Focal Points Blog

Syria Just Might Be More Cooperative if Its Reactor Hadn’t Been Blown to Bits

Just “weeks after the International Atomic Energy Agency referred it [to the] U.N. Security Council,” reports George Jahn for the Associated Press, the Council plans to “discuss what to do about Syria’s refusal to cooperate with an investigation of its alleged secret nuclear activities.”

The IAEA has tried in vain since 2008 to follow up on strong evidence that a site in the Syrian desert, bombed in 2007 by Israeli warplanes, was a nearly finished reactor built with North Korea’s help. [It] expressed “serious concern” over “Syria’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA Director General’s repeated requests for access to additional information and locations.”

The Syrian government is scarcely deserving of sympathy. Just yesterday, it killed at least 14 protesters in Hama, adding more insult to injury in that city of infamy where, in 1982, President Bashir al-Assad’s father, then-President Hafez al-Assad, killed10,000 of its residents. But, whether or not Syria was seeking to develop nuclear weapons, it’s pretty cold, not to mention unrealistic, to ask a country that’s been bombed to cooperate with forces implicated in its bombing.

Of course, Syria was investigated before it was bombed, but obviously insufficiently if the West knows little about its alleged program. Not only that, but the bombing played havoc with evidence of said program.

Once again: bombing beget bombs begets bombing begets bombs.

The Persian Gulf: an “Aquatic Tinderbox”

At the Daily Beast, Michael Adler reports on an incident that took place in the Persian Gulf in April. It seems that a speedboat approached a British frigate that specializes in anti-submarine warfare.

The confrontation is captured in a video obtained by The Daily Beast. The video shows the speedboat powering parallel to the British warship HMS Iron Duke, which was patrolling off of Bahrain, and then turning directly towards it. Foghorns blaring, gunners on the Iron Duke then fired 100 yards to the side of the speedboat, causing its two crew members to duck and stop – they then wave at the British sailors as they speed away.

Adler speculates that this was a show of bravado by members of Iran’s “second navy,” that of the Revolutionary Guard, for the benefit of Western ships that Iran believes are violating its territorial waters. Such situations are difficult to catch before they spiral out of control because — never mind the “second navy” — communication between the navy of the Islamic Republic’s itself and the West is poor. Adler writes that U.S. officials said that “the incident only highlights their worry that the Gulf is an aquatic tinderbox.”

Allow me to muddle this mixed metaphor – wet v. dry – even further: In an aquatic tinderbox, it can’t be easy to keep your powder dry.*

*These days, especially in the United States, “keep your powder dry” is taken as an admoninition to stay calm. But, as William Safire wrote in the New York Times in 1997, “Oliver Cromwell, at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, is supposed to have told his Roundhead troops in that opening fight of the English civil war, ”Put your trust in God, my boys, but mind to keep your powder dry.” Of course, “when the powder is wet, the gun does not go off and the ammunition just sits there.” In fact, “The purpose of keeping powder dry is to be able to blaze away at the proper time. Thus, the phrase keep your powder dry is not limited to ”stay calm” but carries an implicit, most ominous threat: ‘and be prepared to blow the enemy’s head off at the propitious moment.'”

Libya: Will Air War Become an Occupation? (Part Two of a Series)

Libyan refugees(Pictured: Libyans seeking refuge in Tunisia.)

Part one here.

Obama: The U.S. Is Bombing Libya But This Isn’t War

The U.S. Congress’s informal protest over Obama’s sidestepping the War Powers Act concerning U.S. participation in the NATO bombing campaign in Libya included elements of the surreal. First, the president was charged with violating the law in what could be classified as an impeachable act; then in spite of this slap in the face, Congress, showing its more genuine colors, turned around and voted to approve the funding of the U.S. military action in Libya for the next year, suggesting that when all is said and done, the protest vote didn’t amount to much.

The Obama Administration’s response to the criticism was, if one thinks about it, something approaching pathetic. No, the Administration need not get congressional approval, the argument went, because the United States does not have troops ‘on the ground’ and without troops on the ground, the United States is not at war with Libya. It appears that Congress lamely accepted this logic.

Actually we do not know that the United States does not have troops on the ground. Are the Special Forces, whose mission is secret, involved? Are there U.S. military advisors there? But the bombing missions are not considered war. Al Qaeda did not have ‘troops on the ground’ when they sent hijacked civilian airliners careening into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which Congress labeled an act of war.

Using the cover of humanitarian interventionalism, – it seems to play well in Peoria – the United States has launched deadly airstrikes against the Libyan military; provided military aid to the Libyan rebels; pressed sanctions against Libya, froze its assets and called for the overthrow of Khadaffi. According to the Obama Administration and the president himself, these acts do not constitute ‘war’, thus the War Powers Act does not apply.

Looks like war. Tastes like war. Smells like war, but if Obama says it’s not war, I guess it just can’t be war.

But what if the United States and/or its NATO allies bring the air war down to the ground, and introduce ground troops? If they are American, will Obama seek the authorization as required under the War Powers Act, or when the time comes, will he seek another ‘out’ from Congressional scrutiny? Out of the question? Sending U.S. ground troops to Libya is going beyond a line the Obama Administration will not cross? Will what begins as humanitarian interventionalism morph into permanent U.S./NATO military bases in Libya?

