Focal Points Blog

The Key to Understanding Tahrir Square: Swarm Intelligence

SwarmingThe Arab Revolutions change everything. Or at least: a lot. We have to reconsider the entire picture. It is a geopolitical paradigm shift. But I cannot even start to tackle all this. Let’s start with trying to begin to understand this new form of self organising protest. A while ago I made some notes on ‘swarm intelligence’. I dropped them as misty, premature musings. Now they make sense to me, in a very concrete way. Here my notes (written somewhere end 2009):

Recently intelligent behaviour of swarms (ants, bees, birds, bats and fish, but also mammals) has been studied and this sort of survival of and by big quantities has been called ‘swarm intelligence’. It truly is one of the wonders of nature. Herd mentality is a well known word to point to the same phenomenon but it is old fashioned: the individual is intelligent (at best) but the mass is stupid (by essence). It is a basic ideological presumption of much ethico-political philosophy, from Seneca to the present. Swarm intelligence is a contemporary concept and reverses the logic: the swarm is more intelligent than small groups of intelligent animals. Gnus crossing the river en masse are more successful against crocodiles than the more intelligent but small groups of zebras. A swarm of small birds is swirling so close at such speed that a prey bird can seriously hurt itself if it dives into it. In a similar vein small fish move so fast and close that much bigger predators can’t get a prey as it behaves as mist, as an ever changing cloud. Maybe it is this swarm intelligence that could save us. Maybe this swarm intelligence will somehow help to cross this maelstrom of rapids and heavy waters humanity has ahead; by being such a mass of interconnected creatures. But how can we think that massive anonymity of the human herd — a herd of say 10 billion people — as a saving grace?

Well, Tahrir Square gives an idea. Small in comparison with the scale we will need, but huge, gigantic, never seen. Ten of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Nineteen days, nineteens nights. The biggest and longest mass event ever, I think. And, from the side of the masses: peaceful, non-violent. A logistical nightmare turned into a fairy tale. Well, no fairy tale: a miracle (almost biblical, like the miraculous proliferation of breads). Thousands of people to be fed, to be cared for, waste, human waste, wounded people — a field hospital was installed in a side street — and urgent and crucial decisions to be made at every moment, all this. . . . Besides the Coptic Christian who laid down his coat so his Muslim co-protestor could kneel and pray, or the guy who united the sign of the cross and the crescent in front of a camera on Aljazeera, or the women chanting and leading the crowds, the children leading the crowds, all this…

This is it! This is the swarm intelligence we will need! Oh God, was I pessimistic when I made my first notes: ‘So far, we see no sign for hope: we use more 24/24 electronic gadgets, more cars, etc. The exponential growth of air travel is expanding our personal ecological footprint at a pace that ridicules all our attempts to sort out garbage or take public transport, etc. etc. No, it will have to come from elsewhere. Slum intelligence as swarm intelligence? Swarm intelligence will be massively important to survive the 21st century’.

But I could not see a light, however hard I tried: ‘But will the quarrel of the villagers, the identity politics of the quarters, and neighbourhoods, the factions and interests, not foreclose this? Individualism has become one of our biggest enemies, at least in ecological terms. 10 billion people deserve a car. And they all have the right to travel by plane, no? Logic, Watson. But this madness needing 10 planets or something like that. Human (post?) history… a tale told by an idiot. Or the birth pangs of transhumanism? Or else, a vibrant planet of slums? The beat, the heat, the creativity of a new young urbanised world population. Maybe. Swarm intelligence it should be. But so far we have not come further than ostrich policy, at best.’

Well, again, Tahrir Square has changed the entire equation. Swarm intelligence was just a metaphor for the power of the interconnected multitude of the Middle East. It is a model for a planetarian multitude to come. A planetarian multitude in the making. It is from the squared circle of Tahrir Square — how beautiful it was, this circle of tents in the middle of the square — that we have to build the theorems and stratagems of a future politics; the politics of globalized, and therefore united humanity. After Tahrir Square there is hope again. This can and should be the beginning of a truly new era. It depends on every single one of us if it will come true.

No, it will not be paradise. Just less hellish. If we are able to bring down all tyrants and all tyrannies and the extremisms they breed. This should make fundamentalisms implode. Which will delegitimize neocon Empire even further. As rampant identity politics will wane, so will the legitimacy of the war on terror. Let’s cross our fingers. Because, that is just a start, before we can even begin to tackle the Herculean, cosmic tasks ahead: the ecological and demographic challenges. But how to wake up the European youth? How to wake up the American Youth? How strange it is: that wake-up calls in history tend to come on unexpected times and in unforeseen places. I pray that this is not the end. It is just a beginning. This could be truly awesome. But it depends on all of us. On all of us at once. We have to learn to think and move in sync, without leader, without party, without manual. Swarm Intelligence Now!

