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Archive for September, 2014

charlie hebdo no1163 011014

Voilà the cover of the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, which will hit the newsstands tomorrow (October 1st). For those whose French is not up to par, it reads:

IF MOHAMMED WERE TO RETURN…

“I’m the Prophet, idiot!”

“STFU, infidel!”

Charlie Hebdo nails it. Totally.

Somehow I think security will be reinforced outside Charlie Hebdo’s office in the 11th arrondissement.

ADDENDUM: For other irreverent CH covers I’ve posted on, go here, here, here, and here.

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Narendra Modi in the Big Apple

With my Mother

With my Mother

[update below] [2nd update below]

In my last—and only—post on Narendra Modi, from 4½ months ago, I opined that were he to become Indian PM following the general election there the US would no doubt lift the visa ban he was slapped with in 2005, for his implication in the infamous events in Gujarat three years prior. It is indeed hard to imagine an Indian Prime Minister being denied entry to the US and not welcomed at the White House with open arms. So PM Modi arrived in New York City yesterday for, as WaPo reports, a five-day “rock star-like U.S. tour,” which will involve, entre autres, a speech “to a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden on Sunday in a show replete with laser lights, holo­graphic images and former Miss America Nina Davuluri as co-host [and with the event being] broadcast in Times Square and 100 other venues around the country.” Moreover “[t]he Port Authority of New York and New Jersey [will add] extra trains to accommodate the expected crowds [and a] red carpet will be unfurled.” Definitely rock star-like. À propos, an academic gauchiste half-Muslim Indian friend—whose political views are the antithesis of those of Modi and his supporters—informed me today that, to her exasperation, her Facebook news feed has been inundated with links and comments by excited friends and relatives who plan to attend Modi’s US events. A post in the NYT’s The Upshot blog on Thursday indeed called Modi “A Facebook leader, too,” informing the reader that he had 21.8 million official fans on his FB page—two days later it’s over 22 (see above image)—, which is way more than any other political personality anywhere save Barack Obama (who has 42MM). By contrast, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was bragging recently about how he has more Facebook fans than François Hollande, has yet to hit a million…

On Narendra Modi’s US appeal, the très gauchiste historian Vijay Prashad, who teaches at Trinity College in Hartford CT, had a comment in The Guardian yesterday on how “Tough guy Modi is the man of the moment for wealthy Indian Americans.” Money quote

For wealthy sections of Indian America, Modi represents a strong man who evokes pride in India. When Modi brags about his 56-inch chest, his machismo indicates India’s arrival in world affairs. Poverty is swept away by his braggadocio. Eyes are averted from the slums and instead rest upon his promises to toss environmental and labour laws in the dustbin. Trains will run on time, workers obey their supervisors and the armed forces will spread their testosterone along India’s borders. Experiences of racism and discrimination inside the US will be forgotten in the presence of Modi. If America sees Modi’s toughness, say his US supporters, the petty humiliations of life in the west will vanish.

As I observed in my post of 4½ months ago, Modi bears a distinct resemblance to Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Poor India.

Pankaj Mishra, in the November 21st 2013 NYRB, had a review essay on the latest books (co-)authored by Indian economist frères ennemis Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, “Which India matters?,” in which he made observations similar to Prashad’s

Rising social unrest is making an insecure Indian elite gravitate to such hard-line leaders as Narendra Modi, whose well-advertised toughness with labor unions and PR-enhanced business-friendliness make him the preferred choice of many corporate leaders, economists, and commentators as India’s next prime minister. Bhagwati, for instance, has described Modi as a “positive role model” with “an unblemished record of personal integrity.” As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was allegedly complicit in the killing of over a thousand Muslims there in 2002 and was barred from traveling to the United States as a result. But he still embodies managerial efficiency and iron discipline to those disturbed by the political assertiveness of the poor and the disaffected.

And Mishra writes supra that

India’s ruling class today consists, as C. Rammanohar Reddy, editor of The Economic and Political Weekly, defines it, “of large Indian businesses, the new entrepreneurs in real estate, finance, and IT, the upper segment of the urban middle classes, the upper echelons among the bureaucracy, and even large sections of the media.”

What’s immediately striking about this class of the relatively affluent is the degree to which it shares the same interests and beliefs, and its reflexive hostility to government spending on welfare—although political parties feel particularly obliged to indulge in such spending before elections. But the conservative rhetoric about buoyantly self-reliant entrepreneurs hides the fact that, as [Atul] Kohli writes [in his 2012 book Poverty Amid Plenty in the New India], the Indian state since the 1980s has been “pro-business” rather than pro-market, responsible both for the dynamic forces at the apex of India’s economy and “the failure to include India’s numerous excluded groups in the polity and the economy.”

