Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Saturday, September 3, 2011
I'll keep this up for a bit until my next piece comes out. This piece can always be accessed on the left under my published pieces nodule.
Thursday, September 1, 2011
Recently, Israel revealed that it has rebuffed attempts by the oil-rich, Gulf state of Qatar to reestablish low-level diplomatic ties, fully suspended in 2009 due to Israel’s three week war in Gaza. In exchange for allowing Israel to reopen its Doha trade office, Qatar would be tasked with rebuilding Gaza’s infrastructure. Israel primarily based its rejection off of security concerns, specifically the belief that building materials would ultimately wind up in the hands of Hamas and be used for military purposes. Israel’s position, while certainly understandable, fails to consider that the Qatari offer can be used to dramatically catapult Israel’s diplomatic interests.The more recognition that Israel gets from the Muslim world prior to a final status resolution with the Palestinians, the less the Palestinians will be able to bring to the table and the less Israel will have to make concessions. As the situation currently stands, the deal offered to Israel is this: you return to the 1967 borders, and in exchange you get recognition from the Arab League and the remaining holdouts from the Muslim world. But what if Israel could establish a domino effect of diplomatic ties outside of the Palestinian negotiations? Qatar is Israel’s answer.
Israel must move beyond Qatar’s position of wanting to rebuild Gaza and examine its primary interest, reflected in one of the stipulations for reestablishing ties with Israel: Qatar wants Israel to express appreciation for its efforts with the Palestinians and publicly acknowledge its position in the Middle East. Qatar primarily desires influence in the Middle East and beyond, and as implicitly recognized by Egyptian Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mustafa el-Feki in a recent interview, Qatar is a leading and ambitious contender in this inter-Arab power struggle.
Qatar has been incredibly active in trying to reconcile the Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah, split between Gaza and the West Bank respectively, and would use any opportunity at its disposal to replace Egypt as the primary Muslim peace broker on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Sudanese, Lebanese and Yemeni peace and political agreements were all signed in Doha, but Qatar would consider all of these warm-ups the second it got a foothold in the world’s most notorious peace process.
Israel, understanding of Qatar’s ambitions, must remind it that there is no better way to gain influence in the Middle East than by opening an embassy in the heart of Tel Aviv. Rebuilding Gaza will only marginally enhance Qatar’s influence. Once an embassy were established in Tel Aviv, Qatar would unequivocally stake its flag and claim its territory in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Egypt would, of course, publicly protest but quietly bow out. The imminent end of the Hosni Mubarak era leaves Egypt with little room to be preoccupied with foreign affairs, especially an issue of such great magnitude.
Israel has argued that it does not want to reward Qatar for establishing better relations with Iran, but this is exactly what it has done with Turkey by allowing it to manage the indirect Syrian peace track. Upon establishing full relations with Qatar, Israel can end its resented dependence on Turkey and allow Qatar, utilizing its positive relations with Syria, to take over on the Syrian front. This, of course, will only serve to further Qatar’s ambition for influence.
Israel must make Qatar recognize that its deal as it currently stands fails to maximize Qatar’s interests and ambitions. Only full diplomatic relations will satisfy Qatar’s ambitions and give it the influence that it desires. An Israeli embassy in Doha, on the other hand, will naturally allow Israel to springboard into relations with the remaining Gulf States.
Not wanting to play second-fiddle to Qatar’s lead in the peace process, the Gulf States will have to follow the precedent of full diplomatic relations set by Qatar if they want their voices to match that of Qatar’s. While the Arab states have generally deferred to Egypt, their ambitions for control will naturally ignite when a new sheriff is in town, not unlike what happens in domestic transitions of power.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
President Obama entered office pledging to restore America’s moral standing in the world. But his response to the Arab Spring has thus far has left much to be desired. This week, however, the president allowed the U.S. unprecedented embarrassment as it stood on the sidelines as two of the world’s worst human rights violators – Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – along with Kuwait withdrew their ambassadors from Syria following its intensified crackdown. It’s time to reclaim the initiative.
The president’s cautious position is understandable. His predecessor’s hawkish Mideast policy in response to the unprecedented environment created by the September 11 attacks and rise of international Islamic extremism challenged ties with Europe and temporarily destabilized Iraq.
Obama’s policies, however, are far from dovish, and have not adequately mended ties with the Muslim world. He reneged on his campaign pledge to close Guantanamo Bay. He intensified drone attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, killing many civilians. And in an insult to American values, he personally approved Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists behind closed doors.
Some may argue that prudence with respect to containing Iran, despite the long-term consequences of enraging Bahrain’s population, determined the administration’s Bahrain policy. And containing al-Qaeda dictates the U.S. position in Yemen. But there’s no excuse for continued foot-dragging in Syria, which has killed over 2,000 protesters and has, this year alone, transported tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons to Hezbollah, a terrorist organization claiming the lives of hundreds of Americans and allied citizens.
