US Resumes Arms Sales to Bahrain

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

Less than three months after including Bahrain on a list of human rights offenders requiring the United Nations’ attention, the Obama administration seems to have changed its mind. The US now believes Bahrain is “an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East,” according to a statement from the Defense Department, which intends to sell $53 million worth of military equipment and support to the Gulf state, including bunker buster missiles and armored vehicles.

“This is exactly the wrong move after Bahrain brutally suppressed protests and is carrying out a relentless campaign of retribution against its critics,” said Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch, which flagged the sale yesterday. “By continuing its relationship as if nothing had happened, the US is furthering an unstable situation.”

McFarland was referring, of course, to the Bahraini government’s crackdown earlier this year against peaceful protesters, primarily Shiites, who momentarily captured the West’s attention with their demands for greater political, social, and economic rights from the ruling Sunni monarchy. In response, state security forces killed over 30 people and arrested some 1,400 more. Many were reportedly tortured.

The heavy-handed tactics succeeded in crushing the initial wave of protests, but the situation remains volatile. Police continue to violently repress anti-government activists; on Friday, they fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters during a demonstration ahead of tomorrow’s parliamentary by-elections.

With the exception of its statement at the UN and tepid condemnation from the White House, the US has refrained from publically criticizing its longtime ally, which hosts the Navy’s Fifth Fleet. In 2010 alone, the US approved more than $200 million in arms sales to Bahrain. Although the proposed $53 million deal is the first since last November, it will almost certainly go through, a Defense Department spokesman told Mother Jones. That’s because Congress would have to pass specific legislation to stop the sale—an unusual, if not unprecedented, action.

How exactly selling arms to this island kingdom of around a half-million citizens will “contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States,” as the Defense Department announcement claims, is unclear. The State Department, to which DOD referred that question, has yet to respond.* But whatever the explanation, McFarland argues, the move casts a shadow on the US’s professed support for the ideals of the Arab Spring. “It will be hard for people to take US statements about democracy and human rights in the Middle East seriously when, rather than hold its ally Bahrain to account, it appears to reward repression with new weapons,” she said.


* Update: A State Department official did eventually respond via email to point out that the sale of such weapons improves Bahrain’s capability to counter armored threats and that the State Department continues to closely monitor the human rights situation inside Bahrain.


Reza Aslan: Expert in Exile

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

In 1979, a seven-year-old Reza Aslan clutched his younger sister’s hand as he and his family ran through the airport, fleeing an Iran entering the peak of the Islamic Revolution. They planned to return soon, but after Ayatollah Khomeini’s hardliners consolidated power, their temporary exile became permanent in California. More than 30 years later, another revolutionary wave courses through the region. And Aslan, who’s since emerged as one of America’s leading commentators on the Middle East and Islam, likes what he sees. “Across the board, what has happened is that the regimes in the region now understand that they can no longer just ignore the will of the people,” he says.

Even as the Middle East’s latest revolutions chart a path very different from the one that forced Aslan from Iran, they’ve continued to spark his fascination with the intersection of religion and politics. Today, he’s as comfortable expounding on the theological fine points of Sufi mysticism as he is sparring with those he blasts as “pseudo-experts” peddling anti-Muslim “bullshit.” A professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, Aslan is the consummate public intellectual. He has written or edited four books, including his recently rereleased 2005 bestseller No god but God, frequently appears on television and radio, and traverses the globe giving talks at universities, film festivals, synagogues, mosques, and churches. A few days ahead of his speaking engagement this Saturday evening at De Anza College outside San Jose, I talked to Aslan about Islamophobia, Al Qaeda’s role in igniting the Arab Spring, and the death of the two-state solution.

Reza Aslan. Photo courtesy of Reza Aslan.

Mother Jones: You’ve argued that anti-Muslim sentiment in the US has gotten significantly worse of late, especially within the last few years. Why do you think that is?

Reza Aslan: This is the great irony of course. Despite the previous administration’s demonization of Islam, the truth is that in the United States during the early part of the Bush years, anti-Muslim sentiment was not nearly at the levels that it is today. Certainly there are a number of reasons for this, but as we now know, there has been a well-organized and deliberate attempt by a very small group of individuals, funded by a handful of foundations to the tune of 40 million dollars to convince Americans that Islam is the enemy.

MJ: You appeared on an ABC special in October called “Should Americans Fear Islam?” alongside Robert Spencer of the anti-Islam site Jihad Watch and Rev. Franklin Graham, who’s called Islam “wicked.” Why did you agree to do that?

