NY Times Book Review: ‘Thieves of State,’ by Sarah Chayes


February 23, 2015

Sunday Book Review

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/books/review/thieves-of-state-by-sarah-chayes.html?ref=books

‘Thieves of State,’ by Sarah Chayes

Chayes’s “Thieves of State” makes a strong case that acute corruption causes not only social breakdown but also violent extremism. She calls this a “basic fact,” showing that where there is poor governance — specifically, no appeal to the rule of law and no protected right of property — people begin a search for spiritual purity that puts them on a path to radicalization.

Thieves of State_978-0-393-23946-1

Across much of the world, populations suffer daily shakedowns by the police. At roadblocks, market stalls and entrances to government buildings, thugs in uniform gather “like spear fishermen hunting trout in a narrows,” as Sarah Chayes writes. But that isn’t the half of it. Globally, the three most important desiderata of our age — security, resilience and poverty reduction — are consistently being hollowed out by structural theft on a much larger scale, operating across corporations, governments, military establishments and civil services.

One key reason the United States and its allies have struggled to establish sustainable democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq is that the governments of those countries are mired in graft, caught in a mafia-like system in which money flows upward. The same goes for parts of Africa and Asia, and most of the former Soviet Union. The tenure of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is being defined by his war on corruption, and in December President Hassan Rouhani of Iran spoke out against corruption there.

Chayes’s “Thieves of State” makes a strong case that acute corruption causes not only social breakdown but also violent extremism. She calls this a “basic fact,” showing that where there is poor governance — specifically, no appeal to the rule of law and no protected right of property — people begin a search for spiritual purity that puts them on a path to radicalization.

In a limited sense, this is Chayes’s own story too: A former reporter for NPR in AlgeriaSarah Chayes and Afghanistan, she abandoned journalism to work for a nongovernmental organization in Kandahar, then was a social entrepreneur there on her own account, finally becoming an adviser on corruption to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. She (right) is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Her personal narrative is even more complicated than any summary might suggest. In 2001, Chayes helped found a charity “of unclear mission,” run by President Hamid Karzai’s Baltimore-based elder brother, Qayum, about whom she has this to say: “Not for years would I begin systematically comparing his seductively incisive words with his deeds. Welded to his brother’s interests, he behaved in ways that contradicted his language so starkly that for a long time I had difficulty processing the inconsistency.”

KarzaiElsewhere “those brothers” (there are six besides Hamid Karzai himself) are characterized as “self-serving,” with the younger half-brother Ahmed Wali singled out as someone “who stole land, imprisoned people for ransom, appointed key public officials, ran vast drug trafficking networks and private militias, and wielded ISAF like a weapon against people who stood up to him.” This, mind you, was also someone at whose house Chayes had dinner one night in 2003, in the course of which she watched C.I.A. officers “hand him a tinfoil-wrapped package of bills.”

Her experience corroborates an October 27, 2009, report in The New York Times,John Kerrry which stated that Ahmed Wali Karzai was on the C.I.A. payroll. It also prompts one to wonder at Senator John Kerry’s response at the time. “We should not condemn Ahmed Wali Karzai or damage our critical relations with his brother, President Karzai, on the basis of newspaper articles or rumors,” he said.

Ahmed Wali Karzai was assassinated by a police official and longtime confidant on July 12, 2011. About six years before that, Chayes severed her own relationship with the Karzais. After leaving for a few months, she returned to Kandahar in May 2005 with a project that, on the surface, could never smell of corruption and intrigue.

Armed with an oil press and $25,000 from Oprah Winfrey, she set up a cooperative producing scented soap and beauty products, taking advantage of Afghanistan’s horticultural riches. But she soon found that even this innocuous activity put her on the sharp end of corruption, as she tried to do simple things like deposit money in a bank without paying a bribe for the privilege of doing so. So she began, in an amateurish way, to develop ideas for limiting corruption in places like Afghanistan.

Very quickly, the amateur became professional. Chayes was soon called upon by NATO and ISAF to give expert briefings with a focus on anti-corruption measures. “ ‘Sally the Soap-Maker Gives an Ops Brief’ was how I jokingly came to refer to my main presentation,” she writes. This led to a job with ISAF, and then another as special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flitting between Washington and Kabul as the United States laboriously and somewhat unwillingly developed an anti-corruption strategy for Afghanistan.

Any such strategy was bound to conflict with political and military exigencies, which presumably explains Kerry’s response to the report in The Times. But Chayes’s Afghan interlocutors told her again and again that poor governance was actually what was perpetuating the conflict, with graft generating disenchantment and driving people toward the Taliban. “Western officials,” she writes, “habitually flipped the sequence: First let’s establish security, then we can worry about governance.”

Ordinary Afghans, meanwhile, took Western inaction on corruption as approval. Aid just added to the problem, in Chayes’s view: “Development resources passed through a corrupt system not only reinforced that system by helping to fund it but also inflamed the feelings of injustice that were driving people toward the insurgency.”

