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This spring break (in the snow), I discovered Mosaic. This Peabody Award winnig show is only available on LinkTV or via a free video podcast; its relative anonymity, however, should not detract astute news consumers. Mosaic presents a collage of video clips from various Middle Eastern news sources and offers a Middle Eastern viewpoint on world events. Mosaic also publishes a weekly intelligence report. The document, itself a collection of opinion pieces and news stories relating to the Middle East, is available free of charge and by email subscription on the show’s website.

Since American media systematically excludes the opinions of Middle Easterners, Mosaic offers Americans a rare glimpse into regional Middle Eastern politics and an opportunity to witness the effects of American foreign policy on Middle Easterners. Relying on alternative news sources, the intelligence report and the TV show broaden the spectrum of news sources and opinion. This week’s edition of the intelligence report, for instance, included a story about a new University of Maryland/Zogby International 2006 Annual Arab Public Opinion Survey which found that most Middle Easterners “do not see Iran as a major threat to the region.”

When asked to identify two countries that pose the biggest threat to them, 85 percent of respondents said Israel and 72 percent said the United States. In contrast, only 11 percent identified Iran. Furthermore, a majority of respondents were supportive of Iran’s nuclear program, even though more than half also believe that Iran has ambitions to develop nuclear weapons. According to the survey, 61 percent believe that Iran has a right to a nuclear program, with only 24 percent agreeing that Tehran should be pressured to stop it.

Interestingly, two-thirds of those surveyed in the UAE and just over half in Saudi Arabia agree that Iran has a right to a nuclear program, despite the issue’s sensitivity among Gulf Arab monarchies. While broadly approving of Iran’s nuclear program, just over half — 51 percent — of those surveyed believe Iran has ambitions to achieve weapons capability, with only 27 percent believing that Iran is intent on using its program for civilian purposes.Of the world leaders admired most by respondents, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, was first, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came in third, despite the fact both are Shia Muslims and the latter is not Arab. French President Jacques Chirac and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez came in second and fourth respectively.

Conversely, U.S. President George W. Bush, former and current Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair were identified as the four most disliked world leaders. Respondents also view Hezbollah more favorably since the July-August 2006 war against Israel. More than two-thirds — or 68 percent — of those surveyed said they had a more positive attitude toward Hezbollah after last year’s war; including 58 percent and 50 percent respectively in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

As much as the dire situation in Iraq, and to a lesser extent the political standoff in Lebanon, have opened up fissures between Arab Sunnis and Shias across the region, the University of Maryland/Zogby International poll shows that fundamental attitudes towards the role of the United States in the region are overwhelmingly negative. Furthermore, Sunni Arab regimes’ fears of an Iranian ascendancy are not shared by those they rule.

“The public of the Arab world is not looking at the important issues through the Sunni-Shiite divide,” Shibley Telhami, a scholar at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy who conducted the poll, told Inter Press Service. “They see them rather through the lens of Israeli-Palestinian issues and anger with U.S. policy. Most Sunni Arabs take the side of the Shiites on the important issues.”Indeed the Bush administration has a job ahead of it to win over hearts and minds in the region. Nearly 80 percent of those surveyed stated they had unfavorable attitudes — 57 very unfavorable and 21 percent unfavorable — towards the United States. More than two-thirds of those surveyed, or 70 percent, said their attitudes towards America were based on U.S. policy, while only 11 percent said they was based on American values.

Despite the fact that Middle East democracy promotion forms the core of the Bush administration’s rhetoric, 65 percent of those surveyed said they did not believe democracy is a real U.S. objective in the region. In fact when asked what they considered to be motivating U.S. policy in the Middle East, “controlling oil” (83 percent), “protecting Israel” (75 percent), “weakening the Muslim world” (69 percent), and “desire to dominate the region” (68 percent) were identified as extremely important factors.

When asked what steps the United States could take to improve its regional standing, 62 percent identified brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal based on 1967 borders. A significant minority of respondents identified withdrawal from Iraq (33 percent), and withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Arabian Peninsula (22 percent) as well. More than half (52 percent) ranked U.S. policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict as “extremely important.” When asked to identify their biggest concern about the consequences of the Iraq War, just under half (49 percent) feared that Iraq may be divided, 42 percent feared Iraq remaining a destabilizing factor for the region, while 42 percent cited a continued U.S. dominance of the country as their biggest concern. Only 15 percent highlighted Iran becoming a more powerful state as a major concern. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration expected that cultivating a Shiite-led pro-Western democracy in Baghdad would weaken Iran’s theocratic republic and erode Hezbollah’s influence. A new and powerful Iraqi ally would also enable the United States to ease its strategic dependence on Saudi Arabia, an ally which became less trusted after 9/11, the administration’s thinking went.

