Focal Points Blog

Don’t Believe Defense Cuts Until You See Them

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

One upshot of the debt-ceiling debate is that politicians might finally be ready to trim the outrageously bloated U.S. military budget. That’s the story, anyway, being told by the Washington Post. The paper reported: “[A]s lawmakers and the White House move closer to a grand bargain that could reshape the country’s fiscal priorities, Pentagon budget planners are…girding for the possibility that they will have to reduce projected spending by as much as $800 billion over the next 12 years.”

Certainly, it would make sense, in a time when conservatives are insisting on austerity, that the military—a huge and pork-laden area of discretionary spending—would be on the table. But there’s a good rule of thumb about defense cuts: Don’t believe them until you see them.

The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss is optimistic that real cuts will be in the offing. In a piece entitled, “Defense on the Chopping Block,” he wrote: “Now, it appears that Obama is backing cuts as much as $886 billion, and that might just be an opening bid.” Of hawkish conservatives who are warning against reductions in Pentagon spending, Dreyfuss wrote:

It’s okay to laugh at their contention that the military is being ‘stretched thin’ after a decade of unbridled expansion and a doubling of military spending since 2000, not even counting Iraq and Afghanistan. But they’re right that cuts are coming.

This argument is one that Dreyfuss has been making throughout the year. In January, he suggested that “deficit-minded Republicans and the incoming class of Tea Party types” would result in squeezed military budgets, and again in March he contended that a “politics of debt and deficit reduction [that] has taken hold in Washington, tied to an economic crisis that has convinced many that the United States can no longer afford an oversized Pentagon,” will force down defense spending.

Again, this position seems plausible. But, in practice, talk of cuts to the military has a way of evaporating when it comes time for appropriations. There are several reasons for continuing skepticism.

First, the military and its hawkish defenders are very effective at pulling a sleight of hand with their budget projections. Every year, the Pentagon puts in a request for a big funding increase. Then, if politicians offer anything less than that, the hawks portray it as a cut.

We saw this with Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. The media highlighted conservative willingness to slash even sacrosanct programs, and the Republican proposal supposedly included billions in cuts that had been preemptively proposed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Yet, as the libertarian Cato Institute pointed out in frustration, the budget in question was only a “cut” in the sense that it did not fully fund every item on the military’s wish list. It actually proposed an $8 billion increase in the Pentagon base budget over the previous year.

The bill that ended up passing the conservative-controlled chamber showed even less restraint. On July 8, after a year of Tea Party ascendancy, the House passed a defense appropriations bill that included a $17 billion budget increase for the Pentagon. So much for austerity.

Viewed in this light, a quote Dreyfuss included in his March article is revealing:

“Five years from now, we’ll turn around and the defense budget will be a lot lower than we thought it was going to be five years ago, and we’ll look back and say, Wow,” says Gordon Adams, a Stimson Center fellow and American University professor who’s been analyzing military spending for four decades.

If you read carefully, you’ll notice that “a lot lower than we thought it was going to be” does not necessarily entail actual cuts. It could just as easily mean slower increases.

The politics of defense pork make this latter outcome the more likely of the two. Many Republicans fervently denounced stimulus spending by the Obama administration and campaigned last fall against socialistic government jobs programs. But when it comes to federal funding for defense contractors and military bases in their home districts, they quickly turn around and paint any stemming of government dollars as unwise and unpatriotic. I noted one example in an article I wrote for the Guardian in February:

Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, for instance, attacked White House stimulus spending, arguing, ‘Congressional Democrats and the administration continue to insist that we can spend our way out of this recession and create jobs, but the numbers just don’t add up.’ Yet in 2010 alone, he secured $24.2m in defense earmarks for his district, which includes the city of Palmdale, known as the ‘aerospace capital of America,’ where over 9,000 employees rely on Pentagon largesse for their jobs.

It’s not just long-time defense boosters like McKeon. In May, a Capitol Hill Blue headline read, “Tea Party-backed GOP freshmen pack defense bill with pork.” The article highlighted the actions of Illinois Representative Bobby Schilling, who pushed for $2.5 million in weapons and technology funding for the Rock Island Arsenal—a facility in his district—even after having criticized his Democratic opponent in last year’s election for directing funds to the very same institution. Likewise, after Missouri Representative Vicky Hartzler pushed for $20 million for her district’s Whiteman Air Force Base, she claimed that she didn’t think the ban on earmarks she promoted during her campaign applied to Pentagon spending.

Think Progress noted other similar examples of hypocrisy from elected officials that had been backed by the Tea Party and cited Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank’s observation that “It was probably inevitable that [grassroots] Tea Party activists would be betrayed, but the speed with which congressional Republicans have reverted to business-as-usual has been impressive.”

On a final note, it’s important to recognize that, while numbers like $400 billion or $800 billion sound big, proposed defense cuts of this magnitude are spread out over ten to twelve year periods. In that same time span, the Pentagon base budget alone will total well over $5 trillion, and that does not include trillions more that will go toward veterans benefits, nuclear weapons, and wars the country is actually fighting. (Appropriations for conflicts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan are not included in the base budget.) What’s more, there’s no guarantee that something like a 10 percent budget reduction would ever be carried out. Long-term plans for budget cuts often delay the most painful, difficult, and significant cuts until the back end of their schedules—when current policymakers will be least accountable for making them real.

For all these reasons, talk by right-wingers about extending their demands for fiscal discipline even to the military warrants skepticism. When it comes to reining in the Pentagon, seeing is believing.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising.

Jeju Island Activist Sung-Hee Choi Interviewed in Prison

Jeju Island protestors(Pictured: Protesters obstructing construction trucks on Jeju Island.)

Last week, I had the honor of going to prison. I was conducting research on South Korea’s beautiful Jeju Island, off the country’s southern coast, and was lucky enough to be one of the two people per day allowed to speak with the renowned imprisoned activist Sung-Hee Choi.

