Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"Prayer this Christmas"

A dear friend of mine, Jill Gooding, recently returned from a trip to Israel and the West Bank, which included a visit to Bethlehem. She wrote this inspiring and uplifting poem that has very special meaning at Christmas. Enjoy and Merry Christmas!

Written after seeing the wall in Bethlehem, dividing Israel and Palestine,
November 2008

They come in teeming busloads
To Bethlehem today
To see the spot of Jesus birth
To find out where he lay.

But -

A wall divides that little town;
Bethlehem’s not the same
As when those shepherds and the flocks
In awe and wonder came.
A wall is there to separate
Brother man from brother;
It tries to say in concrete form
That God is not “our” Father.
A wall just speaks of hate, not love;
A wall is built on fear;
A wall says yes, we are at war;
And shouts, “God is not here.”
But the Bible tells us clearly:

“For He is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in Himself of twain one new man (nation) so making peace.”
Ephesians 2:14,15

So may our prayer this Christmas
Be to see our world ‘unwalled’;
Graffiti-less, unbounded, free,
Where everyone is called
To be the royal child of God,
Not hemmed in by a wall,
But one united family
Kneeling at Bethlehem’s stall.

May your Christmas be filled with
the SIMPLICITY of the first Christmas,
the JOY of the angels at that time,
the LOVE that the shepherds brought,
the ABUNDANCE given by the three kings,
and the RADIANCE of that guiding star:
and may true UNITY be felt at your firesides
and in the world.

--Jill Gooding

The pictures are from my past trips to Bethlehem. They include the Church of the Nativity, Jesus' manger inside the church, and various pictures of the wall surrounding Bethlehem. See my previous Bethlehem blogpost for details on my last trip there.

Merry Christmas to all!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

NYT: Iraq May Ban Blackwater

Despite the uproar my Oct. 07 Blackwater op-ed in the Los Angeles Times produced, I am not an anti-Blackwater ideologue. I simply questioned operations like Blackwater whose practices undermine the whole reason for our being in Iraq in the first place. Especially when there were other security firms who were doing the same job but with less of an adverse impact on the daily lives of Iraqis.

There's really no need to ban Blackwater from Iraq, just a definite need to amend its tactics so as not to undercut the "winning the peace" effort. And it seems this is already happening...see the part in bold in today's NYT article below. I'm heartened to learn this, and hope that all current and future security companies will act similarly.

December 18, 2008
Report Says Iraq May Ban Blackwater

WASHINGTON — The State Department’s inspector general has warned in a new report that Blackwater Worldwide, the security contractor, may not be licensed by the Iraqi government to continue to protect American diplomats in Baghdad next year, forcing the Obama administration to make new security arrangements.

The report says that if State Department contractors lose their immunity from criminal prosecution under Iraqi law, as many officials expect, employees of Blackwater and other contractors may choose to leave Iraq or demand higher pay. Five Blackwater guards were indicted this month in a 2007 shooting in Baghdad that killed at least 17 Iraqis.

Unlike some American contractors in Iraq, Blackwater does not have a license, but it has applied for one. Iraqi authorities have allowed it to operate while officials consider the application.

The inspector general’s findings were first reported Wednesday by The Associated Press, and The New York Times obtained a copy of the report.

The report says the State Department “faces a real possibility” that no license will be granted and that the Iraqi government will ban Blackwater. The American Embassy in Baghdad would then face a major challenge; officials said Blackwater’s services would not be easily replaced.

State Department officials have said they will decide whether to renew Blackwater’s contract in April only after the F.B.I. completes its inquiry into the contractor’s role in the shooting.

The report by Harold W. Geisel, the acting inspector general, finds that changes since the 2007 shooting “have resulted in a more professional security operation and the curtailment of overly aggressive actions” by contractors toward Iraqi civilians.

In response to its findings, Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who will take over the Foreign Relations Committee next month, again urged the State Department to drop Blackwater as an Iraq contractor.

