Focal Points Blog

CIA’s Drone Wars Blur Distinction Between Military and Civilian Combatants

CIA droneLost in the debate over whether the Obama administration had the right to carry out the extra-legal execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Yemeni cleric and al-Qaeda member, is who pulled the trigger? It is not a minor question, and it lies at the heart of the 1907 Hague Convention, the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and the 1977 additions to the ’49 agreement: civilians cannot engage in war.

In the main, laws of war focus on the protection of civilians. For instance, Article 48, the “Basic Rule” of Part IV of the 1977 Geneva Conventions, states, “In order to ensure respect for and protection of civilian populations and civilian objects, the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between civilian populations and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”

What follows in the 1977 Conventions are nine articles specifying what the general rule means, ranging from prohibitions against attacking power plants and water sources and spreading “terror among civilian populations” to destroying the “natural environment.” There are many civilian-related sections in other parts of the Conventions, but the 10 articles that make up Chapter I, Section I, Part IV on “Civilian Population” are the clearest guidelines about what is allowed when civilians are caught up in war.

The Conventions were mainly a response to the horrors of World War II, where civilian deaths were more than twice those on the military side. Of the approximate 80 million people who died in WW II, 55 million of them were civilians. In comparison, out of some 17 million who died in World War I, seven million were civilians.

The logic behind Article IV of the Conventions is that civilians are innocent bystanders, with no ability to defend themselves or inflict damage on an antagonist. However, if civilians take part in hostilities, they lose their protected status. If the warring parties have an obligation to protect non-combatants, civilians also have obligations, the most important of which is that they do not act as soldiers.

In short, if someone takes a pot shot at you, it is irrelevant if he or she is a civilian, by their actions they are no longer innocent bystanders. Members of a resistance movement may not wear uniforms or be part of a military organization, but if they blow up your Humvee or ambush your patrol, they are combatants.

Which is why the question of who killed Anwar al-Awlaki (and over 2,000 people in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen killed by drones) is relevant. If the cleric was killed as part of a military operation—as with, for instance the assassination of Osama bin-Laden—then the arguments are around issues like whether we have the right to execute enemies without a trial (the Conventions say we don’t), or violate another nation’s sovereignty.

But al-Awlaki was not taken out by Navy Seals, he was assassinated by a member of the Central Intelligence Agency, the organization that runs the drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. CIA members are civilians. Indeed, the new director, David Petraeus, formally resigned his Army commission to make that point. Even if he had not, however, the CIA is not a military organization and is not under the control of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Why is this important? Because if civilians in the U.S. are killing combatants in another country, then those civilians lose their protection under the Conventions. Worse, it means all U.S. civilians become potential targets. If a CIA employee based in Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, or Djibouti in Africa kills a Pakistani, Somalian, or Afghan with a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone, one can hardly complain if everyday U.S. citizens are targeted for retaliation.

One could argue that, since al-Awlaki was an American citizen, the hit didn’t really contravene the Conventions and the arguments should be over whether you can order the killing of an American citizen without due process. However, others targeted by the drone war—like members of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the Haqqani Group, and the Somali Shabaab—do not fall in this category.

According to the CIA, the drone wars have killed no civilians. “There hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop,” John O’Brennan, the Obama administration’s counterterrorism advisor told the New York Times.

That assertion is almost beyond ridiculous. Even a supporter of the drone war like Bill Roggio, editor of The Long War Journal, says the claim is “absurd.” The United Kingdom based Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that out of the 2,292 people killed by drones in Pakistan, 775 of them were civilians. Pakistan journalist Noor Behram puts the total much higher, telling The Guardian (UK), “For every 10 to 15 people killed [by drones], maybe they get one militant.”

The U.S. claim, however false, allows the drone war to continue. There is nothing in the Conventions that bars lying.

The Obama administration (and the previous Bush administration) argue that drone war is part of the “war on terror” that Congress mandated after the 9/11 attacks: hence we are at “war” with at least the Taliban and its allies, the Shabaab, and al-Qaeda. But the CIA still has no authority to execute a war. The last two run by the organization—the war in Laos and the Contra war against Nicaragua—were not only unmitigated disasters, they were illegal.

Many countries have already stretched the Geneva Conventions to the breaking point with regards to civilians and the treatment of prisoners. For instance, by using the term “collateral” to describe civilian deaths, a country sidesteps the Convention’s stricture against “deliberate targeting” of civilians by claiming the damage was “inadvertent.” By calling insurgents “combatants” rather than “soldiers,” the U.S. has waterboarded people, thus finessing both the Conventions and the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture.

One could get cynical about this—aren’t civilians always the victims of war?—but in their own uneven way, the Geneva Conventions have protected civilians. Indeed, it was the Conventions that led to what is now an almost worldwide ban on landmines and may end up eliminating cluster weapons in the future. The fact that laws don’t always work, or that people of ill will figure how to contravene them, is an argument for greater adherence to the rules, not ignoring or contravening them.

The danger is that the U.S. is blurring the difference between civilian and military, and that is a dangerously slippery slope. We already have a former general running the CIA, and former CIA Director Leon Panetta heads up the Defense Department. If we reach a point where there is nothing to distinguish our military institutions from our civilian ones, then all of us are fair game.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

U.S. Military Aid to Israel: Ever Inviolable

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

From the New York Times article “Foreign Aid Set to Take a Hit in U.S. Budget Crisis” (emphasis added):

The House appropriations subcommittee, controlled by Republicans, proposed cutting the administration’s request by $12 billion, or 20 percent, to $47 billion, with $39 billion for operations and aid and $7.6 billion for the contingency account for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan . . .

The Republicans also attach conditions on aid to Pakistan, Egypt and the Palestinians, suspending the latter entirely if the Palestinians succeed in winning recognition of statehood at the United Nations. However, one of the largest portions of foreign aid — more than $3 billion for Israel — is left untouched in both the House and Senate versions, showing that, even in times of austerity, some spending is inviolable.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

UN Origins Project Series, Part 5: Sharpening the Teeth of Peace

War and Peace Aims“We must make clear to the Germans that the wrong for which their fallen leaders are on trial is not that they lost the war, but that they started it.”
— Robert H. Jackson

The following passage was taken from the document: War and Peace Aims: Extracts from Statements of United Nations Leaders, Special Supplement No. 7 to the United Nations Review, February 15, 1946.

