Focal Points Blog

WikiLeaks XXXV: The Gathering of a Storm — a History of bin Laden in Diplomatic Cables

bin Laden Saudi ArabiaWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the thirty-fifth in the series.

Not to be outdone by the emergence of an actual social movement in the Arab world, Osama bin laden reemerged from media obscurity this past weekend, pathetically taking advantage of the spotlight shining on former French-controlled North Africa to issue threats against none other than Nikolas Sarkozy’s proud nation of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. According to reports in the Tehran Times, bin Laden has promised to have French hostages captured last year in Niger killed if French forces are not removed from Afghanistan.

In almost knee-jerk response, the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten published a string of Wikileaked embassy cables concerning bin Laden. Collectively, the series of cables offer a partial timeline of intelligence building by US diplomats on the Saudi terrorist in the years leading up to the attacks of September 11.

Bin Laden first flits across the page in a cable from 1993 describing diplomatic discussions with a prominent Saudi banker who reveals to the Americans that his brother had been a Mujahid in Afghanistan during the resistance fight against Soviet occupation years earlier. The cable reports that while the banker noted the rise of religious conservatism in Saudi Arabia, the country remained “stable” under the firm rule of the royal family. Nevertheless, the banker

did concede that some businessmen do stand out for their support of Islamic groups, citing the example of Usama bin Laden. Although most known for his funding of mujahideen groups in Afghanistan, bin Laden has given money to several Islamic causes throughout the world.

A year later, bin Laden surfaces again in another cable describing impotent Saudi efforts at providing internal security to its people. While the Saudis are portrayed as nothing less than incapable of controlling acts of political violence on their sovereign turf, American diplomats applauded the government’s decision to revoke [sics, as always, courtesy of the cables -- RW]

the citizenship of Osmama bin Laden, a Saudi known to support extremist groups and suspected of financing terrorism in Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Lebanon, and the occupied territories.

Unfortunately, the cable also notes “several reports that [the government] s or has been funding terrorist groups in Egypt, Algeria and Israel” as well as indirectly “financing extremist Muslim secessionist groups in the Southern Philippines.”

Around the same time, a cable from State Department headquarters in Washington, DC reported intelligence claims that bin Laden was in eastern Afghanistan, and sought permission from what was then the neutral Nangarhar Shura which controlled the area. The cable relates that when the Shura rejected bin Laden’s request—“Nangarhar officials will not allow ‘these people’ to live in the eastern provinces” because “Afghans were already living in an ‘emergency situation’ and did not need more problems”—bin Laden retreated to Kabul and the protection of the notorious warlord, and later al Qaeda collaborator, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

This intelligence was refined a few months later when, in September 1996, Taliban forces swept through Afghanistan’s Pashtun east on their way to capturing the state. Another cable emanating from Foggy Bottom notes that “recent Taliban advances in eastern Afghanistan may mean that several militant training camps belonging to Hekmatyar…have or will come under Taliban control. Also, there are recurrent reports that Osama bin Laden is still in the eastern provinces.” The headquarters dispatch requests that diplomats reach out to Taliban representatives and ask them “do you know where he is? We hope that you will expel him from territory under your control. The presence of Osama bin laden in Afghanistan is not a positive development for Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, back in Saudi Arabia, a relative of bin Laden’s was telling American officials they had nothing to worry about. According to this unidentified source, bin Laden is a “simple person easily influenced by others,” and that he had been “brainwashed” by Egyptian radicals. Bin Laden’s turn to zealotry had not gone over well with the family, the source told American officials, and that they had all cut him off completely. The source weirdly speculates that bin Laden was receiving support from Iran, points out that any monies changing hands would likely be funneled “through middlemen, since Usama would not openly maintain ties with a Shia government.” Either way, “Usama is no longer protected by the Saudi government and can now be reached by his enemies,” the unnamed source confidently claimed. “He is finished.”

Jump to nearly two years later, and it becomes evident that the source had basically no idea what he was talking about. In a secret cable from State headquarters, an urgent message from a counterterrorism chief was sent to embassies throughout the Middle East and Central Asia warning of possible imminent attacks against unidentified targets. The cable expresses concern over bin Laden’s call for jihad against US troops in Saudi Arabia and public threats “that an attack could take place in the next few weeks.” The State Department “takes these statements very seriously,” the cable reports, and requests that American embassies secure “diplomatic and military facilities. You may also wish to increase security at US businesses and other potential targets which might be associated with the US.” American diplomats were right to worry. Two months later, al Qaeda operatives carried out devastating bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi which left 200 dead and over 4,000 people injured.

The final cable of the series—dating from spring 2001—provocatively, if briefly, discusses the possibility that the Taliban might be willing to extradite bin Laden to Qatar to face charges in the East African bombings. Describing a meeting between American and Qatari officials in Doha, the cable notes that foreign and prime minister Hamad bin Jasim tells the American ambassador point blank that Qatar has no interest in hosting any trial involving bin Laden unless the Taliban themselves were to approach him with the proposal. As it happened, a “Taliban delegation was arriving in Qatar” that same day, and the “ambassador reminded him that the US is the single largest contributor of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.”

So what happened? The dispatch ends with a classic cliffhanger: “We will get a read out on the Taliban’s visit when it is concluded.” While we’ll have to wait for the details to leak at some later date, we already know that the unfortunate end to this particular chapter unfolds at Pentagon headquarters, across an anonymous field in Pennsylvania, and on the southern tip of Manhattan Island.

WikiLeaks XXXIV: Hu a “Cautious, Vacillating Leader” (Who Does That Sound Like?)

