Friday, April 16, 2004


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By William Fisher

Post 9/11, the cliché de jour became the failure of the US intelligence community to “connect the dots.” Now, President’s Bush’s policy shift regarding Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan suggests that the US is again unable to connect the dots.

There are five main dots.

Dot One. One might hope that President Bush would have learned some lessons from his current dilemma regarding ‘handing over sovereignty’ in Iraq. But he evidently did not. For there is every likelihood that governance in Gaza will face a similar problem of legitimacy after the Israeli withdrawal. It may become a power vacuum ‘black hole’ when the Israelis pull out. Or it may be ruled by an unholy alliance of a thoroughly discredited Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Either scenario can inspire only deep apprehension.

Dot 2. President Bush continues to exhort the Arabs to play a bigger role in Iraq, despite opposition to this war by virtually every Middle Eastern country. Does the Sharon deal make their participation more or less likely?

Dot 3. Mr. Bush presses on with his Greater Middle East Initiative, a plan to ‘bring democracy’ to the autocracies and dictatorships of the neighborhood. The Arab Middle East has roundly rejected the Bush Initiative as a neo-colonial effort to impose reforms externally. They reasonably complain that they were never consulted. Is the Sharon decision likely to make them more receptive?

Dot 4. In Mr. Bush’s ‘roadmap’ for Israeli-Palestinian peace, such issues as Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and Palestinians’ ‘right of return’ were supposed to be negotiated by the two parties, with the US as ‘honest broker’.. US displeasure with Israeli settlements has been a staple of American policy for more than 20 years, though the administration is widely perceived abroad to favor Israel over the Palestinians. With a single action, Mr. Bush has confirmed that perception and given away two of the Palestinians’ major bargaining chips.

Dot 5. The US is fighting a global war against terrorists. This is a war that cannot be won by the US acting alone. It needs help, lots of help. And much of this help has by definition to come from the countries that have spawned this generation of jihadists in the first place. Most of these countries are in the Middle East. Did the Bush administration consider the impact of its Sharon deal on America’s top priority?

These five issues are indivisible, but are being treated by the Bush administration as separate and unrelated. The President and many others in the US Government have bravely portrayed Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza as a positive step in the roadmap. The Bush administration even managed to convince Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that Israel’s proposed unilateral action could be a net plus for the Palestinians, and got the aging Egyptian leader to offer to train the Palestinian police.

But the price of Mr. Mubarak’s heading home empty-handed is likely to return to bite Mr. Bush in the very near future. Mr. Mubarak is a big hitter among the 22 Arab states that are members of the gravely dysfunctional Arab League. This impotent organization has long used the Palestinian-Israeli issue as a rhetorical blunt object; warning that nothing in the Middle East can show progress while this running sore festers. The Arabs have done little to help resolve this issue, and they are now likely to do even less. Mr. Bush’s action will serve only to raise the Arab decibel level and give them another generation to use this issue as cover for their lack of development and political will.

Messrs. Bush and Sharon each have domestic political reasons to reach an agreement, with the US presidential election less than eight months away and Sharon's Likud Party due to vote soon on his strategy of disengaging from the Palestinians. Mr. Bush’s decision may well help him win more Jewish votes in November. But he is likely to pay an unacceptably high cost to many of his other plans and dreams. And so will the United States.

Connect the dots, Mr. Bush!

Monday, April 12, 2004


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By William Fisher

Over the past year or two, we have been bombarded with chatter about the political and social reforms taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. We have been given endless illustrations of changes that have been implemented, but also told that (a) change must come from within and (b) change will come slowly. There can be little argument with the ‘from within’ part. But the ‘slowly’ part needs to be questioned. The question is: when does ‘slowly’ become a farce?