For the first time, four of the most powerful nations have agreed not only upon the principle of liability for war crimes and crimes of persecution, but also upon the principle in individual responsibility for the crime of attacking the international peace.

Repeatedly, nations have united in abstract declarations that the launching of aggressive war is illegal. They have condemned it by treaty. But now we have the concrete application of these abstractions in a way which ought to make clear to the world that those who lead their nations into aggressive war face individual accountability for such acts.

The definitions under which we will try the Germans are general definitions. They impose liability upon war-making statesmen of all countries alike. The actions of masses of men are the result of their thinking. If we can cultivate in the world the idea that aggressive war-making is the way to the prisoner’s dock rather than the way to honors, we will have accomplished something toward making the peace more secure.

This, too, is the first time that four nations with such different legal systems have tried to knit their ideas of just criminal procedures into a co-operative trial. That task is far more difficult than those unfamiliar with the differences between Continental and Anglo-American methods would expect. It has involved frank and critical examinations by the representatives of each country of the other methods of administering justice. Our discussions have been candid and openminded.

Of course, one price of such international co-operation is mutual concession. Much to which American lawyers would be accustomed is missing in this instrument. I have not seen fit to insist that these prisoners have the benefit of all the protections which our legal and constitutional system throws around defendants.

To the Russian and the French jurist, our system seems unduly tender of defendants and to be loaded in favor of delay and in favor of the individual against the State. To us, their system seems summary and to load the procedure in favor of the State against the individual.

However, the Continental system is the one the Germans themselves have employed and understood. It does not seem inappropriate that a special military commission for the trial of Europeans in Europe, for crimes committed in Europe, should follow largely although not entirely the European procedures. The essentials of a fair trial have been assured.

Another price of international co-operation is slow motion. No doubt Russia acting alone, or the United States, or any one country acting alone, could try these defendants in a much shorter time than we can do it when we consult with each other and move along together. Our associates, for example, have a claim as good as ours to have the trial proceed in a language which they understand.

This requires a trial rendered into four languages – German, Russian, French and English. This will be a dreary business and there is no use trying to dodge that fact. It is a tedious prospect for me and for representatives of all the governments which will engage in it.

But I do not think the world will be poorer even if it takes a month or so, more or less, to try these men who now are prisoners and whose capacity for harm already has been overcome.

I do think the world would be infinitely poorer if we were to confess that the nations which now dominate the western world held ideas of justice so irreconcilable that no common procedure could be devised or carried out.

The danger, so far as the moral judgment of the world is concerned, which will beset these trials, is that they come to be regarded as merely political trials in which the victor wreaks vengeance upon the vanquished. However unfortunate it may be, there seems no way of doing anything about the crimes against the peace and against humanity except that the victors judge the vanquished.

Experience has taught that we can hardly expect them to try each other. The scale of their attack leaves no neutrals in the world. We must summon all that we have of dispassionate judgment to the task of patiently and fairly presenting the record of these evil deeds in these trials.

We must make clear to the Germans that the wrong for which their fallen leaders are on trial is not that they lost the war, but that they started it. And we must not allow ourselves to be drawn into a trial of the causes of the war, for our position is that no grievances of policies will justify resort to aggressive war. It is utterly renounced and condemned as an instrument of policy.

I therefore want to make clear to the American people that we have taken an important step forward in this instrument in fixing individual responsibility of war mongering, among whatever peoples, as an international crime. We have taken another in recognizing an international accountability for persecutions, exterminations and crimes against humanity when associated with attacks on the peace of the international order.

But I want to be equally clear that to make these advances fully effective through international trials is a task of difficulty and one which will require some public patience and some understanding of the wide gulf which separates the judicial systems of the nations which are trying to co-operate in the effort.

Statement by Robert H. Jackson, Representative and Chief Counsel for the United States at the International Military Tribunal, upon the signing of the War Crimes Agreement on August 8, 1945.

Greg Chaffin is a research assistant for the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London.

Kaddish for Oslo, Part 2: The Palmer Report

The Mavi Marmara.

The Mavi Marmara.

Israel’s Black September

In a gesture that could only chill Turkish-Israeli relations that much further, Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently stated that Turkey’s naval forces would escort Turkish humanitarian aid ships bound for the Gaza Strip. This comes following Israel’s refusal to apologize for its deadly raid on an aid flotilla heading to the besieged Palestinian territory in May 2010.

Erdogan went on to say that Turkey would closely monitor international waters and has taken steps to prevent what he called ‘Israel’s unilateral exploitation of natural resources’ in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Shortly thereafter, Turkey opposed a move for NATO to open an office in Israel.

Such statements are an indication of the extent to which Turkish-Israeli relations have deteriorated in the past year and more, of the fraying of a number of important regional strategic alliances that Israel has long enjoyed. Turkish-Israeli tensions also tend to undermine the U.S. strategic position in the Middle East, which has long been dependent on the cooperation of such key players as Turkey and Israel. The implications of U.S. concern about Israel’s regional isolation were brought sharply into focus during Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta’s recent visit to Israel.

Speaking specifically of Israel-Turkish (as well as Israeli-Egyptian) strains, Panetta is quoted as saying:

“It’s pretty clear, at this dramatic time in the Middle East when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated. And that is what has happened…”

Panetta said he was aware of that Israel had more and better weapons than its neighbors… “but the question you have to ask is – is it enough to maintain an military edge if you are isolating yourself diplomatically?”

As predicted by many of those following events in the Middle East, September turned out to be nothing short of a political tsunami for the Israeli leaders and consequently, for the United States as well. The deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations, the Egyptian call to renegotiate 1979 Camp David Accord, the Palestinian push for a resolution on statehood from the UN, the mass demonstrations in Israel over socio-economic conditions – all these events, coming one atop the other, have left the Israeli administration twisting in the wind.

As the momentum of the Second Arab Revolt picked up and became region-wide, the confusion of Israel’s ruling circles deepened. Not long before, Tizpi Livni, the country’s foreign minister, spoke of her country’s both regional and international status in harsh terms, speaking of nothing short of Israel’s crisis of legitimacy.

In the series that follows we will explore the major shifts that have occurred since that day in December 2011, less than a year ago, when a young and impoverished and humiliated, unlicensed Tunisian street peddler in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, immolated himself in the town square there, setting off a regional explosion which has not yet abated.

