Thursday, September 17, 2009

[Reaction] “Bush’s War”

Back in March of 2008, I watched a documentary entitled “Bush’s War” on PBS. It gave a timeline of how and why the war occurred. The documentary was an okay retrospective and had a few good points and many flaws.

The strength of the documentary was in its timeline of events and people interviewed. The timeline provided a concise overview of key moments from the lead-up to the war until how the war fell apart. The focus of this series was on the main political actors involved and so it is a top-down recollection of events. However, there were many issues that were ignored.

The flaws in this documentary are numerous. Above all, it was not trying to rock the boat or do any gutsy investigative journalism. For example key issues, such as the US desire for permanent military bases in Iraq or control of Iraqi oil, were ignored. Key figures like Alan Greenspan and Gen. John Abizaid have come out and said the war was about oil. If one looks at the immediate occupation of Iraq, the US only protected the ministry of oil and interior ministry (for WMD claims) from looting, while the rest of Baghdad was a free-for-all for looters. Furthermore, there was no analysis on how the media was instrumental in supporting the war. They also offered the administrations line on some issues—such as WMDs—but left it at that. They didn't give the UN inspectors dissenting voice which said at the time there was no evidence of WMDs in Iraq. In describing the Guantanamo Bay prison complex, they accepted the claim that it housed "Bin Laden's foot soldiers", which is patently false. The vast majority of those imprisoned at Gitmo were/are innocent and only a handful of prisoners had any sort of ties to Al Qaeda. So Frontline seemed to miss some of the glaring issues surrounding the war in favor of a more traditional discussion of it.

These obvious problems with the documentary, on top of the fact that it was released five years after the invasion, make it a weak critique of Bush’s War. While it was a good refresher on the timeline of events in Iraq, it did not probe into the meat of the war. Overall, I would say only watch this documentary if you want a general timeline of significant events that occurred during the Iraq War, but don’t expect any real substantive reporting.

The Great Debaters and Other Thoughts in the Night

I originally wrote much of this piece back on May the 5th. However, it remained incomplete and I had never gotten around to finishing it until now. Consequently, I am posting this piece which took place a little over half-way into my time in Malaysia.

As I write these words, I reflect on the fact that it’s been fourth months and a day since I landed here in Malaysia. Those four months might have well been four years in terms of the amount of experiences I’ve had. I mean it’s not like I haven’t lived abroad before—I spent a wonderful six months in Sydney in 2005—but this time, I wasn’t just passively experiencing life, I was actively living it. Right now, having just showered after the longest run I’ve been able to do since arriving, and still perspiring from a delightful catharsis, I write these words as though I just awoke after a rejuvenating siesta, the kind that truly refreshes the body and soul. Feeling wide-awake, I’ve decided to pen my thoughts.

Initially I thought I would write about reflections on these past four months. But then I thought, why do that, when I can talk about what I did today—a day that perfectly sums up my life in Malaysia. So instead of a reflection piece, I’m putting some words to paper or, rather, words to my laptop and from there the world wide web to give those who care—or don’t—a snapshot from my life on May 5, 2009.

I woke up today at around 830am. I ate what can only barely be called a breakfast—a pb&chocolate sandwich hardly seems to be what a 23 year old transitioning vegetarian should be eating—and got ready to go to school. I hopped on the internet—the one thing I make sure to do religiously here in anywhere I go—and caught up on the news from around the world and the usual bundle of emails I receive in the morning. After a quick skype conversation with Naumaan and Irfaan—God bless the creators of skype, my link to those most important to me in the world—I hopped in my Kancil—a small, four-door compact that takes me from point A to point B, most of the time…—and headed to school.

The usual seven-kilometer commute to work was no different today, except that I had to stop off at the dobi to pick up and drop off some clothes. When I got to school (I teach at a public high school here in the Malaysian state of Terengganu, in the district of Kemaman, and the city of Kerteh)—on Malay standard time as usual—I looked around for my Form 5 (equivalent of high school seniors) student who would participating in a district-wide public speaking contest. After locating her in the open-air passageway, some of my Form 2 (equivalent of eighth or ninth graders) wanted me to come teach their class. Apparently their teacher wasn’t at school today—unfortunately, an all too frequent occurrence here, and this is supposed to be one of the top schools in the district—so they wanted me to fill in. They were really excited and practically dragged me into my classroom so that I could teach them. I kept saying to no one in particular that I had to go to public speaking competition but the students were in just too ebullient of a mood to listen. So I stepped into class, explained to them that I would have to be leaving momentarily, and decided to briefly play this education “Exploring Malaysia” game with them. Basically, it’s a game with a bunch of flash cards—almost exactly like trivial pursuit—that ask the students trivia about Malaysia. I looked at the class the class and they looked disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to play the entire game with them, as they always seemed to enjoy playing this game more than any lesson plan I’ve ever done. So with a heavy-heart, I had to leave the students because I had to go to the public competition with my other students, the one’s I had groomed in the art of rhetoric.

