Monday, August 31, 2009

A Winnable Afghan War: Afghanistan isn't Iraq

A headline caught my eye today: "U.S. commander says Afghan war winnable, new strategy needed" - a statement that isn't as in-your-face obvious as it might seem.

The CNN article focuses on their synopsis of what General Stanley McChrystal said; the military action that the Obama administration has called "a 'war of necessity' "; and conditions in in Afghanistan.

A few quick observations or opinions.

Afghanistan isn't Iraq

Looks like going after terrorists in Afghanistan isn't going to be presented as a unilateral action, like America's unilateral, United Nations-mandated invasion of Iraq, that involved over two dozen nations. CNN quoted President Obama on this point: This is "a 'war of necessity'".

The Middle East Isn't Vietnam

Even with the president's reassurances, I think it's only a matter of time before enlightened self-interest wears thin, and anti-war protests start. Again.

Anti-war protests and movements are nothing new. Following the first 'war to end all wars,' Maurice Elvey directed "High Treason."
"...'It was also a film that was so overtly anti-war that it promoted itself as the "Peace Picture,"...' in which the chairman of the peace movement blew up the president of his own country...."
(August 7, 2009)
I was in a 'peace march' myself, in the seventies. Or, rather, a march to demonstrate a lack of solidarity with the (in my view, daft) American strategies being implemented in Vietnam. I wasn't exactly supportive of the war in high school, either: not as it was being waged. I think this re-creation of one of my high school art projects gives an impression of my attitude:

If that looks familiar, you've probably seen what I used as my model: a cartoon from a humor magazine of the period. What can I say? I've never been good at conforming.1

The Vietnam war, as described by America's dominant culture, taught a great many lessons. Many, I think, learned the wrong lessons, like:
  1. Military anything is bad
  2. America is to blame
  3. America mustn't get involved in world affairs
    • Except for
      • Environmental issues
        • Which are its fault (see #2)
      • Human rights issues
        • Which are its fault (see #2)
      • Economic issues
        • Which are its fault (see #2)
        • Provided that the right (or, rather, left) policies are supported
  4. War is always avoidable
    • With no unpleasant consequences

War isn't Nice

I've encountered a few people who actually fit a particular stereotype of the 'patriotic American:' not particularly informed or reflective; convinced that America is always right; apparently convinced that most if not all dealings with foreigners are suspect; excessively confident in the ability of guns and bombs to solve problems.

I haven't known many: but they do exist. And, they are among the very small number of people who seem glad to learn that an armed conflict has started.

I have yet to meet a member of the American armed forces who likes war, or who is glad to hear that one has started. Given the size of this country's military, I suppose a few might exist. But I think they're more likely to be found in "M*A*S*H" episodes than in the real world.

It would be very nice to live in a world where all conflicts could be solved with discussions and understanding. Sometimes that approach works. Sometimes it doesn't. Pakistan seems to have tried diplomacy and conciliation in the Swat Valley. That time, it didn't work. (May 31, 2009)

The War on Terror Won't be Over Soon

I'm not being defeatist. On the other hand, the conflict we're in isn't like the old battles between nations that could be over in a few months or years. Even if Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Al Shabaab were to suddenly disappear, 'Islamic extremism' wouldn't go away.

Many (most, I trust) Muslims and Muslimas are not terrorists and don't approve of killing people who don't look and act just like them. On the other hand, some (a few, I hope) don't seem to either like or approve of what's happened since the signing of the Magna Carta are convinced that their particular flavor of Islam is right, that everybody else is wrong, and that - as a rule - people who don't do things their way should be killed.

People like that just aren't safe to have around.

Part of the solution, I think, is confronting force with force: intelligently; not reprising the daft micromanagement of Washington in Vietnam. I don't like it. But I don't like the idea of another 9/11 either. And I don't like the occasional honor killing or execution of a trouser-wearing man. In the short term, I do seriously think that force is needed.

Another part of the solution, again I think, is for the global culture to change.

One option is for everybody else to trash what we've learned about individual rights and do things the "Islamic" way - as determined by a few experts. Aside from people who think the Taliban and company are right, I doubt that this would be satisfactory.

Another alternative - one of many, of course - is something that I think has begun: a re-evaluation of Islam by Muslims and Muslimas who have learned to get along with today's world. That, coupled with radical changes in how some countries govern themselves, could result in a world where violent people who are convinced that they alone are the 'real' followers of Islam are as effective and respected as white supremacists are in today's America.

A perfect outcome? No: but this isn't a perfect world.

Related posts: In the news:
1A word of explanation for that poster's 'message' might be in order. Although I thought there might be a sensible reason for the fighting in Vietnam, it was pretty obvious that Washington had no intention of winning the conflict.

My view, as a teenager, was that if the war was winnable, an effort should be made to win it: not just show the Vietcong that we were able to take a hill, and were willing to give it up again.

If the war wasn't winnable, withdrawal and regrouping was an obvious option. I knew a little about Dunkirk.

If there wasn't a good reason for fighting: I figured that America should withdraw. As someone told me, 'we could say we won, and leave - who would know the difference?'

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Oh, Dear: Libyan Terrorist Traded for Oil?

I don't - by any means - buy into the 'it's all about oil' explanation for the war on terror. Or, as some see it, the plot by the CIA, or the Jews, or, for all I know, the Jesuit assassins,1 to blow up New York City's World Trade Center.

Before going further, a sort of disclaimer: I'm doing a lot of simplification here, to keep the length of this post to a reasonable length. I know that each situation I describe is more complicated: I'm sketching out what I see as the gist of what happened.

Oil? Yeah, it's Important

On the other hand, I do realize that petroleum is - at present - a vitally-needed resource. It hasn't always been that way, and I think it's only a matter of time before an economically viable alternative to fossil fuels is developed.

