Book Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia

April 14, 2015


Hun Sen’s Cambodia

by John Bethelsen

In the western mind, as Sebastian Strangio so eloquently writes, Cambodia remains “nearly synonymous with the terror and mass murder that engulfed the country in the mid-1970s, when the Khmer Rouge seized power and embarked on a radical experiment in communism.”

Hun Sen's CambodiaThe country has struggled on from that period, modernizing and tearing down its forests, building dams and highways, destroying the gorgeous traditional architecture that once characterized Phnom Penh for the same faceless high-rises that have peopled so many Asian cities at the same time millions of tourists stream to the magnificent temple complex at Angkor Wat.

But in the 35 years since that devastating period, which took the lives of an estimated 2 million people in a senseless bloodletting on the part of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, the country has continued to attempt vainly to cope with its past. The United States especially, and other western powers should struggle with their own disgraceful role in that past, backing the murderous Khmer Rouge in a misguided attempt to contain the Vietnamese and their supposed ties to the then Soviet Union.

 Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for 25 of those years, has seen to it that except for one or two superannuated leaders, the rank and file have escaped judgment for their crimes. After negotiations got the trials back on track, “the only trial the United Nations wanted was one Hun Sen could not control.  The only trial Hun Sen wanted was one he could.”

The result is a country that has never come to terms with what happened. “There is no doubt Cambodia is in need of some sort of a reckoning, Strangio writes. “If there is one unifying theme to the country’s relationship with its ghastly past, it is this profound lack of resolution. After overthrowing the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the ruling CPP promoted rituals of remembering, but also of forgetting.”

Most of the survivors have simply picked up the pieces and moved on as best they could, some finding consolation in Buddhism and others simply choosing silence.

Much of the country’s recent history has been dominated by the presence of hundreds, perhaps thousands of foreign NGO workers attempting to rebuild the institutions that were simply demolished as Pol Pot set out in his appalling attempt to revolutionize the country. About a third of the foreign aid goes ‘technical assistance,’ “the hiring of highly paid foreign development consultants to write reports and project assessments,” he writes. “In 2002, donors paid 700 international consultants an estimated $50-70 million, an amount roughly equivalent to the wage bills of 160,000 Cambodian civil servants.” Dependence on this foreign ‘consultariat’ means that large amounts of aid simply flow back out of the country.”

That has meant that the country today is stuck in what Strangio calls a “dependence spiral,” in which the lack of government capacity to run it is matched by continuing aid disbursals.

“What started out as an investment in Cambodia’s future has evolved into an entrenched development complex that has eroded democracy, undermined the livelihoods of the poor, and given powerful elites a free hand to keep plundering the nation’s resources for their own gain.”

Nonetheless, the presence of those myriad international aid workers has managed to keep some rein on Hun Sen’s proclivities towards dictatorship. Cambodian society, Strangio points out, is considerably freer than most Asian nations, with “fewer political prisoners than China, Vietnam or Burma.  It jails fewer bloggers than Thailand or Vietnam and prosecutes fewer journalists than Singapore.”

More than 2,600 NGOs are registered with the government, 80 percent of them local. Civil society groups employ 42,000 people “who are involved in every conceivable area of government from good governance land rights, environmental conservation and gender equality to health care, anti-human trafficking and wildlife rescue. They work tirelessly to monitor and document government abuses of every sort and their reports are transmitted via a vigilant English language press.”

But it is difficult to call Cambodia a democracy. “Twenty years after the UN jump-started civil society in Cambodia, it lives on under Hun Sen as a mirage for the benefit of well-intentioned foreigners and donor governments.  While Cambodia remains freer than many other Asian countries, the outcome is a purposefully selective freedom.  Indeed, few countries have seen such a wide gap between norms and realities.”

But, as he points out, the mirage of democracy is clearly better than no democracy at all although it is a mirage nonetheless. While the NGOs have fought to clean up the unspeakable disaster that Cambodia was left with in 1979, the country more than anything else has swung back to being what it was prior to the enlightened leadership of Norodom Sihanouk, the modernizing, quixotic and beloved king who walked a decades-long tightrope between the contending powers that sought to impose their will on it.

There is undeniable change.  The young have had enough of Hun Sen and, in 2013 elections, almost certainly would have thrown him out if the election had been anything near free and fair.

But today, “If the past 30 years of Cambodian history have shown anything, it is that political changes imposed from the outside are often superficial, and only last as long as foreigners can bring political leverage to bear on the country’s leaders,” he writes. “Outside attention is refocusing. With growing aid and support from China, Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party have an escape hatch from western pressure.  Twenty years ago it might have seemed if Cambodia lay in a democratic slipstream. Now it seems like the dream of a half-forgotten age.”

