Sunday, January 27, 2008

Images From Rafah

In a brilliant display of defiance, Hamas bombs toppled several sections of the Israeli-built barrier between Gaza and Egypt last week, and in doing so ended, if only momentarily, Israel’s six-month long isolation of Gaza. The images from this incident vividly depict the fallout of this latest Israeli policy debacle.

The bright explosions that pierced the darkness of last Wednesday night were the latest and most visible examples of Hamas’ growing power and boldness, despite Israel’s efforts to undermine it. From the outset, Hamas has gained much of its popularity by providing services to the Gazans. When Hamas overthrew the Palestinian Authority in Gaza last June, Israel thought that if it isolated Gaza as long as Hamas was in charge, the Gazans would be motivated to overthrow Hamas in favor of Fatah or another, more “moderate” faction. As economic conditions worsened, though, Gazans directed their hate towards Israel instead of Hamas. In fact, they actually turned to Hamas for more help, making Hamas that much more influential and popular. The sabotage of the border wall was Hamas’ most recent move to defy the latest Israeli measures against Gaza.

The sea of Gazans that flowed through the breach in the Gaza-Egypt barrier showed the growing desperation of the Gazans. The Gazan economy has taken a turn for the worst since Hamas’ coup last June. The Western-imposed economic isolation has stifled economic activity and has caused scarcity. The Israeli military strikes against Hamas militants have damaged the infrastructure, further stagnating economic activity. Already impoverished and desperate, the Israel’s recent move to cut off several basic utilities has made conditions for the Gazans even worse. With supplies running low and desperation mounting, the Gazans made the most of the one sliver of an opportunity afforded them last week, swarming out of their quasi-imprisonment to stock up for the hardships to come.

The vanguard of Egyptian troops that stood aside and let the mass of Gazans file past them was a visible snapshot into the complex motives of the Egyptian government. Egypt’s unsteady relationship with Israel has had its advantages, but it has brought Egypt under fire from much of its people and from radical groups and radical countries, such as Iran. Letting the Gazans pass carries its risks. It is hard to physically provide for the needs of tens of thousands of people and even harder to police them. Egypt in particular has a vested interest in preventing arms smuggling into Gaza, afraid that Hamas may incite the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood to radical action or pressure on the government. The Gazans themselves still have some ill feelings towards the Egyptian government because of its harsh rule of Gaza from 1948-1967. And of course the Israelis certainly do not want the Gazans out. As the Egyptian public grew more and more dissatisfied with Israel, though, Egypt felt more comfortable listening to the demands of the public than those of Israel. Besides, physically forcing back a tide of tens of thousands of people would not be an easy task in itself, and hardly worth the trouble simply on the behalf of the fragile, unpopular Israeli alliance. So, after weighing all the parameters, Egypt took a step away from Israel and let the Gazans pass.

Not only has Israel’s policy not achieved its intended goals, but it has also not been adequately enforced, as last week’s sabotage showed. But, to be fair, Israel’s actions were not irrational. Few would contend that Israel has an easy security situation. All too often Israel has been confronted by an incessant barrage of attacks from radical groups seeking its total destruction or at least the reduction of its controversial domain. Israel, a nation that has frequently had to fight for its very existence, has historically retaliated fairly strongly against its adversaries. In the wake of the recent bombardment by Hamas, then, last week’s Israeli response that cut off electrical power and other key supplies from Gaza was not totally unreasonable.

It is pretty safe to say, though, that Israel’s heavy handed approaches have not significantly curtailed the violence directed against it. Last week’s collective punishment, the apex of a nearly six month long strategy of isolating Gaza, is the latest Israeli action that has served to compromise its security even as it seeks to enforce it.

