Focal Points Blog

Viktor Bout, Much Bruited About by Far Left (and Right), Just a Fall Guy?

Viktor Bout“Justice Department officials were relieved on Aug. 20 when a Thai appeals court approved the extradition” of Russian Viktor Bout, who is accused of “a 15-year run as one of the world’s biggest arms traffickers,” reports Scott Shane in the New York Times. They seek to tap into “his vast insider’s knowledge of. . . . the trade and the transport that fuel drug cartels, terrorism networks and insurgent movements from Colombia to Afghanistan, according to former officials who tracked him.”

Question: How does news of Bout’s extradition intersect with Fidel Castro surfacing to support Bilderberg alternate historians? (We decline to use the term “conspiracy theorists,” because, no matter how wild their formulations might seem, nobody deserves to be reflexively corralled and branded as unfit for public consumption.) Some background on the latter from the AP:

Fidel Castro is showcasing a theory long popular both among the far left and far right: that the shadowy Bilderberg Group has become a kind of global government, controlling not only international politics and economics, but even culture. The 84-year-old former Cuban president published an article Wednesday that used three of the only eight pages in the Communist Party newspaper Granma to quote — largely verbatim — from a 2006 book by Lithuanian-born writer Daniel Estulin.

Estulin was actually photographed shaking hands with Castro. Turns out he also wrote a book in which key chapters cover the career of Bout. Before we explore Estulin’s findings, some of you may be familiar with Bout through the work of Wayne Madsen, another journalist who, like Estulin, is sometimes written off as a “conspiracy theorist.” For example, a year ago Madsen wrote . . .

On October 23, 2006, WMR [the Wayne Madsen Report] reported the following concerning Bout’s activities in Afghanistan on behalf of the U.S.-led NATO military force: “WMR has learned from an intelligence source in Afghanistan that the aircraft of the enigmatic Viktor Bout, who works as a Pentagon contractor, flew arms and passengers for the Taliban and ‘Al Qaeda,’ and maintains close links with the Russian-Ukrainian-Israeli criminal syndicates. [A few weeks later Madsen reported:] “A Ghanaian Boeing 707 [supposedly flying for Bout] was recently spotted off-loading 40 tons of ammunition at Mogadishu Airport in Somalia [for] the Union of Islamic Courts” [the precursor to al Shaabab that controlled much of the country at the time].

While I haven’t read the Daniel Estulin book that covers Bout titled Shadow Masters: An International Network of Governments and Secret-Service Agencies Working Together with Drugs Dealers and Terrorists for Mutual Benefit and Profit, a friend of mine has and provided some insights:

According to Estulin, Bout is basically just a fall guy, a low level arms dealer being used as a patsy in a Russian/US policy struggle. In Shadow Masters [Estulin] details the conversations he had with other writers (newspapers and magazines) who did stories on Bout. It was pretty funny seeing that the writers for Men’s Health and GQ straight-up fabricated information about Bout and got the rest off the internet.

The front man for the UN who has produced reports and “evidence” against Bout (actually pronounced Butt, Bout comes from an obsolete French-based translation model) is a guy named Peleman who has received millions of dollars in funding from the UN to write these reports. He has created a kind of flow chart which is cited as evidence by everyone else but there is apparently no tangible proof against Bout at all.

When the Thai judged asked the DEA agents present if they knew who Bout was they answered, “Yeah, we saw the movie” referring to the horrible Nicolas Cage movie, Lord of War. . . .

Having read the Times article I’m more convinced then ever that Estulin is on the right track. The NYT [pulls] the same players out of the closet to compose their thesis on Bout. They quote [Douglas Farah, author of a 2007 book about Bout titled Merchant of Death, to the effect, "He knows a lot about Russian intelligence as it's been restructured under Putin"] who has been discredited [doesn't say why -- RW]. They also quote a former DEA agent now working for Spectre Group International . . . which is another dubious organization.

My friend concludes:

This thing smells like a disinformation campaign which is about par for the course with the NYT [considering how they danced] to the CIA’s tune in regards to Vietnam and Guatemala.

Still, if Bout talks, the United States Justice Department will get a lot more than it bargained for.

The Lebanon Border: “Uniquely” Dangerous

HezbollahWhile the Middle East—indeed, the world—is riveted by the ongoing crisis around Iran’s nuclear program, the most immediate danger of a war may be on Israel’s border with Lebanon: “Exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous” was how the Independent’s Robert Fisk described it last month.

That quiet was broken Aug. 3 when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) got into a firefight over tree trimming that ended up killing one Israeli and three Lebanese. Both sides backed off, but events over the past several months suggest Tel Aviv may be looking for a fight.

“Israel has to be ready for any sudden provocation or outbreak of hostilities, the same way the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war was triggered over Hezbollah capturing Israeli soldiers,” Dan Dicker from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs told the Inter Press Service.

