Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Check the Fresh: New Muslim Cool

"I was raised like a Muslim, praying to the east" -Guru of Gang Starr

My first real introduction to Islam came from Hip-Hop, as is the case for many of my peers. Coming of age on the east coast in the late 80s and 90s meant that Islam became part of the songs you listened to, the names children were given, and was part of "fighting the power." As a teenager, my naive understanding of the deen of Islam was small, but Hip-Hop showed me that being Muslim and a rapper demanded a different set of standards for living, from not eating pork to dropping knowledge in rhymes. In short, I was in love, but from a far. Fast forward and I find myself in my 30s and have seen the influence of Islam come and go in Hip-Hop culture, but was I reminded of the power of spirituality and creativity merged when watching New Muslim Cool which premiers tonight on PBS POV. Check your local listing.

There are a number of reviews of New Muslim Cool already popping up so if you want a more traditional review check these from the Times and the Root. The film traces the protagonist Hamza of the M-Team (Muhajideen Team) as he forms a family, builds a career in community transformation, and rocks as a Puerto Rican Muslim MC. Whether hopping on stage with flaming machetes, making dua in Al-Aqsa Islamic Center in Philadelphia, or speaking to Christians in prison, Hamza shows the power of being grounded in spirituality, yet not encumbered by culture. I was most impressed that the film showed indigenous Islam at its finest. (Indigenous Islam usually refers to people born and raised in the US who have practiced Islam outside of a predominantly Muslim cultural context ... if you really want to learn more, in particular about the role of Black folks laying the foundation for Islam in America, check out Islam and the Blackamerican.) While the recent 15 years have put a face on Islam in America that is predominantly Arab and South Asian, there are large indigenous communities practicing various forms of Islam and continuing to challenge and refine the relationship between the religion and culture.

The film smoothly captures the contours of Hamza's life ranging from the struggles of his newly open Masjid (Mosque) getting raided by the Feds, his own quest to grow as a father, and his entering into a cross-cultural marriage. Unfortunately, a capstone narrative on how Hip-Hop fully fit into his evolved life was missing. Filmed over the span of multiple years, I wanted to know, how did Hamza's view on Hip-Hop as a site for resistance evolve? How had his embracing of Malcolm X evolved as he studied more? How did he see other Muslims in Hip-Hop, particularly non-Sunni Muslims? There is really rich territory to be unearthed on the marriage, divorce, and sometimes estranged relationship between Hip-Hop and Islam. But no film can cover all the bases. I thoroughly enjoyed New Muslim Cool for its careful treatment of Hamza who beautifully embodies two of the most powerful social forces of the past 30 years: Hip-Hop and Islam. As a child of Hip-Hop and an admirer of Islam, I was pleased to see that the "new muslim cool" may just be the maturation of the old muslim cool.

If you like this, you'll love my blog Uptown Notes.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Secrecy Sacrificing National Security

Latest piece from Shahid....

Whether defined in terms of a system representing the will of the people, or as one of divided powers exercising checks and balances, our government claims legitimacy based on its accountability. That accountability, in turn, relies on transparency. It is no accident that, in light of its historical function as "the broad light of day" said by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to be the best disinfectant for "men's actions," the press has long been considered our unofficial fourth branch of government.

As the antithesis of transparency, secrecy presents a deeply insidious threat to our democracy: it excludes the press and public from participation in policy debates, inhibits the operation of inter-branch checks and balances, and ultimately precludes the rule of law. Secrecy must therefore not be taken lightly, as the Obama Administration seemed to acknowledge when declaring a new era of transparency and disclosure on its first day in office. But unfortunately, the administration's welcome rhetoric has yet to find its reflection in reality.

The grave dangers of official secrecy explain concerns with the new administration's approach -- or, more accurately, hesitation -- towards restoring the rule of law. Across several policy areas related to national security, the Obama administration continues to resist disclosure, opting instead to follow its predecessor's disappointing habit of hiding inconvenient facts and dubious policies.

