Focal Points Blog

Proposal: A Global Day of Action on Military Spending

“I think we have started an adult conversation” about the federal deficit, mused Deficit Commission co-chairman Erskine Bowles last year. Well then. Let’s have it.

By now, the commission’s more regressive recommendations have been sufficiently excoriated that we can safely sense where the battle lines have been drawn on domestic issues. Paul Krugman memorably referred to the proposed package as “a major transfer of income upward,” while Nancy Pelosi called its cuts to Social Security and Medicare “simply unacceptable.”

But a comparatively less mentioned aspect of the panel’s recommendations, the proposed $100 billion in cuts to the Pentagon budget, has proven surprisingly resilient under such public scrutiny. While few congressional Republicans have spoken publicly in favor of such defense cuts, the new Congress’ Majority Leader, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), has allowed that such cuts are at least “on the table.” Even the hawkish Senator John McCain conceded that the bloated defense budget should hardly be considered “sacrosanct” while popular social programs find themselves under the ax. Meanwhile, mainstream progressive groups have concocted their own alternatives to the Bowles-Simpson panel’s recommendations, virtually all of which seek even deeper defense cuts than the ones already proposed.

Earlier this month, President Obama surprised even the Pentagon by ordering $78 billion in cuts to its budget over the next five years. This comes in addition to $100 billion in “savings” that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has set aside to “reallocate to combat-related projects.” While some Republican lawmakers have made clear their strenuous objections to cutting the military budget in an era of unnecessary wars, they can take some solace in noting that even with the cuts, the Pentagon’s budget will continue to increase over that same five years.

So this is where we come in. Long the lonely purview of frustrated civil society activists, defense cuts are now finally part of that “adult conversation” our Washington elders are holding on the deficit. But it would be a regrettable mistake for us to surrender this policy conversation on the very cusp of its mainstream debut. Now is the time to make clear that trimming the Pentagon budget must not precipitate a scramble to find faster, sleeker, or cheaper ways to fight our wars. Rather, we should correlate a reevaluation of our budget priorities to a similar reevaluation of our global priorities.

In early April of this year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) will release its calculations of global military spending for 2010. We estimate that this figure could reach $1.6 trillion. Already we’ve tried to show what this means in terms of what we’re not investing in public health, education, and the environment:

Even humbly illustrated by our cut paper flags, the disparity is astounding.

So on April 12, 2011, the Institute for Policy Studies and the International Peace Bureau will host a Global Day of Action on Military Spending. Peace groups, budget priority activists, arms control advocates, and concerned citizens the world over will hold public demonstrations calling attention to the disparity between bountiful global investments in war-making and the worldwide neglect of social priorities. When newspapers cover the SIPRI numbers, perhaps they will illustrate their coverage with photographs of their own readers demonstrating against everything those numbers entail – rather than reaching for a stock photo of a desert tank.

Budget deficits may have given us an audience, but decades of failed militarist policies have given us a cause. We need public pressure to ensure that these cuts actually happen and that our money is reinvested in the public interest.

Scores of event organizers from some two-dozen countries have already joined us. Don’t let Erskine Bowles or Alan Simpson be the strongest voice you have. If you have ever suspected that your government’s relentless pursuit of military technology has negatively impacted your planet or your community, we hope you will visit us at demilitarize.org and get involved.

Gen. Petraeus Makes McChrystal Look Like a Pacifist

Generals McChrystal and Petraeus(Pictured: Generals McChrystal and Petraeus.)

A woman named Paula Broadwell, whose book about Gen. David Petraeus will be published shortly, touched some tender nerves with a couple of posts at Thomas Ricks’s Best Defense at Foreign Policy. Michael Cohen at Democracy Arsenal summed it up.

There’s been a lot of back and forth between Paula Broadwell and Josh Foust about the issue of village razing in Afghanistan. . . . I won’t bother to summarize the entire discussion, but it began with what I think can be charitably described as Paula’s less than empathetic response to an Afghan village being destroyed. What I find most striking [besides] the rather bloodless manner in which Broadwell describes the incident [is the] unintentional, insight into how dramatically the war in Afghanistan has shifted in opposition to the population-centric policies being espoused a year ago.

A lot of COIN advocates will tell you that . . . even though airstrikes are up 300% and targeted killings are on the rise and more homes are being destroyed since General David Petraeus took over command . . . it’s still just counter-insurgency. But for those with long memories the operational approach . . . under General McChrystal was to avoid civilian casualties and even property destruction at all costs, even at the risk of putting US troops in harm’s way. (Some even argued that protecting civilians was actually more important than killing insurgents).

Cohen reminds us that the all-merciful McChrystal even wrote: “Destroying a home or property jeopardizes the livelihood of an entire family — and creates more insurgents. We sow the seeds of our demise.”

The irony, of course, is that Petraeus was supposed to be the picture of moderation in contrast to Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Not only was the latter let go for indiscretions to Rolling Stone on the part of him and his staff, but, while in Iraq before his Afghanistan command, he helped with the cover-up of Cpl. Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire. Also, as Commander of Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq from 2003 to 2008, McChrystal acquired a reputation for ruthlessness. Along with killing al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his unit killed or captured many other al-Qaeda leaders. It was also accused of abusing detainees.

Has Petraeus, then, bent and twisted counterinsurgency beyond all recognition? Near as I can tell, a main feature of COIN is that it’s supposed to protect civilians. At this point, in Afghanistan, does anybody really know what counterinsurgency is anymore?

