Wednesday, April 30, 2008


This is a pretty frivolous aside, but Robert Schlesinger (son of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., son of Arthur Schlesinger) was on the Daily Show this evening, wearing an eye-poppingly multicolored bow tie. Anyone who has ever seen pictures of his father should recognize the homage. A great interview as well.

UPDATE: You can catch the interview here.


Check out Arif Rafiq's recent piece on the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. A very insightful and practical set of prescriptions in my view. He refers to Senator Biden's proposal as a model for building a relationship with the Pakistan people, not just the upper echelons of Pakistan's government, and advises Washington to stop interfering in Pakistan's internal politics.

I have a couple of quibbles. I'm not sure how realistic it would be to replace NATO troops in Afghanistan with those from non-bordering Muslim nations like Turkey and Indonesia, but I guess it might be worth a shot some day. Also, I'm not always sure what authors mean when they say that the U.S. shouldn't "interfere" in others' internal politics. If what Mr. Rafiq means is that Washington ought to be dispassionate and uninterested in Pakistan's political winds, that strikes me as pretty unrealistic. If, on the other hand, he means that America should step back, and try to influence Pakistan's long term political development by putting itself on the right side of events rather than trying to tinker in the country's political minutae, then in my view he's being quite insightful.

In any case, definitely worth a read for anyone interested.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ahmadinejad in India

The New York Times reports that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is currently on a high-profile visit to India. Though no major new breakthroughs in Indian-Iranian relations (which are fairly good, and based on real mutual strategic interests) are expected, the visit gives the Indian government a chance to show its independence from the United States by dealing with a leader openly loathed by Washington. I'm sure some people in this town are wringing their hands at the visit, but frankly, I think in the long run, it's a net positive for the U.S. It allows the Indian government to deflect criticism that it is Washington's pawn without having to make concrete strategic moves that would damage America's position in South Asia. It might even help get our stalled nuclear deal back on track, which I continue to support, albiet cautiously.

More to the point, India will never be an American client state, nor, probably, a steadfast ally in the Western European mold; however, solid relations with India are both achievable and desirable for Washington, if only because the state has cultivated links with so many other important international actors (Iran, Russia, China, Japan) that will require a delicate hand in the coming decades. Engaging India as a strategic partner in managing such relationships - both the good and the bad - makes imminent practical sense. America's relationship with Iran is going to have to change, either for better or worse, over the next decade. Overall I think it's a good thing that a potential American partner on Persia's doorstep keep relations open with Tehran.

Monday, April 28, 2008

And I So Naively Thought We'd Be Able to Avoid This...

Yesterday's New York Times article about Debbie Almontaser, a New York educator who helped start a public school with an Arab focus, is making me cringe a bit. The article describes Almontaser's vision for the school thusly:

Children of Arab descent would join students of other ethnicities, learning Arabic together. By graduation, they would be fluent in the language and groomed for the country’s elite colleges. They would be ready, in Ms. Almontaser’s words, to become “ambassadors of peace and hope.”

Sounds like a terrible concept doesn't it?

Evidently there have been numerous problems at the school, most of which aren't really the concern of this blog (I'm not particularly qualified to make pronouncements on modern primary and secondary pedagogy), but the upshot is that Ms. Almontaser has been forced out of her position as principal by "a chorus of critics who claimed she had a militant Islamic agenda." Significantly, the article puts this incident into a larger context of groups in America that have begun bracing against what they call "soft jihad" waged by law-abiding citizens who seek to promote a creeping Islamicization* of American society.

The article takes particular note of Daniel Pipes, a trained historian who heads up the Middle East Forum and who helped lead the oh-so-constructively-named "Stop the Madrassa Coalition" against Ms. Almontaser's school. According to the article: the authorities have stepped up the war on terror, those critics have shifted their gaze to a new frontier, what they describe as law-abiding Muslim-Americans who are imposing their religious values in the public domain.

