Focal Points Blog

The Days of Anger: Humiliation, Fear and Dignity in the Middle East

Some will claim that the true, structural causes for these Arab revolts reside in the rising food prices or other objective economic factors. Others will claim it is the new social media. Others again will hail the rising multitude foretold in the West, happening in the Middle East. Who can prove them wrong? But that is not what the street interviewees and commentators tell us: they speak of Anger, of Pride, of Humiliation and Dignity.

In his famous, infamous book on The End of History and the Last Man Fukuyama was harking back to Plato and Hegel to stress how important these affects are in politics. They are sui generis: political moral affects of their own. Egotism and Desire are not the sole factors that determine human behaviour (as both liberal and Marxist ‘paneconomic’ theories have it). His major example is that it is not the economy that played a major role in the movement of Havel and his lot that brought down the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Thymos, meaning: feeling for justice, honour, anger, pride, dignity, etc. has been a determining factor from the onset.

The self burning of the Tunisian youngster was a thymotic gesture par excellence. One of the highest thinkable forms of it: total defiance, not only for dead, but even for the most painful and cruel of death. A quote from the web: Twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi, living in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, had a university degree but no work. To earn some money he took to selling fruit and vegetables in the street without a licence. When the authorities stopped him and confiscated his produce, he was so angry that he set himself on fire.” (our emphasis).

This total defiance out of humiliation turning into anger, and anger turning into dignity and defiance has proved contagious: “Rioting followed and security forces sealed off the town. On Wednesday [January 12th], another jobless young man in Sidi Bouzid climbed an electricity pole, shouted “no for misery, no for unemployment”, then touched the wires and electrocuted himself. Tunisia’s president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has fled his country after weeks of mass protests culminated in a victory for people power over one of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes.”

The jasmine revolution in a nutshell. Mohamed Bouazizi was not a calculating egotistic, economical being, measuring his profit. He just went for it. It is not by incident, that this most powerful of gestures of defiance and indignation has set off a wave of anger that floods the Arab world.

Anger has had some bad press lately in our culture. So much so that we tend to dismiss it. And yet it is this affect that has given its name to these appeals to revolt: ‘Days of Anger’. The Days of Anger have been succeeding one another since January: from Tunisia to Iraq, from Egypt to Yemen, from Oman and Bahrain to Libya to Syria. Was it just a cheap appealing slogan to mobilize? No. It contains a profound truth (philosophical, psychological, political or even psychopolitical as Sloterdijk would call it): he (or she) who is angry has lost all fear.

Anger can be a door to freedom. Freedom is just another word for nothing left to loose. Janis Joplin’s catch phrase explains it all. Human dignity resides in freedom. Therefore he who is free has nothing to lose, he who has nothing to lose is free. Even if anger is not a popular affect in our culture, the philosophical truth is that freedom lies in human nature, that it is in the human nature to desire not only for food and riches, but also for recognition, for honour, and pride. When this longing for dignity and recognition is not met, entire peoples can get angry. And lose fear.

He who loses fear, regains his pride and honour. He who regains his pride and honour has nothing to lose but his freedom. He will defend it with his life if must be. This sequence explains why the words of anger, pride, honour were not out of the air in street interviews and commentaries, and even in slogans: “Here we are, Egyptians, proud again!” read a slogan on Tahrir square quoted on Al Jazeera, on February, 10th at 7 pm local Belgian time. I noted it down for this article.

Why is it so touching, this slogan? Because it touches a deep string in all of us. Freedom is the base of dignity. A slave can be rich and healthy and well (mostly not, mind you), but has no dignity, cannot be proud. For he is not free. Now the people feel sovereign, free to speak and act. This is the biggest empowerment one can get. No bullets will stop this, even airstrikes can’t stop this.

Peter Sloterdijk’s accusations in his book Zorn und Zeit (Anger and Time) against what he calls ‘Anger Big Banks’ is convincing in his case studies, quite devastating in fact: his cases being the church and communism – but wrong in its premises and conclusions. By taking up Fukuyama’s theme and linking it to Nietzchean resentment, he casts an almost solely negative light on anger. The Days of Anger, from Tunisia to Syria, from Egypt to Libya to Yemen, etc. prove him wrong. Anger can be a very positive force in history as the days of anger in the Arab world prove.

A witness from Cairo on February 18th on Skype: “The repression is massive, and will only rise by the days … scary. This era is mad. Full of mixed hope and anxiety, I have this unbreakable smile with eyes filled with tears at times.” Libya is a matter of concern. But whatever Khadafy does, or any other leader in the Middle East for that matter, as somebody said from Tripoli on Al Jazeera (on February 23th): “The wall of fear has fallen, the spring of Arab youth has began.”

And we haven’t seen the end of this. Even China is weary and cracking down on activists – there it is ‘jasmine’ that has been the key word: they censured the word jasmine on the internet – can you imagine? Can you imagine a more innocent word? I can understand (not agree) that authorities censure words like porn, bomb, terrorism, but Yasmine. I mean. I think it is the practical joke of the year. World historically ridiculous. But indeed, the Chinese call their days of anger and protest “jasmine walks”. And indeed: the authorities are wetting their pants. They are scared like hell for this fertile spring breeze blowing from the Mediterranean. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Everywhere Tahrir Square!

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011). He is initiator of the BRussells Tribunal.

How to Break the Deadlock With North Korea

Pyongyang(Pictured: Pyongyang Government Complex, No. 1.)

Relations with North Korea these days are about as cold as they could be. There haven’t been any talks between Washington and Pyongyang for many months. The South Korean government, although it spends a lot of money to store the rice it can’t sell, is not interested in sending humanitarian aid despite the recent UN report that as much as one-quarter of the North Korean population is on the edge of starvation.

Jimmy Carter has announced that he plans to go on what might be called a geopolitical elder hostel to North Korea, along with Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and other former world leaders. They aim to break the deadlock. More power to them. They could pick up a lot of money in speaking fees, just as George W. Bush is doing at the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce later this month, but are instead going on what is certainly nobody’s idea of a junket.

Here’s the problem they’ll face. The United States is looking for some indication that North Korea is willing to deal on its nuclear program. And South Korea wants an apology for the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean boat that went down in disputed waters a little over a year ago. But North Korea has denied responsibility for the Cheonan. And, after the attack on Libya, North Korea believes even more in the utility of a nuclear weapons program in deterring foreign intervention.

Can the elders, with their combined 500 years of diplomatic know-how, somehow resolve this problem? It’s going to take more than silver-tongued rhetoric. Both the United States and South Korea are going to have to be ready to show a bit more flexibility. But North Korea, too, will have to bend a little.

