Friday, May 30, 2008

A Report on Chinese Urban Youth

Yesterday was my first real tangle with Chinese urban youth; and I was in for a surprise. After a lovely dinner with some coworkers, we went out to a pretty-upscale bar in the district I live in. It started out quietly, but filled up around 10PM. It almost resembled a club--the floor was full of kids standing (we had managed to get a table early), and college-age girls jumped up onto tables and started dancing with a very western flair. Their hair was largely western, as were their clothes. The music played was American hip hop, and these kids knew it much better than I do (not that I know it well at all in the first place), and were quite into it. Tonight, we went to a shopping district and saw more Chinese kids running around malls, karaoke bars, etc.

Glitz in Western Beijing

And, of Course, the Glam

A Road Packed with Clubs and Bars

Upscale Shopping in Western Beijing

My feelings of how fun all of this was aside, the experience was enlightening.

The conclusions to be drawn from this are simple; consumerism is a bigger part of most kids' lives than nationalism. Not to say that nationalism isn't huge--the kids have certainly bought into the "<3 China" campaign launched since the earthquake in Sichuan, and have a great deal of pride in China, but so do other countries, certainly, like the US. But in their daily lives, among friends, pop culture has a greater hold (again, like the US). These wealthy urban kids--China's future--are happily swimming in China's new consumer culture; they enjoy spending, dressing up, going out. They also keep telling me they think that China's relationship with the US is extremely important and valuable, and polls of these kids agree wholeheartedly.

So ultimately, I am beginning to believe that, despite rather rampant nationalism, these kids aren't going to become the foundation of an angry, aggressive China. They'll be the foundation of a more tame, money-obsessed one. And as far as foreign policy goes, that's great.

Shifting Gears Again

Loyal Fans,

I'll be moving my daily-grind-in-China stuff over to another blog to keep this one true to its roots--not that I won't be posting here, I will, I just won't be mixing topics.

The new Blog is called The People's Daily, and it's at I haven't posted yet, but will continue my (so-far) nightly postings today (not that I promise they'll continue).

Day Four: Routine Sets In

I am finally starting to feel a sense of routine about my day. I got up, did some pushups, showered, got dressed, went to work. I finally solved the darn problem with my bank account. Fucking irritating. I also paid my first month's rent. I've been asked "nicely" for second month's rent by Monday. I hope my withdrawal limit doesn't stop that from happening.

I got a glance at a gym in my apartment today. I need to look into that tomorrow. Hopefully it's already paid for (have I mentioned my apartment is swank?).

Work today was less exciting than yesterday, but not by much. The boss likes my initiative. The coworkers are calling me "Laoshi" (teacher) when they ask me questions about English. I have other skills, but acute knowledge of English is the one skill I have that everyone in the office lacks completely, so It's what I'm defaulting to as an intern, but the boss is going to try hard to get me into some real research next week. Not bad.

Went out for dinner again tonight, and I've found I can eat almost anything that's not made of some strange fish, and like it. I can even handle the spicy stuff, with enough Qingdao at my side to wash it down. I worry I might get fat here. I really thought I was going to end up losing weight. But we shall see.

I picked up a phone today! So I can make phone calls now. It's not even that expensive to call the US. So get your requests in now.

I'm getting a better sense of the Chaoyang area of Beijing (which, anywhere outside of China, would be a city on its own). At least, I've got a very good sense for having only been here four days. My Chinese is getting marginally better, too. Work is forcing me to think in Chinese for hours at a time, 5 days a week. Super good for me. Surprisingly, since I can get by on the street with short, simple phrases, I'm not learning much, except to listen to people who don't have crisp, educated accents.

But I'm learning about the culture, quite a bit. I'm learning the Chinese perspective; what nationalism means here, what money means, what consumerism looks like. I'm learning how the Chinese people view government, view Taiwan, view Tibet, view America and the West in general. And I can say for sure that most Westerners have it pretty wrong. I'm starting to realize I haven't had it quite right, despite a lot of studying. But coworkers and friends have been surprisingly happy to share their very frank opinions with me, and have been happy to listen to mine (though I tend to be more pro-China than the average American).

