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Archive for November, 2011

Egyptian Democracy?

As the situation in Egypt heated up last week, we learned that the Obama administration is applying the heat to Egyptian military rulers in the hope it can influence Egypt’s political future.  According to press reports, the administration’s concern is focused on the need for faster democratic reforms and stricter restrictions on the Egyptian security forces that are being blamed for the many deaths during the recent street protests in and around Tahrir Square.

Apparently, most of the heat came as a result of administration fears that the ongoing Egyptian unrest is threatening what the Obama administration hopes will be a smooth transition to democratic rule in that country.  And therein lies the rub!

“Smooth transitions to democratic rule” have certain prerequisites.  Most important, irrespective of the location of the hoped-for changeover, is some sort of history or experience with the most important aspects of democratic rule.  Those are:  the active, unfettered participation of the people in politics and civil life; national tolerance of pluralism; the right to vote in free elections; the existence of the rule of law and unbiased courts; the guarantee of basic human rights, particularly religious; the separation of powers and freedom of speech, opinion, press and religion.  Absent these preconditions, the struggle for democracy will rarely be won.

Egypt formally ended its colonial period in 1922 when England issued a unilateral declaration of Egypt’s independence, resulting in the creation of the Kingdom of Egypt.  That kingdom limped along with persistent British manipulation until 1953 when the Egyptian military, led by Gamal Abdul Nasser took power.  From then until the January 2011 uprising, the Egyptian military, successively under Generals Naguib, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, has maintained control of Egypt.  In fact, they control Egypt today.

The Egyptian election cycle started on November 28.  The question that needs to be examined is what are the likely outcomes of this process?

Given the fact that Egypt has virtually no experience with democracy, it is difficult to see the cohesive support that a triumph for democracy would demand.  There are, essentially, two national organizations that have the requisite organizational and political experience to compete effectively in these elections.  They are the military establishment that has ruled the country, to the ire of much of the population, for almost 60 years and the Muslim Brotherhood that was founded in Egypt in 1928 and has been actively engaged in Egyptian politics, albeit often surreptitiously, ever since.

There is no democratic organization in Egypt that has the political or organizational experience that would make it a contender in these ongoing elections.  Even if there were, such an organization would be perpetually in the crosshairs of both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Why, then, have we Americans staked so much on a “democratic” outcome for Egypt or any other Muslim country, if such a result in so unlikely?  Of course, we do it because we believe it is the absolute best system of government for all of mankind.  We do it because we are a collection of ethnocentric human beings who have little to no understanding of Egypt or Islam.

Egypt has Islam.  Islam provides its Egyptian believers with complete and comprehensive rules for behavior.  Most believers are comfortable with those rules.  Many see no benefit to them, either nationally or individually, in democracy.  In fact, the existing Islamic parties offer a viable alternative to the corrupt, repressive, long-serving dictators who have clearly been seen by Muslims to have been kept in power by western “democratic” governments.

On November 25th, Morocco’s first post-Arab Spring elections were won by an Islamist Party.  The only thing that is important here is that the Moroccan and other Islamist parties actually reflect the will of their peoples.  What we should be concerned about here is not “democracy” but “self-determination”.   Once these Muslim nations have decided what form or forms of government they wish to have, we should support them unreservedly, while maintaining our own convictions that our system has something to offer the rest of mankind – if they agree and if they should choose to adopt it.

It is absurd and counterproductive for the Obama administration to be up in arms about the Eqyptian elections.  The notion in the administration and in Congress that we will refuse to contribute foreign assistance to them because they “do not become a democracy” is absolutely absurd, particularly if it is in our national interest to support them. They will become what they become and no amount of American pressure will change that.

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America’s involvement in wars in the Middle East has opened a number of difficult discussions here at home.  First and foremost, why did we get involved in the first place and why have we mortgaged our future pursuing those wars?

But those are questions that have been discussed since our invasion of Iraq and that will be discussed for decades to come.  It is possible that before all the Bush era decision-makers have passed on, we might even learn why we got so involved.

There is one more issue that is now beginning to be discussed.  It is an issue that is even more difficult than those above and that stems from the way America has come to run its military and to make wars.  It is, moreover, an issue of how we treat those who actually fight those wars.

In 1971, a nation tired of the Viet Nam war passed legislation ending the military draft in favor of an All-Volunteer Force (AVF).  The end of the draft was formally announced in 1973.  This status quo went along relatively smoothly until we got involved in our first unpopular post-Viet Nam war.

In that regard, in 2010, roughly seventy percent of Americans said the Iraq war was not worth it.   Sixty percent are opposed to our continued military involvement in Afghanistan.  It is parenthetically interesting to note that in the Muslim Middle East, 90% are against US military involvement where 57% of Israelis support that involvement.  And we thought we were in it to bring democracy to Islam!

In purely practical terms, the AVF has amounted to a Praetorian Guard for both the Republicans under Bush and the Democrats under Obama.  Aided and abetted by a compliant Congress that has largely opted out of its constitutional responsibility for declaring war, those administrations have been able to do pretty much whatever they wished with the AVF, including initiating and continuing two very expensive, unfunded and unpopular wars.

Today’s AVF is often criticized for not being representative of the US population.  According to a 2006 Rand study, “Recruits come primarily from families in the middle or lower middle classes. Few recruits come from upper-income families”, and recruits from the Southern states are overrepresented.  Nevertheless, despite such criticism, the AVF has functioned extremely well in its combat role.

