The great sharpening

Tell me your metaphor, I’ll tell you what kind of third-rate mind you are. Condoleeza Rice’s new talking point is that the Middle East is going through a “great sharpening” of differences between the voices of extremism and the voices of moderation. Except that her moderates are people like the Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian regimes and hapless clientelist buffoons like Fouad Seniora of Lebanon and Abu Mazen of Palestine. She says, don’t pay attention to all the violence and “day-to-day” news. There’s a wider change at hand that’s much more important than that. And it won’t be done anytime soon. So basically her argument is that the Bush administration doesn’t need to be held accountable for its disastrous Middle East policy because in fact it has a master plan and in 20 years everything will come out fine and dandy, you just wait.

Extended quotes from recent interviews with Rice after the jump — don’t miss the special goodness from Fox News at the end.

Continue reading The great sharpening

New Pentagon outfit wants more agitprop in Iran

Not being satisfied with the fact that Voice of America/Radio Farda broadcasts to Iran are already the most popular in the country, the Bush administration would like to see lies and disinformation inserted just as they do in Iraq:

WASHINGTON – In another indication that some in the Bush administration are pushing for a more confrontational policy toward Iran, a Pentagon unit has drafted a report charging that U.S. international broadcasts into Iran aren’t tough enough on the Islamic regime.

The report appears to be a gambit by some officials in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s office and elsewhere to gain sway over television and radio broadcasts into Iran, one of the few direct tools the United States has to reach the Iranian people.

McClatchy Newspapers obtained a copy of the report this week, and it also has circulated on Capitol Hill. It accuses the Voice of America’s Persian TV service and Radio Farda, a U.S. government Farsi-language broadcast, of taking a soft line toward Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime and not giving adequate time to government critics.

U.S. broadcasting officials and others who’ve read the report said it’s riddled with errors.

They also see it as a thinly veiled attack on the independence of U.S. international broadcasting, which by law is supposed to represent a balanced view of the United States and provide objective news.

“The author of this report is as qualified to write a report on programming to Iran as I would be to write a report covering the operations of the 101st Airborne Division,” Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Larry Hart, a spokesman for the board, which oversees U.S. non-military international broadcasting, said that the radio and TV operations have covered Iran’s human rights abuses extensively and have featured appearances by dissidents – who sometimes telephoned from Iranian jails.

Surveys have shown that Radio Farda is the most-listened-to international radio broadcast into Iran, Hart said.

Three U.S. government officials identified the author of the report as Ladan Archin, a civilian Iran specialist who works for Rumsfeld.

Archin was out of town this week and unavailable for comment. She works in a recently established Pentagon unit known as the Iran directorate.

Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a Pentagon spokesman, said last week that the unit was established this spring as part of a government-wide reorganization aimed at better promoting democracy in Iran. He confirmed Tuesday night that Archin had been asked to prepare the report. “It was meant to be a look at how the program was working and to determine if it was an effective use of taxpayer dollars,” Ballesteros said.

Critics charge that the unit resembles the pre-Iraq-war Office of Special Plans, which received intelligence reports directly from Iraqi exile groups, bypassing U.S. intelligence agencies, which distrusted the exiles. Many of the reports proved to be fabricated or exaggerated. Some of the directorate’s staff members worked in the now-defunct Office of Special Plans, and some intelligence officials fear that directorate also is maintaining unofficial ties to questionable exiles and groups.

That is so 2002! Ladan Archin, by the way, was a Wolfowitz protégé from SAIS (surely by now one of the most discredited academic institution that does international relations, considering its alumni) involved in the Iraq war run-up and a connection with Ahmed Chalabi.

The coming fight over the Nile

This has been playing out for a few years already, and is worth keeping an eye on. For Egypt, Sudan’s political future is crucial to this issue and is one reason Cairo is so adamantly opposed to the partition of Sudan and to foreign intervention in Darfur. The thing is, this year had the biggest volume of water coming into the Nile in decades (presumably a consequence of climate change), and I’m not sure what the scientific impact of diverting more water upstream would be on Egypt. But no matter what, Egypt will fight tooth and nail to preserve the status quo:

The distribution of Nile River water has been regulated by the 1929 Blue Nile agreement between the United Kingdom and Egypt, and the 1959 agreement between Sudan and Egypt. The latter gave Cairo a de facto right to veto any project using Nile water in other riparian states. Although this treaty remained unchallenged over the years, this is no longer the case. Indeed, many African states have experienced robust G.D.P. growth rates in recent years — with the notable exception of Eritrea, which suffers immensely due to its border war with Ethiopia and its devastating economic policy of self-reliance — and this has increased their need to develop their infrastructure, produce more energy, and provide more water to their populations. Understandably, the majority of the Nile River countries now want to re-negotiate the decades-old treaties.

