Focal Points Blog

Will the Tunisian President Go the Way of Ceausescu? (Part 1)

Tunisian President Ben Ali(Pictured: President Ben Ali.)

End of an era: Beginning of…something new? “I’m leaving on a jet plane; don’t know when I’ll be back again…”

The words of John Denver forty years ago in the mouth of Zine Ben Ali today? Is it all coming to an ignonimous end for Tunisia’s president and his wife Leila Trabelsi?

‘The word on the Tunisian street’… or on the internet social networks – almost the same thing these days – is that it is almost over for Tunisia’s first couple, that they are emptying out what is left in Tunisia’s coffers, that an Airbus is fueled, ready and waiting to take off, as are the private jets of members of their two extended families… just in case the protests rocking the country cannot be crushed. As the protests spread, Ben Ali’s grip on power appears to be fading. Are we looking at the final hours, days of Ben Ali’s long 23 year ‘reign’ in which human rights violations have become so commonplace that they have hardly attracted attention until, this last week, it all reached another level? Perhaps.

Hard to tell at this point, but two Tunisian readers of this piece that also appeared on Nawaat.org offer interesting comments which I quote in full:

The first:

If these ongoing riots would trigger social unrest that spreads out to others regions, it can definitely imply the downfall of the Regime. But so far, there are not enough indications to be certain of anything yet.

Just waiting for two things to happen :

1. What if the SidiBouzid unrest gets bigger and wider, and reaches its “Point of No Return”?

2. Finally, what will be the Regime’s response ? Will it fight back at any price, to stay in power, or does the Regime realize it’s time [to] pack up and to take the money and run !!!

Although things can turn nasty if the Police Forces are given the order of cracking down on any protest. That would be real foolish, should the order be given because this will only add more aggravation to the general situation where Tunisia finds itself today, namely in the middle of nowhere. The country needs badly to get rid of this corrupt political system, and must plead for a peaceful “Takeover” in order not to lose grip over its stability. In other words, no one will ever gain anything from a bloody civil war, and the Regime must bear that in mind before it’s too late.

The second:

Dr. Marzouki a dit: “…Ce n’est même pas une dictature idéologique, c’est une dictature mafieuse…”. Une dictature idéologique serait plus résiliente, la dictature de Ben Ali est plu fragile et ne durera pas longtemps…..Les hommes honnêtes de la Tunisie même qui sont au sein du pouvoir doivent agir maintenant!”

(Translation: Dr. Marzouki said, “It isn’t even an ideological dictatorship but a kind of ‘mafia dictatorship’. An ideological dictatorship would be more resilient, that of Ben Ali is more fragile and will not last much longer. The honest citizens of Tunisia, even those in seats of power, [must] act (become engaged in the reform movement) now.”

(Note: there is a Dr. Marzouki, I am not sure if he is the same one, who has long been a leader and a spokesperson for improving the human rights situation in Tunisia.)

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

WikiLeaks XXV: Security Firms in Iraq Making a Killing (Figuratively in This Case)

Iraq private securityAccording to an embassy cable written earlier this year, and released last week by the Guardian as part of its WikiLeaks coverage, private security firms in Iraq’s southern Basra province have been making a figurative killing protecting foreign investors throughout the region.

This isn’t exactly news. Nor is the fact that some private security firms

also offer more comprehensive services, including business intelligence, geopolitical risk management, crisis management, and kidnap/ransom strategies. Typical services in Basrah include armed escort to oil fields, downtown Basrah, or remote construction sites. Most firms boast of employees with military or Special Forces background, and/or energy or engineering expertise. Prices for specific services are hard to gauge, dependent as they are on the number of people assisted, visit location, length of contract, and other services provided.

The cable notes that while “prices for specific services are hard to gauge…they do not come cheap.” To be sure, the prices are staggering:

To escort a single executive for a four-hour, roundtrip from COB Basrah to South Oil Company costs around USD 6,000. (Note: A typical trip would include four security agents, drivers, and three or four armored vehicles. End note.) A day trip to the Port of Umm Qasr and back for two engineers could cost around USD 12,000.

But more interesting than the exorbitant fees charged by the security firms is the cable’s discussion of the changing “composition of the work force of many security companies.” The embassy dispatch cites an anonymous source that notes the Iraqi government’s anxiety around getting ‘“rid of all the white faces carrying guns’ in their streets.” They’re not alone. “Many local security company reps openly acknowledge that a more ‘Iraqi face’ is safer as well, as it draws less attention.”

The cable goes on to note that

Most, if not all, of these security firms are already Iraqi-licensed companies. (Note: While legally they may be Iraqi firms, they are still managed by expats, usually British nationals. End note.) These firms were once largely staffed by expats from the U.K. or U.S. Most of them today have between 70 to 80 per cent local staff. XXXXXXXXXXX country manager XXXXXXXXXXXX said that currently most Iraqi employees are drivers or junior security guards. In the near future, he wants to see them move into full management. Many of the current expat managers and trainers would move into the background areas of training and management. The PRT also expects that new local security companies will be formed.

The cable makes no mention from which ranks these local personnel are drawn. It would be interesting to know what, if any, efforts have been made by private firms to recruit highly skilled fighters from the Saddam Hussein regime, or former militiamen left over from the civil war that tore Iraq apart in 2006-07. Given some companies’ past records hiring former South African death squad operators, Pinochet-era military men from Chile, and thugs from Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Yugoslavia, you might think that American officials would be curious to know whether former enemy combatants were now being paid to protect Western interests.