Chayes refers to the body of medieval and Renaissance advice literature known as “Mirrors for Princes” to contextualize current abuses of government. She begins with the most famous mirror of all, Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but it is lesser-known figures like William of Pagula and John of Salisbury who give her the most ammunition. She also uses the “Siyasat Nameh” — the “Book of Politics” — of the 11th-century Persian administrator Nizam al-Mulk.

Among the counsels that Nizam al-Mulk gave his sultan was: Listen to the griev­ances of your subjects directly, without intermediaries. Chayes argues that the ­voices of a majority of Afghans are drowned out by the Taliban on one side and by the Karzai government on the other. ISAF, she says, listened only to the government.

Many of the other countries Chayes brings into this chatty study (“John of Salisbury, as usual, nailed it”) show similar patterns. In each case, there are slightly different “variations on a theme,” as she has it, ranging from the military-­kleptocratic complex (Egypt) to the bureaucratic kleptocracy (Tunisia), the post-Soviet kleptocratic autocracy (Uzbekistan) and the resource kleptocracy (Nigeria). In her epilogue, titled “Self-­Reflection,” Chayes also discusses Western countries and the global financial crisis of 2008.

This is an important book that should be required reading for officials in foreign service, and for those working in commerce or the military. The story will interest the nonspecialist reader too, though the balance of exciting narrative, academic discourse and policy-wonk-speak will unsettle some. Indeed, Chayes touches on how language itself becomes corrupt. The standard terminology of military and diplomatic engagement (and much corporate rhetoric) is often evasive, with usage reflecting differences in value systems — as when assassination by drone is described as “targeted killing.”

While I am in full agreement with what Chayes says, I found her own prose style raising my hackles on occasion, with its effortful interpolations of color (“the legendary but painfully dilapidated blue and white Mediterranean port city of Algiers”), verbs on steroids (“I wheeled and strode over to our battered red pickup truck, clambered aboard, and roared off to the bank”), and its chapters that begin with such sentences as “Wait a second.” I did, but I wish she had.

Giles Foden is the author of “The Last King of Scotland.”

Malaysia, Singapore and two views on the last 50 years


February 19, 2015

Malaysia, Singapore and two views on the last 50 years

Bilahari-Kausikan-Singapore2by Bilahari Kausikan For The Straits Times

A new book fails to give due weight to the cooperative aspect of bilateral ties, says the writer.

I have known Tan Sri Kadir Mohamad, the former KSU (the equivalent of our Permanent Secretary) of Wisma Putra, for more than 30 years. We first met in 1984 when he was the Deputy Chief of mission at the Malaysian Embassy in Washington, DC and I was a newly minted First Secretary at our embassy.

In the subsequent decades our paths often crossed – the world of Kadir's BookSouth-east Asian diplomacy is not large and Malaysia is our closest neighbour – and on occasion I worked with him in ASEAN and on some bilateral matters. So when I heard that he had written a book on Malaysia-Singapore relations, I hastened to procure a copy.

The content was as I expected: a very journeyman-like effort. There were no significant errors of fact on bilateral issues that I could detect. Mr Kadir is nothing if not a consummate professional, and contrary to popular belief, good diplomats of every country generally tell the truth and stick to the facts, although there is no obligation to always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Bilahari's ST article Malaysia and Singapore: Two Systems, One World

In any case, all the most important facts have long been placed in the public domain, mainly by Singapore in answers to parliamentary questions or by the release of documents on water talks more than a decade ago. A reader expecting dramatic new revelations will be disappointed.

Mr Kadir’s interpretations of the facts are of course different from the interpretations that I or other Singapore diplomats would have placed on the same facts. But that is only to be expected, and I am not inclined to quibble with him.

A different interpretation cannot change the most important fact of all: On almost every bilateral issue the book deals with – water, Pedra Blanca, the bridge and land reclamation – the outcome was not one that Malaysia had set out to achieve.

Diplomats try to promote their countries’ interests. So it is entirely understandable that in the twilight of his career, a distinguished Malaysian diplomat would want to place his version of events on the record and vent a little. It would be churlish to deny him even this satisfaction.

I will only take issue with his conclusion, encapsulated in the title of his book and the thread running through it, that it has been “Fifty Years Of Contentions”. Of course, Malaysian and Singapore interests often clashed. Relations between neighbours are always more complicated than relations between distant countries. But the interests of our countries have at least as often coincided.

Diplomacy is not, or at least ought not to be, a zero-sum game. Nor should any one aspect of any relationship be allowed to colour the entire relationship.

Although we contended over bilateral matters, Malaysia and Singapore have simultaneously worked together very well on other issues, for example as we did in ASEAN and the United Nations during the decade-long struggle in the 1980s – which coincided with some tense episodes in bilateral relations – to prevent a fait accompli in Vietnamese-occupied Cambodia. We still cooperate closely in ASEAN.

And even when the outcome of bilateral contentions was in Singapore’s favour, Malaysian interests were not irrevocably hurt. The 2010 agreement on the implementation of the 1990 Points of Agreement on railway land was beneficial to both countries. Malaysia still buys cheap processed water from Singapore.