This “collaborative capitalism,” of which Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat, is the most egregious exponent, consists of the state extending tax benefits to India’s largest businesses and facilitating their cheap access to national resources of oil, gas, forests, and minerals. In turn, “the disproportionate control over economic resources,” Kohli writes, “enables businessmen to ‘buy’ politicians,” shape decision-making through the media, and even enter politics themselves.

The spitting image of RT Erdoğan. If Modi acquires anything resembling RTE’s electoral base, he’ll be around for many years to come.

UPDATE: Pankaj Mishra, in a column in Bloomberg View (September 29th), says that “Narendra Modi is a dangerous cliché.”

2nd UPDATE: Meera Nair, who teaches writing at NYU, has a post on one of WaPo’s blogs (October 3rd) informing us that “Narendra Modi was speaking in code when he visited America. Here’s what he was really saying to his Hindu nationalist base.”

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Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of the Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Arabiya and correspondent for the Beirut daily Al-Nahar, had an excellent, must read essay in Politico last week (September 18th), “The barbarians within our gates,” in which he lucidly asserted in the lede that “Arab civilization has collapsed [and] won’t recover in my lifetime.” Money quote

Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone. The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism—the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition—than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays—all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms. With the dubious exception of the antiquated monarchies and emirates of the Gulf—which for the moment are holding out against the tide of chaos—and possibly Tunisia, there is no recognizable legitimacy left in the Arab world.

Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State? And that there is no one else who can clean up the vast mess we Arabs have made of our world but the Americans and Western countries?

The implosion of practically the entire Arab world east of the Maghreb—and particularly of its core states—over the past three years is breathtaking. It’s stunning. The future of Egypt—a state and nation crushed by its demography and in which there is no positive dynamic whatever (politically, economically, culturally, you name it)—is bleak; Syria, Iraq, and Libya are finished—shattered states and societies that will not be put back together for the foreseeable future, if ever; Lebanon—a fragile, weak state and whose most important social, political, and military actor acts independently of that state and is remote-controlled by a foreign power to boot—could descend into internecine bloodletting (Shia vs. Sunni) at almost any moment; Jordan is on the knife’s edge and likewise Saudi Arabia, which has nothing to offer the world or itself but oil and the holy places… And then there’s Yemen, running out of water and in a state of permanent tribal rebellion. As for the Palestinians, let’s not talk about them…

Melhem does mention Tunisia as a possible exception to all this. Tunisia—a small, confessionally and ethnically homogeneous country—has indeed not been doing badly—so far, at least—in its transition toward something that resembles democracy, but is in economically dire straits and is vulnerable to the chaos on its southeastern border. And if Tunisia is doing okay relatively speaking, this is in part thanks to its sizable French-speaking educated class, which has been influenced by certain French ways of thinking (notably in regard to republicanism and the relationship of religion and the state), and is oriented toward Europe. Which all goes to show that the legacy of French colonialism isn’t all negative (merci, la France). Algeria and Morocco have likewise benefited from this aspect of their French pasts, though all that stands in the way of Algeria becoming another Afghanistan or Somalia is its hydrocarbon wealth. Algeria is about as rentier of a state as one can get (whose state budget depends on hydrocarbon taxes to an even greater extent than in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states). As for Morocco, its archaic monarchical order enjoys legitimacy but if the corruption and inequalities there get any worse, who knows how long that will last?…

Another piece on the catastrophic situation in the Arab world read of late was by Daniel Williams, formerly of Human Rights Watch, in WaPo (September 19th), who informed the reader that “Christianity in Iraq is finished.” Williams, writing from Erbil, says that the West should not delude itself on this, that there will soon be almost no Christians left in Iraq (and probably not in Syria either, he could have added). The exodus of Iraqi Christians is being accelerated by ISIS, of course, but was boosted in a big way by events set in motion by the 2003 US invasion, he correctly asserts. In point of fact, though, Christians have been emigrating from the Near East to Europe and the Americas for much of the 20th century, e.g. the departure of Iraqi Chaldeans and Assyrians to the US (Chicago and Detroit) in the 1920s and ’30. It goes without saying that the end of the indigenous Christian presence in the Middle East would be a tragedy of major proportions (as I’ve posted on, e.g., here and here). An incalculable loss—culturally and economically—to those societies. And for which the sole response is for Europe, the Americas, and countries elsewhere to throw open their doors to the fleeing Christians.

