Politics and International Affairs and the quest for the ulterior motive.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Annapolis Peace Talks - Futility in motion
The peace and future of the Middle East has taken centre stage with the summit of Palestinian and Israeli leaders along with representatives of Arab states and other players with a say in the conflict taking place in Annapolis, Maryland under the aegis of the United States. The summit, or as the Bush Administration downplays it as a meeting, will be to give fresh impetus to the unending six decades old conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The run up to the meet has been dimly viewed by most analysts, media houses and by Arab and Israeli populace; nevertheless, it does mark a shift towards some movement towards trying to solve the contentious issue that has been sidelined thanks to the war on terror and more pointedly the war in Iraq. While it would be fanciful to expect any major announcements let alone a defining path to peace, in US President George Bush’s view it does mark a first of many steps needed to bring an end to a conflict which is emotive and necessary to bring stability in the region and the larger world order. So just what should one expect from this conference?

For starters, there is no denying the fact that at the moment the three key leaders who are involved in the peace talks are weak politically both at home and abroad. President Bush enjoys approval ratings that hover at an all time low of close to 30%. The war on terror seems to go on unabated even as there is some genuine progress in Iraq after years of mindless violence brought about by the occupation and internal wrangling amongst Iraq’s ethnic factions. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also finds his authority diminished and low approval ratings over a series of scandals that have wracked his administration and have raised questions about financial impropriety by the prime minister himself. The political crisis reached its nadir earlier this year when Olmert and then Defense Minister Amir Peretz where blamed directly by a government investigation over Israel’s humiliating standoff against Hezbollah last year. The calls for his resignation may have receded but challenges remain for the prime minister to regain the confidence of his political allies and Israelis in general. The case of Palestinian Authority chairman and president Mahmoud Abbas is the most tenuous, having lost the elections in 2006 to Hamas, his Fatah faction has lost hold of the Gaza Strip which is home to close to one third of the Palestinians. With Hamas virtually rejecting the Annapolis peace talks, any agreement that he may sign onto will be largely rejected. Also, his position as a man of peace and moderation is likely to be seen as bending over backwards to the West, whose backing he clearly enjoys. So the Annapolis peace talks are more about photo-ops and a check on the things-to-do list for Bush rather than any meaningful solution that all parties publicly envisage. President Bush has talked about his legacy and the how he will be remembered after his term ends in 2009, fearing that Iraq might take up to much space in his post-presidential resume, he seems keen to show a diverse role he played in world affairs while as president. Also for the president who is widely seen as a man of war, the peace conference will seem to downplay his image as a war monger. But then again, while changing stripes maybe the attempt of Bush personally, there is a larger design behind holding this peace conference now.

The New York Times had correctly pointed out a few months ago that the renewed impetus given to the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not only to achieve peace, but rather also to ensure that the Palestinians do not go over to the ‘other’ side. The other side being that of the Iranians. The War in Iraq and the recent war of attrition between Hezbollah-Hamas and Israel have only strengthened the hands of the Iranians, who now seem to enjoy more inspirational support than even the Saudis. The Saudis many have the economic might, but they are seem hand in glove with the US be it politically, economically or geo-politically. It is Iran that has emerged as a nation that has stood up for the pride and rights of the Palestinians and as a country that does not dither from calling a spade a spade. The Iranian nuclear issue had in the past few years isolated Iran amongst its neighbors and the West. But more recently, the right of Iran to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes has become an emotive issue amongst many in the Middle East, who see it as another example of the West trying to meddle in the progress of the Middle East. The sense that America favors only those it is friends with, while punishing any country that chooses not to ally with them is a popular rallying point that has seen Iran turn the tables on the diplomatic front. So much so that while all countries do not want to see Iran attain nuclear weapons they are chary about unleashing sanctions on Iran in its pursuit for nuclear energy. The potential economic benefits of nuclear reactors and the nuclear industry seemed to have put sanctions on hold for the time being. This renewed vigor has given Iran the legitimacy to speak as a major force in the Middle East. The active help the Iranians extend to the Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia factions in Iraq and to Syria means that there is an active Iranian club in the Middle East juxtaposed with the old American club which includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon. The fear that the chance to broker peace might be left to the Iranians was alarming enough to ensure that America did all it could to fill a flight full of Middle Eastern leaders and bring them to Maryland. Had the Americans dithered now, the much acclaimed “road to peace” would not be through Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Washington but through Teheran.

