June 29, 2012
June 29, 2012
The Fast and the Ridiculous: The conspiracy theories over the controversial ATF gun-tracking program are flying, and not just in GOP chambers. In Mexico, it’s taken as fact that the United States is backing the drug cartels.
June 29, 2012
The majority members of the U.S. House Oversight Committee have been granted their fondest wish — their investigation into Operation Fast and Furious has caused the biggest proto-scandal in Washington, thanks to Attorney General Eric Holder’s refusal to hand over documents and a House panel’s vote last week to recommend the chamber cite him with contempt. No longer the private obsession of the right-wing media, Fast and Furious is on front pages and leading news broadcasts around the United States.
At issue now are two questions. First, what was the exact intent and oversight of the operation, run out of the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)? The agency says it was meant to track illicit guns going over the border into Mexico, as part of an effort to build cases against major smugglers. Where cross-border gunrunning is concerned, ATF is usually confined to interdicting low-level purchasers, thanks to crippling investigative limits put on it by Congress.
Fast and Furious evolved out of a larger initiative, Project Gunrunner, an ambitious plan to extend the ATF’s investigative reach into Mexico and put the agency on more equal footing with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which leads the war on drugs and has informants embedded deep in the cartels. The controversial tactic of allowing guns to “walk” in order to see where they go, the central issue in the investigation, began late in George W. Bush’s administration and was carried over into President Barack Obama’s term. Between 2009 and 2011, the ATF lost track of thousands of guns, according to certain agents. Some reached criminal gangs in Mexico (which was the point), including two that were found at the scene of a 2010 shootout where Brian Terry, a U.S. Border Patrol agent, was killed. Others have appeared at crime scenes around Mexico.
The second question, which has pushed the ATF into the background, is what the attorney general is refusing to show the House Oversight Committee. While Holder has turned over 7,600 documents, as he never fails to remind the committee, he won’t release memos and emails that committee members believe detail Justice Department debates about how to handle the Fast and Furious fallout. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and other congressional Republicans make it no secret that they think Holder is running a coverup. They were more coy about suspicions that Obama is privy to it, but his decision last week to exert executive privilege on Holder’s behalf has put an end to that.
Longtime critics of the ATF, from a libertarian banker I recently dined with to National Rifle Association director Wayne LaPierre, claim to believe the corruption runs much deeper. They say Fast and Furious proves the agency has been funneling guns to Mexican criminal organizations. Why the ATF would be doing this — and making official policy of it — is never part of the argument. Nonetheless, it’s a short leap from that rock over the stream of reason and onto the one where Obama is actively working with Mexican cartels — a belief that many Americans hold (just Google it).
While that sounds preposterous to most of us, including (one assumes) to most critics of the president, there is a place where the levelheaded believe what the anti-government fringe in the United States believes, and where Fast and Furious is a constant topic of conversation — Mexico. Issa’s investigation is a mainstay of news coverage there. Go on the comment boards of Mexican newspapers such as La Prensa or magazines such as Proceso, and you’ll find that readers mention Fast and Furious, in conspiratorial tones, at every chance.
This spring, I was in Culiacán, home to the Sinaloa cartel and some of the worst recent violence in Mexico. Beginning in 2007, just as Project Gunrunner was getting started, the cartel’s leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, was challenged for supremacy by a gang from the east, Los Zetas, and by the Beltrán-Leyvas, a quartet of murderous brothers who had once worked for Chapo. Gun battles broke out in the plazas and streets of Culiacán on a daily basis. Heads rolled, literally, a lot of them.
When I was there, the situation had stabilized somewhat — the Beltrán-Leyvas had been mostly defeated, and the Zetas had been pushed to Sinaloa’s smaller cities — but it was still, by any sane standards, insane. On my second night in town, 12 bodies belonging to an amateurish crew ofpistoleros were found around town. Later, a police captain and his brother were gunned down a few blocks from the central square…
An Islamist Middle East? The Muslim Brotherhood has its problems, but it may be more inclined to democracy than we realize.
June 29, 2012
The overthrow of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East over the past eighteen months has brought Islamists to power. Beyond its victory in the presidential election in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood holds 47 percent of the seats in Egypt’s parliament and received 40 percent of the votes in parliamentary elections in Tunisia. It leads the political opposition in Jordan and in Palestine’s West Bank; in Hamas, it took control by force after elections in Palestine’s Gaza. It will probably lead a post-Assad Syria. The Brotherhood is likely to be the dominant political force in the Arab world if democracy takes hold, and even if it doesn’t.
One of the main fears about the Muslim Brotherhood is that its election to power will lead to “one man, one vote, one time.” That is, they will attain power by political means and never relinquish it. Another concern is that Brotherhood-dominated governments will be inimical to American interests—that they will tolerate and perhaps even foster terrorism, become a threat to American allies in the region, complicate international efforts to sanction Iran, and abrogate the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Both are legitimate concerns, but neither is a foregone conclusion.