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). He has published several books: on contemporary art, experience and modernity, on Walter Benjamin and more recently on architecture, the city and politics. Beside this he published poems, columns, statements, pamphlets and opinion pieces.

His latest books: The Capsular Civilization. On the City in the Age of Fear (2004) and, as co-editor, Heterotopia and the city (2008); Art and activism in the Age of globalization (2011). He is initiator of the BRussells Tribunal.

Why Haven’t the Burmese Joined the Recent Wave of Pro-Democracy Protests?

Saffron Revolution(Pictured: Burma’s 2007 Saffron Revolution.)

Note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly attributed Roland Watson’s quotes to David Tharckabaw.

At Dictator Watch, Roland Watson asks, “Why Are There No Protests in Burma?”

Thus far Burma’s military dictatorship has been immune to the uprisings to which the world has been witness to — or engaged in — elsewhere. Perhaps that’s because Burma comes in a close second to North Korea as the most merciless administration in the world. You think Bahrain and Libya have been barbaric in their responses to protests? One shudders to think how North Korea (where, actually, an opposition movement is unimaginable) and Burma’s ruling junta would react. Watson, though, sees a ray of hope.

He begins by citing all the nations where mass protests have been mounted and criticizing the United States both for supporting rulers such as Mubarak and failing to switch their support to the protesters in timely fashion. He then writes that

. . the generals of the SPDC military junta . . . are among the most repressive in the world [including] ethnic cleansing . . . committed against minority groups. The theft of Burma’s natural resources by the junta, its cronies, and their international partners, is also so severe that it is in the first tier, financially, of worldwide corruption. It is therefore a surprise that there have not been any demonstrations in the country.

. . . As a long-time Burma analyst and activist, I personally do not understand the popular inaction. Obviously, there is fear and a multitude of other factors. But still, one would expect some sort of response.

At first glance, sounds suicidal. Watson explains.

The crackdown on the Saffron [monks] Uprising in 2007 only occurred after the junta was able to bring troops from border areas to Rangoon. The local commanders did not want to fire on the protestors. It has also been revealed that some leading generals opposed the crackdown.

There is significant dissent and factionalism within the junta. Really, everyone is positioning for power in advance of the demise of the top general . . . Than Shwe.

In fact

There is good reason to believe that the regime’s response to renewed demonstrations would be muted, particularly in light of the precedent set by the Egyptian military.

Bear in mind that Watson wrote that before Gaddafi’s brutal suppression in Libya. He presents another reason, though, that the junta’s reaction to new protests might not be as harsh as we’ve come to expect from it.

In addition, a new crackdown would end the hesitancy to launch war crimes prosecution against the SPDC.

Perhaps more to the point, Watson suggests that a crackdown by the junta could meet with an armed resistance that was absent in previous protests.

Right now, the resistance groups in Burma are working to establish a federal army. The generals have already exhibited an inability to move against them singly. As a coordinated front, [the resistance groups] will become much more powerful.

As for specific tactics, he recommends that this time

. . . the Burmese should avoid marches. As the protestors in Egypt illustrated, it is better to choose a central location, with many access points and surrounded by buildings for video documentation to rally. In Rangoon, one such area is Bandoola Park/Square.

The generals can hide in Naypyidaw [the new capital], but their rule will be a sham once the people of Burma control Rangoon [the old capital]. There will then be a coup against Than Shwe, or he and his family will flee to China or Singapore. The people of Burma will be through with the likes of [them]! . . . Democracy has a cost as the adage says “No Pain, no Gain”. The secret is to know when to spend it. That time is now.

For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi has offered cautious support for the Egypt protests, while telling the Toronto Globe and Mail that she’d like to link up with pro-democracy activists via Facebook and Twitter. “I think we need to — what do you call it — raise the megabyte?”

Meanwhile in a piece for Irrawaddy, The Dictator’s Survival Guide, the Burmese exile publication’s managing editor Kya Zwa Moe ponders why the junta has lasted for almost 50 years.

What are some of the secrets to a dictator’s survival? Here are some that Than Shwe and the Burmese generals have practiced:

— Crush all protests as soon as possible
— Consolidate all security forces, especially the military, under one command
— Apply divide and rule techniques among dissidents and the public
— Show no sympathy toward any dissent (as Tunisian leader Ben Ali did for the street vendor.)
— Never negotiate with opponents
— Pay no attention to pressure or suggestions from the international community

Than Shwe has applied these techniques since taking power and they are still working well for him. His recent formation of a “civilian government,” following the convening of a “civilian parliament,” appears to be his attempt to plant his seed of power in Burma and watch it grow even from beyond the grave.

If you think that Burma sounds like a horror movie, you’re right. Perhaps, though, should mass protests re-occur there, the urge to keep from jeopardizing its developmental and commercial deals with China and India would be enough to keep the junta from responding to mass protests with killings, torture, and imprisonment as it has in the past.

Where the Demonstrators Wave Black Flags: Algeria, Part 1

Algeria civil war(Pictured: Missing from the Algerian civil war.)