And they were. While the Basra office, where the cable originated from, concluded with an optimistic forecast of increasing Iraqification of private security personnel in the region, not everyone was sold. The cable received comment from the Baghdad embassy as well, which noted that

It is too early to be able to gauge whether the security environment in Iraq will allow effective employment of local nationals as members of Protective Security teams supporting private industry activities…

RSO believes that building a labor pool of well-vetted local employees in Iraq’s current environment is difficult. RSO efforts to vet local nationals for employment is labor intensive, often subjective and many times proves to be too difficult for many local national employees to complete successfully. Additionally, USG efforts to train local nationals in Protective Security tradecraft to ensure technical proficiency appears to be intensive in labor and time required, with mixed results.

But perhaps the most jaw-dropping snippet from the cable involves Dick Cheney’s Halliburton, which apparently made no effort to hide its displeasure at being fleeced by private security companies in the country’s southern reaches. In a moment of tragicomic irony, the cable reports that a

Halliburton Iraq country manager decried a “mafia” of these companies and their “outrageous” prices, and said that they also exaggerate the security threat. Apart from the high costs for routine trips, he claimed that Halliburton often receives what he says are “questionable” reports of vulnerability of employees to kidnapping and ransom.

Imagine that.

If you get the sense that Halliburton is experiencing outrage at being beaten at its own game, you aren’t too far off. Of the $31 billion in contracts awarded to the multinational since the American invasion in 2003, hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost in exactly the sort of scams Halliburton later cried foul about when they themselves became victims. According to Politifact,

Government officials have raised many questions about KBR’s fulfillment of its contracts, everything from billing for meals it didn’t serve to charging inflated prices for gas to excessive administrative costs. Government auditors have noted that KBR refused to turn over electronic data in its native format and stamped documents as proprietary and secret when the documents would normally be considered public records. Over the course of several years, the Defense Contract Audit Agency found that $553 million in payments should be disallowed to KBR, according to 2009 testimony by agency director April Stephenson before the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In retrospect, the Halliburton official may have been wise to keep his mouth shut and not attract any more attention to his company’s use of private contractors. Three months after the cable was written, the United States government brought suit against former Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root for use of private security protection in Iraq. KBR charged the bill to the United States Army, a direct violation of its government contract which expressly stipulated that the American military would provide all the company’s security needs in Iraq. In all, some thirty former Halliburton subsidiaries were alleged to have intentionally billed the American taxpayer for services to which they could claim absolutely no entitlement.

George Clooney Wants the Genocidal to Get as Much Attention as He Does

Sudan Civil WarI was just thinking about how much an anti-nuclear initiative dear to my heart would benefit from a celebrity spokesperson and the money he or she can attract. On an issue of equal importance, one has just stepped forward — not as a spokesperson, but with the idea itself. Time reports:

George Clooney and John Prendergast slumped down at a wooden table in a dusty school compound in southern Sudan. . . . Clooney, the actor, and Prendergast, a human-rights activist with 25 years of experience in Africa, had heard enough on their seven-day visit to know that a new round of atrocities could follow the January referendum on independence. If it did, the likelihood was that no one would be held accountable. Why not, Clooney asked, “work out some sort of a deal to spin a satellite” above southern Sudan and let the world watch to see what happens?

Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner!

Three months later, Clooney’s idea is about to go live. Starting Dec. 30, the Satellite Sentinel Project — a joint experiment by the U.N. . . . Harvard University, [the Center for American Progress] and Clooney’s posse of Hollywood funders — will hire private satellites to monitor troop movements starting with the oil-rich region of Abyei. The images will be analyzed and made public at [the project's website] (which goes live on Dec. 29) within 24 hours of an event to remind the leaders of northern and southern Sudan that they are being watched. “We are the antigenocide paparazzi,” Clooney tells TIME. “We want them to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get. If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum.”

Since December 29 happens to be today, you may now visit Satellite Sentinel.

It’s as if George Clooney said to celebrity benefactors like Angelina Jolie and Shakira: I’ll see your pot of good works and raise it. Clooney

. . . believes Sentinel might have applications in other global hot spots. “This is as if this were 1943 and we had a camera inside Auschwitz and we said, ‘O.K., if you guys don’t want to do anything about it, that’s one thing,’” Clooney says. “But you can’t say you did not know.”

Memo to US — You’ve Been Out-Adapted. Go Home!

TalibanImagine playing a game in which your opponent always has the last move. Or can undo your last move if he chooses. How much fun would that be, and how long would it take you to decide that it wasn’t worth playing?

For most any hominid with a cranial capacity over 750 cc, the answer would be, not very long. For the US government in Afghanistan, it’s coming up on a decade. And as Pete Seeger put it so well, ‘We were neck deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said to push on.’

Not only is that really lousy policy, it’s really bad science.

There’s an axiom in the systems world called the ‘the Law of Requisite Variety’ (AKA The First Law of Cybernetics). It states, ‘The unit within the system with the most behavioral responses available to it controls the system.’

