Monday, February 28, 2005

Genocide and the Courts

David Bosco e-mails this article in Foreign Policy arguing that tribunals have no deterrent effect on those committing atrocities. I'm not sure we have enough examples to say for sure, yet, but if he's right, then that's just one more reason why the international response to Darfur shouldn't get hung up on one. As Bosco writes, "It is worth remembering that the legacy of Nuremberg will be hollow if it means more trials but no fewer genocides."

Central Asian Elections Aftermath

I've posted some brief comments about yesterday's elections in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over at Liberals Against Terrorism.

Hotel Rwanda

Have you seen Hotel Rwanda yet? If not, go see it. In any case, the New York Times today has an article on the Hotel des Mille Collines today.

Demonstrations Continue

Despite a newly announced government ban, the Lebanese are still turning out in huge numbers to demand the resignation of the pro-Syrian government. Today will also see a general strike by businesses and a probably vote of no confidence in Parliament. Israeli news sources report that Syrian intelligence prevented the Lebanese government from resigning last week. And on a partially related note, Joshua Landis today is a must-read on attitudes in Syria amidst a new government crackdown on free expression.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

More on Darfur

David Schraub, who has the good fortunte to attend the school I once labelled as my ideal job, raises a few issues on my Darfur post to which I want to respond. First, I don't think placing the primary responsibility for regional actors weakens what I'm trying to say. For one thing, I wouldn't want to articulate a principle that makes the United States responsible for intervening in these sorts of conflicts in ways that could ultimately detract from our ability to defend our own immediate national interests. In the back of my mind is the fact our military is currently bogged down in Iraq, so I guess you could call this the "Iraq syndrome" - a fear of open-ended commitment with our limited resources. In almost every case, there are others who can become involved, as the AU is willing to do in Darfur, and in these cases we should let them.

Secondly, the Bush administration's response may not have been effective, but it has at least been a response. The U.S. has been pushing this in the Security Council, even if the main hold-up seems to be our stark terror of the International Criminal Court (or, if you will, the rest of the world's insistence on using it). In addition, the Bush administration was involved in the peace agreement in southern Sudan. This is not a small accomplishment. However, Schraub's point that if we can call something "genocide" and still do nothing we might be worse off than before is well taken.

Thirdly, while I most certainly have no connections to Howard Dean or any of his projects, and did not even endorse the guy until December 2003, Dean did write this on the subject:
"However, I have also said that the U.N. bears a portion of the blame for the Iraq war. The U.N. did not understand that sometimes action is necessary and talk is not enough. There is often too much dithering in the European Union and at the U.N. when action is needed. The shameful reluctance of the European Union to intervene forcefully in Bosnia in order to stop genocide is one such instance. The ultimate failure of the entire world community, including the United States, to stop the massacres in Rwanda is another example.

"The U.N. does not seem to learn very fast."

American Foreign Policy

Abu Aardvark assesses the current state of American foreign policy execution:
"I've been mulling over a basketball analogy for Bush's foreign policy. The US is basically a very strong team, with great players and an appealing style. In the first half (Bush's first term), due to astonishingly atrocious coaching and poor execution, the team dug itself into a big hole and went into halftime trailing big. Now, the US has come out in the second half and is playing a bit better - executing more crisply, running basic plays, and is starting to score some points. It's still in a big hole, but a few minutes into the second half its fans are starting to get excited, while the other side is starting to get restive. As anyone who's ever seen this kind of game knows, things could break in a couple of ways at this point: the other team could begin to feel the pressure, the US could gather real momentum, and the big deficit could fade away so that by the ten minute mark (I'm thinking college ball here) it could be anyone's game; or the other team could buckle down, slow the game down, absorb this first flurry and then grind out a victory over its more talented rival."

Abu Aardvark is noting the probable American involvement in Egypt's move toward an open Presidential ballot. This morning, I read on al-Jazeera that the Iraqi example is moving at least some Saudi Shi'ites to the polls. For most of 2003, I said I didn't like elevating governors to the presidency because their foreign policy inexperience often led to serious first term mishaps in places like Lebanon, Somalia and the like. George W. Bush was most definitely not an exception. However, both Reagan and Clinton improved in their second term. Let's hope this President Bush does the same.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Elections for the UAE

The appointed consultative council in the United Arab Emirates has called for elections in that country.

Election Eve in Kyrgyzstan

RFE-RL discusses the significance of the past few days' protests in Kyrgyzstan, which occurred in territory normally consider part of Akaev's base. The Globe and Mail also covers the story. The RFE-RL "Kyrgyzstan Votes 2005" special is here, and don't forget the frequent round-ups from Nathan Hamm.

Egyptian Elections

OK, now I absolutely must be in Egypt this fall. Things are getting interesting. Issandr El Amrani has more, as does Jonathan Edelstein.


The Barbary apes who live atop the Rock of Gibraltar do not always feel compelled to remain on their trees and ledges.