While they showed the same kind of courage as those who brought down Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, the demonstrators on the streets of Algiers on Saturday, February 12 really never had much of a chance. The odds were not good. 3,000-5,000 protesters braved a security force that was estimated to be no less than 30,000, outnumbering the protesters by 6 or 7 to 1.

Still the Algerian government is nervous. 30,000 security police sent out to surround 3,000 demonstrators suggest a high degree of state paranoia. While Egypt is key to the transport of oil through a pipeline and the Suez Canal and Tunisia has very little of the ‘black gold’, pretty much the entire Algerian export economy is based on crude oil and gas production. This helps explain the security police overkill presence, that along with this shaky regime’s nervousness.

The February 12 demonstration was called by a newly formed coalition, the National Coordinating Committee for Change and Democracy (in French, la Coordination National pour le changement et la democratie, or CNCD). The CNCD came together quite recently, since the January demonstrations and is spearheaded by the Algerian League for Human Rights and four independent (public sector) unions. Its goal is to extend the peaceful protest movement with an eye on getting the Algerian government to lift the state of emergency that has been in place since 1992.

The February 12th demonstration was made smaller no doubt by the road blocks set up throughout the country to prevent protesters from arriving in the capital. If the numbers of demonstrators – compared to Tunisia and Egypt they’re modest – this does not minimize the strategic importance of the Algerian protests. They are the first signs of deep unrest in a major oil and natural gas producing country and one in which U.S. Special Forces have been operating not so quietly and non-stop since at least 2004.

In an attempt to minimize the political damage, the government has promised economic reforms – jobs, completion of long promised public housing projects, better education, and replacing subsidies on sugar and cooking oil recently suspended as part of World Bank, IMF structural adjustment programs. These are the same empty words that sputtered from the mouths of Ben Ali and Mubarak before their flights, the same song now being sung in Jordan, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Kuwait. Algerians have heard this song before many times and are not moved.

In an effort to further divide and conquer, government spokespeople also kept repeating “these demonstrators do not represent ‘the majority’,” this being code to describe the country’s Berber minority, many of whom hale from Kabylia, east of Algiers, a region whose cultural capital is the city of Tizi Ouzou. They refer to themselves as the Amazigh.

While the government’s claim that the current demonstrations are ‘Berber organized’ is exaggerated, no doubt the Amazigh are among those calling for reforms if not sweeping political changes in Algeria. Consisting of some 7 million of the country’s 35 million inhabitants, the Amazigh have long suffered from cultural and linguistic discrimination; a result of the country’s pronounced ‘Arabization’ campaign.

It is true that the traditional opposition – the country’s main, largely government controlled trade union movement, moderate Islamicists – were not involved on February 12. Perhaps many Algerians are nonplussed about removing the country’s president, Abdelaziz Boutiflika, from office without changing the system itself. They see Boutiflika as little more than window dressing, covering the long time genuine power brokers of Algerian political life, the military. Some Algerians speculate that even if Bouteflika leaves, who would replace him and what would it matter? Another mouthpiece for the military?

So why risk having a head bashed in or worse by the same kind of government thugs who have been unleashed in Tunisia, Egypt and now Yemen? Still, it would be a mistake to minimize the threat these protests represent to the powers that be.

Issues Similar to Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain

If their numbers were disproportionate on February 12, still the Amazigh are far from alone in raising grievances against the current regime. The issues that brought these brave souls out to demonstrate are not much different from those driving the Tunisian and Algerian changes or the protests in Yemen and now Bahrein. Unemployment, especially youth unemployment is endemic.

Like in Tunisia and Egypt, the Algerian government’s base among its population is razor thin. Its attempt to portray itself as the sons and daughters of those who fought and died against French colonialism no longer impressed a population crushed by what appears to be appalling poverty not reflected in official statistics.

While the details are sketchy, corruption at high government levels has existed for decades. Repression is widespread with the government coming down with a heavy hand. A state of emergency has long been in effect since the early 1990s. And then there is history, Algerian history, rearing its painful and bloodied head (but more on that in Part Two).

Corrupt, repressive governments with little or no development plans for their own country are precisely the kind of regimes the U.S. and France have long supported in the Middle East. They make perfect and pliant allies. It should come as no surprise that there were very few – if any – complaints or criticisms lodged against the Algerian government over the years.

Nor has there been any pressure for change from the United States, European Union, or serious criticisms made of the Algerian government’s sorry track record, so similar to others in the region. Why should there be? Until it all blew up in their faces in mid December last starting with the Tunisian protests, both the United States and France have had a particular affinity to corrupt, repressive leaders with narrow bases among their own population.

Furthermore Algeria is still exhausted from the cruel civil war which ravaged the country in the last decade, the cinders of which are still burning in the interior where a radical Islamic movement tries to reorganize armed resistance. In the 1990s, several hundred thousand people died in an orgy of seemingly senseless violence that pitted a radical Islamic fundamentalist uprising (with no clear political or social agenda) against a military determined to hold on at all costs to the country’s oil and gas cash cow.

