This Week's Show •

Syria: The 21st-Century Disaster

Syria may be the essential 21st-century mess. Our guests, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami have just published Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, a new people’s history of the civil war. They tell us that beneath a web ...

Syria may be the essential 21st-century mess.

Our guests, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami have just published Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, a new people’s history of the civil war. They tell us that beneath a web of thorny conflicts — Sunni powers against Iran, Obama against Putin, interventionists against isolationists — the central story was quickly lost: a democratic uprising, against scarcity, corruption, and oppression, met with a scorched-earth crackdown by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, determined to retain power.

No matter how you look at this conflict that has displaced 10 million Syrians and taken hundreds of thousands of lives, there are grave regrets: the creation of ISIS, the reverberations of the Iraq war, American vacillation and meddling, and roads to peace not travelled (or even considered).

What might have been done, what might yet happen, and what is the lesson for the Middle East, the next president and the global community?

July 24, 2015

Behind the Persian Curtain

After two years, three “final” deadlines and a cabinet-level bike wreck, we have a deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In Tehran, Boston, and the Security Council chamber it felt like a time to ...

After two years, three “final” deadlines and a cabinet-level bike wreck, we have a deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In Tehran, Boston, and the Security Council chamber it felt like a time to celebrate. This week, we asked just what does a deal mean?

Our friend, the journalist/historian Stephen Kinzer, has dreamt of a “reset” that would change the strategic chess and bring Iran and the United States back together. He said that both sides are fighting a long and traumatic history, but new restraint (informed by that history) seems possible:

This Iran operation in 1953, in which the CIA destroyed forever — at least up until now — Iranian democracy seemed like a success at time. We got rid of a guy we didn’t like, Mohammad Mossadegh, and we replaced him with a guy, the Shah, who would do everything we wanted. So, it seemed like the perfect solution at the time. Now when we look back, and we see that the Shah’s increasing repression caused huge problems inside Iran. It led to the explosion which produced the mullahs’ government and produced another 35 years of repression. We’re slowly coming to realize that these interventions hurt us in the long run… [Obama’s] biggest failures in foreign policy have been times when he’s been seduced into intervening, whether it’s South Sudan or Libya. And his greatest successes have been places where he’s restrained himself… What I’m worried about is what happens after Obama. Is the pendulum going to swing back?

Kelly Golnoush Niknejad is the Iranian-American editor-in-chief of the Tehran Bureau, an independent organization delivering honest, anonymous news and comment from inside Iran via (of necessity) Niknejad’s Newton home. She said that domestic change may come gradually as the regime co-opts and catches up with two different post-revolutionary generations:

A lot of young people do not remember the revolution. Those who came of age with the Internet and satellite television and the reformist administration of Khatami in the 1990s — where there was a brief period of about two years where there was a lot openings in terms of cultural freedoms and newspapers printing — a lot of people became very political and idealistic during that period. And we also have another generation coming about that wasn’t really part of that. They came about during Ahmadinejad. They have very different political awareness, and I think most of their ideas of freedom are probably what they see on satellite television.

“Slow” was the keyword of our Iran talks. The anthropologist Narges Bajoghlid, who wrote recently about hiphop as Rouhani’s latest propaganda tool, said that those young Iranians want reform, not revolt. Kinzer agreed: having weathered their own revolution and witnessed the excesses of the late Arab Spring, Iranians prefer the devil they know.

And Chas Freeman, our favorite US Foreign Service wiseman, cracked that the negotiations stopped an Iranian nukes program that didn’t exist, solving a problem we didn’t have. But the exercise was worth it anyway if it underlines the folly of military interventions. We should have been learning, too, that sanctions stiffen resistance and strengthen target governments — in Cuba as in Iran. And we should be learning patience and restraint long-term and short.

For one thing, the opening to China, strategically important and useful as it was, did not produce Sino-American cooperation on any level for about six to seven years. It took time to begin to make it possible for us to cooperate. So, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a major improvement in US-Iranian relations. We have to be patient, and we have to be creative. But the lesson…is that statesmanship, skillfully conducted, can really make a difference.

