Focal Points Blog

Cultures of War

From 1989-1995, I worked at IPS as a diplomatic and military historian assisting former IPS Fellow Gar Alperovitz with a research project that culminated in the book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (New York: Knopf, 1995). Recently, C-SPAN asked me to interview John Dower, MIT Professor Emeritus of History about his new book Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq which was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Sahno Tree interviews John DowerNot only does his book explore the parallels between the bombing of Hiroshima and the attacks of 9/11, but he also finds striking similarities between Japan’s reckless decision to attack the United States and George W. Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq. Analyzing conflicts that claimed so many lives and caused such immense suffering, Dower finds similar mistakes and assumptions repeated just decades apart. His book distills those hard won lessons in the hope that they will not be repeated again. Cultures of War should be mandatory reading in our military academies and in government.

You can watch the C-SPAN interview here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/Dower

“Scam Fatigue” May Save Singh’s Hide

Manmohan Singh“‘People are struck by the magnitude of the scandal,’ said political analyst Praful Bidwai. ‘This is pretty outrageous.’”

. . . writes Jason Overdorf at Global Post about the corruption cases that have been rocking India. Wikipedia explains that what’s known as the 2G spectrum “involved officials in the government of India illegally undercharging mobile telephony companies for frequency allocation licenses, which they would use to create 2G [second generation] subscriptions for cell phones. The shortfall between the money collected and the money which the law mandated to be collected is 1,76,379 crore rupees or USD 39 billion.”

Meanwhile, writes Overdorf, “Every day, new revelations hit the headlines from leaked transcripts of tapped telephone conversations between an influential lobbyist and top politicians, billionaire tycoons and (formerly) respected journalists.” While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh isn’t implicated, “the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party [the right-wing, vehemently Hindu BJP -- RW] . . . said he was asleep at the switch.” However Singh’s National Congress party retaliated via its “general secretary, Digvijay Singh, in the role of hatchet man as he defended the 40-year-old prime minister-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi.”

Embracing Rahul’s trepidations about “Hindu terror” — WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cables revealed that Rahul told the U.S. ambassador that he feared Hindu terrorist groups more than Islamic ones — the general secretary attacked the BJP’s Hindu nationalist parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). And by amplifying Rahul’s rhetoric — [Digvijay Singh] apparently sought to shift the focus from corruption to communalism, the word India uses to discuss its religious divides.

“The RSS in the garb of its nationalist ideology is targeting Muslims the same way Nazis targeted Jews in the 1930s,” Digvijay told plenary attendees.

Meanwhile, will the 2G spectrum scam bring down the Manmohan Singh administration? Overdorf again:

. . . in scam central, questions remain whether corruption allegations alone — or even a smoking gun — is enough to engineer a change in government. One need look no further than the last election results to see that Indians — who by and large believe that all their politicians are equally corrupt — suffer from scam fatigue.

We can commiserate. Americans too have an almost endless capacity to overlook corruption.

New START Closer to Breaking Out of the Blocks

The ratification vote for New START is finally at hand today or tomorrow and the Obama administration may have finally garnered enough supporters. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Aides to Senate supporters of the treaty said that of the nine Republican members they need, they have four committed supporters: Sen. Richard Lugar (IN), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH). Scott Brown of Massachusetts announced Monday he would also vote to ratify.

They considered as likely or possible votes are Sen. Bob Corker (TN), Johnny Isakson (GA), and Lisa Murkowski (AL). Sen. Bob Bennett (UT) Sen. Saxby Chambliss (GA) Thad Cochran (MS) are considered maybes.

Once again, though, we feel a responsibility to point out what New START isn’t: a true disarmament treaty. In a recent commentary for the Western States Legal Foundation (despite its name, an anti-nuclear group), Andrew Lichterman sums up this perspective as well as anyone:

The principal purported benefits of new START, given that it requires only marginal arms reductions over seven years, mainly fall into two areas: resumption of on-the-ground verification measures, and re-establishment of a negotiating framework for future arms reductions. The concessions extracted by the weapons establishment in anticipation of ratification, in contrast, will have immediate and tangible effects, beginning with increases in weapons budgets and accelerated construction of new nuclear weapons facilities. These increased commitments of resources are intended to sustain a nuclear arsenal of civilization destroying size for decades to come, and will further entrench interests that constitute long-term structural impediments to disarmament.

One would think that the START deal, with a treaty constituting at best very small arms reductions coming at the cost of material and policy measures that are explicitly designed to push any irreversible commitment to disarmament off many years into the future, would spark considerable debate within the U.S. — arms control and disarmament community. With the struggle over treaty ratification in its final stages, however, most U.S. arms control and disarmament organizations have obediently lined up behind the Obama administration, parroting its talking points and saying little or nothing about the budget increases and policy promises provided to the nuclear weapons establishment.

