Building Peace Family Blog Arabic Blog

Thursday, March 25, 2010

How to visit countries in the Persian Gulf

How to visit the Gulf countries if you are a free human being:

1. Obtain a tourist passport.

2. Buy your plane tickets and book hotels on Expedia.

3. Buy a visa at the airport when you land

How to visit the Gulf countries if you are in the US military:

1. Find great plane tickets on Expedia and think, "Yeah, this will be easy!"

2. Visit the DOD Foreign Clearance Guide to find out what the requirements are for DOD travelers. Discover it can only be accessed from a .MIL computer, which you don't have. Write the Help desk for a username/password to gain alternate access.

3. Discover that leave travel is banned. Call United States Central Command for a waiver. Explain that you can't travel in an official status, because your new daughter doesn't have a diplomatic passport yet. Learn that you need a letter from your commander to apply for a waiver, but your request will probably be denied.

4. Wait for your daughter's diplomatic passport to arrive, which takes twice as long as a tourist passport.

5. Search the Air Force leave regulation for information on Permissive TDYs, which will let you travel in an official capacity and bypass the leave restriction. Discover that you qualify for a PTDY, but you need an O-6 to approve anything longer than 10 days (which your trip does). Submit PTDY request.

6. The minute your daughter's diplomatic passport arrives, log into the Automated Personnel and Aircraft Clearance system to request country clearance from each of the three countries and from US Central Command. Lose everything when the system automatically logs you out, start over, and submit.

7. Receive four denials stating that you didn't provide enough information. Learn that your trip has to be coordinated with a POC at each location before you request clearance.

8. Spend several days coordinating with a POC at each of the three countries.

9. Resubmit country and theater clearances. Wait.

10. Accomplish Antiterrorism Level One training (again).

11. Wait more. Send a string of e-mails about the fate of your PTDY request and country clearances, because the trip is two weeks away, and you really need to buy plane tickets. Learn that the PTDY form is with the Colonel and should be back any day now.

12. Wait a week. Receive three of the four clearances. Call the remaining country to find out the problem, and learn that they don't use APACS--they use a DIFFERENT country clearance system you've never heard of. Learn that you need to create an account and submit a new country clearance.

13. Log in. Learn that you need a government e-mail address to create an account, which you don't have because you're at a remote location.

14. Try using Air Force gimail, a .MIL e-mail system designed for people like you who are at remote locations and wouldn't otherwise have government mail. Discover that the system lost funding and was shut down with virtually no warning at midnight on December 31st, 2009.

15. Try logging into Army AKO, where you have a guest account sponsored by an Army officer. You seem to recall that AKO has built in email. Discover that despite the renewal notification you received a few months ago, your account has been deleted.

16. Because you have no government e-mail and can't create an account, request a waiver from this country to use APACS instead of their preferred country clearance software. Receive no reply.

17. Check plane tickets and see the prices spiraling out of control (this trip is not funded, so you're paying out of pocket). Discover that you can't even get tickets for the itinerary you planned. Take a deep breath, change your entire itinerary, and buy non-refundable tickets that cost twice as much as they originally did--even though you still don't have a signed PTDY form, you're missing a country clearance, and nobody has approved your itinerary change. Pray things will work out.

18. Resubmit your entire itinerary in APACS and call each POC in each country to inform them of the new itinerary.

19. Try again to create an account for the alternate country clearance program. E-mail your Army friend. Ask him if you can use his e-mail address to set up your account for the country clearance software.

20. Create an account. Get a message informing you that an activation code has been e-mailed to your friend. You can't use your account until it's activated.

21. Write your friend, asking him to verify your account. Provide him with your password so he can log in and accomplish this. Do this using your personal e-mail address, which apparently the DOD doesn't think is safe enough for you to use to register for the software program.

22. Start booking hotels. Discover that half the hotels are booked because your trip is so close.

23. Fifteen days after you submitted the PTDY request, send another e-mail to inquire about its fate.

24. Have black thoughts about getting out of the Air Force. Wonder if the military actually wants Middle East specialists, because they sure as hell don't act like it. Remember that you wrote a blog post titled Don't get angry unless you mean to, and that an angry rant would look hypocritical. Tell yourself that this is nobody's fault; it's the result of a runaway bureaucratic nightmare that nobody can stop or control. Feel a little better. Then get angry again. Decide to write a blog post anyway.