After 18 years, Kadir’s search for letter still goes onMr Kadir’s failure to give sufficient recognition to the cooperative aspect of bilateral relations is, I think, due to the over-emphasis he places on what he describes as Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s “baggage full of bitterness and a heart filled with anger” over Separation. He describes his book as “…the story of how one man dictated the form and substance of relations…”

Separation was of course a traumatic event for both countries that did indeed shape and set in motion the essential dynamic of Malaysia-Singapore relations. But not in the way Mr Kadir thinks it did.

He places far too much emphasis on the personal element. It is undeniable that Mr Lee was a dominant personality in Singapore politics and policy making for many years. But I suspect that in trying to understand Singapore, Mr Kadir looked in a Malaysian mirror and saw Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Both were dominant personalities in the government and politics of their respective countries but not in entirely the same way. Far more than Dr Mahathir, Mr Lee worked within and respected the Cabinet system. Mr Lee was acutely aware that any agreement he reached with Malaysia had to outlast his tenure in political office and even his lifetime and therefore sought collective agreement.

By contrast, even after he retired as Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir attempted to influence the way his successors dealt with Singapore on bilateral issues when he did not agree with them. Many Malaysians certainly believe he tries to influence Malaysian domestic politics and policies to this day.

And the metaphor of “baggage” used by Mr Kadir and others is a singularly inappropriate – and simplistic – way to try to understand the complex dynamic of bilateral relations set in motion by Separation. “Baggage” connotes something that is carried by an individual or a group of individuals and which can be jettisoned or changed if necessary. The implication is that if this does not occur, it is only because those individuals are unwilling to do so or have been prevented from doing so. And Mr Kadir argues, or at least strongly implies, that this was what in fact Mr Lee did.

But the reason for Separation, or rather the reason why, as Mr Kadir bluntly and perhaps less euphemistically argues in his first chapter, “it was necessary to expel Singapore” goes far beyond individual personalities.

Singapore is organised on the basis of multiracial meritocracy. Malaysia is organised on the principle, politely described in Article 153 of its Constitution as “the special position of the Malays”, but more popularly and politically potently understood as “Ketuanan Melayu”.

Time has eased the sharp edges of Separation, and time will certainly ease them further. But it is difficult to conceive of either Singapore or Malaysia discarding their respective fundamental organising principles. They are embedded in our societies and political systems, not by the will or whim of any individual, however powerful, but by the collective choice of the majority in both countries.

There are of course Singaporeans who do not agree with the Government and some do not like Mr Lee. Some Singaporeans may well already have only the vaguest of notions of who Mr Lee is and what he has done. But I have yet to meet any serious-minded Singaporean who really wants to abandon our fundamental organising principle and adopt something akin to the Malaysian system.

Nor can I imagine Article 153 of the Malaysian Constitution ever being repealed. We may have been once one country, but are now and for evermore two countries. The existential tension between two countries organised on fundamentally irreconcilable political principles that defines the dynamic of Malaysia-Singapore relations is not going to go away and so must be managed and is being managed.

Once this is understood, a balanced and holistic view of Malaysia-Singapore relations becomes possible. It is a relationship based, like every other interstate relationship throughout history, on national interests, some of which will converge and some of which will diverge.

The complications in Malaysia-Singapore relations are the inevitable ones of proximity and an entangled history. They have some special characteristics, but that is in general not particularly unusual between neighbours anywhere. Every close relationship has its own special characteristics.

It is the purpose of diplomacy to broaden the area of convergence between national interests whenever possible and manage the tensions when interests diverge. That Singapore and Malaysian diplomats – Mr Kadir included – have succeeded in doing so at least as often as we have failed should not be overlooked.

Even if Mr Kadir is right that “the bitterness and anger towards Malaysian leaders that engulfed Lee Kuan Yew on 9 August 1965 … remains with him until this day” – and I think Mr Kadir is profoundly mistaken, entirely misreads Mr Lee, and may well be unconsciously projecting some of his own attitudes onto him – it did not prevent Mr Lee from concluding what was, until the 2010 railway land agreement, the most important Malaysia-Singapore agreement: The 1990 Linggiu Dam agreement.

In his speech at the launch of Mr Kadir’s book, former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi cut to the core when he said Malaysia cannot blame Singapore entirely for bilateral problems, but “… must also look at ourselves in the mirror”. Good advice.

The writer, a former Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs, is now ambassador-at-large.

– See more at: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/opinion/invitation/story/malaysia-singapore-and-two-views-the-last-50-years-20150218#sthash.CFPsvDRx.dpuf

Note: Tan Sri Kadir Mohamad’s book should be read along with Dr. Lily Zubaidah Rahim’s Singapore in the Malay World: Building and breaching regional bridges (New York: Routledge,2010) and Dr. Michael Leifer, Singapore’s Foreign Policy: Coping with Vulnerability  (London: Routledge, 2010).

 

Malaysia-Singapore: 50 Years of Contentious and Prickly Relations


February 3, 2014

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BOOK REVIEW

by Din Merican

Malaysia-Singapore: 50 Years of Contentions, 1965-2015 by Kadir Mohamad

Kadir Mohamed's book2

I just completed reading Ambassador (Tan Sri) Kadir Mohamad’s Malaysia Singapore Fifty Years of Contentions, 1965-2015. By presenting his thoughts and views in the form of an excellent book, Ambassador Kadir, who was Secretary-General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Wisma Putra) and Special Foreign Affairs Adviser to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, joins a select group of former Malaysian diplomats like Tun Ghazalie Shafie, Kamil Jaafar and Razali Ismail ,among others, who have shared their experiences with us. It is heartening to note that our public officials are making their contribution to our collective memory of Malaysian history since Independence.