The IDF has been smarting since Hezbollah fought it to a standstill in the 2006 war. While the Israeli air force inflicted massive damage on Lebanon’s infrastructure during the 34-day conflict, even Israel’s vaunted Golani Brigade could make little headway against Hezbollah’s tough and competent militia fighting on its home turf.

For the past two years the IDF has been training for a rematch: “Should another war break out—like the one with Hezbollah almost exactly four years ago—the Golani Brigade will not be unprepared,” reads a headline in the Israeli daily, Haaretz. At the Elyakim army base in northern Israel, soldiers are training how to take bunkers and fight in villages.

The IDF has also made it clear the next war will be vastly more destructive than the 2006 conflict that killed 1,200 Lebanese and inflicted $10 to $12 billion in damage. The IDF has instituted the “Dahiya Doctrine,” named after the Shiite quarter of Beirut that the Israeli air force flattened in 2006. According to Amos Harel of Haaretz, the doctrine means the IDF will “respond to rocket fire originating from Shiite villages by unleashing a vast destructive operation.”

Over the past several months the Israelis—sometimes with Washington’s help— have unleashed a steady stream of accusations that Hezbollah is preparing for war, that Syria is smuggling arms, and that Iran is up to no good.

Israeli intelligence claims that Hezbollah has up to 40,000 rockets aimed at Israel, and in April Israeli President Shimon Peres charged Syria with supplying the Shiite organization with powerful Scud missiles. Syria vigorously denies the charge, and the United Nations says there is no evidence for the accusation.

Then the Wall Street Journal reported that a “U.S. defense official” told the newspaper that Iran had deployed” sophisticated” radar in Syria as an early warning device for a possible Israeli attack on Teheran’s nuclear sites. The U.S. State Department’s Philip Crowley chimed in that the radar was a “matter of concern” because of Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah.

Added to the growing tension on Lebanon’s southern border was the exposure of an extensive Israeli intelligence operation aimed at Hezbollah that had successfully penetrated Lebanon’s telecommunication system. More than 70 suspects have been arrested and some 20 charged with treason.

According to UPI, intelligence observers say the ring was uncovered because Israel could be gearing up for war and took some chances. “It may have been the Israelis drive to amass intelligence on Hezbollah’s military capabilities ahead of renewed conflict…that prompted the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, to pull out all the stops in Lebanon when it did.”

The tree-trimming incident is an indication of how volatile the Lebanese-Israeli border is. While the Israelis claim they were on their side of the border, the UN only drew that border in 2000, and Beirut has never fully accepted it. While the UN found the tree was on Israel’s side of the border, Lebanon’s Information Minister Tarek Mitri said the section is “Lebanese territory.”

One reason for Lebanon’s sensitivity over the border is that its placement may have relevance to the enormous natural gas deposits off the coast of Gaza, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Extended out to sea, a matter of a mile or so in the land border could affect whether Lebanon has a claim on some of the gas.

The U.S. Geological Service estimates the fields could yield up to 122 trillion cubic feet of gas, and the Israelis have already laid claim to it. When the Lebanese protested, Israel’s Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau said that Israel “will not hesitate to use force” to defend its claim on the gas field. Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, responded, “Lebanon’s army, people and the resistance will be ready to thwart any attempts to steal its resources.”

Added to the tense border, natural gas deposits, and Israel’s cold war with Syria and Iran, is a UN investigation that, according to most reports, will charge Hezbollah with involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah claims the investigation is an Israeli plot and that Tel Aviv pulled off the hit, but it has yet to produce any evidence to support that charge.

The UN charge could have a destabilizing effect on Lebanon—Hezbollah is the country’s most important political and military force—and a destabilized Lebanon is in no one’s interest, with the exception of Israel and possibly the U.S. That is why long-time antagonists Saudi Arabia and Syria huddled in Damascus and then flew to Beirut July 30 to confer with the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on how to avoid a Lebanese meltdown.

In the middle of all this, Israel’s supporters in the U.S. Congress decided to stick their finger in the pie and hold up $100 million in military aid to the Lebanese army. “I am concerned that the training and equipment we have provided the LAF for the purposes of counter-terrorism may in fact be used by the LAF against the Israelis,” said House Armed Service Committee chair, Ike Skelton (D-Mo). Skelton went on to say that, since the LAF collaborated with Hezbollah, the latter organization was an “indirect recipient of our aid.”

The U.S. started aiding the LAF after the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” put a pro-Washington coalition into power and forced Syria to withdraw following the assassination of Hariri. But the reality of Lebanon’s complex and fractious politics soon reasserted itself and what finally emerged from the last round of elections was a coalition government in which Hezbollah plays a prominent role. Regardless of what the Americans think of the Shiite group, marginalizing the largest ethnic group in the country is not an option.

