Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Israel's war on academics

Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby is an extremely important and cannily argued exposition of the war that has been waged against academics in the US and elsewhere — including, to name a few, the late Edward Said, Ilan Pappe, Tony Judt, Norman Finkelstein, Robert Fisk and Michael Scheuer — who have dared question the uncritical support that Western governments have given Israel as it continues its oppression of Palestinians (and Lebanese). While some of the individuals mentioned above (Pappe, Finkelstein) have seen their careers affected because of their views, Said, Scheuer, Fisk, Walt and Mearsheimer, for their part, have been accused of being ant-Semitic, in what often was more an emotional response that precluded rational thinking than a well-formulated counterargument.

Finkelstein’s recent brush with Israeli authorities, which resulted in about 24 hours of interrogation by Shin Bet at Ben Gurion Airport and his deportation from Israel — and barred entry for 10 years — serves as the epitome of the treatment reserved academics who tell truth to power. Finkelstein, a Jewish-American born to a Holocaust survivor and known for his books The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah, has repeatedly accused Israel of exploiting memories of the Holocaust and the stigma of anti-Semitism to conduct its own widespread repression of a people. Far from being anti-Israel, Finkelstein has long been a proponent of a two-state solution respecting the 1967 borders. More recently, he has come in contact with the Lebanese Hezbollah, partly out of sympathy and partly to better understand the organization and the people it represents — in other words, her did so out of academic interest. Still, Shin Bet used his meetings with Hezbollah to tag him as a security risk and deny him entry.

As the Ha’aretz newspaper put it in a strong editorial on May 17: “True, the right to enter Israel is not guaranteed to noncitizens, but the right of Israeli citizens to hear unusual views is one that should be fought for. It is not for the government to decide which views should be heard here and which ones should not.” It continued: “… the decision is all the more surprising when one recalls the ease with which right-wing activists from the Meir Kahane camp — the kind whose activities pose a security threat that no longer requires further proof — are able to enter the country.” In other words, Finkelstein was being punished for his views and surely the repercussion will be felt back in the US. What is Ironic is that by punishing academics for wanting to learn more about its enemies, Israel is shooting itself in the foot and denying itself intelligence of the kind that its overrated intelligence agencies will never be able to gather.

In Canada, immediately after Liberal Party leader Stéphane Dion had announced the appointment, in federal by-elections in 2007, of Jocelyn Coulon, a former columnist for the La Presse and Le Devoir newspapers in Montreal, to represent the party in the Outremont riding, B’Nai Brith, a Jewish lobby group, attacked Coulon (former director of the Lester B. Pearson Peacekeeping Center in Montreal, where I took a course in 2001 and got to know him very well), for his alleged “anti-Israel” and “anti-US” views as well as calls for an end to the isolation of Hamas. Although the riding is only 10 percent Jewish, the Liberal Party has a long history of reliance on this powerful bloc, and B’Nai Brith’s calls that his nomination be revoked — added to the bad publicity that this generated — cannot but have had an impact on the election results, in which Mr. Coulon was defeated by the New Democrat candidate.

My own experience, as a Canadian who worked in security intelligence and now as a writer/academic, has been similar. At the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), where I worked as an analyst from 2003-2005, my views on Israel and Canada’s unquestioning support for its policies often went against the organizational paradigm, and on more than one occasion I was told, in no uncertain terms, that my career as an intelligence officer would suffer if I continued to criticize that support. The callousness of some Israeli agents I met in the course of my work, or the manner in which they completely overestimated the Palestinian or Hezbollah threat, was nothing less than shocking. As such, the official and tacit Israeli lobby is also very much alive in Canada, a subject I touch on in my book Smokescreen.

Since I moved to Taiwan, I have published some articles on Israel, which for some reason many like to see as facing a threat similar to Taiwan’s — a false analogy that I have sought to dispel on a number of occasions. There, too, far away from Western circles, the attacks came, more often than not in the form of character assassination rather than arguments worthy of the name.

