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Jul. 28 2010 — 12:05 am | 793 views | 0 recommendations | 13 comments

What just might happen if Obama loses in 2012

Newt Gingrich

Image of Newt Gingrich via Wikipedia

Less than four months from now, the mid-term elections will determine if the Democrats lose control of the Senate and their ability to set the national agenda. The November balloting will also lay the foundation for President Obama’s next two years in office – and his re-election campaign. Any number of scenarios  could undermine Obama in 2012. If (God forbid) a 9/11-style attack hits the United States that summer, or, say, the economy goes into a deep tailspin, then Obama will become the first one-term president since George H.W. Bush. In Obama’s wake, the Republican Piranha who’ve been circling the White House since 2008 (Palin, Romney, et al.) will feast on the Democrats’ political carcass. Here are three scenarios:

** President Whitman: After narrowly beating Jerry Brown for the California governorship in 2010, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman gets drafted for the 2012 presidential campaign and reluctantly accepts – then steamrolls her way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Whitman’s appeal – the first woman Republican to head the ticket; her success in Silicon Valley; her (anti-Palinesque) ability to speak coherently about the economy, foreign affairs, and her vision for America – makes her the surprising choice for independents and conservative liberals who helped springboard Obama in 2008. Whitman’s running mate, Newt Gingrich, secures her standing among Conservatives, especially in the South, and – like Joe Biden in 2008 with Obama – he reassures a potentially jittery public that his ticket has the necessary experience.

** War in Iran: The Republicans’  ascension marks the return of chickenhawk diplomacy. Instead of the Obama administration’s reasoned approach to Iran, the new administration relies on all-or-nothing antagonism, leading to the third Gulf War in two decades. What ensues are thousands of new military deaths, a dangerously destabilized Middle East, and an oil crisis that shocks Western economies for years. As in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. tries to shepherd in a friendlier government, but now all three countries – connected geographically, religiously and historically – become the world’s leading front for insurgency against the United States.

** Hillary Re-Emerges: Free from her role in Team Obama, Hillary Clinton writes her second memoir and takes a teaching position at Columbia University. In both her class and new book, she talks of the irony that her groundbreaking 2008 campaign paved the way for U.S. voters to accept . . . a Meg Whitman presidency. Mulling a run in 2016, Clinton starts a bipartisan think-tank, which launches her into a new phase of political respectability. Eventually, she and Bill get their own CNN talk-show, which becomes the highest-rated political talk show on cable.

As for Obama, he walks away with his head held high, his historic presidency less than his supporters wanted but more than his detractors thought possible. For the most part, America survived and thrived under Obama’s watch, but it still wasn’t enough to keep him in high office.

Hmmm. Prognostication is easier said than done. Other scenarios would put Obama in the White House through 2016, when Hillary, Meg and others would challenge for the open seat that all politicians seem to crave, even if (hello Jeb Bush) they can’t bring themselves to admit it.



Jul. 4 2010 — 2:45 pm | 227 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

The Muslim cleric who condemned 9/11: A recollection of Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah

Prominent Lebanese Shiite Muslim spiritual gui...

Image by AFP via @daylife

Two months after 9/11, I was in a Beirut hotel when my telephone rang. It was Hezbollah calling. I had given them my room number earlier in the week, and they were finally contacting me, to arrange an interview with their organization. Through a separate contact, I also set up a talk with a cleric who was considered Hezbollah’s former spiritual leader, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. Fadlallah, who died today in Beirut, was once targeted for assassination, reportedly with the approval of the CIA, in a massive bombing that killed scores of people coming from religious services. To secure my interview with Fadlallah, his officials asked me to fax them my CV and an editor’s letter from San Francisco that vouched for my assignment in Lebanon.

“Take care of yourself, Jonathan,” my paper’s administrative assistant told me on the phone from San Francisco. Worried about my safety, this assistant had probably seen the 1999 Hollywood film “The Insider,” which has journalist Lowell Bergman blindfolded by gun-toting militants as he’s shepherded to an interview with Fadlallah. Lebanon’s bloody civil war, and more recent violence in Beirut, also foreshadowed possible danger, but Fadlallah was emblematic of a side of the Middle East that’s often absent from Western media: Moderate Islam. I wasn’t blindfolded when I entered Fadlallah’s compound in south Beirut. (The director of “The Insider” fabricated Bergman’s cloistering for dramatic effect.) Instead, I was led into a large room with high ceilings on the second floor, which had Rembrandt-like paintings of famous Shia leaders, including the Ayatollah Khomeini. Opulent chandeliers, an ivory-painted interior, and freshly shellacked hardwood floors gave the room the feel of a meeting place for dignitaries. Fadlallah was a Grand Ayatollah who wore a black turban that signified his descent from the Muslim prophet Muhammad. He entered the room, sat on a chair next to an interpreter, and invited me to ask anything I wanted for 30 minutes. The scene was unforgettable, and so were Fadlallah’s answers.