25. Continue waiting.

[to be continued]

Three rules for winning hearts and minds

A couple weeks ago one of my professors talked about the relentless US effort to "win hearts and minds" in Muslim countries. He mocked most of our efforts, such as the millions of dollars we sink in satellite television channels that nobody watches. Then he gave three rules that Americans should follow if they sincerely want to win Muslim hearts and minds. He said these tongue-in-cheek, but they're kind of profound:

1. When you visit, show us the courtesy of respecting and adopting our culture.

2. Be friendly, smile, and greet us in our language.

3. Don't invade and occupy our countries.

The way he frames it might make us uneasy, but it strikes to the heart of the matter. We all know that actions speak louder than words, but now you have it from someone in the region.

That's Impressive

Last night on my way home from classes I heard something pretty amazing on the Arabic BBC: a full interview, in Arabic, with a spokesperson for the British Foreign Ministry. What made him so impressive is that he wasn't a native speaker. He had learned Arabic the hard way; he put in the long, grueling years to learn this extraordinarily difficult language with enough fluency and confidence to explain and defend British foreign policy.

In all the time that I've watched Al Jazeera or the Arabic BBC, this is the first time I've heard a non-native speaker do this (I think). I suppose it's possible that I've heard speakers who were so fluent that I couldn't tell they weren't native, but it doesn't seem likely. Given Arabic's difficulty, I expect that most Arabic-speaking representatives of governments are native speakers.

This speaker wasn't perfect. He had a distinct British accent and spoke slowly and carefully, as though it took a tremendous amount of concentration to put his thoughts into words. He made mistakes and stumbled once or twice. Despite all that, I thought his interview was really impressive and showed great sincerity. I don't know what Arab listeners made of him, but I have to think that many of them would appreciate this effort.

Karen Hughes, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, recently stressed the need for the US to train linguists capable of this kind of engagement:
"We need better language training of our personnel. Most of State's training teaches officers to be able to engage in conversations, but not television interviews. We need effective spokespeople who are able to communicate on television in key languages."

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Random thoughts on cybersecurity

I promised in my last post on cybesecurity to make some suggestions on how DOD can better balance network security with practicality and openness. I have no training in Information Technology and no special knowledge of these things, so I am writing as a layman. Here are a few random ideas:

Tell us about the threats we're up against. I have seen a lot of draconian security measures come down from high, like thumb drive bans and the total shutdown of Internet in the billeting at a CENTCOM base where I was residing. What I have never seen is any accompanying explanation. Given the amount of frustration and anger these measures cause, a word of explanation would go a long way. Everything I learned about the thumb drive ban came from Wired's Danger Room. Apparently the ban came in response to a massive virus attack, but I didn't hear anything about this for several weeks. Like most people, I get frustrated by the ever-more-complex password rules, but I'm a lot more sympathetic now that I've learned a few things about password cracking techniques. I realize DOD wishes to protect sensitive information about enemy cyberattacks, but troops would be a lot more willing to put up with security measures if we had at least a general idea of the rationale. The reality is that we face cyberattacks all the time. Let the troops in on that; give them a sense of ownership of the fight. This will also give them more trust that leadership actually might know what it's doing.

Don't overclassify. It's essential that we protect sensitive networks from disruption or attack, but DOD often locks information behind secure portals for no logical reason. A good example is my attempt to get the promotion board schedule for the year. This might be because DOD is trying to make AKO and Air Force Portal one-stop shops for information, but because these sites require CAC logins, we are restricting information by default. Is there way to pull non-critical information out from behind the security fence and put it out in the open, where it belongs?

Make it easy for any servicmember to get an at-home CAC reader. From what I can tell, the Common Access Card actually makes a lot of sense from a security standpoint. It provides a standard logon for DOD websites and it can hold keys for encrypting and signing e-mails. The biggest problem is that CACs only work from CAC-enabled computers. If you're in a remote location (like me), you can't access most vital data and applications. The DOD does provide at-home solutions for using your CAC, but getting these solutions to work isn't always easy. You're on your own to order a compatible CAC reader. In the Air Force you have to download the home use software from Air Force Portal, which requires--you guessed it--CAC access.

So how about this: why doesn't DOD just create self-contained home use kits with an approved reader and the latest software, and make them available to anyone who wants to buy them? Put them in every BX and PX. Make them available for ordering online. Let units purchase them and distribute them to selected members.

