Focal Points Blog

One Step Closer: Lieberman Calls for No-Fly Zone Over Syria

Cross-posted with Right Web’s Militarist Monitor, a weekly column on trending topics in the neoconservative discourse.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the lame duck “Independent Democrat” from Connecticut closely allied to neoconservative advocacy groups, has reportedly become the first U.S. senator to call publicly for military intervention in Syria. “I’d like to see us begin to consider some safe zones inside Syria, particularly along the Turkish and Jordanian borders,” said Lieberman. When asked by Foreign Policy’s “The Cable” on Tuesday if that meant he favored a no-fly zone, he replied, “I’d be in favor of that, yes.” While so far no other U.S. lawmakers have called openly for armed intervention in Syria, Lieberman’s remarks parallel a growing chorus of voices pushing for a “stronger response” to the Syrian crackdown by Washington.

Lieberman’s statement came shortly after the joint Russia-China veto of a Security Council resolution calling on Syria to end its crackdown and release its political prisoners. Russia and China cited the resolution’s contingency that the Security Council would “consider its options” after 30 days of Syrian noncompliance, observing that such language represented a veiled reference to the kind of sanctions that preceded the Libya intervention. Brazil, India, South Africa, and Lebanon similarly abstained from voting.

Shortly after the veto, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice delivered what the New York Times called “one of her most bellicose speeches in the Council chamber,” with Rice declaring that “the people of the Middle East can now see clearly which nations have chosen to ignore their calls for democracy and instead prop up desperate, cruel dictators.” Rice’s outrage prompted an editorial from the right-wing Wall Street Journal, which wondered, “Why, except for reasons of masochism or moral abdication, does the Obama administration insist on obtaining a symbolic and toothless UN resolution? … Maybe once the lesson delivered at the UN this week sinks in, the Obama administration might take further steps to oust Mr. Assad.”

The veto came on the heels of a long-delayed U.S. Senate vote to confirm Robert Ford as the U.S. ambassador to Syria. No longer viewed as a “concession” to the Syrian regime, an increasing number of hawks have come to appreciate Ford’s high-profile confrontations with the Syrian government over its crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

However, with Ford pushing hard against the regime in Syria (and therefore increasingly unlikely to broker any moderation on the part of Damascus), and with the UN Security Council tied up over the issue of sanctions, neoconservative advocates of regime change are increasingly likely to declare that diplomatic responses to the Syrian government have been exhausted—a well-worn path on the way to justifying various other U.S.-led wars. Senator Lieberman will likely not be the last lawmaker to call for war in Syria, and the Wall Street Journal has probably not issued its final shot over the bow either.

Peter Certo is an editorial assistant at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Spanish Court Won’t Let Cameraman Couso’s Killing at Hands of Americans Die

For the third time, Judge Santiago Pedraz of the Spanish National Court has indicted the three soldiers responsible for the killing of Spanish cameraman José Couso in Baghdad in 2003. With evidence to suggest that the attack on Couso’s hotel, which also took the life of Ukranian cameraman Taras Protsuk, was part of a coordinated effort to rid Baghdad of un-embedded journalists during the early days of the U.S. invasion, Lieutenant Colonel Philip De Camp, Captain Philip Wolford and Sergeant Thomas Gibson have been indicted with crimes against the international community and ordered to post bail of 1 million Euros within 24 hours, after which the court will order their assets frozen.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Government under the Obama administration has stuck with the “official” U.S. military investigation of the two journalists’ deaths conducted in 2003. Military investigators found that the tank that fired against the Palestine Hotel – media hub to over 300 journalists at the time – had responded in kind to hostile enemy fire. They claimed that the hostile fire ceased immediately after the anti-personnel shell blew up Taras Protsyuk along with the entire 15th-floor balcony from where he was filming. That balcony then collapsed on top of José Couse who was filming from the balcony below.

But the official story has from the beginning been riddled with holes. Every eyewitness to the crime agreed that no shots were fired from the hotel. The investigators making their report must not have gotten that news, because even Pentagon officials changed their story within days of the attack, saying instead that an enemy spotter with binoculars was giving information on the tank’s location from a lookout point in the hotel. Just why enemy fighters would need to plant a spotter in the same place that Protsyuk’s Reuters camera was broadcasting live via satellite to spot a tank that was in the middle of one of Baghdad’s major bridges was never explained. Indeed, witnesses and video footage contest the fact that the tank was under fire at all.