One place to start is with an ambiguous statement from Pyongyang that can be read two different ways — as an apology to the South and as a denial of culpability by the North. Here’s an example:

We express great sorrow over the sinking of the Cheonan. We will work with South Korea [or Nam Chosun, as the DPRK refers to the South] and other countries in Northeast Asia to strengthen maritime security, prevent any future naval incidents, and ensure a peaceful and prosperous region.

The Carter delegation represents significant diplomatic firepower. It would be a shame for the elders to run up against the wall of intransigence on all sides. It’s time for some serious face-saving tactics.

Take Part in the Global Day of Action on Military Spending, April 12

GDAMSOn Tuesday, April 12, people in more than 35 countries, as well as Columbus, Dallas, Kansas City and dozens of other cities throughout the United States will participate in the first Global Day of Action on Military Spending.

Actions will include a protest in front of the White House at noon. Other U.S. cities include San Francisco, New York, Boston, Fairbanks, San Juan, and Honolulu (click here for a full list). There will be actions at the United Nations offices in Geneva, a march in Kampala, a demonstration in Dhaka, a women’s peace gathering in Seoul, and much more.

The Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC and the International Peace Bureau in Geneva, Switzerland are the event’s co-organizers. More than 100 organizations, including Religions for Peace, Scientists for Global Responsibility, the American Friends Service Committee, Win Without War, and Fellowship of Reconciliation have endorsed it.

This global action will come one day after the release on April 11 of the 2010 figures for global military expenditures by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In 2009, the world spent more than $1.5 trillion on the military. Even in the middle of a global economic crisis, military spending has increased, with the United States responsible for nearly half of all expenditures.

“With the U.S. government in a budget crisis, it’s urgent that we move from military deeds to human needs,” says John Feffer of the Institute for Policy Studies and a Global Day organizer. “Meanwhile, other crises have put a great strain on the world’s resources: climate change, earthquakes, global poverty, nuclear proliferation, and the threat of health pandemics. Ever greater funds are necessary to repair the societies that have been damaged by war and conflict, including the latest war in Libya.”

“In the wake of the global economic crisis, some governments — especially here in Europe — are beginning to cut military spending. But they won’t allocate the savings made by these reductions to social/environmental needs or to combat poverty unless we pressure them to do so,” says Colin Archer of the International Peace Bureau and a Global Day organizer.

“This is why we are undertaking a serious worldwide mobilizing effort — beginning on April 12 — to make visible our demands to feed the people, not the military-industrial complex.”

The White House action, which will take place at noon, will feature poetry, puppets, and graphic representations of military spending. Representatives of national and local peace and human needs organizations will present “flash facts” that vividly demonstrate how our military dollars can be used more effectively to create jobs, address climate change, and reduce poverty.

Please visit our website, demilitarize.org, for more information about the Global Day of Action on Military Spending, the endorsing organizations, and the specific actions.

The Institute for Policy Studies is a community of public scholars and organizers linking peace, justice, and the environment in the United States and globally. The International Peace Bureau is a Nobel Peace Laureate (1910) with 320 member organizations in 70 countries.

For more information:
John Feffer: [email protected]; 202-294-9128
Find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @GlobalDay412.

Also visit Demilitarize.org.

In Glenn Beck’s Crosshairs: Interview with Frances Fox Piven

Frances Fox Piven. Photo by Zach Roberts - zdroberts.com

Frances Fox Piven. Photo by Zach Roberts – zdroberts.com

Glenn Beck’s nightly tour through the terrifying political landscape of his paranoid imagination inevitably includes a detour into the shadowy precincts of liberal thought, unfriendly territory where conspiracies to destroy the United States are incubated in every university classroom, and enemies of the state lie in wait to hijack the American dream. A rotating cast of left-of center bogeymen haunts the narrative of Beck’s other America, infecting the brains of ordinary citizens with conspiratorial designs that, if not properly defended against, will ultimately bring about the structural collapse of the United States.

Over the past several weeks Beck has made a point of aggressively singling out Frances Fox Piven—professor of political science and sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center—as especially dangerous to American life and liberty. Beck accuses Piven and her late husband, Richard Cloward, of being the intellectual architects of a revolutionary plot to overthrow the United States government. The so-called “Cloward-Piven strategy,” outlined in a 1966 article published by The Nation, argued that a concentrated welfare enrollment drive could ultimately lead to a guaranteed national income. For Beck, Cloward and Piven are a particularly potent touchstone for kicking off feverish fantasies. They represent, in Beck’s mythology, “the roots of the tree of radicalism and revolution” that employ “fear and intimidation” to “overwhelm the system.”

What began as mildly amusing attention quickly turned worrisome as threats to Piven’s life began appearing on internet message boards and even in her electronic inbox after Beck’s website The Blaze posted an essay on New Year’s Eve entitled “Frances Fox Piven Rings in the New Year by Calling for Violent Revolution.” “I’m all for violence and change Francis,” one reader wrote, “where do your loved ones live?” Another chimed in that he had “5000 roundas [sic] ready and I’ll give My life [sic] to take Our freedom [sic] back. Taking Her life [sic] and any who would enslave My children [sic] and grandchildren and call for violence should meet their demise as They wish [sic]. George Washington didn’t use His freedom [sic] of speech to defeat the British, He [sic] shot them.” Still others warned Piven to “be very careful what you ask for honey… As I mentioned in previous posts…ONE SHOT…ONE KILL! …a few well placed marksmen with high powered rifles…then there would not be any violence.” One Beck supporter suggested that “We should blowup Piven’s office and home,” while another signed off by praying that “cancer find[s] you soon.” According to The Nation, a particularly succinct antagonist summed up his message in the subject line of a personal email: “DIE YOU CUNT.”

Concerns for Piven’s personal safety have since led to increased security precautions and an investigation by the FBI. Despite these unpleasant circumstances, however, Piven has hardly put her life on hold. Since the New Year, she has continued writing prodigiously, has appeared regularly on nationally syndicated radio and TV, and is currently teaching a class at the Graduate Center. IPS contributor Michael Busch sat down with Piven to discuss the ugly causes and consequences of Beck’s bilious targeting, as well as the recent attack on academic freedom at Brooklyn College, possibilities for a poor and working people’s movement in the midst of the US economic crisis, and the state of American democracy.

I was hoping we could begin with a brief discussion of what’s been going on: where it came from, how it has affected you personally, and what it says about our current moment.

Well, it started almost two years ago. I didn’t pay any attention to it, however, until last winter, when some of my students told me about it. Now, I don’t watch Glenn Beck very often. But they told me about Beck’s “tree of revolution,” and that Richard and I were at the trunk of this tree that has all these branches going off in different directions. My first reaction was that it was funny, because it was so fantastical. Who wouldn’t laugh if they were being given credit for the Students for a Democratic Society [movement], the Open Society Institute, ACORN, the election of Barack Obama, the financial crisis, and probably other stuff which I am forgetting right now?