Create a single username/password login as an alternative to the CAC. I have no idea the feasibility of this, from a security and technical standpoint, but here goes: Microsoft, Google, and others have created systems where you can use the same login and password for many different web applications. Could we do the same thing in the DOD? Could we have a username/password that works not just for AKO or Air Force Portal, but for virtually any military web app? Instead of trying to remember twenty usernames and passwords, we would just have to remember one. And this could provide an alternative login system for those in locations without CAC access.

Survey the human side of our current security model. I wrote yesterday that many members of my unit had to carry cards listing all our usernames and passwords because there were so many of them and the password rules were so complex. Is it possible that our stringent technical requirements are making us less secure because of the vulnerable human element? If the security bosses in DOD aren't looking at these sorts of habits, they should be. The habits of average users should factor into our security policies.

Make unrestricted Internet access available, off the main network. Again, no idea if this is feasible... but at every military base I have visited there are two ways to get on the Internet. First, you can log on to a US military computer, where you'll deal with security, firewalls, and everything else. Second, you can walk across the street to the Green Bean Cafe where you can pay a couple bucks an hour to use unrestricted wireless Internet access. (The Green Bean at Manas, Kyrgyzstan was hilarious... at least half of the US Army goes to war with orcs and goblins when it isn't fighting insurgents). Why can't DOD provide a service that a coffee shop can? I understand we need tight security on our primary network. But why can't local units subscribe to the local DSL or cable modem company, put a wireless router in the building, and simultaneously provide unrestricted Internet access to those who want/need it? Just an idea.

These are just a few ideas off the top of my head. If my readers have more, share them in the comments.

On root canals and cultural prejudice

On Tuesday I had my most terrifying experience yet in Jordan: having a root canal.

I actually have a lot of faith in Jordanian health care, at least in the top hospitals. My wife's experience having a baby was better in Jordan than it was in the US, and most American women who have delivered here will tell you the same thing. We had the top OBYGN in the country, who has decades of experience. The hospital is modern, clean, and equipped with even better technology than I have seen in the US. I got really aggravated with TriCare, the US military's health insurance company, because they kept insisting that Jordan was not a "center of excellence." They wanted to airevac my wife to Ramstein AB, Germany for two months so she could deliver in a US military hospital. I repeatedly told them that I felt safer entrusting my wife to Jordanian doctors than to the US military.

But when it comes to teeth, I'm a coward. In my wife's case, we knew the OBYGN's reptuation and knew we were in good hands. When my tooth started to flare up, I had no idea what to expect. I was especially terrified because local anesthetic almost never works on me. This same tooth needed a root canal last year, and it took six or seven appointments to accomplish, partly because I had so much trouble getting numb. After one dentist spent 45 minutes trying and failing to anesthetize me, he just sent me home and rescheduled another appointment. During the actual root canal, the anesthetic began to wear off halfway through. It hurt like hell.

So I'll admit: I was afraid of going to a Jordanian dentist. I was especially terrified when the dentist told me the tooth was infected and that I would need to redo the root canal. A horror film fired up in my mind of being belted down to a filthy table, thrashing and screaming while an endodontist who spoke no English jabbed needles into my teeth with no anesthetic.

To make a long story short, my fear and prejudice were unfounded. The Jordanian endodontist did a fantastic job. He got me perfectly numb with the first shot. Not only that, he discovered that my American endodontist had broken off the tip of a tool in my tooth--and left it there without telling me. Because he couldn't get it out, he left part of the root intact beneath the broken tip. Worse, the US military dentist who had done the filling had left a big tuft of cotton inside the tooth. No wonder it got infected. When the endodontist scraped the cotton out of my tooth, he held it up for his nurse to see. He said in Arabic--probably not knowing that I was listening--something like, "Can you believe this? This is from America. It doesn't matter if you're American or Jordanian, it's the individual dentist who matters."

True, true. We should take each person on his or her own individual merits. Still, I can't help but feel even more entrenched in another of my prejudices: my fear of US military medicine.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Second Life Conference Review

I went to sleep early last night, and rolled out of bed an hour and a half later to check out Air University's educational forum in Second Life. I can't give a full review, because I only stayed about an hour (out of a scheduled three). I was less interested in the forum's content than in getting a feel for what a conference feels like in Second Life.

It was about what I expected. The execution was very good, but I still can't get past the clunky interface of Second Life itself.