German, Russian Press Worried the U.S./NATO Planning to Send Ground Troops to Libya

Articles are beginning to appear in German and Russian press suggesting that there might be plans afoot for NATO, through various means, to introduce ground troops in the fall into both Libya and Syria (Syrian situation will be treated in a forthcoming piece) to accelerate the overthrow of Khadaffi in Libya and to ‘support the process of reform’ in Syria. Both U.S. and NATO spokespeople deny these claims as do a number of Middle East experts asked to comment. Given recent history (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia), such denials should not be taken too seriously.

Still, the prospect of NATO ground troops in the Middle East cannot be written off so easily. Nor would it be especially surprising that the United States and its NATO allies would try to downplay or deny the allegations. The arguments against a more direct U.S. led military intervention are weighty enough. The U.S. is already overextended with its open military commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq; its less publicized activities in Yemen and Somalia. It cannot afford – either economically or politically – to open another military front at this time, especially with an upcoming presidential election. Recent surveys suggest that here in the United States, people are tiring of U.S. foreign military intervention and their spiraling costs, rightly associating the money wasted on war with funds that could be better used here at home. True enough.

But there are counter arguments of what the United States could gain strategically from upping the ante and sending in ground troops to Libya. Those who write the possibility off as frivolous do so at their own risk. There are those within the Obama Administration who argue for a kind of Shock Doctrine approach to the current Arab Revolt, i.e., to use the current crisis in the Middle East and North Africa to ultimately reshape and strengthen the U.S. position in the region. The United States might have been caught unprepared for the uprising, but it is still possible to manage it and even for the U.S. to come out ‘ahead’ strategically. The signs that more direct military intervention is at least on the drawing board are growing and with them, increased alarm in the international press.

Deutsche Welle ran a piece on June 27, 2011, ‘Rumors For U.S. Plans for Libya, Syria Cause Concern,’ detailing the extent of the U.S. naval build up in the Eastern Mediterranean and enhanced activity at Fort Hood, Texas where military preparations are allegedly gathering steam. The article also notes the changing nature of the NATO involvement, more ‘mission leap’ than mission creep.’ An article in the Russian press on June 29, 2011, entitled ‘Democracy By Order Of Washington,’ doesn’t give details but ends with a note of concern: “The next plan of the U.S is the redrawing of the maps of North Africa, the Middle and Near East. America is counting on the support of its most loyal allies.”

NATO’s role has already morphed from securing a no-fly zone over Libyan air space – a somewhat defensive step to defend civilians – to the more offensive operations of targeting Khadaffi’s forces, attempting to assassinate him by cruise missile attack and the introduction of French and British attack helicopters. The goal of the mission has also shifted from protecting civilians from attacks by pro-Khadaffi forces to regime change – a euphemism for overthrowing Khadaffi. But then once wars start, they tend to have their own merciless logic, don’t they?

Not many more conceptual shifts are needed to defend the introduction of ground troops, especially if the military stalemate on the ground in Libya continues. The longer Khadaffi can hold out, the more sympathy he has been able to garner, especially in Africa and the Middle East, complicating the NATO mission and its humanitarian cover. At a certain point, NATO might feel mounting pressure to move towards sending ground troops to break the stalemate, of course, under the cover of an increasingly cynical ‘humanitarian intervention’ excuse.

Ground Troops or Not, Will NATO Set up an “Enduring” Military Base in Libya?

Tactically, it would be much simpler for the United States and NATO if the Libyan rebels can overthrow Khadaffi without NATO sending troops but it might not be possible. So while it might be possible for NATO to avoid sending ground troops, the notion that it simply won’t happen or can’t happen is becoming less and less tenable – the opinions of experts aside. Whether Khadaffi is overthrown with or without sending NATO ground troops, the strategic implications of a ‘post Khadaffi’ Libya are beginning to come into focus.

Should Khadaffi’s rule be overthrown one way or another, any rebel government would be exceedingly weak and could not rule without support and ‘supervision’ by its NATO ‘allies’. The end game could, in many ways, resemble what has been played out in Iraq.

  • For starters, there will be a much tighter control of Libyan oil and the profits thereof by Western oil companies. That has already started. In the areas it controls, the rebels are already selling oil to Western companies at rock bottom prices to pay for arms and supplies. Western hold over Libyan oil will tighten. OPEC will be weaker, etc.
  • The likelihood of permanent NATO/US military presence – excuse me – ‘enduring’ military bases in Libya is a more than likely possibility regardless if ground troops are introduced or not. If NATO ground troops are introduced, there simply will be some pretext for them to stay, in the name of supporting the rebel government. There is the possibility that even if NATO ground troops are not necessary to overthrow Khadaffi the rebel government, almost certain to be shaky – will invite them in anyway as advisors in one capacity or another. Regardless the presence will be substantial.