Hu Jintao Obama(Pictured: Chinese Premier Hu with President Obama.)

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

Over at Foreign Policy, Daniel Drezner has published what seems to me to an exactly accurate take on Forbes Magazine’s decision to name Chinese premier Hu Jintao as the world’s most powerful person. If nothing else, the past week of media attention on Hu has demonstrated just how little influence the Chinese leaders wields within his own government.

By far the most shocking indication of Hu’s political impotence surfaced last week in his meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The New York Times reports (and Drezner links) that

Mr. Hu’s strange encounter with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates here last week—in which he was apparently unaware that his own air force had just test-flown China’s first stealth fighter—was only the latest case suggesting that he has been boxed in or circumvented by rival power center. . . .

President Obama’s top advisors have concluded that Mr. Hu is often at the mercy of a diffuse ruling party in which generals, ministers and big corporate interests have more clout, and less deference, than they did in the days of Mao or Deng Xiaping, which commanded basically unquestioned authority.

As if on cue, the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten published a cable yesterday which demonstrates that American diplomats in China have long been aware of Hu’s leadership failures. The cable conveys a candid conversation between an unnamed American political scientist and a Chinese entrepreneur in 1988 as Hu was transitioning from his post as party secretary of Guizhou province to the top spot in Tibet. “The entrepreneur said that he thought Hu had two significant failings which made it doubtful he could succeed in Tibet.” His observations are almost exactly those being highlighted this week in the press.

First, Hu had no close relationship with the military. Second, he was a cautious, vacillating leader. As an illustration of Hu’s timidity, the entrepreneur said that during one of his trips he had worked out a project which would have resutled in the expansion of Guizhou’s exports. He sent a copy of his suggestion to Hu who said that it seemed like a good idea and he should suggest that the appropriate government departments implement it. When the entrepreneur [sics courtesy original cables] tried to do so, there was the usual bureaucratic opposition from various offices, and in the end nothing was done. He commented that Hu was prepared to move only if everyone agreed with something; he was not prepared to tackle opposition. Given the situation in Tibet, Hu will be facing many differences and will get little done if he is not prepared to exert himself.

It was precisely this penchant for indecision which Hu’s critics point out contributed to the violent protests in Tibet after the cable was produced. The journalist Willy Lam recounts claims that as the 1989 protests gathered momentum in Lhasa, Chinese police repeatedly asked for but did not receive orders from a waffling Hu on how to properly respond. Eventually a police commander purportedly took matters into his own hands, directing a violent suppression of Tibetan activists that left over forty dead. Some have argued that the events in Lhasa served as a prelude to the violent state response to protests in Tiananmen Square months later.

Evidence of Hu’s weakness at home does not sit well with any optimism of China’s actions abroad. At a moment when Beijing has taken a startlingly tougher stance in its dealings with friends and foes alike, it is hardly comforting to recognize that China’s government does not present a united front. “There is a remarkable amount of chaos in the system, more than you ever saw dealing with the Chinese twenty years ago,” former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft told the Times. “The military doesn’t participate in the system the way it once did. They are more autonomous—and so are a lot of others.”

WikiLeaks XXXIII: Algeria’s Youth Too Dazed and Confused to Even Become Terrorists

Harraga apprehended(Pictured: Harraga apprehended.)

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

Every once in a while, on the long march through the often mind-numbing bureaucrateeze that characterizes the mountain of embassy cables published by WikiLeaks, you’re rewarded for your labors with a bit of hilarious gossip, razor-sharp political analysis, or some surreal storytelling. And then there are the moments when you’re treated to nothing less than absorbingly excellent writing.

Such was the case this weekend when WikiLeaks published an otherwise unremarkable cable outlining Algeria’s growing problem with disaffected young people attempting dangerous escapes from North Africa’s shores to the promised land of opportunity in Europe. The dispatch, which dates from the summer of 2008, opens with a literary journalism hook more appropriate to the pages of Mother Jones than anything a diplomatic database might spit out.

On the desolate beach of Sidi Salem, in the eastern suburb of Annaba, a dozen young Algerian males alternate between kicking a soccer ball and working on several small, unmarked wooden boats. Each week, several boats leave from this beach, filled with a cross-section of frustrated young Algeria—doctors, lawyers, dropouts, the unemployed. They set out across the open sea, usually ten or twelve to a boat, armed with water, food, blankets, a small motor and GPS tracking device, headed for the Italian islands of Lampedusa, Sicily, or Sardina. They are the harraga—literally, “ones who burn”: identity papers and vital documents before departure—and over 90 percent of them will either die at sea, be arrested and detained indefinitely in Tunisia or Libya, or be returned by the Algerian, French, Spanish or Italian coast guards.

The numbers of harraga are not insignificant: in 2007 alone, over 50,000 young Algerians reportedly attempted to flee their homeland to Europe, numbers that show no sign of letting up with each passing year. The situation “has paralyzed the Algerian government,”as the “harraga have become a fixture in the Algerian media, popular media and daily conversation, a symptom of a society in which entertainment is limited, the education does not link to the job market, and the doors of opportunity are closed but to the well connected.”

Seeking to familiarize themselves with this emerging phenomenon, embassy staff in Algiers took to the streets to collect first-hand impressions of the human trafficking network that transports hundreds of Algerians to Europe each month.

During out [sic] April visit to the beach at Sidi Salem, police officers standing in front of their precinct watched harraga prepare for departure. “We are not the border police,” they told us…A look around revealed a soccer field littered with trash, a trash heap and a mosque alongside public low- to middle-income housing projects.