The Palmer Report

After having a strong and cordial political relations for decades, Turkish-Israeli relations hit the lowest level few weeks ago, after a UN report on the deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship, known today as the Palmer Report, claimed that Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza was legitimate but its raid on the flotilla trying to break the blockade was “excessive and unreasonable.”

The UN report was published after Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary General, decided to investigate the events of May 31, 2010 where Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, and five other ships carrying humanitarian aid to the beleaguered people of Gaza, and killed nine people – eight Turks and one US citizen of Turkish origin – in international waters, approximately 70 miles from the blockade zone, causing a diplomatic row between Turkey and Israel.

The investigation team was headed by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a former prime minister of New Zealand, aided by Alvaro Uribe, the former Colombian president, along with a representative each from Israel and Turkey.

The report was charged with interpreting the legal issues involved reasonably and responsibly. It did not appear to have done so. The central issues were the blockade of Gaza and whether a country has the right to attack a ship registered under another flag, over 70 miles from the shore.

Unfortunately neither of the two issues was addressed. Although other international bodies had already condemned Israel for its illegal siege of Gaza, this report saw fit to call it legal.

The second central issue was again conveniently ignored and Israel was simply condemned for harsh and disproportional reaction. Under what appears to have been pressure from US, the UN stacked the committee in a manner that not only discredited its founding; it did not want those issues to be addressed.

The key point involved is that the underlying the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed more than four years ago on the 1.6 million Palestinians living in Gaza is, according to international law, unlawful and should be immediately lifted. It follows that the Israeli attack to enforce the blockade was unlawful, an offense aggravated by its gross interference with freedom of navigation on the high seas, and further aggravated by resulting in the deaths of nine humanitarian workers and peace activists on the Mavi Marmara.

Israel's Arab Spring.

Israel’s Arab Spring.

No-Brainers

Such conclusions should have been “no-brainers” for the panel, so obvious were these determinations from the perspective of international law. Instead, with pressure from Washington guiding the investigation, the result was, not surprisingly, essentially a whitewash which not only in principle justifies the Israeli attack but also gives credence to the broader issue: giving credence to the notion that the blockade of Gaza itself is justified by international law.

Not surprisingly, Turkey responded strongly that it was not prepared to live with 105-page report’s central finding which found that the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is lawful and could legally be enforced by Israel against a humanitarian mission, even in international waters.

Given the make-up of the panel issuing the report, perhaps this outcome should not be surprising. It gives all the indications of having been ‘stacked’ and, as such, was woefully ill-equipped to render an authoritative result.

  • Former New Zealand Prime Minister and environmental law professor Geoffrey Palmer, the chair of the panel lacked expertise concerning either international maritime law or the law of war.
  • Incredibly, the only other independent member of the panel was Alvaro Uribe, the former President of Colombia. Uribe has no professional credentials related to the issues under consideration.
  • The remaining two members were designated by the governments of Israel and Turkey. Not surprisingly, they appended partisan dissents to those portions of the report that criticized the position taken by their respective governments.

Uribe is well known if not notorious both for his awful human rights record while holding office and for having forged intimate ties with Israel through arms purchases and diplomatic cooperation. The fact that he received “The Light Unto The Nations” award from the American Jewish Committee should have been sufficient in itself to cast doubt on his suitability.Alvaro Uribe’s presence alone on the panel compromised the integrity of the process, and made one wonder how such an appointment could be explained, let alone justified.

Another limitation of the report was that the panel was constrained by its terms of reference, which prohibited reliance on any materials other than that presented in the two national reports submitted by the contending governments.

With these considerations in mind, we can only wonder why the Secretary General would have established a framework so ill-equipped to reach findings that would put the controversy to rest, which it has certainly not done. Such a conclusion contradicted the earlier finding of a more expert panel established by the Human Rights Council, and also rejected the overwhelming consensus that had been expressed by qualified international law specialists on these core issues.

No Closure

Although the panel delayed the report several times to give diplomacy a chance to resolve the contested issues, Israel and Turkey could never reach closure. There were intriguing reports along the way that unpublicized discussions between representatives of the two governments had reached a compromise agreement on the basis of Israel’s readiness to offer Turkey a formal apology and to compensate the families of those killed as well as those wounded during the attack.

But when the time came to announce such a compromise, Israel backed away. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seemed particularly unwilling to take the last step, claiming that it would demoralize the citizenry of Israel and signal weakness to Israel’s enemies in the region. More cynical observers believed that the Israeli refusal to resolve the conflict was a reflection of domestic politics, especially Netanyahu’s rivalry with the extremist Foreign Minister Lieberman, who continuously accuses Netanyahu of being a wimpy leader and does not hide his own ambition to be the next Israeli head of state.

Whatever the true mix of reasons, the diplomatic track failed, despite cheerleading from Washington that made no secret of its view that resolving this conflict had become a high priority for American foreign policy. And so the Palmer Report assumed a greater role than might have been anticipated. After the feverish diplomatic efforts failed, the Palmer panel seemed to offer the last chance for the parties to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution based on the application of international law and resulting recommendations.

So Where to Next?

We believe the time has come for Israel to pay a price for its persistent violation of International Law. Until now, Israel has managed, with the full support of the US, to avoid paying any price for defying international law.

  • For decades it has been building unlawful settlements in occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
  • It has used excessive violence on numerous occasions in dealing with Palestinian resistance.
  • It has subjected the people of Gaza to sustained and extreme forms of collective punishment.
  • It attacked Lebanese villages and Beirut neighborhoods mercilessly in 2006, launched a massive campaign against a defenseless Gaza at the end of 2008, and then shocked world opinion with its violence against the Mavi Marmara during its nighttime attack in 2010.

If Turkey sustains its position, it will finally send a message to Tel Aviv that the well-being and security of Israel in the future will depend on a change of course in its relations with both the Palestinians and its regional neighbors. For Israel, the days of flaunting international law and fundamental human rights are no longer policy options without a downside. Turkey is dramatically demonstrating that there can be a decided downside to Israeli lawlessness.