À propos—and while I’m thinking of it—, here’s a question for Palestine one-staters: if the mythic one state were to somehow come into existence, does one honestly believe that Muslims, Christians, and Jews would live together in peace and harmony—or at least en bonne intelligence—, or would the Jews (and remaining Christians) eventually find themselves in the same situation as Christians in Iraq today? Poser la question c’est y répondre, je crois…

Like for Syria  لايك لأجل سوريا

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The Scottish referendum

Referendum on Scottish independence

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

I didn’t pay too much attention to it until the poll ten days ago that showed the ‘yes’ in the lead for the very first time. Now I have never set foot in Scotland—which is too bad for me, as I know for a fact that it is a beautiful and wonderful country—but am deeply concerned by the outcome of Thursday’s vote. Simply stated, I will categorically assert that a ‘yes’ victory would be a disaster: for Scotland, the United Kingdom, Europe, and the world. I am totally, unalterably, 100% distressed by and hostile to this eventuality. Period.

First, for Scotland, the consequences for which I am not overly preoccupied but still. As Paul Krugman has informed us, an independent Scotland would be a very bad deal for the Scots. Krugman insists that the Scots would, macroeconomically speaking, seriously regret their decision were they to vote for independence. There would be buyers remorse galore. I won’t repeat Krugman’s argument here. Just read what The Man has to say.

Secondly, for the United Kingdom. Regardless of how one feels about successive British governments over the past three decades and their embrace of neoliberalism and deregulated finance capitalism, it would really be terrible if Scotland were amputated from the UK. Politically speaking, a UK minus Scotland would lurch to the right. The Tories plus the UKIP would dominate, with an eventual Labour party government—even in coalition with the Liberal Democrats—nigh impossible in the short and medium term. For this reason alone, no one on the left side of the political spectrum in England or Wales can possibly wish for Scottish independence. And geopolitically speaking, the UK would be greatly diminished, as Gideon Rachman and Bernard Guetta have asserted, and with a possible departure of Northern Ireland in the cards. A UK without Scotland would eventually be downgraded to the geopolitical rank of Italy. The Brits would no longer be geopolitical players, at least not to the extent that they are, and with their permanent seat on the UNSC increasingly tough to justify. This eventuality is not in the interests of the UK. Nor of the USA, Europe, or most of the rest of the world.

Thirdly, for Europe, and this is the really big deal. First, a UK minus Scotland—with its pro-Europe voters—would almost certainly opt to quit the European Union. This would be a body blow to the EU and entire European project, needless to say. An EU without the UK would be amputated in the same way as the UK without Scotland. The EU would be that much less of a player dans la cour des grands (USA, China, Japan, Russia). Secondly, Scottish independence would have a certain demonstration effect on Spain/Catalonia and Belgium/Flanders, culminating in the breakup of two more core European states. In addition to the uncertain economic consequences—which would certainly not be positive—a Europe further fragmented would hardly be able to go toe-to-toe with the US or Russia as an equal. The power of the EU in global trade negotiations or as a geopolitical actor would be diminished. The EU’s status as a relative geopolitical dwarf would be set in concrete. This eventuality, it goes without saying, is not in the interests of anyone in Europe. Thirdly, a UK exit from the EU and breakup of Spain would consecrate Germany as the uncontested hegemonic power on the continent. The Germans would certainly be fine with this but would other Europeans?

Fourthly, for the world. The centrifugal demonstration effect of the UK’s breakup would be felt in several corners of Asia that I need not mention. A Scottish breakaway would be geopolitically destabilizing and profoundly so—and the last thing the planet needs right now is more instability. It would be a geopolitical earthquake, as more than one has put it. And in diminishing the already diminutive geopolitical role of the European Union, the geopolitical power of the USA, Russia, and China would increase ever more. Now this would not displease these three Great Powers but would it be in the interests of the rest of the world? Je ne crois pas.