My Chinese friends have been genuinely confused when I mentioned that China scares a lot of Americans, though they understand better when I talk about the American perspective on Taiwan, on self-determinism/human rights and Tibet, and how overseas Chinese tend to deal with any doubts as to China's pristine perfection, etc. It's a relationship that needs a lot of healing, but one that can be healed through lots of talking. Good thing we're in the information age.

Anyway, I think I'm starting to learn exactly what I intended to. Everyone around me is eager to both teach me and learn themselves, so it's been a mind-bogglingly productive start to my adventure in Beijing. More pictures to come in later posts, promise.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Day Three: Work Begins

I'm keeping this short, but Horizon is awesome. The place is hard-working yet laid back... the team is very self-motivated. Everyone was thrilled to meet me, and I got quite a few invitations to go to dinner, bars, and karaoke--many of which I plan to take up.

I am the only white guy in the 400-person office. Most people speak English only a bit better than I speak Chinese, though my manager (Dr. Feng, who has enough charisma to knock an elephant out) speaks English better than I do. The team seems pretty excited to have an American intern--I got bombarded with MSN messages today, and lost a few hours to it.

I was worried at first that the language barrier would be a problem. It does make things difficult, but everyone's willing to be patient, and they all want me to learn better Chinese. In return, I'm helping run the daily English Corner at lunch, and will be giving 90-minute English lessons every Thursday. I'm doing a lot of English proofreading, and even translating. I'll be meeting with some clients and working on some research for an American company I can't name, but my hands are going to get pretty dirty pretty quickly.

I'm feeling a lot better about my Chinese. I am speaking rather brokenly to my coworkers, but they're so scared about speaking English to a real American that they sympathize. I sat through a 90-minute training presentation about, well, giving presentations, and it was all in Chinese. Dr. Feng asked me to summarize the presentation to him afterwards, and said I did okay. "Keep talking and listening," he said in Chinese. I'm not getting paid, but I'm there to learn about the language and culture. He knew that, and my colleagues know it. So it looks like work is going to be a great time.

Finally, I went out with Sarah and Kim tonight (both MIT students) to a great Hunan-style restaurant, where we got some rather spicy stuff. We all had our noses running and eyes watering by the end of it, it was great. My known territory in Beijing is getting bigger by the day; I'm hoping to know most of it pretty well by the time I get out of here.

And now, bed; it's too late already.

I found out today that on street-corners, 24oz. bottles of Qingdao beer cost 3RMB--that's less than 50 cents. I'm in heaven.

Also, the sky was blue today. It was kindof weird.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Day Two: New Challenges, New Friends

Today I woke up at 7:20, refreshed, before my alarm went off. Though now, I'm tired. With work tomorrow, I may call it an early night.

I hit a few bumps in the road today. I had to move 3 floors straight up after a few hours of trying to figure out why my darn electricity wasn't working--turns out, nobody's quite sure. That was irritating.

I am currently pirating internet from a company next-door, and the signal is terrible. My contract as written never specified internet, and so I'm getting what I paid for. I also realized that the Chinese government has specifically blacklisted my blog (as you can tell, I can still access the blogger dashboard to post, but I cannot read my own posts); my views are apparently too dangerous for the Chinese people. Frankly, I'm a bit flattered they care.

I also think my bank account is frozen due to suspicious withdrawals in Beijing (all of which are my own, of course). I tried calling, but I need to call between 9 and 5, EST. That is irritating. I still have no money, but I think it will get dealt with. Luckily, my housing agent is pretty patient with me.

After that fiasco, my housing agent (Jack--his English is pretty good) and I had lunch, and I invited him to go drinking, and he invited me to karaoke with his girlfriend. I made a new friend, and he and I are teaching each other a lot about our home countries. He's still helping me deal with the apartment thing.