Cambodia has been the subject of a long list of very good books since William Shawcross published his brilliant “Sideshow” in 2002. This is an articulate and valuable addition to that library, by a longtime resident and former Phnom Penh Post reporter who struggles, in 322 pages, to come to his own conclusions about the cataclysm that overtook a gorgeous country and which continues to play itself out today as the Chinese especially increase their sway.

Why Islam needs a Reformation

March 21, 2015

MY NOTE: I posted Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s essay this morning to encourageDin Merican New rebuttals of her views from my enlightened readers. When I came back to my computer about an hour ago, I found to my horror that my post went missing. I do wish to speculate  what happened. I can only attribute its disappearance and comments from my readers to some technical error.

Ms. Ali’s essay is indeed controversial as the person herself. She was persecuted for her heretical views on Islam and had to live in the United States to avoid harm to her life and limb. But that is not the point.

My purpose in this blog is to encourage reasoned discourse and promote exchange of views on the state of Islam in our contemporary world, especially in our own country where PAS  including UMNO assemblymen has voted in favour of hudud with amendments in Kelantan. Politics has gotten in the way of religion, thanks to both PAS and UMNO and that cannot be to the good of Malaysian society. –Din Merican

The Saturday Essay

Why Islam Needs a Reformation

To defeat the extremists for good, Muslims must reject those aspects of their tradition that prompt some believers to resort to oppression and holy war

A Hirsi Ali“Islam’s borders are bloody,” wrote the late political scientist Samuel Huntington in 1996, “and so are its innards.” Nearly 20 years later, Huntington looks more right than ever before. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, at least 70% of all the fatalities in armed conflicts around the world last year were in wars involving Muslims. In 2013, there were nearly 12,000 terrorist attacks world-wide. The lion’s share were in Muslim-majority countries, and many of the others were carried out by Muslims. By far the most numerous victims of Muslim violence—including executions and lynchings not captured in these statistics—are Muslims themselves.

Not all of this violence is explicitly motivated by religion, but a great deal of it is. I believe that it is foolish to insist, as Western leaders habitually do, that the violent acts committed in the name of Islam can somehow be divorced from the religion itself. For more than a decade, my message has been simple: Islam is not a religion of peace.

When I assert this, I do not mean that Islamic belief makes all Muslims violent. This is manifestly not the case: There are many millions of peaceful Muslims in the world. What I do say is that the call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam. Moreover, this theologically sanctioned violence is there to be activated by any number of offenses, including but not limited to apostasy, adultery, blasphemy and even something as vague as threats to family honor or to the honor of Islam itself.

It is not just al Qaeda and Islamic State that show the violent face of Islamic faith and practice. It is Pakistan, where any statement critical of the Prophet or Islam is labeled as blasphemy and punishable by death. It is Saudi Arabia, where churches and synagogues are outlawed and where beheadings are a legitimate form of punishment. It is Iran, where stoning is an acceptable punishment and homosexuals are hanged for their “crime.”

As I see it, the fundamental problem is that the majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts. It simply will not do for Muslims to claim that their religion has been “hijacked” by extremists. The killers of Islamic State and Nigeria’s Boko Haram cite the same religious texts that every other Muslim in the world considers sacrosanct.

Instead of letting Islam off the hook with bland clichés about the religion of peace, we in the West need to challenge and debate the very substance of Islamic thought and practice. We need to hold Islam accountable for the acts of its most violent adherents and to demand that it reform or disavow the key beliefs that are used to justify those acts.

As it turns out, the West has some experience with this sort of reformist project. It is precisely what took place in Judaism and Christianity over the centuries, as both traditions gradually consigned the violent passages of their own sacred texts to the past. Many parts of the Bible and the Talmud reflect patriarchal norms, and both also contain many stories of harsh human and divine retribution. As President Barack Obama said in remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast last month, “Remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

Yet today, because their faiths went through a long, meaningful process of Reformation and Enlightenment, the vast majority of Jews and Christians have come to dismiss religious scripture that urges intolerance or violence. There are literalist fringes in both religions, but they are true fringes. Regrettably, in Islam, it is the other way around: It is those seeking religious reform who are the fringe element.

Any serious discussion of Islam must begin with its core creed, which is based on the Quran (the words said to have been revealed by the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad) and the hadith (the accompanying works that detail Muhammad’s life and words). Despite some sectarian differences, this creed unites all Muslims. All, without exception, know by heart these words: “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah; and Muhammad is His messenger.” This is the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith.

The Shahada might seem to be a declaration of belief no different from any other. But the reality is that the Shahada is both a religious and a political symbol.

In the early days of Islam, when Muhammad was going from door to door in Mecca trying to persuade the polytheists to abandon their idols of worship, he was inviting them to accept that there was no god but Allah and that he was Allah’s messenger.