Redrawing the Political Map of North Africa, Strategic Considerations

A NATO permanent military presence in Libya would in many ways be the beginning of redrawing the map of North Africa – as the Russian press piece cited above alleges. Such a presence would have a number of potentially profound consequences, among them:

  • Within Libyan context it would prevent, at all costs, any move to re-instate Khadaffi or those close to him to power. Such a presence would go far to insuring a ‘U.S.-friendly’ government would be ruling Libya and its sizeable amounts of low sulphur oil for a long time into the foreseeable future
  • The US and NATO would be in a position to monitor – if not manage – the Arab Revolt in its strongest manifestations – Tunisia and Egypt. Placed squarely between the two countries, a U.S. military presence in Libya could be easily mobilized to counter political developments Washington finds objectionable. This is not insignificant as, remember how, events that started in ‘little Tunisia’ exploded region wide and were for several month seemingly beyond U.S. influence
  • On a broader scale, a NATO military presence in Libya becomes an important springboard for the alliance in Africa, a continent whose strategic mineral resources, oil and gas cannot be underestimated. Competition for these resources between Europe and the USA on the one hand, India and China on the other will only intensify in the years to come. It is noteworthy (as mentioned in the first part of this series) that Khadaffi’s Libya sells 60% of its oil to China, a situation certain to change should Khadaffi be removed
  • There have been strong tensions inside NATO with the United States trying to internationalize security operations (under Washington’s direction), with Afghanistan being a kind of test case for taking the alliance outside of Europe and making into a worldwide police force. Although NATO reps claim the contrary, within the coalition there has been strong reservations and opposition to being forced to fight in Afghanistan. A NATO military base in Libya (or military ‘presence’) would give the alliance another lease on life outside of Europe and draw the Europeans into shouldering some of the costs of U.S. security strategy in Europe.

A peace movement in the United States split over the U.S./NATO intervention in Libya only makes it more likely for Washington to implement its program.

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Chavez’s Cult of Personality Creates Succession Problems

Chavez illVenezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s approach to power has been so centered on himself — la revolución soy yo — that it is unclear who can pick up the reins should Chávez either depart from this world or not be fit enough to seek re-election next year. Constitutionally, Venezuela does have a Vice President, Elías Jaua, and should Chávez not be able to finish his term, Jaua would become President to fill the remainder of the current term which runs through the end of 2012.

The bigger question is who can fill the immense void that Hugo Chávez’s departure from the scene creates? The Foreign Minister, Nicolás Maduro, is perhaps the second best known voice of the revolution internationally but there are other actors who perform more on the domestic stage like Cilia Flores, Aristóbulo Isturiz and Diosdado Cabello, all of whom are leaders of the PSUV (the United Socialist Party of Venezuela). All three currently serve in the National Assembly and have played leading roles in Venezuelan politics during the past 12 years. Flores is the President of the National Assembly (she’s also married to Nicolás Maduro). Isturiz, an academic by training and an Afro-Venezuelan, is the former Minister of Education. Cabello is a decades long Chávez confidant having served in the military with Chávez and who with Chávez participated in the failed coup against Carlos Andrés Perez in 1992. It was Cabello who regained control during the abortive 2002 coup that aimed to topple Chávez. After detaining the coup leaders, Cabello assumed the presidency briefly before restoring Chávez to power. Cabello has also served in the cabinet holding key ministries such as the Interior and Housing & Public Works. Meanwhile the youthful Jaua — he’s 42 — in addition to being the Vice President is also the Minister of Agriculture having previously headed the land expropriation program. Returning to Maduro, he is a former bus driver with a high school degree who worked his way up the trade union movement becoming a founder of the Movimiento V República, the Fifth Republic Movement, one of the main left-wing factions that supported Chávez in his political rehabilitation back in 1998.

None of these political actors are really popular on the level that Chávez is with the lower strata of Venezuelan society, many of whom genuinely worship Chávez. However with the Chávez regime very much a throwback to the political tradition of caudillismo that was prevalent in many, but not all, LATAM countries in the 19th and through the mid-20th century, Chávez simply never the prepared the groundwork for a successor. On more than one occasion, Chávez envisioned staying at the helm through 2025 or even 2031. Should Chávez not be able to continue in power, filling the vacuum should strenuously test the PSUV.

Beyond those mentioned above, there are others who might seek to fill Chávez’s shoes. Among these is the well-known former Vice President and the leading ideologue of the PSUV José Vicente Rangel. Rangel’s main drawback is that he is in his mid 80s though he remains quite active. Another aspirant might be the dashing, charismatic and fiery Tareck el Aissami, who serves as Minister of the Interior and Justice. He is of Syrian descent but he’s just 36 and not immune to controversy. Still el Aissami has worked his up way the ladders of chavismo rather quickly first running the youth movement of the party while still a university student. That earned him an appointment as the Deputy Director of the Identification and Immigration Directorate which handles the national identity card essential to virtually all legal and financial transactions which in turn led to his appointment as Vice Minister for Public Security. Perhaps the most formidable candidate is Energy and Oil Minister Rafael Ramírez Carreño who has been an important player in the PSUV party hierarchy for over a decade and who also, perhaps more importantly, happens to run PDVSA, the state oil company. By virtue of these posts he is well known abroad and his controlling position at the head of the still vast Venezuelan energy sector provides Ramírez Carreño an important platform that others lack. He comes with a fiefdom that remains a cash cow. Still the wild card is Adán Chávez, the President’s older brother who is currently the Governor of the state of Barinas.

It is quite possible that Chávez keeps it in the family and uses his “dedazo” to anoint his older sibling as his successor, a rare event in the annals of Latin American history. Dynastic regimes have arisen in Nicaragua and in Paraguay and most recently Cuba but even there Raúl Castro is preparing Cuba for a Castro-less future. The Venezuelan press seems to think, or perhaps better put, seems to hope that the heavyweight contender to lead a post-Chávez Venezuela is Rafael Ramírez Carreño. Perhaps tellingly however, the ones in Havana with Chávez are his brother, Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro and Henry Rangel Silva, the Armed Forces Chief.