Nevertheless, the U.S. has been successful in selling these contradictory, counterintuitive statements to the public. For one, as revealed in December 2010 by Wikileaks cables, the U.S. Embassy in Madrid was able to strong-arm the Spanish government into having the case closed twice. And for the last eight years, U.S. media has obediently ignored key facts of the case in its coverage. The typical line of the corporate media takes U.S. claims at face value, omitting key contravening facts (just see Wednesday’s CNN piece on the subject). Moreover, it is almost never mentioned in the U.S. media that two other media outlets – Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV – were attacked on the very same morning by the same infantry division. Along with Reuters, those two Arab media stations were the only cameras emitting live video from the Iraqi capital that day. Of course, the best way for the media to comply with the U.S. military is to keep quiet on the issue: a quick search through the web archives of any major U.S. outlet will prove that that has been the preferred strategy. Still other U.S. news stories turn the killers into the victims, like this “human interest” piece from the LA Times.

This time it may be more difficult for the media to keep quiet. Before filing this most recent indictment, Judge Pedraz traveled to Baghdad with a team of experts in optical physics and military science, who concluded that the hotel balcony was perfectly visible in great detail from the tank’s scope, and that the tank would never have taken position in the middle of the bridge had it not been safe from enemy fire.

Perhaps most importantly, the indictments issued Wednesday open official investigations into two superior officers directly up the chain of command from the accused. One is erstwhile Colonel David Perkins, now a General, who admitted to having known about the media presence at the Palestine Hotel, but did not filter that information down to the soldiers in the tank. The other is General Buford Blount, former program manager for the Saudi National Guard – “the shock troops of the Saudi royals.” Extending the official investigation higher up the chain of command marks an extremely important development in the case and sets a key precedent in the global struggle for justice against U.S. war crimes.

But what consequences could this case possibly have? If the U.S. refuses to extradite the accused to Spain, the only consequence of their conviction would be a travel ban within most of the European community, other states sympathetic to the doctrine of Universal Jurisdiction and countries with extradition treaties with Spain. Since Spanish law doesn’t allow the trial of suspects in absentia, the case will likely remain open until one or more of the accused soldiers attempts to travel outside the U.S. In the Spanish case against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for torture, Pinochet was arrested in the UK (against the wishes of Prime Minister Thatcher). There he was held under house arrest for almost two years while appealing his extradition to Spain before finally being released for his deteriorating health conditions.

Still, the precedent of indicting U.S. soldiers on war crimes for the deliberate targeting of journalists in Iraq would open several doors to the families of the more than 140 journalists killed during the U.S.-led war and occupation, many of whom have been blocked from learning the truth about their slain loved ones. Just look to the case of Mazen Dana to glimpse the horrific war against independent journalists waged by the Bush administration.

If enough people come forward with their stories – like former Army Intelligence officer Adrienne Kinne, who told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman that she had seen the Palestine Hotel on a list of potential targets after it was known to house journalists – the details will continue to accumulate and the big picture of U.S. war crimes will subject the most powerful war-planners to justice.

For a detailed review of the Couso case, from the day of the crime to the present, please see my recent piece in Foreign Policy in Focus.

V. Noah Gimbel is currently working on a book on Universities and Empire and can be reached at

The Extraterrestrial Atomic Energy Agency

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created, in large part, to inspect nuclear facilities for safety and security. Over time, succumbing to a bad case of mission creep, it became a de facto detective agency stuck with the job of determining whether states such as Iran were developing nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, other bodies verify compliance with the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and would perform the same service for the prospective Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

But another entity, one that’s neither party to any treaties nor reports back to the UN Security Council like the IAEA, may also be monitoring nuclear facilities. While it has enforcement capabilities the IAEA can only dream of, it has yet to be inclined to use them.

In 2010 an eye-opening book titled UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record was published with the surprising support of John Podesta and the Center for American Progress. It was written by Leslie Kean, a founder of the Coalition for Freedom of Information, launched in 2001 to obtain documents from the United States government about UFOs through the Freedom of Information Act.

UFOs serves two purposes. First, it’s the authoritative record of ironclad sightings as witnessed or assembled by those enumerated in the subtitle, who narrate their stories in their own chapters. Second, author Kean analyzes the U.S. government policy of reflexively debunking UFO sightings, which has the insidious effect of filtering down to all serious commentators. Writing about UFOs has become almost as lethal to a writer’s credibility as if he or she lent credence to those who subscribe to alternate histories of 9/11.