The uncomfortable reality is that Israel has no easy road to long-term security. But clearly, its current road is leading it in the wrong direction. Last week’s explosion should be a vivid reality check to Israel that it is time to change course. Perhaps a less heavy-handed approach would work better and would not cause such dramatic retribution. If Israel were to reach out to the Gazans rather than isolate them, maybe they would not rely on Hamas so much. If Israel were to bolster Gaza's economy rather than deflate it, maybe the Gazans would have too much to lose to risk being radical. Perhaps then Israel and Gaza would move towards a lasting peace instead of towards a constant struggle.

Sphere: Related Content

Monday, January 21, 2008

Tribalism: Kenya's Ticking Timebomb

A few months ago, few would have predicted that scenes of violence and chaos would unfold in Kenya. Although throughout much of Africa such violence and suffering has become commonplace, Kenya was always perceived in a different light from the rest of the continent. Kenya, whose economy and stability easily trump those of its neighbors, did not seem as susceptible to violence and chaos as the rest of Africa.

This prosperity and peace, though, masked a stark premonition of the violence to come. Although different on the surface from much of Africa, Kenya shared one essential trait with the rest of the continent: tribal animosities. These ethnic divisions, long suppressed by economic wealth and enforced order, were unbound in the aftermath of last December’s disputed elections. Now, the wave of violence initiated by Opposition Leader Ralia Odinga’s Luo tribe against President Mwai Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, the largest ethnic group, is putting Kenya on the verge of internal collapse.

While violence on this scale is unusual for Kenya, the effect of tribal divisions on politics is not. Indeed, the political parties of Kenya are predominantly tribal based, and governmental policies have often benefited the tribe in power at the expense of the others. The relative power of certain tribes over time has greatly impacted the economic and political gaps in Kenya. The elite status that the Kikuyu enjoy in business and politics is a result of their favoritism under the rule of the first President, Founding Father Jomo Kenyatta, and under current President Kibaki. The Kalenjin, seen as somewhat subordinate to the Kikuyu and the Luo, got a taste of power and wealth that they have yet to fully relinquish under the authoritative rule of Daniel Arap Moi. The Luo, although the second largest tribe, have never had one of their own as President. They have been at the wrong end of all the tribal enrichment policies, particularly Kikuyu ones, leaving a bitter taste in their mouth. Indeed, far from toning down ethnic differences, Kenya’s leaders during its time of peace have intensified tribal differences.

Only the strong authority of such leaders prevented an earlier ethnic implosion of Kenya. The fact that, since independence, Kenya has had only three leaders in nearly 45 years should be a testament to the powerful hold that Kenyan leaders have had over their country. Some leaders have been so formidable that the major tribes were forced to put aside their differences and ally against the encroaching government. As colonial rule floundered in the 1950s, the British tried to play off the Luo against their historical (and current) enemies, the Kikuyu. The Luo, though, judged the British presence to be so imposing that they allied with their adversary Kikuyu against the British, forcing the British to relinquish Kenya as its colony. After leading the ousting of the British and becoming the first ruler of modern Kenya, Kenyatta ruled assertively and effectively. With the aid of his popularity and savvy, Kenyatta was strong enough to maintain order. After Kenyatta’s death in 1978, Moi wielded a heavy hand of power for nearly 25 years, crushing all unrest and any opposition to his rule. Moi’s chokehold on the country once again spawned an alliance between the Luo and the Kikuyu. When Moi finally stepped down, the Kikuyu and Luo backed Kibaki, who defeated Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Jomo Kenyatta and Moi’s handpicked successor, in the 2002 election.

The power of Kibaki, though, did not amount to anything close to what his predecessors possessed. Kibaki used a hands-off approach, letting his ministers perform most functions of government (his old age may have left him with no other option). Kibaki’s passive rule resulted in inefficient, uncoordinated rule that allowed the long-brewing tribal animosities to emerge from the shadows. These revived tensions would greatly impact the December elections. The Luo, led by Odinga, played on the resentment towards the wealthy Kikuyu to build up a coalition strong enough to challenge Kibaki. The close election laden with allegations of fraud on Kibaki’s part became the spark that set off these mounting tribal tensions into full-fledged violence.

