(My Middle East)

77 days with a journalist, Lebanon, and a list of non sequiturs

Archive for the ‘Thoughts & Ideas’ Category

Got what Eisenhower wished for

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I’m reading ‘Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA‘ by Tim Weiner. The book is incredible in scope and Weiner is ruthless in chronicling all of the miserable failures of the CIA (it’s entire existence according to Weiner). This quote on Allen Dulles, central intelligence director under Eisenhower pretty much sums up how hard Weiner lays into the CIA throughout the whole book.

Over the next eight years, through his devotion to covert action, his disdain for the details of analysis, and his dangerous practice of deceiving the president of the United States, Allen Dulles did untold damage to the agency he had helped to create.”

The book goes over the history of the CIA, which surprisingly enough only got its start after World War II. Theres a lot of history and lessons the country has already learned that seemed to have been forgotten. The most absurd one I’ve come across so far was Eisenhower on the Middle East:

“The president said he wanted to promote the idea of an Islamic jihad against godless communism. ‘We should do everything possible to stress the ‘holy war’ aspect,’ he said at a September 1957 White House meeting…”

How preposterous this statement is made me laugh out loud. Think of how refreshing it would be if those ‘godless communists’ were the main global concern and not Islamic jihadists. It also raised two points that I’ve been thinking about lately.

1) The United States has created many of the opponents that it fights today

2) If you view conflict as zero-sum games, you are bound to replace one enemy with an even more desperate intractable foe.

Hopefully more to come on both of those soon.

Written by stephenddockery

August 18, 2009 at 4:02 am

Middle East Primer

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Carnegie Publications website

Carnegie Publications website

Whenever I started to work on a story in Lebanon I would think -how would I explain this to someone who knows little about this Middle East?- and then start writing. Its sometimes easy to forget that everyone doesn’t spend their day reading papers and articles about the region.But for those who want to take the next step to learning about the Middle East it can be daunting, there are so many names, dates and numbers that are used without explination its hard to get started.

I just finished Paul Salem’s (Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut)  “The Middle East: Evolution of a Broken Regional Order.” At a slim 21 pages it makes for a great brief to get an overview of the recent events that have created the current regional sitation. Definetly worth reading for those who need to get up to speed quickly,  are looking for a good place to start reading or just need some type of broad overview of the Middle East.

The Carnegie website has hundreds of their expert’s papers avaiable in full PDFs on their website.

The ones I plan on reading next:

Lebanon’s Sunni Islamists—A Growing Force Omayma Abdel-Latif

Algeria Under Bouteflika Civil Strife and National Reconciliation Rachid Tlemçani

Salafism and Radical Politics in Postconflict Algeria Amel Boubekeur

Salafi sm and
Radical Politics
in Postconfl ict

Written by stephenddockery

August 14, 2009 at 5:26 pm

Posted in Thoughts & Ideas

New chapter

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Apologies for not updating sooner, but my 77 days in Lebanon has finally come to a close. I got back to the states a few days ago and I’m finally over the jet lag today. I will definitely miss Lebanon; waking up in the suburbs isn’t quite as exciting as West Beirut. Hopefully I will get back to the region sooner rather than later. I’ll be heading back to Syracuse for my last year in a few weeks, and I’ll start applying for internships, fellowships and grad school (defense and policy studies) soon after.

As for this blog, I’m planning on keeping it running. While I can’t promise post-street clash coverage from Aisha Bakkar; I’m going to try to keep blogging on current events and my recent foreign policy readings.  I’m also going to finish out the last two book reviews of the summer in the next week (The Inheritance, Sanger and The Great War for Civilization, Fisk).

Thanks for reading.

Written by stephenddockery

August 12, 2009 at 1:12 am

Posted in Thoughts & Ideas

Summer reading Vol. 4 | Engaging the Muslim World

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The fourth edition of the summer reading series is Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole. I hadn’t read a whole lot of Cole’s work before this, maybe just his recent Iran stuff, so this a nice change of authors from Friedman last week.

When I read academic books I usually keep a small page of paper with me to jot things down that I want to remember. For this book, I kept a lot of notes. Which isn’t to say that the book was particularly good or bad, but that Cole went after dozens of topics, anything from Energy Independence to Wahhabis, and Syrian Baathists.

The book  didn’t quite read like one continuous work rather a series of essays on different topics. It was a little bit disconcerting because even inside each chapter Cole would use ‘breaks’ to jump around to different decades and subtopics inside that chapter.

