Focal Points Blog

Turning Stuxnet to More Constructive Ends

“The paternity of the worm is still in dispute, but in recent weeks officials from Israel have broken into wide smiles when asked whether Israel was behind the attack, or knew who was. American officials have suggested it originated abroad,” reported Sanger and Broad in the New York Times on November 18.

Coming from a state that refuses to come clean about its own nuclear weapons program — and largely in opposition to which Iran may be developing the capability to build one — this represents an intolerable level of smugness. However, in light of this:

Experts dissecting the computer worm suspected of being aimed at Iran’s nuclear program have determined that it was precisely calibrated in a way that could send nuclear centrifuges wildly out of control.

. . . can we sub-contract Israel’s techies to knock out the jaw-dropping (“My jaw just dropped”) 2,000 centrifuges that former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Siegfried Hecker, observed at a sophisticated North Korean uranium enrichment facility?

Pennsylvania Divests Itself of Companies Working With Iran, Sudan; Somehow Overlooks Israel

Pennsylvania, the home state of myself and frequent coauthor Kevin Funk, passed legislation (Act 44 of 2010) over the summer months that requires the state’s two largest pension funds and its treasury department to divest from investments in companies that have business in Sudan or Iran. We wrote an opinion piece in May, before the legislation (Senate Bill 928) was signed into law by Governor Ed Rendell on July 2nd, criticizing the measure.

However, we were unable to place it in any of the state’s leading daily papers (the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Harrisburg Patriot-News, and the Philadelphia Inquirer). Nor, to my knowledge, was a principled, critical note heard from any other quarter.

The blackout on criticism of a ‘good divestment’ serves as an indication that local media can be at least as hostile to unwanted dissenting views as national media when it conflicts with agendas close to home. Certainly, there was no visible opposition from the politicians. Indeed, the bill “received overwhelming support in the Senate and unanimous support in the House of Representatives.” Pennsylvania is not alone — as we note in the piece, many other states have passed similar legislation.

The Inky (Philadelphia Inquirer) reports that:

Pennsylvania’s pension funds resisted past attempts to divest companies in Northern Ireland and South Africa amid concerns that politicizing the underfunded pension plans would hurt investment returns. ….

What made Harrisburg give in this time? “The different Jewish federations throughout the state” mobilized in support of the bill, said Matthew Handel, an executive at Shire Pharmaceuticals in suburban Philadelphia, who is chairman of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition.

The America-Israel Public Affairs Committee, which calls itself “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby,” joined to back the bill, said Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

The bill also got support, in its early stages, from members of the Darfur Coalition, a group of U.S. activists who oppose the national government in war-torn Sudan, Schatz added. She credited State Rep. Babette Josephs (D., Phila.) for bringing in the Darfur activists.

Why is Pennsylvania taking on the enemies of Israel, a foreign country?

….”here on the banks of the Susquehanna, we can leverage $400 million worth of investments in a way that supports our allies, for example Israel, and isolates our enemies.”….

[Rep. for Abington and Upper Dublin, Josh Shapiro, who sponsored a similar bill in the House] told me he agrees with remarks earlier this month in support of blockades against Israel’s enemies, by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.).

According to Schumer’s speech, Israel’s blockade of the Palestinian Gaza territory “makes sense,” so long as “people [are] not starving to death,” because it seeks “to strangle them economically” until they agree “that a path of living with Israel and the Jews is a better way to go than a path of total and obdurate confrontation.”

The supremely Orwellian character of ostentatiously moralizing in ways that are practically guaranteed to have no effect while simultaneously endorsing the odious doctrine of collective punishment and virtual enslavement reveals much about the nature of power in our society.

Our original opinion piece follows.

State Legislature Doublethink on Genocide Divestment

It’s not every day that one hears the words “moral and fiscally responsible” used in conjunction with the Pennsylvania state legislature. With Democratic Sen. Mike Stack of Philadelphia being paraphrased to that effect in reference to a bill he sponsored to “combat terrorism and genocide,” it merits attention.

The bill in question, “The Protecting Pennsylvania’s Investment Act” (SB 928), recently sailed through the Pennsylvania Senate. It would require divestment of the state’s two largest pension funds and its Treasury Department from companies doing substantial business in Sudan or Iran, and looks to have a clear legislative path forward.

The absurdity of the senate bill is indicated by the conditions that would deactivate the bill, amongst them a declaration by the federal government that genocide is no longer occurring in Sudan.

In fact, the applicability of the genocide label even during the height of the violence in the western Sudanese region of Darfur was doubted by many legal scholars, and Washington’s declaration was admitted to be made to appeal to domestic constituents instead of being an objective assessment of the violence in the region. While Darfur remains the sight of sporadic government violence and millions await a lasting peace that would permit them to return to their homes, virtually no one maintains that actual “genocide” is ongoing in Darfur. Thus, the criteria for satisfying the bill would appear to already be met, at least if one were to rely upon a source more reliable than the federal government.