From Military-Industrial Complex to Permanent War State

Cross-posted from FireDogLake.

Fifty years after Dwight D. Eisenhower’s January 17, 1961 speech on the “military-industrial complex”, that threat has morphed into a far more powerful and sinister force than Eisenhower could have imagined. It has become a “Permanent War State”, with the power to keep the United States at war continuously for the indefinite future.

But despite their seeming invulnerability, the vested interests behind U.S. militarism have been seriously shaken twice in the past four decades by some combination of public revulsion against a major war, opposition to high military spending, serious concern about the budget deficit and a change in perception of the external threat. Today, the Permanent War State faces the first three of those dangers to its power simultaneously — and in a larger context of the worst economic crisis since the great depression.

When Eisenhower warned in this farewell address of the “potential” for the “disastrous rise of misplaced power”, he was referring to the danger that militarist interests would gain control over the country’s national security policy. The only reason it didn’t happen on Ike’s watch is that he stood up to the military and its allies.

The Air Force and the Army were so unhappy with his “New Look” military policy that they each waged political campaigns against it. The Army demanded that Ike reverse his budget cuts and beef up conventional forces. The Air Force twice fabricated intelligence to support its claim that the Soviet Union was rapidly overtaking the United States in strategic striking power — first in bombers, later in ballistic missiles.

But Ike defied both services, reducing Army manpower by 44 percent from its 1953 level and refusing to order a crash program for bombers or for missiles. He also rejected military recommendations for war in Indochina, bombing attacks on China and an ultimatum to the Soviet Union.

After Eisenhower, it became clear that the alliance of militarist interests included not only the military services and their industrial clients but civilian officials in the Pentagon, the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, top officials at the State Department and the White House national security adviser. During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, that militarist alliance succeeded in pushing the White House into a war in Vietnam, despite the reluctance of both presidents, as documented in my book Perils of Dominance.

But just when the power of the militarist alliance seemed unstoppable in the late 1960s, the public turned decisively against the Vietnam War, and a long period of public pressure to reduce military spending began. As a result, military manpower was reduced to below even the Eisenhower era levels.

For more than a decade the alliance of militarist interests was effectively constrained from advocating a more aggressive military posture.

Even during the Reagan era, after a temporary surge in military spending, popular fear of the Soviet Union melted away in response to the rise of Gorbachev, just as the burgeoning federal budget deficit was becoming yet another threat to militarist bloc. As it became clear that the Cold War was drawing to a close, the militarist interests faced the likely loss of much of their power and resources.

But in mid-1990 they got an unexpected break when Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait. George H. W. Bush — a key figure in the militarist complex as former CIA Director — seized the opportunity to launch a war that would end the “Vietnam syndrome”. The Bush administration turned a popular clear-cut military victory in the 1991 Gulf War into a rationale for further use of military force in the Middle East. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney’s 1992 military strategy for the next decade said, “We must be prepared to act decisively in the Middle East/Persian Gulf region as we did in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm if our vital interests are threatened anew.”

The Bush administration pressured the Saudis and other Arab regimes in the Gulf to allow longer-term bases for the U.S. Air Force, and over the next eight years, U.S. planes flew an annual average of 8,000 sorties in the “no fly zones” the United States had declared over most of Iraq, drawing frequent anti-aircraft fire.

The United States was already in a de facto state of war with Iraq well before George W. Bush’s presidency.

The 9/11 attacks were the biggest single boon to the militarist alliance. The Bush administration exploited the climate of fear to railroad the country into a war of aggression against Iraq. The underlying strategy, approved by the military leadership after 9/11, was to use Iraq as a base from which to wage a campaign of regime change in a long list of countries.

That fateful decision only spurred recruitment and greater activism by al Qaeda and other jihadist groups, which expanded into Iraq and other countries.

Instead of reversing the ill-considered use of military force, however, the same coalition of officials pushed for an even more militarized approach to jihadism. Over the next few years, it gained unprecedented power over resources and policy at home and further extended its reach abroad:

  • The Special Operations Forces, which operate in almost complete secrecy, obtained extraordinary authority to track down and kill or capture al Qaeda suspects not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in many more countries.
  • The CIA sought and obtained virtually unlimited freedom to carry out drone strikes in secrecy and without any meaningful oversight by Congress.
  • The Pentagon embraced the idea of the “long war” — a twenty-year strategy envisioning deployment of U.S. troops in dozens of countries, and the Army adopted the idea of “the era of persistent warfare” as its rationale for more budgetary resources.
  • The military budget doubled from 1998 to 2008 in the biggest explosion of military spending since the early 1950s — and now accounts for 56 percent of discretionary federal spending.
  • The military leadership used its political clout to ensure that U.S. forces would continue to fight in Afghanistan indefinitely, even after the premises of its strategy were shown to have been false.

Those moves have completed the process of creating a “Permanent War State” — a set of institutions with the authority to wage largely secret wars across a vast expanse of the globe for the indefinite future.

But the power of this new state formation is still subject to the same political dynamics that have threatened militarist interests twice before: popular antipathy to a major war, broad demands for reduced military spending and the necessity to reduce the federal budget deficit and debt.

The percentage of Americans who believe the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting has now reached 60 percent for the first time. And as the crisis over the federal debt reaches it climax, the swollen defense budget should bear the brunt of deep budget cuts.