Three Threats to Transparency

The dangers of government secrecy require public skepticism of the national security establishment. Cloaked in mystery and largely unaccountable since their emergence following WWII, our national spy agencies have done more to undermine democracy in America than most threats from which they have claimed to protect us. Communism, black nationalism, revolutions abroad, violent extremism, and animal & environmental rights have all proven less threatening to America and our national values than the Red Scare, the Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), the Green Scare, and the surveillance regime erected under the guise of the war on terror.

This pattern of secrecy unfortunately continues, visible today in at least three sets of counter-terror policies: torture, warrantless electronic surveillance, and the recent expansion of the FBI's powers. Secrecy in any one of these areas would justify concern. Its pervasiveness poses a problem for our Republic far more dangerous than any threat to our physical security.

Secret policies, and their secret enforcement, endanger the values that have long defined our society and made it worth securing. While presented as necessary for our nation's physical security, government secrecy itself threatens our national security in a more fundamental sense, calling for an engaged, mobilized grassroots movement to shift the landscape of the debate in Washington and restore the rule of law by demanding transparency.

Torture, Transparency, and the Rule of Law

Torture -- which continues at Guantanamo Bay despite the President's repudiation of enhanced interrogation techniques -- implicates secrecy on two fronts. One involves the memos authorizing torture and reporting on its results. To his credit, President Obama has released several previously classified official documents authorizing the previous administration's lawlessness. But despite widespread outrage toward the individuals responsible for those policies, none have faced justice.

A further set of memos analyzing the torture program remains secret. Vice President Cheney claims that they demonstrate the usefulness of torturing detainees, and has ironically called for their disclosure by the CIA. The mainstream discourse has accepted his premise: that the legitimacy of torture turns on its results (i.e., whether enhanced interrogation inspired detainees to provide incremental information, and whether that information has proven reliable).

But no evidence proving the effectiveness of torture would justify it. Torture is illegal. Period. Our laws are unequivocal, and reiterated in domestic statutes; numerous international treaties to which the U.S. is party; and the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments to our Constitution. These laws are not negotiable instruments that can be abrogated for the sake of political convenience.

Until those responsible for torture face prosecution for their crimes, our criminal justice system as a whole will face a mounting legitimacy crisis. How can any criminal penalty -- especially the 323,318 prison sentences imposed from 2006-2007 on Americans convicted of non-violent offenses -- appear legitimate when our nation's most notorious criminals violate our most fundamental laws, yet remain not only free, but actively engaged in influencing our national security policies?

President Obama's suppression of two thousand photos documenting the severity of U.S. torture further illuminates the need for transparency. The photos reportedly depict torture and abuse by U.S. military personnel stationed both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. They are horrific: some are autopsy photos of unarmed detainees killed by U.S. troops while in custody; others, according to Retired Major General Antonio Taguba, depict "every indecency,"including physical brutality, psychological abuse, and sexual assault by U.S. forces.

The President has predicated his refusal to release these photos -- and Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have joined him by demanding a legislative prohibition on the photos' disclosure -- on two grounds. First, they claim the torture photos "would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals." Second, they argue that "releasing these photos would inflame anti-American opinion... thereby endangering [U.S. troops] in theatres of war." Neither argument holds water.

First, the photos in fact expose a great deal. They differ from those already released by exposing a variety of disturbing sexual abuses, from forced exhibition and masturbation to penetration involving brooms. The photographs even show U.S. personnel raping prisoners outright.

The photos also make clear that torture was used not only in extreme circumstances demanding immediate action (i.e., the so-called "ticking time bomb" scenario), but also relatively routinely, pursuant to an official -- though illegal -- policy. Torture committed under the Bush administration was not an aberration committed by a few "bad apples," but a systematic and widespread pattern of abuse condoned by our nation's highest officials and implemented throughout the chain of command.

Second, the argument that releasing these photos would place American soldiers at risk is, quite frankly, preposterous. It is not the pictures that we should fear, but rather the illegal conduct depicted in them.