Choi was arrested for her attempts to prevent the construction of a naval base in Jeju’s Gangjeong Village, a base that many suspect would become a new port for the U.S. Navy. Despite the opposition of people like Choi, who has repeatedly laid her body in front of construction equipment, the South Korean government has been trying to create a base on Jeju since at least 2002, on an island that South Korea has declared, no less, an “Island of Peace.” Twice already, protestors have forced the government to find another construction site.

In the newest site, Gangjeong, where thousands of tons worth of construction supplies sit near the water, the base would pave over a delicate and rare volcanic beachfront, endanger local marine life, and destroy the heart of a beautiful seaside village. For five years, Gangjeong’s people have been struggling to stop the base.

Over the weekend, hundreds of South Korean police started assembling around Gangjeong in what villagers feared would be an imminent attempt to evict them by force from their permanent seaside protest site. This week, after protestors chained themselves to trees to block a police front hoe, the arrival of several politicians appears to have reduced tensions and forced the police, at least temporarily, to halt their eviction plans.

The following are Sung-Hee Choi’s words from our conversation last Thursday. I have lightly edited the transcript for ease of reading. Tomorrow morning, I return to Jeju to monitor the ongoing standoff with Sung-Hee’s powerful words still fresh in my mind.

SUNG-HEE CHOI: The United States and South Korea use military exercises in the Asia-Pacific region that are aimed against China not North Korea. There is big evidence that the United States will want the Jeju naval base, even though this is officially denied every time: They say, “This is not a U.S. naval base. This is a South Korean base.” So this is really a trick. They are really deceiving people. There is no problem for the U.S. military to use it. First, the U.S. and South Korean mutual defense treaty, which was signed in 1954, allows the United States to use of all South Korean military facilities. Second, the SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] facilities are really meant for the U.S. military. Third, the U.S. military strategic flexibility policy under which South Korea has allowed U.S. forces in Korea to assume expanding regional and global roles beyond deterring North Korea.

The United States military can clearly use any South Korean base.

It is not only the military, but also corporations like Samsung and Daerim that are benefiting from the building of the base. It is not only a military part, but also the commercial part. What I am afraid about is the entrance of fascism in the whole island.

DAVID VINE: Fascism?

SUNG-HEE: Yes, fascism. Yes. In the mainland, and now Jeju island is being dominated by Samsung.

A base on Jeju would be a tragedy for Jeju Island and its people, because of what they have already experienced in 1948, when the South Korean military massacred 40,000 [accused communists].

Jeju’s people’s history is one of struggling against outside powers: the United States and Japan. U.S. military weapons [were involved in the massacre] just a few years after the South Korean liberation from Japan. Jeju’s own identity is constant. Jeju has been the victim of the outside powers.

Why are we still struggling? Not only for the environment, but also for the history of the Jeju island and South Korea, which have been struggling against the powerful countries.

Another thing that I am thinking is that, day by day, Jeju island is a red button for the United States military. The United States already occupies all of the region that it covets. The United States already occupies Hawai’i, Okinawa, Philippines—or, they used to. Now they want to occupy Jeju island. This is a peace island. This is for peace. Now the vision of the peace activists here is for keeping the island as a real peace island.

Brother Song [a fellow activist] and [former Jeju Governor] Shin Goo-beom have tried to find alternatives for villagers for how to develop Gangjeong village for our future generation. One option is to build a UN Peace School. They are all talking about this. And also the chairman and the villagers’ committee, they are all talking about this. That needs to be our vision. That needs to be our ultimate goal. That is a concrete vision to create a real peace school for future generations in Jeju island.

And I really hope that you can talk about how the villagers are suffering. How they love their hometown. I really hope that you will please communicate how the islands in the Asia-Pacific region are now a target of an empire base for the United States.

DAVID: Why do you think there are so many people who are so dedicated to the struggle? Like yourself. People willing to go to jail. People willing to go on hunger strikes. There are many anti-base movements but people seem to be very passionate, and I wonder why—either personally for yourself or for others—you think people are so dedicated, so strong in their opposition?

SUNG-HEE: As I have written before, I feel a responsibility to talk for the voiceless animals and creatures who cannot speak. Second, for our future generations who will be the victims of war if we don’t stop the base. I think the villagers love their hometown so much. It is their hometown. They love it so much.

It is about love. It is about a love that cannot speak. It is about the sea that cannot speak. It is about the creatures who cannot speak aloud. We are basically talking about, we are basically talking….

And then, an automated voice and background music abruptly cut Sung-Hee off, announcing that our time had expired and instructing visitors to leave quickly. Sung-Hee grabbed her pen and the scrap of paper next to her and furiously wrote a few final words. She held the paper briefly up to the glass between us before a guard took her away. The paper read:

It is about love for the people who cannot speak now.

It is about love.

David Vine is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University in Washington, DC, and the author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton University Press).

Breivik’s Qutb

Al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Anwar al-Awlaki fell under the spell of the prolific Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood author Sayyid Qutb who called for Islamic fundamentalism, holy war, and martyrdom. Oslo shooter-bomber Anders Behring Breivik apparently had his own Qutb, who grease the skids to his attacks on civilians. At American Prospect, Adam Serwer writes that

Walid Shoebat, a “terrorism expert” with a dubious background who was paid by the U.S. government to train law enforcement in counterterrorism, is … cited in the manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik … more than 15 times. Brevik cites Shoebat to support his arguments that immigration from Muslim countries threatens the West.

Shoebat, Serwer adds, “is also a columnist for the right-wing birther website WorldNetDaily.” Sterling credentials indeed.

There will be those on the left who will ask where is the sorrow and wringing of hands when Muslim children are killed both by the Taliban and U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan. Like Sunday, when a British helicopter gunship wounded five children for the crime, according to the Telegraph, of “working in a field close to ‘positively identified insurgents.”

Of course, the attack on the Utoya youth camp approached Beslan proportions. Aside from that, out of respect for the dead, now is not the time to guilt-trip those who ignore the deaths of Muslim children. Especially since, in the United States anyway, it’s only natural to sympathize with Norwegians since, in the 1800s, many of them emigrated to the United States and helped settle the heartland.

