With Russia, as With China, Unnerved U.S. Allies Seek Reassurances

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. found himself in a fraught but familiar place this week: holding the hands of American allies fearful of being bullied by a larger, aggressive neighbor.

This time, it was Poland and the Baltic states, rattled by Russia’s move to annex Crimea and its potential designs on the rest of Ukraine. Three months ago, it was Japan and South Korea, unnerved by China’s sudden imposition of an air defense zone in the East China Sea.

The cases differ in obvious respects: The tensions in Asia have eased somewhat after the Chinese government showed prudence in policing its air defense zone, while in Europe, the confrontation with Russia over Crimea seems to be only escalating.

But there are also striking parallels: Russia and China are both ambitious powers, riding a tide of nationalism and nursing grievances over historical slights at the hands of the West.

Continue reading the main storyAnd both are led by self-confident strongmen — Vladimir V. Putin and Xi Jinping — though the popularly elected Mr. Putin may have a tighter grip on his society than the Communist Party boss, Mr. Xi, who must contend with an independent-minded military.Both may be exploiting a belief that the United States is turning inward, exhausted by years of war and reluctant to get drawn into costly foreign entanglements.

For President Obama, deciphering the motives, means and next moves of these suspicious giants will require a mix of psychology and geopolitics. Kremlinology and Sinology may end up as the major foreign policy preoccupations of the remainder of his presidency.

So far, the administration’s response to the threats has been similar: to emphasize the ironclad treaty commitment of the United States to its allies and to offer measured displays of force: sending a pair of B-52 bombers to fly through the contested Chinese airspace; giving the Baltic states 10 more fighter jets to patrol their skies.

“We stand resolutely with our Baltic allies in support of the Ukrainian people and against Russian aggression,”Mr. Biden said after meeting in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, with the country’s president, Dalia Grybauskaite, and President Andris Berzins of Latvia.

“As long as Russia continues on this dark path, they will face increasing economic and political isolation,” he said.

For now, administration officials say, Russia presents a harder case than China. Mr. Putin has been brazen in his takeover of Crimea and troubling in his assertion that Russia will protect Russian-speaking populations in the nations that ring his country, while Mr. Xi has only inched forward with Beijing’s territorial claims in the South and East China Seas.

Russia has shrugged off European and American sanctions and ridiculed assertions that it is flouting international law, while China appeared to heed widespread condemnation and Mr. Biden’s show of solidarity with American allies after it imposed its air defense zone.

China has yet to impose a second such zone over the South China Sea, as many in the region had predicted it would. American military commanders say the Chinese Air Force has been prudent in patrolling the zone, allaying fears of a miscalculation if Chinese fighter jets were scrambled to intercept a Japanese plane flying through it.

None of this is to suggest that the tensions in Asia have ebbed. A simmering confrontation between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea flared up recently when Chinese ships turned away Philippine ships trying to deliver supplies to a small military detachment.

American officials still live in fear that China will land troops on the Senkaku Islands, which it claims under the name Diaoyu Islands, but which are controlled by Japan. The United States would be obligated by treaty terms to defend Japan in a military clash with China. And the concerns about China’s muscle-flexing are not limited to these islands.

“China’s military is expanding dramatically, creating concern for a host of American allies,” said Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. He said he viewed China as a greater threat than Russia, “and by a very large margin.”

The United States can draw comfort from the fact that Mr. Xi’s overriding goal, experts say, is to maintain stability outside China’s borders so he can manage a host of problems at home, including a slowing economy and tensions over official corruption.

Indeed, China has expressed qualms about Mr. Putin’s adventurism. Normally a stalwart ally of Russia in the United Nations, it declined on Saturday to oppose a Security Council resolution rejecting the referendum for secession in Crimea, abstaining instead.

For all of Mr. Putin’s bluster, some experts doubt that he would risk a wider conflict.

“Putin is also rational and respects U.S. power,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former under secretary of state who teaches at Harvard. “It is very unlikely he would threaten a NATO ally such as Estonia, Latvia or Poland due to NATO’s security guarantee.”

Mr. Burns said the president should draw clear red lines with Russia and China and show that the United States is prepared to defend its treaty obligations. That was the main purpose of Mr. Biden’s visit this week, with his mantra-like repetition of Article V, the clause of the NATO treaty that commits members to regard an armed attack on any one of them to be an attack on all.

