Tag Archives: Middle East

Pelosi’s Office Rejects Input from USF Faculty

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is important to remember those who were responsible for that tragic and unnecessary war.

Prior to joining the USF faculty, I was a research fellow at the Institute for Global Security Studies specializing in the study of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East.  From my investigations there and subsequent research while at USF, I had concluded — as did many other independent strategic analysts — that the Bush administration’s claims in 2002 that Iraq had somehow reconstituted vast stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons were false.

This was a serious question at that time because Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s supposed possession of “weapons of mass destruction” was the primary reason the Bush administration insisted it was necessary for the United States to invade and occupy Iraq, a war that resulted in the loss of nearly 4500 American lives, many thousands of permanently wounded veterans, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, more than a one trillion additional dollars to the national debt, and an unprecedented increase in anti-American extremism.

Wanting to try to prevent this illegal and unnecessary war, I contacted the office of our local Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi that fall, recognizing that—as the powerful Democratic leader of the House of Representatives—she could influence the debate  I let them know of my desire to meet with her and share my research which raised serious questions about the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s alleged chemical and biological weapons capabilities.

They told me that would not be possible, so I asked for a meeting with her chief of staff.  Or her foreign policy advisors.  Or her district director here in San Francisco.

Every one of them refused.

A couple months later, as the debate about whether the United States should invade Iraq was growing, Pelosi appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press and told the host Tim Russert that “Saddam Hussein certainly has chemical and biological weapons. There’s no question about that.”

This highly-publicized statement not only set back the burgeoning anti-war movement but negated the important political advantage the Democrats would have otherwise had when, following the U.S. conquest of that oil-rich country, no chemical and biological weapons were ever found.

I have never received an explanation as to why no one on Pelosi’s staff was willing to meet with me and consider the evidence I wanted to share with them.  Indeed, to this day, though I communicate regularly with several other members of Congress and their top staffers who solicit my advice on security matters related to the Middle East, Pelosi’s district director and other top staff members still refuse to set up an appointment with me or even return my calls.

Perhaps, when it comes to the Middle East, Pelosi is like her Republican counterparts who refuse to meet with scientists about climate change in that she doesn’t want the facts to get in the way of her prejudices.  Perhaps she has been influenced by right-wing groups which have falsely accused me of being “anti-American” and “an apologist for terrorists” for periodically raising critical questions about certain aspects of U.S. Middle East policy.  Perhaps she does not think that the University of San Francisco is prestigious enough an institution to bother taking seriously the research of its faculty.

Whatever the reasons, it is disappointing that the Democratic Party would choose someone like that to be their leader in Congress and that the people of San Francisco  keep re-electing someone so willfully ignorant.

Ten Years after the Invasion of Iraq, Recalling the Lies that Made It Possible

This month marks the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which has resulted in the deaths of up to half a million Iraqis, mostly civilians, and the displacement of millions.  Sectarian and ethnic tensions remain high and violence and terrorism — despite being less pervasive than a few years ago — are endemic.  The current Iraqi government is notoriously corrupt and repressive, guilty of widespread torture and extrajudicial killings of opponents.  A whole new generation of Islamist terrorists radicalized by the invasion and insurgency is now active worldwide.

Almost 4500 Americans were killed and thousands more received serious physical and emotional injuries which will plague them for the rest of their lives.  The war has cost U.S. taxpayers close to one trillion dollars, contributing greatly to the national debt, which has resulted in the sequester and other cutbacks in vital social programs, including work-study funds and other support for college students.

The Bush administration could not convince Americans to support such an illegal and unnecessary war for the sake of oil and empire.  Instead, they had to lie by falsely claiming that Iraq was a threat to the national security of the United States through its acquisition of massive stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, the development of a nuclear weapons program, the acquisition of long-range missiles and drone aircraft, and operational ties with Al-Qaeda.  As they were forced to admit later, absolutely none of those claims were true.

However, they were still able to recruit some prominent Democrats—such as Senators John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein, and Harry Reid—to repeat their lies about Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” and other manufactured threats.  Some journalists, political pundits, and even academics were also convinced to tout the administration’s line.