Last month U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford visited Hama. This month, Syria laid siege to the city, killing 100 people in one day. Since his visit, Ford has remained generally confined to Damascus and nowhere near the protests. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have sent a clear message to Syria, however, by withdrawing their ambassadors.
The move was politically motivated but nonetheless calculated to gain international sympathy. Syria is Iran’s only Arab-state ally, and an isolated Syria threatens Iran. A collapsed Syria hastens Iran’s demise. By taking a strong stand against Syria’s human rights violations, these states pursue their aims against an enemy regime under a humanitarian guise. They also hide their own transgressions.
In Bahrain, hospitals were converted to torture chambers where even doctors were not spared. Shia school girls were randomly selected and sexually threatened. Politicians were disappeared. And internationally renowned human rights activists such as Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, Hassan al-Mushama, and Professor Abdul-Jalil al-Singace sit in jail for life.
Bahrain’s crackdown was orchestrated by Saudi Arabia, a medieval regime that practices lashing, beheadings and amputations for relatively mundane crimes. Lebanese citizen Ali Sabat sits on death row for hosting a show in which he predicts the future. Hadi al-Mutif has spent the past 13 years and will spend the rest of his life in jail for making a joke about the Prophet Mohammad. Women are banned from driving, voting and traveling without a man’s permission. Shia are banned from government posts and judicial positions.
These aren’t the headlines in the mainstream media for these countries, though. An al-Jazeera article bylines the ambassadors’ withdrawal followed by a quote from Saudi King Abdullah: “What is happening in Syria is not acceptable…” When the words of an octogenarian absolute monarch match those of our secretary of state, the administration should up the ante. When that same absolute monarch is a chief human rights violator and has applied greater moral pressure, the administration is in trouble.
Prior to President Obama’s tenure and the Syrian crackdown, the American ambassadorship to Syria was left vacant by the Bush Administration. Syria was an ally of Iran, a sponsor of terror and a brutal dictatorship. This was not a country deserving of America’s highest local representative. Nothing has changed, except for the small fact that the Syrian people are now in a deadly struggle for freedom claiming scores of lives daily.
Ambassador Ford must be recalled, today. But to reclaim the moral high ground, the administration must go a step further by becoming the first country in the world to publically proclaim that it no longer views Syria’s Ba’athist regime as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. U.S. relations with the Muslim world will soar and America, not the world’s leading dictators, will make headlines for their humanitarian positioning.
Monday, July 25, 2011
Thursday, June 30, 2011
Several days ago, Bahrain slapped life sentences on 8 Bahraini human rights activists in closed trials. The State Department expressed “concern,” but U.S. policy towards these individuals shows otherwise. Two of them, Hassan Mushama and Abdul-Hadi Khawaja, were previously stripped of their U.S. visas. A third, Abdul-Jalil al-Signace, a respected professor, did not receive a new visa. The Gulf Institute urged the State Department to reconsider, but this appeal fell on deaf ears. They now sit in jail, possibly forever.
The U.S. has had no problem, however, with granting visas to such people as British ideological jihadist Anjem Choudary, an apologist for 9/11. The U.S. has also maintained warm relations with Saudi Prince Nayef, the de facto crown prince, who played an operational role in sending insurgents to Iraq. Human rights activists from Bahrain, however, are apparently another matter.
The State Department’s concern did not extend to the widespread and credible allegations of the government’s torturing doctors or sexually assaulting Shia schoolgirls, and even if it did, concern is not enough.
Bahrain has led a relentless public relations campaign attempting to debunk these claims, but the information coming from Bahrain’s government is not reputable due to a lack of independent verification and the monarchy’s overall restrictions on freedom of inquiry. The overall PR campaign appears to have worked in Washington, however, and relying only on information supplied by Bahrain’s government, it’s not difficult to see how Secretary Clinton concluded that Bahrain is a “model of reform” before the crackdown.
Clinton’s position is reflective of Washington’s policy of selective ignorance. When U.S. human rights czar Michael Posner visited Bahrain, he did not even attempt making a detailed inquiry as evidenced by his failing to meet with Bahrain’s most famous human rights activist, Nabil Raja, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Adding insult to irony, Posner’s intermediary, U.S. Ambassador Adam Ereli, is a former human rights activist. In a sharp turn from a previous life, Ereli assured Crown Prince Salman that the U.S. would not interfere in his Saudi-led crackdown on protests.
President Obama also has not supported democracy in Bahrain. Iranian and Syrian activists were invited to his Arab Awakening speech, but not activists from Bahrain. He has called for dialogue in Bahrain while questioning the legitimacy of Assad and Khameni. Obama made a passing reference to Bahrain’s destruction of over 30 Shia mosques and shrines while repeatedly pressing Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy, to make compromises to the Palestinian leadership, another autocratic regime. It’s doubtful that Obama would have treaded as lightly if it were Israel that destroyed 30 mosques.
