June 23, 2014

Gertrude of Arabia and Her Kurdish Mistake

by Stanley A. Weiss

GSTAAD–From my residence in Gstaad, Switzerland, you can see the Bernese Alps silhouetted against the sky. The range is home to one peak in particular — the 2,632-meter Gertrudspitze — named after Gertrude Bell, the greatest woman mountaineer of the 20th century, who once survived 53 hours clinging to a rope against the sheer face of an uncharted cliff during a freezing blizzard. But as spectacularly daring as her alpine exploits were, it was in the deserts of the Middle East where Bell left her biggest mark.

In addition to being a remarkable mountaineer, Bell was also an Oxford-educated historian, adventurer, archaeologist, British foreign officer, and spy — a female Lawrence of Arabia (and a friend and colleague of Lawrence himself). She traveled thousands of miles through Arabia by camelback, while insisting on eating off fine china. She was the daughter of England’s sixth-richest family, yet spoke Arabic, Persian and Turkish like a native. And she was so knowledgeable and respected that one Iraqi sheik, asked about his own tribes’ geographic boundaries, referred the question to Bell.

It was Bell, as an officer of Britain’s post-World War I Arab Bureau, who helped fix the region’s boundaries after France and Britain carved it up in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. (“I had a well-spent morning at the office making out the southern desert frontier of the Iraq,” she once wrote to her father.) And it is Bell — who not only defined the borders but also trained and installed the young King Faisal as its (foreign) ruler — who has been hailed as “the Mother of the Faithful” and called “the architect of an unstable Iraq in the middle of an unstable Middle East.”

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May 12, 2014

The Most Important Regional Organization That Nobody Has Heard Of

by Stanley A. Weiss

NEW DELHI–Last month, as Indian voters began streaming to the polls to elect a new Parliament and prime minister, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party released its long-awaited election platform . Predictably, the document criticized the record of the ruling Congress Party, while stressing the need for greater economic growth and good governance. But buried on page 40 of 42–after the BJP’s evolving stance on nuclear weapons but before their sacred commitment to the “Cow and its Progeny”–was the single, unexpected line, “We will work towards strengthening regional forums like SAARC and ASEAN.”

Though SAARC–the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation –is comprised of eight nations collectively containing over 1.6 billion people, it’s unsurprising that the organization would merit a mere passing mention in the political platform of what is likely to be India’s next ruling party. Founded in 1985 to promote regional cultural and economic integration, SAARC quickly acquired a reputation for “much talk and no action.” For one thing, decisions among its members–India, Pakistan, Afghanitan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, and the Maldives–must be unanimous. For another, its two biggest members, India and Pakistan, treat each other with the thinly-veiled contempt born of half a century of enmity.

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May 2, 2014

“A Letter From the Kampung

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON, DCIndonesia has been wracked by a string of seismic and volcanic activity of late –including a 6.0 magnitude quake today in the eastern part of the archipelago nation of 250 million. But with the world’s third-largest democracy readying for their fast-approaching 2014 presidential elections, the biggest tectonic shift in Indonesia may be political in nature. All eyes are on Joko (Jokowi) Widodo, the charismatic Governor of Jakarta, as he vies with the popular but as-yet-undeclared former special forces commander General Prabowo Subianto to succeed the term-limited President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Eager for insights into the rapidly-shifting currents of Indonesian presidential politics, I reached out to a Javanese friend, who sent me the following letter.

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May 1, 2014

India and the U.S. Need to Play Ball

by Stanley A. Weiss

NEW DELHI–As a longtime fan of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, it’s not often that I find myself cheering for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Phillies’ rival in the state of Pennsylvania. But on July 4, 2009, I couldn’t help but enjoy the sight of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel — the first two Indians ever to play professional baseball in the United States — each take the pitcher’s mound for the very first time. The two young players, both born in Lucknow, India, had never touched — or even heard of — a baseball before being discovered by an American sports agent a year earlier and selected out of 40,000 Indian athletes to train for the American major leagues.

