Focal Points Blog

The Irish Elections and the Ghost of Padraic Pearse

Padraic Pearse(Pictured: Padraic Pearse.)

“I say to the masters of my people, beware. Beware of the thing that is coming, Beware of the risen people who shall take what yea would not give.”
– Padraic Pearse, Irish poet and revolutionary, executed May 16, 1916 for his part in the Easter Rebellion.

It is almost a hundred years since Pearse and his comrades were executed in the aftermath of the failed rising of 1916, but the people who run the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU) might take a moment to read his poem—originally read over the grave of the great Fenian leader, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa—and take notice: an election is scheduled for Feb. 25, and Irish eyes are not smiling.

At stake is whether Ireland will lock itself into decades of high unemployment, burdensome taxes, and eviscerated social services in order to bail banks and real estate speculators out of trouble, or rise up and say “enough.”

The current economic crisis that turned the once formidable “Celtic Tiger” into a throw rug is the direct result of massive speculation by banks—both domestic and foreign—in Ireland’s real estate bubble. From 1994 to 2008, house prices in Dublin rose 500 percent, and speculators went on a massive construction spree that filled up the landscape with “ghost” projects: houses that were never finished or would never be lived in. Unemployment is 14 percent, and personal income has declined 20 percent. Projections are that more than 100,000 people will emigrate in the coming two years.

The banks and politicians were the major culprits in the speculation madness, with the former handing out cash they didn’t have, and the latter making sure that fees, taxes and regulations were waived. Ireland has the lowest corporate tax rate in Europe. Michael Lewis, writing for Vanity Fair, has calculated the following: the Anglo-Irish Bank lost 34 billion Euros, which, if measured by its percentage of the national economy, would be the equivalent of 3.4 trillion dollars in the U.S. Using the same formula, the losses for all Irish banks—106 billion Euros—would translate into 10 trillion dollars. Do keep in mind that Ireland is half the size of Alabama and one tenth the size of Texas.

The ruling coalition of Fianna Fail and the Green Party pushed through a $114 billion EU/IMF bailout, one that required Ireland to go back to the Iron Age, or maybe the Stone Age, when all is said and done. Taxes on the income of working people were raised to 41 percent, the minimum wage was slashed, tuition raised, and social services disemboweled. And Ireland was locked into paying back the EU at the usurious rate of 6 percent, even though the EU is borrowing the money it is lending to Ireland at 2.8 percent.

The bailout has tanked what was left of the Irish economy—the pre-bailout estimate of a 2.3 percent growth rate has been downgraded to 1 percent—and enraged the populace. One of Ireland’s current heroes is Gary Keogh, who took two rotten eggs—he prepared them by leaving them in his garage for six weeks—into a shareholders meeting of the Anglo-Irish Bank and egged the bank’s chairman.

The Feb. 25 vote will see six parties vying for votes in the 26-county elections. The current ruling party Fianna Fail, and Fine Gael, the Labor Party, the Green Party, Sinn Fein, and the brand new United Left Alliance (ULA).

A brief scorecard.

Fianna Fail (“Soldiers of Ireland”) has dominated the politics of the Irish Republic for 60 out of the last 88 years. Its economic philosophy is free market, and its social policies are conservative and closely aligned with the Catholic Church. Its traditional base is small farmers and businesses, but in recent years it has been able to draw on the enormous wealth of property speculators and financiers. If there is any one party responsible for the current meltdown, it is Fianna Fail, and it may drop from its current 71 seats in the 166-member Dial to as few as 30.

Fine Gael (“Family of the Irish”) is center-right, and the second largest party, but it hasn’t won a general election since 1982. Its economic politics are not much different than Fianna Fail’s, and the party voted—with minor reservations—for the EU-IMF bailout. Its base is large farmers, rural businesses, and Dublin professionals, and it tends to be socially liberal.

The Labor Party is center-left and an offspring of several earlier parties, including the Democratic Left, the Irish Workers Party, and the Official Sinn Fein Labor. Its base is trade unionists, civil servants and teachers, and it also voted for the bailout. Its leader, Eamon Gilmore, is demanding that bank bondholders absorb some of the pain from the bailout. If it does well, it will probably go into a coalition with Fine Gael, although there will be friction over Fine Gael’s program to privatize public services.

The Green Party has only six seats, and it is almost certain to feel the wrath voters will level at Fianna Fail, its coalition partner. It is a mostly urban party whose only real accomplishment was to ban stag hunting. It may cease to exist after Feb. 25.

Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone”) is a left party, and the only one to vote against the bailout. While it currently holds only five seats in the Dial, it recently took a seat away from Fianna Fail in a Donegal by-election. Its unrelenting opposition to the bailout is earning it points with trade unionists and civil servants, and the party may be on the verge of a major breakthrough, possibly even outpolling Fianna Fail.

The United Left Party (ULP) is a newcomer, formed in November 2010 from the Socialist Party, the People Before Profits Alliance, the Workers & Unemployed Action Group, plus former Labor Party members and independents. It also opposed the bailout and says it will not go into a coalition with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.

Sinn Fein contends that the bailout’s austerity program will destroy whatever is left of the Irish economy, an argument that recently got strong support from the British Office for National Statistics. The Office found that the United Kingdom’s economy had fallen by 0.5 percent because of a falloff in services and consumption. While the new Conservative-Liberal alliance tried to blame the bad news on the early December snowstorms, economists generally agreed that Britain’s draconian austerity budget was largely to blame.