Torture is a violation not only of the laws of war, the U.S. Constitution, and the oaths of office of everyone responsible, but -- if truly a threat to our troops abroad -- also a crime against them potentially rising to the level of treason. U.S. Air Force Major Matthew Alexander, who led a team of interrogators in Iraq and conducted over 300 interrogations himself, recently wrote that "the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked [to Iraq] to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo."

While disclosing torture photos may inspire our enemies to redouble their efforts, that problem suggests that we prosecute U.S. torturers and their commanders, not that we cover up the evidence. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said that "China... should examine openly the darker events of its past and provide a public accounting... both to learn and to heal." Her recommendation is prescient, and applies no less forcefully here at home. According to the editorial board of The Detroit Free Press, "Nothing would command more respect abroad than a demonstration of America's resolve to pursue the truth about itself, wherever the trail leads."

Covering up these abuses helps avoid the prosecution of those responsible. To fully repudiate torture and its legacy, the Obama administration must release the pictures and bring to justice those who authorized and conducted torture. Until then, the rule of law will remain a notion towards which the U.S. -- like China -- will merely aspire.

Secret Surveillance and Secret Policies

Beyond torture, mass electronic surveillance is another arena in which government secrecy continues to impede the transparency necessary to allow a reasoned debate.

As the Obama administration confronts lawsuits over the so-called "Terrorist Surveillance Program" (TSP) crafted in secret by its predecessor (as well as another suit, challenging torture outsourced to other countries), it continues to resist transparency through an unrestrained invocation of the state secrets privilege. The Ninth Circuit's recent rejection of that doctrine's overbroad application is encouraging, as is congressional interest in curtailing it via federal statute. But judicial scrutiny of surveillance is stalled until September and, after appeals, could take years. The surveillance program itself should not escape criticism in the meantime.

The administration's resistance to disclosure suggests the accuracy of fears that the program is essentially an unbounded dragnet. Last year, the FISA amendments supported by then-Senator Obama (despite his earlier promise to filibuster them) conferred on the NSA a vast expansion of its authorities. Its new powers left Americans more vulnerable to warrantless surveillance -- the uses of which could be bent to no end of potentially nefarious ends -- than ever before in our history. Yet the NSA has violated even those expanded powers, and not just in piecemeal fashion: the Department of Justice and FBI have found ongoing abuses so vast and pervasive as to be systemic.

The TSP itself -- whose revelation in 2005 sent a massive shockwave through the policy establishment -- may have been a contrivance, an arbitrarily designated part of a far broader surveillance scheme. Before leaving office, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales alluded to further operations beyond those previously confirmed. No information about those programs has been released to the public -- or to members of Congress, who have themselves been subjected to illegal monitoring by spy agencies.

Secrecy pervades not only surveillance policies, but also their application. For instance, national security letters (NSLs) authorized under the PATRIOT Act include gag orders that prohibit recipients from disclosing the mere existence of official demands for information, much less their contours. The overuse of NSLs, which routinely demand private information about law-abiding Americans in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, led the Justice Department to conclude that the FBI had committed "widespread and serious" abuse of its NSL authority.

Without knowing who, in particular, has been subjected to illegal spying, court challenges are untenable: a federal judge found the TSP unconstitutional in August 2006, but her opinion was reversed when a divided panel of three Sixth Circuit judges found no evidence that authorities had actually spied on the particular plaintiff in that case.

Like its predecessor, the Obama Administration has repeatedly asserted the state secrets privilege to impede judicial review, or accountability in the court of public opinion. The Al-Haramain litigation -- in which the Administration faces a hearing in September concerning the program's legality -- involves the only concrete case of electronic warrantless surveillance that civil rights advocates have been able to confirm.

As with the torture photos, then, our government is aiming to stuff genies back into bottles. But where secrecy supporters fear the reaction abroad to the torture photos, policymakers resisting the revelation of domestic surveillance activities instead fear the reaction of the American public. In a democracy, or a representative republic, that particular fear is the most illegitimate ground fathomable for keeping information secret.