A final point, and which—for me at least—is fundamental. Scottish nationalism is nationalism, and I hate nationalism. Now nationalism can be a progressive and/or understandable force in nations under occupation or that suffer discrimination inside multinational states. E.g. pre-1962 Algerian nationalism was utterly justified, as were all nationalisms in colonies against colonial powers. But such does not pertain to the Scottish nation, which suffers no discrimination whatever in the multinational state of the United Kingdom. And what is the problem with multinational states, so long as each national group is equally treated and with its culture respected? As Niall Ferguson—whom I would normally not link to favorably—has argued, the Scots have had a good deal in their three centuries-long marriage with England. The marriage has been one of equals. Cf. Quebec, whose separatists have had half an argument in view of the history of linguistic discrimination in the province until the 1970s, or Belgian Flanders, whose separatists have a quarter of an argument on account of their past humiliations when the Francophones were dominant. And Catalans in Spain have a semblance of an argument given their shabby past treatment by the Spanish state. Now I am not sympathetic to any of these separatisms but at least they’re based on a concrete history of past grievance and by nations that speak a different language from the dominant or other nation they wish to divorce. In the Scottish case, though, there is is no justification whatever. Scottish separatism is, as one political science wag aptly put it on social media the other day, petty bourgeois nationalism. Scots cannot claim that they are disfavored qua Scots in the multinational, linguistically united United Kingdom, particularly in view of the devolution of 1999 (and the increased autonomy that is sure to be granted them in the event of a ‘no’ vote in the referendum). Scottish separatism is pure egotism, as was, e.g., that of the government in Prague in 1993 when it cast out the poorer Slovakia. And the Scottish nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, is a two-bit rogue out for power, as Edinburgh political scientist Tom Gallagher reliably informs us. As for all the younger generation Scots who will be voting ‘aye’ on Thursday, they’ve simply bought into a stupid ass bullshit nationalist narrative and which has nothing whatever to do with their personal lives or life chances, which are every bit as good—or maybe not so good—inside the United Kingdom as they could possibly be in an independent Scotland. C’est affligeant.

Another final point. Author Emile Simpson writes of the injustice he feels as a Briton in helplessly watching as Scots set about dismantling the United Kingdom and without anyone in the UK outside of Scotland—including the hundreds of thousands of Scots who live south of the border—having anything to say about it. Now this is ultimately the fault of David Cameron, who stupidly agreed to the referendum and the terms under which it is being organized. But still, it is just crazy that the breakup of Great Britain should be decided by a simple majority in a single ballot by less than ten percent of its population.

For the record, I predict that the ‘no’ will carry the day, with 53% of the vote. Inshallah.

UPDATE: John Oliver has spot on—and very funny—commentary on the Scottish referendum. Watch here.

2nd UPDATE: The Democracy Now! website has a most interesting 23-minute debate, “Should Scotland vote for independence? Musician Billy Bragg vs. historian Sam Wetherell.” Both Bragg and Wetherell are on the left but are taking opposed positions in the referendum. I entirely agree with the smart and well-spoken Wetherell, needless to say. See also his article in Jacobin, “Exit Stage Right: The Case Against Scottish Independence.”

3rd UPDATE: Gordon Brown gave a great speech on the eve of the vote. Watch here.

4th UPDATE: Robert Reich’s Facebook status update four hours before the closing of the polls in Scotland is worth reading and meditating on

Nationhood doesn’t mean what it used to. Even if a majority of Scots decide to secede today, a separate Scotland will probably still use the same currency as England, remain part of the Eurozone (no visas or passports required to enter Scotland), and coordinate major policies with Parliament and Whitehall.

The only real beneficiaries will be large global corporations. They’ll have more bargaining leverage over a separate Scotland. Global corporations like separatism and “devolution” (a fancy term for pushing responsibility down to state, regional, or provincial governments) because both allow them to play governments against each other with ever bigger tax breaks, subsidies, and favorable regulations. In the United States, for example, states are in a frenzy of corporate gift-giving to attract and keep corporations and jobs.

If lefties have a response to this, I’d like to hear it.

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Obama & ISIS

barack-obama-isis-speech-1

A faithful reader—my mother—asked me in an email the day before yesterday why I hadn’t commented on Obama’s speech on ISIS. I replied that I hadn’t paid much attention to it, being occupied as I was with getting my daughter set up in Istanbul, where she’s spending an Erasmus year. Now that I’m back in Paris, I’ve been able to take a few minutes to read into the matter. This commentary by CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook, “ISIS and us: No way to go to war,” gets it right IMO. The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch also had a worthwhile comment on “What Obama didn’t say.” And I will take the liberty of cutting-and-pasting journalist Craig Pyes‘s pertinent Facebook status update of two days ago