So tell us: Are you ready to walk through the Persian curtain?

The Sound of the US-Iran Relationship

How did America and Iran get to yes? A relationship defined by a CIA-backed coup, a revolution, and a hostage crisis seemed permanently poisoned — even before President George W. Bush placed Iran in his “Axis of Evil.” There was more than a little venom and proxy violence over half a century. The sound of this relationship is more than tough talk though. These bites (most from a brilliant 2009 BBC documentary) reveal a sad game of geopolitical phone tag between two rivals who should probably be friends. Whenever one calls, the other isn’t ready to talk. And vice-versa, for forty years — until now.

Head to our SoundCloud page for more info on each track.
—Pat Tomaino.

September 18, 2014

Inside the Islamic State

We're looking inside the Islamic State: as a phenomenon and as America's latest enemy in the endless war on terror. Do we know who they are, or how we plan to defeat them? President Obama says they aren't Islamic and aren't a state. It's clear they're a dangerous mad storm of Arab anger armed, in part, with hand-me-down American weapons. Could this be the coming Caliphate that Dick Cheney warned us against? What if it’s blowback that his Iraq War fired up?

We’re looking inside the Islamic State: as a phenomenon and as America’s latest enemy in the endless war on terror. Do we know who they are, or how we plan to defeat them? President Obama says they aren’t Islamic and aren’t a state. It’s clear they’re a dangerous mad storm of Arab anger armed, in part, with hand-me-down American weapons. Could this be the coming Caliphate that Dick Cheney warned us against? What if it’s blowback that his Iraq War fired up? For a little perspective, let’s look back at the beginning of the Islamic State, known in 2004 as Al-Qaeda in Iraq:

This Week's Show • August 7, 2014

Andrew Bacevich: America’s War for the Greater Middle East

How do you end an endless war? Thirty years ago Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf a "vital" focus of American foreign policy. Since then, U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, garrisoned, bombed or raided 18 nations, absorbing thousands of casualties and getting little in return in terms of peace or goodwill.

How do you end an endless war? Thirty years ago Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf a “vital” focus of American foreign policy. Since then, U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, garrisoned, bombed or raided 18 nations, absorbing thousands of casualties and getting little in return in terms of peace or goodwill.

Andrew Bacevich, the military historian, veteran and professor of international relations at Boston University calls it America’s War for the Greater Middle East and says there’s no end in sight. This fall he’s teaching a twelve-week online course on the history of that long war: he begins it in the Iran hostage crisis during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, through stages of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the first Gulf War, then September 11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jump into our timeline and suggest your own alternative policy approaches or argue the premise.

July 17, 2014

Lines In The Sand

The borders that divide up our modern world hinge, sometimes, on decisions that have stopped making sense. The Middle East is still suffering from unhealed wounds resulting from the boundaries established a hundred years ago in secret by two men, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, that carved the former Ottoman empire into today's Middle East. As geopolitics changes around the world, why don't those political maps?
SykesPicot

Guest List

Juan Cole, academic, blogger and tireless watcher of the Middle East — his new book is called The New Arabs: How The Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East.

Seyla Benhabib, the Yale political scientist and a philosopher of borders and cosmopolitanism.

Labib Nasir, a Palestinian reporter for Reuters who covered the Arab Spring from North Africa.

The borders that divide up our modern world hinge, sometimes, on decisions that have stopped making sense. The Middle East is still suffering from unhealed wounds resulting from the boundaries established a hundred years ago in secret by two men, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, that carved the former Ottoman empire into today’s Middle East. As geopolitics changes around the world, why don’t those political maps?

 

Read More

• Our friend Stephen Kinzer launched the conversation this week in The Boston Globe, writing on the flexibility of human borders and the news from Iraq and Syria;

• Juan Cole says the Arab Spring dream, apparently lost in fighting across borders and crackdowns within them, isn’t dead yet in The Los Angeles Times;

• John Judis and Nick Danforth have already playing out one side of the debate this week.