A Blackwater spokeswoman, Anne E. Tyrrell, declined to comment because the report had not been officially released.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

UN passes Middle East Resolution

The UN Security Council has adopted a resolution aimed at giving fresh momentum to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, according to yesterday's BBC News report. The text of the article is below.

The resolution describes US-brokered talks between Israelis and Palestinians as "irreversible" and urges greater diplomatic efforts to secure a deal.

The resolution is the first on the Middle East issue adopted by the 15-member council in almost five years.
It passed by 14 votes to zero. One council member, Libya, abstained.

The draft calls on both parties to "refrain from any steps that could undermine confidence or prejudice the outcome of negotiations".

It also urges an "intensification of diplomatic efforts" to build lasting peace in the Middle East.

The US-brokered negotiations were launched at Annapolis, Maryland, in November 2007, with the goal of achieving a peace deal before President George W Bush leaves office on 20 January 2009.

This is not going to happen but, says the BBC's Laura Trevelyan at the UN, the resolution gives the security council's backing for the talks to continue.

Diplomats say the resolution is America's attempt to carry over any progress to Barack Obama's administration.

Polls suggest the hawkish Binjamin Netanyahu could be elected Israeli prime minister in February, however, and he does not want to carry on with the negotiations in their current format, our correspondent adds.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Very Shameful" Shoe-throwing incident

I was stunned by yesterday's news report about an Iraqi journalist throwing his shoes at President Bush, during his press conference in Baghdad. I was chatting with an Iraqi friend online last night and asked for his thoughts. Here's his viewpoint...

Me: Did you hear about the shoe-throwing incident at Bush? What do you think?

Iraqi friend: Very shameful! All decent people are ashamed of it. You should read the Iraqi press and the internet

Me: Well, the demonstrations on the street in support of the shoe-thrower are getting a ton of press, too..

Iraqi friend: The few Sadris? (supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr) Come on...

Me: What's the Iraqi press saying about it?

Iraqi friend: Read the comments from thousands of people on the internet. They are very embarassed and ashamed that a guest has been treated like this. Look at sites like SotalIraq and elaph.com

Me: Why are decent people embarassed? Because it wasn't appropriate? Aren't a lot of Iraqis mad at Bush?

Iraqi friend: Many people are calling Bush a liberator and it was his work and the freedom he brought that allowed this guy to do what he did. Plus, he was a guest of the people of Iraq. Many people are saying that they hated Bush until the incident and now they are embarrassed because this was simply bad manners towards a guest.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Walking from Nazareth to Bethlehem for Christmas

This is so neat. A friend just forwarded me this link to a BBC reporter's online diary, starting today, of his walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem, intending to make it by Christmas. He'll be traveling through military checkpoints and disputed territory in the Israel and West Bank. You can follow along on his daily adventures via video and text here.

Why is he doing it?

(This from the BBC article.) BBC correspondent Aleem Maqbool explains his motivation for retracing the Christmas journey made by Joseph and Mary in the New Testament.

For all the sacred places in this region - Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jericho - it is the land in-between where you can often feel most connected to history.
The hills and valleys have played a part in so many of the stories that still shape the lives of millions around the world today.

Whether you believe Mary and Joseph's walk ever took place or not, most of us became familiar with the story at a young age.

Many of us are even scarred by embarrassing moments acting in school nativity plays - or perhaps that is just me... I once played a sheep.

If it did happen, the journey of around 150km (93 miles), along Roman roads and dirt tracks, is likely to have been an arduous one, particularly for a heavily pregnant woman.

What does not get included in the nativity plays, is the probability that the couple also faced hostility from Samaritans who lived in what is now the northern West Bank.

Complex land

Of course, there are new difficulties today. The supposed route goes through areas of continued conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Army incursions, militancy, and checkpoints manned by soldiers are commonplace, and all have the potential to interrupt my journey.

Still, the notion of a walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem is, for me, a romantic one.