It’s appalling how so much of the press and pundit corps are so wrong in their criticism of Obama’s actions on ISIS (although there will be plenty of mistakes, little he can do, and a real danger of a prolonged war). Most journalists hunt in packs, and they follow each other rather than discern their own truths. This is true on the ground and in their thoughts. It’s why each newspaper reads like the others. Obama’s reaction has little to do with terrorism, and to draw up arguments of why it won’t be an effective CT tool, totally misses the point. Secondly, this is not Iraq in 2003, and marshaling the arguments against being overly credulous then — which you all were (Strobel and Landay exempted) — you’re, as they say, fighting the last war. Now is not then. Not only do these reporters think they’re right because their colleagues are writing the same critique, but it conforms to a pool of common sources, most of whom are no longer in the government. Very, very few of these reporters actually know anything about underlying realities of the Middle East, and so are captive to their sources.

The Middle East is unraveling — there are serious bad scenarios that can emerge — and for the US to do nothing about ISIS will insure that the political climate turns even more poisonous there than it is now, with thousands of innocents being butchered. The political reality is not good now, there is a huge possibility that the US will not be able to influence what it is becoming, but those aren’t arguments for sitting back and doing nothing. Nor are they arguments to put boots on the ground.

Affaire à suivre, évidemment.

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(photo: AFP/Getty Images)

(photo: AFP/Getty Images)

[update below]

Yesterday was the 41st anniversary of the coup d’état in Chile, that other 9/11. I want to use the occasion to post a fascinating article that appeared in the July-August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs on “what really happened in Chile” in 1973 and, specifically, what was the precise nature of the US role in the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende. The article is authored by Jack Devine, a now retired CIA career officer who was in the agency’s Santiago station at the time. In short, Devine makes clear that, contrary to popular belief, the CIA did not foment the coup; not only was the Chilean military 100% sovereign in its decision that fateful September but it did not even inform the Americans of the plot it was hatching. The CIA station only got wind that the coup was imminent two days beforehand and from its local assets. Devine’s account is detailed and totally persuasive. I have no reason to doubt it—and, dear reader, nor do you. It makes total sense that General Pinochet & Co would not bring the Americans into the loop, as there was no reason to. The Chilean military, like the Egyptian military—or the Turkish military, or the Thai military, or any old, proud military establishment out there—, cannot be manipulated or told what to do by great power patrons, and certainly not when it comes to its country’s internal affairs. Do read the read the article. All of it. For those too lazy to click on the link, here’s the text (with passages I found noteworthy highlighted in bold).

By Jack Devine

On September 9, 1973, I was eating lunch at Da Carla, an Italian restaurant in Santiago, Chile, when a colleague joined my table and whispered in my ear: “Call home immediately; it’s urgent.” At the time, I was serving as a clandestine CIA officer. Chile was my first overseas assignment, and for an eager young spymaster, it was a plum job. Rumors of a military coup against the socialist Chilean president, Salvador Allende, had been swirling for months. There had already been one attempt. Allende’s opponents were taking to the streets. Labor strikes and economic disarray made basic necessities difficult to find. Occasionally, bombs rocked the capital. The whole country seemed exhausted and tense. In other words, it was exactly the kind of place that every newly minted CIA operative wants to be.

I ducked out of the restaurant as discreetly as I could and headed to the CIA station to place a secure call to my wife. She was caring for our five young children, and it was our first time living abroad as a family, so she could have been calling about any number of things. But I had a hunch that her call was very important and related to my work, and it was.

“Your friend called from the airport,” my wife said. “He’s leaving the country. He told me to tell you, ‘The military has decided to move. It’s going to happen on September 11. The navy will lead it off.’”

This call from my “friend”—a businessman and former officer in the Chilean navy who was also a source for the CIA—was the first indication the agency’s station in Santiago had received that the Chilean military had set a coup in motion. Not long after, a second source of mine, another prominent businessman (more…)

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9/11 + 13

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I hadn’t planned on posting anything on it today, the 13th anniversary, but came across, via social media, these amateur photos taken from Queens of the Twin Towers collapsing on that calamitous day. The link was posted on FB by engagé historian and MENA specialist Mark LeVine—whose attitude toward US foreign policy is rather more negative than mine—, who wrote that he watched the catastrophe almost from the same spot in Queens where the photos were taken and had tears streaming down his face. I did too, almost. I watched the second tower collapse on live TV—in France—and was traumatized—by all that happened that day—, shedding more than one tear over the subsequent days and with trouble sleeping on account of what had happened in New York City. That’s all I have to say. For all those who lost their lives that day, R.I.P.

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