In The New Republic, Judis makes an argument we’ve seen many times since 2003: that the Middle East as a colonial creation, is coming undone. Danforth’s response, in the Atlantic, sees that line of thought as dangerously out-of-focus. The real disaster, he writes, was “the truly pernicious policy of divide-and-rule that the French and British used to sustain their power… The militarization of these ethnic and religious identities, rather than the failure of perfectly placed state borders to alleviate tension between them, explains much of violence in the Middle East today.

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• There’s another geo-controversy brewing around our guest Juan Cole’s mapping of shrinking Palestinian territory since 1948. Cole sees the maps as proof that the hardcore Israeli leadership has no plans to stop settling the West Bank or to accept anything short of a unified Israel. The Netanyahu government confirmed some of those fears this week, with a snub to Biden and a declaration of intent, off the radar of the American media.

• Frank Jacobs, geographer of the odd, took on the borders separating Israel and Palestine and India and Pakistan in his fine Times blog, “Borderlines”.

• Finally, glimpses of hope on the horizon: the president of Iraqi Kurdistan visits Ankara this week, seeking to ease some of his nation’s tense history with the Turks. And Haaretz asks for a revolution in Israeli culture as a step toward attacking the crisis at its roots in hearts and minds.

February 27, 2014

Nasser Rabbat: Life and Death in Syria

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of Islamic architecture at MIT, a Damascene from way back.  The question we ask him is, “What will we say happened to Syria in front of our eyes, ...

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of Islamic architecture at MIT, a Damascene from way back.  The question we ask him is, “What will we say happened to Syria in front of our eyes, and was non-intervention in Syria as damaging in the end as previous American interventions have been?”

Nasser Rabbat wrote a marvelous account of his father’s death last year, a man who lived through most of the 20th century, and a great deal of Syria’s national history. It is the story of both a man and his nation, and it’s available in English at The Atlantic.

He wanted to go back to Damascus and die in Damascus. So how do I sum up his life? A Lebanese cardiologist was summoned to come and see him. My dad was half-drugged and had an IV in his hand and oxygen in his nose. The doctor was saying, “So what is paining you the most, where do you feel pain?” And my dad, in a very soft voice, answered the question, “Syria, the problem in Syria.”

 

Podcast • September 9, 2013

David Bromwich on Democracy and War with Syria

There is a tendency of men of power, especially great power in the United States, to become so isolated that their thinking grows fantastic. I just mean: dominated by fantasy. We like to think an ...

There is a tendency of men of power, especially great power in the United States, to become so isolated that their thinking grows fantastic. I just mean: dominated by fantasy. We like to think an obviously intelligent and fairly balanced person as Obama seemed to be would escape that curse, but I don’t think so. I think of a few counter-examples: of Jimmy Carter, who has become wiser about the world in his after-years than he was as president… And I think of John Kennedy in the last year of his presidency where so much more wisdom and rueful knowledge of the limits of power, and the limits that ought to be placed on power by itself, seemed to inhabit the man. Obama’s progression has not been like theirs. It’s been from an outside, ironic and interestingly non-attached point of view to something much more oriented to the conventional routes of American power.

David Bromwich, Yale’s Sterling Professor of English, with Chris Lydon in New Haven, September 6, 2013.

With David Bromwich, close-reader of the history unfolding before our eyes, I am looking for a bright side. We are having a national conversation, after all, about war, war powers, presidential authority, intervention. It could be a democratic moment to rejoice in. President Obama has asked the people through the Congress and the Constitution to join in a freighted decision on war and peace, and the country is responding. At the same time the president indicates he is ready to override the people’s skepticism and maybe a Congressional vote for restraint. The Nobel Peace Prize president is “Pleading for War,” in one Huffington Post headline. Mr. Obama is disappointed but not yet persuaded or moved by the anti-war consensus of the G-20 leaders, the almost-unanimous European Union, the United Nations Secretary General and the Pope. Professor Bromwich wonders, not alone and not for the first time, whether Americans have ever heard from President Obama a “consistent view” of his or our international role. “There’s something unhinged about the quality of the different voices we are hearing around the White House,” Bromwich is telling me. “I think the least you can say against President Obama right now is that he does not seem to be in control.”