Here at USF, just weeks before the invasion, two of my colleagues—one in the Politics Department and one in the History Department—engaged in a public debate with former Politics professor Cynthia Boaz and I. They repeated many of the administration’s lies in their desperate attempt to convince USF students that Iraq was somehow such a dire threat to our national security that it required a U.S. invasion and occupation and that it would somehow be worth all the resulting human, financial and environmental costs. They also claimed that, despite the United States being the primary supporter of the region’s worst dictatorships, the Bush administration was committed to building democracy in Iraq and that a U.S.-occupied Iraq would be a model for freedom and prosperity in the region.

Professor Boaz and I correctly observed that Iraq was not a threat, had probably rid itself of all its proscribed weapons and weapons systems, and that a U.S. invasion and occupation would be a clear violation of international law and the United Nations charter, would result in years of bloody counter-insurgency war, sectarian conflict, and a rise in Islamist extremism and sectarian conflict which would make the establishment of a stable democracy impossible.  I had done extensive empirical research on Iraq over the previous fifteen years and was quite confident in my assessment, as were most scholars familiar with the Middle East.

One of our colleagues, however, insisted that area specialists like us could not be trusted because, in his words, we tend to “go native” (as in developing too much sympathy towards the populations we study to be able to engage in objective analysis) and that President Bush actually had a better grasp of what was best for the Middle East (and presumably other regions of the world).

Particularly disturbing about these arguments was the implication that the unsubstantiated claims of the administration (led by two former oil company executives who clearly coveted Iraq’s natural resources) were somehow more reliable than empirical research by respected scholars familiar with the region.  The message, in effect, was “Trust the State.  If the leaders say we must go to war, just go along.  Don’t question what they tell you.”

The lesson to today’s students is this:  Do not to trust the government when it says we must go to war in a far off land (particularly if it has lots of oil).And don’t trust professors who tell you to ignore relevant scholarship and simply believe whatever the president says.

Satire Proves Egypt’s Revolution didn’t Fail

Whether or not the Egyptian Revolution can be deemed successful is not clear, but the demands of the revolution were clear from the beginning: A’ash, Horeya weh A’adala Egtema’aya, meaning “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice” — a three word mission reminiscent of the French Revolution’s “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”.

Many would say that Egypt’s only achievement since January 25, 2011 was the removal of former-President Hosni Mubarak. Still, Egypt is not the same Egypt that existed before January 2011. I am not simply writing about the intermittent violence in the streets, but about those genuinely participating, still calling for the basic rights they deserve.

Take the example of Bassem Youssef,  a former cardiothoracic surgeon. He found his calling in the most provocative occupation one could take on in the Middle East — a political satire comedian in the style of Jon Stewart, the first ever in the region. Before this, Egyptian state television and newspapers were routinely censored out of fear of the government’s reaction to controversial media statements. There was always a tacit line that could never be crossed, and many newscasters and journalists were imprisoned and made an example of for speaking out against the regime.

Youssef’s show “El Bernameg” (literally translating as “The Show”) is representative of the dam of oppression that broke with the fall of Mubarak’s administration. His humor and satirical responses to the political contradictions of the current government under President Mohammed Morsi educates people on the recent constitutional referendums and other national issues. Always pushing the boundaries, he goes all out in making fun of the president and other major politicians. His empowered viewers believe that the program speaks to the government on their behalf.

Social and political criticism is still not accepted easily in Egypt, even as so many have fought for the right to dish it out. Even prominent interview host, Emad Adeeb, found cause to sue “El Bernameg” for comparing his pre-revolution and post-revolution political stances, calling it “insult and defamation” — and in the process highlighting that no one, no matter one’s title or status, is above being targeted on the show. Youssef drew up a contract with the channel’s owner to make sure that no topic would be off limits for him, and despite all the controversy it sparks.  His YouTube channel continues to be the most subscribed-to channel in Egypt.

Egyptians know that they have not attained the complete democracy they have been fighting for these past two years, but at least now, Egyptians can speak their mind without fear; they know that for every inadmissible move the new President or government makes, they can grab their openly-furious signs and chant in the streets for change. Youssef’s “El Bernameg” represents the charged spirit of the country and its people. But, of course, this newborn freedom of speech, press and general expression is only one step in the direction of fulfilling the three demands of el thawra (the revolution).