What that means is that an individual or group with more available options – which includes the ability to recognize and act on those options – is most likely to prevail. Because it can more rapidly ‘co-evolve’ within a fluid environment, it can more effectively shape the landscape of the contest, and determine the rules of engagement.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban clearly have more behavioral responses than the American-led coalition. As Mao detailed in ‘insurgency 101’, when the enemy attacks, the Talib retreat. When the enemy stands still, they harass. When the enemy retreats, they pursue.

The Talib – and assorted other aligned and non-aligned groups who see the foreigners as invaders to be expelled – have many options. They can fight. They can flee. They can blend into the population. They can even get day jobs with some of the vast pool of ‘development’ money flowing from the invaders. They can deal opium, control smuggling, charge protection money, and gain loyalty by offering services like a responsive justice system.

The Talib also have home field advantage, and are unconstrained by ‘overprescribed’ rules and hierarchy. They are patient, and can afford to play almost indefinitely. They are highly resilient, relatively inured to hardship, and are largely self-organizing and, therefore, highly and quickly adaptive.

Now, they have effectively identified the key leverage point in the evolving conflict and moved to attack it. That leverage point is the capacity of the Afghan Army and National Police, because America can’t ‘stand down’ if the ANA / ANP can’t ‘stand up’.

And they can’t.

Despite years of prodding, training, funding and arming from the US and her allies, the ANA and ANP are net liabilities, not assets. And Taliban attacks on those institutions are eroding them further. (It’s hard to imagine how much worse the ANA / ANP can actually get. Bogus unit strength rosters and mass desertions are common, and some units have apparently sold or given their arms to insurgents.)

And the American reaction?

A ‘strategy’ that can best be described as wishful thinking from ‘the WABAC Machine, Sherwood’.

Seemingly right out of Westy Westmoreland’s playbook, the American ‘plan’ is to ‘degrade’ the Taliban in the same way America intended to win in Viet Nam by ‘atritting’ the Viet Cong / NVA. And to save villages by destroying them, in order to win ‘hearts and minds’

Oh, and apply a bit of good old WWI thinking to take and hold ground.

Aieee, Bro! Pass the Prozac!

Do all those shiny stars on starched collars cut off blood flow to the brain? (Is this why nearly everyone above the rank of company officer seems to be a flatliner?)

1. You can’t degrade / atrit the other team in a ‘protracted popular war’, especially when the enemy is ‘tribals’. (Read FM 3-24, the COIN manual co-authored by Gen David Petraeus, to better understand why that strategy is brain dead.) Not only do they have an infinitely deeper bench, for every one you ‘degrade’, a brother or cousin or friend (or all the above) will pick up their fallen comrade’s weapons and swear a blood oath of vengeance.

2. In a ‘population-centric’ conflict, destroying villages (and villagers’ already tenuous livelihoods) turns them into the enemy – not away from them. Can anyone recall a resident of a ‘strategic hamlet’ in Viet Nam who was filled with love and loyalty to the government and their US backers after being forcibly expelled from their traditional homes and separated from the graves of their ancestors?

3. Taking and holding ground is not only not a metric of success in a counterinsurgency campaign – it’s an admission of failure! It means you’re reacting to the enemy’s initiative, and he’s tied up your forces. If you’re going to play that game, you have to have the force levels to do it, and the US simply cannot provide those. (As noted in a previous post, that would be over 1.4 million troops, based on the classic density ratio of 20 counterinsurgents per 1,000 population. And, as detailed above, the ANA / ANP are so bad they would have to be subtracted from that total, not added it.)

The COIN manual offers another important observation that senior US leadership seems to have missed. ‘Without good intelligence, a counterinsurgent is like a blind boxer, wasting energy flailing at an unseen opponent and perhaps causing unintended harm.’

How prophetic.

The 2010 “Are You Serious?” Awards

Cross-posted from Dispatches From the Edge.

Each year the column Dispatches From The Edge awards news stories and newsmakers that fall under the category of “Are you serious?” Here are 2010’s winners.

The Harry Potter Award to the British technology company ATSC Ltd for its invention of a “wand” that, according to the company, detects explosives, drugs, and human remains for up to six miles by air and three fifths of a mile by land. The ADE 651 sells for $16,000 a unit.

The only problem is that it doesn’t work, which users might have figured out by reading the manual: the device has no batteries or internal parts. It is powered by “static electricity” generated by the holder walking in place. A wand-like antenna then points to the drugs, bodies, or explosives.

This past January ATSC Ltd was charged with fraud and banned by the British government. One ATSC source told the New York Times, “Everyone at ATSC knew that there was nothing inside the ADE 651,” and that the units cost only $250 to make.

But the wand was widely used in Iraq. Ammar Tuma, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, bitterly attacked the company for causing “grave and massive losses of the lives of innocent Iraqi civilians, by the hundreds and the thousands, from attacks we thought we were immune to because we have this device.” The Iraqi Ministry of the Interior purchased 800 ADE 651s at a cost of $85 million.

The managing director of ATSC, Jim McCormack, staunchly defended the wand, which he claims the company has sold to 20 countries. He did admit, “one of the problems is that the machine looks primitive,” and said the company was turning out an upgraded model “that has flashing lights.”