Of course, the real insult to Muslims was on the part of those in the media who jumped to the conclusion that it was an attack by Muslims extremists. Which brings us to the question of why, if he were opposed to Muslim immigration and “multiculturalism,” he didn’t attack Muslims. I’m sure it’s hidden in his manifesto but I’ll leave poring over it to those with stronger stomachs.

Pakistan’s K — as in Kashmir — Street

India has long maintained the upper hand in lobbying for a pro-India unification with Kashmir in Washington. Supporters of the Indian position often wield significant clout by making substantial campaign contributions to the members of Congress. On the other hand, Pakistan seems far behind in pushing for a pro-Pakistan stance in the U.S. capital, which is often complicated by the bumps in U.S.-Pakistan relations in recent years. However, the recent discovery of Pakistan’s decades-old secret efforts in funneling money from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) to tilt policy in the U.S. Congress and the White House provides a twist to the story.

The executive director of the Washington-based nonprofit group Kashmiri American Council (KAC), Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, together with his aide Zaheer Ahmad who mainly works in Pakistan, has been receiving funding from ISI to “buy” the hearts of U.S. Congress members in the form of campaign contributions to promote the cause of self-determination for Kashmir—a region over which both India and Pakistan claim sovereignty. The grand strategy of the KAC is to offset the Indian lobby by targeting members of Congress who work on foreign affairs with private briefings and events that would draw media attention.

According to an FBI estimate, the group received up to $700,000 per year from the Pakistani government. Prosecutors said that Ahmad recruited people to act as straw donors to the KAC when the money was actually from the Pakistani government. Federal Election Commission records indicate that under Fai’s leadership, at least $30,000 has been donated to campaigns and political parties in the United States, including a $250 donation to Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008.

The biggest individual beneficiary is Indiana Congressman Dan Burton, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and reportedly received about $10,000 since 1997. Burton, founder of the House Kashmiri caucus, has traveled to Kashmir on multiple trips sponsored by the KAC. He is an outspoken advocate for the Kashmir issue and has appealed to Presidents Clinton and Obama to get more involved in attempting to mediate a settlement between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. In 2003, because of his overly staunch pro-Pakistan stance, Burton could not win the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on South Asia.

According to FBI, Fai coordinated the KAC’s activities with ISI handlers and often communicated in coded emails.

“You are aware that we have been working together for the cause for over a decade now,” wrote Fai in an email to a senior ISI official in 1995. “All these years, I have closely worked with you and others who came before you. It has taken us much time, energy, dedication, strategy and planning to achieve our common cause.”

The Justice Department also revealed that the Pakistani government had been approving speakers and giving Fai talking points to highlight at the annual Kashmir Peace Conference at the Congress, which Fai is best known for organizing. Fai was arrested Tuesday under charges of being an unregistered agent of a foreign government and faces up to five years in prison if convicted. The Obama administration has decided to return the $250 to the KAC, and Burton will transfer the donations he received from the KAC to the Boy Scouts of America.

This incident complicates the already strained U.S.-Pakistan relationship in the wake of the U.S. unilateral raid on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the Obama administration’s declaration of a massive reduction in aid payments to Islamabad. The marriage between the U.S. and Pakistan is indeed a bad one, and it is getting worse. However, divorce is not an option. Despite a series of recent crises, Washington and Islamabad still need each other in the struggle against the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan. In the meantime, the United States cannot achieve success in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s help. The lobbying scandal is an embarrassing affair, but the two sides must now work even harder to save the marriage.

Shiran Shen is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Human Trafficking in the Gulf Not What It Seems

Pardis Mahdavi(Pictured: Pardis Mahdavi.)

(Cross-posted from Jadaliyya.)

Earlier this month, the US State Department released its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, an inventory of the world’s efforts at combating the global trade in people. The 2011 report marks a turning point of sorts for US foreign policy. For the first time ever, the new TIP includes an assessment—if predictably positive—of Washington’s own attempts at battling trafficking at home. More encouraging still, the report reflects the explicit recognition that trafficking is not only about the forced prostitution of women but represents the problem of coerced labor of both women and men around the world. Despite these progressive shifts, however, the new report is not without its critics. Some contend that Washington’s commitment to fighting forced labor remains subordinate to the larger dynamics of American interest and that the discourse driving US policy particularly disadvantages Muslim-majority nation-states.

Understanding how this discourse shapes both policy and the lived experiences of foreign workers in the Gulf region is of central concern in Pardis Mahdavi’s Gridlock, a new book on trafficking and migrant labor in Dubai. In it, Mahdavi interviews sex workers, taxi drivers, construction workers and domestic servants laboring under the Gulf’s kefala sponsorship framework—a legal architecture that largely determines the contours of Dubai’s formal and informal political economy. The portrait that emerges upends conventional understandings of trafficking—which often equate the phenomenon with sex slavery—to reveal a vastly more nuanced, complex, and often messy reality of migrant life in the emirate.

I recently spoke with Mahdavi about some of these issues, her new book more broadly, and the possibility for reinvigorated discourses and policies that privilege labor rights while narrowing the trafficking debate exclusively around instances of “force, fraud, and coercion.”

MB: I was hoping to begin by asking you to unpack the book’s title. What is the “gridlock” in attempting to understanding labor, migration and human trafficking in Dubai?

PM: It’s funny you mention that. The original title of the book was actually “Traffic Jam.” It was basically intended to convey the fact that the issue of trafficking involves the interplay of so many different factors and that the topic involves such a messy intersection between policy, discourse, and lived reality. That’s what I was trying to convey with a title like “Traffic Jam.” I think Gridlock—which was chosen by my editor—similarly conveys this powerful nexus where these issues are gridlocked in any number of ways. At the same time, it also speaks to those who have spent time in the Gulf, or anywhere in the Middle East. The experience of just sitting in gridlock should be familiar, and it says a lot about the field, the title was chosen to invoke the field.