In May, I had the opportunity to spend some time in Doha with newly-elected members of the parliaments of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, as well as civil society leaders, journalists, and government officials from Islamic countries. Participants were not only Muslims from Arab countries, but also those from countries like Indonesia, Turkey, Malaysia, and the United States. For the latter group, the vision of the role of Islam in society is much more congenial than our caricature of “the Arab street.” That said, the center of attention at the “U.S. and the Islamic World” meeting was the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist politicians from the newly-democratic states of the Middle East.
The Islamist leaders present were perhaps not representative of the broader movement. There would naturally be a selection bias toward those that want to engage with the West, and often a tendency to choose representatives who speak English; the meeting tried to control for both of those factors, and it seemed to do a good job of it. It was the first opportunity for many Americans to try and understand what these new political actors will bring to their offices.
There was lots of incendiary talk (“We are seeing the collapse of the Egyptian state,” in the words of one Egyptian) conflicting demands (opposition to tied aid if they win the forthcoming elections, but insistence on restrictions should their political opponents win), and ominous portents (“no non-Muslim should be elected,” in the words of another Egyptian). There is little doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood is not going to be a comfortable partner for the United States.
That said, it does reflect mainstream views by citizens of those countries. There are reasons to believe that having peacefully participated in the democratic process (unlike Hamas and Hezbollah), the Muslim Brotherhood will be limited by the same forces of public opinion that temper politics in other democratic countries.
The Muslim Brotherhood operates with decentralized national branches in many countries (including the United States). The different branches, however, share core beliefs. They clearly seek to attain political power in order to foster wide-ranging social change. Make no mistake, the Brotherhood is not a status quo political party. It would institute Sharia law, deny women the political and social latitude of men, and, if history is a precedent, be hostile to non-Muslims.
The Brotherhood: A friend of Democracy?
But this does not mean the Muslim Brotherhood would necessarily be a threat to democratic governance in the countries in which it has a dominant political role. It has for years been a regular parliamentary participant in Jordan even though the monarchy refused it the right to form a government. The Brotherhood’s leading ideologue, the Egyptian theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has for more than a decade advocated that Muslim Brothers run for elected office.
In Egypt, the influence of the Brotherhood’s Islamist agenda accounts for less of their appeal than their long-standing opposition to the Mubarak government. Egyptian politicians are keenly aware that while most Egyptians support an Islamic government, polling of public attitudes indicates Islam is not a priority for Egyptian voters—only 3 percent of respondents in recent polls considered Sharia law an important issue. Egyptians are overwhelmingly concerned about security, the economy, and justice.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is not Hamas or Hezbollah, at least not yet. It does not bring violence into the political sphere. It was not the motivating force in toppling Hosni Mubarak; in fact, its members were late to the revolution. But the Brotherhood capitalized on its decades of political organization and social activism to dominate the elections.
This should not have been surprising; the Brotherhood had a structural advantage over all of the other political parties just forming. But the sharp decline in support for Brotherhood candidates in Egypt’s June 2012 presidential elections suggested that voters were irritated at the Brotherhood’s ineffectualness in Parliament, concerned that it broke its promise not to run a candidate in the presidential elections, and worried about Islamist domination of Egypt’s politics.
Though Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi did win the election, the Egyptian voters expressed real concern about these issues during presidential polling. Exit polls suggest voters were even more distrustful of the military’s candidate, worried the secular candidate represented the Mubarak past. Voters also resented the military’s moves to usurp Parliament and the Constitution drafting process. For now, it looks like Egyptians are holding the Muslim Brotherhood accountable for their political actions, not just their ideological appeal…
Citizen Scholars: ‘If democracy was more than a moral fig leaf, it presumed popular assent based on a degree of knowledge’
June 29, 2012
As the democratic franchise expanded in the 19th century, British historians were eager to offer an informed view of the past to the new electorate. We need similar initiatives today.
History Today, as befits its name, stakes a good deal on the topicality of its subject matter. Introducing the first issue in 1951 the editors, Peter Quennell and Alan Hodge, asserted that historians were better qualified than most to make sense of the massive changes through which contemporaries were living. Regular features in the magazine like ‘History Matters’ and ‘Today’s History’ support that claim. Yet applying historical perspective to current concerns has a lowly place in public debate in Britain today. Countless issues in both domestic and international affairs, from military action in Afghanistan to the presumed debt crisis in the public finances, are considered by voters without benefit of historical perspective. Part of the reason for this shortfall is that historians themselves do not press home the practical claims of their discipline, in the belief that to do so would conflict with their scholarly credentials. Yet there is a serious and longstanding argument to be made that history is a citizen’s resource, essential to social awareness and political choice. Up until the Second World War historians of varying stripe promoted their discipline in this way, with some influence on public opinion. It is an aspect of the history of our discipline that has been neglected in recent accounts.