Friday, February 25, 2005

History Carnival

History Carnival #3 is now posted, and has some interesting stuff. "Harry Truman and the Vulcans," anyone?

Al-Jazeera Besieged

Abu Aardvark links to an article on the Arab satellite media, but I think Matthew Yglesias says the most important thing:
"In other words, when people (including the president of the United States and his subordinates in the administration) shun Al Jazeera, pressure the Qatari government to break off their involvement with it, and try to promote Al Arabiya what they're doing is seeking to promote a situation in which the government of Saudi Arabia has a total monopoly on Arabic-language electronic media. This is, roughly speaking, the reverse of what these people claim to be trying to accomplish -- the promotion of dissent and political reform in the Arab world. Mostly, I think this is genuine confusion -- we're talking about dupes rather than liars -- though obviously someone, somewhere understands that a scam's being run or else it wouldn't work. Frighteningly, the Saudis seem very close to achieving their goal."

It's not really a total monopoly, of course, but the point stands.

For Shame

Jonathan Edelstein forgot recent elections in the Maldives. However, he has a good analysis of the new Palestinian Cabinet, so he's probably still worth reading.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Darfur Comments

Over at Dean Nation, I've posted a case for action in Darfur. Here's the meat of it:
"Since this nation was founded, the world has become increasingly interdependent, and at least since Woodrow Wilson worked passionately for the League of Nations, Americans have been at the forefront of efforts to build an international community based off the interests of all rather than narrow alliances for the interests of the participants. And the international community has declared that there is no greater atrocity than the extermination of those whose only crime is to be both different and inconvenient. Genocide and ethnic cleansing are not mere instances of local conflict, but threats to the very foundation of an international order based on the interactions between peoples.

"The time has come to enforce these principles, not merely with the words of diplomats and campaigns of activists, but, when necessary and practical, with strength. This is not just a humanitarian principle. There are today weapons which could render this world uninhabitable. Weapons spread when people and nations lack confidence in the institutions which exist for their defense, and because weapons, whether conventional, chemical or even nuclear can fall easily onto the black market where some are willing to buy, in an age of asymmetrical warfare, any conflict anywhere threatens all people everywhere. The only true long-term security comes not from hegemony which others will always seek to resist, but from enshrining a system of international norms with swift and certain justice meted out to those who violate them."

In the comments, someone has already raised the issue of the U.S.'s limited manpower, and I also anticipate objections to my doctrine as stated that we cannot become the world's police. I agree with both these concerns. When I make specific suggestions, my "we" should be interpreted as referring to the broader international community. The Bush administration has actually been pretty good on Sudan. As far as the "world's police" concern, I'd argue that we need to at least be a community leader, willing to jump on these issues wherever and whenever they arise. However, the actual military burdens should be born whenever possible by regional actors who have the most at stake in a given situation. In the case of Darfur, my understanding is that the African Union can do most of what is needed, and simply lacks logistical support.

Tajikistan's Elections

Like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan will hold parliamentary elections February 27. No one is thinking about a new government in Dushanbe, but commentators are saying they will represent "progress." There is, of course, lots of progress that doesn't mean much of anything. We'll see what really happens.

Kyrgyzstan Scenarios

Writing in IWPR, Muratbek Imanaliev lays out some scenarios for post-elections Kyrgyzstan, including the idea that a pro-regime Parliament might find some way to legally allow Akaev to remain in office past this year. However, with the opposition showing so much spine lately, wouldn't that have the same effect as a stolen election? Of greater concern is Imanaliev's contention that the regime can survive based on the kinship ties among the various interest groups. As noted before, Kyrgyzstan's minority communities also support Akaev.

Kyrgyzstan isn't Ukraine, but that doesn't mean nothing will change. You can't tie yourself to everyone in the country, and those who aren't tied to the regime represent a pool the opposition can draw on for support. Russia at least is hedging its bets.

India and TAP

Amin Tarzi and Daniel Kimmage report on the Indian Cabinet's decision to allow discussion of a pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan. As I've said before, such a pipeline would be a needed boost to the Afghan economy, and I support encouraging stability along any proposed route despite the outcry is would make among the more cyncial liberals. However, from India's perspective, it looks like they're considering making one of their key energy conduits dependent on the predictability of Turkmenistan, the stability of Afghanistan, and the goodwill of Pakistan. Good luck with that.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Kyrgyz Protest Disqualifications

Thousands of protesters have blocked roads and government buildings in Kyrgyzstan over the disqualification of candidates from next week's Parliamentary elections. The candidates were charged with bribing voters. If this IWPR story is true, they probably were, but then so is everyone else, and the point of the disqualifications was to rig the elections in advance for the regime's preferred candidates. Nathan Hamm has details on the situation.

Koufax Awards

Over at Wampum, Dwight Meredith has announced the winners of this year's Koufax Awards. Thanks to the folks at Wampum for hosting this massive event!

