Sunday, March 31, 2013

President Obama’s visit to Israel: A public engagement to please Israel

Daily Sun
March 31st., 2013
M. Serajul Islam

President Obama’s just completed a three day visit to Israel that was a standout for two reasons. First, it was his first overseas trip after his re-election. Second, it was his first to Israel as President. That a US President would spend a whole first term and not visit its closest ally in the Middle East once (this apart, Israel’s importance to USA both in domestic and foreign affairs contexts is unquestioned) was unbelievable but true. Nevertheless, it was also surprising that he chose this ally for his first overseas visit on his second term because of the poor personal relationship that the two demonstrated in the last four years each has been in charge of his respective country.

In fact, so poor was the relationship that Prime Minister Netanyahu openly supported Governor Mitt Romney when he contested in the last presidential election against President Obama. President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s publicly demonstrated dislike for each other was a main focus of the international media in the context of USA-Israel relations and news from the region. In his first term, President Obama did something that the Israelis thought was even worse.

When he went to Egypt in 2009 and made what he expected to be a landmark visit to heal the wounds on the Muslim world that President Bush’s war on terror had inflicted, he ignored the Israelis. The fact that he travelled from Cairo to Germany after the speech to underscore the holocaust was more objectionable as it undermined Israel’s biblical and historical claim to statehood. This time, the President did a reverse of the Cairo trip of his first term. He ignored the Palestinians almost totally except for a  meeting with the Palestinian President and the Prime Minister and that too, to remind them to do things the Israelis would want.

In retrospect, the visit did not achieve much on substance. It however achieved a lot to make the Israelis and Prime Minister Netanyahu happy. President Obama corrected what the Israelis were upset about in his first term, his failure to stress Israeli’s biblical and historical claims on its present territory. Thus immediately upon alighting from Air Force One, he said at the airport ceremony: “More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people prayed here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish state of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.” He also visited the grave Theodor Hertezl the 19th century Hungarian Jew who envisioned building Israel on Palestinian land (but avoided visiting the grave of Yassir Arafat) and viewed an exhibition of Dead Sea Scrolls to please Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

The President’s irport  speech set the theme of his visit which was to correct the mistakes of his first term and to get on the right side of the Israelis and also of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Every program of the visit was carefully designed to achieve this objective. In fact, so unabashedly and overtly did Present Obama try to please the Israeli Prime Minister that Washington Post commented that “the unusual degree of solidarity” between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu was “either a turn in their vital if volatile relationship or a cool tactical display of diplomatic theater.”

Whatever be the real reasons behind the President’s move towards Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu, he was able to make his case of appeasement to both a strong one. This was evidently visible from the public display of warmth between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Apart from their broad smiles, the two went to make personal references to each other’s family that also did not fail to catch the eye of everyone. When President Obama made references to the sons of Benjamin Netanyahu as having taken their handsome looks from their mother, the Israeli Prime Minister quickly responded, “I could say the same of your daughters! These very personal exchanges took place while the President visited the residence of the Israeli Prime Minister that in itself was crafted into the schedule as a “tactical display of diplomatic theatre.”

Nevertheless, the two sides also did not waste the opportunity of discussing the main issues of concern between the two countries. The most important of these was their past differences on Iran. President Obama was able to convince his host to relent on his country’s intention to attack Iran to take out its nuclear capabilities on the assumption that it had crossed the “red line” to give diplomacy a chance. The Israeli Prime Minister said that he thought “there’s a misunderstanding about time. If Iran decides to go for a nuclear weapon — that is, to actually manufacture the weapon — then it will take them about a year.”

In return, the President committed his administration to provide US$ 200 million for the Iron Dome system that proved very successful in dealing with the missiles and rockets from Hammas recently. The President said that “Israel’s security needs are truly unique” and in that context stressed that he and the Israeli prime Minister would start talks to extend USA’s military aid commitment to Israel after it expired in 2017. 