His book is a timely contribution on the history of Malaysia-Singapore relations. In my view he is the first among them to deal in such great detail with the contentious and prickly relations between the neighbours since the republic’s “expulsion” (Kadir makes no apologies for using this word to describe what happened ) on August 9, 1965 from Malaysia. It is a serious book for the discerning student of foreign policy and international relations. It is not a memoir nor a ” last dispatch” of sorts that one encounters from some  recent writers on the subject.

Ambassador Kadir has “relied heavily on historical records, the works of other authors and contemporary writings by scholars and other public commentators for the facts”. His personal recollections and copious notes and other materials have also been employed to add value and excitement to the drama of diplomatic encounters on numerous issues  (in seven chapters) between Malaysia and Singapore over the last five decades.

Lee-Kuan-Yew

In Chapter 8, the author gives us credible evidence of how Lee Kuan Yew single-handedly prescribed Singapore’s policies towards Malaysia, even after he relinquished his premiership to Goh Chok Tong in 1990. In his role as Senior Minister and later as Minister Mentor to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Mr. Lee, the micro-manager of Singapore, was able to exert strong influence on Singapore’s foreign, economic and social  policies. Singapore’s Cabinet served as his proxy, says Ambassador Kadir.

Even after his retirement following the 2011 General Elections, his  personality, political dexterity, intellectual brilliance and moral authority (after all, he is a Philosopher-King and Confucian Mandarin) loom large over the blue skies of Singapore.  Here is an amazing Mr. Singapore, a view shared by his admirers and detractors.

Throughout the book on bilateral issues, Mr. Lee’s statecraft is present.

“Singapore negotiators in the past always had Lee Kuan Yew looking over their shoulders like a taskmaster; and they had to prove themselves constantly in the eyes of the taskmaster….Lee Kuan Yew is absolutely one of a kind.”

I wish to add that Mr. Lee taught Singaporean ministers and negotiators how to conduct “Janus faced diplomacy” (Lily Zubaidah Rahim), and to quote Ambassador Kadir again,” in which the business of foreign relations is conducted without sentiment, ideology or illusion, particularly where it concerns  Singapore’s security. That was the way it was in the last 50 years”.

The book by Ambassador Kadir then goes on to support this thesis with Malaysia Singapore relations  from 1965-2015 as a case study. In Chapter 2, Kadir tells us of the acrimonious discussions between the Malaysians and Singaporeans on Water that went on over several years till 2004 without any agreement.

A large part of reason of the failure to reach agreement until today was Lee Kuan Yew’s intervention in the negotiation process between 2000 and 2002. The water issue remains a national sore point in Malaysia”.

There is a perception here in Kuala Lumpur that the Republic is raking enormous money by selling treated water to third parties, namely to ships berthed in Singapore harbour. The 1961 Agreement expired in 2011,while two other agreements are in force until 2061. Let us hope by then, we in Johor and Malaysia can get an equitable deal for our water.

Bilateral negotiations on the status of Pulau Batu Puteh (Pedra Branca), as discussed in Chapter 3, made no progress during 1993 and 1994. The talks stalled when Singapore opted to adopt Mr. Lee’s preference for the dispute to be settled by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague. The matter was finally adjudicated by the ICJ in 2008 in favour of Singapore, after some 18 years. It was, however, not a unanimous decision. This point was not known to the Malaysian public. Only 12 out 16 judges voted in favour of the decision.

In the case of Middle Rocks, 15 to 1 judges ruled in Malaysia’s favour. The ownership of South Ledge will be made after a delimitation of the territorial sea in the area surrounding Pulau Batu Puteh/Pedra Branca, Middle Rocks, and South Ledge.

Chapter Four  deals with Points of Agreement. The issue was finally settled in 2011 by the Najib Administration. Finally, Mr. Lee was able to get KTMB to move to Woodlands and the Malaysian keris was finally removed from the heart of Singapore. This was because some commercial deals deemed favorable to both countries were made by Khazanah Nasional (Malaysia) and Temasek Holdings with some details yet to be finalized.

Another issue, raised in Chapter Five, was very difficult  which  was resolved by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi when the construction of the crooked bridge to replace the Causeway across the Straits of Johore was aborted, much to the consternation of former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed.Chapter 6 deals with Singapore’s Land Reclamation Project. It was the first time Malaysia took Singapore to international arbitration and got a judgment that in general was in its favour.

Chapter 7  deals with the Defence of Singapore. It makes a very interesting read on military strategy and security. It is Mr. Lee’s real legacy. How valid are his assumptions about its neighbours in South East Asia, especially Malaysia, in  the 21 century? Both countries are members of ASEAN and are bound by the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia. Both have chosen in 50 years of their prickly and often contentious relations to resolve their differences through diplomacy and peaceful means. Surely, there must be better times ahead for Malaysians and Singaporeans.