Unfortunately, despite their loftiness, there is little prospect that Stack’s stated aims will be achieved. While divestment from businesses engaged in flagrantly immoral conduct should be encouraged, there are readily apparent motives beyond humanitarian goodwill in the work of the legislature. For starters, the choice of targets — Sudan and Iran — raises questions.

While we will focus on the case of the former, it is important to note that the Iranian regime, despite being a serious human rights abuser, is a questionable target for a divestment campaign. Washington’s wind-blowing aside, what is the actual evidence suggesting that Iran is a “state sponsor of terrorism”?

Sudan is a somewhat better choice for divestment given that the central government is behind one of the more sizeable bloodbaths of the past decade, in Darfur. However, there too, questions arise. In fact, Sudan is already under U.S. sanctions and so U.S. companies are not legally allowed to operate in the country.

Accordingly, divestment can only be from foreign companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges — that is, very indirect divestment. Though the divestment bill does laudably focus on divesting from military and oil operations, the fact that Sudan is already under U.S. sanctions means that Pennsylvania’s divestment would almost certainly be too inconsequential to make any difference. This is far different from the oft-cited case of the divestment campaign against South Africa, as U.S. companies operated freely under the Washington-allied apartheid regime and thus provided a direct link to the abuses that is simply missing in the Sudan case.

Further questions arise regarding the efficacy of the divestment bill. The Associated Press notes that 28 other U.S. states have already divested from either or both countries. And yet there has been no actual assertion of evidence that such divestment has positively affected the human rights situation in either country. One may further wonder how clearly Pennsylvania’s message to Sudan will come through since Washington has nurtured a close relationship with key intelligence figures in the Khartoum establishment as part of the supposed “War on Terror,” in fact the very same figures implicated in the violence in Darfur.

Assuming Senator Stack’s words are to be taken seriously, one might also ask why far more direct measures to “combat terrorism and genocide” are not contemplated. For several years, a grassroots movement has been building to divest from companies implicated in the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Israel is a far more logical target, both for practical efficacy — far more investments are likely to be connected to Israel than Sudan or Iran — and symbolically. Yet neither our State Legislature nor any other state has contemplated such a move.

While the divestment bills are unlikely to have much impact on Iran or Sudan, they do contribute to state propaganda. Moral pieties in the service of power are never a pretty thing to witness, no matter how petty and irrelevant. It is hard to avoid concluding that the current divestment bills under consideration are merely politically opportunistic measures, destined to be as ineffective as they are self-serving.

Kevin Funk and Steven Fake are the authors of “Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books) and graduates of the University of Pittsburgh. They maintain a website with their commentary at scrambleforafrica.org.

Trying to Make Alarm About Overpopulation Politically Correct Again

Aging demographics ChinaIn a recent Focal Points post, Michael Busch notes that “the gradual transition of hegemony between the United States and China is currently being threatened by Washington’s insistence that Beijing dispense with its clever practice of currency manipulation, tinkering that has artificially driven down the price of Chinese money.” He then quotes Thomas P.M. Barnett writing for World Politics Review (can’t link — paywall).

China’s demographic clock is ticking like no other nation’s in human history. Already losing its cheap-labor advantage right now, China is set to stockpile elders from here on out at a pace never before witnessed. By 2050, it will have more non-working old people (400 million plus) than America’s total projected population (400 million). . . . That should explain what’s driving China’s seemingly selfish economic strategy. [It hopes that the] seemingly inexhaustible engine of [its] savings will be able to sustain . . . a rapidly aging East.

In the cover story of the November Foreign Policy, Phillip Longman writes about this “gray tsunami” that is engulfing not only China and the United States, but much of the world. He writes:

It’s true that the world’s population overall will increase by roughly one-third over the next 40 years. . . . driven not by birth rates, which have plummeted around the world, but primarily by an increase in the number of elderly people. . . . Then . . . humans will face the very real prospect that our numbers will fall as fast — if not faster — than the rate at which they once grew. . . . That might sound like an appealing prospect: less traffic, more room at the beach, easier college admissions. But be careful what you wish for.

To those of us who aren’t versed in the issue, it’s counterintuitive to wring our hands over a significant decrease in the world’s population. But if it’s our society’s wealth were concerned about, Longman explains that it depends on demographics.

At first, with fertility declining and the workforce aging, there are proportionately fewer children to raise and educate. This is good: It frees up female labor to join the formal economy and allows for greater investment in the education of each remaining child. All else being equal, both factors stimulate economic development. . . . Then, however, the outlook turns bleak. Over time, low birth rates lead not only to fewer children, but also to fewer working-age people just as the percentage of dependent elders explodes. This means that as population aging runs its course, it might well go from stimulating the economy to depressing it. Fewer young adults means fewer people needing to purchase new homes, new furniture, and the like, as well as fewer people likely to take entrepreneurial risks.