Kenya could not have been engulfed by violence at a worse time. The 2002 elections marked the end of a ruthless regime that heightened the tribal tensions even as it suppressed them. If these elections had led Kenya down the path of democracy, then, as long as the government was strong, effective, and fair, perhaps people would have started to participate based on economic and personal motives rather than tribal ones. If this happened, tribal differences would have steadily decreased in meaning over the years. Unfortunately, Kibaki’s style of government was neither strong nor effective nor fair. If he had accepted defeat, though, perhaps the democratic current would have endured. But by cheating his way to victory, Kibaki ruined the best chance for lasting democracy – and the steady eradication of tribal differences.

Aside from obvious political and security consequences, the reemergence of tribal fighting has had and will continue to hurt the economies of Kenya and the rest of the Horn of Africa. Although Kenya’s past stability was somewhat misleading, it nevertheless enabled Kenya’s economy to become one of the most dynamic in all of Africa. Now, the recent tribal violence has disrupted Kenya’s sources of wealth. Kenya’s reputation as a popular tourist destination is dwindling. Many Western tourists who booked safaris and other attractions for the summer are making new travel plans, dealing a blow to the hotels, wildlife parks, and other accommodating businesses that revolve around tourism. Trade has suffered as well. Kenya’s infrastructure has been vandalized by the raging tribal gangs, hurting the flow of goods and decreasing domestic and foreign confidence in the Kenyan market. Mombasa, the main port of Kenya, has been engulfed in violence even as fewer ships sail into its harbor. The impact of this disruption of trade is not confined to Kenya. Mombasa has long been a source of goods and wealth for the rest of the Horn of Africa, particularly landlocked countries such as Uganda. With Mombasa in disarray, the Kenyan infrastructure damaged, and overall economic activity declining, the Horn economies would do well to brace for a recession.

While the economic situation is foreboding indeed, the recent chaos in Kenya may end up having a far worse long term effect. No matter how important tribal identity is, peace and prosperity invariably have some effect on population, particularly future generations. As tribal differences were muted, whole new generations of Kenyans started to buy into the fact that they were different from the rest of Africa. They felt that Kenya had succeeded in finding peace and prosperity where others had failed. In younger generations, confidence started to grow in the institutions and economy of Kenya. Now, with this onset of chaos, these perceptions are losing hold. Kenyans are starting to think that maybe they are not so special after all; that maybe the past success was a lie; that maybe tribal differences have doomed Kenya like they have the rest of Africa. Mindset can be so crucial to the success of an individual and a nation. As Kenya descends into chaos, the mindset of future generations will turn from a motivation for prosperity and peace and revert back to one strictly based on tribal loyalty. Should the instability continue, Kenya may very well continue down this path to the point where the people may have the same one-sided ethnic mindset that thrives in much of Africa. Should that happen, Kenya would indeed cease to be different and would become another African failure. And then Africa would have lost perhaps its brightest silver lining.

Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The NIE Iran Report: a Warning in Disguise

In the wake of disturbing international situations and trends, particularly the growing troubles arising in the Middle East, some people were quick to embrace the idea that Iran was no longer a nuclear threat. The support for such a theory came from the first paragraph of the National Intelligence Estimate’s November 2007 report on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities, which began by saying “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” Better yet, the paragraph went on to say that “we judge with high confidence that the halt… was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure.” Such words were a welcome change from the flurry of news stories on the more daunting Middle East scenarios in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The words of the rest of the report, though, depict a situation just as daunting, if not more so, than the rest of the Middle East picture. In short, the subsequent sections of the report show that Tehran remains very capable of obtaining nuclear weapons, despite its so-called halt, and is in fact still getting closer to becoming a nuclear power.