Ibrahim Kazerooni is completing a joint PhD program at the Iliff School for Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. Rob Prince is a lecturer in International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies; for the past seven years he has published a blog, The Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Troy Davis and al-Awlaki: Two Murders, One Outrage

alAwlakiOn Wednesday, September 21, the state of Georgia murdered Troy Anthony Davis by poisoning him to death in front of a small audience. Despite overwhelming doubt about his guilt, his murderers, in the name of justice and the citizens of Georgia, held that he killed a white police officer in 1989. The world was horrified – everyone from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to former FBI chief William Sessions to the Pope called for Davis’s reprieve. But their cries fell on deaf ears, leaving thousands in grief over the injustice that took place at 11:08 PM that night.

No group took more interest in the case than American progressives, especially those from minority communities who saw Troy’s execution as a legalized lynching. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, the racial inequality and hatred with which this country was born – stained with the blood of slavery – has not disappeared no matter who happens to be in the White House.

And it just so happens that the man sitting in the White House, the first African American president of the United States, carried out a murder of another US citizen just one short week after the state of Georgia. He didn’t poison anyone to death, no; he was thousands of miles away from the crime scene. But he ordered a hit sometime before January 2010, and it was carried out last Friday, September 30.

The victim was Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. Citizen of Yemeni descent living in exile in Yemen. He was an imam of the Islamic faith who was once called into the Pentagon in the aftermath of 9/11 to advise U.S. officials on how to promote moderate over extremist Islam. But as has since become evident, whatever advice those clerics gave to U.S. war-planners was not followed. Two murderous invasions and occupations, replete with atrocities against innocent civilians, have recruited scores of Muslims to fight fanaticism with fanaticism. Among them Anwar al-Awlaki.

He became radicalized as the so-called War on Terror turned many Muslim countries into hellish war zones. Being a native-born U.S. citizen, he had the English-speaking skills and the background with which a wide audience of Muslims in the West could empathize. His English sermons were put online and he became something of an icon amidst a limited audience. Allegedly (there has been no evidence released to confirm official accusations), his audience included the “underwear bomber” Faruq Abdulmutallab, the Fort Hood gunman Nidal Hasan, and the man who loaded an SUV with gasoline tanks and car batteries near Times Square and was made out to be a terrorist mastermind.

If ideological motivation of criminal acts were itself an offense warranting execution, the Norwegian government would be justified in sending drones to New York to execute Jihad Watch co-creators Robert Spencer and Pam Gellar, and neoconservative ideologue Daniel Pipesall cited numerous times in the manifesto of Anders Behring Brevik. Brevik’s 76 kills far outnumber the total body count attributed to al-Awlaki’s alleged followers (13 at Fort Hood), but that clearly doesn’t matter.

The number of innocent civilians killed by individual terrorists or state terrorism always takes second seat to global power politics. As the death toll of the Yemeni government’s crackdown on peaceful democratic protestors surpasses 500, the Obama administration continues cooperating with dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. Indeed, according to the New York Times, “the Obama administration’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, said recent cooperation with Yemen was better than it has ever been.” (The Times pulled the paragraphs referencing U.S.-Saleh cooperation from their website, hence the link to Truthout.)

Nor does it matter that al-Awlaki was a U.S. citizen with full protection as such under the constitution. He was a dark-skinned Arab wearing a turban and a long beard living in Yemen, where he spoke out against the United States.

In a nation at war obsessed with appearance and ideological conformity, it wouldn’t be surprising if after denying citizenship to people born in the U.S. to undocumented parents, the right-wing forces that wield extraordinary power in this country were to go after those who criticize it.

The United States propaganda machine turned al-Awlaki into a real bogeyman, claiming – again without evidence – that he was a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and posed a direct threat to U.S. National Security. So the president ordered him killed. No trial, no official charges, just a quick death that could be broadcast to the media as a victory in the ongoing war against terror.

The large community that supported Troy Davis in his last hours, rightly decrying the injustice inherent in killing an innocent man, was an inspiration for all who seek a more equitable justice system. But will that movement be equally outraged by the murder of Anwar al-Awlaki?

The inclusion of African Americans into the nationalist myth of the United States, despite continued racism and some of the highest levels of inequality on record, serves the agenda of demonizing an outside threat in the form of Arab Muslims, which is used to give the government – indeed the president alone – the power to kill whomever he wishes, anywhere in the world. That is illegal, inhuman and downright frightening.

For characteristically spot-on analysis of the Awlaki case, please check out Glenn Greenwald on the matter.

Noah Gimbel is currently working on a book on Universities and Empire and can be reached at ngimbel@ips-dc.org.

In the End, Will Iran’s Nuclear Plans Be Decided by — Cancer?

However many obstacles it encounters — International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, difficulty procuring the technology and know-how, sabotage, assassinations of its scientists — Iran appears to be stumbling toward a degree of nuclear weaponization. While some in the West believe Iran seeks to actually develop nuclear weapons, it’s more likely that, instead, it seeks the capacity to build nuclear weapons on demand (sometimes known as virtual deterrence). But, as Iran demonstrates by its occasional openness to overtures, it may be willing to bargain away weaponization.

Diplomacy is handicapped, though, when the West, especially the United States, fails to observe its end of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and take substantive steps toward disarmament. At the same time, it tries to hold Iran to the letter of the law of the NPT and demands that it refrain from nuclear proliferation. Nevertheless, few would have guessed that observing a commitment to its people — if only to keep them from taking to the streets again — might determine the direction of Iran’s nuclear program.

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Ali Vaez and Charles Ferguson explain.

A nuclear research reactor in Tehran may hold the key to resolving the prolonged nuclear stalemate between Iran and the West. The Iranian government is running out of the 20 percent-enriched uranium it needs to operate the reactor, and that appears to be making it amenable to compromise.

The reactor is used to make medical isotopes, which, until the Iranian revolution, were supplied by the United States and Argentina. The isotopes, in turn, are used to treat 850,000 Iranians for cancer. What does this have to do with Iran’s nuclear weapons plans?

By arranging to procure this uranium, which, according to the authors, “lies at the perilous dividing line between low-enriched uranium and highly enriched uranium,” from the West instead of manufacturing and stockpiling it on its own, Iran “may lower concerns that [it] will make a dash toward developing atomic bombs in the near future. … Whether the offer is an olive branch or an act of necessity, it is an unprecedented opportunity for Washington and its allies.”