I was impressed with how organized the hosts were. Air University has built some pretty stunning virtual facilities across a series of islands. The auditorium was large with lots of seating and good views of the screens from almost everywhere, despite SL's clunky camera controls. I automatically received a "welcome kit" when I logged in, which contained SL game objects (such as an event T-shirt) and documents relevant to the presentations. All the presenters had arrived early and were gathered at the front of the auditorium. They did their technology checks early and started on time. I have a poor Internet condition here, so I didn't expect the voice chat to work well, but it was surprisingly good. The briefers were loud and clear. They had PowerPoint presentations with embedded video, which was projected on in-game screens. I believe there was a tour of various AF and NASA facilities after the lectures, but I logged out well before that and went to bed. Overall, the organizers really tried to put on an excellent event within the confines imposed by the game world.

With that said, I still find Second Life immensely frustrating. For the most part, I felt that the virtual world technology impeded the conference rather than facilitated it. A lot of other technologies are better suited for this kind of event, such as a live streaming broadcast of real human beings. The interface simply isn't intuitive enough. There is too much of a "reality disconnect" when you're essentially listening to a conference telephone call while watching a cartoon avatar stand behind a podium without his or her lips moving. The real focus of most lectures was the PowerPoint slides, but you lose clarity, quality, and resolution when you convert slides into a texture and wrap it onto a 3D game object. It took a lot of complex camera manipulation ( CTL and ALT and arrow keys) to line up a good view, and even then, the quality was still degraded. I find SL's inventory system very hard to use, and while I thought the welcome kits were a good idea, it is not easy to open up and use, and not really practical for exchanging business documents; an e-mail with attached PDFs would be much easier to use.

The event wasn't without minor technical glitches. In the minutes before the event started, the MC asked someone to tell her real-life cubicle neighbor to move his avatar because he was blocking a control panel. Once we were underway several people lost voice connections or couldn't see the videos (including me). While the speakers were talking over voice, the text chat was full of technical Q&A.

Lastly, I come to what I wrote about yesterday... the vast emptiness of Second Life. I was impressed that around 30 people came to the event. I suspect they were mostly educators or government employees who are interested in using Second Life. What's missing, though, are the crowds of young people they are trying to educate or entertain. The Air Force has built this entire network of enormous islands as a playground in which to train and recruit, but in all the times I've visited there, I've only seen one other person one time. This is typical, which is why a lot of other organizations that tried out Second Life have been leaving.

I still believe virtual worlds are going to transform our society to the same degree that the Internet already has, but the transformation won't come from Second Life. Lately I've been thinking that we may breeze right past the stage where virtual worlds are something you look at on a tiny screen; the real revolution will come with augmented reality, when the virtual gets mixed into the real.

In closing, here are a few pictures from the event.

Introductory remarks by the MC
Here we are... the attentive audience
I think it's time for a break
You can glimpse some of the difficulties here, such as trying to read skewed PowerPoint slides. Note the chat window where technical Q&A is occurring.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Air Force hosts Second Life conference tonight

Tonight (March 18th) from 5:00-8:00 PM the Air University Innovations and Integration Division is hosting an educational forum inside Second Life. It will be the middle of the night here, but I'm going to try and make it.

I'm guessing most of you have heard of Second Life, but if you haven't, it's a digital universe created almost entirely by its residents. Real-life users create digital avatars to represent themselves. Second Life is mostly recreational, but it has drawn a lot of media attention in the last few years as universities, corporations, and even governments have set up shop. They recognize the utility that virtual worlds could have for education and training, conferencing, marketing, etc. To its credit, the Air Force jumped on board early and is proactively looking at ways to harness the power of virtual worlds.

I'll be honest: I love the idea of virtual worlds, but I don't like Second Life. I find the interface clumsy and difficult to use, but more importantly, I don't find Second Life at all enjoyable. I'm amazed at how desolate it feels. Almost every time I've logged in to a new location that sounds interesting, I'm the only person there. The only places where people seem to congregate are party spots like clubs and beaches, but the idea of watching my avatar dance or lie on a beach chair doesn't sound remotely fun. The Second Life experience is also overwhelmed by the rampant cybersex and commercialization. I sincerely want to enjoy Second Life (just as I want to enjoy Twitter) but I haven't found a way yet.