The people that interpreted the report’s first paragraph as meaning that Iran had halted its entire nuclear operation misunderstood the scope of that paragraph. When the report says Iran halted its “nuclear weapons program,” it is referring to “Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”

The definition does not refer to the entire nuclear weapons process, and so the statement about the “nuclear weapons program” being halted does not extend to the entire nuclear operation. Ironically enough, the part of the nuclear program defined is one that does not require any sensitive, directly nuclear aspects. Any nation with sufficient engineering capabilities could very well design a nuclear missile. Of course, designing such a weapon would mean little if the country did not possess enough enriched uranium or other fissile material to build it. Therefore, a nation’s level of proficiency in nuclear weapon design does not serve as an accurate barometer of such a nation’s nuclear program.

A more accurate indicator would be if a county possessed or tried to obtain the necessary fissile material. According to the following paragraphs of the report, this indicator is present in Iran, as “Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so.” The report not only warns that “Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing,” but also that “Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006,” and made “significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz.”

Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium along with its upgrading of its nuclear facilities should raise suspicions of a potential Iranian military nuclear objective. While this evidence alone cannot rule out the possibility that Iran has a civilian objective in mind, an examination of Iran’s interests can. For Iran, a civilian nuclear program does not make a whole lot of sense. With a large supply of domestic oil, it would not seem that Iran would have an immediate need for another source of wealth or energy, particularly one that is so costly and requires importing the fuel. A nuclear weapon, though, would likely be in their interests, allowing, among other things, for greater influence over their Middle Eastern neighbors, particularly over nuclear Israel, where the passionate issue of religion comes into play. Between this logic and the evidence amassed throughout the entire report, it seems most likely that Iran is furthering its nuclear weapons operation.

In fact, a closer examination of Iran’s strategy should cause even more foreboding thoughts. Suspending the design of nuclear weapons while continuing to enrich uranium is a way for Iran to not only further its nuclear ambitions, but also to lessen the diplomatic pressure levied against it. Ever since 2003, when satellite images were taken of several large and fortified nuclear facilities, Iran has faced the brunt of nuclear non-proliferation sanctions and has become increasingly isolated. The economic sanctions, although not applied by everyone, have nonetheless hampered Iran’s fragile oil-centric economy. The effects have certainly been felt by much of the Iranian population, sparking more internal pressure on a government already embattled by diplomatic pressure and isolation. While these measures have not been sufficient to cause Iran to change course or ideology, they have certainly made life much harder for Iran.

Iran’s suspension of its weapons design program, as depicted in this report, has changed all that. The latest wave of UN pressure has subsided, in large part because China, which was close to compromising with U.S. demands in the UN, has used the report as an excuse to withdraw its support for the U.S. backed measures. Indeed many in the United States now question whether taking such measures is still necessary or appropriate. In addition, Russia began supplying Iran’s Bushehr reactor with nuclear fuel following the report’s release. In one deft stroke, Iran had reversed its fortunes, appeasing enough of the world to lay off pressure while still gathering all the parts necessary for a nuclear bomb, waiting for the opportune moment to construct a nuclear arsenal.

In light of Iraq and similar debacles, the U.S. intelligence community has become increasingly restrained in its actions and reports, striving not to provoke anyone by being as careful as possible. How ironic, then, that such a report crafted to be as specific and comprehensible as possible has been so broadly misinterpreted. Worse yet, such misunderstandings have set the wrong events in motion. The report, in its entirety, does not describe a country bowing to international pressure but one that has modified its strategy in order to appease the aggressors while achieving the same goal. For a time, it seemed that North Korea was cooperating with international demands as well. Then, as international pressure eased, the nation quietly continued its rise to nuclear status. According to this report, Iran has made a similar impression. Unfortunately, this same report caused international pressure to once again ease off in the face of supposed success. One can only hope that Iran’s fate will not be the same as Pakistan’s or North Korea’s. Or this report may very well have drastic implications for years to come.

Sphere: Related Content