Former Indian Amabassador to United Nations Says Arab Spring is “Awakening” at USF Lecture

The uprisings are not definitive in goals, are not determinate in their pace, are not inclusive in terms of participants and beneficiaries, and irreversible in their direction.

In December 2010, Tunisian vegetable seller Mohammed Bouazizi went to the provincial headquarters in his town Sidi Bouzid to file a complaint about the mistreatment he recently endured from a policewoman. The woman had confiscated his vegetable cart, fined him, and insulted him. The refusal of the local municipality officials to see him resulted in a powerful political statement that nobody could have predicted. Bouazizi poured fuel over his body and set himself on fire in front of the headquarters for officials and civilians to see. Bouazizi died less than a month later, commanding attention to a political revolution years in the making.

“Bouazizi was a catalyst,” said Honorary Ambassador Rajendra Abhyankar to an audience of USF students and professors at his discussion, “The Arab Spring: How Did It Get Here and Where Is It Going?” on Nov. 19. Abhyankar is an Indian diplomat who lived in the Middle East for 13 years. From 1998 to 2001, he was the Indian consul general in San Francisco.

By setting fire to himself, Bouazizi ignited global awareness about the current unrest in the Middle East that Abhyankar refers to as the “Arab Awakening,” which is known to many as the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring is a revolution of protests, wars, and demonstrations of Arab nationals dissatisfied with the government and socioeconomic status of their countries. The protests have resulted in the overthrow of rulers in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. Uprisings have broken out in 20 Middle Eastern countries. Abhyankar explained that ‘awakening’ is a more descriptive term of the circumstances, which he says have been a “process” of events rather than one “spring” of uprisings.

While Bouazizi’s fatal and powerful political statement brought the Arab Spring to the forefront of international news in December 2010, Arab citizens of the Middle East countries have long been protesting for governmental change. According to Abhyankar, the protests are unorganized and driven by younger generations aiming to reform the military, the current social contract, the broken education system, and women’s rights.

Abhyankar pointed out that the armies in Middle Eastern countries are “a state within a state,” meaning it is the army that determines foreign and defense policies. The government uses the current social contract as a suppression tool to combat civilian opposition, he said. “Holders of power make available all the things they believe citizens should want and in return expect people to remain silent about politics.” This vicious cycle is only made worse by the broken education system, which Abhyankar said provides “no possibility for enterprise.”

With more than half of the Middle East population under 35, the desire to protest for reform is incredibly intense, however, Abhyankar pointed out that the goals of these uprisings are difficult to pinpoint. “The uprisings are not definitive in goals, are not determinate in their pace, are not inclusive in terms of participants and beneficiaries, and irreversible in their direction,” he said, summing up the uncertainty surrounding the direction of the uprisings. Although the nature of these protests is spontaneous and highly unorganized in terms of concise goals, they all call for complete government reformation. What this reformation will look like is the most unclear. Citizens are in favor of democracy with Islamic inspiration,  but the question is whether or not Islam will be compatible with democracy. Supremacy of parliament, an independent judiciary, and a constitution under the widest consensus are the desired elements of democracy that the Arab people are fighting for.

“How do we get there?” was Abhyankar’s main question. He pointed to other government methods, such as those in Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon as models to look toward. Egypt, also, plays a crucial role in determining the fate of Middle Eastern governments. “Egypt represents two extremes: an elected president for the first time and a constitution panel that is 50% Islam” said Abhyankar. “Egypt is the most populous Middle East country and what happens there will influence what happens in other Middle East countries,” he said.

While the ideality behind the Arab awakening is to move these countries forward toward democracy and civilian controlled militaries, these protests have been the cause of much internal political instability, increased religious intolerance, and slow downs of economic growth. Having someone like Ambassador Rajendra Abhyankar come to USF and bring first hand insight into this crisis brought invaluable perspective to USF students. Caroline Earling, a junior international studies major, found the conversation “relevant” and said, “USF needs more speakers like this.” Hans Jacobs, a sophomore also majoring in international studies agreed. “It was interesting to hear what he had to say,” he said, adding that he was satisfied with the quality of information.

After the discussion, Abhyankar said he was content with students’ questions and ended by commenting on how interesting it was to have a discussion about countries in the midst of fighting for democracy in San Francisco, a city “known for democracy.”