As early as 2005, a Pew Research Center survey found that, when respondents were given the opportunity to express a preference for budget cuts by major accounts, they opted to reduce military spending by 31 percent. In another survey by the Pew Center a year ago, 76 percent of respondents, frustrated by the continued failure of the U.S. economy, wanted the United States to put top priority in its domestic problems.

The only thing missing from this picture is a grassroots political movement organized specifically to demand an end to the Permanent War State. Such a movement could establish firm legal restraints on the institutions that threaten American Democratic institutions through a massive educational and lobbying effort. This is the right historical moment to harness the latent anti-militarist sentiment in the country to a conscious strategy for political change.

Is “It’s Not Fair” a Childish Response to Being Denied Nuclear Weapons?

As recently as last month, the term “nuclear apartheid,” in all its unsavoriness, reared its ugly head again. Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency denounced the IAEA’s approval of a plan for a nuclear fuel bank as “nuclear apartheid” (because of the implied infringement on a state’s own nuclear fuel production). For his part, back in 2005 President Ahmadinejad said of nuclear technology, “We’re against ‘nuclear apartheid,’ which means some have the right to possess it, use the fuel, and then sell it to another country for 10 times its value.”

When applied to nuclear weapons, the phrase may have been first used by Jaswant Singh, an adviser on defense and foreign affairs to former Prime Minister Vajpayee. In a 1998 Foreign Affairs article titled Against Nuclear Apartheid, he spoke out against nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) enforcement of a regime that, in effect, permits United Nations Security Council states to reserve nuclear weapons for themselves.

When we recall that the term “apartheid” originally referred to legalized segregation in South Africa from 1948 to 1993 and, by implication, the noble struggle to roll it back in the name of equal rights, we recoil at using it to refer to matters nuclear, especially weapons programs.

Nevertheless, applying the principle of equal rights to nuclear weapons is an issue to states that aspire to develop nuclear-weapons program. Singh made that crystal clear when, in defense of India’s 1998 nuclear tests, he wrote, “India’s nuclear policy remains firmly committed to a basic tenet: that the country’s national security in a world of nuclear proliferation lies either in global disarmament or in exercise of the principle of equal and legitimate security for all.”

On the surface, it’s tough to argue with his premise: a nuclear-weapons program for any state that feels the need for one — or none for any states. What’s overlooked, though, is that the NPT came into force in 1970 after the UN Security Council permanent members (the United States, the Soviet Union, the Republic of China, England, and France) had already developed nuclear weapons programs. Unstated is the assumption that had the NPT been drawn up before the dawn of nuclear weapons, it might have prevented their development.

The NPT was an attempt to make the best of a bad situation by capping the number of nuclear states at five while guaranteeing all other states that signed the treaty access to nuclear energy, as well as obligating the nuclear states to gradually disarm (though some feel it only requires that they negotiate “in good faith,” not actually disarm). What the non-nuclear states are witness to today is obstacle after obstacle being placed before a state, such as Iran, that signed the NPT and claims that it seeks to develop nuclear energy absent an allied weapons program.

Furthermore, those treaty members that possess weapons seem to be making no substantive steps to divest themselves of them. Does anyone really believe it escapes Iran’s notice that New START, the token weapons reductions of which were primarily intended as a confidence-building measure for Russia, was ratified by the United States while it also committed to spend $185 billion on nuclear weapons over the next decade?

But isn’t a state such as Iran being disingenuous when it cries nuclear injustice? practitioners of realpolitik, isn’t that jejeune? After all, as Shane Maddock wrote in his 2010 book Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present, John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under President Eisenhower, said, “In the past higher civilizations have always maintained their place against lower civilizations by devising more effective weapons.” All’s fair in love and war, right?

In a recent paper for the Hudson Institute, Haves and Have-Nots: Unfairness in Nuclear Weapons Possession, Christopher Ford, one of its senior fellows, writes that the unfairness argument is “a cynical rationalization for the destabilizing pursuit of dangerous capabilities.” Regarding the NPT:

“Have nots” have surely always coveted powerful tools possessed by the “haves,” or at least wished that the “haves” did not possess them. It seems . . . to be a curiously modern phenomenon . . . for non-possessors to articulate such . . . envy and resentment in the moral language of “unfairness,” and to assume that this presumed injustice should motivate the “haves” to change their behavior.

Ford places the issue in historical perspective:

If iron had threatened to offer the Vikings an insuperable advantage, would the Skraelings [indigenous peoples of Greenland and Newfoundland -- RW] have been justified in developing a . . . resentment that demanded either the sharing of iron weaponry or Viking disarmament in the name of achieving a global “iron zero”?

More to the point, he writes:

. . . the destructively “special” character of nuclear weaponry cuts against the “unfairness critique” in that it is this very specialness that seems to rob the “have/have not” issue of its moral relevance. . . . No prior technology held the potential to destroy humanity, making nuclear weapons [along with other WMD, a unique phenomenon] to which the conventional “unfairness” critique simply does not very persuasively apply.

Driving the point home, Ford writes that the “existential questions. . . . . utterly swamp the conventional playground morality of unfair ‘have/have not’ competition.’ . . . moreover, it stands to reason that an ‘unfair’ outcome that nonetheless staves off such horrors is a perfectly good solution.” In policy speak: “Questions of stability are far more important than issues of asymmetric distribution.”

Closing the circle, Ford points out that:

. . . the hollowness of the “unfairness” argument as applied to nuclear weapons [is itself an argument for the legitimacy] of nonproliferation even if complete nuclear disarmament cannot be achieved. . . . Indeed, I would submit that we lose our moral bearings if we allow “unfairness” arguments to distract us from what is really important here.