A source

pointed down the street from the police station at two small, dingy cafes. Those cafes, he told us, are where harraga gather to exchange information, meet with departure organizers, and pay their way. [The source] said that would-be harraga from all over Algeria know by word of mouth to come to the cafes, where an “oral bulletin board” exists of young men pooling resources, organizing departures and coordinating basic supplies.

US diplomats also interviewed harraga youth to get a sense of the often harrowing journey between North Africa and European shores.

On the western ourskirts of ASnnaba lies the smaller and more secluded beach of La Caroube. XXXXXXXXXX sat idly with three friends on a concrete stop, while several old wooden fishing boars lay overturned on the sand nearby. XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that last summer he set out in a boat of ten people, leaving Algerian territorial waters, which he was quick to point out represented a victory for him. He and his shipmates follows the coastline to Tunisia [where] the waters turned rough and they were forced to turn back at which point they were stopped by the Algerian coast guard…and sent back. All of XXXXXXXXXXXX three friends said they had also tried at least once to leave their country by sea.

Harraga cite three reasons “Algerian youth want to burn their documents and leave: hogra (humiliation), poverty and corruption.” In a country that country that continues to operate under a nearly twenty-year state of emergency that disproportionately suffocates the hopes of Algeria’s ambitious young, illegal exit is often seen as the only way out. The situation has obviously not escaped the attention of the Algerian government which “simply does not know what to do” about it. According to sources interviewed by embassy staff, the Algerian government was

“well aware”of the public passions that have been aroused by the harraga…Minister of National Solidarity Djamel Ould Abbes, in a highly publicized April visit to the coastal towns of Ain Temochent and Tiaret in western Algeria, gathered returned in front of the press and offered 400,000 dinar (about USD 615) to each, along with an offer of work.

The visit, coming just a week after ten harraga were killed attempting to cross over to Europe, was not well-received by the public which came to view it as “‘an insult,’ since at the end of the meeting [Ould] asked all those assembled to sign a statement of support for President Bouteflika.” In fact, the situation almost spiraled out of control. The cable reports that the local harraga

rallied and encircled the house Ould Abbes was staying in, intending perhaps to take him hostage…When the minister got wind of this, he left Tiaret before dawn, earlier than expected, and rushed back to Algiers.

The cable tellingly registers one young harraga’s disgust at the ploy. “We do not want someone to throw money at us,” the young man asserted, “we want opportunity. XXXXXXXXXXXXX then said he would ‘sweep this beach’ if someone gave him a broom and a modest salary. Instead, he and his friends agreed that the best thing to do with Ould Abbes’ 400,000 dinars was ‘to buy a better boat.’”

Embassy personnel also take note of the fact that many harraga ultimately assuage their frustration by finding refuge in the country’s mosques. And while the embassy’s concern naturally drifts to the threat of terrorist breeding amongst disaffected harraga, what they discover is far more depressing. According to one local sociologist interviewed by diplomatic staff,

“Algerian society is still suffering from ‘cultural post tramatic stress syndrome’ after the violence of the 1990s. This, when added to current pressures of terrorism and socioeconomic stagnation, leaves many ‘dazed and paralyzed, with their eyes glazed over. Most people simply don’t understand what has hit them over the past fifteen years.’”

Despite the fact that the issue has captured the country’s popular imagination—the harraga have become the subject of movies and pop songs—the prospect of positive change in the near term for Algeria’s struggling young remains remote. The cable wraps up its report “back on the beach of La Caroube, “where XXXXXXXXXXX listed at least six jobs he had applied for over the last year, all of which he said ultimately went to ‘people with connections.’” When embassy diplomats asked where they could contact him and his friends in the future “if [they] needed to, he smiled and shook his head. ‘You can come back in ten years,’ he said. ‘and we’ll be sitting right here.’”

The Case for Syria

Assad(Pictured: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.)

Below we present an excerpt from an article at Foreign Policy in Focus’s sister publication Right Web.

In late December, with Congress away on recess, Robert Ford was appointed the new U.S. ambassador to Syria, filling a six-year vacancy. Shortly thereafter, condemnations poured in from those critical of U.S. efforts to engage Syria. President Barack Obama was criticized for “sending the wrong message” amounting to “a major concession to the Syrian regime.” Pundits and commentators expressed concern that such “appeasement” would compromise the influence and authority of the United States in the Middle East.

Five days later, the unity government of Lebanon collapsed after the resignation of 11 members of the pro-Syrian opposition bloc. Though the ensuing competition for power is widely expected to further empower Hizballah and undermine the Special Tribunal for Lebanon—two serious setbacks for U.S. regional policy—Washington finds itself lacking the necessary connections to alter the situation.

Lebanon’s unraveling and the undiminished influence of the Syrian state clearly demonstrate that U.S. attempts to isolate Damascus have failed. Syria continues to occupy an important strategic position in the Levant, and it sits at the crossroads of a number of U.S. interests. Direct and honest engagement, which Ambassador Ford will hopefully foster, is the only way to satisfy U.S. foreign policy goals, rein in violent extremism, and encourage political reforms in that country.

A History of Hostility

During the past decade, U.S. relations with Syria have been primarily characterized by mutual distrust and antagonism. Washington’s hostility toward Damascus has been fueled in part by concerns that the Syrian government has supported violent political factions in both Lebanon and Palestine, interfered in the democratic functions of Lebanon, and actively undermined the stability of the new Iraqi state. In response, a number of prominent analysts and regional experts have called for direct engagement as the only effective means to reform the Syrian state. However, the continued isolation of Syria plays to interests of powerful groups with significant political leverage, including neoconservative and other rightwing “pro-Israel” organizations, their allied politicians, and Saudi backers.