“Now we are seeing the first signs of what the Conservative-led government’s decisions are having on the economy,” the British Labor Party economic spokesman told the New York Times. Even the Confederation of British Industry chimed in. The new government has “been careless of the damage they might do to business and to job creation,” said Confederation Director Richard Lambert. “It is not enough just to slam on the brakes.”

Fianna Fail says it wants to renegotiate the 6 percent interest rate, and the Labor Party wants bondholders to take some of the pain, but so far, only Sinn Fein is demanding that the agreement be dumped. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams says his party would reject the bailout, reverse the cuts, and submit a new budget that would ensure that those that can afford to pay will pay more. “We reject the EU/IMF deal, which is a digout for greedy bankers and speculators, not a bailout for the Irish citizens.”

Odds are the Fianna Fail will get shellacked, Fine Gael will win big, and go into a coalition with Labor. But the latter alliance will be an uncomfortable one, and there are rumors of a deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. The idea would be for Fine Gael to rule as a minority government with an agreement by Fianna Fail to support it. That would allow Fianna Fail to slip into government through a side door.

The key to all this will be how well Sinn Fein and the ULA do, and whether either party gets enough votes to torpedo a Fianna Fail-Fine Gael gentleman’s agreement. What Labor will do in this case, is unclear. There is no love lost between Labor and Sinn Fein, but Labor is deeply worried that if it highlights its centrist credentials, Sinn Fein and the ULA will draw off large numbers of angry trade unionists.

One thing is clear: The Irish are angry, and they aren’t being quiet about it. “All deputies receive calls to their Dial offices from members of the public,” says Sinn Fein Dial leader Caoimhghin O Caolain. “Often they are the old, the sick and the vulnerable. Yesterday my office received one such call from an elderly man whose blind pension was cut in the budget. He had one simple message: ‘Give us a voice.’ We must all listen to him and to countless others like him.”

Any attempt to renegotiate the terms of the bailout will meet stiff resistance. Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, a member of the European Central Bank executive board, says that the EU would not allow any “reneging” on the agreement. On the other hand, the Germans seem to be edging away from the EU’s hard-nosed posture of enforcing punitive interest rates.

Whatever party does a better job of tapping into Ireland’s anger will likely do well Feb. 25. But the outcome of this election is not just a concern for the Irish. Greece—another victim of EU/IMF austerity—will certainly be watching what happens and whether Ireland will be the first country since Argentina declared bankruptcy in 2002 to say “Enough.” Waiting in the wings are Spain and Portugal.

Ireland is just a little island, with not many people and a lot of rain. But on occasion it engages the attention of the world. It did so in 1798. It did so during the Great Famine of 1845-48, and again on Easter Sunday, 1916. It may do so again on Feb. 25, 2011 when Pearse’s risen people will have their say.

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

WikiLeaks: Just in Case You Were Concerned, Suleiman “Not Squeamish” About Torture

Mubarak Suleiman(Pictured: Egyptian President Mubarak and Vice President Suleiman.)

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

It’s hardly news to even casual followers of recent events in Cairo that Omar Suleiman, the likely successor to Hosni Mubarak, isn’t exactly the fresh new face of Egyptian politics being demanded in Tahrir Square. Whether it be his unwillingness to lift the thirty-year state of emergency stifling Egyptian society or even push Mubarak off the political stage, when it comes to Suleiman’s politics, these positions are only the tip of the iceberg.

As Jane Mayer recounts in her expose of abuse committed in the name of fighting terror, The Dark Side, and quoted recently by Al Jazeera, Suleiman was the point person for American rendition efforts in its war on terror:

Each rendition was authorised at the very top levels of both governments [the US and Egypt] … The long-serving chief of the Egyptian central intelligence agency, Omar Suleiman, negotiated directly with top [CIA] officials. [Former US Ambassador to Egypt Edward] Walker described the Egyptian counterpart, Suleiman, as ‘very bright, very realistic,’ adding that he was cognisant that there was a downside to ‘some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on. But he was not squeamish, by the way.’

Technically, US law required the CIA to seek ‘assurances’ from Egypt that rendered suspects wouldn’t face torture. But under Suleiman’s reign at the EGIS, such assurances were considered close to worthless. As Michael Scheuer, a former CIA officer [head of the al-Qaeda desk], who helped set up the practise of rendition, later testified, even if such ‘assurances’ were written in indelible ink, ‘they weren’t worth a bucket of warm spit.’

And that’s not all. Not one afraid to get his hands dirty—or bloody, as the case may be—Suleiman reportedly engaged in torture practices himself. As UC Santa Barbara’s Lisa Hajjar reminds us, Egyptian-born Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib “was repeatedly subjected to electric shocks, immersed in water up to his nostrils and beaten. His fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks. At one point, his interrogator slapped him so hard that his blindfold was dislodged, revealing the identity of his tormentor: Suleiman.”

It’s also important to remember that his is very likely behind the government’s thuggishly violent response to the recent demonstrations in Cairo and across the country.

Not that he cares, but the release of new embassy cables from WikiLeaks aren’t exactly doing wonders for Suleiman’s public profile.