Those who defend the current pace of change cite numerous reasons, principally ‘cultural’ considerations, the US invasion of Iraq, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and the need to stop terrorists. But I submit that these are largely straw men. For the most part, the ‘cultural’ considerations constraining reform have been created by the area’s kings and presidents. Most of the countries in the area live under so-called ‘emergency laws’ that give their governments sweeping powers to arrest and detain citizens without charge, stifle dissent, and disband political parties. What we hear is that ending these draconian laws would unleash a torrent of rhetorical and physical violence that would engulf the region. But to be fearful of rhetoric is to be fearful of freedom. And well-trained and non-corrupt police departments can be trained to deal with physical violence. As to stopping terrorists, it is questionable whether these laws have any effect whatever. Terrorists expect to operate outside the law. Catching them should be the work of intelligence experts and law enforcement.

The history of these laws leads to one conclusion only: they are intended to preserve the power of those who already have it. And that is the problem with the ‘slowly’ part of the equation.

The fact is that Middle East and North African rulers fear their people. They worry that, given more civil and political freedoms, the people would rise up and seize power. But how would they know? Most of them have never asked their people for anything save supine obedience, so have no reason to trust their judgment or love of country. The result of this deep-seated suspicion is that the gulf between the governors and the governed has become a chasm, and – despite a few largely cosmetic ‘reforms’ -- is getting wider. It is a sort of ‘separate but unequal’ doctrine.

Last year, a group of Arab scholars worked with the United Nations Development Programme to prepare The Arab Development Report – without question a historic inside-out piece of work. This remarkable document posited two basic requirements for sound governance: transparency and accountability. The rulers of Arab nations can demonstrate neither. The process of governance in the region is incredible opaque. And most of those in power are publicly accountable to no one.

What is the state of reform in the key Arab states?

In Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s first human rights organization recently won Royal approval; the government has promised municipal elections, opened a reform dialogue with leading intellectuals, arrested several thousand radical clergy, and introduced changes to its education and religious institutions, which promote an austere version of Sunni Islam. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has created an Advisory Working Group to study the major challenges facing the kingdom, including the implementation of municipal elections, with full voting rights granted to women. But the Saudis recently arrested eight of its intellectuals for signing a petition urging the government to provide a timetable for reforms. According to the official Saudi Press Agency, the signatories’ actions did not “serve national unity or the cohesion of society based on Islamic Sharia law.''

Egypt and Morocco have also formed human rights committees, attached to their governments, promising independent action, but lacking any enforcement authority. Egypt’s human rights group is headed by former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Gali, a Coptic Christian. Boutros-Gali surprised many observers by calling for repeal of Egypt’s Emergency Laws. President Hosni Mubarak has talked of a wide-ranging reform agenda, starting with a promise to stop jailing journalists.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II has pledged to transform kingdom into the "model of a democratic Arab Islamic state" that can serve as an example to other Middle East nations. He has abolished the Information Ministry that enforced censorship and put more women into government, but broader public freedoms are still lacking.

Syria has done next to nothing in the reform area. President Bashir Assad, who took office when his father died in 2000, initially took limited steps to loosen Syria from the totalitarian system he inherited. He released hundreds of political detainees and initially allowed political discussion groups to hold small gatherings indoors. But in 2001, Assad’s police began to clamp down on pro-democracy activists. Recently, Syrian police dispersed and then arrested a small group of protestors seeking repeal of the so-called Emergency Laws in force since 1963.

In North Africa, Tunisia has made negligible political progress since President Ben Ali seized power in 1987. Since then, he has had himself re-elected three times, on each occasion claiming more than 99 percent of the vote. He recently pushed through constitutional changes that would allow him to remain in power through 2014. According to Human Rights Watch, Tunisia’s record in the human rights area is appalling. Algeria, a multiparty state with an elected parliament and president, has created a ‘mechanism’ to try to discover what happened to the thousands of ‘disappeared’ citizens. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI appoints the prime minister and members of the government following legislative elections, but can fire any minister, dissolve parliament, call for new elections, or rule by decree.