Back in 2008, left met right in, surprisingly, an editorial at the British socialist website Workers’ Liberty.

The argument that Israel has nuclear weapons and therefore, in “fairness”, so should the Arab states and Islamic powers like Iran is nonsense — an argument for the establishment in the region of a “nuclear balance of terror” such as that which existed between the USA and Russia for half a century.

It should be noted that card-carrying socialists, or progressives of any stripe, who espouse apportioning nuclear weapons should, by all rights, be stripped of their cards. To a true leftist, nothing, including injustice, justifies nuclear weapons.

So far, so good with the Workers’ Liberty editorial writer. But one paragraph later he or she has fallen into a trap. See if it sounds familiar.

All this would be true whatever the character of the Iranian regime; but it is especially true given the nature of the regime that has ruled in Iran for thirty years. It is a clerical-fascist regime: its leaders are concerned more with their imaginary supernatural world than with this. It is not inconceivable that some of those at the heart of the Iranian state power might come to think of nuclear annihilation in the way that individual homicide bombers think of their own destruction in an explosion they themselves trigger — as a glorious and sure way to reach martyrdom and the martyrs’ special place in Paradise.

As you can see, the author is compromising his or her socialist cred by repeating that element of the nuclear equal-rights argument that small states find most offensive. In other words, he or she asserts that only sane states — “rational actors” — need apply to develop weapons programs, or more accurately, retain the privilege of having their existing programs, developed outside the NPT, overlooked. Thus are Israel, India, and Pakistan (the sole claim of the last to rationality — its status as a U.S. ally in The War on Terror — rapidly eroding along with the structural integrity of its government) posed in opposition to Iran and North Korea.

As Jonathan Schell wrote:

The most dangerous illusion is that “we can hold on to nuclear weapons while at the same time stopping their proliferation to other countries. That is an absolutely unworkable proposition. It just cannot happen in the real world.”

In the end, no matter the short term benefits to security, when the West severs the ties that bind disarmament to nonproliferation, it further undermines the trust of the developing world and long-term prospects for international security.

The Misuse of Martin Luther King, Jr.

martin luther king jr morehouse(Pictured: Martin Luther King, Jr. graduating from Morehouse College in 1948, his sister Christine from Spelman.)

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

You might remember Martin Luther King, Jr. as someone who railed against the triple evils of “racism, materialism, and militarism.” But according to Obama’s Department of Defense, “today’s wars are not out of line with the iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner’s teachings.”

This contention is advanced in an article by the American Forces Press Service, which the Pentagon is distributing for republication. Common Dreams did republish it—as an example of government shamelessness, correctly noting that “you can’t make this stuff up.”

The article concerns a speech by the Defense Department’s general counsel, Jeh C. Johnson, who stated, “I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would recognize that we live in a complicated world, and that our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms and leave the American people vulnerable to terrorist attack.”

In fact, King did advocate that our nation’s military should and could lay down its arms, even though his detractors insisted this would mean leaving us vulnerable to attack by advancing Communist hoards in Vietnam that would inevitably overrun the world and extinguish the American way of life.

Johnson’s argument is really convoluted, and the article is worth reading in full. Of course, suggesting that the only options available to us in this “complicated world” are to support current U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan or to roll over and let the terrorists have their way isn’t exactly engaging in good faith debate about our country’s overseas engagements. And there are other fishy things going on in the article as well. One curious part is its attempt to lay out Johnson’s credentials for making his far-fetched claims about MLK. It explains:

Johnson is a 1979 graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, where King graduated in 1948. He also attended school with King’s son, Martin Luther King III, and was privy to the elder King’s speaking engagements there.

I’m not sure that attending the same college as a notable person several decades later lends much expertise (to say nothing about being vaguely acquainted with their kids as a grade-schooler), but maybe that’s just me.

Outside of the Pentagon, MLK has endured a fair bit of abuse this year, most notably at the hands of Glenn Beck. As you will recall, the Fox News champ tried to claim King’s legacy for his “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington back in late August. It was pretty sad, and many commentators cried foul. Media Matters, for one, clearly documented why “Martin Luther King would have been on Glenn Beck’s chalkboard” were he still alive.

In a similar vein, Sean Wilentz did a nice job this fall of tracing the ideological roots of Beck and his brethren back to the John Birch Society and other far-right Birch-ite groups of the Cold War. The Birchers were none too fond of MLK, publishing a book in which King “is portrayed as an agent of a massive communist conspiracy to agitate among otherwise happy Negroes to foment revolution, or at least promote demands for more collectivist federal government intrusion.”

On balance I think the fact that you no longer see such attacks on King, and that Beck and the Pentagon will go to extreme lengths to align themselves with the civil rights movement leader, is a good thing. It is a testament to King’s unimpeachable credibility as a national hero. And having someone who was a social democrat, bold anti-militarist, thoroughgoing critic of American racism, and firm advocate of nonviolent civil resistance ranking up there with the founding fathers in our national pantheon is a wonderful thing for progressives, even if it requires regularly setting the record straight.

For those who want to read more about King’s stances on economic questions (a topic I wrote on last MLK Day), Beacon Press has just published a collection of King’s speeches on labor and economic justice, entitled All Labor Has Dignity. My copy hasn’t arrived yet, but I am looking forward to it.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website http://www.DemocracyUprising.com.

