“In this series of four Landsat images, the agricultural fields are about one kilometer across. Healthy vegetation appears bright green while dry vegetation appears orange. Barren soil is a dark pink, and urban areas, like the town of Tubarjal at the top of each image, have a purple hue. Credit: NASA/GSFC
The green fields that dot the desert draw on water that in part was trapped during the last Ice Age. In addition to rainwater that fell over several hundred thousand years, this fossil water filled aquifers that are now buried deep under the desert’s shifting sands.
Saudi Arabia reaches these underground rivers and lakes by drilling through the desert floor, directly irrigating the fields with a circular sprinkler system. This technique is called center-pivot irrigation.
Because rainfall in this area is now only a few centimeters (about one inch) each year, water here is a non-renewable resource. Although no one knows how much water is beneath the desert, hydrologists estimate it will only be economical to pump water for about 50 years.”
Given these last weeks, who doesn’t know what an AR-15 is? Who hasn’t seen the mind-boggling stats on the way assault rifles have flooded this country, or tabulations of accumulating Newtown-style mass killings, or noted that there are barely more gas stations nationwide than federally licensed firearms dealers, or heard the renewed debates over the Second Amendment, or been struck by the rapid shifts in public opinion on gun control, or checked out the disputes over how effective an assault-rifle ban was the last time around? Who doesn’t know about the NRA’s suggestion to weaponize schools, or about the price poor neighborhoods may be paying in gun deaths for the present expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment? Who hasn’t seen the legions of stories about how, in the wake of the Newtown slaughter, sales of guns, especially AR-15 assault rifles, have soared, ammunition sales have surged, background checks for future gun purchases have risen sharply, and gun shows have been besieged with customers?
If you haven’t stumbled across figures on gun violence in America or on suicide-by-gun, you’ve been hiding under a rock. If you haven’t heard about Chicago’s soaring and Washington D.C.’s plunging gun-death stats (and that both towns have relatively strict gun laws), where have you been?
Has there, in fact, been any aspect of the weaponization of the United States that, since the Newtown massacre, hasn’t been discussed? Are you the only person in the country, for instance, who doesn’t know that Vice President Joe Biden has been assignedthe task of coming up with an administration gun-control agenda before Barack Obama is inaugurated for his second term? And can you honestly tell me that you haven’t seen global comparisons of killing rates in countries that have tight gun laws and the U.S., or read at least one discussion about life in countries like Colombia or Guatemala, where armed guards are omnipresent?
After years of mass killings that resulted in next to no national dialogue about the role of guns and how to control them, the subject is back on the American agenda in a significant way and — by all signs — isn’t about to leave town anytime soon. The discussion has been so expansive after years in a well-armed wilderness that it’s easy to miss what still isn’t being discussed, and in some sense just how narrow our focus remains.
Think of it this way: the Obama administration is reportedly going to call on Congress to pass a new ban on assault weapons, as well as one on high-capacity ammunition magazines, and to close the loopholes that allow certain gun purchasers to avoid background checks. But Biden has already conceded, at least implicitly, that facing a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a filibuster-prone Senate, the administration’s ability to make much of this happen — as on so many domestic issues — is limited.
The American obsession with guns and violence is not unique, but it is distinctive. The US ranks 12th in the world for rate of firearm-related deaths. El Salvador, Colombia, Swaziland, Brazil, South Africa, the Philippines and some others are worse. But that is the company the US is in– not, say, relatively peaceful places like Japan, Singapore and the Netherlands.
It turns out that the Newtown shooter used a semi-automatic Bushmaster rifle and he had lots of thirty-round high-capacity clips for it. Authorities have revealed that each of the 20 children and six adults he killed was shot multiple times, but given the number of clips Lanza brought with him, the number of victims could have been much, much higher. The Federal ban on weapons such as the Bushmaster, in place 1994-2004, was allowed to lapse by the George W. Bush administration and his Republican Congress, all of whom received massive campaign donations from the gun lobby. There is a Connecticut ban, but the maker of the Bushmaster used a loophole in the poorly written state law to continue to sell the gun in the state. The Bushmaster is manufactured by a subsidiary of the Wall Street hedge fund, Cerberus Capital Management, called the “Freedom Group”– which also owns Remington and DPMS Firearms. It is the largest single maker of semi-automatic rifles in the US, and they are expected to be a major growing profit center in the coming years. The Freedom Group was sued over the Washington, DC, sniper attacks, and paid $500,000 without admitting culpability.