Still, Second Life is the best product of its kind out there. Virtual worlds are still an emerging technology, and although I don't particularly enjoy Second Life, I'm glad that Linden Lab is pioneering the field. I'm also glad that forward-thinking leaders and educators are investing in it. Although Second Life might not be the technology that changes the world, its successor might be. Organizations that want to be ahead of the game need to keep up with technologies like Second Life.

I've never attended a virtual conference before, so I'm eager to see what the experience is like. If you're curious about what this "virtual world" thing is all about, you should log in and check it out. Log in nice and early so you can create a character, learn the interface, and get to the meeting (see the instructions linked above). I plan to log in about an hour early... if you want to "meet" me there, look for Fareed Courtois... the guy with the shaggy hair and goatee who most definitely does not look like he is in the Air Force. No, I'm not coming in uniform.

Exploring cybersecurity

Everyone is talking about cybersecurity and cyberwarfare these days. Security experts like former NSA director Mike McConnell have been warning about a cyber-Pearl Harbor or September 11th for years; others say the threat is overblown and that fearmongering could destroy our civil liberties. The extremely sophisticated Chinese hack of US corporations has put the issue back in the news. The military is scrambling to put together cyberwarfare units and figure out what exactly they should be doing. Universities, think tanks, and government organizations are brainstorming how to rebuild a secure Internet from the ground up. And you and me, the user, have to deal with security restrictions that seem increasingly asinine and make our military networks almost unusable for daily work. I write repeatedly about this, but Starbuck's recent rants here and here prove that I am outclassed.

It's good we're talking about cyberwarfare, but there's a problem: although everybody knows the issue is critical, very few people really understand it. I know I don't, and I'm a pretty computer literate guy. I was on the Internet when it was just a UNIX prompt and I've been programming computers and robots since I was a kid. I know scattered bits of hacking knowledge here and there, but if you put me in CYBERCOM and said, "Tell me exactly what it is we're supposed to be doing here", I would have no idea. I have to imagine that a lot of policymakers, especially those who didn't grow up in a digital generation, understand even less.

That raises an interesting question: given the technical complexity of cyber issues, how can we teach the layman about them?

I decided this is something I need to know more about, so I started a crash course in the digital underworld (as if I don't have enough going on). I started with the very basics this week. I downloaded the open-source tool VirtualBox which allows me to run a second operating system in a window inside my existing operating system (my wife uses the same program to run Windows on her MacBook). Next I downloaded and installed Ubuntu 9.10, one of the most popular distributions of the open-source operating system Linux--the preferred operating system for most hackers. After that, I installed Tor for Ubuntu, which masks my IP address (did you know that every website you visit logs your IP address, and that your IP address can be mapped to a physical location?). I already use a subscription service called Proxify, which is a kind of intermediary allowing me to access websites that are firewalled in this country, so this combination of tools lets me surf with anonymity. I also downloaded the free Linux chat client Pidgin and played around for a while on IRC, an old chat and file-sharing protocol that predates all of our modern chat tools. I used it extensively when I was a young programmer and my Internet access just provided a UNIX prompt, but it's still a preferred hangout for serious coders and hackers.

The next topic I began to explore was encryption and digital signing. A few of my geekiest friends always signed their emails with PGP keys, but I never really understood how they worked, so I read the GNU Privacy Handbook. I then installed the free GNU Privacy Guard for Windows, and FireFPG for Firefox on both Windows and Ubuntu. Now I have the ability to digitally sign or encrypt my e-mails, or verify the identify of and decrypt documents from others using PGP (I have no idea when I would actually use this, but at least I know how). With these tools, my masked Internet connection, and an anonymous e-mail address, I could conceivably create a secure online identity that is very hard to tie to my real self.

I also began reading the non-technical primer Hacking for Dummies (yes, I know, all the real hackers are laughing at me) and the more technical security primer Hacking Exposed. I don't have the time or inclination to learn all the tools of the trade, but these books are giving me an idea of the way hackers operate, the tactics and tools they use, and the countermeasures to defend against them.

I'm amazed at the power of the free tools that would-be hackers can use to cause mischief. You really don't have to be an expert to launch attacks; you just have to download and employ the right tool. In fact, hacker culture uses the derogatory phrase "script kiddie" to describe juveniles who use off-the-shelf tools but have no real programming or hacking ability.

