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"The Washington Note" - 3 new articles

  1. Israel Kicks Down its own Democratic Hill?
  2. Pakistan-US Relations: The Worst Co-Dependency
  3. Ahmed Wali Karzai Assassinated
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Israel Kicks Down its own Democratic Hill?

knesset.jpgPart of the annual foreign policy ritual in Washington is that the US President, Vice President, and leading Members of Congress make major campaign and fundraising speeches, sign on to resolutions, and pledge unconditional support to Israel, often referring to it as "the only genuine democracy in the Middle East." 

But will it remain so?  The Israel Knesset just passed 47-38 a bill outlawing its citizens from supporting any anti-Israel boycotts.

I have been to Israel and am always impressed by how wide the margins of debate are there -- far wider than inside the DC Beltway where thought control harassment and political intimidation have become art forms when it comes to discussing Middle East dynamics. 

But in Israel, in the Knesset, there has been real debate for decades.  I've spent quality time discussing issues in a completely civil manner with Orthodox rabbis, with members of the Shas Party, with members even of Avigdor Lieberman's party.  I've talked with chairs of the various settlers' associations -- and have worked hard to develop relations across Labor, Kadima and Likud.  Israeli politicians play hardball with each other - and the country, in the end, is better for the level of civil society debate demanded by citizens.

Israel has an impressive rough and tumble democracy, or had.

There is just no doubt that Israel has been King of the Hill in democracy terms and now seems to be kicking down its own democratic hill with the passage of this law.  For the record, I don't support a boycott of Israel just like I don't support anyone burning the American flag. 

But free societies show themselves to be better and more stable than their totalitarian cousins because they allow free debate and governments allow themselves to be challenged by their own people. 

If South Africans, inside South Africa, had not supported the various boycotts of their country during the battle over Apartheid, then Mandela may have remained imprisoned and the despicable ethnic divide might have endured. 

Israel has just hoisted on itself the equivalence of a McCarthy-like witch hunt for those it feels might be traitors to the Greater Israel cause.  These kinds of loyalty oath stunts and such government brittleness undermine democracy and narrow national debate during times when its smarter to keep the gates of ideas as widely open as possible.

Despite today's vote, I don't think that Israel will careen off its more deeply embedded democratic foundation so quickly, but what passed should stand as a huge red flag for Israelis and those of us concerned for its future (and yes, I am).

One of my close mentors, the late and well known Japanese politics expert Hans Baerwald, told me that one really never knows the norms and real truth of a political system until observed under stress.

Real democracies need to cling to their basic code -- not take the shortest, most expeditious, extra-legal route in times of perceived national crisis and undermine the rights of citizens.  That violates basic trust -- and eventually plants the seeds of real rather than imagined rebellion.

-- Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic and can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons

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Pakistan-US Relations: The Worst Co-Dependency

obama zardari.jpgChristopher Hitchens just pulled all the sticky veneer off of a cancerous Pakistan-US relationship -- that has been going into the muck not just since we learned that Osama bin Laden was living somewhat pleasantly just down the street from Pakistan's West Point but much before, particularly when A.Q. Khan -- also living luxuriously and as a national hero in a well-buffed world called 'house arrest' -- was out pushing highly sensitive nuclear bomb-making technology to leaders of the world's most thuggish regimes.

Hitchens, not off his game at all, sets the rip at the beginning of his important Vanity Fair piece, "From Abbottabad to Worse":

Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal and religious kangaroo courts, if even a rumor of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In such an obscenely distorted context, the counterpart term to shame--which is the noble word "honor"--becomes most commonly associated with the word "killing." Moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter.

If the most elemental of human instincts becomes warped in this bizarre manner, other morbid symptoms will disclose themselves as well. Thus, President Asif Ali Zardari cringes daily in front of the forces who openly murdered his wife, Benazir Bhutto, and who then contemptuously ordered the crime scene cleansed with fire hoses, as if to spit even on the pretense of an investigation. A man so lacking in pride--indeed lacking in manliness--will seek desperately to compensate in other ways. Swelling his puny chest even more, he promises to resist the mighty United States, and to defend Pakistan's holy "sovereignty." This puffery and posing might perhaps possess a rag of credibility if he and his fellow middlemen were not avidly ingesting $3 billion worth of American subsidies every year.
I once met and got a tour-de-force of the rough cultural, ethnic, and economic dynamics of the two "statelets" that Hitchens describes within Pakistan from the assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer.  I'm convinced that he knew his rivals would attempt to use his support of intellectual and religious liberalism against him.