In the interim, it seems that Venezuela will be governed from Havana. In remarks to a Colombian radio network on June 30th, Vice President Jaua indicated that Venezuelan policy makers and jurists were relying on an interpretation of the Venezuelan Constitution that permits the president to exercise his duties as head of state from abroad for a three-month period, which could then be extended for another three months. It is increasingly unlikely, however, that Chávez will return to Caracas in time for the country’s bicentennial on July 5. So much for the best laid schemes of mice and autocrats.

Charles Lemos writes on politics, international affairs and economics. He has a degree in history from Stanford University and a degree in International Finance from the University of California. He spent a decade on Wall Street working for Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs as an equity analyst. He currently blogs at MyDD.

Oil Transparency Would Start South Sudan Off on Right Foot

In the past months, the South Sudan government has been receiving substantial pressure from the international community to institute greater transparency in its oil industry. This involves full publication of royalties and oil revenue transactions between companies and oil extracting countries. Transparency helps ordinary citizens see exactly how their natural resources are being managed. It helps to prevent corruption, and assist with the avoidance of the resource curse, which is the depreciation of the extractive country’s currency.

Yet, does transparency ensure that South Sudan’s oil assets will be used for advancement? Will transparency initiatives take a back seat to precedence issues like security and violence?

Transparency does not guarantee that the government will use oil revenues for the benefit of the many; however, it will allow publication of oil revenues to be speculated and will hold the government accountable. Transparency is a stepping-stone to supportive governance. South Sudan has already been carrying out the necessary measures to guarantee it does not fall victim to the resource curse. South Sudan plans on becoming a candidate for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which increases transparency over payments by companies to governments and to government-linked entities; as well as transparency over revenues by those host country governments. Before South Sudan seeks candidacy for EITI, it first has to establish a Freedom of Information Law, which ensures public access to government records. Providentially, South Sudan has already composed such a proposal.

The world has already seen countries fall victim to absent transparency initiatives. The Republic of Equatorial Guinea is a prime example of a country that relies heavily upon its natural resources for revenue, but counterproductively spends funds much needed in the development of the country. According to EG Justice and Human Rights Watch, the Republic of Equatorial Guinea’s oil revenues makes the country’s per-capita wealth in 2010 equivalent to that of Germany, Japan, or the United Kingdom; however, poor governance and a lack of transparency has caused the country to remain poor and be ranked as the world’s 14th worst country on UNICEF 2009 indicator.

With the amount of pressure and press that South Sudan has been receiving, it should not be long before South Sudan implements the Freedom of Information Bill and applies for compliance under EITI. On June 16, 2011, the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights held a hearing concerning Africa’s newest nation. During the hearing, Dana L. Wilkins, who is the Sudan campaigner for Global Witness, talked about actions that the South Sudan and U.S. governments should take to ensure successful transparency and accountability of South Sudan’s oil revenue. Ninety-eight percent of the nation’s budget is derived from oil, and South Sudan is in line to be the most oil dependent country in the world when it officially becomes a country on July 9. Transparency initiatives are being heavily pushed from civil society watchdog organizations like Global Witness and Publish What You Pay.

Despite the possible long-term implementation, extractive regulations can benefit the country if enforced correctly. Global Witness’ recommendation of an independently monitored oil sector takes into account the possible mishandling and inaccuracy of production information. According to Wilkins, an office should be established separately from the Ministry of Energy and Mining that should report directly to the Legislative Assembly. This office’s sole responsibility would be to monitor and verify the petroleum sector. So that this office can acquire funding, be independent from the government and gain, the United States should provide this independent office with training and political support to make sure that it does an effective and efficient job of getting the necessary, accurate information published to the public.

Unfortunately, an office independent from the government to monitor and publish revenue data will not be enough to provide security for South Sudan. One essential piece to ensuring a strong nation is focus on sectors that the revenue will be able to benefit. Oil revenues should provide a platform for diversification of the region’s economy through development of the private sector and the agricultural sector. According to the Sudan Tribune, Riek Machar, the future vice president of South Sudan, appealed to international partners to prioritize agriculture and livestock in the private sector program. South Sudan has the most fertile land for agriculture in Africa, which he said could turn the region into a breadbasket on the continent, if not, the world.

A key partner for South Sudan on agricultural development is Malawi. The president of the Republic of Malawi, Bingu Wa Mutharika, proposed a partnership with developing nations, like Southern Sudan, to join together and focus on agriculture and food security as the key for growth. This proposal is known as the African Food Basket Project. This growth involves investments in transport infrastructures, energy development, and climate change mitigation through innovative interventions such as subsidies, increased budgetary allocations, private sector investments, and communication technology. Aside from private sector and agricultural development, South Sudan has already been attracting big time investors into their territory. The international brewery company, SAB Miller, established Southern Sudan Beverages Ltd and developed a brewery in Juba in 2009 with a $37 million dollar investment.

Transparency and accountability initiatives are vital. Yet, these initiatives will take a back seat to other priorities, such as security and violence. Transparency is not the only solution, but it is a major step in the direction of securing a government that earns the support of the South Sudan community.

Simone D’Abreu is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

The Narco-Terror War

(Excerpted from Right Web.)