It is also worth remembering, Mr. Bremmer said, that Russia has been losing influence steadily for 20 years, “demographically, diplomatically, economically and militarily.”

Mr. Putin’s actions, he said, are evidence more of insecurity than of strength.

Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said: “Russia is a traditional military power sitting atop a declining economic and industrial base. In contrast, China is a military power rooted in a strong and growing economic foundation.”

That may explain why Mr. Obama, after meeting with European allies in Brussels next week, will travel a month later to Asia. There, he will follow in Mr. Biden’s footsteps with a tour of China’s anxious neighbors: Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.

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Putin Reclaims Crimea

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin reclaimed Crimea as a part of Russia on Tuesday, reversing what he described as a historic injustice inflicted by the Soviet Union 60 years ago and brushing aside international condemnation that could leave Russia isolated for years to come.

In an emotional address steeped in years of resentment and bitterness at perceived slights from the West, Mr. Putin made it clear that Russia’s patience for post-Cold War accommodation, much diminished of late, had finally been exhausted. Speaking to the country’s political elite in the Grand Kremlin Palace, he said he did not seek to divide Ukraine any further, but he vowed to protect Russia’s interests there from what he described as Western actions that had left Russia feeling cornered.

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How the Ukraine crisis ends

How the Ukraine crisis ends

By Henry A. Kissinger, Published: March 5

Henry A. Kissinger was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.

Public discussion on Ukraine is all about confrontation. But do we know where we are going? In my life, I have seen four wars begun with great enthusiasm and public support, all of which we did not know how to end and from three of which we withdrew unilaterally. The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.

Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.

Russia must accept that to try to force Ukraine into a satellite status, and thereby move Russia’s borders again, would doom Moscow to repeat its history of self-fulfilling cycles of reciprocal pressures with Europe and the United States.

The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then. Some of the most important battles for Russian freedom, starting with the Battle of Poltava in 1709 , were fought on Ukrainian soil. The Black Sea Fleet — Russia’s means of projecting power in the Mediterranean — is based by long-term lease in Sevastopol, in Crimea. Even such famed dissidents as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky insisted that Ukraine was an integral part of Russian history and, indeed, of Russia.

The European Union must recognize that its bureaucratic dilatoriness and subordination of the strategic element to domestic politics in negotiating Ukraine’s relationship to Europe contributed to turning a negotiation into a crisis. Foreign policy is the art of establishing priorities.

The Ukrainians are the decisive element. They live in a country with a complex history and a polyglot composition. The Western part was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1939 , when Stalin and Hitler divided up the spoils. Crimea, 60 percent of whose population is Russian , became part of Ukraine only in 1954 , when Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian by birth, awarded it as part of the 300th-year celebration of a Russian agreement with the Cossacks. The west is largely Catholic; the east largely Russian Orthodox. The west speaks Ukrainian; the east speaks mostly Russian. Any attempt by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other — as has been the pattern — would lead eventually to civil war or break up. To treat Ukraine as part of an East-West confrontation would scuttle for decades any prospect to bring Russia and the West — especially Russia and Europe — into a cooperative international system.

Ukraine has been independent for only 23 years; it had previously been under some kind of foreign rule since the 14th century. Not surprisingly, its leaders have not learned the art of compromise, even less of historical perspective. The politics of post-independence Ukraine clearly demonstrates that the root of the problem lies in efforts by Ukrainian politicians to impose their will on recalcitrant parts of the country, first by one faction, then by the other. That is the essence of the conflict between Viktor Yanu­kovych and his principal political rival, Yulia Tymo­shenko. They represent the two wings of Ukraine and have not been willing to share power. A wise U.S. policy toward Ukraine would seek a way for the two parts of the country to cooperate with each other. We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction.

Russia and the West, and least of all the various factions in Ukraine, have not acted on this principle. Each has made the situation worse. Russia would not be able to impose a military solution without isolating itself at a time when many of its borders are already precarious. For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.