But as it’s gone on, I have been forced to think about it a little more seriously. I think it is dangerous in and of itself, and also because it’s a symptom of serious problems in American democracy. It’s dangerous because our political culture includes a tradition of violent extremism, and also because there are always some loose nuts out there who are provoked by this kind of ranting. But it’s a symptom of a bigger problem, I think. The bigger problem is that there are a lot of people in the United States who are anxious, discontented, who are nostalgic for “the way things were,” who don’t understand the big changes that have occurred including deindustrialization and the decline of American power, or the increasing diversity of the American population, or the election of a black president, or changes in sexual and family patterns. These are very hard developments to decipher, to analyze, to explain. They’re hard for academics to explain! It’s also difficult to understand the government policies that are justified as dealing with these problems, or dealing with the economic recession.

That’s a situation that I think creates a sort-of available space for propaganda. That’s why Glenn Beck and company are dangerous: because they are propagandists. They tell a nutty story about what is happening in the United States instead of trying to understand what’s happening, trying to understand who’s responsible. Instead, they point at me and say, “SHE’S RESPONSIBLE!” Well, think how ridiculous this is. They also keep reiterating, “She is 78 years old!” And I’m responsible? This is paranoia.

Think about what we understand to be the elemental requirements for democracy. People are supposed to assess their circumstances, the circumstances of their community, to discuss those circumstances—why they occurred, what government can do about it—and then vote accordingly. But, if these crazy stories are poured into what you might call the public mind or segment of the public’s mind, it blocks the possibility for this kind of democratic discourse.

How do you make sense of the violent threats against you, especially in light of the Gabriel Giffords shooting, and the Beck-inspired assassination plots of Byron Williams? Is Barbara Ehrenreich correct to suggest that the possession or use of guns themselves have come to represent political action to some Americans? And if so, do you see a concerted effort by the far right to mobilize around this sense of “civic engagement,” for lack of a better way of describing it?

Well, I think that guns have always played a role in American political culture. That role perhaps grows and contracts, but there have always been extremist groups that have turned to guns and especially to forms of violence that play a dramatic symbolic role, like lynchings. So I’m not sure that this is new. It may be surging right now—maybe because of a black president and the economic downturn—but it’s not new. What is new, I think, is the potential power of propaganda in American life. And that’s in part because of the media, and the role of big money, and who owns the media. After all, it’s not Glenn Beck, it’s Rupert Murdoch—let’s face it. Glenn Beck is an idiot: an overweight, neurotic character who hit on this way of building an audience and making a lot of money. But FOX News gave him his platform.

Why do you think Beck has fastened on to you? How did you and your late husband end up at the trunk of the “tree of revolution”?

Why does he fasten on me? Partly it is accident: one of way or the other, he came into contact with David Horowitz, Fred Siegel Jim Sleeper and other annoying people who made the move from the far left to the far right in the 1970s, because the pay was better on the other side, or whatever. They, along with Thomas Sowell, have a line which is very familiar that ordinary people themselves never rise up and make trouble on their own, it’s always outside agitators that instigate them. And they say that Richard and I were the agitators that were responsible for the welfare rights movement and later the effort to get liberalized voter registration. Thomas Sowell said we were for the responsible for the demand for affirmative action—“black people didn’t want that!”

Still, they could have picked on lots of others, so it’s accidental that they picked on me. They could even have picked on one of their own! Just take a look at what ran in Ramparts magazine when David Horowitz was still an editor! But I think that what’s not accidental is that they’re turning to someone who was an advocate for expanded democratic rights for poor and minority people in the United States, and expanded political rights for poor and minority people in the United States—that’s not accidental. The Sixties movements drive them crazy. Actually, the Thirties movements also drive them crazy! But the Sixties movements have a kind of special edge to them because they did play a role in the election of Barack Obama, who is easily vilified and demonized because he is African-American.

If it’s true, as you say, that Glenn Beck’s narrative gains traction because of the complexity of American politics, what’s the remedy, what’s the way forward? In other words, what are the prospects for reinvigorating a working class movement in American politics?

Well, there is the potential. Some of the conditions are right. We have a president who’s not a champion of such movements, but who would nevertheless be vulnerable to them and forced to be responsive to them. We have a clear villain in the financial sector, a villain that is not only similar to the economic royalists that Franklin Delano Roosevelt ranted against, but who are patently illegal in many of their actions. And we have a lot of people who are losing their homes, we have people suffering under mountains of debt, not just credit card but student debt. A lot of people are unemployed and many more have taken big wage cuts.

But at the same time, I do think there a lot of organizing problems that we have to solve. Here’s what I’ve come to think we should do. We have to work on the organizing problems—how to bring people together; how to transform what is for many people a kind of humiliation—they’re debtors, or they are unemployed—we have to figure out how to transform this humiliation into indignation; we have to figure out how to identify targets for their indignation and their anger; how to shape local actions that have some muscle that can be brought to bear on the centers of power. Of course, there are people working on this, but the stuff that’s happened so far has been very small. Still, I see no reason that it can’t be much bigger, that it can’t get much bigger.

Can you talk a bit about the recent events at Brooklyn College: specifically, how you view what happened there, and what ways, if any, you see its connection to Glenn Beck’s targeting of you as part of a larger right-wing attack on the American university?

Well, first of all, I don’t think it’s quite right to suggest that my situation is linked to what happened at Brooklyn College. As to that situation, I think that administrators at CUNY—and I include the president of Brooklyn College here— are very sensitive on the issues of Israel and Zionism, and that’s partly because of the larger political environment of New York. It’s also because of the history of CUNY. There have historically been a lot of Jews at CUNY, there are lots of Jews on faculty. And it’s because Jewish politics—and by that I mean the politics of American Jews—has itself been very distorted, I think, by Israeli policy. And so, you have a sensitivity that leads to the events at Brooklyn College. I remember another: the Graduate Center graduation a few years ago in which a trustee—invited to give his blessing to the graduates—used the occasion to launch a kind of tirade against any anti-Zionist sentiment in the institution.

It’s true that David Horowitz, who is one of the gang promoting the idea there is a Cloward and Piven theory of orchestrated crisis to bring down capitalism, did work with Campus Watch a few years ago, and a lot of neo-cons are hyped-up on the issue of Israel. In that sense, maybe there is a connection [between the Brooklyn College and Glenn Beck fiascos]. However, the university is the one institution in the United States that hasn’t been completely swamped by the march to the right in the country. When the American Sociological Association’s three most recent presidents issued a statement defending me, they got an incendiary response from somebody called “Shadow Merchant.” Randall Collins, one of the presidents, emailed Shadow Merchant to ask him how he had gotten the statement so quickly. In response Shadow Merchant laid out a big plan—I think Shadow Merchant is a probably some right-wing professor emeritus—but Shadow Merchant said, and I’m paraphrasing of course, “this is the counter-revolution and one of the things we’re going to do is mob every lefty professor.” And he concluded his tirade by heaping praise on Senator Joseph McCarthy.