The last sentence is what, in part, Lichterman means by the subtitle of his paper “The START Treaty and Disarmament.” It reads: “a Dilemma in Search of a Debate.” More on that:

For months now, what little public discussion there is in the United States about arms control and disarmament has been dominated by treaty negotiations between the Obama administration and a formidable adversary. . . . The adversary is not Russia (those negotiations concluded last spring); it is the U.S. military-industrial complex and its representatives in the United States Senate.

To this observer the saddest irony may be that the Republicans who are finally agreeing to vote to ratify may not have needed the $86 billion which the Obama administration has indicated that it will designate for the nuclear-weapons industry. The Republican senator to which the money was directed to win their votes, led by Jon Kyl and Mitch McConnell, remain unmoved.

WikiLeaks XXIV: Security for Radioactive Materials in Yemen Goes From Bad to Nonexistent

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-fourth in the series.

A brief, but alarming, dispatch from the US embassy in Sana’a emerged this weekend, outlining the lax conditions under which radioactive materials are guarded in Yemen. According to a cable written earlier this year and published by the Guardian on Sunday afternoon, “The lone security guard standing watch at Yemen‘s main radioactive materials storage facility was removed from his post on December 30, 2009, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX.” In his place? A single “closed-circuit television security camera [which] broke six months ago and was never fixed.”

While it is unclear who, exactly, XXXXXXXXXXXX might be, they were sufficiently worried about the unguarded storage facility to plead with the United States “to help convince the [government of Yemen] to remove all materials from the country until they can be better secured, or immediately improve security measures at the NAEC facility.” The cable reports that the unidentified source warned US authorities that “Very little now stands between the bad guys and Yemen’s nuclear material.”

The facility under question held

various radioactive materials, small amounts of which are used by local universities for agricultural research, by a Sana’a hospital, and by international oilfield services companies for well-logging equipment spread out across the country.

While these stockpiles would be useless to those seeking to build a nuclear bomb, they are nonetheless of interest to mischief makers keen to cause large scale disaster. Speaking with the Guardian, Harvard University’s Matthew Bunn points out that materials such as those discussed in the cable

could make a very nasty dirty bomb capable of contaminating a wide area… enough to make a mess that would cost tens of billions of dollars in cleanup costs and economic disruption, with all sorts of controversy over how clean is clean, how will people go back there.

The Yemen cable offer at least the second disturbing report in recent weeks of potentially harmful materials being exposed to possible capture by non-state actors. In late November, the Atlantic‘s Max Fisher detailed a previously unreported US-Russian standoff with Libya during the closing weeks of 2009. Fisher’s reporting was later backed up by cables released by WikiLeaks (and very strangely reported as fresh news by the New York Times a week later with absolutely zero acknowledgment of the Atlantic‘s scoop). As the north African country prepared to send its final shipment of weapons-grade nuclear material to Russia as part of a major disarmament agreement with Washington, Tripoli suddenly reversed course, refusing to allow the batch of nuclear goods leave Libyan territory.

As Fisher reports, the standoff

left the seven five-ton casks [of nuclear material] out in the open and under light guard, vulnerable to theft by the al-Qaeda factions that still operate in the region or by any rogue government that learned of their presence.

For one month and one day, U.S. and Russian diplomats negotiated with Libya for the uranium to be released and flown out of the country. At the same time, engineers from both countries worked to secure the nuclear material from theft or leakage, two serious dangers that became more likely the longer the casks sat exposed. On December 21, Libya finally allowed a Russian plane to remove the casks, ending Libya’s nuclear weapons program and with it the low-grade game of nuclear blackmail they had been playing.

Details of the crisis itself are the stuff of a West Wing episode. After concluding a deal with the United States to disarm its fledgling nuclear program, all seemed to be progressing well.

For six years, Libyan officials complied with U.S.-led international efforts to dismantle the program. In November of last year, when officials without notice halted the dismantling process, the Libyans were down to their last 5.2 kilograms–still enough to make a bomb. A few days later, the U.S. embassy was contacted by Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi. The son of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Saif is widely seen as Libya’s great hope for reform should he win out against his more conservative brother, Mutassim, and succeed their father. But on that day, Saif told the U.S. ambassador to Libya that he was “fed up” with the U.S. He warned, “Slowly, slowly, we are moving backward rather than forward.”

Saif, according to the State Department cables reviewed by The Atlantic, told U.S. representatives that he could “fix” the nuclear crisis–if the U.S. met his demands. His list included military equipment, assistance in building a nuclear medical facility, relaxation of trade embargoes against Libya, and a sum of money that he implied would be in the tens of millions of dollars. But Saif made clear that what he sought most was respect. He suggested that the United States and Libya end their decades of enmity with a grand gesture of détente, even recommending that the senior Qaddafi and President Obama hold a joint summit. The incongruity of demanding friendship from the U.S. while simultaneously blackmailing it with the risk of loose nuclear materials does not appear to have bothered Saif. He concluded with a bit of American vernacular, telling the ambassador, “The ball is in your court.”