After the fighting stopped, minor political concessions were made with some of the former Islamic guerillas pardoned and re-integrated (to some extent) back into the mainstream and multi-party elections being held. But, a decade later, as it has been since independence, the military maintains its iron grip over the economy and body politic, as powerfully now as in the past and the socio-economic problems which plagued the country earlier remain. If anything, they are more serious today.

Promises, Promises, Promises – Few Results

The promises of a better life, with more democratic input, made by previous Algerian governments since independence in 1962, have not materialized. Again and again, the government responds to mass anger with a slew of commitments. Once the emotional moment passes, the situation reverts to its former state, the promises forgotten, the repressive apparatus tightened.

As elsewhere in the region, the main foreign powers involved – France, Spain, and the US – don’t seem to care much as long as the oil and gas flows, the country implements World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs to modernize the oil industry to increase output, and their ‘strategic interests’ are protected. As long as these things happen, the country can go to hell in a hand basket – as it has. None of them have lifted a finger in protest to government practices and corruption.

As a result, the disillusionment which fueled the 1990s implosion remains simmering beneath the surface essentially because nothing has changed. Despite World Bank statistics (the same kind of statistics that proved incapable of predicting the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, etc.) suggesting ‘growth’, a profound socio-economic crisis continues.

The fighting ended just after the turn of the millennium, but the socio-economic crisis that had generated the conflict, remain unresolved. The population was exhausted, terrified by viciousness of the fighting, in the end fearing both the Islamicists and the government, not knowing which was worse. When the fighting ended, the military was ‘the last man standing’. It remained in control of the country’s sizeable oil and gas resources but at a price – a profound loss in what little legitimacy it had enjoyed from the Algerian people up until then.

And so Algeria has been called by some, ‘a country without a future’. The regime remains entrenched; the power behind the presidency remains the military, a privileged social strata that lives off the oil profits. Other than increasing oil and gas production, and implementing World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs, virtually no vision for the country’s economic development exists, or hardly so. This situation has existed since the early 1980s when Algeria’s crash industrialization program was revealed as an utter failure.

What Will Happen When the Oil and Gas Money Runs Out?

With the collapse of the price of oil at that time, the country entered into a crisis from which, 30 years on, has only deepened in all aspects. Algeria limps along, rudderless, a country without direction, its population in great pain, with little or no vision to guide it past its current woes, and only oil money to cover up the collapse of a dream: of independence and national self determination. What will happen when the oil and gas money run out?

And so, demonstrations challenging the regime take place every few years, including recently. But unlike in Tunisia, the Algerian protests lack that sense of hope, and wonder that change is possible. A few years ago a demonstration, protestors marched with black flags, rather than the red, green and white colors of Algeria; they seemed to be saying: we don’t belong to anything anymore, not the country, not this regime.

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

Raymond Davis: Insert Your Conspiracy Theory Here

Pakistan may finally be getting ready to cough up Raymond Davis after the U.S. government employee shot two Pakistanis in an act that might have been too preemptive to be called self-defense. Even though Pakistan’s Dawn reproduced his pay stub, which shows he worked for US Overseas Protective Security Services, the United States sought to extend him diplomatic immunity. The Times of India reports:

Pakistan will tell a court that most of its legal experts believe that [the] detained American has diplomatic immunity, but will leave it to a judge to rule on his status, an official said on Tuesday — a sign that Islamabad is trying to give the US an opening to free the man while avoiding domestic backlash.

At Foreign Policy, C. Christine Fair expands on the the nature of Davis’s job:

Despite Pakistanis’ assertions that he is a spy, he does not have the profile of a bona fide operative of the Central Intelligence Agency. . . . However, some U.S. officials concede that he [may have] ties to the American intelligence apparatus. [Among issues] fuelling Pakistan’s deepest suspicions are the reports in the Pakistani media that a camera was recovered from Davis upon his arrest [which] reportedly contained “photos of . . . the headquarters of the paramilitary Frontier Corps in Peshawar and of Pakistan army bunkers on the eastern border with India.”

The men he killed were reportedly ISI agents, who, the European Union Times (despite its name, not too credible), were

. . . sent to follow him after it was discovered he had been making contact with al Qaeda after his cell phone was tracked to the Waziristan tribal area.

And why was he making contact with al Qaeda?

. . . top-secret CIA documents found in Davis’s possession point to his . . . providing to al Qaeda terrorists “nuclear fissile material” and “biological agents” they claim are to be used against the United States.

Meanwhile, at Sic Semper Tyrannis, Col. Pat Lang writes of Davis:

His undoubted links to people in Taliban territory have spawned the allegation that he was arranging Taliban bombings [by them, that is, not against them — RW] in Pakistan (it is a settled belief among most Pakistanis that the US wishes to destabilize the country in order to grab its nukes). A more sophisticated version of this is that he facilitated the attacks that had taken place on some ISI targets and the army’s GHQ [while freelancing for] former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh (fired by President Karzai at Pakistan’s insistence).