Expanding Secret FBI Powers

The recent expansion of the FBI's powers is a third arena reflecting pervasive official secrecy threatening our national values. Last summer, senior DOJ and FBI officials conducted a series of behind-the-scenes "briefings" for aides to some members of Congress and civil rights advocates (including myself) on major revisions to the Attorney General's Guidelines governing the FBI.

First enacted in 1971 to forestall congressional intervention after the COINTELPRO surveillance scandal, the guidelines originally aimed to ensure that the FBI enforces laws, rather than violating them. But the Guidelines' protections have been watered down over time, with each successive revision further unleashing the Bureau's historical habit of harassing and intimidating law-abiding Americans.

Having failed to stop Attorney General Ashcroft from implementing severely problematic revisions in 2003, members of Congress repeatedly objected when Attorney General Mukasey did so again in late 2008. The new Guidelines expand the investigative methods available to agents, reduce supervisory controls and temporal limitations on fishing expeditions, and by eliminating the need for a factual predicate underlying investigations, invite racial and religious profiling apparent in the Bureau's latest investigative successes.

But even the Mukasey Guidelines are the tip of an iceberg. Following last summer's briefings on the Guidelines, members of Congress unsuccessfully demanded an opportunity to conduct oversight and propose amendments. The FBI and DOJ repeated the charade in November, hosting another series of briefings for congressional staffers and advocates (again including myself), this time about the FBI's Domestic Investigative Operational Guidelines (the DIOGs) that implement the Mukasey Guidelines.

Briefings on the DIOGs occurred the week before Thanksgiving, just before they took effect on December 1. At that point, the policy was already substantially complete and agents had begun training on its provisions. There was no meaningful opportunity to suggest changes.

Substantively, the DIOGs included several disturbing new policies that would prove positively incendiary if confirmed, including two separate provisions mandating ethnic profiling. But because they remain completely secret, the DIOGs have received no scrutiny.

In the version discussed with me by the Bureau's Chief Privacy Counsel last November, the DIOGs mandated a "geo-mapping" program modeled on a failed 2007 proposal by the Los Angeles Police Department. In response to concerns about the vulnerability of Muslim American communities to religious profiling, officials claimed that the FBI's version of the policy would raise fewer concerns because it would profile all ethnic & religious minorities, not just Muslims.

The DIOGs also included a section on "ethnic behavior," adopting a discredited analysis released in August 2007 by the New York Police Department. FBI Director Robert Mueller has responded to a recent furor over the FBI's infiltration of groups conducting constitutionally protected activities (like activist groups in Maryland, as well as religious congregations in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere) with false claims that the FBI does not "investigate places, we investigate individuals." His assertion is implausible in light of a policy authorizing the Bureau's invasions of mosques, but because that policy remains secret, the FBI has escaped public examination.

This January, I filed a FOIA request on behalf of my former employer, seeking disclosure of the secret DIOGs to enable a public debate. In early March, the FBI conceded that the document represents "a matter of widespread and exceptional media interest in which there exist possible questions about the government's integrity which affect public confidence," and promised two weeks later to release it after completing a review of its contents. The FBI has yet to fulfill that promise (although my former colleagues did recently file an appeal).

The State of Play

It is one thing for the execution of polices to be shrouded in secrecy. After all, surveillance is ineffective if the target is aware of being monitored. But pursuing secret policies is altogether different.

While Senator Feinstein (D-CA) is leading a congressional inquiry into torture, she has accepted Cheney's premise that torture can be potentially justified by particular circumstances. Meanwhile, congressional and public oversight of the NSA and FBI has been ephemeral, largely because their policies remain thoroughly opaque.

No one knows which groups, or how many, have been infiltrated by undercover FBI or local law enforcement agents. Similarly, the identities of individuals monitored by the NSA remain secret -- perhaps because they include literally every American. Finally, the photos documenting our torture program, and the memos analyzing its results, are also secret.