Analysts are still unsure whether the public display of warmth of the two leaders was genuine. Nevertheless, they felt that the change of stand of Israel on “the red line” would create pressure upon Iran to convince its leaders that it is, as President Obama has suggested on this visit to Israel, not in their interest to pursue the option to build the nuclear bomb. This was the major concession that President Obama was able to get from the Israelis. The President was also able to get a commitment from the Israeli Prime Minister for the “two state” solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict but for a heavy price in the asking. These apart, it was President Obama that made the concessions and commitments and public displays of the importance of Israel to the United States to please Israel a lot of it at the expense of the Palestinians.

He called upon the Palestinians to go for the peace talks that was held only briefly during the entire first term of President Obama by withdrawing their demand on stopping the illegal settlements. In this call, the US President’s commitment in his first term to the Palestinians to back their legitimate claim for return of Palestine land to pre-1967 borders with also a claim on a part of Jerusalem was forgotten.  Although the new US Secretary of State John Kerry was on the visit and the President said that he would guide the peace talks between the two sides, he did not suggest any plan to start the peace talks. He did of course make some references to issues in the talks that have all been favourable to the Israelis and none to the Palestinians. 

Thus the US President’s visit to Israel was little more than a public relations exercise to please the Israelis and his domestic constituents. It will do very little to encourage the Palestinian to hope for a resolution to their sad and unfortunate predicament. President Obama has given Israel the historical and biblical stamp of legitimacy that Israel wanted, mostly at the expense of the Palestinians who have been left at the mercy of the Israelis. To the Muslim world that was encouraged by President Obama’s Cairo speech of 2009, this visit was a perfect U-turn, an “insult” as a prominent Arab scholar Dr. Ghada Karimi stated. Perhaps this was a pay back to the Palestinians for displeasing the United States with their UN initiative last year towards statehood.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt and the Chairman, CFAS

Death of a President, Shahabag and the 1972 Constitution

The Independent
March 30, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

Two recent events in the country, the death of President Zillur Rahman and the Shahabag youth movement, have shown that the Constitution of 1972 that the secular forces of the country want to be restored to establish secularism in its pristine glory,  is after all not such an impressive document after all.  The death of President Zillur Rahman has shown how little the framers of the 1972 Constitution had focused on the important institution of the President of the Republic. Zillur Rahman is the first among the 19 President of the country to die in office and that too while in the final year of his 5 year term. His death in office has revealed the 1972 Constitution’s shortcomings on framing the provision on this important institution.  Under the relevant provision of the Constitution, the parliament must now elect a new President within 90 days. This is not a problem. The problem arises from the fact that the new President will be elected for another full five year term.

This will mean that the new President will be in office for full four years and a little more in the term of the next parliament. If the ruling party wins the next election, then no one will be wiser with this particular provision of the Constitution and the thoughtlessness with which it was put there. However, if the BNP wins the next election, then there will be a big problem. In the parliamentary system as conceived by the framers of the Bangladesh Constitution, the President is a ceremonial figure with practically no powers at all. He has to sign on the dotted line the way the Prime Minister wants or wishes. In fact, the Bangladesh Constitution in exceptional in the fact that it  gives the Prime Minister virtually dictatorial powers over the ceremonial head of state  unlike other parliamentary systems where the ceremonial head is required to follow the dictates of the cabinet.

Nevertheless, despite the ceremonial nature of the powers of the Bangladesh President, he (or she) can be a pain in the neck in the smooth functioning of the parliamentary system in the country when  he/she chooses to be difficult. The country witnessed a glimpse of this when the row between   President Abdur Rahman Biswas and the Army Chief took place in 1996 while the country was under the caretaker system and the President dismissed the Army Chief. The President’s decision was backed by the Head of the Caretaker Government that averted the crisis. President Biswas continued to be difficult till the AL dominated parliament elected Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed as the President soon afterwards and the grave crisis into which President Biswas threatened to push the country was forgotten.