Because the books includes so many topics, its clearly wasn’t academically exhaustive. Cole sometimes glosses over details to help make his point. A particular reach was his insistence that VP Dick Cheney wanted war with Iraq to secure accesses to Iraqi Oil by American companies. But the books is instructive in pointing out the hypocrisies and incongruity in American foreign policy. Cole points to the lack of logic behind American claims that most Saudi Arabian Wahhabis are radical or the irony when the Ford administration authorized a plutonium reprocessing plant in Iran in the 70’s (Cole is insistent that Iran is not attempting to get a nuclear weapon, a claim that David Sanger in The Inheritance, my next book, strongly disagrees with)

In the end Engaging the Muslim World is a series of reminders about the very western, Americanized way that most people in the U.S. view the world. If you’ve spent your life watching American TV and reading the New York Times, its a great reminder that there are other perspectives out there and American policy isn’t nearly as clear cut as its made out to be.

That being said, Cole uses the end of every chapter to make sweeping recommendations about policy changes and leaves little room for nuance on complex issues, he always seems to have an excuse for what America is doing wrong that makes one ideology not match up with another. But the book is a great jumping off point for a start of a much more through analysis into all the topics Cole covers.

Heres some of the key points that Cole brings up (his ideas not mine):

  • U.S. has acted to protect its energy interest in the world, installing and backing up oil regimes (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq). Neomercantalism is dying/dead
  • Oil dependency doesnt work, most alternative fuels wont work either
  • Solar is the way forward
  • U.S. needs better relationship with “Islamic oil”.
  • U.S. backed the militant Islamic fighters in the 90’s who are not fought as terrorists
  • Muslim world and Western world are equally religious. Secular politics in America is disconected from grass roots America
  • Saudi 9/11 connection not plausible. Bin Laden hated Saudi royal family
  • King Saud was the counter weight to Nasser
  • Wahabis not killing people (very sympathetic to Saudi Arabia)
  • Abdullah acts in ways better for Saudi and America than Fahd did
  • U.S. surge in Iraq achieved dubious results partially by more ethnic cleansing
  • Hypocrcy of not granting Iraqis Assaylum in any reasonable numbers even those who helped Americans
  • U.S. ignores leftist insurgents because it doesnt fit the message
  • Federally Administered Tribal Area in Pakistan outside of the law, no local administrator. Pashtuns have system of equality
  • Pakistan military/intelligence funds the Taliban
  • Iraq invasion increased Iran power
  • Ahmedinijad not global threat. Khameini holds the cards
  • Iran won’t attack Israel
  • US nuke approval in Iran in 76
  • Great Game (pre-WWI) to partition Iran between British and Russians made Iran deeply suspicious
  • Democratically elected Mossadegh deposed in CIA coup bad for relations
  • Hezbollah = Small paramilitary
  • In the conclusion: Stop being bigots, no more Islamiphobia or American/Islam anxiety, West needs to translate enlightenment ideas and books that aren’t available in the Middle East, engagement is the key, international frustration over Palestinian issue is building, energy demand will become a crisis

Final Rating (out of 5): 3.5

Summer Reading Ratings

Killing Mr Lebanon by Nicholas Blanford: 4.5

In the Path of Hizbullah by Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh: 3.7

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman: 4.0

Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole: 3.5

The Inheritance by David E. Sanger

The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk

Written by stephenddockery

July 24, 2009 at 11:15 am

How long is the long war?

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Patrick Lang over at Sic Semper Tyrannis has an interesting post on the cost of an effective counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Counterinsurgency is a buzz word in military/political circles, and its approach has in part (I think) improved the situation in Iraq. But what Lang brings up, is it could take a decades to wage a worthwhile counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.

“This is a big job, especially in a country like Afghanistan where much of what has to be done has not been done before.  “Education” alone, “education” in the Western sense will be a massive long term project.  IMO, the whole counterinsurgency thing, if applied successfully in Afghanistan will require a commitment of a century of effort by dedicated civilian and military personnel and many, many billions of dollars”

This goes along with what I have been reading recently in David Sanger’s The Inheritance. Sanger quotes Douglas Lute the war czar for Iraq and Afghanistan:

“The Truth is that you have to think about this problem in thirty-year terms,”… One night in early summer 2008, I asked Lute whether he was sticking to that estimate. No, he said he had rethought the numbers. “I’ve revised it to closer to fifty years.”