Congress also bears responsibility for repression in Bahrain by consistently legislating weapons deals with the Gulf States in the hundreds of billions of dollars with no strings attached. Some of these weapons were used in killing democratic activists. Congress, however, has made no plans to reevaluate arming Bahrain, nor has the Obama Administration despite sanctions on similarly repressive regimes.
It’s ironic that while the U.S. has called for a national in dialogue in Bahrain when the U.S. itself won’t reach out Bahrain’s Shia community. In fact, naval political advisor Gwyneth Todd was fired after spending $30,000 of her own money on gifts for Shia Bahrainis in a personal hearts and mind campaign.
The arguments against a firmer stance on Bahrain are understandable, but hackneyed and fallacious. While good relations with Bahrain are necessary in providing a united front against Iran, tiny Bahrain and its minority Sunni monarchy needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Bahrain. It’s unthinkable that Bahrain, or even Saudi Arabia, would take punitive action against the only state standing between the Arab Gulf and Iran.
Only one thing could justify a passive approach on Bahrain and greater Gulf repression: a concentrated policy for Iranian regime change. A democratic Iran would substantially alleviate American security dependence on the Gulf and deny the Arab Gulf the threat of oil leverage in responding to U.S. pressure. Not surprisingly, The Obama Administration has not taken this path either.
The continued deference to Gulf autocracies coupled with a conciliatory approach to Iran makes clear that the status quo rather than change is America’s priority for the Gulf. This might sit well with the rulers. It won’t sit well with a people refusing to back down on their demands for basic human rights. The end result could be disastrous for U.S. interests. Historically, when autocratic leaders are overthrown, their people do not look kindly to his patrons.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
In late May, Manal al-Sharif and leading women’s rights activist Wajeha al-Huwaider started a trend of Saudi women posting videos of themselves driving on Youtube. Sharif was subsequently detained and only released after pledging to cease promoting disobedience and writing a “thank you letter” to King Abdullah for his leniency. Her original video has subsequently disappeared, but others remain.
Now, a “drive-in” is scheduled for June 17th, in which Saudi women are called upon to defy the monarchy’s ban and get behind the wheel. This move is not unprecedented. On November 6, 1990, 45 women of the educated elite drove into the center of Riyadh. They were quickly arrested, interrogated, released to their “male guardians,” and suspended from their jobs.
Leading Saudi scholar and Cambridge professor Madawi al-Rasheed argues that the dissidents were motivated by a wave of domestic calls for reform brought about by the increased Western spotlight and presence in the monarchy as a result of the Gulf War. The U.S., however, remained silent.
Two decades later, regional circumstances and Western attention again have emboldened Saudi women in demanding their basic rights. The long term success of Saudi women’s rights activists, however, is highly unlikely without a strong U.S. position.
While it is almost certain that Obama will remain silent, hope is not necessarily lost. Congress can play a role through its control of the purse combined with moral pressure. This is routinely exemplified when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, tying funding of the maintenance of U.S. buildings abroad to relocating the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, has been waived by the president every sixth month, forcing him to take a public position on the status of Jerusalem.
Congress has also pressured the president on U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia. Setting aside current controversy, Congressman Weiner has singlehandedly campaigned against Saudi Arabia with his proposed Saudi Accountability Act and his successful legislation banning direct aid.
As of yet, the issue of Saudi women, however, has not significantly circulated through Congress. Oddly, even the Congressional Women’s Caucus, from which one would expect the most discussion on the matter, has remained as silent as the president. The caucus has nonetheless seen fit in targeting Iran, where women vote, serve in parliament and yes, even drive.
In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, women are considered incapable creatures demanding the absolute supervision of a male guardian. In addition to driving women are restricted from voting, serving in high public office and various fields and traveling without the permission of a male relative.One may argue that human rights in Saudi Arabia should take a backseat to the U.S.’ needing to circle its wagons around its so-called “moderate allies” in the name of national security, especially with the imminent collapse of the Yemeni government.
It must be noted, however that Saudi Arabia is the ideological base camp of al-Qaeda, and the best way to defeat terrorism is via liberal victories over oppressive pseudo-Islamic ideologies. How many times has it been said that the war on terror cannot be won militarily?
It is now time for Congress to take a stand. Legislation should be initiated detailing the link between radical ideology, especially as it pertains to human and women’s rights, and terrorism. Once this is established, weapons sales to the monarchy must be prohibited until it takes explicit reformative steps, including allowing women to drive.
It’s unlikely that any legislation will pass without a presidential waiver provision, but this will apply added pressure on President Obama as the 2012 election looms and he risks being attacked for opposing freedom.
More so than any other country, the U.S. stands out for its unwavering democratic ideals, and when 9/11 is referenced, it is often said that freedom itself was attacked. This is not empty rhetoric, but now is the time to determine whether the U.S. stands only for the freedom of the American people or for all people. By taking the decisive step of standing with the women of Saudi Arabia, Congress can send a clear message to the world and reassert American universal values.