Wonks at institutes like the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs (WINEP), and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies have been amongst the most fervent hawks on Syria. Other parts of the “Israel lobby,” like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have also used their connections in Congress to prevent engagement with Damascus.

Rightist factions in the United States have been targeting Syria since well before the 9/11 attacks and the election of President George W. Bush. Back in February 2000, for example, David Wurmser published an article for the American Enterprise Institute entitled, “Let’s Defeat Syria, Not Appease It,” which called on the Israeli and U.S. governments to assist Lebanon to “take matters into their own hands, and Syria will slowly bleed to death there.”

Read the rest of the “Case for Syria” at Right Web.

Samer Araabi is a contributor to Right Web and Foreign Policy in Focus.

Operation Desert Storm: Our Last “Clean” War

Wolf Blitzer Gulf War(Pictured: Wolf Blitzer, whose reporting on the Gulf War made him a household name.)

I was in seventh grade when the U.S. invaded Kuwait. I can remember the excitement of thinking that for the first time in my life, the U.S. was in a real war. (I guess my young self was unaware of the numerous covert wars—in Afghanistan, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere—the U.S. had been funding and arming throughout the 1980s.) Our tree-hugging, earring-wearing English teacher had us write letters to the soldiers in the Gulf to show our support for the troops. I remember how excited I—the daughter of unapologetic Mondale-loving liberals—was to get a letter back from the front. The old saying, “war is hell” didn’t seem fitting for the colorful fireworks-like explosions that filled my television screen. Nobody had to tell me. The message was clear enough. It was a “good war.”

This feeling was no accident, but instead the product of a deliberate public relations strategy on the part of the Bush administration. There was, as historian Marilyn Young has argued, a “visual purity” to the images we saw in which machines dominated and dead bodies were relatively absent. This image of a clean war was helped by the institutionalization of the embedded press corps. In actuality, of course, there were plenty of bodies and destruction. The U.S. military reports 293 American casualties, though the number suffering from diseases associated with the war’s lethal chemicals is much higher. No one knows exactly how many Iraqis died. One report commissioned by the Air Force listed approximately 20,000 combat deaths, not to mention thousands of civilians that died in air raids.

This past Thursday, January 21, marked the twentieth anniversary of the Persian Gulf War. If the First Gulf War was a “good war” in 1991, then it has become an even better war twenty years later. At Texas A & M, where George HW Bush and his advisors got together to mark the anniversary, Secretary of State James Baker remarked, “I think this is a textbook example of the way to go to war.”

The unspoken, but obvious point of contrast was, of course, “Dubya’s” 2003 invasion. The United States has a long tradition of using the memory of “good wars” to ease the guilt of more recent or ongoing “bad wars.” The Second World War is of course the ultimate “good war” in the collective memory against which the memory of “bad wars”—first Vietnam and now Iraq—has continuously been opposed. For a while, a majority of Americans were willing to pit the “good war” of Afghanistan against the “bad war” of Iraq. But as Afghanistan continues with no end in sight, that contrast has become a harder sell. Against the backdrop of long counterinsurgency conflicts, the Persian Gulf War has become an even more important point of contrast, an emblem of the quick, clean, and victorious war that we seem to have forgotten how to fight.

At the Texas A & M event, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell were in full agreement with Baker and with each other. The “chumminess” of the scene, as Elisabeth Bumiller described it in the New York Times, reflected the broader desire (especially on Powell’s part) to separate the “bad” Iraq War from the “good” one.

The problem with this position is not just that the First Gulf War wasn’t really as “good” as Bush and his advisors would like to remember. It is also that the “good” first war cannot be entirely separated from the “bad” war that followed it two decades later. We know too well that link existed in the mind of George W. Bush, who saw himself finishing up his father’s job. It also existed in the mind of some of Bush senior’s advisors, including Dick Cheney, whose role in both wars speaks for itself, and James Baker, who now argues that the U.S. should not have allowed Saddam to clamp down on protesters. The links between the two Iraq Wars exist as well in the form of a series of broken promises, first to the Shiites and Kurds who rose up against Saddam in 1991 and then to the Sunnis in 2007 who agreed to put their arms in exchange for a political voice. In both the First and Second Gulf Wars, U.S. officials have displayed a remarkable ability to overlook the human suffering and deprivation that has taken place in the wake of their interventions.

There was one person at the Texas A & M who did attempt to underscore the link between the good and bad Iraq wars—a protester who spontaneously walked down the aisle singing “Down by the Riverside” as Cheney was speaking. As the security guard escorted him out the building, Powell remarked in scorn, “If you don’t want to study war no more, you better be ready to fight a war.”

This protester is like the lone voice at the end of Twain’s short story, “The War Prayer.” In the story, it is the man who speaks against the war (in the Philippines) who is regarded as the insane and illogical one. He is taken away because he is a danger to the community. In the strange logic of Powell and of the national security boy’s club in general, the ignorant protester is similarly a danger to the community. And in the most ironic of twist, he is responsible for our nation’s future wars. If America’s past wars are any forecast, however, it is the studied men on the stage, and those directing our current wars, who are the ones we should really be worrying about.

Does the Taboo Against the Use of Nuclear Weapons Only Increase Their Allure?

Ban the bombIt’s only natural that highly charged words find themselves coupled with the word “nuclear.” It’s almost as if they’re attracted by a magnetic force. Three examples spring to mind.

Holocaust: Most frequently, of course, it’s used in reference to the slaughter of Jews in World War II. When appended to “nuclear,” it describes an earth ravaged to within an inch of its life by nuclear war.