Runner-up for this award was the British firm, Global Technology Ltd, which sold $10 million worth of very similar wand—the GT 200—to Mexico. The unit retails for $20,000 apiece. In one demonstration the GT 200 detected drugs in a Volkswagen sedan. After thoroughly searching the car, authorities turned up a bottle of Tylenol (suggesting that one should switch to Advil). Human Rights Watch says it is “troubled” by the use of the wand, which is widely used in Thailand and Mexico. “If people are actually being arrested and charged solely on the basis of its readings, that would be outrageous,” the group said in a press release.

A Mexican interior official defended the GT-200, however, claiming that it “works with molecules.” Hard to argue with science.

The Golden Lemon Award goes to the Conservative government of Canada for shelling out $8.5 billion to buy 65 Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters. According to Defense Minister Peter MacKay, “This multi-role stealth fighter will help the Canadian forces defend the sovereignty of Canadian airspace.” Exactly whom that airspace is being defended from is not clear.

The contract also includes a $6.6 billion maintenance agreement, which is a good thing because the F-35 has a number of “problems.” For instance, its engine shoots out sparks, and no one can figure out why. It is generally thought a bad idea for an engine to do that. There are several different types of F-35, and the vertical lift version of the aircraft doesn’t work very well. It seems the fan that cools the engine, doesn’t, and the panels that open for the vertical thrust, don’t. Also switches, valves and power systems are considered “unreliable.”

The F-35 is looking more and more like the old F-105 Thunderchief, a fighter-bomber used extensively at the beginning of the Vietnam War. Pilots nicknamed it the “Thud” (the sound the plane made when it hit the ground after failing to clear a runway, a rather common occurrence). One pilot said it had all the agility of a “flying brick,” thus its other nickname: the “lead sled.”

The U.S. is spending $382 billion to buy 2,457 F-35s, although the price tag keeps going up as more and more “problems” develop. Maintenance and spare parts for the aircraft will run several hundred billion extra.

One normally thinks of Canadians as sensible, but the country’s Conservative government is apparently as thickheaded as our own. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently had a summit meeting on the Arctic and didn’t invite the Inuit (whom most Americans call Eskimos).

Well, the F-35 may not fly very well, but it works just fine for Lockheed Martin: second quarter profits saw a jump from $727 million to $731 million over last year, and revenues rose to $11.44 billion, 3 percent over last year.

The Panjandrum Award to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. For those unfamiliar with the “Great Panjandrum,” it was an enormous rocket-propelled explosive wheel developed by Great Britain for breaching the Atlantic Wall that Nazi Germany had built on the French coast to defend against amphibious invasions. Tested on a Devon beach, it roared ashore, turned smartly to port, and thundered into a bevy of admirals and generals, scattering them hither and yon. Thus “Panjandrum” became a metaphor for really silly military ideas.

And there is not a whole lot sillier idea than the one to deploy M1-Abrams tanks in southern Afghanistan. The M1 is a 68-ton behemoth, powered by a jet engine (miles per gallon is not its strong point). Since Afghanistan has virtually no roads and a good deal of the terrain is vertical—at least the part where the insurgents are ensconced—how the M1 is going to get around is not obvious.

However, one U.S. Marine officer told the Washington Post, “The tanks bring awe, shock and firepower. It’s pretty significant.” Right. Show the Wogs a tank and they will be begging for mercy.

Except the Taliban are quite familiar with tanks. The initial Soviet invasion included 1,800 of them, many of them T-72s. The T-72 is admittedly smaller than the Abrams—41 1/2 tons vs. 68 tons—but the former actually packed a bigger gun. The M1 sports a 120mm gun, the T-72 a 125 mm gun. T-72 carcasses are scattered all over Afghanistan, and the Taliban even managed to capture some of them.

Tanks are effective against stationary targets and other tanks. The Taliban don’t have tanks, and they don’t stick around when one shows up. But shocked and awed by their appearance? Don’t these people read history? Try “The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan,” by Lester Grau.

The George Orwell Award to the U.S. Defense Department for dropping the name of “Psychological Operations”—“Psyops” for short—because the “term can sound ominous.” Instead Psyops will now be known as Military Information Support Operation, or MISO, which sounds like a Japanese soup.

Some military contractors, however, apparently didn’t get the memo about using names and acronyms that sound “ominous.” Northrop Grumman just successfully tested a radar system that will be attached to Predator and Reaper armed drones to allow the killer robots to “detect individuals walking over a wide area” and track vehicles, watercraft, people, and animals, as well as “stationary targets of interest.” Given that the drones pack Hellfire missiles and 500 lb. bombs, you really don’t want to be “interesting” when they are around.

The news system is called the “Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar” or “Vader” for short. Sound of heavy breathing are not included in the basic package.

The Rudyard Kipling Award to the Pentagon and its program to train officers for extended service in Afghanistan. For those unclear on this award, a few lines from Kipling’s poem, “Arithmetic on the Frontier” about Britain’s unsuccessful effort to subdue Afghanistan, and how one adds up the cost of occupation:

A scrimmage in a Border Station–
A canter down some dark defile—
Two thousand pounds of education
Drop to a ten-rupee jezail*—

It appears some officers read Kipling. In spite of a high profile push by the Defense Department to recruit officers to serve in Afghanistan, the program is less than half filled, according to Pentagon officials.

*A jezail is a cheap, muzzle-loading rifle that took a heavy toll on British troops during their 19th century invasions of Afghanistan.