I was struck by your very frank discussion in the book of those aspects of your research that continue to unsettle you: specifically, the questions of how you talk about trafficking without falling into the very traps you identify and criticize and how you talk about sex work without making the experience seem glamorous or worthy of pity. Can you talk a bit more about those challenges, where they come from, and how they affected the approach you adopted to your research as a result?

I think it makes sense to address the second part of the question first. In terms of my approach, I think that any of us who write about trafficking have to be very careful, because it is a very loaded term. Oftentimes, when you use the word “trafficking,” people see red. They think sex, they think sex trafficking. It evokes the images that I’m very critical of in my book, like those coming from movies like Taken and Call and Response. This idea of a thirteen-year-old girl chained to a bed—this is what “trafficking” evokes for people. There are a lot of feelings that debates about trafficking provoke. And sometimes those feelings, those knee-jerk reactions get in the way of having more robust conversations, and honest conversations about what trafficking is and is not. It’s that same impassioned sentiment that undergirds deeply flawed and uncritical and developmentalist efforts, the “rescue efforts” which have been constructed in a knee-jerk way—“let’s rescue these poor women.” We need to recognize what that rhetoric entails, how it can take away agency, and also the ways in which it paints this image of the moral decay of the global south.

Your first book, Passionate Uprisings, looked at the sexual counterculture in Tehran amongst youth there resisting the sociopolitical structures of authoritarian rule in Iran. This new book shares some overlap with its predecessor, but it generally looks to be a distinct break from your previous work. Is this a fair assessment, and if so, how did this new project come about?

That is definitely a fair assessment. The theme that underlies both of the books is that of moral anxiety, moral panic. In the first book, you have the moral panics surrounding young people and sexuality—youth gone astray—and this is what I am critical of in my writing. And in the new book, you have a different type of moral panic. Here it’s an anxiety about the movement of bodies, a panic specifically about gendered bodies, gendered migration. So in both works, there’s a concern with what James Scott has termed “moral economies” or Stanley Cohen’s “moral panics.” That’s the driving theme that links the two books. At the same time, you’re absolutely right to say that Gridlock is somewhat of a departure from the first book. I have a very complicated relationship with that work, as I think many people do with their first project. There was a lot more of me in that first book, and I was much more a part of it, putting myself out there in ways that I don’t really like, in ways I don’t think I would do again.

How so?

Well, I appear in the first book—and this was at the encouragement of several people—much more as a character than I do in Gridlock. And also as an Iranian, as an Iranian-American, my relationship to Iran is very different from my relationship to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). And during the writing of the first book, I encountered a lot of problems to the point where I basically can’t go back to Iran. So that right there necessitated a new field site, obviously!

But actually, my interest in this current project came about before all of that. In 2004, I started working with sex workers in Tehran. I started living with, spending time with women who were engaged in the sex industry. They actually don’t appear in the first book, because I couldn’t figure out a way of bringing the issue of sex work into Passionate Uprisings in a way that wouldn’t detract from the main argument that I was making. And so I did a lot of research with sex workers that just didn’t appear at all. But it was through my research with sex workers in Tehran that I became interested in the new project. So much so that I started following women who were in the sex industry in Tehran who would go to Dubai for x-number of months a year, engage in the sex industry there, make a lot of money, and then come back.

From there, I started meeting women who were not sex workers in Iran but who would also go to Dubai, engage in the sex industry, make a lot of money, and come back. And I started to follow them to Dubai, where two things became very obvious to me. Number one, the narratives about these women were scripted by EuroAmerican discourse which considered them “trafficked” because they were going into the sex industry. They themselves would not describe themselves this way at all! They would describe themselves as enterprising agents making money to support their families back home. At the time, I was still a graduate student at Columbia, and one of my advisors, Carol Vance—a prominent scholar on trafficking—influenced my thinking dramatically, as did the conversations she and her colleagues were having. They did a lot of work on trafficking discourses that emanated from the United States and Europe and I had all this in the back of my mind which helped make me aware of this disconnect.

Second, I noticed—and in fact anyone who goes and spends time in Dubai will notice—the hordes of male construction workers and male migrant workers. I started talking with some of these workers and noticed that they had actually undergone experiences of force, fraud or coercion which is the very definition of human trafficking. But when we speak of men, they are often imagined as being outside of the trafficking paradigm which tends to focus disproportionately on the sex industry. What that does, in turn, is eclipse the experiences of abuse suffered outside of the sex industry.

Speaking of male laborers, I was surprised to learn from your book the extent to which the Emirates depend on the importation of law enforcement. Can you talk about why this is, how this produces unique tensions that result from the interface between migrant law enforcement and those migrants laboring in both the formal and informal economies, and what, if any, effects the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report have had on the situation?

The UAE is quite reliant on importing law enforcement and often they are not able to train migrant police at the rate at which they need to. This creates a number of problems. First of all, if they are untrained, this makes it very difficult for them to interface with women that they are ostensibly “rescuing,” who are often held in detention. As I mention in the book, a large number of women are abused at the hands of these imported police officers.

As to the issue of the TIP report, it seems clear that the report has exacerbated the problem. The UAE gets a bit of a bad rap. It gets blamed for everything going wrong which presents it with a tough situation. Before the TIP the UAE was looking into increasing the number of labor inspectors. If you want to stop trafficking, you need to have labor inspectors to actually take a look at what’s going on with the country’s various employees. The TIP report, however, very explicitly says “You need to increase the number of police officers and decrease the practice of prostitution,” which is in line with the TIP’s focus on prostitution and of which many people, including myself, are very critical. That became a very tough situation for the UAE to deal with because unlike Iran, say, or places like North Korea, the UAE really does not want to be on Tier Three [the TIP’s lowest possible ranking] or the Tier Two “Watch List.” The UAE is vested in maintaining a good image, and so here comes this TIP report making these recommendations that aren’t necessarily going to improve the situation because if you increase the number of imported policemen, you’re going to increase the problem itself if they are one of the sources of abuse. Basically, the trafficking issue took away from the focus on migrant rights, which is really at the heart of all this. I think the UAE wanted to get—was on the track towards getting—more labor inspectors and looking at the issue of migrants rights, but the concern over “trafficking” took center stage with the appearance of the TIP report.