Apartheid: Originally, as we all know, it was the word for segregation in South Africa from 1948 to 1993. When preceded by “nuclear,” it describes the perception of some states without nuclear weapons that those in possession of same are keeping them (as well as nuclear energy) for themselves. And yes, it is singularly sleazy, to link the word “apartheid” with nuclear weapons.

The first two phenomena are obviously less than fortuitous. The third word, in contrast, falls on the sunnier side of the street. “Taboo,” from the Tongan tabu, is a ban or an inhibition born of a social custom and/or deep-seated revulsion. But plant “nuclear” before it and, along with deterrence (as conventional wisdom has it), it becomes, in the words of Nina Tannenwald, author of The Nuclear Taboo, a “normative prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons.” (Norm — “a standard, model, or pattern regarded as typical” according to a popular web dictionary — is another word often heard in connection with a state’s possession or lack thereof of nuclear weapons. Not as charged as the other three words, it doesn’t qualify for inclusion in our list.)

In the fall of 2010, the Buddhist publication SGI Quarterly asked Ms. Tannenwald how the taboo developed.

I identify three primary factors: First is a global grassroots antinuclear weapons movement which made it impossible to think about nuclear weapons as just another weapon; the second element was antinuclear politics at the United Nations; and a third element was strategic pressures and the risks of escalation. I might add a fourth element, which is the conscience of individual leaders who really felt that nuclear weapons were morally repugnant and that we had to do something to delegitimize them. So, when you look at how this taboo arose–the change from 1945, when it was assumed that nuclear weapons would be used in war like any other weapons, to today, when nuclear weapons use by states is almost unthinkable–it reflects both morality and self-interest. That is, you have a convergence of realist interest and the moral interest–the sense that these are unacceptable, morally abhorrent weapons–and that creates a fairly large constituency, perhaps larger than we have had for a long time, for actually moving toward abolition.

While Ms. Tannenwald views the taboo as an agent of disarmament, the case can also be made that, by definition, taboos have a limited shelf life. For example, in the West, the veil has been lifted from topics that societal consensus once deemed unfit for discussion — such as alcoholism, depression, homosexuality, and divorce.

The near-taboo on a wholesale U.S. intervention in foreign countries that had been in effect since the Vietnam War was superseded by the perceived threat of Islamist terrorism. In fact, it vanished into thin air as the United States committed significant numbers of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing like a perceived threat to make a taboo seem like little more than a social nicety.

The West frets about states such as North Korea and Iran developing nuclear-weapons arsenals. On the other hand, many in the field of international relations hold that when a state that heretofore has been rash in its foreign-policy decisions becomes nuclear-weaponized, it becomes a “rational actor.” But if another kind of actor — the non-state variety such as al Qaeda — were the beneficiary of nuclear weapons, would its new status impel it to think like a state, or, in its case, a caliphate?

Chances are, steeped in taboos as Islamic extremists are, they wouldn’t seek to take pleasure in breaking one. Even though fatwas have been issued against the use of nuclear weapons, it’s likely that Islamic extremists would simply fail to acknowledge the existence of a taboo on the use of nuclear weapons. No, they wouldn’t reflexively incinerate the infidels. Instead, they’d probably hold the West hostage to demands such as rolling Israel’s boundaries back to before the 1967 War and a removal of all Western armed forces from the Middle East.

We’re under the gun: we need to make use of the nuclear taboo as a springboard to disarmament before its expiration date. But there exists another nuclear taboo — against discussing in polite company the death and destruction caused by nuclear weapons. If we could do away with that we’d be in a better position to be heard and expand disarmament’s core constituency.

We could then take advantage of the convergence about which Ms. Tannenwald speaks, between those motivated by realist, and those by ethical, concerns. There’s still time to beat those who have no respect for the nuclear taboo to the punch and knock out nuclear weapons before they take us out.

WikiLeaks XXXII: Guatemalan President Colom Walks a Tightrope Between U.S. and Venezuela

Colm ChavezPictured: Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

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

As if he didn’t have enough to worry about already, Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom has been scrambling to contain the diplomatic fallout from a US embassy cable published on Sunday by WikiLeaks.

The cable, dating from Summer 2008, describes outgoing US Ambassador to Guatemala James Derham’s final meeting with the Central American leader and his foreign minister Haroldo Rodas. The trio covered quite a bit of ground, including discussions of Guatemala’s imminent oil deal with Venezuela, the state’s efforts at battling corruption and violence, and the country’s Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu.

Colom’s withering assault on Menchu has captured the lion’s share of attention thus far. Discussing a recent incident where indigenous activists fighting the construction of a proposed cement factory had killed a community leader in favor of the plant, Colom noted that former presidential candidate and Nobel Peace prize Laureate Rigoberto Menchu was at least partly responsible for inciting local opposition to the proposed plant. She had told Colom of her involvement and that she would continue to encourage indigenous people to protect their land. Colom said he had responded by saying that encouraging indigenous people to protect their land was acceptable, but that killing was not.

Colom went on to castigate Menchu, labeling her a “fabrication” of French anthropologist and “I, Rigoberta Menchu” author Elizabeth Burgos’ imagination. To be sure, a series of controversies have swirled around accusations questioning the veracity of Burgos’ accounting of Menchu’s life. But Colom’s derision on this count reeks of disingenuousness. By 2008, it had long been clear that while some details related in Burgo’s telling of Menchu’s tale were imprecise and others outright fabrications, the overall thrust of the book was an accurate description of the stomach-turning violence that gripped Guatemala during its civil war, and Menchu’s interpretation of events correct.

