Focal Points Blog

Left Bares Its Claws in Irish Vote

Irish general election(Pictured: General election vote count.)

While the media focused on the massacre of the conservative Fianna Fail Party in the recent Irish elections, the real story may be the earthquake on the Left, particularly the success of the new kids on the block, the United Left Alliance (ULA).

In terms of total seats, the big winners in the Feb. 26 vote were the conservative Fine Gael Party that went from 51 to 76 seats, and the Labor party that jumped from 20 to 37 seats. But Sinn Fein more than doubled its seats in the Irish parliament, or Dial, from 6 to 15, and the ULA picked up five seats. For the first time in Irish history, the Left—Labor, Sinn Fein and the ULA—hold a majority of the seats in the country’s largest city, Dublin.

The backdrop for the election was the catastrophic collapse of the Irish housing market, and the subsequent cratering of the economy. Ireland went from “Celtic Tiger” to a European basket case and a jobless rate of 13 percent. Fianna Fail’s policies of privatization, dismantling economic checks and balances, and encouraging on-the-margins speculation were largely responsible for the economic implosion, and the voters punished them for it. The party that had dominated Irish politics for more than 80 years went from 77 to 19 seats, the worst defeat in its history.

Most observers expect Fine Gael and Labor to form a coalition that would give them a working majority in the 166-seat Dial, although it may not be a comfortable alliance. Fine Gael’s politics are not all that different than Fianna Fail, although Fine Gael’s leader and presumably new Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, has pledged to try and renegotiate the terms of the $117 billion International Monetary Fund/European Bank (IMF/EB) bailout. The bailouts requires Ireland to cut more than $20 billion from its budget over the next four years, raise taxes on working people, cut social services, and accept a usurious interest rate of 5.8 percent.

The Labor Party has made noises about forcing some of bank bondholders who profited from the speculation binge to pay some of the costs, although European banks are deeply opposed to that. Much will depend on what Kenny can get German Chancellor Andre Merkel to agree to, which most likely means a cut in the interest rate. Even the conservative Irish Business and Employers Confederation are pressing to cut the interest rate.

But pushing the interest rates down is hardly a challenge to the premise behind the bailout: that Ireland’s working people should pay for the speculation binge, an orgy of profit making that they did not partake in.

However, a solid block on the Left could push the debate in the direction of reevaluating that premise, and maybe move Labor in a more left direction. There are some 15 other “independent” voters that might also be lured into a coalition to challenge the bailout, although the ideological range among those independents leans more toward the center-right.

Sinn Fein says it opposes the current bailout, and cuts in social services, but hedges its bets when it talks about who its potential allies might be. The party is socialist in orientation and is closely associated with the Provisional Irish Republican Army. It can take a good deal of credit for bringing peace to Northern Ireland, and those laurels certainly helped it in the Feb. 25 election. But the Irish Republican News of Feb. 26 reports, “Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has left open the possibility of supporting a minority Fine Gael government.”

If Labor goes into a government with Fine Gael, the resulting coalition would have over 100 votes in the Dial, which is hardly a “minority” government. The remark, then, suggests that Adams is launching a trial balloon: a Fine Gael/Sinn Fein coalition that would hold a narrow majority in the Dial.

Such an alliance would not sit well with the ULA, whose program explicitly rules out “any coalition with right wing parties…particularly Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.” Indeed, the ULA says, “We aim to provide a real alternative to the establishment parties as well as Labor and Sinn Fein.” The three parties in the ULA coalition that put deputies in the Dial are the People Before Profit Alliance, the Socialist Party, and the Workers & Unemployed Action Group.

Newly elected UAL Dial member Joe Higgins, a member of the Socialist Party, said that the coalition’s block “will work as a coherent, principled opposition,” adding, “there is a need for a new party on the left for working people.” The UAL is not a party yet, but according to Higgins the coalition is discussing how to make that come about.

The ULA has a six-point program that includes:

  • Dumping the IMF/EB deal and ending “the bailout of the banks and developers.”
  • A progressive tax system that “taxes the greedy not the needy.”
  • A social development program to build up the country’s infrastructure and create “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
  • Reversing the cuts to social services and the privatization of health care.
  • Ending discrimination bases on gender, race, nationality, age, disability or sexual orientation. The coalition supports gay marriage.
  • Protecting the environment.

The ULA also says it wants to form a network of similarly minded parties across Europe, “to fight the attacks on workers, the unemployed and the poor and to fight for a new vision of society.”

Ireland faces rough sledding in the months ahead, though it will hardly be alone. Portugal’s economy is almost as bad, and the IMF and the European Bank is starting to draw up a similar set of draconian bailout policies for Lisbon. If the Irish can come up with a strategy to resist shifting the financial crisis onto the backs of those least able to pay for it, that might be a blueprint for other countries ravaged by debt and economic malaise.

The elections made it clear that the Irish want a change, and the Left has an opportunity to develop “a new vision of society.” Now that would get Irish eyes to smile.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.

