Saturday, December 04, 2004

Our Albanian allies 

This story caught my eye today:
"Albania's government on Friday declared that an emigrant who died fighting as a U.S. Marine in Iraq is an Albanian martyr.

"Cpl. Gentian Marku, 22, of Warren, Mich., was killed in Fallujah on Thanksgiving. He emigrated to the United States at age 14.

" 'Upon the proposal from the premier (Fatos Nano), soldier Gentian Marku was declared a Martyr of Homeland,' government spokesman Aldrin Dalipi said.

"Marku was the second Albanian emigrant killed fighting with U.S. troops in Iraq. Albania, a small, predominantly Muslim country, backed the U.S.-led campaign and has sent 71 of its own troops to Iraq."
All this might sound a bit strange on its face - after all, it would be unusual of a Muslim government to declare a martyr one of their own fighting with - and not against - the Americans in Iraq. Particularly since the Albanian kin across the border - the Kosova Liberation Army - are said to have received help from al Qaeda and Arab jihadis in its fight for the province's independence from Serbia (there is even an Australian jihadi connection, in that David Hicks, currently held at Guantanamo Bay, fought alongside the KLA before eventually moving onto Afghanistan to train with the Taliban).

But it's not that simple. The majority of Balkan Muslims (in Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo) are Sufis, members and practitioners of a relatively moderate, mystical - some call it a "folk"- branch of Islam. Saudi Arabia's Wahhabis are the sworn enemies of Sufism and part of the mudjahedin military effort in the Balkans throughout the 1990s has been an attempt to infiltrate the local Muslim society, radicalise it and turn it away from what the Wahhabis consider to be a heresy and into the arms of "true" Islam (Stephen Schwartz, a former leftist and himself a convert to Sufi Islam who has spent a lot of time in the Balkans has a lot to say on this issue - see also here). In the end, Wahhabis did not endear themselves to Balkan Muslims, particularly with their efforts to destroy some of the local historic and religious heritage, such as old gravestone, which the fundamentalists consider idolatrous.

A reader recently commented on one of my previous posts: "Instead of a war of civilizations as some have put it, here we seem to be having a civil war of civilizations. That is, members of each civilization are fighting on the other side of the war." But while the civil war within the Islamic world is very bloody, the civil war within the West is - thankfully - still largely a political and diplomatic one.


What's in the name? 

Don't you just love the blogosphere? BBC has only just been duped by parties unknown impersonating a Dow Chemicals spokesperson, and Tim Blair and his readers are already discussing the possible meaning behind the hoaxer's name - Jude Finisterra:
"[It] is a weird name. It can be translated as 'Jew Land Finished', if you’re creative with your translations."
I would personally go for "a Jew from the ends of the world". Perhaps the Wandering Jew has now taken to duping mainstream media as a hobby?

Are there any connections between Jews and Dow Chemicals? Rather remote - and schizophrenic - ones: on one hand, Dow is accused of providing a sanctuary after the Second World War to fugitive Nazi scientists. On the other hand, it invests in Israel, which makes it a target of economic boycott by both the Palestinian sympathizers and neo-Nazis.

Or maybe, just maybe, the name doesn't actually suppose to mean anything?


Postcards from Ukraine 

"Fireworks exploded over Kiev and tens of thousands of protesters danced and cracked open champagne overnight to celebrate a 'small victory' - a court decision declaring a presidential election invalid.

"Waving hundreds of flags of the opposition's orange colours, protesters embraced and danced gleefully after the Supreme Court called for a new vote, handing a legal victory to opposition challenger Viktor Yushchenko."
The opposition got what it wanted, a re-run of the controversial second round. The option of invalidating the whole election and calling a fresh one next year, increasingly pushed by the outgoing president Kuchma and Russia's Putin, is out of the window, at least at the moment. Under the Ukrainian electoral law the same candidates would not be able to contest the new election, which would have been bad news for the opposition and good news for the current establishment which wanted the popular Yushchenko out of the equation and an opportunity to replace the clearly underwhelming Yanukovich with a more charismatic and acceptable candidate (and hopefully one without a criminal past). Now the eastern Ukrainian/Russian axis will have to do with what they've got.

No wonder Putin is so annoyed. How else to explain Putin's anti-American outburst during his recent visit to India?
"Putin... criticized the West for setting double-standards on terrorism, pursuing Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Iraq while giving refuge to 'terrorists' demanding Chechnya's independence from Russia...

" 'Even if dictatorship is packaged in beautiful pseudo-democratic phraseology, it will not be able to solve systemic problems,' Putin said. 'It may even make them worse.'

"Putin did not name the United States, but clearly had the administration of President Bush in mind when he said policies 'based on the barrack-room principles of a unipolar world appear to be extremely dangerous'."
Chechnia and Iraq might have been the ostensible subjects of Putin's comments but I have little doubt that it was Ukraine that was really playing on Putin's mind.

Only two days ago, Mikhail Leontiev, political commentator of Russia's largest TV channel ORT, was referring to Poles as "Lachy", a mildly derogatory term, an equivalent of Peter Jennings talking about "Pollacks". According to Leontiev - and the majority of the public opinion in Russia - Poles want to again count for something in Europe, and so, are keen to rebuild their sixteenth century empire which encompassed Ukraine.

Poles of course have no imperial ambitions, but after a 1,000 year history of almost constant conflict with Russia, they want to see a democratic, open and pro-Western buffer created on their eastern border to insulate them from the increasingly authoritarian Russia. Conversely, Russians who have always felt threatened by Western influences (although ironically the only long-term foreign domination they have suffered in their history was a Mongol one) have a similar preference for building a pro-Russian cordon sanitaire, which in the past consisted largely of Poland, but now has to do just with Belarus and Ukraine.

So Russians are not happy, with the exception of a few liberals like Boris Nemcov (whose surname, by the way means "German" - those foreign influences everywhere) who congratulated the Ukrainian people on the beginning of their road to democracy. It might be too much to hope for Eastern Europe's democratic dominoes toppling all the way to Moscow, but as Polish journalist in Kiev writes: "The Ukrainian revolution provides a great hope for a democratic Russia... On the Independence Square in Kiev there were Russian flags, too. They were brought here by young people from Moscow and St Petersburg. When I asked them why they came, they answered: 'To get some tips'."

A cautionary word, or two: John Rosenthal of the excellent Trans-Atlantic Intelligencer has a different perspective on the events - he raises concerns that some of Yushchenko's major backers seem to be unreconstructed anti-Semites. Indeed, Russia has been keen to portray the opposition as the revival of a quasi-fascist nationalistic movement of the first half of the last century. It's a game that both sides can play, however, as Putin seems to have developed a penchant for sending Russian oligarchs of Jewish origin into jail or exile.

Meanwhile, in Donietsk, the coal-mining region in the eastern Ukraine which is Yanukovich's bastion, the local TV station wasn't giving the Supreme Court decision much coverage, focusing instead on South American soap operas (for some unknown reason - an exotic quality? - they seem to be all the rage in the post-communist world).


Friday, December 03, 2004

Iraq the Magnet 

Iraq continues to be a magnet for people from around the world. Only not that long ago we have learned that the French were indeed fighting in Iraq, except for the other side:

"The two teenage friends hardly seemed like Islamic radicals. They smoked marijuana, drank beer, listened to rap music, and wore jeans...

"Like many young Muslims in France, Abdelhalim Badjoudj and Redouane el-Hakim did not have jobs, and relatives and friends say they grew more alienated in recent years, surrounded by secular Western culture and by what many Muslims see as a subtle bigotry among the French against Arabs.

"Badjoudj, who would have turned 19 on Dec. 16, allegedly blew himself up Oct. 20 while driving a car filled with explosives near a US patrol on Baghdad's airport road, wounding two American soldiers and two Iraqi police officers. He is thought to be the second French citizen to have carried out a suicide attack in Iraq.