It turns out, in a long conversation about the immeasurably grave Syrian question before the country, that we both have John F. Kennedy on our minds approaching the 50th anniversary of his assassination. I’m asking David Bromwich: how was it that the American crisis in civil rights made JFK a deeper, more serious person, and the near-catastrophe around Russian missiles in Cuba led Kennedy to the nuclear test ban treaty. How is it that the apparent collapse of the Arab Spring, the anxiety around what could be a nuclear Iran, have not seemed to penetrate and enliven the Obama circle in any comparable way.

I think Kennedy had an outgoing temperament and almost an appetite for action, for activity not just on the public stage but with public consequences. Not all of this was good by any means. But he had learned a lot, had become a wiser and a lonelier figure by 1963, partly because he saw what he was up against in the military. I like the story of John Frankenheimer, the director of “The Manchurian Candidate,” requesting from Kennedy to borrow rooms in the White House for the making of “Seven Days in May,” a good thriller about a military conspiracy to take over the government of the United States. And Kennedy let them have it. He went away for a couple of days and said to Frankenheimer: “These people,” meaning the military, “are crazy! The American people need to understand that.” Why is that unimaginable coming from Obama? It’s that there isn’t that feeling of first-hand engagement, of wanting to wrestle with problems. It is an unusual human characteristic, and as Kennedy’s example again shows, it carries with it some risky materials as well. But I think Obama is prudent and holds back, and takes the messages that are borne in on him. I think a Kennedy sort of personality, coming into office in 2009, 2010, 2011, would have seen Iran as a possibly soluble — and as the major — problem for the United States, because it impinges so much on dealings with Russia and China as well, and on the Middle East. And Iran had allied itself with the U.S. in the war on Afghanistan, and then found itself utterly rebuffed by Cheney and Bush after the help they gave in 2001, 2002 — put into the outer darkness, called part of ‘the axis of evil.’ Obama seemed to intend to change all that. But now, with the election of a new president in Iran, would have been the moment to recognize, as Kennedy did about the test ban: now I can get some action; it’s going to be hard, but I’ll do it… Now would be the moment to seek some sort of arrangement with Iran whereby they will never go to nuclear weapons, but they will be satisfied with their ability to use nuclear power domestically. This would have required enormous risk, and real courage, as it did for Kennedy to go after the test ban and push it through. Let’s never underestimate it; it’s one of the most remarkable presidential achievements of my lifetime. And it would take courage for Obama to do that, courage to go against Israel. But he would have to have initiative, too, and he would have to be pushing it himself. And that appetite doesn’t seem to be there.

I am puzzling about what seemed a long silence from Israel on this matter of striking Syria — a silence becoming less silent, David Bromwich observes. According to the New York Times over the weekend, 250 AIPAC lobbyists have been preparing to work the House of Representatives this week in favor of the Obama attacks. Professor Bromwich is quoting an Israeli diplomat in last Friday’s Times, to the effect that Israel sees in Syria a “playoff situation” in which one wants both sides to lose — the Assad government and the jihadist rebels. “Let them both bleed and hemorrhage to death — that’s the strategic thinking here,” said the Israeli diplomat.

If Israel emerges alone as the sole country in the entire Middle East that is not a devastation, and that is solid-looking and modern and Western in ways that Americans identify with, then Israel and the United States can march forward hand-in-hand toward whatever future. I think that’s the short- and middle-term so-called strategic thinking that’s guiding this. I think it’s very wrong. I want Israel to survive, and I don’t think it will survive well or happily on these terms. But that’s the calculation under Netanyahu now… So they do back limited attacks on Syria, and you can bet that behind the scenes the pressure from the Israeli government is much stronger than is leaked out to the Times. And we’re going to have a siege of it, I’m pretty sure, next week.