Some analysts have registered frustration with what they see as academic hyperscrutiny on the doom and gloom of migrant life in the UAE, when in fact the real story is largely one of success and economic opportunity. You have a very specific agenda in mind in your research that leads you to examine potential pitfalls facing those working within the kefala framework. But I’m curious: do you agree with this assessment, and if, why do you think there’s such an emphasis on the “dark side” of Dubai in studies on migration to the Emirates and less on its positive and transformative impacts?

Another thing I focus on in the book is the presence of Islamaphobia and the post-9/11 rhetoric around the notion of “the backwards Islamic country.” The idea that a country in the Middle East could be making such progress as the UAE has works against this clash of civilizations rhetoric that characterizes the post-9/11 period. I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s a focus on the gloom and doom, why there’s a desire to examine the so-called “dark side” of Dubai of which I’m very critical. I’m really tired, actually, of this focus on the “dark side.” And while I’ve been critical of the kefala system, I’ve also tried to point out ways in which the problems that take place in Dubai also stem from outside discourses. As I said, the Emirates are being put in a really tough position by policies like the TIP report. People try to hold their feet to the fire. I actually think that they are vested in improving their image, they are vested in addressing the issue of migrants rights. But here’s the thing: unilateral policies are not going to work. If the Emirates come up with a policy, it is not going to work unless there is bilateral or multilateral support from both sending and receiving countries. A global policy would be the ideal. I think the UAE wants to join the global dialogue about how to improve the situation. But the challenge they’re up against is this clash of civilizations climate, which makes things difficult.

You outline a number of recommendations in Gridlock’s final chapter for immediate action that could be taken to remedy some of the discursive problems you identify as well as be of help to migrant laborers. Can you briefly outline some of these, and talk about what you see as possible roadblocks getting in the way of their being realized?

Well, my recommendations are all directed at aligning policies more closely with the lived experiences of migrants, at better understanding what migrant workers actually need, and how it is we can best address that. If that means, for example, that there need to be more labor inspectors, then the TIP should recommend more labor inspectors! I mean think about the TVPA, and its focus on prosecution. T visas are only issued if victims agree to testify against their traffickers. This is a very problematic framing of the situation. If you ask someone, “Who is your trafficker?” in many instances the answer is a member of their family. The family sent them over. This idea, this obsession, with prosecution—while I understand where it comes from—is really not serving the needs of migrants. Neither is the obsession with sex trafficking. It serves no one’s interest either. So we really need a reconceptualization of trafficking, and a realignment of policy with the actual experiences of workers.

But I don’t think we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I recognize that the TIP is a powerful tool. The question is how it can best be used to get migrants what they actually want and need. I think the biggest barriers are discursive, certainly, and the rhetoric around Islamic countries. If we look at a movie, like Taken, for example, the villains are dark-skinned men with Middle Eastern accents. And so it’s no surprise at the end of the movie—spoiler alert!—it’s these wealthy Arab sheiks, living in the Gulf, who are trying to buy and sell these White virgins. And so you have to ask yourself: what does this do to the conversation? I’m up against this sort of thing daily. When I give talks about my work, I constantly get students saying, “But I heard that the price the price for virgins was such-and-such.” This is not a robust conversation.

So some of the challenges are certainly discursive. But others exist at the policy level. The TIP is written by a group of people that don’t have the time to go spend more than a few days in these countries. So we have to ask ourselves about ways in which they can work with academics, how we can use our skills to help reframe the TIP more productively. And then there’s the neoliberal economic world order which produces an oversupply of flexible labor, which is also part of the problem. Specifically, there’s a reliance on it to mitigate the risks of capitalism, where the risks are pushed down onto this pool of flexible labor which in turn creates a situation where force, fraud and coercion can occur.

Finally, the 2011 TIP report was just released a few weeks back. I was hoping you could talk about your reaction to it with reference both specifically to the UAE as well as more generally.

Well, I think it’s a matter of “one step forward, two steps back.” The UAE got a Tier Two ranking this year, which is good. But as one of my interlocutors in the book points out, where the UAE is ranked each year is dependent on how good its trade relations are with the Washington. So it’s probably not a coincidence that as the UAE moved up to Tier Two, trade between it and the United States dramatically increased in the last year. But who knows?

As for more generally, there are some very good things that the latest TIP has done. First of all, the United States is now ranked. This is a good effort compared to earlier reports where the US simply didn’t rank itself, which is obviously problematic. Also, the new TIP is committed to going beyond the sex trafficking framework and looking more at migrant workers, which is a great development.

However, they also took two steps back. The report is still very much an extension of US foreign policy. Again, Muslim majority countries are castigated, the language used to describe them is very problematic. And in Secretary Clinton’s introduction to the report in its opening pages, she talks again about the girls who need to be saved. But there’s also a real slippage of numbers. On the one hand, Secretary Clinton notes that there are twenty-seven million people being trafficked yet when you go and actually look at the chart of numbers of people—worldwide!—identified as having been trafficked last year, the number doesn’t even hit 27,000. And again, there’s also the problem of the opaque nature of the report’s compilation. So, we do have some real improvements in this year’s report—and I think that Luis CdeBaca should be commended for the big steps forward that the TIP has taken—but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

U.S. and Mexican Governments Continue to Brush Aside Perspectives of Drug War Victims

Guatemalans marching for Cabral(Pictured: Guatamelans marching after murder of Facundo Cabral.)

On July 8, the “war on drugs” claimed another victim, the songwriter Argentine Facundo Cabral, the victim of an ambush in Guatemala. Cabral, a tireless pacifist, was killed when three carloads of gunmen ambushed the vehicle in which he was riding. This is an irreparable loss to the Argentine and Latin American people.