Longman writes: “a planet that grays indefinitely is clearly asking for trouble.” But, to this author, it seems that the planet, already overburdened, will find itself in an even worse fix if a higher birth rates accelerates the depletion of its resources.

To those of us who were first exposed to the overpopulation problem through the alarmism of the likes of Paul Ehrlich and his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb, advocating a higher birthrate is putting the cart before the horse. Besides it pushes the issue of overpopulation even further out of the spotlight. Nor does it help that talk of curbing population has been given a bad name by those whose concerns about the planet’s “carrying capacity” mask a Malthusian inclination to cull the earthly herd. (I’ve just begun to read Edwin Black’s imposing 2003 work War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race.)

We need to find a way to present the low birth rate in a more positive light without coming across as a tool of the ruling class. Between those who still hold a torch for eugenics (some under the guise of genetics apparently) and evangelicals with their imperative to go forth and populate — especially since U.S. whites are due to be outnumbered by Latinos and European whites by Muslims — overpopulation has become a real political third rail.

Bottom line, though: a planet denuded of resources by billions more individuals than it was meant to hold is no good to anybody, rich or poor. More to come.

Which Knot Needs to Be Unraveled First — Israel-Palestine or Iran’s Nuclear Program?

This week’s award for most counterintuitive opinion piece goes to New York Times contributing writer Noah Feldman. The best-selling author, Harvard Law professor, and member of the group that wrote the post-Saddam Iraqi constitution, Feldman has never been one to shy away from controversy. Indeed, he has willingly waded into thickets of stormy debate on numerous occasions—usually on issues surrounding the role of religion in public life both at home and abroad.

Feldman’s latest piece in the Times magazine takes a look at what might reasonably be achieved by President Barack Obama during the remainder of his first term (and possibly a second), and finds little cause for hope on the domestic front given the conservative thumping handed out to Congressional Dems in the midterm elections earlier this month. It should come as no surprise then, that

Historically, presidents thwarted by the loss of a Congressional majority have turned their attention to foreign policy — no doubt the reason that Obama left for Asia within a few days of the election. The explanation for the shift in focus is constitutional as much as tactical. The founding fathers, convinced that diplomacy could not be conducted by committee, gave the executive substantial discretion in conducting foreign affairs. Although Congress can ask questions and conduct oversight hearings, a president who wants to have an impact internationally can act more or less on his own.

Even here, though, prospects for major achievements are on the foreign policy front are few and far between. (As a quick aside, it’s interesting to note that Iraq doesn’t show up on Feldman’s radar whatsoever as an issue to which the president should devote special attention.)

The Afghan war has its own internal timing; the United States’ relationship with China is too complex for major breakthroughs; and, as Obama discovered at the G-20 summit, divergent economic interests can make even allies reluctant to compromise. Thus far, the Obama administration’s chief foreign-policy achievement has simply been to remind the world that the United States can be cooperative.

So, scanning the entire menu of US international affairs, where does Feldman see the best possibilities for success? You got it: the Middle East peace process! “Can Obama succeed where so many others have not?” Feldman asks. You might think, given the discouraging signs thus far in renewed efforts at getting the Israelis and Palestinians to sit down and negotiate that the answer is a no brainer, with emphasis on the “no.” But Feldman sees a glimmer of hope.

To be sure, Feldman—a knowledgeable analyst of Middle Eastern affairs—isn’t sporting a new pair of rose-colored glasses. Significant roadblocks to a lasting peace surely remain:

Israel and the Palestinian Authority will not, of course, make things easy. No sooner had direct peace talks begun in September — itself a victory for the Obama team — than the Palestinian side discontinued them over Israel’s refusal to renew a 10-month partial ban on building in the West Bank. Earlier this month, Israel announced that more than a thousand new housing units would be built in the Har Homa suburb of Jerusalem — a community that is outside the West Bank according to Israel, but inside the West Bank to Palestinians and the international community.

But, as Feldman rightly points out, “neither side has given up on the talks, and the Obama administration has continued its behind-the-scenes efforts to restart them.”

So then, what does Feldman believe to be the most productive way forward? In order to make his case, he begins with the actors involved. On the Palestinian side, things are a mess:

The Palestinian Authority is congenitally weak. Hamas controls Gaza, which has a Palestinian population approaching that of the West Bank. Dealing with Israel can be seen as a last-ditch attempt by President Mahmoud Abbas to stave off a permanent split of Palestine into two different subcountries. Although they are not prepared to negotiate with Israel, senior Hamas leaders have implied that they would provisionally accept a Palestinian state reuniting Gaza and the West Bank with 1967 borders. Of course, their motivation is presumably that they believe that Hamas could then take power democratically — hardly a reassuring thought for Abbas or the Israelis.