Putin should come to realize that, whatever his grievances, a policy of military impositions would produce another Cold War. For its part, the United States needs to avoid treating Russia as an aberrant to be patiently taught rules of conduct established by Washington. Putin is a serious strategist — on the premises of Russian history. Understanding U.S. values and psychology are not his strong suits. Nor has understanding Russian history and psychology been a strong point of U.S. policymakers.

Leaders of all sides should return to examining outcomes, not compete in posturing. Here is my notion of an outcome compatible with the values and security interests of all sides:

1. Ukraine should have the right to choose freely its economic and political associations, including with Europe.

2. Ukraine should not join NATO, a position I took seven years ago, when it last came up.

3. Ukraine should be free to create any government compatible with the expressed will of its people. Wise Ukrainian leaders would then opt for a policy of reconciliation between the various parts of their country. Internationally, they should pursue a posture comparable to that of Finland. That nation leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia.

4. It is incompatible with the rules of the existing world order for Russia to annex Crimea. But it should be possible to put Crimea’s relationship to Ukraine on a less fraught basis. To that end, Russia would recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea. Ukraine should reinforce Crimea’s autonomy in elections held in the presence of international observers. The process would include removing any ambiguities about the status of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.

These are principles, not prescriptions. People familiar with the region will know that not all of them will be palatable to all parties. The test is not absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction. If some solution based on these or comparable elements is not achieved, the drift toward confrontation will accelerate. The time for that will come soon enough.

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Henry Chesbrough

Seer series

Henry Chesbrough

Jan 9th 2014, 16:50by M.S.L.J.

CASSANDRA has every reason to fear innovation. A particularly nifty piece of Greek engineering once brought doom to her family in the shape of a horse. By contrast, Henry Chesbrough, faculty director of the Garwood Centre for Corporate Innovation at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, embraces new ideas.

His three predictions for 2014 concern areas from research and education to venture capital and Asia’s service industry, as seen below.

1. Universities will be increasingly disrupted by both new technologies and society’s demands. The advent of MOOCs (massive open online courses) will continue to challenge the fundamental architecture of the university, which bundles teaching and research into a single organisational entity. Because world class instructors are available to anyone, via the internet, pressure on the teaching portion of the university will not ease in 2014. Meanwhile, the research mission of the university will compete with the work of other providers. For example, the European Union’s Horizon 2020 funds (for research and innovation programmes) will shift from supporting basic scientific inquiry to more applied endeavours. This will seek to make a commercial or industrial impact in society. While it will take years, a major rethink of the role and structure of the university is in order.

2. Corporations will increase their presence in the venture capital world. Traditionally viewed as “dumb money” by seasoned venture capitalists, corporate venture capital (CVC) is making a surprising, sustained comeback. In certain sectors, such as renewable energy or the life sciences, CVC accounts for nearly half of the venture money being invested. This is due in part to CVC’s ability to wait patiently for startup ventures to build their businesses, and also partially because corporations are often the most likely exit for most of these ventures. Even the most skeptical private venture capital firms are seeking to partner with CVCs as a result.

3. Services innovation is coming to Asia. Whether it is Japan, looking to translate its technological prowess into new growth, China, looking to increase domestic consumption, or Korea, looking to escape the commodity trap, many leading Asian companies are starting to invest time and money in enhancing their service offerings. Even traditional manufacturing companies are finding that services provide a welcome nudge to profits, and increase customers’ satisfaction with their products as well. However, the business culture in leading Asian economies is very engineering-focused, and it will be a challenge to promote executives with deep service experience to the top levels of leading firms.

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The economic value of skills: Skills that pay the bills

Question of strength … Money is power … When do we have more influence, when we are militarily or economically powerful? Is there a correlation? What is influence any more? Does mil power translate to redistributed power bases?

The economic value of skills

Skills that pay the bills

Jan 7th 2014, 17:16by C.W. | LONDON

HOW well are your skills rewarded? There is surprisingly little research on that question, and what does exist is pretty much entirely focused on America. A new paper* from the OECD, a rich-country think-tank, tries to fill this gap.

The research uses survey data from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), released only a few months ago. The database is a big improvement on what has come before: not only does it look at people of all ages but the sample size is large. Over 150,000 people in 24 countries were interviewed: respondents were given numerical, literacy and problem-solving tests. (The results were then standardised on a 500-point scale.) The same survey asked people about their work.