The public speaking competition was being held in the biggest city in Kemaman, in the city of Cukai. I had to do the half-hour commute alone in my Kancil on a tortuous, but fairly scenic, route to get to the high school where the competition was being held.

I arrived at the school, SMK Cukai, around 1030am. I met another one of the ETAs who happened to be there with her students and we exchanged pleasantries for a bit. I then spoke with my Form 5 Indian student who was participating in the event. Her name was Shamin and she had prepared an excellent speech on Global Warming. In total, there were 18 students who spoke from the different district schools, giving between 5-6 minute speeches on prepared topics. Shamin delivered a fairly good speech which began, “Oh no, the sky is falling! Not really, but global warming…” and the audience seemed to like it. She was clearly in the top segment of the debaters and the students discussed all sorts of things, from the greatness of the tomato to the issue of bullying. The competition seemed to drag on since it got progressively warmer as the day went on—we were under an outdoor, roofed auditorium—and there were so many speakers. Thankfully there was a break before the impromptu round, during which everyone was able to relax and eat.

The impromptu round went by much quicker and the students had only three minutes to speak on a topic that they had 20 minutes to prepare a discussion for. The topic was significance of freedom. I practically jumped for joy when I heard about the topic, since I had done a whole series of classes on various freedoms, such as the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. When it was Shamin’s turn to perform, she did quite well, except that her speech only lasted a little over a minute. This was quite typical for most of the speakers, or some speakers would just completely freeze and say nothing, so I hoped it hadn’t ruined Shamin’s chances at winning an award. Before the speech, I had mentally ranked her as the third best speaker out of the eighteen students there. After the conclusion of the impromptu speeches, I thought she was definitely still in the top 5 and, hopefully, still number three. Alas, when the award ceremony happened, she didn’t place in the top three and had to go home empty handed. Nevertheless, I know she learned a lot from the various public speaking lessons we had together and her general public speaking confidence had gone up significantly. It was an interesting event and then I started my drive back to Kerteh.

I drove straight to the Mesra Mall. This mall had been my savior throughout my time in Malaysia. I would always go here to eat and I would often go to the Indian restaurant Hameed’s. I went there today and had two dhosa masalas with daal and orange juice. I added some Famous Amos cookies to my meal and my feast was fantastic. The four places I would most frequent in the Mall was Hameed’s, Secret Recipe, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and Famous Amos. Since I basically ate out every day, I felt like a college student all over again.

I then drove home completely full and quite drowsy. I got into bed to relax for a bit and let my body digest. I then received the now-familiar buzz of an incoming text-message and instantly smiled. Seeing the message woke me up from the daydream and I decided to leave the sloth-like position I had been in and head off for a long run.

I ran for about 45 minutes and my head was full of ideas that I wanted to write about. The run itself was amazing, it was one of those runs that I could have just kept going on and on with, but it got too dark, so I had to come back home. I came in and relaxed; I watched my sweat drip down my eyebrows, nose, and chin, all the droplets collecting in an ever growing pool in front of my contented legs. I grabbed some drinks and then I wrote a few things down on paper on the different thought that were running through my mind. I took a quick shower and then began writing a blog post about my day while the endorphins from running gave me a pleasant high.

One thought that had I been mulling over was how different interpersonal relations are outside of America. Generally speaking, American relationships tend to be superficial and people don’t naturally feel the urge to help people out. While I recognize that this is not true for all of America, I do think that this is very true for urban America. Relationships reflect the consumer society that America embodies—everything is transitory and disposable, both things and people. Relationships in other countries, particularly non-Western societies, tend to be more authentic and real. People care about you for who you are, not what purpose you serve them. While it is true that people will constantly float in and out of one’s lives, I have come to notice that my strongest relationships have been forged outside of the US, or with people who are originally not from the US. Sadly, this is the state of American society today.

I also reflected on the concept of freedom as it had been discussed ad nauseam by the debater’s today. I think that the strength of Western Civilization lies in its respect for basic freedoms—freedom of speech, assembly, religion. I’m definitely no Uncle Barack…errr…Uncle Tom and I despise Kipling’s alleged Burden, but I do recognize that these cherished fundamentals that exist—however much reduced in the post 9-11 era—in the West do not exist anywhere near the degree they need to be in the East. There needs to be more freedom of thought, so that people can pick and choose from the marketplace of ideas what to believe and not believe. This freedom deficit that does exist in non-Western societies needs to be rapidly and radically reduced, so that the benefits of innovation, diversity, and pluralism can flourish and help these societies grow. Freedom is a beautiful, under-utilized asset, and wherever it truly flourishes, so too do those societies.