On the Israeli side of the equation,

most of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government is profoundly skeptical of any territorial compromise; Netanyahu would not pay a domestic price if the negotiations fail. Why, then, has he not scuttled them outright? Many Israelis consider Iran’s nuclear capacity an existential threat. Yet both the Bush and Obama administrations have discouraged Israel from attacking Iran and starting a regional war. Netanyahu appears to believe that if he cooperates to some degree with the Obama administration’s request that he negotiate, he can — eventually — demand in return U.S. cooperation (or at least acquiescence) in an Israeli move against Iran. In the meantime, Netanyahu’s goal is to satisfy his coalition partners by showing resistance to the United States on settlement building without wholly alienating Obama. No doubt he hopes that Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives will protect him from any pressure brought to bear by Obama and keep up the drumbeat on the Iranian threat.

And then of course, there’s Hezbollah. Interestingly, Feldman notes that

At the moment, Hezbollah is especially nervous about its impending indictment by a United Nations tribunal investigating the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Faced with a loss of credibility for killing Hariri, a Sunni who is widely seen as a martyr, Hezbollah hopes to discredit the tribunal. It has tried blaming Israel and hinting that its militia might take to the streets. Provoking an Israeli attack would be the riskiest strategy, but it cannot be ruled out. In both Israel and Lebanon, many people speak about such a war in terms of when, not if — and both Iran and Hezbollah might prefer it to occur according to their timing rather than Israel’s. Needless to say, such a war would be disastrous not only for Lebanese and Israelis, but also for Palestinians, whose hopes for a state of their own would be crushed if Israel were attacked by Iranian missiles lobbed on their behalf but without their consent.

Amidst this crazy quilt of power, interests, and worry, Feldman sees an interesting pattern emerge: all the involved parties are acting from a position of weakness. And “overlapping weakness,” Feldman asserts, “has been a good basis for peacemaking in the region ever since the Camp David accords.”

What Feldman doesn’t address—and what would have made for a more interesting, and ultimately more important contribution—is what role, if any, the president himself should play in these negotiations. Does Obama have enough political capital to personally direct traffic through these proceedings, or does his weakness at home allow Netanyahu a free pass to continue walking all over the White House? And what about Hillary Clinton? If the time is as ripe as Feldman believes, should Clinton be considering some shuttle diplomacy to rescue what have been disappointingly flaccid results from the previously unassailable uber-diplomat George Mitchell? On these basic tactical issues, Feldman is silent.

Instead, he concludes by charting the possibilities for numerous domino effects that might result from an Israeli-Palestinian deal, everything from the emergence of a more moderate Hamas, to an Israeli-led alliance of largely Arab states against Iran. His closing remarks suggest that Feldman, unsure how to tidily wrap-up his analysis, decided to run a Hail Mary pass of best case scenarios that appeal more to wishful thinking than sober reason.

This is especially the case with the respect to potential war with Tehran. Thus far, the push to bomb Iran is winning its race against the push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As a result, it may be worth asking if Feldman has his priorities, and timetable of possible futures, reversed. If Washington is suckered into attacking the Persian heartland, or if Israel itself marched to war against Iran, peace with the Palestinians will be the least of Middle East concerns.

On the other hand, if Iranian-US/Israeli tensions are quelled, Washington might be able to focus more of its attention on devising a solution to the Palestinian question. It wouldn’t be easy, let alone guaranteed. But if Feldman is correct to suggest that fears of a nuclear Iran contribute to the continuing mischief frustrating a lasting settlement, perhaps Obama should get serious about tackling Washington’s Iran problem before playing peace-monger with the Palestinians and Israelis.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

It’s a Shame Chalmers Johnson Did Not Live to See the U.S. Air Base on Okinawa Closed

Futenma, Okinawa(To left, U.S. air station Futenma in Okinawa.)

I contacted Chalmers Johnson last spring when we were putting together a coalition to oppose the relocation of the Futenma air base in Okinawa. Johnson, who died over the weekend, was best known for his book-length critiques of U.S. foreign policy (Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, Nemesis, and this year’s Dismantling the Empire). But he began his career of scholarship with books on China and Japan, and in 1999 published an edited collection called Okinawa: Cold War Island.

Johnson graciously arranged to send a signed copy of the book on Okinawa to a congressman heading to Japan. And he agreed to pen an op-ed to coincide with the massive protest against the base relocation that took place in Okinawa on April 25. In the piece that my colleague Emily Schwartz Greco ultimately placed with The Los Angeles Times, he wrote:

The U.S. has become obsessed with maintaining our empire of military bases, which we cannot afford and which an increasing number of so-called host countries no longer want. I would strongly suggest that the United States climb off its high horse, move the Futenma Marines back to a base in the United States (such as Camp Pendleton, near where I live) and thank the Okinawans for their 65 years of forbearance.

Johnson was a realist. “Unfortunately, I’m not very optimistic that either the Obama administration or the Japanese will do anything about closing Futenma,” he wrote to me at the time. As it turned out, he was right. The Obama administration put maximum pressure on the Japanese government to abide by an earlier agreement to build a replacement facility on Okinawa. As a result, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama reversed his initial skeptical position on building a new base and then promptly resigned.