Without transparency, we can neither assure ourselves that our government's activities are either helpful or legal, nor can we adequately assess the case for prosecuting Bush administration officials for potential crimes and constitutional violations, as we are legally bound to do. If "national security" includes protecting our nation and its values from threats, secrecy should be considered chief among them.

Harmut Beil is an interface designer, photographer, pilot, and pro-democracy activist who lived in the former East Germany before moving to California for eight years (where I met him before recently moving east to lead the Bill of Rights Defense Committee). He says, "While struggling with surveillance behind the iron Curtain, we saw the western countries, lead by the U.S., as an example of the freedoms we tried to achieve. I am deeply concerned now about the developments of recent years in the U.S....I think the United States could learn a great deal from the history of my country."

How You Can Support Transparency

President Obama said throughout his campaign for the White House that "real change comes from the bottom up," and as a grassroots organizer who rose to our nation's highest office on the shoulders of unprecedented millions, he should know. From that perspective, his administration appears to be waiting -- unwilling to take the lead on restoring the rule of law, but perhaps willing to respond to a grassroots movement either justifying or compelling transparency and accountability.

A coalition of human rights groups is calling on supporters of the Constitution to rally and march against torture later this month in DC. In the meantime, you can take action online to promote transparency and accountability by adding your name to one of several letters compiled by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee for Justice Department officials and members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. We've drafted letters from lawyers, educators, faith leaders and other concerned Americans discussing the need for accountability from the perspectives of their respective fields of expertise.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post and can be found by clicking here. While we'd love for you to comment here (and you should), please post your comments on the Huffington page as well, as you will be fairly likely to get a direct response from Shahid there.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Erasing the Past

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the tragic events in Tiananmen Square in China. I remember watching the chaos on TV. I will never forget the image of "Tank Man" defying all rationality and standing his ground in an act of bravery and defiance I'm not sure we'll ever witness so publicly again. To this day, nobody knows what happened to him. Some suggest he was executed by the Chinese government. Others say he is still alive, hiding somewhere in China. He acted on the 5th, a day after the government cracked down violently against a massive non-violent protest, composed of many students, that had been going on since mid-April 1989. I won't rehash the whole story, but the short version is, people were mourning the death of a somewhat progressive leader and desired both economic and political reforms by the Chinese government. Over a million gathered in Tiananmen. On June 4th, 1989, the Chinese government instructed a violent military response, including firing into the crowds at the unarmed, young, idealistic masses. Nobody knows the final toll, given the control of such info in China (there is also suspicion that the Chinese government burned many of the bodies to destroy evidence), but the estimates range from several hundred dead, all the way up to several thousand.

It was a horrible event that many of us will never forget. However, that is not quite the subject of my post, nor is China, per se. What I find most alarming about Tiananmen is the massive level of amnesia about the event in China. China is not the first country to attempt this kind of whitewashing of the past. Others have attempted it as well - and succeeded quite brilliantly. While I refer to Tiananmen the most here, know that you can substitute a number of other cases in its place. For instance, there is the false belief in a historically non-interventionist US foreign policy, back from the early days (see Kagan's Dangerous Nation as a good counter - yes, really, Kagan). Americans also frequently forget "idealist" Woodrow Wilson was a staunch racist, and his efforts to keep Japan out of Versailles probably helped encourage their militarism later. We forget the Gulf of Tonkin incident, used to escalate the Vietnam War, was always a manipulation of the facts. We forget the whole 1953 US-backed coup in Iran that deposed a popular democratic leader for a brutal dictator whose harshness helped lead to the 1979 Revolution. We frequently forget about our role in strengthening militant Islam (whatever you want to call it...I'm tired of coming up with/reading different terms!) with our outright backing of the most extremist elements in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Completely forgotten facts, all withheld from the public discourse, all conveniently allowed to be forgotten. This happens elsewhere, too. Let's see...Turkey and the Armenian genocide during World War I. Pakistanis forget the cult of personality set up by national hero Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, along with his role in launching the horrific civil war that led to Bangladesh. Indians forget the completely arbitrary and undemocratic nature of Kashmir "choosing" to be part of India. Israelis forget the many acts of terrorism practiced by the Stern Gang, Irgun, and others, including the bombing of the King David Hotel and the Deir Yassin massacre. Russia today tends to forget the many horrifc acts of violence it perpetrated on Chechnya in the mid-1990s. Point being, this happens a lot, and governments are actually quite successful.