"The body of Hakim, 19, reportedly was found July 17 after US troops bombed a suspected insurgent hide-out in Fallujah, the city west of Baghdad that was overrun this month by American and Iraqi troops.

"French officials also confirmed the death of a third French insurgent, identified as Tarek W. In his 20s, he reportedly was killed Sept. 17 after operating for several months in the so-called Sunni Triangle in Iraq, where most foreign fighters are based. No other details were available."
Now, we're learning that soldiers from the stridently anti-war New Zealand are nevertheless on the ground in Iraq right now - except not in their capacity as New Zealand soldiers:

"Soldiers are leaving the Army to work in Iraq for huge pay packets the Defence Force can't match. The admission by the Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal Bruce Ferguson, came at a hearing before Parliament's foreign affairs, defence and trade committee yesterday. He said the Defence Force could not compete with pay rates of $200,000 to $300,000 a year being offered to people to work as security guards in the strife-torn country."
All this however pales next to a schizophrenic situation faced by Bulgaria. Bulgaria, of course, has a contingent of troops in Iraq, but apparently it also has some of its citizens fighting for the other side: "Some dozen Arabs with Bulgarian citizenship have been detected among the active terrorist groups in Iraq, according to CIA quoted by Bulgarian TRUD daily... The CIA office in Baghdad was reported saying that Arabs with permits of temporary or permanent stay in Bulgaria were engaged in the arms trade and the insurgency organization in Iraq."


History wars, Australian style 

Today in Australia, we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of an event, which though on its face insignificant in the greater scheme of things, has nevertheless over time acquired a symbolic status in Australia's history.

The 1850s was a decade of the gold rush in Australia. In fact, the Australian gold rush was at least in part
inspired by the Californian one of 1849, when Edward Hargraves upon his return from the United States was struck by the geological similarities between California and Victoria in southern Australia. He was right, and the rest is history.

But not all went well. In late 1854, self-employed miners and prospectors in the Victorian town of Ballarat rebelled against the government and set up an armed camp named the Eureka Stockade. Their grievances were oppressive and unfair taxation, heavy-handedness of the authorities, and lack of political representation. On December 3, 1854, in the early morning hours, the army suppressed the Stockade, killing 30 miners in the process.

Sounds similar to the Revolutionary demands of 1776? Yet the Australian left has completely succeeded in appropriating the Eureka legend, building a myth of the workers' struggle and turning the miners - small and proud capitalists themselves - into the forerunners of trade unionists. Imagine if the American left has done the same to the Founding Fathers.

On the 150th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade, amongst the deafening backslapping by the Australian left, a few dissenting voices have risen calling on the right to reclaim the legend, most notably
Gerard Henderson on the opinion pages, and Senator Brett Mason inside the Parliament. As Senator Mason said (link in PDF, page 67 of 79):

"The Ballarat miners were revolutionaries... but just because you are a revolutionary does not mean you are a leftie. In fact, participants in all the successful revolutions - those of England's Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution and Eastern Europe's Velvet Revolution - were certainly not... were those people alive today they would vote for the Liberal Party- the party of small business, the party of enterprise, the party of less government intervention and the party of less regulation."
Australian unionists, the guard dogs of the stolen Eureka legend, have not been open to historical reevaluation. As Dean Mighell, the head of the Victorian branch of Electrical Trades Union put it charmingly, "anyone who thinks like Mr Mason does, I think it's best they stay in Queensland and leave those who love and hold the spirit of Eureka to those of us that'll be there today."

But the left-wing extravaganza celebrations are set to reach a new low, when one of the main events, a dawn lantern walk, will be led by
Terry Hicks, the father of the "Australian Taliban" David Hicks, currently held in Guantanamo Bay. Hicks Sr thinks his involvement in the event is appropriate - "I can see a similar line with what the miners fought for - they fought for their rights and their say and I can see a similar line with what I am fighting for now", i.e. that his son be tried in Australia instead by the American military authorities.

Whatever one may think of the Guantanamo legal proceedings, or indeed about whether David Hicks can be properly called a terrorist, there is no doubt whatsoever that he had trained with the Taliban and was captured as a "foreign combatant" in Afghanistan. To compare the struggle of the Ballarat miners those 150 years ago with Terry Hicks' work on behalf of his mudjahedin son would be laughable if it wasn't so serious. As it is, it's merely obscene.


2004 Weblog Awards 

Wizbang is bringing you the 2004 Weblog Awards.

Chrenkoff has been nominated in the category "Best Australian/New Zealand Blog."

Feel free to vote for me, or indeed any other blogs you consider worthwhile in that and numerous other categories. To take the whole poll click here.

Update: Needless to say, I'm currently getting walloped by Tim Blair, but as they say, if I have to walloped by anyone, I'm glad it's him.


Friday catblogging 

I have succumbed to one of the blogdom's longest-running traditions...

Meet Caesar, also known as Baddus Maximus or Kootch; 6.7 kilograms of throbbing fury (when awake, that is).


Thursday, December 02, 2004

Guest Blogger: Mesopotamia Redeemed, Part 4 

In today's fourth part of guest blogger Daniel Foty's series of the forgotten legacy of ancient Mesopotamia, a look at the Sumerian legal system - more advanced than you think. As Daniel argues, the ultimate irony of the efforts to plant democracy and the rule of law in post-Saddam's Iraq is that many of these concepts and practices are hardly new to the area. In the end, it's not about introducing new ideas to Iraq, it's about rediscovering ancient Mesopotamia's lost legacy to the Western civilisation.

You can find part one here, part two here, and part three here.

Mesopotamia Redeemed, Part 4

In and of themselves, the Sumerian law codes were very fine things; however, they would not have been particularly useful if they were not part of a larger system which could make proper use of them. The law codes and a system for their implementation and usage would be required for mutual support – in fact, it is clear that each was necessary for the existence of the other.

Once again, the written records of the Sumerians provide us with information about the system which grew up along with the law codes. These records tell us that the Sumerians had a surprisingly well-developed legal system to go along with the written law codes. In fact, many (if not most) of the features which we associate with a "modern" legal system were developed and used by the Sumerians all those many centuries ago.

Thousands of the cuneiform tablets which have been recovered are actually legal documents and records of various court proceedings. Among the documents, many are records of contracts and agreements of various sorts, which were put down in writing and acknowledged as binding by "filing" them through the legal system. There are also numerous recordings of cases heard in court, described in great detail, along with a record of the decision reached in the case.

From these records, it is possible to reconstruct many details of the Sumerian court system; like the legal system itself, the court system was particularly well-developed and possessed most of the features we associate with contemporary court proceedings. In their content, the legal proceedings appear to be entirely secular, with one exception - the Sumerian system imposed oaths on participants, which were usually sworn not at the court but at a temple. Court proceedings were supervised by judges; the records indicate that judges were not full-time judges by profession, but were drawn on an "as-needed" basis from the ranking men of the city. There are also separate references, however, to "royal judges" as being involved in certain cases; it is possible that the "royal judges" were the equivalent of an appeals court, which examined the procedural details of cases which had already been decided in the normal courts. In addition to oaths, judges, and appeals courts, the Sumerian courts also involved features which we would recognize as parts of the modern legal system – witness testimony, bailiffs, written documents, expert testimony, verdicts, and written judgments which were kept on file for future reference (which embodies the concept of legal precedent).

The surviving written records for particular cases also follow a simple formula. For a given case, the written record describes the particulars of the case, followed by a description of the court’s decision. This documented record is then "signed" (the names are appended to the record) by the bailiff and judges, dated, and filed. For example, a record from Lagash describes the settlement of a civil case involving the resolution of who was the proper owner of a garden:
Akalla, the son of Luninshubur, and Urshuanna were witnesses to the fact that Kaku, the son of Ninshubur, had bought the twelve large date-palm saplings from Lunanna, the father of Urabu, for three shekels of silver as its full price. Urabu, however, repudiated the witnesses. Thus, Kaku took an oath that he had actually bought the saplings from Lunanna, the father of Urabu. Therefore, the garden was confirmed as belonging to Kaku.

