in the end connected. At one end are imams whose only sin is to stir too much politics into their Friday sermons (which the regimes carefully monitor). At the other end are proper terrorists such as the Jihad Salafists in Morocco or the Gamaa Islamiya (currently observing a ceasefire) in Egypt. In the middle are movements such as the PJD, the Adl wal Ihsane and the Muslim Brothers, which claim to be non-violent but which the regimes accuse of “creating an atmosphere” of militancy in which the men of violence flourish.The oddity of all this is that the regimes do not just fear the Islamists; they also manipulate them. Morocco's government once saw Adl wal Ihsane as a useful conservative bulwark against the left. Then it encouraged the PJD to become a moderate counter to Adl wal Ihsane. Then—when the PJD started to do well in elections—the palace began to worry that the PJD was growing too big for its boots. In Egypt, likewise, the regime has often seen the Muslim Brotherhood as a tool. Dr Abul Fotouh, now in his 50s, belongs to a generation of Brothers that was encouraged by then-President Sadat to act as a counterweight to the radical left on university campuses.It seems grossly unfair to associate parties such as the PJD, which will not even call themselves Islamists, with the wilder jihadis. But such parties are not above a bit of dissembling of their own. The PJD's leaders may disavow the “Islamist” label, yet they harp on about Morocco's Islamic “tradition”. Its spokesmen are evasive when asked how extensive sharia would have to be in their ideal Morocco. And the party is built on top of an underlying network of associations, called Unity and Reform, which is much more outspoken about its goal of Islamising society.Given this, it is not only the government that worries about the growing influence of the Islamists. Driss Ksikes, a playwright and editor-in-chief of Morocco's TelQuel, a current-affairs magazine, says he deplores the way the state used the Casablanca bombings to demonise all Islamists and slither back into authoritarianism. But he has his own reservations about the Islamists. In the end, he says, the moderate PJD and the more radical Adl wal Ihsane both want to create an Islamist state based on sharia. They have just chosen different methods. While Adl wal Ihsane prepares the people patiently for the coming of the caliphate, the PJD works the political system and promotes a softer image. But both are heading for the same destination.In the absence of a credible secular opposition, all this has a paradoxical result. Mr Ksikes notes that secular Moroccans are forced to hope that the king, of all people, will become the champion of modernity. The king may not actually believe in liberal democracy—what king would?—but has to pretend to believe in it a bit if he is to keep Morocco's relations with its western allies sweet.In Egypt, too, it suits Hosni Mubarak to have an Islamist opposition at hand. This helps him to persuade the United States that if he falls, Egypt will collapse into fundamentalism. The same argument is made right across the Muslim world, from the kingdoms of Arabia to the dictatorships of Bashar Assad of Syria and Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan.Kings and dictators point to the Islamists and say that they would be worse than their own regimes. Meanwhile the non-violent Islamists say that they will be replaced by violent ones if the state persists in repressing them. “If we have no democratic process, we will see the resurgence of the extremist groups,” says Mustapha Khalfi, political editor of Morocco's Attajdid newspaper.In Egypt, argues Bahgat Korany of the American University of Cairo, the staid Brotherhood has become less alluring than the jihadis since September 11th. The younger generation, he says, is less likely to focus on domestic issues alone: they identify beyond Egypt with the position of Muslims at large.Are Egypt and Morocco typical? They could hardly be more different even from each other. One was the birthplace of Arab nationalism; the other is a monarchy. One is at the centre of the passions that sweep the Arab world; the other is a conservative backwater. But the politics of Islam in these very different countries repeats itself throughout the Muslim world. By throttling the secular opposition, authoritarian regimes have left the Islamists as the only groups with a following. It seems obvious that unless the moderate Islamists are given a fair hearing, disaffected citizens will turn to the violent organisations on their fringes which, since Iraq and Afghanistan, have a potent message of global Muslim beleaguerment to recruit more followers. So why does nothing change?
