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CITIES IN THE 21st CENTURY: A Primer

Book Review

John Matthew Barlow reviews John Lorinc's new book, Cities: A Groundwork Guide. Last year marked the first time that the majority of the world's population lived in cities; Lorinc's introduction to the subject offers a timely, and lively, critique of the issues confronting cities and humanity as a whole as we confront this radical restructuring of our way of living in the urban century.

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  • Cities: A Guide

    Book Review

    John Matthew Barlow reviews John Lorinc's new book, Cities: A Groundwork Guide. Last year marked the first time that the majority of the world's population lived in cities; Lorinc's introduction to the subject offers a timely, and lively, critique of the issues confronting cities and humanity as a whole as we confront this radical restructuring of our way of living in the urban century.

    Read more...

  • The Hurt Locker

    Review

    Eric Randolph reviews Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, and notes a shift in film-making sensibilities from the war-as-heroics paradigm of earlier Hollywood, towards the everyman's war-as-hell model that has now lodged itself in Western cultural consciousness.

    Read...

  • Architecture & Biopolitics

    Interview

    Berlin-based writer Daniel Miller's October 2008 interview with Swedish philosopher and SITE Magazine Editor-In-Chief Sven-Olov Wallenstein, on his new book Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009).

    Read...

  • Wired For War

    Symposium

    The second symposium in CTlab's 2009 series, focused on Peter Singer's new book, Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (Penguin Press: 2009), ran from 30 March to 2 April. Singer and half a dozen scholars from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Austria debated the use and ethics of robots in war.

    Read...

  • DEFCON 17

    Current Intelligence

    Tim Stevens reports back from the DEFCON 17 conference in Las Vegas: are hackers thinking meat isn't just meat anymore?

    Read...

 
Monday
15Jun2009

The impotence of Obama

Talk: Hussain Abdul-Hussain on Middle Eastern Democracy
London School of Economics, Thursday 11 June

Few analysts really held up much hope that the rhetoric of change that accompanied Obama’s rise to power would translate into anything truly substantial on the international stage. The big two elections of the past week – in Lebanon and Iran – have underlined the fact that the accession of a new president has left the Middle East largely unfazed. The harsh reality is that the US has much more capacity to create problems than it does to foster change.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a former editor of the respected Daily Star in Lebanon and his discussion of recent political events in the Middle East presented an unfashionably – but astutely – depressing account of the region’s democratic prospects. For the most part, it was a fairly routine run through familiar territory, but it raised a number of key issues about the intractability of Middle Eastern problems.

The first point that needs to be made is that, from a Western perspective, the results of the Lebanese election were not as positive as many believe, and those of the Iranian election not as negative. In Lebanon, there was much relief in the West that Hizbullah had not won the majority that many expected. But that only returns the country to the political stalemate that has hindered progress since the Syrians were kicked out in 2005. Hizbullah still controls most of the country’s military power and even with its 14-seat majority in parliament, the new March 14 ruling coalition will not exercise a monopoly on the use of force.

The issue of decommissioning militant arms will no doubt be pushed on to the backburner, as will the investigation into the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Even trying to take away Hizbullah’s blocking veto in the cabinet carries the threat of a return to the street violence of May 2008, when Hizbullah showed just how easily they can overrun Beirut when they please. Fortunately, as Abdul-Hussain told the LSE audience, Hizbullah has no interest in seizing power and would prefer to stick to their traditional role as the anti-Israeli resistance movement in the south. But that leaves Lebanon in the grip of the compromise hashed out last summer, one based on “consensus democracy” in which the maelstrom of different ethnic groups have to find common agreement for anything to be achieved. Abdul-Hussain is right to describe “consensus democracy” as an oxymoron since the first word implies rule by all parties, while the second describes rule of the majority.