Tiemahta – the bailiff.

Lu-Shara and Ur-Sataran – the judges.

This simple record, involving the enforcement of a contract, is very similar to the functions of a modern civil legal proceeding.

The surviving written records also describe criminal cases and prosecutions. Since its records have survived almost intact, one of the most famous Sumerian criminal cases is a case which has become known to modern scholars as the case of the "silent wife." This case occurred sometime around 1850 B.C. in Isin; given the time and place, it can be assumed that Isin and Sumer were operating their legal systems under the Lipit-Ishtar code. The crime in question was brought to the attention of King Ur-Ninurta in Isin, who dispositioned it to the assembly of the city of Nippur for trial. This disposition is interesting in and of itself, since it may represent the concept of a "change of venue" for the trial of a criminal case, which is done when a case is so well-publicized in the place where the crime occurred that any legal proceeding there will be questionable.

The case itself involves a seemingly abstract but very important aspect of criminal law. A temple official was murdered by three men; for some reason, the three men informed the victim’s wife of the murder and ordered her to keep silent about it. In due time, the murders were identified and charged with the crime. The resolution of the matter of the culpability of the victim’s wife was slightly more complicated, however. She had been informed of the crime, but had remained silent. Did this make her part of the conspiracy to murder her husband? And should she thus be punished in the same way as the actual murderers, as an accessory to the crime? The case was argued in Nippur, and the conclusion reached was that because the woman had not been involved in the planning and carrying-out of the murder, and had remained silent not as part of the plot (likely out of fear for her own safety), she could not be charged with the crime. The three murderers were convicted of the crime and were sentenced to death.

This case is quite remarkable, as it shows how the Sumerian legal system found itself dealing with many very abstract and complicated aspects of criminal law – in this case, how one defines someone as being an "accessory" to a crime, and determining his or her level of culpability. In addition, the decision which the Nippur court reached is very "modern" in its content. Contemporary legal scholars are of the opinion that if the same case arose in a contemporary setting, the modern legal system would reach the exact same conclusion.

Thus, we can see (perhaps with some degree of surprise) how well-developed and modern the Sumerian legal system was. However, as theirs was a civilization which had accumulated practical experience over numerous centuries, perhaps it is not so surprising that the Sumerians found themselves wrestling with these very complicated organizational problems. Since the Sumerians had to deal with these problems without the benefit of reference to earlier civilizations, it is indeed remarkable to see what they managed to achieve.

However, by about this time Sumerian civilization, although highly developed, was near the end of its long run as an independent entity – one with identifiable social, organization, and linguistic characteristics. Sumerian civilization was soon to be eclipsed by (and absorbed into) the rising powers further up the Tigris/Euphrates valley – in particular, by the rising power of the ethnically and linguistically Semitic state centered on Babylon. This will be discussed in Part V.



Tim Blair has the shortest post up, titled "Lame Excuse Offered": "Sorry for the lack of posts; I've been busy. More later."

I can only say "ditto." I've been flat out and will resume normal blogging tomorrow. So please come back.


Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The year of the blog? 

2004 is fast becoming known as the year of the blog - that is among those who care about such things like the blogs. For the overwhelming majority of humanity, and most people in the West, 2004 will undoubtedly be the year of something else.

Still, dictionary publishers Merriam-Webster have made "blog" their
word of the year, based on the fact it has been one of the most searched terms on their website in the past twelve months. Hugh Hewitt is publishing a book about blogs early next year. Dan Rather has finally resigned just the other week, arguably the second biggest scalp claimed by the blogosphere after Trent Lott's. Journalists and pundits are still debating the impact of blogs on the election and weighing the old media versus the new media, all accompanied by a considerable amount of sneering about bias, journalistic standards and pajamas.

Blogs are obviously playing an increasingly important role as disseminators of information and commentary; one day they might become an essential fixture of the news universe - but we're not there yet. As a source of news, blogs are quite clearly still dwarfed by the mainstream media outlets: newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, web sites. Instapundit is getting some 150,000 visits a day, a major newspaper shifts a million copies and Rush Limbaugh is listened to by several million people around the US. Blogs, of course, reach a much more targeted and arguably more news savvy audience, a self-selecting information junky elite. Still, the reach is often as important as impact, and, clearly, blogs still have a long way to go before they graduate from a niche to mainstream mass-media status.

Blog readership is also substantially more volatile and cyclical than is access to major news outlets. I'm not talking about the phenomenon well knows to all bloggers - the weekend dip by as much as 50 per cent below the average weekday readership (in contrast to mainstream outlets), but about longer-term trends. Let's use Instapundit as an example again:
from January to July this year, Instapundit was averaging around 3 million visits a month. With the election campaign heating up, this shot up to over 7 million in September and October. In November, visits peaked at 420,000 two days after the election and have steadily declined ever since to an average of around 150,000 a day. I found this pattern replicated in a dozen other major and middle-range blogs chosen at random. It seems that for many average internet users, blogs still merely provide an information supplement at some specific times, rather than a regular news diet.

Designating 2004 as "The Year of the Blog" might be a bit too premature then - perhaps a more accurate description would be "The Year of the Beginning of the Long March of Blog".

Update: Bill at INDC Journal finds a bright spot about being "just" a blogger:

"If raising one's profile to be read by only a few thousand people a day exposes an individual to daily criticism that needs to be largely ignored in order to function, then imagine the level of criticism received by a newscaster with 12 million viewers."
I guess that a newscaster with 12 million viewers has a staff of one or two - or five - to go through all the emails, delete 90% of them and follow up on the other 10%. I take Bill's general point, though - my blog clocks up on average about 6,000 visits a day, and even that generates a lot of email, by way of links, comments, questions, stories, and so on. For some totally unexplained reason I have been very fortunate not to have attracted too many "trolls" to my blogs, and most, if not all, emails I receive are constructive and positive, so unlike Bill, managing the correspondence doesn't take a psychological toll on me - merely in terms of time.

So thank you to my readers for their kindness and civility. I appreciate both your contribution and the manner in which you make it. God bless.


George Soros - the international man of mystery 

It seems there is one name that has the uncanny power to almost make some on the right have a rethink about the situation in Ukraine and their support for the opposition. The name is Soros. George Soros. Shaken, but obviously not stirred by the failure of his hard earned millions to MoveOn George W Satan Moron Bush form the White House, Soros seems to be back in action where he always felt most comfortable and where in the past he actually managed to chalk up some successes: East and Central Europe.

That Soros's Open Society Institute and the Soros Foundation have been involved in Ukraine and helping the opposition comes hardly as a surprise; the Foundation, after all,
has been involved in just about every other post-communist country since 1989, albeit with mixed reception and results: a generous savior and philanthropist for some, he's also been variously described as an agent of international Jewish conspiracy, a communist collaborator or the evil capitalist buccaneer.

Is Soros's involvement enough to delegitimise Yushchenko and make one start bowling for the oligarchs? That depends on two things: 1) what one thinks Soros's ultimate objectives are, and 2) whether his involvement matters that much in the bigger scheme of things.

To tackle the second question first, Soros is indeed involved helping the opposition in Ukraine, but so seems to be just about everyone else. As the
"Guardian" reports, "the Democratic party's National Democratic Institute, the Republican party's International Republican Institute, the US state department and USAid... [as well as] the Freedom House NGO" are all in it together in a giant rainbow coalition of realists and idealists, Bush haters and Bush lovers, not to mention - internationally - Old Europe and New Europe, post-communists and anti-communists, the Polish right and the Polish left.

