Focal Points Blog

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?

Immolations Draw Attention to WikiLeaks Tunisia Cables (Part 3)

Part 3 of Nawaat‘s interview (edited) with Rob Prince.

Nawaat: So far the topic of corruption surrounding the (Ben Ali, Trabelsi) family seems visibly dominant in the cables. Do you think we are dealing with institutional corruption that could harm the relationship between Tunisia and the West in general, at least on an economic level?

Prince: As I respond to your question…at the moment in the Tunisian interior, in Sidi Bouzid, there have been four days of protests — what the government of Tunisia calls “riots” or “social unrest”; and now I read that similar protests have begun in Kasserine and elsewhere. The Sidi Bouzid events appears to have been a spontaneous uprising of people in the region over economic and social issues after a poor lad in his early 20s, one Mohammed Bouazizi, poured a can of gasoline on himself and then lit a match in front of the police station there. Tunisian friends relate that this is the third young Tunisian in about six months who chose to protest the grim economic and social prospects in the country by burning themselves to death.

I cannot put into words how sad it makes me to see a photo of Mohammed Bouazizi seeming to be running down the main street of Sidi Bouzid his body nothing more than a ball of fire while [President] Zine Ben Ali parrots old and worn nonsense about non-existent economic miracles and complains that those who criticize his regime’s human rights record are exaggerating.

Then there are more than 50 others, in Tunisia and in Europe, who are on hunger strikes, also protesting both the socio-economic situation in the country as well as the overall repressive atmosphere. And all this comes after what I can only call the “social uprising” in the Gafsa region centered around Redeyef in 2008, which was a “warning shot” to Ben Ali that there are deep, structural economic problems in Tunisia that need addressing.

Other than 200 people tortured and imprisoned, with a fair number of them still in jail, including the journalist Fahem Boukkadous, virtually nothing has happened since to suggest the Tunisian government takes the economic crisis serious: no development plan, a few insipid crumbs of promises of economic aid from Ben Ali’s advisors, that is about it.

Combine such painful news of economic woes with its opposite: that two families — that of the president Zine Ben Ali, and his wife, Leina Trabelsi — are accumulating wealth at a breathtaking pace. Indeed, I read this morning that Ben Ali has squirreled away more than $5 billion in foreign bank accounts and a more sober picture of Tunisia’s so-called “economic miracle” comes into perspective: a precious few are making a fortune at the expense of the multitude whose situation is deteriorating as a generalized impoverishment grows. So, the Philippines has its Marcos family, the Congo Mobutu, Saudi Arabia its royal family, and now we can add to the picture the Ben Ali-Trabelsi family clans of Tunisia! Quite an honor!

The social explosion in Sidi Bouzid reinforces the opinion of those voices in the Tunisian opposition who have argued that Zine Ben Ali’s government is facing a full blown socio-economic and political crisis, one which it is questionable the government can or will survive.

Nawaat: How will the TuniLeaks — the corruption they expose — affect Tunisia’s economic relations with “the West” (the USA, Canada and the European Union)?

Prince: Again, while the WikiLeaks documents are embarrassing — and there’s evidence that the United States embassy is aware of the scope of the corruption — there is not much here that is not known to Tunisians or close “Tunisia watchers.” Certainly the cables verify the word “on the street” and much that has been published online and in the French press. But I think the question should be somewhat rephrased to: if this corruption has gone on for so long and has been so pervasive, why has it taken until now for Europeans and the US ambassador to Tunisia to take note of it?

It appears that, despite all their talk of “transparency,” foreign economic interest can and does tolerate rather substantial rates of corruption in Tunisia without much complaining. At what point has the level of corruption reached such heights that even Tunisia’s Western partners have finally said “enough is enough” and “we need more caution in our economic relations with Tunisia.” Well they haven’t said it yet — but it appears they will rather soon.

And here look at the relationship between the growing economic disparities of the country — which have long existed despite the rosy propaganda, “the economic miracle mirage” – and the reality. It is the intensification of Tunisia’s social crisis which has more and more exposed the level and nature of corruption, and that the U.S. State Department has, at long last, noted all this in the released cables, is of course a positive development, one that reinforces what others have been saying for a long time. The US does so as it begins to perceive threats to its economic and security interests.Part 3 of Nawaat‘s interview (edited) with Rob Prince.