But Iran has been able to exercise influence in Iraq and Iraq’s Shiites have cooperated with the United States on their own terms, dashing hopes of politically overhauling the Middle East through empowering Shiites. Last year’s Israel-Hezbollah war compelled the Bush administration to reverse this position and return to seeking an alliance with pro-Western Sunni regimes in an effort to contain Iran. While this latest strategy brings the Bush administration closer to the political leadership of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, the Sunni Arab populace in these countries does not see things the same way as their leaders.

In fact the Maryland/Zogby poll reveals that skepticism of the United States’ role in the region, resentment at lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and affinity for regional figures who are seen to be standing up to America and/or Israel are still widespread. And despite the sectarian conflict in Iraq and simmering tensions in Lebanon, Iran is not seen as the bogeyman of the region. Perhaps the Islamic Republic is more popular in the broader Middle East than it is within its own borders.

America’s policy in the Middle East cannot ignore Arab history, perception and opinion. If we wish to reduce the threat of ‘terrorism’ or Islamic religious extremism, we must pursue a symbtiotic relationship; American policy cannot undermine the needs and desires of Middle Easterners—such an approach generates resistance and terrorism. If we want to reduce so-called anti-Americanism then we must secede, in some respects, to the demands of the region. We must pull out of Iraq, abandon our blind support for Israeli policy towards the Palestinians (not the state of Israel), allow Iraqis to control their own natural resources, and negotiate with the regional powers.

Our current policy (to extend American hegemony and influence across the Middle East and allow American corporations to control the region’s natural resources) undermines Middle Eastern sovereignty and democracy. In crafting a new approach, we must consider the needs and viewpoints of Middle Easterners– and that’s what Mosaic is all about.

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This morning, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Republican presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney introduced columnist Ann Coulter by pronouncing, “I am happy to hear that after you hear from me, you will hear from Ann Coulter. That is a good thing. Oh yeah!” After her speech Coulter, with a smug and knowing smile, admitted, “I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I — so kind of an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards.”

Conservative talkers will undoubtedly claim that Coulter’s comments were a joke and blame the mainstream media for not giving Coulter the benefit of the doubt, as they had done for Kerry; if the media rationalized Kerry’s embarrassing comments about our troops as a joke gone awry, why then, are they taking Coulter’s comments so seriously?

Well, for three reasons, really. First, Coulter has a history and a penchant for making erroneous, sensationalist, and attention grabbing comments orchestrated to manufacture controversy and promote the Coulter brand of political discourse to narrow minded Conservatives. Second, as Think Progress has reported, previously, Coulter has put “even money” on Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) “[c]oming out of the closet,” said Bill Clinton shows “some level of latent homosexuality,” and called Vice President Al Gore a “total fag.” And third, the term ‘fag’ is associated with gay-bashing, nasty homophobia, and even murderous hate crimes. According to one source, “it is often claimed that the derivation is associated directly with faggot meaning “bundle of sticks for burning”, since homosexuals were supposedly burnt at the stake in medieval England. This, however, was never an established punishment for homosexuality in England, although, according to one source, those accused of homosexual acts were sometimes doused in fuel and used in place of sticks for the burning of supposed witches.”

If the Republican Party establishment does not condemn such language, the very history of which promotes violence against a minority population, their silence should be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of hate speech. If this party wishes to advance their agenda and rally its base by promoting hateful commentary, they are no better than the homophobes who kill homosexuals; Coulter’s rhetorical slur is a white collar version of a violent gay-bashing.

— Igor Volsky

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George Will’s latest column, A Lack of Courage in Their Convictions, argues that Democratic criticism of the war in Iraq is disingenuous and politically opportunist. “Indiscriminate criticism of President George W. Bush is an infectious disease that may prove crippling to congressional Democrats.” The Democrats refuse to cut off funding for the Iraq war; instead, they condemn the surge rhetorically in a non-binding resolution. “They lack the will to exercise their clearly constitutional power to defund the war. And they lack the power to achieve that end by usurping the commander in chief’s powers to conduct a war.”

I agree with George. Democrats should defund the war and bring home the troops. It’s what the Iraqis want and it’s what we want. But then, Will’s logic takes a turn for the absurd. While urging the Democrats to act on their convictions, Will writes “They can spend this year fecklessly and cynically enacting restrictions that do not restrict. Or they can legislate decisive failure of the Iraq operation — withdrawal — thereby acquiring conspicuous complicity in a defeat that might be inevitable anyway.”