Two trends, however, may force both the United States and Japan to change their policy. In the United States, a veritable fever to cut the deficit has descended on Washington. The preliminary Deficit Commission report, released earlier this month, recommended a one-third cut in U.S. military bases overseas. Even conservatives such as Tom Coburn (R-OK) are willing to put the Pentagon budget on the chopping block.

Meanwhile, in Okinawa, two prominent figures are battling for the governorship of the island. Both incumbent Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and former Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha want Futenma closed and the replacement facility built somewhere other than the Okinawan prefecture. Iha, supported by the Social Democrats and Communists, has gone one step further: he doesn’t want the base in Japan at all. The election takes place next weekend. Given the sentiments of Okinawans – more than 80 percent oppose the current Tokyo-Washington relocation plan – the new governor of the island, whether Nakaima or Iha, will be a thorn in the side of the alliance.

Chalmers Johnson would no doubt have continued to be skeptical of change in the short term. No other Japanese prefecture is interested in another U.S. base. The Pentagon is pushing back against any substantial cuts and is not eager to reduce its overseas footprint. But, as I wrote back in spring for TomDispatch,

NIMBY movements may someday finally push the U.S. military out of Japan and off Okinawa. It’s not likely to be a smooth process, nor is it likely to happen any time soon. But the kanji is on the wall. Even if the Yankees don’t know what the Japanese characters mean, they can at least tell in which direction the exit arrow is pointing.

Chalmers Johnson explained the how and why of U.S. empire, and for that we all owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. It is a shame that he did not live long enough to see that empire dismantled. But in the work we do toward that goal, we honor his name and his work.

U.S. Out of Afghanistan by 2014? Don’t Hold Your Breath

Rasmussen, Karzai(To left, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.)

On Saturday, at the NATO summit in Lisbon, officials announced 2014 as the target date for withdrawing combat forces from Afghanistan. Afghanistan is already America’s longest war. As of next Saturday, at nine years and 50 days, it will also have exceeded the length of the Soviet’s war in Afghanistan. In 2014, this will have been a 13-year war.

Eleven years sounds like a long time, but the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will almost certainly be even longer. While NATO secretary general, Anders Rasmussen framed 2014 as the end of NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan, Obama made sure to refer to 2014 as a target date rather than a deadline. The withdrawal of U.S. forces would, he noted, depend on the readiness of Afghan forces to take responsibility for their country’s security.

Writing for Politico, Josh Gerstein described the NATO announcement as little more than spin. It “seemed intended to generate headlines or at least a public perception of a plan for withdrawal.”

In all likelihood, that media strategy will continue well into the future, and will become especially apparent when we arrive at previously announced target dates. In July 2011, we can expect the cameras to be rolling when the official drawdown of soldiers begins. As in Iraq in 2010, in Afghanistan in 2014, we can expect the president to announce the formal end of America’s combat mission and applaud the soldiers for a job well done. As in Iraq, the official end of the combat mission in Afghanistan will not mean the removal of all troops, but rather the continued presence of thousands of soldiers serving as advisors and trainers. And as in Iraq, the line between advisor and combat soldier will continue to be murky.

In the end, press conferences about Afghanistan tell us much more about the official media strategy than they do about the administration’s actual plans. Currently, as Nick Turse of TomDispatch has reported, the U.S. has over 400 military bases in Afghanistan and plans for a mega-embassy, the largest in the world. The administration would not embark on a building boom of this scope unless it had plans to be there for a long, long time.

Some on Right Think Nicaragua’s Incursions Into Costa Rica Call for U.S. Attack

Ortega Google MapsKnown more for its Page Six gossip columns than anything approximating serious political reporting and analysis, the New York Post apparently feels no need to exercise responsibility in publishing op-eds calling for even more US military intervention overseas to protect democracy. No, the paper is not suggesting that we expand our presence in Pakistan, nor does it argue for increased attacks against targets in Yemen in the name of fighting terror. It isn’t even suggesting, following the lead of today’s Washington Post, that we threaten to bomb Iran.

The Post’s Benny Avni called for possible military action against Nicaragua on Thursday, following its recent incursions onto neighboring Costa Rica’s soil earlier in the week, thanks to an error by Google Maps of all things. Instead of questioning what business a sovereign nation-state has in relying on Google for keeping track of its own territory, Avni takes Nicaragua’s actions as another sign of Barack Obama’s failed presidency. “Will the Obama administration ever start standing up to the Latin axis of caudillos?” an outraged Avni asked. “Nicaragua invaded Costa Rica last month”!

One might question how an “axis of caudillos” could be anything but Latin, or wish that the paper’s editors had spared readers such an aesthetically unpleasing contrivance. But never mind: these are petty grievances when compared with the larger problems of Avni’s approach.