After 10 years of trying this kind of persuasion, however, he and his small band of believers went to Medina, and from that moment, Muhammad’s mission took on a political dimension. Unbelievers were still invited to submit to Allah, but after Medina, they were attacked if they refused. If defeated, they were given the option to convert or to die. (Jews and Christians could retain their faith if they submitted to paying a special tax.)

No symbol represents the soul of Islam more than the Shahada. But today there is a contest within Islam for the ownership of that symbol. Who owns the Shahada? Is it those Muslims who want to emphasize Muhammad’s years in Mecca or those who are inspired by his conquests after Medina? On this basis, I believe that we can distinguish three different groups of Muslims.

The first group is the most problematic. These are the fundamentalists who, when they say the Shahada, mean: “We must live by the strict letter of our creed.” They envision a regime based on Shariah, Islamic religious law. They argue for an Islam largely or completely unchanged from its original seventh-century version. What is more, they take it as a requirement of their faith that they impose it on everyone else.

I shall call them Medina Muslims, in that they see the forcible imposition of Shariah as their religious duty. They aim not just to obey Muhammad’s teaching but also to emulate his warlike conduct after his move to Medina. Even if they do not themselves engage in violence, they do not hesitate to condone it.

It is Medina Muslims who call Jews and Christians “pigs and monkeys.” It is Medina Muslims who prescribe death for the crime of apostasy, death by stoning for adultery and hanging for homosexuality. It is Medina Muslims who put women in burqas and beat them if they leave their homes alone or if they are improperly veiled.

The second group—and the clear majority throughout the Muslim world—consists of Muslims who are loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice violence. I call them Mecca Muslims. Like devout Christians or Jews who attend religious services every day and abide by religious rules in what they eat and wear, Mecca Muslims focus on religious observance. I was born in Somalia and raised as a Mecca Muslim. So were the majority of Muslims from Casablanca to Jakarta.

Yet the Mecca Muslims have a problem: Their religious beliefs exist in an uneasy tension with modernity—the complex of economic, cultural and political innovations that not only reshaped the Western world but also dramatically transformed the developing world as the West exported it. The rational, secular and individualistic values of modernity are fundamentally corrosive of traditional societies, especially hierarchies based on gender, age and inherited status.

Trapped between two worlds of belief and experience, these Muslims are engaged in a daily struggle to adhere to Islam in the context of a society that challenges their values and beliefs at every turn. Many are able to resolve this tension only by withdrawing into self-enclosed (and increasingly self-governing) enclaves. This is called cocooning, a practice whereby Muslim immigrants attempt to wall off outside influences, permitting only an Islamic education for their children and disengaging from the wider non-Muslim community.

It is my hope to engage this second group of Muslims—those closer to Mecca than to Medina—in a dialogue about the meaning and practice of their faith. I recognize that these Muslims are not likely to heed a call for doctrinal reformation from someone they regard as an apostate and infidel. But they may reconsider if I can persuade them to think of me not as an apostate but as a heretic: one of a growing number of people born into Islam who have sought to think critically about the faith we were raised in. It is with this third group—only a few of whom have left Islam altogether—that I would now identify myself.

These are the Muslim dissidents. A few of us have been forced by experience to conclude that we could not continue to be believers; yet we remain deeply engaged in the debate about Islam’s future. The majority of dissidents are reforming believers—among them clerics who have come to realize that their religion must change if its followers are not to be condemned to an interminable cycle of political violence.

How many Muslims belong to each group? Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations estimates that only 3% of the world’s Muslims understand Islam in the militant terms I associate with Muhammad’s time in Medina. But out of well over 1.6 billion believers, or 23% of the globe’s population, that 48 million seem to be more than enough. (I would put the number significantly higher, based on survey data on attitudes toward Shariah in Muslim countries.)

In any case, regardless of the numbers, it is the Medina Muslims who have captured the world’s attention on the airwaves, over social media, in far too many mosques and, of course, on the battlefield.

The Medina Muslims pose a threat not just to non-Muslims. They also undermine the position of those Mecca Muslims attempting to lead a quiet life in their cultural cocoons throughout the Western world. But those under the greatest threat are the dissidents and reformers within Islam, who face ostracism and rejection, who must brave all manner of insults, who must deal with the death threats—or face death itself.

For the world at large, the only viable strategy for containing the threat posed by the Medina Muslims is to side with the dissidents and reformers and to help them to do two things: first, identify and repudiate those parts of Muhammad’s legacy that summon Muslims to intolerance and war, and second, persuade the great majority of believers—the Mecca Muslims—to accept this change.