Speaking of the ISI, the Times of India reports:

Pakistani officials told the Express Tribune in Lahore that the Pakistani government’s “tough stance” on the whole issue was also a “reaction to the attempts by certain elements in Washington to implicate . . . the ISI in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks,” including the decision by a US court to summon top ISI officials in connections with the attacks.

Anyway, the Davis incident has produced some curious side effects. First, as Alex Eichler at the Atlantic reports:

. . . apparently the Davis case has had a ripple effect on American drone strikes in Pakistan. . . . Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai at The Daily Beast report that there haven’t been any drone strikes in Pakistan for nearly a month, and that “a senior Pakistani official has confirmed that Davis’ case is directly connected to the freezing of the attacks, and says that Washington is afraid of further inflaming anti-American sentiment in Pakistan in the wake of the shootings.”

B. at Moon of Alabama takes that one step further.

Another reason may well be that Mr. Davis is a critical component in the drone campaign and that without what he was doing, collecting targeting data from informants or whatever, the drone strikes can not continue.

Ms. Fair details another side effect.

The U.S. government will have to present evidence about the nature of the position of Raymond Davis in Pakistan’s courts. While this is a tedious and gratuitous predicament, it may be a long overdue occasion to cast much-needed transparency upon the activities of the U.S. government in Pakistan and the nature of its ties to various Pakistani agencies.

Finally, B. at Moon of Alabama suggests it might be best to leave Davis to stew in his juices.

But to me it seems that keeping Davis off the streets has probably saved some Pakistani lives. Keeping him further off and inside a jail may probably save even more. That should be enough reason to press for his custody to continue.

In Their Mutual Ambivalence Israel and Iran Are Mirrors of Each Other

As Conn Hallinan writes at Focal Points, the Israeli military, president and intelligence agencies continue to debate — with more vehemence than ever, in fact — both an attack on Iran and how to rope the U.S. into the subsequent war. Though, “This fight is hardly a split between doves and hawks.” Hallinan explains.

According to columnist J.J. Goldberg of the Jewish weekly Forward, while the new Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, has “spoken scathingly” of the “short-sighted strategic vision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak,” he is hardly part of some peace faction. Rather the division seems to be between aggressive right-wingers supported by the settler movement and opposed to any agreement with the Arabs, and a more “cautious faction” that includes [former military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gabi] Ashkenazi [who instead favors among other things] “covert action” — military-speak for targeted assassinations.

Turns out Iranian authorities are conflicted, too — about the very matter over which Israelis are at each other’s throats. On Friday Greg Miller and Joby Warrick reported in the Washington Post about the new U.S. NIE (national intelligence estimate) on Iran’s nuclear program, which

concludes that Iran has resumed research on key components for a nuclear weapon, but that the slow and scattered nature of the effort reflects renewed debate within the regime over whether to build a bomb. . . . Overall, the National Intelligence Estimate concludes that Iran is conducting “early stage R&D work on aspects of the manufacturing process for a nuclear weapon,” said a U.S. official familiar with the report. At the same time, the estimate describes “serious debate within the Iranian regime . . . on how to proceed.”

Why the hesitation?

The new estimate’s description of intense disagreement within the regime over the nuclear program has been cited by some U.S. officials as evidence that economic sanctions have worked. [While] others who have read the new report disagree [officials] on both sides of the sanctions issue agree that Iran’s leaders are probably influenced by concern over potential Israeli military strikes.

Of course, the aggressive Israeli right-wingers about whom Hallinan writes are likely to draw the conclusion that, whether or not they prevail, they may as well keep beating the drums for war since that seems to be a factor in Iran’s hesitance to commit to a nuclear-weapons program.

Israeli Military, President, and Intelligence Services at Each Other’s Throats Over Attacking Iran

Ehud Bara(Pictured: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.)

Behind the recent appointment of Israel’s new military chief of staff are several months of bitter infighting among Israeli generals and intelligence agencies over whether to attack Iran, and, in the event of such an attack, how to rope the U.S. into the war.

The replacement of Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi with Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz is the outcome of a seesaw battle between a wing of the Israeli army, allied with the intelligence services, that have cautioned against a war with Iran, pitted against Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and a coterie of more aggressive generals. The feud has become so intense that veteran military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai says, “The state of Israel is sinking into anarchy.”

According to the Asia Time’s Victor Kotsev, Ashkenazi, backed by Israel’s intelligence chiefs, and possibly with quiet support from Washington, maneuvered to block Barak’s choice for a new chief of staff by torpedoing the candidacy of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, and then blocking the Defense Minister’s attempt to appoint the hawkish Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh as acting chief of staff.