I agree with Ambassador Kadir that Malayia is not a threat to Singapore’s security. So he rightly says:

” Indeed, Singapore need not be thinking like Israel because Singapore is not in the same situation as Israel. Israel has experienced actual military attack from outside while Singapore has not. Except for a few irrational acts of selective sabotage during Konfontasi, no country  has ever mounted a military attack against Singapore. A large part of the lingering problem is the teaching by Lee Kuan Yew that Singapore should never trust its neighbours. Such distrusting mind-set tends to imagine enemies everywhere and perceive threats where none exists.”

In the final chapter titled The Next Fifty Years, Ambassador Kadir isAfter 18 years, Kadir’s search for letter still goes on optimistic about our relations with Singapore. And why not? A new generation of leaders on both sides to the Causeway have taken over from their elders who fought colonialism, survived the two World Wars, gained independence and withstood the Cold War. These young leaders have new lenses on bilateral relations. Bitterness of the past should now be behind us.

Yes, Ambassador Kadir, as you say,

“…the logic for neighbouring countries is quite simple that they must cooperate. They can progress better by cooperating with each other instead of hindering one another. In fact, for Malaysia and Singapore the fundamentals already exist for establishing a new era of beneficial cooperation between themselves… Such cooperation is possible even if differences of opinion and approach continue to persist in some areas.”

In other words, let us put end to  50 years of contentious and prickly relations.

Jokowi: The First Hundred Days


January 26, 2015

Jokowi: The First Hundred Days

Indonesian politics has not been this interesting in a long time. Three months into the new administration of President Joko Widodo, the jubilant optimism that accompanied his victory in elections last year has been replaced by more sober realism. Power in Indonesia has rather fluid qualities. It ebbs and flows. The balance of power in Jokowi’s administration is seen as less viscous than was the case under his predecessor, which makes for unpredictability.

The President’s biggest challenge in his first 100 days has been to consolidate power. Winning the popular vote did not give him an untrammeled mandate. He is shackled to former President Megawati Soekarnoputri, the leader of the party that nominated him to run for President. She in turn had a huge hand in selecting the lion’s share of his cabinet, along with a few other minor stakeholders in the winning coalition. Whilst everyone expected the formidable opposition coalition in parliament to throw obstacles in the path of his reforms, it turns out that Jokowi’s main problem is his own party.

How the President has managed this problem, and the measure of success and failure in his first three months in office begins to illuminate the nature of his leadership. But it also suggests the need for a re-calibration of expectations and a degree of caution.

Supporters were encouraged by his cool unruffled response to the onslaught on his first few weeks in office made by the opposition coalition in parliament; then by the decisive manner he removed fuel subsidies at the end of last year. But the biggest test of his power to date has been the handling of his appointment of Budi Goenawan as national police chief.

Observers believe that Budi, a former close aide to Megawati was her choice, and that pushing his appointment so hard was a response to Jokowi’s sudden appointment of Luhud Panjaitan as his chief of staff. Luhud, a former Indonesian Special Forces commander who is possibly the President’s closest political friend and ally, forged ties with Jokowi when he was still a furniture-maker and exporter in Central Java. His appointment to the chief of staff position was regarded as a bid to balance the forces constraining Jokowi’s presidency.

Budi Goenawan’s appointment generated a storm of protest after the National Counter Corruption Agency (KPK) indicated he was a suspect. Insiders speculated that this was a play by Jokowi to have Megawati’s candidate knocked back, though others said that Budi had greatly helped Jokowi during the election campaign. Either way, the President’s moves to consolidate power collided with the wider concerns of his popular support base, members of which lashed out at the President’s defiance of the KPK. After almost a week of mounting tension, Jokowi announced the decision on Budi Goenawan’s candidacy would be postponed – though not completely canned.

The other theme of Jokowi’s first three months has been a firm resolve to implement an assertive maritime policy. In keeping with his promise to protect Indonesia’s fish stocks from the rampant poaching by foreign fishing fleets in the country’s archipelagic waters, the authorities have seized vessels from Thailand and Vietnam and sunk them. Although Indonesia has sunk illegal fishing boast before, the forceful manner in which the policy is being pursued has raised concerns in the region.

The challenge for the government under this President is how to manage complex regional or international issues when the leadership tends to see things in simple terms and is more concerned with domestic matters.

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi raised eyebrows by initially suggesting that Indonesia would reduce its international engagement when she meant it would continue. Jokowi has made it plain that he is less interested than his predecessor in joining the international conference circuit – he probably won’t be attending the World Economic Forum in Davos.

However, the focus on domestic interests is not mutually exclusive from the projection of values and responsibilities of importance to the region and beyond. Indonesia’s assertive maritime policy could be couched in rules-based terms that would greatly help the rest of ASEAN persuade China to observe international law in the South China Sea.

Much of the initial dissonance in foreign policy is likely dissipate once the administration settles down. It seems clear that Jokowi himself will not be the globetrotting pontificator that Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono aspired to be. That doesn’t mean that issues of importance such as democracy, climate change and respect for international law need to be pushed down table. But it does mean that the President will need to identify good spokespeople and envoys to do the messaging, and there is no shortage of capable former officials and diplomats to fill this role. Popular as he is, Jokowi needs to be confident in the ability of others to communicate his policies.