History and representative democracy have been yoked together since the mid-Victorian era. In 1867 the Second Reform Act not only enfranchised a substantial proportion of the male working class but was taken to be a critical step on the road to an even more inclusive democracy. Two leading historians reflected on the implications for their craft. They could not have been more different in temperament and politics, but they were agreed on the civic importance of history. J.R. Seeley (1834-95) was Regius Professor at Cambridge and an exponent of international relations and imperial history. He regarded these subjects as essential knowledge for the future governing class (strongly represented in his lectures), declaring in 1870 that history was ‘the school of statesmanship’. It has been less often noticed that Seeley also maintained that history was the best training for an informed electorate. ‘Without at least a little knowledge of history no man can take a rational interest in politics, and no man can form a rational judgment about them without a good deal.’ In a free country, said Seeley, some instruction is needed to ensure that citizens ‘may follow with some intelligence the march of contemporary history’. In a later lecture he remarked: ‘I show you the reigns of George II and George III, not as a mere by-gone period … but as a storehouse of materials by which we are to solve the greatest and most urgent of political problems.’ He had no qualms about rejecting the Rankean ideal of history for its own sake. Seeley stood for a ‘present history’, not ‘a past history’. In this he anticipated the academic champions of contemporary history a hundred years later.
William Stubbs (1825-1901) was appointed Regius Professor at Oxford in the same year as the Second Reform Act. As a medievalist, a Tory and a pillar of the established church, he does not sound a likely champion for a citizen’s history. But in his inaugural lecture he declared that the value of history lay not in vivid incidents or compelling narrative, but in its capacity to teach ‘judgment’. By this he meant the ability to provide serious historical perspective on passing events and to recognise their true complexity. The purpose of a historical education was to train ‘citizens … to be fitted not for criticism or for authority in matters of memory, but for action’. By ‘citizens’ he seems at this stage to have had in mind only the future leaders in church and state who were studying history at university. But in 1877 he defined the concept of citizenship much more inclusively. Stubbs advocated the serious study of history in the recently expanded elementary school system. If history could be firmly established in the new state schools, it would furnish ‘the next generation of Englishmen with the means of exercising conscientiously, honestly and judicially, the great political power which is now in their hands’. History taught ‘for ordinary practical purposes’ would give the citizen a better understanding of the world and equip him to vote intelligently. Here was the germ of the idea that historical perspective should be made available to citizens.
The lecture halls of Victorian Oxford and Cambridge were a long way from grassroots political debate and neither Seeley nor Stubbs made a significant public impact. What gave their ideas an urgent practicality was the First World War. The war had major consequences for the subject of history, not only because it gave a big impetus to the study of international relations, but because the subject’s explanatory claims became much more evident to lay people. If not quite the first time that university historians had tried to disseminate their expertise on foreign affairs, it was the first time they were noticed. The moment was scarcely propitious for a dispassionate appraisal of German war aims or of German culture. Why We Are At War, a pamphlet rushed out in 1914 by six Oxford historians, echoed popular Germanophobia. But in the longer run what counted was not partisan rhetoric but reasoned historical explanation. A lead was taken by the historian of Tudor England, A.F. Pollard (1869-1948). The onset of war prompted him to throw himself into the minutiae of recent international history. His new-found expertise was such that in 1917 the Foreign Office appointed him to serve on a League of Nations committee, to report on previous schemes for the limitation of war. But Pollard did not confine himself to the corridors of power. He wrote a stream of articles for the press on German war aims, the freedom of the seas, the Russian Revolution and other current issues, all of them brought together in his book The Commonwealth at War, published in 1917. He was also an effective proponent of history’s public role. The need of ordinary people for historical enlightenment was all the greater, he declared, now that they had a measure of political power, since otherwise they would be at the mercy of the sensationalist press. The antidote was a historical journal directed at an extra-university readership. In 1916 the Historical Association, founded in 1906, took over a semi-defunct journal called History. Pollard was the founding editor. In his first editorial he declared: ‘This war is creating problems which can only be solved in the light of history.’ In a passage that could have been penned by Seeley, he continued:
We may even seek to bring the light of history to bear on the study of politics, and to supply in some measure that notable void in British intellectual equipment, the absence of any review which systematically endeavours to link the past with the present and to test modern experiment by historic experience. [emphasis added]
Like History Today, History carried many articles that sought to introduce a historical perspective, chiefly into international and imperial affairs: Britain’s troubled relationship with Irish republicanism, the historical antecedents of the Polish question and so on…