The victims of this drug war have mostly been anonymous, from the perspective of the global media. But the war has begun to claim some famous people, like Cabral. In Mexico the murder of the son of renowned intellectual Javier Sicilia has led to the emergence of a strong and important social movement calling for an end to the war on drugs. This movement forced President Felipe Calderon to initiate a dialogue with society: an imperfect dialogue but dialogue at least.

Despite this social message, on June 22, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in Guatemala that the U.S. government would spend nearly $300 million this year helping governments in Central America confront the mafias that smuggle cocaine to American consumers. At the same event, President Felipe Calderon called for more resources from the international community to fund this ill-advised strategy to combat crime. He dismissed the notion of a symbolic contribution, “because this is not about charity,” and asked for an amount equal to the billions of dollars received by criminals to run their operations.

Ironically, the next day, Calderón met with Javier Sicilia in México for a dialogue that seemed to have deaf ears. Sicilia said to the Mexican president, “Watch carefully our faces. Search carefully our names. Hear our words. We represent innocent victims. Do we look like collateral damage or statistics?” He asked Calderón to apologize for the 40,000 deaths caused by the struggle against organized crime. The president responded that he wouldn’t apologize for having pursued the offenders. “Javier, you’re wrong,” he said. “I regret not having sent federal forces in earlier.”

For more than three decades, the “war on drugs” has been a constant concern for the United States and has shaped relations with various governments in Latin America. Some of them, like Mexico or Colombia, have completely followed U.S. foreign policy, as with Plan Colombia launched in 1999 or the Merida Initiative for Mexico in 2008. Others failed to cooperate with the United States and established independent drug control strategies, like Venezuela, which stopped receiving U.S. financial support in 2005.

Despite these efforts, the strategy has totally failed. In human costs, according to a report of the U.S. Congress, homicides in Latin America have increased from 19.9 per 100 000 people in 2003 to 32.6 per 100 000 people in 2008. In terms of strategy, from 1980 to 2008, the U.S. government has spent $13.1 billion dollars. This money has done little, as the same report notes: “Temporary successes in one country or sub-region have often led traffickers to alter their cultivation patterns, production techniques, and trafficking routes and methods in order to avoid detection.”

Fighting violence with violence only begets more violence. Additionally, it has profoundly damaged the social fabric and has damaged institutions. Public confidence in the army, which has killed civilians as part of “collateral damage,” has declined considerably. The same applies to the judiciary. Victims now prefer silence for fear of reprisals or because they consider official complaints to be a waste of time. According to the Report on the Americas, 73 percent of Latin Americans perceive corruption among public officials as a widespread problem.

Governments and policymakers say that they are acting in line with democracy, human rights and public opinion. But, in reality, they are not willing to listen to the demands of society. In the context of the “war on drugs,” they are unable to guarantee human rights or even the right to live.

The deaths of Cabral and Juan Francisco Sicilia are not more important than the other casualties of this war. But they have inspired major social reactions. Latin American and U.S. governments must start to listen to these reactions. If they don’t, they will have another war on their hands – with their own enraged citizens.

What Does Lowballing the Number of Dead Iraqi Civilians Tell Us About Ourselves?

As the executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies, in 2006 John Tirman commissioned Johns Hopkins scientists to conduct a study to determine how many civilians had been killed in the Iraq War up to that point. (He’s also the author of the just-released book “The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars.”)

As you may recall, even though the scientists utilized state-of-the-art epidemiological practices, the figure of 650,000 that they came up with was subject to derision in many quarters. On July 20, at AlterNet, John Tirman writes:

I’ve puzzled over this habit of reaching for the lowest possible estimates of the number of Iraqis who died unnecessarily since March 2003. The habit is now deeply entrenched. Over a period of about two weeks in May, I encountered in major news media three separate references to the number of people who had died in the Iraq war. Anderson Cooper, on his CNN show, Steven Lee Myers in the New York Times Magazine and Brian MacQuarrie in the Boston Globe all pegged the number in the tens of thousands, sometimes adding “at least.” . . . The “tens of thousands” mantra is peculiar because even the most conservative calculation—that provided by Iraq Body Count, a British NGO—is now more than 100,000.

Tirman provides reasons why officials and the media prefer to cite figures so low that, far from being moderate as they no doubt believe, in fact beggar credulity to anyone who followed the Iraq War. One reason:

Make the rounds of right-wing blogs and think tanks and you’ll find a constant refrain: the war, despite its many difficulties, was worth it to get rid of Saddam Hussein. As Richard Miniter of the Hudson Institute put it last September, “The death tolls in the Saddam years were far higher than in the years following liberation; hundreds of thousands disappeared into mass graves.”

But that does not, Tirman writes, “explain why the elite media bury the mortality issue. A half-dozen reasons explain their indifference to accurate reporting.”

First, many of these news outlets had endorsed the war. … acknowledging that you’ve been hoodwinked by the Bush administration and then seeing that error magnified by … perhaps a million dead is a hard pill to swallow.

Second, the Bush White House worked overtime to decry any of the high estimates, and the Murdoch media machine. … trashed [the Hopkins study in the Wall Street Journal as] a “political hit.”

Now here are the two reasons that hint at my reasons why officials and the media lowball the number of dead civilians in Iraq.

Journalism in the Iraq war tended to focus on the Bush administration’s foibles and the chaotic political wrangling in Baghdad. The attention to civilians and the violence of the war quickly fell into a few reliable tropes: the Shia-Sunni fratricide, spectacular car bombs rather than the quotidian reality of violence. …While Iraqis were reporting … that 80 percent of the violence was due to the U.S. military … this perspective rarely found its way into major news media in the United States.

Then, of course, there’s “the troubling matter of racism.” I personally suspect that much of the American public felt, in retrospect that, no, we should never have invaded Iraq. But at least we gave them their freedom from tyranny. What did they do with it? Those savages butchered each other. Our utter contempt for Iraqis made it easy to wash our hands of violence to civilians. (Though, if you follow that reasoning, we shouldn’t have any problem with the numbers. The higher the number of dead, the more proof of what a sorry lot those Iraqis were.)