It's that need for oil that turned the Middle East into a prosperous place. For the leaders, at any rate. There's nothing wrong with becoming wealthy: as far as I'm concerned. But it does bring changes. And that can be stressful.

It Hasn't Been All Beef and Skittles for the Middle East

Western civilization started in the Middle East, thousands of years go, but the area has, for one reason or another, stayed out of the mainstream for the last half-millennium or so. That wasn't the best time to drop out. The last five centuries, from the time of Henry VII of England to Barack Obama of America, have seen quite a lot of change.

People whose cultures and customs had been ancient when Abraham moved out of Ur, and who hadn't been forced to change much since, were abruptly confronted with a world of routine transoceanic flights, individual rights, and satellite feeds with hundreds of television channels bringing a world of Barbies, soap operas, bikinis, Mickey Mouse, Ex-Lax, and Budweiser into their communities.

No wonder some of them flipped.

I think I understand some of the reasons that Al Qaeda repurposed airliners as King-Kong-Size cruise missiles. That doesn't mean I approve.

Negotiating With Terrorists: Maybe Not the Best Idea

Ever since the terrorists/patriotic heroes/lions of Islam calling themselves Black September took Olympic athletes hostage in Munich. German authorities decided to be nice, reasonable people: and entered into negotiations.

Then, agreeing to arrange transportation for the terrorists to Cairo, the Germans set up what was "probably one of the worst planned acts in the history of military special operations." (Munich Massacre)

From some descriptions, I think the verb "planned" represents a generous and optimistic assessment. By the time the fires were put out and the smoke cleared, the terrorists were dead - and so were the hostages. There are pretty good odds that some of the hostages had been killed by German forces.

On a more positive note, although the terrorists had definitely intended to kill the hostages, German forces almost certainly hadn't had that in mind.

That was 1972. If my memory serves, by that time "skyjackers" had developed a risky but rewarding business. They'd hijack an airliner, demand something, get it, and leave.

After the little dust-up at the Munich Olympics, the idea of not negotiating with terrorists caught on.

I think there's something to be said for it - and against it. I could argue either side, but I'm inclined to think that a policy of not rewarding undesired behavior is sensible. And when 'negotiation' means finding out what terrorists want, and providing it: that's rewarding undesired behavior.

Libya, The United Kingdom, Negotiations, and a Libyan Terrorist

I know: Not everybody thinks Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi is a terrorist. I'll admit to a bias: I don't approve of blowing up an airliner with people in it, and dropping the lot on a village. That's not nice.

The point is, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi played an important role in setting up the murder of hundreds of people in the sky over Lockerbie. He was sprung recently on 'compassionate' grounds, so that he could go back to Libya, get a hero's welcome, and die in peace, surrounded by the adulation due someone who was responsible for mass murder. In Libya, anyway.

Looks like the fuss isn't over.

According to the London Times, Libya and BP (British Petroleum, I take it) were negotiating for rights to explore part of Libya, looking for oil. Libya wouldn't play ball unless some of its terrorists were released.

Then al-Megrahi was released and - presto chango! - BP got the rights.

Oh. Dear.

Judging from what I saw in the Times, there's a lot of politics involved. Naturally. Eventually, it may be possible to sort out what actually happened and whether or not there was some sort of deal.

Do I like what I read? Not at all.

Do I really believe that the U.K. sold out to Libya? I haven't a clue: there's nothing to go on but a leaked letter, a whacking great coincidence, and speculation.

Am I satisfied, being uncertain about what happened? No: but life's like that. I've learned to deal with not knowing everything.

Do I think what Great Britain did was, on the whole, prudent? Short run, maybe: they got the oil deal they wanted. Long run: maybe not. This smells like the Barbary pirates situation: and I really do not think anyone wants to go through that again.

This sort of decision isn't limited to British leaders. One of the reasons I'm profoundly grateful that I don't have to lead America or any other country is that leadership means being faced with difficult decisions.

The trick, I think, to making non-disastrous decisions is to develop a sane set of priorities, and consider long-term consequences. Easier said than done, I'm afraid.

Related posts: In the news: Background:
1 Yeah: Jesuit assassins. You can't make this sort of thing up. I ran into references to Jesuit assassins while researching a post for another blog. Tony Alamo and others express rather colorful views about what they apparently see as a vast conspiracy involving the Catholic Church.

There's even, they reveal, a black pope! In that, actually, they're right. Sort of. No, there isn't another pope right now: but "black pope" is a nickname of the head of the Jesuit order. Jesuits, the Society of Jesus, is quite influential, and their uniform is black.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

No Nukes on North Korean Cargo Ship

So much depends on how things are put. And, what part of an event is considered important by those describing it.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently seized a cargo ship on route to Iran from North Korea. News services around the world reported what happened. Each hand its own angle on the story. In this sense, "angle" means "a biased way of looking at or presenting something". (Princeton's WordNet)

I'm not sure I buy that definition entirely: at least, if the word "biased" is taken as a pejorative. If "biased" is used to describe having a particular point of view, okay.

Provided that the reporting doesn't have a shot at implying that, since no North Korean nuclear weapons material was found on the ANL Australia, terrorist claims about the Democratic People's Republic of Korea by imperialist capitalist warmongers are all lies. And no: I didn't read anything like that: but, being born during the Truman administration, I've read - and heard - plenty of serious thinkers express that sort of idea.

Australian Ship Seized, Korean Ship Seized: It's the Same Ship

The ship that was seized was reported as being North Korean (The Korea Times) and Australian (The Age). It's also a Bahaman ship.