Tiananmen comes to mind because today is the 20th anniversary, of course. I was chatting with a friend in China who gave me some of the run-down on what has been happening (lot of internet sites have been blocked [this blog has apparently been blocked, too - how about that], Tiananmen Square has been shut down). Besides remembering vividly those images from my childhood, I also have walked through the space. I will say it was an incredibly eerie feeling...mostly because I was there during a relatively festive time, Chinese New Year/Spring Festival. People were out, flying kites, smiling and laughing. There were few security guards out. It seemed like a joyful place. Of course, I couldn't help but recall what happened at each spot. When we passed the Monument to the People's Heroes, I recalled that the protests had started there. As we neared the front of the square, I looked back at the massive area and visualized it being full with a million people, wanting reforms. As we crossed towards the Forbidden City/Imperial Palace, I thought to myself, Tank Man stood his ground right here. So much blood had been spilled in the area we had walked around...but nobody seemed to care. Maybe there was a peace about the whole incident?

No, not exactly. Nobody wanted to remember. Few children born after 1989 had any idea about the scale of the event. History books in China mention the the massacre with maybe a line or two, and generally as student unrest stabilized by the government. Current university students have difficulty identifying the iconic Tank Man photo. The state has effectively censored what happened. Google in China does not list results if you do a search for the event. The media is largely forbidden from reporting about what happened in those days in 1989.

Thus, not only do many not even know about the event, the efforts to clamp down have created a climate of fear amongst those who do remember what happened. There is no doubt they are afraid of speaking out. This type of climate almost certainly has played a role in a more apolitical generation of young Chinese. Can we doubt that their parents, remembering June 4th and the aftermath, steered them away from politics in order to protect them?

The Chinese government's violent response against the protesters on June 4th was, of course, a sign of cowardice and weakness. Their efforts to expunge the event from Chinese history makes that point even more clear. They are doing what others have. This is why the Bolsheviks shot Czar Nicholas and his whole family - eliminate evidence of the past. This is why the US government classifies incriminating documents, and why the press sometimes partakes in self-censorship - avoid discussing uncomfortable facts that illustrate your fallibility. And while we're at it, let's not spend too much time discussing either the genocide of the Native Americans or slavery and post-slavery Jim Crow. This is why Stalin was literally taken out of everything in the Soviet Union for many years after his death (films, artwork, you name it - pretty incredible). This is why Japanese textbooks don't give much space to the atrocities they committed from their invasion of China in 1937, up to the end of World War II.

Why should we care? Because this matters. Orwell rings so true today - who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past. If governments are able to largely erase ugly moments in their history, at least domestically, that is a frightening aspect. Part of a country's strength is its ability to see its flaws and (ideally) learn and progress from them. If countries simply censor out their missteps, they could easily repeat these mistakes, or even regress from them towards worse actions in the future. It is truly a sign of weakness to not only hide from your sins, but to actively attempt to create a climate where those sins are largely not up for discussion at home. This is definitely the case with China and the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, but is true of so many other countries as well. These actions don't increase stability, they merely stunt evolution and forward progress.

So what can we do? Remember...remember and discuss and write and talk and challenge others to not hide from these sore spots. Always keep in mind that its not about just one country (here, China), its about most countries. While some seem to forget June 4th, I sure as hell won't. I hope you won't, either. And while we're at it, I won't forget September 11, 1973; August 19, 1953; April 9, 1948; and a whole lot of other dates and events. History is political...if we don't fight to preserve it, we could lose it. The consequences would be frightening.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

More than Words

[Note: I wrote this before the speech. I have since included some general thoughts and links post-speech at the end of the post]
Did I just reference an Extreme song from the early 90's? And did you just recognize that I just referenced an Extreme song from the early 90's? Shame on all of us...