So, the hedge funds are doing us in every which way.
But the weird idea of letting people buy military weaponry at will, with less trouble than you would have to buy a car, is only one manifestation of America’s cult of high-powered weaponry.
Saudi Arabia bought F-15s and Apache and Blackhawk helicopters. Oman bought F-16s. The UAE got a missile shield. And, of course, Israel gets very sophisticated weapons from the US, as well.
The US share of the arms trade to the Middle East has burgeoned so much in the past decade that it now dwarfs the other suppliers, as this chart [pdf] from a Congressional study makes clear.
The University of Michigan “Correlates of War” project, run by my late colleague David Singer, tried to crunch numbers on potential causes of the wars of the past two centuries. Getting a statistically valid correlation for a cause was almost impossible. But there was one promising lead, as it was explained to me. When countries made large arms purchases, they seemed more likely to go to war in the aftermath. It may be that if you have invested in state of the art weapons, you want to use them before they become antiquated or before your enemies get them too.
So the very worst thing the US could do for Middle East peace is to sell the region billions in new, sophisticated weapons.
Moreover if you give sophisticated conventional weapons to some countries but deny them to their rivals, the rivals will try to level the playing field with unconventional weapons. The US is creating an artificial and unnecessary impetus to nuclear proliferation by this policy.
I first went to Pakistan in 1981. At that time it was not a society with either drugs or guns. But President Ronald Reagan decided to use private Afghan militias to foment a guerrilla war against the Soviets, who sent troops into Afghanistan in late 1979. Reagan ended up sending billions of dollars worth of arms to the Mujahidin annually, and twisting Saudi Arabia’s arm to match what the US sent. The Mujahidin were also encouraged by the US to grow poppies for heroin production so that they could buy even more weapons.
Over the decade of the 1980s, I saw the weapons begin to show up in the markets of Pakistan, and began hearing for the first time about drug addicts (there came to be a million of them by 1990). I had seen the arms market expand in Lebanon in the 1970s, and was alarmed that now it was happening in Pakistan, at that time a relatively peaceful and secure society. The US filled Pakistan up with guns to get at the Soviets, creating a gun culture where such a thing had been rare (with the exception of some Pashtuns who made home-made knock-offs of Western rifles). Ultimately the gun culture promoted by Reagan came back to bite the US on the ass (not to mention Afghanistan and Pakistan!) And not to mention the drugs.
Now the US views Pakistan as peculiarly violent, and pundits often blame it on Islamism. But no, it is just garden-variety Americanism. You’re welcome.
The inability of the Syrian government to crush an 18-month-old revolutionary movement is putting increasing pressure on its neighbors. Not only have hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria poured into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, but political forces in each of those countries are having to choose sides and to reevaluate their choices over time.
The bombing in Beirut’s Ashrafieh neighborhood that killed security chief Wissam al-Hassan last week has widely been blamed inside Lebanon on the Shiite Hizbullah party-militia, which backs the current government of Najib al-Miqati. Angry Lebanese Sunnis of the March 14 movement led by Saad al-Hariri, who oppose the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and sympathize with their Sunni co-religionists in the Syrian opposition, have vowed to bring down the Miqati government. Miqati said Sunday that although he had thought about resigning, he has decided not to stand down.
Still, it remains to be seen if the Lebanese government can avoid falling, given the firestorm set off by the Syria conflict. The problem for Miqati and Hizbullah is that among their key coalition partners is Walid Jumblatt, the mercurial Druze leader, who is said to be turning against the Baath government of Syria. (Jumblatt has flip-flopped on Baathist Syria several times; it is alleged that Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, had Walid’s father, Kamal Jumblatt, assassinated in 1977.) The Washington Post is even hinting that Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrullah is himself wavering on whether to continue to support Syria so strongly, given the possibility that it could mean the loss of the Miqati government and the political marginalization of Hizbullah inside Lebanon. I actually doubt that Hizbullah is wavering, given its strong alliance with Iran, which is backing al-Assad.