Jack and I went to the Police Station so I could register myself there. I found out I have to have my paperwork (passport, visa, temporary residency permit) on me at all times, and it could be inspected at any point, for any reason. I suppose this is not that surprising. I just hope I don't lose it. At the police station, I stood for about 40 minutes at the "foreign registry" line behind 5 clearly Chinese-ethnicity people that all spoke Chinese. It was a bit confusing. Jack didn't know what to make of it, either.

I made another friend today, a guy named Ali, a student at Cambridge University, from Taipei, with a thick British accent. He was inspecting the room I moved into (I'm only here temporarily; I will be booted back down to the 6th floor in a few days) with his dad; clearly loaded, and has a cell phone for each Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei, and London. Nice guy; also invited me to go drinking.

I have continued to find that my Chinese listening skills are just deplorable. I have to keep asking people to repeat, and more slowly--but I am finding my replies surprisingly quick and sharp.

After all this mess, I trekked north, to find my job. I went along the Third Ring Road, one of Beijing's five massive loop highways. The walk was hot, and my nose started bleeding suddenly--a very nice guy named David (it seems everyone with money in Beijing has an English name) jumped to my aide with a tissue, helped me find my way through the sprawl, and critiqued my Chinese (his assessment was that my pronunciation and grammar were great, my vocabulary okay, and my listening skills despicable.). He suggested I go to a park and find some old ladies and play Mahjong with them to practice. I think it's a good idea.

My journey to work was a broiling hour long. The very convenient subway line that could get me there in 15 minutes won't open until late June, and the traffic jam in the mornings is so bad that busses are useless (also, they're pickpocket havens). I may just have to suck it up and walk. But along the way, I made a few more observations:

1) Beijing is in a frenzy. I am guessing preparation for the Olympics has the entire city trying to put its best foot forward, but it's everywhere. I keep walking in the roads because all the sidewalks are being torn up and replaced. Sign-posts are being repainted everywhere. The police are in full deployment, probably to keep the streets clean. I don't see a single open counterfeit DVD dealer no matter where I go (compare this to any Chinatown you've been to).

2) Beijing has the most industrial smell I have smelt in a city. The whole place stinks so wonderfully, so subtlely, of gasoline fumes, of oil lubricants, of tar; the air is dusty and thick, the sky is glaringly bright and grey. There is no blue to be seen. Buildings are a gentle blur behind the smog-soup in the iron rice bowl of Beijing.

3) Soviet influence remains, however small. While Soviet factories have been torn down, hotels built for Soviet experts and diplomats from the glory days of the Sino-Soviet alliance still standing. I have not found the grandest of Soviet hotels yet, but I did find one: the Kempinksi. It is typically collectivist bland and uniform, yet oppressive. The Soviets were truly masters of crushing every facet of the individual human spirit, even in architecture.

4) The Chinese love the news. It's everywhere on TV, and most of it is covering the Sichuan earthquake, all the time.

5) Communism is out, capital-Fascism is in. In the news, in advertisements, in everything, the State is using every opportunity to promote itself, and to garner popular support. The Sichuan earthquake and the Beijing Olympics are focal points for how hard the government is working for China, how awesome the PLA is, etc. All the banks (all of them) are owned by the government, and a few people have told me that this is why they're so terrible. Same with healthcare, all transporation, all television and most news, resource companies (mining, oil, energy, etc). The companies act almost-freely (it's not a planned economy), but in the interest of the State. Government and business leaders are the same people. China's youth, while not the revolutionaries of the Cultural Revolution, are happy to shrug and let the state do its will--all for China. That said, it's a pretty cool form of capital-Fascism--people mostly don't notice it, and mostly go about their lives, worrying about dating, fashion, sports. It's a passive Fascism, one that lets people indulge in the privileges that the government bestows upon them.

6) Ed Steinfeld might be the most famous American in Beijing. A Political Science professor at MIT, Prof. Steinfeld knows most of the Horizon folks, and 2 people on the street that excitedly proclaimed "Ni renshi Edward Steinfeld ma?" when I told them I was an MIT student. It was rather terrifying.