As the Libyans played out their hardball strategy of nuclear brinkmanship, the highly vulnerable casks of nuclear material sat exposed.

At one point, according to the documents, U.S. officials were alarmed to find only a single armed guard at the nuclear facility, and “they did not know if [his gun] was loaded.” Perhaps most worryingly, the casks had been left near the facility’s large loading crane. U.S. officials worried about the security of the casks. It would have been easy for anyone with a gun and a truck to drive up, overpower the guard, use the crane to load the casks onto the truck, and drive off into the vast Libyan dessert.

Even if the uranium was not stolen, Russian nuclear engineers warned of the likelihood that the casks would eventually crack, leaking radiation and causing a biological and environmental disaster. But as the meetings between U.S. and Libyan officials stretched on, it was not clear when, if ever, Libya would consent to removing the casks.

At the end of the day, it appears that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton successfully interceded to diffuse the crisis by simply making a call to Libya’s foreign minister. While details of the conversation are not known, Fisher reports that the US embassy in Tripoli requested that Clinton deliver “a general statement of commitment to the relationship [with Libya], a commitment to work with the Libyans to move the relationship ahead.” Whatever was said, worked. A week later, the materials arrived safely in Russia where they presumably were treated and ultimately destroyed.

In the case of the Yemen stockpile, the more recent embassy cable notes that Yemen’s “Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told the Ambassador on January 7 that no radioactive material was currently stored in Sana’a and that all ‘radioactive waste’ was shipped to Syria.” Cold comfort to be sure, especially in light of other WikiLeaks documents—for starters, see here, here, and here—demonstrating the ease with which dangerous materials can be had by just about anyone who wants them.

South Korea: Seeking Reunification by Live Fire?

If you look closely at the AP photograph of the South Korean marines conducting a drill on Yeonpyoeong island, you can see that their yellow headbands read tongil. That’s the Korean word for reunification. With the South Korean government conducting another round of live-fire artillery drills in contested waters near North Korea, the message of the headband is unambiguous. Rather than waiting patiently for reunification to take place through negotiations, the Lee Myoung-bak administration wants to accelerate the process, by force if necessary.

When South Korea conducted live-fire drills in the area last month, North Korea responded by shelling Yeonpyeong island, killing two soldiers and two civilians. The South shelled back. This time around, the South disregarded pleas by China and Russia to postpone its military exercise. On Monday, it conducted 90 minutes of artillery shelling from Yeonpyeong island as South Korean jet fighters flew overhead. Despite initial threats to retaliate, North Korea has so far refrained from responding to what it has called a “despicable military provocation.”

South Korea’s resolve to go through with the test was simply a refusal to be bullied, argued many analysts, including former South Korean foreign minister Han Sung-Joo. “If each North Korean threat tied our hands, we would become hostage to their threats,” he commented.

As the yellow headbands indicate, however, the current South Korean government is not just sending a message of deterrence. The Lee Myung-bak government, like its recent predecessors, sees an opportunity to break the stalemate on the peninsula. But unlike either the Kim Dae-Jung or Roh Moo-Hyun administration, Lee doesn’t see a long, slow process of negotiating reunification.

When Lee looks north, he sees an ailing dictator, a struggling economy, and a desperate national-security apparatus. The Wikileaks documents, meanwhile, suggested that China was losing patience with its North Korean ally. All of this contributed to last week’s statement by the South Korean president that “unification is drawing near.” The South Korean government is putting money into preparing for regime collapse in the north in much the way the Kim and Roh governments put money into engaging the North economically and politically.

The U.S. government has generally backed the South Korean government’s more aggressive posture. Twenty U.S. soldiers participated in the recent live-fire drill. Joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises in these contested wars have ratcheted up the tensions. And at the United Nations, the United States has pushed for a condemnation of North Korea’s November 23 artillery attack to be included in a statement otherwise designed to calm the waters. China has blocked consensus, sensibly pointing out that such a statement would only roil the waters more.

At the same time, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson just returned from Pyongyang with the outlines of a possible deal that could bring the disputing parties back to the negotiating table. North Korea is willing to allow back UN nuclear inspectors, send fuel rods out of the country, and establish a hotline between the two Koreas and the United States. While in Pyongyang, Richardson urged the North Korean leadership to show “maximum restraint” in dealing with South Korea’s drills.

Today North Korea followed Richardson’s advice. Now it’s the South Korean and U.S. turn to show maximum restraint. By following up on the offer on the table, all sides can step away from the precipice and go back to pursuing reunification the old-fashioned way: by talking, not fighting.

Why Would U.S. Urge U.N. to Allow Iraq a Nuclear Energy Program?

From the Department of You-Can’t-Make-This-Stuff-Up . . . in the National Interest Paul Pillar reports that on Wednesday, “At the urging of the United States, the United Nations Security Council passed . . . a resolution permitting Iraq to have a civilian nuclear program [which] also lifted prohibitions on exports to Iraq of certain materials that could be used to develop nuclear and other unconventional weapons.”