The emerging consensus, even among the political establishment, is that the war on drugs is a costly failure. Drug production is surging in Latin America—as are the body counts—opium is a staple crop in Afghanistan despite the presence of tens of thousands of occupying troops, and anti-drug policies that have helped put hundreds of thousands of non-violent offenders behind bars have had no discernible impact on usage.

But for much of the rightwing establishment, drug prohibition is just like any other war: deserving of uncritical support even in the face of defeat.

Not so long ago the only folks try to link the war on terror and the war on drugs were antiwar critics and crusading reformers attempting to highlight the futility of both wars. Now the linkage is a staple of the neoconservative right’s stated rationale for maintaining a global U.S. military presence in a quixotic effort for perfect security.

The Emerging Elite Consensus

Many people trace the advent of the modern war on drugs to President Richard Nixon, who in a 1971 special message to Congress formally declared a war against illicit narcotics, stating his intention to launch a “full-scale attack on the problem of drug abuse in America.” And not just by locking up users, he said, but by striking at the “supply” side of the problem: the production “and trafficking in these drugs beyond our borders.”

Forty years and more than a trillion dollars later, the U.S. government’s war on drugs—which from South America to Central Asia has been more than mere metaphor—is widely considered by both policy experts and former presidents alike to be a dismal failure.

Read the rest at Right Web.

Shifting Targets: From Iran to Libya and Syria (Part 1)

U.S. military bases Iran(Pictured: Just a few of the U.S. military bases encircling Iran.)

Invasion of Iran on Hold

Several years ago, looking at the alignment of forces in the world – and the continued exaggerated role of the neo-conservatives in U.S. foreign policy combined with Netanyahu’s obsession with ‘taking out’ of Teheran – I feared a U.S. led military offensive against Iran was in the making, and predicted as much on several occasions.

At times the past few years the rhetoric became more heated, the U.S. naval presence in the Gulf increased and the political deadlock over Iran’s nuclear program seemed to all converge towards war. To the above, add the near open admission of U.S. Special Forces missions in Iran and funding of the Iran opposition. Bring them all together with the usual pre-war vilification (part merited, part not) of the Iranian domestic situation and there isn’t much of a conceptual jump to war. The Iranian government’s crushing the Iranian reform movement of 2009 – a prelude to the 2010-2011 Arab Revolt – only made matters worse, weakening domestic U.S. opposition here to military action.

It is impossible to predict the results of a U.S.-led attack on Iran, but the indications are that it would not be a cake walk. To the contrary:

1. It would probably further strengthen the authority and position of the mullahs, uniting the Iranian nation against the outside aggressor (as the threats have already done) and weakening the democratic movement in the country considerably.

2. There is nothing to indicate that invading Iran – whatever shape the military action might take – would result in the collapse of the government there as it did in Iraq in 2003. Without overstating the case – the 2009 protests revealed deep fissures within the country – still, the current government in Iran has considerable mass support. It is easy to forget one of the worst wars of the 20th century – the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988 when Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger and the like argued that supporting Iraq would result in the collapse of the Iranian regime. Didn’t happen then; won’t now either.

3. If war did break out, it would probably not be as one-sided as the U.S.-led 2003 Iraq invasion where the Iraqi military all but collapsed. Iran is in a position to hurt the U.S. and its closest allies in the region militarily and politically. A ‘shock and awe’ type military offensive would cause great suffering in the country, but it is doubtful such a campaign would either bring down the regime, or for that matter, eliminate its potential to strike back militarily and politically.

4. Although rarely discussed, the U.S. actually needs (and cooperates with) Iran for stability in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Any U.S. military operation against Iran would seriously undermine the U.S. position, already quite tenuous, in these two countries. The U.S. military is obviously much stronger, but in any war, you can expect that there will be serious U.S. casualties with the naval fleet in the Gulf being essentially sitting ducks. Then there are the Saudi (and Kuwaiti and Emirates) oil fields. One has to be either pretty stupid or blinded by arrogance to believe the strategic resources the U.S. military is in the Middle East to protect, would not be hit in the event of war.

Once again, it is that latter-day global muckraker, Seymour Hersh, in another one of his pathbreaking articles in The New Yorker that helps clear the air about Iran, both in clearly denying that Iran’s nuclear program is about building weapons and also in explaining why the United States did not, in the end, invade Iran. It is not so much that Hersh’s reasons are new, it is more that he has documented what U.S. peace activists have been arguing for years.

Among the reasons:

a. Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. This has been the case since 2003 and very possibly the Iranian nuclear program was never about developing weapons’ grade uranium.

b. That the United States is already militarily overextended. Hersh argues that both in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite Administration claims to the contrary, the two wars are not going well. There is also stepped-up U.S. military activity in Somalia and Yemen.

c. There would be quite active opposition to a U.S.-led military intervention in Iran from Russia, China (perhaps predictably) but also from India and Japan, which get oil from Iran.

d. A military intervention in Iran would more than likely seriously disrupt world oil supplies resulting in unacceptable complications to the broader world economy. To think otherwise is to be somewhat out of sync with reality.

Whatever, all these considerations became all that much more relevant with the advent of the Arab Revolt which spread through the region and through U.S. policy into something approaching complete disarray (at least temporarily). Washington had come to believe its own rhetoric. It was counting on a radical Islamic fundamentalist thrust which nowhere in the region played a critical role but instead a youth-secular driven movement for greater democracy and a more generalized prosperity.