Arab leaders feel the West fails to understand the problems they face in attempting to improve governance. Most of them opposed the US Greater Middle East Initiative as a neo-colonialist measure designed to impose democracy from outside. Many Arab leaders continue to blame their problems on the US invasion of Iraq and failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. According to a recent editorial in the Jordan Times, “The continuation of conflicts in the Middle East, especially the Arab-Israeli deadlock and the Iraqi occupation, leads to radicalization of the entire region and makes the endeavors to reform it that much more difficult. The rise of political violence and even terrorism is directly linked to these festering conflicts and without security and stability, no political and economic reforms can be pursued with much success…” On the other hand, some Middle East observers feel that Arab leaders have conveniently hidden behind the Israeli-Palestinian issue for years to justify their inaction in reform.

But the Arab reform issue predates Iraq and even the Palestinian intifida. For example, had the Arab League not cancelled its meeting in Tunis last month, one of its agenda items would have been consideration of several amendments to strengthen the 1994 Arab Charter on Human Rights. However, no Arab state has ever ratified the 1994 Charter.

Despite this sorry record, the rulers of the Middle East would do well to re-read the Arab Development Report. That report identifies knowledge, freedom and women’s empowerment as the most serious challenges to development. It notes that the whole Arab world translates only 300 books annually; 65 million Arab adults, including half the women, are illiterate; only 1.6 percent of the Arab population has Internet access; 14 million Arab adults do not make enough money to buy even the most basic necessities; steep population increases in many Arab countries mean that as many as 50 million more Arab workers will enter the job market in the next eight years, looking for very few jobs; and other advancements in communications, transportation, health and educational opportunities have yet to reach large percentages of the people of the Greater Middle East. It contends that this predicament contributes to the misunderstanding and prejudice that in turn leads to violence.

Enter Islam. Contrary to widely held beliefs in the West, it is not Islam that breeds terrorists. It is the juxtaposition of some radical clergy, mosques and religious schools with the poverty, hunger, deprivation and frustration of ordinary people that facilitates their exploitation by an extremist misinterpretation of Islam.

These are challenging problems. But they are problems governments are expected to address. And most of these are governments that have received and can expect to continue to receive massive assistance from multilateral and bilateral donors. The world has shown it is prepared to help. What is needed now is not continued repression but help from the recipients of this assistance – and their people.

But the people have little incentive, let alone opportunity, to help. There are few parts of the world plagued by such a pervasive combination of frustration and resignation about the inevitability of the status quo. The have-nots in these societies are without hope. Yet hope is the biggest incentive of all, and it is the job of political leadership to inspire it. However, hope cannot be inspired by rhetoric alone; it must be accompanied by action, by demonstrable change. To most of the ‘Arab Street’, the modest ‘reforms’ adopted thus far are meaningless.

Isn’t it time the leaders of the Arab nations decided to test the will, the energy, and the innovativeness of their people? They could well be surprised by the national benefits of what many of them regard as a high-risk strategy.

Friday, April 09, 2004


The following was written for the April 7 edition of The Daily Star, Beirut, by the newspaper’s Executive Editor.

By Rami G. Khouri

Three important dynamics taking place before our eyes these
days revolve around American government perceptions of the
world that also impact on the lives of billions of people
around the globe. It is urgent to correctly diagnose and
appropriately respond to the issues involved, especially in
view of the expanding terrorism threats in Europe and the
upsurge in violent clashes in Iraq.

The three issues I refer to are the internal American review
of how the George W. Bush administration in its early days
responded to the threat of terror by Al-Qaeda, the
American-led global response to terror after Sept. 11, 2001,
and this week's American response to Shiite leader Moqtada
al-Sadr and other forms of anti-American defiance or
resistance in Iraq.

The common thread that runs through these three issues is how
the United States perceives and engages the rest of the world.
The US's global perception and engagement were relatively
consistent for the half century of the Cold War, but became
more complex after 1990, when the US emerged as the dominant
global power and it could project its power anywhere in the
world virtually unchecked. The first Bush administration
unleashed that force in order to reverse the 1990 Iraqi
occupation of Kuwait. A decade later, the George W. Bush
administration and its neoconservative ideologists transformed
the opportunity of American global power projection into an
operative policy. Responding to the attacks of Sept. 11 made
this transformation politically possible, both at home in the
US and with cooperative governments around the world. But what
have been the cost and consequence of this policy?