Islam is at a crossroads. Muslims need to make a conscious decision to confront, debate and ultimately reject the violent elements within their religion. To some extent—not least because of widespread revulsion at the atrocities of Islamic State, al Qaeda and the rest—this process has already begun. But it needs leadership from the dissidents, and they in turn stand no chance without support from the West.

What needs to happen for us to defeat the extremists for good? Economic, political, judicial and military tools have been proposed and some of them deployed. But I believe that these will have little effect unless Islam itself is reformed.

Such a reformation has been called for repeatedly at least since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent abolition of the caliphate. But I would like to specify precisely what needs to be reformed

I have identified five precepts central to Islam that have made it resistant to historical change and adaptation. Only when the harmfulness of these ideas are recognized and they are repudiated will a true Muslim Reformation have been achieved.

Here are the five areas that require amendment:

1. Muhammad’s semi-divine status, along with the literalist reading of the Quran.

Muhammad should not be seen as infallible, let alone as a source of divine writ. He should be seen as a historical figure who united the Arab tribes in a premodern context that cannot be replicated in the 21st century. And although Islam maintains that the Quran is the literal word of Allah, it is, in historical reality, a book that was shaped by human hands. Large parts of the Quran simply reflect the tribal values of the 7th-century Arabian context from which it emerged. The Quran’s eternal spiritual values must be separated from the cultural accidents of the place and time of its birth.

2. The supremacy of life after death.

The appeal of martyrdom will fade only when Muslims assign a greater value to the rewards of this life than to those promised in the hereafter.

3. Shariah, the vast body of religious legislation.

Muslims should learn to put the dynamic, evolving laws made by human beings above those aspects of Shariah that are violent, intolerant or anachronistic.

4. The right of individual Muslims to enforce Islamic law.

There is no room in the modern world for religious police, vigilantes and politically empowered clerics.

5. The imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.

Islam must become a true religion of peace, which means rejecting the imposition of religion by the sword.

I know that this argument will make many Muslims uncomfortable. Some are bound to be offended by my proposed amendments. Others will contend that I am not qualified to discuss these complex issues of theology and law. I am also afraid—genuinely afraid—that it will make a few Muslims even more eager to silence me.

But this is not a work of theology. It is more in the nature of a public intervention in the debate about the future of Islam. The biggest obstacle to change within the Muslim world is precisely its suppression of the sort of critical thinking I am attempting here. If my proposal for reform helps to spark a serious discussion of these issues among Muslims themselves, I will consider it a success.

Let me make two things clear. I do not seek to inspire another war on terror or extremism—violence in the name of Islam cannot be ended by military means alone. Nor am I any sort of “Islamophobe.” At various times, I myself have been all three kinds of Muslim: a fundamentalist, a cocooned believer and a dissident. My journey has gone from Mecca to Medina to Manhattan.

For me, there seemed no way to reconcile my faith with the freedoms I came to the West to embrace. I left the faith, despite the threat of the death penalty prescribed by Shariah for apostates. Future generations of Muslims deserve better, safer options. Muslims should be able to welcome modernity, not be forced to wall themselves off, or live in a state of cognitive dissonance, or lash out in violent rejection.

But it is not only Muslims who would benefit from a reformation of Islam. We in the West have an enormous stake in how the struggle over Islam plays out. We cannot remain on the sidelines, as though the outcome has nothing to do with us. For if the Medina Muslims win and the hope for a Muslim Reformation dies, the rest of the world too will pay an enormous price—not only in blood spilled but also in freedom lost.

This essay is adapted from Ms. Hirsi Ali’s new book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now,” to be published Tuesday by HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp). Her previous books include “Infidel” and “Nomad: From Islam to America, A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations.”

Borders Case: JAWI’s Persecution of Nik Raina continues

March 15, 2015


Sisters in Islam condemns JAWI’s latest action against Nik Raina of Borders Malaysia

 Borders Case: JAWI’s Persecution of Nik Raina continues

by Shazwan Mustafa Kamal
Nik Raina persecution

The Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (JAWI) has appealed against the Federal Territory Shariah High Court’s February 26 decision to discharge Borders bookstore manager Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz for selling a book deemed un-Islamic.

Aside from the continuing its years-long prosecution of her, Chief Sharie Prosecutor (KPS) Mohamad Adib Husain also took the unusual step of serving the notice of the appeal directly to Nik Raina at her place of work in the Mid Valley shopping mall.’Last  Friday, I received notice that the Ketua Pendakwa Syarie (KPS) has appealed to the Shariah Appeal Court against the order of discharge not amounting to acquittal (DNAA) granted by the Shariah High Court.

“The KPS served the notice of appeal at Borders Gardens ignoring the fact that my firmRosli-Dahlan LHAG (Lee Hishammuddin Allen & Gledhill) are solicitors on record. The KPS breached the rule that they should not communicate with my clients directly,” Nik Raina’s lawyer, Rosli Dahlan, told Malay Mail Online when contacted.