The second question is in many ways more interesting one. One of my readers, Leslie, wrote in about
John Batchelor's radio program at WABC Radio, where the host had interviewed Yossef Bodansky and Dr Stephen Cohen; both guests building conspiracy theories revolving around Soros and the US State Department. According to Bodansky, a terror expert and a Bin Laden biographer, Soros and the Foggy Bottom apparatchiks are pushing Yushchenko, who's pro-Western but anti-war on terror, against Yanukovich, who's pro-Russian but also pro-war on terror. As a theory, it's similar to those peddled in Moscow: the American anti-Bush forces are meddling in international affairs to harm the President and to damage his relationship with Vladimir Putin. The only difference is that for the Westerners, Soros is the bad guy, whereas for the Russians, rather bizarrely, Zbigniew Brzezinski becomes the puppetmaster.

As they say, stay tuned - I think we'll be hearing a lot more about it in the near future.

Update: Anne Applebaum does the demolishment job on "freedom haters":

"Many of the same people who found it hard to say anything bad about Saddam Hussein find it equally difficult to say anything nice about pro-democracy demonstrators in Ukraine. Many of the same people who would refuse to condemn a dictator who is anti-American cannot bring themselves to admire democrats who admire, or at least don't hate, the United States. I certainly don't believe, as President Bush sometimes simplistically says, that everyone who disagrees with American policies in Iraq or elsewhere 'hates freedom.' That's why it's so shocking to discover that some of them do."
Update II: And Jesse Walker provides a few more sticks of dynamite to put under the "Soros/Western conspiracy behind the Ukrainian opposition" meme, being increasingly peddled by far-left and far-right in the West (not to mention the East).


Friends of Iraq Blogger Challenge - Update 2 

Update 2: Over the next two weeks I intend to bother you every few days or so to remind you about this great action currently taking place. For all the details see below, and make sure that you have a good look around the Spirit of America website to find out about all sorts of fantastic work they're doing on the ground and why they need your support.

Also, as of mid-December, Spirit of America will be launching a facility whereby you can donate in lieu of a Christmas gift for somebody - it's a good cause, so give it some thought.

I'm also happy to announce that Chrenkoff is now in the
7th position in the overall ranking for the challenge, and the 4th in the individual blogs stakes. You, my dear readers, have so far donated $650 to the cause, so big thank you on behalf of myself, Spirit of America, our troops and the people of Iraq. Keep it coming.

The Challenge: Spirit of America is one organisation doing hell of a lot of good work helping Iraqis (as well as Afghans) rebuild their country.

I have decided to join their blogger challenge. A number of international blogs are joining in and asking readers to donate to the good cause. Your money will go to any number of good programs being run on the ground in Iraq with the help of our troops to assist Iraqis with turning their country into a normal, free and democratic nation. The challenge is to see which blog can generate most donations for Spirit of America.

If you want to donate through Chrenkoff, please click on this link.


John Laughland - no laughing matter 

Sick of Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, and all the other tired old faces selling old tired ideas? Want a fresh new talent who's also always consistently wrong on just about every major issue of the day? Meet John Laughland, a prolific opinion writer and a trustee of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group, a noble-sounding organization which "monitors human rights and democracy" in Western European and post-Soviet states. For the BHHRG, monitoring human rights and democracy seems to consist of waiting what the United States and Great Britain are saying, and then saying the opposite.

Not surprisingly, "the BHHRG observers did not see evidence of government-organized fraud nor of suppression of opposition media" during the Ukrainian elections. The BHHRG observers must have been just about the only Western observers not to see it. Remind me not to ask the Group for help if I ever misplace my car keys.

And so, John Laughland goes to bat not only defending the integrity of the Ukrainian electoral process but also siding with the post-communist oligarchs. For example, did you know that
"enormous rallies have been held in Kiev in support of the Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovich, but they are rarely shown on our TV screens: if their existence is admitted, Yanukovich supporters are denigrated as having been 'bussed in'. The demonstrations in favour of Viktor Yushchenko have laser lights, plasma screens, sophisticated sound systems, rock concerts, tents to camp in and huge quantities of orange clothing; yet we happily dupe ourselves that they are spontaneous."
It's all a conspiracy, presumably by rock promoters and manufacturers of orange clothing. Of course it's only the authorities which should have the monopoly over "enormous rallies" (and laser lights); God forbid that the opposition should actually be well organized. And
"we are told that a 96 per cent turnout in Donetsk, the home town of Viktor Yanukovich, is proof of electoral fraud. But apparently turnouts of more than 80 per cent in areas that support Viktor Yushchenko are not."
I don't know, why don't we ask the government-controlled electoral commission which was supervising the election across the whole country. And how could Laughland possibly forget to smear the whole pro-democracy movement because some Ukrainian far-right and anti-Semitic groups and politicians also don't like the current government. It has been a standard communist tactic throughout the Cold War to portray all Eastern European emigre groups as unreconstructed fascists and Nazi collaborators. I'm glad that Laughland is still with the program (indeed it's so much fun, that John can't help himself but to also smear Michael Ledeen with the same brush - because as we all know, if you study fascism, you must be a fascist sympathizer yourself).

"Our tendency to paint political fantasies onto countries such as Ukraine that are tabula rasa for us, and to present the West as a fairy godmother swooping in to save the day, is not only a way to salve a guilty conscience about our own political shortcomings; it also blinds us to the reality of continued brazen Western intervention in the democratic politics of other countries," Laughland concludes.

Silly us. How dare we intervene in the democratic politics of other countries. Like Zimbabwe, for example. You see, according to Laughland, the West cannot criticize the sad joke that was the Zimbabwean elections because similar abuses are being condoned elsewhere around the world. Typical argument goes something like this: "Another charge levelled at Zimbabwe is government control of the media. But this did not bother the [Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe] at the Montenegrin parliamentary elections in 1998." Possibly because in addition to complete media monopoly, Zimbabwean authorities were also killing and imprisoning opposition politicians and supporters, intimidating voters with armed militias and stuffing ballot boxes.

But why stop at Zimbabwe?
"We should treat with skepticism the claims made for the numbers of deaths - 30,000 or 50,000 are the figures being bandied about - when we know that similar statistics proved very wrong in Kosovo and Iraq. The Sudanese government says that the death toll in Darfur, since the beginning of the conflict in 2003, is not greater than 1,200 on all sides. And why is such attention devoted to Sudan when, in neighboring Congo, the death rate from the war there is estimated to be some 2 or 3 million, a tragedy equaled only by the silence with which it is treated in our media?
But hey, how do we know that the death toll in Congo is really 2 or 3 million? Maybe it's also "1,200 on all sides" - according to the official government figures, of course. And yes, you guessed it - the West is only interested in Sudan because of oil. Which is why the West intervened militarily in Darfur. Oh... it hasn't? Anyway, Congo is far richer in natural resources than Sudan and no one's interested. Go figure those weird Westerners.

And so it goes. Another week, another dictator will be defended, because if your own society is always in the wrong, well, that can only mean its opponents must be always be right. Next stop: North Korea, its misunderstood leader and the adoring population. Grass for dinner, anyone?


Tuesday, November 30, 2004

16 years in Australia 

My father just reminded me that today, 30 November, is the 16th anniversary of our arrival to Australia. I remember very well that moment, in mid-morning, when my parents and I stepped off a plane and into the humid heat of the late Brisbane spring. The old international airport

I can't believe it's been fifteen years already. Plus or minus a few months, I have now spent as much of my life in Brisbane as I did as a child and young teenager in Krakow, Poland (with the remaining 16 months in Italy sandwitched in between). Australia has been a good adopted home for me and my family. Thank you.