Among other revelations sure to outrage anti-government protestors, one WikiLeaked document clearly demonstrates that Suleiman’s rise to power would be most welcome news in Jerusalem. The cable, dating from the summer of 2008 and written by diplomats in Tel Aviv, details Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s August visit to Egypt. While the Israeli delegation was “‘shocked’ by Mubarak’s aged appearance and slurred speech,” they were “full of praise for Soliman [sic] and noted that a ‘hot line'” between Barak and Suleiman had been established and was in “daily use.” The cable’s author notes in a parenthetical aside that the Israeli prediction that Suleiman would succeed Mubarak if the Egyptian dictator were to die or be otherwise capacitated reflected their comfort at the prospect.

Another cable sheds light, albeit briefly, into Suleiman’s political philosophy. In discussions with American officials late in 2007, the intelligence chief and his team expressed outrage that American foreign aid might be predicated on securing weapons-smuggling routes between Egypt and Hamas-controlled Gaza, labeling it a “hostile act.” Sensing no irony in his defense of Egypt against criticism that the Mubarak regime wasn’t doing enough to stem the flow of small arms into the occupied territories, Suleiman summed up his country’s delicate position between Israel and the Palestinians by noting that “Egypt wants Gaza to go ‘hungry’ but not ‘starve.’

From the looks of it, he’s been getting his way.

Military Spending Cuts: Depends on what the Meaning of ‘On the Table’ Is

Deficit pressure has put “everything on the table” for cuts, including the Pentagon. Everyone from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to President Barack Obama agrees on this. But what they mean by this is all over the map.

The budget Obama will present to Congress next week will likely begin what the Pentagon is billing as $78 billion in cuts to its budget over five years. In fact these are cuts to their plans for expansion, i.e., slowing a proposed increase is being defined as a cut.

While both Obama and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan pay lip service to the “defense is on the table” mantra, both also exempt the defense budget from their budgetary restraining actions: a five-year discretionary freeze, in Obama’s case, and $100 billion in cuts, in Ryan’s.

The president’s debt reduction commission proposed real cuts, but these would leave the military budget only 5 percent below where President Reagan jacked it up to militarily defeat the Soviet Union — shortly before its collapse.

Defense Secretary Gates describes even those modest potential cuts as “catastrophic.”

Let’s define budget cuts as spending less next year than this year. Nothing else should qualify.

Savings aren’t just needed because of the nation’s massive debt. We also need to address our security deficit. The civilian and uniformed military leadership agrees on a key point: U.S. foreign policy needs to be less dominated by the military. Achieving that goal would entail decreasing the proportion of resources devoted to offense (the military) relative to defense (homeland security) and prevention (non-military foreign engagement). IPS will score this proposed budget’s mix of security expenditures, and report the results after Obama releases it.

Miriam Pemberton, an Institute for Policy Studies research fellow, leads the task force that produces the yearly Unified Security Budget for the United States with Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress.

Washington’s Support for Another Military Leader in Egypt Will Only Firm up Protesters’ Resolve

Suleiman(Pictured: Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman and an old friend.)

Stability or freedom? This is the false choice presented by political analysts and government officials as Egyptians protest day after day in their quest for freedom. On the one hand Egypt is described as our valued, strategic pro-Western ally, aligned with our anti-terrorist and Israeli policies. On the other hand, the Mubarak government’s record of corruption, restriction of freedoms, imprisonment of political opponents, torture, and abject poverty for tens of millions of Egyptians is in blatant opposition to our American ideals. The conclusion of the wise men is that the U.S. is in a dilemma, walking a tightrope, and in a delicate balance for our diplomacy. So what is the choice for us?

First, there is no choice between supporting freedom and democracy and supporting a despotic regime for eighty million Egyptians. The entire Arab world has entered a period of readiness for revolution, and we must be ready to support their quest for freedom and democracy just as we treasure it ourselves. Second, the claim that our support of despotic regimes is the reason for some stability ignores the current and past instabilities in the region. Third, supporting despotic regimes promotes anti-Western terrorism. Fourth, if we had supported a democratic transformation in Egypt and the Arab world, we may have avoided past wars. And finally, our support and aid to the Egyptian military and other security services for stability is contrary to our values, promoting anti-democratic policies and adding to the corruption endemic to Arab countries.

Our relationship with the military elite is now especially problematic. Egypt’s top generals were trained in our military colleges, and we have maintained our relationships with them. While some may see this as a distinct advantage, the Egyptian people also see the billions of US dollars given to the Egyptian military as money used to maintain control over any political opposition. Current discussions about the transition of Mubarak to his newly-appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, only serve to magnify our support for the repressive regime. Suleiman, the former military general and director of an intelligence service known for torture of dissidents, is not trusted by the dissidents. Yet, indications are that the U.S. would be very happy with Suleiman’s leadership. Our focus on the military for a solution is pregnant with risks since they are the privileged class and have benefited from the regime’s corrupt practices.

In the past two weeks, US officials have issued many statements reflecting not only the changing situation in Egypt, but our own ambivalence with practical and moral imperatives. Secretary Clinton claimed that the regime is stable. President Obama expressed the need for an immediate transition plan, allowing for Egyptians to determine their future. But the most disturbing comment came (amid the reports of deaths and injuries among the demonstrators) from the administration’s special envoy Frank Wisner: Mubarak must remain in the transition period to ensure stability. While the administration slightly distanced themselves from Mr. Wisner’s comments, it appears that many in the West were aligned with his statement. To those demonstrators, and the rest of Egypt waiting for its first breath of freedom, the disappointment must be deep.