Islamist Suffragettes

Kuwait's Islamist Hizb al-Umma has endorsed women's suffrage. I don't know what impact this may have, but the momentum in that country is pretty clearly with the women's rights movement.

Seale on Hariri Assassination

Via The Arabist Network, I find Patrick Seale's article on the Hariri assassination, in which he strongly suggests Israel did it. At this point the issue is probably moot, as Syria is stuck with the blame. But I would still really like to know whose hands are on all this.

Tarot Quiz

The Hierophant Card

You are the the Hierophant card. The Hierophant, called The Pope in some decks, is the preserver of cultural traditions. After entering The Emperor's society, The Hierophant teaches us its wisdom. The Hierophant learns and teaches our cultural traditions. The discoveries our ancestors have made influence the present. Without forces such as The Hierophant who are able to interpret and communicate traditional lore, each generation would have to begin to learn anew. As a force that is concentrated on our past and our culture, The Hierophant can sometimes be stubborn and set in his ways. This is a negative trait he shares with his zodiac sign, Taurus. But like Taurus he is productive. His traditional lore can provide a source of inspiration for the creatively inclined, and his knowledge provides an excellent foundation for those who come into their own in the business world. Image from: Morgan E. Cauthers-Knox.

Which Tarot Card Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Via Kristin.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Dissertation Research Asides

So if the 10th century Arab scholar al-Masudi called the body of water between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula the "Bahr Fars," which translated literally means "Gulf of Persia," can we please consider putting this controversy to rest?

UPDATE: I probably shouldn't get too involved with something this inane, but when you think about it, the Arabs have a whole sea. Why not let Iran have a gulf? And wouldn't it be confusing to have both an "Arabian Gulf" and an "Arabian Sea?"

Ibrahim Jaafari

So, Ibrahim Jaafari is now set to become Prime Minister of Iraq. In some ways, this matters little. He may want the occupation to end, but won't ask us to leave while the security situation is so bad. He reportedly has a greater willingness to negotiate with the insurgents than did Allawi, but some reports suggest negotiations are already taking place. And as Juan Cole points out, his commitment to de-Ba'athification may hinder his attempts at Sunni outreach. Jaafari's main importance lies in the fact he was chosen through a democratic process. Whether that can become the rule in Iraqi politics rather than the exception remains an open question, and I can't see how we're any closer today to finding the answer.

Paris Hilton

I don't normally comment on people's appearance, but am I really the only one who finds Paris Hilton rather ugly?

Madame Governor

After accepting Praktike's generous offer to begin posting at Liberals Against Terrorism, I've posted on plans to appoint a woman as governor in the Afghan province of Bamiyan.

Monday, February 21, 2005


It's still a ways away, but this idea has been growing on me.

Lebanese Protests

It's starting to look like Syria's days in Lebanon are numbered. Al-Jazeera reports on massive protests in Beirut, protests which are striking as a show of national unity:
"Elsewhere, another woman walked as she held a small banner with a painting of a crescent and a cross beside each other and words that read: Together, in spite of them!'

"A visibly exhausted, partly paralysed man tried to catch up with the marching crowds with the support of his walker.

"'I couldn't tolerate myself sitting home doing nothing while a demonstration is being held calling for holding the killers of Hariri accountable,' Riyad Fakhuri, a Sunni from Beirut, said.

"Fakhuri expressed his joy at being able to walk alongside people from different sects and from different political affiliations.

"Walid Fliti, a leftist who came all the way from Baalbek in eastern Lebanon, couldn't help noticing the irony of marching in the same rally with rightwing party activists and former opponents: 'The stage of animosity between us is over. I have no problem to walk side by side with any Lebanese who calls for Lebanon's independence.'"

The Lebanese government has proposed talks with the opposition, but these have been rejected. Syria is promising to withdraw some troops, which they have done before, but Lebanese and Western leaders appear inclined to keep up the pressure for a complete withdrawal.

UPDATE: As Jonathan Edelstein points out, Hizbullah's moderate stance shows just how hot things have gotten for Syria:
"The combination of these events, driven by Lebanese public anger over the assassination, creates very nearly a perfect storm for Syria. If the removal of Syrian troops has become such a central nationalist issue that even Hizbullah must pay lip service to it, then Damascus' options - particularly those that involve working through Lebanese allies - are more limited. Also, with the Shi'ite organizations playing both sides of the street, the opposition has a greater chance of mobilizing the capital, which, as discussed previously, often makes the difference in the success or failure of popular revolutions."

Welcome, Ynet!

There is now a new Israeli news outlet in English.

Gates of Ijtihad: Open for Business

"The closing of the gates of ijtihad" is a concept well known to students of the Middle East. It refers to the belief that by about 1000, all the major questions involving Islamic law had been decided and further application of the principle of ijtihad, or the exercise of individual judgement in interpretation, was unnecessary and probably a sinful innovation. (You can read more here.) The thing is, whether this actually took place remains open to question, and according to Abu Aardvark, overwhelming majorities in key Arab countries say continued ijtihad is just fine by them.