Nawaat: So far the topic of corruption surrounding the (Ben Ali, Trabelsi) family seems visibly dominant in the cables. Do you think we are dealing with institutional corruption that could harm the relationship between Tunisia and the West in general, at least on an economic level?

Prince: As I respond to your question…at the moment in the Tunisian interior, in Sidi Bouzid, there have been four days of protests — what the government of Tunisia calls “riots” or “social unrest”; and now I read that similar protests have begun in Kasserine and elsewhere. The Sidi Bouzid events appears to have been a spontaneous uprising of people in the region over economic and social issues after a poor lad in his early 20s, one Mohammed Bouazizi, poured a can of gasoline on himself and then lit a match in front of the police station there. Tunisian friends relate that this is the third young Tunisian in about six months who chose to protest the grim economic and social prospects in the country by burning themselves to death.

I cannot put into words how sad it makes me to see a photo of Mohammed Bouazizi seeming to be running down the main street of Sidi Bouzid his body nothing more than a ball of fire while [President] Zine Ben Ali parrots old and worn nonsense about non-existent economic miracles and complains that those who criticize his regime’s human rights record are exaggerating.

Then there are more than 50 others, in Tunisia and in Europe, who are on hunger strikes, also protesting both the socio-economic situation in the country as well as the overall repressive atmosphere. And all this comes after what I can only call the “social uprising” in the Gafsa region centered around Redeyef in 2008, which was a “warning shot” to Ben Ali that there are deep, structural economic problems in Tunisia that need addressing.

Other than 200 people tortured and imprisoned, with a fair number of them still in jail, including the journalist Fahem Boukkadous, virtually nothing has happened since to suggest the Tunisian government takes the economic crisis serious: no development plan, a few insipid crumbs of promises of economic aid from Ben Ali’s advisors, that is about it.

Combine such painful news of economic woes with its opposite: that two families — that of the president Zine Ben Ali, and his wife, Leina Trabelsi — are accumulating wealth at a breathtaking pace. Indeed, I read this morning that Ben Ali has squirreled away more than $5 billion in foreign bank accounts and a more sober picture of Tunisia’s so-called “economic miracle” comes into perspective: a precious few are making a fortune at the expense of the multitude whose situation is deteriorating as a generalized impoverishment grows. So, the Philippines has its Marcos family, the Congo Mobutu, Saudi Arabia its royal family, and now we can add to the picture the Ben Ali-Trabelsi family clans of Tunisia! Quite an honor!

The social explosion in Sidi Bouzid reinforces the opinion of those voices in the Tunisian opposition who have argued that Zine Ben Ali’s government is facing a full blown socio-economic and political crisis, one which it is questionable the government can or will survive.

Nawaat: How will the TuniLeaks — the corruption they expose — affect Tunisia’s economic relations with “the West” (the USA, Canada and the European Union)?

Prince: Again, while the WikiLeaks documents are embarrassing — and there’s evidence that the United States embassy is aware of the scope of the corruption — there is not much here that is not known to Tunisians or close “Tunisia watchers.” Certainly the cables verify the word “on the street” and much that has been published online and in the French press. But I think the question should be somewhat rephrased to: if this corruption has gone on for so long and has been so pervasive, why has it taken until now for Europeans and the US ambassador to Tunisia to take note of it?

It appears that, despite all their talk of “transparency,” foreign economic interest can and does tolerate rather substantial rates of corruption in Tunisia without much complaining. At what point has the level of corruption reached such heights that even Tunisia’s Western partners have finally said “enough is enough” and “we need more caution in our economic relations with Tunisia.” Well they haven’t said it yet — but it appears they will rather soon.

And here look at the relationship between the growing economic disparities of the country — which have long existed despite the rosy propaganda, “the economic miracle mirage” – and the reality. It is the intensification of Tunisia’s social crisis which has more and more exposed the level and nature of corruption, and that the U.S. State Department has, at long last, noted all this in the released cables, is of course a positive development, one that reinforces what others have been saying for a long time. The US does so as it begins to perceive threats to its economic and security interests.

Immolations Draw Attention to WikiLeaks Tunisia Cables (Part 2)

Part 2 of Nawaat‘s interview (edited) with Rob Prince.