On the domestic front, Jokowi has disappointed many liberals in his camp with a hesitant reaction to human rights abuse. It took Jokowi two weeks to announce a formal investigation into the shooting of five civilians in the central highlands of Papua last month. There have already been anachronistic references to a return to the army’s role in stimulating development at the village level, and indications of a much larger defence budget. Meanwhile, the international community is reeling from the President’s blunt refusal to offer clemency to five foreigners convicted of drug smuggling who were executed by firing squad on 19 January.

From what we have already seen, Jokowi’s preference is for cautious, conservative decision-making. Perhaps this is something of a throw back to the style of politics practiced by Soeharto at the height of his power in the 1980s. Like Soeharto, Jokowi is schooled in the homespun wisdom of the Javanese culture, so we can expect careful consideration of his actions and as much as possible pushed from behind, as captured by the phrase Soeharto made popular ‘Tut Wuri Handayani’ – to provide moral leadership from the rear.

Events in and around the Presidential palace for the last three months have generated some mild confusion and concern. The Mr. Clean image dented by the appointment of an allegedly corrupt police chief; the Man of the People image corroded by the choice of close aides associated with a conservative security mindset. It would be a real pity if the direct, unambiguous style of his campaign becomes occluded by the shadowy, ambiguous characteristics of Javanese power play.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Regional Director for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

On Israel’s George Washington, Ben-Gurion


January 25, 2015

NY Times Sunday Book Review

‘Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel,’ by Anita Shapira

About the Author

Anita ShapiraAnita Shapira is Professor Emerita in Jewish History at Tel Aviv University and founder of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies. She specializes in the history of Zionism, the Jewish community in Palestine and the state of Israel, with an emphasis on cultural, social and intellectual history. She has published numerous books and articles, among them Berl Katznelson, A Biography of a Socialist Zionist (1984), Land and Power, The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948 (1992), and Yigal Allon, Native Son (2008). Her recent book, Israel: A History, received the National Jewish Book Award for History in 2012. She has received numerous academic and professional awards and fellowships from Israeli and foreign universities, including Yale, Brandeis, City University of New York, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, the Oxford Center for Jewish Studies, Columbia University and others. She is the 2008 Israel Prize for Jewish History laureate. She received her B.A. and M.A., cum laude, and Ph.D., summa cum laude, in History and Jewish History from Tel Aviv University.

Recently, there was something of an ideological fistfight at the grave of Israel’s founding father. During a ceremony at Sde Boker in the Negev desert marking the 41 years since the death of David Ben-Gurion, the former and current presidents of Israel — Shimon Peres and Reuven Rivlin — slammed efforts to pass new legislation to enshrine Israel’s status as a Jewish state, a bill that many critics say will roll back Israel’s status as a democracy and turn the country’s Arabs, who are about 20 percent of the population, into second-class citizens.

The chief sponsor of the so-called Jewish nation-state bill, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sat stewing in the front row. When it was his turn to speak, he said that no one knows what Ben-Gurion would say were he alive today.

Ben-Gurion, born David Green in Plonsk, Poland, in 1886, would probably have been amused by this jockeying over his legacy. In his earlier years he was in a constant struggle to excel and lead amid contemporaries whose pedigrees, education and stature surpassed his. And yet it was he who ultimately succeeded in spearheading the establishment of modern Israel, and who became the country’s first prime minister in 1948.

Short but towering, passionate but reserved, deeply informal and intellectually astute, Ben-Gurion was a study in contradictions. Now, for the first time, an Israeli historian presents a biography that makes the squat man with the Einsteinesque hair easier to read, in large part by looking not just at Ben-Gurion the state-builder, but Ben-Gurion the man.

ShapiraBenGurion“Ben-Gurion: Father of Modern Israel,” by Anita Shapira, a professor emerita at Tel Aviv University, provides what is probably the most intimate yet unflinching portrait to date of a man revered and reviled. Given that Shapira met hazaken or “the old man,” as he came to be known in his later years, when she visited his Sde Boker home, Shapira may be the last truly qualified person to unpack some of the mysteries of Israel’s George Washington.

Ben-Gurion immigrated from Poland to Palestine in 1906 after being introduced to Zionist ideals. “There I found the Palestine I had dreamed about,” he wrote in his memoirs.

But that old-new land was four decades and two world wars away from becoming the internationally recognized state of Israel, and so Ben-Gurion was in and out of Palestine more often than one might imagine. He went to Istanbul in search of a higher education, and spent years going to and from Europe, gathering support at various Zionist congresses, living for periods in London and New York. It was while he was working on a book at the New York Public Library, “The Land of Israel Past and Present,” that he met Paula Munweis — a recent immigrant from Russia who became his wife and the mother of his three children. The price of falling in love with him, she soon realized, was being dragged along with the Zionist project, though she would have preferred to stay in America.