If Democratic support for withdrawal demonstrates “conspicuous complicity in a defeat” George Bush’s policy has made such defeat “inevitable.” But I disagree with the premise. A resolute push for withdrawal (enforced by restricting funding) is the only strategy for saving American lives and resources; to refute American Iraqi policy is to save America from a deeper commitment.

To compare criticism to an “infectious disease” is not just demonstrative of Will’s contempt for democracy but it’s also an indication of his stark partisanship: the Democrats should cut off funding to a policy which will inevitably fail, but if they do, they will take part in a “conspicuous complicity” for failure. Will is urging the Democrats to legislate their convictions; should they do so, however, George Will will criticize them for taking his advise.

— Igor Volsky

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Most Americans consider the argument that the Bush administration invaded Iraq to control its oil and exert influence over the greater Middle East conspiratorial; but in Iraq, “in one of the first studies of Iraqi public opinion after the US-led invasion of March 2003, the polling firm Gallup asked Iraqis their thoughts on the Bush administration’s motives for going to war. One percent of Iraqis said they believed the motive was to establish democracy. Slightly more – five percent – said to assist the Iraqi people. But far in the lead was the answer that got 43 percent – “to rob Iraq’s oil.”

Here at Writings by the Hudson we’ve syndicated Democracy Now! stories about America’s attempts to gain control over the second largest oil reserves in the world. On today’s program, Raed Jarrar, Iraq Project Director for Global Exchange and Antonia Juhasz, author of “The Bush Agenda: Invading the World One Economy at a Time” discussed a draft copy of a proposed Iraqi oil law which gives American (or other foreign) corporations a great deal of control over Iraq’s most profitable natural resource. Here are the basics:

The proposed legislation legalizes long term contracts between foreign companies and the Iraqi National Oil Company and will allow vast profits to leave the country.

The law establishes the Federal Oil and Gas Council. The Council will include representitives from the Iraqi National Oil Company as well as representatives from foreign oil companies like ExxonMobil, Shell and BP. This board will be responsible for approving Iraqi oil contracts but will treat Iraq’s national company as “just another oil company among lots of other companies, including US oil companies. And this council, the new oil and gas council, is going to be the decision making body to determine what kind of contract the Iraqis can sign.”

The law allows regional provinces to sign oil contracts, without the approval of the federal government (which could only veto a contract). This provision “may open the doors for splitting Iraq into three regions or even maybe three states in the very near future.”

The new foreign-controlled council is the product of the Baker-Hamilton Commission (in fact, this may be the only recommendation the Bush administration adopted). But most Americans will never hear of it; the mainstream media will never report it. The Iraqis, on the other hand, given their history, will most certainly resent the intrusion. Greater violence and instability may ensue but the Bush administration will be able to convince Americans that the insurgency is trying to stifle Iraqi democracy. Maybe he will choke on the irony, maybe not. Either way, he’ll be willing to spill more blood for oil.

— Igor Volsky

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Conservative radio and TV talk show host Sean Hannity has been asking viewers/listeners to send in pictures of Al Gore boarding private planes. To hear Sean Hannity tell it, if Gore flies or drives or burns a fire in a fireplace then he is a hypocrite and An Inconvenient Truth is worthless or dishonest. But Gore’s travel habits, regardless of how lavish they are, don’t negate the dangers of global warming. And to suggest that Gore should cease flying or driving is simply ridiculous; an advocate must spread his message and Hannity’s attacks are thinly veiled political attempts at discrediting the message, by attacking the messenger. (What good would Al Gore do sitting in a cave somewhere worrying about melting glaciers in Greenland?)

I’m hesitant to accept Al Gore as a radical environmentalist. During the Clinton administration Al Gore hit the sheets with the biggest polluters in the industry. Today he seems genuinely dedicated to educating the public about the dangers of global climate change, and this is admirable. People can certainly change and if Al Gore now supports green policy, more power to him.

The campaign season has inspired Fox News to pick up where Sean Hannity left off. Gore may be considering a 2008 Presidential bid and the well-oiled conservative smear machine is working over time to distract voters from the issues and portray or frame Democrats in an unflattering manner. It’s cheap politics and I hate that.

— Igor Volsky

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You can flush that New York Times apology for publishing White House propaganda in the lead up to war with Iraq “without the slightest questioning, investigation, or presentation of ample counter-evidence” right down the toilet. Tomorrow’s Times will feature an article by Michael R. Gordon, the reporter who together with Judith Miller is responsible for authoring the must dubious reports on Iraq. This piece, available online tonight, is titled Deadliest Bomb in Iraq Made by Iran, U.S. Says. In the words of the NYT apology, Gordon’s article, which claims that “the most lethal weapon directed against American troops in Iraq is an explosive-packed cylinder that United States intelligence asserts is being supplied by Iran,” is “insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged.”

