Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What Can We Learn from Iran?

There is no doubt that America faces a health care crisis. According to The Times, "the Mississippi Delta has some of the worst health statistics in the country, including infant mortality rates for non-whites at Third World levels." In fact, Mississippi has the country's highest rates of child obesity, hypertension, and teenage pregnancy, with over 20% of the population uninsured. And yet, the state spends the third most per capita on health expenditures in the country.

Clearly, Mississippi needs help - and they can't wait for Washington to stop bickering with itself and finally pass health care reform. So, they have turned elsewhere...to Iran.

As the article explains, after the Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government launched a program that set up "health houses" to serve local communities. Ordinary citizens known as behvarz received health training and would travel around offering advice and basic medical services. The program was wildly successful, reducing child mortality rates by 69% and maternal mortality rates dropped from 300 per 100,000 births to 30. Currently, there are 17,000 health houses throughout Iran, serving 90% of Iran's rural population of 23 million people.

A group representing a rural hospital in Mississippi learned of Iran's success story, formed a partnership with Shiraz University, and sent a delegation to Iran to learn more about the program. In turn, Iranian experts visited Mississippi to help advise the opening of the state's first health house, due to open next month. Better yet, the first American behvarz health assistants will be trained in Iran next spring.

Beyond the obvious fact that we shouldn't have to look to Iran to resolve our health crisis, it is comforting that we can. But it wasn’t easy. As the article explains, the Mississippi group had to request special permission from the Treasury Department to avoid sanctions restrictions, as well as skirt potential political sensitivities. Oddly, even the Mississippi governor hasn't been informed of the program!

Obviously, some people would feel uncomfortable dealing with Iran, our political adversary that sponsors terrorism and likely seeks to develop nuclear weapons. But too often we confuse the government of Iran with its people. As the Green Movement has clearly shown, the actions and rhetoric of a dictatorial government reveals nothing about its people.

That is why labels like the "Axis of Evil" confuse more than they clarify. Though Ahmadinejad and Khamenei may be the true Great Satans, the Iranian people are anything but demons. In fact, they simply seek the same rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that Americans cherish. Just as they take comfort in our moral support for their struggle for freedom, we should take comfort in their ability and willingness to help improve American lives.

More generally, America's obsession with our own exceptionalism might prove a philosophical roadblock to accepting Iranian assistance . We have always believed our country should be a city upon a hill, an exemplar for all other countries to follow. We have also held the inverse to be true as well: America should not be a follower. Such logic is the source for much of the neoconservative critique of President Obama's foreign policy that complains Obama treats America as a partner, and not a hegemon, in the international system.

But such arguments misinterpret why America is an exceptional country. It is not because we are objectively better than the rest of the world. Plenty of indices of wealth, happiness, healthiness, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press prove otherwise. Rather, we are exceptional as the first nation in history to be defined by what we believe in, not who we are or where we are from.

As our Constitution states, we established our government “in order to form a more perfect union.” The implication is our union is not yet perfect, our city upon the hill is not yet finished. For over two centuries, we have tirelessly built upon our city to form a more perfect union, using our ideals as a blueprint and our progress as our brick and mortar.

That is why we are an exceptional nation. That is why the world looks up to us. That is why we should not be scared to confront our shortcomings. And that is why we should not only accept, but actively seek help from others - even from Iran.

As we consider imposing enhanced sanctions on the Iranian regime, we should not only seek to minimize the harm inflicted upon the Iranian people. We must also consider the opportunity cost in lost cultural, educational, and technical exchanges that would benefit Iranians and Americans alike.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Speaking Arafrenglish

This weekend, Lebanon's Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, met with Syrian President Assad in Damascus. It was a historic visit for many reasons, perhaps most of all because of the very personal ramifications involved. As The New York Times explains, "the trip epitomized a national story with anguished, almost operatic dimensions: a young leader forced to shake hands with the man who he believes killed his father."

And yet, the story circulating around the blogosphere has nothing to do with that, or Syrian interference in Lebanon's politics, or Hezbollah's arsenal, or anything political at all. Rather, it's a video of Hariri attempting - and failing - to deliver a recent speech in front of the Lebanese Parliament. Quite simply, he doesn't speak Arabic very well.

Now, we Americans know what it's like to have a President who doesn't speak very eloquently We like politicians who are "folksy" and "speak to the people." After all, it's the policies that matter...right?

But in Arabic culture, literacy is extremely important. The Arabic language, with its case endings and its beating rhythm, is meant to be spoken, not read. Poets are revered as noble, and everyone worth his hummus writes the occasional verse or two. In fact, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed, is well known for his poetic ability - so much so that his official webpage features an entire section on poetry. Even the holy Qu'ran, literally meaning "The Recitation," is not meant to be read, but spoken and heard.