The Obama Administrations has few illusions about [Tunisian President] Ben Ali. Remember even what I would describe as our least eminent president, George Bush, found it necessary to make a public criticism of Ben Ali to his face not that long ago!

The problem is this: the U.S. would like to see change in Tunisia, but only that change that supports the status quo; the cables suggest that Washington no longer cares that much about Ben Ali today nor sees him as particularly effective in helping realize US strategic goals, but they are concerned with who might replace him.

That is the problem…those damned reformed movements! You can never tell which way they will go and if they will, either economically or strategically go off in another direction. After all, look at those Latin Americans — Ecuadorians, Venezualans, even Brazil, Bolivia and Chile all seeking their own path to development, snubbing the World Bank, IMF etc. An “uncontrolled” reform in Tunisia could well have consequences far beyond the little country itself, thus one must (or the State Department must) tread carefully.

The State Department seems to be probing a suitable replacement, one that will follow the broad guide lines of U.S. foreign policy (privatization and openness of the economy, support for the war on terrorism) and for Tunisia to play a role in U.S. strategic and military goals (they have merged) in the Middle East and North Africa.

It would do Tunisians, even Ben Ali (!) well to recall how many U.S. allies different American administrations have discarded…the list is long and I will only mention a few: the Diem regime in the 1960s, Noriega of Panama — first a key U.S. ally, now rotting in a jail in Florida — the most famous ally-turned-enemy Bin Laden, Marcos of the Philippines.

Although Habib Bourguiba bent the national will to accommodate the United States in many ways, in the end, it didn’t seem to matter. He had carefully cultivated U.S. support from the outset, even during the colonial period as a wedge against the French, and did so brilliantly. I have little doubt that the presence of the Peace Corps in Tunisia (in which I participated so long ago) was a concession to the U.S. made specifically to irritate the French (which it did).

In any case, Bourguiba thought all that kowtowing to Washington would keep Tunisia safe from some kind of U.S. (and or Israeli) military action. But then there was the Israeli strike on the Palestinian headquarters in Tunis, something that was inconceivable without U.S. approval. Reagan didn’t hesitate to turn on Bourguiba when he thought it necessary. It left Bourguiba extremely bitter; it also revealed how “flexible” Washington could be with allies they no longer felt useful, and that such figures are “expendable.” Add to this that while it is unclear just how involved the U.S. was with the coup that unseated Bourguiba in 1987, it has to be a bit more than coincidental that Ben Ali got some of his police training in the USA.

An alternative to Ben Ali?

At a certain point reading the cables, it occurred to me: they’re looking for an alternative to Ben Ali, they think “his goose is cooked” and are probing Tunisian society to find a viable alternative.

Admittedly this is just a hypothesis, and here I am sitting in Denver, high in the Rockies, speculating about Tunisia. But reading the cables over, it comes through loud and clear. How so?

  • In the cables there is open admission of the overall crisis in Tunisian society, and the opposition to Ben Ali and the Trabelsi family.
  • The events of Redeyef in 2008 are noted with the fear that it might just be the opening salvo of a deeper social crisis that the US should prepare for.
  • There are several notes that the US “cannot do anything” until the “post Ben Ali” era opens. That relations with Ben Ali are jog jammed at present.
  • But in its own way, the dinner with Sakhi and Nesrine Ben Ali Materi was not as vapid, or empty as I suggested above. It seems that the U.S. ambassador was feeling Materi out…as a possible replacement for his father-in-law. Materi impresses the ambassador that the censorship of the Tunisian media is “too much,” he suggests that his media (he owns one of the country’s two radio stations) is not afraid to hear critical voices. On Middle-East policy — Israel-Palestine, Iran, Iraq — he basically follows U.S. foreign policy to the letter. Even the comments about Nesrine are interesting. If she is “naive and clueless” perhaps she will not play the kind of nefarious role of running her husband as Leila Trabelsi has with Ben Ali!

Did the ambassador “decide” that Sakhi Materi “should” replace his uncle Ben Ali…No, that is not how things work. I would guess the ambassador is “shopping around,” getting a feel for who within Tunisia’s ruling circles might cooperate with U.S. policy and if and when “the right moment” presents itself, that the U.S. would “encourage” one of a number of “candidates” for power. And of course the French, the British and a number of other foreign embassies are doing precisely the same thing. After all, the few reports we get about Ben Ali, that he has cancer, that he spends an inordinate amount of time with his grandchildren, that the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families run only the economy today (and are frantically trying to buy up, steal what they don’t own, also in preparation for a change in power?) and that Zine Ben Ali is showing signs of senility not unlike Bourguiba manifested in 1986. So… the vultures are swarming.