WikiLeaks: “Laundered” U.S. Helicopters Wind up in the Hands of Colombian Paramilitaries

Hughes 500(Pictured: Hughes 500.)

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

To get a sense of just how interconnected the formal and illicit dimensions of international political economy are, take a peek at this brief cable from the US embassy in Bogota published by WikiLeaks Sunday.

The cable details then-Ambassador William Woods’ hunt for two missing helicopters that had originally been sold to the Israeli military by the United States government, but had somehow ended up in the hands of multimillionaire Enilse Lopez, a businesswoman that was suspected of close ties to Colombian paramilitaries.

The curious history of the helicopters is in itself instructive. The two Hughes 500 military grade choppers were sold to the Israeli government in the early 1980s, but grounded about fifteen years later when they were converted for civilian use. The helicopters were then sold in 2002 to the Canadian multinational media firm CANWEST, which strangely never had the aircraft moved outside Israeli territory. The next year, the corporation sold the helicopters to a Mexican aeronautical company, that shipped the pair to Miami under phony export and airworthiness documentation supposedly issued by the Israeli government.

As soon as the helicopters arrived in Miami, they were quickly sold to Trade Leasing and Consulting, a Panama-based corporation run by Colombian businessman Francisco Alberto Restrepo Flores. From there, the two choppers were flown to Cartegena, the gorgeous colonial city along Colombia’s northern coast. The import processing was carried out by Aviones Ejecutivos (AVIEL), which was issued a 90-day temporary certificate of airworthiness on condition that AVIEL obtain a safety certificate from the US government. The requested flight operation was never issued by Washington because the paperwork about the helicopters provided by AVIEL in no way matched the actual helicopters under consideration.

No matter. In the ninety days allowed by the Colombian government, the two choppers saw heavy use by AVIEL, which used them to transport cash and other valuables up and down the northern coast of the country on behalf of Banco Agrario, which specializes in offering micro loans to small farmers.

After the ninety day window closed with the expiration of the temporary certificate of airworthiness, the helicopters were grounded and quickly disappeared. They turned up nearly a year later, when the Colombian government discovered they were being stored in a warehouse owned by Enilse Lopez’s Uniapuestsa. They were seized, and moved to a secure facility in Barranquilla, Colombia, where American officials hoped to “verify the tail numbers of said helicopters,” and “obtain answers to critical questions.” Among the questions for which US diplomats sought answers, the critical concern was just what activities the helicopters were used for before their seizure by Colombian authorities.

That the helicopters came into the possession of Enilse Lopez, known popularly as “La Gata,” is noteworthy, due to the businesswoman’s connections to conservative paramilitary forces in Colombia, the long-held suspicion that she was a central node in the country’s massive money-laundering network, and her powerful hold over the Magangué district in Colombia’s northeast, where she is widely believed to be responsible for the extortion and violence plaguing the municipality. As of now, published WikiLeaks cables do not indicate if Wood received answers to any of his questions concerning the helicopters.

“The cat,” however, was found guilty by a Colombian court on February 1 of conspiracy for her proven links to paramilitary death squads between 2000 and 2003, though was acquitted of charges that she was directly complicit in murder. At the time of decision, Lopez was said to be in a Barranquilla hospital suffering from rapidly deteriorating health. Trouble is, she wasn’t actually there. On February 15, Lopez and her entourage were apprehended by Colombian police in her hometown Magangué, where she had arrived from Cartagena for her daughter’s birthday party. According to reports, The Cat claimed she was had not received word of the ruling, and therefore was unaware that she had been forbidden to travel. The decision was appealed by Lopez’s lawyers, and the case currently awaits resolution by the high court in Bogotá.

WikiLeaks: Local Mexican Governments Corrupted by Drug Money Leave Citizens Nowhere to Turn

Monterrey drug violenceWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-third in the series.

Once Latin America’s safest city, Monterrey—in the north of Mexico—has become a central battlefield in the country’s war against drugs. Each day, scores of people, many in law enforcement, are gunned down on Monterrey’s streets as increasingly powerful narcotraffickers contest the Mexican government’s sovereign control over its richest city.

As a US embassy cable published Saturday by WikiLeaks shows, however, the fight between Mexican authorities and the country’s drug gangs is hardly a clear-cut case of good guys taking on the bad.

Written at the start of 2009, the cable examines civil society efforts to combat the rising influence, and attendant violence, of drug traffickers in Monterrey and its immediate surroundings. Diplomats at the local consulate note that

As the wave of kidnappings, extortion, and narco-violence continues in the Monterrey region, the public—across all socioeconomic levels and classes—remains fearful. Attention shifts from one incident to another, whether it be the January 6 grenade attack on the Monterrey Televisa broadcast offices, the January 18 murder of a wealthy adolescent departing a nightclub, or the January 25 dumping of a tortured corpse outside the state government’s anonymous tipster office. Many local experts do not expect the situation to improve anytime soon.