Even more worrisome, he writes: “The Council’s action represented a retreat from its earlier position that it would not lift the nuclear restrictions unless Baghdad accepted . . . more intrusive international inspections.”

He then points out how ironic the “Council’s action in affirming Iraq’s right to a peaceful nuclear program is . . . in view of the obsessive campaign to deny the country on its eastern border the same right.”

Hmm, what country could that be? (Actually the campaign isn’t to deny Iran a peaceful nuclear program, but nuclear arms.) Further irony accrues to the United States “in view of the obsessive campaign” on its part to ferret out imaginary nuclear weapons in Iraq before the War. Pillar himself was a former CIA official who later criticized the Bush administration for adjusting intelligence (or the lack thereof) to justify the Iraq War.

He elaborates:

This is one more demonstration of the hypocrisy and inconsistency that characterize much nonproliferation policy, especially as it relates to the Middle East. [It's not so much] a concern about nuclear-armed regimes throwing their weight around and handling neighbors roughly; if it were, then we ought to be paying far more attention than we do to . . . Israel’s sizable nuclear arsenal. [In fact, what] ostensibly is a concern about [nuclear weapons is] much more a concern about the . . . regimes that might get those weapons.

A further irony [the third here -- not that we're counting -- RW] is that one of the most commonly voiced worries about Iran possibly acquiring a nuclear weapon is that it might touch off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with Arab countries trying to acquire their own nuclear weapons. In any inventory of candidates to wage an arms race with Iran, Iraq—which fought a highly destructive war with Iran in the 1980s—should be at or near the top of the list. [Especially since] Iraq is a very unstable country, to the point of substantial and seemingly unending violence.

Why then would Washington’s seek to facilitate an Iraqi nuclear energy program?

The current administration has an interest in showing that Iraq is not failing on its watch and that it will be safe for U.S. troops to complete their withdrawal by the end of 2011.

Nuclear Disarmament: First Line of Defense Against the Destruction of the Environment

Nuclear wasteland(Pictured: The proverbial nuclear wasteland)

In recent years, when applied to the United States, the term “exceptionalism” has escalated from its usual first meaning — uncommon — to its second — extraordinary. Meanwhile, when it comes to the planet on which we live, Americans and the rest of its inhabitants may not exactly be earth exceptionalists, but we are earth-centric. Since the earth is our only frame of reference, we’re alternately resigned to how its history repeats itself or we’re wracking our brains, trying to figure out how to navigate the next millennium as if nothing like it had ever been done before — by anyone, anywhere in the universe.

As one disposed, by nature, to believe in alien life forms, I often ask myself about the various obstacles with which we’re confronted or those of our own making: How do they do they surmount them on other planets? For example, does anyone really believe that a civilization elsewhere that may be a millennium — or a million of them — older than ours bases its economy on capitalism and free markets? It doesn’t take much imagination to see that dwindling resources require a managed economy, at the least, to parcel out what’s left.

Recently, however, the pendulum of my perspective has begun to swing back to earth-centric. Recent thinking places planets that just might host human life forms at the far reaches of the universe. In other words, prospects for a community of planets inhabited with humanoids, in our corner of the universe anyway, may be slim and none. In fact, it may be a millennium before such planets are even visible via telescopes. Last spring, at Astrobiology Magazine, Dan Choi wrote:

Although our telescopes will likely become good enough to detect signs of life on exoplanets [planets revolving around another sun besides ours. -- RW] within the next 100 years, it would probably take many centuries before we could ever get a good look at the aliens.

Signs of life may be all we see because what’s required is not the most powerful telescope of all time, but a series of telescopes.

To begin imaging even giant organisms 30 feet long and wide on the closest putative exoplanet [which is] 4.37 light years away, the elements making up a telescope array would have to cover a distance roughly 400,000 miles wide. . . . The area required to collect even one photon [the basic unit of light -- RW] a year in light reflected off such a planet is some 60 miles wide.

In other words, it’s likely that we’re more alone than I had thought. The logical response then is to value the planet for its uniqueness as if it were a priceless museum piece which we pledge to keep out of harm’s way.

It’s difficult to believe that many still view the earth as a raw resource to be developed, when, in fact, such a pursuit comes perilously close to rifling the pockets of a corpse. Unless, that is, they’re convinced that once the earth is used up, they can colonize another planets. (Mining aside, some scientists maintain that Mars and other planets may be arable.)

More likely, environmental concerns are tuned out because of an inability to stomach the messengers — whether progressives in general or scientists who hold no truck with creationism. But it’s folly to believe that when the earth finally keels over and expires, colonization and migration can be ramped up on demand.

In the end, when it comes to planets conducive to the care and feeding of advanced life forms, earth is likely a space oasis. Which should serve to firm up one’s commitment to nuclear disarmament. For when it comes to ravaging the earth, a nuclear attack accelerates the entropy of global warming many times over. The number of dead may result in a suddenly sustainable population, but that’s a poor consolation prize for the physical and psychic trauma inflicted on the survivors. Complete with a radioactive landscape and nuclear winter as well, nuclear war can send the planet on a fast track to hell.