That is what a careful reading of the WikiLeaks documents suggests. Do they scream it out loud? No…but re-read the cables and see if I am off the mark? So there is far more there than meets the eye, and I have to admit that . . . the State Department’s take on what is happening in [Tunisia] is less stupid than I originally imagined.

Immolations Draw Attention to WikiLeaks Tunisia Cables (Part 1)

Last week two young men committed suicide in the Tunisian town of Sidibouzid. One lit himself on fire in front of the town hall; the other climbed a lamp post and reaching out to a high voltage wire in front of a crowd of hundreds who were protesting the deteriorating social and economic conditions in the country. Prior to that, Nawaat, a Tunisian opposition website, solicited Rob Prince’s perspectives on the consequences of the WikiLeaks Tunisia cables for the US-Tunisia relationship, and how Tunisians can use the leaks to push for a real change. Part 1, edited, follows.

From what I can tell, it is not the New York Times that has revealed anything about the US-Tunisia relationship, it has been the Guardian of London and El Pais of Spain. This is curious. What to make of it? An attempt to embarrass the US in its N. Africa policy? Perhaps…there is a certain competition for Algerian natural gas between Spain and the U.S., there are voices in UK, especially at the Guardian that have been critical of U.S. Middle-East and North Africa policy since September 11, 2001. How do such things play into the release of the documents. Dunno, but it would be a bit foolish to think that some strategic considerations (if only to embarrass the U.S.) are not at play.

I have now read the Tunisian cables – the ones you have provided at Nawaat – through, three times.

There are certain themes which stand out, others which appear to be omitted. My first impression, which I have written and spoken about is that there was less there than meets the eye, ie, that they were not so interesting except for a few details here and there, that pretty much everything in the cables was certainly common knowledge to most Tunisians, and to those who, for various reasons, follow developments in Tunisia closely.

  • Most just gossip, ie, that Nesrine Ben Ali El Materi is “naive and clueless”
  • or that her husband Mohammed Sakia El Materi feeds his pet tiger in Hammamet four chickens a day (but are the chickens organic?)
  • or that Imed and Moaz Trabelsi are addicted to stealing yachts from French bankers and painting them over, the way that mafia’s here in the USA steal and dissemble cars, etc, etc.

Juicy reading perhaps, but less than meets the eye at first glance until such remarks are put in context. Even the more substantial stuff, was, with a few exceptions (the shopping list the Tunisian military would like get as U.S. aid), “not new”:

  • the general state of the country
  • the corruption of the economic sector that seems to know no bounds of those closest to the Ben Ali and Trabelsi families in economic matters
  • the intensified levels of repression against journalists and social movements (students, trade unions) that has reached epidemic proportions
  • the impact of the social uprising in Redeyef in 2008.

We could have found out about all of this — and most of us did — elsewhere.…the ambassador would have done better reading Le Monde, Liberation orNawaat to be honest.

After first reading the documents, a distinct sense was that the embassy, in reality, does not know that much about Tunisia. It has little feeling or understanding for what is going on “on the ground”; while aware of the growing discontent and social movement there seems to be little or no contact or even interest in speaking to people outside of narrow government circles.

And for its part, it appears that the government of Tunisia — GOT — (like many others) is not particularly forthcoming to American authorities, as if to hide as much as possible. In these cables, GOT gives the American embassy as little as is possible. Embassy contacts with independent voices are severely restricted. But what surprises me is the willingness of State Department reps to accept these limitations! The Tunisian authorities seem to know how to play U.S. paranoia about Islamic fundamentalism, overstate “the Iranian threat”…i.e., giving the State Department what they want to hear to elicit aid and modern weaponry.

Now the suggestion that all is not well in the US-Tunisian relationship is, I would argue, very serious stuff. More on this below.