With the U.S. trying to ‘manage’ the political changes in Tunisia and Egypt, to eliminate long-term political adversaries in Libya and Syria, and to protect and defend at all costs its allies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Emirates, the plans for military intervention against Iran have been put on the back burner.

Besides, as Hersh points out (see link above), even before Tunisian youth, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself and the whole region on fire, the Obama Administration was already seriously divided over whether to attack militarily. According to Hersh – usually an accurate source – retiring Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates was opposed as are much of the leadership of the U.S. high command.

At the least, the Arab Revolt has bought Iran time, and the more time it has to prepare, the more its ability to both defend itself in case of attack, and to hurt its adversaries militarily as well. The revolt throughout the Arab World has also, to a certain extent, undermined the myth of the Iranian threat. It turns out that Iran is much less of a threat to its Arab neighbors than the Arab governments themselves. The corruption, pervasive repressive practices and the vast economic and social inequities that have characterized the largely Western allies in the Arab World turned out to be a much more salient threat, than militant Iranian Shi’sm.

Increasing Prospects of Ground War in Libya and Syria

One invasion put on hold in order to prepare for another – or two others? More and more, the specter of U.S. led ground wars in both Libya and Syria, possibly this fall, are coming into focus. Certainly some of the same themes that preceded the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq are coming into focus.

  • The internal contradictions in both countries – real as they are in both cases – are being exaggerated. True enough, neither Khadaffi nor Assad are innocent babes in the woods. Both regimes have used repression extensively to maintain their power base. But if both are admittedly authoritarian, their overall record (especially that of Libya) are not without economic and social accomplishments, now denied or trivialized.
  • Again as with Iraq in 2003, the United States, Great Britain and France adamantly deny or downplay the strategic considerations that underlie the policy of ‘regime change’ (a euphemism for overthrowing governments) in Libya and Syria.

In Syria’s case, it is not so much about oil as it is a chance for the U.S. to eliminate the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean at Latakia. Furthermore, eliminating Assad and his coterie would weaken Hizbollah in Lebanon, the Palestinian Movement and somewhat undermine Iran’s position as well.

To eliminate Khadaffi’s circle in Libya also has far reaching strategic consequences. It is rather amusing to see the arguments to the contrary being put forth (including by some liberal and left circles) minimizing or actually denying that oil is a factor in the current NATO military intervention in Libya. This line of thinking is such utter nonsense that it hardly deserves commentary (but, yes, I will do so all the same).

  • It is noticeable how little is made of the fact that 60% of Libya’s oil goes to China. As in Sudan, where oil politics underline the political and ethnic considerations, oil and the wealth that comes from oil play big in the Libyan events.
  • In those areas controlled by the rebels, international oil companies have already moved in to get contracts at much cheaper rates than those negotiated by the Khadaffi government. We can expect, should Khadaffi’s regime finally go the way of Saddam’s, that a new Libyan government’s oil policy would include a weakening of OPEC.
  • The British-French rush to war against Libya also has an energy connection. While it is not generally advertised, with the serious reduction of North Sea oil – overdeveloped with great encouragement by Margaret Thatcher – Britain finds itself in something of an energy crunch and is looking for more stable oil sources. It sees a great opportunity in overthrowing Khadaffi.
  • The French impetus is a little different but not much. The Fukushima nuclear accident – whose parameters appear to be much worse than publicized – has shaken a country where 80% of its power generation comes from nuclear energy. For France, ‘diversifying’ its energy sources means relying on more, rather than less, oil given its growing concerns of a Fukushima type accident.
  • To the degree it can increase its Middle East oil and gas sources, France can rely on Russian sources less. Limiting its dependence on Russian oil – with its political consequences – is a key factor (not the only one) explaining the current French military aggressiveness in Libya, of course under the cover of ‘humanitarian’ concerns and ‘the values’ of the French Revolution, values that were easily forgotten as France tortured and slaughtered a million Algeria between 1954 and 1962. Is it coincidence that a week after Khadaffi, in anger, claimed he would cancel his oil contracts with French and British oil companies, that both countries discovered Libya’s humanitarian crisis?
  • In a more general sense a change in Libya shifts the balance of power in the region to the right at a time when the dramatic events of the past year are shifting the balance of power in the opposite direction.

It is true that Khadaffi himself opposed the changes in both Tunisia and Egypt, fearing that once his neighbors were overthrown, it would be more difficult for him to stay in power. He too preferred a status quo he was familiar with to changes the direction of which he could not predict. In Tunisia’s case, there is some evidence that he (and his Algerian neighbors) would have liked to have stopped the Tunisian Revolution cold in its tracts. The speed of the challenges to his own power prevented him from moving effectively in this direction.

It is also the case that if in certain ways Khadaffi was a benevolent tyrant, that he is a tyrant who has always dealt with dissent harshly. In this sense he is hardly different from other regional authoritarians from Saudi Arabia to Algeria: to maintain power try to buy off the opposition first with economic and social programs. If that fails, crush the movement. In all cases, do what is necessary to maintain power.