One of those experts, Governor Socrates Rizzo of Nuevo Leon, the state in which Monterrey is located, told American diplomats that a large part of the trouble came from a compromised local government which was ineffectual at best, thoroughly corrupted by drug money at worst. “If citizens are afraid to turn to the authorities when faced with threats,” the cable concludes, “then truly crime victims are on their own.”

Making matters worse, Rizzo openly worried that the national elections slated for July—which dealt a decisive blow to President Felipe Calderon’s ruling PAN party—would draw drug traffickers and organized politics even closer.

While the two principal parties—PRI and PAN—had both taken steps to guard against the infiltration of narco-money in the campaigns, in practice it would be virtually impossible to prevent organized crime from bankrolling candidates. One way the cartels could impact the race would be to just bribe television anchorpersons and commentators, thereby ensuring that their particular candidate would receive favorable coverage. Alternatively…organized crime could provide a candidate’s staff with walking around money to distribute to voters.

Not only that, “applicable campaign finance regulations only cover the candidate, so that it would be easy to simply funnel the narco-money to a family member.”

The prospect of elections also brought to light the scarier prospect that rival politicians might use their connections to organize crime to violently contest for political control. The January 6 attacks on the Televisa headquarters, it turns out, were likely not

a response to any reporting done by that broadcast outlet on the cartels. Instead, [media representatives] saw it as an attempt by organized crime to inflict political damage on the current Nuevo Leon State Secretary for Governance—who happens to be the current governor’s preferred candidate to win the PRI nomination in the gubernatorial race. Under this line of argument, political mafias contracted organized crime gunmen to carry out the attack—if true, an even more chilling scenario [than] the alternative theory that the cartels themselves were behind the assault.

While the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) cleaned up at the polls, violence in Monterrey and across the country has only increased in frequency and magnitude. Local politicians and law enforcement have been particularly under attack. Just this Thursday, an elite squad of police in Garcia—a Monterrey suburb town—was attacked by a team of former police officers working for organized crime. The next day, Jaime Rodriguez—mayor of Garcia—barely survived an assassination attempt as he traveled to Monterrey.

Three mayors nationwide have already been murdered since the start of 2011, and a fourth is currently missing. Nearly 1,200 Mexicans have lost their lives to drug-related violence since January.

New Arab Democratic Governments May Neither Demonize Nor Embrace Iran

Suez Canal Iran warship(Pictured: Iranian warship passing through the Suez Canal.)

While popular fodder for Fox News’ commentators, the notion that the Arab world of 2011 in any way resembles an Iran of 1979 has gained relatively limited traction in our mainstream papers of record. But if Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck are stuck in 1979, some journalists have yet to dislodge themselves from the Cold War.

“Iran has already benefited from the ouster or undermining of Arab leaders,” reports the New York Times, an assessment attributed to unnamed “analysts.”

But while the subsequent spike in oil prices has probably meant an extra infusion of cash into an Iranian regime saddled by sanctions, other concrete indications of this supposed Iranian influence have yet to manifest themselves.

The Times points to two Iranian warships that Egypt’s new leaders allowed to pass through the Suez Canal en route to Syria, the first such passage permitted since 1979. But however much hand-wringing this precipitated in the region’s capitals, it’s hard to imagine that it evinced more than a shrug from an ordinary Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, or Bahraini. The Times further laments that, with respect to Israel, the “pro-engagement camp of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is now in tatters.”

If all this sounds like a reach, it probably is.

“By allowing the Iranian ships to transit the Canal,” explains Time’s Tony Karon, “Egypt’s military rulers are signaling they want to normalize ties with Iran. That doesn’t make them proxies of Tehran any more than Iraq, Turkey or, for that matter, Brazil are. They’re simply opting out of a U.S. regional strategy of confronting Iran.” Nor should the apparent refusal of ordinary Egyptians to facilitate the strangulation of Gaza render them partners in Iran’s support for Hamas.

Indeed, ordinary Arabs have been by and large relatively unconcerned about Iran. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, they tend to perceive far greater threats to regional stability from the United States and Israel, an orientation that a cursory review of the region’s recent history might well justify. And given the Western backing for most of the regimes presently under siege, the near complete absence of anti-American or anti-Israeli sloganeering from the uprisings is frankly remarkable. If anything, it should indicate that the authors of the extraordinary revolutions sweeping the region are firmly committed to the democratic futures of their own countries — not to the regional ambitions of outsiders.

Additionally, both the Times and the Washington Post have stoked concerns about restive Shiite populations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, areas that the Post has called “a focus of Iranian influence.” But to graft an Iranian power play onto the democratic aspirations of these aggrieved populations is to take a page from the sectarian playbook of the ruling Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It also harkens back to a more general American paranoia about the Shiite sect, which has been difficult to erase since the Iranian hostage crisis and has left American policy makers almost to this day wondering whether Osama bin Laden is a Sunni or Shiite.