According to the Lawyer, JAWI’s actions showed “arrogance” in deliberately wanting to intimidate Nik Raina by serving the notice directly to the bookstore manager instead of the lawyers representing her in the case.

Rosli added that the latest appeal puts Mohamad Adib and JAWI’s Director-General in contempt of both the civil High Court and Court of Appeal’s orders directing that the prosecution against Nik Raina be discontinued due to illegality.

“This appeal is a positive act and not just a passive omission by the KPS, which is in direct breach of the two orders of the superior courts,” Rosli explained.

“This will be a first in Malaysia if we take steps to cite the KPS/JAWI for contempt of a civil court order.”

Rosli also clarified that he was not in any way implicating the Shariah courts for the latest development, pointing out that the Shariah High Court clearly agreed with the civil courts’ orders when it gave Nik Raina a discharge not amounting to an acquittal.

Nik Raina was charged for being a Muslim manager at a bookstore that carried the Irshad Manjibook, “Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta”, which was translated from the English Version written by Canadian author Irshad Manji.

JAWI raided the Borders outlet in Mid Valley where she is a manager on May 23, 2012, even before the book was banned by the Home Ministry, and arrested her a week later.

On June 19 2012, she was charged under Section 13 (1) of the Syariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territory) Act for allegedly selling and distributing a book that is contrary to the Islamic laws. If convicted, she may be fined up to RM3,000 or jailed up to two years, or both.

On March 22, 2013, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled that JAWI had acted illegally in raiding Borders, seizing the books and charging Nik Raina. It was then ordered to withdraw its charges against her in the Syariah court.

On December 30, 2014 the Court of Appeal also ruled in favour of Nik Raina, and said the prosecution against her was “unreasonable, irrational” and done in bad faith, and that it was against the “principle of fairness and justice” for JAWI to prosecute Nik Raina for an offence in the Shariah court simply because she was a Muslim and because it could not charge the company and her non-Muslim supervisor.

‘The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security’

March 9, 2015


‘The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security’

In foreign policy, every success is just the start of the next crisis. Brent Scowcroft (above with President G.H.W. Bush) has pointed this out often in his four ­decades at the top of the American national security establishment. When the Soviet Union was conceding defeat in the nuclear arms race, he wondered if Gorbachev would instead “kill us with kindness.” When the Evil Empire was crumbling, he fretted about loose ­nuclear weapons and ethnic slaughter. When American troops were routing Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf war of 1991, he worried that “Iraq could fall apart,” leaving us to pick up the pieces. Again and again, this taciturn Mormon has been the Woody ­Allen of American foreign policy.

In “The Strategist,” his informative but inelegant biography of Scowcroft, Bartholomew Sparrow argues that this former national security adviser (to both Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush) and still-reigning wise man (as he nears his 90th birthday) could also be considered “the United States’ leading foreign policy strategist of the last 40 years.” But just as there are writer’s writers, Scowcroft is a foreign policy strategist’s foreign policy strategist, not widely known outside the guild. One of Ronald Reagan’s national security advisers cited him as a model; so did one of Barack Obama’s. “They all wanted to be Scowcroft,” one study says of his successors. Sparrow, a professor at the University of Texas, wants to narrow the gap between guild esteem and public acclaim.

But the qualities that account for this esteem make Scowcroft a tough subject for a biographer: How do you give color to the classic gray man? Journalists have ­described him as having “the gaunt demeanor of a church elder,” his words “carefully weighted to ensure that they contain not a gram more of information than their author wishes to convey.” Even after hours of interviews, Sparrow’s Scowcroft remains a steely and reticent figure.

As national security adviser, Scowcroft was known for being a trusted “honest broker,” scrupulous about presenting different views and sticking to a fair process for debating and deciding among them. He also brought an unglamorous focus on details, since strategies, he said, “succeed or fail depending on whether they are implemented effectively.” Sparrow tries to discern a strategic vision as he traces his subject’s central role in many of ­recent history’s main events. What emerges is less a coherent vision than a distinct ­temperament — one resistant to the temptations of wishful thinking and suspicious of promises of either easy war or easy peace. “We’re humans,” Scowcroft has said. “Given a chance to screw up, we will.” That temperament has surely frustrated more than one commander in chief looking for the simple choice or smooth way forward. But it also may, more than anything, explain Scowcroft’s celebrated record.

