Libya and Yemen – actually different places.

And to top it off, they’re 2100 miles apart.
(Please note: This is the third map I’ve posted, because they’re all wrong in some way. Here, Palestine should be listed next to Israel, but is completely ignored. Apparently it’s really hard to find up-to-date, non-exclusionary maps of MENA online).

This week the US lost an apparently highly skilled and much-loved diplomat to the vagaries of violent extremism and a weak central government, and, possibly, the failure of the Foreign Service to adequately protect its Ambassador in the face of terrible upheaval (including “a string of assassinations [in Benghazi] as well as attacks on international missions”).

The Libyan people responded to this horrific turn of events in a genuinely moving way, many spontaneously demonstrating in support of the United States and expressing their sorrow over Ambassador Chris Stevens’s murder. Signs read “Thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi or Islam” and “USA: We are sorry. We are sad.” and “Sorry people of America this is not the behavior of our Islam & Prophet.”  Words of condolence and statements of grief came pouring out, from the government to journalists to folks on Twitter and Facebook — these Libyans share our loss, and they wanted to make sure we know that they have no affection for those Libyans who attacked our consulate, ostensibly in reaction to an offensive film about the Prophet Muhammad (though signs are emerging that the attack may have been planned well in advance [UPDATE 9/16/12: US Ambassador to the UN says the attacks began spontaneously; the President of Libya disagrees).

Today, on the other hand, hundreds of Yemenis stormed the embassy in the capital city of Sana’a, in reaction to that very same offensive film.

You see, it turns out that Arabs and Muslims are as many and varied as any other set of humans.

Many Libyans hold the United States in affection and high regard, because America helped them gain their freedom from a terrible tyrant. We didn’t roll in and push people aside, we helped the people already there to do what they wanted to do. Their new government is weak and (as the recent turmoil clearly indicates) not entirely well established, but Libyans can look behind and look ahead and see the potential for better — and that’s thanks to us. That’s why Libya has the highest approval rating for the United States in the Middle East and North Africa outside of Israel.

On the other hand, as Jeremy Scahill reported for The Nation in February, this is what we’ve been doing in Yemen:

[In the spring of 2011], rather than fighting AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], US-backed units—created and funded with the explicit intent to be used only for counterterrorism operations—redeployed to Sanaa to protect the collapsing regime from its own people. The US-supported units exist “mostly for the defense of the regime,” says [Abdul Ghani al Iryani, a well-connected political analyst]…. President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, acknowledged late last year that the “political tumult” has caused the US-trained units “to be focused on their positioning for internal political purposes as opposed to doing all they can against AQAP.”

…Even as demonstrations grew against the Saleh regime, US officials praised his government’s cooperation. “I can say today the counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it’s been during my whole tenure,” Brennan declared in September.

But US counterterrorism policy is extremely unpopular in Yemen….

By last summer, the Obama administration had begun construction on a secret air base on the Arabian peninsula, closer than its base in Djibouti, that could serve as a launching pad for expanded drone strikes in Yemen. The September [2011] drone strike that killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was reportedly launched from that new base, which analysts suspect is either in Saudi Arabia or Oman, both of which border Yemen…. The Americans have also provided real-time intelligence, obtained by drones, to Yemeni forces in [the hotly contested province of Abyan]. “It has been an active partnership. The Americans help primarily with logistics and intelligence,” [Gen. Mohammed al-Sumali] says. “Then we pound the positions with artillery or airstrikes.”

…Some of the unilateral strikes have killed their intended targets, such as the CIA attack on Awlaki. But others have killed civilians—at times, a lot of civilians. And many of these have been in Abyan and its neighboring province of Shebwa, both of which have recently seen a substantial rise of AQAP activity. President Obama’s first known authorization of a missile strike on Yemen, on December 17, 2009, killed more than forty Bedouins, many of them women and children, in the remote village of al Majala in Abyan. Another US strike, in May 2010, killed an important tribal leader and the deputy governor of Marib province, Jabir Shabwani, sparking mass anger at the United States and {then-President] Saleh’s government. “I think these airstrikes were based on false intelligence from the regime, because that is the nature of the contractor,” [opposition leader Mohammad] Qahtan charges. “The contractor wants to create more work in return for earning more money.”