When I have told people here what I intend to do, they have generally seemed quite amused, but understand that it is a vehicle to tell modern day stories along this ancient route.

It will hopefully help me to get to know at least a little bit more about this complex land through getting to hear people's stories on the way.

For carrying daily provisions and equipment, a donkey seemed as practical a solution now as it might have done two millennia ago, and will, of course, be an added connection to the tale that inspired the journey.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Life is Good" comes full circle

I often marvel at life's coincidences. Two of my students are currently vacationing in Lake Placid, New York, and they were walking through a shopping center and popped into a Life is Good store. If you don't know Life is Good, they are the laid-back t-shirt and paraphernalia store with the infectiously optimistic mantra and the ubiquitous smile of Jake, their logo.

My students, Hillary Austin and Alyson Wright, pictured left and right, respectively, were browsing the store and came across a notebook of various letters to Life is Good. To their surprise, they noticed one of them was from me while I was living in Baghdad. They sent me this picture holding the notebook with my letter that reads,

Hi “Life is good” crew,

I thought you all would enjoy the attached picture taken in Baghdad, Iraq where I have been for over a year. Playing Ultimate Frisbee with local Iraqis (teaching them the game has been a hoot!) and subscribing to the motto “life is good”, even amidst falling mortars and rockets, have kept us going.

My dear friend sent me a bunch of your stickers, the disc, and a few other things. They are a huge hit here as you can imagine how much people are thirsting for reminders of life (rather than death) and even more so, reminders that life is good. Here we have even started a daily report, the “good news goose”, where we can note good things that have happened to us during the day. It’s all a part of keeping the right focus.

Thank you so much for all you’re doing and for your infectious optimism and enthusiasm. It is felt in all corners of the world!



I find it so amazing how things come full circle...that students of mine with whom I'm sharing my passion for the Middle East would remind me of the time in which my own passion was cultivated. What a cool world. Thanks Hillary and Alyson! :-)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Carter's op-ed in WaPo, "Obama's Human Rights Opportunity"

Carter is the man. He is one of my greatest heroes and I so hoped I would fatefully bump in to him during my trip to the Carter Center earlier this year in Atlanta, GA. Oh well. I at least proudly sport my Carter Center t-shirt and hat. Here's a guy who took "retirement" to a whole new level, embarking on peace-keeping missions, democratic reforms, and health care worldwide. If you haven't checked out his book Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis, it's a must-read. And I've mentioned his Palestine, Peace not Apartheid book before.

Here is his latest op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post, in which he takes his usual clear stand for our values over fear tactics in the name of "security".

Obama's Human Rights Opportunity
By Jimmy Carter
Wednesday, December 10, 2008; A25

The advancement of human rights around the world was a cornerstone of foreign policy and U.S. leadership for decades, until the attacks on our country on Sept. 11, 2001.

Since then, while Americans continue to espouse freedom and democracy, our government's abusive practices have undermined struggles for freedom in many parts of the world. As the gross abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay were revealed, the United States lost its mantle as a champion of human rights, eliminating our national ability to speak credibly on the subject, let alone restrain or gain concessions from oppressors. Tragically, a global backlash against democracy and rights activists, who are now the targets of abuse, has followed.

The advancement of human rights and democracy is necessary for global stability and can be achieved only through the local, often heroic, efforts of individuals who speak out against injustice and oppression -- endeavors the United States should lead, not impede. If the early warnings of human rights activists had been heeded and tough diplomacy and timely intervention mobilized, the horrific, and in some cases ongoing, violence in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan's Darfur region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo might have been averted.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With a new administration and a new vision coming to the White House, we have the opportunity to move boldly to restore the moral authority behind the worldwide human rights movement. But the first steps must be taken at home.

