Tag Archives: news

Thoughts on Iran, part II

What we are witnessing in Iran right now is nothing short of revolutionary. Protests are larger than they have been since 1979, there are deep chasms emerging within the clerical establishment that has ruled the country for three decades, and people are quite literally risking (and, seemingly by the dozen, giving) their lives to claim what they feel has been taken from them. This is not necessarily to say it will all culminate in a revolution or even a change in the election results. As one of the most interesting analyses I have read of the Islamic Revolution, The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran,  reminds anyone when looking at protest movements it’s a fool’s errand to try to predict the outcome of events once a certain level of chaos and upheaval has been reached. Nevertheless, it is a historic moment in the life of the Iranian state.

The Iranian government itself obviously recognizes this. Initial attempts to bunker down and ride it out (cut off all methods of communication that could be used to organize, issue multiple statements hailing the fairness and accuracy of the results, staging a “victory” rally, and thwarting the ability of foreign media to move around and report) were a spectacular failure. Taking a new tact of limited appeasement, the Supreme Leader reversed his own (twice stated) judgment that nothing improper or irregular happened and has opened the door for a partial recount. It would not be inaccurate to call this a stunning development. In general, the clerical leadership, while holding the real power in the country, stays behind the scenes. Khamenei is not one to seek out the spotlight, least of all to reverse his own publicly stated position on the crisis of this magnitude, which will probably define his tenure. One can reasonably interpret this shift as a nod to the gravity of the threat the regime perceives.  

I think it’s critical to understand the context in which this threat arises. The protesters are not calling for an end to the concept of an Islamic state — far from it, in fact. Just because elements of the opposition are seen as friendlier to the West, it doesn’t translate into a monolithic “Westernizing” force. And that is why it is potentially so dangerous to the stability of the status quo.

The leading faces speaking out — Mousavi, Rafsanjani, Montazeri — are figures who were among Khomeini’s inner circle in 1979. Montazeri, a Grand Ayatollah who was once seen as the successor to Khomeini, is of particular note. Think of it: a man who was once considered a probable successor to the founder of the Islamic Republic has now come out and said, in no uncertain terms, that the protesters are right and the government (including the clerical leadership) is wrong. No longer are we just questioning the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s presidency — rather, Khamenei himself and the institution he represents is called into question for abetting it. The most serious threats, it seems, are always from within and this is just one example of the fault lines developing within the clerical leadership that will reverberate for years to come regardless of how the current crisis is resolved. Once the “crisis of legitimacy” genie is out of the bottle, it’s impossible to get back in. People will always remember and internalize these events, coloring how they see every subsequent action by the government (much in the way the U.S. assisted coup in 1953 still hangs over U.S.-Iran relations).

Ultimately, despite everything that has transpired, I still think it’s a safer bet to assume the outcome of the election will stay as is. What does the U.S. do about this? Thus far, I think President Obama has it mostly correct. The Iranian nuclear program has attained a place of central importance in U.S. foreign policy. That leaves us with the need for a negotiating partner on the Iranian side. Although I’ve read some stirring and inspiring calls for the U.S. to be more critical of what is transpiring, including one written by a colleague/friend whom I respect a great deal, I simply can’t see how that is in anyone’s long-term interest. Three reasons why:

1) In matters of international affairs, one can’t choose one’s interlocutor. All things considered, it’s generally better for one to play the hand one is dealt than to try to interfere with the dealer. The U.S. has nothing to gain by crying foul here. The likely-to-continue President Ahmadinejad will use any and every statement to that effect as evidence of an American vendetta against him and as an excuse to avoid serious pressure for negotiations. Giving him yet more ammunition in this respect would be counterproductive.

2) Expressing strong support for Mousavi/the opposition would give pro-Ahmadinejad forces a great big brush with which to paint them as Western agents trying to undermine the Islamic Republic — in short, to obfuscate the true nature of the who and why behind what is taking place, playing into the idea of a U.S. backed “velvet revolution” much like the 1953 coup. Obama/America would become the face of the opposition, thereby making it much more difficult to organize the average person.

3) But isn’t America the great beacon of freedom? The shining city on the hill? The embodiment of the principles that infuse any movement based on a yearning for greater freedom and fairness? Then how — how — you ask can we sit here and do nothing to help (even when “help” is only strongly condemn the situation and call it what it is over and over again), and engage with Ahmadinejad going forward, while people are quite literally dying to have their votes counted? History has shown over and over again that real, lasting, change can’t be imposed; it has to come from within.