New York Times Finally Deigns to Cover Tunisia

Tunis Air(Pictured: President Ben Ali’s means of escape?)

What a difference a month makes. After more than 50 deaths, hundreds of wounded, perhaps thousands of arrests and tortures in Tunisia at the hands of Zine Ben Ali’s security forces and repressive apparatus, the mainstream media in the West has ‘discovered’ the Tunisian crisis.

And now the race is on: which media outlet can win a Pulitzer by feasting on the political corpse of Zine Ben Ali? Will it be the New York Times which has awakened from its Tunisian stupor with a series of hard hitting, excellent pieces? Will it be NPR that is trying to recruit Tunisian bloggers and Facebook addicts (admittedly I am one too) to gave an ‘authentic’ flavor? Are members of Congress now getting out their atlases, trying to get it straight that Tunisia is not a part of the Indonesian island chain?

That the New York Times is taking the Tunisian crisis seriously, is of course, welcome and not only because the story deserves coverage. It suggests something else far more important: that the powers that be in the United States have given the Times the go-ahead. And this is important for another reason: when trying to learn about Tunisia, the Congressional flock pretty much always takes its lead, advice from the State Department. This in turn opens doors for peace movements, human rights organizations who have long been well informed on the Tunisia situation, to exert genuine influence.

Speculation? Of course. But I’ll bet dollars to high-quality donuts – even bagels – that this is what is transpiring. But why the New York Times take so long to address the Tunisian crisis? I would imagine the process went something like this:

For starters, history suggests, and here we have many examples, that the Times would not move on Tunisia without the express consent, the go-ahead from the State Department. The fact is that as the WikiLeaks Cables concerning Tunisia (called TuniLeaks) vividly reveal, the State Department wrote off Ben Ali as a viable political asset long ago. But ‘State’ couldn’t give the Times their blessing until they convinced the Defense Department and the National Security Council, both of which were unsure of how cutting Ben Ali loose would impact U.S. security arrangements with a Ben Ali replacement. Would a post-Ben Ali government maintain Tunisian commitments with AFRICOM, or Tunisia’s support for extraordinary rendition?

After all, if such ‘arrangements’ come unglued in Tunisia it could trigger a regional stampede, a kind of ‘domino effect’ with other countries – Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Yemen – backing out. Some modus vivendi needed to be consummated, some assurances extracted from the Tunisian military – with which the United States has many and varied contacts – that Tunisia’s ‘treaty obligations’ with the United States would be honored.

Only then was the New York Times, for whatever its limitations, still the most politically minded and sophisticated media in the United States, ‘unleashed’ to cover the increasingly pathetic last days and hours of Ben Ali’s 23-year rule, a rule long given a veil of acceptability, the State Department seal of approval, having been stamped as ‘moderate’. The ‘moderate’ label is undoubtedly the highest honor that can be bestowed on an otherwise corrupt and repressive dictatorship. Few wore this badge of honor more proudly than the little two-bit political skunk, U.S.-trained at a police academy in Maryland, than Zine Ben Ali.

It is likely that future revelations will suggest that the debate in Washington over Tunisia was intense with the State Department arguing even before the current crisis erupted that Ben Ali goose was cooked, that the U.S. interests could best be served finding a ‘suitable’ replacement who would cause as little disruption as possible to US interests.

On the other hand, the (not so) strategic thinkers at Defense and the National Security Council, little more than apologists for U.S. militarism – the neocons still flourishing in both places, special forces addicts – argued in Ben Ali’s defense. Theirs is not particularly convincing logic but it has carried the day for nearly a decade now: that Ben Ali is/was a faithful ally in the war on terrorism, that he has cooperated with the U.S. in numerous (mostly insidious) ways in violation of international law, has cooperated with U.S. attempts to establish AFRICOM, etc. And as strategic support for U.S. military plans in the region trump human rights concern every time, the Obama Administration should ‘hold the line’ in Ben Ali’s defense.

Nor was the issue resolved by the way. U.S. foreign policy might think in terms of military pre-emption to neutralize potential long term competitors, be they Iran or China, but diplomatically in the case of Tunisia, Washington is trailing, not shaping events. Indeed what stands out in all this is how helpless both Washington and Paris have been to coax the crisis in Tunisia in one direction or another. And it was only when, in reality, there was virtually nothing left of Ben Ali’s regime, nothing left to support, only after those remaining fragile threads on which his legitimacy rested had frayed and then snapped – that administration hawks had to concede defeat.

And so Defense unshackled State which suggested that the New York Times shift gears and get on the Tunisia story, but even then there were ‘stipulations’, ‘parameters’…

  • Ok to go heavy on the economic crisis, ‘democratic deficiency’ and the corruption of the Ben Ali/Trabelsi families but…
  • If possible, ‘go light’ on how Tunisia is an IMF/World Bank structural adjustment utter failure and not the “success story”, or “African lion” it has so often been portrayed.
  • Go even lighter, if possible avoid mentioning/exploring the implication of US-Tunisian security arrangements.

With these reservations in mind , and visions of another Pultizer Prize dancing in their heads, the New York Times sent David Kirkpatrick, one of its most talented reporters, along with a photographer to Tunis and let them loose to do their thing, just as Ben Ali, hoping for a reprieve from his people, lifted all press and internet censorship.