The Barn Door Award to the Department of Defense (yes, yes they do win a lot, but then they excel at winning awards) for telling employees and contractors not to read Wiki Leak documents online, because they are “classified.” Just close your eyes?

The Air Force went one step further and barred personnel from using computers where the documents were online, thus underlining conventional wisdom in Washington: the Army is slow, the Marines are dumb, the Navy lies, and the Air Force is evil.

The Mary Wollingstonecraft Shelly Award (the author of Frankenstein) goes to the University of California at Berkeley, MIT, and Cornell University for using Defense Department money to turn the beetle, Mecynorrhina torquata, into a cyborg. The beetle is fitted with an electronic backpack attached to the animal’s wing muscles, allowing scientists to control the beetle’s flight path.

The idea is to use the little beastie (actually, as beetles go, kind of a big beastie) to crawl or fly into areas where the “enemy” is. Once the “enemy” is identified, the military can target the area with bombs, rockets or artillery. This is a tad rough on the beetles.

According to researchers Michael Maharbiz and Hirotake Sato, the long-term goal is to “introduce synthetic interfaces and control loops” into other animals. “Working out the details in insects first will help us avoid mistakes and false starts in higher organisms, such as rats, mice, and ultimately people. And it allows us to postpone many of the deeper ethical questions about free will, among other things, that would become more pressing if this work took place on vertebrates.”

The Michele Bachmann Award to Australian legislator Bob Katter for sounding the alarm about a serious threat facing his constituents: “We have terrible problems with deadly flying foxes. They are going to kill more people than the Taipan snake in Australia.”

The flying fox is the world’s largest bat, also called the “fruit bat.” It has broad, flat molars and feeds on soft fruit, from which it extracts juice. By all accounts they are gentle and intelligent and don’t attack humans. The Taipan snake, which can grow up to 12 feet, is considered the most venomous land snake in the world. However, the animal is shy and rarely bites people.

It is comforting to know that there are other legislators in the world just as wacko as U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn), who recently suggested that legislators “slit their wrists in a blood pact” to block health reform and said that people had to be “armed and dangerous” to block efforts to mitigate global warming.

You can read more of Conn Hallinan’s writings at Dispatches From the Edge.

The U.S. Deserves Its Share of Blame for Fate of Arab Christians

Iraqi ChristiansIt was the second week in January in 1991. I was in the sanctuary of a large Catholic Church in Baghdad. Every votive candle in the place was lit, no doubt in support of prayers for loved ones in anticipation of the massive US bombing campaign — which was to be known as “Operation Desert Storm” – that was soon to commence. A member of our group asked the priest whose side the church would be on in the forthcoming conflict. He replied that “The Church can only be on one side. That of the victims.”

Little did he realize that, less than twenty years later, Iraq’s Christians would become among the greatest victims.

At that time, there were nearly one million Christians in Iraq. While anyone who openly challenged Saddam Hussein’s government would be subjected to repression, as a decidedly secular regime, there was no fear of being persecuted as Christians. Indeed, Christians played prominent roles in Saddam’s government, including that of foreign minister and vice-president.

As a result of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled that secular government and brought to power a coalition led by Shia Muslim fundamentalist parties and created a backlash by Sunni Muslim extremists, the Christian community in Iraq has been reduced by more than half. Except for a tiny enclave in the autonomous Kurdish region, there were no active Al-Qaeda cells in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion. They have since become a major threat, having massacred hundreds of Iraqi Christians since the United States “liberated” Iraq, including sixty worshippers at a church in October. Though many of us familiar with Iraq predicted just this kind of extremist backlash in the event of an invasion of Iraq, President Bush – backed by such key Democrats as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein, and John Kerry – went ahead with the war anyway, including an occupation which deliberately exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions. (See my article The US Role in Iraq’s Sectarian Violence.)

Christmastide is the time of year when the Western media focuses some attention on the dwindling Christian population in the Middle East. There is a special place in the hearts of those of us who share that tradition with these descendents of the first Christians. Ironically, however, the plight of Arab Christians is often used by the right to demonize the Islamic faith and to rationalize the very policies which have led to their oppression and exodus in the first place.

The U.S.-backed Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak has increased its persecution of the country’s Coptic Christian minority, numbering nearly six million. Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed Saudi regime denies the right of Christians to worship openly. Palestinian Christians, like their Muslim counterparts, have suffered greatly under a U.S.-backed Israeli occupation, with the majority forced into exile.

Perhaps the Middle Eastern country where Christians are safest is under the secular Assad regime in Syria, where they number close to two million, roughly 10% of the population. Yet the United States has targeted that regime with punitive sanctions and threats to topple the government. A 2005 bill strengthening US sanctions declared that Syria constitutes a “threat to the national security of the United States,” language identical to resolutions that targeted Iraq prior to the invasion of that country. Human rights activists fear a US-backed overthrow of the Syria’s secular government could result in sectarian strife and a rise of extremism comparable to what took place in Iraq.

Prior to twentieth century Western intervention, Christian and Jewish minorities in the Islamic world – considered “people of the Book” due to their worship of the same God as Muslims – fared relatively well, certainly better than Muslim and Jewish minorities in Europe. “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God, spoken both in mosques and in Arabic-speaking Christian churches. More than a century of Western colonialism, however, followed by more recent U.S. interventions, has severely weakened this traditional tolerance.

