Monday, October 27, 2008

Bush-Cheney Never Met a Border they Didn't Want to Violate

And now it is Syria's turn. Yet, the violation of the most basic and fundamental international laws seem to have barely raised an eyebrow in the United States. The news -what passes for news- is filled with chatter about Palin being a Diva and how much money -$150,000- the gal from humble Wassila spent on her wardrobe. The American attack on Syria is relegated to the running banner at the bottom of the screen. Perhaps eight years of such rogue behavior has immunized the media against reacting negatively. A good part of the general public, on the other hand, is just oblivious and many, because of their biases, are predisposed to swallow the American official version of the story. The thinking goes something like this: "If they went after them, then they must be guilty of something; they are, after all Ayrabs and Mooslims".

Lost in any discussion, even by journalists who ought to know better, is that the fundamental issue is the violation of the sovereignty of a country with whom the United States is not at war. This was a calculated and planned raid, not a case of crossing border in hot pursuit. The subtext of most of the reports is that the raid is somehow justified because it was in pursuit of smugglers of foreign fighters. Even if every last one of the nine persons killed on the Sukkarieh farm is proven to be a smuggler of foreign fighters, the raid is an illegal and unjustified by international law. It is the type of action that would trigger a war; and perhaps that is the ultimate purpose. Why now? Because Bush-Cheney are trying to create a foreign policy distraction to influence the election; because Bush-Cheney and the neocons continue to stubbornly stick to their imperial hegemonic plans for the Middle East despite eight years of proof that their plans have failed dismally.

That the American media is not alarmed by this development is disturbing. They ought to know after eight years of lies and deceptions what the administration is up to. This may be lame duck presidency but Bush-Cheney are still quacking and they still have time to create a lot of trouble before the new president is sworn in on January 20th, 2009.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

In Praise of an Adoptive Land

First impressions are hard to shake. We first moved to upstate New York in late March. It was grey and rainy and the landscape was brown and muddy, recovering slowly from the battering of a harsh winter. The rolling green hills seemed monotonous and the sky, when it was clear, was an icy blue color that left me, well, cold.

But Twenty years on, this once foreign landscape has become my own. A short drive from the city, these hills offer a welcome respite from the stresses of daily life and work. I learned to appreciate the small ramshackle family farms dotting the countryside with their ancient oversized wooden barns. They stand there , an anachronism in a time when most farm produce comes from hyper-industrialized megafarms, as a testament to the the stubborn, heroic toil of the last family farmers. Moreover, the hills are not a monotonous as they appear at first glance. Hidden among the green hills and farmlands, are hundreds of glens and gorges cut deep into the layered shale rock. Clear, icy-cold streams run through them often interrupted by waterfalls. There is nothing quite like walking upstream in a shady glen in the middle of a hot summer day, the cold water, cascading over layers of shale, cooling your feet. And even though you have walked that same glen a dozen times before, the sight of the waterfall around the bend at end of your hike never fails to surprise and excite you.

The streams empty into lakes etched into the valleys by ancient glaciers. Several of these lakes, long and narrow, sit in parallel, pointing North in adjacent valleys. Viewed from high above they look like a collection of elongated fingers, thus the name, the Fingerlakes. The dark waters of these narrow lakes, hint at their significant depths, deep enough, some say, to easily navigate and full-sized submarine. If the color of the water, especially on an overcast day, can appear foreboding, the view of the lakes from the surrounding hills is always majestic.

Perhaps the area's best natural asset, though, are the two seasons when nature explodes in a fury of color, ornamenting the hills, glens, streams and lakes with an infinite palette of colors.

The glorious early Springs and Falls of upstate New York are God's reward for having endured yet another seemingly endless and bitterly cold winter. Not that winter does not offer its own particular charms, but after five months of a grey and white world, cabin fever sets in and even the hardiest among us crave the warmth of the sun.

The Fall foliage colors this year were particularly intense. The hills, seemingly overnight, turned into a kaleidoscope of colors with fiery reds and yellows and all shades of browns. Side lit by the late afternoon sun, the trees looked like they were ablaze. It is a feast for the eyes and the senses as the cool autumn breeze carried in it the unmistakable smell of Fall.

Then, just as suddenly, the incandescent light in the leaves faded and the floated to the ground, rust colored. The once flamboyant trees were now bare. Winter is around the corner; in fact, scattered among the raindrops today, were the first few flecks of snow.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Arab World: Grinding Poverty Meets Extravagant Wealth

As I wrote this post, I looked at other Blog Action Day posts about poverty. I was tempted to ditch my sober discussion for a more chirpy, hopeful, feel good post with multiple links encouraging people to donate to this or that charity. However, with as serious a subject as poverty, I cannot do chirpy, and though donations to charities are absolutely critical, most offer only stop-gap measures to alleviate poverty, not to eliminate it.

There is perhaps no better time to talk about poverty, or rather the persistence of poverty than now as the world's economic house of cards, constructed by unscrupulous speculators comes crashing down. The whole debacle exposes as myth the idea that unfettered, unregulated capitalism is good for the common man, that when the man on the top of the pyramid makes untold sums of money, those at the bottom should be thankful for the crumbs that trickle down. The past decade has seen an unprecedented accumulation of wealth both in the West and elsewhere, but instead of alleviating the problems of poverty, it has significantly widened the gap between the rich and the poor. In many developing countries the problems are exacerbated by poor governance and corruption but also by the conditions imposed by lending agencies like the IMF and World Bank. Loans are often given subject to free-market, free-trade reform that encourages privatization and deregulation. These conditions, imposed by lending agencies have failed to help alleviate poverty in recipient countries whose governments and even less their people have little say in how aid is being used.