Finally, though, many officials and those in the media may have treated the subject of hundreds of thousands (many believe millions today) Iraqi civilians dead as a conspiracy theory. God knows how far, on government cover-ups of that immensity, that bunch runs to distance themselves from anything but the official version of the truth. For instance, even when just asked – alternative narratives aside – to simply inspect 9/11 evidence that undermines the official story, they refuse to touch it with a ten-foot pole.

To most officials and those in the media, not to mention the public itself, their perceived credibility rating is second only to their credit rating. They feel that they can’t afford for it to be devalued not only because of their careers, but to avoid shunning by the group.

Lagarde’s Victory: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

Christine Lagarde became the first female to head the IMF on July 5 2011. Since the IMF was established, it has been dominated by Europeans and men. Only six of 30 senior executives and 21.5 percent of all managers have been women, and the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) control only 10.8 percent of IMF votes. In this context, Lagarde’s position in the IMF is a great victory for women, but it still leaves developing countries with little power.

If the position had gone to the Mexican central bank leader Agustin Cartens, who is also well qualified for the position, he could have brought in a new perspective to the organization. Today many in the developing world continue to be frustrated with the IMF’s structure since it doesn’t reflect the shifting power balance in the global economy. As the Latin America News Dispatch characterized the situation, “Carstens, who gained the backing Latin American nations like Chile and Peru as well as Australia and Canada, believes that emerging markets need to play a much larger role in setting the agenda of the IMF.”

I recently attended the National Organization for Women’s conference in Florida where participants debated the lack of female leaders. Female role models in positions of power could change this situation. Therefore Lagarde’s victory has given me a sense of hope that women can be as ambitious as men. Not only is she the first female leader of the IMF, but she is also the first non-economist to lead the IMF. One of her goals during her term is to increase the presence of developing countries in the organization. She has vowed to give China the third-strongest voice in the organization and to give more voice to countries like Brazil and South Korea.

Not only does she want to create more culture diversity but also gender diversity. Thus, she could bring a new sensibility to the IMF in terms of its policies toward women. She believes that a gender-dominated environment is not healthy. She often says that “too much testosterone” is a problem for the financial sector. Therefore, we can expect Lagarde to enhance women’s position and rights in the IMF.

Although Lagarde promises to diversify the organization, I still believe as a Ghanaian citizen that the position should have been given to a non-European, in particular a woman from a developing country.

One possible candidate is Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala the recently appointed finance minister of Nigeria and a former managing director of the World Bank. Okonjo-Iweala was notable for being the first female minister of finance and minister of foreign affairs under President Olusegun Obasanjo from 2003-2006. Okonjo-Iweala graduated from Harvard University and earned her Ph.D in regional economics and development from MIT. She helped Nigeria obtain its first sovereign debt rating and helping slash Nigeria’s debt by almost $30 billion. Today she is a role model for many Nigerians and Africans at large, in particular women, and the IMF would do well to consider her for its next leader.

Esther Ohrt is a Foreign Policy in Focus intern.

Freedom Flotillas Will Sail Until Blockade of Gaza Is Lifted

The French-flagged ship, Dignité – al Karama, was halted by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) en route to the shores of Gaza on July 19. The small vessel was boarded and reportedly towed to the Israeli port of Ashdod. There were 16 people on the boat, with French, Greek, Tunisian, Canadian, and Swedish passengers among them. As coalition organizers stated, “It is now the representative of the entire Freedom Flotilla II.”

The ten passengers, three crew, and three journalists, including the respected Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, Greek coalition representative Vangelis Pissias, al-Jazeera television, and a French member of parliament, were in frequent contact with land teams until being cut off by Israeli forces.

The boat was stopped while still in international waters and before entering Gazan waters (let alone Israeli waters, which the flotilla has never planned to enter).

It became the sole representative of the flotilla to escape the clutches of the Greek coast guard when it was able to depart from the island of Kastelorizo late Saturday and head towards Port Said, Egypt on Monday.

The ship did not dock in Egypt (for fear of being trapped by yet another government bowing to U.S.-Israeli pressure), but rather anchored in international waters off the Egyptian coast overnight – precluding the threat of another predawn raid like the IDF pulled last year – to set sail in the morning for Gaza.

Before embarking on their final Tuesday morning run, the activists had previously sent messages from the Mediterranean exclaiming, “Morale here is like the sky and sea, very good …. Gaza, off we go, stay connected!!!”

As Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon announced Monday, “If this boat is on its way to Gaza, which is a breach of international maritime law (sic!), and tries a provocative act — yes, we shall intercept it… But I assure you we shall try our best to make those on board very comfortable.” Clearly, the Israeli government is still smarting from the public relations drubbing Tel Aviv suffered last year in the wake of its state murder of 9 flotilla passengers. Yet so incongruous was the promise to be gentle that it was difficult not to read it more as some sort of ironic threat. When a mafia don offers you tea and biscotti, do you relax?

The Dignité set off around 6 AM local time this morning. The French-flagged vessel would have been due to touch down on the sandy beaches of the Gaza strip around noon.

First contact by the IDF was made while the small craft was still some 50 miles out. Organizers lost contact with the boat at 10:10 AM, as the IDF began jamming the boat’s communications systems, while it was in international waters, north of Arish, Egypt. The boat was reportedly some 40 miles from Gaza and surrounded by four Israeli naval warships when communication was cut. The French vessel then received direct contact from Israeli forces initiated around 10:30 AM.

The Israeli naval tracking of the ship and initial radio encounter – in which the Dignité can be heard declaring their unwavering intention to sail to Gaza – was recorded by the IDF.

Israeli naval authorities claim the boarding of the ship by Israeli commandos, known as the Shayetet 13, occurred when the Dignité was some 12 nautical miles off the coast of Gaza. Initial reports have thankfully not indicated abusive treatment thus far of the nonviolent activists.