President Zillur Rahman’s death has created the same situation as President Biswas had threatened in 1996, only this time politics has become more polarized where the bad faith between the two parties has intensified and each has shown the clear intent to annihilate the other. In such a situation, this particular provision of the Bangladesh Constitution is potentially a dangerous one because it has in it the seeds of not just bringing the government to a standstill but also to push the country to the edge. In the framers of the Bangladesh Constitution had a little vision, they could have corrected a massive error by simply stating that if a President died in office, the parliament would elect a new President to complete the term of the outgoing one. This would also have defended the constitution from a serious shortcoming; that of allowing an outgoing parliament to choose a President who would hold the maximum part of his tenure when a new parliament would be in place. Quite clearly, the framers of the 1972 constitution were not thinking about the possibility of a two-party system ever coming into existence in Bangladesh. Perhaps, the personality of Bangabandhu had influenced them too much to think of the office of the President seriously.

Those who want the restoration of the 1972 constitution to its original form, particularly on the issue of secularism must now take note of the Shahabag movement and think again about their demand to delete the Islamic provisions from the Bangladesh Constitution to restore the spirit of the 1972 Constitution.  The framers of the Bangladesh Constitution had placed secularism as a fundamental state policy. They  ignored the fact that the fundamental character of the Bangladesh society is the faith of its people on Islam, with of 90% of them proud to be Muslim. They simply assumed that as the Pakistani military and its local collaborators used Islam to commit crimes against humanity, they could push the religion of the majority out of public life and make it a private matter for them.

Shahabag has proved that the majority of the people of Bangladesh would like those who committed the crimes against humanity in 1971 to be served capital punishment. However, Shahabag also proved publicly that their feeling for   Islam runs much deeper.  Thus when the Islamic provisions were inserted in the Bangladesh Constitution after August 15, 1975, they did not disagree with the Islamic insertions although they may not have agreed with the regimes that put these provisions in the Constitution. However, when a small section of secularists who have an issue with Islam became vocal for deleting the Islamic provisions after the Supreme Court ruling on the 5th Amendment, they did not support their demand because they saw no harm in keeping the Islamic provisions or why this small group was so vocal for the deletion. Shahabag confronted them with a choice and they voiced that choice for Islam without in anyway undermining the demand of the youth for the maximum punishment for the alleged war criminals.

Islam and secularism have co-existed in Bangladesh for centuries primarily because of the influence of Sufism that has given its people a sense of tolerance that is a matter of pride for the majority of the Muslims of the country. Shahabag has established the fact that the majority of the Muslims of the country want Islam to be respected first and foremost. When the criminally abusive postings on Islam and Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) became public at a time when the euphoria about Shahabag was at its peak, its leaders failed to realize its potentials to damage their movement. At first, they blamed Jamat that did not succeed because some of the bloggers present in Shahabag were earlier reprimanded in a Dhaka Court for their anti-Islamic postings. The Shahabag movement then disassociated themselves from these anti-Islam but failed to condemn these postings and therefore failed to defend Islam. The fact that some secularists who have been demanding strongly for deletion of the Islamic provisions were present in Shahabag did not help the cause of Shahabag as many moved away from the movement for the anti-Islam postings that hurt the feelings of the Muslims deeply.

The death of the President and Shahabag has thus proved that the Constitution of 1972 is not really the ideal one that the secular forces would want us to believe. It was not framed with much of a vision or a good assessment of the society. Nevertheless, it may not be entirely fair to blame the framers for the way the 1972 Constitution has failed to deliver the expectations of the people; the governments that came to power must take a bigger share of the blame for the current predicament of the 1972 Constitution for having used and interpreted it to serve their very narrow self interests. Had it not been the 15 years of military rule, Bangladesh would have had 17 Presidents in 27 years! That alone shows what a mess the framers made with the Constitution while trying to establish the parliamentary form of government for the country with the image of a particular individual in perspective.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

Monday, March 25, 2013

US’s foreign wars: Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan

The Daily Sun
Sunday, 24th March, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

I picked two new items in the papers on US’ involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan that made me wonder about what made it go to these faraway lands, what price it paid and what it has achieved. Ten years ago, the US had started the Iraq war leaving the war on terror in Afghanistan to take out Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). It came back to Afghanistan after removing Saddam Hussein from power and hanging him and achieving a regime change although it found no trace of the WMD that had took them there in the first instance.