But, as usual, Lebanon is a bit different. Due to its history and politics, the Lebanese people speak a mixture of Arabic, French, and English. Or, for the people I met, they often speak a mixture of all three, mixing and matching vocabulary and even grammar willy nilly. For an American Arabic student who knows a little French, everything sounded familiar and yet incomprehensible at the same time.

The result is that while many Lebanese speak all three languages very well, they don't speak any of them extremely fluently. Usually, a person's most-fluent language indicates what kind of education he/she have received (e.g. American University in Beirut, Université Saint-Joseph, Beirut Arab University, or none at all). Meanwhile, there are many minority groups, like the Armenians, who speak their own languages all together. In this way, language can reveal the religious, ethnic and socioeconomic stratification in Lebanese society.

For example, the Christian Free Patriotic Movement campaigned this summer with English slogans like "I vote for change" and French slogans like "Sois belle et vote" (Be beautiful and vote). In comparison, Shi'ite Hezbollah campaigned in Arabic with the slogan "Not your Lebanon, not our Lebanon, not their Lebanon, but Lebanon."

While Hariri's Future party campaigned in Arabic, Hariri grew up outside of Lebanon and received his education in America. As such, like so many other elite Lebanese, he speaks some combination of Arabic, English, and French. He speaks the unique Lebanese dialect of Arafrenglish.

So let's give Hariri a break. So he's no Khalil Gibran. Big deal. Neither am I, and I can only speak English. Sorta.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Egyptian Democracy When Pigs Fly

Last week, I went to an event hosted by the Wilson Center that featured Egyptian journalist Heba el-Koudsy discussing American democracy promotion in Egypt. You can see a summary of the event here. Or, for the more visually-inclined, the video is available online here.

During her lecture, el-Koudsy differentiated between external American and internal Egyptian pressure for reform. She argued it has always been the internal push for reform that has prodded President Mubarak into (insufficient) action. As such, the U.S. should focus on ways to support the internal drive for democratization by, for example, bolstering civil society.

At minute 53, I asked her how the potential candidacy Mohamed ElBaradei may provide a new source of internal leverage for reform on the Mubarak regime.

To give a quick background, Egypt will be holding its second-ever multi-party competitive elections for president in 2011. All experts agree that the presidency will remain in Mubarak's hands through manipulation and coercion. The only question is whether it'll be Hosni or his son Gamal who will be the Mubarak in charge.

Enter Elbaradei. Currently, he enjoys broad popularity in Egypt for his service as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. As such, the Wafd party - one of the oldest parties in Egypt and considered an opposition party - asked the historically apolitical ElBaradei to run as their candidate for president.

After mulling it over, ElBaradei announced he would only run in the very unlikely scenario that elections were "free and fair." Shortly after that announcement, he upped the ante again, declaring he would only run as an independent candidate. To translate for you, he basically said he'd run for president when pigs fly.

The Egyptian constitution, while technically allowing independent candidates to run for president, sets an overwhelming number of restrictions and qualifications on an independent candidacy. To give a domestic example, imagine if a candidate declared he/she would only run for president if the electoral college were abolished, and even then, as neither a Democrat or Republican. That's what ElBaradei is doing.

In short, it won't ever happen under the current constitution. And more importantly, everyone - including ElBaradei and Mubarak - know it will never happen. And yet, according to El-Koudsy, something is happening.

Egyptians are no longer only talking about Mubarak versus Mubarak. ElBaradei's announcement has stimulated Egypt's political conscious, sparking new debate and revealing new possibilities. But most importantly, Mubarak's farcical and cynical use of democratic institutions to mask his dictatorship have been laid bare. And that's exactly what ElBaradei sought to achieve by effectively refusing to participate in sham elections.

During his tenure as IAEA chief, he scoured the deserts of Iraq in search for the mythical weapons of mass destruction and negotiated endlessly with the intransigent Iranian regime. Now as an Egyptian politician, he seems to be prepared to put those experiences to good use: to continue chasing fantasy while tirelessly confronting an uncompromising regime.

And if he and other Egyptians persist, maybe one day that fantasy will be fantasy no more.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

How Incursions Become Invasions

Yesterday, 11 Iranian soldiers crossed the Iraqi border and raised the Iranian flag over a disputed oil well.

The Iraqi government, after first denying the incident, promised that it will seek a diplomatic solution to the problem. The Iranians have rejected Iraq's demands for it to withdraw, denying any problem at all because the oil well "belongs to Iran." The U.S. military called the incursion a "sovereignty issue" and noted that such incidents are frequent along the Iraq-Iran border.