Likewise, the Syria conflict is spilling over onto Iraq, where the NYT alleges some Shiite fighters are going to Damascus to defend the shrine of Sayyida Zainab, holy to their branch of Islam, from possible destruction by hard line Salafis that have already targeted that neighborhood. During the Iraq War, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled to Syria, and Shiite Iraqis congregated around the shrine. They have largely been ethnically cleansed by hard line Sunnis, seen as foreigners supporting the al-Assad regime, and there are concerns that Wahhabi-influenced Salafis might raze the shrine. (Saudi Wahhabis, like early militant Protestants in 16th-century Europe, are iconoclasts who despise the cult of saints, shrines and relics, insisting that only God is holy, and no intercession is possible with Him by third parties. Shiite Muslims, in contrast, are all about saints related to the Prophet Muhammad, and their tombs and shrines, and do believe they will intercede for believers.)
On Saturday, Sunni guerrillas unleashed a series of bombings and attacks on Shiite pilgrims and Shiite neighborhoods in Iraq. Although this tactic of attempting to foment Sunni-Shiite violence is by now 9 years old, it may be continuing in force in part because of the new struggle over the future of Syria. Syria’s Baath government is secular, socialist and nationalist, but the upper echelons of the Baath government and army are dominated by members of the Alawite minority, a form of folk Shiism. About 10-14 percent of Syrians are Alawite. The al-Assad government also has a geopolitical alliance with Shiite Iran and, increasingly, the Shiite government of Iraq.
The idea of a 4-day cease-fire in Syria’s ongoing revolution/ civil war during the Eid al-Adha (Feast of Sacrifice, commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God) was always a difficult proposition. Cease-fires work when two sides are exhausted and can’t see how easily to make further gains through fighting. That situation does not obtain in Syria– the ceaseless back-and-forth of guerrilla strikes and regime reprisal has been going on for over a year, and the revolutionaries appear to have gradually chipped away at the Baath government’s control of much of the country. When one side has the momentum, it simply makes no sense to have a cease-fire.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta , on a visit to Israel and Palestine before heading to Egypt, publicly upbraided the Likud government of Israel for having become isolated diplomatically in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, and warned direly that brute military force would not be enough to provide for Israel’s security.
“It’s pretty clear, at this dramatic time in the Middle East when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated. And that is what has happened…”
“The important thing there is to again reaffirm our strong security relationship with Israel, to make clear that we will protect their qualitative military edge… As they take risks for peace, we will be able to provide the security that they will need in order to ensure that they can have the room hopefully to negotiate.”
Panetta said he was aware of that Israel had more and better weapons than its neighbors… “but the question you have to ask is – is it enough to maintain an military edge if you are isolating yourself diplomatically?”
“Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to project your military strength…” he said.
Panetta is clearly concerned at the bad relations between Israel and Turkey, and the increasingly rocky relationship between Israel and revolutionary Egypt, where angry demonstrators invaded the Israeli embassy and chased the ambassador out of the country. The Israeli ambassador to Jordan also had to leave briefly, because of the threat potentially posed by anti-Israel demonstrations in Amman.
The Obama administration, for which Panetta is speaking, is deeply frustrated with blustery Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his far right cabinet, including thuggish foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman (a former Moldovian club bouncer).
But it is most likely that the Obama administration has other reasons for pressuring Netanyahu at this juncture. Pro-American Arab allies throughout the region are facing widespread protests and even revolutionary movements– in Bahrain and Yemen most prominently, and to a lesser extent in Jordan and Morocco. The closeness of those governments to Washington (and by implication to Tel Aviv) is among the strikes against them in Arab public opinion, because of the execrable treatment by Israel of the stateless, often homeless Palestinians. While pro-American oil states like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have tried to bribe their populations into quiescence, so far with some success, the Obama team must be frantic that Netanyahu’s provocations will help produce even more turmoil in the Arab world.
If Saudi Arabia blew up over the royal family’s close ties to Washington, the price of petroleum would rise astronomically. Saudi Arabia produces 9.7 million barrels a day of the 88 million barrels a day of petroleum pumped globally. Take that off the market (the revolution in Libya took its entire oil production offline) and there would be a global crisis of Depression-era proportions. Although oil futures prices and supplies have softened in the past quarter (down 17%) on expectation of Libya’s production coming back online and continued weak economic growth in Western Europe and North America, supplies are still tight by historic standards. You take 11% of world production off the table, and the price rise wouldn’t be serial, it would be exponential. (I.e., the price wouldn’t go up 11%, it would go up to like $500 a barrel, compared with $79 now for West Texas Crude).
The stability of pro-American Arab regimes in this time of enormous instability depends in some important part on public anger about treatment of the Palestinians. So to have Netanyahu and Lieberman caroming around making inflammatory statements and adopting belligerent policies, and blowing off Obama’s peace process is rather inconvenient. An announcement by the Palestine Authority that there was a prospect of progress on Palestinian rights through negotiations with Israel would be very, very helpful right about now.