Anyway, I trekked forth and finally found my place of employ. I had some surprisingly competent conversations with very helpful servicefolk that ended up pointing me up to the 7th floor, where Horizon stood. I said "hi" at the counter, told them I'd be there tomorrow, and realized that the 8 people I talked to on Horizon's floor all spoke Chinese. I am now rather terrified that my summer employment may be with people that know no English. Here's to hoping.

On my way home, I decided to take a different route. I went through the Embassy district, and bought some groceries (though I am specifically still lacking in meat, a wok, a wooden spoon for stir-frying, and cooking oil. I don't know why the heck the grocery store I went to lacked these things). The Sanlitun Embassy district was pretty modest, and seems to be composed mostly of pre-fabbed two-story buildings for the "little guys--" Somalia, Portugal, Honduras were all there. The US, Australian, UK, Japanese, Korean embassies have their own homes.

I have made a short list of must-go places for me while in Beijing, that I suppose I will start getting to come this Saturday: Beijing Dagong Kaoya Dian (Lonely Planet says it's some of the best Peking Duck in the city), Tiananmen Square (and the Great Hall of the People--I plan to be there on June 4th to let myself be disappointed into realizing that the Chinese youth will be there flying kites instead of demonstrating), Chaoyang Park, Jingshan Park (where I will play Mahjong and do Taichi with some old folks), the Temple of Heaven, The Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, some Peking Opera, the Great Wall, and hutongs (literally "alleyways," but they're enclaves of old-school Chinese street-side markets). That's it so far.

We'll see if these plans actually come to fruition. My Chinese is bad enough that those that know English are insisting on speaking it to me, and I am going to struggle to really immerse myself unless I have an epiphany of sorts. I am still a bit scared, but hopefully, going to work and meeting people I'll actually know will help me stay busy, and learning.

I can't afford to stop, not for a minute. Throughout the centuries, there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their vision. I'm armed with a bit of the local language, but besides that, I'm living the dream, right there.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Day One: Groping for China

Note: This post has few pictures, but I will add more to later posts. Gotta take them in the daytime.


I touched down in Beijing at 2:05PM, local time (that's 2:05AM, Boston time), and stepped out to admire the truly epic color, haziness, and smell of Beijing's famous smog. Through customs, Chinese government workers stood with high discipline and pride at their small contribution to making China greater. I realized I was in the first rising Great Power that has existed since World War II. And they know it.

My taxi ride was awkward--I could talk to the poor guy, but not understand a word he was saying... his accent was far too thick. We got lost, and ended up in a traffic jam in the new Airport Expressway, built exactly for the Olympics. The ironic and terrible thing was that, sitting on our expressway for 30 minutes, unmoving, we stared longingly at the six or seven expressways that were completely empty of cars, wondering why we could not use them. China may have some transportation issues come early August. Newly-planted trees were lined up in awkwardly straight and forced rows along the dirt on either side of the high-rise highway, and great construction vehicles still steamed along underneath.

As we approached Beijing proper, I noticed a few things about it.
1) It's big. Much, much bigger than the maps seem to imply. It makes Boston look like a speck (it is).
2) It's tall. Skyscrapers are everywhere. Apartments rising above 30 stories seems to be the norm. The Prudential can't hold a candle to literally hundreds of the towers in this city.
3) The traffic is horrid. I was terrified, and my driver was even being reasonable. The whole place makes Boston drivers look angelic.

After getting lost, we found my apartment, which is actually quite nice. I do have almost all the furnishings I thought I would, though as you have already read, I'm at a public computer. Nonetheless, I'll be quite physically comfortable in the apartment.

But as I upacked, I was gripped by some culture shock, and some fear of leaving. I was pretty sure I would be more comfortable staying inside, reading... luckily, the lack of internet made my usual time-wasting mechanic unavailable.

I decided to go ahead and gander around, at least get a sense of my territory. As night fell, I started to wander.