“If the United States comes back and maintains the rights of the populations around the world, then we would be friends with the Americans, because Islam asks us to be friends of all the world,” he told me.

Fadlallah said Muslims, Jews, and Christians could get along in the modern world, but in that interview, he also said there were caveats to achieving peace – that Israel needed to relinquish land it had taken in the 1967 war, that Washington needed to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that the United States’ foray into Afghanistan would backfire.

“I think the way that America is conducting itself in its war against terrorism will turn the world into chaos,” Fadlallah told me, adding that bombing of Afghanistan “will lead people to form revolutionary groups unrelated to each other, and they will all attack America. Then we’ll have a very hard time controlling them.”

The “we” in this case included Fadlallah, who was deeply critical of the 9/11 hijackers and their killing of civilians. “Who speaks for moderate Islam” is a question that is asked repeatedly around the world. For many people, the answer led them to Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.



Jun. 30 2010 — 4:01 pm | 219 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Sad but true: Americans know little about the war in Afghanistan

afghanistan

Image by The U.S. Army via Flickr

June was another brutal month in Afghanistan. More than 100 soldiers lost their lives. Scores of Afghan civilians were killed. A country that has seen war and bloodshed for almost 10 years is still no closer to peace, despite billions of U.S. and international dollars that have poured in to rebuild Afghanistan. To add “insult to injury,” as it were, millions of Americans still have little idea of the war’s history, complexities, and even why U.S. troops are there. Think about it: For a majority of Americans, Afghanistan is an abstract mess – a geographical footnote to their lives; a place that comes alive when a U.S. general is sacked but otherwise is muddled, confusing and (here’s the worst part) uninteresting.

Here’s how I know this: A poll taken by the Angus Reid survey firm asked Americans, “Do you feel that you have a clear idea of what the war in Afghanistan is all about?” Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said, “No, I do not.” Fifty-one percent. The same survey found that (no surprise) a third of all Americans aren’t sure how the war will end up. These survey results, released two weeks ago, say as much about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as the sacking of General Stanley McChrystal, the elevation of General David Petraeus, and the continued debate in Washington about how to defeat the Taliban. The ongoing tragedy of Afghanistan includes how uninformed people are of the tragedy there.



Jun. 22 2010 — 12:23 am | 699 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

The house that genocide built: Why Rwanda is still worth worrying about

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda

Image of Paul Kagame via Wikipedia

Somalia. Sudan. Iraq. Afghanistan. Pakistan. Haiti. North Korea. Lebanon. Iran. All these countries top Rwanda in the latest Failed States Index. (In 2009, Rwanda was ranked No. 49.) All these countries have long eclipsed Rwanda for the world’s attention. The 1994 genocide that decimated Rwanda happened a generation ago, but the country is still a nation in turmoil – evident by two big news events of the past week: Rwanda’s arrest and release of a U.S. lawyer, who was accused of denying the country’s official facts on the mass killings; and Rwanda’s alleged involvement in the assassination attempt on a former Rwandan general, who was living in South Africa.

The general will reportedly survive his critical injuries. And the lawyer is free to return to the United States. Both cases, though, highlight Rwanda’s ongoing instability. The country has made giant strides since the murders of 800,000 men, women and children, but critics have voiced doubts about Rwanda’s progress, and about Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who was a central figure in stopping the 1994 genocide but is now accused of quashing dissent. I interviewed Kagame in 2005, at a university event in California that was protested by Africans holding signs like, “Paul Kagame is a criminal.” The demonstrators – Africans now living in the United States – called Kagame a hypocrite for overseeing Rwandan military control of a neighboring portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like other countries involved in the Congo war, Rwanda stole millions of dollars in minerals. A United Nations report said Kagame and Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni had virtually turned into the “godfathers of the illegal exploitation of natural resources and the continuation of the conflict in the DRC.”