So, I think that the Right will target the universities, and that we have a responsibility to stand up to this kind of Right, and we especially have a responsibility to stand up to the propaganda of the Right. Lunacy is not good for democracy.

Speaking of which, what do you make of the state of our democracy look like at present?

Well, democracy—understood as electoral representative democracy—is in a lot of trouble. Now, some of that comes from the growing role of business in American politics: the concentrated resources that business interests groups bring to bear on campaigns and candidates as lobbyists, as big-money contributors, and the influence they have on the parties, as well.

But some of the trouble also comes from the influence of propaganda in a society that is very difficult to understand for the ordinary citizen. One has to have explanations for what happens, and the role of government in what happens, in order to do one’s democratic duty as a citizen and as a voter. American politics is hard to understand. The fact that it is so dense, so complicated, so opaque and turgid opens the way for lunatic propaganda. And sometimes not so lunatic! The right-wing propaganda campaign that has now been going on for forty years—a campaign that is sometimes referred to as the politics of distraction—to try to wean the American working class away from New Deal policies and the Democratic Party by raising cultural issues that largely have to do with race and sex. This larger campaign is perhaps not lunatic, but neither is it a contribution to democratic discourse.

Is It Palestine’s Turn?

Cross-posted from Foreign Policy in Focus sister publication Right Web.

As revolutions erupted across Tunisia and Egypt, one of the first questions that arose in the West was the effect of the newly-energized Arab democratic movements on the state of Israel. The Washington establishment has generally accepted the view — promoted by the likes of Dennis Ross and Elliott Abrams — that the uprisings were solely based on domestic concerns and had no relation whatsoever to Israel or the United States. However, other observers who carefully monitored the protestors have gleaned a strong and persistent anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian position throughout the regional upheavals. There can be no question that the Arab Spring will have a considerable impact on Israeli regional calculations, including the viability of the occupation.

While the ultimate impact of these developments will be difficult to determine for some time to come, one question in particular must be addressed to frame the potential long-term effects of the Arab revolutions on Middle East peace: what do these revolutions mean for Palestine? By and large, the effect on Israel is manifested mostly by the changing dynamic of its relationship to Palestinians, which formed the basis of Israeli policy toward its allied neighbor states of Jordan and Egypt, and its enmity to Syria. If the Arab revolutions empower Palestinians to build a mass movement for independence, and if the new Arab governments push Israel’s neighbors to play a more active role in the Palestinian struggle, then Israeli regional hegemony may well be significantly compromised.

Visit Right Web to read Is It Palestine’s Turn? in its entirety.

Peru’s Presidential Election: Populist Humala v. MOR Candidates

Peru presidential electionPeruvians head to the polls on Sunday, April 10 in what are shaping up to be the most volatile and unpredictable presidential and congressional elections in recent memory. With no candidate likely to get the 50 percent of the vote needed to win in the first round, a second round of voting for President on June 5 is virtually assured. The most recent polls indicate that populist candidate Ollanta Humala will be the top-vote getter on Sunday and will easily make it through the first round — as he did in 2006, only to be routed by Alan Garcia. But it remains unclear who among his contenders will compete with him in the second round.

Humala’s recent rise in the polls caught observers by surprise. Until a few weeks ago, he was polling in the low teens, and former President Alejandro Toledo was considered a shoo-in to win the first round. But by mid-March, Toledo started to slip in the polls. Humala was not the only candidate to reap the benefits: Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a businessman who served as Toledo’s Prime Minister and whose poll numbers were in the single digits, also saw his numbers rise.

Today, Toledo and Kuczynski are in a virtual dead-heat for the second-place spot with Keiko Fujimori. Keiko, daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, now serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations committed during his 10-year authoritarian regime, maintains a solid block of about 18 percent of the electorate, apparently more out of loyalty to her father than support for her lackluster campaign. Luis Castañeda Lossio, two-time mayor of Lima, has seen his poll numbers drop substantively, from a high of 25 percent to under 14 percent now, so many see him as no longer a prime contender for that coveted second place.

But uncertainty abounds. Polls put Humala as the front-runner with a solid lead over the remaining candidates, but they almost uniformly show him losing in a second round to any of the other candidates. Another element of surprise is the 30 percent of voters who say they are still undecided about who they will cast their ballot for on Sunday. And, of those who do express a preference, about 25 percent say that they may switch their vote.

A variety of factors help explain such indecisiveness. Political parties have all but disappeared, along with strong political allegiances. While each of the top candidates has a core block of support, none has generated a great deal of enthusiasm among the electorate more broadly. Interestingly, 50 percent or more say that they “would never” vote for each of the top candidates, meaning that those who do make it to the second round will have a tough sell and a significant chunk of blank or spoiled ballots in the final vote could undermine the legitimacy of the ultimate victor.

Perhaps most significantly, apart from Humala, the candidates are more or less offering the same thing: continuity with the present economic model, improved education, improved security, and the like. As a result, to a degree surprising even by Peruvian standards, the electoral debate has focused less on programmatic differences and more on personal issues. The media has focused more on how many bottles of whiskey were purchased by the Presidential Palace when Toledo was president than how to ensure that Peru’s impressive economic growth lead to real and sustainable improvements for the urban and rural poor.

Indeed, Humala has capitalized on the frustration that many Peruvians feel with regards to rampant corruption and the sense that only a select group is benefiting from steady economic growth. His steady rise in the polls should not be surprising given that recent polls show that only 22 percent of the population is happy with the present economic model, while 33 percent want radical change and 36 percent want some change. Humala is offering simple and direct programs that have proven to be very popular in neighboring countries, such as a means-tested pension plan for those over 65, improved access to health care for the poor, and a program to provide childcare for children under the age of three in the poorest districts in the country.

With Humala’s rise in the polls, the fear mongering is in full swing, with headlines proclaiming that the end of capitalism is near and the Peruvian is blogosphere rife with pseudo-sarcastic comments urging Peruvians to get their passports ready given the very real possibility that the final round would pit Humala versus Keiko Fujimori. Reacting to this possibility, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa said “it would be like having to choose between AIDS and cancer.” Humala does raise concern among many progressives. There are well-founded allegations of responsibility for human rights violations that took place when he was a military commander in a jungle region during Peru’s brutal civil conflict, though the initial case brought by human rights groups was dismissed after the witnesses reversed their testimony. Not long after the 2006 elections, his congressional majority in congress began to splinter, leading some analysts to question his leadership skills. Finally, it is important to point out that the Peruvian left is split over his candidacy, with some key politicians, activists and social movements supporting him, but many others who are not and who likely feel disenfranchised for lack of an alternative left-wing candidate.