I'm also impressed at how important the human dimension is to hackers. Breaking into a secure network is hard; obtaining a password from a careless employee might be much easier. This is where I fear that the DOD might be going wrong with its strict network security. By making passwords so complex, requiring that they be changed so frequently, etc. the DOD is making it impossible for servicemembers to remember them. When I was flying C-17s I had to access a variety of DOD programs from the road. The only way I could remember all my usernames and passwords was to carry a card in my wallet with all of them written down. A lot of my friends did the same. Those programs were probably safe from brute-force attempts to crack passwords, but there is a soft underbelly. A lost wallet could give someone access to ten or fifteen DOD web applications.

A second example: every Air Force pilot maintains a list of identifying information that can be used by Search and Rescue forces. Among this information is a secret number. The rules for choosing a valid number were so complicated and changed so frequently that nobody could figure out how to pick a valid one. After I made five or six attempts, the Intel officer finally told me, "Just use XXXXXXX." The number was easy to remember because it corresponded to something we all knew (sorry, being vague here). I'm pretty sure half my squadron ended up using the same number. That is not secure.

Finally, I'm amazed at how much information you can dig up on a person or a company if you really try. This is where the technical and human aspects of hacking meet. If you want to target a specific company, you can quickly find all sorts of human information that could help you gain access--names, phone numbers, addresses, etc. When I was in high school, I used to hang out on a message board for aspiring young writers. One girl posted a "Goodbye world" message one Friday, informing us all that she was going to kill herself on Monday. Using just her e-mail address, I was able to get a phone number of somebody who knew her. It turned out to be a hoax, but she got the surprise of her life when the police showed up at her house Sunday evening.

I've only scratched the tip of the iceberg, but this is fascinating stuff. I will admit that I've gained a greater appreciation for the challenges that DOD must manage with its network security policies. Starbuck and I both come down on the side of openness and freedom, but I recognize that this needs to be balanced with careful security measures. I don't believe DOD has achieved this balance yet--it needs to find creative ways to open up the flow of information, while still preserving security. I will share some thoughts on how it might be able to achieve that in a future post.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Virtue of Self-Criticism

Self-criticism is one of the most vital qualities that an organization can possess. If a corporation, military unit, civil organization, or even a state ever wants to improve itself and its place in the world, self-criticism is essential. If an organization is comfortable with "business as usual", it will never get better. If it downplays internal weaknesses or simply tries to blame outsiders, it will stagnate or decay.

Healthy, vibrant, learning organizations continually examine themselves for opportunities to improve. Good leaders cultivate this mentality in their subordinates. They invite feedback, have suggestion boxes, and write after-action reports to discover lessons learned. They deliberately seek out points of weakness and develop strategies to strengthen them. Healthy organizations take responsibility for their mistakes and weaknesses; even if they are subject to forces outside their control, they always try to maintain excellence in those areas that ARE under their control. Good leaders stimulate debate and seek out different viewpoints, because they know that good ideas are more likely to win in a free intellectual marketplace.

The United States government has a lot of internal dysfunction, but one of its greatest strengths is its open, transparent, democratic culture. It's easy to take this for granted. We are bombarded with so many news broadcasts, radio programs, blogs, and kitchen-table political conversations that we lose sight of how rare and marvelous this is. Since moving to Jordan, my appreciation for our democratic culture has grown tremendously. One of my Arab classmates was amazed when he read Stephen Ambrose's Rise of Globalism for class; he couldn't believe American authors could write books so critical of their government (the book is balanced and quite tame). Although our country certainly has its problems, our open intellectual marketplace is a tremendous asset in keeping government accountable.

The Israelis share this strength. They have a self-critical culture that encompasses a rich diversity of opinions; the Israelis have a saying that anywhere you find two Jews, you'll find three opinions. I'm always impressed reading Israeli newspapers, because the debate there about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is even more critical than it is in the United States. If you read Haaretz today, you'll find a storm of controversy around the Biden visit and around the East Jerusalem construction plan. Israel has produced some fantastic historians, who are willing to question traditional biased narratives and admit Israeli wrongdoing where it's due. Israel has a vibrant civic society with platforms all across the political spectrum.