The ANL Australia is owned by the ANL Shipping Company, an Australian firm; flies a Bahaman flag, and was hauling cargo for North Korea. (The Age, ANL)

It Depends on What You Think is Important

An Australian paper focused on the probe that the Australian-owned ship - and probably its owners - will face. My take on that is that the probe is necessary, but the company may not have knowingly been breaking the United Nations rules about North Korea exporting weapons.

The South Korean paper focused on actions of the UAE and the possible (probable) violation of U.N. Resolution 1874 by North Korea.

The Wall Street Journal and CNN had more to say about the diplomatic angle of the event. The Wall Street Journal's article went into a bit more detail.

And, typos happen: CNN reported that the ship is the "AML Australia." The company doesn't have a ship by that name, but does have one called the "ANL Australia," the ship identified by The Age. (ANL Schedule Search) I haven't been able to find a ship called the "AML Australia," apart from iterations of the CNN story, or CNN's source, and my guess is that an Australian news service is more likely to know the name of an Australian ship, than editors on the other side of the world. My guess is that The Age and Reuters are right about the ANL Australia's name.

Australian/Bahaman/Korean Ship Seized, Weapons Found: Good News, Bad News

The bad news is that it looks very much like North Korea is determined to ignore U.N. Resolution 1874. And, is quite willing to supply weapons to Iran, including:
  • Rocket launchers
  • Detonators
  • RPGs
It's not just Australia, The Bahamas and North Korea that's involved. Reuters says France, Italy and China are linked to the situation. That could mean anything from being involved with the illegal shipment of arms, to having cargo on the same ship.

The good news is that the weapons apparently were quite conventional. No nuclear material - at least none that got mentioned in the news. After what happened (or didn't, depending on which of Syria's stories you read) in the Syrian desert, nuclear weapons material from North Korea bound for the Middle East isn't that much of a stretch.

Like I said, good news.

Related posts: In the news:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

'America Tortured Prisoners' - Here We Go Again

It looks like there's another cycle starting in the news. The despicable deeds of America and/or the (diabolical, what else?) Bush administration - or maybe it'll be just the wicked CIA - are being investigated.

The claim is that America has been torturing prisoners. Specifically, using waterboarding, and, once, telling one of the brains behind the 9/11 attack, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that his children would be killed if his bunch attacked America again.

Telling someone his children will be killed: that's over the top. Waterboarding? I'm not so sure.

Back when reporters were collecting video of demonstrators waterboarding each other, I did a little checking. Waterboarding is unpleasant, obviously. I'd just as soon not experience it. But if it's torture, then the American military tortures its own troops. Waterboarding is a part of military training, to teach soldiers what to expect if they're captured - and how to deal with it.

And, I don't think that the America military tortures its own soldiers, any more than I am appalled by all the poor, uneducated minorities being drafted to fight for America's Big Oil.

On the other hand, I realize that America's government can make mistakes. Some have been whoppers.

The Ulysses S. Grant administration set the gold standard, so to speak, for corruption, I think the treaty of Versailles, written with the (I trust) well-intentioned help of President Wilson, created a mess that we're still sorting out. I can't approve of the way the American government handled citizens with Japanese ancestors during WWII, and I really don't like the way Hawaii was acquired.

Back to what's supposed to have happened in interrogations: It's quite possible that there have been abuses. If so, I'm pretty sure that they'll be identified and corrected. Maybe over-corrected. I don't think America is perfect, remember?

Still, I like it here, and don't know of a better place to live. That's an informed statement: I did some rather serious looking around, in the seventies and eighties, and didn't find a better alternative. For me, anyway.

Finally, I think it would be advisable to remember that the not-niceness of Al Qaeda, and the other outfits who want to make the world safe for their particular take on Islam, take not-niceness to great heights. Or depths.
"The hot wind swirls around the human bones and cracked skulls that litter the forsaken desert lands in Western Iraq.

"We are standing in the middle of what was an al Qaeda execution site, just outside an intricate bunker complex that the organization used to torture and murder its victims, the bodies left to rot or be eaten by animals.

"From the back of the police truck the opening to the first bunker is barely discernible in the distance.

" 'Al Qaeda came in as a massive force' one of the officers says as we bump along the harsh terrain. 'They stole our cars, our personal cars. They kidnapped two of my brothers. They blew up the house over there.'..."

"... And al Qaeda is still able to send a message to those who dare oppose them.

The police officers show us blood stains in the desert near the bunkers and tell us how they found two beheaded bodies just a month ago. They were identified as being the brothers of two police officers from another city, Ramadi....
Related posts: In the news: Background:

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Honesty Traces" and the Marines in Afghanistan: Hansel and Gretel Were Right

The article's headline caught my eye: "Hansel and Gretel vs. Roadside Bombs." That was intriguing enough to look up, and what I found was an article on United States Marines in Afghanistan.

The Marines' Combat Logistics Battalion 3, based out of Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, had a problem. They'd been driving off-road, to avoid bombs planted by the Taliban. They'd been taking different routes, too, but the Taliban always seemed to know where the trucks would be.

It took quite a few GPS units, maps, and analysis, but they found out that they'd been driving different routes: that tended to converge on a few spots. It wasn't so much careless behavior, as a matter of the terrain. Those were natural bottlenecks, sort of like fords in rivers or the solid ground between marsh and swamp you'll find in parts of Northern Minnesota.

The solution this time was pretty straightforward: take a careful look for bombs already planted, and set up sniper teams to discourage "militants" from planting more.

In this case the problem and the solution are perfectly clear - with 20-20 hindsight. Before someone started tracking the exact routes, I'm not so sure that the convergence on spots in remote areas of Helmand Province was all that obvious.

I've made the point before: The American military makes mistakes, and learns from them. (June 30, 2008)

More-or-less related posts: In the news:

Friday, August 21, 2009

Lockerbie Bomber: Hero's Welcome in Libya Follows Compassionate Release

Before December 21, 1988, Lockerbie was known to the people who lived in the area, and very few others.