Indeed, some of the book’s revelations about Ben-Gurion’s relationships with the ones dearest to him present a less-than-­flattering image. In his early years, he pressed his father endlessly to send money, but then discouraged him from emigrating to Palestine. Ben-Gurion left Paula and his children for long periods to go abroad. When he wrote letters home, they were impersonal and seemed to be directed not so much to his wife as to posterity. “The warmth and love he had lavished on her in their early years together had dissipated,” Shapira writes. He fulfilled his desire for connections with more cerebral depth by carrying on an intense but probably platonic involvement with the British writer Doris May, and an actual relationship with a woman in New York named Miriam Cohen during World War II. But it was Ben-Gurion’s close friendship with Berl Katznelson, one of the intellectual giants of Labor Zionism (and the subject of an earlier Shapira biography), that sustained him most; Katznelson’s death in 1944 caused Ben-Gurion great grief from which he never fully recovered.

“Ben-Gurion” is at its most relevant when it explores the roots of today’s fractured Israel, leading the reader through the world of Zionism’s prestate politics and Ben-Gurion’s problems over whom to choose as allies — the Turks, the British or the Americans. Constant internecine rivalries flared up between various Zionist groups — whose progeny include today’s Labor and Likud Parties. In particular, the gentlemanly Chaim Weizmann had his own approach to Zionism, which involved quiet talks with men of importance rather than Ben-Gurion’s popular campaign of recruiting world Jewry to push for a state following the horrors of the Holocaust.

“Ben-Gurion’s revolutionary concept seemed to challenge 25 years of Weizmann’s cautious gradualism. . . . Ben-­Gurion turned it into a banner, a symbol of the revolutionary turnabout in Zionist action,” Shapira writes. Weizmann was “a master of one-on-one meetings” with the British and American elite. Ben-Gurion, by contrast, “saw organizing the Jews into an ethnic pressure group that could exert its political and electoral power” as the lever for change.

Among the turning points in which Ben-Gurion exhibited extraordinary if controversial leadership was his work to unite the different Zionist militias into one army after the state was declared — the newly minted Israel Defense Forces.

A right-wing group, Menachem Begin’s Irgun, agreed to relinquish its arms, but then was found to be smuggling more weapons to its men on a ship called the Altalena. In a test of the newborn state’s authority, Ben-Gurion ordered the I.D.F. to shell the boat. It caught fire, killing 14 and wounding 20. “The trauma of Jews firing on Jews — of a vessel bringing arms to Israel being sunk by the I.D.F. — was unforgettable,” Shapira observes.

Some readers may find it hard, as I did, to read Shapira’s brief treatment of the moment in 1948 when the commanders Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin came to Ben-Gurion asking whether to carry out “a large-scale population evacuation.” Rabin reported that Ben-Gurion responded with a wave of the hand, saying “Expel them.” Shapira explains here that while he forbade the evacuation of some areas, like Nazareth, “like most of his ministers, he saw the Arabs’ exodus as a great miracle, one of the most important in that year of miracles, since the presence of a hostile population constituting some 40 percent of the new state’s total populace did not augur well for the future.”

Shapira doesn’t subject this incident to any ethical scrutiny or judgment, reporting it almost matter-of-factly. She does, however, note that given the history of the time — which included moving enormous masses of people across Europe and carrying out huge population transfers as part of the partition that divided Pakistan from India — Ben-Gurion’s decision wasn’t beyond the norm. “The decision not to allow the return of the Arab refugees was accepted as self-evident, and gained broad public support.”

Despite this, Ben-Gurion firmly believed peace was more important than territory: What he wanted was not more land but the ability to maintain an overwhelming Jewish majority in the land he had. That outlook has not prevailed. The fateful policy to settle the West Bank was made largely after he died in 1973. At the time, Shapira says, Israelis were in such turmoil in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war that they hardly noticed his passing.

I last visited Ben-Gurion’s grave in 2012. I was working on a book and looking for a quiet writing retreat before the birth of my second child. I came to appreciate the appeal of the remote place where Ben-Gurion chose to live out his later years.

There, on the edge of a majestic desert precipice, Israel isn’t a country the size of New Jersey constantly struggling for its survival. Rather, it is a place of proud, rugged expanses, a homeland of the reborn Jew comfortable in nature, re-establishing himself in a timeless landscape, neither oppressed nor oppressing. It was this yet unfulfilled promise in the promised land that Ben-Gurion wanted people to contemplate when they took a minute to envision what had been, and what was to come.

Ilene Prusher is a journalist based in Jerusalem and the author of the novel “Baghdad Fixer.”

Najib’s Political Battles Pose a Challenge to his Foreign Policy Agenda


January 23, 2015

Najib’s Political Battles Pose a Challenge to his Foreign Policy Agenda

By Murray Hiebert and Nigel Cory
January 22, 2015
Murray Hiebert is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Nigel Cory is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair.

4th PM of MalaysiaChallenges at home suggest Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak could face an uphill battle in pursuing his foreign policy goals in the year ahead. The long-simmering battle between Najib and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has erupted into a public spat that must have Najib looking over his shoulder given Mahathir’s role in ousting his predecessor, Abdullah Badawi.

