March 15, 2016

Myanmar’s 40 to 72 Percent Problem

by Stanley A. Weiss

If you walk the streets of this city at the end of the work day, you’ll hear a distinctive sound: the clicks and taps synonymous with Myanmar’s traditional sport, known as chinlone. Sharing certain roots with soccer, chinlone dates back 1,500 years, when it was played for the country’s royalty. While the objective is simple—kick the small woven ball around a six-player circle without letting it touch the ground—the game is difficult. Players leap and dive, executing complex footwork with a combination of dance and martial arts moves. Their athleticism is all the more remarkable given the competition: there is none. The groups of men and women who play nightly do so without any incentive to “win.” Victory comes in the artistry of the moves and the cohesion of the players. In chinlone, collaboration is the name of the game – which is deeply ironic when you consider the source.

Continue Reading

January 14, 2016

Five Saudi Imperial Projects the West has Slept Through

by Stanley A. Weiss

Horrified by the news that Saudi Arabia would set a record for beheadings in 2015 while continuing to fund radical Islamic groups across the world, I wrote a column last October arguing that it was time for the United States to reconsider its 70-year relationship with the kingdom in Riyadh. After the piece was posted, one of the friends I heard from was Terence Ward, author of the internationally praised memoir, Searching for Hassan.

Terry knows about Saudi Arabia: while born in Colorado, he spent his childhood in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Not only does he have a rich understanding of the deep conflicts within Islam and between nations in the Middle East, but as a man who is fluent in six languages — including Arabic and Farsi — his understanding of the subtleties of those conflicts go well beyond that of most Westerners.

As tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have rapidly escalated this month over Riyadh’s execution of a high-profile Shiite cleric, Terry reached out with a thoughtful perspective on Saudi Arabia and the West. I print it here in full:

Continue Reading

December 14, 2015

A Dangerous Game of Military Politics in Indonesia

by Stanley A. Weiss

This past spring, a former cabinet minister had an extraordinary meeting with the inexperienced first-term President of Indonesia, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Upon his arrival at the President’s office, the visitor quickly dispensed with any niceties and delivered a candid message bordering on insubordination to the head of state.

“There is no nice way to say this,” he told Jokowi. “You are not presidential material, and your political influence is very low. Not only are you not the most powerful person in Indonesian politics – you might not even be the fifth most powerful person in Indonesian politics.” He then added, “The only way you will be more effective is if you build support with the military, and make certain that the military leadership supports you.”

Continue Reading

July 29, 2015

A Handful of Bullets

by Stanley A. Weiss

Review of A Handful of Bullets by Harlan K. Ullman (Naval Institute Press, 226 pages)

LONDON-On June 28, 1914, in the city of Sarajevo, a teenage Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife Sophie. Widely believed to have been a product of Serbian government intrigue, the assassinations led to an Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on that nation the following month. By end of the next week the continent’s rigid alliance structure had sucked every other major European country into the vortex of escalating hostilities that became World War I.

The conflict ended four years and four months later with 17 million dead. The Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires were shattered. The diplomatic order that emerged from the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars was no more. These were massive, almost incomprehensible, consequences that seemed incompatible in scale with the cause. Many wonder now, a century later, could such an almost accidental cataclysm happen again?

Continue Reading

July 21, 2015

Iraq Is Not Iraq Anymore

by Stanley A. Weiss

So, this is where we are in America today: the wealthy son of a real estate developer who used five deferments to let others go to war in his place attacks, with a straight face, a United States Naval Academy graduate who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp with complications from a broken leg and two broken arms suffered when his plane was shot down – and we treat it as just another political debate. During another time in our country, had somebody like Donald Trump dared to say that somebody like Senator John McCain wasn’t a war hero because he “got captured” — or that he “like(s) people who weren’t captured” — my guess is that more than a few fire and food inspectors would have been kept busy for reported “complications” at Trump Hotels across America.

But while many Americans will likely hear McCain’s high-minded response — that Trump doesn’t owe him an apology but should express sorrow to other prisoners of war and their families — I really wish more Americans would hear what the senior senator from Arizona is saying about Iraq instead. It is much more relevant to America’s future than any buffoonery babbling out of the billionaire blowhard from the Bronx.

Continue Reading

March 26, 2015

Will Myanmar’s Military Reform?

by Stanley A. Weiss

YANGON–It was, in a sense, a reverse Pearl Harbor on the Irrawaddy River. After welcoming the Japanese army into Burma in 1942, a young Burmese general named Aung San and his ragtag national army had become disillusioned with Japanese promises to support Burma in throwing off nearly 125 years of British imperial control.

And so on March 27, 1945–70 years ago today–the khaki-clad troops departed the city of Rangoon. Telling their Japanese commanders they were mustering out to fight the British, they paraded through the city–and then turned around and attacked the Japanese all throughout Burma. With Burmese help, the British retook the country in just a few short months.