Maybe these events will snowball into something that fundamentally changes the character of Iranian leadership or maybe they will simply serve as another step taking them closer to that end. For now, I think it’s too fluid to tell with any certainty. The U.S. needs to let the Iranians sort things out and, ultimately, deal with the world as it is rather than as we would like to make it. This might mean dealing with a leader whom the entire thinking world can ascertain held onto his position through some combination of fraud, force, and lies.

With hundreds of thousands out on the streets of Iran, however, it’s too preliminary for the U.S. to throw its hat into that corner at this point. Just as we have nothing to gain by taking a hard line against Ahmadinejad’s supposed re-election, we have nothing to gain by overtly recognizing it at the moment either. President Obama and his team have been wise thus far in staking out a middle ground of observation rather than involvement, and one hopes they maintain that position until the landscape becomes clearer.

EDIT (June 17): Thank you to everyone who has clicked over here from the link by Andrew Sullivan this morning!

Thoughts on the Iranian election

I’ll refrain from a blow-by-blow of what has transpired over the last few days and instead confine my post to the two points surrounding this that really stand out for me.

1) Sometimes, when one is between a rock and a hard place, observation is the only action one can take. This, I think, is where the U.S. finds itself now in this debacle. There is little doubt that the official results reported by the Interior Ministy were falsified to some extent or another. This purported landslide victory with almost no deviation in vote share between candidates from one region to the next makes no logical sense for a whole list of demographic reasons, which could take up the rest of this post. Whether the lie amounts to making a small win larger, adding some extra padding to secure a victory in the first round and avoid a run-off next week, or an outright reversal of the real results and the stealing of an election, something is amiss.  

So…what does the U.S. do about this? Nothing — because there’s nothing we can do that will have any positive impact on the situation. Khamenei has already certified the results and encouraged everyone to get along with each other and be happy with this “divine assessment.” For all intents and purposes, the book has been closed on the election. Nothing the U.S. says or does will change these facts and, more likely than not, would only feed into hardline propaganda about the opposition being puppets for the West. Would it be the morally correct thing to stand and say, “this is a ridiculous sham?”  Sure. It almost seems wrong not to. But the only people who can say that with impact and authority are the millions of Iranians who cast a ballot for change only to have it seemingly snatched away. Over the next few days, we’ll see whether the post-election protests develop into something more.

2) Reports of the death of the mainstream media have not been greatly exaggerated. They have heretofore almost completely missed this story. Sure, there’s the requisite story in NYT and WaPo, but it gets barely a blip on cable news and there’s very little real analysis. The blogosphere truly has broken and driven this story over the last three days. From nitty-gritty analysis of statistical data, demographics, and historical voting patterns to translation of Persian language tweets about events on the ground (seriously, if you aren’t on Twitter, you need to be) to incredible documentation of protests on Flickr and YouTube, citizen-journalism has won the day here.

Aid with impact: Assessing the crisis in Pakistan

I think it’s beyond refute to say the U.S. has a spotty record of “success” when it comes to intervening in humanitarian crises. Intervention comes too late, haphazardly, in the wrong ways, through the wrong channels, with too little oversight, etc.

There is just such a crisis brewing now in Pakistan, where the government is in the process of asserting its authority and rooting out extremists in the region of the country which heretofore has largely existed outside its purview. Between those who were displaced amidst intense fighting last fall and those who have been displaced since the most recent round of fighting commenced two weeks ago, there are now approximately 1.5 million who have fled their homes. According to the UN, it’s the largest displacement since the Rwandan genocide.

In politics, as in life, it often seems the flipside of crisis is opportunity. This is no exception. The stability of Pakistan is vital to U.S. national security interests. To that end the U.S. has already pledged aid to help displaced persons, but we need to follow that aid and not just write a check and washing our hands of it. Effectively assisting in relief efforts will provide a rare opportunity to be seen in a positive light — an unusual role for the stars and stripes in that region of the world. Does this mean, “death to America,” will never be uttered again? Hardly. But under the broad umbrella of public diplomacy, this is a chance to build some modicum of goodwill (or at least a more neutral ambivalence, should “goodwill” seem to ring of pie-in-the-sky idealism). 