Cancer has a way of undermining even our best-laid plans. Besidees, when immediate concerns, such as the well-being of its people, take precedence over its nuclear aspirations, Iran is humanized in the eyes of the West. “For once,” write Vaez and Ferguson, “it is strategically expedient for the United States and its allies to take Ahmadinejad at his word. They should provide Iran with 50 kilograms of fuel, without any conditions.”

Michele Bachmann “Blames” Obama for Arab Spring

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss and the Arabist.

That’s right: a Republican is giving Obama more credit than even his own party will for influencing –no, inducing — the “Arab Spring.” MSNBC broke the story, capturing footage of Michele Bachmann, GOP presidential hopeful, saying that:

Just like Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s [who] didn’t have the back of the Shah of Iran, we saw the Shah fall and the rise of the Ayatollah. And we saw the rise and the beginnings of radical jihad which have changed this world and changed this nation.

So too, under Barack Obama, we saw him put a lot of daylight between our relationship with our ally Israel. And when he called on Israel to retreat to its indefensible 1967 borders, don’t think that message wasn’t lost on Israel’s 26 hostile neighbors.

You want to know why we have an Arab Spring? Barack Obama has laid the table for an Arab Spring by demonstrating weakness from the United States of America.

There are just so many things worth commenting on in this speech, like the strawman of Obama calling on Israel “to retreat to its 1967 indefensible borders,” or the fact that Obama’s casus belli “1967 borders” speech postdated popular uprisings in the Arab world by several months, to say nothing of the total historical amnesia surrounding the Iranian Revolution. Khomeini was a dictator, but then, what was the Shah? Oh yes, a dictator, just like the Arab ones Bachmann now bemoans the loss of. These statements aren’t anything we have not heard from Israeli or American officials and pundits before, though.

It’s true that American imperial overreach has helped revolutionaries in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, but this overreach isn’t Obama’s creation. How could a junior senator from Illinois have had a substantial effect on developments even over the past decade? The answer: he didn’t. We are now seeing blowback for decades of support for military dictatorships and monarchies in the Middle East. Indeed, much of the major political upheaval in the region between 2001 and 2010 — Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, the Hamas-Fatah schism, revelations about Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, the U.S.-led regime change in Iraq, Operation Cast Lead — all occurred while George W. Bush was squatting in the White House. These events stirred up the Middle East: they emboldened both Islamist movements and Israeli hardliners, forced the U.S.’s Arab allies into awkward positions with their populations (plus factions of their elites), and altered the post-Cold War status quo by creating a political and military vacuum in Iraq.

This is what Bush left Obama, who only came to the White House as Cast Lead was winding down (and, in fact, remained vigorously silent as Israel pounded Gaza for 23 days). Focused on domestic issues, Obama’s administration basically fell into the Arab Spring, for all his Cairo speech did to “change” the tone in the region. Caught unawares by the fragility of their “secular” stalwarts, Washington essentially resigned itself to the overthrow of Presidents Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak when it became clear that their countries’ security apparatuses — whose equipment and paychecks had long depended on U.S. largesse — were positioning themselves to “manage the transitions” in their countries. (Much as the Soviet Union learned from its Warsaw Pact allies in 1989, the U.S. discovered that the security apparatuses of its client states were paper tigers more interested in securing their survival alongside the protesters than alongside their bureaucratic bosses.)

Meanwhile, even as Bachmann gives Obama far too much credit for igniting the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, she doesn’t give him nearly enough credit for trying to stomp them out in Bahrain and Yemen. That’s because she has to overlook Obama’s sterling record in joining hands with the Saudis to assist the Bahraini and Yemeni authorities in clamping down on dissent if she wants her charges to have a sheen of sensibility. Give the man some credit, Michele: he’s no “dhimmi” (as Islamophobes sometimes call him) when it comes to the Persian Gulf. He, or rather, our riot gear andUAVs, are standing up for U.S. interests there day and night. Only in Libya has the Obama Administration taken the initiative — and a controversial one at that.

Bachmann’s response to Israel is also interesting, though certainly not in the way she intended. She condemns him for putting “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, for emboldening Israel’s enemies (which she defines as every country in the region). “Daylight”: as in Obama actually attempting public criticism of the Israeli policies that have led to increased settlement construction. Daylight: Just like the unremarkable speech he gave a few months ago largely echoing previous administrations’ positions on a two-state solution. But even these moves prompted such a furious response from Netanyahu and Congressional Republicans that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lost his temper and called Israel “an ungrateful ally.”

Fortunately for Israel, such conservative pressure has put the president back on the straight and narrow path . . . even though, as Bachmann fails to realize (or does, but just doesn’t care), he never strayed from that path.

“Daylight” is indeed the last thing any American alliance in the Middle East can withstand. Bachmann has hit the nail on the head, though it was probably unintentional: if the U.S. gives even an inch regarding its client states’ undemocratic behavior, the people of those states will try to seize a mile from us and our cronies.

Rather than ask why this is the case, though, conservatives are waxing poetic for the days when Pahlavis and Hashemites ran the Middle East. Still, Bachmann, and those echoing her comments, do see democratization in the region quite accurately, at least from their Beltway vantage point — as a threat to U.S. hegemony in the Middle East.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

U.S. Congress a Standard Bearer for Israeli Expansion

Joe Walsh (R-Il)

Joe Walsh (R-Il)

If you read some of the blogs or alternative media reports on the Internet you might know it happened, but you wouldn’t have found out from the major Establishment media. I got it from Caroline Glick, the right-wing deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Post: “Earlier this month, Rep. Joe Walsh and 30 co-sponsors issued a resolution supporting Israeli annexation of Judea and Samaria.” That’s the way Glick and other Israeli expansionists refer to the West Bank, or what is known in most of the world as the occupied territories. Yes, it happened, an action so provocative and stupid it is understandable that the Times and the Posts of this country would want to ignore it.

Two days after the Republican Walsh tabled his bill in the House, the New York Times ran a political blog piece about him, sans the Israel connection, but noting that he is “a darling of the Tea Party” who had “raised his national profile during the debt ceiling debate this summer, touring the media circuit after he put out a video vehemently accusing President Obama of bankrupting the nation and lying to the American public.”