Documetary Breaks Down Middle Eastern Stereotypes

On Nov. 17, Jean Marie Offenbacher presented her film Tea on the Axis of Evil, a portrayal of Syrian society. The film intended to bridge a growing disconnect between Americans and Middle Easterners in a post-9/11 climate of increased tensions between the two regions.

Offenbacher spent several months traveling throughout Syria with her camera to interview people. She hoped to break the stereotype of terrorist-inspired images portrayed by US media under the Bush administration.

Following the film, a panel of three USF professors, along with Offenbacher, answered questions and critiques.

Professor of Feminist Islamic Ethics, Dr. Aysha Hidayatullah, said it is challenging to produce a film about another culture without reinforcing preexisting frameworks. In this case, those frameworks are based on Orientalism – the Western attempt to construct the “truth” about the Middle East.

Dr. Hidayatullah said, “a film such as this illustrates that people’s preconceived notions of Syria as being ‘exotic’, ‘ancient’ and ‘barbaric’ are misled.” If people understand the film to show that Syrians are “just like us,” they fail to challenge the overall framework that leads to the stereotyping of “good” vs. “evil.”

Professor Annick Wibben, who teaches politics and international studies, said “Our pre-existing frameworks limit our options for responding to an event.”
With a strong focus on social responsibility, Wibeen added that  “so many of us [at USF] focus on helping others.” However, she said people must keep in mind the ethical dilemmas associated with changing the world.

Politics Professor Stephen Zunes, who is also the program director for Middle Eastern Studies, said Offenbacher captured the essence of Syrian society, which he remembers fondly from his many travels.  He questioned the filmmaker’s decision not to include political content. In his view, political and historical context is crucial to challenging the stereotypes that both Professor Wibben and Professor Hidayatullah addressed.
Responding to the panel discussion, Offenbacher concluded, “We have an obligation as Americans to see the parts of the world we are affecting.” She hopes the film can foster a connection, if not greater understanding between U.S. and Syrian citizens.
The film is available in the International Studies office.

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Foreign Language Aids Cultural Immersion

As Americans, we do not need to learn a foreign language because pretty much everywhere around the world people are learning English.  The problem with that is you do not really understand what you are not getting.  Being a part of a culture and being able to participate, instead of just standing outside and thinking you know what is going on, will enable you to have a much deeper understanding and appreciation of this foreign culture.

When I took my first course in Middle East history, I did not speak Arabic nor had I ever been to the region.  Now I am hooked.  It was not until I took my first Arabic course that I understood that Arabic is not a single language, and that there are multiple dialects used in various parts of the region.  The Arabic spoken in Morocco, for example, is quite different from Arabic spoken in Syria, which is different from Arabic spoken in Iraq.  Whole words, sentence structures, and expressions sound different.  In learning Arabic I have developed a richer understanding of the politics, culture, history and economics of the Middle East region requires a facility in this important and beautiful language and the dialects.

I have studied and worked in the Middle East and last summer I took Arabic at Middlebury Arabic Language School.  This program is full immersion.  I signed a pledge and could only use Arabic for the entire 9 weeks of the program.  And we managed to learn an entire year’s worth of material during that time.  This was an extremely intensive course but one that I recommend for those who are serious about learning a foreign language. Many times students go overseas to study, and that is great, but often times they are surrounded by peers who speak English.  Finding a way to really immerse oneself in and struggle with the nuances and details of the language will ultimately lead to a better understanding of the culture and society.  In the case of Arabic, this language is also first step in understanding the Middle East and Islam.

I will return to Middlebury again this summer to complete their advanced Arabic language course.  I believe we need to build better understanding, cooperation, and programs between the United States and this part of the world – as well as many other areas too.  Unless we understand what they think and why they think the way they do, which means standing outside of us and getting inside of the local culture to see things through their eyes, we as Americans will not be able to have a constructive dialogue.  We will only be able to communicate with the minds but not the hearts of these people.  Learning a foreign language, such as Arabic, will help break stereotypes and misconceptions that are destructive to our future prosperity, global peace, and our national security.  I encourage other students at USF to consider taking their foreign language courses seriously so that they can do the same.