But what does Obama (and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia) get? Announcements of settlement expansions on the West Bank, and Israeli air strikes on Palestinians in Gaza.
Netanyahu has refused to negotiate with the Palestinians in good faith, and his adventurism against the Gaza aid flotilla of 2010 created a diplomatic crisis that continues today. After twisting the arms of Western European allies like Germany to oppose the Palestinian bid for membership in the United Nations, the Israelis deeply angered Germany and others by cheekily announcing that they will expand settlements yet again. The ostensible argument for opposing the Palestinian UN gambit was that it would make bilateral negotiations more difficult. But wasn’t that precisely what settlement expansion would do?
The Netanyahu government has unnecessarily set a course toward worsening relations with Turkey by refusing to apologize for killing 9 Turkish aid workers (one an American citizen) on the Mavi Marmara in late May of 2010. United Nations investigators found disturbing evidence of the use of excessive force by Israeli commandos. Turkey also objects to the Israeli economic strangulation of Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip, such that it prevents them from exporting any of their products and so has reduced them to poverty, with 56 percent being food insecure. Such blockades of staples imposed on non-combatants, including children, in an occupied territory are illegal in international law, not to mention inhumane and just plain creepy. I mean, what kind of a person keeps children living on the edge or prevents their parents from putting a roof over their heads? (An Israeli blockade to keep weapons from coming into Gaza would be legal and understandable, but since 2007 they’ve gone way beyond that policy into a very dark area of the soul.)
Turkey wants the blockade on Palestinian civilians dropped, and so does the vast majority of the world (talk about diplomatically isolated!) After the fall of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who may have gotten kickbacks to do favors for Israeli policy, the new foreign minister, Nabil Alaraby, called the Gaza blockade “shameful.” (Alaraby has gone on to become secretary-general of the Arab League). Egypt shares the Israeli concern about weapons being smuggled into Gaza, but 99 percent of Egyptians object to the rest of the blockade.
The increasingly hostile rhetoric directed at Israel by the Turkish government over these issues, along with the popular protests against it in Egypt (where, if public opinion becomes important, relations are likely to turn even more chilly than those with Turkey– though likely the peace treaty is not in doubt).
Throwing fuel on the flames has been the Netanyahu government’s arrogant refusal to freeze settlements on territory in the West Bank and around Jerusalem claimed by the Palestinians, while negotiations proceed as to their ultimate disposition. In short, Israel is determinedly gobbling up the West Bank lands it militarily occupied in 1967, and the Palestinian Authority now says it just isn’t going to bestow legitimacy on this vast land-grab by engaging in mock negotiations that are doomed to leave the Palestinians with less and less territory– even while the negotiations are going on!
It is illegal for an Occupying power to flood the occupied territory with its own citizens, under the Geneva Convention of 1949. While an occupation can be legal, the extent of the violations Israel has committed against the 1907 Hague Convention and the 1949 Geneva Convention are so extensive as to have rendered their continued occupation of the Palestinians criminal at its core.
While the Baath government of Syria has been hostile to Israel and has supported small local anti-Israel paramilitaries like those of Hizbullah and Hamas, it hasn’t taken military action against Israel since 1973 and it intervened in Lebanon in 1976 and after to prevent the Palestinians and their allies from coming to power there. In short, because it is invested in order, the Baath has probably been less dangerous to Israel in recent decades than would be a populist regime of the sort that might emerge if President Bashar al-Asad is overthrown. And a revolution in Syria is not impossible, though it faces an uphill battle.
Even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq has taken a hard rhetorical line against Israel recently, warning that it might find ways of benefiting from Arab turmoil. The popular political forces in Arab Iraq, whether Sunni or Shiite, are virulently anti-Israel, contrary to what the Neoconservatives used to promise Tel Aviv. Denunciations of Israel are now issuing almost in tandem from Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.
And that’s another thing. Netanyahu’s and Lieberman’s obstreperousness are an opportunity for Iran to gain influence in the Arab world, and helps bolster Iran’s defense of the Bashar al-Asad government from its domestic critics.
Israel’s weird policy of illegally colonizing the West Bank and of keeping the Palestinians of Gaza under civilian blockade is damaging to Israelis. But they can probably get away with it.