Then a bomb exploded on Pan Am flight 103. A few minutes later, all 259 people on the airliner were dead, along with 11 more on the ground.

Libyan terrorists were later caught, tried, and sentenced. And, there were the usual claims of faked evidence. (Conspiracy theories are a perennial favorite (January 14, 2009))

Recently Abdel Basset al-Megrahi got sick. Terminally ill. He's one of the 'Lockerbie bombers,' serving time in the U. K. - or was, until the judicial system there felt sorry for him and let him go home to Libya. And a hero's welcome.

Compassion is nice. I'm sure that Abdel Basset al-Megrahi feels a bit better, now that he's had an opportunity to receive the adulation due (in Libya, at any rate) someone who's responsible for mass murder. And, he'll probably enjoy what's left of his life more, now that he's no longer surrounded by people who aren't up to his standards.

As I said, compassion is nice. But it's something that might be nice, even if it were extended to people who aren't responsible for snuffing out 270 lives. Like the friends and families of the people murdered by Abdel Basset al-Megrahi.

The judicial system of America, quite a few years ago, discovered that, just as there were those pathetic-looking, sympathetic 'victims of society' who showed up in the courtrooms regularly, there were victims of crime.

Not long after that discovery, a concept sometimes called 'victims' rights' was discussed. To some extent, the American judicial process now takes into account survivors of criminal activity: and those whose lives were linked with the non-survivors.

It's a concept which has, I think, some merit: and which might, with some modifications, be adopted by the judicial systems of other countries.

Just a thought.

I've mentioned before that, preferences for regarding all nations as equivalent notwithstanding, not all nations are alike. I think the same could be said about people.

Finally, I'm with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband's response to the hero's welcome Libya gave the terrorist. According to him, seeing that was "deeply distressing" and "deeply upsetting" - strong words from a Britisher, but not, I think, inappropriate in this case.

Related posts: In the news: Background:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Afghan Election: A Few Observations

Afghanistan had its third election today. Third since an American-led coalition of forces took down the Taliban regime, anyway.

Afghanistan hasn't had a particularly placid history. It was founded by Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1747, a buffer between the Russian and British empires until 1919, and a fledgling democracy until 1973. Then it was another country with the usual coup - counter-coup - civil war experience. The Taliban took control in 1996, sheltered Osama Bin Laden, destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha statues, and did their part to make Islam look like something between a psychiatric disorder and an evil cult from a Buchanan b-movie.

Violence Mars Afghan Election!

It's a little hard to tell, even though Pajhwok Afghan News defied the Afghan ban on reporting terrorist activity: but it looks there weren't a lot of attacks on polling places. We'll probably know more later.

Remember Bamiyan? All 412 polling stations there were open for this election.

On the other hand, in one place people were so intent on getting to the polls that police were called in - and a gate was broken.

Rampant Irregularities!

Two words:
  • Hanging
  • Chads
In Afghanistan, there was a 13-year-old who voted by using an ersatz registration card - and was caught.

I'm pretty sure there were other problems, too. Like the polling station that was re-opened after the order came through that voting hours were being extended. The workers told CNN reporters that 1,000 people had voted so far. The reporters didn't think they'd seen 1,000 people come in.

Fraud? Maybe. Or, people who had been working for hours, looking forward to working more hours, and responding to some foreigner's questions. Or maybe a matter of language and culture. How many native speakers of English say "a dozen" when they don't mean 12?

Illiterate Isn't Stupid

Quite a few Afghans can't read, so ballots have symbols like light bulbs and books on them to identify political parties. As of nine years ago, about 28% of Afghans could read: 43% for men, 13% for women. (Yes: I know. It's sexist. Also un-American. Change takes time, but it happens: Indonesia has a 90% literacy rate, roughly, 94% for men, 87% for women.)

Here in America, about 99% of adults can read and write. In some subcultures, at least, there's a tendency to assume that someone who can't read isn't very bright. Or is ignorant.

Reading is a good way to accumulate knowledge: but it isn't the only way. Plato viewed the infotech of his day, writing, with lively apprehension.1 I think he was right, in a way: but the point I'm trying to make is that the ability to read is not necessarily linked either to intelligence, or to awareness of events, persons, and issues.

Afghan Election is Un-American!

I think CNN intended this to be an example of how illiteracy is affecting the Afghan election:
"...Afterwards, the elderly man admitted he wasn't sure who he voted for. "Whoever God wants will be king," he said...."
Okay: That sounds odd to an American ear. Afghanistan is electing a president, not a king. Assuming that the translation was done adequately the man was clearly ignorant - or quoting a proverb - or quoted out of context - or expressing a philosophical view - or something else. There isn't enough information in the article to tell.

Me? I've talked with enough people from other parts of the world to know that not everyone is like the Norwegian-German-American mix I grew up among in the Red River Valley of the North. We don't all see the world quite the same way, and we certainly don't express ourselves the same way.

It's even possible (however unlikely) that the old man in the article was expressing - overly-succinctly - a view of his election that's not all that dissimilar to my view of the recent election here in America. ("I Prayed, I Voted: Now We See What Happens" A Catholic Citizen in America (November 4, 2008))

Related posts: In the news:
  • "Afghans go to polls under threat of Taliban violence"
    CNN (August 20, 2009)

  • Background:
    • "Afghanistan"
      World Factbook, CIA (last updatedAugust 7, 2009)

    1 Actually, writing was viewed by at least one of the less-incompetent minds of the world as potentially dangerous for those who use it.
    "...For this invention of yours will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn it, by causing them to neglect their memory, inasmuch as, from their confidence in writing, they will recollect by the external aid of foreign symbols, and not by the internal use of their own faculties. Your discovery, therefore, is a medicine not for memory, but for recollection-for recalling to, not for keeping in mind. And you are showing for your disciples a show of wisdom without the reality..."
    (The Phaedrus, Lysis, and Protagoras of Plato)
    There's a new sort of information storage and retrieval technology being used now. You and I are using it now: and it's viewed with the same not-unreasonable apprehension that pondered the use of writing.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Afghan Press Says Gag is Unconstitutional: They Could be Right

There isn't, I think, a fine line between censorship and national security. It's a broad zone wide with fuzzy borders.