That the military aid the U.S. is sending could pose a threat to Israel is simply silly. Most the aid consists of body armor, uniforms and unarmored Humvees. It includes neither warplanes nor anti-aircraft, and the tanks are M41 Walker “Bulldogs” designed for the Korean War. The Walker is an under-armored, gas guzzling light tank that wouldn’t last five minutes against the Israel’s modern armor or anti-tank weapons. Indeed, one military expert remarked that he was surprised there were any M41s—a weapon more “quaint” than threatening—that still ran.

If a war does break out between Hezbollah and Israel it might spread to Syria, and even Iran. In his recent report to the Council on Foreign Relations entitled “A Third Lebanon War,” former U.S. ambassador Daniel Kurtzer argues that Israel is likely to initiate the war, and that it might “also use the conflict with Hezbollah as a catalyst and cover for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” The former ambassador said Syria might also be a target. Kurtzer predicts a crisis sometime in the next 12 to 18 months, “but the situation could change or deteriorate rapidly.”

One explanation for Israel’s unwillingness to escalate the tree-trimming incident was because its antagonists were the LAF, not Hezbollah. Kurtzer—who was a Middle East advisor to President Obama during the last election—says Israel would rather “lure [Hezbollah] into a war.” In the tree trimming crisis the Shiite group stayed on the sidelines.

“Hezbollah is keen to avoid an escalation,” says Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, “knowing how tough an all-out confrontation could be to the movement in Lebanon, and more broadly to the region.”

As analyst Jim Lobe points out, the Obama administration has little ability to prevent a war because it is hamstrung by its refusal to engage with either Iran or Hezbollah, and because it has allowed the Republicans to derail its efforts to improve relations with Syria.

A uniquely dangerous time, indeed.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays, visit Dispatches from the Edge.

Withdrawal from Iraq: Remembering the Quaker’s Colonel

Earlier this month, long time FPIF senior analyst, Col. Dan Smith (Ret.) passed away. Dan worked at the Friends Committee for National Legislation and the Center for Defense Information after 26 years of military service which ranged from the war in Vietnam to the Gulf War in Iraq.

It’s fitting to think about Dan today as President Obama makes his official speech marking the end of combat operations in Iraq. Dan wrote more than 70 articles for FPIF and blogged regularly at The Quaker’s Colonel on the Iraq War.

With 50,000 troops still on the ground inside Iraq, and many military brass and diplomats arguing that the final withdrawal date of December 2011 should be pushed back, the war is anything but over.

Pundits and politicians, such as John Boehner are focusing on the narrow issue of if the surge worked. Lost in the mix is the question of how we got into war in the first place, what the effects have been on our military readiness, and what has been the true economic, political and human toll to the United States and more importantly Iraq. Juan Cole has a must-read speech that Obama should give tonight where he touches on many of these critical issues.

Looking forward, Anne Applebaum writing in The Washington Post argues that despite the debate over the “success” of the war, it’s too soon to know the result. Applebaum is sadly wrong here—we do know the answers. Dan was writing about them before the war even began: we are weakened in our ability to organize coalitions, influence the Middle East, and have largely failed to care for our veterans. If things get better for Iraq, it will largely be in spite of the war, not because of it.

Dan wrote about many of the speeches President Bush gave on Iraq. He often chided Bush for declaring success where there was none. In reaction to a speech given at the Pentagon by Bush in 2005, he wrote:

Even the most casual review of the past five years substantiates the opinion of the majority of Americans that Bush administration claims of victory in Iraq are false. They don’t pass the sight, sound or scent tests – which is to say they don’t look like a duck, quack like a duck, or smell like a duck.

So why is the president still calling it a duck by giving victory speeches?

Obama will be careful not to declare victory tonight but he’ll likely be using the speech as a marker of progress and as a strong signal that it’s time to move on. I’m pretty sure Dan would argue that still doesn’t pass the sight, sound or scent tests.

I’ll be thinking of him when I’m listening.

Israel and the Rise of Ultra-Semitism

A prominent Israeli rabbi whose party shares power in the Netanyahu government called for the extermination of Arabs in a recent sermon.

The 89-year-old Ovadia Yosef urged God to strike “these Ishmaelites and Palestinians with a plague; these evil haters of Israel.” He then singled out the Palestinian leader of Fatah, exclaiming that “Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this earth.” Yosef is the spiritual leader of the Shas Party, an ultra-Orthodox right-wing outfit that governs in concert with other parties, including Likud.

In religious terminology, the Ishmaelites are the descendants of Ishmael, who was Abraham’s elder son. As the rabbi doubtless knows, the Arabs are considered the descendants of the Ishmaelites in Islamic tradition.

In response to the genocidal exhortation, Netanyahu issued a mild non-rebuke; his office meekly offered that the rabbi’s ravings “do not reflect” the views of the prime minister or the government. The lukewarm criticism is not surprising, since Netanyahu may harbor genocidal views of his own.

In May, a Netanyahu advisor told the American-Israeli “journalist” Jeffrey Goldberg that Netanyahu is serious about striking Iran and considers the Islamic Republic the modern-day equivalent of Amalek.