Every year since, Burma–now known as Myanmar–has celebrated March 27 as Resistance Day, now known as Armed Forces Day. Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, marched in 1947, the year Aung San was assassinated by rivals–and they marched the following year, when Myanmar finally gained its hard-fought independence. They marched in 1962, when one of Aung San’s fellow freedom fighters, Ne Win, took power in a military coup that would rule for decades. They marched in 1990, after student uprisings forced the military junta to call elections, only to nullify the results and place the winner–democratic icon and daughter of Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi–under house arrest for the better part of two decades. And they marched in 2011, when the ruling regime held elections and declared that one of the most isolated countries on earth would finally liberalize.

Continue Reading

March 2, 2015

In Egypt, Seeing the Muslim Brotherhood for What It Is

by Stanley A. Weiss

GSTAAD AND CAIRO–In the early 1990s, Robert Pelletreau, the United States ambassador to Egypt, met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Washington, D.C. Pelletreau had been asked by then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher to discuss the possibility of Egypt relaxing its repressive stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political party with a long history of being alternately tolerated and oppressed by the Egyptian government.

“I’ll never forget what happened next,” Pelletreau told the journalist Robert Dreyfuss. “Mubarak sat up sharply, rigidly. ‘These people killed my predecessor!’ Then he raised this huge fist, and he slammed it down on the table hard, and everything on the table jumped and rattled. Bang! ‘When they come out, we have to hit them.'”

Continue Reading

November 10, 2014

The Trap of Islam’s External Conflict

by Stanley A. Weiss

Washington–It was 35 years ago last week that a group of Islamic revolutionaries swept through the United States embassy in Tehran, taking 60 Americans hostage while opening a new chapter of violence in the Middle East. What began as a student movement to overthrow the Shah of Iran was quickly overtaken by Muslim extremists who had a very different, more fundamentalist agenda in mind. While the three decades of conflict that have defined the region since 1979 is rooted in a lengthy list of grievances and injustices, the blood-feud at its core — and the motivations of the increasingly barbaric cast of characters involved in the war in and around Syria — is an ancient schism that goes back to the very origins of Islam itself.

In fact, as the renewed bombing campaign by the United States in Iraq and Syria enters its third month on the heels of the news that the U.S. will roughly double its troop level in Iraq, it’s increasingly difficult to see a way forward for the U.S. or to feel that the growing web of extremism surrounding the conflict is anything but a trap. This is a holy war, a fight for the soul of Islam in endless search of new battlefields — which is precisely what it is has been in fits and starts since the year 632. In fact, a look back at roughly the same period of time from Islam’s earliest days — the three decades between the death of Mohammad and the rise of the Umayyed Dynasty on the same Syrian landscape scarred with suffering today — is to see that while the names and armies change, the essential conflict remains the same.

Continue Reading

September 8, 2014

Indonesia, America and China’s Nine-Dash Line

by Stanley A. Weiss

JAKARTA — When the history of the early part of the 21st century is written, one of the great heroes of the People’s Republic of China might turn out to be an anonymous map-maker from the late 1940s whose work is helping to drive increasingly dangerous confrontations today between China and its neighbors across the South China Sea.

The question at issue is: who owns what across this 1.3 million square-mile stretch of water, through which passes more than half of the world’s nautical trade? Numerous studies reveal that maps of the region, including some carved in stone that date back to the 10th Century, show China consistently laying claim to just one island in the Sea: Hainan Island, just off the mainland, which defined China’s southern border for centuries. But as journalist Andrew Browne recently illuminated, in 1947, somewhere deep in the cartography division of the Kuomintang regime, a map-maker added 11 heavy dashes to the familiar atlas encircling 90 percent of the South China Sea and connecting it back to China. No explanation accompanied this change. No Chinese territorial conquest drove it. No treaty enabled it. No other nation acknowledged it. No global body even knew about it.

Continue Reading

August 8, 2014

What Jokowi Can Learn From Obama

by Stanley A. Weiss

JAKARTA — At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, July 23, the President of the United States placed a congratulatory phone call to the President-elect of Indonesia. “Apa kabar?” — “how are you?” — President Barack Obama asked Joko Widodo before conveying his congratulations. It was a remarkable moment. For one thing, the President of the United States had greeted his Indonesian counterpart in passable Bahasa Indonesian, which Obama learned growing up in Jakarta, roughly 350 miles west of Joko’s Central Javan hometown of Surakarta, also known as Solo. For another, a decade ago few could have predicted that either man would be occupying their respective offices at all.

The phone call came ten years to the week that America first heard the name Barack Obama, as he delivered the captivating keynote at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that began his meteoric rise from the Illinois State Senate to the White House. At the time, half a world away, Jokowi (as he is affectionately known) was an unknown carpenter and furniture exporter. A year later, as Obama began his first year in the U.S. Senate, Jokowi had risen to become the mayor of Solo, where his promise of “Beauty Without Corruption” and hands-on leadership style brought him national and international attention. By October 2012, with Obama well on his way to a second term as President, Jokowi was being sworn in as Governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling 10-million person capital. Last month, after 135 million Indonesians voted in only the third direct election for president in their country’s history, Jokowi capped his rapid ascent by besting the former General Prabowo Subianto by eight million votes–though Prabowo, alleging widespread electoral fraud, has refused to concede.

Continue Reading