Considering Egypt’s considerable fall in regional stature over the past few years, it won’t be in a great position to re-negotiate the treaty when the time comes. And while in the past some officials have threatened military action over this issue, I can’t imagine they would really be able to carry them out considering that the other states have a pretty strong case that they would be righting an unfair treaty.

Map of Tunisian political prisons

There’s a fascinating post over at Global Voices on the Tunisian blogosphere. As many of you know, Tunisia is one of the most information-repressive countries in the Arab world. It has what’s probably the most advanced censorship authorities in the region, and very actively monitors the internet, taps phones, follows dissidents and threatens them. The very nature of the regime is that it is a police state, run by the police for the police — this is not a military regime or ruling family type regime.

One exiled Tunisian blogger, Sami Ben Gharbia, has put together with some Google Maps magic a map of Tunisian political prisoners. This kind of information is rarely available publicly, and banned in Tunisia (and not discussed in the Arab and international media, in which the Tunisian regime buys positive coverage every time it can). A few months ago I attended a meeting of North African human rights activists. There were some Tunisians there who told horrible stories of detention and attacks against the families of political detainees. In the case of one of Tunisia’s most prominent activists, Siham ben Sedrine (whose husband is still in jail), the Tunisian media waged an extremely nasty campaign accusing her of prostitution and published doctored porn pictures of her. While other countries, such as Egypt, have more political prisoners Tunisia has one of the nastiest attitudes to dissidents in the region.

Commenting on the map at, the site Sami runs, astrubal is pretty scathing about Tunisian bloggers’ reaction to the new site – he says there has not been one mention of the site since it was launched a few days ago, and calls the Tunisian blogosphere the ‘lobotomisphere’. Bear in mind that, according to some sources, the Tunisian government is currently holding an estimated 350 political prisoners in prisons around the country, and there are regular human rights reports focusing on the treatment and welfare of the prisoners. Something you’d think was a really major topic of interest for Tunisian bloggers, but astrubal seems to be right – when I checked just now, not one of the French or English blogs aggregated at the Tunisian Blogs aggregator mentioned or linked to Sami’s site. I asked Sami by email why he thought this was the case:
I really do not expect to see the so-called “Tunisian bloggers” or Blogosphere talking about this issue. Most of them have chosen the self censorship and have decided to avoid discussing and writing about political content that may hurt the Tunisian regime. They talk about everything except Tunisians’ interior affaires. It is The Taboo of the Tunisian blogosphere. Besides, I’m part of the banned bloggers who do not save the Tunisian regime and who are not recognized as “member” of the Tunisian blogosphere. As the blogger and journalist Wael Abass wrote last week on the Deutsche Presse Agentur: “Sami Bin Gharbia, the Tunisian owner of, is destined to become a refugee both physically and virtually. He lives in Holland as a political refugee and he is banned from the Tunisian blog aggregator (…) so he took refuge in the Egyptian blog aggregator hosted by”
Not only we are censored in Tunisia, we have also been censored on the Tunisian blogger aggregator and even on the periodic “Echoes from the Tunisian blogosphere” which is published on Global Voices. They do not hear our “Echoes” only because we write politics! We do understand their fear to talk about those issues, especially those living in Tunisia. Hopefully, they understand our concern to defend our citizenship and rights? Remember, this is the Web! And we are committed to defend this extraordinary tool against the censorship and its passive ally: the self censorship.
As Sami says, those within Tunisia who speak out on human rights live in a climate of fear. During the World Summit on the Information Society, Ethan Zuckerman gave a vivid account of meeting with the Tunisian Human Rights League. Tunisian bloggers may not yet be in a position to create or discuss a site like Sami’s, but according to one site that linked to Tunisian Prisoners Map, users from Tunisian ISPs are clicking through.

It’s a very interesting debate, and again do check out the map of Tunisian political prisons — someone needs to do that for every Arab country.