…The October drone strike that killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a US citizen, and his teenage cousin shocked and enraged Yemenis of all political stripes. “I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda, because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy,” says [Abdul Rezzaq al Jamal, an independent Yemeni journalist]. The strikes “have recruited thousands.” Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al Qaeda, “which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge.” Even senior officials of the Saleh regime recognize the damage the strikes have caused. “People certainly resent these [US] interventions,” Qirbi, the foreign minister and a close Saleh ally, concedes.

For the United States, the most serious question that lingers over Yemen after [President] Ali Abdullah Saleh is: Did US counterterrorism policy strengthen the very threat it sought to eliminate? “It was a major fiasco,” Iryani says of the past decade of US counterterrorism policy in Yemen. “I think if we had been left alone, we would have less terrorists in Yemen than we do now.”

(Note: This is only a small portion of a truly excellent piece of reporting. I highly recommend that you read the whole thing – click here).

And just to be clear: President Saleh may have resigned last November, but his family and cronies still retain a firm grip on power — which is why Yemenis are still protesting.

So it turns out that Yemenis and Libyans are autonomous actors, human beings who respond to others in a manner that reflects their relationship with those people.

There are, of course, many, many differences between the two countries, not least Libya’s much higher level of education and much lower rate of poverty, and all the complex, domino results that such factors create in two societies that are already very different. The position of women, life expectancy, the function of tribal alliances — all of these play different roles in each country.

But one simple thing may still be said: Help a nation topple a tyrant and reclaim their own power? They’ll probably like you. Help a tyrant kill his own enemies and then allow his power base to stay in control? The people he ruled might not like you so much. To the tune of an 18% approval rating.

A few quick notes on the murder of the US ambassador to Libya.

* In the wake of the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other members of the embassy staff in Benghazi, it’s really, really important to note that, in the words of scholar Daniel Serwer, “It is not most Libyans who attacked the consulate in Benghazi (or the embassy in Egypt) yesterday.  It is a self-selected few.”

* Daniel Serwer’s comments are supported by Gallup Polls statistics out of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): Libya has the highest approval rating for the United States in MENA, one of the highest approval rates ever recorded in the region, outside of Israel. Fifty-four percent of Libyans surveyed approved of the leadership of the US, up from 30% in 2011.

* Muslims around the world are very vocally condemning the attack, from US Congressman Keith Ellison, to American interfaith leaders, to Turkish and Syrian journalists, to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (which represents 57 different nations), on and on. Please feel free to leave more examples in the comments — while it is certainly true that the people who perpetrated this act were Muslim, and some Muslims support them, the more important truth is that they are a minority.

* Because it seems to me to be very important to stress this, a couple verses from the Qur’an, on hatred and violence:

Goodness and evil are not equal. Repel evil with what is better. Then that person with whom there was hatred, may become your intimate friend! And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint, none but people of the greatest good fortune. (Qur’an 41:34-35)

Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. (Qur’an 5:32)

* As Secretary of State Clinton mentioned in her remarks this morning, “Libyans carried Chris’s body to the hospital and helped others to be rescued.” Surely they are no less Libyan than the people who did the killing. Update: Marc Lynch writes for Foreign Policy: “In short, the response from Libya  suggests a broad national rejection at both the governmental and societal level of the anti-American agitation.”

* Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham released a powerful statement about Amb. Stevens’ murder. It’s very that we on the left remember that there are people on the other side of the aisle — people with whom we may disagree more often than not — who have responded in a way in which all Americans can be proud:

Yesterday’s attack is a tragic and terrible reminder that – despite the hopes of the Arab Spring – the forces of violent extremism in the Middle East are far from defeated, and that the revolutions inspired by millions of people who dream of freedom and democracy can still be hijacked by small groups of violent extremists who are eager to kill to advance their evil ideology. 

Despite this horrific attack, we cannot give in to the temptation to believe that our support for the democratic aspirations of people in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the broader Middle East is naive or mistaken. We cannot resign ourselves to the false belief that the Arab Spring is doomed to be defined not by the desire for democracy and freedom that has inspired millions of people to peaceful action, but by the dark fanaticism of terrorists.