The raw results of the PIAAC survey are fascinating. South Korean high-school graduates have better numeracy and literacy skills than Italian university graduates. Younger folk in Finland do substantially better than their elders.

Overall, the effect of skills on earnings (what economists call “returns-to-skills”) is unsurprising. The authors focus on numeracy and show that people with more skills earn more. A one-standard-deviation increase in numeracy skills is associated with an 18% wage increase among “prime-age” workers (workers between 25 and 54).

But there is massive variation in returns-to-skills:

[R]eturns to skills are systematically lower in countries with higher union density, stricter employment protection, and larger public-sector shares.Why? The authors conduct a series of regressions and, some would argue, show the limitations of social-democratic policies:

The analysis shows, for example, that a 25% point increase in union density (the difference, say, between Belgium and the United Kingdom) leads to a 3.5% point lower wage increase for each one-standard-deviation increase in numeracy skills.

But free-market types should not gloat. Pretty much unexplored in the paper is the question of whether high returns-to-skills are a good thing. Highly skilled people might simply be extracting “rents”—economists’ shorthand for earning more than they would need to continue doing what they are doing. And when the skilled do extremely well, dystopian predictions like those discussed by Tyler Cowen in a recent bookare never far away.

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Healthcare spending

Jan 7th 2014, 21:44by C.H. | NEW YORK

BESIDE the riotous, relentless battle over Obamacare, a more tempered debate over health has been underway. Since the recession, health spending has grown slowly. On January 6th the number crunchers at the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released their newest annual figures. In 2012 spending rose by just 3.7%, to $2.8 trillion. That compares with growth of 9.7% in 2002. Importantly, America’s health spending in 2012 grew more slowly than its economy. The debate is whether the slowdown is merely a cyclical blip.

This seemingly dry question is hugely important. Health spending threatens America’s long-term economic health, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Trends in spending will also shape the fate of an industry that accounts for nearly one-fifth of the world’s biggest economy. If the sector has seen structural changes in how individuals buy care and how doctors and firms sell it, that would be a big deal.

Academics have written extensively on the subject. In May David Cutler and Nikhil Sahni of Harvard reportedthat the recession accounted for just 37% of the recent slowdown in health spending. They posited that more than half of the deceleration could be explained by more persistent changes, including skimpier insurance (which prompts individuals to buy less care), more efficient clinics and the slower development of pricey new technologies. If such trends continue, they suggested, the government’s spending on health from 2013 to 2022 could be $770 billion less than expected.

Michael Chernew, also of Harvard, has notedthat from 2009 to 2011 health spending per person grew at about half the rate of the prior ten years. He reported that less generous insurance accounted for about one-fifth of the slowdown from 2007 to 2011. Other factors, such as contracts that reward doctors for providing better care rather than lots of it, could continue to dampen growth in future.

The new report from CMS provides more data for academics to munch on. Some trends seem to have staying power. CMS explained that high-deductible insurance plans—which make consumers pay for care with cash, up to a certain point, before insurance kicks in—helped slow the growth of insurance premiums. Other trends seem more transient. For example, spending on drugs has recently been anaemic. Many blockbuster medicines have lost their patents in recent years, so consumers have switched to cheaper generics. As pharmaceutical companies sell new, expensive specialty drugs, spending may pick up.

The big unknown is how Obamacare will affect this. Though the White House was quick to creditthe law with helping to slow spending, CMS was more cautious. Furthermore, CMS’s new numbers are for 2012; Obamacare’s main provisions did not take effect until this month. The likely answer is that spending will jump this year, as Obamacare expands insurance coverage. But some changes, including more efficient clinics and penny-pinching consumers, will mean spending will rise more slowly than it might have otherwise.

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The row over the Panama Canal

The row over the Panama Canal

Keeping things afloat

Jan 8th 2014, 15:31by F.B. | MADRID

WHEN Sacyr, a Spanish construction firm, won a 2009 tender to undertake the bulk of the $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal, its then-chairman crowed “Asi, asi, asi gana Sacyr” (“That is how Sacyr wins”), a play on a catchy rhyme long used by Real Madrid football fans. Those celebrations have soured.