So whenever you read the sanctimonious articles regarding the plight of Arab Christians, rather than simply bemoan the intolerance of Islamic extremists, let’s remember the role that Washington in supporting repressive regimes and creating the backlash that threatens them.

Is There a Method to Israel’s Settlement Madness?

Israeli settlements‘Systems heads’ confronted by seemingly illogical situations like to pose the question, ‘Is there another way to see this?’ And hardly anywhere is there a better place to pose that than in the continuing expansion of Israeli ‘settlements’ in the Occupied Territories.

The ‘settlement’ policy seems illogical and counterintuitive. After all, if Israel continues its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, an unacceptable outcome seems inevitable.

  • Either it becomes an apartheid regime denying human rights to a majority population and is ultimately shunned and brought down by economic sanctions and isolation.
  • Or it honors its democratic claims and becomes a secular or Islamic state as the (Arab) majority wills.

(The third possibility – that Israel commits ritual suicide in an orgy of ‘mad dog’ nuclear exchanges as Martin van Creveld once postulated – is too horrific to contemplate.)

So . . . is there another way to see this?

I think so. How about, the Israeli settlement spurt ‘in places that are least likely to be part of Israel after any two-state peace deal’ is really part of a reparations package for the 1948 nakba.

Consider that Israel has invested more than $17 billion in illegal settlements to date, excluding the costs of military occupation and subsidies to ‘settlers’ willing to move into the Occupied Territories. Unless Israel is prepared to commit a scorched earth policy upon its eventual evacuation of the Occupied Territories, all those infrastructure improvements – roads, housing, factories, etc. – will accrue to the new Palestinian state.

That $17B, of course, is nowhere near the claims that will likely be filed against Israel for lands and properties seized in 1948 once there is a recognized Palestinian entity to do the filing. Depending on which estimates are applied and what assumptions are made about inflation rates, Arab Palestinians lost between $2B and $3B in 1948 dollars, which would be somewhere between $18B and $40B today.

In other words, the Israeli investment in ‘settlements’ is a good start on reparations for its intentional displacement and expulsion of some 85% of the Arab population in 1948, and the creation of a Palestinian Diaspora numbered at over 5.1 million today.

Now, if US policymakers could see things another way, too, and shift the $3B in annual US aid to Israel toward reparations in the form of further development in Palestine . . .

Repeal of DADT Becomes Zero Sum Game Between Gays and Gitmo Detainees

GitmoWhen President Obama signed off on Congress’ repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Wednesday morning, he wiped out one of the most obdurate vestiges of homophobia in the federal employment system. We should celebrate this end to the federal government’s sanction on its soldiers’ sexual orientations, even if Congress ultimately lagged ages behind public opinion on the issue.

However, columnist Eugene Robinson has called the repeal “a clear, unambiguous victory” for Obama on one of his long-sought progressive priorities. Let’s not get carried away.

Rachel Slajda at Talking Points Memo reports that, as part of a deal with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and other Republicans who threatened to vote against cloture on the upcoming DADT vote, Democrats agreed to include a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act banning the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to American soil – even to stand trial.

Let us recall that the odious prison at Guantanamo Bay remains open despite a two-year-old executive order demanding its closure. The Obama administration has certainly struggled to find so-called “third countries” to accept prisoners from the facility. But the single most intractable difficulty attending the prison’s closure has been the United States’ refusal to house its prisoners on its own soil. In a country with the most extensive prison system in the industrialized world, this is utterly baffling.

Senator Kirk’s transfer ban, which will last at least through September 2011, only exacerbates this difficulty and prolongs a resolution to the Guantanamo problem.

It’s fine to celebrate the end of DADT, but the moment is hardly one of unambiguous victory. In eliminating a policy that has drawn the derision of our industrialized partners, we have prolonged another that has explicitly facilitated the recruitment of terrorists.

If there are any gay prison guards at Guantanamo, we’ve just doubled their job security.

Is Bono Undermining His Activism by Hobnobbing With the Superclass?

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

Effective celebrity activists use their fame to bring attention and credibility to legitimate representatives of social movements.

That, in a nutshell, is my standard of celebrity activism done right. Ineffective celebrity activists…well, they do all sorts of things wrong. But, most fundamentally, they approach issues without any awareness of or connection to social movements. They might still have noble intentions, but they can end up being a net negative for social change efforts.

Coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death, Bill Easterly has published an interesting article in the Washington Post comparing the ex-Beatle’s antiwar activism with the social engagement of U2′s front man, Bono. Easterly writes:

For so many of my generation, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, Lennon was a hero, not just for his music but for his fearless activism against the Vietnam War.

Is there a celebrity activist today who matches Lennon’s impact and appeal? The closest counterpart to Lennon now is U2′s Bono, another transcendent musical talent championing another cause: the battle against global poverty. But there is a fundamental difference between Lennon’s activism and Bono’s, and it underscores the sad evolution of celebrity activism in recent years.

Lennon was a rebel. Bono is not.

Given our age of commodified dissent, I’m not interested in trying to determine who counts as truly rebellious and who doesn’t. But I think Easterly makes some important points.