Turns out, I'm in a both very wealthy, and very authentically Chinese part of the city. One of Lonely Planet's top Beijing bars is at the bottom of the tower I live in (it's called Beer Mania). There is a hospital within a block's walking distance. To my north, jazz clubs, night clubs, and bars. To my south, restaurants, and lots of small convenience shops. To my east, more of the same, but with small side-streets with oodles people selling food out of tiny windows with no price tags and no conception of English--while I was too terrified to touch this food on day one, I found it my favorite place to visit so far. I got dinner at a place where again, nobody spoke English, and I awkwardly ordered by gesturing at pictures and placing the appropriate Chinese sentence structure around a lot of "Zheige!" ("This!")

I learned a few more things along my travel this evening.

1) I am terrible at Chinese. Really horrid. Especially listening. I know just enough to do almost nothing. I am not sure how this happened. Part of my problem is other people's accents... I just can't manage to successfully listen to what they have to say. This results in many one-sided conversations.

2) There are cranes everywhere. I mean it. This city is going to be a lot bigger than it even already is in a few years. I saw a single construction site with 12 cranes, all of which were bigger than the crane used for the MIT Media Lab extension.

3) Everyone smokes and spits. I actually got spat on tonight by someone.

4) Children are the same everywhere. Though the Chinse give them some more leeway in their ability to be-loud-and-obnoxious in public. I like it.

5) Americans are not the only people with bad beer taste. At the bars, the big, proud signs outside said "Budweiser," "Miller Lite," and "Carlsberg." Nothing exciting.

6) Alcohol and Cigarettes are eveywhere. Any street you go to, there will be little shops dedicated to just these two commodities. Most covenience stores seem to have them rather prominently displayed.

7) Beijing is a spectacular dichotomy. Most of what I walked through looked like some of the nicer neighborhoods of Boston, but even within Chaoyang, these little alleyways jutted out with very low-income commercial stuff. Lots of people still ride around on three-wheeled bicycles with small motors, carrying loads-too-wide strapped down with bungees.

8) As a white man, you are not immune to local traffic etiquette. And the local etiquette seems to be "might makes right-of-way." I've already almost gotten run over, but mostly by bicyclists.

This whole experience is already terrifying--I am looking forward to seeing people that will become a social network... Horizon employees, other MIT students.

I still have yet to find a darn grocery store. I need groceries.

But as much as feeling like a tourist is kindof fun, we can't forget, kids, that we're on a mission. Today is day one in my journey to heal the Sino-American relationship.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Foggofwar is Shifting Gears

Twelve days until I depart for China, and I think I'll be spending more time posting about the trip than foreign policy stuff... though I'll try to keep it relevant. If I can get to a computer, I'll try to post about the 19th anniversary of June 4th, and security/PR stuff for the Olympics. I should have a pretty good first-hand view of China in overdrive, and I want to share it with all of you.

There are likely to be lots of good pictures of me saluting Chairman Mao, posing in Red Guard garb, and doing other obscene anti-American stuff my grandparents would kill me if they saw. I think they read this, though.

Please post comments as to places I should go, food I should eat, things I should buy, pictures I should take. Plan right now includes Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Guilin, Xi'an.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Some Good News: Sino-Japanese Thaw Begins

China and Japan, since the second world war, have had relations ranging anywhere from cool to ice cold. Chinese citizens have an extremely poor opinion of Japan, and occasionally boycott Japanese goods when the Japanese make tactless symbolic moves, like former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi's frequent visits to a Shinto shrine housing convicted war criminals of World War II, or Japan's 2005 bid for a UN Security Council seat. Japan has had great trouble trying to reconcile its 20th Century history with China and Korea, and both states have long seen Japan with great skepticism. Despite large and growing trade between Japan and China, the two states have simply been unable to get along.

But recently, Chinese and Japanese leaders have begun a (hopefully) long-term effort to try and improve their relationship. The move was made possible by the replacement of Prime Minister Abe with Fukuda , but was by the initiative of Chinese President Hu, who recently visited Japan in the first Presidential-level visit in over a decade to deliver a gift of pandas, play ping-pong with Fukuda, and conduct more serious diplomatic talk. The results, while infantile, have been excellent.