The consortium that Sacyr leads is haggling with the Panama Canal Authority over a projected $1.6 billion cost overrun and an urgent need for cash. The contractors have threatened to walk out on the project, which will allow huge tankers to pass through the 100-year-old waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, if no agreement is reached by January 20th. The good news is that both sides have a strong incentive to reach a compromise.

The main problem, says Pedro Alonso, a spokesman for Sacyr, is that the project faces a cash crunch. The contractors, which include Italy’s Salini Impregilo, Belgium’s Jan de Nul and Panama’s Constructora Urbana, blame ballooning costs on the canal authority for providing flawed geological studies of the terrain.

The canal, they say, failed to detect the presence of fault lines despite a seven-year study, which in turn affected the quality of the basalt earmarked for mixing the cement. New basalt had to be sourced elsewhere and it took the authority months to approve the new mix. The contractors say they have already put $280m of additional cash into the construction of the new locks. (The canal rejects the cost-overrun claims, arguing that the cost increases were accounted for in the contract. It, too, has had to pump in extra cash due to fluctuations in the prices of some raw materials.)

A deal is already in the offing. A visit to Panama from Spain’s public-works minister on January 6th helped calm the waters and kickstart the haggling. The canal has offered to stump up a $100m advance provided the contractors contribute the same amount and withdraw their threat to halt work. The contractors, meanwhile, have agreed to making the $100m contribution but are demanding an additional $400m advance from the canal authority in order to guarantee the completion of the project. The consortium also wants a moratorium on returning an existing $784m cash advance until arbitration on its claim for the $1.6 billion overrun is resolved.

Neither side wants to see the project halted at this stage. The expansion is 72% finished; the new locks being built by the consortium are two-thirds complete. The canal could theoretically bring in a new contractor. Jorge Quijano, the canal administrator, says the authority has $1.3 billion in unused funds that could be put into finishing construction, plus insurance. But a project that is two-thirds completed with very specific design requirements may not be very attractive to a third party. It would also lead to further delays: the completion date has already been put back from 2014 to June 2015.

Sacyr and its partners have both reputations and money on the line. The consortium’s winning $3.2 billion bid was 7% less than the canal’s own estimate and about a billion less than that of Bechtel, an American rival, fuelling suspicions at the time that it would try to renegotiate the contract later. Sacyr and the canal authority still defend the original bid, saying it was cheaper than rivals because their design required fewer construction materials. With Spanish construction companies heading up big infrastructure projects all over the world, including the $10 billion Mecca-Medina high speed railway in Saudi Arabia, Spain itself is also keen to preserve its reputation for engineering prowess. But the country says it won’t help fund the project.

Financially, the project contributed 14% of Sacyr’s sales in the first nine months of 2013. The firm’s shares have lost 8% of their value since the conflict erupted on December 30th, even after recovering some ground in recent days. Mr Alonso insists that the company doesn’t have any financial problems and that the row in Panama in no way affects its other projects. Maybe so, but the initial euphoria at winning one of the world’s biggest engineering projects looks misplaced.

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Not Just About Us

The New York Times

January 7, 2014

Not Just About Us


Every day the headlines from the Arab world get worse: An Al Qaeda affiliate group, aided by foreign fighters, battles with seven different homegrown Syrian rebel groups for control of the region around Aleppo, Syria. The Iranian Embassy in Beirut is bombed. Mohamad Chatah, an enormously decent former Lebanese finance minister, is blown up after criticizing Hezbollah’s brutish tactics. Another pro-Al Qaeda group takes control of Fallujah, Iraq. Explosions rock Egypt, where the army is now jailing Islamists and secular activists. Libya is a mess of competing militias.

What’s going on? Some say it’s all because of the “power vacuum” — America has absented itself from the region. But this is not just about us. There’s also a huge “values vacuum.” The Middle East is a highly pluralistic region — Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Druze and various tribes — that for centuries was held together from above by iron-fisted colonial powers, kings and dictators. But now that vertical control has broken down, before this pluralistic region has developed any true bottom-up pluralism — a broad ethic of tolerance — that might enable its people to live together as equal citizens, without an iron fist from above.

For the Arab awakening to have any future, the ideology that is most needed now is the one being promoted least: Pluralism. Until that changes, argues Marwan Muasher, in his extremely relevant new book — “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism” — none of the Arab uprisings will succeed.