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Obama and Cairo
Could it be any worse?
Jan 28th 2011, 16:57 by Lexington
[This post has been updated.]
SO NOW we know: as far as President Mubarak is concerned, he's not going anywhere. In a brief speech to the nation late on Friday night he said that he was dismissing his government and appointing a new one, but that he was staying—for the sake of Egypt, of course. He favoured more democracy and economic improvements, but he would not allow the chaos to spread.
Since the one thing the rioters seemed to agree on is that he had delighted them long enough after 30 years on the presidential throne, and should depart for Saudi Arabia, it is impossible to know whether his decision to brazen it out will quieten or inflame the situation. The latter, one imagines. But—and this is speculation only—it must be assumed that the president secured the backing of the armed forces before deciding to make his stand. Thus the stage could be set for a more violent confrontation on the streets, which remain thronged in defiance of an official curfew.
Shortly after Mubarak spoke, so did Barack Obama. He called on the Egyptian president to "give meaning" to his promises to improve the lot of the Egyptian people. But all this makes it a cruel irony that Mr Obama chose Cairo as the venue for the big speech in 2009 that was designed to start to restore America's relations with the Muslim world. One of the main promises he held out there—American help for Palestinian statehood—has recently run into the sand as the result of what even his admirers admit was a sequence of cack-handed diplomatic fumbles, notably the mistake of picking a fight over Israeli settlements and then backing down. Now he will be judged, not only in Egypt but well beyond, by whose side he takes in the showdown between Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian people.
So far, the administration has been trying hard to avoid making a choice: Mubarak is our ally but we deplore violence and are on the side of "reform", goes the line. Hillary Clinton has called for restraint on all sides and for the restoration of communications. She said America supported the universal rights of the Egyptians, and called for urgent political, economic and social reforms. This is a sensible enough line to take, but sitting on the fence becomes increasingly uncomfortable as events unfold.
As for what is really going on behind the scenes in Washington, nothing is clear yet. A bloodbath that kept Mr Mubarak in power would be a tragedy in itself and a disaster for America's reputation in the region. Perhaps the least bad outcome for America would be for Mr Mubarak to stand down, but with power passing to a person or group broadly friendly to the superpower. But who?
The question of who would succeed Mr Mubarak, even if he died peacefully, has always been a riddle. He has never appointed a vice-president and was trying to wheedle his son Gamal into the job. If the (American armed and trained) army itself does not take over, there are various pro-Western grey eminences lurking behind the scenes. Omar Suleiman, the suave intelligence chief, is close to the Americans and has fairly intimate relations with Israel (UPDATE: he has now been named vice-president). Failing that, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the IAEA nuclear watchdog, is at least a known quantity, though what America knows about him it does not much like. In American eyes he tilted too far towards Iran in his previous job, and is alarmingly hostile to Israel.But at least he is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
One consoling thought going the rounds in Washington is that the Brotherhood's support is limited—and many of those demonstrating now against the regime would be appalled if the Brothers took over. But remember the Iranian revolution of 1979? That started with a broad group of opposition movements: secular leftists, liberals and trade unions as well as the Islamists. Only afterwards did the Islamists claim the revolution for themselves.
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America and the Arabs
Uncle Sam and the new Arab revolt
Jan 27th 2011, 20:27 by Lexington
MANY years ago, when I was starting out in journalism, I used to know a much older, amiable hack, who after a drink or two in the pub at night had a bad habit of jabbing my chest, reaching into his breast pocket, and then thrusting a sheaf of crumpled, yellowing press cuttings under my nose to show that he was the first to have written this, disclosed that, etc, etc. He was, frankly, a bit of a bore, though a harmless one.
Reader, I cannot help it. After so many years watching the Middle East, and watching the gripping drama unfolding in the Arab world now, I have at last become that man.
It is too early to say whether the overthrow of Tunisia's strongman and the riots now sweeping through Egypt and numerous other Arab countries will amount to broad political change. But wouldn't it be nice, indeed thrilling, if America's secretary of state went to the University of Cairo, say, and made some simple statement like this:
For 60 years my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East—and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.