To follow this misguided path would not only be a victory for the extremists and their associates, but a betrayal of everything for which Chris Stevens and his colleagues stood and gave their lives…. (For the full statement, please click here).

* Finally, here’s the video that Amb. Stevens produced as he prepared to take on his position in Libya. It saddens me deeply that this man was stolen from America, and from the Libyan people he was so anxious to serve.


I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the foregoing is an excellent example of how helpful Twitter can be as news unfolds – h/t to @AdamSerwer, @NickKristof, @influxTR, @rezaaslan and others to whom I’ve linked throughout this post. 

Formula One and Bahrain – A force for what, now?

Even with the best intentions there’s a limit to what one can do in any given day, which is why I’ve been following the uprising in Bahrain (a family-run Sunni dictatorship with a majority Shiite population), but haven’t yet written about it. The day, 24 hours, etc, and so on.

But that country’s crown prince said something today that just about made my skull fold in on itself, and so I’ve been driven to the keyboard.

Discussing the fact that the Formula One Grand Prix race will be held in his country on Sunday despite a year-long uprising in which protesters have been killed, gassed, imprisoned, and tortured, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa told the BBC that “cancelling the race just empowers extremists,” whereas holding the race can serve as “a force for good.”

A force for good.

A force for good?

You know what’s a force for good? Democracy. Human rights. Liberty and justice. That sort of thing.

You know what’s not a force for good? This:

“We have been receiving worrying reports of the disproportionate use of force by Bahraini security forces, including the excessive use of tear gas, the use of bird shot pellets and rubber bullets,” said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

“The use of tear gas in particular has reportedly resulted in a number of deaths of protestors and bystanders — and that number has reportedly risen in recent months,” he said. “Reliable sources indicate that the civilians who died from tear gas suffered complications from gas inhalation, and that security forces have been firing metal tear gas canisters from grenade launchers into crowds.”

Oh and hey –  look! Here’s a fact that surprised me exactly not at all!

Bahrain’s royal family owns a stake in Formula One racing, including part of the McLaren Group racing team.

Of course there are complications. The Crown Prince is considered a moderate, and the International Crisis Group pointed out to NPR that the Crown Prince “has built up the Formula One race in Bahrain as part of an economic power base designed to counter his hard-line rivals.”

And protesters have responded to violence with violence, breaking out gasoline bombs in response to the crackdown.

Not to mention the fact that Bahrain is spitting distance from Saudi Arabia and Iran, and serves as home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.

But at a certain point, I just don’t care. “Moderate” is far too slippery a term when you’re talking about a family business that’s invested in torture and extrajudicial killings; Bahrain’s protesters responded with violence after they were greeted with brutality; and I kinda thought that the US Navy was a representative of a nation predicated on democracy?

If the Crown Prince really wanted to see a “force for good” take hold, he would do everything in his power to see to it that the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (also known as the Bassiouni Report) are implemented in full, rather than piece-meal and as suits the ruling family’s interests. His country wouldn’t be hosting flashy races while a detainee approaches death on hunger strike, and riot police bring out stun grenades, birdshot and tear gas to hold protesters at bay.

What does the rebellion look like? It looks like the death of 14 year old schoolboy, killed for seeking freedom – even as the government tries to blame his parents for not controlling him. It looks like a family harassed for the temerity of having their child killed:

Indeed, it looks like a Formula One executive fired, because he made the mistake of liking a protest photo on Facebook.

But sure. The Formula One race can be a force for good. Why the hell not.

Teta, Mother and Me: Three Generations of Arab Women

I’ve had the Feministe audience at the back of my mind (even when working on material that hasn’t seemed an easy fit for a blog devoted to discussions of feminism) since starting my guest gig there last week — which is to say, even when I wrote my Israel/Palestine-I-was-on-Russian-TV! post, as well as yesterday’s “Norway and terrorism as a daily event.” My professional life has only rarely overlapped with my advocacy for women, and sometimes it’s hard to hit both sweet spots.