Just in the nick of time; wasn’t much left to report, to uncover actually. After a month of non-stop, increasingly broad based and militant demonstrations, scores of deaths, a tightening noose of repression leaving Ben Ali increasingly exposed and isolated, there isn’t much pioneering journalism left for Kirkpatrick to unearth. Frankly Facebook and You Tube had beaten the Times (and Le Monde) to the punch long ago. All that is left of the story for David Kirkpatrick are the scraps, along of course with stories that others have told earlier and in many cases as well or better than he will (although the guy can write and I am already impressed with his insights and descriptive abilities – it is just they are hardly original).

Look at his first article. Well-written, yes. New material? Hardly. What does he discuss?

  • The looting of Ben Ali’ and Trabelsi clan villas in Hammamet with photos.
  • The ‘TuniLeaks’ (WikiLeaks cables from Tunisia) cables from 2008-9 detailing corruption.
  • The level of anger and disillusion of the Tunisian people that has yet to peak.
  • The beginning – there will be many more – of the flight of Ben Ali/Trabelsi family members to foreign safer havens.

Minus the looting, none of this is new. For good measure, this first major piece (page 1!!) on Tunisia in the New York Times was accompanied by a short but hard hitting editorial about the dangers of supporting scurrilous types like Ben Ali meant to prick liberal consciences. Whatever…

Some day it will be interesting to learn how accurate or not are the above speculations.

But regardless, more concretely, the new interest that the New York Times is showing in Tunisia, cynical and late in the day as it might be, has important political consequences. It changes the political chemistry in this country about Tunisia, a place almost unknown to readers in this country. Tunisia is now on the map and U.S. policy in Tunisia, until now little more than a footnote to other U.S. Middle East policy concerns, is now front and center.

For now ‘the great fear’ is mounting in Washington, and it is not of an Islamic fundamentalist take over in Tunisia, the pretext for U.S. support for Ben Ali for decades, but something far more threatening to U.S. interests: ‘the threat’ of a genuine democratic revolution in the place, fueled from below, driven by democratic ideals. And if it happens in Tunisia, which remains to be seen, who knows which country is next? Egypt? Jordan? Algeria? Morocco?…or should I even dare suggest it, the least democratic but most strategically important of them all, Saudi Arabia.

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

U.S. Renews Anachronistic Campaign to Stamp Out Coca Leaf Chewing

Morales with coca leaf(Pictured: Bolivian President Evo Morales wields coca leaf.)

Just one month after President Obama announced that the U.S. would finally sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, U.S. officials are already violating the spirit – and the letter – of the agreement. U.S. officials are playing a lead role in maintaining an out-dated provision in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs which attempts to abolish the centuries-old indigenous practice of chewing coca leaves. The 1961 Convention also mistakenly classified coca as a narcotic, along with cocaine.

In 2009, the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, sent a letter to Ban Ki Moon requesting a minor amendment to the Single Convention by removing its demand that “coca leaf chewing must be abolished” within a 25 year period (which ended in 1989). Bolivia asked that the ban on coca leaf chewing be removed in countries where the tradition is still widely practiced, while maintaining the international prohibition on cocaine. The 18 month period for countries to register formal objections to Bolivia’s requested amendment ends on January 31, 2011. Without objections, Bolivia’s request would have been immediately granted.

Coca is an integral part of indigenous cultures in the Andes. Chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea help alleviate the symptoms of high altitudes, cold and hunger, and they function as a mild stimulant. The coca leaf is also used in traditional and religious ceremonies such as weddings. Coca chewing is also becoming increasingly popular in urban areas of Bolivia and in northern Argentina. Indeed, for years I was regularly served coca tea when visiting the U.S. Embassy in La Paz. But ironically, the U.S. also says drinking coca tea is an international crime.

The inclusion of a ban on coca leaf chewing in the Single Convention was, to be perfectly blunt, racist. It was based on a 1950 Report of the Commission of Enquiry on the Coca Leaf, which was later sharply criticized for its poor methodology, racist connotations, and cultural insensitivity. All subsequent studies have concluded that the traditional consumption of coca leaves appears to have no negative health effects and has positive therapeutic, sacred and social functions for indigenous Andean populations.

Article 31 of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that “indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.” The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a UN advisory body, endorsed the Bolivian proposal in April 2010. Previously, in May 2009, it had recognized “the cultural and medical importance of coca in the Andean region and other indigenous regions of South America” and recommended “the amendment or abolishment of the sections of the Convention relating to the custom of chewing coca leaf that are inconsistent with indigenous people´s rights to maintain their traditional practices in health and culture…”

Although Bolivia is the only county whose constitution recognizes the coca leaf as an integral part of its cultural heritage, Peru, Colombia (for its indigenous peoples), and Argentina also legally recognize the right to use coca. The Presidential Declaration of Quito signed in August 2009 by all of the South American presidents expresses support for the Bolivian proposal, asking the international community to respect the ancestral cultural manifestation of coca leaf chewing. In short, Bolivia is not the only country that cares about this issue. Moreover, the flagrant disregard for indigenous rights should be cause for consternation by indigenous communities around the world, and the international community more broadly.

The need to correct this blatant historical error to ban consumption of the coca leaf in its natural form is long overdue. Yet U.S. officials – fearful that even a modest change to the 1961 convention could call into the question the prevailing international drug control regime – are leading the charge against a widely accepted indigenous practice in Bolivia, and they have rallied numerous other countries to also formally oppose Bolivia’s proposed amendment. In the process, the U.S. is undermining respect for indigenous rights, torpedoing the ongoing negotiations for a new framework agreement for U.S.-Bolivian relations, and potentially straining relations with other South American countries. Such behavior is downright shameful.