Any notion that the democratic aspirations of Shiites (or anyone else) could be abetted by Iranian meddling is quickly dispelled by the behavior of the Iranians themselves. Just days after disingenuously praising Egypt’s and Tunisia’s “Islamic liberation movements,” the Iranian regime cracked down hard on its own pro-democracy protestors. Should they come into being, nascent democratic governments in the Arab world may carry on relatively normalized relations with Iran. But few democrats in the region will overlook the bankruptcy displayed by Iran’s leaders.

In the end, the popular rejection of U.S.-backed autocrats certainly amounts to a diminished American influence in the region. But it is a relic of Cold War analysis to suppose that the influence lost by one regional hegemon must automatically accrue to another. There is simply little evidence that Iran has gained where the U.S. has lost.

The real fundamental change has been the audience for such influence – where it was once a coterie of aging autocrats, it is now the people themselves. If the U.S. is concerned about Iran, the Obama administration must prove itself a greater friend of democracy than Iran’s clerics. Let’s not make that more difficult than it sounds.

Peter Certo is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus as well as the Institute of Policy Studies Balkans Project and the Global Day of Action on Military Spending.

Raymond Davis Incident Shows How Tangled U.S.-Pakistan Web Is

Raymond DavisWas American CIA agent Raymond Davis secretly working with the Taliban and al-Qaeda to destabilize Pakistan and lay the groundwork for a U.S. seizure of that country’s nuclear weapons? Was he photographing sensitive military installations and marking them with a global positioning device? Did he gun down two men in cold blood to prevent them from revealing what he was up to? These are just a few of the rumors ricocheting around Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar in the aftermath of Davis’s arrest Jan. 27, and sorting through them is a little like stepping through Alice’s looking glass.

But one thing is certain: the U.S. has hundreds of intelligence agents working in Pakistan, most of them private contractors, and many of them so deep in the shadows that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), doesn’t know who they are or what they are up to. “How many more Raymond Davises are out there?” one ISI official asked Associated Press.

Lots, it would appear. Five months ago, the Pakistani government directed its embassies in the U.S. to issue visas without letting the ISI or Pakistan’s Interior Ministry vet them. According to the Associated Press, this opened a “floodgate” that saw 3,555 visas for diplomats, military officials and employees issued in 2010.

Many of those visas were for non-governmental organizations and the staff for the huge, $1 billion fortress embassy Washington is building in Islamabad, but thousands of others covered consular agents and workers in Lahore (where Davis was arrested), Karachi and other cities. Some of those with visas work for Xe Services (formerly Blackwater), others for low-profile agencies like Blackbird Technologies, Glevum Associates, and K2 Solutions. Many of the “employees” of these groups are former U.S. military personnel—Davis was in the Special Forces for 10 years—and former CIA agents. And the fact that these are private companies allows them to fly under the radar of congressional oversight, as frail a reed as that may be.

How one views the incident that touched off the current diplomatic crisis is an example of how deep the differences between Pakistan and the U.S. have become.

The Americans claim Davis was carrying out surveillance on radical insurgent groups, and was simply defending himself from two armed robbers. But Davis’s story has problems. It does appear that the two men on the motorbike were armed, but neither fired their weapon and, according to the police report, one did not even have a shell in his pistol’s firing chamber. Davis apparently fired through the window of his armored SUV, then stepped out of the car and shot the two men in the back, one while attempting to flee. He then calmly took photos, called for backup, climbed into his car, and drove off. He was arrested shortly afterwards at an intersection.

The Pakistanis have a different view of the incident. According to Pakistani press reports, the two men were working for the ISI and were trailing Davis because the intelligence agency suspected that the CIA agent was in contact with the Tehrik-e-Taliban, a Pakistani group based in North Waziristan that is currently warring with Islamabad. As an illustration of how bizarre things are these days in Pakistan, one widespread rumor is that the U.S. is behind the Tehtik-e-Taliban bombings as part of a strategy to destabilize Pakistan and lay the groundwork for an American seizure of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal.

The ISI maintains close ties with the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, as well as its allies, the Hizb-e-Islami and the Haqqani Group. All three groups are careful to keep a distance from Pakistan’s Taliban.

Yet another rumor claims that Davis was spying on Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group with close ties to the ISI that is accused of organizing the 2008 massacre in Mumbai, India. The Americans claim the organization is working with al-Qaeda, a charge the Pakistanis reject.

When Davis’s car was searched, police turned up not only the Glock semi-automatic he used to shoot the men, but four loaded clips, a GPS device, and a camera. The latter, according to the police report, had photos of “sensitive” border sites. “This is not the work of a diplomat,” Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah told the Guardian (UK), “he was doing espionage and surveillance activities.”

The shooting also had the feel of an execution. One of the men was shot twice in the back and his body was more than 30 feet from the motorbike, an indication he was attempting to flee. “It went way beyond what we define as self-defense, “ a senior police official told the Guardian (UK). “It was not commensurate with the threat.” The Lahore Chief of Police called it a “cold-blooded murder.”

