Monthly Archives: September 2004

Newsweek profile of Ibish – He Can’t Pay for a Cab

Sept. 27 issue – There should be a New York Press award hanging on the wall of Hussein Ibish’s office, but the 41-year-old Lebanese-American and Washington correspondent for the Arab world’s most prominent English-language paper, the Daily Star, hasn’t had time to put it up. He picks up the plaque off his cluttered desk and reads it aloud: “best tv spokesman for the arab cause. It’s really flattering,” he says, “but it’s a bit like being named the tallest skyscraper in San Clemente.”

As the former communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Ibish has pioneered a new type of Middle Eastern advocacy and become a hero among civil libertarians and Arab-Americans alike. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell referred to Muhammad the Prophet as a “demon-possessed pedophile” on CNN’s “Crossfire” after the 9/11 attacks, Ibish decided all logical argument was out the window. “I called him an idiot, plain and simple,” says Ibish. He received a standing ovation from the studio audience.

On Alan Keyes’s show, New York Post columnist Daniel Pipes asserted that it was far too dangerous for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. Ibish carefully deconstructed the argument until Pipes’s only defense was to yell, “Shut up! Shut up!” And then there was the recent phone call from a political columnist the day after Ibish had appeared on MSNBC with him. By the end of the call the columnist had dropped his dogged assertions that the Saudi government was a terrorist organization and instead asked, “Hussein, why don’t you like me?” “When the other party comes unglued, flails around or loses their cool, you know you’ve won,” says Ibish, who’s now writing a book about the Arab-American experience. “When people get really mad, you know you’ve done a good job. And if you’ve done an excellent job, you’ll receive death threats.”

But the love Ibish receives from those he’s defending, he says, makes it all worth it. “I was in a New York cab and the driver said, ‘You can’t pay. I know who you are. I know what you’re doing for me and my children.’ On the way back the same exact thing happened. It helps to be appreciated. But in the end I volunteered to mud-wrestle in the sewer with half-wits and villains. Somebody has to do it-why not me?”

An idealist haunted by reality

Edward Said’s last book, “From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map,” published posthumously following his death last year, highlights the dangers of shaping a book out of otherwise unedited newspaper columns: what is perfectly palatable in small doses becomes far less appealing when consumed in large quantities.

“From Oslo to Iraq” is useful mainly because of its first chapter, “Palestinians Under Siege,” Said’s masterful explication, along with the requisite maps, of the topography of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These physical alterations to the Palestinian landscape, now most dramatically illustrated by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Great Wall currently snaking its way across the West Bank, constitute what Israeli sociologist Jeff Halper has aptly dubbed a “matrix of control” over the Palestinian people.

Said’s essay, and his maps, expose the absurdity of many of the arguments routinely presented in defense of Israeli actions, such as Alan Dershowitz’s ridiculous formulation that he is opposed to the “occupation of people,” but not to “occupation of the land.” They also demonstrate how deeply entrenched the occupation has become and how complex it would be to dismantle its infrastructure.

The rest of Said’s book consists mainly of his columns from Al-Hayat and the English-language Al-Ahram Weekly, which were certainly not among his finest works. Said returns time and again to themes which were already fully developed in his earlier writings: the suffering of the Palestinians and the nobility of their resistance; the atrocious leadership of Yasser Arafat; and the culpability of the Americans, the Europeans and the Arabs.

There is little to argue with, but almost nothing new either. Long sections of the book are mind-numbingly repetitive, in a way in which the original columns, because they came out periodically in newspapers, were not. The effect is like pouring endless teaspoons of syrup into a large beaker and then expecting people to drink it as they would a glass of beer. One can only assume that, had he lived, Said would have ensured that this effect, which is not to be found in any of his other books, would have been attenuated.

In spite of the extraordinary elegance of much of his prose, like many polemical writers Said was capable of creating a hectoring effect, making even the most sympathetic reader feel oppressed by righteous indignation. His penchant for hyperbole makes repeated appearances, as in his characterization of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as Bush’s “psychopathic henchman.” Almost any other pejorative would have better described him, and many would have been accurate.

However, two of the columns in “From Oslo to Iraq” do reflect Said at his finest, and it is surely no coincidence that they were both written, back-to-back, in October 2001 in response to the terrorist attacks in the United States and their aftermath. One of the pieces, “Adrift in Similarity,” demolishes in a few short sentences entire discourses in both the Western and Islamic worlds where “hugely complicated matters like an identity and culture exist in a cartoon-like world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly.” And can there be any doubt that Said’s plea for the development of “a new secular Arab politics … without for a moment condoning or supporting the militancy (it is madness) of people willing to kill indiscriminately” is as urgent today as when it was written three years ago?

“From Oslo to Iraq” chronicles the final stage in one of the most interesting aspects of Said’s career and intellectual development: his relationship with Palestinian nationalism. He was among the first to call for a two-state solution in the late 1970’s, and then among the first to turn his back on it in the mid-1990’s. Indeed, in most of his writing over the past decade, he has argued that partition of Israel-Palestine under existing circumstances is unworkable, both politically and because of the changing geography he described in “Palestinians Under Siege.”