But last night, I suddenly remembered a lovely book I reviewed a few years back, one which fits really nicely into the overlap in the Venn Diagram of my life: Teta, Mother and Me: Three Generations of Arab Women, by Jean Said Makdisi.

This is a beautiful memoir, written with great love and deep respect for the matriarchs who came before, as well as examining the author’s own life and choices. Born in 1940, Makdisi’s life has been shaped by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the very beginning (“my birth occurred at a particularly unromantic time: the anxiety of the war and the events in Palestine and Egypt weighed heavily on my parents”), but in going back two generations (“Teta” means “grandma”), she is able to sketch the lived reality of the Middle East’s contemporary tumult — not just the facts of dying empire (the Ottoman, as well as the British), competing nationalisms, and social unrest, but the impact of each on individual lives: What are the limits of ideology, how does it intersect with social development, and what is the role of memory?

Combining oral history with strict textual research, Makdisi does work here that we rarely see, providing cold hard facts alongside their emotional valence, often touching on events that have been largely forgotten though they continue to echo down through history — the massive famine which struck the formerly Ottoman lands, for instance, immediately following the destruction of World War I. The struggle in Israel/Palestine plays a big role, as does the Lebanese civil war, but so does the daily experience of a life in exile — the outcome of the violence no less importance than the violence itself.

Perhaps most unusual, however, is Makdisi’s willingness to take on tropes that have assumed the mantel of conventional wisdom when discussing women’s lives: “traditional” vs. “modern,” and what the discussion of the two might mean for the future — a conversation made particularly pressing by the advent of the “Arab Spring,” the revolutions currently roiling much of the Arab world*.

Over the largest fork in the road ahead… like a gigantic neon sign on a highway… flashes the dichotomy: “traditional” and “modern.” So pervasive is the discussion of this set of alternatives, so ubiquitous is it in all debates over women’s issues, and particularly Arab women’s issues, that its truth seems inevitable and absolute.

It is my growing conviction, however, that this dichotomy is not only misleading and confusing, if not downright false, but that is is also, and above all, divisive. It is, I am convinced, a red herring, flashing at us, making us chase down a road leading nowhere, missing, as we frantically sprint in the wrong direction, more subtle and truer directions….

What does it mean to be “traditional”? I am not at all sure. The word “tradition” is used much more than it is explained. There has simply not been enough scholarship, enough clearly thought-out discussion over this mysterious quantity as it relates to the Arab world for us to be able to answer this question clearly.

Over-used words and habitual labels, it turns out, are not always genuinely reflective of the lives they’re meant to describe.

Teta, Mother and Me is a lovingly written account, one which Western readers will find at turns to be warmly familiar, and entirely new, and it deserves to be widely read, by women and men, MidEast geeks and non-.

And finally, in the spirit of Feministe, my own opinions, and indeed, Makdisi’s own writing, I will only now mention the fact with which I had to lead my original review of this book:  Jean Said Makdisi is the sister of better-known scholar Edward Said. For my money, she’s the better writer.


*Here are a few starting points for background on women in the Arab Spring:

  1. An Arab Spring for Women, Juan Cole and Shahin Cole, The Nation, April 26: “The ‘Arab Spring’ has received copious attention in the American media, but one of its crucial elements has been largely overlooked: the striking role of women in the protests sweeping the Arab world. Despite inadequate media coverage of their role, women have been and often remain at the forefront of those protests.”
  2. Women and the Arab Spring, Mary Hope Schwoebel, United States Institute for Peace, May 5: “Women’s participation in the Arab Spring has been significant, but it remains to be seen, however, if their participation will result in increased opportunities for women in the public sphere when the dust settles. USIP’s Mary Hope Schwoebel discusses the opportunities and challenges for women in the Arab Spring.”
  3. The women of the Arab spring: from protesters to parliamentarians?, Natana J. Delong-Bas, Common Ground News Service, June 14: “In stark contrast to the image of Arab women in charge of nothing but their homes, these women are picketing outside supermarkets, staging sit-ins with their children, organising demonstrations, networking with each other, teaching workshops on the tactics of nonviolence, tearing down security fences and marching through checkpoints to connect with people on the other side.”
  4. Women in the Arab Spring: The other side of the story, Elizabeth Flock, Washington Post BlogPost, June 21: “Much has been written about the women who have protested, organized, blogged and conducted hunger strikes throughout the Arab Spring…. But the other piece of the story is the anguish countless women have had to endure, in the form of rape, detention, or simply a lack of appreciation of their role in the protests.”
  5. Arab Spring takes a chill turn for women, Sheera Frenkel, The Australian, August 1: ” ‘Before we were asking for normal rights – now we are trying to preserve the rights we already have,’ says Lina Ben Mhenni, a popular blogger in Tunisia. Sitting at a cafe on one of Tunis’s leafy boulevards, she draws stares at her pierced nose and black nail polish.”


Norway and terrorism as a daily event.

In the West, we seem to have at least a double standard when it comes to violence and mayhem.

When violence and mayhem involves People Who Look Like Us (“us” in this case generally translating to: ethnically European/white, not-poor, citizens of a Western-style democracy) — we experience society-wide woe. When it involves People Who Don’t Look Like Us? Often, not so much.

We see this in the semi-annual “OMG heroin has reached the suburbs” stories, we see it in the stories of missing mothers or schoolyard shootings that take place somewhere outside our inner cities or meth-riddled mountains — and I think we saw it again in the wake of the terrorist attack in Norway.

I am not, in any way, suggesting a sliding scale of pain. Pain is pain, loss is loss — if your child, partner, friend, parent, loved one was killed, in Oslo, on her way home from work, or in some random Columbine-like horror, your grief is no less because your skin is pale or your bank account full.

But as someone who follows the news out of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, as someone who once-upon-a-time covered terrorism’s aftermath as a reporter, as someone who has seen up close and personal the damage that bombs can do, I couldn’t help but feel the vast difference between America’s response to the terrorism in Norway, and our response that with which the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan live on a nearly daily basis.

Part of this is, of course, because in Norway, the line between good and evil was clear, shining and bright. One terrorist, 77 innocents. We know, in a heartbeat, how to direct our horror and revulsion, and to whom to offer our prayers and support.

This is not the case in the Af-Pak region. First of all, the West isn’t even sure of its own role anymore, if it ever was. Are we good guys or bad guys? When children are killed as our soldiers aim for the Taliban — who are we? Should we even be there? Are we imperialists, or did we fail to go after the Taliban hard enough in the first place?

But beyond the complexities of the war and a porous border — Western soldiers are not the ones purposely blowing people up in the middle of busy cities. Surely the people doing that are the bad guys, right? But what if their fight is just? And wait — who gets to decide what “just” means? Throw in the endlessly complex cultural and political realities of the two societies, the fact that Westerners tend to expect Muslims to be violent (though Muslims might disagree) — we throw up our hands. Another 27 dead. Another 22. An 8 year old boy. Those people.

One need only scroll through the Twitter feed of Foreign Policy’s Af-Pak Channel to see that a good deal more than 77 Afghans and Pakistanis were killed in the month of July alone, not on a battlefield, but while trying to live their lives. Hell, nearly 100 were killed in the Pakistani city of Karachi in the first week of July.

Some of these were combatants. Some were violent misogynists. Some were trying to go to the market. Some were children. Some of the “innocents” probably deserved to die, and some of the fighters had probably been involved in trying to bring peace. The lines are neither clear, nor shining, nor bright.

But I do know this: Dead is dead. The tears of a Pakistani mother are no less excruciating than those of a Norwegian father. The pain in these faces is as human and as raw as the pain in these.

I don’t have any grand conclusion to draw or act of advocacy to recommend. I know that no human being can carry all the world’s pain without buckling under the weight, and if a geek like me can’t always keep all the warring parties straight in Af-Pak, I surely don’t expect anyone else to manage it.

I just think that as we mourn the losses in Oslo, as we send our prayers and our white light and our best wishes to our Norwegian sisters and brothers, it matters that we also remember those for whom the Norway attacks look horrifyingly familiar. We need to find a way to manage to bear witness to the humanity of those living and dying in Afghanistan and Pakistan, too. As the holy month of Ramadan begins, perhaps we owe the living and the dead at least that much.


If you want to learn more about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the violence that has marked the history of both, here are two great books to get you started: Invisible History by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, and Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven (both of which I reviewed for the Dallas Morning News).

Crossposted at Feministe.

Reading the Conflict – A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East – from the Cold War to the War on Terror

Every Friday, I post a book recommendation on the Americans for Peace Now blog. Here’s the top of this week’s post; for the rest, please go to Americans for Peace Now.

Yesterday President Obama stood up at a podium and said a thing or two.

To my mind, one of the most powerful take-aways from the President’s now famous/infamous Middle East speech is to be found in the long list of countries he talked about well before he got to the Israel/Palestine part.

The fact is, as important as Israel/Palestine is, it is part of a much larger region, and the United States acts all across that region. Indeed, the United States is currently trying very hard to get on the right side of history as that region changes before our very eyes. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, whether we like it or not, part of a bigger picture.

And this has always been so, whether or not we remember it.

This week, I recommend A World of Trouble, an outstanding history of American diplomacy in the Middle East, stretching from the Eisenhower era through the Administration of George W. Bush. It’s big, it’s sprawling, and it is admirably readable.

Author Patrick Tyler, a veteran journalist (New York Times, Washington Post), brings a reporter’s sensibility to events that stretch out across decades, allowing him to cut through the fog of history, wars, and enormous egos to get at the heart of the region’s story – and it’s not a particularly encouraging journey. (To read the rest of this recommendation, please go to Americans for Peace Now).

Pakistan! What’s up with that?


A whole lot of folks in America have been scratching their heads since Sunday night, a slow realization dawning that as little as we know about Iraq, as little as we know about Afghanistan — we know even less about Pakistan.

And it turns out Pakistan is really rather the point!

Truth be told, I don’t know a hell of a lot about Pakistan either, though I will say that over years of reading about other places (like Iraq and Afghanistan), I’d at least begun to get a sense that I was missing a very big piece of the story. Recognizing one’s ignorance — that’s the first step.

What I do know is how to recognize a good source when it falls into my hands — in this case a terrific book, one which had me feeling the expansion of my brain’s Pakistan Knowledge Node with each turning page: Pakistan: A Hard Country, the result of 20 years of reporting from the country by British journalist and author Anatol Lieven. The title is a nod to something Lieven has heard time and time again from Pakistanis themselves — they live in a hard country, and they know it.

If you’re pressed for time — or if foreign relations isn’t enough your bag that you want to commit to 480 pages — you would be very well served by reading just the book’s 38-page introduction, where Lieven carefully lays out the parameters of his subject and the outlines of his conclusions — but if you do have the time, I highly recommend diving in.

And, hey now! It turns out we probably should have been paying more attention all along. Pakistan’s population (170 million) is close to six times larger than Afghanistan’s, and its army is one of Asia’s biggest, best armed (don’t forget the nuclear weapons!), and most experienced — as Leiven writes: “Pakistan is quite simply far more important to the region, the West and the world than is Afghanistan: a statement which is a matter not of sentiment but of mathematics.”

We’ve known for some time that Pakistani intelligence plays a key role in Western anti-terrorism efforts, and have likewise wondered for some time if they were really helping us as much as we might want, but (in keeping with Western tradition), there’s been a tendency to focus on the extent to which their society mirrors our own.

We talk about the President of Pakistan, for instance, as if real power is found in that (nominally) democratically elected office, when in fact, Pakistan’s real power base is its enormous military (particularly the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI), created and maintained out of a deeply felt and powerfully held animosity toward India — a country so much bigger than Pakistan that the latter can’t hope to genuinely keep up, relying instead on a kind of bristling deterrence, fed by a very mutual and deep-running distrust and loathing. (All of which is to say, by the way, that when we deal with India, we’re also dealing with Pakistan. Just, you know: BTW and whatnot).

Lieven grapples successfully with a truly gobsmacking amount of information, transforming it into a lucid — and not incidentally, fascinating — whole, parsing the social and cultural tapestry woven from Islam, kinship ties, the military, and global expectations and pressures (indeed, a sort of patchwork tapestry, as each small section of the tapestry is overlaid with, and butts up against, unexpected intricacies), pointing to issues that few on this side of the ocean appear to have even begun to consider (such as population growth and the climate: “In the long run,” Lieven writes, “the greatest threat to Pakistan’s existence is not insurgency but ecological change”).

His policy recommendations come with a depth of perspective, both historic and geographic — this last particularly important in a country about which people are forever going on about “lawless, semi-autonomous tribal regions” — and Leiven’s writing is excellent (though occasionally a bit paternal), an especially crucial fact in a book taking on a topic with which many readers will be entirely unfamiliar.

Moreover, he clearly loves the place and its people. Pakistan: A Hard Country is the work of one of those rare nonfiction writers who is able to get close enough to their subject to see its complexity, without either turning away, or becoming a partisan of one view or the other.

So, in short, if you’re thinking “Pakistan! What’s up with that?” – this book would be a tremendous starting point.

Even, as I say, just the introduction.

The Secret History of al Qaeda

I don’t know that I have a lot to write about the killing of Osama bin Laden (maybe not yet) but I thought I would offer a review I wrote a while back of The Secret History of al Qaeda – a good primer on both bin Laden and al-Qaeda, written by the first Western journalist to interview and spend time with him in the caves, in 1996  (Peter Bergen got there a year later, in 1997).

One of the book’s particularly salient points is that the author, Abdel Bari Atwan (Palestinian-born, but living in London for 35 years) is the editor-in-chief of the London-based Arabic paper al Quds al Arabi, often the first outlet to which al Qaeda would release its communiques over the years.

The Secret History of al Qaeda

Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda have featured endlessly in the Western media since 2001, but for all that, author Abdel Bari Atwan, Editor-in-Chief of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi makes clear that we hardly know either. (more…)

Whither humanity? I have no idea.

I find myself struck by the enormity of the times we’re living in.

I don’t know what will happen next, but when my grandchildren learn about the early twenty-teens, it’s clear they’ll be taught that this was a time in which humanity — turned.

Of course, there’s the ongoing upheaval in Middle East and North Africa (MENA), while here in the United States, we have the right’s astonishing over-reach on unions. In both cases, I don’t think anyone on the ground has a clear sense of the direction we’re all going, but given the sheer quantity of dynamics and cross-dynamics, both here and abroad, I believe we’re likely to wind up in some pretty unexpected places.

In terms of workers’ rights and the American electorate, I genuinely believe that this is one of those moments in which people are woken from their slumber, and the GOP’s business-led right-wing will face tremendous push-back in the coming years. You don’t try to tell Americans that teachers, cops and firefighters are our enemies — are what stand between this country and fiscal security — and expect it to fly for long.

In MENA, well, who knows? Forty-one percent of Egypt’s eligible voters (the highest turnout in history) just voted to accept constitutional changes that some credible opposition voices wanted to see rejected. Good for Egypt? Bad for Egypt? I don’t know, and I would suggest that anyone who says they know for sure has delusions of grandeur. Issandr El Amrani (who blogs at the always interesting The Arabist) wrote a really helpful piece for Time : Egypt’s Referendum: What the Nation’s Historic Vote Means, concluding “This time, even if it was far from perfect, it meant something.”

And Libya? Truly: No one knows. It bears repeating: No one knows, no one knows, no one knows. The sheer cacophony of controversy surrounding the decision to declare a No Fly Zone should serve as our most powerful indicator that no one knows what the future holds in that part of MENA (though I will grant you that there are some, such as POTUS, who should surely have a better grasp on it than the vast majority of us).

I hold out real hope that the NFZ is preventing another Rwanda, but even if that proves correct — then what? Preventing slaughter doesn’t necessarily translate to the establishment of liberty and justice. Not to mention: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, and Iran. So, yeah: In ten years, we’ll all be able to see what happened in that part of the world, but right now? No one knows. (If you, like me, find yourself constantly trying to catch up on the MENA goings on, here’s a terrific interactive feature at the New York Times, “Arab World Uprisings: A Country-by-Country Look” ).

And finally: Japan.

It’s easy, and perhaps tempting, to think that the multiple disasters that have struck Japan affect only Japan — it’s population, economy, future.

But we forget: Japan is a global power-house, the third largest economy in the world. Whither Japan goes, we will all follow, to one degree or another.