Except for chauvinists,1 for whom it's:
  • 'We are concerned with
    • National security
    • Equal opportunity
    • The Environment
    • [This year's Great Cause]
  • You want to
    • Censor a free press
    • Stifle debate
    • Hide the truth
  • They want to
    • Enslave us all
    • Destroy the rainforests
    • Whatever
Afghanistan's government doesn't want the Taliban to get help from the press, before and during the upcoming election. At least, that's a best-case scenario.

The Afghan press doesn't like it.
"Afghan journalists on Wednesday rejected a Foreign Ministry demand that they suspend the broadcasting of news about attacks or violence on election day, accusing the government of unconstitutional censorship...."
As I wrote in this post's title: They could be right.

Related post: In the news:
1 Remember: Chauvinist means "a person with a prejudiced belief in the superiority of his or her own kind" or "an extreme bellicose nationalist". (Princeton's WordNet)

The dominant culture in America tends to think of chauvinism and conservatism as synonymous, but I think it can be argued that a person with non-conservative views can exhibit a sort of "prejudiced belief in the superiority of his or her own kind" - although in that case "his or her own kind" is somewhat more likely to be defined by political views or philosophical stances.

Posts related, sort of, to this footnote:

Afghanistan Government Threatens Free Press: Maybe For Good Reason

"Afghan Press Says Gag is Unconstitutional: They Could be Right"
(August 19, 2009)
I'm not sure quite what to think about some of today's news from Afghanistan:
"...'If anybody broadcasts or gives news about any movements or activities of terrorists, domestic media offices will be closed and foreigners will be kicked out of the country,' according to a statement from foreign ministry spokesman Ahmed Zahir.

"This week, the Taliban said it plans to disrupt the elections with continued attacks and threatened to kill Afghans who vote.

"The government request came as it was announced that seven Afghan election workers had been killed by roadside bombs as they traveled the country...."

'Freedom of the Press,' 'The People Have the Right to Know,' Culture and Motive

I doubt that even the Obama administration now, or the JFK administration, back in the days of Camelot, could have gotten away with a move like that. Not without creating more disruption than what we'd see from Taliban attacks.

In Afghanistan, things are probably different.

America has a history of tolerating - even celebrating - freedom: Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom to all wear T-shirts and jeans. There have been exceptions, of course: the conformist fifties and McCarthyism (not quite the same thing); and the situation America has been in ever since the campus radicals got tenure.

But, by and large, America does tolerate freedom of expression. Provided that one doesn't use explosives, swords, or firearms in the process.
What's Afghanistan's Government Doing?
For me, a great deal hinges on the matter of motive: Why is Afghanistan's government threatening to shut down broadcasters and deport foreigners if they hear something about a terrorist attack?

It's possible that Afghanistan is following Iran's lead, and silencing anyone who doesn't do what the leaders want. Possible, but not necessarily true. The warning is tied to a specific event.

It's also possible that Afghanistan's government knows that there's an election coming up; that the Taliban has threatened to disrupt it; and doesn't particularly want to help the Taliban by letting the whole country know, when and if a bomb goes off or a terrorist moves into town.

On March 11, 2004, the Madrid train bombings killed people and most likely affected Spain's election results.

I can see why Afghanistan's government might not want the Taliban doing the same this year.

'Britain is not Spain'

I think it was the British prime minister who, not long after the Madrid train bombings, made a statement about Britain and terrorist threats.

He said something like 'Britain is not Spain'1 I like to confirm quotes like that and (if possible) link to a widely-accepted reliable source online. I can't, this time.2

I think it's equally valid to say that Afghanistan is not America.

The British politico was saying, in part, that the culture - and politics - of the United Kingdom were not the same as those of Spain. I think he's right.

I also think that it's a mistake to assume that all countries are like America: or Germany; India; Japan; you get the idea.

Although it's possible that the Obama administration could pull off a threat like Afghanistan's, I think that - generally speaking - the sort of criticism that would come from gagging the press like that in America might be worse than any likely combination of terrorist attacks.

But, Afghanistan is not America. I'm willing to wait and see what happens next, before forming an opinion.

Happily, since I'm not running things, I can afford to do that. As I've written before: "It's different, when you're in charge."

Related posts: In the news: Background:
1 Eurocentrism? Isn't Spain part of Europe, and Britain a set of islands off the coast of Europe? Never mind: facts aren't all that important in some philosophies. I'll admit to a having a bias. I was doing time at a university when political correctness was in flower: Not an experience I'd willingly repeat.

2There are plenty of paraphrases and uncited quotes of the phrase, but the dominant culture in America and elsewhere hasn't recorded it.

I suppose "Britain is not Spain" isn't quite the sort of thing that the more (sophisticated?) people don't quite approve of the reality implied by the phrase.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

American Senator Fails to Free Suu Kyi, Burma!

The headline read "American actions in Myanmar 'regrettable' " - by the time I finished this post, it had been changed to "Yettaw's actions in Myanmar 'regrettable' ".

Myanmar / Burma: Good News, Bad News

First, the good news.

United States Senator Jim Webb went to Burma (Myanmar, according to the Junta running the country), asked for the release of John William Yettaw: and got it.