For those unfamiliar with the Old Testament narrative, the Amalekites didn’t make out too well. God commands the Jews to utterly exterminate them—“Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

But returning to Rabbi Yosef: what elicited his angry declamation? It seems that the approaching peace talks are the culprit. Yosef and the rest of the far-right, who now loom large in Israeli society, loathe the prospect of “conceding” any lands they have stolen from the Palestinians, including the vast swath of Jewish-only settlements.

Of course, the far-right doesn’t see the land as stolen. For one thing, what’s commonly called the “far-right” in Israel-polite media parlance is best described as proto-fascist. This is, after all, the crowd that wants to impose state loyalty oaths on Israel’s Arab citizens—or even better, purge them from Israel altogether, lest the precious racial purity of the “democratic” Jewish state be further diluted. This is also the same crowd that seeks to erase history by making banning references to refer to Israel’s creation as “Al-Naqba”, or “The Disaster.” That’s the term used by Palestinians—and rightly so: even Israel’s own historians have conceded that their state was established through mass terror and ethnic cleansing.

But that doesn’t matter to Rabbi Yosef and friends. For them, the Palestinians are an annoyance, inserted by the irritating hand of history into lands that were ordained as Jewish by a divine real estate agent. Hence the favored Zionist slogan of “redeeming” the land.

What all this confirms is the hardening of hatred in Israeli society. Israelis have grown increasingly indifferent to the fate they mete out to their victims. The public did not question the obscene one-sided massacre in Gaza in 2008 (euphemistically called a “war”), in which Israel slaughtered 1,000 Palestinians, half of them women and children, putatively in “response” to unguided rocket fire that had all but ended.

Nor did the public quiver over the 2006 assault on Lebanon, during which Israel shattered Lebanese civilian infrastructure because Hezbollah kidnapped two soldiers. All told, 1,000 Lebanese were killed and entire neighborhoods were flattened; compare that with the Israeli death toll of 43 civilians and 117 soldiers.

Even the recent flotilla massacre elicited scant moral outrage in Israel. The national media merely indulged in the tired victimhood narrative, peddling the awesome claim that the Israeli soldiers were defending themselves from the crew. Never mind that the soldiers boarded an aid vessel in international waters and shot people in the face; pirates with public relations, you see, are completely different from regular pirates.

And what public relations it is. As Netanyahu smugly observed to a settler audience some years ago, “I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.”

Yes, the “right direction”—as determined by Israeli fanatics who openly clamor for genocide and Israel-first lobbies who suppress criticism with hysterical charges of “anti-Semitism.”

And so long as Americans adhere to the fiction of Israeli victimhood, Netanyahu’s boasts will remain well-grounded.

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam also posts at Crossing the Crescent.

Reader Challenge: Why Did al Qaeda Jump the Gun on U.S. Retreat From Iraq?

“Insurgents affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility on Saturday for a wave of car bombings, roadside mines and hit-and-run attacks this week in at least 13 Iraqi cities and towns,” reports Anthony Shadid in the New York Times. Bear in mind that they’re mounting this “deadly and relentless campaign whose breadth surprised American military officials and dealt a blow to Iraq’s fledgling security forces just as the United States will formally end [*snicker*] what it describes as combat operations in the country.” (Apologies for editorial interjection. Couldn’t resist.)

Questions for Focal Points readers: How does this help al Qaeda? Wouldn’t it make more sense for it to lay low until U.S. combat forces exit? Thus assuring the United States doesn’t delay its departure and leaving al Qaeda freer rein to inflict its usual harm.

Or are these attacks just a symptom of al Qaeda’s decentralized structure and how little influence the command has over its franchises, which might lack the strategic savvy to delay the attacks until some of the U.S. troops leave? Or does al Qaeda in Iraq just think it will be business as usual since we’re leaving armed contractors behind and that whether it attacks now or later is immaterial?

Most likely, the reason for the attacks is something else entirely. Kindly enlighten Focal Points readers if you can.

How Nonproliferation Became a Dirty Word

Nuking the English language

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will use its nuclear arsenal if attacked by the United States and South Korea, DPRK ambassador to Cuba Kwon Sung Chol said Friday,” reported the Chinese news site Xinhua on August 27. Kwon added, “If Washington and Seoul try to create a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, we will respond with a holy war on the basis of our nuclear deterrent forces.”

What’s unusual about this warning? Perhaps you find the invocation of holy war incongruous since, at best, the North Korean government only tolerates certain religious groups. (Its idea of religion, you’ll recall, is a decidedly unholy admixture of the cult of the Kim dynasty’s personality and juche, a secular doctrine that combines will with self-reliance.)

In fact, the discordant note sounded by Ambassador Kwon is more subtle. In a recent post at the Economist’s Language blog, the author, known only as T.C., sheds some light.