President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to shut down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and end torture, which can be accomplished by executive orders to close the prison and by enforcing existing prohibitions against torture by any U.S. representative, including FBI and CIA agents. The detention of people secretly or indefinitely and without due process must cease, and their cases should be transferred to our courts, which have proved their competence in trying those accused of terrorism. Further, a nonpartisan expert commission should be named to conduct a thorough review of U.S. practices related to unwarranted arrest, torture, secret detention, extraordinary rendition, abandonment of habeas corpus and related matters. Acknowledging to the world that the United States also has made mistakes will give credence to our becoming "a more perfect union" -- a message that would resonate worldwide. Together, these actions will help us restore our nation's principles and embolden others abroad who want higher moral standards for their own societies.

By putting its house in order, the United States would reclaim its moral authority and wield not only the political capital but also the credibility needed to engage in frank but respectful bilateral dialogues on the protection of human rights as central to world peace and prosperity. Human rights defenders around the world, whose annual conference began at the Carter Center this week, are eagerly awaiting the Obama administration. In Pakistan, they look for our help in restoring the rule of law that was undermined when the United States sided with Pervez Musharraf as he debilitated an independent-minded Supreme Court. Defenders of the struggling democratic movement in Egypt seek a tough U.S. stance supporting free and fair elections and ending the abuse of opposition political candidates. Throughout the Middle East, there is hope that the United States will move more aggressively and persistently to help orchestrate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the prism through which the region measures the U.S. commitment to human rights.

In the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo, rights defenders under daily threat hope the United States will pressure its allies in Rwanda and Uganda to withdraw support from proxy forces that continue to wreak havoc there. All agree that the United States should reengage with agencies of the United Nations to make that body a more effective tool to protect human rights, knowing that this must be a global effort.

The moral footprint of the United States has always been vast. Our next president has an unprecedented opportunity to lead through example by inspiring and supporting those who would reach for freedom and by being tough and effective with those who would impede freedom's march. All Americans must give him full support.

The writer, the 39th president, is founder of the Carter Center, a not-for-profit organization advancing peace and health worldwide.

Monday, December 01, 2008

"Why am I for Obama?" published in Iraqi news weekly

Happy belated Thanksgiving to all! I just had an article published in Arabic in a leading Iraqi news weekly, called Al Esbuyia, or Iraq Weekly, entitled "Why am I for Obama". Al Esbuyia recently made other news by publishing a political cartoon depicting female suicide bombers that provoked the ire of Iraqi parliamentarians.

Here's the link to the article in Arabic, Why am I for Obama?, and the original pasted below in English. Unfortunately, I don't think the poem made it through the final edit, but I thought I'd leave it here for you to read.

As the article points out, most Iraqis I knew supported McCain, and it was helpful to get this note back from an Iraqi friend after he read the article. "Your perspective gives me hope because I hoped McCain would win, but your article shows that Obama will understand Iraq better and hopefully help it while serving the American people. By the way, congratulations on such amazing elections and groundbreaking outcome."

Why am I for Obama?

Unlike for Republican candidate John McCain, Iraq was never President-elect Barack Obama’s lodestar. Obama opposed the US invasion into Iraq in 2003 as well as the troop “surge” in 2007. Even during his campaign, Obama preferred to focus attention on what he considered the real fight in Afghanistan, from which Iraq was just a distraction, and a costly one at that. We “took our eye off the ball” with our myopic obsession of winning the war in Iraq at the expense of catching Osama Bin Ladin, Obama proclaimed in the first presidential debate with McCain.

Does Obama’s lackluster consideration of Iraq make Iraqis nervous? From my informal canvassing of my Iraqi acquaintances, it seemed to. Many preferred McCain because of what they perceived to be his iron-clad determination to stay put until democracy is shored and security restored.

But recent events seem to poke holes in my theory that Iraqis are wary of Obama. The Iraqi cabinet just signed the elusive security pact with the United States, in part because members believed that an Obama administration would actually respect the timetable because it more closely coincided with, and even elongated, his own stated plan of 16-months. There was some distrust as to whether a Republican administration would stick with the notion of pulling out of a country on which it had staked its entire foreign policy (not to mention its grand plans to remake the Middle East)—especially if that country were descending into chaos, disorder, and left an image of leaving with our tail between our legs. An opposition administration would have no problem deeming the whole operation a failure, proclaiming how badly the previous government screwed it up, and making a public vow that they never would have or never would in the future make such poor decisions.