The debate about how the Bush team viewed the terror threat in
1990 is history and the potential consequences of clashes in
Iraq this week will become clear in the period ahead. At this
delicate juncture, therefore, we can gain the most from
analyzing the third of these dynamics - how the US responded
to terror after Sept. 11, and what impact this response has
had. The initial assessment does not look very good, given the
literal and figurative explosion of terror attacks and plots
around the world. The recent successful and thwarted attacks
against train systems in Europe are especially troublesome,
for they indicate the widening range of terrorists' targets,
including Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia,
Spain, Germany, France and other countries. The threats
against civilians around the world - not just in the US - are
much greater now than they were three years ago, as the
terrorists seem to become more diffused, decentralized,
localized and thus much harder to stop.

Was this inevitable? Could it have been avoided? Or is this
precisely what Osama bin Laden and his kind wanted to achieve?
My own sense is that after Sept. 11, the US government wasted
a historic opportunity. It could and should have rallied a
global coalition to fight injustice and violent extremism,
through a multi-pronged strategy that simultaneously addressed
the root economic, political and social causes of terror and
also used police actions to curtail its practical, criminal
expression of bombings. US President George W. Bush and his
ideologues walked right into the trap that Osama bin Laden set
for them, by giving bin Laden the war he sought to ignite. The
global "war against terror" that Bush initiated after Sept. 11
is slowly looking more like simply a "global war" between the
forces of terror and the forces of anti-terror.

It is important to go back and assess how we reached this
point, because more or less the same people - or at least the
same sort of mentalities - on both sides now confront each
other in a more limited arena in Iraq. They both use the
weapons and emotional fuel of anger, bombs, resentment,
missiles, fear, helicopter gun-ships and suicide bombers. It
would be catastrophic for all if events in Iraq were allowed
to be driven by the same violent extremism that the terrorists
bring to the table, or by the immoderate ideology and faulty
policy that has seen Washington transform a legitimate war
against terror into an indiscriminate and unnecessary global

In retrospect, it seems that in responding to Sept. 11,
Washington made serious mistakes on the three critical levels
of diagnosis, strategy and policy on the ground. First it
badly misdiagnosed the nature and causes of terror, and the
reasons why ordinary men and women become active terrorists
who kill innocent civilians. The terror phenomenon has plagued
the world for millennia. In almost every historical case we
can carefully unravel the rhetoric and actions of the bombers
in order to understand what motivated them, and, more
importantly, why they stopped being terrorists at one point.
This was not done with any seriousness or credibility in the
case of Al-Qaeda-vintage terrorism.

Second, Washington almost certainly misinterpreted the
motivations, operational methods and aims of Al-Qaeda and
allied groups, and its response was therefore probably
distorted and not consistently effective. The response may
have even increased and stimulated global terror - not
thwarted it. Washington's main mistake was to view Al-Qaeda
through the same prism with which it viewed Cold War
communists, the only adversary it has known for half a
century. Washington identified an enemy that may not exist - a
centrally organized, globally operational ideology that sought
to undermine and overwhelm the American way of life. The
American strategy to fight terror may have been based on a
faulty, even fictitious, foundation from day one. This is
incompetence on an award-winning scale.

Third, Washington launched a global war against terror that
has relied on military and political means that have had mixed
results. Many terrorists have been arrested or killed and
their networks disrupted, but terrorism has also become a much
more active, widespread, and dangerous phenomenon. This is
almost certainly because the preponderance of military means
to fight terror does not work, and often has the opposite
effect of inciting ordinary men and women to become
terrorists. This may be happening on a global scale, has
certainly happened in the Palestinian response to Israel's
reliance on military power, and seems to be happening in Iraq
in response to the American military force.

