Monday, September 20, 2004


By William Fisher

Last week, President Bush talked with one of his staunchest supporters, the Manchester (NH) Union-Leader, about the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) he received in July containing a classified warning predicting that the best case for Iraq was "tenuous stability" and the worst case was civil war.

"The Iraqis are defying the dire predictions of a lot of people by moving toward democracy," Bush told the paper, adding: “I'm pleased with the progress. Don't get me wrong. It's hard because there are some in Iraq who want to disrupt the election and disrupt the march to democracy, which should speak to their fear of freedom."

Thus we voters are presented with yet another dilemma. Should we believe the authors of the NIE – the same people who produced the slam-dunk intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction? Or should we believe the president, whose Administration told us our troops would be greeted as ‘liberators’, and that flowers would fill the barrels of our guns?

Both would seem to have serious credibility problems.

Except that the NIE has some powerful evidence the president chooses to ignore: what is actually happening on the ground.

The most reliable evidence coming out of Iraq is that what’s happening on the ground is that the country is sliding toward anarchy.

Reconstruction money can’t be spent because contractors can’t work while they’re being shot at. Volunteers for the Iraqi police and the Iraqi National Guard are unable to join up because they are being blown to bits by suicide car bombers. As a result, Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have had to significantly scale back their original optimistic estimates of progress -- now they say 95,000 Iraqi forces are equipped and trained -- less than half the 200,000 US officials previously said they had already trained. But not a single recruit has completed the full 24 weeks of training, and their performance under fire has been less than spectacular.

Entire parts of the country are no-go areas for both Iraqi and US-Coalition forces. The perilous situation in Najaf and Kufa was resolved not by Iraqi or US or Coalition forces, but by the country’s leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (though Prime Minister Allawi did his best to spin this as his own personal victory).

Falluja remains off-limits to both Iraqi and US forces, and there is little evidence that repeated air strikes on that city have produced results other than the ‘collateral damage’ of innocent people getting killed.

It is unlikely that Iraq will be able to establish enough security for elections to go forward in January. Those mandated to monitor those elections – the United Nations – have made it clear they will not return to have their headquarters or staffers blown up a second time.

Meanwhile, more than a thousand US troops have lost their lives, and more than 7,000 have been wounded. And counting.

The president’s response to all this reminds us of Lyndon Johnson during the worst of the Vietnam war. Johnson insisted on ‘whistling past the graveyard’ as US forces sank ever-deeper into that quagmire. He insisted we were winning, when every rational shred of evidence told us we were losing.

Senator Kerry does not offer us much more of a plan. He still talks about ‘internationalizing’ the forces in Iraq, when there is zero chance any of the great powers of the world are prepared put bulls-eyes on the backs of their young men and women. On Thursday, candidate Kerry told members of the National Guard Association of the United States meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, that Bush knows "the mission in Iraq is in serious trouble."

"That is the truth, as hard as it is to bear," Kerry said. "I believe you deserve a president who isn't going to gild that truth or gild our national security with politics, who is not going to ignore his own intelligence, who isn't going to live in a different world of spin, who will give the American people the truth, not a fantasy world of spin." Kerry said he would bring in more allies to help train Iraqi forces so that US troops could come home.

Both Kerry and Bush continue to tell us it’s not too late to turn things around. But neither has told us of a plan, an idea, a strategy, to do that.

The American people deserve better.


By William Fisher

Western women who are frustrated by the ‘glass ceiling’ – listen up: In Saudi Arabia, the ceiling is made of steel!

In February, if not postponed yet again, Saudi Arabia will have its first-ever municipal elections. But in this first tiny step toward more representative governance, women won’t be allowed to run for office.

Although they played a significant role in pressing for these elections, Saudi writer Maha Al-Hujailan says women in the Kingdom are considered “mere appendages of men without an independent identity.“

She adds: “The exclusion of women from political activities amounts to legitimizing a dangerous mentality founded on the notion that women have only a marginal, or no, role in nation building…The absence of women’s voices in the municipal election will undoubtedly have a negative impact on social development…By supporting an ideology based on sexist concepts, the whole society stands to lose an opportunity for a great social transformation with far-reaching consequences.”

Dr. Suhaila Zein-Al Abedeen of the Kingdom’s National Committee for Human Rights says that voting and running for office is a right of all women in Islam. She points out, “women are directly involved in municipal affairs and sometimes suffer more than men from bad service. For example, lack of water, sewage problems and electricity cuts impact women more than men since they are at home and have to deal with the resulting problems.”

Women, she says, “are perfectly capable of public work. If not, why do we waste millions of riyals on women’s education? Saudi women are as aware and capable of participating in the elections as men are.”

The first Saudi woman to announce her intention to run in the elections, Nadia Bakhurji, says her agenda is ready. An engineer, she says that since her announcement to run, she has received many expressions of support.

“I was optimistic about my decision, but now I am disappointed to hear that women will be excluded. It is a huge mistake to exclude us from this process; women can add value and they have a great deal to contribute.”

At the same time, she concedes that breaking barriers takes time. She says she will offer her agenda to any candidate who is willing to adopt it, and suggests that if women cannot be involved directly in the elections, they could form a think-tank to supply other candidates.

Abeer Mishkhas and Somayya Jabarti, writing in Jeddah’s Arab News, quote “an anonymous Shoura (Advisory) Council member” as saying: ‘What do women want with voting and municipality elections? Why would they want to trouble themselves with things that are new and unfamiliar? These issues are against their nature so why ask for trouble?’

A mother of four takes a very different view, the writers say. “I don’t understand. What is the basis for excluding women? If her vote isn’t against Shariah (Islamic law) and doesn’t trespass any red lines, then what’s the harm? A woman is a citizen just as men are. She is the other half unless the authorities intend to have all-men districts and all-women districts.”

Saudi Arabia’s decision to hold municipal elections was hailed as ‘proof’ that the Kingdom was serious about democratic reform. The exclusion of women candidates makes a farce of this baby step.

About the writer: William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development, and served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration.