Friday, November 30, 2007

So what's going on in the Islamic justice system?

A British teacher in Sudan was convicted of "insulting Islam because her class of 7-year-olds named a teddy bear Muhammad," according to the New York Times' Jeffrey Gettleman. He has more information on the Sudanese reaction, which is a bit varied:

Hundreds of demonstrators in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, poured into the streets on Friday demanding the execution of a British teacher who was convicted of insulting Islam because her class of 7-year-olds named a teddy bear Muhammad....

Despite the display of outrage, witnesses said that many of the protesters were government employees ordered to demonstrate, and that aside from a large gathering outside the presidential palace, most of Khartoum was quiet. Imams across the city brought up the case in sermons after Friday Prayer, but few of them urged violence.

“This woman gave an idol the name of Muhammad, which is not acceptable,” said Ahmed Muhammad, the imam at a mosque in Khartoum 2, an upscale section of town. But, he added, the proper response was more nuanced: “We have to first respect ourselves, and then others will respect us.”

Time's Rob Crilly has more backstory, which suggests that much of the outrage is terribly, terribly faux:
Teachers at Unity High have stood by their colleague, noting that the first complaint came only last week despite the fact that parents had been aware of the class bear's name since September.

During an eight-hour court proceeding on Thursday, it emerged that a school secretary had been the first to raise the alarm. Teachers have alleged that Gibbons was the victim of a staffer trying to discredit the school rather than an offended parent....

The case is an embarrassment for the Sudanese government, whose policies in Darfur have helped make it an international pariah. But the government is hamstrung by extremist elements, who will capitalize on any perception that Khartoum is bowing to British pressure, said Professor Elteyb Hag Ateya, director of Khartoum University's peace research institute.

"There is a sort of "who is the best Muslim?" competition to this whole thing which makes it difficult for the government to be seen to back down," he said.

At the same time, there's another case in Saudi Arabia that's equally interesting -- because it suggests that there are fissures within the Saudi government. Click over to Charli Carpenter's post at Duck of Minerva for more -- as well as this post at the wonderfully-named Elected Swineherd.

UPDATE: Lydia Polgreen has a front-pager today iin the New York Times about yet another country that has incorporated sharia into its justice system -- Nigeria. The outcome, however, is at variance with initial expectations:

When Muslim-dominated states like Kano adopted Islamic law after the fall of military rule in 1999, radical clerics from the Arabian peninsula arrived in droves to preach a draconian brand of fundamentalism, and newly empowered religious judges handed down tough punishments like amputation for theft. Kano became a center of anti-American sentiment in one of the most reliably pro-American countries in Africa.

But since then, much of the furor has died down, and the practice of Islamic law, or Shariah, which had gone on for centuries in the private sphere before becoming enshrined in public law, has settled into a distinctively Nigerian compromise between the dictates of faith and the chaotic realities of modern life in an impoverished, developing nation.

posted by Dan at 11:38 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

What are Russia and China's end game on Iran?

Last year I questioned what Bush administration hawks saw as the end game in U.S. dealings with Iran.

After reading Elaine Sciolino's excellent review of the current state of play regarding Iran in today's New York Times, I'm going to have to put the same question to Russia and China:

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is known for overheated, boastful pronouncements. So it was hardly a surprise earlier this month when he declared that despite demands from the United States and other countries that Iran stop enriching uranium, Tehran was pressing ahead and negotiations were out of the question.

“From our point of view,” he said, “this subject is closed.”

But in this case, Iran’s intransigence is not only real; it also appears to be defeating attempts by the rest of the world to curtail Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, at least for the moment....

[N]othing seems to be bending the will of Iran, which is flush with oil revenues. The incentive strategy, led by Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy adviser, has failed to entice Iran to stop enrichment in exchange for economic, political and technological rewards. So has the punishment approach, as Russia and China hold firm to the view that further pressure will only intensify the standoff.

In May, desperate to engage Iran, the six nations offered a brief freeze in further sanctions if Iran freezes its enrichment program at the current level, effectively dropping their demand that Iran stop enrichment altogether. But that “double freeze” proposal barely got Tehran’s attention.

“The chosen strategy of pressure and engagement is not working,” said one senior European official involved in the diplomacy. “As a result, you have a lot of people desperately banging on the door of the Iranians. All of them are coming back empty-handed.”....

Russia has recently tried but failed to sway Iran to compromise. During a recent visit to Tehran, President Vladimir V. Putin was granted a rare audience with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr. Putin made no threats, but focused on the benefits that would flow to Iran, including the delivery of sophisticated nuclear technology, if it made some gesture on enrichment, according to officials familiar with the visit.

Iranian officials described the meeting as very friendly, but when Mr. Putin sent his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, to Tehran, Mr. Lavrov received a frosty reception, and returned home frustrated, Russian, Iranian and European officials said.

Still, Russia prefers to make the next priority not more sanctions but winning Iran’s cooperation on allowing wider inspections of its nuclear sites by the United Nations agency, Russian and Western European officials said.

China, whose trade with Iran is soaring, has taken what might be characterized as a passive-aggressive diplomatic approach.

It did not send a representative to a key meeting of the six powers in Brussels on Monday, causing the meeting to be canceled. The Chinese delegation also refused to attend the previous scheduled meeting of the group, to protest both a meeting Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, held with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader, and the decision by the United States Congress to honor him. The Chinese are expected at Saturday’s meeting.

The only negotiation with Iran that seems to be progressing is the limited one aimed at resolving the United Nations agency’s questions about Tehran’s past nuclear activity. Under a formal agreement last summer with the agency, Iran has begun to turn over documents and make various officials and former officials available for interviews.

As long as Iran is making progress on this front, the United States and its European allies are likely to have a difficult time persuading Russia and China to agree to further sanctions.

As near as I can figure, China and Russia don't want to think about the end game because the status quo benefits them enormously.

The status quo is a situation in which:

a) The US and EU are committed to work through the United Nations;

b) China and Russia hold leverage over any sanctions process; and

c) The uncertainty over Iran's possible nuclear program acts as a useful check against any further expansion of American or Israeli influence in the Middle East.

This is all well and good, and rational in the short run. The thing is, I'm reasonably sure that neither Russia nor China really wants Iran to develop a nuclear fuel cycle that is independent of any IAEA or UNSC strictures -- which is what the status quo will lead to in a few years. Clearly, solving the problem now will be less costly than solving the problem later. And as much as China and Russia might disdain sanctions, I've seen zero evidence that inducements are having any effect either.

Question to Russia and China-watchers -- what do they believe the end game is on Iran?

UPDATE: This Reuters story highlights another problem -- as long as Iran believes that the great powers are not coordinated, they have no incentive to make any concessions:

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said late on Thursday that nothing would deflect the Islamic Republic from its pursuit of nuclear technology and that Washington had "lost" in its attempts to stop them.

"The Iranian nation will never return from the path that they have chosen and they are determined and decisive to continue this path (to obtain nuclear technology)," Mottaki was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.

The West says Iran's nuclear programme is aimed at building atom bombs. Iran, a major oil exporter, says efforts to enrich uranium are intended only to produce electricity.

Diplomats and analysts say Iran will see little reason to relent in its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment given that six big powers remain at odds over how soon to resort to more United Nations penalties and how harsh they should be.

posted by Dan at 09:08 AM | Comments (20) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Another exercise in ranking generosity

One of pieces of accepted wisdom among policy cognoscenti is that while the United States is not terribly generous in terms of foreign aid, it does excel in niche areas, like providing providing relief for humanitarian disasters.

The Financial Times' Quentin Peel reports on a new ranking exercise that suggests this perception might not match.... other people's perception:

Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands have been ranked as the top four aid donors in providing relief for humanitarian disasters, according to a new index published on Thursday.

The study, launched by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general, ranks 23 aid donors from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development according to the effectiveness and impartiality of their relief efforts in eight crisis-hit countries.

In contrast to the Scandinavian nations, major donors such as the US, Japan and France rank in the bottom half of the index, with low scores for tests such as impartiality and implementing international humanitarian laws. France is criticised for its failure to work effectively with other aid agencies.

The humanitarian response index, drawn up by Dara International, a Madrid-based evaluation agency, ranks the European Commission in fifth place, in spite of frequent criticism of its bureaucratic procedures. The UK ranks ninth, Germany 13th, and the US 16th out of the 23. The bottom two countries are Italy and Greece.

The purpose of the index, based on the responses of more than 800 aid agencies in the eight disaster zones [Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, East Timor, Haiti, Lebanon, Niger, Pakistan and Sudan--DD.], is not to be “a name-and-shame exercise”, according to Silvia Hidalgo, director-general of Dara, but rather to be “a improve the quality of humanitarian aid”.

Mr Annan, who launched the report in London, said it would serve as “a crucial tool to help ensure that no disaster is ignored, and that every dollar spent helps those most in need”.

I tried to access the actual report, but Dara's web site, while quite fancy, is also maddeningly short on detail or methodology.

Still, two quick thoughts:

1) Are the evaluations of aid agencies really the only metric being used here? Surely some of these agencies were on the losing end of various funding decisions by major power donors. Might that not affect their responses?

2) Is impartiality always a good thing during humanitarian crises? I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad thing, but as a "guiding principle" I'm not sure it's a great idea for every aid donor to act according to these principles either.

posted by Dan at 09:14 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Soft power penetrates the Bush administration

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave an interesting talk a few days ago at Kansas State University.

It was unusual for two reasons. First, he was asking for greater budgetary and institutional support -- for other Cabinent departments:

[M]y message today is not about the defense budget or military power. My message is that if we are to meet the myriad challenges around the world in the coming decades, this country must strengthen other important elements of national power both institutionally and financially, and create the capability to integrate and apply all of the elements of national power to problems and challenges abroad. In short, based on my experience serving seven presidents, as a former Director of CIA and now as Secretary of Defense, I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use “soft” power and for better integrating it with “hard” power.

One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win: economic development, institution-building and the rule of law, promoting internal reconciliation, good governance, providing basic services to the people, training and equipping indigenous military and police forces, strategic communications, and more – these, along with security, are essential ingredients for long-term success. Accomplishing all of these tasks will be necessary to meet the diverse challenges I have described.

So, we must urgently devote time, energy, and thought to how we better organize ourselves to meet the international challenges of the present and the future – the world you students will inherit and lead....

during the 1990s, with the complicity of both the Congress and the White House, key instruments of America’s national power once again were allowed to wither or were abandoned. Most people are familiar with cutbacks in the military and intelligence – including sweeping reductions in manpower, nearly 40 percent in the active army, 30 percent in CIA’s clandestine services.

What is not as well-known, and arguably even more shortsighted, was the gutting of America’s ability to engage, assist, and communicate with other parts of the world – the “soft power,” which had been so important throughout the Cold War. The State Department froze the hiring of new Foreign Service officers for a period of time. The United States Agency for International Development saw deep staff cuts – its permanent staff dropping from a high of 15,000 during Vietnam to about 3,000 in the 1990s. And the U.S. Information Agency was abolished as an independent entity, split into pieces, and many of its capabilities folded into a small corner of the State Department....

What is clear to me is that there is a need for a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security – diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development. Secretary Rice addressed this need in a speech at Georgetown University nearly two years ago. We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military, beyond just our brave soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen. We must also focus our energies on the other elements of national power that will be so crucial in the coming years.

Now, I am well aware that having a sitting Secretary of Defense travel halfway across the country to make a pitch to increase the budget of other agencies might fit into the category of “man bites dog” – or for some back in the Pentagon, “blasphemy.” It is certainly not an easy sell politically. And don’t get me wrong, I’ll be asking for yet more money for Defense next year.

Still, I hear all the time from the senior leadership of our Armed Forces about how important these civilian capabilities are. In fact, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen was Chief of Naval Operations, he once said he’d hand a part of his budget to the State Department “in a heartbeat,” assuming it was spent in the right place.

The second unusual quality was that Gates embraced an academic concept Joseph Nye's notion of "soft power." This is quite the turnaround -- a few years ago, Nye complained in Foreign Affairs about Gates' predecessor: "Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld professes not even to understand the term."

It is interesting to see the head of one bureaucracy realize that his organization benefits from enhancing the capacities of a quasi-rival organization, and kudos to Gates for this kind of thinking.

On the "soft power" idea, I have just a smidgen of sympathy for Rumsfeld. Over the past half-decade, the hardworking staff here at has found this idea simltaneously beguiling and frustrating. However, as Nye defined the term initially -- getting others to want what you want -- he was talking primarily about non-state capabilities, such as culture and ideology.

Question to readers: can a government consciously generate soft power?

posted by Dan at 11:18 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

The mainstreaming of blogging in political science

When a former editor of the American Political Science Review gets into the blogging biz, you know things have changed.

So go check out The Monkey Cage, a group blog of three George Washington University professors of American politics. Their raison d'etre post is worth reading.

posted by Dan at 09:07 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Open Annapolis thread

The hard-workin staff here at will be hard at work on offline activities today. Readers are strong encouraged to post comments about today's meeting in Annapolis.

Not much of substance will be accomplished, so readers are also encouraged to develop drinking game rules for wathing the summitry. A few provisional rules:

Take a sip whenever:
1) Amedia commentator compares this summit to Bill Clinton's late second-term effort at iddle East diplomacy.

2) A commentator says Bush is bound and determined to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor on this issue.