We support Pakistan today -- and remain engaged -- because it is the most dangerous nation on the face of the planet today. 

Withdrawing from Pakistan, despite what Hitchens accurately describes as a nearly criminally perverse relationship, would trigger wildly dangerous scenarios -- in part because a substantial portion of the Islamist radical cells that exist in key corners of Pakistan's national security establishment seem to relish a nuclear conflagration with India and are as ideologically committed to global destabilization schemes as Osama bin Laden was.

But America needs to invent leverage in this relationship rather than become more trapped in the muck of it.  Today, Pakistan is engaged in high stakes extortion -- demanding funds and support or its already bad behavior could get much worse.  That's how North Korea survives.

Barack Obama is beginning a long process of beginning to pull troops out of Afghanistan -- but as long as the US maintains a large military footprint there, we have less leverage than otherwise with Pakistan, which controls many vital choke-points that the US depends on in waging war in Afghanistan.  A key to diminishing Pakistan's leverage over the US and changing the equation in the relationship is to 'shrink' the US presence in Afghanistan and minimize dependence on Pakistan.

Some inside Pakistan did applaud the killing of Osama bin Laden; some even helped behind the scenes provide intelligence that eventually led to the storming of his compound.  But the people that mattered, who are in the news, who are running the national security, diplomatic and intelligence ministries and agencies did not come out and say "We would have killed bin Laden had we found him."

They are not saying that -- and are instead condemning the US for its covert Seal Team Six operation -- because they are fearful of their own angry, armed religious radicals.  To secure legitimacy in Pakistan right now, one must be allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan and overtly anti-American, at least in public. 

Unfortunately, the raw truth is that America has no real choice but to remain engaged with Pakistan -- but this can't be a binary arrangement in which Pakistan extorts and the US turns a blind eye to Pakistan's role empowering rogue regimes and animating some of the world's worst transnational terrorists. 

Slow disengagement, a decrease in financial support (as the US has just done) -- though not a full suspension -- some arm-twisting of its patrons like China and Saudi Arabia and some strategic clarity in the Obama administration on what the real prize here is -- which is a less psychotic Pakistan -- rather than plodding along in the debilitating Afghanistan quagmire could move things, eventually, to a less dangerous course.

-- Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic and can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons

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Ahmed Wali Karzai Assassinated

karzai wali.jpgWatching on a long flight the other day the classic 1966 Sergio Leone spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly I couldn't help but think that Afghanistan would make a great backdrop for a remake of the Clint Eastwood classic.

I'm not sure whether Kandahar region 'super governor' Ahmed Wali Karzai would have been cast as "The Bad" or "The Ugly", but the half brother of Afghanistan's President -- shot dead today by a family bodyguard -- was no force of noble spirit. 

The US intelligence establishment has amassed a mountain of material alleging his core involvement in Afghanistan's drug trade and his role not only as a profiteer in the lucrative private security business, but as someone who, like a mafia don, has allegedly had rivals and people of means kidnapped and harassed in an extortion racket.

Karzai's half brother was considered a war lord by many, often referred to as "the most powerful man in Southern Afghanistan."  When then US Representative and now Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Director Jane Harman was pounding the Obama administration and General David Petraeus to show her a plan on how such a morally insolvent and corrupt regime could ever become an adequate partner in stabilizing the country, she was in large degree talking about the intelligence sector-documented nefarious activities of President Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai.

The Taliban have publicly claimed responsibility for Karzai's assassination by security guard and trusted Karzai household-insider, Sardar Mohammad.

If true, this shows the Taliban have great reach still throughout the power corridors of Afghan society -- and have enormous patience and skill to manage what would have been a complex and risky operation.  If not true, then one wonders what motivated this guard, and we just don't know those answers yet, if ever.

The other thing to remember though is that to many, Ahmed Wali Karzai was a self-aggrandizing mafia boss; people feared him -- and while many also may fear the Taliban, there is no clear battle between the good and the bad, between those with white hats and those with black.

Maybe for anyone to be the kind of power broker Karzai became, every one eventually becomes "The Ugly."

-- Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic and can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons

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