Yettaw had been tried and convicted of illegal activity which included swimming to the home of Aung San Suu Kyi and staying there, uninvited, for two days. That was in May of this year. He had, it seems, violated:
  • Immigration laws
  • Municipal laws
  • Suu Kyi's house arrest terms
Now, the bad news.

Senator Webb also met with Suu Kyi, and with Myanmar's top official, junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe. Webb asked for the release of Suu Kyi. That, he didn't get.

I think I can understand that. Suu Kyi is a Burmese leader who doesn't entirely approve of what the ruling junta is doing. That's not the sort of person military juntas like to have running around loose, as a rule. I don't approve of the junta, either: but that doesn't mean I can't see why they wouldn't want to keep Suu Kyi under house arrest.

Myanmar / Burma: Same Old News

"... 'I don't think Sen. Webb can be proud for the release of Mr. John Yettaw, while our leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the real victim of this conspiracy and injustices, and two women colleagues are still under detention,' said Aung Din, executive director of the Washington-based U.S. Campaign for Burma.

" 'This will surely make a negative impression among the people of Burma. They will think that Americans are easy to satisfy with the dictators when they get their citizens back.'..."
Aung Din has a point: half of Senator Webb's efforts ended in failure. He didn't get the release of Suu Kyi.

The American Senator also didn't overthrow the ruling junta, restore peace, prosperity and democracy to Burma, heal the sick and cure the lame.

Despite the impression some people seem to have, Americans are neither horned fiends with pitchforks, or beings with shining wings and flaming swords. We're just a few hundred million people with the potential and flaws common to humanity - and for the last couple hundred years we've been doing a pretty good job of working with that package.

There's More - There's Always More

Yettaw's motives for swimming a lake in Burma are interesting by themselves - but that's a whole different topic.

Related post: In the news: Background:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Iran Leaders Request Investigation of Supereme Leader: An Iranian My Lai? Maybe, Maybe Not

This could be interesting. The Associated Press is covering an evolving news story:
"A group of former reformist lawmakers has appealed to a powerful clerical body in Iran to investigate Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's qualification to rule after the controversial postelection crackdown...."
A British think tank came up with a (wildly improbable) scenario that would account for how the recent Iranian presidential election published results could have been the result of something other than massive fraud. I don't think they were trying to legitimize the election: One thing academics do is explore all possible explanations for observed phenomena. (June 22, 2009)

All things considered, including the embarrassing detail that there were move votes cast than voters in 50 cities, I think it's a foregone conclusion that the ayatollahs, or someone under them, rigged the election. And made a shoddy job of it.

What happens next; whether or not the Assembly of Experts responds to the letter; and what happens to those opposition lawmakers; will tell the world more about Iran's leadership. I'd like to think that the Assembly of Experts will see the error of their ways, and start setting up a government along the lines of Western democracies. The odds for that are about the same as the odds that the presidential election wasn't rigged.

I think the question is whether or not opposition leaders will start dying or disappearing soon.

The AP story has an update. One of the opposition leaders had the good sense to compare allegations of misconduct to the Great Satan America. Specifically, to what America did in Abu Ghraib.
"...Despite the uproar, the opposition leader, Mahdi Karroubi, pushed ahead with criticism, saying some detainees were tortured to death in the crackdown and said he had reports of Abu Ghraib-like abuses...."

'Just Like Abu Ghraib'

When the news broke, in May of 2004, that 'the American military' had been torturing prisoners (taking kinky photos of them, at any rate) at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, American military officials had been investigating the matter for about nine months.

A few nitwits with a twisted sense of fun, a camera, and no common sense had, in fact, subjected prisoners to unacceptable indignities. And, with world-class nincompoopery, kept the photos. Which recorded some of their faces. (January 25, 2009)

Opposition to Supreme Leader Isn't Solidarity With the West

Even assuming that Iran's opposition leaders manage to get a new Supreme Leader, I don't think Iran will become a kinder, gentler nation. More careful, less self-destructive, maybe: but with a different set of Islamic crazies in charge.

I think that, eventually, Iran will come out of this period with a government that's a bit more willing to live in the Information Age and take advantage of human rights conventions that the rest of us have learned to live with.

My hope is that it won't be after Iran's leaders find out what happens when the Russian Federation, the European Union, China, and other countries do after a nuclear attack. It seems that the West, at least, may be getting over Hiroshima. (January 25, 2008) The Russian Federation has already declared a first-strike nuclear weapons policy. (January 19, 2008)

Information Age Technology Has Changed the Rules

I'm far from being a technological determinist, but I think that Information Age technology has changed the rules for national and cultural leaders. In the 'good old days,' information gatekeepers, in America at least, a relatively small number of people who lived in a handful of cities and who had, to an increasing extent, very similar assumptions about what the world was, and what people should feel about it.

Decades ago, it was relatively easy to turn a military encounter into an emblem of all that was icky about the 'military-industrial complex.' I'm not sure how successful traditional American gatekeepers would be, making another My Lai today.

Today, with hordes of out-of-control people (like me) publishing just about anything they want, with or without permission of their betters, we've freedom of expression of a sort that hasn't existed for decades - if ever. The closest equivalent I can think of is the sort of grassroots discussion and debate that has been possible in towns and smaller cities.

I think Iran's leadership made several mistakes in the recent presidential election. First, they should have found more competent people to handle rigging the election. Recording more votes than you've got voters is just plain sloppy work. Second, I don't think they have quite gotten used to the idea that just about anybody with a cell phone or access to an Internet connection can reach a global audience in a matter of minutes.

Related posts: In the news:

What is an Information Gatekeeper?

I'm writing another post today, that involves information gatekeepers. Before finishing it, here's a brief discussion of the phrase.