When he was coaxing the Cold War to a peaceful end, a foreign policy triumph for which Scowcroft deserves a nontrivial share of credit, he rejected triumphalism in favor of caution. He was always “very worried about all that could go wrong,” one former aide told Sparrow, ordering preparation for all manner of unintended consequence as others gloated. Soaring rhetoric made him wince; Reagan’s thunderously cheered call to “tear down this wall” struck him as a “lousy statement” that only “made it less likely that Gorbachev would tear down the wall.” When it did come down, Scowcroft resolved that there would be “no jumping on the wall.” If ever there was a real mission-­accomplished moment, this was it. Yet compare that response to the later Bush administration’s triumphant reaction to the fall of Baghdad.

This caution held true of more controversial turns in Scowcroft’s career as well. In the wake of the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Scowcroft was caught by news cameras giving a respectful toast on an unannounced trip to China. He thought it less important to project outrage or serve up punishment than to get the United States-China ­relationship back on track. What seemed the morally ­upright stance, Scowcroft argued, would do little more than provoke a backlash by an insecure Communist leadership. “If this meant appearing less than zealous about defending the human rights of Chinese dissidents,” Sparrow writes, “so be it.” But Scowcroft was denounced as “supine” by the just-departed American Ambassador, Winston Lord, “obscene” and “embarrassing” on the floor of Congress.

Scowcroft has called his approach ­“gardening,” designed to patiently foster long-term change. For vindication of the long view, Sparrow considers an earlier diplomatic effort that met with ­opprobrium: the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which at first seemed to trade acceptance of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe for token concessions on self-determination and human rights. When the ­agreement was signed by the Ford administration, some White House aides protested, the president’s approval rating fell and even Ford’s own party blasted him in its 1976 platform for “taking from those who do not have freedom the hope of one day getting it.” Yet to Scowcroft, Helsinki’s token concessions would create a framework for more meaningful change. And ultimately, far from bolstering Soviet power, the ­accord turned out to be, in the assessment of the historian John Lewis Gaddis, “the basis for legitimizing opposition to Soviet rule.” Eastern-bloc human rights organizations started calling themselves Helsinki groups.

Since Scowcroft long prided himself on a “passion for anonymity,” it was a “shocking gesture,” in Sparrow’s words, when he took to The Wall Street Journal in 2002 to warn, under the headline “Don’t Attack Saddam,” of the dire consequences of an invasion of Iraq. The administration was staffed by protégés and former colleagues, and George W. Bush is the son of one of his best friends. To them, this public counsel was an act of betrayal — ­prophetic perhaps, but betrayal just the same. All the more so because, a decade earlier, Scowcroft had been a key advocate of using American military power to respond to Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Scowcroft and His GeneralHonest broker: Scowcroft with General H. Norman Schwarzkopf in 1990

In both cases, despite the apparent tension, Scowcroft had been focused on the same goal: preserving order. When ­Hussein threatened to upset the ­existing order, he felt Washington had to respond. And when the Bush administration threatened the existing order, he also ­responded.

In the final years of the Cold War, Scowcroft’s conservative focus on order may have been sufficient: Progress was on his side. But today, at a time when the international system is changing, for better or worse, the imperatives have ­become more complicated, less clear-cut. Scowcroft ­acknowledged later that once the Cold War ended, “we were confused, ­befuddled. We didn’t know what was ­going on, and we didn’t think it mattered much.” Or as Sparrow puts it, he does not try to “alter the nature of the game; . . . he plays the game set before him.” It was Scowcroft who helped momentarily push and then retract the widely derided concept of “the new world order.”

At one point in “The Strategist,” ­Sparrow paraphrases Seneca: “Luck is the result of preparation coupled with ­opportunity.” Scowcroft would most likely agree. In looking back at his accomplishments, he talks of “guiding and managing forces,” of “not bucking a tide.” Even if the imperatives today are different, Scowcroft’s temperament is still a useful tonic. For if anything makes Scowcroft a “great man,” it is that he does not see great men (or women) as all that significant.

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, a member of the secretary of state’s policy-planning staff from 2009 to 2012, is an Eric and Wendy Schmidt fellow at the New America Foundation. He is writing a book about George Marshall.

A version of this review appears in print on March 8, 2015, on page BR24 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: On His Watch

NY Times Book Review: ‘Hell and Good Company’, by Richard Rhodes

March 7, 2015

Sunday Book Review

‘Hell and Good Company’, by Richard Rhodes

Paul BermanIs it possible to speak intelligently about supremely ideological political events from a standpoint that airily dismisses the supremely ideological politics? Richard Rhodes has put this question to a test by writing an aggressively anti-ideological history of one of the most extravagantly ideological events that has ever occurred, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

The Spanish war broke out because, on one side, the radically leftist Socialist Party pushed the Republican government ever further to the left, and large parts of the labor movement pushed still more sharply leftward, unto the zones of collectivist and libertarian revolution — and because, on the ­opposite side, the national army and most of the Catholic Church and other parts of society veered sharply rightward, unto the nether regions of the fascist extreme. And, well, the two sides could not get along. Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin made their own specialized contributions. Three years of this and Generalissimo Francisco Franco became the caudillo of Spain, and wartime atrocities gave way to peacetime atrocities.