Sunday, February 20, 2005


A Star from Mosul notes changes in the Iraqi weekend.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Umayyad Mosque

In honor of Ashura, here is a picture of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, one of the possible resting places for the head of the martyred Imam Husayn. (The other is in Cairo.) According to tradition, the head was brought to Damascus and presented to Caliph Yazid I, and was later placed in this mosque built under al-Walid I a few decades later. The photo shows the central open area - the hall with the shrine of Husayn is off to one side. Technically pictures were allowed there, but after stepping inside I felt like my even being there was highly inappropriate. The room was packed with Shi'ite pilgrims experiencing passionate mourning while kissing the chamber that held the head. You can read more about the mosque in the second and third to the last paragraphs here - it also claims the head of John the Baptist.

Friday, February 18, 2005

JMS and Star Trek

The idea of Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski working on Star Trek is one I could get behind.

Kyrgyz Minorities for Akaev

Syrian Political Change

From Ha'aretz:
"Syrian President Bashar Assad replaced the chief of military intelligence with his brother-in-law on Friday, a Syrian official said. The new chief is the former deputy head of military intelligence, Brig. Gen. Asef Shawkat, 54.

"Shawkat is married to Assad's sister, Bushra. Shawkat is close to Assad and recently emerged as a top presidential adviser on security matters. Assad's move indicates that he is consolidating his hold on the security services. It is likely that Shawkat's appointment is intended to relay the message that Assad plans to tighten his control on what goes on in Lebanon, and not allow a further deterioration in the country's political situation."

This almost certainly points toward the "internal Syrian politics" school of thought regarding Hariri's assassination.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Assad and Hariri

Joshua Landis has some notes which point toward Assad family involvement in recent Syrian policy toward Lebanon:
"The diplomat I spoke with believes the reason the Asad family overruled the older generation of experienced Lebanon hands was that family members such as Bashar’s brother Maher and his cousin Rami Makhlouf had important business dealings in Lebanon which depended on Lahoud. 'They needed Lahoud to stay for their own interests,' he said. 'The family members were pushing for his retention. Perhaps they were trying to create their own Lebanon policy and side-line the ‘old guard,’' he added. 'Maybe Bashar went along because he is trying to create his own base of power?'"

I think it's been well over a year since I last posted on Syrian politics, but it is a mistake to see Bashar al-Assad as a man calling the shots the way Saddam Hussein was in Iraq. A couple of years ago Syria experts believed Assad served as a buffer between other political factions left over from the days when Hafez al-Assad actually did run the show. However, Bashar would clearly want to create a power base for himself as a means of survival should a faction ever decide to mount their own takeover. In this model, Lebanon policy could become chiefly about intra-Syrian politics rather than a collective Syrian foreign policy in the national interest.

But as Landis says, there's still nothing suggesting that the Syrian government was involved in the Hariri assassination. This brings us to the "rogue elements" some have suggested might have been responsible, as if Assad is becoming important in his own government, others would have an interest in countering him. This is politics at a very deep level, and I wouldn't count on getting a definite answer in the near future. Issandr El Amrani cites a report that Israel believes Hizbullah was responsible, which would explain where we find a suicide bomber. Hizbullah is, of course, linked to Syria. It is also supported by Iran, and has almost certainly cooperated with the IRGC in militant operations elsewhere in the region.

Life at Work


Life at work has been pretty time-consuming lately. As you might guess from the number of posts, last week was just plain busy. This week has been lighter, but I've had set meetings and slow-motion projects that require me to be around the office a lot more than I would like. All well - welcome to the professional life.

Angry Arab on Hariri

The blogosphere's resident Lebanese political scientist has, after a week of technical problems, weighed in on the Hariri assassination. He has a number of thoughts and insights, so go take a look.


RFE-RL is reporting that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has ordered the closure of almost all Turkmenistan's libraries and hospitals. With Niyazov it's always hard to tell, but this is probably a sign that the government's fiscal problems are acute. That might make it hard for them to join Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in getting a navy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005


The bad news is official. This is especially maddening because the two sides are now arguing over just dollar figures, and you can't help but feel like this could have been settled months ago of the two sides had, like, talked or something. Whatever happens to the NHL, though, I've decided that next year I'm going to root for these guys.

Hariri Update

Not only did Hariri's funeral turn into an anti-Syria rally, but Issandr El Amrani reports on mob attacks against Syrians and Syrian interests in Lebanon. An Iranian Vice President and the Syrian Prime Minister have pledged to put up a common front, though the Syrians stress it is not anti-American. As far as the actual investigation goes, Lebanese authorities say it was an extremely sophisticated suicide bomber and are looking for a Palestinian refugee named Ahmed Tayseer Abu al-Ads who claimed responsibility to al-Jazeera. Many are ruling out a local operation because of the quality of explosives involved, but as Juan Cole reminds us, tons of high-powered explosives are missing in Iraq. And why am I the only one considering Iranian involvement? I mean, Iran is pretty involved in Lebanese affairs, and has benefitted from this.