RA: When Christiane [Amanpour] asked me to be on the show I said I would be happy to do so. Then a couple of days before the show, when they told me that one of the panelists was going to be Robert Spencer, and that Pamela Geller was going to be invited to speak, I said, “I’m out.” I have no interest in legitimizing these fringe individuals and organizations by pretending that they belong in a debate about Islam. As I said to Christiane, “If we were having a debate on race in America, would you invite members of the KKK?” And she not only withdrew the invitation to Pamela Geller, but she assured me that I would get an opportunity to really call Spencer on the bullshit that he peddles in the guise of academic research. He’s churning out these completely made-up statistics about how 80 percent of mosques in the US are preaching radicalism, whereas the fact-checkers and the producers and the reporters at ABC themselves on camera said that there are simply no research whatsoever that backs up that claim. But, next thing you know, here’s [Rep.] Peter King (R-N.Y.) in his discussions about why the US Congress needs to have hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims, and his reasoning was that 80 percent of mosques in the US are breeding radicalism. That gives you an understanding of how this Islamophobia industry works. You find a pseudo-scholar to make pseudo-scholarship claims, those claims get picked up by politicians and by Fox News, and they become part of the American dialogue about Islam.

MJ: A lot of people are referring to the Arab Spring as the bookend to the 9/11 decade. Is that how you look at it?

RA: That’s exactly how to look at it. The attacks of 9/11 were not really about us to begin with. What I mean by that is that like all acts of terrorism, their primary audience is not the same as their victims. We were the victims of 9/11. We weren’t the audience of 9/11. The audience was precisely the same young people who have risen up across North Africa and the Middle East to bring down these dictators. The entire purpose of the attacks of 9/11, as Al Qaeda ideologues have openly and unapologetically stated, was to rouse these young people, to get them to stand up to bring down their own governments, and to replace them with this radical conception of a global caliphate. Well, the odd thing about it is that it actually worked, somewhat. These kids were roused to action, but not because of Al Qaeda, but because of a different conception that through acts of nonviolence, through acts of democratic protest, they can accomplish in a few months what Al Qaeda has been trying to accomplish for decades.

MJ: Did Al Qaeda’s actions hasten the arrival of the Arab Spring?

RA: Absolutely. Let me put it this way. We talk a lot about how the Arab Spring represented a revolution in the way that social media and the internet was used. Well, who do you think pioneered that technology? Al Qaeda! It was Al Qaeda that first used the internet and social media to spread its message beyond borders and boundaries, to create a common identity based around a set of shared grievances and shared ideas. Al Qaeda was absolutely ingenious in their use of the internet to mobilize masses. And so, in a sense, the so-called Facebook Revolution really has Osama bin Laden to thank for its success.

MJ: Are you optimistic about the direction of the Arab Spring?

RA: My optimism rests in the confidence I have that the young people responsible for transforming the Middle East cannot be thwarted either by the remnants of regime loyalists like we’re seeing in a place like Egypt or the rise of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. As a young kid in Egypt said quite famously after Mubarak fell, when asked whether he’s worried that the military won’t move forward on the reforms they’ve promised: “We know the way to Tahrir Square.” In a sense, the leaders of the region have been put on notice that the old ways of doing business no longer apply. That’s what the Arab Spring means. It’s not just about bringing down governments and setting up democracy. It’s about a firm recognition amongst all parties involved that this a region in which the people can no longer be ignored by their leaders.

MJ: Understandably, though, many people found the sight of crowds attacking the Israeli embassy in Cairo a couple weeks ago disconcerting.

RA: My take with regard to the political situation is that in some ways it’s inevitable. The peace deal between Israel and Egypt is not going anywhere. The military of Egypt is completely in charge of the peace process, and they’ve made it clear as can be that nothing is going to endanger that peace between the two countries. But one of the things I was saying about the aspiration of the people now mattering is that the Egyptian government can no longer turn the other way as the Israeli government continues to take away the rights of Palestinians, continues to occupy them militarily in the West Bank, and continues to snuff out any kind of nationalistic aspirations that the Palestinians legitimately have without hearing about it from their people. That to me is a good thing. So in a sense, the sort of fear and hysteria that immediately broke out in the US and in Israel when these kids foolishly and wrong-headedly attacked the Israeli embassy can ultimately lead to a far better situation.

MJ: President Obama came to office talking a lot about engaging countries like Iran and Syria. In light of recent events, that policy has been called into question. What’s the right balance between engaging these governments and promoting freedom, when the two can at times appear in conflict?