Whatever happens in the first round of voting on April 10, it is likely to be a deeply polarizing road to the second-round elections. Moreover, all indications are that the Peruvian Congress will be extremely fractured, with no political group having a decisive majority. The next president of Peru, whoever that proves to be, will face immediate challenges to ensure effective governability – and to create a government that is responsive to the needs of all Peruvians.

Coletta A. Youngers is the Latin America Regional Associate with the International Drug Policy Consortium and a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Jo-Marie Burt is an Associate Professor at George Mason University and also a WOLA Senior Fellow.

Why Burma’s Ethnic Minorities Become Refugees to Thailand

Karen Mae Sot(Pictured: Karen refugee camp in Mae Sot, Thailand.)

Recently Foreign Policy in Focus excerpted a new book titled Nowhere to be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime (McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series), edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoë West. Meanwhile, Michael Busch interviewed Mac McClelland, author of another new book on Burma, For Us Sur­ren­der is Out of the Ques­tion (Soft Skull Press) for an article that originally appeared in the CUNY Graduate Center Advocate.

Nearly fifty years after Burma’s last democratically-elected gov­ern­ment was over­thrown by a military-led coup, the South­east Asian coun­try has suf­fered some of the world’s most egre­gious human rights abuses. For activists, Burma has become syn­ony­mous with insti­tu­tion­al­ized rape, tor­ture, forced labor, and eth­nic cleans­ing. In the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, how­ever, the enor­mity of Burma’s cri­sis remains obscured by indif­fer­ence and the over­shad­ow­ing pres­ence of dis­as­ters in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur.

In 2006, Mother Jones edi­tor and human rights reporter Mac McClel­land vol­un­teered as an Eng­lish lan­guage teacher with a Burmese refugee orga­ni­za­tion in Mae Sot, Thai­land, a small fron­tier town hug­ging the bor­der with Burma. There, she lived, worked, and par­tied with a small band of hard-drinking refugees who risk their lives to doc­u­ment the slowly grind­ing geno­cide con­sum­ing eth­nic minori­ties in Burma. McClel­land col­lects their sto­ries of strug­gle and sur­vival under a mur­der­ous regime in a wide-ranging, metic­u­lously reported, and vividly recounted new mem­oir, For Us Sur­ren­der is Out of the Ques­tion.

McClel­land sat down recently with the CUNY Advo­cate to dis­cuss her new book, the rea­son the world con­tin­ues to ignore the geno­cide in Burma, and why there still may be hope for vic­tims of the world’s longest-running war.

I hoped we could begin by set­ting the stage a bit. Can you dis­cuss how it is that you came to work with Burmese refugees in Thailand?

It really was as lame as I describe it in the book. I was dick­ing around on the inter­net, saw some­thing about these Burmese refugee camps near the bor­der in Thai­land, but I couldn’t find any infor­ma­tion about why they were there. I saw that there were 100,000 Burmese refugees in Thai­land, and I was like, “Huh? Really?” I had never heard that before. Of course, you know some­where in the back of your mind that Burma sucks, that it’s not exactly a place you would want to live, not exactly a bas­tion of democ­racy, but I hadn’t heard that there was a refugee cri­sis, that there are hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees leav­ing the coun­try. I couldn’t find any eas­ily acces­si­ble infor­ma­tion about what the hell the story was, so when I fin­ished grad­u­ate school I was like, “I’m just gonna go and check it out.”

Did you travel there with the inten­tion of writ­ing a book?

No. I really just wanted to go and see what was going on.

What was the most sur­pris­ing thing that you expe­ri­enced while you were there?

Well, the geno­cide. The geno­cide that I had never heard of, that most peo­ple have never heard of because peo­ple are afraid to label it a geno­cide. It’s too com­pli­cated, too polit­i­cally charged. To real­ize that some­thing of that scope, at that level of hor­ror, was hap­pen­ing and that it’s not widely reported — despite the fact that it has been doc­u­mented to death — was stun­ning to me. I mean, to every sin­gle thing that came out of the mouths of these guys that I was work­ing with my response would be, “Really?!?” They would show me videos, and pic­tures, and I would get inter­views, just end­less stacks of shit, and with all of it, in every case, my response was, “No, that’s news to me. No, that story doesn’t exist in my media. No, I don’t know what you are talk­ing about.” In ret­ro­spect, I guess it was stu­pid to have had faith in think­ing that I would have known about this. But it is so big! You would think that some­body would have been doing some­thing about it.

So, why haven’t they? Is it sim­ply that Burma is home to the world’s longest run­ning war, and so doesn’t con­sti­tute news? Is news fatigue a fac­tor? Or is there some­thing else going on that we should consider?

Yeah, well, it seems to me that the fact that it is so old could pos­si­bly have some­thing to do with it, but at the same time the story is so juicy, it is so shock­ing, that it seems to me like some­thing that could totally move papers. But it’s also that peo­ple in this coun­try — this is not as true in the UK — don’t really know what Burma is, where Burma is, don’t nec­es­sar­ily know what con­ti­nent Burma is on, so I think that news orga­ni­za­tions assume that the story will be a hard sell, and they’re prob­a­bly right. If I were more of a con­spir­acy the­o­rist I would say that the geno­cide in Burma is being under­re­ported because our gov­ern­ment doesn’t want the peo­ple to know about it because then they would have to do some­thing about it. And they don’t want to do some­thing about it because then China would get mad. But really, I think it’s just a hard-to-sell story. Of course, it could also be fatigue: peo­ple def­i­nitely had Haiti fatigue, just as they had New Orleans fatigue before that. The thing with Burma, though, is it seems like it hasn’t reached that point. I just think we don’t know what to do with it. Instead, we talk about the same thing over and over again, which is that there’s a polit­i­cal pris­oner [Aung San Suu Kyi] there. Couldn’t we use that as a news peg to say “Oh, and by the way, there’s also a geno­cide going on”?

Let’s talk about your approach to report­ing on the cri­sis in Burma. There’s a won­der­ful ten­sion in the book between the rig­or­ous his­tor­i­cal research that con­tex­tu­al­izes the storywhich feels almost aca­d­e­mic in natureand the vig­or­ously infor­mal tone you adopt that frames the nar­ra­tive. First, did this mix­ture result from hav­ing a par­tic­u­lar audi­ence in mind while writ­ing? And sec­ond, can you dis­cuss the chal­lenges of nego­ti­at­ing the slip­pery slope between these two ele­ments of your style?