Well, that is just what America's secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, did say at the University of Cairo in June 2005. And it wasn't just talk. In the same year George W. Bush leant hard on Hosni Mubarak to allow freer voting in that year's elections, and this was only part of a fairly hefty multi-year campaign of American nagging, scolding and spending designed to help democracy strike roots in the Arab world. It didn't work, needless to say. Once they saw the mayhem of post-invasion Iraq, Arabs were not going to take lessons from the war's architects on how to run their countries. Besides, the Bush campaign always suffered from a fundamental ambivalence. Might pushing reform too far damage its own interests, by toppling friendly regimes and seeing them replaced by something worse—not just worse for America but also, perhaps, for the Arabs themselves?
In June 2009 the newly elected President Obama introduced a subtle change in American policy. He also went to Cairo University, and gave a speech. But he made a point of emphasising this, too:
Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone.
A nice evasion, which will not much help the Obama administration as it navigates its way through the critical decisions that lie ahead if some of its most important autocratic partners in the Middle East really do now find their regimes in serious jeopardy.
I now jab your chest, reach into my breast pocket and thrust this crumpled, yellowing press cutting into your hand (or I do the internet-age equivalent). I wrote it in 2002, not long after the felling of the twin towers, and I think it makes intriguing reading in light of current events. I hope it doesn't bore you. If it does, I apologise for my bad manners.
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The state of the union
An uninspiring performance
Jan 26th 2011, 5:28 by Lexington
REACTIONS to speeches are highly personal, but I thought Barack Obama's state-of-the-union address was weirdly flat, even boring, especially after all the hype that preceded it. Maybe it was wrong to expect that Mr Obama could hit the emotional highs of his memorial speech in Tucson during this week's state-of the union message to Congress. The former was a genuinely cathartic performance following a shocking event. The address in the House of Representatives felt as if it had been written by a committee with too much time on its hands. It may have achieved its aim of helping to reposition Mr Obama as a man of the centre, which is where he will need to be to win re-election, but for precisely that reason it lacked sparkle, courage and originality. Mr Obama ducked all the big questions on entitlement reform and deficit-reduction. That, it seems, must all await a second term, if he wins one.
On foreign affairs, it was largely boilerplate, except for one striking omission: not a single word of encouragement for the stateless Palestinians. Does that mean this president has given up on his much ballyhooed promise to push tirelessly for peace in the Middle East? That would be a dangerous mistake. Officials say they are pressing on, but you have to wonder.
As for America's new "Sputnik moment", the analogy is both inaccurate (for reasons I set out in last week's print column) and unlikely to appeal to a generation whose only memory of Sputnik comes from history books.
Sorry to be underwhelmed. Fireworks lie ahead in the battle of the budget, and the emergence of the Republican presidential wannabes will soon be perking up politics. But to this writer's mind this week's big speech was a damp squib.
(Photo credit: AFP)
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The Arabs and Tunisia's revolution
Will Tunisia's revolution spread?
Jan 16th 2011, 17:52 by Lexington
OF ALL the Arab regimes, Tunisia's seemed like the least likely to succumb to "people's power". But that the Arab world has now seen the popular overthrow of an autocratic government is not entirely surprising. One of the last big things I wrote for The Economist before coming to America as "Lexington" was a special report on the Arab world, which came to the conclusion that beneath the apparent political stagnation a social revolution was already under way. The report, "Waking From Its Sleep", appeared in July 2009, and my accompanying editorial concluded:
Behind the political stagnation of the Arab world a great social upheaval is under way, with far-reaching consequences. In almost every Arab country, fertility is in decline, more people, especially women, are becoming educated, and businessmen want a bigger say in economies dominated by the state. Above all, a revolution in satellite television has broken the spell of the state-run media and created a public that wants the rulers to explain and justify themselves as never before. On their own, none of these changes seems big enough to prompt a revolution. But taken together they are creating a great agitation under the surface. The old pattern of Arab government—corrupt, opaque and authoritarian—has failed on every level and does not deserve to survive. At some point it will almost certainly collapse. The great unknown is when.