Again, President Obama could have done more to restrain leaders in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Syria from going to extremes. But, ultimately, argues Muasher, this is the Arabs’ fight for their political future. If 500,000 American troops in Iraq, and $1 trillion, could not implant lasting pluralism in the cultural soil there, no outsider can, said Muasher. There also has to be a will from within. Why is it that some 15,000 Arabs and Muslims have flocked to Syria to fight and die for jihadism and zero have flocked to Syria to fight and die for pluralism? Is it only because we didn’t give the “good guys” big enough guns?

As Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, put it in an interview: “Three years of the Arab uprising have shown the bankruptcy of all the old political forces in the Arab world.” The corrupt secular autocrats who failed to give their young people the tools to thrive — and, as a result, triggered these uprisings — are still locked in a struggle with Islamists, who also have no clue how to deliver jobs, services, security and economic growth. (Tunisia may be an exception.) “As long as we’re in the this zero-sum game, the sum will be zero,” says Muasher.

No sustainable progress will be possible, argues Muasher, without the ethic of pluralism permeating all aspects of Arab society — pluralism of thought, pluralism in gender opportunities, pluralism in respect to other religions, pluralism in education, pluralism toward minorities, pluralism of political parties rotating in power and pluralism in the sense of everyone’s right to think differently from the collective.

The first Arab awakening in the 20th century was a fight for independence from colonial powers, says Muasher. It never continued as a fight for democracy and pluralism. That war of ideas, he insists, is what “the second Arab awakening” has to be about. Neither the autocrats nor the Islamists can deliver progress. “Pluralism is the operating system we need to solve all our problems, and as long as that operating system is not in place, we will not get there. This is an internal battle. Let’s stop hoping for delivery from the outside.” This will take time.

Naïve? No. Naïve is thinking that everything is about the absence or presence of American power, and that the people of the region have no agency. That’s wrong: Iraq is splintering because Prime Minister Maliki behaved like a Shiite militiaman, not an Iraqi Mandela. Arab youths took their future in their own hands, motivated largely by pluralistic impulses. But the old order proved to be too stubborn, yet these youth aspirations have not gone away, and will not.

“The Arab world will go through a period of turmoil in which exclusionist forces will attempt to dominate the landscape with absolute truths and new dictatorships,” writes Muasher. But “these forces will also fade, because, in the end, the exclusionist, authoritarian discourses cannot answer the people’s needs for better quality of life. … As history has demonstrated overwhelmingly, where there is respect for diversity, there is prosperity. Contrary to what Arab societies have been taught for decades by their governments to believe — that tolerance, acceptance of different points of view, and critical thinking are destructive to national unity and economic growth — experience proves that societies cannot keep renewing themselves and thereby thrive except through diversity.”

Muasher, who is returning to Jordan to participate in this struggle for diversity, dedicated his book to: “The youth of the Arab World — who revolted, not against their parents, but on their behalf.”

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Egypt in the Dentist’s Chair

A simple, yet stirring editorial. The line, “This was a lesson for me in just how difficult and usually abortive it was to defend the rights of people who have lived an eternity under oppression” is both realistic and a bit sad.


The New York Times

December 30, 2014

Egypt in the Dentist’s Chair


CAIRO — Novelists work hard to acquire human experience. They search for characters who might inspire them. They go to unusual places to collect the necessary material for their novels.

I am lucky not to have had to undertake these adventures because I am both a novelist and a dentist.

The dentist’s profession enables him to see so many varied examples of humanity that his clinic sometimes resembles the backstage of a theater, where the performers, out of costume and minus makeup, are no longer acting.

I have treated the teeth of thousands of people, from the poorest peasant farmers to society ladies and government ministers, and I am always learning something new about human behavior.

A government minister in Egypt does not go to the dentist on his own. Instead, an entourage of sycophantic staffers sniffs all around the clinic like bloodhounds to make sure that everything is as it should be.

This tawdry drama epitomizes the philosophy of rule in dictatorial regimes, in which loyalty always comes ahead of efficiency as a condition for promotion.