I def­i­nitely did not have a par­tic­u­lar audi­ence in mind. To me, the num­ber one thing was that I had the sto­ries of these refugees which were fuck­ing crazy. I really wanted to tell them. Period. As for the way the nar­ra­tive came about, that was more the result of per­son­al­ity than any­thing else. First of all, I am a huge nerd: I love research and fact-checking and col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion. At the same time, I write the way that I speak. When we were shop­ping the book pro­posal, a lot of peo­ple were not huge fans of that. They would be like, “Yes, this is an impor­tant sub­ject and peo­ple should write more books about Burma. But we can never abide by the scathing, the obnox­ious tone of this narrator!”

Since the excerpt from the book came out in the new Mother Jones, some pretty impor­tant orga­ni­za­tions — I won’t name any names — have writ­ten let­ters to the edi­tor say­ing “What the fuck were you think­ing, fram­ing this in this way. It’s totally inap­pro­pri­ate for a human rights story.” So I guess I know, now, who is not my audi­ence! They thought that I was under­min­ing the impor­tance of the sit­u­a­tion by not being dryer in talk­ing about it. But for me, that’s exactly the prob­lem with all this infor­ma­tion! It’s pre­sented in a way that no one would ever want to look at it. Even the videos you see have these dire voiceovers — almost always done by British peo­ple — and there’s always this slow and sad piano music in the back­ground. The moment you cue it up you say to your­self “I’m not going to watch this. It’s going to be bor­ing and/or sad.”

I’ve read a thou­sand books about Burma and even the mod­ern ones, they still read like reports, like aca­d­e­mic tracts. They’re long, there’s no nar­ra­tive, and there are no char­ac­ters. Because there are no char­ac­ters, I think that makes it hard for peo­ple to read, to engage with this con­flict. So, I was basi­cally writ­ing the book I needed when I was try­ing to find out what was going on. This was the book I was look­ing for, and couldn’t find.

Given the jaw-dropping vio­lence and atroc­i­ties being per­pe­trated in Burma and the world’s seem­ingly indif­fer­ent response thus far, do you still hold any faith that the United Nations or other mem­bers of the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity will inter­vene on behalf of vic­tims there at any point in the fore­see­able future?

I have some. We have peace­keep­ers on the ground in Dar­fur, after all, so we know we can do it. It’s not like the mech­a­nisms aren’t there, that money isn’t there. They are. It’s just that peo­ple aren’t employ­ing them. Thank God I can point to Sudan, though, because oth­er­wise I would prob­a­bly answer no, I don’t have much faith. In Burma, those vil­lagers would be so happy to see some­thing like that. Even just the atten­tion would be impor­tant. They would be so happy that peo­ple knew what was hap­pen­ing. It would make a huge dif­fer­ence in their lives. So yes, I do have some faith. I rec­og­nize that it might be stu­pid, but if more peo­ple were talk­ing about Burma, then the United Nations would be forced to address it.

Let’s talk about United States for­eign pol­icy for a moment. Given the nec­es­sary polit­i­cal will to act on the sit­u­a­tion in Burma, what options, if any, could the Barack Obama admin­is­tra­tion rea­son­ably pur­sue to have a pos­i­tive impact there?

First of all, our gov­ern­ment could lead the charge for a com­mis­sion of inquiry into crimes against human­ity in Burma. Every­one knows that the United States is in charge, in many ways, of the United Nations, and cer­tainly of the Secu­rity Coun­cil. So, if we made a big deal of Burma, showed that this is a cause that we are behind and are will­ing to fight for, that would make a huge dif­fer­ence in com­par­i­son to what we are doing now, which is noth­ing. If a com­mis­sion of inquiry were to be put into place then all this doc­u­men­ta­tion sit­ting around would have to be looked at. I can’t imag­ine that peo­ple would see all that and then decide that this is not a prob­lem. The Obama admin­is­tra­tion actu­ally wouldn’t even have to do all that much work: it wouldn’t cost any­thing; peo­ple wouldn’t have to be moved around. The pres­i­dent would sim­ply just have to say, “We need to do this thing, right now.”

You make the point in the book’s clos­ing chap­ter that when it comes to US-China rela­tions, eco­nomic con­cerns trump human rights com­plaints that Wash­ing­ton might oth­er­wise press with respect to Burma. Yet in the case of Dar­fur, we saw some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent play out. Why? What are the key deter­mi­nants that dis­tin­guish these two sit­u­a­tions from one another?

I think civil soci­ety plays a huge part. First of all, it’s about aware­ness: the pub­lic doesn’t know about Burma, and if the pub­lic doesn’t know about Burma then they aren’t putting pres­sure on politi­cians to talk about it. And so they won’t, because it’s eas­ier to ignore it. The “g” word also plays a big part in this. Right now, we just have this vague idea about Burma — that there’s a dic­ta­tor­ship or some­thing there, that they sound really mean, and that there’s a lot of cen­sor­ship. This is not enough for peo­ple to get behind, to pres­sure the United States to stand up to China and fight them on the issue. But imag­ine if some­one threw it out there, called it what it was, and said, “This is a geno­cide! These are the pic­tures. Here is the evi­dence.” This is what hap­pened in the case of Dar­fur. The exact same thing could hap­pen in South­east Asia. There’s no rea­son why it couldn’t.

A host of pos­si­ble actions, peace­ful and coer­cive, have been artic­u­lated to pres­sure the Burmese junta to respect basic human rights and pre­pare the way for civil­ian rule. At the end of the day, other options hav­ing been con­sid­ered, what do you think about pos­si­bil­i­ties for mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion in Burma? Is this going too far?

I don’t think it’s going too far. In my opin­ion, peace­keep­ers are the answer. At least, they’re as close to the answer as we’re likely to get. The ideal solu­tion, of course, would be that the coun­try even­tu­ally evolves away from dic­ta­tor­ship and builds the nec­es­sary insti­tu­tions for a demo­c­ra­tic soci­ety and blah blah blah. In the mean­time, some­one needs to pro­tect these fuck­ing vil­lagers in the east of Burma. It’s absurd what’s hap­pen­ing. I read exile news­pa­pers. Every sin­gle day, there are reports of five-year-old girls being gang-raped, four thou­sand new refugees pour­ing over the bor­der into south­ern China, this sort of thing. It is so urgent. Per­haps not to you, per­haps not to me, but it is for the peo­ple who have to deal with it. The fact that this has been going on for so long, and that so few peo­ple know about it, is ridiculous.

85 Percent? How Do You Figure, Mr. Ryan?

Back in December, the co-chairs of the bipartisan President’s Deficit Reduction Commission liked their plan’s chances. One of their members was the current chair of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, and he promised that his committee’s budget blueprint would include 85% of the Commission’s recommendations.