3) You see a reaction shot of the Israeli delegation during a speech by an Arab diplomat. Only drink if a member of the delegation is frowning;

Take a shot whenever:
1) There's a really significant handshake that sends the flash photographers into orgiastic delight;

2) A U.S. official or commentator says, "Failure is not an option" [Side note: this is one of those phrases that's so inane that I'd like abolished from foreign policy discourse. Bush officials have repeated this mantra so often over the past five years that I wonder if there's some foreign policy equivalent of Bull Durham that I missed where one learns important policy clichés.];

3) In the same speech, someone quotes from both the Old Testament and the Koran

Down your entire drink whenever:
1) Someone is caught having a private conversation near an open mike (with this crowd, a distinct possibility);

2) The Syrians and/or Israelis signal that they're ready to compromise on the Golan Heights;

3) A genuine breakthrough is achieved.

posted by Dan at 08:06 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Bloggers 1, reporters 0

Over at Slate's Trailhead blog, Christopher Beam listens into two conference calls for GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, one for reporters and one for bloggers. Beam's conclusion:

[T]the bloggers’ questions were more substantive by a long shot....

Everyone knows the media is shallow, horse-race obsessed, blah blah blah ... but in many cases, bloggers really are the ones driving discussion of the issues.

posted by Dan at 11:38 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Paranoia about paranoia?

In the Boston Globe today, Drake Bennett takes a closer look at the fears of a conspiracy to create a North American Union -- and what it means about the United States:

The NAU may be the quintessential conspiracy theory for our time, according to scholars studying what the historian Richard Hofstadter famously called the "paranoid style" in American politics. The theory elegantly weaves old fears and new realities into one coherent and all-encompassing plan, and gives a glimpse of where, politically, many Americans are right now: alarmed over immigration, worried about globalization, and - on both sides of the partisan divide - suspicious of the Bush administration's expansive understanding of executive power.

The belief in an imminent North American Union, says Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and author of a 2001 book on conspiracy theories, "reflects the particular ways in which Americans feel besieged economically, powerless politically, and alienated socially."

Bennett is not the first writer to make this point with regard to the fictional NAU. And certainly, the hard-working staff here at is not above poking holes in conspiracy theories or relying on Hofstadter's "paranoid style" to explain a particularly absurd line of argumentation.

Before concluding that America is awash in conspiracy theories, however, there are some paragraphs in Bennett's essay that makes me wonder whether the paranoia problem is less acute now than before:

As a social anxiety, the NAU's roots run deep. Global government and elites who secretly sell out their own citizenry have long been staples of conspiracy theories, thanks in part to the Book of Revelation's warning that world government will be an early indicator of the Apocalypse. Over the centuries, the world's puppeteers have been thought to be, in turn, the Bavarian Illuminati, the Freemasons, the pope, the Jews, international bankers, the League of Nations, the United Nations, the Rockefellers, and the Communist International.

For most of the 20th century, American conspiracy theories tended to focus on communist infiltration of the upper echelons of the US government. The founder of the John Birch Society, a leading source of such imagined schemes, accused President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, among many others, of being communist agents.

Conspiracy theories have wreaked far more damage on past policies than present ones. One could plausibly argue that in the past, the paranoid style helped torpedo America's entry into the League of Nations and exacerbated the worst excesses of McCarthyism. The paranoias that exist today -- the NAU, the 9/11 conspiracies, Bush stole the 2004 election -- are certainly irksome to policymakers and candidates alike. That said, as political roadblocks I'm not sure they rise to the same level as previous waves of paranoia.

[But the Internets, the Internets!! Surely this shows that conspiracies are omnipresent in a way that never existed before!!--ed. No, they just make them more visible than ever before. The Internet also makes it easier to puncture conspiracy theories earlier than ever before as well.]

I'm not sure I'm right about this, so I'll put the question to readers -- are today's conspiracy theories more harmful than the conspiracy theories of the past? How could we test this assertion?

UPDATE: Hmmm... this Scripps-Howard report suggests the prevalence -- but also the limits -- of the paranoid style (hat tip: Tom Maguire):

A national survey of 811 adult residents of the United States conducted by Scripps and Ohio University found that more than a third believe in a broad smorgasbord of conspiracy theories including the attacks, international plots to rig oil prices, the plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the government's knowledge of intelligent life from other worlds.

The high percentage is a manifestation, some say, of an American public that increasingly distrusts the federal government.

"You wouldn't have gotten these numbers a year or two after the attacks themselves," said University of Florida law professor Mark Fenster. "You've got an increasingly disaffected public that is unhappy with the administration."....

All the talk about oil and terror has distracted some of the believers in government cover-ups of UFOs. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents said they think it is "very likely" or "somewhat likely" flying saucers are real and the government is hiding the truth about them. In a 1995 Scripps survey, 50 percent of Americans responded the same way to the same question.

"The kind of anxieties or mistrust of the government that might have been expressed as a belief in UFOs has shifted," said political science professor Jodi Dean. "Now people are worried about things that are much realer to them."

The decline in the UFO response suggests two things: a) The X-Files has been off the air for some time now; and b) there is a residual belief in some conspiracy at any point in time -- but when the global political economy seem threatening, conspiracy theorists migrate towards those issues.

posted by Dan at 09:45 AM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)