Cynical Maneuvering by Democratic Leaders Quashes Recognition of a Palestinian State

Though outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has insisted that there just isn’t enough time for the lame duck Democratic-controlled Congress to consider much of the progressive legislation on the dock prior to the Republican takeover early next month, she and other Democratic leaders did find time last Wednesday to pass a resolution condemning efforts by Palestinian moderates to seek recognition of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The Oslo accords were signed in 1993 with the vision of Israel’s eventual withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. This was an enormous compromise on the Palestinian side, given that such a state would leave them with only 22% of their historic homeland, the rest of which became the state of Israel in 1948. Right-wing Israeli politician Benyamin Netanyahu, then in opposition, denounced the agreement and promised to derail it. As prime minister in the late 1990s and again since his coming to office again in last year’s election, he has been doing his best to accomplish this by colonizing large swathes of the West Bank with illegal settlements for Israeli Jews which he insists must be annexed into an expanded Israel. The moderate Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, by contrast, has been working toward the implementation of the Oslo Accords, offering strict security guarantees for Israel in return for an end to the occupation.

Nevertheless, the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives has insisted that it is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who are responsible for the breakdown in the peace talks. Recognizing that talks are pointless while Israel’s colonization drive continues and noting the Obama administration’s ongoing refusal to exercise its extensive leverage to force Israel to stop building new settlements, the Palestinians have understandably refused to return to direct negotiations until Israel suspends its colonization drive, which has been condemned as illegal by the UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and virtually the entire international community. However, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), whom the Democrats put in charge of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East , insisted during last Wednesday’s debate, that “Israel has shown time and again that it is ready” to make peace and that Palestinians’ objections to Israelis colonizing their land were “overwrought.”

To help put pressure on Israel and the United States to move the peace process forward, the Palestine Authority has been soliciting international recognition of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. During the past couple of weeks, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Norway have done just that. This is what prompted the House resolution, introduced by House Foreign Affairs committee chairman Howard Berman (D-CA), who serves as the House Democrats’ chief foreign policy spokesman.

The Democratic leadership in the House has long argued that Israel’s attacks on civilian population centers in Gaza Strip and elsewhere are legitimate self-defense and that it is the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who are making peace impossible. Pelosi, for example, insists that the conflict is about “the fundamental right of Israel to exist” and that it is “absolute nonsense” to claim it has anything do to with the Israeli occupation. One would think, then, that this Palestinian effort to achieve recognition for a state which explicitly defines the borders as exclusively those occupied by Israel in the June 1967 war and not any part of Israel itself would be welcomed. But, to the Democrats, Palestinians asking for even just 22% of Palestine is too much. Rising in support of last Wednesday’s resolution, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) called it “preposterous” that a Palestinian state should be created based on the requirements of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which from Presidents Lyndon Johnson through George H.W. Bush had been recognized as the basis of Middle East peace, which called for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories in return for security guarantees. Similarly, Rep. Berman threatened the Palestine Authority by saying, “If they persist in pursuing a unilateralist path . . . there will be consequences.”

Congress has correctly condemned violence by extremist Palestinian extremist groups like Hamas, yet when the Palestine Authority tries to advance their freedom through nonviolent means, such as these diplomatic initiatives, the Democrats are just as quick to condemn them as well. Indeed, earlier in their careers, Berman, Ackerman, Engel, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders were on record opposing any kind of Palestinian statehood, changing their view reluctantly only years later. However, they insist that whatever kind of Palestinian “state” can only be on what the Israeli occupiers are willing to allow them to have, even if all that is left is a series of small non-contiguous cantons surrounded by annexed Israeli settlement blocs. Taking any initiative to advance their independence separate from what the rightist Israeli government can agree to, according to the Democratic leadership, is completely unacceptable.

One can only think of how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” noted that the greatest obstacle to the advance of freedom is one who “paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”

Recognizing that most ordinary Democrats oppose the Israeli occupation and would likely put pressure on their representatives to vote against the resolution, Berman and Pelosi put the vote on last Wednesday’s agenda before the text was even made available to other House members. This made it impossible to have any hearings, give any time for constituents to express their opposition, or even allow the Obama administration to offer an opinion. Also fearing opposition from Democratic House members who might be concerned at rousing the anger of their liberal constituents, Berman and Pelosi refused to have roll call vote and instead brought it up under a procedure known as “suspension of the rules,” a procedure normally used for non-controversial measure like honoring a recently-deceased eminent figure. Doing it this way not only limits debate and makes it impossible to attach amendments, it allows a resolution to pass by a non-recorded voice vote and to automatically be recorded as “unanimous.” Only ten representatives were on the floor when the resolution was passed by “unanimous consent.”