This month, Singh and Patel’s improbable story is getting the full Disney treatment in Million Dollar Arm, a film chronicling the search for Indians who could be trained to become Major League Baseball pitchers. It’s a heartwarming account of cross-cultural success — which, given the present state of U.S.-Indian relations, makes it a relative rarity.

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April 28, 2014

Somewhere Between Morning and Mourning in New Delhi

by Stanley A. Weiss

NEW DELHI–Watching the national election play out here the past few weeks has brought me back to a late October evening in 1980, when America stood on the verge of making the same choice that India seems poised to make by the time voting ends on May 12. That night, in the only televised debate between the two major candidates running for President of the United States, incumbent President Jimmy Carter repeatedly appealed to voters’ fears by contending that challenger Ronald Reagan’s right-leaning political views were careless, dangerous, and a threat to world peace. While assailing Reagan’s “heartless approach to working families,” Carter charged that Reagan’s eagerness to inject American military force in places like North Korea would lead to the “actual use of it;” and that his “dangerous and belligerent” insistence “upon the nuclear superiority of America as the basis for negotiation in the future with the Soviet Union” would bring a “very dangerous nuclear arms race.”

But none of those strong words were remembered the next day. Instead, all coverage of the debate led with a simple, now iconic question that Reagan asked directly of voters in his closing statement: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” For a country that had lived through four years of Carter-led malaise, inflation and unemployment; endured more than 400 days of American hostages held in Iran; and perceived a softening of America’s military in the face of Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, the answer was an emphatic “no.” It didn’t matter how conservative Reagan seemed to be. People were desperate for strong leadership and wanted a change–proving, as future U.S. President Bill Clinton would later observe, that “when people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody that’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.”

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September 16, 2013

Prabowo Could Be Indonesia’s Lee Kuan Yew

by Stanley A. Weiss

BALI, Indonesia–If public graft were a symphony, Djoko Susilo might be its Mozart. On a salary of $1,000 a month, the former head of Indonesia’s police academy managed to amass a fortune of $18 million. Earlier this month, Djoko was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Jakarta Corruption Court for accepting a $2.9 million bribe for a contract that eventually lost the state $10 million.

On the same day Djoko was found guilty, a former Health Ministry official was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling $1 million. Last month, the country’s top oil and gas regulator–revered as a “clean man in a corrupt industry”–was charged with taking $700,000 in bribes from an oil-trading company. All told, more than 360 Indonesian officials have been jailed on corruption charges since 2002, including cabinet officers, governors, Members of Parliament, and judges.

At a time when every Islamic nation in the Middle East seems to be on fire, Indonesia–which has more Muslims than Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt combined–appears to be a relative oasis of diversity and democracy. On track to become one of the world’s ten largest economies, this southeast Asian nation is also set to witness the third consecutive direct election of its president next year after five decades of dictatorship. But in a country where more than half of the population lives on less than $2 a day, Indonesia’s deepening corruption at the highest levels isn’t just a threat to economic growth–it’s a ticking time bomb whose detonation could send shock waves across Asia, destabilize America’s China strategy and make the violence in Egypt and Syria pale by comparison.

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August 5, 2013

Can Egypt Move Beyond the Politics of Retribution?

by Stanley A. Weiss

BALI, Indonesia— Former United States President Bill Clinton likes to tell the story about the time Nelson Mandela first took him to see his old prison cell on Robben Island, where the South African icon was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the collapse of apartheid. In a small room with barely enough space for a man his size, Mandela slept on the floor, without a bed, for more than 6,500 days. Clinton asked, “Weren’t you bitter and angry when you finally walked out of here?” Mandela replied, “Yes, I was. But then I said to myself, ‘Mandela, they had you for 27 years. If you are still angry with them when you pass through the gate, they will still have you.’ But I wanted to be free, so I let it go.”

Clinton often adds that “nearly all of the conflicts in the world could be resolved if one side would just stand up and let things go. But there aren’t many men like Mandela in the world, because the instinct to hold on to old hatreds and fears is greater than the instinct to let go.”