UPDATE: Praktike also considers Iran a possibility.

Nigerian Malaria

A couple of weeks ago I posted a brief note on malaria treatment in Nigeria. Here is a follow-up, explaining how illegal distribution of often substandard medications makes the community health problems worse by giving rise to drug-resistant strains of the disease. I still plan to go into this later, but the biggest problem with this issue isn't cost - I think money could be found under the right circumstances. The biggest problem is the health care distribution system and its effect on compliance with treatment programs.

Model UN

David Asednik muses sardonically about Model UN. I actually did that once, my junior year in college. We got to be Iraq, which had all sorts of interesting opportunities. In a development which irritated the solve-differences-peacefully enthusiasts, the Security Council declared war on us. I'm trying to remember if we executed the weapons inspectors as spies before that or if we had just arrested them and did the executions afterward. After the conflict started, we walked out, which also ended our work to promote the transfer of large quantities of duct tape from wealthy nations to the developing world.


Americans should ingest more sheep. Failing that, a sheep ingestion establishment should be located close to my apartment so that I may conveniently do so on days when I'm not working late on campus.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Bush Administration and Hariri

The Bush administration has often been accused of deciding what policies they want to follow and then working circumstances to back up the policy, and their reaction to Hariri's assassination is no exception. Although our government admits it doesn't know who was behind the killing, we are withdrawing our ambassador from Damascus and saying this shows that Syria must end the occupation immediately.

This reaction was predictable enough that it casts serious doubt on whether Syria is responsible, as they have been seeking to cooperate with the U.S. over Iraq and general terrorism issues, as well as restart the peace process with Israel. And while no one has suggested this and I have no idea how plausible it is, I think Iran is actually gaining the most from this situation. Lebanon still has intercommunal tensions, and Hariri was a Sunni leader. The focus of American attention in the region has at least temporarily shifted from Iran to Syria. If the U.S. does become involved in a significant confrontation with Syria, it will hinder Middle East peace and perhaps weaken Abu Mazen enough to allow Iran to increase its direct influence over Palestinian militants, which regular readers know it is almost certainly doing. Furthermore, if Iran wants an Iraq that is messed up but not absolutely chaotic as some suggest, then pushing Syria away from cooperation with the U.S. against the insurgency is one way to do that. All of this is highly speculative, but so is everything at this point.

UPDATE: To quote Matthew Yglesias: "The Bush administration is quickly rushing to blame Syria for the killing, which certainly could be an accurate assessment of what happened. But then again it might not be. This is the sort of situation where it would be far, far better for the United States not to be run by a group of people who have a track record of thinking nothing of embroiling the country in military conflicts based on aggressive spinning of sketchy intelligence information." I agree.

Exporting the Insurgency

RFE-RL reports on concerns insurgents from Iraq may go to Afghanistan. There's really not much too the report, but with a dab here and a dab there, one can start to wonder about some disturbing patterns.

Palestinians Denied Citizenship

Saudi Arabia is moving toward allowing expat workers to become citizens, but as Ocean Guy notes, not everyone is welcome:

"Shubaily Al-Qarni, chairman of the security committee which supervised amendments to the law, said Saudi citizenship would be open to all foreign nationals working in the Kingdom. 'The law does not aim at a particular nationality. It covers all expatriates in the country,' he said.

"But press reports said Palestinians living in the Kingdom would be barred as the Arab League has instructed that Palestinians living in Arab countries should not be given citizenship to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland."

Ah, yes, if Palestinians who have never lived in Palestine decide they want to make a life in Saudi Arabia and become citizens, they must be rejected for their own good. This just goes to show how a lot of Arab governments use the Palestinian cause for their own purposes even as they pay lip service to the goals and aspirations of Palestinians themselves.

Who Killed Rafiq Hariri?

That is the question everyone is asking this morning as Lebanon shuts down in fearful mourning. While I don't have access to anything in the way of evidence, I can try to make like Hercule Poirot and use my little grey cells to theorize about some things. Of the ideas offered so far, I tend to eliminate Israel right off the bat. Israel wants Syria out of Lebanon, and eliminating the most important anti-Syrian Lebanese leader would be an unusual way to go about that. That same point makes Syria into the prime suspect, especially if its true that Hariri's western connections were playing a role in the international community's anti-Syrian diplomatic efforts.

There are other ideas, however. Al-Qaida has been mentioned because of his Saudi connections, but that doesn't fit in with previous al-Qaida operations. Were Hariri's connections really that intense and meaningful? More likely is a rival faction in Lebanon, possibly with the support of a foreign intelligence service such as Syria or Iran, the latter of which has reason to dislike the idea of Syria leaving Lebanon and getting increasingly in the spotlight as Israel's most powerful military rival. Also noteworthy is the fact that last fall, Syria actually withdrew from parts of Beirut. This may create space for Lebanese militant activity which has been curtailed since the Syrian occupation began in 1990.