RA: First of all, let’s give Obama some credit here. His policy of engagement might have failed insofar as engagement did not lead to negotiations based on America’s best interest. Iran is still moving ahead on its nuclear project; Syria is still supporting Hezbollah. But that policy of engagement is what opened the door for the Arab Spring to be successful. Make no mistake: if George Bush were still president, Hosni Mubarak would still be in power. The argument that was made so often on the streets in Tunisia and Libya that this is just a Western conspiracy probably would have worked if anyone else except Barack Obama were in office. But because he had spent two years basically making it as clear as possible that the US no longer had the same expansionist agenda that it had under the Bush administration, the propaganda argument that this is all America’s doing simply did not work.

MJ: And how do you rate the president’s performance on Israel-Palestine?

RA: Barack Obama has been the single worst president in modern American history in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I will go so far as to say that his administration will go down in history as the administration that put a final definitive end to the possibility of a peace process and the possibility of a two-state solution. It will be on Barack Obama’s watch, and as a direct result of his actions, that we will say years from now that the two-state solution came and went. That’s the catastrophe that has resulted from Obama’s Middle East policy. The worst of any president, including George W. Bush.

MJ: How so?

RA: At least with Bush you knew what you were getting. Bush’s policy with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was as clear as it gets. Israel can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants. So then, when George Bush was the first president to actually say the words “Palestinian state” in a sentence, that was a huge turnaround. But for President Obama to come into office promising a more evenhanded approach to the conflict, and then to not offer a single new policy position, not a single new framework, nothing new, nothing unique, save an absurd overconfidence about how he’s going to have a peace process settled within the first year of his administration, was in and of itself disastrous.

MJ: If the two-state solution is dead, what comes next?

RA: I think Ehud Barak, the defense minister of Israel summed it up perfectly, as did Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister: What comes next is either the end of the Israeli government, or apartheid, or ethnic cleansing. This isn’t a notion that is new to Israelis. I have spent many, many trips in Israel, and almost everyone says the same thing: that the demographic situation in Israel is such that if there is not a stable Palestinian state in the next few years, the Jewish majority in Israel will cease to exist. At that point Israel will have to decide: Is it a Jewish state or a democracy? Because it cannot be both. That is to me a tragedy. I am an ardent supporter of Israel. I believe in Israel’s right to exist as much as I believe in the right of a Palestinian state to exist. But when I talk to Palestinian militants, particularly those aligned with Hamas, they say very clearly: “All we have to do is wait another decade or two and all that you see here will be called Palestine.” And they’re right. America’s blind acceptance of Israeli policy, its blind support of Israel, and the current Israeli government’s hard-line policies against a two-state solution—that is the State of Israel committing collective suicide.

Christie for President?

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

No matter how many times he insists he isn’t running for president, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie invariably ends up back in the 2012 conversation. As Part 2 of our report on the ultra-secret Koch brothers retreat in late June indicates, Christie isn’t lacking for supporters in high places, including among the elite right-wing donors and influence peddlers who lapped up his keynote address at the Ritz-Carlton outside Vail. He demurred when pressed by an audience member to reconsider his decision not to run, but Christie sure sounded like he had ambitions beyond the Garden State; he waxed poetic on themes of American greatness and proposed deep cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Indeed, Christie bookended his secret appearance before the Koch audience that Sunday night with national television cameos on Meet the Press that morning and on Morning Joe, Fox & Friends, and Imus in the Morning the next.

Though Christie continues to deny that he has any intention of seeking the Republican nomination, the speculation won’t die. In part, that’s due to a steady drumbeat from conservatives dissatisfied with the current crop of candidates. A few weeks ago, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that “the looming Romney-Perry showdown throws Christie’s strengths into sharp relief.” Formerly rumored presidential aspirant Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) also told CNN last week he’d like to see Christie get in the race. And we know that Christie has an unabashed admirer in at least one of the country’s most influential Republican kingmakers, David Koch, who labeled Christie “a true political hero” at the Colorado event.

But Christie hasn’t exactly been a passive bystander to the buzz surrounding his possible candidacy. On Sunday, former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour that Christie was in Chicago just last week for “two meetings with serious Republican groups from the Midwest.” Gerson added, “He’s actively, I think, considering getting in this race, which would throw things open once more.”