Strangely, after blaming Menchu with inciting murder by indigenous activists, the Guatemalan president dismissed her political standing with such groups, arguing that Menchu is “widely disliked by Guatemalan indigenous people” and claimed that he attended a ceremony in 1997 where “Mayan leaders formally pardoned Menchu for ‘betraying her people.’” While it is certainly true that Menchu’s nation-wide political standing is weak (she barely registered any popular support as a presidential candidate in 2007), Colom had apparently felt threatened enough at the time that he magnanimously “advised her against running, saying she should not risk sullying her reputation in politics.”

The cable’s more substantive, and interesting, contents concern Colom’s dealings with Venezuela. The outgoing ambassador made it a point of priority to inquire after the Guatemalan president’s upcoming trip to Caracas to sign an oil deal with Hugo Chavez. Colom firmly stood his ground in the face of American concern arguing that Venezuela’s favorable terms of sale were in the national interest of his country. The president confided surprise with his American interlocutor that

the Guatemalan countryside had not yet “exploded” in protest at recent increases in fuel and food prices, and expressed concern that a popular backlash might not be long in coming.

Colom correctly pointed out to Derham that “food and fuel inflation was straining people’s budgets” as they were all throughout the developing world at that time, which resulted in “increased pressure on the state’s limited social welfare net.” The sweetheart oil deal proposed by Chavez would free up considerable funds for social welfare programs. Just a month ago, PetroCaribe negotiations had ground to a halt, Colom said, but changing economic conditions had required the GOG to reconsider. Colom said he had discussed PetroCaribe with Dominican President Fernandez, who had encouraged Guatemala’s adhesion.

And if defenders of Menchu were angry to hear Colom’s criticism of the Nobel laureate, Caracas was likely not pleased to learn of an oblique slap across the face to the Bolivarian Revolution. Foreign minister Rodas assured Derham that the “decision to join PetroCaribe was strictly economic” and alerted the ambassador to the fact that while Venezuela had pressured Guatemala to join its anti-American free trade initiative, ALBA, the Central American country “wanted no part of it.” “We’re Social Democrats,” Colom added, “not fanatics.”

Who’s More Delusional? Former Tunisian President Ben Ali or Washington?

Ben Ali's Ferrari(Pictured: Former President Ben Ali’s Ferrari looted via a forklift.)

Zine, on some hallucinogen, already dreams of returning to Tunis

There is a story floating around in the media that from his new vantage point in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, deposed Tunisian president Zine Ben Ali phoned Tunisia’s interim Prime Minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, informing the latter that he was ‘considering’ returning from exile to Tunisia. The news report continues that Ghannouchi diplomatically responded to Ben Ali that ‘it was impossible’.

This story first appeared on YNetNews, an Israeli website. Is this one of the many rumors flying through cyberspace, yet to be substantiated? If true, it suggests the degree to which Ben Ali’s thinking remains, at best, delusional. He doesn’t seem to understand that the world he ruled in Tunisia has just crumbled. Actually perhaps for Zine Ben Ali, denial is the only viable psychological strategy he has left. The alternative is to engage in the kind of self-criticism that tyrants and sociopaths find difficult.

Nowhere to run to,
Nowhere to hide
Got nowhere to run to,
Nowhere to hide
– Martha and the Vandellas

Is this the song that Zine Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi are singing in Jeddah?

Of course … perhaps something else is at play. There are suggestions that the Saudis are uncomfortable with Ben Ali’s presence in their country. Add to this the fact that Saudi Arabia and Tunisia have an extradition treaty and it suggests that besides longing for his Sidi Bou Said villa, that Ben Ali has nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide. Rejected from Malta, France, Italy and Egypt, now Ben Ali’s welcome in Saudi is also wearing thin.

Still, while it is not clear how far the current Tunisian reforms will ultimately go in changing ‘the system’, still, Ben Ali might do well, following Idi Amin’s example of remaining in Saudi for the long haul. Maybe Leila Trabelsi can return to her earlier life as a hair dresser and open a shop in Jeddah? Returning to Tunisia might not sit well with the 10 million Tunisians who are burning photos of the ‘royal family’ in effigy, taking no small amount of pleasure in stomping on their images and burning their villas and those of their family members to the ground.

Despite the present attempts of his former security force to sow chaos in the country, that Ben Ali could in anyway regain power or credibility in Tunisia is out of the question. Nothing would ignite nor unite the Tunisian opposition more than a Ben Ali return to the scene of his political and economic crimes. Yet someday, he and his wife should return to Tunisia, reimbursing the presently cash starved country, the billions of dollars they have stolen…to stand trial.

It’s not just Tunisia that is boiling with social unrest – a reaction to high unemployment, corruption at the top and state repression, ‘the holy trinity’ of political instability throughout the Arab world. The unprecedented protests in Tunisia that brought the Zine Ben Ali/Leila Trabelsi government to its knees have had echoes far and wide. In Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Mauretania and Algeria – and who knows where else – protests have erupted along lines similar to Tunisia.

Washington’s illusion: That while supporting regional dictators, it has enough credibility to talk of democracy

Fueled by deep structural socio-economic problems that have plagued the region for some time, the protests have struck fear into the geriatric leadership of many Middle Eastern countries. These protests have also sowed confusion in Washington, Paris and Tel Aviv which have long counted on the maintenance of a Middle East balance of power which favored their interests. To what degree will the changes in the Tunisian political landscape reverberate throughout the region?