Instead, Said advocated a binational state for Jews and Arabs that could transform rivals into partners and allow each to express their national identity without excluding or oppressing the other. Said had the intellectual integrity to admit that this was not, as others have disingenuously suggested, a return to previous Palestinian nationalist positions that envisioned a “secular, democratic state” which was also somehow “Palestinian and Arab” at the same time.

Instead, Said spoke in terms of Israelis and Palestinians transcending their ethno-nationalist identities. Unfortunately, neither he nor any other of the small group of thinkers on both sides of the divide who embrace this frankly utopian vision have been able to give us the slightest idea of how such an arrangement might work in practice – let alone how to get from here to there. As it stands today, binationalism exists only as an exceptionally ambitious project to change the way millions of different people think about their societies and the world around them.

Among the most fascinating passages in “From Oslo to Iraq” are the moments where one sees the visionary and the idealist reverting to the rhetoric of partition: “The only negotiations worth anything now must be about the terms of an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in 1967.” In another column from October 2001, Said demands a return to negotiations, and writes that “the great failing of Oslo must be remedied now at the start: a clearly articulated end to occupation, the establishment of a viable, genuinely independent Palestinian state, and the existence of peace through mutual recognition … have to be stated as the objective of negotiations, a beacon a shining at the end of the tunnel.”

American neoconservatives call this effect “being mugged by reality.” One can read in Said’s essays the ongoing tension between a desire to advocate an essentially undefined political agenda of binationalism and the lure of existing political structures Said understandably despised for being dysfunctional, but which, at least, are real. In the end, his break with the idea of partition and the end of the occupation as the primary goal of the Palestinian national movement was not as absolute as it sometimes seemed.

The political suicide of John Kerry

The campaign of Senator John F. Kerry appears to have imploded. With almost two months left before the presidential election on Nov. 2, U.S. President George W. Bush is poised to win an election in which, given his extraordinary record of domestic and international failure, he should certainly have been defeated.

Contrary to conventional wisdom in the American media, Kerry stands on the brink of failure not because of the Republican attacks against him, but because of his own incomprehensible strategic blunders.

This is not to say that the spectacularly dishonest television campaign falsely impugning Kerry’s Vietnam War record – spurred by a thinly veiled Bush campaign front group preposterously named “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” – has had no effect. Such negative campaigning, particularly when the lie being told is so massive that the public cannot imagine anyone being brazen enough to invent it out of whole cloth, has a proven record in American politics. But Democrats can, and indeed have, fought back effectively against these charges, and most voters are not particularly interested in 35-year-old Vietnam-related issues.

The brilliantly staged but vicious Republican National Convention was certainly much more impressive than the Democratic convention a few weeks earlier. It played well to the party base, but the thundering of the self-hating Democrat Senator Zell Miller, the keynote speaker, was not the stuff that turns elections.

Compared to Kerry’s own strategic miscalculations, the Republicans have been a minor problem for the Democratic candidate. What really occurred during August that decisively shifted the momentum in favor of the president was Kerry’s own unfathomable decision to cede to Bush the major issue on which this campaign, and the incumbent’s record, will be judged: the war in Iraq.

Before August, Bush was incredibly vulnerable on Iraq. A majority of Americans considers the war to have been a mistake, resistance to the occupation is intensifying, and virtually everybody concedes that the two reasons the administration gave for the invasion – Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and the supposed alliance between the regime of Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda – were based entirely on deception, or were illusory.

Hammering Bush on this ill-advised adventure must lie at the heart of any successful challenge of his record. The difficulty is that Kerry voted for the Senate resolution giving the administration the authority to use force in Iraq.

However, Kerry could have used his own vote to emphasize the degree to which the administration manipulated, exaggerated and falsified existing intelligence to misrepresent Iraq as a threat to the United States. He could have taken the issue of his vote for a war he now criticizes and, instead of allowing it to be used by Republicans as evidence of his fickleness and inconsistency, made it the centerpiece of an attack on the administration’s deceptiveness or incompetence.

Kerry should have spent August repeating: “Mr. Bush, I voted for that resolution on the basis of what you and your subordinates were telling the Congress and the country. We now know that the information you gave us was false. Mr. Bush, if you knew it was false, you deliberately deceived us all. If you did not know, then you and your team are incompetent in the extreme, and you must go before you blunder your way into further disastrous and unnecessary conflicts. Mr. Bush, you are either a liar or a fool, and thousands of people have died as a consequence.”

Kerry, instead of mounting this kind of vigorous offensive on the blundering in Iraq, made the fateful error of, in effect, conceding the issue entirely. On numerous occasions in August, the Democratic candidate confessed that if he knew then what he knows now, he would still have voted for the war authorization resolution. However, the coup de grace was delivered by Kerry’s unqualified foreign policy spokesman James Rubin, who told the press that the candidate would have “in all probability” invaded Iraq himself. Rubin later clarified that he “never should have said the phrase ‘in all probability.'”