All that is not “new,” but it does have some substantiate many things that both Tunisians and others have thought about what is going on in the country:

  • that the place is corrupt today almost beyond belief
  • that the human rights abuses are getting worse — the torture, the forced detention, the atmosphere of fear that permeates the countries beyond the hotels and beaches of Sousse
  • that the “economic miracle” is something less than that
  • Or put another way, that the U.S. State Department has become aware of the many-sided crisis which has been percolating in Tunisia for a long time, and which has these past few years exploded into a general crisis of society, so much so that not even the U.S. State Department — which has known about it all along — can any longer avoid. The cat is out of the bag. The cables substantiate this.

And something else is going reading between the lines, a kind of dangerous dance that on some level the two sides are both aware of: it is as if the State Department is probing Ben Ali: are you still useful to us, they seem to be asking. And he is responding, “Why yes, of course.” Tunisian authorities are somewhat defensive, nervous one would say and while the US ambassadors are not particularly rude, they are actually “diplomatic,” they have made mild criticisms to Ben Ali himself, to the Tunisian foreign secretary. And the cables themselves make the situation clear: all is not well in the relationship.

Does Prague Stop With START?

Obama's Prague Speech(Pictured: Russian President Medvedev, Czech President Klaus, and US President Obama in Prague in April.)

“There’s just been no talk about that right now, none whatsoever.”

Thus spake John Kerry, who led the Senate campaign for New START ratification as reported by David Sanger of the New York Times when asked about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. At his famous Prague speech in April 2009 that buoyed the hopes of many in the disarmament community, President Obama said, among other things that he would seek U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (on nuclear-weapons testing).

Like many on the left we’re usually less than sanguine about Sanger, with his tendency to bend to the prevailing winds, but this article is straightforward.

[New START] was initially envisioned as a speed bump on President Obama’s nuclear agenda, a modest reduction in nuclear forces that would enable him to tackle much harder issues on the way to his dream of eventually eliminating nuclear weapons altogether.

It turned out to be a mountain. . . . his own aides acknowledge that the lesson of the battle over the treaty is that the political divide on national security is widening. . . . “If the Start treaty was this hard, you can only imagine how difficult the rest will be,” said William J. Perry, a secretary of defense during the Clinton administration and one of the four former cold warriors who helped formulate the goal of a world without nuclear weapons that Mr. Obama has embraced.

Couple this with the $185 billion* for nuclear weapons which the Obama administration has proposed for 2011 (in part to win Republican votes for New START) and it’s almost as if New START is the beginning of the end of the disarmament movement. Or at least of this second phase after the first phase of ban-the-bomb and nuclear freeze grassroots movements. In his recent paper for the Western States Legal foundation, The START Treaty and Disarmament: a Dilemma in Search of a Debate, Andrew Lichterman sheds some light on the current phase

A recent U.S. Congressional Research Service catalog of U.S. arms control agreement begins with this statement: “Arms control and nonproliferation efforts are two of the tools that have occasionally been used to implement U.S. national security strategy.” This reflects a far more realistic view of what arms control is than seems to prevail among NGO disarmament professionals today [most of whom] seem to have lost sight of the fact that. . . . arms control is little more than the pursuit of military advantage by diplomatic means. Working for disarmament, in contrast, means opposing destructive weaponry . . . without favoring the concerns of elites. . . .

Most who do [the] kind of professionalized interest group campaigning and advocacy [that passes for] disarmament work act as if this decline of civil society and the rise of an oligarchic politics . . . is inevitable, something to be adapted to rather than struggled against.

In July, at MRZine, Darwin BondGraham of the Los Alamos Study Group zeroed in on an example, the Ploughshares Fund, about which, he begins, “In spite of its name, Ploughshares’ mission these days actually involves beating ploughs into swords.”

Throughout the 1990s, but especially during the George W. Bush years, Ploughshares and its circle of foundations called the Peace and Security Funders Group increasingly narrowed the range of acceptable anti-nuclear activism, while simultaneously ghettoizing the field so that the work of various NGOs became less and less applicable to social justice and economic development issues, and increasingly focused on abstract global problems and hypotheticals, such as the possible use of nuclear weapons. In the process, discussions of the injustices of the global political economy and how nuclear weapons fit into it were silenced. Anti-nuclear activism became increasingly specialized, boring, and disconnected from issues that affect people’s everyday lives. Arms control eclipsed abolition as the rallying cry. [Emphasis added.]