Should Christie decide to get in, it would be quite the about-face for a man who complained to reporters last year in exasperation, “Short of suicide, I don’t really know what I’d have to do to convince you people that I’m not running. I’m not running!” And as The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait argues, it is highly improbable Christie will emerge as the GOP’s knight in shining armor. But with Republican nomination fight increasingly shaping up as a two-horse race between Mitt Romney, whose entreaties to the tea party have failed to win many converts, and Rick Perry, whose baggage as a 1980s Democrat (an Al Gore-supporting one at that) and penchant for saying crazy things are worrying many establishment Republicans, Christie may be tempted to jump into the fray. If neither Romney nor Perry does enough to ease conservative angst in this month’s three GOP debates, that temptation is only likely to grow—as no doubt will the speculation.

Book Review: Can Israel Survive?

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

Can Israel survive? It’s a question that used to be asked with the threat of hostile neighbors and Palestinian terrorists in mind. Today, more often than not, it refers to the country’s viability amidst an intransigent right-wing government, a peace process going nowhere, an impending demographics crisis, seemingly imminent UN recognition of a Palestinian state—and maybe Iran.

These latter concerns dominate Hirsh Goodman’s thoughtful new book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, which hits bookshelves next week. A longtime Israeli journalist who’s lived through at least five wars, two intifadas, and too many failed peace initiatives to keep track of, Hirsh counts as something of a rare breed among Israeli intellectuals these days: an optimist.

As Goodman runs through the list of threats to Israel, the source of his bright attitude isn’t immediately apparent. Iran represents an existential threat. Gaza is a “mini-Iran.” Israel’s 5.7 million Jews are about to be overtaken by the 5.4 million Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories.

Goodman, meanwhile, has nothing but stinging criticisms for Israel’s leaders since the 1967 Six-Day War. He calls Golda Meir “one of Israel’s most myopic leaders ever,” Benjamin Netanyahu’s first stint in office in the late ’90s “a disaster,” and Netanyahu’s successor Ehud Barak “like Midas in reverse” for squandering major peace talks with both Syria and the Palestinians.

Goodman is at once an outspoken critic of the occupation and an ardent, at times reflexive, defender of Israel against its detractors. He offers no apologies on behalf of the country he continues to view as an oasis of democratic pluralism in a sea of autocracy. Touching briefly on the 2008-09 Gaza war, Goodman writes, “I defy any army to fight an enemy like Hamas in the circumstances of Gaza and come out clean, or to have to impose an occupation on two million people and remain humane.”

But ultimately this brutality, which he neither justifies nor entirely condemns, explains why Israel must end its occupation—”not because of Iran or Hezbollah, but because of its own national soul.” Israeli politicians’ most consistent mistake, he argues, has been to believe Israel could retain its essential character—Jewish, liberal, democratic—while occupying another people. As damning as Goodman is in his assessment of Barak, nothing better sums up his basic philosophy than the former prime minister and current defense minister’s mantra: “They over there and us over here.” Integration, whether through Menachem Begin’s idea after the 1973 Yom Kippur War of granting citizenship to the residents of an annexed West Bank or some current hawks’ more sinister machinations, has never been tenable. Unless Israel gets serious about permanently breaking the cord with the Palestinians, it will slip further into a “self-imposed ghetto of security fences, watchtowers, and armed patrols”—one that cowers in the face of peaceful protests—or ceases to exist at all.

But how? Here Goodman’s confidence, stemming from the oh-so-close 2008 negotiations between Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and optimism about the Arab Spring, collides with some obdurate realities. Not long after denouncing the current Knesset leadership as cynical opportunists and bemoaning the influence of radical fringe parties, like Netanyahu’s coalition partner Shas—whose spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, once said that gentiles only exist to serve Jews and called for a plague to befall Abbas—he declares that one can find the pragmatists needed to forge a breakthrough…in the Knesset. “In the wings is a young generation of Israeli politicians,” Goodman writes. “The majority are generally moderate in outlook, would prefer peace to war…and are deeply democratic.” And who are these bright young things we should pin our hopes on? Goodman doesn’t say. He really needs to, though, because between the government’s ultra-nationalist tear of late and recent polling that points toward a youth generation mirroring its elders’ rightward drift, there’s ample reason to be skeptical.

The closest Goodman comes to answering that crucial last question is in the book’s final two paragraphs, when he mentions his son Gavriel, who will be conscripted into the army in a few years. “I know no purer soul than Gavriel,” he says, adding, “I look deeply into the black pools of his eyes and see Israel’s future, deep and full of light.” It’s a touching tribute, but as you put down the book, you can’t help but wonder: Does Goodman really believe what he’s saying, or does he just want to?