The Tahrir square revolution has already succeeded in many fronts. The demonstration in the tens and hundreds of thousands in Tahrir square has continued unabated for two weeks. The demonstrators held to a peaceful path despite the provocation by government thugs. On 2/6/2011, Christians held mass in Tahrir square chanting, “we are one nation” and Muslims protected their Christian brethren – bringing a tear to the eye of many Christian Arabs. For the first time, Mr. Mubarak declared he would not run for another term in the coming September. Moreover, his son Jamal Mubarak will not succeed him. The people of Egypt are no longer afraid to challenge the instruments of oppression – the security forces. Mr. Suleiman has already met, for the first time, with many of the opposition leaders and agreed to form a Committee on Constitutional Reforms. Finally, there are discussions of removing the emergency law ruling Egypt since 1981.

It appears that the U.S. administration’s desire is for Suleiman’s power to increase and for Mubarak’s to gradually diminish. The U.S. will support this transition to democracy as long as it does not threaten any of our interests in the Middle East. But there is so much at stake. As Americans, we must ask ourselves: isn’t the liberty that we cherish worth the risk?

Using Islamophobia as a Pretext for Withdrawing From Afghanistan

In a guest post at Thinking Strategically, Dr. Steven Metz, author and professor at the U.S. Army War College, writes about the impact of growing Islamophobia on U.S. foreign policy.

Today American strategy has hit the wall, crumbling in the face of growing public hostility toward Islam. . . . Policymakers have not come to grips with the dissonance between domestic hostility toward Islam . . . and a global strategy based on winning support and building partnerships in the Islamic world. . . . A new strategy must reflect the inherent antagonism.

What would that strategy look like?

There are only two solutions. One would be to try and re-cage the tiger by constraining domestic mistrust and hostility toward Islam at least enough to sustain the [old strategy of cooopoeration]. This would require Republican leaders. . . . to abandon a theme which energizes and excites their political base, and give up on the notion of reviving the emotions of September 11 as elections approach. This is unlikely. Equally importantly. . . . Countries like Pakistan would have to recognize that they cannot be shrilly anti-American while expecting massive U.S. assistance. Again, this is unlikely since anti-Americanism in Pakistan and across the Islamic world has become legitimate and institutionalized. . . .

The alternative is to accept the notion that irresolvable differences exist between the United States and the Islamic world. . . . Americans could stop ignoring blatant hypocrisy such as criticism of opposition to the Cordoba House at the same time that Islamic nations prevent the building of Christian churches, or vehement anti-Americanism combined with a demand for more American assistance.

In other words, face that too many of us don’t like each other. That would require the United States [emphasis added]

. . . to craft a new global strategy based on at least a major if not a total disengagement from the Islamic world, shifting to a close rather than forward defense against terrorism. [Most] nations in the Islamic world would be officially anti-American. . . . Some of these would allow an al Qaeda presence, whether openly or clandestinely. . . . The United States could launch long range spoiling attacks against known al Qaeda bases or sanctuaries. While these might not be as effective as having allied governments controlling extremists for the United States, they might suffice. [Other than that] the United States would “fight them here” because it could not “fight them there.”

This is, however, speculative. Still, a few things are clear. American domestic hostility toward Islam will grow. . . . It has become an integral part of the political battle between the left and right. But it is also clear that the American public cannot be anti-Islamic and expect Islamic nations to serve [as] allies in the fight against extremism.

In other words, unwillingness on the part of Christian-Judaeo Americans to distinguish between Islamist extremists and Muslims in general (vice-versa, as well) and the obstacle it presents toward cooperation between the West and the Middle East becomes an unlikely “gift” in the service of withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan.

Egypt Protests Signal an End to the Post-9/11 Era

A spectre is roaming the Middle East: the spectre of the multitude. The beauty and in a sense the world historical importance of this Jasmine Revolution (or whatever it will be called in the annals of humanity) is that it has no leadership. It might also prove its fatal weakness, but that does not contradict its beauty and importance. It was the people rising up. Of course youngsters and schooled people – doctors, engineers, etc. took the lead, but it was from the beginning in Tunisia the multitude at work.

A buzzing discussion is on about how important the new media were for this instant, unpredictable, spontaneous revolt. It is self evident that e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and mobile phones have played an enormous self organizing role. But you could say that this self organisation quickly could do without some media: when Aljazeera was banned, internet and mobile communication down, the revolt unfolded untouched. So this has to be studied in a dialectical way: the media and the multitude. The re-appropriation of communication that we see happening (also in Iran) after it being monopolized or controlled by power (the state and multinational tycoons) for ages is in itself of world historical importance. This could truly, this truly will alter the Middle East, and indeed the entire world. It is not neocon militarism that brought democracy to the Middle East – that only enhanced radicalism, fundamentalism and terrorism, was in a sense a present to the extremists – but the new media.

In fact, one can say that Negri and Hardt had it wrong – in the best Marxist tradition – in their localisation of the ‘historical subject’, the driving force of history. Marx located it in the industrialized proletariat and the revolutions took place in fundamentally rural and feudal countries, Russia and China. Negri and Hardt in their Empire-sequel located the subject of history in the creative class of the Western postfordist, information economy, but in fact it is the Arab people in the street under conditions of old fashioned tyranny and poverty who are giving history a push. The creative classes in the West are safely caught in their rat race, but it is in the disenfranchised Middle East that the “the multitude” is at work. This is of world historical importance.

