Sunday, March 18, 2007

Middle-Eastern matters

The current issue of Harper's (purchase-only) has a fascinating and well-written cover story by Ken Silverstein about Islamic democracy movements in the Middle East--primarily the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah. When writing about the latter, Silverstein uses interviews and material gathered in a piece he originally wrote but never published in November 2006. As he explains:
After submitting my story, though, I ran up against insurmountable editorial obstacles. It was clear that I was deemed to have written a story that was too favorable to Hezbollah, even though any article seeking to examine its popularity would, by necessity, require some focus on the group's more attractive aspects. [...] The primary problem, it soon became clear, was fear of offending supporters of Israel. At one point I was told that editorial changes were needed to "inoculate" the newspaper from criticism, and although who the critics might be was never spelled out, the answer seemed fairly obvious. I was also told in one memo that "we should avoid taking sides," which apparently meant omitting inconvenient historical facts. [...] "Perspective is everything," I replied in an email to the editors. "If my name was Mostafa Naser and I grew up in the southern suburbs of Beirut, I seriously doubt I would be an ardent Zionist. If we can't even acknowledge that Arabs have a legitimate point of view -- and acknowledge what the numbers show -- we caricature them as nothing more than a bunch of irrational Jew haters." [...] After days of unfruitful negotiations, and a final edit that in my view gutted the story, I decided to pull the piece rather than "inoculate" it to the point of dishonesty.
Silverstein doesn't say anything about the editorial process of his current piece, or why it did not require the same "inoculation," but the whole sequence is striking and disheartening. If an independent, progressive magazine like Harper's self-censors itself to such a degree, think of the news that most Americans receive on a daily basis from the major media. Despite the bleatings from right-wing outlets (not to mention their calls for internment for "treasonous" journalists), the American media is profoundly biased against Arabs--at best they are simply dismissive or know-nothing when it comes to a group like Hezbollah, at worst just a mouthpiece for the Administration's war on terror rhetoric. Thus when Beirut Daily Star editor Rami Khouri spoke at the University earlier this year, he had to speak to us basically as "Buddhist mental retards," to use a recent phrase, in explaining Hezbollah's social and political context, as if it might be difficult for us to wrap our fragile American minds around the idea that Hezbollah is not just a terrorist group. (Silverstein gives props to Khouri in his Washington Babylon blog and links to a piece by Khouri about this year's US-Islamic World Forum at the Doha talks, where Khouri again dresses down American politicians for being the simple-minded babies they are.)

The thing to note especially as a mature, rational adult is that to understand Hezbollah is not therefore to endorse them. Aside from their undeniable courage in not allowing Lebanon to be completely destroyed over the years (and I do not mean just in the summer 2006 conflict with Israel), Hezbollah has little or nothing to be admired in their domestic political program. They are a reactionary religious group, the complete political dominance of which, while perhaps allowing some economic reforms, would in all likelihood roll back social, intellectual, and religious freedoms. So they are not part of the "global left," whatever Judith Butler says. However, neither are they simply "terrorists," which is all the government wants us to know about them. Furthermore, they really do represent the interests of much of Lebanon's Shiite population, and they are legitimate members of Parliament. To seek to destroy them (as we similarly do with Hamas) reveals a profound inconsistency between the theory and actual practice of the "Bush Doctrine" of spreading democracy. Silverstein's piece does an excellent job of explaining such phenomena.