Since its release the piece has been scrutinized by liberal bloggers Juan Cole, ThinkProgress and others. Cole disputes Gordon’s central allegation (attributed to an unnamed military source) that close to 25 percent of American deaths in the last three months were caused by explosives being smuggled in from Shiite Iran to Shiites in Iraq.

This claim is one hundred percent wrong. Because 25 percent of US troops were not killed fighting Shiites in those three months. Day after day, the casualty reports specify al-Anbar Province or Diyala or Salahuddin or Babil, or Baghdad districts such as al-Dura, Ghaziliyah, Amiriyah, etc.–and the enemy fighting is clearly Sunni Arab guerrillas. And, Iran is not giving high tech weapons to Baathists and Salafi Shiite-killers.

[…]

The attempt to blame these US deaths on Iran is in my view a black psy-ops operation. The claim is framed as though this was a matter of direct Iranian government transfer to the deadliest guerrillas. In fact, the most fractious Shiites are the ones who hate Iran the most. If 25 percent of US troops are being killed and wounded by explosively formed projectiles, then someone should look into who is giving those EFPs to Sunni Arab guerrillas. It isn’t Iran.

Finally, it is obvious that if Iran did not exist, US troops would still be being blown up in large numbers. Sunni guerrillas in al-Anbar and West Baghdad are responsible for most of the deaths. The Bush administration’s talent for blaming everyone but itself for its own screw-ups is on clear display here.

Do newspaper sales increase in times of war? Do some of the Times’ corporate sponsors benefit? Is the corporate media filled with lazy reporters unaccustomed to the shoe-leather of investigative reporting? Is the corporate media structure an echo chamber of government propaganda? The questions mount as frustration builds.

— Igor Volsky

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How long are we going to allow conservatives to frame the political debate?

Even before I finished blogging about the so-called Pelosi-plane scandal, conservative blogger Michelle Malkin was obsessing over the ‘profane’ comments of Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, two progressive bloggers presidential candidate John Edwards hired to run his blog. Now the New York Times has picked up the story.

John Edwards learned the hard way this week of the perils of grafting the raucous culture of the Internet to the decidedly staider world of a presidential campaign. Mr. Edwards announced on Thursday, after 36 hours of deliberation, that he would keep on his campaign staff two liberal feminist bloggers with long cybertrails of incendiary comments on sex, religion and politics.

Deliberations over the fate of the two bloggers, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, created a crisis in Mr. Edwards’s nascent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and illuminated the treacherous road ahead as candidates of both parties try to harness the growing power of the online world.

[…]

Mr. Edwards stumbled into this minefield ahead of his rivals for the presidency, but many of the other candidates could face similar problems as they try to integrate the passionate, provocative and freewheeling political discourse that flourishes on the Internet into more tightly controlled means of traditional campaign.

You can read some of the posts in question here. Buy while the Times is concerned about the perils of democracy, the paper, and the mainstream media more generally, regularly broadcast the bigotry of Jerry Falwell, Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity etc. Corporate sponsored hate speech is somehow more acceptable than carefully placed profanity, used for rhetorical spice. So long as you frame your debate in proper English, wear a suit and tie, and bring in commercial revenue, your speech, regardless of its hateful content, is considered acceptable.

Deterring Americans from actively participating in government policy has good historical precedent. While crafting the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison believed that power should be delegated to “the wealth of the nation,” not the general public, a group they affectionately labeled the “great beast.” And while Hamilton tried to overcome the “imprudence of democracy,” Thomas Jefferson observed that the “great beast” was “illy qualified to legislate for the Union.” In the early 20th century, President Woodrow Wilson recognized that physical coercion was a tool of the past, and that the best way to ensure that men with “elevated ideals” remain in power was to “manufacture consent” for the general public. This is a cruel but necessary “evil” since only “responsible men” could manage the interests that “elude public opinion entirely.”

Edwards did the right thing in keeping the two bloggers on staff. The free exchange of ideas must not conform to the ‘traditional’ mode of campaigns or the expectations of the corporate media. Conservative bloggers don’t get to determine what is ‘proper’ and the media must not provide them with a soap box from which to stifle democratic expression. Most importantly, we must not allow these manufactured controversies to distract from the issues. America deserves better; we don’t have to conform to the mold of corporate expectations.

— Igor Volsky

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