Hactivism and online activism has taught us that a good action is based a strong story, an open-ended script or scenario without author. So people can appropriate and improvise. Both in Tunisia and in Egypt, the story was loud and clear: the people rise against the tyrant. Strong story. One of the strongest ever told. That is why it is so contagious. Domino theory in action. After Tunisia and Egypt more can and should follow. Jemen, Marocco, Algeria, a shockwave in the entire Middle East are now to be hoped for. Even if Egypt looked dodgy for a moment. This revolt is beautiful and world historical: no hidden agenda, no leaders, no party, no religion.

Indeed, it is one of the most striking things: it is a secular revolt. It might, let’s hope, even mean the end of fundamentalism. The people in Tahrir Square street interviews were very explicit: we want an end to tyranny, repression and corruption, we want freedom and democracy, not theocracy (which is just another form of tyranny and repression, minus corruption at best). As they have proved the neocons wrong, and the other globalist guru Negri wrong, they are now also proving the Islamists wrong.

This Jasmin/Arab revolution could and should change the course of history: the end of tyrannies in the Middle East, the end of neocon militarist policy in the Middle East, the end of Israel’s monopoly on democracy (that could change a few equations), the end of fundamentalism as the main driving force of international politics. The weakening of Islam fundamentalism as political Islam could also weaken the fundamentalism of political evangelicals on American foreign policy and the weight of Jewish fundamentalism on Israel politics. In short, we are a facing a new phase in world history. The period “after 9/11” is over.

Of course, the world should help. The former prime minister of Belgium, now European MP, Guy Verhofstadt was right (for once) when he addressed the European Parliament: Europe should support the demands of this revolution explicitly and ask Mubarak to step down. Where is Obama? Where is this world-historical figure when you need him? Maybe he is doing what he can. Because it is his slogan that the people of the Middle East now practice: Yes, we can. He should not let them down.

This combination of a story without author, a revolution without leaders, via self organisation enhanced by networked new media – rhizomatic, non linear (to say it in a fancy way) and completely secular, open – Muslim, Christian (crescent and cross united on banners!), young and old, men and women, working class and intellectual, children and grandparents – this was, and is, and will remain forever, awesome to see. Whatever comes after. Come what may. When the activist writer Nawal Al Sadaawi, a girl in her 80s, said in a television interview: “I have been waiting for this all my life, this is the most beautiful moment of my life,… I have to be here on Tahrir square’ – she was damn right. We should all be with them. Tahrir Square is not a symbol of the longing for democracy and freedom, it is democracy and freedom! Self expression, fearless discussing, mutual help, self organisation, all very remarkable. Even journalist swho have seen a few things and therefore are a bit cynical, rub their eyes!

The demonstrations are spreading outside Liberation Square – as I write: Tuesday Febaruary 8th, 1 pm GMT – and sprawling across the Egyptian Capital; in Alexandria also huge crowds are flocking together. The so called return to normalcy has meant that not only banks are open but that communication is up again, so the people can now see and hear what is happening. Many Egyptians join in now. They start to believe that something is actually happening! Spread the word!

World-historical, I say: the power of the multitude! Shifting the course of history. Let us, on the outside, elsewhere, at least be awake and express our solidarity and enthusiasm where we can. Old Kant had a point when he said that the spontaneous enthusiasm of the multitude for a world-historical revolution (he was of course thinking of the French Revolution, we are thinking of the fall of the Berlin wall) that history makes sense, that there is… progress. For that is what this is: a truly progressive uprising of the multitude, not regressive reaction of a minority of extremists. The emancipating effect is visible, like children and women leading the crowds in chanting (I hear their voices as I write – courtesy Aljazeera). Really wish I could be there with you! All I can do is, write this text for you. With my utmost respect, for you, the people of the Tunisia and Egypt and you, the multitude of the Middle East.

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

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

WikiLeaks: Gambia’s President Jammeh Conflates Gay Bashing With Burqa Ban

Gambia's President Jammeh(Pictured: Gambia’s President Jammeh preparing to dine.)

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

The US embassy cables WikiLeaked to the public by Julian Assange’s whistle blowing group have revealed the variety of approaches adopted by the American government in dealing with some of the world’s most unsavory leaders.

While current events have directed attention to those cables outlining the evolution of American relationships with Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali, Yemen, and the perennially popular pariahs Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il, less notice has been showered on the world’s minor dictators. And they don’t come much worse than the thug running Gambia. Beyond his claim to having discovered a cure for AIDS (bananas), His Excellency President Professor Dr. Al-Haji Yahya Jammeh, as he is officially known, has an extensive resume of deranged tyranny including nationwide witch hunts as well as more run-of-the-mill government-sponsored “disappearances, torture and imprisonment of dozens of journalists and political opponents.”

But no example of state terror better characterizes the odiousness of the Jammeh regime than his Excellency’s promise to cut off the heads of all gays in the country, a threat that the US ambassador to Gambia, Barry Wells, addressed in a meeting with the country’s president in early 2010. According to a cable from February of last year, the ambassador “suggested to President Jammeh” in language that’s almost comical in its understatement “that perception of him by outside observers could be attributed in large part to some of his more incendiary comments such as those related to human rights workers and ‘cutting off homosexuals’ heads.’”

For Jammeh, it seems, threats don’t carry much weight unless they’re acted upon.

The president responded, “Yes I did make those comments but did I actually cut off anyone’s head? Have I ever arrested anyone for being gay [the answer is yes]? No [wrong again], but Senegal has arrested and imprisoned someone for being gay and they receive the MCC [true enough]. There are gays here in Gambia, I know that. But they live in secret and that is fine with me, as long as they go about their business in private we don’t mind.