Okay...back to seriousness. President Obama has recently headed over to the Middle East, and will be making a much anticipated speech in Cairo on Thursday. There is tons of hype for this speech, which I first remember hearing about shortly after the election in November. I want to offer my thoughts on what Obama should focus on. Whether he'll deliver is an entirely different story.

I'm going to use Madeleine Albright as my jumping-off point. Albright wrote an interesting op-ed in the NY Times earlier this week, and has been pretty active in what I'd call an "engaging the Muslim world" agenda. Personally, I prefer Juan Cole to Albright every day of the week on this type of work. Why? Read Albright's op-ed. It's a PR push, by and large, with some acknowledgement of the difficulties the Muslim world is facing as a result of US foreign policy. So, basically, its Dubya and Karen Hughes, except kinder and gentler. Fantastic. I totally think this will work. Really. Sure. Awesome. This is the same Albright of the "we think the price is worth it" statement regarding the Iraq sanctions and the 500,000+ dead Iraqi children and millions more with stunted development as a result of the sanctions. Yes, she apologized later, but it was years later (sounds like somebody's interested in preserving their legacy), and in her book, she apologized for the comment, but not the policy - so, she had no problem with the policy, just the way she answered Stahl's question on 60 Minutes. I won't go into a long discussion about the Iraq sanctions, but lets just say I think they were brutal, one of the worst forms of political punishment in recent history, and have done irreparable damage to the US in Iraq and the Muslim and Arab world. Read Anthony Arnove's brilliant edited volume on the sanctions for more info.

So, Albright is basically saying Obama needs to make a better sale of our policies to Muslims, that we're fighting people who are attacking them as well. Okay, that's sort of true. But Albright makes the claim that the biggest beef the Muslim world has with the US is the feeling that the US is at war with Islam. Yeah, that's partly true...but why would they think that? Well...because of our policies, which she doesn't advocate changing. This is another attempt to make this about ideology, which it isn't. It does often feed into that, but if you work on the actual political issues, issues that, quite honestly, Muslims have legitimate gripes about, that's the way out of this dangerous cycle.

Unfortunately, Albright isn't up for bringing that point up much. Too bad...because she knows better. Her op-ed actually isn't that bad - it just puts political roots of the problems between the US and the Muslim world (whatever that is...Muslims are not a monolithic group, but whatever, I'll roll with it for the time being) in the back-burner, something I think is fatally flawed. She correctly points out that Obama should speak out against repression, including the kind practiced in Egypt as a form of "moderation". Right on...but she then selects out a democratically-elected Hamas from being part of the solution. Again, by excluding the political gripes from the discussion, we completely whitewash the reasons Hamas was elected by Palestinians in the first place - a corrupt Fatah that was unable to make any progress on peace with Israel, and a continuation (and worsening) of the occupation (especially in Gaza, a place where the depravity has reached an absolutely shameful level, thanks to the neglect of the international community over the past 4 years).

This is a general problem with most US foreign policy types. They are interested in improving America's image, without addressing the reasons that image has slipped with a less-than-acceptable level of honesty. They also are either completely ignorant, or disingenous, about the Muslim world. I've spent time in some of these countries, and let me tell you, they know their politics. I'm not talking about the rich, well-to-do, professional class. I'm talking about the peasants, the street vendors, the cab drivers...the "people", if you will. Unlike mainstream America, which knows less about history and current politics than it does about the previous round of American Idol (something I largely attribute to a poor education system and a press that I at times consider somewhere between Pravda and Hearst's New York Journal), Muslims are much more aware of politics, even if they throw some conspiracies into the picture.