The editorial adopts the conceit that Barack Obama is failing to defend democracy in what Avni perceives to be Washington’s back yard.

Never mind that Nicaragua’s constitution limits a president to two consecutive terms in office. Ortega can use the government’s hold over institutions and the press to erase that — just as Chavez did in becoming Venezuelan president for life. Last year, Manuel Zelaya tried to pull the same trick in Honduras — and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner is mulling a similar campaign now. (Her husband’s recent death removed the option of further tag-team end-running of the term limit.)

Washington has failed to take a strong stand against such violations of democratic principles…The Obama crowd needs to stop flinching every time the caudillos exploit the old Yanqui go home rallying cry.

To be sure, Avni’s got a point about Ortega. The Nicaraguan president represents the very worst his country’s politics have to offer. Far from the leftist revolutionary he once purported to be, Ortega has reduced himself to little more than an opportunistic kleptocrat who demonstrates greater commitment to his personal wealth accumulation than to freeing his country from the yoke of economic depravation.

I suspect that Avni’s also right about Ortega’s motivation in being so stubborn on the issue when he argues that

Ortega hopes to use his tough stance to drum up domestic support for a third presidential term. In fact, his victory in next year’s election is predetermined if the OAS can’t send election observers, as it now plans.

As the Economist has observed

Mr. Ortega has enjoyed a wave of nationalist support at home. On November 3rd he won the first unanimous vote in the National Assembly of his four years in office. All this coincides with the start of the election campaign.

Still, using Ortega’s craven political ambition and disregard for term limits as support for possibly sending American troops to roll back the assault on democracy in Latin America is as silly as it is dangerous. By Avni’s logic, Michael Bloomberg — himself no fan of term limits when they constrain his political ambition — should be included as a member of Chavez’s Army of Darkness. Does Avni fear that we suffer from a democracy deficit at home, then? I would hazard that he does not.

To the more serious issue of Nicaragua’s incursion into Costa Rican territory, Avni’s argument again holds no more water than a soggy paper towel.

Chavez, Ortega and the rest threaten their neighbors and America’s global interests. Most recently, Chavez bought from Russia the S-300 anti-aircraft missiles that Moscow had promised not to deliver to Iran — and it’s a safe bet he’ll soon deliver the materiel to the mullahs.

His assumption, then, that Nicaragua’s transgressions somehow green-light possible military action by the United States apparently ignores considerations of little things like international law, dispute settlement precedent in Latin America, and the fact that Costa Rica itself doesn’t want it. But Avni isn’t concerned with trivialities. “Unlike Costa Rica, we can back up our diplomatic prowess with force, if need be.”

No matter how wrong-headed Avni’s argument may be, at least it isn’t as lunatic as some others we’ve seen. Last week, Haaretz floated a completely different explanation for Nicaragua’s Google misadventures:

The recent border dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is a sign of an ambitious plan by Venezuela, Iran and Nicaragua to create a “Nicaragua Canal” linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that would rival the existing Panama Canal…Sources in Latin America have told Haaretz that the border incident and the military pressure on Costa Rica, a country without an army, are the first step in a plan formulated by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, with funding and assistance from Iran, to create a substitute for the strategically and economically important Panama Canal.

Back on earth, however, Avni’s impatient rejection of multilateral efforts at peaceful resolution of potentially explosive conflicts completely misses the two most important developments in the case.

First, the Nica-Costa Rica fracas has ignited a major shift in the operations of the OAS. After Nicaragua protested OAS deliberations with its absence, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports that the Venezuelan representative motioned to block

debate about whether or not to call the meeting, arguing that it was not the OAS’s responsibility to decide a border dispute and that a quick response was the worst solution, and he even insinuated that the Council was leaning toward supporting Costa Rica in the matter. His motion was rejected and the Council proceeded to debate several amendments that had been presented.

This is in the face not only of the protests coming from Caracas and Managua, but following a vote that prompted six abstentions. As Boz points out,

In the course of the past two weeks, we’ve gone from an OAS that would not vote unless the results would be unanimous to an OAS that is divided on procedural votes and holding sessions over the objections of other members… this shift away from the consensus model in the OAS could be a huge story with lasting implications for the organization.

Second, Costa Rica’s non-alarmist resort to the OAS and other organs of international security seems to be working. Not relying solely on the slow-churning wheel of OAS diplomacy, government lawyers filed suit against Managua in the International Court of Justice, calling on the UN’s top judicial body to order Nicaragua back to its own territory. Managua responded by signaling that it was ready to negotiate a solution.