It took great courage, I am sure, for Messrs. Walt and Mearsheimer to write their article, and then turn it into a book. But it is a worthy polemic which, if heeded not only in the US but elsewhere, would ironically help ensure that Israel faces the prospects of a better, safer future, which its people certainly deserve — only not at the expense of Palestinians, Lebanese and academic freedom.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Setting the record straight

Some readers have reacted to my piece “Why are we sending aid to China?” published in the Taipei Times on May 23 by calling me “heartless,” “callous,” “cruel” and a “demagogue,” with one going as far as accusing the Times in an online forum of being “pro Japanese right-wing” (which is certainly news to its editorial staff). While expected when writing about such a sensitive issue as to whether donors should send money to earthquake-hit Sichuan Province, I believe the criticism leveled at me stems for the most part from a misreading of my argument (for those, that is, who bothered to read beyond the headline) and an (understandably) emotional response that obviates rational reasoning.

First of all, as I clearly state in my article, humanitarian assistance remains a noble and crucial act, one that helps to transcend political divides. Unlike what some of my critics have written — quite invidiously, I must add — at no point do I advocate withholding humanitarian assistance to China. Rather, I question whether countries should be sending money to the world’s fourth-largest economy, which, at US$1.3 trillion, also happens to have the largest foreign reserves and, given its splashy preparations for the Beijing Olympics, faces no shortage of money (not to mention its active military force of 2.255 million individuals who can be mobilized to deal with the crisis). Sadly, some readers seem to confuse humanitarian assistance with financial assistance, which thought they might be part of the same overall package, are in fact two distinct items. I believe Sichuan Province does need outside help, but that help should come in the form of expertise, rescue teams and whatever materiel is required to deal with the immediate emergency in order to prevent further deaths from malnutrition and disease.

Other criticism of my piece has focused on politics, accusing me of exploiting tensions in the Taiwan Strait to encourage hatred for Chinese or taking a sadistic pleasure in the suffering of Chinese. Again, nothing could be further from the truth, as my argument proposes a responsibilization of the central government in Beijing that, in the long term, would better serve ordinary Chinese in neglected provinces that happen to lie outside the booming coastal areas. Absent a fundamental change in how Beijing sees and treats its people, a temporary response funded by outside donors will only be that — temporary — and is an invitation for disasters of equal magnitude in future. Advocating a solution that (a) encourages immediate, albeit non-financial, help by foreign countries; and (b) would ensure that, through responsible investment by Beijing in infrastructure that meets safety standards, no such preventable catastrophe recurs, is hardly “callous” or a sign that I am “anti-Chinese.”

One writer takes the argument one step further and claims that ordinary Chinese will take note of Taiwan’s generosity and that this acknowledgement would somehow convince Beijing to abandon its hostility toward Taiwan. First of all, the view that US$65 million in financial aid by Taipei would sway Beijing is ludicrous, as is the contention, made by the same author, that a more positive public opinion on Taiwan would bring about a change in Beijing’s cross-strait policies. Despite the author’s claim, when it comes to a sensitive issue such as Taiwan, the effect of public opinion on Beijing’s stance has been, is, and will remain next to nil. If all it took was for Taipei to give Beijing US$65 million to resolve the Taiwan Strait crisis, the former would have done that years or decades ago. To think that peace can be bought like this bespeaks a total lack of understanding of Beijing’s motivations and the conflict in general.

Those who accuse me of politicizing aid to China also commit the same error pundits have made for years about the Taiwan Strait — they neglect to take into consideration the fact that it is Beijing, not Taipei, that threatens force, conducts annual simulations of an invasion of the other’s territory, passed a law in 2005 making it “legal” to use military force against the other should it unilaterally declare or move toward independence, points increasingly accurate 1,400 missiles at it (adding about 100 a year) at its opponent, isolates it diplomatically and economically and seizes every occasion to humiliate its people, athletes, medical experts and diplomats. Have those critics ever accused Chinese of being “callous” or “heartless” for not criticizing their government about policies that could result in as many, if not more, casualties in Taiwan, or who fail to criticize Beijing for slaughtering Tibetans, or force-relocating hundreds of thousands of Chinese Muslims?