It is now a decade since the US started the Iraq war and although Saddam Hussein is history, Iraq is far from becoming that model of democracy that the US promised to give the country once it became known that it had used the case of WMD as a false pretext to invade Iraq. In an engrossing article in The Washington Post, Professor Andrew J Bacevich stated that the United States has spent US$ 800 billion, sacrificed the lives of 4475 of its service men and women with an additional 32,221 of its troops injured in Iraq and asked a provocative question “So did we win?” He did not answer the question directly. Instead, he discussed a number of wars in modern history, including the First and Second Great Wars, and concluded that “battlefield outcomes thought to be conclusive often prove anything but.”

He discussed the First World War that started 99 years ago to show that although Great Britain was one of the victors of the war; the results were disastrous for it eventually. It went to the war among other objectives, “with a pretext for carving out the Ottoman Empire” but instead, the war “accelerated its demise.” He also discussed the 1967 Arab-Israel- war to show that although it ended with Israel victorious, it “saddled Israel with large, restive minority that it can neither pacify nor assimilate” and that the “ouster of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan” gave “rise to the Taliban.” In case of the Iraq war too, although the US has claimed that war ended successfully for it, the claim is a contested one. Neither peace nor democracy has returned there. The economy of Iraq is in shambles and by various estimates 1, 50,000 to a million people have been killed there due to sectarian violence that continues unabated.

Thus after all the huge sacrifices the USA made in terms of human lives and money, USA’s claim of victory in Iraq is at best a hollow one. In Afghanistan the US with its allies are still pursuing their objectives to establish peace and democracy there together with crushing the Taliban with very little time left to complete these tasks. In fact, as irony would have it, the US is now talking with the Taliban behind the back of President Hamid Karzai to ensure its safe exit from the country that President Obama has said would be achieved by end of 2014. As for peace and democracy, Afghanistan is as far from both as it was when the US and its allies entered the country in pursuit of President George’s Bush “war on terror.”

In a recent seminar in Dubai, experts on Afghanistan sat on the sidelines of the Emirates Literary Show to discuss which way the US involvement in Afghanistan was going.  The three speakers there were Sandy Gall, Abdul Bari Atwan and William Damrymple, all well known experts on Middle East and Afghanistan who raised the same concerns regarding Afghanistan that Andrew Bacevich raised in the context of Iraq. The conclusion was again the same that Andrew Bacevich reached on Iraq and other wars of the past that he described in the words of F Scott Fitzgerald, “The victor belongs to the spoils.”

All three speakers raised the question whether the West has lost the war in Afghanistan and answered in the affirmative. Abdul Bari Atwan said that “the Taliban are going to come back once the Americans leave the country.” William Damrymple reached the same conclusion and used a bit of history to confirm his conclusion. He said: “The truth be told, no one in history has been able to control the Afghans for long.” Sandy Gall also reached the same conclusion as his other two speakers, adding that the reason why Afghanistan will end as a failure for the West is because they entered the country with “no plan in place at all.”

It was thus no surprise that when the new US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel who went to Afghanistan on his first visit to that country  recently could not even hold a joint press conference with President Hamid Karzai, the first time ever that such an unbelievable thing happened with a top US visitor . In fact, the Afghan President postponed his joint press conference with the new US Defense Secretary on what was blatantly a lame excuse of security although the press conference was scheduled to be held inside the Presidential, the most secure place in all of Afghanistan. The Afghan President did not stop there. He blamed the US for having a hand in the latest violence in Kabul that he used to postpone the press conference that he said was carried out to create the condition for US and NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 deadline.