I’m a big fan of the type of unconventional thinking that counterinsurgency campaigns inspire, but does the military, the government and the public have the stomach to sit through the decades it  may take for a counterinsurgency campaign? And would leaving before a counterinsurgency “battle” is finished do anything besides create a feeling of abandonment in that country and maybe inspire a harsh backlash, negating all the gains? We may get a taste of what a post-partially completed COIN  environment looks like in Iraq (where I think few would say COIN is complete) but that can hardly be a indicator for the same situation in Afghanistan which is so much more behind in terms of its “nation building”

Some more COIN reading

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July 12, 2009 at 11:13 pm

Bill Pullman for president

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In 1996 Aliens tried to take away freedom

In 1996 Aliens tried to take away freedom

In deference to the American independence day there will be no pictures of delicious cinnamon rolls, stories about street fights or profound treatises on the nature of journalism in Lebanon. Instead, it’s time for reflection. And what better way to reflect than with the greatest speech ever delivered on the 4th of July and perhaps the greatest speech of all time. Bill Pullman could be my president any day.

Speaking of great July 4th speeches, Daily Orange alumni and purveyor of all things wrestling Andy ‘Boots’ McCullough had a story about a pretty good speech in yesterday’s Star Ledger, (thats in NJ). And in case you were

wondering, said story was penned on the front page of said newspaper.

For those looking for something a little more current than the 30’s or the 90’s. Check out this story by Mitchell Prothero from

Fortunately, Will Smith and Jeff Goldbulm were there to save freedom for the world.
Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum were there to save freedom

The National about the drug business in the Beqaa valley in Lebanon.

Now if you will excuse me, I have a story on minor pop star Sean Kingston story to write

Written by stephenddockery

July 4, 2009 at 9:33 am

Nonsense in the News

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I’d say about 60-70 percent of whats published in newspapers in Lebanon is politician or prominent figure quote stories. Things like Geagea said this or Aoun said that (speaking of which, Qifa Nabki sites two sources that say around 50 percent of Chrsitians are still down with Aoun ) Anyways of that 60-70 percent almost all of it is garbage that tells you absolutely nothing like this headline from An-Nahar :

Sources close to PM-designate Saad Hariri told An-Nahar yesterday evening that Hariri is “calmly completing the process of forming the government.”

Really An-Nahar? I’m so glad you told me that. And I’m really happy you used an anonymous source to tell me the PM is calmly completing government formation, I’m now so well informed. It’s a real shame. Stories like these don’t tell you anything, quotes make up over 70 percent of the story and it avoids the real journalism work that should be done.

Almost all the time the quotes are positive things like “the government formation is going well” “all guns are almost off the street” there should be no fighting”. People literally take quotes like that and turn them into front page huge headline stories. BUT, after sifting through dozens of these useless stories every day, there were two that did catch my eye.

Sfeir says ‘nothing going well’ in Lebanon

“Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir was pessimistic on Tuesday about the overall political situation in Lebanon. Sfeir told a delegation of residents from the Chouf town of Brih, that the Lebanese were “currently facing a difficult period.” “Nothing is going well,” he added”

and this one

General Michel Aoun: we don’t know who’s forming the cabinet anymore

“We no longer know who is forming the government amidst all of the diplomatic visits and the clear interventions (Syria-US-France)”

Positive quotes never tell you much, and those have been almost all of these quote stories since the election. But the fact that people are deviating from the reconciliation line in addition to the recent clashes, could be a sign this government formation is headed for rough waters.

Written by stephenddockery

July 1, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Déjà vu

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Check out this story from the LF of a similar occurrence of Amal fighting Jamaa Islamiya (a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) in the  Aisha Bakkar,the same neighborhood as Sunday’s clashes but in 2008. It makes this claim “…they asked for help from al-Jamaa al-Islamia…,” in NOW Lebanon’s otherwise generally poor, heavily slanted article, based on hearsay an interesting one.

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June 29, 2009 at 11:41 pm

Summer reading Vol. 3 | From Beirut to Jerusalem

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The third book on my summer reading list was From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman. Some of you may know that I particularly dislike Friedman’s current Op-Ed pieces where he parachutes into a city and makes outlandish claims. But this book, does not fall into that category. Apparently there are definitive good Friedman and bad Friedman eras.

To start off this book is not the place to go for a primer on Lebanon or even Beirut. Friedman has relatively little to offer that isn’t covered better elsewhere when it comes to understanding the state of Lebanon. I would recommend Fisk or Mackey for that.