Giving the United States way too much liberal credit, or perhaps in an ill advised effort to establish common ground, Jammeh made clear that “if you are talking about marrying in this country, that will never happen. We will never accept gays.”

Jammeh then lectured the ambassador

On policies in France and Great Britain limiting religious dress in public and religious symbols. “Yes, my comments were strong but what about those issues? Are those not outrageous comments and actions from the West? But it comes from me, I look like a monster for defending my country’s religious beliefs.” He ended this by saying that no one likes to be disliked and that he finds this baseless criticism to be painful.

Poor Jammeh.

Possibly concerned that his antics were souring Gambia’s chances of enjoying American favor, Jammeh was quick to reiterate “his commitment to remain a true friend of the United States,” and assert his loyalty to Barack Obama, referring to the American president as “he solution to the world’s problems.” Moreover, Jammeh attempts to dispel any misunderstanding concerning his relationship with US antagonists.

He wanted it to be very clear to the USG that his friendship with Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran does not in any way reflect that his government approves of all of their behaviors and principles. He gave the example of voting against Iran on the Security Council for Human Rights, despite their close relationship. He said he condones Iran’s human rights record and told them so. President Jammeh stressed that “his friendship with Iran does not mean we always agree with them or that we have an intention of fighting against important US interests. I don’t approve of your government always siding with your friend Israel,” he said, “but I continue to value our relationship without reservation. Therefore you do the same, you ignore my friends, and I’ll ignore yours.”

Jammeh quickly dashes any hint of political pragmatism almost immediately, however, by claiming credit for not claiming credit for helping to solve some of the African continent’s most intractable problems.

He reiterated an earlier claim that it was his influence with Qaddafi that resulted in Libya turning over the Lockerbie bomber for trial. He said others had taken credit for solutions to some difficult problems in Africa at the AU, but he let them have the credit. He said the Muslim way is not to take credit for your good deeds, but to do things quietly. He also referred to his efforts in Guinea-Bissau and the recent successful rebuilding of relations with Senegal.

Jammeh’s magnanimity has not been fully appreciated by Gambia’s neighbors, the United Nations, or his domestic allies. He publicly expelled the country’s head UNICEF representative shortly after his meeting with Wells, accused the Senegalese of conspiring to overthrow his regime, and purged his own government of some of its highest officials, claiming their intention to carry out a coup against him.

And yet despite the contempt with which most everyone regard him—both within Gambia and across the world—Jammeh will likely be around for some time. The cable concludes with the sober observation that “given the fragmented, ineffectual opposition in The Gambia, Jammeh is likely to be reelected to another five year term in the next presidential election scheduled for September 2011.” And as William Pfaff points out in a recent piece for the New York Review of Books, “dictators do not usually die in bed.”

U.S. Middle-East Policy: “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil — Just Practice It, Then Act Surprised”

US Embassy Tunis(Pictured: U.S. embassy outside Tunis.)

A bit of disconnected, but not irrelevant, history

Many years ago – 43 to be exact – Phil Jones and I, both Peace Corps volunteers stationed in Tunis at the time, walked into a reception in the garden of the U.S. embassy there where Hubert Humphrey was doing his best to give a pro-Vietnam War pep talk, trying to explain how the February 1968 Tet Offensive wasn’t a U.S. military setback despite Walter Cronkite’s suggestion on national television that indeed it was.

As Humphrey launched into his remarks, Jones and I, somewhat nervous and uncertain as to our impending fate, took out our anti-war posters from under our sports coats and held them high in the air. Humphrey immediately cancelled the talk and left the embassy as did everyone else. Left alone in the garden we looked at each other, placed our posters in an orange tree there in the embassy garden and casually left.

Much later I learned the purpose of Humphrey’s trip was to canvas European and North African allies as to the political advisability of the United States using nuclear weapons against the Vietnamese.

So much for Hubert Humphrey as the “gentle warrior” as some anti-war liberals once described him.

No one, including Tunisia’s President Habib Bourguiba, supported a U.S. nuclear escalation. Many warned that if the United States proceeded in that direction, that their own political futures might be jeopardized. Soon thereafter, hamstrung on all sides, Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for another term of the presidency.

So much for nuking Vietnam although ‘conventional’ weapons – napalm, agent orange, phosphorous and cluster proved that with modern weaponry effects as devastating can be achieved without triggering much moral outrage.

At the time, the U.S. embassy, then one of the largest buildings in Tunis, sat on Avenue de la Liberte, close to downtown. We Peace Corps volunteers didn’t visit the embassy often, but it had a snack bar/restaurant and especially during the first few months when I was still dreaming of cheeseburgers, I did indulge. As those dreams faded and a taste for Tunisian food grew – still love the stuff – my embassy visits, other than the Jones-Prince foray, pretty much ceased.

During the June 1967 Middle East War, the Tunisian military was out on the streets in force (as were enormous crowds in solidarity with the Arab cause). Soldiers with bayoneted rifles stood every 25 feet or so. I was told – never able to confirm or deny – that their rifles lacked ammunition and that the ammunition was instead stored for safe keeping (from whom?) in the very same U.S. embassy. Rumor for sure, but one that suggested the growing influence of the United States in Tunisian affairs, welcomed to a certain extent by the then President Habib Bourguiba as a counterweight to French diplomatic clout, still strong some ten years after Tunisian independence.