That the authoritarian Arab governments are vulnerable and unpopular is easy enough to see. The hard thing to work out is what might take their place. Although it is sometimes assumed that political Islam will thrust itself into the space vacated by secular authoritarians, the appeal of Islamism in most Arab countries has a ceiling, which well-informed analysts in 2009 put at around 20% of the population. Besides, one great prop of the existing regimes (beyond their control of the army and secret police) is that in almost all Arab countries opposition is divided between the secular liberals on one side and Islamists on the other. The Islamists hold the secular liberals in contempt and the secular liberals are afraid that if the Islamists take power it will be "one man, one vote, one time". So the opposition has checkmated itself.
Because the Islamists are relatively weak in Tunisia, it is not clear that what happens as elections for a new government get under way will reveal much about the direction or timing of change elsewhere. If the upshot in Tunisia is violence and chaos, the Tunisian uprising might even retard change in the other countries -- much as the mayhem after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave the notion of American-imposed democracy a bad name. Nonetheless, this will have been a disturbing week for dictators, kings and emirs throughout the Arab world. The idea that Arabs are passive or docile has been thoroughly discredited. And what will take the place of such regimes if they collapse remains anyone's guess.
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The Giffords shooting
The glory of American discourse
Jan 10th 2011, 16:12 by Lexington
I SAID in my first post on the Tucson shooting that if the murderer turned out to be motivated by politics, there would ensue a great debate about the rancour of political discourse in America. It now transpires that Jared Loughner had no intelligible political views, but the debate has erupted anyway. So here's a plea. Let's entertain these two ideas at the same time. (1) Politicians should strive not to be so inflammatory that they incite violence. (2) Though it has its dark side, there is much to admire about political discourse in this country.
Americans take it for granted, but the first thing that strikes a visitor is that this is a country where fundamental questions are constantly aired, argued and litigated over - the size of government and the limits of its power, the meaning of equality under the law, when life begins, you name it.  It is hardly surprising in this protean atmosphere that there should be a good deal of rancour.  But it's unique and invigorating too. It is in fact a breath of fresh air after the soggy centralist consensus that usually prevails in Britain and much of Western Europe. The Englishman in me sometimes misses the sober and authoritative tones of the taxpayer-funded BBC. But he's also excited by the vigour of the highly partisan cable networks. Yes, much of their output is tendentious, unbalanced or downright mendacious. Yet I wonder whether they they don't occasionally conjure up some of the excitement of the polemical 18th-century pamphleteers.
What about the outright bigots, paranoids and conspiracy theorists peddling dangerous nonsense? It would be wonderful if nobody heeded their noxious messages. But, of course, it is unarguable that they must be accorded their first-amendment protections. Driving this kind of discourse underground would probably feed the paranoia and make it far more dangerous.
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Giffords, America and Pakistan
No, America is nothing like Pakistan
Jan 9th 2011, 15:32 by Lexington
FOR all the horror of yesterday's events in Tucson, it's important to keep a sense of proportion. So I must respectfully disagree with my friend and former colleague, Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, who infers from the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords that the political culture of America and Pakistan are on the same trajectory, even though Pakistan is "much, much further down the road of violent intolerance". He says:
Events in both Pakistan and America suggest what happens when you not only disagree with your political opponents – but when you demonise them as enemies of the faith or the nation. At that point, some may conclude that it is legitimate to end the argument with bullets.
Well yes, America could become like Pakistan if people concluded that it was legitimate to settle arguments with bullets. But in America, where guns are plentiful and political and religious feelings intense, the telling thing is that almost no one at all considers political violence to be legitimate. The killings have been met with universal condemnation by ordinary Americans and the whole political class. The violent act of one probably deranged individual doesn't show that America is heading down the same road as Pakistan. And the response to it suggests that the political cultures of the two countries are fundamentally different.