The civil war, according to Kotsev, reflects “a split in Israeli political and military circles on whether to attack Iran. According to [veteran Israeli journalist Aluf] Benn, the outgoing chiefs of the army and the intelligence …are firmly opposed to a unilateral military intervention, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak have stacked their political fortunes on a strike.”

The falling out between Ashkenazi and Barak began last year when the former opposed the defense minister’s proposal to attack Iran, remarking, “Initiating such a war will only bring disaster on Israel.” Barak responded by shortening Ashkenazi’s tenure and replacing him with Galant, the controversial general who led operation “Cast Lead,” the brutal assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians.

According to the Israeli Daily Haaretz, Galant was seen as “more aggressive on Iran and will not block Netanyahu and Barak, who are eager to go into battle against Iran.”

But Galant had to withdraw when it was revealed that he had appropriated public land that surrounded his villa in northern Israel, and Barak blamed Ashkenazi—almost certainly correctly—for leaking the scandal. Barak had already alienated the military by trying to shift the blame for last year’s disastrous interception of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara onto the army and intelligence agencies.

The whole brouhaha has weakened Barak, who lost whatever base he had when he recently pulled out of the Labor Party to start up a more centrist organization. “Barak suffered one of the toughest routs of his life, second only to his loss of the Prime Minister’s post in the 2001 elections,” says Israeli journalist Amir Oren.

Israeli analyst Benn suggests that Washington might have had a hand in the affair by encouraging resistance to Barak within the Israeli military. Gantz is seen as a general with close ties to his American counterparts, and word has it that the Pentagon was chilly toward Barak during his recent visit to Washington. With Barak badly wounded by the fight, there are a number of players on the sidelines, including rightwing Likudites Moshe Ya’alon and Dan Meridor, who are hankering after his job.

This fight is hardly a split between doves and hawks. According to columnist J.J. Goldberg of the Jewish weekly Forward, while the new Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, has “spoken scathingly” of the “short-sighted strategic vision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak,” he is hardly part of some peace faction. Rather the division seems to be between aggressive right-wingers supported by the settler movement and opposed to any agreement with the Arabs, and a more “cautious faction” that includes Ashkenazi.

Ashkenazi favors “covert action”—military-speak for targeted assassinations—and returning the Golan Heights to Syria as a strategy to divide Damascus and Teheran, “a view shared unanimously by the heads of Israel’s intelligence agencies” says Goldberg.

But the now-retired chief of staff is hardly some kind of peacenik. In his farewell address, Ashkenazi talked of “tectonic changes” in the Middle East and gave a generally gloomy view of an Israel surrounded by growing Islamic fundamentalism in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and possibly Egypt. His opposition to attacking Iran has less to do with the political fallout than the fear that Israel would do so “unilaterally.”

It is not clear where Gantz or the newly appointed intelligence heads stand on the matter of Iran, but Reuters reports that “the new crop of generals and spymasters could prove more cooperative to war orders” from the civilian administration.

There are powerful forces arguing for attacking Iran, many of them among the newly resurgent American neo-conservatives. U.S House Resolution 1533, introduced last year by 46 Republicans, supports Israel using “any means necessary” against Iran. While H-1533 languished in the Foreign Affairs Committee when Democrats controlled the House, the resolution is certain to re-emerge with Republicans in charge.

The charge to war, according to Gareth Porter of IPS, is led by neocons like Reuel Marc Gerecht, the former director of the New American Century, a think tank that can claim much of the credit for getting the Bush Administration to invade Iraq. “What is important to understand about this campaign,” says Porter, “is that the aim of Gerecht and the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is to support an attack by Israel so that the United States can be drawn into a direct, full-scale war with Iran.”

The neocons want more than surgical strikes aimed at Iran’s nuclear industry, they want a real war—“No cruise missiles at midnight to minimize the body count” says Gerecht—and regime change. As David Wurmster, former vice-president Dick Cheney’s key advisor on the Middle East, put it, “If we start shooting, we must be prepared to fire the last shot. Don’t shoot a bear if you are not going to kill it.”

The campaign is aimed at creating domestic pressure on the Obama administration to back Israel once it attacks. Israel has a powerful air force and navy, but unless it used some of its nuclear arsenal—an act that is hard to contemplate but by no means out of the question—it can’t do the job on its own.

Would most Americans back such an attack? Polls show that a majority of Americans don’t want a war with Iran, but that they also strongly support Israel. If the Iranians can be demonized enough—the current regime’s crackdown on dissent is already doing a pretty good job in that regard—might those numbers shift? Gerecht thinks they will: “If the Israelis bomb now, American public opinion will probably be with them, perhaps decisively so.”

In the meantime, the Netanyahu administration is doing its best to whip up anti-Iranian sentiment. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the recent transit of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal a “provocation,” even though the canal is an international waterway and recently saw several Israeli warships pass through it on their way into the Persian Gulf. “Unfortunately, the international community is not showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations,” Lieberman said. “The international community must understand that Israel cannot ignore these provocations forever.”