Before continuing, allow me to mention the reason — ostensible, anyway — that the United States debunks UFO sightings. In the early 1950s, Kean writes:

Authorities were … saturated by hundreds of UFO reports. … Even though the UFOs had demonstrated no threat to national security, false alarms could be dangerous. … Officials were concerned that the Soviets might take advantage of this situation by simulating or staging a UFO wave, and then attack.

How the United States government deals with UFO reports stands in stark contrast to how they’re handled in other countries, notably Britain, France, and Belgium, as well as those of South America. As one of the sub-authors writes,

… the 1989-90 UFO wave in Belgium was handled rationally, openly, and responsibly by the government. The Belgian Air Force was called into action immediately, and other agencies, such as the Gendarmerie Nationale (a combination of police and army) and the Belgian equivalent of our FAA, also cooperated in the mobilization to identify the objects.

In other words, stigmatizing those investigating UFO sightings is a distinctly American phenomenon.

Returning to the auxiliary monitoring agency alluded to above, Kean writes about Jean-Jacques Velasco, an engineer in satellite development for CNES, the French equivalent of NASA, who later served as head of the French government’s UFO agency for over 20 years. In his section, Velasco reminds us of a famous incident in 1967 when UFOs were spotted by military personnel near Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana when, simultaneously, the launch capacity of almost 20 nuclear missiles was shut down. One of the few officials to actually hypothesize about why extraterrestrials seem to be visiting us, Velasco writes.

I would like to propose an intriguing hypothesis that. … has required some research … into the United States. I believe that there is a connection between strategic nuclear power [by which he means] the atomic bomb, and the presence of unidentified artificial objects in the sky. This is suggested by data collected over several decade.

During the Cold War, he continues, “Air Force intelligence noted that many sightings occurred over ‘sensitive installations.'”

Most explicit was part of a report by George E. Valley, MIT physicist and radiation. (Emphasis added.)

Such a civilization [as might visit the earth] might observe that on Earth we now have atomic bombs and are fast developing rockets. In view of the past history of mankind, they should be alarmed. We should, therefore, expect at this time above all to behold such visitations.

Since the acts of mankind most easily observed from a distance are A-bomb explosions, we should expect some relation to obtain between the time of A-bomb explosions, the time at which the space ships are seen, and the time required for such ships to arrive from and return to the home base.

Velasco further writes:

We have on record the number of explosions worldwide and tests … a total of just over 2,400 explosions. … By comparing nuclear tests to some 150 visual/radar UFO cases collected since 1947, we note that the curves are practically superimposed in time and they coincide, with not more than a few months appearing between the number of explosions and one of the UFO appearances. … We can see on a graph the relationship between atomic explosions and visual/radar sightings. … This similarity in the two curves would suggest that the proven presence of UFOs is related to the nuclear strategic activity in the world.

Those inclined to attribute benevolence to extraterrestrials might think they monitor our nuclear weapons to keep us from harming ourselves. But they would be advised not to hold their breath waiting for extraterrestrials to become disarmament advocates of last resort who will decommission nuclear stockpiles on earth via electromagnetic pulse or something. This kind of thinking is just as much a symptom of our earth-centricity as the failure to perceive that what we do on earth spills over the borders of the planet. We’ve demonstrated little inclination to make sure that what happens on earth stays on earth.

In fact, extraterrestrials’ main concern may be how nuclear weapons on earth affect them. More likely, though, since recent developments in science suggest life elsewhere is untold light years away, extraterrestrials are too far from us to be directly affected by radiation emanating from earth. Instead, their overarching concern might be the ecology of the universe, if you can believe not only that, in its immensity, the universe needs tending like a planet but that extraterrestrials actually care enough to see to its well-being.

Whether they’re concerned about themselves or the state of the universe, it’s certainly a measure of how dangerous nuclear weapons are that beings from points unimaginably far distant are monitoring them out of apparent concern that, if used, they’d spill over the borders of the earth and into the universe commons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. Military Aid to Israel: Ever Inviolable

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaddish for Oslo, Part 2: The Palmer Report

The Mavi Marmara.

The Mavi Marmara.

Israel’s Black September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Palmer Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel's Arab Spring.

Israel’s Arab Spring.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Closure

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

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

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

So Where to Next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noah Gimbel is currently working on a book on Universities and Empire and can be reached at

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michele Bachmann “Blames” Obama for Arab Spring

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss and the Arabist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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