This kind of cynical maneuvering by the Democratic Party leadership is unfortunately quite typical of how they have handled resolutions dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during their four years in the majority. It raises the question as to whether the Republicans can do any worse.

Unfortunately, the answer is probably yes. While a growing minority of Democratic House members are finally listening to their liberal constituents’ concerns about U.S. backing for Israeli occupation, colonization and repression, the Republicans – outside of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) and a few others of a more libertarian orientation – are solidly aligned with the rightist Israeli government. We can only expect more such resolutions in the coming Congress.

WikiLeaks XXIII: Torture Cables Undermine India’s Efforts to Inhabit Higher Ethical Ground Than China

Kashmir lake(Pictured: Kashmir in simpler times.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twenty-third in the series.

As the balance of world power shifts east, and the battle for regional supremacy begins to take shape between India and China, New Delhi has positioned itself against the Eastphalian realpolitik of Beijing by promoting its commitment to liberal values as the world’s largest democracy.

But as a new cable released by WikiLeaks demonstrates, its liberal bona fides aren’t quite as impeccable as India may wish the world to believe. As an embassy dispatch dating from April 2005 makes clear, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) concluded that the Indian government condoned torture in its efforts to gain control of Kashmir.

According to ICRC officials briefing American diplomats, the organization had

made 177 visits to detention centers in J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] and elsewhere (primarily the Northeast) between 2002-2004, meeting with 1491 detainees, 1296 of which were private interviews. XXXXXXXXXXXX considered this group a representative sample of detainees in Kashmir, but stressed that they had not been allowed access to all detainees. In 852 cases, detainees reported what ICRC refers to as “IT” (ill-treatment): 171 persons were beaten, the remaining 681 subjected to one or more of six forms of torture: electricity (498 cases), suspension from ceiling (381), “roller” (a round metal object put on the thighs of sitting person, which prison personnel then sit on, crushing muscles — 294); stretching (legs split 180 degrees — 181), water (various forms — 234), or sexual (302). Numbers add up to more than 681, as many detainees were subjected to more than one form of IT. ICRC stressed that all the branches of the security forces used these forms of IT and torture.

Strangely, New Delhi did not respond to the allegations with denials of wrongdoing, but argued that this dismal state of affairs amounted to progress. The unidentified source told embassy staff that government representatives answered the charges by noting

that the human rights situation in Kashmir is “much better than it was in the 1990s,” a view he also agreed with. Security forces no longer roused entire villages in the middle of the night and detained inhabitants indiscriminately, as they had as recently as the late 1990s. There is “more openness from medical doctors and the police,” who have conceded that 95 percent of the information on particular cases is accurate. Ten years ago, there were some 300 detention centers; now there are “a lot fewer,” he stated.

Whether this particular rubric for measuring human rights progress in India should be accepted or not, the cable notes that persistent problems remain. Among other things,

There is a regular and widespread use of IT and torture by the security forces during interrogation; — This always takes place in the presence of officers; — ICRC has raised these issues with the GOI for more than 10 years; — Because practice continues, ICRC is forced to conclude that GOI condones torture; — Dialogue on prison conditions is OK, dialogue on treatment of detainees is not; — Security forces were rougher on detainees in the past; — Detainees were rarely militants (they are routinely killed), but persons connected to or believed to have information about the insurgency; — ICRC has never obtained access to the “Cargo Building,” the most notorious detention center in Srinagar; and — Current practices continue because “security forces need promotions,” while for militants, “the insurgency has become a business.”

At the same time, the cable reports that New Delhi had made important advancements in cleaning up their spotty record on torture in recent years. In particular, the ICRC had

conducted more than 300 sessions with SF on IHL in Kashmir and elsewhere, which have touched an estimated 20,000 junior grade officers in one way or another. Discussions are underway for further sessions with officers at the headquarters of the Southern Command in Pune (Maharashtra) and Northern Command in Udhampur (J&K).

And perhaps more importantly, the issue of military discipline had taken center stage in the minds of senior policy makers, prompting the convening of at least one conference on the subject

following reports that Defense Minister Mukherjee was disturbed by continued reports of human rights violations by the security forces. Addressing the conference, Mukherkee observed that “we must realize that while dealing with insurgents, we are operating within our own territory and allegations of human rights violations will not only sully the image of the army, but also reduce our effectiveness in tackling militancy.” As part of his “velvet glove, iron fist” approach, Singh has repeatedly stipulated that his officers should use “minimum force” and avoid “collateral damage” in their units in order to reverse declining standards in discipline.

Nevertheless, as another cable demonstrates two years later, the torture issue continued to surface as a key roadblock to closer, more effective bilateral relations between Washington and New Delhi. Lamenting the various issues hampering US-Indian cooperation and coordination on issues of counter-terrorism, the dispatch focuses on

India’s lack of capacity to manage these issues bureaucratically…[The country’s] police and security forces are overworked and hampered by bad police practices, including the wide-spread use of torture in interrogations, rampant corruption, poor training, and a general inability to conduct solid forensic investigations. India’s most elite security forces also regularly cut corners to avoid working through India’s lagging justice system, which has approximately 13 judges per million people. Thus Indian police officials often do not respond to our requests for information about attacks or our offers of support because they are covering up poor practices, rather than rejecting our help outright.