Bombast? Certainly the Israeli Foreign Minister is renowned for that, but in this case he has strong support in the Tel Aviv government, among the powerful settler movement, and with at least some of the military. As the Israeli daily Haaretz notes, “2010 went by without a war with Iran. In the winter no one goes to war because the clouds limit air force operations. But in 2011, a conflict is brewing.”

It is a conflict that could escalate from a regional calamity to an international disaster if the U.S. joins in.

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

Washington Draws a Line in the Sand on Settlements — With Palestine

It’s tough being a naked superpower when the caterpillars munch away your fig leaf.

In real terms it makes Chamberlain at Munich look like a stickler for principle. The President and Secretary of State of the United States have been pleading and pressuring over Israeli settlements, which Washington opposes.

But who are they pleading with? Who are they cajoling and pressuring? Not the Israeli president building the settlements, but President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine, to withdraw the Security Council resolution which expresses the sentiment of the entire world — including the US — that the settlements are illegal. In real terms it makes Chamberlain at Munich look like a stickler for principle.

To head off this disastrous dilemma heading to impale its Middle Eastern policy, the US had drafted an ineffectual and in any case non-binding statement that admitted to the “illegitimacy” of settlements in the West Bank, but spent more space condemning ineffectual rocket attacks from Gaza.

But Abbas had no option but to go ahead and put the resolution to the vote. It won 14 to one, with US Ambassador Susan Rice casting a veto.

The administration was scared that it would either be forced to support its own policy in the Security Council and thus risk an excreta tempest from AIPAC — or that it would veto a resolution that it agrees with and humiliate itself in front of the rest of world, including its real allies in NATO.

“We reject in the strongest terms possible the legitimacy of the continued settlement building,” inveighed Rice, while ferociously condemning them as “folly,” bad for Israel as well. However that just reinforced the international message that the Israeli tail was wagging the American dog to vote against its own policy.

A positive vote would have sent a serious signal to Netanyahu not to trifle with his only protector and major paymaster. However, all Netanyahu has had to do is to refer to the even more crazed ideologues who surround him, who will not hear of “concessions” on settlements. But poor Abbas, beleaguered by WikiLeaks showing him trying to kill the Goldstone Report under US pressure and showing what most Palestinians regard as an overflexible, indeed supine, negotiating posture in the peace talks, is assumed not to have a domestic constituency he has to care for.

One would have thought that after Tunisia, Egypt, and Bahrain, this administration would have picked up some hints about diplomacy, not least that diktats and dollars to proxy dictators does not make for stable relationships. But the world’s rapidly attenuating super power was reduced to covering for a coalition of deranged rabbis, likudnik-inclined millionaires, Neocons and evangelical Christian Zionists in the UN Security Council.

It did so in front of a Security Council packed with most of the General Assembly members who have expressed their negative views on settlement over and over again to vote on a resolution sponsored by a wide geographical and ideological range of states — including many EU and NATO members. The resolution was moved by Lebanon, whose ambassador eschewed inflammatory rhetoric and merely cited successive Security Council resolutions, World Court opinions and Geneva Conventions on the issue not to mention Israel’s own commitments under the Quartet’s “Road Map.”

Tip O’Neill’s dictum “All politics is local” is not always true. For a start, polls show that most American Jews oppose Netanyahu and his settlement policy. But more cogently, the masses of Arab citizens on the streets of their rapidly reforming countries bitterly oppose the settlements, and will draw their own conclusions from the Obama policy.

To stop AIPAC huffing and puffing, the Obama administration is about to lose Egypt, Tunisia and much of the rest of the Middle East and erase the last faint hopes of the region that the US can in any way give genuine support to democracy or international law. The disillusionment is going to be all the more profound because of the betrayal of the spirit of Obama’s early speeches in Istanbul and Cairo. Instead of sending serious signal to Netanyahu not to trifle with your only protector, he is now confirmed in his obduracy. And Arabs and other world citizens are even more convinced of US duplicity.

Obama also has yet another crisis coming. The UK, on behalf of France and Germany as well, promised to do all it could to welcome Palestine as a UN member by this September, thereby pushing yet another hot button for AIPAC — and thus the administration.

Is There Any Upside to Middle-East Protests for al-Qaeda?

Unable to take credit for the downfall one of its greatest nemeses, President Hosni Mubarak, who, when it came to Islamist extremism, ruled with an iron fist, is al-Qaeda nursing its psychic wounds or does it find some cause to rejoice? In his eighteenth SWISH Report to the al-Qaida Strategic Planning Cell (SPC), Paul Rogers of Britain’s Open Democracy details the implications of the protests to the SPC.