And, the Walsh gambit wasn’t the only U.S. political action Glick sought to pass off as good for the Israel expansionists. “Israel has nothing to lose, everything to gain from going on the offensive. Our friends in US Congress have shown us a path that lays open to us to follow,” she wrote, adding that, “Israel’s friends in the US Congress have put forward two measures that pave the way” for “a strategy for victory.”

Glick also cites the action of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who has introduced a bill calling for the US to “end its financial support for the Palestinian Authority and drastically scale-back its financial support for the UN if the UN upgrades the PLO’s membership status in any way.”

“Ros-Lehtinen’s bill shows Israel that there is powerful support for an Israeli offensive that will make the Palestinians pay a price for their diplomatic aggression,” says Glick.

There is no question where Glick, a former assistant foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu, with numerous ties to neo-conservative circles in the US, is coming from. She holds that “Israel’s sovereign rights to Judea and Samaria are ironclad while the Palestinians’ are flimsy. As the legal heir to the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, Israel is the legal sovereign of Judea and Samaria. Moreover, Israel’s historic rights to the cradle of Jewish civilization are incontrovertible.”

This stance puts her in league with far right Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and Deputy Knesset Speaker Danny Danon, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, chair of World Likud, and Chair of the Knesset Committee for Aliya (immigration), Absorption and Diaspora Affairs. Danon announced at the end of October the Israeli Parliament will take up a bill he has authored calling for full Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

According to the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA), Danon’s bill “was submitted in line with a similar initiative in the U.S. Congress offered by Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), which calls for supporting Israel’s rights to annex the West Bank should the Palestinian Authority move forward with its statehood bid without negotiating.”

“Meanwhile, a letter signed by the leaders of four ruling coalition factions — Likud Party chairman Ze’ev Elkin, Shas chairman Avraham Michaeli, Habayit Hayehudi chairman Uri Orbach, and National Union leader Yaakov Katz — asks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex Jewish-settled areas of the West Bank and calls for increased construction in those areas,” according to the JTA.

Meanwhile, in a related development, the U.S. sharply condemned the Netanyahu government’s decision to build 1,100 new housing units in East Jerusalem. “We are deeply disappointed by this morning’s announcement by the government of Israel approving the construction of 1,100 housing units in East Jerusalem,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “We consider this counterproductive to our efforts to resume direct negotiations between the parties.”

Catherine Ashton, foreign policy director for the European Union, also slammed the move saying it “should be reversed” as it undermines the search for peace in the region. She added that the settlement expansion “threatens the viability of an agreed two-state solution” between the two sides, as backed by the EU, the United States, Russia and the United Nations. On September 28, the government of China the nation “regrets and opposes” Israel’s expansion of the East Jerusalem settlement.

Not much accurate reporting on the settlement expansion either. On September 27, the New York Times’ Isabel Kershner penned a 700-word piece online titled “Israel Angers Palestinians With Plan For Housing” that was carried by a number of newspapers around the country. It contained nary a word about the State Department response or that of the EU or China. When the story appeared in print the following day it had been amended to include only mention that the Obama administration was “deeply disappointed” by the Israeli announcement.

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.

When Creation Myths Converge: U.S. and Israeli Colonialism

Ohio 1760sGOP Presidential candidate Rick Perry, who has in the past compared Gaza to Mexico and the Alamo to Masada, wants you to know that the Lone Star state and the Star of David state have a lot more in common that just bad relations with their neighbors and certain ethnic groups. “Historian T.R. Fehrenbach once observed that my home state of Texas and Israel share the experience of civilized men and women thrown into new and harsh conditions, beset by enemies,” the governor of Texas proudly proclaimed in a recent op-ed making the rounds in conservative papers condemning President Obama’s Israel policy and the Palestinian Authority’s efforts at the UN.

But, as Max Blumenthal has pointed out, the paraphrasing was too accurate by half. According to Blumenthal, what Fehrenbach actually said in his work Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans was this:

The Texan’s attitudes, his inherent chauvinism and the seeds of his belligerence, sprouted from his conscious effort to take and hold his land. It was the reaction of essentially civilized men and women thrown into new and harsh conditions, beset by enemies they despised. The closest 20th-century counterpart is the State of Israel, born in blood in another primordial land.

Perry’s Freudian slip?

Perhaps (more likely, it was shoddy speechwriting). But both Perry and Fehrenbach make important points — Perry in terms of mythologizing history, Fehrenbach in terms of actually reporting history.

One thing that has always struck me about the points of the argument regarding the disposition of land in the British Mandate of Palestine was how similar the Zionist claim that the Jordan River Valley is an integral part of Israel sounds to arguments made centuries earlier over a different river valley that was once as contested as the Jordan River Valley is today: the Ohio River Valley in the United States.

In the 1760s and 1770s, the Ohio River Valley was a flashpoint that loomed large in foreign and American consciousnesses. Multiple wars were fought over it, military outposts were built throughout its boundaries, people argued that its seizure was tantamount to national survival, and officially sanctioned (by George Washington, no less) ethnic cleansing took place after the American Revolution as settlers and land speculators crossed the Appalachian Mountains into the region.

It all began when the British (doesn’t everything?) fought the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, largely to check French political ambitions in Europe. The colonies were a secondary combat theater, but the war had the bonus outcome of driving the French from the fertile Ohio River Valley, a prize sought by many colonials, from Virginia plantation owners (including George Washington) to New England merchants and farmers. Britain, however, did not think unregulated settlement was a good idea. The British thus issued the Proclamation of 1763 (without consulting any of the colonial legislatures), which severely restricted the expansion of colonial settlement westward and turned over most of the Ohio River Valley to allied Native Americans. British forts went up to enforce the boundary lines and British soldiers began evicting those American settlers and traders who were there illegally. Americans were furious.

At the heart of the colonists’ rage (the rebellion against the Crown wasn’t all about taxes, despite what you may hear from conservatives today) was the belief that the Native Americans, weren’t worthy of possessing the land they inhabited. They weren’t natives, they were transients (and savage ones at that). Even though the British did begin to chip away at Indian territories to appease the colonials, it was not enough for them.

Sound familiar? While the Arab invasions of (present-day) Israeli territory in 1948 may indeed have been the catalyst for the expulsion of Palestinians, the aforementioned perceptions about strangeness, inferiority and savagery were the precipitants for the Nakba – and Israel’s ensuing distorted claims that the former inhabitants now have no claims to the land).