Today we have that blueprint, and squint at it as hard as you might; you won’t find anything like that kind of math. The Commission laid down its “guiding principles,” such as:

  • “Don’t disrupt the fragile economic recovery” by cutting too soon. Cong. Ryan’s plan? Let the cutting begin. The deeper the better.
  • Cut and invest “in education, infrastructure, and high-value research and development … to make it easier for businesses to create jobs.” Cong. Ryan’s investment agenda? Nowhere in sight.
  • “Protect the truly disadvantaged.” By slashing Medicaid, Ryan? Really?!
  • “Cut spending we cannot afford—no exceptions. We must end redundant, wasteful, and ineffective federal spending wherever we find it… including defense.” The commission laid out about $100 billion in military cuts. Cong. Ryan’s plan follows Defense Secretary Gates’ so-called ‘cuts.’ As I wrote when the President’s budget came out, they are not cuts. They slow the projected growth in Gates’ budget, to the tune of $15 billion a year, on average. Attacking the discretionary budget and giving about half of its total—defense–a nearly-free pass is like is like making a cake and leaving out the flour.

This despite the Government Accountability Office’s accounting of $70 billion in new Pentagon waste in the last two years alone. Despite the fact that the U.S. and its NATO allies outspend the rest of the world’s militaries by a factor of two; that the U.S. military alone outspends its nearest competitor, China, by at least six times. That the combined militaries of Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Somalia, and Syria spend less than one percent of what our military spends.

Despite the fact that support in his own party for putting military spending on the cutting table includes, for starters, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the tea party base, Rep. Ryan saw fit to exclude it almost entirely.

If this is 85% agreement, what would disagreement have looked like?

Why Did Richard Goldstone Throw the Goldstone Report Under the Bus?

GoldstoneI spoke to Richard Goldstone several times after his eponymous Report came out, and it was obvious that the personal slander and vilification from so many in his own community was wearing him down. He was certainly naive and did not expect the excreta storm that would head his way.

He had always been a person of integrity and his editorial in the Washington Post, allegedly “retracting” the Report named after him is saddening. If it had appeared the day before, one would almost suspect it of being an April Fool’s parody.

Indeed, the wording of the editorial, while confused and evasive, was eloquently indicative of heavy pressure — not least since only two days before at a debate at Stanford University, he is reported as maintaining that “all the investigations showed that, thus far, the facts were as they were reported.”

One cannot help wondering what happened in the next two days to change his mind. Did his daughter, ex IDF and self-confessed Israeli patriot, pull the family chains? It certainly betokens a personal tragedy, since it will detract from his reputation and integrity in the human rights and international law field, with no chance at all of earning the forgiveness of the rabid and vindictive Zionists who have been hounding him mercilessly for two years.

Indeed, reading the editorial reminded me of Comrade Rubashov in Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness At Noon” — a true believer doing one last duty for the group he had lived with for so many years. It reads like a “confession” rung out from someone trying to free hostages near and dear to him by giving the kidnappers what they want while trying to hold on to one’s own integrity and dignity. Sadly, of course, those who attacked his morals and probity before, will never, ever forgive him for telling the truth originally — and like Rubashov, he will be shown no mercy once his confession has served its purpose for the cause.

It suited the Lobby to highlight Goldstone, a Zionist and judge whose international reputation made it even more difficult than usual to bury the message especially among Jews. However, those other members are distinguished jurists in their own right who were commissioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council and whose report became the property of the UN General Assembly, neither of whom are likely to drop the report just because complicit Israeli ministers misinterpret Goldstone’s editorial with the same liberty that they misinterpreted the original report — which after all simply asked the parties to conduct credible investigations.

The core “retraction” in the editorial is the sentence, “If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document,” which is about as retractable as a rubber band. It certainly does not substantiate Netanyahu’s reaction “Everything we said was proved true,” although it does raise suspicions that Avigdor Lieberman’s attribution of the editorial to “diplomatic efforts on behalf of Israel,” might conceal some heavy advocacy conveying difficult-to-refuse offers.

Goldstone is a lawyer, and this imprecisely flexibly wording of “different document,” could mean almost anything. If he knew about the ferocity of the tribal scapegoating that was to follow? If he knew that the report was going to spur Israel into mounting a series of pseudo-independent investigations into events that they refused to look into earlier? It certainly is far from an unequivocal retraction of the original, which is not “his” to retract since it was, after all, the product of a team including three others, commissioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council.

His claim that Israeli investigations “also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy,” does not contradict his early report, which never suggested that. The My Lai massacre, for example, was no less a war crime because the Pentagon did not directly order it.

His most wrenching default is when he says “the most serious attack the Goldstone Report focused on was the killing of some 29 members of the al-Simouni family in their home. The shelling of the home was apparently (my italics) the consequence of an Israeli commander’s erroneous interpretation of a drone image, and an Israeli officer is under investigation for having ordered the attack. While the length of this investigation is frustrating, it appears that an appropriate process is underway, and I am confident that if the officer is found to have been negligent, Israel will respond accordingly.”

Looking at the abysmal track record of Israeli investigations — and bearing in mind that it was the original Goldstone Report that brought about the apology for an investigation he refers to here, Judge Goldstone really has to explain to his own conscience on what grounds he is “confident” of an appropriate response, let alone how the finding of “negligence” came about.

Throughout, he is upsettingly equivocal. “While I welcome Israel’s investigations into allegations, I share the concerns reflected in the McGowan Davis report that few of Israel’s inquiries have been concluded and believe that the proceedings should have been held in a public forum. Although the Israeli evidence that has emerged since publication of our report doesn’t negate the tragic loss of civilian life, I regret that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes.”

But then later he says “McGowan Davis has found that Israel has done this to a significant degree.” How significant is “significant” if after two years, “few of Israel’s inquiries have been concluded” and if the proceedings, conducted by the same military body that defends the military, are carried out in private?

In the face of that, his second thoughts about calling upon Hamas calling for its own inquiry are totally gratuitous. Surely he never expected them to. But they did let him and his colleagues in to investigate themselves, which Israel did not, and which, as he reiterates, refused to present evidence to his committee.

Even though it is unlikely that the UN bodies will drop the report, Goldstone’s pseudo-retraction has provided the opportunity for Israeli “Hasbara” to trumpet its misinterpretations. It does a disservice to international justice and humanitarian law and tries to accord to Israeli leaders the impunity which he had spent his career fighting, in South Africa, Rwanda, the Balkans and Central America.

It is a tragedy that such a career should end this way, generating as much sorrow as anger. Sorrow for the damage it has done to the universality of justice, and anger at the unscrupulous manipulation of familial and tribal loyalties that likely brought it about.