So what’s the complaint?  We have a AVF that does its job well, in the process, using less privileged Americans and thus absolving the “upper classes” of bearing any responsibility for manning our military.

When we had an army of conscripts, as was the case in Viet Nam, jut about all of us had a dog in the fight.  We had relatives or friends who were in uniform.  For that reason, when we turned against the Viet Nam war, we had real influence.

We were able to actually affect the conduct of the war and that reality led to our withdrawal.  That is no longer the case.  Now, only a few of us have that dog in the fight.  There is little personal incentive to do the things necessary for a citizen to affect policy.

The toughest aspect of this new reality comes in the way we treat those who are in the fight.  We all remember how badly we Americans treated our troops when they came back from Viet Nam.  We spat on them, both figuratively and literally.  We don’t do that now.  Now we shower them with platitudes.  “Thank you for your service to our country” we say, thanking the Lord that we don’t really know them and that they are not actually related to us.

So, what do you do if you think that these 21st Century wars never should have been undertaken?  What do you say when you consider the trillions of dollars that our Middle East adventures have cost us?  Precisely how do you deal with the dichotomy that very brave and dedicated young men and women have been and now are participating in conflicts that you think are the result of terrible errors in leadership judgment?

The increasing number of Americans who believe that these wars have not been in our national interest clearly have to continue to argue against such involvements.  However, far more importantly than that, we have to recognize the extraordinary physical and mental damage these wars have done to those who actually participated in them.  The effects of that involvement will be with us as long as those veterans live.  It will be monumentally and increasingly expensive.

What we can all do is accept that fact and support those troops that way, irrespective of how we feel about the wars that caused that reality.

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

Article published Nov 6, 2011

Currently, the Arab world seems to be in nearly complete ferment, not necessarily heading for liberal democracy as we know it but probably toward self-determination, the result of which, if fulfilled, is likely to add to stability in the region.

Even though the process of getting to self-determination is likely to be exceedingly rough — take Libya, for example — it is inexorably under way. Every country in the region will be profoundly affected, most emphatically including Israel, which in the long run could face an even more united, less accommodating Arab world. Even today there is talk in Egypt of doing away with the 1979 peace agreement with Israel.

Recently, more than 110 members of the United Nations General Assembly announced their support for a Palestinian state. It is possible that in the coming months, the General Assembly will vote to recognize Palestine as a state defined by its pre-1967 borders. Such a motion would not be subject to Security Council veto and would have far-reaching ramifications for both countries.

And through all of this, Israel and the United States are talking about restarting Palestine-Israel negotiations. However, the likelihood of their taking place seems daily more remote.

The Palestinians, backed by the Arabs, and Israel, backed by the United States, remain equally resolute in setting up preconditions that the other side cannot or will not meet. Mutual recognition, establishing borders, negotiating the right of return and the ongoing Israeli settlement program are prominent among those issues.

To further complicate matters, UNESCO has just voted overwhelmingly to admit Palestine as a member state. Such a motion will not be subject to Security Council veto and is also likely to have a direct effect on Palestine’s ongoing attempts in the General Assembly to become a member state.

These could be ominous events for an Israel intent on maintaining the status quo. Remember, absent a two-state solution, the threat is to Israel’s Zionist roots of Jewishness and democracy, not to Palestine, which after half a century of statelessness has nothing much left to lose.

In addition, at a time when both Palestinians and Israelis need flexibility to reach any kind of acceptable solution, Israeli politics appear to be increasingly in the political grip of the settlers and their supporters, among whom we find Israel’s religiously conservative political right, the most strident of Israeli’s Christian and Jewish American supporters and the increasingly dogmatic Russian immigration to Israel.

For anyone who really cares about the Zionist future of Israel, a quick look is enough to bring tears to one’s eyes. It really doesn’t matter who is at fault; everything that is happening, every inescapable trend, every policy in place, every incontrovertible reality represents a virtually iron-clad guarantee that Israel is in the process of giving up its soul — its Zionist democratic and Jewish roots.

Unfortunately for Israel, time is not on its side. Demographics will do it in. The only answer for an Israel that decides to retain both its Jewish and democratic character lies in the two-state solution. As time goes on, however, the ongoing West Bank settlement program and ingrained Arab hostility toward the very existence of Israel make that outcome less feasible — some say, impossible.

So, absent the two-state solution, Israel has two options: giving up its democracy for apartheid, or giving up its Jewishness for a one-state solution. Retaining both seems highly unlikely, and neither would be acceptable for a true Zionist.

Recently, some committed Zionist supporters of Israel are showing subtle changes in attitude toward the future. The media contain daily articles questioning the settlement movement and the Likud’s approach to human rights. Israel’s daily Haaretz has just asked, “Is Israel confusing legitimate criticism of its policies with anti-Semitism to avoid having to make difficult existential decisions?”

Here in America, a new organization called J Street, “The political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” is gaining membership, particularly among younger Americans, while being totally rejected by the Netanyahu government.

Will American Jewry be able to continue to support Israel if it maintains its current political, social and religious orientations?

Is the situation reaching a point where liberal American Jews will be forced to choose between their values and their emotional attachment to Israel? That would be a sad day, particularly when successful negotiations on four issues — security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem — could save Zionist Israel at the cost of some of the settlements.

That is an impossible goal if Israel continues to refuse to even try. Lose some settlements or lose your Zionist soul.

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