How badly has U.S. policy failed Somalia?

“The only people who care at all about Somalis are the people who are working out of mosques. But I’m told that if they’re working out of mosques, they’re bad guys.”

That’s the conundrum that Columbia Professor Richard Bulliet says a CIA desk officer related to him at a conference in Washington a decade ago. Despite that clear revelation in the rank and file of the intelligence community, the United States has spent the 2000s doing everything possible to disable the Islamists in Somalia–even if it meant propping up brutal warlords with no real vision for a Somali state.

Bulliet recalled the incident last night during the event “The Obama Administration and the Middle East”, co-sponsored by the Arab Student Association, Columbia University Amnesty International and several other groups. Panelists–even as they expressed their happiness at Obama’s election–gave a sobering analysis of the limited prospects for fast, fundamental change in American policies in the Middle East. (Other panelists included Columbia profs Gil Anidjar and Peter Awn, CUNY professor Amir al-Islam and ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi.) Continue reading

Inauguration exclusive: the audacity of hoping for a better U.S. policy toward Syria

LGD Note: I reported this piece back in October and wrote it in November for a class at Columbia, with the intention of publishing it on a foreign affairs-concerned website. At the time, the handful of advocates for a better U.S. policy toward Syria were sounding optimistic. Then came the U.S. attack on the village of Sukkariyyeh in eastern Syria, which brought relations between the two countries to an all-time low. It also complicated my story in a way that I couldn’t untangle during midterms. I offer the piece here with the caveat that all comments were obtained back in October before the attack, and long before the Gaza war. But I think there is some interesting food from thought here that is relevant despite all the things that happened since I reported it. What kind of change will Obama bring to our policy with this overly maligned country?


November 15, 2008

American voters aren’t the only ones celebrating the election of a new president this month. In Syria, which is still reeling from the October 26 attack by U.S. commandos on the village of Sukkariyyeh, people are hoping the new presidency will mean a different American approach to their country. Continue reading

Jon Stewart keeps it real for Gaza

If Jon Stewart was a total partisan about anything, he wouldn’t be doing his job. So I expect him to be more cynical and keep a better critical distance from the bombardment of Gaza than I have been able to do. (But hey, I don’t think I’m doing such a bad job myself!)

Still, it was a huge relief to see him joking about the Israeli incursion in a way that made all the Israel apologists on TV look like dum-dums. (They tend to be much more annoying than Israel apologists in real life, because their position on the matter seems much more a political stunt than actual conviction.)

My favorite part of Monday’s show: New York mayor Michael Bloomberg asks, If a crazy neighbor was shouting through your door threatening to kill you, wouldn’t you want the NYPD to send all available resources, not just a single cop?

“That depends,” says Stewart, “if I was forcing that person to live in my hallway and pass through a checkpoint every time he needed to take a shit.”


Palestine: get on the bus

Wouldn’t it be embarrassing to look back at the year 1983 and recall being on the fence about Apartheid in South Africa?

“Gosh,” you thought, “I mean, I don’t think it’s ideal that blacks and whites are separated in that country. But S.A. does plenty of good things. And I can’t imagine those wild terrorists, the ANC, taking over.”

I hope I’m not really describing you here. My point is, with the power of hindsight, it’s hard to see how anyone would have shied from denouncing Apartheid, let alone openly supported it. Yet plenty of powerful people stood by while one of the most ruthless and distasteful political systems in modern history thrived for more than 40 years. Our own Reagan administration blocked sanctions against South Africa and believed the racist government could be nudged toward reform by helping Apartheid’s architects get richer. (His plan didn’t work.)

Nearly 20 years after Apartheid ended in South Africa, the world finds itself at a similar juncture with regard to the Palestinian people. With Israel’s blasting of Gaza, there’s no better time to make sure that, 20 years from now, you don’t find yourself in your own embarrassing hindsight moment. It’s time to get on the bus for the Palestinian people, especially if you’re an American. It’s time to demand that Palestinians receive the same rights that Israelis have. That they have the same opportunities to live long and prosperous lives. That they are not physically confined to walled, impoverished homelands (like the black “homelands” in South Africa) based on their ethnicity. Continue reading

Re: Good guys and bad guys in Darfur

As long as we’re having a discussion about Darfur, I thought it would be a nice time to bring up this definitive interview from last year with Mahmood Mamdani on Democracy Now! (Sorry to overload on Mamdani inteviews from this particular show, but these clips are too good to pass up.) Below is part 1 of 3. I recommend watching them all.