The issue of legality is what made the Proclamation of 1763 especially galling: it implicitly recognized that the Native Americans were, well, Native Americans and legally entitled to the land they lived on, something a very vocal number of colonists (including most of the now-deified “Founding Fathers”) absolutely refused to accept. Here is how the mythmaking gets going: You couldn’t “give” these people ownership of the land. “Ownership” was alien to them (actually, it wasn’t, but subtleties like that didn’t matter). These people weren’t white (i.e., they were inherently inferior). They had no paperwork to denote land ownership (except sometimes they did – but like certain UN Security Council resolutions, the settlers selectively recognized them).

And, worst of all to American sensibilities, the natives didn’t even farm the land. All that “vacant land” going to waste! That the American continent was a wilderness before European settlement is an assumed historical fact.

And it is just that: assumed.

Americans have long failed to realize that the “wilderness” was actually one of the most intensive examples of arboriculture ever practiced in human history: rather than rely on fields, Native Americans managed the forests for game and crops (and often did practice farming, just not to the extent that the European colonists did). The untamed wilderness myth only got worse as time went on, because people moving west increasingly came upon depopulated landscapes. Just a few years before, these landscapes had been heavily managed by native populations, but they now lay fallow, rendered vacant by disease, warfare and ill tidings of the rapacious white man’s approach. The real (or imagined) vacancy of the land is necessary for any colonial enterprise to succeed: the land has to “belong” to those not even on it yet. Sometimes it helps to force the vacancies along.

Israeli assertions that Zionism has made the “desert bloom” and that the Arabs were incompetent farmers have taken on the same justificatory tone (both moralsitic and scientific) as the untamed wilderness myth in the U.S. The blooming dessert meme also explains why the present water situation in Israel has become a major environmental issue and the Israelis have had to destroy so many Palestinian orchards — to conserve water, perhaps?

But these orchard demolitions reveal an inherent problem with the wilderness narrative: the land is inhabited. The Founding Fathers, though unhappy with Indian land claims, recognized that the natives did live there (duh, that was the whole problem!) and, obviously, since they lived there in numbers, knew that they were able to feed themselves. The “wilderness” mythology is, in fact, a largely modern invention in both Israel and America.

So how does one end up glossing over this? The simplest solution is for the people at the time to have already gone and created a “wilderness” through scorched earth tactics, as the 1779 Sullivan Expedition to the Ohio demonstrated. Largely forgotten today, it was launched four years into the American War for Independence and was regarded as an extremely important military effort at the time. George Washington himself ordered it, making it comparable to David Ben-Gurion’s decision to launch the October 1948 invasion of Galilee.

Like the Galilee operation, the Sullivan Expedition had been given the same objective: secure the territory for future settlement by evicting the native population. Washington, who was known among the Iroquois as “The Devourer of Villages” ordered the expedition to:

Lay waste all the [Indian] settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner; that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed.

After you have very thoroughly completed the destruction of their settlements; if the Indians should shew a disposition for peace, I would have you to encourage it.

Washington wasn’t sending an army out just to burn down a few dozen native tents — he was sending them to burn down dozens of native villages (comparable in size to the average colonial village) until the natives sued for peace.

Regarding that, though, he cautioned his officers over what “peace” in these circumstances meant:

It is likely enough their fears, if they are unable to oppose us, will compel them to offers of peace, or policy may lead them to endeavour to amuse us in this way to gain time and succour for more effectual opposition. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us . . . and in the terror with which the severity of the chastizement they receive will inspire them. Peace without this would be fallacious and temporary.

Ben-Gurion explicitly made an Israeli association (in terms of tactics and moral justification) with this era in American history quite clear during the 1948 War of Independence. His biographer, Michael Bar-Zohar, says that Ben-Gurion told his head officers “the American Declaration of Independence . . . [has] no mention of the territorial limits. We are not obliged to state the limits of our State.”

Galilee was, like Ohio, supposed to remain in the hands of its native inhabitants (that was the UN plan). But, expansionist Israel had other ideas. Washington and his officers had aspirations about Ohio; Ben Guiron pressed his reluctant commanders to drive into Galilee. So, once the natives were cleared by the invaders (in Ohio’s case, by the Americans’ burning of Indian villages and their food stocks just before the onset of winter; in Galilee’s, this was achieved by forced evictions and killings of Arabs that “encouraged” a mass exodus) the now-“empty” land ceased to present a military threat and could be peopled by new settlers.

The narrative then became that the settlers had the virtue of divine providence; they were fighting for their lives; the natives didn’t think of themselves as natives until after they abandoned their land when a fight that they started turned sour for them, etc. Manifest Destiny became accepted fact, rather than historical romanticism and political PR. “The harder you hit them, the longer they stay quiet,” goes the old Russian Army axiom. The Palestinians have not forgotten this. Nor have the Israelis (though they have tried to whitewash it and expedite the process of “winning the West [Bank]” through demographic growth). Only a short while after the seminal historical enshrinement of the “frontier in American history” by Frederick Jackson Turner, the clothing of choice for pro-war American jingoes was that of the Western cowboy, incorporating the virgin lands mythology of the frontier with a belligerent self-assertiveness. Today, the clothing of the Israeli jingo is that worn by Israeli settlers — which may now make up at least 40% of the Israeli military (cowboys in uniform). Theodore Roosevelt, an American “cowboy” in uniform, would in fact probably consider Jewish Voice for Peace to be a group of unpatriotic dilettantes, liken the Palestinians to Apaches, and embrace the Israeli residents of Gush Etzion as kindred spirits.

Over time, it becomes easier to forget about these actions and to go along with the post-victory narrative that the land was always “empty” and “uncultivated” (even though men like Washington and Ben-Gurion knew that this was not the case because they planned their campaigns on the premise that their forces were going to have to seize and destroy at least a few dozen native settlements in order to claim victory). This forgetting is less prevalent (relatively speaking) in Israel today because 1) it happened only sixty-odd years ago and 2) there are a lot more Palestinians than Native Americans alive today. But in any case, history is fickle, whether it spans half a dozen or two dozen decades. History, written by the victors, always tends to focus more on the eras of expansion that follow the eras of displacement.