Of course Monday morning quarterbacking is not so difficult. The ingredients for the social explosion that shook Tunisia have long been known and openly discussed far and wide. The causes of the ‘Tunisian Intifada’ are today being discussed in every major media outlet worldwide and for the most part, at least on a certain shallow and restricted level, the newspaper accounts are accurate. Still, the Tunisian events suggest the degree to which, the political class in core countries – in this case France and the USA – have learned little from history.

What stands out is the degree to which both the Obama Administration and the Sarkozy government in France, appeared to have been taken by surprise by the Tunisian events. Reminds one of Pearl Harbor in a way. Perhaps the clues where there, but those in power did not have the ability or the will to put them together in a coherent manner. No predictability whatsoever.

And in the same way that Iran in 1978 and the collapse of communism (1989-1991) took Washington and Paris by surprise, Tunisia in 2011 is yet another massive intelligence and intelligence interpretation failure, leaving both countries to scramble after the fact, to react to, rather than shape events. Part of this inability, a large part actually, stems from the ideological blinders and narrow self interest which guides the foreign policy of both countries.

While Tunisians continue to debate the shape of their post-Ben Ali/Trabelsi world, the US and France are in a damage control mode, on the one hand, now that all political risks in supporting change have evaporated trying to ally themselves with the winds of change. On the other hand, working frantically behind the scenes to manage and circumscribe the Tunisian changes lest they ‘get out of hand’, meaning that they take a direction that challenge US and French economic and strategic priorities.

Has the United States learned any lessons from all this? It appears not. Has Washington concluded that the risks of supporting geriatric Middle East authoritarian leaders outweigh the benefits, arming them to the teeth while ignoring the socio-economic storm brewing under the surface throughout the region? It appears not.

In Tunisia, US is paying the price for a myopic foreign policy in which ‘strategic considerations,’ i.e., its exaggerated overkill military response to radical Islam, the war on terrorism, trumps human rights and economic development concerns. All that talk about encouraging ‘democracy’ appears little more than verbal pabulum. How else can U.S. support for a kleptomanic dictator like Zine Ben Ali, cut out of the same mold (and for the same reasons) as Mobutu Sese Seku or Ferdinand Marcos, be explained?

Scratch all that rhetoric and a more cynical foreign policy comes to light, predicated upon attempted control of world energy and strategic raw material resources, the main instruments of control being a historically obsolete military alliance, NATO and new forms of global control – AFRICOM – come into focus.

All of the indications suggest that in the future, sooner or later, there will be more Tunisias. And it’s getting more difficult for the United States to pull out the radical Islamic fundamentalist bogeyman out of their bag of tricks to justify a failed foreign policy. A new vision is needed, not just in Tunis, but in Washington too.

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

WikiLeaks XXXI: Tired of Watching Paint Dry, U.S. Embassy in Armenia Busies Itself With Road Safety

Texting While DrivingWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the thirty-first in the series.

Fair warning to young diplomats seeking adventure and drama overseas: steer clear of Armenia, and make sure not to text while doing so.

A US embassy cable published by WikiLeaks this past week describes how, rather than watching paint dry at their Yerevan headquarters, American diplomats immersed themselves in the details of Armenia’s road safety rules, of which it seems there are very few. Of particular concern is the absence of preventative measures against “driver distraction,” including cell phone use.

The cable reports that while “There are currently no Armenian laws that ban texting/cell phone use while driving,” government officials are “optimistic that a law would be passed via the Armenian government’s five year strategic transport safety plan.” The embassy dispatch also notes that “a law covering cell phone use while driving has been discussed by various parliamentarian committees, but has not yet been passed or implemented by parliament.”

As if that’s not exciting enough, the cable “interestingly” highlights the fact that “traffic statistics for 2009 showed a 20 percent improvement”—meaning fewer accidents?—“compared to previous years.” The reason?

Officials believe that this improvement was due to a stricter enforcement of fines and other sanctions for the violation of traffic rules. Aremenia has also recently started cracking down on the widespread and long standing non-use of safety belts by Armenian motorists. Additionally, Armenia Police recently announced plans to install a number of traffic cameras which would have the ability to identify motorists who violate the speed limit, run traffic lights, and other common traffic violations.

Interesting, indeed. More fascinating still, the cable draws attention to the Armenia’s efforts at raising public awareness regarding the dangers of cell phone use while ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ…

The Empire Strikes Back at Latin America

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen(Pictured: New Republican chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.)

For the past decade, American policy vis-à-vis Latin America has been relatively low-key, partly because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and partly because the region has seen an unprecedented growth in economic power and political independence. But, with Republicans taking over the House of Representatives, that is about to change, and, while the Southern Cone no longer stands to attention when Washington snaps its fingers, an aggressive and right-wing Congress is capable of causing considerable mischief.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl), a long-time hawk on Cuba and leftist regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia, is the new chair of the powerful House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the rightist Rep. Connie Mack (D-Fl) heads up the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs. Ros-Lethinen is already preparing hearings aimed at Venezuela and Bolivia, and Mack will try to put the former on the State Department’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism.

Ros-Lehtinen plans to target Venezuela’s supposed ties to Middle East terrorist groups and Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and to push for economic sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and banks. “It will be good for congressional subcommittees to start talking about [President of Venezuela Hugo] Chavez, about [President of Bolivia Evo] Morales, about issues that have not been talked about,” she told the Miami Herald.

The new chairs of the House Intelligence Committee and Judiciary Committee have also signaled they intend to weigh in on establishing a more hawkish line on Latin America.

Unfortunately, it is the Obama administration that created an opening for the Republicans. While the White House came in pledging to improve relations with Latin America, Washington has ended up supporting a coup in Honduras, strengthening the U.S. military’s presence in the region, and ignoring growing criticism of its failed war on drugs.