For more by Ian Williams visit Deadline Pundit.

U.S.-Algeria Counterterrorism Partnership a Marriage of Convenience

Algeria 1690Daniel Benjamin in Algiers

At about the time that the United States, the European Union and NATO were putting the final touches on their not-so ‘humanitarian’ interventionalism in Libya, U.S. Middle East policy was developing along quite different lines in Algeria.

On March 4-7, in Algiers, the United States and Algeria formed what both countries are referring to as ‘a new contact group’ for counter-terrorism collaboration, cementing even further a decade of close intelligence and military cooperation between the two countries.

Underlining the importance of the security arrangement, the United States sent Daniel Benjamin, the U.S. State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, to attend. The Algerian side was represented by Algerian presidential advisor, Kamel Rezzag Bara.

At a press conference Benjamin welcomed ‘the inaugural meeting of the bilateral contact group’. He asserted the U.S. intended to work with Algeria to ‘counter groups that seek to launch attacks against innocents’. The crusader bombast and confrontational style of the Bush years has been replaced by a much softer touch stylistically at least. Poised, cutting a handsome ‘Kennedy-like’ image, Benjamin chose his words carefully.

‘Algeria’s future should be in its own hands’, Benjamin told an audience of Algerian journalists. He continued, ‘The U.S. supports the democratization process in Algeria and elsewhere in the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahel.’ In response to a question, Benjamin categorically stated that ‘the United States does not seek any more military bases in Africa’. Benjamin went on to state ‘the future of Algeria is for Algerians to determine’.

Dick Cheney’s Sahara Terrorist Scam

Indeed, the rhetoric was impeccable. If only it matched the reality!

Take, for instance, the comment that the United States does not seek military bases in Africa. The United States has been ‘frantically’ looking for an African home for AFRICOM, the African command center created during the Bush years to deal with Africa’s growing strategic importance in terms of oil and rare minerals, and to counter China’s growing influence throughout the continent.

Seems African countries – even allies – don’t believe that AFRICOM is a Peace Corps-like outfit concerned with development and fighting AIDS. Despite repeated U.S. denials to the contrary, African leaders fear it is something more sinister. Imagine!

Furthermore the United States has at least one military base of some size and significance in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. There is evidence that another one existed for a number of years in Tamanrassett, deep in the Algerian Sahara out of which U.S. Special Forces operated.

U.S. and Algerian security cooperation is more than a decade old, beginning some time just after the ending of Algeria’s ‘dirty war’ in 1999. One could argue it began even earlier with a number of visits by then Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney to Algeria to cut oil and gas deals with the North African country despite the fact that Algeria was bogged down in what is referred to as ‘The Dirty War’, a civil war that nearly split the country apart.

Willing to open its oil and gas deposits to U.S. companies, the Algerian government was also able to convince the Bush Administration in the days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack that it stood with the United States as a partner in global war on terrorism; unbeknownst to many, the relations between the two countries improved considerably. Then in 2002-2003, the U.S., in collusion with its new regional ally Algeria, launched a second front in its global war on terrorism across the Sahara and Sahelian regions of Africa.

What seems to be the chemistry to bring these unlikely allies together? If British anthropologist Jeremy Keenan is to be believed – and he makes an excellent case – U.S.-Algerian cooperation ‘countering terrorism’ has been little more than a pretext for a strategic military alliance in which both countries gained in different ways. The actual relationship bears little of the moral rectitude suggested in Benjamin’s remarks.

  • For Algeria, the partnership has meant increased access to U.S. military and surveillance technology which it was denied during the 1990s due to the ‘dirty war’. In the name of fighting terrorism, the alliance also extends Algerian influence over its southern neighbors in the Sahara and Sahel: Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania.
  • For the United States, the arrangement permits Washington to ‘piggy back’ on Algerian security concerns, real and imagined, to create a security network that today extends in the north, from Algeria in the north – one of Africa’s most prolific oil and natural gas producing countries, to Nigeria on Africa’s western coast, another of the continent’s great oil producing countries.
  • The Algerian-U.S. relationship, a marriage of convenience, was cemented not long after 9-11 by a rather bizarre, if not surrealistic and apparently heavily contrived set of circumstances that fit the needs of both. The Bush Administration, with Dick Cheney taking the lead, wanted to open a second front on the ‘global war on terrorism’ (GWOT) in Africa focusing on the Sahara.

Only one minor problem: there was virtually no terrorism, no terrorist groups in the area. Indeed, despite its natural hazards, in 2001-2, the Sahara was arguably one of the safest places to travel anywhere in the world. If Keenan is correct, the Algerian Departement de Reseignement et Securite (DRS), the Algerian Security Service, in cooperation with the U.S. military – under the auspices then of EUCOM based in Germany – fabricated an incident and then blew it all out of proportion in the medias of both countries.

In The Dark Sahara, Keenan makes the case that the kidnapping of German speaking tourists from Germany, Austria and Switzerland in 2002 was managed by the Algerian DRS with the knowledge if not complicity of the U.S. Special Forces with whom the Algerians worked rather closely. He substantiates claims that:

  • The so-called Islamic groups which participated in the kidnappings were either penetrated or run by the DRS.
  • There was no ‘terrorist pipeline’ from Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda in Afghanstan through to Africa.
  • The whole kidnapping incident was essentially staged, and then blown out of proportion by both the Algerian press (with close ties to its security establishment) to create the myth of the Saharan terrorist threat.
  • My favorite part of this pervasive scam is the likelihood that the `leader’ of the Islamic fundamentalist group, a fellow named El Para, was an Algerian DRS operative who trained in counter insurgency for two years at Ft. Bragg North Carolina. Keenan claims El Para was in constant contact with his Algerian security handlers during the entire time of the 2002 kidnapping.

As a result, the Algerian military and security forces got their high tech death and communication toys, and the Bush Administration its pretext to deepen its military involvement in Africa.

Keenan’s hypothesis fits the Bush GWOT pattern to a tee: Military intervention requires embellishing or fabricating an impending threat. An elaborate disinformation campaign is launched. The remoteness of the Sahara makes verifying fabrication difficult, permitting Algerians and the U.S. military to liberally embellish the truth. Who could disprove what was or was not going on in the southeastern corner of Algeria or northwestern Niger?

But then they didn’t reckon with Jeremy Keenan, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the Sahara, his decade’s long human connection with the Tuareg peoples who live there, and his unflagging sense of decency and unwillingness to go along with a dangerous political charade.

There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; across the Sahara and the Sahel, a terrorist threat with links to Al Qaeda was more a scheme hatched by the DRS in Algiers than a viable Islamic resistance movement. We’ve been conned once again.

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

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