Well, seeing how no one else seems all that worried, I'll cautiously sound the alarm for them. This is a small, non-violent incident. But it's a small, non-violent incident that can easily become a not-so-small, violent one.

First of all, Iraq and Iran have never gotten over the Iran-Iraq War that killed over a million people in eight years of brutal fighting and civilian bombing. Admittedly, since the fall of Saddam and the empowerment of the Shia, the Iraq government has become much more friendly with Iran. However, Iraq is also experiencing a resurgence of nationalism. An Iranian incursion into their land, given all their strained history and all the other problems Iraqis currently face from external meddling, won't be received well by most Iraqis.

According to Shiite politician Ayad Jamal Aldin, "The world need [sic] to know that unless strong action is taken against Tehran, Iraq will simply become another Iranian colony which will threaten stability throughout the middle east." Clearly, Iraqis have not endured nearly 7 years of violence to give up their sovereignty to the Iranians.

Second, the Iranian regime is looking for a distraction - any distraction - from its internal upheaval. Tehran is especially nervous now that the holy months of Muharram and Safar have begun. As Mehdi Khalaji explains, the opposition will be able to use the annual religious ceremonies to protest the regime, but the government will be given the impossible dilemma of either cracking down on religious displays or allowing two months of unrestrained protest.

As such, the government is looking for any national cause that could tie to the Iranian people together - whether that be confrontation with the U.S., Israel, or Iraq is immaterial, so long as there's confrontation. Keep in mind here that Ayatollah Khomeini solidified his power during the Iran-Iraq War, using it as an excuse to imprison and assassinate thousands of his political enemies.

Third and most importantly, it only takes one itchy trigger-finger, one accidental misfire, one irresponsible private, to transform an "incursion" into an "invasion." Remember that the American Revolution did not begin with a decision to go to war, but by an unknown militiaman who fired the "shot heard 'round the world" in the impromptu Battles of Lexington and Concord.

So while this small incident will likely blow over, I'll be crossing my fingers until it does.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Should We Forget the Iranians?

For the second time this year, the Iranian people have spoken through the ballot box. And once again, their voice was not heard.

As Michelle Moghtader over at niacINsight explains, Time Magazine has given the shaft to the Iranian people. According to Moghtader, more than 536,000 people voted that the Iranian protesters should be named Person of the Year, outnumbering the second and third runners up combined. Yet not only did Time overlook the Iranian protesters for Person of the Year, they didn't even include them on the shortlist of runners up.

Admittedly, Time never promised to adhere to the online poll and one could certainly argue that the eventual winner, Ben Bernanke, deserves the title. Nonetheless, to not even include the Iranian protesters on the shortlist seems, in the words of Moghtader, nothing short of "disheartening."

She continues:

Perhaps Time didn’t realize the impact that this award could have had for the Iranian people [...]Honoring them would have shown Iran that the world is still watching; as a result, putting pressure on the government to reform its behavior. The Iranian people want to be part of the international community, but how can they, especially if we fail to recognize them?

While I'm not certain it's the role of Time to make political points, they certainly missed an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of all Iranian people. I can't imagine what it's like to face down baton-wielding basij in the street, but I can imagine what it's like to know that you're not alone in this struggle for freedom, to know that the world is with you against tyranny.

Person of the Year or not, Iranians must know America is with them. All Americans have watched the Iranian people in their struggle for the very rights we have struggled for throughout our history: to live our lives, to enjoy our liberties, and to pursue our happiness.

Yet at the same time, I am concerned that we Americans might act brashly in a clumsy attempt to show our solidarity. Or even worse, some policymakers might seek to use the righteous cause of the Iranian people for unrighteous ends.

Already, the House has overwhelmingly passed the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act that Iran experts know won't work and the Green Movement has rejected as harmful to the Iranian people. Meanwhile, some are calling "the case for using force in Iran [...] a slam dunk." It's hard to imagine how the Iranian opposition could benefit from not being able to heat their homes, let alone when bombs are falling on their heads.

Of course, there are more nuanced and thoughtful policy ideas out there, but it's not clear that reason will win the day. Given the choice between doing something harmful and doing nothing at all, we must choose the latter. Ultimately, if America cannot express our solidarity wisely, then perhaps it would be better if, like Time Magazine, we forget all about the Iranian protesters.

For those interested, I lay out three principles for how we should proceed with Iran in a previous post here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Insurgent Hackers - UPDATED

So insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan can hack into our drone video feeds...not because they're all that technologically savvy, but because they can buy a program off the Internet for the bargain price of $29.95.

Which brings up the question, if insurgents can do that, what the hell can the North Koreans, Iranians, Russians, and Chinese do with their computer hackers? Do we even know what they're doing now? And can we even stop them if we do?