The only other thing I will say is that despite all the accusations from the right (not to mention the "decent" left!) that leftists don't pay attention to human rights violations when they are committed by reactionary Islamic regimes, no one raises complaints about political prisoners in Middle Eastern countries, especially ones that belong to Islamic movements. Thus, much clamor has justly arisen in the blogosphere about the imprisonment of the Egyptian blogger Abd al-Karim Nabil Suleiman, but nobody says much about the over 200 members of the Muslim Brotherhood imprisoned by Mubarak's police state. I urge everyone to sign the online petition that is circulating about Suleiman, but do note that these sorts of double standards are practiced all the time. Moreover, far from revealing hypocrisy, pressure on the United States government from the left to reform its own policies and press for reforms in Israel and Egypt makes perfect sense because these are nations that the U.S. actually talks to and includes among its allies, whereas we have basically no leverage on the policies of, to take a very relevant example, Iran. Sometimes I am simply astounded at the bad faith accusations and hairshirt-wearing apologetics of "leftists" like the Euston Manifesto signees, who mobilize the rhetoric of women's and homosexuals' rights and general "Enlightenment" chest-beating to argue for war in Iraq and Iran. Whereas I would think that campaigning in your own back yard, against your government's policies, which are supposed to represent your interests, would be the best and most effective place to start. Sheesh.

Edit: Speaking of the whole "Why do you criticize America and Israel more than Islamic terrorism?" song and dance, I just now remembered that we recently saw this tactic from that fink Joe Lieberman, who said at an AIPAC conference:
There is something profoundly wrong when opposition to the war in Iraq seems to inspire greater passion than opposition to Islamist extremism. There is something profoundly wrong when there is so much distrust of our intelligence community that some Americans doubt the plain and ominous facts about the threat to us posed by Iran. And there is something profoundly wrong when, in the face of attacks by radical Islam, we think we can find safety and stability by pulling back, by talking to and accommodating our enemies, and abandoning our friends and allies. Some of this wrong-headed thinking about the world is happening because we're in a political climate where, for many people, when George Bush says 'yes,' their reflex reaction is to say 'no.' That is unacceptable.
John Podhoretz at the National Review Corner blog said "this is why they hate Joe Lieberman," referring to his liberal critics, but then Ramesh Ponnuru of all people made just the point I made above: "One could make another defense of liberalism here: that liberal denunciations of our government's policies are more likely to change that policy than liberal denunciations of our enemies will change their behavior." A thousand times yes.


Blogger PooterGeek said...

"the Euston Manifesto signees ... mobilize the rhetoric of women's and homosexuals' rights and general "Enlightenment" chest-beating to argue for war in Iraq and Iran."

This is a lie.

Of the four principal authors of the Euston Manifesto, two consistently and publicly opposed military intervention in Iraq. None has expressed any support for any kind of strike on Iran.

If, as you claim, the document's signatories are putting their names to it in order to promote war then they've signed the wrong piece of paper.

6:17 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Well, it's not every day that I get called a liar, especially by a signatory of the Euston Manifesto. Unfortunately for you, I am not lying.

I understand that the signatories of the Euston Manifesto are not a homogeneous, undifferentiated mass. There are disagreements within the group. You must also understand, however, that by "Euston signees" I don't just mean the four initial signers, of which I note that you are one. I mean the whole lot of people espousing it and disseminating its views. Of these people there is no shortage of Iraq war supporters. Surely this cannot be argued against. Nick Cohen, Norm Geras, and Oliver Kamm, just to name a few, are unreconstructed pro-Iraq warriors.

As for the Iran issue, you are somewhat correct that this has not been explicitly called for. However, certain people are definitely not ruling it out. Oliver Kamm's whole M.O. in his book and elsewhere is that "liberal interventionism" is a justifiable and just procedure. A month ago at the "Harry's Place" blog (and I bring this up because HP is probably the biggest blog affiliate of the EM), blogger "brownie" said he wonders "what TGA [Timothy Garton Ash] thinks bombing Iran would look like. I find it difficult to conceive how it could be quite that bad, but there you go." He concludes that we should not "rule out the option." In a Dec 12 2005 column in the New Statesman, Nick Cohen wrote "The obvious course for those sincere about nuclear disarmament is to oppose Tehran as vigorously as they oppose a replacement for Trident. But there's the rub. Standing by its principles would, if only for a moment, have put CND on the same side as George W Bush and Tony Blair, and that would never do." Unless you think that the Bush administration's ideal strategy for dealing with Iran is anything other than a military strike (and why would you? Iran is a part of the axil of evil targeted for regime change), then Cohen's comments here and elsewhere pretty much give endorsement to Bush's policies. I don't understand why he continues to think the world has to stand by Bush "against fascism," since Bush takes a stance completely opposed to the normal procedure of containment and nonproliferation.