Israeli authorities asserted that the area off the shores of Gaza was under “a maritime security blockade.” The leading Israeli establishment news site, YNet, reports that the Israeli government considers the Dignité members to be “effectively entering Israel illegally.” Anyone who can contemplate how it is possible to illegally enter Israel for attempting entry into Gaza while also believing that Israel does not occupy Gaza is indeed a skillful practitioner of the Orwellian arts of double-think.

The Israeli commandos demanded to know if the boat full of peace activists was armed, maintaining the necessary ruse with presumably straight faces and appropriate earnestness. Doubtless the small pleasure craft was a grave security threat to the mighty warships flanking it.

In another IDF recording, commandoes can be seen boarding the ship from Zodiac boats. One must appreciate a power so smugly out of touch that it obligingly posts footage of its own misdeeds. Passengers were apparently escorted off their ship and onto a naval craft for the journey into detention ashore.

The AP notes that, “Israeli naval commandos… report[ed] no resistance during the takeover in international waters.” A great surprise, to be sure.

Israeli forces have since towed the Dignite to the port at Ashdod, Israel.

I was certainly not alone among the many passengers now returned to our home countries who avidly watched with great enthusiasm the progress of the little yacht, as it finally compelled the Israeli government to enforce its cruel blockade directly, rather than through hapless intermediaries.

Though English language television coverage was, to my knowledge, careful to studiously avert its gaze from the unfolding events, social media came to the rescue. Although I have been a casual user for some time, I confess to having never much relied upon Twitter for news. That changed last night.

As I mastered the finer points of hashtags and compulsively refreshed my #Dignité browser tab, I was scarcely able to look away long enough to pour a new cup of coffee. I was filled with Twitter-fueled, anxious excitement for our Flotilla’s free boat. I relate these feelings only as an indication of the enormous bonds of solidarity we in the Freedom Flotilla have forged amongst ourselves.

A steady stream of updates began issuing forth in the early morning hours on the U.S. East Coast. Messages such as “3:36AM EDT – AthenianDemocra Athenian: #BREAKING #DIGNITE israeli Warships asked for destination-answer #GAZA RT #flotilla” fed the drama. A selected digest of the late-night tweets on the travails of the blockade-running French ship is available online. Through one of the last communications with the outside from the boat, we were able to chart its position in the Mediterranean Sea at the time.

It would be a serious error to judge the success of the Flotilla simply by its movement through the Mediterranean. The true goal is to raise global awareness of the horror of the blockade upon the youthful population of Gaza, whether that entails physically reaching Gaza or not. Yet there was an undeniable element of emotional satisfaction to be had in seeing the Dignité make a run for it.

“The Freedom Flotillas will keep sailing until the illegal blockade of Gaza is ended,” vowed Dylan Penner, a passenger from the Canadian boat, the Tahrir.

Nor is the detention of the Dignité the end of this flotilla. The departure of the French boat, loaded with representatives from across the Flotilla coalition, “prov[es] that the will of global civil society cannot be intimidated.”

Moreover, organizers declared, “the remaining ships in Freedom Flotilla II: Stay Human are regrouping to fulfill our obligations to the besieged people of Gaza and to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people around the world who funded and organized this act of solidarity. As long as the illegal blockade of Gaza remains in place, ships will sail to confront it.”

The call has already gone out for people to mobilize immediately at the nearest Israeli embassy or consulate to protest the stopping of the French boat. Protests were announced for later today in cities in Canada, France, and Greece almost as soon as the boat was seized.

Messages of support can be sent to the passengers of the Dignité here (though, as they are now under detention, there is no telling when they will see them).

Meanwhile, the U.S. boat, The Audacity of Hope, continues to languish in indefinite detention in a military port outside Athens – punishment for challenging the Greek government’s complicity in Gaza’s collective punishment. As the Greek authorities are ultimately acting under instruction from the U.S. and Israel, we are calling for all citizens to apply continued pressure to Washington, through daily phone calls to the U.S. State Department.

The movement of international solidarity has emerged stronger from our time in Athens. And we’re only getting started!

Steve Fake was a passenger on the U.S.-flagged Audacity of Hope in Athens. He is co-author of The Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA (Black Rose Books). He currently lives in New Orleans.

Haiti’s Recovery Ultimately Contingent on Education

Katya(Pictured: Katya.)

Log #1 — July 15, 2011

This morning I woke up after the best night’s sleep I think I’ve had in a while. There’s absolutely nothing compared to being home. I landed in Haiti yesterday afternoon. The hustle and bustle of the people and the sights and sounds of the streets is something I missed dearly. With that, however, came the tent cities, the NGOs, and ridiculous amount of traffic. It is something that after a while, you get used to seeing.

This afternoon I went to a summer program where I used to be a counselor before I moved from Haiti. The program is called Rescue One. It works with children from underprivileged neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince and organizes a huge summer camp for them every year. The children make arts and crafts, get some schooling, and just be children. When I arrived the kids were in the middle of doing their arts and crafts. There was one girl who wanted me to take a picture of what she had made. It was a stitching of a heart made out of yarn and paper.

As she held the picture out in front of her, it made me think of the Haitian youth and how important they are to Haiti’s future. As a young Haitian myself, I recognize the need for the youth to be engaged in Haiti’s rebuilding process. We are fresh and young, unfettered by the old establishment and its cycle of corruption and inefficiency. If Haitian youth were given the chance to rise to their full potential, Haiti’s future would look much brighter than it does now. Out of all the investments being poured into Haiti right now, none of it seems to be going to educate the Haitian youth. Most NGOs and even the Haitian government are too busy trying to meet basic needs. But no struggling nation can ever be great without planning for the future. Invest in education. Invest in woman and girls. Invest in the youth. The youth are the heart of Haiti, and they need to be given a pulse.

Tania Smith, a student at the American University School of International Service, is a Foreign Policy in Focus intern.

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