If Toyota’s recovery isn’t quick, that means something for the many workers at Toyota’s American plants, and the American businesses that supply them. If Sony suffers a serious set-back, that means something for Sony’s competition, and the potential for some other firm to stake a bigger international claim. If Japan, a highly industrialized nation, proves incapable of controlling a potential nuclear disaster, that means something for the future of the world’s energy supply.

Far beyond the normal ripple effect (every action having a positive and equal reaction, every change bringing change to something else), the level of catastrophe that unfolded and continues to unfold in Japan has the potential to create enormous change across the globe.

Of course, it bears remembering that whatever happens, it actually started a while ago, on all these fronts.

If the GOP has over-reached, it’s only because it’s been reaching so far for so long that all those governors — and the Koch brothers, and Koch brother-analogues, behind them — thought they could keep going. No matter the results of the revolutions across MENA, they clearly didn’t spring up out of nowhere in January. And Japan only recently slipped behind China economically, falling from second to third place, meaning that there’s been some serious geo-economic shifting going on for awhile (one outcome I expect is that the fear-China noise will start getting much louder before the summer dawns).

But be that as it may, humanity tends to look back at certain moments, certain events, and say: “There! That’s when it all changed.” We just don’t always recognize those moments at the time.

This time? I think we can be pretty sure.

You might want to take notes — because in 30 years, some enterprising youth is going to want to ask you all about 2011.

And, as folks keep reminding us, it’s only March.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

The perils of kindness.

Last night, sitting at my desk, trying to write a book review, I finally just burst into tears.

The book deals with Israel/Palestine, and the many brave and noble people attempting to find a path to true peace and genuine justice, and it comes on the heels of two other books that dealt with what amounts to the same subject matter — and last night’s book and the earlier two came at either end of days and days in which I was dealing quite intensely, in my writing and in my heart, with the topic of rape (a couple of times on this blog, on and on at Twitter, and elsewhere across the wilds and in the corners of the blogosphere), while all the while, people living across a swath of the world that holds a place very deep in my soul are being shot at from their own fighter jets and by their own police forces. And the public employees in some quarters of this country — teachers, for God’s sake! — find themselves faced with the possibility of losing their freedom to ever collectively organize again. And at some point I discovered that a (male) blogger had accused me (specifically) and other women bloggers of “raping” Lara Logan by choosing to use the story of her assault as a reason to write about rape. And then an earthquake in New Zealand….

What finally reduced me to tears was a good friend being kind.

In this case, the good friend happens to be a truly, genuinely lovely person who has spent his life telling the truth about Israel/Palestine, and the one clear thought I could get to (as I read his completely unrelated email and cried) was: How can the world still suck so hard, when there are such beautiful people in it?

I’m tired. I’m tired of the world sucking and of beautiful people dedicating themselves and their lives and all too often their deaths to trying to heal a world that still sucks. I’m tired of the ever-peeling layers of suckage — after all, just under “pro-democracy protests turn violent in the Middle East,” you’ll find “well-founded fears of chaos,” “well-founded fears of military takeover,” and “well-founded fears of economic collapse and further human suffering.” Under which, of course, you will also find “Lara Logan was brutally assaulted and more than 80% of Egyptian woman complain of constant harassment and women are raped everywhere, anyway.” Under which you will find… many other things that I cannot bear to think about right now.

It matters not that I’m tired. Not really. Despair and exhaustion are luxuries, and I already live in the lap of luxury.

But I confess that I have found it easier to not know over much about about Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Iran, or Wisconsin and Indiana over the past 24-48 hours (oh, and Ohio. Where apparently someone decided it would be a good idea to lock the people out of their own statehouse) — or even of New Zealand, where, after all, it’s not the sucky people, it’s the sucky tectonic plates we have to thank for the wave of grief and sorrow now washing over a nation. It feels wrong to admit this. I confess that, too.

I’m going to the J Street Conference this weekend, and I think that will have to count as my good deed for the next week. Me being tired doesn’t matter — but me crying doesn’t help.  I think it’ll be helpful to go hang out in a room full of compulsive do-gooders for a couple of days.