The Darfur issue continues to be very relevant: VP-elect Joe Biden is a pro-interventionist who thinks the United States should enforce a no-fly zone in Darfur. (Sorry to subject you to more Palin in that link — you can skip her part, which begins at 2:03!)

This is worrying to me. I think Washington looks for military solutions because our military is so big, not because it is the best way to deal with things. Even pro-ICC, pro-interventionists like International Crisis Group president Gareth Evans say that military action in Sudan makes no sense. Read his objections (starting page 6 of the linked doc); they could apply to a lot of other places, like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the idea of stepped-up intervention has been tossed around.

Did someone say military industrial complex?

This article in the Times about the decision Obama will have to make about whether to keep producing the F-22 reminded me of my “Obama Is Only the First Step” post, because it shows how difficult it will be for the United States to stop being a war machine. As we try to transition to being a country not at war, we will have to face much more than an ideological or strategic shift: we will face the daunting economic imperative of war. War-making has become a deep part of our identity, tied to our patriotism, our moral compass and our livelihoods.

This little piece on the F-22 is nice because it’s one of the most straightforward documentations of how the military-industrial complex keeps us in the business of making war.

Of course, we’ve known that for at least 48 years, and haven’t done or been able to do anything about it. A good moment to re-watch Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech!

Obama Is Only the First Step

A professor of mine — a leading star in anthropology with a towering, critical mind — pointed out to us students on Thursday that we should be asking what kind of change Barack Obama will really bring.

Make no mistake: this prof was happy about Obama, and couldn’t hide it. I don’t think he had any intention of dampening the classroom’s euphoria, either (there are like two McCain supporters at SIPA). But it’s his job to think about these things, so I think we’d do well to listen.

What he pointed out was that there’s lots we don’t know about the Obama presidency. Will he deepen the occupation of Afghanistan? Isn’t the United States’ superpower status so predicated on a powerful military that we will need ever more expeditions to stay relevant? Hasn’t Obama worryingly surrounded himself with interventionists like Samantha Power? (In my prof’s view — or what I understand of it from his class — Power’s take on what the U.S. should have done in Rwanda was wrong and didn’t account for the country’s history.) And what of a resurgence of patriotism — even jingoism — that could mean a blank check on dubious policies? (We’ve seen that one before!)

In short, my prof was saying that the president can only be as big as the presidency. I think he’s is right.  And there are far more constraints on Barack Obama than there were on W, for two reasons. One, Obama truly was elected by a grassroots campaign, and so must in some ways be held to the whims of his grassroots. Two, the changes he wants to make — and that progressives hope he makes — are more revolutionary than the kind of changes Bush began 2000.

I had already been thinking about the limits and challenges of an Obama presidency because of some observations I made while canvassing in Ohio. For one thing, there are those in America that hate what Obama stands for. Like it or not, they vote, and we must bring them into the dialogue if we ever want lasting change in our country. Without that, the Christian right will just end up hating Obama as much as progressives hate Bush.

Another thing is that there is certainly not unity among Obama’s supporters on all issues. In the post-euphoria of the election, we shouldn’t shy away from looking at our fellow Obama supporters and asking them what they think about really difficult issues: abortion, gay marriage, immigration, Israel and Palestine. And while we all agree that our current foreign policy is terrible, there is wide disagreement about what the correct one looks like. One Obama supporter told me he thinks Iraqis should pay us back for the cost of the invasion. I totally disagree. The fact that we were able to agree enough on the campaign to drive around in the middle of the night before E-Day planting Obama signs is testament to the power of Obama’s message. But the discussion is not resolved.

We don’t need immediate consensus, but we must have dialogue. We can all crawl back to the rocks we live under — liberal, conservative, coastal or heartland — and wait for Obama to answer all these questions for us. Or we can keep up the amazing hope and dialogue this campaign has started, so we are never surprised by the views our fellow voters come up with, and so that when we hit impasses, we know how to solve them in ways beside shouting at each other, or worse.

Here’s an issue we can start with: Obama’s reported plan to come up with an alternative justice system to replace Guantanamo. Is this what we want? The ACLU has criticized it. On the other hand, it’s a way to get the travesty of Guantanamo off our hands with the quickest consensus possible. I don’t know enough yet to give a strong opinion (though when the ACLU speaks, we should listen). All I can say is: Stay abreast, stay engaged, don’t get passive!

Finally, a shout out to my fellow canvasser and blogger Seth Wessler, who is doing his part to promote this dialogue with his excellent blog posts via Racewire, which is associated with the magazine Colorlines. I love these anecdotes from Ohio (Seth stayed in the same house I did in Lancaster).