Britain is currently pondering whether to replace its nuclear-armed Trident submarines. It is striking that virtually every British media outlet follows the government line in talking delicately about the nation’s “nuclear deterrent”, rather than “nuclear weapons”. You might expect it from the right-wing Daily Telegraph, but the leftie New Statesman uses it too, even while bashing the programme for not being sufficiently independent of the United States.

In other words, “our nuclear deterrent” is a euphemism that facilitates “talking delicately” about nuclear weapons. It well serves its intended purpose: casting nuclear weapons in a purely defensive light. However, the United States, for example, has never forsworn first use of nuclear weapons. Not to mention that even if nuclear weapons were retained purely for defensive purposes, their very possession by a state invites development by other states for their defense (ostensibly), as well. Meanwhile, North Korea’s use of the term is a sign that we shouldn’t underestimate how media-savvy NORK’s representatives can be.

Along with a euphemism’s effectiveness hiding the true meaning of a word, the measure of its success lies in how difficult it is to spot. While the American disarmament community doesn’t fall into the same trap of using the term as the New Statesman did, the implications of “our nuclear deterrent” succeeded in escaping me until recently. Furthermore, my efforts to trace its origins have been unsuccessful, though one can’t help but suspect it’s the work of a communications firm.

In other words “nuclear deterrent” is what the good guys retain for emergencies; “nuclear weapons” are what the bad guys wield — or seek to. The former word blunts the impact of the latter.

Nuclear advocates have taken another term from the field of nuclear weapons and not only turned it on its head, but appropriated the concept for their own use. Though linguistically a negative, “nonproliferation” has long been a word that offers us hope for a safer future. It’s memorialized, of course, in the landmark Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which has been instrumental in keeping nuclear war at bay since it was ratified. But somewhere along the way the word “nonproliferation” was hijacked. It’s come to mean, for starters, keeping nuclear weapons, materials, and know-how from states that the Western world has deemed unstable, or more to the point, irrational (read Muslim).

Of course, nobody wants another nuclear-armed state like Pakistan, with its compromised army and intelligence agency, or North Korea, ruled by a tyrant. Or, for that matter, an Israel that’s irrational when it comes to the subject of Islam.

But when it comes to reciprocity, nuclear advocates now give only a cursory nod to the section of the NPT that calls for nuclear disarmament (divesting yourself of nuclear weapons as opposed to nonproliferation, stopping the spread). However famously nebulous, it reads in part: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.” Meanwhile, nuclear advocates are impervious to the claim that disarmament is what provides nuclear states with credibility when calling upon states with aspirations to nuclear weapons to abandon such dreams.

To others (such as myself), substantive — and nuclear modernization-free — disarmament measures demonstrate leadership in an international campaign to make the world free of nuclear weapons. But to American nuclear hawks, the military, not to mention the nuclear-weapons program itself, is all the credibility that the United States needs to halt nuclear powers-in-waiting in their tracks.

In other words, nonproliferation has come to mean checking the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that don’t have them while we get to keep ours (on a reduced scale but with vastly increased funding for modernization).

Even worse, a state like Iran that seems to be be seeking the means to develop a nuclear weapon — if not the actual weapon — finds itself in the sights of a West all too willing to use nonproliferation as a pretext to make said state’s nuclear facilities the bulls eye for an air attack.

Stripping End-Timers of Their Nuclear Ticket to Armageddon

As with many religions, elements of Christianity look forward to an apocalypse and their subsequent ascension to heaven. In a surprising article at USA Today titled “What if the end isn’t near?” Tom Krattenmaker writes, “As signaled by the runaway success of the Left Behind books, end-time expectations hold undeniable sway in evangelical America.” Furthermore, “According to this reading of the bible’s Book of Revelation, what awaits those on the wrong side of the ecclesiastical line is not so wondrous: seven years of unimaginable suffering, war and destruction that ends with the Second Coming of Jesus.”

However lacking in compassion and exclusionary to the point of cliquishness this outlook may be, it evinces some disturbing symptoms. Krattenmaker again.

Work for a better future? What future?

In this view, staving off wholesale destruction is viewed as a distraction from evangelism or, worse, as . . . getting in God’s way. . . . which makes long-term investments in a better future seem utterly beside the point. . . . For liberal religionists or non-believers, this kind of stance is one of the least appealing aspects of evangelicals’ popular image.

“Least appealing”? Try: passive, fatalist, evidence of a death wish. Or as Krattenmaker writes:

It’s as if one group is rowing the boat in the direction of species betterment (or, at least, survival), while another group sits idly as the vessel drifts closer to the precipice of the waterfall, convinced that the divine hand will pluck them and their religiously correct fellows from disaster.

While these types of Christians may be unmoved by the judgments of the social scientists about their motives, they still need to explain the absence of Christ’s teachings in their equation. Reverend Tyler Wigg-Stevenson (who I cite regularly) is the founder and director of the Two Futures Project, created to enlist Evangelicals in a mission that, at first glance, seems counterintuitive for them — ridding the world of nuclear weapons. (The other future is one in which nations continue to be armed with nukes.)