David Bromwich, Yale’s Sterling Professor of English, with Chris Lydon in New Haven, September 6, 2013.

So, I ask, when that irresistible force meets the immovable object of resistance at the American grassroots, what happens in the U. S. House? “For anyone who perceives what’s happening,” Professor Bromwich said, “it is one of the most astonishing confrontations between influence and democratic sentiment that has ever been.”

Podcast • November 11, 2012

Farida Ayari’s Short Form on “the Spring” : “What Revolution?”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Farida Ayari (41 min, 28 meg) TUNIS (the North African capital formerly known as Carthage) — Farida Ayari is giving us an assertive reporter’s first-draft history of the ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Farida Ayari (41 min, 28 meg)

Farida Ayari, journalist. Photo by Sophia Baraket

TUNIS (the North African capital formerly known as Carthage) — Farida Ayari is giving us an assertive reporter’s first-draft history of the great Arab event that began in Tunisia two years ago — the “Arab Spring” of fond memory, or the “revolt,” or the “upheaval,” as Amin Maalouf calls it. “What revolution?” Farida Ayari responded when we first met. “The revolution is still to come.”

I am hearing three big themes in her story:

(1) It was a workers’ revolt, as usual in Tunisian politics over the past century, before it was a middle-class cause. It began deep in the hinterland when the abused street vendor Mohamed Bouazizzi set himself afire in the town of Sidi Bouzid. Then and ever, unrest ran deepest in the farming and phosphate mining regions far from Tunis and the coastal resorts.

(2) Islamic activists, who’d been victims of the equal-opportunity oppressor Ben Ali, captured the parliamentary elections on the strength of organization, sympathy for past suffering, and assumptions of moral purity now compromised by cronyism and incompetence in office. The presidential election next year is up for grabs, but liberal democrats (who learned their head-over-heart politics in Europe) have still to find a resonant language in local politics.

(3) Ethnically diverse, relatively modern, moderate and prosperous Tunisia is not a “miniature” of the Arab world, “but maybe we are a laboratory.”

If we succeed to set up a genuine democracy which will be reconciled with a moderate Islam (considered as a personal thing for each person, with the liberty to worship or not worship) and if we install democratic values and an economic system that will be distributing wealth equally among people in the region, then I will say: yes! If we succeed then the whole Arab world will succeed. If we fail, it is finished for the Arab world for many many years. You will have a fundamentalist wave from Tangier to Tehran, and forget democracy. If fundamentalism takes root, it will be a dark age for the region for many, many decades.

Farid Ayari in conversation with Chris Lydon in Tunis, November 10, 2012.

Podcast • November 7, 2012

Nadia Khiari’s “Willis in Tunis”: Born Again in Revolution

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Nadia Khiari (7 min, 5.1 meg) TUNIS — Nadia Khiari is considering my question: what’s the artist’s job in a revolution? She was a successful French-schooled painter when ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Nadia Khiari (7 min, 5.1 meg)

TUNIS — Nadia Khiari is considering my question: what’s the artist’s job in a revolution? She was a successful French-schooled painter when the “Jasmin Revolution” caught fire in Tunisia in January last year. Her graffiti and political cartoons have gone viral on the Web since then, in the voice of her cat, “Willis in Tunis.” She has stopped painting altogether.

“For me it’s not a job. It’s a freedom. Like I’m being born. Before the revolution, I was a zombie. I think, but I cannot express myself. So I didn’t feel like I was alive. With the revolution I was born, like a baby. My first screaming was my drawing. And now for me its a revolution in my art, totally. I can finally express myself and say what I think and criticize the government. For me I can finally do my passion: cartoons.”

Nadia Khiari “Willis in Tunis” – Born Again in Revolution from BicycleMark on Vimeo.