Still, in his regional politics, Khadaffi has some genuine achievements, among them:

  • It was Libya’s Kadhafi who put up some $300 million to fund the purchase of an African satellite, dramatically bringing down the cost of telephone, television, telemedicine and radio broadcasting throughout Africa. He did this while the World Bank and the IMF – and other western financial – institutions refused to back such projects.
  • Ironically the $30 billion of Libyan resources that Obama recently confiscated was not for Khadaffi’s personal use, but was earmarked to fund the African Monetary Fund (AMF). The AMF was founded at the beginning of 2011 (just prior to the uprising in Libya) with an operating capital of $42 billion with headquarters in Yaoude. It would have funded an African currency that would have replaced the CFA Franc, and African financial dependence on the French monetary system. This fund also would have replaced the IMF and World Bank – with all their now well-known punitive conditions of structural adjustment – as a major funding source of African development
  • Khadaffi understood and opposed the European effort to break North Africa off from the rest of Africa economically through what is referred to as the Mediterranean dialogue. He understood that for the African Union to act independently, Africa had to be independently funded.
  • Khadaffi – agreed his foreign policy in record in Africa is quite mixed – still was one of the most ardent opponents of South African apartheid, a fact underlined by Nelson Mandela’s insistence on visiting Libya despite a Western embargo. Mandela went anyway in gratitude for Libya’s political and financial support for the African National Congress in the days before apartheid was overthrown.

Maybe, just maybe these points help explain why the NATO military intervention in Libya is unpopular in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World? And that while Khadaffi is admittedly no angel or great democrat at home, that he is respected in the Third World for good reason and that known Third World left leaders – Castro, Chavez, Nelson Mandela – and others are not abandoning him at present.

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Apple: Crown Jewel of Technology or Human-Rights Abuser and Tax Cheat?

Excerpted from “Three Strikes against Apple” at Other Words.

In college, I considered my Apple laptop a faithful, effective, and occasionally even fun machine. A year past graduation, this constant companion to late nights spent studying, working, or wasting time has aged into a decrepit device. Like the old Windows hourglass, its colorful pinwheel cursor consistently heralds interminable delays.

Similarly, my prehistoric mobile phone frequently freezes, drops calls, or prematurely runs out of battery power. Even in those treasured moments when it operates at capacity, it lacks the touch screen, email, and Internet capabilities today’s savvy consumers supposedly demand. By all indications, I’m ripe for an upgrade to a new MacBook, iPhone, or iPad.

Here’s why I’m taking a pass.

Apple, like most other electronics companies, makes liberal use of an ore called columbite-tantalite — widely known as coltan — whose electrical retention properties improve the battery lives of electronic devices. While Australia is the world’s largest coltan producer, suppliers for Apple and its competitors often prefer to buy their coltan at lower cost from mining operations in war-ravaged eastern Congo.

The money from these transactions rarely reaches the miners themselves. Rather, it’s funneled to Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed rebel groups inside the Congo who control the mines and use the revenues to fund their operations in the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II.

Read the rest at Other Words.

Burma’s Ethnic Insurgencies Erupt in a Chain Reaction

The respective rebellions of Burma’s (or Myanmar, as its government prefers it be called) three largest ethnic minorities are, for once, all aflame at the same time. At Asia Times Online, Brian McCartan writes: “Myanmar moved closer to civil war in recent weeks after fighting broke out in Kachin State,” thus breaking its ceasefire with Burma’s ruling junta. “Myanmar’s newly elected government now faces ethnic insurgencies on three separate fronts,” thus putting at risk “Myanmar’s development and international confidence in its supposed democratic transition.”

“In the southeast,” meanwhile, a revolt by “the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) on November 7, 2010, election day, resulted in the temporary seizure of two important border towns.” What’s significant about this is that, despite the noble sentiments suggested by its name, the DKBA had been allied with the government.

McCartan again: “Although the government was able to retake the towns, fighting continued in the area and the [DKBA] allied itself with the Karen [ethnic group] National Liberation Army.” He adds: “The operations of [the] DKBA commander Major General Lah Pweh . . . have added new energy to the Karen insurgency through stepped up ambushes and attacks on army camps both in rural areas and in towns and villages.”

Meanwhile, about Shan State, the third large minority, McCartan writes that “increasing government pressure against the 1st Brigade of the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N),” with which the government also had a ceasefire, “resulted in open conflict in early March.” The government had been trying to “incorporate the military units of the ethnic ceasefire armies into the Myanmar armed forces ahead of the 2010 elections,” but the 1st Brigade, as well as other SSA-N brigades, had refused to join. McCartan again.

Indications are that if the government chooses to continue pushing these conflicts fighting could continue for years. Myanmar army casualties, if insurgent and exile media reports are accurate, have been high while insurgent casualties remain low. . . . Many Myanmar Army units have not seen combat in many years. . . . Low morale is a major problem among government troops. . . . Units are hugely under resourced and desertion is rife.


To continue operating, the insurgent groups will require safe havens and access to supplies and ammunition either through the direct or tacit approval of neighboring governments and militaries in China and Thailand. Thailand has increasingly turned its back on the ethnic groups along its border as it has emerged as Myanmar’s top trading partner. [Its] relationship [with China], too, may be changing as China’s investments in Myanmar expand, including strategically important energy projects such as the Shwe gas project and a vital oil and gas pipeline scheduled to run from the Indian Ocean to China’s southern Yunnan province across Myanmar.