The disappointing fate of US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan has been acknowledged by the US administration. In his state of the union speech last February, the US President spoke strongly on the use of drones as a substitute to sending US troops to fight wars on foreign soil.  In fact, the underlying theme of that important speech was towards making his second administration inward looking with focus on domestic issues related to the economy, employment and healthcare. The theme also went well with the general thinking among the majority of Americans who are no longer interested in sacrificing their own men and women as well as their money for defending the cause of freedom and democracy on foreign soil.

The lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan together with the mood of most Americans against US’ foreign wars are important as the US administration comes under increasing pressure from Israel for attacking Iran to take out its alleged nuclear capabilities.  In his state of the union address, the President spoke firmly on his administration’s preference for the diplomatic option over the military one on Iran. The results from Iraq and Afghanistan together with the mood among most Americans should encourage the US President to push for the diplomatic option in his talks with the Israeli Prime Minister. The US President is in Israel at the time of writing this piece.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and the Chairman, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies, CFAS

What should Shahabag do now?

The Independent
Saturday, 23rd, March, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The initial successes of the Shahabag Gonojagoron Mancha (SGM) were indeed enthralling. The well led and peaceful movement attracted huge crowds from all sections of the society. A pliant government eagerly accepted all its demands although curiously it was its failure with the trial of the accused of war crimes that led to the youth to go to Shahabag. Then the movement started to lose its momentum when the unbelievably nasty anti-Islamic postings on some of the blogs of the Shahabag youth were revealed. People also started to withdraw from Shahabag when it became evident that the movement had gone to the hands of the ruling party. To shore up their decline, the leaders of the Shahabag tried to take their movement to Chittagong. There they met a formidable foe not in Jamat but the Hefazatul Islam (HI), a group not too well known to the people.

The HI just not stopped the SGM from entering Chittagong; it also promised to meet the SGM in the other districts of the country head on with its network of 700 Kwami Madrassahs spread across the country. It called the SGM a movement of atheist to defame Islam and its Prophet (pbuh) and urged its adherents to drive the supporters of the SGM from their districts. At first, the SGM threatened to take on HI in Chittagong. When HI flexed its muscles, the SGM called off its event in Chittagong; its first public admission of failure. It then sent a delegation to Chittagong to meet with the HI leaders to explain to them that their movement is not against Islam. HI snubbed the offer and the government stopped a delegation from Shahabag going to Chittagong at Feni apprehending serious trouble. Many wondered why the secular, progressive youth movement from Shahabag would want to sit down with Islamic fundamentalists such as the HI.

After failing in Chittagong, the SGM attempted to show its strength at Ashulia on the outskirts of Dhaka. It could gather a mere few thousand people, mostly activists of the ruling party and that too after the government provided armed police to protect   it from HI that had threatened to bring down the gathering! It also failed to spread the movement across the country as it had promised. Instead, the death sentence passed to Delwar Hossain Saydee after they demanded for it has pushed the country towards violence that the country has not seen since 1971 that has drawn people’s attention away from Shahabag to grater concerns about the stability and viability of the country.  Thus to recapture their lost momentum, the SGM leaders have called upon the youth to come together on April 21st at Shahabag. Quite evidently, the SGM is in serious trouble.

The chances of Shahabag regaining its lost glory seem remote. It must rue the mistakes that it made in the initial days of the movement. Its first big mistake was to allow known activists of the ruling party’s cultural front to be a part of the movement.  Although they successfully resisted the ruling party leaders from speaking from its platform, it did not take the latter too long to take control of the movement. Soon ministers/party leaders were making regular visits to Shahabag as if the movement was its own and the security agencies of the government were giving the movement protection like it was a political platform of the ruling party. As a result, the youth who had the nation behind it with its main demand of capital punishment for the accused in the war crimes trials, were soon making demands that fitted the political agenda of the ruling party. As opposition parties went against Shahabag, the youth went after them and then their speeches, slogans and demands were no different from those of the ruling party and reflected the realities of the bipartisan politics of the country.