Useful idiots

Tony Judt on Bush’s useful idiots:

It is particularly ironic that the ‘Clinton generation’ of American liberal intellectuals take special pride in their ‘tough-mindedness’, in their success in casting aside the illusions and myths of the old left, for these same ‘tough’ new liberals reproduce some of that old left’s worst characteristics. They may see themselves as having migrated to the opposite shore; but they display precisely the same mixture of dogmatic faith and cultural provincialism, not to mention the exuberant enthusiasm for violent political transformation at other people’s expense, that marked their fellow-travelling predecessors across the Cold War ideological divide. The use value of such persons to ambitious, radical regimes is an old story. Indeed, intellectual camp followers of this kind were first identified by Lenin himself, who coined the term that still describes them best. Today, America’s liberal armchair warriors are the ‘useful idiots’ of the War on Terror.

A must-read.

Frank Rich: Why Bush went to war

I am seeing a lot of plugs for New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s new book, The Great Story Ever Sold, which makes the argument that Bush went to war against Iraq because Karl Rove needed a “war president” for the midterm elections in 2002. This simple explanation is perhaps the most convincing I have heard, especially as plenty of other people — big business, the neo-cons — were ready to jump on the bandwagon. From Gary Kamiya’s review in Salon:

Far more compelling — and originally argued — is his insight into the real reason Bush went to war in Iraq. His answer to this endlessly debated question, and his related excursus on the personality of Bush himself, may be the single most lucid and convincing one I’ve ever read. Although it is almost painfully obvious, and wins the Occam’s Razor test of being the simplest, it is put forward considerably less often than more ideological theories — whether about controlling oil, supporting Israel, establishing American hegemony, or one-upping his father.

Perhaps this is because Americans, in their innocence, cannot accept that any president would deliberately launch a major war simply to win the midterm elections. Yet Rich makes a powerful argument that that is the case.

Playing the key role, not surprisingly, is Karl Rove. “To track down Rove’s role, it’s necessary to flash back to January 2002,” Rich writes. The Afghanistan war had been a success. “In a triumphalist speech to the Republican National Committee, Rove for the first time openly advanced the idea that the war on terror was the path to victory for that November’s midterm elections.” Rove decided Bush needed to be a “war president.” The problem, however, was that Afghanistan was fading from American minds, Osama bin Laden had escaped, and the secret, unglamorous — and actually effective — approach America was taking to fighting terror wasn’t a political winner. “How do you run as a vainglorious ‘war president’ if the war looks as if it’s winding down and the number one evildoer has escaped?”

The answer: Wag the dog. Attack Iraq.

Now ideology comes in, along with the peculiar alliance of neocons and Cold War hawks that had been waiting for their chance. “Enter Scooter Libby, stage right.” As Rich explains, Libby, Cheney and Wolfowitz had wanted to attack Iraq for a long time, not to stop terrorism but for the familiar neocon reasons of remaking the Middle East and the familiar Cold War hawk reasons of trumpeting America’s might. “Here, ready and waiting on the shelf in-house, were the grounds for a grand new battle that would be showy, not secret, in its success — just the political Viagra that Rove needed for an election year.”

Obviously I’ll need to read the book to see what Rich’s argument really is, but this sounds very interesting indeed.


If you read French, go immediately check out Bakchich, an excellent webzine/blog about sub-Saharan Africa, the Maghreb and the Middle East (but it’s especially good on the Maghreb and Muslim Africa.) They have a handsomely designed PDF magazine (a kind of Canard Enchainé or Private Eye for the region) as well as a blog, and some interesting articles on the security shake-up recently carried by King Muhammad VI in Morocco, Tunisia’s latest attacks on press freedom, and more. Very nice cartoons too, including this one on Tunisia:

Picture 1-2

The caption says: “19 years of happiness: corruption, lockdown on civil liberties, poverty… the happy results on Ben-Alism.”

My first time

One more remark on the NDP’s annual conference: I think it’s the biggest (and maybe only) surprise that Gamal has declared Egypt’s ambitions to start a civil nuclear program.

As posted a few days ago, several states in the region could be pushed to start civil nuclear program as a reaction to Iranian nuclear ambitions.

As far as I recall, this is the first time for an Egyptian government or party official to talk about it publicly. I think it is also the first time for Gamal to talk about national security issues, which so far have been the domain of Hosni Mubarak and some security officials. This further positions Gamal, by adapting Ahmadenijads tactics of playing around with the national pride.

The US envoy to Cairo said soon afterwards that the US could be willing to cooperate with Egypt on its program.

So I would speculate that the issue was already raised when Gamal recently went to renew his pilot’s license in the US, as the NDP tried to sell his trip.

Otherwise, I think the best commentary on the NDP conference has once more been chipped in by inerrant Egyptian street humour:

“They called it ‘New thought and a second leap toward the future?’ When was the first time?