The U.S. claims that Davis is protected by diplomatic immunity, but the matter might not be as open and shut as the U.S. is making it. According to the Pakistani Express Tribune, Davis’s name was not on a list of diplomats submitted to Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry on Jan. 25. The day after the shooting the embassy submitted a revised list that listed Davis as a diplomat.

Washington clearly considered Davis to be important. When he asked for backup on the day of the shooting, another SUV was dispatched to support him, apparently manned by agents living at the same safe house as Davis. The rescue mission went wrong when it ran over a motorcyclist while going the wrong direction down a one-way street. When the Pakistani authorities wanted to question the agents, they found that both had been whisked out of the country.

Almost immediately the Obama administration sent Sen. John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to Islamabad to apologize and pressure Pakistan to release Davis. But the incident has stirred up a hornet’s nest in Pakistan, where the CIA’s drone war has deeply alienated most Pakistanis. Opposition parties are demanding that the CIA agent be tried for murder. A hearing on the issue of whether Davis has diplomatic immunity is scheduled for Mar. 14.

In the meantime, Davis is being held under rather extraordinary security because of rumors that the Americans will try to spring him, or even poison him. Davis is being shielded from any direct contact with U.S. officials, and a box of chocolates sent to Davis by the Embassy was confiscated.

The backdrop for the crisis is a growing estrangement between the two countries over their respective strategies in Afghanistan.

The U.S. has stepped up its attacks on the Afghan insurgents, launched a drone war in Pakistan, and is demanding that Islamabad take a much more aggressive stance toward the Taliban’s allies based in the Afghan border region. While Washington still talks about a “diplomatic resolution” to the Afghan war, it is busy blowing up the very people it will eventually need to negotiate with.

This approach makes no sense to Pakistan. From Islamabad’s point of view, increasing attacks on the Taliban and their allies will only further destabilize Pakistan, and substitutes military victory for a diplomatic settlement. Since virtually every single independent observer think the former is impossible, the current U.S. strategy is, as terror expert Anatol Lieven puts it, “lunatic reasoning.”

Pakistan wants to insure that any Afghan government that emerges from the war is not a close ally of India, a country with which it has already fought three wars. A pro-Indian government in Kabul would essentially surround Pakistan with hostile forces. Yet the Americans have pointedly refused to address the issue of Indian-Pakistan tension over Kashmir, in large part because Washington very much wants an alliance with India.

In short, the U.S. and Pakistan don’t see eye to eye on Afghanistan, and Islamabad is suspicious that Americans like Davis are undermining Pakistan’s interests in what Islamabad views as an area central to its national security. “They [the U.S.] needs to come clean and tell us who they [agents] are, what they are doing,” one ISI official told the Guardian (UK). “They need to stop doing things behind our back.”

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the matter. Was the ISI onto Davis, and was he really in contact with groups the Pakistani army didn’t want him talking to? What did Washington know about Davis’ mission, and when did it know it? Did Davis think he was being held up, or was it a cold-blooded execution of two troublesome tails?

Rumor has it that the CIA and the ISI are in direct negotiations to find an acceptable solution, but there are constraints on all sides. The Pakistani public is enraged with the U.S. and resents that it has been pulled into the Afghan quagmire. On the other hand, there are many in Washington—particularly in Congress—who are openly talking about cutting off the $1.5 billion of yearly U.S. aid to Pakistan.

What the incident has served to illuminate is the fact that U.S. intelligence operations are increasingly being contracted out to private companies with little apparent oversight from Congress. At last count, the U.S. Defense Department had almost 225,000 private contractors working for them.

The privatization of intelligence adds yet another layer of opacity to an endeavor that is already well hidden by a blanket of “national security,” and funded by black budgets most Americans never see. The result of all this is a major diplomatic crisis in what is unarguably the most dangerous piece of ground on the planet.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.

Leveraging Its Latest Nuclear Setback to Further Tighten the Screws on Iran

Blink and you might have missed it. Or, more to the point, fallen asleep before you got to item number 42 under “Other Matters” of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report on Iran’s nuclear program. (Link courtesy of Arms Control Wonk.) It reads:

On 15–16 February 2011, the Agency conducted an inspection at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant . . . and has verified the nuclear material present in the facility. On 23 February 2011, Iran informed the Agency that it would have to unload fuel assemblies from the core.

In the New York Times William Broad and David Sanger explain the significance of that item.

Iran told atomic inspectors this week that it had run into a serious problem at a newly completed nuclear reactor that was supposed to start feeding electricity into the national grid this month, raising questions about whether the trouble was sabotage, a startup problem, or possibly the beginning of the project’s end.

It doesn’t appear to be connected with the Stuxnet computer virus that ravaged Bushehr’s reactors, though. Instead, Reuters reports:

Mark Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Bushehr may have a problem with equipment in its primary cooling circuit.

“At Bushehr there is a critical interface in this area between equipment supplied by German industry and equipment supplied by the Russians,” Hibbs said.

“If there is a problem in that equipment . . . that could delay the start-up of the unit for a few months.”