This point is ultimately why what Albright and many others want Obama to do will ultimately fail. Obama needs to do a whole lot more than just sell American policies better. Yes, I do agree with Albright that the US is not at war with Islam. Is this even a real idea among Muslims? I seriously doubt it...if you asked them which statement is more accurate, the US is at war with Muslims versus the US pursues unjust policies towards Muslims, I'd bet the vast majority go with the latter. Now, if they're just blaming the US for everything, that's not really something we can do anything about. However, if you go through the list of issues, you'd have to be a stubborn jingoist (or clinically insane like Glenn Beck) to not see there are some legitimate claims.

As such, Obama's task in Cairo is a bit more complicated than Albright and others propose. Yes, he must reach out to the Muslim world and do a better job at selling American policies, which will be exponentially easier because he's not George W. Bush. However, he must be honest and talk about the real political grievances. He must actually have a conversation with the Muslim world, not just lecture them about "their shortcomings." He must be humble about America's mistakes, and vow to work hard to correct those missteps. But he must know, talk will be cheap without action. Given all that has happened, no matter how good the speech, no matter how honest or humble it is, no matter how much it really is a conversation with the Muslim world, it will be for naught if we don't begin working on the policy issues. PR might work in America (where Karl Rove can swift boat John Kerry, Max Cleland, etc.), but it won't do jack in the Muslim world.

This is really why I hope he and his administration shun the advice offered by Albright and many others. They need to provide real support (i.e. not military aid) to Muslim countries in dire economic crises. They need to push Israel as hard as they have the Palestinians and work as hard as possible on securing a just and real peace between the two. (btw, check out this post on Steve Clemons' site with some good links up on the settlements) They need to look closely at Kashmir, and work hard to get India and Pakistan to the negotiating table. Cutting back the drone attacks in Pakistan wouldn't hurt, either. They also need to find ways to create exits for autocratic dictators in Muslim countries (such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia), leaders who are only in power due to US backing and who are increasingly detested by their own citizens for their repression, and encourage greater political freedom in these countries. They need to continue engaging Iran and Syria instead of rattling the cage as Bush did. Basically, they have to show the Muslim world they are credibly committed to improving the relationship. Only then can they expect the Muslim world to return the favor.

To quote De La Soul, stakes is high. This speech matters a lot, but ony in the context of what follows. If Obama opts primarily for PR work while being more "sensitive" to issues Muslims are angry about, things won't get any better. If he realizes that talk without real action is just singing without melody and a beat, we might actually be getting somewhere. There are indications that the latter is true (particularly his stance on the Israeli settlements - though we should read that with a little caution, as Stephen Walt advises). Let's see what happens.

For some good further reading on pre-speech thoughts, check out some thoughts from Marc Lynch and Juan Cole.

Post-speech thoughts: Okay, that was actually quite good. I'm not going to go into too much depth here, mostly because most of my thoughts have been better articulated elsewhere, but here's my quick 2 cents. He spoke about the suffering of Palestinians more clearly than any US president ever. That means a lot. He didn't push Hamas out of the door...important...instead, trying to encourage political moderation. Not crazy about the Afghanistan and Pakistan policy, but that's a given - the real test is if he's serious about providing human aid versus military aid to Pakistan, and whether he gets a regional coalition together in Afghanistan. He did as good a job as I could expect on the religion aspect...good job with faith versus politics. He came off as generally sincere, trying to have a dialogue with Muslims across the world, unlike his predecessor(s) who have done nothing of the sort. Basically, the speech went about as good as possible - which is pretty good, actually. I think its safe to say he has most Muslims around the globe wanting to roll with him. The next few steps are crucial, of course. Does he keep the pressure on Israel regarding the settlements? Does he use the massive US aid to Israel and Egypt as leverage to bring Israel to the table for a real (i.e. not Camp David, not the Road Map) 2-state solution and to force Egypt to really begin liberalizing politically?

For really good analysis of the speech, I turn you to some of my favorite reads: Juan Cole, (and as a bonus, Cole also has a post with some reaction to the speech in the Middle East), Marc Lynch, Steve Clemons, Robert Dreyfuss, Daniel Levy, and Stephen Walt. Also, Democracy Now had an interview with Juan Cole and Issandr El Amrani about the talk.