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The shooting in Tucson
Congresswoman Giffords
Jan 8th 2011, 20:45 by Lexington
AS OF this writing, the motive of the person who shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and some of those with her at an event in Tucson is unknown. President Obama said on Saturday afternoon that she had been "gravely wounded" and that others have died. John Boehner, the House speaker, has said that "an attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve". Nonetheless, the question hovering in the background after such tragedies is whether the killer was motivated by politics. Gabrielle Giffords is known as a moderate, pro-business Democrat. She is Jewish, and a proponent of immigration reform in a state where illegal immigration has become an inflammatory issue in recent years. One tea-party group, the Tea Party Nation, has already issued a statement predicting that "the left is going to blame this on the tea-party movement".
The shooting may turn out to have had nothing at all to do with politics. But if it was motivated by politics—domestic politics—there will now ensue a great debate about the sometimes hateful tone of electioneering in America. Without wishing to pre-empt that discussion, is it too much to ask politicians who use apocalyptic language to remember that inflammatory words can have dangerous consequences? I was struck at the swearing-in of the 112th Congress earlier this week by the good grace and cheer of both parties as power was transferred from Democrats to Republicans. It was as if all the rancour of the mid-terms had been turned off like a switch. That's a relatively easy trick for most of the worldly types who fight elections. They know that  besmirching opponents, impugning their motives and and stirring up exaggerated fears about the future are all part of the democratic game. Out in the audience, however, there will sometimes be a credulous soul who never understood that it was a game.
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Looking back to the 1980s
Obama's reading of Reagan
Jan 6th 2011, 16:55 by Lexington
YOU have to wonder whether Barack Obama, for all his high-mindedness and erudition, really spent his holiday in Hawaii ploughing through the nearly 900 pages of the third part of Lou Cannon's trilogy on Reagan. Maybe the fact that the Gipper would have been 100 next month is what propelled the book on to his reading list. Nevertheless, it's delicious to speculate what might have gone through this president's mind as he looked back on that one. I had a go at drawing out some of the similarities and differences in my print column this week. The circumstances of the 1980s were altogether different, of course, as are the political ideologies of the two men. But what struck me most of all was a deep contrast in temperament. Forgive me for crassly quoting my own conclusion:
Perhaps the hardest thing for Mr Obama to accept about Reagan is that Americans warmed to him not just because of what he did but also because of the sort of person he was. Mr Cannon argues that his political magic did not reside only in his happiness and folksy charm. His greatness was that “he carried a shining vision of America inside him.” He had a simple belief that nothing was impossible in America if only government got out of the way. In rejecting the idea of limits, says Mr Cannon, he expressed a core conviction of the nation. Mr Obama does not share this belief, and is perhaps right not to. The idea that nothing is impossible in and for America is an illusion. But Americans have never thanked their presidents for telling them so.
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The new Congess (contd)
Revolving doors and special interests
Jan 5th 2011, 15:09 by Lexington
A SOBERING insight into political change and continuity comes from the Center for Public Integrity. In separate reports on committee chairmanships in the House and Senate you will find all the grim details on revolving doors and ties to special interests. As I said of the plan to read the constitution aloud in the House this week, it's never too late for a civics lesson.
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The new Congess
Reading the constitution
Jan 5th 2011, 14:56 by Lexington
I ADMIT that the sneering liberal in me did not warm to the Republicans' plan to read the whole constitution aloud in the House of Representatives this week. It's a gimmick, no doubt intended in part to bolster the wrong-headed idea that Republicans alone show proper fidelity to the founding documents (see this from the Heritage Foundation). On reflection, however, it's hard to see what harm it can do. It's never too late for a civics lesson, even if you have been elected to Congress. In fact I will probably go and listen for myself ...