China's opinion of Japan has been extremely sour since World War II--certainly, there was good reason for it to be for some time; Japan's invasion of China was brutal and violent, and left millions of Chinese dead. But why has Japan not been able to reconcile this past, unlike Germany, who gets along quite well with its European neighbors? Part of the problem has been Japan's tendency to hide under the umbrella of the US-Japan Alliance; without strong and independent foreign policy stances, Japan has not been able to convincingly show a significant and lasting change away from its older imperial tendencies. Furthermore, controversial history books in some Japanese schools have a strikingly unapologetic stance on the second world war, and right-wing shrines (and other organizations) have glorified the history of many rather bad folks in the second world war, like Tojo. These issues have kept its East Asian neighbors skeptical, worried, and bitter--especially China.

But good relations between these countries is simply a good idea. High trade without strong diplomatic relations risks a souring (like if one industry's workers start losing jobs due to low tariffs), and certainly, both countries would benefit from lower military spending to hedge against each other. And so, Fukada and Hu finally managed to make a visit to talk turkey.

Hu has the advantage of a state-run media system, which has begun to drop good words about Japan into daily newspapers--Chinese popular sentiment towards Japan may improve if this campaign continues. But more importantly, China and Japan signed a joint Communique that looks to strengthen economic and political ties with lowering trade barriers, increasing diplomatic exchange volume, and increasing efforts for exchange student access. In addition, the Chinese and Japanese will work together to improve relations with North Korea.

Other East Asian states are seeing this visit with great hope for a warmer and more prosperous East Asia. Asia Times is cautiously acknowledging a "warm spring," and The Australian is boldly supporting that the visit is a "historic point." A Sino-Japanese friendship is likely to improve confidence in the future stability of East Asia, and encourage high-risk ventures like gas and oil mining in the South China Sea, and increased cross-national investment.

This thaw is particularly useful for Japan, whose economy has struggled for the past 10 years after decades of "miracle" economics. If it can shed its "pariah" status in East Asia and increase trade, investment, and joint development, it might be able to get its economy back on track and take off along with its East Asian neighbors.

For the United States, the friendship is likely to make it less relevant in East Asian affairs, and is likely to give China a greater mandate to lead. It seems East Asian states are, one by one, lining up behind China's growing leadership, and placing their bets that China of the future is going to continue to encourage peace, regional prosperity, and non-intervention in domestic affairs. If East Asia is right, these bets are going to pay off big in the next few decades, likely turning East Asia into the world's foremost industrial powerhouse.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The War for the Soul of the Middle East

Gunbattles have broken out in Beirut over the past few days; pro-government Sunni and pro-Hezbollah Shiite militants and partisans have come to clash, and just today, Hezbollah fighters routed pro-Government forces and took over the capital, Beirut. Lebanon is spiraling into full-fledged civil war, with Hezbollah at the advantage, and Syria or Israel may try to intervene.

Sadr City has been through a slow, draining fight for weeks as US troops have been executing an Iraqi government crackdown on militants; despite former claims of peace and cooperation, Shiite Cleric Al-Sadr is refusing to lay down arms, and his troops have laced Sadr City with guards and roadside bombs.

Iran is blaming the United States and the United Kingdom for a bomb that exploded in a Mosque that killed 14 last month. Iran has further claimed that it refuses to negotiate in its right to nuclear power, regardless of the G5 offer for a deal.

Al-Qaeda has made a chilling comeback in Afghanistan, operating from a squishy home base in the northwest of a defiant and weak Pakistan.

In happier news, Syria and Israel have admitted to secret peace talks, possibly being mediated by Turkey--Israel may be returning the Golan heights, in hopes of Syria supporting Israel's right to exist with only slightly altered borders.

But conflict in the Middle East is growing ever-more complex. Relations are highly polarized along ethno-sectarian lines, along political-religious lines; the struggle between factions along skew axes for the future of the Middle East may mean conflict long beyond--and largely irrelevant to--large-scale US presence in the region.