A new alliance of 15 insurgent and former ceasefire groups, including the KNU, KIA and the SSA, offers new hope. [But it] remains to be seen whether. . . . the so-called United Nationalities Federal. . . . can coordinate operations on the battlefield or maneuver politically with internal ethnic political parties or internationally.

McCartan concludes that, unless the junta, in its present form as an ostensibly elected government, “can come to a sincere agreement with ethnic insurgents, the country seems poised to spiral into the type of widespread civil war not seen in its ethnic territories for over two decades.”

Bush Sr. and Huntsman: A Tale of Two Ambassadors to the Middle Kingdom

Huntsman ChinaIt may seem odd at first to associate Jon M. Huntsman with George H. W. Bush. Bush Sr. is an Episcopalian while Huntsman is Mormon; Bush served in the military during World War II while Huntsman went on a religious mission long after the war; and the list goes on and on.

However, a close look at the personal and career paths of the two suggests several convergences, and the nexus is the Middle Kingdom.

On June 21, Huntsman officially announced that he would run for the GOP nomination. He is the second former U.S. ambassador to the PRC to make such a vow. As with his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, his Mormon faith has been kept off the table in several public discourses. Instead, what comes into the public light is his international profile, which features substantial experience in the Confucian sphere, including his roles as a Mormon missionary to Taiwan and as the former U.S. ambassador to the PRC. Like Bush Sr., Huntsman could indeed, as president, make an important contribution to Sino-American relations.

The China Connection

In 1974, Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor, appointed Bush Sr. as the chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to the People’s Republic of China. At a time when official relations between the two countries were yet to be established, Bush Sr. unofficially acted in the capacity of an ambassador. His charisma, open-mindedness, and curiosity served him well as a diplomat, and he was widely loved in China. During his fourteen months in Beijing, Bush Sr. sought every opportunity possible to get to know the lives of the Chinese public. He and his wife, Barbara would tour around Beijing on their bicycles, the most popular means of everyday transportation in the 1970s. Although regulations at the time limited his access to local Chinese families, he would go to grocery stores and talk to the salespeople. He would also try to get to know the people that he met while walking his dog.

HW Bush ChinaDespite congressional and public criticism of his conciliatory approach to dealing with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, Bush Sr. managed to use his China experience to his advantage, and perhaps, to the advantage of the United States. Indeed, his efforts as president to maintain contacts with Beijing can perhaps only be appreciated in hindsight. During his presidential years, Bush Sr. famously served as “his own China Desk Officer,” that is, his own resident expert on the multi-faceted aspects of China and Sino-American relations. His previous experience dealing with the CCP officials effectively established a realist framework for relations between the United States and China, a defining feat in the foreign relations of the 1990s for both sides.

Compared to Bush Sr., Huntsman began to have contact with the Confucian sphere at an earlier stage of his life. Still a college student, Huntsman served as a Mormon missionary to Taiwan. During his two-year mission there, he not only immersed himself in the social and cultural dynamics of Taiwan but also obtained fluency in Mandarin Chinese and Hokkien, a regional dialect of Fujian Province.

Huntsman’s experience with China and Taiwan and his proficiency in Mandarin Chinese proved to be an asset when President Obama appointed him the ninth U.S. ambassador to the PRC. Kenneth Lieberthal, Director of the China Center at the Brookings Institution, once expressed that “in terms of knowledge and diplomatic skills, I’d regard him as one of the best ambassadors we had. I thought he was very good. He related effectively to Chinese audiences.” Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, told the press that Huntsman was well-liked by the embassy staff. Schell added that Huntsman “is a very smart guy, quick on his feet, and he has a certain candor.”

Will or Should History Repeat?

Like his predecessor Bush Sr., Huntsman is now running for GOP nomination. It is not surprising to any U.S. presidential campaign watcher that clouds of suspicions surround Huntsman’s candidacy, centering on his ability and willingness to place public interests before corporate interests, given his background as a billionaire businessman. There are also his politically expedient actions to consider. To some degree, Huntsman seems to be reinventing his image to cater to Republican voters. These efforts are characterized by his reversal of positions on several key issues of interest to the Republican voters, including his stance on health reform and the Recovery Act. In addition, he was a Democratic appointee as ambassador to the PRC, which may undermine his ideological loyalty to the GOP.

On the other hand, Huntsman has taken perhaps the strongest stance among the Republican candidates on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, which reveals something provocative about his foreign policy in general. His press release on the president’s remarks last week highlighted his approval for “a safe but rapid withdrawal” of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. In addition to maintaining that there is a great need for “nation building at home,” which is in line with Obama’s vision for U.S. foreign policy, Huntsman went further to say that it is time to “get serious about what needs to be done on the ground, not a counter-insurgency but a counter-terror effort.

The globally minded Huntsman appears to be committed to effective U.S. engagement with the world. As an old China hand, his expertise on China and Sino-American relations is invaluable, considering that China may become the most crucial partner to the United States in the 21st century. Furthermore, he is likely to be less conciliatory and controversial on China’s poor human rights profile than Bush Sr., given his blunt criticism of the CCP’s detention of prominent Chinese activists like Liu Xiaobo.

At the moment, Huntsman is leaning to the right in order to appeal to the more conservative wing of the Republican Party. Perhaps if his campaign gains traction, however, his views on foreign policy, and on China in particular, might begin to make the Republican Party lean more in his direction.

Shiran Shen is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus and a senior honors political science student at Swarthmore College.

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