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July 8, 2013

China’s Indian Ocean Strategy Not a Danger-Yet

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–When the Chinese admiral Zheng He set out on the first of seven historic voyages of exploration 608 years ago, the sails of his 317 ships blotted out the horizon. Included in the fleet were several colossal, football field-sized vessels–large enough to fit 65 of Columbus’ ships end-to-end–whose holds would eventually bring home mountains of gold, ivory, and porcelain for the glory of the Ming emperor. Sailing to a dizzying array of coastal countries over the next three decades, Zheng’s flotilla made its way across the modern-day Middle East, ultimately reaching the Cape of Good Hope some 4,000 miles away.

Such expeditions had never been seen before–and would not be seen again. Internal instability, Mongol threats, and high financial costs conspired to cripple China’s Age of Exploration. Zheng died and was buried at sea. His magnificent ships were burned. Records of his voyages were destroyed. For nearly six centuries China turned inward, away from the ocean.

That is, until now. With its release last month of a 350-page “blue book” detailing China’s strategy in the Indian Ocean, Beijing has served notice that–while insisting its interests are strictly economic–it is not content to ignore the waters to its west any longer. And India, which relies on the Indian Ocean for most of its trade and has long suspected China of pursuing a so-called “string of pearls” strategy in the region–encircling the subcontinent with a network of commercial and military facilities–is understandably wary.

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July 1, 2013

Helping to Bring Peace to Kashmir

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–It may be the most infamous stomach ache in diplomatic history. In 1947, the United Kingdom partitioned British India, directing the rulers of its 565 “princely states” to choose between the newly-independent nations of India and Pakistan. The last holdout was the Hindu Maharaja of Muslim-majority Kashmir, Hari Singh, who hoped to establish a neutral, independent nation on his state’s vast frontier. Sixty-five years ago this month, Lord Louis Mountbatten–the last Viceroy of British India–accompanied his friend, the Maharaja, on a three-day fishing trip, where he tried to tease out a decision, making it clear that if Singh chose Pakistan, India would understand and raise no objection. But when the Viceroy instead heard his friend make the case for independence, as recounted in the fantastic “Freedom at Midnight,” by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, he exploded:

“I’m sorry,” said Mountbatten, “you just can’t be independent. You’re a land-locked country. You’re over-sized and under-populated . . . your attitude is bound to lead to strife between India and Pakistan. You’re going to have two rival countries at daggers drawn for neighbors. You’ll be the cause of the tug-of-war between them. You’ll end up being a battlefield.”

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June 25, 2013

Reading the Fault Lines in Istanbul

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–It was 45 years ago this summer that I found myself in Chicago, being bludgeoned by a police officer. Earlier that spring, my mentor–German social philosopher Erich Fromm–had convinced me that after two decades as a non-political entrepreneur, it was time for me to get involved. He persuaded me to make a political contribution to the Democrats’ anti-Vietnam War darling, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, which earned me an invitation to the 1968 Democratic Convention, where I booked a room at Chicago’s Hilton Hotel. In the early evening hours of August 28th, I walked out onto the sidewalk, only to be rendered speechless by the sight of police officers beating protesters across the street, at Grant Park. Intervening to stop one particularly vicious volley, I stepped between a protester and an officer, where I met the business end of his billy club.

It was later reported that so much tear gas was used that Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, felt its effects while standing in his Hilton shower–news to millions of Americans convinced that he never actually got off his derriere to protest while riots raged below him. Humphrey, who went on to lose the election, was not the only politician affected by riots in 1968. In France, President Charles de Gaulle was the focus of widespread demonstrations, sparked by young Parisians who resented his heavy-handed authoritarian style. While his party recovered nicely–expanding its majority in a hastily-called June election–de Gaulle never did. Recognizing that he had split the country, which saw him as out of touch, the old general resigned the presidency in a moment of grace less than a year later.

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