Below, a religious distribution of the Middle East:

One of the primary axes on which rival factions in the Middle East see each other is religious; largely, whether they are Sunni or Shiite. Within Iraq, most of the carnage between 2005 and 2007 was caused by religious-sectarian warfare, in Lebanon, Shiites are rallying behind Hezbollah forces while the Sunnis continue to back the government. Iran's interest in Iraq lies largely in ensuring Shiite dominance in the country after the United States leaves--and perhaps finding a new ally.

But the factioning is certainly more complex than religious. There are ethnic divides--largely between Arabs and Kurds or Turks and Kurds in the region--but these disputes are surprisingly straight-forward. Religious extremist terrorists certainly make up one unified faction across the Middle East; but Iranian-American power politics complicates matters significantly.

Iranian Faction: Made up of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, many Shiite militias in Iraq, (in part) Oman, and (in part) Hamas. Strangely enough, Syria is a vast-majority Sunni country, and Hamas is almost entirely a Sunni party, but both have aligned with Iran due to power politics and security interests. Iranian weapons--including guided missiles--are prominent in the Hezbollah arsenal that it is unleashing upon government forces; Iran's continued funding of Shiite factions in both Lebanon and Iraq has the US administration convinced Iran will go to expensive and violent ends to keep pro-Western governments out of the region, and raise as many pro-Iranian ones as possible. I am inclined to agree. It should be noted that this faction makes up the vast majority of anti-Israeli forces, and Iran could try to coordinate disruption of Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas simultaneously.

US Faction: Made up of the United States, Israel, pro-government Lebanese and Iraqi forces (including the Kurds and Awakened Sunnis), (in part) Turkey, (in part) Saudi Arabia, (in part) Jordan, (in part) Kuwait, pro-government Afghani forces. While the US lacks combat partners in the Middle East, many of its Arab friends are willing to both host US forces for protracted warfare, and have recently boycotted the Arab League convention in Syria due to its interventions in neighboring countries. The United States continues to hope that its presence can not only stabilize the region, but create a preponderance of Western-leaning states to counter Iran's power and pressure Iran regionally into behaving (namely, disarming its nuclear arsenal and cutting off its terror funding). The US faction looked like it was making great gains in late 2007, but 2008 has been a series of setbacks, ending most recently with the collapse of Lebanese stability and rule of law.

Religious Extremists: Mostly Al-Qaeda and associated factions. While their presence is waning in Iraq, it remains strong in northwest Pakistan, and their ability to operate in Afghanistan is frustrating US efforts to create a stable state. Their goals are clear: total US withdrawal from the region, collapse of pro-Western governments in place of Sharia ones, the destruction of Israel, and the death of one Westerner for every Muslim killed (ever, really) by a Westerner, from the crusades to the Iraq War. While they may have silent approval to disrupt Iraq from Iran, no current Middle Eastern government wants Al-Qaeda style militants within their borders, regardless of what power faction they are on.

Al-Qaeda is unlikely to win this struggle, but it will make life extremely difficult for both factions. It may even unite rival groups to some degree (as it has the religious factions within Iraq) if for no other reason than to attack Al-Qaeda. But US opportunities to flex its muscles in Iraq are on a short timescale--after the 2008 elections, pressure to withdraw troops is likely to reach a breaking point. If the United States withdraws without creating a Middle East that can individually resist Iranian intervention, Iran is likely to make great gains. The United States leadership is likely to sacrifice political success (in the form of low death tolls) for progress in routing Shiite militias (as it has done for the past few weeks), in the hopes that it will not face new political pressure to withdraw until the end of the year, and that destruction of these militias will leave Iran much more impotent in Iraq.

Israel may take Hezbollah's hostile takeover of Beirut as an opportunity to settle a score that many analysts have predicted has been years in the making--since the Summer 2006 war. If Hezbollah becomes the government-by-coup of Lebanon, then Israel gains the legitimacy it needs to attack the country as a whole if Hezbollah forces attack its citizens. If it declares war on the government of Lebanon, it is not as likely to try and "hold back" as it did last time, but unleash the full fury of its forces for the first time since the 1970's.

For now, the war for the soul of the Middle East remains in stalemate.