Additionally, if executed properly, the allocation and distribution of aid could be used as a tool to help cement the relatively new political reality of civilian rule throughout the entire country. Eventually, most of these 1.5 million people will venture back to the towns from whence they came. What will they find when they get there? If the answer is total destitution and isolation with little provision of government services, we’ll once again have a breeding ground for the kind of parallel state structure one sees with Hizballah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza — government ineptitude providing a vacuum for extremist organizations to fill. If, however, the civilian government is seen as capable of establishing some sort of order throughout, it will go far in debunking the cause of those who would promote a return to military rule or embrace extremist ideology in governance. Key to all of this, of course, is exercising a great deal of oversight and prodding of Pakistani leadership to utilize U.S. aid in a manner conducive to those ends (desirable for both parties, but not always self-evident in a fractious, variably corrupt, nascent democracy such as it is).

Taxation without representation meets its end?

mural2

One of the things I love about my neighborhood is all of the random artwork that decorates buildings around here. This lovely mural recently appeared on the side of a building down an alley off 18th St. The picture is a poor substitute as the colors are breathtakingly vivid in real life. The writing, which is also a bit difficult to read from the picture, says, “If you lived here you’d be home now. But you still could not vote.”

I only officially became a DC resident about a year ago. Although I’ve always been into politics, DC’s lack of representation in Congress is kind of difficult to care about when one doesn’t actually live in the city. In theory, of course, it always seemed unfair, but if you aren’t one of the 600,000 or so residents of this lovely city it’s hard to really internalize what it means in a practical sense to not be represented in Congress. I mean, come on, by and large the residents of this city are the ones who make the federal government run and we don’t have a vote in it? It’s beyond absurd.

I’m very pleased that the DC voting rights bill is making its way through Congress and seems to have a better chance than ever at actually passing. Although it only half fixes the issue by making our House member a voting one, it’s better than nothing. Or is it? That’s the thing which vexes me about this whole discussion. There’s a general sense that this is a good first step and that compromises like also creating another seat in a Republican district to diffuse the partisanship of it or tacking on an amendment giving the federal government more say in DC gun control laws (as happened in Senate debate on the bill) is just the price of doing business and getting something passed. That’s just how politics works.

I think this mindset frames the issue entirely incorrectly. It isn’t like Congress is debating “giving” the city a bridge, or an extended Metro line, or money to fix potholes. They are “giving” us the right to elect voting members of our federal legislative body, which, quite honestly, isn’t theirs to “give” in the first place. The constitution already gives it to us in spirit as citizens. What is the foundation of democracy if not the right to elect our representatives? That this right is bandied about like a political football is a little demeaning to all of us who are treated the same as residents of the 50 states in every other respect.

In speaking the language of compromise, it’s vital we keep in mind why any compromise is ultimately untenable. If this bill passes, I will be celebrating along with eveyone else. However, what would make me even happier would be the immediate emergence of a renewed discussion about representation in the Senate and the appropriate role for the federal government to play in local issues.

Working while cute

I am a bit taken aback by the snarkiness that has emerged surrounding this Ali Campoverdi story. Of course it’s just the sort of thing that would make the gossip pages — gorgeous girl, eclectic background, works for Obama, dating a famous guy. Par for the course in today’s media climate.

The (bitterly negative) reactions I’ve heard, however, have been surprising. She was hired because she’s hot. She shouldn’t be taken seriously because she posed for some provocative pictures five years ago. She’s an opportunistic social climber. She’s a “feminist paradox.” Most of these, I must say, were voiced by women.

This is 2009, are you kidding me? I thought the days of a woman having to actively attempt to downplay her femininity lest she not be taken seriously professionaly had faded quietly into the night long before I was born. If not entirely in practice, as I would venture to say most women can attest to encountering an exception here and there, then at least the acceptability of publicly articulating anything along those lines has gone by the wayside. Would I have chosen to pose in Maxim? No, thankfully for the collective eyesight of the male population, I would not. I certainly do not hold it against her though. This was five years ago, it isn’t like they’ve installed last month’s playmate into her own little cubicle in the West Wing. The woman is a Kennedy School grad, one imagines she has the intellectual heft to fit the job requirements of an assistant to an assistant (i.e. copy-making, coffee-grabbing flunkie). As for not having a world of political experience, this is certainly not unheard of. If one has ambition and talent, it’s easy to get noticed and move up fast in this business. That she might have sought out that advancement instead of expecting it to be handed to her is a quality that would be lauded in a man. Here, it just seems to make her an eyelash batting kitten trading on sex appeal (nevermind the fact that there is zero actual evidence to support this beyond the fact that she’s an attractive woman).