There’s little question that the Central American dispute will resolve itself peacefully, albeit not quickly. It’s also true that Ortega’s disregard for his neighbor’s sovereignty is unacceptable, and that Nicaragua’s advances, and ugly politics in general, need to be rebuffed. But if Washington is to reassert hemispheric leadership, as Avni demands, it’s going to need to bring more to the table than lazy, knee-jerk calls for the use of force. To be sure, there are plenty of items to criticize in Obama’s foreign policy to date. But support for peaceful diplomacy through international organizations is not one of them.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Senator Kyl’s Stalling on New START Is Fraying Washington’s Nerves

Sen. Kyl“Senator Kyl’s recent statements begin to seriously call into question where the cat and mouse game between the administration and Kyl’s office will end,” writes Chris Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in an indispensable post. Minority Whip Kyl (AZ), to whom Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY), has granted final say on whether Senate Republicans will vote to ratify New START, has been stringing along the Obama administration.

Either he’s trying to extort the very last penny from it that he can for the nuclear weapons industry and its vaunted “modernization” program before giving the go-ahead to Republicans to vote yes. Or, failing that, he seeks to squeeze what funding he can from the administration before ordering the bill shot down.

Kyl’s coyness has become tiresome — even to the Senate’s next most respected voice on nuclear weapons issues, Richard Lugar (IN). Jones links to Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy:

In a stunning rebuke to members of his own caucus [Lugar] said on Wednesday that the GOP is intentionally trying to put off a vote on the New START treaty with Russia, and avoiding a serious discussion about the treaty within the caucus. . . . Kyl told [Rogin] that negotiations were going forward “in good faith,” but Lugar suggested that’s all a smoke screen and that the Republican leadership is committed to avoiding completion of the treaty for the foreseeable future.

In other words, not during the lame duck session. Jones also links to Elizabeth Weingarten at the Atlantic, who writes:

Matthew Rojansky, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says . . . Kyl may be waiting until the next Congress to make sure the. . . . promised funds to appear in a spring appropriations bill.

Or, Kyl and the Senate Republicans are stalling “just to make the president look ineffective and weak,” writes Center for American Progress president John Podesta at Politico (another link courtesy of Jones). But, in their rush to make the president look weak, they may, many believe, be weakening national defense. Rogin quotes Lugar: “Every senator has an obligation in the national security interest to take a stand, to do his or her duty.”

What Lugar means is that, in the year since the original START expired, the United States has been sorely lacking one of its provisos — the right to inspect and monitor Russia’s nuclear program. Podesta also writes:

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) must recognize that most Republicans have little interest in killing the treaty. He should schedule a vote in this lame-duck session. . . . Though a handful of GOP senators outright reject New START and are ideologically opposed to arms control, the majority are likely to support the treaty if it comes to a vote.

Apparently, most Republican senators get the national security angle, which also includes ensuring Russia’s help pressuring Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Hard to believe, but there actually appears to be a Democratic bill that Republicans, however much they’re opposed to helping Obama “reset” U.S.-Russian relations, don’t want to vote no on.

Criminally High Interest Rates Foul the Wellsprings of Microcredit in India

Just as a new round of existential self-flagellation seemed primed to capture the time and attention of the foreign aid Twitterverse, news broke that reoriented the discussion from retrospective hand-wringing to forward looking action. Margaret Wente’s weekend essay—”Is Humanitarian Aid Bad for Africa?”—provoked a flurry of debate (though none of it so far as I could tell took issue with the Palin-esque categorization of “Africa”as a homogenous giganta-country) and attracted the attention of aid luminaries Dambisa Moyo and William Easterly. Then everything changed.

On Tuesday, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced a major strategic sea-change in its approach to combating poverty around the world. Melinda Gates, speaking at a media roundtable event in Seattle, made known her foundation’s commitment to

spend $500 million over the next five years to spur savings among the world’s poorest workers who live on less than $2 a day. As part of the pledge…Gates announced $40 million in new grants to six recipients that will start or expand savings programs, test new approaches such as mobile banking and research how such programs improve the lives of the poor.

The move marks an important move away from support for microcredit ventures. The Puget Sound Business Journal inquired whether

microlenders—which have an established network of locations to serve borrowers, unlike microsavings institutions—would play an important role in the foundation’s new strategy. The answer is no.

And good thing, too! The New York Times reports that microcredit is in huge trouble in the very place where it has been hailed the greatest success: India. The Times notes also that:

The crisis has been building for weeks, but has now reached a critical stage. Indian banks, which put up about 80 percent of the money that the companies lent to poor consumers, are increasingly worried that after surviving the global financial crisis mostly unscathed, they could now face serious losses. Indian banks have about $4 billion tied up in the industry, banking officials say.

Why the sudden problems? The roots may be found in some of the early criticisms of leveled against the microfinance industry. Chief among them, skeptics of microlending argue that the exorbitant interest rates that often attend loans reduce the practice to little more than formalized loan sharking. As the Times itself reported this past spring,

the phenomenon has grown so popular that some of its biggest proponents are now wringing their hands over the direction it has taken. Drawn by the prospect of hefty profits from even the smallest of loans, a raft of banks and financial institutions now dominate the field, with some charging interest rates of 100 percent or more.