Never heard of the SPC? You’re not the only one. Oh, and SWISH is an acronym for the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics (note obvious Monty Python influence). Rogers writes:

You profess enthusiasm for the display of resistance; but you are clearly also troubled by the awkward reality that the removal of illegitimate governments — an aim you also aspire to — has been successfully accomplished by a people’s mobilisation in no way rooted in or guided by an Islamist worldview.

“Curses,” exclaims Snidely Whip-Laden. “Co-opted!”

This is a very grim development for your movement, in two ways. First, you are failing to lead or inspire a rapidly escalating revolutionary process, and as a result risk being seen as irrelevant. Second, and even worse, as the regimes fall or shake you are in danger of losing a vital pillar of support for your cause: namely, the idea that people’s hatred of these regimes could only be channelled effectively by embracing your version of Islam. The revolts demonstrate that you are clearly not the only alternative — and this is very bad news indeed.

Meanwhile, at the National Interest, Michael Scheuer doesn’t agree that it’s bad news for al-Qaeda. The one-time head of the CIA’s bin Laden-tracking unit, since become a take-no-prisoners commentator who shows no fealty to the left or right, writes that:

. . . for bin Laden and all Islamist leaders, happy days are here. Through no actions of their own, their most potent Arab foe disappeared at the hands of their other erstwhile enemies, the United States and its allies. They can now exploit the Egyptian debacle knowing that, as they do so, Washington will be further weakened economically as the new Egyptian regime begs funds to rebuild — and hints it will take Saudi money if U.S. taxpayers are not shaken down — and the Israel-suborned Congress* ships great batches of taxpayer funds to Israel for a military and border-control build-up to cope with Egyptian democracy. . . .

As ever, the wages of U.S. intervention are dire. After intervening for 30-plus years to support Mubarak and allow Israel’s every whim, Washington now finds itself headed toward more intervention in a probably useless attempt to rebalance the Potemkin political “system” its intervention helped create. . . . only bin Laden and the Islamists will benefit. . . . They know whatever regime follows Mubarak will be weaker, more influenced by those demanding a form of Sharia law . . . and . . .

Drum roll, please . . .

. . . being a democracy, more representative of Egyptians’ deep, abiding hatred for Israel.

Do Focal Points readers think the protests in the Middle-East against authoritarian regimes hurt or help all-Qaeda?

*I told you he takes no prisoners. In fact, Scheuer was fired from his position at counterterrorist think tank the Jamestown Foundation because his criticism of U.S. policy towards Israel offended donors.

New U.S. Rebuke of Settlements a Product of Egypt Protests?

In his Turtle Bay blog at Foreign Policy, Colum Lynch writes that though it was “a move aimed at avoiding the prospect of having to veto a stronger Palestinian resolution calling the settlements illegal,”

The U.S. informed Arab governments Tuesday that it will support a U.N. Security Council statement reaffirming that the 15-nation body “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” . . . But the Palestinians rejected the American offer [though it] remained unclear whether the Palestinian move . . . is simply a negotiating tactic aimed at extracting a better deal from Washington.

Still, the U.S. offer signaled a renewed willingness to seek a way out of the current impasse, even if it requires breaking with Israel and joining others in the council in sending a strong message to its key ally to stop its construction of new settlements.

Lynch adds:

The U.S. concession comes as the Middle East is facing a massive wave of popular demonstrations that have brought down the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.

Cause and effect? What do Focal Points readers think?

Last Thing Washington Needs Is to Share Blame if Egypt Becomes Another Pakistan

“One of the most infuriating arguments to emerge out of the whole Egypt situation is the notion that somehow the Obama Administration was insufficiently engaged,” writes the National War College’s Bernard Finel, perhaps the most credible center-right commentator extent. (Found via the Progressive Realist.) “If you think Obama was too slow to response [sic], you are assuming that an American intervention was both appropriate and potentially effective. As far as I can tell, neither is the case.”

He asks:

Does the United States have interests in regards to Egypt? [Of course, but, at] some point, you need to step back and respect the principle of self-determination.

How would Dr. Finel convince centrists and conservatives of that?

[It] actually serves long-term U.S. national interests [in that] it is hard to imagine that what emerges now is somehow going to be particularly stable [or] popular. So, why would you want to own any responsibility for that outcome?

And what would that outcome look like?

. . . likely, we’ll see continued military dominance with a facade of civilian control. Pakistan might be a model. Best case, I suspect is Turkey, where the military serves to constrain policy choices, but remains generally at arms-length.

In the end:

We need to think about the long-game with Egypt [which won’t be] improved by us seeming to have our fingers too visible on the scales. We’re still paying for our intervention in Iranian politics in 1953!

What does Dr. Finel recommend?

[Finally] there is little reason to believe that the United States is in a position to materially affect outcomes in Egypt. . . . our influence is limited. . . . the best possible message we can send to the Egyptians (and the world) is precisely that . . . we wish the Egyptians well . . . but in the final analysis are simply observers rather than players in the process.

Do Focal Points reader think that Finel, however realpolitik, makes sense?

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