The Kerry team has become completely entangled in its gnarled inconsistencies on Iraq, like a bull trapped in razor wire – every effort to extricate itself has only trapped it more tightly while opening fresh wounds. Unable to successfully engage Bush on the major issue of the campaign, Kerry is now going to try to shift the debate away from national security issues to a domestic agenda under the rubric: “A stronger America begins at home.”

Relying on those opinion polls showing Americans are most concerned about economic issues, the Democrats have decided not to put up a serious fight over Iraq, but to try to make the election about jobs. This is cowardly, unprincipled and an almost certain recipe for defeat.

Since there will be at least two major televised debates before the November voting, Kerry will have some opportunity to climb out of the formidable hole which he has dug for himself. But given the familiar divisions between Democrats and Republicans on economic policy, and the extraordinary incoherence and contradictions of Kerry’s foreign policy pronouncements, even as poor a debater as Bush ought to be able, at the very least, to hold his own.

There was a disturbing whiff of demagoguery about the Republican National Convention, but the mocking chant of “flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop” perfectly characterized Kerry’s political self-immolation at the alter of Iraq.

Proposed UN resolution shows deterioration of US-Syrian ties

A new initiative by the United States and France to seek a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria for engineering an unconstitutional second-term for Lebanese President Emile Lahoud comes in the context of a long spiral of deteriorating relations between Washington and Damascus. The resolution is expected to pass if introduced, possibly later this week, in spite of pleas from the Lebanese government and others that it would be unhelpful.

“By pressing for such a resolution, the French and Americans will themselves by intervening in Lebanese politics, and thereby defeating their own stated purposed,” Murhaf Jouejati, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and a specialist on US-Syrian relations, told The Daily Star.

Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma, said: “I don’t think anything is going to stop the deterioration right now; Syria has dug in its heels and the US has set terms that the Syrians can’t possibly meet.”

Landis said that Syria was creating serious problems for itself, because the Lahoud issue would “force many fence-sitters in Lebanon to choose between Lebanese nationalism and some sort of Arab identification.”

“I think Syria is going to lose from this,” he said. “Syria has nothing to gain from driving this fight internationally and in Lebanon.

“On the other hand, the regime has never been stronger domestically and has been able to make peace with a large array of domestic opponents,” Landis added.

The Lahoud affair could be raised bilaterally when US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns and a delegation of other senior officials visit Damascus as part of a planned Sept. 8-16 trip that is also set to include Cairo, Jerusalem and London. The trip was planned before the issue of the Lebanese presidency became a diplomatic controversy.

Syria’s role in Lebanon adds another charge in the bill of particulars against Syria being pressed by neoconservatives and supporters of Israel. These already include the charge that Syria harbors Palestinian terrorist groups, that it allows foreign fighters to pass across the border with Iraq, that it has a chemical weapons program, and even – according to the most ardent critics of Syria – that the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein may have transferred weapons of mass destruction to Syria prior to the US invasion of Iraq.

“This is yet another hook against Syria, and this administration has been moving from hook to hook, so much so that this is truly a downward spiral in the relationship between the US and Syria,” Jouejati said.

In the year following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Syria and the US enjoyed an unprecedented spell of cooperation against Al-Qaeda extremists, so much so that the Syrian government was publicly credited by senior US officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, as having provided information that saved American lives.

This relationship was described in greatest detail by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker magazine. Hersh wrote, “Syria’s efforts to help seemed to confound the Bush Administration, which was fixated on Iraq. … the Administration was ill prepared to take advantage of the situation and unwilling to reassess its relationship with Assad’s government.” According to Hersh, the administration “chose confrontation with Syria over day-to-day help against Al-Qaeda.”

Since then the accusations against Syria in Washington have only gained momentum, and the man reputed to be the most enthusiastic proponent of cooperation between the US and Syria, former CIA Director George Tenet, has resigned.

“The CIA has been neutralized – the last time it intervened in these matters was when they succeed in altering the language of US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton’s testimony before Congress about Syria’s weapons of mass destruction and exposed his language as highly exaggerated and containing a political agenda,” Jouejati said. “But since then Tenet is gone, Congress and the Defense Department have got the upper hand, and the only thing that can stop the downward spiral at this point is the Burns delegation and the talks that will occur on Sept. 9.”

According to Landis, “Washington right now is very divided – there are many people who don’t want to repeat what we did in Iraq in Syria, and who want to deal with Bashar, who has many promising qualities and who is trying to take Syria from being an autocratic state to being a liberal dictatorship, like America’s best friends in the Middle East – many realists are ready to embrace this under their traditional mantra of stability.”

“However, the neocons have got Syria clearly in their crosshairs and want to take down the regime,” Landis said. “They established the line early on that Bashar Assad and the Baathist regime are irrational and cannot be dealt with.” Landis said he thinks this is “the worst possible policy” for the US to follow.