Georgia operations cease?

As of 0855 GMT Tuesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered a halt to Russian operations in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is according to the Russian press agency Interfax. Hurriyet reports that French President Nicolas Sarkozy will attempt to cement a cease-fire.

“On the basis of your report, I have taken the decision to bring to an end the operation to force the Georgian authorities to peace,” Medvedev told Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, according to a Kremlin spokesman.

The ceasefire proposal is apparently the one drawn up by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was signed yesterday by Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili.

Not that this will return the region to normal. NATO’s eastward expansion has now finished, and American promises of friendship are not worth the paper they’re written on. As the Georgians have complained, why did the help the U.S. in Iraq if Washington turns its back on them when they come under attack? (That it appears that Saakashvili walked into a trap set by Russia is almost beside the point.) And could President Bush have appeared less concerned as he yukked it up with volleyball players in Beijing?

The world has entered a both a new period, but one that looks very familiar to those of us who remember the Cold War.

Not so fast, Wall Street Journal…

A Journal editorial picks up on Gina Chon’s non-scoop front-page story yesterday to crow that “Moqtada packs it in.” Well, as I pointed out yesterday, there was little in that story that was new, as Moqtada al-Sadr seemed to be more clarifying earlier instructions to his people than issuing new ones. He will still maintain secret cells to attack U.S. troops, for instance.

And does the Journal really want a kinder, gentler al-Sadr? Paradoxically, keeping him an angry, violent outsider will go a lot further toward advancing the Journal‘s goals in Iraq than having him as a peaceful political player. Because if he’s on the outside, his unruly Mahdi Army will continue to act like thugs, causing Iraqis to resent them and cling to the Maliki government (which the neo-cons at the Journal like.)

Having him inside the process, while decreasing the violence, gives him a chance to win at Maliki’s own game of politics, however. And if al-Sadr wins, does the Journal think an Iraq dominated by Shi’ite nationalists will be very friendly to U.S. interests? Perhaps it does, but I certainly don’t.

Like most Journal editorials, this is a grunt from the reptilian cortex, in line with the triumphalist bullying so common to that page.

‘So, three Sumerians walk into a bar…’

This is great, and a welcome respite from politics. Researchers have found the world’s oldest joke.

“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap,” goes the joke, which dates from 1900 B.C. and which originated in what is now southern Iraq.

Now, I like a good fart joke as much as the next guy, but WTF? Does anyone actually get that?

No matter. Iraqi humor even today doesn’t quite translate into English, a fact that often left me feeling damn confused over gruesome tales that my Iraqi friends found hilarious.

Many of modern day Iraqi jokes deal with the Dulaimi tribe from Anbar and tend to focus on their perceived backwardness and sheer yokelry. One I remembered went something like, “A Dulaimi drove his cousin to Baghdad. His cousin sat behind the driver so he could take over the wheel after he killed the first guy.” Much laughter would then ensue, and no, I still don’t get it.

But the real genius of Iraqi humor was poking fun at Saddam and making word plays. (Too bad puns don’t translate well.) ‘Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the sickly vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council who today may or may not be part of the neo-Ba’athist insurgency (what’s left of it) often came in for humiliating jokes. The craven yes-man was often pictured impersonating a woman, for some reason.

Ancient humor was no different, and megalomaniacal rulers have always been good for a laugh. Some of the ancient jokes the researchers found poked fun at Egyptian pharaohs.

“How do you entertain a bored pharaoh?” goes one. “Sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile — and urge the pharaoh to go fishing.”

Put your favorite Iraqi joke — not jokes about Iraqis, mind you — in the comments.

The Man in the Middle

McCain and Scheunemann during the campaign
McCain and Scheunemann during the campaign

Kudos to TPMMuckraker for looking into Randy Scheunemann’s record on Iraq. Scheunemann is Sen. John McCain‘s chief foreign policy strategist and a spokesman, but he’s also part of the Project for the New American Century, helped draft the letter making regime change on Iraq official U.S. policy after 1998, a man who saw WMDs under every Iraqi rock and pebble and, perhaps most damningly, a backer of Ahmad Chalabi, who did a pretty good job of snookering the U.S. into invading Iraq.

To me, all of Scheunemann’s sins pale compared to his backing of Chalabi, a man who not only lied to get the U.S. to take down his nemesis, Saddam Hussein, but might also have given information to the Iranians that America had cracked their codes. Chalabi denies any wrong doing.

Josh Marshall and his team complain that the mainstream media (whatever that is these days) have ignored or glossed over Scheunemann’s appalling track record. Usually, when a blog complains about this, it’s hooey, but a quick Google News search comes up with no major coverage of his past errors in judgment. And since this campaign seems to be focusing on the very pertinent question of who has the better judgment on Iraq, this seems a valid press inquiry. And if Obama is going to take heat for his advisors, shouldn’t McCain’s be under similar scrutiny?

Will the Journal silliness ever end?

Pewpoll.gifBret Stephens, a regular columnist for the Journal‘s op-ed page, finds four American-installed leaders in Iraq who back McCain. Imagine that. He then takes these four guys’ views and extrapolates them to include all Iraqis. And while he mentions a Pew poll that shows the overwhelming majority of the world supports Sen. Barack Obama, he notes that the poll skips Iraq. And he adds that he did no polling of his own. But speaking to four guys allows him to state: “Iraq, all but alone among the nations, will be praying for a McCain victory on the first Tuesday in November.” This column is so silly it’s barely worth mentioning, especially because there are dozens of polls that have been taken over the years that show Iraqis overwhelmingly despise the American presence and most of them want the troops out. (This is not to say that all Iraqis want the Americans to leave. I’m very aware some want the troops to stick around.) Anyway, two can play at this game. According to a Facebook poll I found using a simple Google search, 62% of Iraqis prefer Obama as president. Now, obviously, my “research” is about as scientific at Stephens’s. Which is to say, not at all. But then, I’m not desperately trying to preach to the choir.

Your attention, please?

DUBAI — Greetings all… As is obvious, I’ve not been writing much. There are some good reasons for that. First and foremost, I’ve been busy. Since November of last year, I’ve

  • Gotten married
  • Moved to Dubai
  • Taken on a new job
  • And started a new phase in my career.

Married life is great, and very comfortable. Mrs. Back-to-Iraq seems to like it, too, but to be honest, I got the better end of the deal. (That’s usually the case, no?)
Dubai is less comfortable. It’s a strange place, an odd cross between Singapore and Las Vegas without the former’s clean efficiency and the latter’s cheerful and unapologetic sinfulness. Its love of bureaucracy, lack of any concept of customer service and no real planning makes it much less of an ideal place than people should believe. It’s also damn expensive, and the era of good living, cheap housing and fat salaries is long over.

But the new job is a good one. I’m editing Trends Magazine, one of the region’s top business and political magazines, if I do say so myself. My bosses are really devoted to the idea of journalism — a rarity in this part of the world — and are willing to take on big powers here, like real estate companies. (They’re all connected to the government, which has any number of vaguely defined “red lines” that journalists cross — or even approach — at risk to their jobs and residency visas.)

But the big news is that I actually won’t be staying here. I’ve been awarded the Knight Stanford Fellowship, one of America’s big journalism fellowships, to go study the feasibility of various business models for online news. I plan to concentrate on foreign correspondence, naturally. was a big part of getting me into the fellowship and I look forward to nine months at Stanford University with excitement and humility.

So my four years in the Middle East seem to be coming to an end, for now. I’ll be back in Dubai in July 2009, armed with experience, contacts and new language skills. Let’s hope Back-to-Iraq can be revitalized with the experience.