The world should not have to pay the price as it watches these
mistakes being made over and over by the same mindsets, but in
different countries. The legitimate battle against terrorism
must be waged in a more intelligent and effective manner. The
Bush team has gone to war on the back of a dysfunctional and
misguided combination of faulty perceptions, wrong diagnoses,
inappropriate strategy and counterproductive tactics. Rarely
in world history has such immense power been so poorly used,
or has a reservoir of global goodwill to a single country -
the United States - been so mercilessly squandered.


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Editorial from the April 8 edition of Arab News, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

American policy in Iraq is running deeper and deeper into
trouble. Coalition forces are not only going head to head with
insurgents in the so-called Sunni Triangle, of which Fallujah
is a major part, but they have also vowed to destroy the
10,000 Shiite militia loyal to the fugitive cleric Moqtada
Sadr. Though the insurgents may represent extreme views within
their own communities, moderate Iraqi opinion will be
alienated as the US and its allies try to crush them. We have
already seen the deaths of innocent civilians, either in
cross-fires or apparently because of missiles from US
helicopter gunships. A year after Saddam’s regime ended,
ordinary Iraqis will not accept the same number of collateral
casualties of that original conflict. George W. Bush promised
them peace and security, power, water, hospitals, education.
Most of those promises have not been kept and suddenly the
country is being plunged again into widespread violence.
Even if Coalition forces are successful in the present battles
in Fallujah against Moqtada Sadr’s insurgents, there will be
no lasting victory. Others will come forward to replace those
who are slain and public support for them will grow. Iraqis,
who once placed their faith in Washington, are now despairing.
In times of uncertainty, people understandably turn to their
immediate communities for support. They will abandon the lofty
sentiments of a pluralist, multiethnic united Iraq. The
prospect of civil conflict is now more real than at any time
since Saddam’s ouster.

It didn’t have to be this way. Had America been more informed
and more sensitive to the complexities and subtleties of Iraqi
society, it could probably have avoided what has become its
growing failure. Unfortunately Bush’s overweening confidence
in the rightness of his solution, coupled with a misplaced
certainty in the effectiveness of America’s massive military
power, always promised disaster.

The Iraqi people, for whose future American lives and money
are being spent, are now calling Washington the enemy. In the
face of this perceived ingratitude, the view will grow that
America should leave these thankless people to their own
devices. If such a policy is adopted, what is happening in
Iraq will be transformed from a disaster into a major

There might yet be salvation in a dominant role for the United
Nations. At least Iraqis might feel they were talking to
people more aware and more schooled in conflict resolution and
nation building. In order for the UN to return and take over,
however, would still require massive international military
support. That can only come from Russia, France and Germany
and the anti-war countries which Bush snubbed before the war.
Such a humiliation for America would be disastrous for his
re-election bid.


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By William Fisher

The plan presented recently by the foreign policy dean of the US Senate, Republican Richard Lugar, represents a refreshing and thoughtful alternative to the Bush Administration’s Greater Middle East Initiative. The Bush plan has been found unacceptable by virtually all Arab governments, who see it as a neo-colonial attempt by the US to impose political reform from outside the region. Lugar’s plan addresses this concern by proposing that Middle East Arab states become full partners with the G-8 nations in a way that “allows the nations of the region to set their own priorities for the new millennium” – including helping to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict though a trusteeship managed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Lugar’s Greater Middle East Twenty First Century Trust would unite the G-8 countries (the US, Canada, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy) with wealthy donor countries in the Greater Middle East. Donors would “pool resources to deliver grants and would work together to define the funding criteria based, in part, on the high priority needs identified in the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Reports, which were written by Arab scholars. Vigorous two-way interaction between donors and recipients is vital: change cannot be imposed from the outside.”