I used to work as a dentist in a government institution. One day, as I was about to do a filling for a staffer, having placed a rubber dam over his mouth, the door opened and the director’s secretary came in to tell me that the big boss was on his way to the clinic to have his teeth looked at.

“The director doesn’t have an appointment,” I stated calmly.

“The director doesn’t need to have an appointment,” he said with incredulity. “Please get rid of this patient so that you can see the director.”

“I haven’t finished with this patient yet,” I told him angrily. “I don’t think you understand that the director is just a patient here.”

The secretary looked at me wide-eyed, then left, slamming the door behind him. I realized I was in for trouble, but I was not afraid. Nor was I sorry for having stood up for the principle.

During my exchange with the secretary, however, I had forgotten about the patient with the rubber dam over his mouth. He was gurgling and gesticulating as he tried to tell me something. The moment I removed the rubber dam, he leapt from the chair.

“Doctor, you’re wrong,” he shouted. “The director is entitled to be seen by you whenever he feels like it, and I am handing over my appointment with you to him.”

The patient did not wait for my response, but rushed out of the surgery, his cavity unfilled. He apologized to the director and led him into the surgery.

This was a lesson for me in just how difficult and usually abortive it was to defend the rights of people who have lived an eternity under oppression.

Another issue I increasingly encounter is that according to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, which is ever more influential in Egypt, women should cover their faces with the niqab and not have any dealings with men — even for medical treatment. However sick she may be, a woman must be seen by a female physician even if the latter is less experienced than her male colleague.

On one occasion, a woman in a niqab came to see me. She was accompanied by her bearded husband, who looked me and my staff over as if we were potential kidnappers.

I asked the patient to take a seat in the chair. Her husband, who insisted on standing next to her, suddenly said: “If you need my wife to remove her niqab, then you can stay — but the others have to leave the room right now.”

“Those in the room are not here to look at your wife’s face,” I replied. “They are dental assistants and they are indispensable.

“Furthermore, if your wife turns out to have an exposed nerve, she will be treated by our specialist, who is a Christian.”

I uttered this last phrase with a dramatic flourish and then stepped back. The man grabbed his wife as if to leave, but to our surprise, she refused.

They exchanged whispers, which turned to shouting, and we understood that the poor woman was distressed by the fact that her husband’s extremist views were preventing her getting treatment.

This made me realize that many women we’d considered fundamentalists were simply prisoners of their husbands’ dogmatism.

One evening, a man with a toothache came to see me; I saw in his file that he was a secret-police officer.

The state security headquarters in Cairo is a grim place where tens of thousands of political opponents were tortured over the 30 years of the Mubarak regime.

The officer had a rotten tooth stump, which I took great care to extract painlessly. The officer’s face relaxed, but when he shook my hand warmly, I could not control myself.

“Why do you torture detainees,” I asked him. “Aren’t they flesh and blood? Don’t they deserve some respect?”

His expression changed. Ignoring the cotton wad in his mouth, he barked back at me: “They’re traitors paid by foreign organizations to sabotage the state. In my opinion, they don’t deserve any rights because fundamentally, they’re not humans.”

An executioner always needs to dehumanize his victims, remove their individuality. Envisaging them as a hostile, dangerous and amorphous mass makes it easier for him to torture or even kill without suffering pangs of conscience.

After 30 years of practicing dentistry and writing, I am no longer convinced that they are two completely separate professions.

Dentistry delivers people of their pain and writing conveys human pain and sorrow to the readers in an attempt to make them become more humane, more sensitive and open, less inclined to rush to judgment on others, more capable of understanding their weakness and more forgiving of their errors.

They both treat one subject: humanity.

Alaa Al Aswany is the author of “The Yacoubian Building.” This article was translated by Russell Harris from the Arabic.

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Iran, Turkey’s New Ally?

The New York Times

December 29, 2013

Iran, Turkey’s New Ally?


WASHINGTON — A bribery and corruption scandal has plunged Turkey into crisis, seriously undermining Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authority. Mr. Erdogan now faces serious challenges from both secularists suspicious of his Islamist agenda and his erstwhile ally turned rival, the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who leads a powerful Islamic movement from his perch in Pennsylvania. Sluggish economic growth and setbacks in foreign policy have only spurred the critics.