As I finished up writing and prepared to go to bed, I realized it was the perfect day—well almost perfect minus a particular noun—and I was very happy at this moment in time. I recognize I’m where I need to be and I hope that I captured essence of the thoughts running through my mind. I was glad to pen my thought for a bit and that I did so before they had a chance to forever slip out of my mind. So Malaysia has been fantastic to me so far and I only hope that things will keep getting better.

Originally written on: 5-5-09
Completed on: 9-16-09
-Nausherwan Hafeez

Obama’s Speech to the Muslim World

The most perfidious politician is one whose rhetoric is in line with what is correct, but whose actions are patently wrong. This is the conundrum that both Americans and the international community face when dealing with President Barack Obama. President Obama’s rhetoric and eloquence tend to give him the benefit of the doubt, that what he is saying is either the truth or will be the truth one-day. However, when one looks beyond rhetoric to the actual actions being taken and plans being made, many of Obama’s policies are as bad—and in some cases worse—as President George W. Bush’s. Obama’s much vaunted speech to the Muslim world delivered in Cairo, Egypt on June 4, 2009 illustrates the wide-gap between rhetoric and reality.

President Obama began his remarks by emphasizing the common connections America has with Islam and the Muslim world. He was right to emphasize that Islam has always been a part of America and that there are mosques in every state of the union. He praised Islamic cultures' contributions to the world as well as American Muslim’s contributions to the United States. He quoted liberally from the Qur’an and made it clear that America was not at war with Islam. All of this served to excite and inspire, but then he turned to America foreign policy in the Muslim world.

He discussed a wide range of topics, and his focus was on seven points:
1. Confronting violent extremism in all of its forms.
2. The situation between Israelis, Palestinians and the Arab world.
3. The rights and responsibilities of nations on nuclear weapons.
4. The issue of democracy.
5. The issue of religious freedom.
6. The rights of women.
7. Economic development and opportunity.
When looking at these points, it is important to note that the more detailed his discussions were the more flaws that were apparent in his positions. Conversely, the more general his discussion, the better his ideas seemed.

Turning to the issue of confronting extremism, he discussed Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Guantanamo. He began by stating that the US was going to be more liberal in giving developmental aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan which, of course, is something to be praised. However, Obama then goes on to say that all American troops will be out of Iraq by 2012. This is a lie. In Obama’s February 27, 2009 speech on ending the Iraq war, he states:
“As I have long said, we will retain a transitional force to carry out three distinct functions: training, equipping, and advising Iraqi Security Forces as long as they remain non-sectarian; conducting targeted counter-terrorism missions; and protecting our ongoing civilian and military efforts within Iraq. Initially, this force will likely be made up of 35-50,000 U.S. troops.”
Obama clearly stated that he plans on leaving behind a “transitional force” that will be “made up of 35-50,000 U.S. troops.” Furthermore, it is true that he has long held this position, as he emphasized this same point when he ran for President. What is clear from his position is that he does not plan a full withdrawal of troops from Iraq and his rhetoric hides reality. America has done this countless times in the past, hence why we still have troops stationed in Japan, Germany, and South Korea, even though conflicts in those regions have been over for many decades. America has strategic interests in Iraq—with the most obvious one being oil—that it will protect through its permanent mega-bases and an imperial embassy. American extremism in regards to excessive militarism should be confronted; instead, U.S. troops will not be out of Iraq by 2012 and it is doubtful that they well ever willingly leave.

Obama also stated that, “I have unequivocally prohibited the use of torture by the United States, and I have ordered the prison at Guantanamo Bay closed by early next year.” This statement is misleading in that it only tells half of the story. The disconnect between rhetoric and reality is eminently clear for both the issue of torture and Guantanamo Bay.

Obama rightly deserved praise for prohibiting torture shortly after he was sworn in as President. While he is to be commended for attempting to bring the US back into compliance with the Convention Against Torture that was ratified by the US in 1988 and is binding US law, he has yet to fully comply with the treaty obligations to prosecute those who have conducted or permitted torture to occur. As Glenn Greenwald points out:
Ronald Reagan, May 20, 1988, transmitting the Convention Against Torture to the Senate for ratification:
The United States participated actively and effectively in the negotiation of the Convention. It marks a significant step in the development during this century of international measures against torture and other inhuman treatment or punishment. Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.

The core provisions of the Convention establish a regime for international cooperation in the criminal prosecution of torturers relying on so-called "universal jurisdiction." Each State Party is required either to prosecute torturers who are found in its territory or to extradite them to other countries for prosecution.