Comment (19)
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The 112th Congress
Bracing for the Visigoths
Dec 16th 2010, 13:43 by Lexington
LIKE Rome before it was sacked by the Visigoths, Washington, DC, does not know quite what to expect when the 112th Congress convenes in January and the new Republican majority takes over the House. But as a temporary denizen of the nation's capital I feel a great foreboding. Didn't the Republicans campaign all year "against Washington"? In the eyes of the tea-partiers, isn't this place the moral equivalent of Tolkien's Dark Tower of Barad-dur? To judge by what they say, some incoming Republicans see themselves as descendants of Hercules, sent by outraged voters to clean the filth from the Augean stables. I'm seeking Christmas refuge in London, a capital city whose feral mobs mostly confine their wrath to aristocrats in their Rolls-Royces. But I'll return courageously with more mixed metaphors in January. Meanwhile my last column of the year is here. Happy holidays to all.
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Obama and tax cuts
So who won this week?
Dec 10th 2010, 14:13 by Lexington
EVERYONE has at least one answer. But anyone who still thinks Barack Obama simply "caved" over the Bush tax cuts ought to read Charles Krauthammer's column this morning, in which this unrelenting critic of everything Obama bemoans the president's  "swindle of the year". It is a splenetic confirmation of the gathering consensus that - politics being the art of the possible - the president was quicker than his party to grasp the reality of the new balance of power on Capitol Hill, played a weak hand pretty well, and outwitted his Republican opponents:
In the deal struck this week, the president negotiated the biggest stimulus in American history, larger than his $814 billion 2009 stimulus package. It will pump a trillion borrowed Chinese dollars into the U.S. economy over the next two years - which just happen to be the two years of the run-up to the next presidential election. This is a defeat?
However, a far more interesting, and positive, take on the White House's manouevres comes from my former colleague, John Heilemann, who argues in the New York Magazine that this was the pivotal week of Mr Obama's presidency, less because he outwitted the Republicans than because he has at last asserted himself against the Democrats in Congress, to whom he had so far deferred excessively. The congressional Democrats, he says,
are primarily to blame for putting Obama in the position where he had to make the trade he did. Although the White House didn’t push the matter hard, the president is correct when he says that he preferred to see Congress deal with the tax-cut extension issue in the fall, before the midterms, in which all but certain Republican gains might rob him of his negotiating leverage (as they did). Congressional Democrats, however, were fearful of taking a controversial tax vote in the heat of an election season. Out of sheer cowardice, they postponed that vote until the lame-duck session — and now they are whining about an unpalatable situation of their own creation.
In essence, John argues, the president's news conference amounted to
a declaration that he is divorcing himself politically from the congressional wing of his party. On background, White House aides were thrilled with the performance, believing that it began the process of establishing their preferred leitmotif for the months ahead: that in a town full of petulant and posturing adolescents, the president will stand as the presiding adult.
It's an excellent piece. Read the whole article here. Furthermore, with the president now putting the case for comprehensive reform of the tax code, and the Republicans striking odious positions on the DREAM act and DADT (Don't Ask, Don't Tell), Mr Obama now has every hope of repositioning himself in the centre of politics, from where he stands a far better chance of re-election in 2012. This was, admittedly, a terrible week for those who worry about the deficit. But (provided of course that he can get the deal through) it was not a bad one for the president.