From Rhodes’s standpoint, though, the various sane and insane doctrines and intrigues that entered into these events need not concern us overmuch. His preface explains: “Spain today is a democracy. Who was a Communist, who a fascist, who connived with whom in the Spanish labyrinth are questions for academics to mull.” No one will mistake the dagger thrust in Rhodes’s remark, and connoisseurs of the literature of the war will recognize that his anti-academic blade is directed, in particular, at the historian Gerald Brenan, who wrote a classic study called “The Spanish Labyrinth.” Brenan was not, as it happens, an academic. He was a Bloomsbury bohemian. Still, he was a meticulous scholar. He knew exactly who was a Communist and who a fascist. Also, who was a Republican, a Catalan Socialist, a non-Catalan Socialist, a non-Soviet Leninist, an anarchist, an anarcho-syndicalist, a nationalist (Spanish, Basque, Catalan), a Catholic ultra-rightist, a monarchist and so on. Gerald Brenan was a great historian.

Rhodes (right), by contrast, prefers to tell “the human stories that had notRhodes yet been told or had been told only incompletely.” And he wishes to recount the “technical ­developments of the war.” He recruits a little platoon of wartime protagonists for these purposes, and he sends these people marching episodically through the Spanish events, in the expectation that as the anecdotes pile up, he will succeed in ­revealing something new and significant. It cannot be said that he reveals great numbers of previously unknown personalities.

Last year, Amanda Vaill published her own anecdotal history of the Spanish Civil War, “Hotel Florida,” in which she described the largely English-speaking circle that populated the Madrid hotel of her title, where Ernest Hemingway stayed. Rhodes has selected the central figures of his book, too, from the same crowd at the same hotel — the New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews, the British scientist J. B. S. Haldane, the American volunteer soldier Robert Merriman, the journalist Martha Gellhorn and onward to Hemingway himself.

Rhodes draws the tone of his narrative from these people and their writings — clenched, grim, occasionally lyrical, dashing and stoical, in the 1930s style. He draws from them a simplifying picture of the war. He describes Franco as a “43-year-old traitor” and the enemies of Franco as “the long-suffering Spanish people,” which shows that Rhodes’s heart is in the right place, and his commitment to nuanced description is in the wrong place. He also draws from these individuals a good many of his military details — from Matthews and Haldane especially, as if these men were eyewitnesses with solid reputations for accuracy. The solidity of Matthews’s reputation melted into liquid long ago, mostly because of his naïveté about Communism, and as for Haldane, he was notorious for applying the principles of Stalinism even to hard science, which for some reason seems to leave Rhodes unconcerned.

Rhodes himself is under no delusions about Soviet policy in Spain. He records some of the attacks by Soviet security men and Spanish Communists on the non-Communist left, which undid the anti-fascist cause. And he recounts anecdotes about a couple of additional English-speaking writers, John Dos Passos and George ­Orwell, who composed ferocious criticisms of their fellow English speakers in Spain for failing to understand those particular attacks and even for colluding in them — immortal criticisms, which have become staples of the ­modern liberal sensibility. But these immortal ­criticisms bear on precisely the controversies that Rhodes prefers to leave to academics, which means that on this topic, his book has nothing to contribute.

He does recount a number of stories about wartime medical developments, and these passages make up his best ­pages. He introduces us to Frederic Duran Jordà, a Catalan doctor who pioneered a technique for administering blood transfusions, and to a Canadian doctor named Norman Bethune who advanced the technique. He mentions the Communist International, too, and hints at its ability to mobilize medical professionals around the world, which is the sort of undertaking that lent Communism its prestige in those years. But the politics of medicine is likewise not his theme.


Still another strand of his narrative follows Pablo Picasso, in Paris, as the artist goes about painting his civil war protest mural, “Guernica.” The politics of art does not arouse Rhodes’s curiosity. The mural does lead him, though, to discuss the aerial attack on the city of Guernica by Franco’s German and Italian allies in 1937, which was Picasso’s subject. And the attack plunges Rhodes into the arcana of military technology — a congenial topic for him, as shown by the best-known of his previous books, his entirely admirable “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” He ­recites the names of airplanes and the components of explosives.