Born again himself, Rev. Wigg-Stevenson tells Krattenmaker, “It’s been my mission to carve out space for evangelicals to engage this issue on their own terms.” Furthermore . . .

Wigg-Stevenson takes pains not to criticize those who read Revelation as a blueprint for rapture and apocalypse in our time. “There are people with integrity who think this way,” he says. “But it leads to an unbiblical focus on the mechanics of the end times.”

My interpretation of his use of the word “mechanics” is that he’s encouraging Christians to cease focusing on their heavenly reward and pay more attention to what they need to do to earn it beyond just professing their faith. As for Krattenmaker, his conclusion is less than satisfactory.

Taking Wigg-Stevenson’s two-futures paradigm a step further, Christians might see a choice concerning their approach to the future as well. They can bet on a supernatural rescue for themselves and their kind and wait for the cataclysm. Or they can dedicate themselves to compassionate action to alleviate suffering and injustice, to creating a better world.

Talk about your leaps of faith, how likely is that conservative Christians, many of whom believe that helping the needy only enables them, will change their stripes that dramatically? Nevertheless, they need to confront Krattenmaker’s question about the two paths he describes in that paragraph: “Which would their savior have them do?”

Meanwhile, fleshing out Rev. Wigg-Stevenson’s argument about nuclear weapons, we’ll turn to a guest column he wrote for the Washington Post’s On Faith section in April. He warned that Christians must guard against “fearing mortal enemies more than God’s judgment.”

A commenter, one Arancia12, responded:

I do not believe in survival at any cost . . . Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian. Not living as a Christian is the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.

Or as Tony Campolo, Professor Emeritus, Eastern University, wrote in a testimonial on the Two Futures Project website . . .

Fear of what other nations could do to us with their weapons is no justification for developing nuclear weapons ourselves. As Christians, perfect love should cast out that fear and allow us to take the risks that go with disarmament.

Does the Right Really Believe That the Left Supports Jihad?

In the course of explaining how the “disconnection between the international left and its counterparts in Israel has become near total, to the detriment of the causes that both espouse” at Democracy Now, Keith Kahn-Harris and Joel Schalit write:

In an article published . . . in Ha’aretz, the paper’s defence correspondent Amos Harel argued that international NGOs are now being utilised by Israel’s enemies as tools in a global campaign to delegitimise the Jewish state. [And] that a new global left has become duped by the “asymmetrical-warfare” strategies of Israel’s Islamist foes. The effective alliance between militant Islamism and international leftism lies behind much of the criticism of Israel today.

What’s wrong with this picture? To begin with, equating advocacy for Palestinian statehood with sympathy for jihadis and support for their murderous violence is, to say the least, simplistic. Later in the piece, the authors cite “an Islamist government’s [Hamas] deep opposition to many progressive values.”

Islamists are the antithesis of progressives and/or leftists. Humanitarian concerns aside, to whatever extent international leftism still reflects socialism, Islamists, in fact (the social services provided by the likes of Hezbollah and Taliban notwithstanding), want nothing to do with socialism. Robert Dreyfuss provided some background in his 2005 book Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Islamic Fundamentalism. (I couldn’t resist the emphasis added.):

Mohammad, the Prophet, was a capitalist and profit-seeking trader who believed in free markets, low taxes, private enterprise, and the absence of regulations . . . or at least that is the portrait painted by Islamic fundamentalists [not to mention] by free-market ideologues in the West . . .

. . . who were seeking to open the Middle East to development and/or exploitation. Economically, anyway, the right is more aligned with Islamism than the left.

The Shameless Cynicism of Zeroing in on the Ground Zero Islamic Center

At AlterNet, Joshua Holland deftly turns the expression “Ground Zero” on its head.

When the horror of nuclear warfare was unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the term “Ground Zero” entered our lexicon. The expression has come to mean the epicenter of a catastrophic event. . . . the point from which damage spreads. [While] it’s not an apt analog for the physical destruction that resulted from the attacks on the World Trade Center. . . . it is an appropriate metaphor for the . . . bigotry against Muslim Americans that has radiated out from Ground Zero and spread across the United States.

Ironically, not long after 9/11, you could walk the streets of Manhattan and still see Muslims praying in a storefront mosque with a vendor outside selling Islamic ware, as well as Middle-Eastern food vendors playing tapes or CDs of muezzins. No inhibitions; no harassment.

It’s true that recently, though, things have begun to turn ugly, as Holland reports: “In May, an Arab man was brutally beaten in broad daylight in New York by four young men.” But it’s in the heartland where violence against Muslims has been spreading in the last couple of years. He writes:

A mosque in Miami, Florida, was sprayed with gunfire last year. Mosques have been vandalized or set aflame in Brownstown, Michigan; Nashville, Tennessee; Arlington, Texas . . . Taylor, South Carolina; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Eugene, Oregon; Cape Girardeau, Missouri; Tempe, Arizona; and in both Northern and Southern California. A mosque in a suburb of Chicago has been vandalized four times in recent years.