The talk came before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s surprisingly overwhelming victory was announced (not surprising to The Guardian apparently, although they waited until after the results to declare their lack of surprise). The result is a major disappointment for those in the West who liked the cut of Mir-Houssein Mousavi’s reformist jib. But as Abdul-Hussain pointed out, the position of Iranian president is really no more powerful than that of the US vice-president. As Mohammad Khatami did in the late 1990s, Mousavi would probably have found his reformist zeal heavily watered down by the Guardian Council. More importantly, the nuclear programme would have progressed at much the same speed. So while Mousavi might have presented a more agreeable face to the world, “at least with Ahmadinejad, what you see is what you get.” (This point was not lost on many in Washington and Jerusalem, as Time reported today).

For Abdul-Hussain, this all amounts to evidence that the US carries very little influence in the Middle East, at least not positive. “The West has tried all possible combinations in the Middle East – intervention, multilateral diplomacy, coalitions, sanctions; it has forced elections in Gaza and the West Bank, it has supported autocrats. All of these scenarios have failed.” When I ask him whether the touted “Obama effect” had anything to do with the Lebanese result, he is utterly dismissive. Everyone knew which way they were going to vote long before Obama’s speech in Cairo, or Biden and Clinton’s visits, he tells me. The real issue was that many Christians (pretty much the only swing voters) turned away from Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement for trying to define their community as one of resistance and a natural ally of Hizbullah. Their return to the pro-Western camp was far more a rejection of Aoun than some vague notion of embracing ‘Obamaism’.

In fact, for many liberals in the Middle East, the coming of Obama reflects a depressing new discourse of laissez-faire in Washington. “Obama talks about supporting democracy rather than spreading it,” as Abdul-Hussain put it. It highlights that strange liaison that emerged under Bush between those on the left who advocated humanitarian intervention in the name of human rights, and those on the right who pressed for intervention on military-strategic grounds. Fuelled by the emotional uproar unleashed by 9/11, that strange amalgamation of political forces was able to move the discourse on intervention firmly in their favour.

With that view duly discredited by Iraq and Afghanistan, is the discourse now swinging too far in the other direction – towards a “live and let live” attitude to autocratic regimes and human rights abuses? Those columnists who so gushingly enthuse about Obama’s rhetoric seem a little overly optimistic (see The Guardian and New Yorker). Individuals in the Middle East might be reassured by a White House resident with Hussein in his name and a smattering of Qur’anic verses in his speeches. But how easy it is for his opponents to paint him as a puppet of more threatening forces in the US political establishment. The citizens of the Middle East have plenty of experience of being deceived by their leaders, and it seems likely they are taking Obama with a pinch of salt, particularly while drone attacks continue to kill innocent Muslims in Pakistan and US money keeps rolling into Israel’s coffers.

A more positive view is that Obama is simply taking a more modest approach to the region, looking for small victories that can feed into a long-term plan. To this end, he appears to have hinged the first phase of this strategy on the issue of Israeli settlements. There are excellent reasons for doing so (see this article in Foreign Policy) and it’s a powerful demonstration of intent. However, the settlement issue could prove to be a twin loser for the Obama administration – too controversial for the Israelis to embrace, yet too minor a change to convince the Muslim world that the US has really changed its spots. As Abdul-Hussain pointed out, it doesn’t help that you never get a left-wing government in the US at the same time as a left-wing government in Israel. The room for political manoeuvre, particularly on the Israeli side, seems depressingly small.

The broader picture is starting to look less like a hope-filled rebirth of dialogue and diplomacy, and more like a return to the uncertainty of the 1990s. The traumatic consequences of recent military interventions have over-ridden the positives of the neoconservative agenda – and yes, despite their horrifically bad implementation, there were positives, not least a belief in the inherent value of democracy. But just as the debate over human rights versus state sovereignty was starting to reach some sort of understanding, the Bush administration rode a tank over it, tarnishing the concept of promoting democracy and freedom. Obama finds himself having to concentrate purely on hard security issues but with the moral legitimacy of military intervention – and the faith in its efficacy – severely compromised. So far, he has trusted in his diplomatic skills, but the events of the past week have demonstrated that his considerable political capital is not enough to effect substantive change in the Middle East. As the promise of his election gets bogged down in the myriad nightmares of the region, and the limits of US influence become painfully evident, it is hard to see where a positive outcome will emerge.

 

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