First, he notes that Lennon paid a real price for his antiwar stances. The FBI tracked his activities, and he fought for years with immigration officials in the Nixon administration who were set on deporting him from the United States. Bono, on the other hand, has turned up to dine in the White House, schmoozing with elites even while encouraging them to do more for the poor. In other words, his activism hasn’t cost him much.

To me, this isn’t a problem in and of itself. But it is a symptom of much larger shortcomings in Bono’s approach. Rather than putting his focus on publicizing and legitimizing social movement leaders (those in the Jubilee debt relief movement, for example), Bono has put himself in a leadership role. He acts as a spokesperson, brandishes his supposed expertise, makes demands, negotiates, and accepts compromises. All these are things that should rightly be done by social movements and by representatives accountable to democratic structures within those movements. Ultimately these people should be accountable to those directly affected by the issue at hand. Absent any such structures, Bono has left himself vulnerable to cooptation.

Easterly describes Bono’s model of activism as that of the “celebrity wonk”:

[Lennon] was a moral crusader who challenged leaders whom he thought were doing wrong. Bono, by contrast, has become a sort of celebrity policy expert, supporting specific technical solutions to global poverty. He does not challenge power but rather embraces it; he is more likely to appear in photo ops with international political leaders—or to travel through Africa with a Treasury secretary—than he is to call them out in a meaningful way….

The singer appeared onstage with Bush at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington in 2002 as the president pledged a $5 billion increase in foreign aid. In May of that year, Bono even toured Africa with Bush’s first Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, fully aware that the administration was capitalizing on his celebrity.

“My job is to be used. I am here to be used,” he told the Washington Post. “It’s just, at what price? As I keep saying, I’m not a cheap date.”

While Bono calls global poverty a moral wrong, he does not identify the wrongdoers. Instead, he buys into technocratic illusions about the issue without paying attention to who has power and who lacks it, who oppresses and who is oppressed. He runs with the crowd that believes ending poverty is a matter of technical expertise—doing things such as expanding food yields with nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants or solar-powered drip irrigation.

These are fine moves as far as they go, but why have Bono champion them? The technocratic approach puts him in the position of a wonk, not a dissident; an expert, not a crusader.

In celebrating Lennon, Easterly doesn’t allow for the agency of social movements. Instead he valorizes the figure of the “dissident” who helps to shake things up and discourage “groupthink” among experts. “True dissidents claim no expertise,” he writes; “they offer no 10-point plans to fix a problem. They are most effective when they simply assert that the status quo is morally wrong.”

This is a pretty limited view of how activism functions, as well as of how art can contribute to the creation of critical social consciousness. But, putting that aside, Easterly correctly notes that Lennon was more successful than Bono in using his art (in this case, music) to directly support a cause. He writes, “In 1969 ‘Give Peace a Chance’ became the anthem of the movement after half a million people sung along at a huge demonstration at the Washington Monument…[T]wo more songs released [in 1971]—’Imagine’ and ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’—expanded his antiwar repertoire.”

While I appreciate Lennon’s artistic contributions, he would still not be my model for celebrity activism. That would be someone like Harry Belafonte, who was a steadfast supporter of the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, among other causes. Even at the peak of his fame, Belafonte could be relied upon to turn out at rallies and lend his magnetism to events. In just one of many notable instances, he played an important role in bankrolling the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during 1964′s Freedom Summer in Mississippi. Not only did his funding provide a lifeline for activists in the South, his ongoing presence with the civil rights movement helped make it a fashionable cause for other donors, volunteers, and public figures.

Now in his eighties and less well known than he was in the 1960s, Belafonte nevertheless remains active, advocating for the people of Haiti and speaking at the recent One Nation rally. All this has earned him a page of scorn on David Horowitz’s DiscoverTheNetworks.org, a site dedicated to tracking and defaming the Left.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but looking at Horowitz’s site, I notice that he didn’t make a page for Bono.

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

Immolations Draw Attention to WikiLeaks Tunisia Cables (Part 4)

The last part of Nawaat‘s interview (edited) with Rob Prince.

For my work, I have just finished reading an excellent book — quite serious and frankly not easy reading — on the Savings and Loan crisis in the United States in the late 1980s, early 1990s by William Black, a former federal bank regulator here in the USA. Its title is The Best Way To Rob A Bank Is To Own One. One could make a slight change to make this relevant to Tunisia: “The Best Way To Rob A Country Is To Be President For Life.”

But at some point, the social crises of Redeyef and Sidi Bouzid will spill over onto the beaches of Sousse and Djerba, the villas of Sidi Bou Said. Social unrest and tourism have never been particularly good partners. That is why at Sidi Bouzid, as at Redeyef, the government of Tunisia (GOT) moved so quickly to “localize” the problem, cutting off foreign and press access in both places. That is why the GOT has pursued such a vicious policy against Fahem Boukkadous, only the last of many Tunisian journalists to suffer repression. Thanks to his reporting the events of Redeyef became known beyond Tunisia, in France and then, really worldwide.

I was reading online reports that several journalists from Tunis hoping to report on Sidi Bouzid were arrested, one badly beaten up by the government security forces. Still, in this age of the internet, it will be impossible for the GOT to keep a lid on what is unfolding at Sidi Bouzid, now in its third day of protesting, with reports of a large number of arrests. The word is out.