Much later, in 2002, just after 9-11, the U.S. embassy moved from Ave. de la Liberte, not far from the center of the city, to a large complex in La Goulette, a Tunis suburb. A sprawling building with very much of a post 9-11 embassy-bunker appearance, it occupies a vast space that, besides the current ambassador, Gordon Gray, and his staff, also houses the offices of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Middle East Partnership Initiative the latter being little more than a way to entice Middle East nations to accept World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs by offering them a few pennies of aid in return – short term gain, long term crisis.

From this description alone, one gets a sense of its political significance and influence in both the country and the region. If not as extensive as the U.S. embassy complex in Baghdad, than, nothing less than a city within the city, the Tunis embassy is imposing enough, a modern version of a crusader castle.

The U.S. Middle East strategy: buying time

Given its array of Crusader-like castle-embassies throughout the Middle East equipped with super duper modern communication systems, stuffed with various intelligence agency personnel both on the ground and in the air, with the inordinate amount of money and energy spent on ‘protecting U.S. interests’ (code for insuring the security of oil transit routes) it is logical to believe that the United States was well prepared, ‘in the know’ about the situation on the ground in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan and that they somehow anticipated the uprisings that the world is witnessing.

Add to this the fact that the signs of the political explosion which began in Tunisia a bare six months ago and has now spread region-wide have been long in the making:

  • Long before WikiLeaks, 13 years ago, a U.S. ambassador to Tunisia warned of the dangers of spiraling unemployment rates, particularly youth unemployment.
  • A series of reports – the Arab Human Development Reports – early in the millennium spoke of the dangers of growing youth unemployment, corruption and political repression. The fifth of these reports, published as recently as 2009, raised the same concerns in more worried and urgent language as does the 2010 version. These voices went essentially unheeded.
  • A number of scholars, among them Georgetown’s Stephen Juan King and CCNY’s David Harvey, have, in their work documented the erosive effect of World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs on Middle Eastern economies. Others – Chalmers Johnson, Tom Engelhardt, Michael Schwartz, Immanuel Wallerstein – have warned that U.S. Middle East policy, with its support of regional dictators, is unsustainable.

But who in this or former White Houses listens to academics, especially if their knowledge/insights fly in the face of Washington policy?

It happens only during those rare moments when the carefully contrived Washington consensus collapses, as it has now in Tunisia and Egypt, that these more critical voices are, temporarily heard before being unceremoniously shipped back to their former academic anonymity.

Obama administration: couldn’t read the political map

Truth of the matter is that the Obama Administration was essentially blind-sided by the protest wave and is in deep trouble. Its main goal in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan and wherever else protests break out is in all cases: buying time:

  • buying time to limit damage to U.S. strategic and economic interests (centering mostly around regional oil and gas flows),
  • buying time to find suitable replacements for the regional dictators Washington has long backed,
  • buying time to find figures who meet those increasing difficult standards – having mass appeal on the one hand, but willing to continue its military ties with Washington and not renege on World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs which have caused so much economic damage throughout the region.

It’s not that the Obama Administration is unaware of the underlying socio-economic structural crisis which has plagued the entire region for some time now. Rather, it simply didn’t know how to read the map or interpret events.

The Washington Media Group decides late in the game it can no longer put make-up on Ben Ali’s political corpse

Instead Washington glossed over the simmering social storm about to break and magnified Tunisa’s achievements while systematically playing down its growing failures. There seemed to be a consensus in Washington (and in Paris) not to see what was going on under the surface. In Tunisia’s case, this was achieved until recently, with a little help from a Washington public relations firm, the Washington Media Group.

The Washington Media Group, which had to have known about the human rights violations in Tunisia, cancelled its contract with Tunisia on January 6, 2011. A question of principle or just a case of covering their butts?

Tunisia’s ‘positive p.r.’ in Washington gravitated around two themes: Tunisia’s women’s rights policies (somewhat exaggerated by the way – it is something less than equal rights) impressed U.S. legislators. The more secular nature of the regime (also somewhat overstated) played well to American audiences inoculated since September 11, 2001 (and probably before) with the great fear of radical Islamic fundamentalism.

It never seemed to occur to U.S. policy makers that secular regimes, even one that to a certain degree supports women’s rights, can be otherwise pervasively oppressive. But then, that just doesn’t fit the State Department’s cookie-cutter radical fundamentalist model. So how bad could it be?

Nor has the Washington establishment provided much of anything in the way of offering solutions to the crisis. Pretty impressive ostrich approach all in all. It is scurrying to put together an approach to the changes sweeping the region that in many fundamental ways were triggered or exacerbated by U.S. security and economic policies, to mention two specifically – the war on terrorism and U.S.-encouraged World Bank and IMF structural adjustment policies.

Even as the Obama Administration suddenly tries to distance itself from Mubarak, and nudge him from power, the fact remains: he was the U.S. man in the Middle East par excellence.

It is not only his regime which has been discredited, but 32 years of U.S. support of that regime. Don’t think that the people on the streets of cities all over Egypt are unaware of this fact.

3. From Sidi Bouzid to Tunis and Sfax, from Ma’ad to Cairo and Alexandria

As the revolt moved east from the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Sfax and Tunis in Tunisia to Ma’ad, Alexandria and Cairo, its center of gravity shifted to the very edge of the Middle East oil producing region. And now the world’s military heavies weigh in:

  • NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen suggests that the current Arab revolt puts both the world economy and the world order ‘at stake’. (This is a bit of an overstatement, suggesting the degree to which NATO was ‘ambushed’ by events.)
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen related that due to the events in Egypt the U.S. Army has been ‘put on alert’, “and also that we’ve got our military ready, should any kind of response or support be required,” he said. “That isn’t the case right now, but I’m very focused on that.”