Back to Lichterman:

No disarmament movements capable of having even the kind of modest effects of the very large, visible Cold War-era anti-nuclear movements exist today. . . . Most who do [the] kind of professionalized interest group campaigning and advocacy prevalent in. . . . disarmament work act as if [the] decline of civil society and the rise of an oligarchic politics . . . is inevitable, something to be adapted to rather than struggled against.

What’s to replace the current era of the disarmament specialist?

The requisite vision and analysis of cause and effect will not be developed in conversations among ambitious policy professionals with an eye to what moves them up the career ladder in Washington D.C. [Meanwhile, in] those instances [in the past] where pressure from disarmament movements may have played a significant role in obtaining arms control treaties, there was far more going on than lobbying campaigns backing the treaties. Instead, there were large movements with far more sweeping demands, from those who called for Banning the Bomb . . . to the international peace and disarmament movements of the 1980′s [both of which] were intertwined . . . with other social movements.

Rebuilding such movements will require. . . . . a redirection of resources away from centers of corporate, political, and military power down to where the rest of us live, starting over again in the long hard task of building movements that can give us power and voice.

*$85 billion is for nuclear weapons R&D; $100 billion is for delivery systems over the same period. (Thanks to Andrew Lichterman for enlightening me.)

Cultures of War

From 1989-1995, I worked at IPS as a diplomatic and military historian assisting former IPS Fellow Gar Alperovitz with a research project that culminated in the book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (New York: Knopf, 1995). Recently, C-SPAN asked me to interview John Dower, MIT Professor Emeritus of History about his new book Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq which was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Sahno Tree interviews John DowerNot only does his book explore the parallels between the bombing of Hiroshima and the attacks of 9/11, but he also finds striking similarities between Japan’s reckless decision to attack the United States and George W. Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq. Analyzing conflicts that claimed so many lives and caused such immense suffering, Dower finds similar mistakes and assumptions repeated just decades apart. His book distills those hard won lessons in the hope that they will not be repeated again. Cultures of War should be mandatory reading in our military academies and in government.

You can watch the C-SPAN interview here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/Dower

“Scam Fatigue” May Save Singh’s Hide

Manmohan Singh“‘People are struck by the magnitude of the scandal,’ said political analyst Praful Bidwai. ‘This is pretty outrageous.’”

. . . writes Jason Overdorf at Global Post about the corruption cases that have been rocking India. Wikipedia explains that what’s known as the 2G spectrum “involved officials in the government of India illegally undercharging mobile telephony companies for frequency allocation licenses, which they would use to create 2G [second generation] subscriptions for cell phones. The shortfall between the money collected and the money which the law mandated to be collected is 1,76,379 crore rupees or USD 39 billion.”

Meanwhile, writes Overdorf, “Every day, new revelations hit the headlines from leaked transcripts of tapped telephone conversations between an influential lobbyist and top politicians, billionaire tycoons and (formerly) respected journalists.” While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh isn’t implicated, “the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party [the right-wing, vehemently Hindu BJP -- RW] . . . said he was asleep at the switch.” However Singh’s National Congress party retaliated via its “general secretary, Digvijay Singh, in the role of hatchet man as he defended the 40-year-old prime minister-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi.”

Embracing Rahul’s trepidations about “Hindu terror” — WikiLeaks’ diplomatic cables revealed that Rahul told the U.S. ambassador that he feared Hindu terrorist groups more than Islamic ones — the general secretary attacked the BJP’s Hindu nationalist parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). And by amplifying Rahul’s rhetoric — [Digvijay Singh] apparently sought to shift the focus from corruption to communalism, the word India uses to discuss its religious divides.

“The RSS in the garb of its nationalist ideology is targeting Muslims the same way Nazis targeted Jews in the 1930s,” Digvijay told plenary attendees.

Meanwhile, will the 2G spectrum scam bring down the Manmohan Singh administration? Overdorf again:

. . . in scam central, questions remain whether corruption allegations alone — or even a smoking gun — is enough to engineer a change in government. One need look no further than the last election results to see that Indians — who by and large believe that all their politicians are equally corrupt — suffer from scam fatigue.

We can commiserate. Americans too have an almost endless capacity to overlook corruption.