This issue actually came up at work yesterday, as the anxious parent of a prospective exchange student in Lebanon called the office after experiencing her first State Department travel warning. (It was apparent she hadn't heard about Hariri yet.) I probably should have just sent her on, but my INFJ personality type (1, 2) makes me a sucker for counseling those in distress, so I walked her through it before suggesting she talk to the people running the exchange program. I felt strange since I'm in no way a Lebanon expert, but it didn't matter in this case because no one really knows what's going to happen in the aftermath of this assassination, and that's hanging over whatever you might say on the subject.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Iraqi Election Returns

I've been too busy lately to really say much about the Iraqi election returns, but I will venture that the possibility that Iraq's laws may now be based on a conservative interpretation of shari'a is less important than the fact they will be enacted by elected representatives of the Iraqi people. If that principle gets established, it will have been a great day in Iraqi history.


This has been a day of really unusual phone calls.


While contemplating Satan, my secular humanist friend Kristin writes the following:

"The very sense of divinity and devilry - of a god and a devil - is one that intrigues me so deeply that I've decided to dedicate my life to it. I believe not in the literal nature of such things, but in the symbolic value of them. Evil - and Satan - is something that human beings use as a scapegoat: 'he's evil, that's why he did it,' and that sort of thing. Now evil in the sense of abject cruelty, sociopathic behavior, murder, and so on I can believe in. People who are intentionally sadistic and whose behavior does far more harm than good - if any good at all - most certainly fall under the domain of 'Evil.'"

I need to ponder this, especially whether the abject cruelty really gets you away from using "evil" as a scapegoat and what the implications of that are.

Hariri Assassination

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri was killed by a car bomb in Beirut. It's too early to really know anything, but this is a big development in that al-Hariri remained politically active as an opponent of Syrian occupation. Could Syria be trying to intimidate the Lebanese opposition even as it works to stave off international pressure to withdraw? In Lebanon, the easy answers aren't always right.

UPDATE: Helena Cobban has more, as does Issandr El Amrani.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Aleppo Morning

This is an early Friday morning in Aleppo, Syria. If I'd had a better camera, I would have zoomed in on the watermelon cart.

Friday, February 11, 2005

NHL Woes

It looks like they're going to anyway, but the NHL simply can't do this. Hockey's place in American sports is not so secure that they can expect fans to put up with a cancelled season in which the two sides hardly even negotiated. The main challenge during the past decade has been how to expand the fan base, and now they seem intent on whittling it down to a core of addicts. A lot of Americans who are otherwise sports fans don't know the names of NHL franchises. That number will grow once they've had a year of not hearing about them.

On a slightly different note, am I the only one amused that even though the proposed NHL season is for 28 games, they're keeping the full play-off structure? Is there any precedent for a post-season that's as long as the regular season?

Cotton Khan

Saudi Arabian Elections

Saudi Arabia held the first round of nationwide municipal elections yesterday, and I have to admit, I really doubted they would go through with it. This is still a long way from democracy - with their power to appoint half the municipal council members, the monarchy will still control what happens, and it remains to be seen how much free expression the elected ones will have. They say every journey begins with a first step - we'll see if this qualifies as a real step or just window dressing.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Seasons of Penitence

Tomorrow will be the first day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar, the beginning of the year 1426 A.H. For Shi'ites especially, it will be a time of mourning and penitence, as Muharram 10 is Ashura, the day on which the Imam Husayn was martyred at Karbala. You can find some of what lies behind this commemoration here and here, as well as perhaps through my own humble attempt at book-learning here.

The importance of a time for penitence strikes me as especially interesting coming out of Islam, where you have this idea of the fitra, essentially an internal compass that drives us to do what is right. This is the complete opposite of Christianity's idea of "original sin," which in the Protestant tradition especially becomes the idea that humanity is inherently evil, able to be "saved" only through divine grace. Interestingly, one might find something similar in the Gospel of St. Thomas, which says: "If your leaders say to you, 'Look, the Kingdom (of God) is in the sky,' then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, 'It is in the sea,' then the fish will precede you. Rather the Kingdom is inside you and outside you. When you know yourselves, you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father."

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it is remembered that the Greek word used for "sin" in the New Testament recalls the idea of an archer missing his target, and perhaps this shows how the Islamic and Christian conceptions really aren't all that different, for an archer who misses the target at least knows what to shoot for, and whether he or she is helped by Jesus Christ or the words of the Qur'an and example of the Imams makes little difference.