Orange versus Blue 

Reading Polish press again about the situation in Ukraine. Here's some developments, snippets and opinions that might not all be widely publicised through the Western coverage:

Russia seems to be backtracking: Here's the newsreader on Moscow's RTS TV station, widely seen as close to the Kremilin: "The opposition leader Yushchenko is not a bad partner for talks. He's a balanced, calm politician. In addition he has the support of Washington, and presidents Putin and Bush, after all, do enjoy a special relationship." Writes "Izviestia": "Russia lost the Ukrainian revolution."

Passionate but not hostile: 8,000 orange-clad opposition supporters and 2,000 blue-wearing pro-government supporters demonstare in front of the Supreme Court building, as the court deliberates on the validity of the vote count. Both groups are intermingling without any hostility or altercations. Only 10 policemen are keeping order outside.

Devious tactics: Many in the pro-government camp are now starting to push for the complete invalidation of the elections (as opposed to a recount, or an additional, third, round of voting). Under the Ukrainian electoral law this would have the effect of preventing both the main candidates from re-contesting the new poll. Needless to say, Yushchenko's people want to prevent that scenario from happening.

The autonomy referenda: Have no legal legs to stand on. Under the Ukrainian constitution there is no such thing as a local referendum. To declare autonomy one would have to secure a presidential declaration, a change to the national constitution and the support of at least 300 deputies of the parliament. It won't happen, peacefully in any case.

Poles in Kiev: Polish and Ukrainian flags flying over the Independece Square. There are a few dozen Poles, mostly students (of course), taking part in pro-democracy rallies. In all, a rather more muted and grass-roots foreign presence than the rumored Russian special forces. "One week of protests has done more for the Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation than the last 15 years," comments one report.


De-evolution at work: Chrenkoff now a "joyful primate" 

Not that these things should matter in the greater scheme of things, but great many thanks to my fellow bloggers who have blogrolled me and/or who keep linking to my current posts - according to the Truth Laid Bare Ecosystem, I'm now a "joyful primate." No, I haven't been elevated to lead the Catholic Church in Australia (boom, boom), but apparently I cracked the top 100 of the most linked to blogs in the world.

The Ecosystem is quite precarious, so I'm not expecting to stay there for too long, but I'm currently at number 98, and I believe, only one of three Australian blogs in the top 100 (the other two, Tim Blair and Belmont Club enjoy the status of "mortal humans", i.e. being in the world top 30).

Thank you once again to all of you who have made my 9-month (so far) blog odyssey so damned enjoyable. If you've linked to me in the past, I try to reciprocate, both through my blogroll and via my "Around the world in [insert the number] blogs" weekly features, but the numbers are getting so large as to be unmanageable, so - apologies if I haven't linked you either way - I'm not being rude, just swamped.


Steve Vincent goes "In the red zone" 

Many people around the world (including myself) write about Iraq, far fewer people get to write from Iraq, and only a very few are able to give us their picture of Iraq that emerges from extensive personal travel throughout the country. Steven Vincent is one of those very few, and his war-zone travelogue "In the Red Zone: A journey into the soul of Iraq" provides a fascinating glimpse into the realities of the post-liberation Iraq.

Vincent, a New York art critic, makes for an unusual reporter to cover the world's most talked about hot spots. Just as it did for so many others, it was the September 11 attack, which Vincent watched unfolding from the roof of his apartment, that destroyed his comfortable old certainties, alerted him to a new danger facing the West and awakened inside him the need to learn more about it. "When the Administration launched the Operation Iraqi freedom, I felt strangely excited," Vincent writes. "I wanted to join the conflict" But how? Too old to enlist (his only military experience, driving a cab in NYC, he says), too freelance to hope to accompany the troops, Vincent made the decision to see Iraq away from the frontlines: "I sought to embed myself in the Iraqi society."

What follows is a breezy and insightful four-month journey throughout the country, on a quest to discover what makes the new Iraq tick - or just as likely, not tick. Vincent's is a sober and challenging, but unsympathetic assessment of Iraq's collective psyche and numerous challenges and obstacles on the way to making Iraq a normal, functioning country. He writes:
"I saw much hope, beauty, and grace in Iraq, along with much - too much - that was irrational, brutal, and obscene. I learned some painful lessons: our great nation and its leaders are indeed fallible; good intention are often not enough; words like 'democracy' and 'freedom' roll easily off the tongue, but land on the ground of the Middle East with unpredictable results. I still support the war, but I'm more sober in my views than I was that first morning when I stood on the Iraqi border..."
Along the road, Vincent meets Sunnis, Shias and Kurds, poets and housewives, imams and feminists, "insurgents" and "collaborators", as well as "the People of the Slogans" - Western anti-war activists on their "pity tours", outraged at every American violation of human rights but oblivious to Saddam's bloody legacy (like a Dutch "peace" activist who tells an Iraqi friend of Vincent's: "Perhaps you need to see beyond your suffering under Saddam to view America more objectively."). Sometimes, the Western media is difficult to distinguish from the activists:
"Haider, for example, told me of acting as a translator for a German TV crew working outside Baghdad in the summer of 2003. The crew, he recounted, filmed a village trash heap, then reported , over his protests, that the smoldering compost was once 'fertile farmland destroyed by Coalition bombs'. In September, He accompanied a French photographer as she wandered through Baghdad looking for a scene that would dramatize Iraqi suffering resulting from war. Unable to find a suitable tableau, she paid an Iraqi woman to kneel in the debris of a partially demolished building and raise her arms to heaven as if imploring Allah to strike down the American infidels. 'The photographer had me ask the woman to remove her wristwatch so she wouldn't look too wealthy,' Haider related. Mohammad recalled watching an Al-Jazeera film crew pay men loitering on Saddoun Street to throw rocks and light a car on fire. 'Within a few minutes, Al-Jazeera made their own "anti-American" demonstration,' he said."
But in the end, Vincent concludes, as irritating as some foreigners can be, it's the Iraqis themselves who will make or break the new Iraq - it's they who will have to prove they can overcome their past to build a better future.

The obstacles are many. There is the culture of shame ("Even as they were being liberated from Saddam, Iraqis felt shamed by the fact that they couldn't do the job themselves.") which turns the "resistance" into a large scale form of "honor killing". There is "the Shia's heritage of martyrdom, insurrection and millennial fantasies", which doesn't inspire Vincent with much confidence for the democratic instincts of Iraq's majority group. There is the lack of civil society and a widespread absence of initiative ("Alienation festers deep in Iraq soul - alienation from the nation, its history, their own people and ultimately themselves."). There is the ingrained tribalism, and not the least, the country's dysfunctional sexual politics which cripple women and men in different but equal ways ("In Iraq, the relationships between men and women are sadomasochistic," says Vincent's female guide in Basra).

Yet for all the challenges of trying to straighten the crooked timber of humanity in Iraq, we simply have no choice but to persevere. Liberation was a good start, the reconstruction - both physical and moral - will be long and messy, but the alternatives are far worse than the current reality. And, if anything, Vincent's choice of paths throughout Iraq might have made his conclusions more pessimistic than they should be - after all, he did not concern himself too much with the reconstruction effort which, however haltingly, is going on around Iraq. The whole commercial aspect of Iraqi life is also largely absent from his book, if one is not to count numerous taxi drivers. In both cases, Vincent misses out on interaction with some of the most energetic, forward-looking, optimistic and entrepreneurial sections of Iraqi population - in other words, the drivers of the future change.

One other minor quibble; Vincent's "soul of Iraq" is to a very large extent a legatee of Iraq's tribal past and its Muslim character. But perhaps more could have been said about the corrosive, overlaying impact on human and national psyche of life under a totalitarian system of government, something I called before a Post-Totalitarian Stress Disorder.

Overall, however, this is some of the best journalism to come out of Iraq since the liberation; not uncritical yet sympathetic, sober but hopeful. Vincent is like a good friend - it is because he so obviously feels for the people of Iraq and wishes them a decent future that he is not afraid to go beyond pleasantries and cliches and offer a balanced, unsparing and truthful diagnosis and advice.