The political bickering is unlikely to let up before next year’s crucial presidential election, in which Mr. Erdogan is expected to run. He will have a difficult time repairing the tarnished image of his Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P. The economy will not give him a boost, but foreign policy might — if he can show that Turkey will once again play a central role in the Middle East.

For over a decade, Turkey cultivated ties with its Arab neighbors. Turkish diplomats and businessmen were ubiquitous across the region, opening borders and trade routes, promoting business and brokering political deals. Turkey’s spectacular economic success and its stable Muslim democracy were hailed as a model for the whole region.

In the past year, however, Mr. Erdogan’s Middle East policy has gone adrift. Tumult across the region has eroded Turkey’s influence and dented its economic aspirations.

Disagreements over Syria and, more so, over Egypt have alienated the Arab world, placing a wedge between Turkey and Saudi Arabia in particular. The Turkish model for Muslim democracy is, after all, a milder version of the former Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt — which, with Saudi help, the Egyptian military and secularists have done away with.

Turkey has denounced the ouster of Egypt’s Brotherhood government, but it can do little more than protest. Even doing that too volubly led to the expulsion of Turkey’s ambassador to Egypt.

At the same time, disapproving Persian Gulf monarchies have cut back trade ties, hurting Turkey’s economy. All this has come at a difficult time for Mr. Erdogan.

Turkey’s relations with Israel have remained strained since a clash in 2010 over an aid flotilla to Gaza. And as Turkey’s pivotal role in the region declined, the United States stopped looking to Ankara for advice on how to manage the Middle East. Instead, Washington became concerned that the antigovernment protests sweeping the Arab world might destabilize Turkey, too.

On the foreign policy front, at least, Mr. Erdogan’s luck may have changed. Now that America and Iran are talking seriously, things could be different. In sharp contrast to Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchies, which have been alarmed by the interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program, Turkey sees benefit in serving as a bridge between Iran and the West and in providing the gateway to the world that Tehran needs as it emerges from isolation.

The Iranian turn has come at an opportune time for Turkish foreign policy in other ways, too. Iran has influence with Iraq’s Shiite-led government and Syria’s Alawite elite. In Iraq, where a crucial oil deal hangs in the balance, Turkey needs Iranian cooperation. It also needs Iran’s help on Syria.

Turkey initially tied its policy to America’s demand that President Bashar al-Assad quit. It was disappointed when the Obama administration signed on to a Russian-brokered deal with Mr. Assad on chemical weapons. With violence menacing across the border, Turkey wants to see an end to Syria’s civil war. The new moderate government in Tehran is Turkey’s best hope for leveraging a settlement.

Economic ties between Turkey and Iran have been strengthening, with trade now estimated to be worth $20 billion. The real number may be still higher, since the recent corruption charges allege that Turkish officials and the state-owned Halkbank have been helping Iranian businesses dodge international sanctions. In any case, Iranian exports still reach Turkey, and the proceeds fund the purchase of gold and silver that flow back to Iran. In turn, Turkey’s economy depends on Iran’s oil and gas, its investments dollars and large export market.

If Iran does conclude a long-term nuclear deal with the West, it still cannot expect a warm welcome from the Sunni Arab world. With the region divided by a widening sectarian rift, the Persian Gulf monarchies will become only more fretful about Iran’s regional ambitions. That makes Turkey potentially a key strategic partner for Iran, especially if its economy starts to grow as sanctions are relaxed.

With American influence in the region in decline, and with Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchies finding themselves united in their opposition to Iran, Turkey could find itself playing a central role thanks to its links with Iran. A new Turkish-Iranian partnership could be a welcome development for the West: Turkey’s economic ties could boost Iran’s commercial development, which would help consolidate the political position of the moderates in Tehran. The real gains would come if a closer relationship with Turkey began to erode the alliance of militias and radical religious forces on which Iran has relied to project its influence.

To play this enlarged regional role, though, Turkey must first reassure the West that it will remain a trusted NATO ally and not demonize Western allies as a way of managing political dissent at home. However Mr. Erdogan’s domestic difficulties fall out, Turkey has an opportunity to restore its international standing. It will have to show that it is not simply an advocate for Iran, but has used its influence to shift Iran’s foreign policy and facilitate a permanent nuclear deal.

Vali R. Nasr is dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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