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Republican opinion-formers
The top ten Republican thinkers
Dec 6th 2010, 17:34 by Lexington
MODERATE voices in the Republican Party aren't reaching the grassroots, or so it seems from the results of a poll by ConservativeHome.com, seeking to discover which pundits will most influence party activists as presidential candidates for 2012 emerge. The poll gives Rush Limbaugh the number one spot and Glenn Beck the second. Here's the full list:
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The next Congress
John Boehner and the tea parties
Dec 6th 2010, 15:26 by Lexington
FLOUNDERING in their vale of tears, the Democrats in Congress are desperate to grasp any straw available. One of their big hopes is that the mid-term electoral successes of the tea-party movement will create a split in Congress between the incoming tea-leaning Republicans and the Republican establishment, exemplified for many by John Boehner, who will be the House speaker. For that reason the New Yorker's 8,000-plus word profile of Mr Boehner is going to be pored over for clues as to whether he will be able to manage his potentially unruly caucus. The article does not start by holding out much hope for Democrats. It claims that Mr Boehner was in fact one of the first senior Republicans to understand the scope of the tea-party rebellion. After attending a tea-party rally in April 2009 he drew the appropriate conclusion:
While many Democrats and the mainstream media mocked the Tea Party, Boehner pressed his members to get out in front of the movement or, at least, get out of its way. “I urge you to get in touch with these efforts and connect with them,” he told a closed-door meeting of the Republican Conference. “The people participating in these protests will be the soldiers for our cause a year from now."
But Democrats who skip to the piece's conclusion may be cheered. The tea-partyers are adamant that Obamacare must be repealed, or at least (as the president has a veto) blocked or defunded. Since an old hand like Mr Boehner knows how difficult that will be, here is where the new speaker and the tea-partyers may indeed have to part company.
One approach is to hold committee hearings that would expose the health-care law to a trial by oversight, so thoroughly revealing its flaws that Republicans could try for full repeal near the end of the session. Meanwhile, there would be revisions around the margins—a repeal, for example, of the much reviled requirement, tucked into the health-care bill, that businesses file 1099 forms for every contractual transaction over six hundred dollars. This is the approach that Boehner is believed to favor. The Tea Partiers want full repeal, now. Representative Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota, a stalwart of the Tea Party caucus, told the conservative news outlet CNS last week, “If they”—the Party leaders—“decide they’re going to cave, or go weak in the knees, you will see members of Congress that will stand up against our leadership, because we’re going to stand with the people on this issue.”
Well, it's a straw.
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The funny things people believe
Jimmy Carter, parapsychology and sniffer dogs
Dec 2nd 2010, 14:41 by Lexington
MY INVALUABLE friend the Liberal Curmudgeon argues that the faith people continue to put in polygraph tests and sniffer dogs is not much crazier than the former president's belief in the paranormal.
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Islam and the tea parties
Islam, bombers and the tea parties
Nov 28th 2010, 15:20 by Lexington
Q.  If you become an American citizen, will your son grow up to become an Islamist terrorist?
A.   Curses, you infidel hound: you've confounded my dastardly plot.
I've done my best to be fair to the tea parties and explain that there is more to them than the bigotry on the movement's fringes that liberal critics highlight. But at least one tea-party organisation, the Nashville-based Tea Party Nation, at whose opening convention Sarah Palin and Tom Tancredo were keynote speakers, keeps pumping out odious gibberish about Islam and immigration. Its latest mailing, about the would-be bomber apprehended in Portland, Oregon, is ridiculous on so many levels that I don't think there's any need to spell them out to Economist readers.
Why is this guy even in the country?    The media has reported that he is a naturalized citizen, but why was he here to begin with?  None of the media stories, nor any online sources explain how he ended up in the United States.  This begs the question of our immigration system. The tradition of immigration has been that people came to America to be Americans.  In generations past, immigrants to America would not even let their kids speak their native languages at home, because they wanted to them to be Americans.  Now, the government encourages and aids the lack of fluency in English.  People can now live in this country for decades and not learn English.One of the requirements almost every other country has, is if you want to emigrate to that country, is that the immigrant have skills that contribute to the new country and more importantly they want to become a part of their new country.In America, just the opposite is true.  Not only do we not close our borders, but also we make a special effort to bring people into this country who not only do not want to be Americans, but actually hate this country.Last year, Congress, at the behest of the Obama regime appropriated over $20 million for the relocation of Hamas supporters from Palestine to America.   Yes, that is Hamas, the terrorist group.  We are importing Islamic terrorists to this country and paying them to come.When conservatives take over the government in 2013, there will be so much to do.  One of the most important things we must do is fix our insane immigration system.  That includes, not only securing the border, but also changing the criteria by which people come to this country.