Given the complexity of issues at hand and some red lines that neither side wants to cross including stated positions on the final borders of the two state solution, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, the halt to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the contentious future of Jerusalem all of which have the potential to end the process even before it begins. But then for all the negative speak on the peace progress and whatever maybe the intentions to hold the conference now, there is no denying the importance of achieving peace in the Middle East. Most conflicts in the region bear their origin to either the formation of Israel or the treatment being meted out the Palestinian people. The endless cycle of violence and the aggression by both Israel and Palestinian extremist groups has ensured generation after generation of hatred and bigotry. The issue of Palestine has been spoken of by tyrants like Osama Bin Laden to Saddam Hussein to justify anti-Americanism. The peace between Israel and the Palestinians should have been the starting point of the war on terror. When Bush wanted to eradicate the “root cause of extremism” it should have closer to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv not Kabul and Baghdad. For the sake of peace in the region Annapolis must become more than a photo-op, in order to do so it will take courage and understanding by all parties. Only if Teheran and Damascus thought as much too.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Beyond Musharraf
The eight year reign of General Pervez Musharraf seems to be coming to a tumultuous and uneasy end. Whether the latest order to impose emergency will make the General last in office for a few more months is not important in the larger context of where Pakistan is heading under the General. While in the short term the General may continue in office, it is unlikely that he will still remain president in two years time or even less. The inevitable end of a dictatorship is in the offing no matter how bitter a pill it may be for the General to swallow to realize this awakening. Eight years in power have seen the charismatic army man come to the top riding on the back of a coup that most Pakistanis welcomed to go on to become an “able” ally in the war on terror and win the support of the West. His media image was that of a moderate who wanted “enlightened moderation” to be the guiding politico-cultural ideology of a nation that tilted towards Islamic extremism. While making the right noises he was also able to wrest the initiative from the traditional two-horse party system that exists in Pakistan in the form of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) under Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan People’s Party under Benazir Bhutto, and shift it to a new political movement backed by the powerful Chaudhary brothers of Punjab. The new breakaway Pakistan Muslim League gave the General the necessary executive backing so desired by the Pakistani constitution to remain as President and Army Chief. But with the war on terror in Afghanistan not doing well and in the light of the famous spring offensive against NATO forces by the Taliban came calls for Pakistan to do more in the rugged borders it shares with Afghanistan. The rise of extremism within the country and the Lal Mosque siege seemed to have significantly cooled relations between the West and Musharraf, who started seeing him as being soft on the elements propagating terror. The standoff with the judiciary seemed to be the last straw and the lawyers managed a mass movement against Musharraf that he does not seemed to have recovered from. His discreet and then public meetings and discussions with Benazir finally indicated that Musharraf was looking for a way out of the political and constitutional mess he found himself in. The media in Pakistan did well to highlight the rise of extremism in Pakistan along with mentioning things the general would not have wanted to be seen on print and on air. And so with the emergency came a heavy hand down on free press and the lawyers – the fight against extremism that Musharraf talks about seems to be on the people with microphones and black coats rather than with AK 47’s and IED’s.

The end of the Musharraf days, which seem likely, should have, as in most popular revolts against dictatorships, brought along a single political figure or person of civil society behind whom the country can unite under. And therein lies the uncomfortable reality of Pakistani politics and civil society. The options on offer are worse than or as bad as the regime currently in charge. Bhutto and Nawaz have done themselves no favors in the manner with which they carried out the affairs of state as its heads. One can easily calculate the money and resources that were milked from the State by the two by just adding up the cost of living in exile in expensive cities for years. That is the biggest indication than any on the corruption that existed during the 90’s. Then again, the reason a large section of Pakistani society welcomed Musharraf was the hope that his regime saw the end of the Bhutto-Nawaz days of cronyism and corruption. By having to strike deals with the same people once ousted, Pakistan seems to have come full circle. The lack of a credible political leader or a coherent social movement have prolonged Musharraf’s reign. Then again the options available for the West seemed limited, if Musharraf does make way for some other General, there could be gains for the war on terror, but democracy will remain elusive in the country. By backing either Bhutto or Nawaz there runs the risk of unpopularity against the candidate as the people of Pakistan may see them as puppets of the West. And no one within or outside Pakistan is ready for an all out revolution which could prove disastrous or worse still. With the military influencing all aspects of Pakistani policy and with a lack of credible political leadership the options for Pakistanis and the outside world remain limited and therein lies the tragedy that has become Pakistan.

The larger war on terror should also be under severe scrutiny for the havoc of going to war has caused in Asia and the Middle-East. The Bush doctrine of wanting to fight terror before it reaches American borders has devastated the region with profound consequences. The allegation of this being a war against Islam aside, the six odd years since the war on terror was declared has brought about growing xenophobia both ethnic and sectarian apart from the obvious inter-religion tensions. The war in Afghanistan against the Taliban was seen as anti-Pashtun by the tribes in the area. And since tribes exist beyond man made borders, the collective Afghan-Pakistan border rose up against the NATO and the Pakistani Army. This has not only led to tensions between the two countries, it has also led to desertions by army troops who relate better to tribal affinities rather than a national identity. The rising suspicion between Pakistan Army’s Punjab faction against the frontier faction seems to be disturbing the unity of the Army. Across the border in Afghanistan, their President Hamid Karzai is described more as the Mayor of Kabul rather than the president of a country that identifies itself more on tribal lines. Not to say that this new tribal affinity didn’t exist before the invasion, but the war has certainly accentuated those feelings. The war on terror therefore, does play a role in destabilizing nations that fight as allies, all this so that the American remain safe and secure. Some might argue that is a high price to pay for Americans to enjoy a sense of safety.

Closer to home, India seems to have become surrounded by a ring of fire, with all her neighbors facing turbulent days. But as much as that should worry the establishment there is no denying the fact that in the darkness of South Asia, India seems to have become a beacon of peace and democracy. With our stand on the perils of extremism having being vindicated without reasonable doubt, it is now imperative on us to take a more aggressive stand in promoting the values of peace and democracy to the world through a more concerted foreign policy that should help in highlighting what we have achieved in a region where so much can go wrong.