As a result Najib finds himself flanked on the right by Perkasa,the equivalent of the Tea Party within his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and on the left by the opposition coalition led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. No move Najib makes will please all Malaysians, and perhaps not even many, in this constrained environment.

The public mudslinging between Najib and Mahathir could weaken and distract the Prime Minister even as 2015 presents opportunities for Malaysia to make its mark on the international stage. Malaysia’s ruling party generally hides internal conflict from public view.But the escalation in political maneuvering between two of the party’s key leaders has changed this dynamic.

Old corruption charges have been rehashed against Daim Zainuddin,Daim an outspoken critic of Najib. Daim isan UMNO insider, financial power broker, and two-time Finance Minister under Mahathir. He is seen as a proxy forthe former Prime Minister and, to real insiders, may even be the one pulling the strings on his former boss.

The government-controlled media took the unusual step of covering the case against Daim in detail, which some interpreted as a coordinated political attack and which prompted proxies on both sides to take the fight to the internet.

The split between Najib and Mahathir burst into the open when the latter, now 89, publicly withdrew his support for Najib in an August 2014 blog. Mahathir blamed Najib for the ruling coalition’s poor showing in the 2013 national elections, attacked him for his efforts in 2011 to abolish the draconian Internal Security Act, and criticized his earlier plans to scale back the affirmative action program that provides special privileges for the country’s Malay majority. On all these issues, Mahathir has strong support from UMNO’s most conservative wing.

The bitter dispute between the two men and their respective camps appears to have picked up in earnest after a dinner between them in December did not go well. A thorny issue reportedly discussed at the meeting was the sovereign fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd., which has been plagued by charges of mismanagement and corruption and is reportedly suffering from billions of ringgit in nonperforming loans. Najib is chair of the fund’s advisory board.

Mahathir retains significant public and political influence in Malaysia as an elder statesman, particularly among conservative Malays. His profile stems from enduring public popularity, especially among older  members of society who are nostalgic about his 22 years in power. Mahathir’s political influence within UMNO has loomed large  over his successors since he stepped down in 2003. He leveraged this influence to undermine and ultimately remove his anointed successor, Abdullah, in 2009. Then Deputy Prime Minister Najib stepped up to become Prime Minister.He most certainly sees the possibility of history repeating itself.

And Malaysia’s economy is not going to provide any respite for Najib. The sharp drop in oil prices has created some stiff headwinds for Malaysia’s economy. Oil and gas exports account for a fifth of the country’s exports and a third of government revenue. It was therefore little surprise that Najib on January 20 announced $1.5 billion in spending cuts and said Malaysia’s economic growth has been revised down from 6 percent to between 4.5 and 5.5 percent for 2015.

anwar-ibrahim-recentUnder withering attacks from Mahathir and party conservatives, Najib has backed off many of his earlier political and economic reform plans. In recent months, his government has been criticized by the United States and human rights organizations for repeatedly using the colonial-era Sedition Act against critics. Anwar Ibrahim is awaiting a court verdict on another round of sodomy charges that could once again see him sent to prison. The verdict, expected in the next few weeks, would undoubtedly lead to further criticism from the international community.

Najib’s domestic challenges could pose risks for his foreign policy goals in 2015. This year is shaping up as an important one for Malaysia given its chairmanship of ASEAN and its non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. As ASEAN chair, Malaysia can be expected to play a key role in pressing the grouping to take steps to complete regional economic integration, keep tensions in the disputed South China Sea under control, and explore ways to bolster the role of the East Asia Summit.

TPPA Protest

Negotiators of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Malaysia joined in 2010, are scrambling to complete the trade agreement by March. But for Malaysia to get to the finish line will require some tough decisions by Najib and his cabinet in such areas as state-owned enterprises, pharmaceuticals, and investor dispute mechanisms. Even before his latest broadsides against Najib, Mahathir, who oversaw Malaysia’s earlier transformation into an industrial powerhouse, had  harply criticized the TPP as an attempt by foreign powers to colonize Malaysia. Anwar and the opposition have also sought to foil Najib’s reform effort.

The coming months could provide an opportunity for Malaysia and theNajib and ObamaUnited States to put more substance into the comprehensive partnership they announced last April when President Barack Obama visited Malaysia. But the visit marked only the beginning of the process, which requires more work by both sides to achieve deeper ties, including such things as stepped up cabinet-level exchanges,more military cooperation and intelligence sharing, and closer economic ties.

Najib’s golf outing with Obama in early January showed the depth of personal camaraderie between the two leaders, which could help them achieve greater depth to the comprehensive partnership before Obama visits again in November. However, the sharp criticism Najib received for golfing in Hawaii while parts of Malaysia faced terrible flooding highlights some of the challenges he could face in the months ahead as he seeks to deepen the country’s regional and global foreign policy opportunities.

The United States will need to make some tough decisions in the coming months about how to engage Najib and Malaysia. The country is a vital partner and a key to strengthening ASEAN. The White House will face pressure from various advocacy groups to limit or curtail engagement and there will be congressional pressure during the TPP approval process. The administration will have to step carefully but be guided by the strategic need to support political and economic reform in Malaysia. For his part, Najib will need to harden his resolve to pursue that reform.