Nowhere in the world is that discrepancy between wealth and poverty more glaring than in the Arab world . Oil-exporting countries have made untold billions of dollars whereas the economies of neighboring non-oil exporting countries have stagnated. However, the unprecedented injection of wealth into the area has not altered the indices of poverty according to a recent report. The reasons for this lack of progress are many but a few stand out. The frenzied building activity in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia has consumed billions on over the top showpieces that have done little for the economic sustainability of the countries themselves and even less for the long term economic prospects of the region. Whereas the Atlantis resort in Dubai features rooms for $25,000 a night, in Yemen, 4 in 10 people live on less than $2 a day. In the pursuit of national prestige, Saudi developers are planning to build a skyscraper taller than Burj Dubai at the cost of $1,000,000,000 (billion) at a time when bread riots are breaking out in Egypt as subsidies are being curbed.

Why should those who have help those who don't? If not for pure altruism, then for self preservation. Poverty and economic instability breeds political instability. Wealthy oil producers need to invest in projects that promote a sustainable economic future for the region. The region needs to coordinate its economic future and, not a moment too soon, the first Arab economic forum is scheduled to be held in Kuwait next January.
Of course simply throwing money at the problem will not solve it. Here is what I think, as a non-economist, is needed to help reduce poverty:
  • Provide immediate debt relief to developing countries
  • Donors should not force recipient countries to adopt free-market "reforms" that are detrimental to their own people.
  • How aid money is to be spent has to be the decision of recipient countries as represented by local NGOs and civic groups who are best equipped to decide how best to spend the aid.
  • Top-down investments to create jobs should be matched by bottom-up investment into small businesses, education, basic infrastructure and health care to create sustainable economic growth and jobs that provide living wages.
  • Service economies, especially ones that services the needs of richer countries are not the intrinsically stable and are not the answer. A sustainable economy is one in which its citizens produces "something" tangible.
  • Now more than ever, sustainable economies are by necessity ones that are environmentally sustainable. It is also the poor who bear the brunt of environmental neglect.

Above all, donors and developing countries need to get off they high horse and start listening to the people they are trying to help; they know what they need and how best to do it.

(Cartoon: Naji Al Ali)

Rim Banna's Soulful Voice

I was introduced to Rim Banna through a post by a Syrian blogger a couple of months ago (forgot who) and promptly bought one of her CDs: The Mirrors of My Soul, produced in 2005. Two of my favorite songs from that CD are featured in the video clip here. Rim, a native of Nazareth, who studied music in Moscow, is an accomplished Palestinian singer and composer. In the 1990s she recorded Palestinian folk songs and lullabies, a part of the Palestinian heritage that was in danger of being forgotten. She came to international attention with her contribution to the CD: Lullabies from the Axis of Evil, recorded in collaboration with a Norwegian producer. Many of her songs reflect the suffering, remembrance and hope of her people. Her voice is exquisite in its clarity and soulfulness whether singing songs in classical Arabic or in the common Palestinian dialect.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

"With This or Upon This": America as The New Sparta

"With this, or upon this" is what Spartan women said to their men as they handed them their shields in preparation for battle. It means return to Sparta in one of two ways, victorious or dead.

For the past eight years Bush and his neocons have been cultivating this Spartan ethos and it is carried forth dutifully by the McCain/Palin campaign. It matters little that the Iraq war was an unnecessary mistake, or that is has ruined a country. Victory -American victory- is the only option and "doggone it" they will fight to the last Iraqi to achieve this victory. Any reflection upon the cause or the conduct of the war is defeatist and tantamount to treason. As in Sparta, this all or none attitude is fostered by a delusional jingoistic attitude. America, they believe, is the exceptional country, the righteous country that can do no wrong, a force for good against all that is evil. And because of these immutable qualities, America has to remain the strongest and richest country in the world and has the right to war to preserve that status. Yet the intrinsic contradiction of the last two statements seems to escape the true believers. How can America possibly be a force for good, if its first and only priority is to look out for number one.

The Spartan ethos is also manifest in the American fascination with war and everything military. There is proliferation of violent computer war games and cable channels dedicated to new and more deadly weaponry. Members of the armed forces are put on a pedestal and are beyond reproach, Gitmo, Abu Ghraib and other dishonorable deeds not withstanding. In fact these soldiers are not called soldiers any more; they are mythical warriors. And of course, every fallen warrior is a hero, never mind that some of these "warriors" became soldiers to escape grinding poverty or as a shortcut to citizenship. Whereas fallen warriors become heroes, those who come back neither "with" nor "upon" their shields, the horribly injured and mutilated, are tucked into underfunded veterans hospitals and all but forgotten.
For many Americans, the Spartan mystique is an easy sell; it is simple and morally self-justifying. Moreover, war for the vast majority of Americans is an abstraction that happens elsewhere requiring sacrifices that are borne by few Americans. Yet, happily, after eight years, Sparta is loosing its sparkle for many Americans. The reality of endless war and the arrogance of American imperialism disguised as American exceptionalism is wearing thin. Change is finally coming on November 4th and the rest of the world will let out a collective sigh of relief.