Not that, despite all this, Taiwan should not extend a helping hand to ordinary Chinese who have nothing to do with Beijing’s intolerance vis-à-vis Taiwan. In the name of humanity, it should, and the expertise it gained from its own devastating earthquake in 1999 (during which, we must note, Beijing did Taiwan great harm by forcing all humanitarian aid to be channeled through China before reaching Taiwan, costing precious time) could be decisive in saving lives in Sichuan. All I argue is that it might not be in Taiwan’s (and ordinary Chinese’s) interest to send money to Sichuan; and yet, my critics accuse me of encouraging those in Taiwan who supposedly revel at the suffering of Chinese (I have yet to find such a person) and seeking to “increase” or “maintain” tensions in the Taiwan Strait, as if Beijing weren’t the instigator and its actions didn’t matter in the equation. In fact, my reference to the Chinese military threat wasn’t even about politics. If ever there was politicization, it was made by my critics, not me. Rather — and I believe my article was clear on this — what I highlighted was the allocation of resources and how all the money used in threatening Taiwan could be better spent helping Chinese in need now and in future.

On a personal note, I did not spend C$6,000 of my own money in 2001 to obtain a diploma in humanitarian assistance only to adopt the belief that aid should be withheld because of politics. In fact, it is partly because of that diploma that I think it was incumbent on me to question whether there might not be ways to maximize the effectiveness of humanitarian aid while pressuring governments to deal more responsibly toward their own people.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Asia's grand chessboard

“The thing you have to understand,” a senior official at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said of China and India, “is that both of us think that the future belongs to us. We can’t both be right.” Nothing could be truer of the future struggle for power in Asia — except, perhaps, that in addition to India and China, Japan, which until recently had been the principal modernizer in the region, will also seek to regain its position of leadership. In Rivals, Bill Emmott, a former reporter for the Economist in Japan and, until 2006, the editor in chief of the magazine, shows us that no other region will have as fundamental an impact, or play as crucial a role, on the international scene than Asia in the coming decades.

Continued ...

Friday, May 23, 2008

Is financial help to China helpful?

The devastation caused by the powerful earthquake that hit Sichuan Province last week is undoubtedly shocking, and the unprecedented access that Chinese authorities have given to media (as opposed to foreign humanitarian workers, who have been barred from going in deep) has brought us images that would move even the most jaded of observers. Schools have been leveled, burying students. Upwards of 5 million people are now homeless and at least 50,000 people are believed to have died. As is often the case following a natural catastrophe, the region surrounding the affected country shifts into donor mode and starts sending help, both material and financial. In Taiwan, televised pledges have been organized; the government has offered NT$2 billion (US$65 million) while banks have offered more, as have former vice-president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), among others. Aid organizations have begun collecting money at street corners, and starting this week, whenever one buys a 本日 coffee (coffee of the day) at Starbucks, NT$10 will be donated to China.

There is no doubt that China needs help — but not in the form of money, of which it has plenty. Yes, schools and hospitals need to be rebuilt, but given the high rate of schools/hospitals versus, say, office buildings that were crushed, it is evident that, through neglect or corruption, they had not been built as per safety norms. Furthermore, as I argue in "Why are we sending aid to China?", published today in the Taipei Times, providing financial aid to China deresponsibilizes the government in Beijing and ensures that it will not face the pressure it should be facing from disgruntled citizens in the hard-hit, poorer areas of the country.

If money is to be sent, I would encourage people to do so for Myanmar, where the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis has far exceeded that seen in China and whose government, despite its criminal neglect, has by no means the state coffers that Beijing does (see event, organized by the Taiwanese Red Cross, on the left).