Truthfully, the only person who knows why she was picked for the job is the hiring manager. I, along with 99.99999% of the people who are talking about it, have never met the woman and have no clue about her professional demeanor. What bothers me is how the default response seems to be to assume the most cynical explanation and tear her down in the process. I don’t see her as a feminist paradox, I see it as the epitome of what feminism should be in my generation. One can explore different careers, different sides of one’s personality, different experiences, and ultimately be judged on what one brings to the table here and now instead of some convoluted notion about the proper behavior and place for a woman. Me? I’ll just keep rocking those stiletto heels, form-fitting suits, and ambition all the way to the top 😉

All these things and more

The revolution may not be televised but it will surely be Facebooked. This week, among a stellar lineup of stories, NYT Magazine explores the role (actual and potential) of Facebook in fostering the growth of civil society in repressive states. Using that lovely site for something other than memorializing bar crawls or finding out that guy you sat next to in freshman English and are still “friends” with got engaged? Who knew. Although this is by no means a groundbreaking notion, their lengthy case study focusing on Egypt is quite interesting. I would excerpt some highlights here but, really, it’s worth clicking over to read the entire piece…

Revolution, Facebook-Style: Can social networking turn disaffected young Egyptians into a force for democratic change?

While you’re there, skim the exhaustively long cover piece on the mysteries of female desire/arousal. Lest the male portion of my readership (such as it is) hope to find answers to the riddles of the fairer sex, I assure you none are provided as it reads rather circuitously. It does, however, present some interesting food for thought in the age old discussion of how women differ from men.

Finally, there’s a nice little bit about the complete lack of guilt/shame/remorse exhibited by those who played prominent roles in bringing our economy to the depths of the abyss where it is now. Walter Kirn asks, “Where is the shame and remorse on Wall St.?” Good question, sir, good question.

Basically, the entire thing is great from cover-to-cover this week, so go read it.

Two faces of the same coin

I started my news day, as per usual, by clicking over to WaPo immediately upon arrival at my office. I don’t know if the print version reflects this, but one of the headlines on the front page was an analysis piece entitled, “War on Terror Comes to an End.” That, my friends (oh, no, I sound like John McCain), would indeed have been news to me. Only upon clicking the link does one see that the full title was referencing Bush’s version of it, if you will. All in all, it’s a bit of a fluff piece recounting facts that would not be news to anyone who has paid attention at all in the last couple years and arguing the change in administration marks a departure from all that has come before.

After perusing the WaPo soliloquy to the sea change afoot on that front (for, “sea change”, read: closing the public relations disaster that was Gitmo sometime in the future after an alternative approach can be implemented and officially banning practices that the intel/military community had already moved away from in light of public exposure a couple years ago), I then clicked over to NYT and came upon this front page article. 

If you’re like me and hate clicking links, I give you this from the opening paragraph…

“The emergence of a former Guantanamo Bay detainee as the deputy leader of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch has underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year.”

I know, reflexively, the executive orders he has signed surrounding Gitmo, interrogation techniques, etc., play well for the liberal base of the party. Beyond the public relations impact though, which I acknowledge can be very important in diplomacy, there’s little substance there. Nothing has changed in terms of the global challenges we are facing. All the complicated questions surrounding how we address those issues (e.g. what to do with the people at Gitmo?) are still there. Obama acknowledged as much in his inaugural address.

Although I think it’s pretty refreshingly awesome that we will now have a team in place at the highest levels that recognizes the role of diplomacy and all the things inherent to that, I am kind of surprised at all the hype surrounding these initial executive orders. One would almost think the “war,” as it were, had actually ended (oh, WaPo, how that abbreviated title amused me this morning). This marks a new chapter, undoubtedly, but it remains to be seen how much will substantively change in approaching current and potential realities facing  U.S. foreign policy.