It is true, however, that McCain had visited Iraq many times and took on the issue with much passion and fervor. One could say that he cared much more deeply about the situation in Iraq; he saw Iraqi success and security as inseparable from American success and security, versus Obama’s more flippant attitude. However, prioritization does not ensure right decision-making, or even intelligent policy. Obama, though less knowledgeable and experienced on Iraqi issues, is, as many pundits have pointed out, a very “quick study”, and very comfortable with nuance and complexity, without which one could not even hope to grasp the labyrinth of Iraqi politics and history. McCain, on the other hand, despite his experience, has often confused “Sunnis” and “Shias” and has been criticized as similar to President Bush in his tendency to avoid fine distinctions.

Another reason why Obama might be good for Iraq is his stated penchant for “talking” before fighting. This helps especially with Iran, whose Ahmedinejad already sent Obama a conciliatory overture in a letter of congratulations after his election. Obama’s election—and the prospect of a less hostile administration occupying its neighbor— also might have softened Iran’s opposition to Iraq’s security pact with the United States, according to political analysts. The notion a rising regional power and the world’s superpower engaging in more diplomatic exchanges rather than proxy wars inside Iraq is a heart-warming outlook for Iraqi security indeed.

It’s probably becoming clear where my biases lie, with my intent extolling of Obama’s virtues. But, in truth, I have two biases—I am staunchly pro-Iraq and pro-Obama, (and I’ve been pro-Iraq for longer). After witnessing (and sometimes participating) in the incredible mistakes committed during the first two years of the American program in Iraq, I believe the best thing for Iraq is to have an America in its midst that understands that it has taken a wrong turn somewhere in the past years and that change must happen. This view has been the mantra of Obama’s campaign. He has also stressed that we must not only talk about, but live up to, and act on our ideals, whether that involves repairing frayed friendships, talking to our enemies, closing an ignominy like Guantanamo prison, or leaving a country that asked us to.

Along with the prospect of a changed America that Obama brings with him, the election itself also brought home the example of something so wonderful about America that doesn’t change—the power of democracy. This month’s election showcased the peaceful transition of power and a transparent process that involved real choice, real accountability, and fairness. And the election of the first African-American candidate showed that anything is possible.

This thrilling election reminded me of another election just as powerful—in Iraq on January 30, 2005. At the polling center I visited that day and the Iraqis with whom I spoke, I saw the faces lit up with glee at the “feeling of freedom” and of the opportunity to have a personal say and stake in the future of their country. It was an incredibly moving sight to witness voters who were braving dire and grave terrorist threats to cast their ballots and demonstrate their freedom. As Iraq heads into this tense period before its upcoming provincial elections, I hope the recent American elections remind the Iraqi people of their own in 2005, during which Iraqis banded together to defeat fear, intimidation, and violence. You truly showed the world that anything was possible, and reminded us of that most powerful force—freedom. Allow me to share the poem I wrote on that day.

Badge of Honor

My finger is still purple,
My tears are still wet,
With the feeling of freedom.
My heart is overwhelmed by their joy,
Their hope, their courage.
I am humbled, bowed before them.
They are the lights shining in darkness.
They are the river, the lifeblood of the world!
This is their gift to us, their purpose.
They have not only changed themselves and their country.
Their fight is for the world,
Tipping the balance on the side of freedom.
What could express the depth of our gratitude?
They say we saved them from the maniacal regime;
We gave them democracy.
Little do they know they are giving it back to us,
Giving us their example of freedom from fear,
Of the rewards of courage.
True warriors,
Each ballot a sword brandished against evil,
Each purple finger a
Badge of honor.