My guess is that the Obama administration’s fear is that pro-American Arab regimes can’t get away with it.
The surprise announcement on Sunday by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that women will be allowed to vote in and run for office in the municipal elections scheduled in four years is another sign of the pressure the kingdom is under to reform. Although this announcement wasn’t anticipated, it comes as a result in part of nearly a decade of women’s activism, beginning with a January 2003 petition from Saudi women demanding their political rights. The recent Facebook campaign for driving rights for women, and the act of civil disobedience by some 80 or so in daring to drive, probably helped impel the king to make this decision.
Treatment of women in Saudi Arabia has much more to do with Gulf customs and feelings about gender segregation and male honor being invested in protecting the chastity of the family’s women than it has to do with Islam. The Qur’an sees women as spiritually equal to men. One of the prophet’s wives later led a battle, so women in early Islam were hardly shrinking lilies. Islamic law gives women extensive property rights (unlike in Europe, women did not lose control of their property to their husbands when they married). The real question is whether the Gulf societies can, after 1400 years, catch up to the rights granted women in Islam.
An even bigger question is whether the Saudi dynasty, among the last absolute monarchies in the world, is moving fast enough to avert a revolution. This article is a few years old, but it lays out many of the social problems that persist to this day. There are just few safety valves for discontent. Workers cannot unionize. Political dissidents are treated harshly.
In the wake of the Arab Spring and the overthrow of the iron-fisted rulers of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the Saudi royal dynasty has clearly been frantic with apprehension that a similar movement will get going in their country. There were some small protests last spring, as Aljazeera English reported at the time:
That fear is one reason that they intervened so heavy-handedly in the affairs of neighboring little Bahrain, where crowds were demanding constitutional reform (and a minority was even insisting on a revolutionary republic). While the Shiite coloration of the crowds in Manama especially worried Riyadh, that there were massive crowds challenging the king was alarming enough. (Saudi Arabia has its own relatively oppressed minority of Shiites, some 12 percent of the population, who are inconveniently located right above the country’s oil deposits).
Giving the vote to women may be part of this attempt to tamp down dissatisfaction with the state. The royal family has fought against Muslim radicals since May of 2003, when the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began blowing things up in Riyadh itself, and Muslim political currents to the right of the king (yes, it is possible) have put political pressure on him. We have seen a number of attempts in the region to dilute the power of Muslim fundamentalists by using women voters and office-holders.
Gen. Pervez Musharraf set things up so that a third of seats in the Pakistani parliament have to go to women. There is also a quota in Iraq. The hope that women (or rather the sort of middle or uppper class women most likely to serve in parliament) will support political reform and oppose religious fundamentalism is not always well borne out. In Pakistan and Iraq, the parties simply put women of their party into parliament, who tended to vote just as patriarchally as the men of the fundamentalist party.
Nor does the right to vote in municipal elections four years down the road in Saudi Arabia amount to all that much. The royal family only allows half the seats on the city council to be filled by elections. It appoints the other half. And it appoints a mayor as a tie-breaker. So the women are being offered the opportunity to vote for 49% of the important decision-making posts.
Moreover, the municipal elections are it. There are no provincial elections. The national Shura Council (advisory body to the king) is appointed by the monarch, though now it can have women on it. At a time when Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans are demanding free and fair, transparent parliamentary elections and the end of secret-police rule, the Saudi monarchy is taking not so much baby steps as embryonic ones. Elections to a national parliament or at least parliament-like advisory body had been scheduled for 2010, but they were never held.
The royal family may be moving too slowly. Half the population is less than 25 years old. The country is 82 percent urban, and 79 percent literate (i.e. aside from the elderly, most people can read and write). Some 60 percent of university students are women. Relatively well-off middle classes in countries like Saudi Arabia frequently get up the courage to challenge the authoritarian character of their government. Saudi Arabia is ruled by a core of powerful princes led by the octogenarian king, but it has altogether some 7,000 princes. Inequality of wealth, high youth unemployment, allegations of corruption, and political repression have all contributed to subterranean discontent. Whether mollifying the half of the population that consists of women will be enough to forestall a growing movement of discontentment remains to be seen.
My interview on Middle Eastern affairs with the O Globo television network’s “Milenio” program in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is now on line here. (After the short intro it is in English with Portuguese subtitles). Many thanks to Simone Delgado of O Globo‘s New York office for setting it up, and to Elizabeth Carvalho, the interviewer and executive editor of “Milenio.”