Mr. Pipes and others reel off a list of examples: Muslim cabdrivers in Minneapolis who have refused to take passengers carrying liquor; municipal pools and a gym at Harvard that have adopted female-only hours to accommodate Muslim women; candidates for office who are suspected of supporting political Islam; and banks that are offering financial products compliant with sharia, the Islamic code of law.

The danger, Mr. Pipes says, is that the United States stands to become another England or France, a place where Muslims are balkanized and ultimately threaten to impose sharia.
“It is hard to see how violence, how terrorism will lead to the implementation of sharia,” Mr. Pipes said. “It is much easier to see how, working through the system — the school system, the media, the religious organizations, the government, businesses and the like — you can promote radical Islam.”

A gym at Harvard adopting female-only pool hours? Quel horreur! I'd better hide my booze and get used to eating halal, because it would seem like a full-blown Islamic revolution is right around the corner!

In all seriousness, though, to act as though minor accomodations to a few Islamic cultural practices represent the first step toward imposing sharia law in the United States is simply absurd. Some European countries are having problems with their Muslim populations because of a combination of foolish immigration policies, status-quo economic management, and the perpetuation of inflexibly antiquated conceptions of their own political communities. The French have a model of "Frenchness" that is exclusivist to the point that nobody from another culture could ever hope to strike a proper balance between fidelity to their own traditions and accomodation with those of the society around them (this phenomenon, ironically enough, was one of the catalysts of the Zionist movement at the end of the nineteenth century). The United States is supposed to be different. We are supposed to have the kind of nationalism that is supple, that absorbs others' cultures and traditions even as it assimilates them into its own. I am supremely confident that we will be able to incorporate Muslims into American society without sacrificing our sovereignty to some nebulous "radical" threat posed by Islamic practices.

Confident, that is, as long as conservative yahoos who have Samuel Huntington complexes and are somehow offended by foot washing basins in public bathrooms - people like Mr. Pipes - are relegated to the margins of national discourse. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind when talking about American politics - one that goes all the way back to the Alien and Sedition Acts - is that whenever someone starts talking about vague, underground, conspiratorial movements to radically alter the face of American society, it's probably bull$@#!. The fact that a few cabbies won't give you a ride because you're carrying booze, or that a few colleges have put foot sinks in their bathrooms so that Muslim students can wash their feet before prayer without breaking their necks, or that for a few hours a week some pools are restricted to women, isn't a sign of some nefarious plot to islamicize American society. It's a sign that institutions are making some reasonable accomodations to the cultural practices of the people around them. It's the very definition of an appropriate, balanced, liberal response to cultural difference. Last time I checked, after all, Christmas was still a Federal holiday. I doubt we'll hear Mr. Pipes complaining about that any time soon.

*I have no idea if this is actually a word, but I like it and have decided to use it going forward.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Weapons in Lebanon

The Washington Post reports today that Lebanese civilians are beginning to arm themselves in anticipation that there will be no resolution to the country's political deadlock. This is evidently reflected in skyrocketing prices for small arms. All I can say is this can't be good.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Hamas and a Peace Deal

Jimmy Carter - a man for whom I have enormous respect, whatever some of his detractors say - has reported that the leadership of Hamas has told him that they would be open to a peace deal with Israel if it were approved by Palestinian citizens in a referendum, even if the deal contained some provisions with which Hamas disagreed. I must admit that I've been back and forth about whether or not Israel and the international community should bring Hamas into peace negotiations. I very much understand that Israel doesn't want to negotiate with a group that continues to deny its right to exist and thereby put that issue "back on the table" so to speak, but I think it's time to face up to the strategic reality that Israeli sanctions haven't brought about the collapse of the Hamas government in Gaza, and that as long as Hamas controls such a large portion of the Palestinian populace, no agreement will be possible without its assent. The Hamas leadership's statements to Carter might be sincere or they might be tactical, but for hard-nosed strategic reasons I think it's time to give them the benefit of the doubt and bring Hamas to the table in some capacity, if only because there aren't many other viable options.