These cables appear at an inconvenient moment for the Indian government, which this week dispatched a high-profile group to Kashmir on the final leg of its fact-finding mission designed to help resolve the decades-old conflict in the region. While the latest WikiLeaks revelations will likely have no effect on the group’s ten-day trip to Kashmir, they certainly will complicate New Delhi’s hopes at being seen as a positive force for peace in the region. More so if even its strongest backer, the United States, is perceived to be uncomfortable with India’s approach to handling “terrorist” sympathizers.

It’s True: Sweden Was Too Good to Be True

The news of two explosions in the heart of Stockholm – according to Yahoo!News the first suicide bombing in Sweden’s history – shook not only Sweden, but the whole Nordic region. Already fingers are pointing at Islamic radicals as the culprits, and this might very well be the case, although it helps not to jump to conclusions. Remember how the rush to judgment in Oklahoma City played out.

Even before all the facts are in, the right-center Swedish government has tried to use the event in a somewhat cynical fashion. Before the bombing, in November, Sweden had announced it would start pulling some of its 530 troops in Afghanistan out of the country, a process to be completed by 2014. Immediately after the bombing, the Swedish government changed tactics and instead is now trying to increase its military presence there.

News of the bombing triggered a flow of personal memories of the country. I never lived there, but in the late 1980s traveled through Sweden repeatedly and got to know the different strands of its peace movement as they existed in those days rather well.

Was deeply impressed with the place; so was Mikhail Gorbachev, who openly admitted that the goal of his failed effort of reforming Soviet Communism was to render the USSR ‘more like Sweden’. And then there were the fair number of Vietnam era draft dodgers from the U.S. who made Sweden their permanent home, many of whom never looked back or returned stateside.

Communism – both as an ideology and as ‘really existing socialism’ – might have been collapsing as any kind of viable alternative model to capitalism, but at least there was Swedish social democracy – never really the ‘socialism’ that rightwing idiots in the USA claimed it was – but a state administered market economy with a strong social component. Yes, there was social distance between the rich and poor in Sweden, but more at the 10:1 rather than the 500:1 levels it was already approaching in the USA shortly thereafter. Probably not a model for the USA in some ways – it’s hard to compare a culturally diversified country of 270 million with a largely culturally homogeneous nation of 9 or so million – but that said, we here could learn a lot from the Swedes and how they set up their society.

I have fond memories of the place… among them

  • Attending the first open rally in Europe of a recently freed Nelson Mandela in Stockholm in March of 1990. Mandela chose Sweden for his European ‘entrée’ in gratitude for what was an extremely potent solidarity movement, not only in Sweden but throughout the Nordic countries, to end apartheid. Watching what I understood as the pure joy on the faces of so many blond and blue eyed Swedes at Mandela’s presence in their midst and the obvious love they felt for this black former guerilla fighter, is the last time I can remember tears coming to my eyes.
  • There was also the city of Orebro, in central Sweden, where I had a long talk with the mayor about the city’s program to integrate immigrants from Africa – as I recall they were from Somalia and Ethiopia – into the life of the city. There were programs like this all over the country – two years language training in Swedish, job training, and ‘cultural training’ (how to get on a bus, what to expect at the social services offices, etc., some of the not-so-obvious cultural rules and taboos of the Swedes). I wondered why other countries did not offer such thoughtful programs in cultural adaptation (or assimilation).
  • Then there was my friend Thorstein, who was arrested for hunting and killing a deer in ‘the Kings Forest’, the private preserve of Sweden’s King. It’s a country where virtually all forest land is public. I think Thorstein did a few months in jail for that; but he could not abide by the idea that a forest in Sweden was private property and thus Thorstein was willing to pay the price. In earlier times he would have been executed.

All that is more than 20 years ago. Haven’t been back since. But the memories linger.

A more sober view…

But even then, I suspected that the picture was too good to be true. This was after all a capitalist country with all the wonders and slime that entails. There had to be some rot, some decadence, somewhere hidden beneath those great social programs, its fine educational system, excellent public transportation and comprehensive healthcare system, although I was never there long enough to probe it.

During the Cold War, Sweden was often viewed as a neutral country. This was a bit exaggerated. Economically it was integrated first into what was called EFTA – the European Free Trade Association and then after the collapse of Communism, entered the European Union in 1995.

While it never had the same kind of security agreements with the USSR as did its neighbor (and for 750+ years, former colony, Finland) the fact that Sweden did not join NATO opened up opportunities for trade with Eastern Europe and the USSR that kept the country somewhat recession-proof during the 1970s when the Western European economies were floundering. If the country genuinely welcomed immigrants from Third World countries (much more receptive than neighboring Finland), it was not without some typical resentment and, as the decades wore on, increasing xenophobia.