For all our superiority on the physical battlefield, I fear we're losing battles we don't even know we're having on the digital battlefield.

UPDATE: Speak of the devil. Pro-regime Iranians hacked Twitter and opposition websites.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Censoring Playstation

The Babylon and Beyond blog reports that a new computer game is causing a stir in the United Arab Emirates. The premise of "Spec Ops: The Line" is simple enough. You lead an elite corp of special-ops forces on a secret mission after massive sandstorms destroy Dubai. Per Babylon and Beyond:

Dubai's once-glittering skyline has been reduced to a wasteland of concrete skeletons and jagged steel, half-buried under the dunes that are slowly reclaiming the so-called "city of superlatives." In this macabre dreamscape, corpses swing from streetlights as Burj Dubai, the world's tallest building, looms in the background.
Sounds like a pretty sweet game, right?

Well, not so much for the government of the UAE. Between Dubai's confidence already teetering from financial troubles and their notoriously thin-skin when it comes to criticism, they're apparently in no mood to watch the digital destruction of their desert dream. Therefore, the government is considering banning the game.

But they're looking at this all the wrong. In the gaming world, immolation - not imitation - is the deepest form of flattery. According to the game's producer, Dubai is "such a fantastic location from an architectural standpoint. The contrast between the exterior devastation and the interior opulence and beautiful architecture seemed to be a really beautiful and effective image."

Fifteen years ago, no American software company would have even known what Dubai was, let alone decide it'd be a perfect setting for the next major blockbuster video game. This game is a testament to Dubai's success.

Besides, we Americans see our monuments destroyed all the time in games and movies. In fact, a landmark is not a landmark in America until a chest-thumping gorilla, laser-blasting alien, or fire-breathing lizard decimates it. It's no coincidence that the video game Modern Warfare 2, which broke the record with sales over $550 million in its first five days, features the full-scale destruction of Washington D.C.

And just for fun:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tags and the Israeli Psyche

I read the Israeli newspaper Haaretz every day. Here's the opinion page from 12/16.

Now, take a closer look at the tag cloud on the right.

Tags are keywords used to organize data, in this case the topics of newspaper articles. Tag clouds offer a visual representation of the most-common themes. Words in larger fonts on the top are more common than smaller fonts at the bottom. In this case, "Israel News" is the most frequent topic in Haaretz op eds (obviously), with Netanyahu the least common of the list provided.

Now, notice the higher frequency of the word "Holocaust" compared to the phrase "Peace Process."

So long as we Jews fixate on the horrors of our past and not the prospects for our future, we will not have peace in the Middle East.

PS Obviously using shallow evidence here, but I stand by the conclusion.

PPS I haven't found an English Arab newspaper that uses a tag cloud for comparison, but the conclusion applies to them too.

PPS Happy birthday Dad.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Reading Iran Between the Lines

Today, Secretary Clinton delivered a fabulous speech at Georgetown University about the need to promote human rights and democracy.

Among other good parts: "this isn’t just about what we do; it’s about who we are. And we cannot be the people we are - people who believe in human rights - if we opt out of this fight. Believing in human rights means committing ourselves to action.”

That's exactly why I want to work in government and make foreign policy.

On another note, she referenced human rights in Iran more than any other country - five times by my count. Given that the Obama administration has been carefully toeing the line between rhetorically supporting the Iranian opposition and engaging the regime in Tehran (and rightly so), I'm sensing a shift of emphasis.

And the timing is important here. As Trita Parsi and Dokhi Fassihian argue:

Time is of the essence. Iran's human rights abuses must be addressed now and not just when our focus turns to punitive measures. Otherwise, the administration will unintentionally signal that the rights of the Iranian people are used solely as a pressure tactic against Iran when it fails to compromise on other issues.

Considering Secretary Gates predicted "significant additional sanctions" on Friday and Congress seems prepared to pass the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA) this week, it seems the punitive measures are well on their way.

Unfortunately, IRPSA will do little to change Iran's behavior and do plenty to hurt Iran's people.

Secretary Clinton is right that our belief in human rights compels us to action. But someone better remind Congress she means action in the name of human rights, not for the sake of venting frustration.

PS Sorry for the radio silence. Posts should be more regular again.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Who Throws a Shoe, Honestly?

Well, apparently a lot of people throw shoes in the Middle East.

Our dear friend Muntazer al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who garnered footwear fame by hurling his shoe at President Bush, was himself forced to dodge a hurtling shoe at a news conference.

The assailant shouted "here's another shoe for you" before mounting his attack. Not quite as catchy as al-Zaidi's "it is the farewell kiss, you dog," but at least he won't get any jail time.

*Still really busy at work. Will hopefully be able to have better posts soon.