Israel’s Premier Theatre Company Presents Explosive Palestinian Drama

al-Nakba(Pictured: al-Nakba.)

Foreign Policy in Focus’s own Peter Certo writes at DC Theatre Scene of a play premiering January 15 in Washington: “Theater J will host a two-week run of Return to Haifa, an adaptation by Israeli journalist and playwright Boaz Gaon of Ghassan Kanafani’s 1969 novella. . . . Presented by Israel’s premier Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv and its talented cast of Arab- and Jewish-Israeli actors, the adaptation will likely be an American audience’s first introduction to the works of Kanafani.”

Ghassan Kanafani, incidentally, writes Certo, “was also a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. His ties to perpetrators of the 1972 Lod Airport bombing, committed by Japanese Red Army members on behalf of the PFLP, may have led to his assassination that same year in Beirut – in all likelihood by the Mossad.”

In case you didn’t take all of that in, let’s review: a Palestinian play adapted by an Israeli, staged by an Israeli company, written by an author possibly killed by the Mossad. Talk about combustible mixtures. But that’s only the start. Certo explains:

The novella imagines a day-long encounter as a displaced Palestinian couple, Sai’d and Saffiyeh, return to their erstwhile Haifa home some 20 years after being forced to leave. There they meet Miriam, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor who moved into their house with her husband Ephraim.

Did I mention that it was explosive? Wait, there’s more.

The emotion intensifies as viewers discover that the Arab couple was forced not to leave only their home but their infant son Khaldun, who was adopted by Miriam and Ephraim and raised as their Jewish son Dubinka, or Dov. What follows are heart-rending arguments about who can claim the boy, now an IDF paratrooper – and perhaps the land of his birth. . . . In adapting Kanafani’s novella for the stage, Gaon explains, “We did not want an intellectual experience – but a heightened emotional one.”

Sounds like he got that all right. When it comes to the drama’s explosive yield, we’ve just seen it grow from a ton of TNT, barrel past a kiloton and go straight to a megaton. Ultimately, though, Return to Haifa is about initiating reconciliation. Certo writes:

Its Palestinian characters too, despite their own personal hardships, come to recognize and sympathize with the plight of Holocaust survivors like Miriam. Whatever their doubts about how to proceed, whatever their anguish or frustration, they inch toward an understanding of the people who call their former house home.

Reconciliation, of course, is impossible without empathy.

An effective work of drama, reflects director Sinai Peter, recognizes that “audiences really have the desire to feel empathy for a story. And it can overcome the fact that this empathy might have political consequences.”

Those who live in the DC area would be remiss in bypassing what sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime theatre experience.

Pro-Democracy Uprising Fails to Keep Washington From Backing Tunisian Dictatorship

Tunisia protestsThe regime U.S.-backed Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has been the target of a nationwide popular uprising in recent weeks, which neither shooting into crowds of unarmed demonstrators nor promised reforms has thus far quelled. Whether this unarmed revolt results in the regime’s downfall remains to be seen. In recent decades, largely nonviolent insurrections such as this have toppled corrupt authoritarian rulers in the Philippines, Serbia, Bolivia, Ukraine, the Maldives, Georgia, Mali, Nepal and scores of other countries and have seriously challenged repressive regimes in Iran, Burma and elsewhere.

On the one hand, the Tunisian opposition seems rather disorganized and the protests largely spontaneous. The lack of a stricter nonviolent discipline at some of the demonstrations, which at times have deteriorated into full-scale riots, has given the regime the political space for increased repression. At the same time, the dissatisfaction with the regime is widespread and growing.

In the course of some civil insurrections, like Iran and Burma, Washington has strongly condemned the regime and provided strong words of encouragement for the pro-democracy activists challenging their repression. In a couple of cases, like Serbia and Ukraine, the United States and other Western countries even provided limited amounts of economic assistance to pro-democracy groups. Most of the time, however, particularly if the dictatorship is a U.S. ally like Tunisia, Washington has either backed the government or largely remained silent.

Indeed, rather than praise Tunisia’s largely nonviolent pro-democracy movement and condemn its repressive regime, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has instead expressed her concern over the impact of the “unrest and instability” on the “very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia,” insisting that the U.S. is “not taking sides” and that she will “wait and see” before even communicating directly with Ben Ali or his ministers.

In addition, as the popular uprising against the Ben Ali dictatorship commenced last month, Congress weighed in with support of the regime by passing a budget resolution that included $12 million in security assistance to Tunisia, one of only five foreign governments (the others being Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Colombia) provided direct taxpayer-funded military aid.

Along with limited political freedom and government accountability, the poor economic situation in Tunisia has been the major focus of the protests, particularly among unemployed educated youth. Clinton acknowledged this issue in noting that “One of my biggest concerns in this entire region are the many young people without economic opportunities in their home countries.” Rather than calling for a more democratic and accountable government in Tunisia, however, her suggestion for resolving the crisis is that the economies of Tunisia and other North African states “need to be more open.”

In reality, however, Tunisia – more than almost any country in the region – has followed the dictates of Washington and the International Monetary Fund in instituting “structural adjustment programs” in privatizing much of its economy and allowing for an unprecedented level of “free trade.” These policies have increased rather than decreased unemployment while enriching relatives and cronies of the country’s top ruling families. This has been privately acknowledged by the U.S. embassy in a recently-released Wikileaks cable, which labeled the U.S.-backed regime as a “kleptocracy.” The U.S. has also been backing IMF efforts to get the Tunisian government to eliminate the remaining subsidies on fuel and basic food stuffs and fuel and further deregulate its financial sector.