The phenomenon is especially acute in countries like India, Mexico, and Nigeria, where the demand for small-market loans has completely outstripped local supply, opening the door for institutions to begin charging usurious interest rates to vulnerable borrowers.

In the case of India, officials

fear that microfinance could become India’s version of the United States’ subprime mortgage debacle, in which the seemingly noble idea of extending home ownership to low-income households threatened to collapse the global banking system because of a reckless, grow-at-any-cost strategy.

Responding to public anger over abuses in the microcredit industry — and growing reports of suicides among people unable to pay mounting debts — legislators in the state of Andhra Pradesh last month passed a stringent new law restricting how the companies can lend and collect money.

Even as the new legislation was being passed, local leaders urged people to renege on their loans, and repayments on nearly $2 billion in loans in the state have virtually ceased. Lenders say that less than 10 percent of borrowers have made payments in the past couple of weeks.

The lion’s share of public resentment surrounding microcredit institutions in India seems directed at the country’s largest provider of microloans to the poor, SKS Microfinance. The firm recently took its venture public, with its CEO Vikram Akula personally pocketing a crisp $13 million from the sale of his shares.

For his part, Akula defended his group, pinning blame on “rogue”actors who undermined the integrity of the microcredit structure though “errant practices.” The Wall Street Journal notes that

Mr. Akula said SKS’s lending rates had dropped consistently, to 24 percent, from 31 percent as the lender was able to take advantage of economies of scale. Within that, the company’s cost of funds was 9 percent and the cost of delivering a loan was 9 percent, he said. In addition, there was a 3 percent corporate tax, and another 1.5 percent was set aside for loan-loss provisions. “From a microfinance perspective, we have some of the lowest cost structures in the world,”he said.

This may be, but Alula’s suggested remedy for the crisis—”enlightened regulation”by the Indian state—would do nothing for micro borrowers such as K. Shivamma, a 38-year-old farmer profiled by the Times, who

took her first loan hoping to reverse several years of crop failure brought on by drought. “When you take the loan they say, ‘Don’t worry, it is easy to pay back,’ “Ms. Shivamma said. The man from Share, the company that made her first loan, did not ask about her income, Ms. Shivamma said. She soon ran into trouble paying back the $400 loan, and took out another loan, and then another. Now she owes nearly $2,000 and has no idea how she will repay it. The television, the mobile phone and the two buffaloes she bought with one loan were sold long ago. “I know it is a vicious circle,” she said. “But there is no choice but to go on.”

All of which seems to suggest that the microcredit crisis threatening the Indian economy offers initial support to William Easterly’s quick takeaway from Wente’s article, namely that “the viable arguments are that (1) aid’s record is sufficiently disappointing that it is unlikely to ever be the main driver of successful development, [and] (2) if aid were more accountable it would do less ill and more good.”But if the fears of some observers are realized in this particular case, “more good”will be completely off the table moving forward, and “ill”a mild understatement of the consequences.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Could Gandhi Have Halted Night Raids?

Afghanistan night raid victimU.S. Special Operations forces night raids may be scaring the wits out of Afghans, but they’re not the only ones freaked out. General David Petraeus professed to experience “astonishment and disappointment” when Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently called for an end to them because, aside from imperiling their lives, the raids drive Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.

In a Huffington Post article, Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy writes that the tactic of night raids “has been the subject of almost no public debate in the United States. Newspaper columnists aren’t inveighing against the night raids. Members of Congress aren’t demanding that the night raids stop.” What if, he asks, “Afghans adopted a strategy of nonviolent resistance against the night raids? Could they be stopped?” Naiman explains.

Let’s suppose . . . that there were a well-organized popular movement in Afghanistan against the night raids. Let’s suppose that this movement went around to respected Islamic scholars and got legal judgments that the night raids are an offense against Islam. Let’s suppose that this movement prepared to defend villages where U.S. night raids are being carried out, and organized committees of unarmed women to implement this defense. And let’s suppose that when a U.S. night raid began, a call would go out from the mosque, and a group of unarmed women would surround the house and say to the US soldiers: you’re not coming in, and if you try, we will not move. And let’s suppose that some Western NGO issued these women video cameras, as the Israeli human rights group B’tselem has issued Palestinians video cameras. And let’s suppose that a group of people in the United States and Western Europe agreed that they would try to support this movement, by vigorously raising their voices in protest whenever US special forces tried to break the line of protesters.

Nonviolent resistance is employed by thousands of Palestinians, along with sympathetic Israelis. Naiman cites the citizens of Budrus, who in 2004, used nonviolent resistance to force Israel to re-route the West Bank Barrier around its village. Do Focal Points readers think that this tactic has failed to achieve wide success in Palestine because it’s an impotent act — or because it hasn’t been fully implemented? Can Gandhi’s satyagraha work in Afghanistan as outlined by Naiman? Let us know in the comments section.

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