You can get Vincent's book in all good bookshops, or better still, order it straight from the publisher and save 50% on the cover price.


Monday, November 29, 2004

Gay bashing at the box office 

Britain's trendy left comments on the fate of Hollywood's latest "sword and sandals" epic:
"Alexander has proved to be the Thanksgiving weekend's biggest flop, and while it is a portrait of a legendary leader who ruled far-away lands more than 300 years before the birth of Christ, it has brutally exposed the cultural and moral divide which slices America in two."
No, it's not a divide between the three Oliver Stone's fans and the rest of the movie-going public who demand two hours of solid and enjoyable entertainment for their few bucks. As the "Independent" opines, "Alexander the (not so) Great fails to conquer America's homophobes."

While the article makes a rather uncontroversial point that some among the religious right might object to the film on the basis of the portrayal od Alexander as bisexual, the best the correspondents can do to back up this is a vague observation:
"According to one online critic, Alexander is a flop because he is 'as gay as a maypole'. Christians considering seeing the film have even been urged to 'speak to your pastors immediately because Satan is attempting to enter your mind'."
Wow, no less than an online critic points to Alexander's sexual orientation, and some unidentified Christians (one? two? ten of them?) have been urged by some equally unidentified parties to avoid the film. This is obviously the largest and the best organized Christian right political campaign since the evangelicals got behind George W Bush to put him back into the White House.

Not satisfied with having failed to prove a wide-spread conservative Christian backlash and boycott against the film, the "Independent" journos now cast their censorious net even wider. You see, it's not just a few ultra-consrvative Christian wackos, it's the whole damned society:
"The film is a blowsy biography of the Macedonian conqueror, long on emotional speeches and short on battles. But the poor script and suspect casting is only partly to blame... [The protests against the movie] echo the swing in the US towards conservatism and reflect what Americans view as the corrosive effect Hollywood and popular culture have had on the nation's values and moral standards." [my emphasis]
It's all them dumb, homophobic hicks in the red states, you see, who can't appreciate art. Alas, the Brit journalists present no evidence whatsoever that people are staying out of the theatres because they can't stand a thought of an ancient hero who swings both ways. Judging by the film's takings - $21.6 million so far - it looks like not many people in the blue states are coming to see it either. Could that, perchance, be not because the American movie-going audience has a problem facing implied screen bisexuality, but because - as the "Independent"'s Brit tabloid cousins might say - the film is "shite"?

Of course, rather than admit that Stone has produced a dismal flop that's all sandals and no swords, it's easier to blame the audience, particularly if you can again make a not-so-thinly veiled political point based on the whole "how can 59 million be so stupid?" meme, so popular across the sophisticated Europe.

But let's go back to the "reality-based" reality: take a similar recent example - another historical epic that bombed: "King Arthur"cost some $120 million to make and another $40 million to market. Yet it earned only just under $52 million at the domestic box office, $15 million of which over its opening weekend, arguably because both critics and the word of mouth declared this Round Table adventure to be a stinker. No homosexuality came into play - it's just that the public found the non-traditional, "historically accurate" take on the famous legend to be lame and boring. Just as, in fact, they're finding now with "Alexander."

And in case you think there might have instead been some latent anglophobia at work in turning Camelot into a Cameflop, remember "Alamo." Can't get more chauvinistic and jingoistic than the story of brave Texans' final stand at a monastery, can you? Surely, this was a perfect red state fodder - white men with guns killing a lot of brown people; great redneck flag-waving, foreigner-stomping, don't thread on me or I'll stick the barrel of my gun up you backside type of a movie. And yet, just like in history, "Alamo" fell. $107 million in production budget and $30 million in promotion had managed to translate into only $9 million on its opening weekend and $22 million over its short cinematic run.

The "Independent" might enjoy portraying America as a crazy Jesusland, a redneck paradise inhabited by cultural savages, religious freaks and other assorted bigots and cross-burners who bed their sisters. Based on the evidence provided - or lack thereof - however, others might just see the United States as the home of people who don't like watching crap movies. But that would not be a sophisticated and culturally aware enough a critique. Oh well.


Good news from the Islamic world, Part 3 

Some snippets of the past four weeks' progress of the Muslim world on the road to more freedom, democracy, free market and open, tolerant society.

Region-wide: Read Cinnamon Stillwell's profile piece "Moderate Muslims and Arabs Emerge from the Shadows":

"Even amidst the dictatorships of the Arab world, a brave few have refused to conform. Fed up with the scapegoating - of Americans, Jews, Christians, and the West - that passes for governance and journalism in their countries, some Muslims have begun writing their own narratives. They suffer intimidation, harassment, and even attacks at the hands of fellow Muslims, but by refusing to cave in to the extremists, they can perhaps pave the way for future generations to follow."
Stillwell's link-rich article provides an excellent round-up of individuals and organizations who are slowly starting to make a difference in the battle for the future of the Islamic world.

Afghanistan: For the latest "Good news from Afghanistan" read my
separate post.

Bahrain: The authorities defend their decision to seek a
free trade agreement with the United States, brushing off accusations from within the Arab Gulf Cooperation Council (AGCC) that such deal would violate the Council's internal tariff agreements. "[Prime Minister] Shaikh Khalifa said the FTA between Bahrain and the US was aimed at energising the economy of Bahrain as well as other Gulf states." The US is also rumored to be pursuing free trade deals with the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Bahrain's King Hamad also becomes the first Arab leader to
visit President Bush following his re-election in November.

Egypt: Another
political party in Egypt:

"Egyptian officials approved a second political party on Thursday, less than a month after authorizing the country's first new political party in 27 years... The Political Parties' Committee, a semi-official body headed by the speaker of the upper house of parliament, gave the green light for the formation of the Liberal Constitutional Social party after reviewing a request presented by its founding members. It becomes Egypt's 19th party. Three parties were set up by presidential decree in the 1970s: the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), the Marxist party Tagmmua and liberal-rightist Al Ahrar. Another 12 were rejected by the parties committee but won licenses through legal action."
Iran: Ordinary Iranians rejoice about the outcome of the US presidential elections, according to the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran:

"Millions of Iranians expressed their satisfaction on the outcome of the US Presidential elections and George W. Bush's victory by calling and congratulating each other. Many were seen walking in the streets and shaking each others hands or showing a discret V sign.

"Many are speaking about the promises made by Mr. Bush to back the Iranian Nation in its quest for freedom and democracy."
Iraq: For the latest "Good news from Iraq" read my separate post.

Reactions to the re-election of George Bush varied across Iraq, but
two out of three major ethnic and religious groups seem largely happy: "Iraqis were almost as sharply divided as the American electorate over the results of the U.S. presidential election: The majority of Shiites and Kurds appeared pleased that President Bush will serve another four-year term, while many Arab Sunnis expressed anger and regret...

"At almost the opposite end of the spectrum [to the Sunnis] are the Kurds, who are deeply grateful to Bush for forcing out Saddam, who was responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of their kinsmen in such incidents as the gassing of the northern Kurdish town of Halapja. The overwhelmingly secular Kurds are also sympathetic to Bush's vocal opposition to religious Islamic militants."
Says Kurdish poet Jawhar Kerman: "We were watching the results on the television and on the Internet. It was important for the Kurds that George Bush win the election for another term for many reasons." And writer Abd al-Karim Shaykhani adds:

"I will not exaggerate when I say that all the world was holding its breath for the elections, because this process is not a normal process. It's an election for the president of the strongest nation in the world and in [Bush's] hand he will have to power to control the world. And I can confirm here that the Kurdish nation was twice as interested in the elections than the other nations because Bush was the only one to fight against terrorism and he led the campaign to finish the Taliban [in Afghanistan] and also...because he was the president who destroyed Saddam's regime."
Kuwait: Kuwiatis, too, are happy about the result of US election:

"Kuwait is rejoicing over George W. Bush's victory in the US presidential election.