Rather than anti-American extremism in the Arab world being a result of hostility towards “our freedoms,” it is such policies backing such corrupt authoritarian regimes as Tunisia which have alienated so many young Arabs from the United States. As John F. Kennedy once warned, “Those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

Southern Sudan’s Cause for Celebration to Take a Toll on Darfur

Southern Sudan referendum(Pictured: South Sudan referendum registration.)

All of this week a historic referendum is taking place in which the people of Southern Sudan are casting their votes to determine whether to secede from the North, likely becoming Africa’s newest independent nation. The date for this referendum was set six years ago, during the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) ending a 22-year civil war between north and south. The extraordinary voter turnout and jubilation at the polls this week reflects the desire of so many to free themselves from decades of oppression and marginalization by successive Northern-dominated regimes. After enduring a brutal war in which two million people were killed and four million more were displaced, it is clear that the people of Southern Sudan are ready to become first-class citizens of their own sovereign nation.

As a northern Sudanese living in the diaspora, I am experiencing this historic moment with mixed emotions. I feel hopeful and inspired by a people who are inching closer towards their dream of self-determination. The demands of the Southern Sudanese liberation struggle represent the Sudan many of us in the North want: a nation in which wealth and power is more equitably distributed and where everyone, regardless of ethnicity, faith, or gender is treated with respect and dignity.

The impending secession of Southern Sudan should also serve as a wake-up call for us to recommit ourselves to the struggle for democratic change within our soon-to-be, newly drawn borders. The balkanization of African states can be devastating, because it makes them more vulnerable to neo-colonial exploitation and undermines their political sovereignty, so we must ask why it has come to this.

The fact is, the Sudanese government failed to make unity a viable option for Southerners. Over the past six years, rather than making strides towards equitably sharing wealth and political power with the South, the Khartoum regime strengthened its grip at the expense of the majority of its citizens. The peripheral regions of Darfur and the South remain particularly neglected and underdeveloped.

A vote for secession will give the South control of about 80 percent of Sudan’s current oil production of 490,000 barrels a day. This will represent a drastic shift from the 50-50 share between the Sudanese government and the Government of Southern Sudan set for the interim period, following the signing of the CPA. Meanwhile, the burden of these potential losses, are likely to be carried by those already marginalized in Northern Sudan. In the days leading up to this referendum for instance, the Sudanese government raised the price of fuel and sugar in preparation for the nearly 70 percent oil revenue losses, which are expected once the South secedes. According to economic experts, the new price increases reflect the “price of separation” from the country’s south.

These price increases have already caused suffering in the war-torn region of Darfur, where basic food items such as grains and vegetables are becoming more expensive as transportation costs rise. For the millions of Darfurians still living in the squalor of camps and dependent on food aid, an increase in fuel prices also has implications on food delivery and access to water among the displaced.

Sudan is currently sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer, behind Nigeria and Angola, providing China with 30% of the oil that fuels its factories. And yet very little of Sudan’s oil profits have benefited its people. Instead, oil companies, primarily from China and Malaysia, have been providing the technology to explore the oil, while sharing the profits with the elites in power. Khartoum’s regime is said to have siphoned off as much as 40% of total oil revenue, lining its own pockets through various forms of mis-pricing, instead of taking on the task of developing vast regions of the country that have been neglected for decades.

When a regime driven by greed loses its grip on power, it tends to tighten that grip before losing control. President Omar Al-Bashir’s latest remarks on the eve of this referendum, demonstrate this tendency quite vividly. In the days leading up to the vote, he announced that were the South to secede, he would change the constitution in the North to impose Sharia law and ensure that Islam and Arabic are the official religion and language, respectively. He also declared that the 1.5 million Southern Sudanese living in the north would lose citizenship rights and be removed from all public service positions, thereby perpetuating the marginalization and exclusion Southern Sudanese people fought against for decades.

The people of Sudan belong to over 597 ethnic groups and speak over 200 languages and dialects. Of those ethnic groups, approximately 60% identify as indigenous African and 40% as Arab. 70% of Sudan is Muslim, 25% follow indigenous traditions and 5% are Christian. If the South secedes, these demographics will shift, but the cultural diversity and religious pluralism of the country will remain intact. People who identify as indigenous Africans and do not speak Arabic as their first language will continue to constitute a majority in the north. And while most are Muslim, many do not adhere to the practices and interpretations of Islam put forth by the ruling elite. Forcefully imposing a mono-cultural national identity is therefore, a dangerous project, which could potentially lead to future demands for secession.

As we witness the people of Southern Sudan cast their votes on this historic occasion, it is therefore my hope that we in the north will organize ourselves, around an alternative project which recognizes our people’s diversity as its strength. While the referendum represents a failure on our government’s behalf to make unity a viable option, it also represents our own complicity and silence around policies that, if left unchallenged, could ultimately lead to the further fracturing of our nation. We cannot however, rely on outsiders with a variety of agendas and motives, to challenge these policies for us. It must come from within, with the support and solidarity of those who respect Sudanese sovereignty and have the best interest of all Sudanese people at heart.

Nisrin Elamin is an educator and activist living in New York City. Originally from Sudan, she is the coordinator of the Support Darfur Project which documents and supports Darfurian-led grassroots initiatives. She blogs at www.supportdarfur.org.

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