The perpetrators of these hate crimes are. . . . being whipped into a frenzy by cynical fearmongers on the Right [who] have started referring to the Park 51 project as “the Obamosque.” [These fearmongers] see fear and loathing of Islam as a potent social issue.

But, continues Holland . . .

It’s an extraordinarily dangerous game, not only for the American Muslim community but for U.S. national security as well. Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent who has interrogated several dangerous terrorists [said] ‘from a national security perspective, our leaders need to understand that no one is likely to be happier with the opposition to building a mosque than Osama Bin Laden. His next video script has just written itself.’

Frank Rich of the New York Times echoed this in his most recent column.

Here’s what’s been lost in all the screaming. The prime movers in the campaign against the “ground zero mosque” just happen to be among the last cheerleaders for America’s nine-year war in Afghanistan. The wrecking ball they’re wielding is not merely pounding Park51 [but] has also rendered Gen. David Petraeus’s last-ditch counterinsurgency strategy for fighting the war inoperative. How do you win Muslim hearts and minds in Kandahar when you are calling Muslims every filthy name in the book in New York?

Compromising America’s interests (ostensibly anyway when it comes to Afghanistan) in this manner might be too subtle for most of the public to notice. But, when it comes to a recent move by Republican Congresspersons, it seems, at first glance, as if their constituents might find it downright un-American. On July 29 Raymond Hernandez reported for the New York Times:

House Republicans . . . blocked a Democratic plan to provide billions of dollars for medical treatment to rescue workers and residents of New York City who suffered illnesses from the toxic dust and debris at ground zero. . . . Republican opponents of the legislation expressed concern over the $7.4 billion cost of the program. . . . Democrats accused Republicans of being callous and vowed to bring the bill back for another vote in the fall.

Huh? Do Republicans actually think they’ve managed to incite concern over the deficit to the point that it would trump coming to the relief of American heroes? In fact, there may be something else going on here.

Try hatred for the 9/11 widows. Not only are some of them loudmouths who questioned the 9/11 Commission, according to this line of thinking, but others were driving around Staten Island in SUVs like welfare queens in Cadillacs with money they received from the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Sorry, rescuers. Your well-being takes a backseat to the more pressing business of preventing people from getting something for nothing. (Okay, for a dead family member. Details, details.)

Besides that, Republican politicians who count on their constituents to voice no objections to blocking the plan are a symptom of the heartland’s underlying resentment of New York City. To what other phenomenon can one attribute the curious lack of ongoing cries from Americans to bring us the head of bin Laden?

Imagine if a small town in the Midwest had been struck? Republican politicians would have made locating bin Laden a priority come hell or high water. They find 9/11 useful when they seek to stir up hatred for — never mind Islamists — garden-variety Muslims. In fact, they may well be aware that some Americans are secretly glad that those urban elites in New York City got theirs that sunny day in New York.

Europe’s Favorite Scapegoat: the Roma

Bulldozer demolishes housePeggy Hollinger and Chris Bryant of the Financial Times put their fingers on what’s behind the current uproar over Europe’s Roma population: the group is “an easy target for politicians seeking to distract attention from problems at home by playing on fears over security.” That strategy was stage center in early August when France’s conservative government shipped several hundred Roma back to Romania and French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged he would bulldoze 300 Roma camps over the next several weeks.

Europe is certainly in need of distraction these days. Sarkozy’s poll numbers are dismal and his administration is plagued by scandals. The economic crisis has seen France’s debt soar, and European governments have instituted savage austerity programs that are filling the jobless rolls from Dublin to Athens. Since most politicians would rather not examine the cause of the economic crisis roiling the continent—many were complicit in dismantling the checks and balances that eventually led to the current recession—“criminal gypsies” come in very handy.

France’s crackdown was sparked by an angry demonstration in Saint-Aignan following the death of a young “traveler” at the hands of police. Sarkozy never saw a riot he couldn’t turn to his advantage. On July 29 his office declared it would dismantle Roma camps because they are “sources of illegal trafficking, profoundly shocking living standards, exploitation of children for begging, prostitution and crime.”

Living conditions in Roma camps are, indeed, sub-standard, but in large part because local French authorities refuse to follow a law requiring that towns with a population of over 5,000 establish electrical and water hookups for such camps. And because countries like Germany, France, Italy and Britain refuse to use any of the $22 billion that the European Commission has made available for alleviating the conditions that the Roma and other minorities exist under.

As for the “crime” and “drug trafficking” charge, research by the European Union (EU) suggests there is no difference between crime rates among the Roma than in “the population at large.”