In Rwanda, Kagame has stifled opposition through “divisionism” laws that essentially require Rwandans to repeat the government’s accepted version of the 1994 genocide, which minimizes Tutsi atrocities. Kagame is Tutsi. Presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, who believes that all Rwandan war crimes should be investigated, has been put under house arrest in the lead-up to new elections in August. Human Rights Watch has criticized Kagame’s crackdown on opposition candidates, and its undermining of Human Rights Watch’s work in Rwanda.

“The Rwandan government often accuses its critics of ‘divisionism’ or ‘genocide ideology,’ vaguely defined offenses to punish the spreading of ideas that encourage ethnic animosity between the country’s Tutsi and Hutu populations and the expression of any ideas that could lead to genocide,” the organization wrote late last year. “Largely aimed at the Hutu population, such offenses permit, among other measures, the government to send away children of any age to rehabilitation centers for up to one year—including for the teasing of classmates—and for parents and teachers to face sentences of 15 to 25 years for the child’s conduct. The government has repeatedly accused the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corporation and other media outlets, as well as Human Rights Watch, of promoting genocide ideology; accusations these organizations deny.”

Kagame’s government denies these charges of intimidation, but its finger-pointing at the media is another sign of the back-sliding that Rwanda has taken. Just like in 1994, Rwanda is in the news for all the wrong reasons. And just like in 1994, the world should be paying close attention. Otherwise, Rwanda may move even higher in the Failed States Index, vaulting past countries that offer their own grim lessons in instability, dysfunction, and violent upheavals.



Jun. 18 2010 — 8:18 am | 151 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

In Iran and around the world, Neda Agha-Soltan lives on in unforgettable documentary

Neda Agha-Soltan

Image via Wikipedia

She apparently kept teddy bears in her bedroom, even at age 27, but as a teenager, Neda Agha-Soltan rebelled against the Iranian government’s strict dress codes, unafraid to tell authority figures, “no.” Neda Agha-Soltan could be paradoxical. Small details about the Iranian woman are what make the HBO documentary, “For Neda,” so gut-wrenching. Agha-Soltan was shot to death a year ago in what became a defining moment in the Iranian protest movement that still seeks to reform Tehran’s system of government. Did Agha-Soltan die in vain?

That’s a question that “For Neda” asks with a sense of urgency. Agha-Soltan’s family in Tehran is still trying to make sense of the tragedy, which snuffed out a person who was so in love with the future. Agha-Soltan’s family risked their lives to talk before the documentary’s cameras. An Iranian journalist, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, who now lives in Britain, risked his life to return to Tehran and film the family. A year after her death, Agha-Soltan is inspiring people, and having an impact on strangers and loved ones alike.

The Iranian government tried to block “For Neda” from being shown in Iran, but HBO and the filmmakers have arranged it to be viewed on YouTube. I saw the documentary a few hours ago. You can see it yourself below. “For Neda” is a gripping narrative – one of the most elucidating films ever made on Iran. It situates Agha-Soltan’s life into the Iranian Revolution’s historic crackdown on women’s rights. In the days before she died, Agha-Soltan was confronted in the street by three Basiji women who – representing an absolutist view – warned her to stay home. “Dear, please don’t come out so beautiful,” they told her, according to the documentary. “Basiji target beautiful girls, and they will shoot you.”

Looking back, the admonition is eerie and chilling. “For Neda” connects the dots in a way that is unforgettable, tear-inducing, anger-inducing, and inspiring – all at the same time.


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    Filmmaker Michael Moore may hate former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who may distrust Mohammed Fadlallah (the former spiritual head of Hezbollah) but all three can agree on one thing: They liked meeting journalist Jonathan Curiel. That’s me. I don’t fawn over people I interview, but I give them room to talk before formulating an opinion (or two). Beyond my journalism (a long reporting stint for the San Francisco Chronicle, plus freelancing for the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Columbia Journalism Review, and others), I’ve taught as a Fulbright Scholar at Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan; and conducted research at England’s Oxford University, as a Reuters Foundation Fellow. I’m also the author of “Al’ America: Travels Through America’s Arab and Islamic Roots.” If journalists are what they cover, then I’m an omnivore – someone as interested in Picasso and Seinfeld as I am in Washington politics and foreign affairs.

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