Guernica, he tells us, was bombed by a German twin-engine Dornier 17 with a “long, narrow, tubular fuselage,” ­followed by Italian Savoia-Marchetti 79 trimotors, followed by a Heinkel 111B with Fiat fighter escorts, followed by Junkers-52 trimotor bombers with “corrugated duralumin fuselages,” which dropped, among other things, incendiaries: “The two-pound incendiaries — tubes 14 ­inches long and two inches in diameter of Elektron (an alloy of 92 percent magnesium, 5 percent aluminum and 3 percent zinc) filled with thermite — were packed in droppable metal dispensers each holding 36 bombs.”

Rhodes' BookHere, at last, is a topic for academic pedants! Still, something is to be said for reciting airplane names. Rhodes ­observes correctly that during the war, the Axis powers provided military support to their right-wing allies in Spain, and the Soviet Union likewise to the Spanish Communists. But the Western democracies ­declined to support the Spanish democrats. Anti-interventionism was the principle of the hour among the Western powers; and the hour concluded with democracy’s defeat and a fateful forward lurch for the fascists of Europe and the outbreak of a much wider war. The names of those Heinkels and Junkers and Savoia-Marchettis drive the point home, and a gloomy home it is — doubly gloomy if you take the occasion to reflect on our own era of Russian and Iranian eagerness to intervene, and Western reluctance to intervene, in the internationalized civil war of the present catastrophic moment, which is in Syria.

Paul Berman is a columnist at Tablet and the author of “Power and the Idealists,” among other books.

The Release of Nik Raina

March 4, 2015

The Release of Nik Raina

by Azrul Mohd Khalib

Nik Raina Nik Abdul Aziz

To say that it had been an emotional morning would be an understatement. The Judge had just delivered his ruling and Nik Raina’s head had turned sharply to the back to glance at her boss. Everyone in that courtroom pretty much expected an application by the prosecutor for another lengthy six-month sojourn of the Nik Raina-Borders case to be granted, depriving her yet again of reprieve and justice.

Discharge of the charges was certainly not what anyone expected to hear that day in the Shariah courtroom. Just a moment before, everyone had heard the response from the prosecutor to lawyer Rosli Dahlan’s impassioned plea on behalf of Nik Raina for compassion, kindness and understanding from the court. To correct an injustice which had been inflicted and sustained for three years.

It was her problem, the prosecutor responded, if she felt that she had suffered humiliation, embarrassment and anguish as a result of this case. He continued by saying that her decision to take the case to the civil court amounted to disrespect of the Shariah court system and that her actions resulted in the prolonging of the case. Basically that it was Nik Raina’s own fault that it had come to three years since that fateful day in 2012.

JAWI was determined to continue the case to the highest court in the land. If the words and actions of the Shariah prosecutor were anything to go by, in the case of Nik Raina, they just wanted to win the case or to at least say that they had exhausted absolutely all avenues in their crusade to do so.

It is rare, for me at least, to hear words of compassion, understanding and most importantly, empathy in these settings. But I heard them that morning.

I heard the Judge, Mohd Amran Mat Zain, emphasise on the need to adhere to the spirit of fairness and justice in which the civil court and the Shariah court are grounded, as well as respecting the Federal Constitution.

The Honourable Judge emphasised that he had considered the fact that the very accusation and the charge itself have been deemed suspect and doubted. He considered that JAWI’s actions had been chastised and were found by both the High Court and the Court of Appeal to be not only illegal but unconstitutional and done in bad faith. He recognised and empathised with Nik Raina’s suffering as a result of this case and spoke of how he considered that the circumstances of injustice could cause kemudaratan.

Amidst the gasps of surprise and disbelief, sharp intakes of breath and the loud slapping of a forehead (a member of the prosecution team), the Judge ordered the charge be dropped.

Just an hour earlier, all of those present had been wondering whether the day’s outcome would be any different than others before. There had been too many disappointments. This outcome caught everyone totally off guard.

Rosli Dahlan (new)

An emotional Rosli then requested permission from the court to permit his client to step out from the dock, as she was no longer under the shadow of a criminal charge, and be allowed to address the court. In a halting voice filled with much joy and fighting back tears, Nik Raina thanked the judge for his ruling. There were very few dry eyes after that. Everyone shed tears, even the normally unflappable Rosli.

In a statement made to the press outside the courtroom, Nik Raina stated that she fought for the right of all Muslims in Malaysia to work without fear of harassment or persecution. “I stand here today not only for myself, but for all my colleagues, especially the Muslims who could face the same action by the religious authorities for merely doing our jobs.”

Because of this case, Nik Raina has become an inspirational role model for so many young women and men. I wish her the very best and I am happy for her that she is able to continue on with her life with this whole episode behind her.

I do hope that the Attorney General’s Chambers will take heed of the learned Judge’s judgement and emphasis on needing to uphold the Islamic principles of fairness and justice. There is no longer a need to defend JAWI’s unlawful actions. Let it end here.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.