The single greatest cultural weakness I've seen in Jordan is the total absence of this self-criticism, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Every Jordanian and Palestinian I know sincerely desires peace. They know that Israel is here to stay and they are willing to coexist. Nearly everyone points me to the Arab Peace Initiative. Every one of my Jordanian colleagues sincerely believes that the Arab world has extended peace and is fully ready to embrace a comprehensive peace deal, if only the recalcitrant Israel was willing. The problem, they emphatically tell me, is Israel. If only the US could pressure Israel to stop building settlements and get serious about negotiating, there would be peace in this region... we promise. And then, they say, all the other problems of the Middle East like Iran and Hamas and Hezbollah would go away. I hear this same impassioned speech from government officials, university professors, classmates, and friends. They earnestly believe it.

There is some merit to what my Jordanian colleagues say; there are real obstructions to peace on the Israeli side. But the glaring omission in this Arab narrative is any responsibility for the broken peace process on their own side. There is no self-critical analysis and no admission of fault. It occurred to me recently that, after 11 months in Jordan, I have not heard a single Jordanian admit responsibility for the failure of the peace process, with only one exception: most of them recognize that suicide bombings were immoral and a catastrophic idea.

When Jordanians tell me that the Arab world is ready for peace--if only Israel was willing--I always challenge this. What if Israel stopped building settlements and agreed to negotiate tomorrow, I ask? Who is Israel supposed to negotiate with? There is no unified Palestinian government as long as Fatah and Hamas are divided. The situation might be ripe for peace in the West Bank (that's a big maybe), but it certainly isn't in Gaza. Even if the world created a Palestinian state tomorrow, Hizballah and Hamas would not disappear overnight. The crisis with Iran is only tangentially related to Palestine. Israel doesn't want to negotiate partly because it doesn't believe a serious peace deal is possible under these circumstances. The Arab world needs to be having critical internal debates about these issues, but I don't see this happening from where I'm sitting.

This self-criticism is equally absent from the study of history. My Jordanian colleagues know all about the suffering in Gaza and historical events like the massacres of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila, but they know virtually nothing of Arab aggression and atrocities against Jews. During one classroom discussion I was shocked how little my classmates knew about the 1967 war. Most of them knew only that Israel launched a surprise war against the Arab world. They had no knowledge of Nasser's expulsion of UN peacekeeping forces from Sinai or his closing of the Straits of Tiran, which backed Israel into a corner where war was inevitable. Historical distortion exists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it is particularly bad on the Palestinian/Arab side.

My Jordanian colleagues have big hearts and sincerely desire peace, but the myopic focus on Israel blinds them to issues on their own side. The Arab world needs to get past the blame game, and critically examine its own weaknesses and obstructions to peace.

On second thought...

In my previous post I came down hard on Israel for its stubborn persistence in colonizing East Jerusalem and its snub to the United States. Today it's time to come down hard on the other side.

In that previous post I expressed amazement that the United States appeared to be letting Israel get away with its Biden snub. I think I spoke too soon, because the more I read, the more it appears that Obama, Biden, Clinton and pretty much everyone else are furious. It took a few days to set in motion, but the diplomatic pressure on Israel appears to be unprecedented. The Anti-Defamation League certainly seems to think so. In a statement ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman wrote:

We are shocked and stunned at the Administration's tone and public dressing down of Israel on the issue of future building in Jerusalem. We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend and ally of the United States. One can only wonder how far the U.S. is prepared to go in distancing itself from Israel in order to placate the Palestinians in the hope they see it is in their interest to return to the negotiating table.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Israel and The Biden Visit

I don't usually dig into particulars of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict here because I prefer to avoid walking through minefields, but I am shocked by how badly Israel humiliated the United States during the Biden visit this week. I'm also shocked that the US is apparently letting Israel get away with it.

If you haven't been paying attention, the Israeli government used Biden's peace-rallying visit to announce the construction of 1600 housing units in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians hope to make the capitol of their eventual state. Up to 50,000 units may be planned. This directly violates the US and international calls for a settlement freeze (although that battle is already lost). East Jerusalem is probably the most contentious issue in the peace process, so this move is a flagrant slap in the face to anyone involved in the process. I read it as a clear statement that the current Israeli government has no interest in a peace deal.

The Israelis apologized and claimed that the timing was an embarrassing coincidence; the left hand of the Israeli government wasn't talking to the right hand (Biden himself doesn't seem to buy this). The government implemented a bureaucratic fix to ensure it won't happen again: Israel will no longer announce policies so antithetical to the peace process while US peace envoys are visiting. I hardly find that satisfying.

What nobody is talking about is the basic fact that continued settlement expansion is one of the biggest obstacles to a peace. It is rapidly eroding Israel's moral credibili