Monday, December 17, 2007

Two Stories in Today's FT

The Financial Times, a centerist British papaer, ran two interesting stories today. The first concerns the situation in Baghdad and the apparent success of the surge. The article beings:

Baghdad’s Shurja market is open for business. The capital’s central commercial district, which earlier this year was virtually shut down by repeated car bombings and sniper fire, is now thronging with residents doing last-minute shopping before this week’s Eid holiday.

Six months after the “surge” of US troops finished deploying into Baghdad, Iraq’s capital is breathing again.

Shia militias still hold sway over large areas of the city, and around a half a dozen people are still reported killed every day in shootings, bombings and mortar barrages. But even if the return to normal life is only a temporary respite, Baghdadis say they are enjoying the moment.

Residents who once hunkered down in their homes and adopted false identities to shield themselves from sectarian death squads now venture out to work, shop, or simply visit restaurants and parks.

The US military says violence has fallen by 60 per cent nationwide over the past six months, an impression that is borne out by anecdotal evidence from Iraqis. The Iraqi Red Crescent also reports that the country’s number of internally displaced fell for the first time in October, when 110,000 people returned to their homes.

The second story concerns the wasteful spending at the UN, and American efforts to stop it:

Officials of United Nations member states met throughout the weekend to try to avert a budget crisis over what the Bush administration has branded the largest proposed increase in spending in the organisation's 62-year history.

The UN's budget committee had set a deadline of this Wednesday to approve a request from Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, for $4.2bn (£2bn, €2.9bn) to cover the UN's regular expenditure over the next two years.

But with the US digging in its heels over likely additional expenditure that it says could boost this total by a further $1bn, the UN faced the prospect of entering 2008 without a budget.

When Mr Ban presented his first budget as secretary-general on October 25, he said the amount was "not much, considering the demands upon us". Requesting $23m - or half a percentage point - increase for 2008-2009, he said: "Never has the world so needed a strong United Nations, yet never have our resources been stretched so thin." The same day, however,
UN officials acknowledged that cost adjustments had already boosted the bottom line to $4.4bn, while additional items not accounted for would carry the total to more than $4.6bn.

In a closed-door meeting of member states last week, Mark Wallace, US deputy ambassador to the UN, said spending could be as high as $5.2bn - a 25 per cent rise - in view of further demands for funding expected in the coming year. "With the largest budget increase in history," he said, "the credibility of the UN is at stake."

Part of the US complaint is that
three out of every four dollars of the regular budget go on the salaries of 10,000 staff and other related costs. "The . . . increase does not go directly to humanitarian or development aid but rather to increasing the size of the UN secretariat bureaucracy," Mr Wallace said.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Getting the Arabic Right

In reading over Mitt Romney's website in August, I was appalled by his very first issue position: 'Defeating the Jihadists.' The former Massachusetts governor went on to explain that,
the defeat of this radical and violent faction of Islam must be achieved through a combination of American resolve, international effort, and the rejection of violence by moderate, modern, mainstream Muslims.

In spite of this, he had embraced – unknowingly, we shall hope – the radical Wahabist understanding of the term 'jihad,' which simply has the literal meaning of 'struggle.' To many, probably most Muslims, this struggle is an interior one, a personal one, a spiritual one: suicide bombers are not holy warriors – 'mujahideen' – striving to know or serve the Almighty, they are evildoers properly termed 'mufsidun,' who are engaging in a psychopathic war against society, 'hirabah.'

I notified the Romney campaign of their mistake and the website has since changed. While there has been no adoption of the terms 'mufsidun' or 'hirabah,' terms such as 'jihad', and 'Islam' are always preceded by 'violent' or 'extreme' to clarify that this is not the mainstream variety in question. The headline now reads "Confronting Radical Jihad".

Mitt Romney was not the only presidential candidate to make this linguistic mistake. Ron Paul's website refers to "our direct enemies, the jihadists."

By accepting the Wahabist misappropriation of the term 'jihad,' these candidates and countless other Americans give our enemies further ammunition in the war of ideas, implicitly accepting that the moderate Muslims are wrong in their understanding of Islam, that jihad does demand the killing of innocent American families.

Conversely, use of the terms 'mufsidun' and 'hirabah' – and efforts to educate the American people about them – would not only demonstrate a presidential candidate's command of the complexities involved in the War on Terror but would also strike a blow in the ideological conflict that is at the heart of this struggle. These terms convey exactly what Romney and others are trying to say, and they say it in a way that a majority of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims understand.

The issues pages for John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Dennis Kucinich are happily free of this misappropriation of Arabic terms. Whether this happened because the candidates know the proper use of the words or are simply listening to thoughtful advisors, I tip my hat to them all. (This is not to say that all have excellent plans for the Middle East or the War on Terror; some make profound mistakes, but they are not this one. Perhaps more blog posts are in order.)

Mike Huckabee's website has gone so far as to explain that,
Fighting smart means learning the neighborhood, achieving a level of political, religious, and cultural sophistication about the Arab and Islamic worlds that will pay huge dividends for us.... I will support moderates, not extremists, with no favoring of Sunnis or Shiites. The long-term solution to terror is to empower moderates in the region.

While 'moderate' is probably not the best term - Christians, would you like to be designated as 'moderate Christians'? Kind of makes you sound wishy-washy, doesn't it? - that's a good start.

(Special thanks go out to J. Michael Waller of the Institute of World Politics, for his excellent text on the matter, Fighting the War of Ideas Like a Real War.)

Monday, December 3, 2007

Afghans 'still hopeful on future'

"Most Afghans are relatively hopeful about their future," the BBC reports, reflecting information collected in a recent poll.
They also support the current Afghan government and the presence of overseas troops, and oppose the Taleban.

But the poll suggests that Afghans are slightly less optimistic than a year ago, and are frustrated at the slow pace of reconstruction efforts.

Charney Research spoke to 1,377 people in October and November in all 34 provinces for the BBC, ABC and ARD.

This is the third such survey, and is published to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the fall of the Taleban.

Overall, the figures indicate that the peaceful north of Afghanistan is significantly more satisfied than the troubled south. Most dissatisfaction is found in the south-west, where the Taleban are most active.

The poll suggests that despite another year of conflict, confidence and hope have been dented only a little in the past 12 months.