According to Princeton's WordNet, a gatekeeper is literally a doorkeeper or doorman: someone who guards an entrance. "Gatekeeper" may also be used as a metaphor:
"gatekeeper (someone who controls access to something) 'there are too many gatekeepers between the field officers and the chief' "
(Princeton's WordNet)
So, an "information gatekeeper" is someone who controls access to information.

Information Gatekeepers in America

For several generations, the traditional information gatekeepers in American culture included
  • Newspaper editors
  • Teachers and organizations of teachers
  • Leaders of colleges and universities
  • Entertainment industry executives
  • Publishers of books and magazines
There are others, like politicians and military leaders - but I'm inclined to think, "...if you will let me write the songs of a nation, I care not who makes its laws...."1

A problem I see with America's traditional information gatekeepers is that, by the 20th century, a very small group of people had a great deal of control over what the rest of us were allowed to know. I don't think this was (entirely) intentional.

Newspapers and the Daily News

Take newspapers, for example. A newspaper editor in, say, Cincinnati had a limited number of hours to get the day's edition ready for printing. It was reasonable to take the 'top news stories' and other information as selected by major east coast papers and news services as the day's news. The alternative would have been to try doing the job of a news service: hardly practical for most newspapers.

Since New York City's The New York Times and a handful of other northeastern organizations were the biggest providers of national and international news, their editorial decisions determined, to a very great extent, what newspapers in the rest of the nation printed.

Broadcast News: More of the Same

Broadcast news followed the same pattern, with Los Angeles added to the mix.

It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that, if The New York Times, ABC, NBC, and CBS news didn't think the American people didn't need to know something, they wouldn't. NET joined the triumvirate (now a quadumvirate?) in 1952, replaced in 1970 by PBS.

Cultural Chaos! Divisiveness! I Like It!

I remember the protestations against those upstart news networks on cable: like CNN. They simply weren't proper. And they represented the first competition that the four broadcast networks had experienced, in some cases, for decades.

Book and magazine publishing was a bit more diversified in the sixties and seventies, but rising paper prices and other factors drove some publishers out of business, and others into merger with larger publishing companies. That happened sometime around the eighties - I generally use an external reference for this sort of assertion, but in this case I'll rely on my own memory: I started working for a publishing company as the meltdown was happening, and had been paying close attention to the industry before that.

The entertainment industry followed a similar pattern. Yes, individual artists and performers could work on their own: but if they wanted to reach a national audience, they'd have to cooperate with a handful of recording companies and studios. Most of those were in Los Angeles or the New York-Washington megalopolis.

You Think Cable is Awful? Here Comes the Internet!

Then came the Internet. Blogs like this one, YouTube, and an evolving array of other online phenomena made it possible for individuals with relatively meager resources to reach a national - and global - audience.

Yes, it's 'divisive' to have a society where a counter-cultural Norwegian-Irish-Catholic like me can make his voice heard. Without the cooperation and control of 'Octopus Records' or 'My Way or the Highway' media.

I prefer to think of this 'divisiveness' as 'freedom of expression' - but not everybody agrees with me. Even so, I think a society is better off, when people whose opinions do not exactly fall in line with what a handful of others want to be so are allowed to speak their piece.
1 That's an excerpt from this paragraph:
"...While such books as these were in wide circulation it can hardly have been that a good church tone was wanting among the faithful laity. It has been said that if you will let me write the songs of a nation, I care not who makes its laws; and this may be repeated, contrasting prayers and sermons. Let who will preach sermons if I may write the prayers of the people...."
(English church life from the Restoration to the Tractarian Movement considered in some of its neglected or forgotten features,J. Wickham Legg, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Bombay and Calcutta (1914), via Internet Archive)
"Let me write the songs of a nation; I don't care who writes its laws." is attributed to Andrew Fletcher (for example, in Affective Computing, Rosalind W. Picard, The MIT Press (1997)). Fletcher's words are also quoted by Ravi Zarcharias.

Andrew Fletcher, son of Sir Robert Fletcher of Salton and Innerpeffer and Catharine Bruce, daughter of Sir Henry Bruce of Clackmannan, and was born in the year 1653. He died in 1716, and today is probably best-known for his A Discourse of Government With Relation to Militias, Andrew Fletcher, Edinburgh, Printed in the Year MDCXCVIII (1698).

Related posts:

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Hijabs, Myths, and Flashing Flesh

"Muslim women uncover myths about the hijab"
CNN (August 12, 2009)

"Rowaida Abdelaziz doesn't want your pity.

"She doesn't want your frosty public stares; the whispers behind her back; the lament that she's been degraded by her father.

"What the Muslim high school senior wants you to understand is that she doesn't wear the hijab, the head scarf worn by Muslim women, because she is submissive.

" 'It represents beauty to me,' says Abdelaziz, the 17-year-old daughter of two Egyptian parents living in Old Bridge, New Jersey.

" 'My mom says a girl is like a jewel,' Abdelaziz says. 'When you have something precious, you usually hide it. You want to make sure you keep it safe until that treasure is ready to be found.'

"The nation has heard plenty of debate over racial profiling. But there's a form of religious profiling that some young Muslim women in America say they endure whenever they voluntarily wear the hijab...."

I strongly recommend reading the rest of the article. "Oppression" may not be what you think it is.

Civilization is More than Bikinis and Nipple Rings

Back in the mid-sixties, I read an article in a major American magazine, a respected publication that's been around for generations. The article was on then-contemporary Iran. That country, the article informed us, was progressing wonderfully and embracing Western culture. An example of this excellent and admirable progress was the growing acceptance - and presence - of bikinis on Iranian beaches.

'You've come a long way, baby....'

I was in my early teens at the time, but the odd idea that bikinis were tied to all that is civilized and advanced caught my attention. Over the years, I saw the same general idea getting exposure in magazines and the occasional serious discussion. The assumption that there was a direct correlation with the acreage of nubile female skin showing in public and 'progress' was quite wide-spread in the West. Sometimes the word was 'advancement' or 'liberation' or whatever the adjective for 'right' or 'good' was at the time.