Let me further point out that in the very language of the Euston Manifesto (under point 10, "a new internationalism") it says "But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue." I would be interested to know if the EM signees think that Iran violates those standards, and is therefore a legitimate target for intervention. There is nothing in the language of the EM to suggest that it is not. That's the curious thing about the EM and Iran: there has been no explicit call for war, but the idea is implicit in the language of the document, and in the writings of many of its signatories. It's my hope that when this issue becomes even more important (and I think it will before Bush leaves office), the EM people will denounce an attack on Iran. Everything I've just pointed out suggests that this is unlikely, however.

You of course also know that there is a "Euston Manifesto: American Version" which is plainly available on the main EM website. Several of the main signers, such as Jeffrey Herf and Richard Just, subscribe to the notion that Iran represents some sort of irrational millenarian menace that cannot respond to Cold War-era M.A.D. logic. While Iran is a menace, I have no reason to believe that its leaders are irrational, and I see this notion used more and more as a screen to promote direct military action against an "implacable" foe. I should also point out that American version of the EM displays signatures from Eliot Cohen and Michael Ledeen, whose political views concerning Iran I will pass over as being blatantly obvious. Their presence cannot speak for the American EM as a whole, but it is revealing.

I think that much of the difference in thought between British and American leftists has to do with the countries' different historical backgrounds (here I cannot claim to speak for all American leftists, not to mention a sizeable portion of the population as a whole, but I will attempt to sum up how I view the situation). In England there is a history of strong socialist and otherwise leftist movements. Post-9/11 many of these groups are considered to have shifted "rightward" in their defense of Islamist groups and opposition to warlike policies. Groups like the EM want to counter this trend (whatever its actual significance and influence) by boasting a strong, united "anti-totalitarian" front. They may not like George Bush and his retrogressive domestic policies, but they support his willingness to take a stand "against fascism" as they see it.

Whereas in America, which is much, much more conservative than England, there has been considerably more acquiesence towards the Bush administration during his presidency. Only now people are realizing how horribly undemocratic and fanatical it is, and large percentages of the population oppose not only Bush's domestic program, but the entire planning and execution of the Iraq War as well. A solid majority think that Iraq was not worth going to war over. This does not represent "appeasement" to fascism on the part of the American people but rather a solid, first-person perspective on how dishonest and manipulative Bush and co. are. Curiously, aside from the occasional leftist like Christopher Hitchens and the most hardcore of militant neoconservatives, such as those in the AEI think tank and in the Bush administration, people tend not to think that we as a nation are up against the newest of the totalitarianisms, comparable to Hitler or Stalin. There may be totalitarian notions present in certain regimes (certainly in non-governmental entities like bin Laden's al-Qaeda), but the actual, material threats are just not comparable. I'm not entirely sure why rallying around anti-totalitarianism has implanted itself so strongly in the UK (and why it should imply supporting Bush and Blair's policies), but I suppose I'll continue to try to figure it out.

6:37 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

Arrested Bloggers get raped by Egyptian police. Just so we're clear on that.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Duly noted.

11:50 AM  
Blogger PooterGeek said...

After what must have been a great deal of googling, scantron, the best you can do is find people "implying" this and "not ruling out" that and (in your judgment of course) "pretty much endorsing" the other.

It wouldn't make your original claim true or devalue the manifesto if you did---given that anyone can sign the document---but it's revealing that you couldn't muster a single concrete example of a single signatory arguing in the way you originally described.