"Bush's father had liberated the country from Iraqi occupation as the US president in 1991, and for Kuwaitis this is all that matters.

" 'For us, it will be Bush, Bush and Bush, even if the grandson runs one day,' a Kuwaiti was quoted in a local newspaper as saying.

"Such is the fascination with the family here that a high rise building in the city's upmarket Shaab area is also named after Bush."
Morocco: The number of Internet subscribers increases to 3 million out of population of 32 million. Not too bad, considering that in 2001 Morocco had only 360,000 Internet users.

Pakistan: Foreign Minister
Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri comments on the re-election of George Bush:

"US President Bush victory for second term will surely be in the interest of Pakistan, [said Kasuri]... He termed the existing ties between Pakistan and US very good noting that relations between President Pervez Musharraf and President Bush are also very excellent. 'Our ties with US administration and other functionaries are also stronger,' he added.

"He hoped that President Bush's win for second term in US presidential elections will ensure continuity of policies. Had new administration come to power, it would have taken at least five to six months in gaining acquaintance. The norms of confidence have restored between Bush administration and Pakistan. Both the governments respect each other, he added. 'We want multidimensional relations with US,' he underscored."
Another senior government minister also joins in:

"Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad has said that president Bush success in US presidential elections for second term will lead to resolution of Kashmir and Palestine issues.

" 'With the success of President Bush for his second term, an interesting and crucial era of bilateral relations between Pakistan and USA is going to start. Pakistan will reap huge benefits from it,' he said."
And in legal news, Pakistani parliament has passed a law setting the death penalty for those guilty of "honor killings."

Peace finally breaking out on the Indian sub-continent?

"India has offered to consider Pakistani proposals on resolving the decades-old Kashmir issue if they are made formally.

"Pakistan's President, Pervez Musharraf, has informally floated some ideas on the future of the divided region, including demilitarising the state, independence, joint governance or some form of United Nations control.

"Foreign Minister Natwar Singh then announced New Delhi is scaling back of its troop presence in the Himalayan state [sic!]."
There's this goodwill gesture for the start: "Indian troops began pulling out of Kashmir yesterday as the Indian prime minister made his first visit to the disputed region to offer unconditional talks with 'anyone and everyone'... [Manmohan Singh] insisted at a news conference that 'I am not pessimistic. I am hopeful enough. Who could have imagined some 20 years ago that the Berlin Wall would dissolve, that Germany would be reunited?' India has not announced how many troops will be withdrawn from the highly militarised border with Pakistan, but news reports have said only about 40,000 of India's half a million troops would be redeployed."

Palestinians: are
preparing for the election, their first opportunity since 1996 to have a say in the course of their affairs:

"Freed from Yasser Arafat's one-man rule, Palestinians say they are eager and able to build the first real democracy in the Arab world, despite the dangers lurking on the road to Jan. 9 elections.

"The thrill of new possibilities is felt across the West Bank and Gaza Strip: the field of candidates for Palestinian Authority president gets more crowded by the day and includes a militant sheik turned moderate, a dissident once jailed by Arafat, and a prisoner of Israel campaigning from his cell...

"Sensing Fatah's weakened grip, other challengers are emerging in sectors previously excluded - devout Muslims, middle-class intellectuals and women. None are considered front-runners, but hope they can forge a winning coalition.

"Other possible contenders include Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political science professor and anti-corruption crusader once jailed by Arafat; Talal Sidr, a former Hamas leader-turned-moderate; journalist Majda al-Batch, 47, the only woman who has said she would run; Mustafa Barghouti, a distant cousin of Marwan Barghouti, who wants to speak for the 'huge silent majority' unaffiliated with any faction; and billionaire Monib al-Masri who says a skillful CEO is needed to untangle the Mideast mess."
And in a long-overdue start to security overhaul, the 70-member Department of Protection and Security, known as the "Death Squad" and accused of human rights violations and involvement in crime, is being finally disbanded by the Palestinian authority.

Saudi Arabia: From a statement by Ambassador to the United States
Prince Bandar bin Sultan in response to a group of Saudi religious scholars calling for jihad in Iraq:

"In regard to the open letter to the Iraqi people by a number of individuals calling for support of armed resistance in Iraq, I would like to state that these individuals do not represent the Saudi government nor the Council of Senior Ulama [Religious Scholars], both of whom have repeatedly condemned terrorism in Iraq and throughout the world. The Saudi people pray for the end of bloodshed in Iraq, and the restoration of peace, security and stability in Iraq for the benefit of the Iraqi people and the region."
Others inside Saudi Arabia are not happy either:

"The head of Saudi Arabia's Higher Judicial Council wants to prosecute teachers and clerics who encourage Saudi youths to fight against U.S. troops in Iraq.

"The Daily Okaz quoted Sheik Saleh al-Luhaidan Luhaidan as warning Saturday against the consequences of issuing statements and religious edicts inciting young Saudis to travel to Iraq to fight against U.S.-led multinational forces.

" 'The authorities should question and hold accountable the authors of the statements and edicts which make the people feel that fighting in Iraq is a heroic and religiously legitimate act,' Luhaidan said.

"He also said donating money to fighters and militants in Iraq at the present time 'is only bound to aggravate the situation.' 'We don't want to repeat in Iraq the same mistakes committed in Afghanistan,' he added."
And "the father of a young Saudi fighter killed in Iraq is planning to sue religious scholars who called for jihad against US forces... Majid Shabib al-Otaibi blamed the scholars, who declared 'jihad (holy war) against the occupiers is a duty for all who are able', for the death of his son Muqrin. Majid Otaibi said he was standing up against preachers who tried to 'corrupt the minds of young men'."

In other developments, "Saudi Arabia, a country where women are not allowed to drive, will next year see
its first woman pilot take to the skies flying with the private fleet of billionaire Saudi Prince Al Walid Bin Talal." And while women still don't have a political voice - this is a good start:

"Saudi businesswomen are to be allowed to directly choose board members of Riyadh's chamber of commerce for the first time... Previously female business owners had to delegate a man to cast their vote for the body's board, which counts over 39,000 companies as members. 'The 2,750 businesswomen registered with the chamber would be allowed to vote,' said Princess Haila al-Farhan, director of the women's section at the chamber..."
It would be far from the first time when the business freedoms lead to eventual political freedoms.

Somalia: A good news story about the triumph of
free market and competition even under the most difficult circumstances:

"A host of mobile phone masts testifies to the telecommunications revolution which has taken place despite the absence of any functioning national government since 1991.

"Three phone companies are engaged in fierce competition for both mobile and landline customers, while new internet cafes are being set up across the city and the entire country.

"It takes just three days for a landline to be installed - compared with waiting-lists of many years in neighbouring Kenya, where there is a stable, democratic government.

"And once installed, local calls are free for a monthly fee of just $10. International calls cost 50 US cents a minute, while surfing the web is charged at 50 US cents an hour - 'the cheapest rate in Africa' according to the manager of one internet cafe.

"But how do you establish a phone company in a country where there is no government?"
Read on to find out how (hint: "In some respects, it is actually easier.")

Tunisia: is setting up a
"free trade zone" with Turkey "to facilitate economic exchanges and encourage mutual investments" between the countries.


Iranian aid 

Pretty sick stuff, don't you agree?

"The 300 men filling out forms in the offices of an Iranian aid group were offered three choices: Train for suicide attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, for suicide attacks against Israelis or to assassinate British author Salman Rushdie.

"It looked at first glance like a gathering on the fringes of a society divided between moderates who want better relations with the world and hard-line Muslim militants hostile toward the United States and Israel.