I wasn't convinced, then, that treating a woman's body as an object to be displayed and marketed was necessarily representative of the highest and noblest ideals and aspirations of Western civilization. I'm even more dubious about the notion now.

I know: Islamic crazies in Saudi Arabia make pronouncements about clothing that Freud would have had a field day with; about a year and a half ago a father (allegedly) killed his daughter here in America - because she didn't wear a scarf like he wanted. (October 4, 2008, December 12, 2007)

That's crazy, and wrong.

Happily, nobody in America seems to have been killed for wearing a hijab, but it seems that hot-blooded American men feel they have a right to get a good look at a babe before they make a pass.

This is civilized?!

Yeah, I'm Biased

I haven't conformed to mainstream American culture for decades, and can't say that I'm sorry about it. I like this country just fine - but I don't think that the prevalence of bikinis is an accurate indicator of a civilization's excellence, and I've got a very old-fashioned idea that women do not exist primarily for giving men sexual gratification: directly or indirectly.

About that hijab? Rowaida Abdelaziz, in the CNN photo, is showing a bit more skin on her face that some women around here do. They're not Ay-rabs, they're not Musims: they're Catholics who got fed up with the 'flash us some flesh, babe' culture.

Europeans haven't worn that sort of thing since the late Middle Ages, as a rule: but coverings for the head and body are not all that rare. Maybe this is a case where Westerners should take their cultural blinders off, and re-evaluate this culture's customs and norms.

Let's consider the possibility that a woman might have the right to not put herself on display in public.

Related posts: Related posts, on tolerance, bigotry, racism, and hatred.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Burma / Myanmar / Myanma - Suu Kyi's Still Under Arrest, So Are 2,000 Others

Depending on how you look at it, Burma's Suu Kyi is back under house arrest - or still under house arrest. Her five-year sentence had been changed to an 18-month term. Then an American citizen, John Yettaw, swam to her house.

That, the military junta that runs Burma says, is a violation of her house arrest. So she's stuck for another 18 months. If the math is a little confusing, I wouldn't worry about it: my guess is that she's going to be under arrest until the ruling junta is out of power.

The country isn't "Burma," by the way, according to the junta: They like to call it Myanmar, or maybe Myanma.

John Yettaw? He's been detained, too, along with about 2,000 other political prisoners.

The CNN article gives the score, for notable people who are anything but pleased about the situation in Burma. Or Myanmar. Or Myanma.

Related posts: In the news:

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Iran Tries Outside Agitators: It Can't Happen Here, Right?

Iran's trying people who didn't think the recent presidential election over there was quite on the up-and-up. Obviously, since good Iranians would never consider waging war against God, or disputing the election results - same thing - protests must be the result of outside agitators.

And, sure enough: there's an outside agitator or two being tried.

(from Fars, via BBC, used w/o permission: collage by Brian Gill)

The United Kingdom's government has called the trial of one of its embassy staff an "outrage." (Reuters) I'm not all that convinced, myself, that objecting to an election which was probably rigged - and clumsily, at that - is quite the same as waging war on the Almighty. I'm not even convinced that it's a criminal offense.

But then, I grew up in America: the land of the free.

It Can't Happen Here, Right?

I've said this before: This blog isn't a 'political' blog. I'm not a partisan for any political party. I do, however, care what happens in America, and other countries: if I didn't, I wouldn't be spending time, writing this.

I'm not at all happy about what's happening in Iran. Not just because some Europeans have been swept up in what looks like a sort of combination purge and demonstration of power. Iran isn't just the Ayatollahs and their followers. There are a great many people there, with a culture and history that go back thousands of years. (June 26, 2009)

I'm inclined to agree with an op-ed in The New York Times that called what's going on a "show trial." (NTY)

I'm also not at all happy about what's happening in America. We're nowhere near being in the pickle that Iranians are in: but some of the news this year has been more than a trifle disquieting.

It's been a while, happily, since Homeland Security or a government-sponsored think tank has defined a group or groups of Americans who don't hold the right (or left) views as potential terrorists.

The matter of outside agitators being blamed for opposition to our leaders' policies, on the other hand, came up just this week. Meetings intended to educate people about health care reform, and see what people think of the soon-to-be-established programs, didn't go over quite as expected.
"...'The insurance industry and … Republican activists are manufacturing a lot of these phony protests,' said [United States Representative (D-Tampa) Kathy] Castor, who has been closely involved in the health care debate and said she won't support any bill lacking a government-run insurance option...."

"... Thursday's forum/near riot was sponsored by state Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, and the Service Employees International Union, who apparently had hoped to hold something of a pep rally for President Barack Obama's health care reform proposal.

"Instead, hundreds of vocal critics turned out, many of them saying they had been spurred on through the Tampa 912 activist group promoted by conservative radio and television personality Glenn Beck. Others had received e-mails from the Hillsborough Republican Party that urged people to speak out against the plan and offered talking points...."
(St. Petersburg Times)
That reminded me of the 'outside agitators' who didn't have the correct views about the President's appearance at Notre Dame University (May 17, 2009) This time around, at least one top American leader seems to be concerned about subversive elements infiltrating our national debate.
"...House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested that the protests at these events were illegitimate, in part because the protesters were carrying signs with 'swastikas and symbols like that to a town meeting on health care.'..."
I'd like to believe that America is a thoroughly nice place, where nobody ever was put on a blacklist, and people who don't look right, or don't think right, weren't locked away for the good of the nation. That would be nice, but there have been rough patches in America's history.

I sincerely hope we're not coming up on one now.

Related posts: News and views:

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.