“Willis in Tunis” claws at the Islamist Ennahdhu party that dominates the new parliament elected last fall. Nadia doubts the government’s sincerity and its competence, but not that the revolution is still moving. “It’s not finished, it’s the beginning… We all have to learn what is democracy, how to have democracy in our own families — the father, the mother, the children, and then in the country. We lived 50 years in a dictatorship, so we will not learn in one year what is freedom of speech, what is freedom of mind, what is freedom of women. We are building it. It will take time. I am optimistic.”

Nadia is making connections (as Amin Maalouf did) between families and nations in the inner life of this “Arab Spring,” coming up on its second anniversary. “I know in my family, I had restrictions. My education was strict, but I knew that my family loved me. In this situation now the government wants to put restrictions, but I don’t think they love me…”

Will Tunisians fight for their freedom if it’s tested? “Yes, sure. You know, freedom is something so incredible. We all discover it. From one day to the other we were totally free and we could speak in the streets, in the cafe, of political things, and criticize the government and everything. And it is so good. So it will be very, very difficult to take it back. I don’t think — if they want — they could close our mouth…”

We thank her, and she shouts “Banzai!” as if to say, Hurrah for the Revolution.

Podcast • October 20, 2012

Roger Owen on the Arab Revolution: Year Two… of Ten

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Roger Owen(25 min, 15 meg) Roger Owen is giving us a framework for our conversational plunge next month into North Africa and the “Arab Spring,” coming up on ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with
Roger Owen(25 min, 15 meg)

Roger Owen is giving us a framework for our conversational plunge next month into North Africa and the “Arab Spring,” coming up on its second birthday. Better to speak of the “Arab revolution,” he begins. Tahrir Square marked an historic surge of people power led by the young, to transform a whole society “root and branch,” as well as a way of government.

“We’re in Year 2,” he says, with 5 or 10 more to resolve contradictions and colossal tensions between kids who started the revolt and Muslim Brothers who rode it into power. It’s not been a bloody convulsion to compare with 1789 in France, but neither was it mere springtime effervescence like the student revolts in Paris, 1968. Tough tyrants have fallen, but in Egypt notably, it’s history still in the making — a devilishly complicated struggle among the “deep state,” the Army and government bureaucracies, the Islamic tendency and the cosmopolitan elite in a massively poor country.

Roger Owen is the Harvard eminence on Middle East history and politics. He speaks with the Oxford accent of an old British hand in the Arab Mediterranean. His new book details The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life. Think Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Qaddafi in Libya and Assad next, presumably, in Syria. And still the new patterns of Arab politics and culture are in formation and in doubt.

I am asking him if we’re looking broadly at a second anti-colonial wave against the West — a revolt in Egypt particularly against U. S. overlordship. “You could say that the Tahrir Revolution (February 2011) is a kind of completion of the 1952 (Nasser) Revolution,” he had remarked earlier. But there’s no simple cycle at work. 1952 was a colonels’ revolt to liberate Egypt from King Farouk and British domination. Tahrir Square was supposed to liberate the Egyptians to choose their own constitution and be involved in their own politics. The wider world has changed meantime. The Soviet Union, which befriended Nasser, is gone — and with it the appeal of Big Projects and heavy industry. Egypt is tuned to other ideas of modernization.

“Egypt is a wonderful place,” Professor Owen is saying, “very confident in its Egyptian-ness. But they’re also aware they’ve never really sat down and worked out their place in the world. They’ve always said ‘no’ to certain kinds of things: ‘we don’t want to be ruled.’ But what is Egypt for? That’s up for grabs.”

We leave in 2 weeks for a listening tour of Egypt, Tunisia and Beirut on a project we’re calling Arab Artists in the Revolution, with thanks to our Kickstarter backers. We’ll be blogging and podcasting as we go, and gathering conversations for material for a broadcast series this winter. If you have leads, comments, suggestions or introductions, please post them here.