Recent disclosures by Wikileaks reveal the Obama administration was well aware that the June 2009 Honduran coup against President Manuel Zelaya was illegal; nonetheless, it intervened to help keep the coup forces in power. Other cables demonstrate an on-going American hostility to the Morales regime in Bolivia and Washington’s sympathy with secessionist forces in that country’s rich eastern provinces.

Many Latin Americans initially had high hopes the Obama administration would bring a new approach to its relations with the region, but some say they have seen little difference from the Bush Administration. “The truth is that nothing has changed and I view that with sadness,” says former Brazilian president Luiz Lula da Silva. But things may go from bad to worse if the White House is passive in the face of a sharp rightward turn by Congress.

The Latin America of 2011 is not the same place it was a generation ago. Economic growth has outstripped the U.S. and Europe, progressive and left governments have lifted 38 million people out of poverty, cut extreme poverty by 70 percent, and increased literacy. The region has also increased its south-south relations with countries like China, South Africa and India. China is now Brazil’s number one trading partner. An economic alliance—Mercosur—has knitted the region together economically, and the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS) finds itself eclipsed by the newly formed Union of South American Nations.

But many countries in Latin America are still riven by wealth disparities, ethnic divides, and powerful ties between local oligarchies and the region’s curse: powerful and undemocratic police and militaries. One such military pulled off the Honduran coup, and police came within a whisker of overthrowing Ecuador’s progressive president, Rafael Correa, in 2010.

One 2007 Wikileaks cable titled “A Southern Cone perspective on countering Chavez and reasserting U.S. leadership,” pointed out “Southern Cone militaries remain key institutions in their respective countries and important allies for the U.S.” The author of the cable, then ambassador to Chile, Craig Kelly, is currently principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. Kelly strongly recommended increasing aid to Latin American militaries to help them “modernize.”

In many cases, rightists in Latin America share an agenda with right-wing forces in the U.S. For instance, Republicans played a key role in supporting the Honduran coup and continue to strengthen those ties. In a recent trip to Honduras, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca)—a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—brought together U.S. business leaders and Honduran officials to discuss American investment. Honduras was suspended from the OAS, and only a handful of Latin American governments recognize the new president, Porfirio Lobo.

It was the Obama Administration, however, who recognized the government established by the coup, and remains silent in the face of what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch calls widespread human rights violations by the Lobos regime, including the unsolved murder of at least 18 opponents. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is lobbying hard to have Honduras re-admitted to the OAS.

A quick survey of Republican targets suggests troubled waters ahead.

Chavez has won two elections and is enormously popular. He has cut poverty, tripled social spending, doubled university enrollment, and extended health care to most of the poor. A U.S. engineered coup seems unlikely. But a “supporter of terrorism” designation would cause considerable difficulties with international financing and foreign investment. Sanctions on oil and banking would also disrupt the Venezuelan economy, in the long run creating conditions favorable to a possible coup.

While it is hard to imagine what else the U.S. could do to Cuba, Congress may try to choke off investment in Cuba’s growing oil and gas industries. Companies are already jumping through hoops to avoid getting around the current embargo. The Spanish oil company Repsol and Italy’s Eni SpA recently built an offshore oil rig in China to dodge the blockade.

“It is ridiculous that Repsol, a Spanish oil company, is paying an Italian firm to build an oil rig in China that will be used next year to explore for oil 50 miles from Florida,” Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas told the Financial Times. If the Republicans have their way, sanctions will be applied to those oil companies.

Ecuador’s Correa beat back a recent right-wing coup, largely because of his 67 percent approval rating. He has doubled spending on health care, increased social spending, and stiffed an illegitimate $3.2 billion foreign debt. But he has a tense relationship with indigenous movements, which accuse him of trying to marginalize them. While those groups did not support the coup, neither did they rally to the government’s support. Those divisions could be easily exploited to destabilize the government.

In the case of Bolivia, the Wikileak-released cables, according to Latin American journalist and author Benjamin Dangl, lay bare “an embassy that is biased against Evo Morales’ government, underestimates the sophistication of the governing party’s grassroots base, and is out of touch with the political reality of the country.”

The cables indicate the U.S. is relying on information from extreme right-wing and violent secessionist groups in Eastern Bolivia, groups that receive financing and training from the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID. Both groups have close ties to American intelligence organizations. Given Brazil’s strong opposition to any attempt to break up Bolivia, it is not clear a succession movement would succeed. But would Brazil—or Argentina, Uruguay or Paraguay—actually intervene?

Paraguay is also a country deeply divided between left and right, with a progressive president who warned last year that a coup by the country’s powerful military was a possibility.

The Obama administration’s acceptance of the Honduran coup sent a chill throughout Latin America, and certainly emboldened those who see tanks and caudillos as an answer to the region’s surge of progressive politics and independent foreign policy. The recent effort by Turkey and Brazil to broker a compromise with Iran over its nuclear program did not go down well in Washington. Neither have efforts to chart an independent course on the Middle East by nations in the region. Several countries have formally recognized a Palestinian state, and Peru will host an Arab-Latin America summit Feb. 16.

Latin America is no longer an appendage to the colossus of the north, but its growing independence is fragile, as the coups in Honduras and Ecuador suggest. The chasm between rich and poor is being closed, but it is still substantial. The economies in the region are growing at a respectable 6 percent, but, because they are relatively small, they can be more easily derailed by internal and external crises. Even as its power wanes, the U.S. is still the world’s largest economy with the world’s largest military. This, plus anti-democratic forces in Latin America, is fertile ground for mischief, particularly if there is not strong resistance on the U.S. home front.

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

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