Reuters also quotes Olli Heinonen, former head of IAEA inspections, who said that “the issue could be embarrassing for the Russian operator of Bushehr, Rosatom. Full responsibility for the plant is only ‘supposed to be turned over to the Iranians after the first refuelling which is estimated to take place perhaps two years from now,’ he said.” In other words, it’s happening under Rosatom’s more than Iran’s watch.

Thanks, Reuters, for that measured account. If only Broad and Sanger could have refrained from once again soliciting comments from one of the mainstream media’s go-to guys on nuclear issues, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. Never one to let an opportunity to ratchet up pressure on Iran pass him by, Albright said:

It raises questions of whether Iran can operate a modern nuclear reactor safely. . . . The stakes are very high. You can have a Chernobyl-style accident with this kind of reactor, and there’s lots of questions about that possibility in the region.

Note that Albright has doubled his Iran alarmism fun. First, invoking Chernobyl may be a sly attempt to leverage an intelligence report about which George Jahn wrote for the Associated Press last month. It was, “drawn up by a nation closely monitoring Iran’s nuclear program” on the effects of Stuxnet.

“The minimum possible damage would be a meltdown of the reactor,” it says. “However, external damage and massive environmental destruction could also occur . . . similar to the Chernobyl disaster.”

Number two: by applying the Chernobyl comparison to the fuel unloading as well, Albright, aided and abetted by Broad and Sanger, is making it look like another setback to Iran’s program that originated from outside the country has joined Stuxnet in making a second Chernobyl even more likely.

True Reason for China’s Appeal to American Industry Even More Shameful Than Low Wages

All too often the mainstream media, whether out of cowardice or lack of curiosity, defaults to a reflexive replication of the meme of the day. They’re apparently oblivious to the maxim — apologies to Socrates — that a meme (a cultural practice or idea) unexamined is a meme not worth repeating. In the process, they pass along assumptions as outrageous as they are dangerous to said culture.

Two such examples of conventional wisdom that are almost universally unquestioned by corporate news recently came to our attention. Bear with us as we stray into domestic policy before returning to foreign affairs.

At Tax.com, David Cay Johnston, one-time The New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner, writes:

Among the reports that failed to scrutinize [Wisconsin Gov. Scott] Walker’s assertions about state workers’ contributions and thus got it wrong is one by A.G. Sulzberger, the presumed future publisher of The New York Times, who is now a national correspondent. He wrote that the Governor “would raise the amount government workers pay into their pension to 5.8 percent of their pay, from less than 1 percent now.”

Wrong. The workers currently pay 100 percent from their compensation package, but a portion of it is deducted from their paychecks and a portion of it goes directly to the pension plan. [In other words] Out of every dollar that funds Wisconsin’s pension and health insurance plans for state workers, 100 cents comes from the state workers.

Meanwhile, at Salon, Michael Lind, Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and as valuable a commentator as Johnston on affairs of the wallet, debunks a myth about China. (My initial impulse was to italicize some of his statements to emphasize them. But the extent to which it’s all surprising is added testimony to the slovenly — or deceitful — job that the MSM is doing.)

We’ve heard it a thousand times, from American CEOs, pundits and politicians. . . . The U.S., we are told, is losing its manufacturing industries to competitors like China because America is falling behind in innovation and education.

But

It’s not true. . . . Innovation and education are red herrings, tossed out to distract the American public from the real problem. . . .

American multinationals are not shutting factories in the U.S. and transferring production to China because of China’s superior innovation culture or superior educational achievements. Nor are low Chinese wages the major factor. For the most part, multinationals are pressured or bribed by the Chinese dictatorship into producing in China. In some cases, U.S. multinationals are told they must produce inside China in order to have access to China’s large and growing consumer market. In other cases, multinationals are bribed to relocate production to China by enormous subsidies from the Chinese government. . . .

How many American CEOs boast about how their companies have been bribed or pressured by the Chinese government into producing inside China’s borders, hiring Chinese workers and transferring American intellectual property to Chinese corporations?

Probably about the same number as have any shame about it. Alas, another story the mainstream media sidesteps.

WikiLeaks: AFRICOM’s Gen. Ward the Beneficiary of Gaddafi’s Wit and Wisdom

Gaddafi ObamaWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-second in the series.

As US embassy cables from Libya continue pouring out of the WikiLeaks archive with each new day, the whistle-blowing group yanked the faucet off this afternoon, reducing the deluge to a drip. A single document, dating from May 2009, was released by the group, describing a meeting between Muammar Qaddafi and AFRICOM Commander William “Kip” Ward which naturally took place in the Libyan dictator’s trademark tent in Tripoli.

Not like they need it, but if any of Qaddafi’s sons take up the Boston Review’s suggestion to shoot “S**t My Dad Says: Libya Edition,” this cable will offer them yet more material. From carving up Switzerland to initiating a multilateral pirate peace process, Qaddafi treated Ward to a glimpse of the vagaries driving his distorted understanding of world affairs. And yet, before Qaddafi’s train of thought runs off the rails, the cable records some remarkably prescient and ironic observations from the Libyan leader on his region’s politics.