From Beirut to Jerusalem is a bit like extended Op-Ed pieces on several different topics, which is what he’s best at. In the Beirut section Friedman tackles the PLO, particularity Arafat, Beirut psychology, and the nature of Middle East governments in general. His ability to explain things in a way a Western audience understands is the selling point of his writing, it particularly shines through when he explains the reasoning behind government decisions in the Middle East, what he calls “Hama rules.” That being said the Beirut section is defeintly the weakest part of the book, it is often repetitive with writing on Lebanon and the Palestinians thats covered in more depth elsewhere.

It’s in the section on Jerusalem that Friedman’s best comes through. Friedman is Jewish himself and its something that he doesn’t hide when reporting or writing and thats what make this section so valuable. He analyzes the composition of the Israeli state, its search for identity and tumultuous relationship with American Jews. Friedman conveys this so well because they are all things that he has an intensely personal relationship with. You can feel the ups and downs of his personal relationship with Israel in his writing, and he doesn’t shy away from injecting his own thoughts into the writing. I rarely felt these personal additions took away anything from the book, his writing is by no means a historical account of anything, but like a good Op-Ed piece a different way of looking at a subject. Its very readable and would be a good starting point for approaching the reading

Heres some of the key points I pulled from the book, according to Friedman. This was published in 1989 but much of it holds true today:

  • Arafat was hopelessly locked between unhelpful Arab governments and a base of support with unrealistic goals. It was the West Bank Intifada that represented a realistic and natural Palestinian resistance
  • PLO failed to make any settlement when they had the chance. Their leadership was hopelessly disorganized.
  • Tribalism and self preservation guide most decision making by Middle East governments. Their history is one where the most powerful man must be ready to ruthlessly defend his honor, property and territory and are ready now to do the same. Friedman compares this way of self preservation to the rationale behind brutal suppression of dissidents in a rulers country, like the Hama massacre.
  • Labor and Likud really aren’t that much different.
  • Israel lacks its own definitive identity and can’t be a serious player in making peace and determining another states identity until it figures out who it is. The differences between secular Israelis, Orthodox Jews, messianic Zionists, and ultra-Orthodox is what keeps the country do divided, particularly on the peace plan.
  • Unusual and often resentful relationship between American Jews and Israeli Jews, both blame each other for not living up to expectations. Reform Judaism that is everywhere in America is barely present and not accepted in Israel
  • Israel has no real reason to give up its land. It has almost all the power in the peace process and It feels more secure with the current limited threats than creating a state for its adversaries. No countries willingly give up land.
  • Israel is featured so prominently in the media because of its connection to the Bible, the way the Western world views the world. Israel is held to a higher standard by most and people love reading about its misdeeds or successes because of that Bible connection, so other countries where worse things could be happening get less attention.

Final Rating (out of 5): 4.0

Summer Reading Ratings

Killing Mr Lebanon by Nicholas Blanford: 4.5

In the Path of Hizbullah by Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh: 3.7

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman: 4.0

Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole

The Inheritance by David E. Sanger

The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk

Written by stephenddockery

June 28, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Half way in Beirut | an Update

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It’s hard to believe but I’ve now been in Beirut 33 days (today is the 34th). I’ve got 33 more left and I’ve got to say things have gone very well. I’ve found a great place to live, met some cool people and I absolutely love Beirut. Although the newspaper is understaffed, and a bit disorganized, I’m starting to enjoy it.

Also contrary to some peoples belief, I’m not just writing bagel and book stories, I’m starting to be trusted with bigger stuff, and I’m working on an enterprise story of my own. Oh I’m also heading up to Akkar and Tripoli tomorrow with Patrick Laurent the head of the European Commission delegation on a press trip.

I start Arabic classes in the beginning of July, which I’m looking forward to. But to be honest my Arabic hasn’t gotten that much better. I think you really need to set aside time to learn the language like a whole year (Damascus Arabic school? Who knows)

Progress on my summer reading list is right on schedule. I’ve finished my first three books, and I’m starting my fourth, Engaging the Muslim World today. I’ve also started the process of applying for scholarships, fellowships and graduate schools for post SU. It’s a rather daunting/not fun process, but hopefully it will pay off in the end.

Oh I also discovered a fantastic drink yesterday its called Freez, and its made in Lebanon. It’s a mix of sparking water and fruit juice, and comes in lots of flavors including Lemon and Blackberry which are the two Ive tried so far. It reminds me a lot like Izzle (spelled correctly), but more soda like.

Anyways thats all I’ve got for now. Thanks everyone for reading

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June 24, 2009 at 5:09 pm