The point here is that sooner or later these events will affect tourism, both from Europe and from Arab countries (particularly Libya). And the social unrest could have more far-reaching impacts as, at least in principle (and we know unfortunately how little that can sometimes mean), Tunisia’s economic ties with the European Union are based upon improving its human rights situation.

France seems to have a president who cares a lot more about economic contracts with French companies than he does about young Tunisians burning themselves to death. But even here, there is even a limit to how much longer Sarkozy can turn his back on Tunisia’s economic crisis, especially given the strong movement of support for Tunisian democracy in countries like France, with its large Magrebian community, still strong trade unions and generally active social movements.

Nawaat: To what degree will the endemic corruption of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families, their tendency to use the Tunisian economy as their own personal cash cow, affect foreign investment, foreign economic relations?

Prince: Here, the cables were interesting. They suggest that it is Tunisian investors who have pulled back their capital from investing in the country, while to date, the foreign investors have not yet withdrawn much. This is interesting, but not so surprising. What sectors are we talking about where foreign investment is strong? Mostly tourism and now, offshore oil and gas exploration. At least not yet.

At some point, all the shenanigans taking place in the banking sector will have an impact. Tunisian banks are, it is well known, not in good shape. When the only profitable and well-run private bank in the country, Banque de Tunisie, is taken over by the current foreign minister and Mme Ben Ali’s brother, Belgassem Trabelsi, this is taking events a bit too far. The cables express a great deal of concern about this takeover, and some of the other machinations in Tunisia’s banking industry. What will the U.S. State Department recommend to US investors and business concerns? The cable strongly suggest they will urge caution in investment as long as Ben Ali remains in power.

There is something else, though, concerning the corruption and economic developments which is related to the current social crisis gripping Tunisia that deserves mention and thought.

Since the early 1980s, Tunisia has been one of the most faithful pupils to World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs, and has frequently been praised by the Bretton Woods institutions for their fiscal discipline and market economic policies which is supposed to result in making the country attractive to foreign investment.

As a part of this economic approach, Tunisia has been encouraged, if not pressured to privatize different state holdings and to lift subsidies on food and other basic needs as is typical of loans given with structural adjustment provisions. What is the result?

  • In Tunisia as elsewhere where capital controls have been lifted, investment flows into non-productive activities, bubble creating activities, real estate and finance, rather than into less profitable (at least in the short run) infrastructural grown and agro-industrial modernization.
  • The lifting of subsidies has gone on for more than 25 years, beginning with the lifting of subsidies on the price of bread in 1984 which triggered what are referred to as “bread riots,” not only in Tunisia, but many places. As salaries have remained stagnant and prices have increased, combined with the growing crisis in unemployment, the lives of the majority of Tunisians have suffered. We are now more than a quarter of a century into such trends
  • But most interesting of all has been Tunisia’s process of privatization and joint ventures which has exacerbated the gulf between rich and poor in the country in an interesting fashion.
  • Foreign investment itself, although it exists, has been lackluster, especially from Europe and the USA. After the collapse of communism some of the foreign investment Tunisia hoped to win more or less went to Eastern Europe restructuring. There is some from Arab oil producing countries, true…but necessarily in strategic economic sectors that would lead to growth long term.

It is impressive the degree to which unrestrained and unregulated privatization has been a failure in so many Third World and former Communist countries. Look at the privatization impact in Russia, Central Asia, Latin American countries like Bolivia, Argentina and Chile… and in Tunisia.

It is not that privatization and joint ventures under certain circumstances, are not viable economic responses, but not the way it has happened in Tunisia. There the processes have been dominated by the two ruling families, the Ben Alis and the Trabelsis, who more and more monopolize all the contracts and are first in line when the Tunisian government sells off state resources at bargain basement prices.

As long as the families have control of the process, be it in the banking sector, the media or in education, privatization and joint ventures with foreign capital are supported.

As a result, these two families have become extraordinarily wealthy. But there has been another consequence: independent Tunisian entrepreneurs, small, medium sized and even some big investors have been driven from the field, either by hook or crook, by the crude methods of the first lady’s brother, or by more refined but equally self-serving approaches.

Not even Habib Bourguiba — in the end, no great democrat — was so crude. Yes, he seemed to like his palaces and that did represent a certain level of corruption, but Bourguiba’s corruption was pocket change compared to that of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families today. And if Bourguiba wasn’t a great democrat, nor was he a cleptomaniac, robbing the country blind. For Bourguiba “wealth” was simply the trappings of power. He understood the importance of Tunisia’s economy “delivering” for certain key social milieus and while not immune to nepotism, kept something of a lid on it.

But these past 20 years, nepotism (giving special favors to close family members) in Tunisia’s economy has grown to rampant proportions, icing out of the possibilities for success many elements who did not fair badly in the Bourguiba years. This trend is so developed that a whole strata of businesspeople and entrepreneurs has been adversely affected or ruined. They now find themselves, along with the country’s intellectuals, trade unions and students, in the country’s burgeoning political opposition, narrowing Ben Ali’s political base to a considerable degree.

The TuniLeaks cables suggest that the U.S. State Department has, at long last, caught up with the rest of the world. The cables acknowledge as much. If the cables are accurate, they suggest that the State Department is beginning, however dimly, to understand the political consequences of these economic policies, many of which, while applied in Tunisia are “made in America”…and referred to as “The Washington Consensus.”

The more fundamental question: why did it take so long?

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