After exchanging pleasantries, al-Qadhafi noted that during Gen. Ward’s earlier trip to Libya, he had been visiting Mauritania, where a political crisis was ongoing. “Every time we put out a fire in Africa, another one breaks out. We used to say this was a US conspiracy, but not anymore.”

Qaddafi then described, at great length, the evolutionary anatomy of Middle East and North African regimes

during which he related the stages of governance in Africa from revolutionary liberation, to dictatorship, to multi-party elections.

Not clarifying his own government’s position in this schematic, nor seemingly concerned that the winds of change would whip against the walls of his army-issue tent anytime in the near future, Qaddafi concluded

that now was the time to establish common African institutions, such as a Ministry of Defense, that would better represent African interests before the world.

Up next on the Libyan ruler’s talking points memo: China.

Al-Qadhafi turned to U.S. and Chinese involvement on the continent, characterizing the Chinese approach as soft, the U.S. as hard, and predicting that China would prevail because it does not interfere in internal affairs. He criticized what he said was a U.S. tendency to place military bases near energy sources, observing that [if] the U.S. did this in the Gulf of Guinea, it would spark terrorism. Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, al-Qadhafi questioned what he characterized as U.S. support for Israel at the expense of Palestine, and advised that it would be in the best interest of the U.S. to support the Palestinians.

Immediately on the heels of this advice, Qaddafi unceremoniously attempted to corner the market on influencing US policy in the Middle East.

He cautioned against trusting the advice of Arab leaders in the Gulf and Levant and offered to play a role in that region if the U.S. desired. The Leader concluded his remarks by expressing a desire for President Obama to come to the African Union Summit in Libya in July, and after that meet him in Italy at the G-8 conference.

The conversation between Warden and the Libyan leader takes a surprising turn when

In response to Gen. Ward’s profession of respect for the sovereignty of African countries, al-Qadhafi said he understood the U.S. position, but questioned the U.S. military presence in Djibouti, noting military power would be used by extremists to justify terror.

He then

proceeded to identify two sources of terrorism, Wahabism and Switzerland. Qadhafi stated that the Swiss banking system was used to fund terrorists, and proposed that Switzerland be split among its neighboring countries according to language.

A fine idea, indeed.

From there, the conversation continues down the bizarre highway of Qadaffi’s self-aggrandizing imagination into a discussion of his plans to solve the pirate problem in Somali waters.

On the topic of Somali piracy, al-Qadhafi asserted that “foreign entities” had violated Somalia’s territorial waters. The solution to the problem of Somali piracy was therefore to forge an agreement between the countries exploiting Somali waters and the pirates. Al-Qadhafi offered to identify a pirate spokesman and broker this agreement.

The meeting concluded with Qaddafi emphasizing

that as Libya now presides over the AU, there was a possibility for cooperation with AFRICOM in combating terrorism in the Sahara and piracy. He said that he could deal with “the new America without reservation”, now that the United States was governed by “a new spirit of change.”

That may be. But as we’ve seen, for Qaddafi, it’s one thing if foreign leaders are possessed by the spirit of change. It’s quite another when that same spirit drives Libyans into the streets demanding his removal.

One Creature That Deserves Extinction: the V-22 Osprey

V22 OspreySome animals should be endangered. Consider the V-22 Osprey. The tilt-rotor aircraft, which takes off like a helicopter but flies like a plane, costs more than a $100 million apiece, killed 30 personnel in crashes during its development stage, and survived four attempts by none other than Dick Cheney to deep-six the program. Although it is no longer as crash-prone as it once was, the Osprey’s performance in Iraq was still sub-par and it remains a woefully expensive creature. Although canceling the program would save the U.S. government $10-12 billion over the next decade, the Osprey somehow avoided the budget axe in the latest round of cuts on Capitol Hill.

It’s bad enough that U.S. taxpayers have to continue to support the care and feeding of this particular Osprey. Worse, we’re inflicting the bird on others.

In a small village in the Yanbaru Forest in northern Okinawa, the residents of Takae have been fighting non-stop to prevent the construction of six helipads designed specifically for the V-22. The protests have been going on since the day in 2007 when Japanese construction crews tried to prepare the site for the helipads. “Since that day, over 10,000 locals, mainland Japanese, and foreign nationals have participated in a non-stop sit-in outside the planned helipad sites,” writes Jon Mitchell at Foreign Policy In Focus. “So far, they’ve managed to thwart any further construction attempts. At small marquee tents, the villagers greet visitors with cups of tea and talk them through their campaign, highlighting their message with hand-written leaflets and water-stained maps.”

YanbaruIt’s all part of the plan that would shut down the aging Futenma air base in Okinawa, relocate some of the Marines to Guam, and build a new facility elsewhere in Okinawa. The overwhelming majority of Okinawans oppose this plan. They want to shut down Futenma, and they don’t want any new U.S. military bases.