And while Sweden undoubtedly played a calming alternative role to U.S. Cold War rhetoric, it should not be forgotten that throughout that period, arms manufacturing (Saab, Bofors) was among the country’s most successful industries and Sweden was selling arms up the kazoo to whoever would buy them, especially Third World dictatorships. More or less along the same right-wing militarist lines, while Sweden was ‘neutral’ during World War 2, and was able to avoid combat to its great credit, it was forced to strike a deal with the devil and deliver – on the threat of possible Nazi invasion – all the iron ore that Hitler wanted.

Furthermore, while ‘neutral’ it is well known that there were many, many Nazi sympathizers in the country, some who volunteered to take up arms for the Third Reich; others who, after Hitler’s defeat, never really changed their allegiance, but simply hid their collection of Nazi swastikas in a closet or basement to view on special occasions when other wacko fascists tend to come out of the word work, like Hitler’s birthday.

Steig Larsson: He Hated Nazis

Even in the best of times, corporate fraud, hidden Nazi connections, ties between intelligence agencies, extreme rightwing racist hate groups and Eastern European drug rings were all there in Sweden lurking not that far beneath the surface waiting for the moment when they could take their pictures of Hitler out of the drawer. After the Soviet Union and Eastern European Communism had the nerve to collapse, leaving the West, for a moment anyway, without an enemy, the rightwing crazies in Sweden (and other Nordic countries) gained confidence and became bolder.

Two Swedish writers, Stieg Larsson (of the now famous ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo’ series) and Henning Mankell, scratched below the surface of Sweden’s social democratic calm exterior, put the dots together, suggesting the rightwing forces so long and so patiently lurking in the shadows were about to have a coming-out party.

It is likely that Larsson, who died of a heart attack just before his trilogy was published, would have had a field day with recent revelations of Sweden’s Queen Silvia’s Nazi family connections. The whole of Larsson’s professional life was dedicated to exposing and condemning the country’s hidden ultra right tendencies.

For years, Sweden’s Queen Silvia, of German origin, had repeatedly denied any connection between her family and the Nazis. Then earlier this month the lid blew off that particular fantasy. It turns out that her father, Walter Sommerlath, had joined the Nazi party in early 1934, and worked for a time for a company, Acos-Burderus-Do-Brasil,Ltda that used slave labor. Then in 1939, Sommerlath moved to Berlin and took over a company called Wechsler and Hennig, which he bought from a Jewish manufacturer, one Efim Wechsler, for a pittance of its value, which was typical of the times.

Signs have long been in the making.

With the shift in the strategic balance of power at the end of the Cold War, Sweden moved closer to the E.U. and the United States both economically and politically. Although not yet formally integrated into NATO, it participates in what is called NATO’s ‘Partners For Peace’ program, which has included a series of joint maneuvers in the Baltic Sea and more recently, the sending of 500 Swedish combat troops to Afghanistan, a gesture which would have been unheard of two decades ago

While Sweden has long had an anti-immigrant ultra right party, it is gaining in strength. Just three months ago, the misnamed ‘Swedish Democracy’ gained an unprecedented 20 seats in the Sweden’s single assembly. Party members used to openly wear swastikas on their jackets, but have changed the party symbol to Sweden’s purple anemone to put a bit of make up on the corpse that is their political legacy in the country.

Larsson, Assange and WikiLeaks

Had he lived, there is little doubt that Stieg Larsson would be on the front lines defending Julian Assage’s commitment to releasing US State Department communiques to the general public through WikiLeaks. For Larsson and Assange shared many qualities. Larsson understood that ‘the need for secrecy’ essentially provided a veil for corporate and state crimes and that the kind of shallow jingo-istic hysteria which seems to be permeating the U.S. body politic at this moment is merely an excuse to take censorship here to yet another level.

Larsson would have smiled at the corruption, hypocrisy, and deviousness in the extreme which the WikiLeaks cables reveal and understood that the attempt to villify whistleblowers is perhaps the greatest threat to democracy we now face. Secrecy is, after all, the greatest enemy of democracy, after ignorance — to which secrecy is the greatest weapon available to the plutocracy, even greater than propaganda. That’s why the US and other states are working so hard to shut down WikiLeaks, Assange, and other whistleblowers.

Larsson would have had a very cynical view of the Swedish government’s little pathetic maneuvers to have Assange arrested on sexual misconduct charges for failure to use a condom in his sexual relations with two Swedish women who related with some excitement, their encounters with Assange to friends on Twitter.

And he, Larsson would have understood that Swedish government acquiescence to Obama Administration pressure by pressing charges against Assange is nothing more than an admission to the degree to which Sweden has drifted into the U.S. foreign policy orbit these last years and that the famous ‘Swedish neutrality’ has long been a dead letter.

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