"But the presence of two key figures — a prominent Iranian lawmaker and a member of the country's elite Revolutionary Guards — lent the meeting more legitimacy and was a clear indication of at least tacit support from some within Iran's government.

"Since that inaugural June meeting in a room decorated with photos of Israeli soldiers' funerals, the registration forms for volunteer suicide commandos have appeared on Tehran's streets and university campuses, with no sign Iran's government is trying to stop the shadowy movement."
In the immortal words of Mark Steyn, "The suicide bomber is a symbol of weakness, of a culture so comprehensively failed that what ought to be its greatest resource--its people--is instead as disposable as a firecracker."

I long for the day when 300 Iranians (or for that matter any other nationality) filling out forms in the offices of an aid group, will be merely applying for participation in training and education schemes to help them find good jobs and start own businesses. That might be the sign that the region finally "gets it."

(hat tip: Tanker Schreiber)


Secession, Ukraine style 

Isn't it wonderful how the left tends to spit the dummy whenever things don't go their way? But in a reverse of Marx's dictum, history might just repeat itself, the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy. When disenchanted Democrats contemplated secession of the red states after their November 2 debacle, we knew it was all just venting off some steam among the tolerant elite which can't tolerate to share the country with the "intolerant" masses. But when the eastern, pro-Russian regions of Ukraine are starting to talk about secession from the western, opposition-dominated part of the country, we know it might turn ugly.

"Mr Yushchenko, who delivered an impassioned speech to more than 100,000 of his supporters spending their seventh day braving the freezing weather in Kiev's Independence Square, was furious. He said politicians pushing for independence were criminals and should be prosecuted."
The coal-mining and heavily industrialized region of Donyetsk as well as Luhansk province to the north of Donyetsk and bordering Russia, among others, have declared they will conduct referenda over the next two weeks to decide on the question of autonomy, independence or perhaps amalgamation with Russia.

BBC has
a good orange/blue map of which regions of the country went for which candidate.

Note however on
this map in the Polish press that five of the provinces around Kiev which voted of Yushchenko have nevertheless pushed for autonomy referenda (in orange are the regions, which recognize Yushchenko as president, in blue the regions which on Sunday called for the referenda).

As I look at it, it strikes how much the opposition orange areas overlap with the furthest reach of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of Nations. Names like Lviv (Lwow), Volyn (Wolyn), Ternopil (Tarnopol), Zhytomyr (Zytomir), or Vynnitsia (Winnica) have such resonance to me because they are such a big part of both Polish and Ukrainian history. As I said before, the best thing that Poland can do to help heal the wounds of past centuries - and to destroy the hateful and outdated stereotype that Poles and Ukrainians are traditional enemies - is to help Ukraine finally achieve democracy.

I hope that the whole Ukraine can get there in one piece. But if another alternative is a bloody civil war, then perhaps what's fast becoming known as the peaceful "Czechoslovakia solution" might be the next best option. Let's hope that some of the over-heated talk on both sides is just a momentary brinkmanship and that cooler mood will descend on the decision-makers soon. Polish president
Kwasniewski (own translation), who is readying himself for another trip to Kiev to help the negotiations, is fearful of the break-up - yet sounds to me almost resigned to some such eventuality:

"There is a dangerous, real threat of a break-up. The more so, if it were to find support from outside of the country [i.e. Russia - AC]. I hope that there will not be such support, but we can't downplay the threat by any means. Ukraine is fractured between the West and the East, not only in the light of recent events, but also in the cultural, linguistic, historical and economic sense. Even if Yushchenko becomes the president, which is quite probable, it's difficult to believe that eastern Ukraine will come to love him. Just as it's difficult to imagine that the west of the country will accept anyone else but Yushchenko."
In the Russian-language media monitored from Poland, mixed messages: the cynical Western game using Ukraine as a mere pawn to get at Russia, radicals and adventurists surrounding Yushchenko, influence of foreign elements in fomenting trouble, but also criticism of Putin for overplaying his hand, and the observation that oligarchs who control the eastern Ukraine might threaten to join Russia but none of them are actually keen to do so, having seen how Putin deals with his own. Update: Another Russian reaction from a more liberal point of view (hat tip: Felis)

As they say, stay tuned.


Sunday, November 28, 2004

Havel for the UN? How about Kwasniewski? 

It looks like Glenn Reynolds has really started something with the "Vaclav Havel for the UN General Secretary" meme. What appealed to Glenn was Havel's unquestioned moral authority maintained throughout his life as a dissident-playwright, the Czech president, and now a retired elder statesman of world politics who's never afraid to take unpopular but right positions.

On the other hand, Havel's compatriot, blogger Tomas Kohl thought that the Havel for the UN push was a bad idea:
"Vaclav Havel used to be a great playwright. He was a decent president who provided some very useful PR for Czechia, especially in the early 90s when most Westeners thought our country was part of Great Mother Russia. Now, he's a pensioner with very fragile health.

"And above all, he is an intellectual. He loves to talk, and he loves to write even more. He is a very independent thinker with great distrust for any kind of organized political process. He's chaotic.

"In short, he's not the type of manager the UN now needs most, someone with enough willpower and stamina to clean every toilet, scrub all the floors, fire the corrupt staff and reform the rules so that Libya never gets to chair the Human Rights Commission again, ever."
Kohl then changed his mind, but unfortunately in Czech only so I'm not sure why, but I think he got it right the first time, and for the same reason I thought it was a bad idea when I originally read Glenn's post: moral clarity is an admirable, not to mention an all too rare, quality in politics, but, alas, it's not enough. Politics is a dirty game, which requires certain toughness and brutality, not to mention advanced administrative and managerial skills. That's precisely the reason why so many "moral leaders" turn out to be such disappointments when finally given the reins of power. It's one thing to know what is right and what needs to be done, but another to know how to achieve it in the ruthless dog-eat-dog (or bureaucrat-eat-bureaucrat) world of government and public administration.

So, here's another proposal I'm going to make, although should my staunchly right-wing family in Poland read it, they would undoubtedly crucify me for even thinking about it:

How about the Polish president, Aleksander Kwasniewski for the UN General Secretary?

His moral credentials aren't as good as Havel's; after all, when Havel was still working to overthrow Czechoslovakia's communist government, Kwasniewski was serving as the youngest minister (for sport) in Poland's last communist government. To many, Kwas (as his detractors like to shorten his surname; it also means "acid") is another opportunistic post-communist turncoat. And on one level they're clearly correct; but his record as president, however disappointing it is to any right-winger who actually had to live in Poland over that time, is reasonably impressive. Kwasniewski is a pro-market modernizer; he's also a staunch Atlanticist who oversaw his country's entry into NATO and is working hard to ensure that the European Union doesn't completely turn into a sclerotic anti-American Eurabia. Unquestionably the most prominent leader of the "New Europe", he presided over Poland's participation in the war on terror and the war in Iraq (the latter less than popular cause in Poland).

Just as importantly, he is a successful politician (two terms as president), a clever operator and a reasonable administrator. He's still quite young and energetic. Better still, his second term as president will expire soon. With Kwasniewski at the helm of the UN, the Polish right-wing can finally achieve its dream of getting him out of Poland, and the UN might get a leader who, while not perfect, is actually head and shoulders above other alternatives.

Just a thought.

Update: Glenn Reynold elaborates on the "Havel, not Kofi" meme in a "Wall Street Journal" opinion piece (hat tip, you guessed it, Instapundit).

I'm sticking by my arguments. In addition, let me go out on a limb - I believe that despite all its numerous faults, it's important to have an organization that counts as its members everyone in the international community; the good, the bad, and the ugly. But the UN needs a deep and thorough reform to make it relevant and credible again. So, mend it, don't end it, and if we're to do so, we need a strong leader with a proven track record. Maybe somebody like Kwasniewski, maybe somebody else - as long as they do the job.


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