New START Closer to Breaking Out of the Blocks

The ratification vote for New START is finally at hand today or tomorrow and the Obama administration may have finally garnered enough supporters. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Aides to Senate supporters of the treaty said that of the nine Republican members they need, they have four committed supporters: Sen. Richard Lugar (IN), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), and Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH). Scott Brown of Massachusetts announced Monday he would also vote to ratify.

They considered as likely or possible votes are Sen. Bob Corker (TN), Johnny Isakson (GA), and Lisa Murkowski (AL). Sen. Bob Bennett (UT) Sen. Saxby Chambliss (GA) Thad Cochran (MS) are considered maybes.

Once again, though, we feel a responsibility to point out what New START isn’t: a true disarmament treaty. In a recent commentary for the Western States Legal Foundation (despite its name, an anti-nuclear group), Andrew Lichterman sums up this perspective as well as anyone:

The principal purported benefits of new START, given that it requires only marginal arms reductions over seven years, mainly fall into two areas: resumption of on-the-ground verification measures, and re-establishment of a negotiating framework for future arms reductions. The concessions extracted by the weapons establishment in anticipation of ratification, in contrast, will have immediate and tangible effects, beginning with increases in weapons budgets and accelerated construction of new nuclear weapons facilities. These increased commitments of resources are intended to sustain a nuclear arsenal of civilization destroying size for decades to come, and will further entrench interests that constitute long-term structural impediments to disarmament.

One would think that the START deal, with a treaty constituting at best very small arms reductions coming at the cost of material and policy measures that are explicitly designed to push any irreversible commitment to disarmament off many years into the future, would spark considerable debate within the U.S. — arms control and disarmament community. With the struggle over treaty ratification in its final stages, however, most U.S. arms control and disarmament organizations have obediently lined up behind the Obama administration, parroting its talking points and saying little or nothing about the budget increases and policy promises provided to the nuclear weapons establishment.

The last sentence is what, in part, Lichterman means by the subtitle of his paper “The START Treaty and Disarmament.” It reads: “a Dilemma in Search of a Debate.” More on that:

For months now, what little public discussion there is in the United States about arms control and disarmament has been dominated by treaty negotiations between the Obama administration and a formidable adversary. . . . The adversary is not Russia (those negotiations concluded last spring); it is the U.S. military-industrial complex and its representatives in the United States Senate.

To this observer the saddest irony may be that the Republicans who are finally agreeing to vote to ratify may not have needed the $86 billion which the Obama administration has indicated that it will designate for the nuclear-weapons industry. The Republican senator to which the money was directed to win their votes, led by Jon Kyl and Mitch McConnell, remain unmoved.

WikiLeaks XXIV: Security for Radioactive Materials in Yemen Goes From Bad to Nonexistent

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

A brief, but alarming, dispatch from the US embassy in Sana’a emerged this weekend, outlining the lax conditions under which radioactive materials are guarded in Yemen. According to a cable written earlier this year and published by the Guardian on Sunday afternoon, “The lone security guard standing watch at Yemen‘s main radioactive materials storage facility was removed from his post on December 30, 2009, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX.” In his place? A single “closed-circuit television security camera [which] broke six months ago and was never fixed.”

While it is unclear who, exactly, XXXXXXXXXXXX might be, they were sufficiently worried about the unguarded storage facility to plead with the United States “to help convince the [government of Yemen] to remove all materials from the country until they can be better secured, or immediately improve security measures at the NAEC facility.” The cable reports that the unidentified source warned US authorities that “Very little now stands between the bad guys and Yemen’s nuclear material.”

The facility under question held

various radioactive materials, small amounts of which are used by local universities for agricultural research, by a Sana’a hospital, and by international oilfield services companies for well-logging equipment spread out across the country.

While these stockpiles would be useless to those seeking to build a nuclear bomb, they are nonetheless of interest to mischief makers keen to cause large scale disaster. Speaking with the Guardian, Harvard University’s Matthew Bunn points out that materials such as those discussed in the cable

could make a very nasty dirty bomb capable of contaminating a wide area… enough to make a mess that would cost tens of billions of dollars in cleanup costs and economic disruption, with all sorts of controversy over how clean is clean, how will people go back there.