To address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Lugar plan would expand the ‘Quartet’ currently directing the peace process -- the US, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations --into a “Sextet” by adding Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which would control the Palestinian territories under an international trusteeship. “This trusteeship”, he said, “would provide enhanced security for both Palestinians and Israelis; it could restructure the Palestinian security services, and lead a reform of the Palestinians’ failed institutions. It would turn back sovereignty at the appropriate time... (inclusion of Arab states) would give them a role in what they themselves claim is at the core of many of their own problems.”

The Lugar initiative draws heavily on the findings of the 2003 UN Arab Human Development Report. The Report, prepared by a group of Arab scholars under the aegis of the United Nations Development Programme, identifies knowledge, freedom and women’s empowerment as the most serious challenges to development. It says that the whole Arab world translates only 300 books annually, 65 million Arab adults, including half of the women, are illiterate, and only 1.6 percent of the Arab population has Internet access. It contends that this isolation contributes to the misunderstanding and prejudice that leads to violence, and that other advancements in communications, transportation, health and educational opportunities have yet to reach large percentages of the people of the Greater Middle East. It notes that fourteen million Arab adults do not make enough money to buy even the most basic necessities. Steep population increases in many Arab countries mean that as many as 50 million more Arab workers will enter the job market in the next eight years.

Lugar acknowledges that “It will be a challenge to convince (Arab nations ) to join the Trust as partners in a process that will require them to make…fundamental changes.” He says “that’s why the Trust will seek to engage all elements of societies. The Arab Human Development Report calls on the state, civil society, cultural and mass media institutions, enlightened intellectuals and the public at large to plant those values that encourage action and innovation in the political, social and economic sphere.”

He is also aware that “achieving the kind of regional transformation we seek will require many steps over a long period of time. The first step, before deciding WHAT change is necessary, must be for the leaders and the people of the Greater Middle East to agree, through vigorous and open debate among themselves and across the region, that change IS necessary. This reform in attitude cannot be imposed from outside, it must be generated from within the region, across national boundaries. And it must be seen in the context of people taking charge of their own futures.”

Some observers have characterized Sen. Lugar’s initiative as his ‘audition’ for Secretary of State. Perhaps. But the United States could do far worse. For many years, Lugar has been highly respected by both Democrats and Republicans as the wisest and most thoughtful foreign policy voice in the US Senate. His work on anti-WMD proliferation continues to make the world demonstrably safer. As Secretary, he would likely be comfortable with either George W. Bush or John Kerry – perhaps even helping to bring back the days of Democratic President Harry Truman when, as Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg said, “politics stops at the water’s edge”. That was the era that brought the world the Marshall Plan. Finally, Lugar has for years shown he is prepared to put politics aside, question the policies and conventional wisdom of his own party, and stand up to its leaders when he thinks they are wrong.

So even if the timing of Sen Lugar’s proposal suggests he is doing a kind of dress rehearsal for the State Department – and attempting to preempt the many other aspirants for this arguably thankless job -- his ideas deserve the most careful exploration.

Their implementation, however, would face huge challenges. Would the wealthier Arab states be willing to partner with the G-8? Would they feel they would really be full partners, or ‘window dressing’ to provide an appearance of legitimacy? The governments of the Greater Middle East are divided about virtually everything; can they now agree on a country-by-country agenda and timetable for reform? And actually implement it? Does the West have the patience to embrace the slow, evolutionary approach proposed by the Arabs?

Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue is an even thornier problem. For decades, Arab governments have been the Palestinians’ ‘rhetorical allies’, but most have made no real effort to resolve this intractable problem. Would they now be prepared to put their money where their speechwriters have been? How would the Palestinians react to Trusteeship? Who would the Sextet negotiate with -- the PLO and Mr. Arafat? Hamas? How would Israel feel about the idea of Trusteeship for the Palestinian territories, and its management by two Arab countries, one of which does not recognize Israel? What would be Israel’s role in reaching solutions? Would the US have the political will to exercise maximum leverage on Israel? And on and on.

Yet if the United States is be a credible change agent in the Middle East, there are few people as well equipped as Mr. Lugar – by experience, knowledge and temperament – to lead the US effort – regardless of who gets elected in November.