I didn't call you a liar---ironically, you couldn't even get that right and my words are in black-and-white in front of your readers---but liars do tend to dress up their lies with excessive, unnecessary detail. Instead of all that waffle, one quotation would have been enough to give you a little wiggle room at least, but even that proved to be beyond you.

If we're "chest-beating to argue for war in Iraq and Iran" then we must be making a pretty poor job of getting our message out.

4:54 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Allow me to correct you on something, not because I care about what you think of me (this seems irremediable, in any case), but for the sake of your own future polemics. When you say, "This is a lie," you are automatically asserting that there must be a "liar," just as if you say, "this is a mistaken claim," then you think that whoever said it must be mistaken. I only say this because if someday you tell someone (someone much more aggressive than I, I assure you) that he has spoken a lie, and he punches you in the nose for calling him a "liar," you won't be correct in pleading that you didn't actually call anyone a liar. But I think you know all this, and you're just trying to be clever.

I'm sorry if you're not content with my examples, which, I should point out, it took me five minutes to find because I knew exactly which sources to go to: Oliver Kamm, Nick Cohen, and Harry's Place. You're on to something when you say that I don't have a concrete example to boast. If you're happy with having shown that my argument is not absolutely airtight, then that's fine, and I hope you've enjoyed your visit to our blog.

However, I don't think you've vitiated my argument at all, first because there are obviously many, many, many people involved with the Euston Manifesto who did in the beginning and now continue to promote the war in Iraq as a just cause, one founded on the principles of the Enlightenment and opposition to totalitarianism, and second because, as I said, the language of the document as well as various comments by EM signees have done nothing to dispel the notion that the US should attack Iran. Point 10, if anything, calls for it (and this has been brought up by John Bew at the Henry Jackson Society website).

I'm sorry that this exchange has been hostile (and I'll take the credit for initiating that, for referring to the EM's as "chest-beating"). However, you shouldn't act as if it's insulting for EM signees to be called Iraq war supporters, and you should acknowledge that the signees have not been forthcoming in their denunciation of the buildup to war with Iran (the aircraft carriers in the gulf, the crude accusations of supplying weapons, etc). This may not be something that they on the whole actually want to denounce, for all I know.

To be honest, I wish there were more people like the Euston Manifesto signees in American domestic politics: more social democrats, socialists, and other progressive leftists. However, when it comes to foreign policy I depart from the EM, plain and simple. Whereas you might say that anti-war protesters are too quick in ruling war out, I think the EM is much too quick in ruling it in, war being such an extreme and potentially catastrophic (in the case of Iraq actually catastrophic) measure. I think that attacking Iran would be the worst possible thing to do and I'd like as many people as possible to be mobilized against that outcome. Unfortunately, I think that that goal is ill served by the EM and its signees, who discourage people from protesting for fear of associating themselves with "fascists." I'm not exactly keen about marching with a dude with a Hezbollah flag (I don't think they're fascists, at any rate, just extremely undesireable), but I'll gladly do it, with plenty of normal, peace-loving people, and I wouldn't expect to be called a "pro-fascist" any more than I would use the same words to describe Nick Cohen as I would to describe George Bush, even though Cohen has given this administration his support. As Cohen has himself said, "we" think he is a dupe of Bush, whereas he thinks we are dupes of totalitarians and all sorts of people leftists shouldn't be having anything to do with. But what's silly no matter what is to suppose that being opposed to the war from a principled left position (or, of course, from a principled conservative or centrist one) makes you "in league" with fascists, as this would make most of the American people pro-fascist. (At which point one's only defense is the paranoid conservative one that the "media" has turned the people against the war.) Lest I be accused of arguing against straw men, I take it that this is much of what Cohen's new book is about. Again, as I said above, I think there are marked differences between the political histories of the US and the UK that can help account for why something like the EM would spring up, but in conservative America I personally would like all the anti-war help I can get.

11:16 PM  

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