Far from being callous in the face of human suffering, I advocate humanitarian assistance that will not only help those in need immediately, but also in the longer term by compelling their governments to distribute wealth in a more equitable fashion to ensure that infrastructures everywhere meet safety standards.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Criminals, terrorists all too human

I had the great pleasure yesterday morning of attending a lecture by Chin Ko-lin, the reputed scholar of all things criminal from Rutgers University in New Jersey and author of, among other works, Heijin (“black gold”), about the interaction of organized crime, business and politics in Taiwan. Mr. Chin was briefly in Taiwan before heading for Southeast Asia do conduct research on the sex trade in the region for his upcoming book (to be published by Cornell University press later this year).

After giving a brief overview of what turned him on, about two decades ago, to the underworld and providing an update on the crime situation in Taiwan and East Asia, Mr. Chin fielded questions from the audience, about two dozen journalists and members of the media who had gathered at café Ting Ting Cui Yu on Anhe Road.

What had particularly piqued my curiosity during his enlightening presentation was the access he had been given from members of various criminal organizations (prostitutes, “snakeheads,” movers, gang leaders and so on) in Taiwan, China, the US and elsewhere. What intrigued me even more was the fact that many of the individuals he interviewed were aware that he had received a grant from the US government to conduct his research, which anyone with an instinct for self-preservation would have construed as proof that Mr. Chin was an agent, or tool, of the US government.

My questions to him, therefore, were (a) how he had managed to win the trust of individuals who, most assuredly, stood to gain nothing from having their modus operandi and structure published in an open-source publication accessible to all; (b) did any of them suspect he might be working undercover for the police; and (c) whether the need to maintain access to the underworld might not have had an impact on his freedom to write what he wants. After all, what good would it be to him if, by publishing a book or a report, he ended up “burning” his sources (e.g., they get arrested), news of which, given the interconnectedness of criminal groups, would quickly spread? The analogy I used while formulating the latter question was the following: Let’s say that I travel to Beirut, Lebanon, to write a book about Hezbollah — what it is, its leadership, structure, and how it operates. Then, once my book is published (and has been read by various intelligence agencies), I decide to write a second book, this time about, say, the Palestinian Hamas, or Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), two organizations that, according to intelligence, are believed to have contacts, at some level, with Hezbollah, in similar fashion to how the Bamboo Union, for example, would have ties with other organizations in China.

According to Mr. Chin, while there was some danger involved in his penetration of the criminal world, criminals were quite eager to discuss their trade, which reminded me of what I had been told during training as an intelligence officer a few years ago: Human beings, no matter what they do, like to talk — about themselves. In other words, regardless of the nature of one’s work, a flattered ego often trumps the need for secrecy. Mr. Chin also pointed out that he relied heavily on individuals in situ — contacts, family, etc, who could put him in touch with other participants in the long criminal chain. Speaking the language — the local dialect, even — was primordial.

Ultimately, however, the main reason why criminals accepted to discuss their activities and lowered their guard, as it were, in a way that prima facie would seem counterintuitive, was that the very nature of crime syndicates — who does what, how and where — is in constant flux, with no congealed or even predetermined channels of operation. From the drug trade to human trafficking, the cargo is moved around in extemporary fashion rather than following predetermined routes. For example, a woman who “bought” her way to the US (at a cost today of about US$82,000) could be smuggled from Fujian Province to, say, Bangkok, Thailand, where she will remain in a safe house until the next leg of her journey opens up. It could be 24 hours before she is moved, or a week. The next transit point on her way to the US is changeable, too, and often unknown to the movers themselves until an opportunity shows up (a bit like how packets of information choose different routes, sometimes even splitting, as they travel from query point to destination on the World Wide Web).

This ongoing systemic reconfiguration — the result of the fluidity of transit points and the need to stay one step ahead of and adapt to law enforcement — means that by the time a study or a book is published, the structure of the organization will have changed dramatically, to such an extent that it will be of little use to police. As such, the seemingly inherent danger in sharing information with the likes of Mr. Chin is much lower than one would think, and will rarely result in the dismantlement of a criminal organization or even the arrest of a single individual. Egos can be flattered, principles of criminality can be discussed in academia, but the insiders, or “sources,” run very little risk (of arrest, or of being seen as traitors by the organizations they belong to) in talking about themselves.