Convention Against Torture, signed and championed by Ronald Reagan, Article II/IV:
No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture. . . Each State Party shall ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law.
It is clear that Obama is required under the law to prosecute those who have committed torture; however, he has repeatedly stated he will not seek prosecutions against those individuals in the Bush Administration who are alleged to have committed torture.

In terms of Guantanamo, the issue is more complex. Symbolically, Guantanamo has been a very visible stain on the image of justice in America. Obama was able to score a public relations victory by saying he would close the prison, but he still doesn’t abide by the principle that made Guantanamo so terrible, namely the denial of habeas corpus and the creation of kangaroo court-style military commissions. Glenn Greenwald notes that:
Many Democrats -- including Barack Obama -- claimed they were vehemently opposed to this denial of due process for detainees, and on June 12, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Boumediene v. Bush, ruled that the denial of habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees was unconstitutional and that all Guantanamo detainees have the right to a full hearing in which they can contest their accusations against them.
While the Supreme Court has affirmed the right for prisoners in Guantanamo to challenge their detentions in Court, Obama has done a bait-and-switch and has declared that prisoners in Bagram prison in Afghanistan do not have the right to challenge their detention. By allowing this, Obama is essentially giving blanket approval to the denial of habeas corpus to prisoners detained abroad. So while Obama can no longer indefinitely detain individuals in Guantanamo, he can do so in Bagram or any of the other many US prisons around the world. While it is nice that Obama has decided to end the prison in Guantanamo, he will continue the illegal denial of habeas corpus to prisoners held by the US all over the world.

Although Obama is not using the Bush version of military commissions anymore to try detainees in Guantanamo, he is using a modified system of military commissions rather than using the federal court system to try detainees. Because of this, these trials will lack legitimacy and the detainees will never receive justice. Furthermore, it has been alleged that conditions in Guantanamo have become worse since Obama became President. All of this is unacceptable and puts Obama in line with illegal Bush Administration policies.

On Obama’s discussion on the Arab-Israeli conflict, he clearly reaffirms America’s unshakeable bond with Israel while also recognizing that steps need to be taken to assure a two-state solution. He calls for both sides to abide by treaty obligations and that Israel should stop its settlement activity. He says he is committed to the peace process and will see it through to its fruition; however, many other Presidents have said this same thing and still the Palestinians remain stateless. Obama’s generalized rhetoric is encouraging, but his words need to be backed up with actions.

On nuclear weapons and democracy, Obama struck a positive note. He renewed his call for a nuclear-free world and that is something to be lauded. However, he has yet to take any steps to make this a reality. He called for people world-wide to determine their own way forward and what style of democracy they want to live in. Yet, he decided to deliver his speech in Egypt, a country that is ruled by a repressive dictator. So while Obama’s rhetoric was strong, again the reality of the situation remains starkly different.

On religious freedom and the rights of women, Obama made encouraging statements. He encouraged interfaith dialogue and tolerance between different religions and within religions. He recognized that women play a critical role in all societies and thpse societies with well-educated women tend to be prosperous. He also noted how Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Turkey all had elected women leaders and that the rights of women need to be respected. In both of these areas there is very little to disagree with and the hope is that religious toleration increases and the rights of women are respected in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries around the world.

In terms of globalization and development, Obama recognized the challenges in these areas and strongly encouraged development. He recognized that the internet and television can bring both new ideas and loose morality. He said that Muslim countries can retain their heritage and still reach development, but it was up to these societies to do so. I strongly agree with this point as the Muslim world is trying to forge a new path for itself in the future.

Overall, Obama’s speech was meant to rehabilitate America’s image in the Muslim world and try to begin a new chapter. This is grand idea but talk is cheap. Obama will continue to occupy Iraq through at least 2012, he has escalated the war in Afghanistan, and he has expanded the global war on terror into Pakistan. He said, “Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and it does not succeed.” Why can’t Obama turn this statement around and realize that the US must abandon its violence, its extremism, and that killing is wrong and does not succeed?

Obama appears to be the ultimate salesman—he first marketed himself as the everyman and became President and now encourages the Muslim world to look beyond Americas current and historical clashes with them in favor of a nebulous new beginning. He desperately wants to show to the rest of the world that America wants to begin anew and should be trusted. Alas, he is hawking a cheap, superficial product that is breaking apart at its seams. While it is easy to be swept away by grandiose rhetoric, there is significant disconnect between his words and reality. The rosy image painted by Obama is not reality; it is an aspiration riddled with contradictions that necessarily precludes significant advancement in the areas Obama discussed. It would be great for America to turn a new page, but to do so rhetoric must finally begin to match reality.

-Nausherwan Hafeez, 9-15-09