Astute observers of my sidebar may have noticed that I've begun associating with the Moravian Church, a denomination which tends to ignore such esoteric matters and focus on the path itself - in this case the life of Jesus - rather than the intellectual contructs which seek to explain it. This strikes me as wise, for as St. Paul wrote, "For now we see but through a glass darkly." The Orthodox believe human intellect can only understand God in terms of what he is not, and if you don't understand God, you might as well let everything else lie as a mere approximation of what, exactly, we're doing with our various rituals.

But to return to the original subject, I don't want to sign off without mentioning Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. What is most interesting to me about Yom Kippur is that on the eve of this day, which like Ashura is the tenth of the year, people seek forgiveness of their neighbors for the injuries and offense given during the previous year. You cannot seek forgiveness from God until you have sought it from man. And Yom Kippur thus becomes a time of renewal, for it is our human failings that drag us down into habitual conflict and broken relationships, what a Christian might see as an accretion of sin that needs to be washed away so that something new and wholesome might begin.

And I like this idea so much that, with apologies to my Jewish readers, I have decided to steal it. Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian penitential season of Lent, which does not begin the year, but is named from an old Saxon word for spring, the season in which life is reborn after a harsh winter. And on this Ash Wednesday let me say, "To those whom I have wronged, let me now seek forgiveness for those wrongs. To those by whom I have felt wronged, I humbly forgive you, knowing that good and evil, when applied to humans, are but points on a scale on which we all slide to one degree or another. And in this way, let us join together in a new season of peace and fellowship with all people everywhere, whom the ancient Middle Eastern peoples with their genealogies rightly saw were, despite their differences, one family and one community."

Monday, February 07, 2005

Ark of the Covenant

I just watched a History Channel special on the Ark of the Covenant that was good at showing lots of interesting places, but not so good at discussing the Ark's fate. They spent all their time in Ethiopia, a rather poor bet when your case is all based on legends and local traditions. The chances that Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had a son named Menelik who took the Ark there are especially...remote. Sticking close to the primary sources, it seems certain the Ark was still in Jerusalem during the last days of Judea (Jeremiah 3:16, with support from 2 Chronicles 35:3, though I trust that less). Then the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, which seems sufficient to explain the Ark's being lost. Someone familiar with what the Babylonians did with such things can probably speculate from there on what happened to it.

Pirate Jesus

I've just learned that this is the penultimate installment of Pirate Jesus before it goes the way of Star Trek: Enterprise.

Zarqawi Finger in Kuwait

Kuwaiti officials are saying that Islamist violence could soon spread to other Gulf states. More disturbingly, reports suggest that militants detained in Kuwait were acting under the direction of Abu Musab Zarqawi, another sign that Iraq's instability is spreading.

Kirkuk Controversy

Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk are accusing the Kurds of electrion fraud there, claiming they brought in tons of people from outside the city to vote. That might be the case, as the Iraqi Electoral Commission allowed refugees to vote there. The fraud claims that many of these people had also voted elsewhere. In any case, this could be the beginning of much larger problems as we move closer to when people will decide the oil-rich area's status.

Sunday, February 06, 2005


Poker can represent an interesting case study for the axiom, "Don't throw good money after bad."

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Crac des Chevaliers

Among the main attractions in Jordan and Syria are Crusader castles, and one of the most magnificient is the Crac des Chevaliers near Homs, Syria. The castles I went to were on hills and there wasn't much chance to get a good panoramic view, but this picture shows some of the inside of the keep. The blue signs mark either a restaurant or cafe - I don't remember which.

Friday, February 04, 2005

An Engagement

Congratulations to my younger brother Jason and his newly minted fiancee, who got engaged earlier this evening! I'll get used to it in about a month or so...

History Carnival #2

Over at Cliopatra, Ralph Luker has assembled History Carnival #2, following Sharon Howard's efforts at History Carnival #1. Go on over and see what blogging historians do with their time!


Those interested in Kyrgyzstan and its elections should check out Zerissenheit, by someone currently living there.

Via Nathan Hamm.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Big Books

Martin Kramer blogs about owning the Encyclopedia of Islam in book form:

"As a student, I always had to seek out the encyclopaedia on the library reference shelf, and scour the nearby desks if a volume was missing, so I associate ownership of a personal set with luxury and standing. I wish I had more spare time to leaf idly through the double-columned pages, acquiring knowledge both relevant and arcane. (Would that I had an hour to read through the eleven columns in the supplement devoted to the subject of ghanam, which 'designates the class of small livestock with a predominance, according to the countries, of either sheep or goats.' At a glance, it really does look fascinating.) One could browse like this endlessly."

Proving that even in Middle East Studies left and right can find common ground, I share his love, if not his pocketbook. Even beyond the EI, there's something about big, knowledge-filled books I can never get enough of. Right now on my kitchen table resides Werner Caskel's study of Ibn al-Kalbi's genealogies, and while I don't have a ruler, I assure you that its two volumes will not both fit in my backpack at the same time. A lot of the primary sources I've used have been in these large black volumes from early in the last century with yellowish pages which sometimes fall out on you. One of my friends said she felt like Gandalf - I'm glad I'm not the only one geek enough to make that analogy. There's also always a certain thrill of discovery when you stumble through the stacks until you find an account from peoples long past that illuminates whatever you're working on.