While Mr. Chin’s presentation pertained to the criminal world, intelligence agencies dealing with non-state actors and terrorist organizations could also take away a few lessons from this. First, sources may be more willing to talk about themselves and their organizations than is generally assumed because, as with criminal organizations, of the constantly changing nature and structure of terrorist organizations. Given the inherent slowness of paperwork-heavy governmental organizations and the targeting and warranting process that precedes an investigation (which we could equate with the time it takes before a manuscript is turned into a book), sources can probably assume that by the time a government agency actually acts on whatever information he or she has provided, the terrorist group will have mutated to such an extent as to be virtually unrecognizable from what it looked like at the time the information was provided. This is even truer for sources who, like Khaled Sheikh Mohammed of al-Qaeda, have been in detention for years and whose picture of the structure of the organization they belonged to before their capture will bear little resemblance to what it is today.

As such, just as with law enforcement, intelligence agencies targeting sub-state groups with loose structures, such as al-Qaeda, will have to rethink how they gather information about them and find ways to drastically accelerate the process through which collection of information translates into action. Under the current system, by the time, say, a warrant for a wiretap has been approved, the individual whose line is to be monitored may very well have moved on to something different.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Special advisers: good or bad?

President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was all but forced to abandon the use of special advisers after a sustained campaign by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) succeeded in portraying the positions as part of an expensive and ultimately unnecessary scheme to enrich close friends of the president. Accurate or not, those allegations led to the end of special advisers … until Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT was elected president in March. In a short article published in the Taipei Times today, I explore some of the potential dangers that lie in a KMT-led resurrection of special advisers. Readers can access the full article by clicking here.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The CCP's thirst for survival

Following the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, predictions that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was next became in fashion. While the “pessimists” have made careers predicting chaos, fissiparous dissolution or a military takeover in China, the “optimists” have argued that a democratic spring is just around the corner. In most instances, those prognostications were predicated on a monolithic CPP that is little more than a Chinese version of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). In China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy program at George Washington University, argues that the CCP has been anything but complacent since the fall of the Soviet Union and that, above all, its principal objective has been to ensure its survival ...

Click here for full text.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Who will remember the Catastrophe?

Israeli President Shimon Peres proudly announced yesterday that a group of top personalities would attend a two-day conference, from May 13 to15, as part of activities surrounding the 60th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The list of luminaries whose attendance has been confirmed includes: US President George W. Bush, actress Barbra Streisand, former British prime minister Tony Blair, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, former national security adviser Henry Kissinger, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, former Czech president Vaclav Havel, Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz, Google founder Sergey Brinn, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman, Ratan Tata, chairman of India’s Tata group, US billionaire Sheldon Adelson and former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid.

While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with celebrating the creation of a state, one wonders if the lineup of eminences grises who will be attending the events in Israel will be mirrored on the Palestinian side in remembrance of al-Nakba, or “The Catastrophe,” the mass uprooting of Palestinians, accompanied by violence, that resulted from the creation of the Jewish state. Will anyone stand with the underdog in remembering the birth pangs of a people’s multigenerational suffering, or for that matter, will any of the personalities attending the Jewish festivities — many of whom individuals who have themselves participated in the liberation of their people or spoken in favor of liberty and justice — bring the plight of Palestinians to the fore? Will Vaclav Havel, the symbol of a persecuted people under communist rule in Czechoslovakia, shoot from the heart in Jerusalem and stand with Palestinians, just as he stood with Taiwanese? Will Mikhail Gorbachev, who has basked in the light of the totalitarian regime he helped topple, speak for the downtrodden?

Congratulations Israel for your birth, and shame on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for referring today to the state as a “rotting corpse.” But in the coming days, my heart will be with the Palestinians, whose own anniversary will largely go unnoticed by the international elite for reasons that go well beyond the fact that Palestinians certainly do not have the kind of money that Jerusalem will be spending on celebrations this week.

To al-Nakba, and may the next sixty years bring a just resolution to this grave injustice.