The second major mistake of the SGM, in retrospect its major one, was its failure to react to the anti-Islam bloggers amongst them. These anti-Islam bloggers were well known to the Shahabag leaders for they had been reprimanded in a Dhaka Court not too long ago for their anti-Islam postings. Rajiv Haider who posted in his blogs the most offensive comments on Islam and the Prophet (pbuh) was made a martyr when he was killed in the early days of the movement.  His Janaza was held in Shahabag but in a manner that showed Shahabag’s scant respect for or understanding of Islam. In Islam, Janaza prayers are performed in 4 Takbirs with the coffin placed before those who gather for the prayer. Rajiv Haider’s Janaza was held in 3 Takbirs, where his coffin was placed at the centre and people from all religion gathered around it in circles! The SGM thus insensitively turned the Janaza of Rajiv Haider into an inter-faith event that many found offensive.

Initially, the movement blamed the offensive postings on Jamat. That did not sink with the public. The movement then tried to disassociate with those who posted the offensive blogs but by then the Islamic sentiments of the people had been aroused. Former President Ershad was quick to ascertain the political potentials of the anti-Islamic messages to harm the ruling party that supported the SGM like its own. He called the SGM a movement of Murtads (infidels who fight to destroy Islam) and by inference pointed the finger also at the ruling party. Jamat tried to capitalize from the anti-Islamic postings but the people did not come behind Jamat.

When Shahabag started, the BNP was caught totally unaware.  It gave qualified support to Shahabag worried that the youth were going to captivate the imagination and support of the people across the political divide. It watched, bewildered, the ruling party take ownership of the SGM and with it take a stranglehold on the politics of the country. The BNP  feared that  the failures of the AL, in particular issues like the share market scam, Hallmark, Destiny and the corruption over Padma Bridge  as well as its demand for the caretaker government would be forgotten and  SGM would deliver the ruling party another five years in power. Politics would indeed have gone that way had the HI and little known fundamentalist groups not gotten together to stand against the SGM and exposed the anti-Islamic messages that came out of a section of the youth at Shahabag.

The anti-Islamic postings of some of SMG bloggers came to the BNP as divine intervention.  It has turned politics around and the ruling party has been left bearing the responsibility for its failure to deal effectively with the anti-Islamic postings that has hurt the Islamic sentiments of the people very deeply. The BNP has seen in all these its chance to use the card of Islam not just to regain the ground it though it had lost when Shahabag raged but also to push the ruling party on the defensive because the SGM has established, although completely unintentionally, that the importance of Islam and respect for Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) are non-negotiable to the Muslims of Bangladesh and all else including capital punishment of the accused of war crimes that they otherwise want, secondary. The ruling party has thus landed on the wrong side with Islam by backing and owning the Shahabag youth that the BNP is going to utilize to its fullest advantage. The presence of secularists of the ruling party who have lobbied publicly for deleting the Islamic elements from the Bangladesh Constitution in Shahabag is not going to help the ruling party’s case to soothe the hurt feelings of the people.

The Shahabag  Movement has become involved in the zero-sum politics of the two mainstream parties but in a partisan way on the side of the ruling party. It is difficult to perceive that it will regain its lost glory. Nevertheless, the leaders of the SGM have a responsibility to try and do something for the country because their mistakes have pushed it to the edge of the precipice. They must immediately come out of the wings of the ruling party and assert strongly and convincingly that their movement is not against Islam. They must also demand that they will not go home until the two political parties find a way to hold the next elections by participation of all political parties because without it there may not be a country where the war crimes trials can be held to punish the accused. Most of all they must realize their mistake of pushing secularism into conflict with Islam in a country where the two have coexisted peacefully over many centuries to make forces such as Jamat politically insignificant.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.