The Yemen cable offer at least the second disturbing report in recent weeks of potentially harmful materials being exposed to possible capture by non-state actors. In late November, the Atlantic‘s Max Fisher detailed a previously unreported US-Russian standoff with Libya during the closing weeks of 2009. Fisher’s reporting was later backed up by cables released by WikiLeaks (and very strangely reported as fresh news by the New York Times a week later with absolutely zero acknowledgment of the Atlantic‘s scoop). As the north African country prepared to send its final shipment of weapons-grade nuclear material to Russia as part of a major disarmament agreement with Washington, Tripoli suddenly reversed course, refusing to allow the batch of nuclear goods leave Libyan territory.

As Fisher reports, the standoff

left the seven five-ton casks [of nuclear material] out in the open and under light guard, vulnerable to theft by the al-Qaeda factions that still operate in the region or by any rogue government that learned of their presence.

For one month and one day, U.S. and Russian diplomats negotiated with Libya for the uranium to be released and flown out of the country. At the same time, engineers from both countries worked to secure the nuclear material from theft or leakage, two serious dangers that became more likely the longer the casks sat exposed. On December 21, Libya finally allowed a Russian plane to remove the casks, ending Libya’s nuclear weapons program and with it the low-grade game of nuclear blackmail they had been playing.

Details of the crisis itself are the stuff of a West Wing episode. After concluding a deal with the United States to disarm its fledgling nuclear program, all seemed to be progressing well.

For six years, Libyan officials complied with U.S.-led international efforts to dismantle the program. In November of last year, when officials without notice halted the dismantling process, the Libyans were down to their last 5.2 kilograms–still enough to make a bomb. A few days later, the U.S. embassy was contacted by Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi. The son of Muammar al-Qaddafi, Saif is widely seen as Libya’s great hope for reform should he win out against his more conservative brother, Mutassim, and succeed their father. But on that day, Saif told the U.S. ambassador to Libya that he was “fed up” with the U.S. He warned, “Slowly, slowly, we are moving backward rather than forward.”

Saif, according to the State Department cables reviewed by The Atlantic, told U.S. representatives that he could “fix” the nuclear crisis–if the U.S. met his demands. His list included military equipment, assistance in building a nuclear medical facility, relaxation of trade embargoes against Libya, and a sum of money that he implied would be in the tens of millions of dollars. But Saif made clear that what he sought most was respect. He suggested that the United States and Libya end their decades of enmity with a grand gesture of détente, even recommending that the senior Qaddafi and President Obama hold a joint summit. The incongruity of demanding friendship from the U.S. while simultaneously blackmailing it with the risk of loose nuclear materials does not appear to have bothered Saif. He concluded with a bit of American vernacular, telling the ambassador, “The ball is in your court.”

As the Libyans played out their hardball strategy of nuclear brinkmanship, the highly vulnerable casks of nuclear material sat exposed.

At one point, according to the documents, U.S. officials were alarmed to find only a single armed guard at the nuclear facility, and “they did not know if [his gun] was loaded.” Perhaps most worryingly, the casks had been left near the facility’s large loading crane. U.S. officials worried about the security of the casks. It would have been easy for anyone with a gun and a truck to drive up, overpower the guard, use the crane to load the casks onto the truck, and drive off into the vast Libyan dessert.

Even if the uranium was not stolen, Russian nuclear engineers warned of the likelihood that the casks would eventually crack, leaking radiation and causing a biological and environmental disaster. But as the meetings between U.S. and Libyan officials stretched on, it was not clear when, if ever, Libya would consent to removing the casks.

At the end of the day, it appears that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton successfully interceded to diffuse the crisis by simply making a call to Libya’s foreign minister. While details of the conversation are not known, Fisher reports that the US embassy in Tripoli requested that Clinton deliver “a general statement of commitment to the relationship [with Libya], a commitment to work with the Libyans to move the relationship ahead.” Whatever was said, worked. A week later, the materials arrived safely in Russia where they presumably were treated and ultimately destroyed.

In the case of the Yemen stockpile, the more recent embassy cable notes that Yemen’s “Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told the Ambassador on January 7 that no radioactive material was currently stored in Sana’a and that all ‘radioactive waste’ was shipped to Syria.” Cold comfort to be sure, especially in light of other WikiLeaks documents—for starters, see here, here, and here—demonstrating the ease with which dangerous materials can be had by just about anyone who wants them.

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