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START and Iran
START is no distraction
Nov 26th 2010, 15:32 by Lexington
HOW sad that the present mood of hyper-partisanship is destroying serious commentary on national security. Take this anti-Obama diatribe from Charles Krauthammer in the  Washington Post:
The worst thing about this treaty, however, is that it is simply a distraction. It gives the illusion of doing something about nuclear danger by addressing a non-problem, Russia, while doing nothing about the real problem - Iran and North Korea. The utter irrelevance of New START to nuclear safety was dramatically underscored last week by the revelation of that North Korean uranium enrichment plant, built with such sophistication that it left the former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory "stunned." It could become the ultimate proliferation factory. Pyongyang is already a serial proliferator. It has nothing else to sell. Iran, Syria and al-Qaeda have the money to buy.
If you believe this "irrelevant distraction" argument you have to believe (a) that America should do only one thing at any time and (b) that START had nothing to do with the "reset" in relations between the United States and Russia, both of which propositions are palpable nonsense. And the reset in relations was plainly one reason why Russia agreed to UN Security Council resolution 1929, which among other things clamps a ban on sales of sophisticated weaponry and related kit to Iran. On the strength of the resolution, Russia itself cancelled the sale of the crucial S300 air-defence missile to Iran. I'm pretty sure Mr Krauthammer understands these linkages. But balance and nuance appear to have been banished from columns like his.
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What's so special about America?
American exceptionalism: the Palin version
Nov 24th 2010, 13:42 by Lexington
I HAVE already had my say about American politicians' habit of prating on ad nauseam about their country's "exceptionalism". And though I wasn't surprised to find plenty of that in Sarah Palin's new book, I was sorry to come across this:
Astonishingly, President Obama even said that he believes in American exceptionalism in the same way "the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism". Which is to say, he doesn't believe in American exceptionalism at all. He seems to think it is just a kind of irrational prejudice in favour of our way of life. To me that is appalling.
In point of fact, Mr Obama's remarks have been repeatedly ripped out of context by commentators on the right. For a comprehensive account of what he actually said, see this from Andrew Sullivan.
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President Obama and Palestine
Is America bribing Bibi or blackmailing him?
Nov 15th 2010, 0:51 by Lexington
THE way the New York Times reports it, you might think that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are treating Israel's prime minister with more solicitude than he deserves. If he will only agree to freeze Israeli settlement building in the West Bank for another 90 days, it seems, America will provide all sorts of goodies: advanced jet fighters, a commitment to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge, diplomatic protection in the United Nations Security Council and much more. The pampering is almost unseemly, some (including the Palestinians) might say.
Israeli officials said the planes, worth some $3 billion, were part of an American commitment to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge. They would be provided if the 90-day freeze were agreed but irrespective of a final signed deal with the Palestinians. Other, even more far-reaching security guarantees, were still being discussed and would be contingent on successful peace talks.Palestinian leaders objected to the fact that any settlement construction freeze would not include East Jerusalem, which they want as their future capital. They also oppose any freeze that ends before the negotiations end as this one surely would.
But isn't there another way of looking at this supposed "incentive"? Until this weekend, most people assumed that Israel enjoyed an unconditional American promise to maintain its military edge, and a nearly unconditional promise to support it in the United Nations. Now it seems that President Obama is making the continuation of some of these things conditional  on Israel's acceptance of a three-month settlement freeze, during which Israel will be pressed to agree final borders with a putative Palestinian state in the West Bank. That could be construed as a less confrontational, and more subtle, but no less effective version of the way George Bush senior forced a reluctant Yitzhak Shamir to the 1991 Madrid peace conference by withholding loan guarantees. Maybe, just maybe, the Obama peace push in Palestine has stronger legs than jaded onlookers have realised.
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