But the Japanese government has essentially knuckled under to U.S. pressure to move forward with the agreement. Building these helipads in a subtropical forest, with a wide range of unusual wildlife, is all part of the deal.

The recently re-elected Okinawan governor Hirokazu Nakaima opposes the relocation plan. And, according to Pacific Daily News, “Nakaima may actually have the authority to disrupt the plan because of his authority under the Japan Public Water Reclamation Act, which gives the Okinawa governor final authority over reclaimed land.” Washington has said that it won’t move forward on the deal without local support.

The Osprey is a budget-busting beast. The Okinawans don’t want it. Both Tokyo and Washington are desperate to trim spending.

The V-22 is one animal well worth driving toward extinction.

Nonviolence Guru Gene Sharp Gets His Due

Gene SharpOn February 16, the New York Times ran an article on the “Shy U.S. Intellectual” who “Created Playbook Used in a Revolution.” Author Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports:

“Few Americans have heard of [political scientist Gene] Sharp. But for decades, his practical writings on nonviolent revolution — most notably “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” a 93-page guide to toppling autocrats . . . have inspired dissidents around the world.”

According to a recent BBC article

. . . Sharp provides in his books a list of 198 “non-violent weapons”, ranging from the use of colours and symbols to mock funerals and boycotts. Designed to be the direct equivalent of military weapons, they are techniques collated from a forensic study of defiance to tyranny throughout history. . . . From Dictatorship to Democracy was written for the Burmese democratic movement in 1993, after the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi. . . . From Burma word of mouth spread through Thailand to Indonesia where it was used against the military dictatorship there. Its success in helping to bring down Milosevic in Serbia in 2000 propelled it into use across Eastern Europe, South America and the Middle East.

Including Egypt. Ms. Stolberg explains.

Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement was struggling to recover from a failed effort in 2005 [and] its leaders tossed around “crazy ideas” about bringing down the government, said Ahmed Maher, a leading strategist. They stumbled on Mr. Sharp while examining the Serbian movement Otpor, which he had influenced.

She then quotes Foreign Policy in Focus’s Stephen Zunes: “He is generally considered the father of the whole field of the study of strategic nonviolent action.”

Obviously Sharp is far left, right? Think again. Ms. Stolberg:

Some people suspect Mr. Sharp of being a closet peacenik and a lefty . . . he once worked as personal secretary to A. J. Muste, a noted labor union activist and pacifist [and] as a young man he participated in lunch-counter sit-ins and spent nine months in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., as a conscientious objector during the Korean War.

But . . .

. . . he insists that he outgrew his own early pacifism and describes himself as “trans-partisan.”

Still, you might be surprised to learn that he has been the subject of withering attacks from the left. In a 2008 Foreign Policy in Focus piece, Zunes reports that Sharp was

. . . under attack by a number of foreign governments that claim that he and his small research institute are key players in a Bush administration plot against them.

Though there is no truth to these charges, several leftist web sites and publications have been repeating such claims as fact. [Apparently] as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration’s open advocacy for “regime change,” any American group or individual who provides educational resources on strategic nonviolence to . . . human rights activists in foreign countries has suddenly become suspect of being an agent of U.S. imperialism — even Gene Sharp and [his] Albert Einstein Institution.

For example, in February [2008] Iranian government television informed viewers that Gene Sharp was “one of the CIA agents in charge of America’s infiltration into other countries.” [Meanwhile] Tony Logan insists that AEI [It doesn’t help that it has the same initials as the conservative American Enterprise Institute. — RW] “is a U.S. government run operation designed to link Gandhian methods of nonviolent protest to [U.S.] efforts to overthrow foreign governments.” [And] a commentary published in the Asia Times . . . accused Sharp of being the “concert-master” for the Saffron Revolution in Burma, claiming that [AEI] is funded by an arm of the U.S. government “to foster U.S.-friendly regime change in key spots around the world” . . . Implicit in such charges is that Burmese monks and other pro-democracy activists in that country are unable to initiate such actions themselves and their decision to take to the streets . . . without some Western scholar telling them [what] to do.

The closest thing to a charge that sticks, according to Zunes:

Well prior to the Bush administration coming to office, AEI received a couple of small grants from the congressionally funded [and soundly discredited — RW] National Endowment for Democracy . . . and the International Republican Institute . . . to translate some of Gene Sharp’s theoretical writings. [As noted in the Times article, Sharp takes] a “transpartisan” position that cuts across political boundaries and conceptions and makes their educational resources available to essentially anyone.

In the end:

Activists from groups ranging from . . . Code Pink to the Brown Berets — as well as such radical scholars as Noam Chomsky [and] Howard Zinn [signed] an open letter in support of Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution.

We’ll end with some “sharp words,” as quoted by Ms. Stolberg.

“If you fight with violence,” Mr. Sharp said, “you are fighting with your enemy’s best weapon, and you may be a brave but dead hero.”

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