"Knowledge-filled" is not the right word to use here. We don't study - we acquire lore.

Malaria Treatment

Nigeria is moving toward using ACT to treat malaria, as it has grown resistant to the currently preferred drug. What this article doesn't mention, though, is that ACT requires a three-day treatment program. I wonder how they're going to deal with the treatment compliance issue, because if you don't, all you get is ACT-resistant malaria. More on this later.

Kyrgyz Campaign Begins

Yesterday marked the start of official campaigning for the Kyrgyz Parliamentary elections scheduled for February 27, and world waits to see whether it can become Central Asia's Ukraine or Georgia. Kyrgyz authorities say they have the greatest confidence in CIS monitors, which is not encouraging. The difference between Kyrgyzstan and certain neighbors can be seen in the fact that a movement is openly organizing to impeach President Akaev, but Akaev still seems intent on keeping things rigged in his favor, perhaps hoping to pass power to his son or daughter during the fall's Presidential election.

This BBC article gives a good overview of the situation, which neighboring states are monitoring closely. What's interesting is that at least one key opposition leader - Roza Otunbayeva, whose disqualification from standing for election gave rise to protests - is willing to settle for less than full democracy. At the same time, Akaev's new tactic is to warn of a civil war involving Islamic militants, perhaps meant to gain sympathy from Western powers. A nation somewhat tolerant of gay rights and prostitution might not seem like a prime haven for Islamic activism, but among conservatives that very openness might breed a backlash. However, I'm not aware of any militant activity actually taking place in the country.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

State of the Union

Saith Kevin Drum: "I could almost learn to like Bush if my only contact with him came from listening to his speeches about freedom and democracy."

Spreading Shadows

Recent days have seen several disturbing developments in the Persian Gulf region. One is the arrest in Oman of a number of people accused of forming an organization to undermine the state. They also intercepted a weapons shipment coming from Yemen. At the same time, Kuwaiti authorities have been fighting gun battles against Islamic militants in that country. One militant group has threaten to wage war on Kuwait unless American forces leave.

Wondering if there were possible connections, I wound up looking at Debkafiles, which is a pretty "caveat emptor" outfit that does often point in interestint directions. They say that al-Qaeda has made attacking the Gulf states a higher priority, a claim based on Saudi militant publications which suggest the jihadists feel too much emphasis is being placed on Iraq. Oman's detainees, however, are predominantly from there, and are Ibadhi rather than Sunni Muslims.

Those arrested in Kuwait, however, have included people of several nationalities, and while I can't find it now, several said under questioning that they had crossed from Iraq. DEBKAfile claims they were from Fallujah and Ramadi. They also claim, unsupported by anyone else whatsoever, that a new terrorist group called "Returnees from Fallujah" recently caused a security alert in Jordan. This possible Iraq connections is what concerns me, as it suggests fears that Iraq is becoming a new breeding ground for terrorists are well grounded, and that these terrorists are already moving within the region. This also has implications for the conflict between the Republican view that the most important element to fighting terrorism is rogue states which sponsor terrorism, as opposed to Democrats' emphasis on failed states which become havens for terrorism. We should find out more in the coming weeks as these situations develop further.

UPDATE: Praktike has a source linking Kuwait's militants to Iraq.

William Beeman

William Beeman, Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University and a noted Iran expert, has a blog. However, he has yet to become a true blogger. I will try to rectify this during his imminent visit to Madison.


One of these days, I want to travel here. Call me a fan of seeing what passes for the unknown in today's world.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Al-Jazeera Photos

Al-Jazeera has a good photo gallery from Iraq's elections. Via Abu Aardvark.

Kirkuk Returns

In an unsurprising development, the Kurdish Unity List looks to have about 2/3 of the Kirkuk area provincial board and 25% of Parliament seats. As regular readers know, these returns are huge because of the conflict over the status of Kirkuk, which Kurds want to be part of Kurdistan but which was subject to Ba'athist Arabization programs meant to break the Kurdish presence in the city. Arabs turnout in the city was low.

Back to the Grind

Over at TAPPED, Matthew Yglesias notes the challenges still facing Iraq:

"Sunni Arabs will remain marginalized by the formal political process and unlikely to see it as a viable means of protecting their interests. Iraq will be governed by the same group of exile parties that have been governing it since the days of the Iraqi Governing Counsel and the Coalition Provisional Authority, albeit perhaps with some shuffling of cabinet portfolios. The American military, the insurgency, and various party-affiliated militias will remain more effective sources of power than the official state security apparatus. Underlying questions about American intentions, the status of Kurdistan, the disposal of Iraq's oil wealth, and so forth remain unanswered."

Meanwhile, Swopa reminds us that President Bush really shouldn't take much credit for the Iraqi elections.