“Indeed there are Roma who are in charge of trafficking networks, but they represent less than one percent of this population, the rest are victims,” David Mark, head of the Civic Alliance of Roma in Romania, a coalition of over 20 Roma non-governmental organizations, told IPS News.

Mark went on to point out that “Because that one percent commits crimes and the authorities are not able to stop them, all Roma are being criminalized.” The expulsions and demolitions, he charged, are “based on criminalization of an entire ethnic group, when criminality should be judged on a case by case basis in courts of law.”

In some cases the level of hysteria would be almost laughable were it not resulting in the most widespread roundup of an ethnic minority since World War II. Italy declared a “Gypsy emergency,” in spite of the fact that Italy, which has a population of 57.6 million people, has only 60,000 non-Italian Roma.

Estimates are that there are between 10 and 12 million Roma in Europe, making the group the continent’s largest minority.

For several weeks, the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, played hot potato with the issue. The EC insisted that it was doing everything it could to help the Roma and pointed to the $22 billion pot that remains pretty much untapped. But it also kept silent on charges by human rights organizations that countries like Germany, Italy and France were violating EU law guaranteeing freedom of movement.

These nations—primarily France—argue that since the Roma are from Romania and Bulgaria, and both countries are newly minted EU members, the freedom of movement clause doesn’t kick in until 2014. And, in any case, French officials charge that the Roma can’t show they are gainfully employed and self-supporting.

On this latter point, rights organizations point out that Roma are discriminated against in employment. “It’s somewhat hypocritical to complain about people not having money to subsist in France when you don’t offer access to the labor market at the same time,” says Bob Kushen, managing director of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest.

With the exception of Spain and Finland, most EU members have the same restrictions on staying in a country more than three months without a regular job.

France is certainly not alone in singling out the Roma. Germany is preparing to deport 12,000 to Kosovo, a destination that may well put the deportees in danger, because Kosovo Albanians accuse the Roma of siding with the Serbs during the 1999 Yugoslav War. From the Roma’s point of view Serbia had long guaranteed their communities a certain level of employment and educational opportunities, while the Albanians had always repressed them.

Other countries singling out the Roma include Britain, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium. The Swedes deported some 50 Roma for “begging,” even though begging is not a crime in Sweden.

But France has instituted the most aggressive anti-Roma campaign, which also includes its own “gens du voyage,” all of whom are French citizens and theoretically guaranteed encampment facilities. France is estimated to have between 300,000 and 500,000 of these “travelers.”

The French campaign, however, has sparked a backlash.

Romania’s Foreign Minister, Teodor Basconschi, blasted France for “criminalizing ethnic groups” and warned of “the risks of populist provocation and creating xenophobic reactions at a time of economic crisis.” Basconschi called for a joint Romanian-French approach “devoid of artificial election fever.”

The Vatican’s secretary of the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People Commission said, “The mass expulsion of Roma are against European norms.”

The growing chorus of protest by human rights groups, the United Nations, the Vatican, and Romania finally moved the EU to inject itself into the controversy.

“Recent developments in several European countries, most recently eviction of Roma camps in France and expulsions of Roma from France and Germany, are certainly not the right measures to improve the situation of this vulnerable minority. On the contrary, they are likely to lead to an increase in racist and xenophobic feelings in Europe,” said Meviut Cavusogiu, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Cavusogiu cited Protocol No. 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights that prohibits “the collective expulsions of aliens,” as well as the right to freedom of movement for all EU citizens.

However, France was sticking by its guns, claiming that it was not “deporting” anyone: the Roma were leaving voluntarily for a nominal payment of $386 for adults, and $129 for children. But some members of Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, were using the word “deport,” and even the more explosive term “rafles.” That was the term used to describe the rounding up of French Jews during WW II, most of whom died in the death camps.

Roma suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Nazis. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 1.5 million Roma perished in the concentration camps.

Scapegoating the Roma is an old European tradition, almost as old as the initial migration of the Romany people out of Rajasthan, India in the 11th century. Most of those Roma settled in Moldavia and Wallachia—today’s Romania—where they were quickly enslaved. Those Romany who did not escape enslavement by taking up the nomadic life remained slaves until 1856.

According to Maria Ochoa-Lido of the Council of Europe, those centuries of slavery essentially sentenced the Roma to poverty-stricken lives on the margins, with life expectancy considerably lower than other populations in the EU.

A lack of access to education, social services, education and the legal system for Romania’s 2.5 million Roma still drives many of them to take to the road. As bad as conditions for the Roma are in countries like France and Germany, they are better than those in poverty-stricken Romania.

The attacks on the Roma could well be a prelude to similar campaigns against other European minorities: Turks in Germany, Pakistanis in England, Moroccans and Algerians in Spain and Italy, and Africans scattered throughout the continent. Xenophobia in a time of economic crisis rarely restricts itself to a single target.

Visit Dispatches from the Edge for more of Conn Hallinan’s essays.

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