Who Misses Saddam?: These guys

Readers will recall this blogger’s interest in the Ba’thist trend in Mauritania, which is mainly dominated by the Iraqi/Saddamist strain. Mauritanian Ba’this (as well as a few of the other, small Arab nationalist or nationalist-Islamist parties) had gravitated toward the Qadhafite trend while Libya spreading largesse in the country, in the last few years mainly after the 2008 coup. CRIDEM has a very short summary report of a conference on 29 December where Ba’thists and other fans of Saddam commemorated the fifth anniversary of the death of Saddam Hussein with discussions on the state of the Arab ummah (community) and Arabic poetry readings; portraits of Saddam Hussein were distributed to attendees. The CRIDEM link is also interesting for reader comments, whose tone shows the kind of sentiments Saddam’s image calls up for some Mauritanians (especially non-Arab Mauritanians) given the country’s diversity and history in the last twenty or twenty five years as it relates to race and ethnic politics. At the same it shows the extent to which Mauritanian Arabs are integrated into pan-Arab trends and political discourses,¹ how Mauritanian political culture in general has been de-territorialised over the last few decades in terms of pan-Arab and pan-Islamic and Islamist narratives and ideologies (the difference between the latter two is especially important; and in terms of ethnic differences, the way ‘Moors’ and ‘Afro-Mauritanians associate and disassociate religion from identity politics is also important (Mauritanian Ba’thists include many religious references in their propaganda and programmes; the same is true for some of the other Arab nationalist parties; also among some of the Haratine movements Arabism and Islamic identity have been used to legitimise anti-slavery and anti-discrimination efforts for the descendants of slaves), while also keeping in mind that Islam is an important part of official or semi-official Mauritanian nationalist narratives in any case — the place is called the Islamic Republic of Mauritania on purpose not by coincidence; a similar trend can also be seen in black Mauritanian ethnic politics, too, where ‘African’ as opposed to ‘Arab’ identity and pan-politics have been somewhat prominent, especially in exile). In any case an interesting event that coincides with similar such commemorations elsewhere in the Arab countries.

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Translation: ‘In the Arab Maghreb’

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

Here is a brutish rendering of an excerpt from Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s poem ‘In the Arab Maghreb‘. The narrator is an Algerian independence fighter, looking at a headstone with him name written on it. It was indented as an anti-colonial version of ‘The Waste Land’. ‘Abraha’ is a reference to the Ethiopian king who led the attack against the Ka’abah and who, the story goes, was defeated through divine intervention. In the poem the narrator recalls numerous episodes from history, the fight with the Ethiopians, the Battle of Dhu Qar, ‘Abd el-Krim’s struggle in the Rif Mountains and so on, which are signs of hope as he reflects on his own situation; this passage comes as he links himself and his struggle to his ancestors’ struggles in the past. The poem is dedicated to Messali Hadj, founder of the Étoile Nord-Africaine (the first Algerian independence movement), Parti du Peuple Algérien and the Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques. Continue reading

Barbarians with Other People’s Resources

In his 5 November column (‘Our Reckless Meritocracy‘) Ross Douthat eyes the limits of ‘meritocracy’.

For decades, the United States has been opening paths to privilege for its brightest and most determined young people, culling the best and the brightest from Illinois and Mississippi and Montana and placing them in positions of power in Manhattan and Washington. By elevating the children of farmers and janitors as well as lawyers and stockbrokers, we’ve created what seems like the most capable, hardworking, high-I.Q. elite in all of human history.

And for the last 10 years, we’ve watched this same elite lead us off a cliff — mostly by being too smart for its own good.

Mr. Douthat is writing about the financial crisis and its causes. He teases this out into other areas, including wars mentioning the Whiz Kids of the Viet Nam era as a similar example. In meritocracies ‘it’s the very intelligence of our leaders that creates the worst disasters. Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks than lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world.’  Continue reading

Notes RE: The Mauritanian Baʿth

What follows is a series of notes on the general outline of the history of the Baʿthist tendency in Mauritania. The information below has been gathered from primary and secondary sources, especially conversations and documents. Apologies for the lack of specific citations for each item; some of these are the result of problems transferring footnotes or internet links that have been consulted but are now dead and some are from conversations with individuals who cannot be identified. It is imperfectly semi-chronological because it is pieced together from notes taken at various times over relatively long periods. Updates and clarifications will follow. Continue reading

Good books

Two new books worth reading: Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War by Robert Jervis (Cornell, 2010) and The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War by Nicholas Thompson (Henry Holt, 2009). Jervis’s book is especially useful because it reproduces a CIA report on analytical failures leading up to the Iranian Revolution, probing and explaining why American observers by and large failed to see it coming. The section on the Iraq War lacks this level of depth because not enough information is available yet. But many of Jervis’s observations are pertinent and hot, even if the book is vastly more interesting in its first case study. Thompson’s book is one of many books on Kennan that have come out in the last couple of years; it does a dual biography with Nitze that is fascinating, regardless of whether it comes off with more affection than might be necessary. But it still offers a unique take on both men that makes for engrossing and worthwhile reading. One sometimes grows weary of reading descriptions of George Frost Kennan’s cool temper and geeko-stratego disposition in a world full of capricious and jocular policymakers and hacks. Thompson’s book keeps some of this but buries it under the more interesting intellectual back-and-forth between Kennan and Nitze and constructs a tight narrative that grabs the reader in a really meaningful way where the evolution of grand strategy is concerned. Compared with other recent biographies of Kennan, Thompson’s is one of the better ones at focusing on intellectual content. Both books are highly recommended.

On Obama’s Cairo speech

Official and unoffficial reactions to Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University are out, and the minds of many have been made up. Here are this blogger’s reactions to some of its major points, thematically, with emphasis on criticism, not genuflection (for the former is more valuable than the latter). Continue reading

Public works

En sko stor som en soffa har blivit staty i Tikrit, den forne irakiske diktatorn Saddam Husseins hemstad. Statyn, gjord i glasfiber och koppar, föreställer den sko som en irakisk journalist kastade mot USA:s dåvarande president George W Bush den 14 december förra året.

Skokastningen utfördes under en presskonferens då den irakiske journalisten kastade båda sina skor mot presidenten. Båda missade. Journalisten ropade samtidigt: “Det här är en avskedskyss din hund!”

Kastad sko blev jättestaty,” Clas Svahn, Dagens Nyheter, 29 January, 2009. Continue reading