Small wonder that both Israel and the U.S. rely on their selective memories to justify their actions and find common ground in their narratives of expansion (not narratives of dispossession, but of provident growth, of democracy and technology triumphing over feudalism). Israel serves a useful purpose from a military standpoint, true, for the U.S. but also serves a useful ideological one as a complement to manufactured American historical narratives.

Selective memory is more or less how consensus is made in any society, particularly a colonialist one. In most Belgian historiography, you’d think that King Leopold II of Belgium was one of the best things to ever happen to the Congolese, or was at least no worse than any other colonizer (rationalization is always a form of justification). Japanese government officials and the media referred to “incidents” in China in the years leading to WWII rather than “battles” (a euphemism sometimes repeated in postwar history textbooks). “History is a series of lies on which we agree,” as Napoleon once said.

And, as we’ve already heard, the Israelis made the desert bloom and the U.S. tamed the virgin wilderness (the Arabs and Indians being footnotes and irritants in the blazing pace of progress set by kibbutz dwellers and homesteaders, respectively).

Two Manifest Destinies (yes, the Jewish National Fund uses that language), two peoples harnessing underutilized resources to better the whole world through economic and democratic beneficence. The expansionist “Age of Jackson” in America can be seen again in Israel – through a line of self-serving historiography extending from the Sullivan Expedition and the Trail of Tears to the Nakba and the Six Days War.

As Adam Hochschild puts it in King Leopold’s Ghost:

And yet the world we live in – its divisions and conflicts, its widening gap between rich and poor, its seemingly inexplicable outbursts of violence – is shaped far less by what we celebrate and mythologize than by the painful events we try to forget.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Pentagon Still Denies Agent Orange Stored on Okinawa During the Vietnam War

Agent Orange in Vietnam.

Agent Orange in Vietnam.

“Without Okinawa, we cannot carry on the Vietnam war.”
Admiral Ulysses Sharp, Commander of U.S. Pacific Forces, December 1965.

During the 1960s and ’70s, the United States military transformed Okinawa into a forward operating base for its war in Vietnam. From mainland American ports, it transported supplies to the island it dubbed its “Keystone of the Pacific” before transferring them into smaller ships for the passage to South East Asia. But there is one vital ingredient of its war machine that the Pentagon denies ever passed through Okinawa — the defoliant, Agent Orange.

Given the fact that the military transported everything else through the island — from tanks and toilet paper to guard dogs and hundreds of thousands of GI’s — such a claim is implausible. Yet as recently as 2004, the US government has asserted that its records “contain no information linking use or storage of Agent Orange or other herbicides in Okinawa.”

Over the past few years, though, the cracks in that denial have started to show. In 2007, it came to light that the Department of Veterans Affairs — the US government body responsible for caring for sick soldiers — awarded compensation to a marine who had developed prostate cancer as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange in the northern jungles of the island. Then in 2009, the same department admitted that “herbicide agents were stored and later disposed in Okinawa” during Operation Red Hat — the 1971 US military project to remove its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons from Okinawa to Johnston Island.

Bolstering these official comments are the firsthand accounts of over twenty US veterans who have come forward to describe their experiences with Agent Orange on Okinawa. Longshoremen, forklift drivers, medics and marines, these former service members paint an alarming picture of the widespread use of the herbicide on ten American military installations stretching from the Yambaru jungles in the north to Naha Port in the south. Not only did these veterans help to unload and store the defoliant, they also sprayed it as a localized herbicide to keep down the vegetation around their bases’ runways and fences. “None of us gave Agent Orange the respect we should have,” says one supply yard worker who regularly used it without masks or gloves. “We didn’t know anything about its risks like we do today.”

Now, many of the US veterans who came into contact with Agent Orange on Okinawa are suffering from serious illnesses that the US government recognizes as the result of exposure to dioxins. In some cases, their sons and daughters were born with deformities consistent with Agent Orange poisoning. Despite this, none of these veterans exposed on Okinawa has been able to receive compensation — due solely to the fact that the Pentagon continues to deny that the defoliant was present on the island.

All of these veterans are painfully aware of the harm that Agent Orange may have caused Okinawan civilians at the time. Some of them express their concern at having bartered the defoliant with local farmers in exchange for food and beer, while others talk of seeing groups of school children walking close to base perimeters soon after spraying. “I wonder whether those kids are alive today,” one of the veterans told me. “Or whether the chemicals I was spraying damaged their health as much as it has mine.”

Agent Orange is far from a historical problem. Today in Vietnam, 50 years after the defoliant was first brought to the country, there are over twenty potential dioxin hotspots on the sites of former US bases where Agent Orange had been stored. Yet the people of Vietnam are better informed than those on Okinawa — the last American forces left Saigon in 1975 so Vietnam has been able to conduct extensive environmental testing on the land where the bases once stood. However, on modern-day Okinawa, the US military continues to occupy approximately 20% of the island — and it has repeatedly refused requests to test the levels of pollution within its bases. Such a stance is particularly worrying given the military’s environmental track record on Okinawa which includes the irradiation of the entire Torishima Island through the use on depleted uranium ordnance in the 1990s and the discovery of lethal concentrations of arsenic and asbestos on land returned to civilian use in 2003.

Any discussion of American bases on Okinawa quickly becomes entangled with wider issues of imperialism, global security and legitimacy. But the question of whether Agent Orange was used on the island ought to transcend partisan maneuvering. The Pentagon’s increasingly unconvincing denials not only prevent veterans from receiving the medical care that they so desperately need, but they also endanger the health of both local Okinawans and American service members currently stationed on the island.

With the potential environmental and human impact so enormous, any delay by the US and Japanese governments to launch a comprehensive investigation into the issue is criminally negligent. It is time to reveal the full extent to which Okinawa has been suffering its own dioxin poisoning over the past 50 years.

Jon Mitchell is a Welsh-born writer based in Yokohama. As a result of his research into Agent Orange on Okinawa in August, 2011, the Japanese government asked the U.S. Department of Defense to reinvestigate the presence of military herbicides on the island.

This essay first appeared in Japanese to coincide with the release of “Living The Silent Spring” — a new documentary detailing the damage military defoliants have caused to the children of both Vietnamese and American soldiers. A trailer for the film can be viewed here: http://cine.co.jp/chinmoku_haru/trailer.html

Page 150 of 225« First...102030...148149150151152...160170180...Last »