The stakes for the United States (and Israel) in Egypt are considerably higher than in Tunisia. For Washington Ben Ali is expendable. The Obama Administration did little to help him in ‘his moment of need.’ Indeed there are some reports (in the French press) that the Tunisian Chief of Staff Ammar was in telephone contact with the head of AFRICOM, U.S. General William Ward, at a rather sensitive moment in the Tunisian crisis.

But Egypt is an entirely different matter. If Tunisia got $20 million in military aid over the course of Ben Ali’s time in power, Mubarek has received $2 billion annually since 1979 – most of that for military purposes. Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, now the Brookings Institute Vice President ,is certainly right to underline the many services that Mubarek has provided U.S. strategic interests in the region.

Key elements of the strategic relationship include:

  • keeping the Suez Canal open and safe for oil tankers from the Persian Gulf heading for Europe (and the Americas),
  • assuring the flow of oil through oil pipelines from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean through Egypt,
  • cooperating with Israel on the blockade of Gaza,
  • actively supporting the United States in the war on terrorism, participating in extraordinary rendition.

in making peace with Israel at Camp David in 1978, Egypt essentially permitted the Israel’s to tighten their grip over the West Bank and Gaza, and concentrate their military ambitions elsewhere – Lebanon, and perhaps sometime in the future, Iran.

Finally, although it is sometimes forgotten, Egypt is not only Israel’s neighbor, it is also Saudi Arabia’s. Mubarak may not yet have joined Zine Ben Ali in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) but Aqaba, where he seems to be hiding out at the moment, is a five minute walk into Saudi territory. While both the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea separate Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the distances (especially across the Gulf of Aqaba) are minimal, the point here being that the kind of revolt taking place in Egypt will invariably have echoes in Saudi.

Right now, without much of a roadmap, the main U.S. goals are to buy time to insure damage control, to slow the processes of change everywhere in the region, hoping to minimize the damage to U.S. strategic interests (meaning specifically its control of the region’s energy resources).

None of the Arab Revolts of 2011 have played themselves out as yet. So it will be a while before the Obama Administration can assess the damage to its interests: a setback or a debacle?

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

Revisiting the Neutered Medal of Honor Argument

In November of 2010, Rev. Bryan Fischer, who has been called the public face of Rev. Donald Wildmon’s conservative American Family Association, wrote an inflammatory series of four posts titled The feminization of the medal of honor. Occasioned by the award to Army Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta, who, incidentally, did kill Taliban forces in the process of saving life, Fischer’s theme was, if I remember correctly, picked up by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, et al.

This is just the eighth Medal of Honor awarded during our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . . According to Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal, every Medal of Honor awarded during these two conflicts has been awarded for saving life. Not one has been awarded for inflicting casualties on the enemy. . . . When we think of heroism in battle, we used the think of our boys storming the beaches of Normandy under withering fire . . . and tossing grenades into pill boxes to take out gun emplacements.

So the question is this: when are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things [not helping your argument here, Rev. — RW] so our families can sleep safely at night?

I would suggest our culture has become so feminized that we have become squeamish at the thought of the valor that is expressed in killing enemy soldiers through acts of bravery.

As you can imagine this generated some strong reaction. The Atlantic Wire directs us to an example at Mother Jones, where Adam Weinstein.

To say that killing is the highest virtue for any human being, much less a soldier in the employ of his (or HER) democratic republic, is a repudiation of the Ten Commandments. . . . It is a usurpation of the powers of the Christian God and his son.

Such responses walk right into the liberals-are-soft on-national security trap. Meanwhile, Rev. Fischer probably misses the mark when he speaks of “feminization.”

We no longer fight in defense of the “free world” (unless you’re one of those who believe that Muslims are champing at the bit to enfold the United States into its dream of a caliphate ruled by shariah law). More likely, the change in award emphasis reflects the national ambiguity about U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Killing in these wars is often less than politically correct.

One can’t help but suspect that if the United States were fighting a war in its defense, such as World War II, the Pentagon would have no qualms about once again issuing medals of honor to natural-born killing machines such as Audie Murphy.

Nuclear Disarmament Would Make U.S. Undisputed Arms Champ

The Interpreter, the blog for Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy, is hosting a debate on whether or not nuclear deterrence is still relevant (assuming it ever was). In his contribution, George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace made an extraordinary statement.

US interest in nuclear disarmament stems from the perception that a world without nuclear weapons would give it a greater advantage against others that might threaten it or its allies. The others — particularly China, Russia and North Korea — recognize this! They see the Obama agenda as a means of strengthening the US advantage. Hence they (and Pakistan) are likely to impede nuclear disarmament. How does this weaken extended nuclear deterrence?

By “stems from,” Perkovich seems to be saying that the elimination of nuclear weapons allows the indisputable supremacy of U.S. conventional weapons to assume pride of place in global security. Without the great equalizer of nuclear weapons, the United States, with all its might, would no longer be liable to ransom by an “irrational actor” — from a North Korean dictator to a terrorist group — possessing only one or two nuclear weapons while the United States still retains thousands.

Let’s be charitable and assume that by “stems from,” Perkovich doesn’t rule out other motivations the United States might have for seeking the abolition of nuclear weapons — like exponentially reducing the number of people it might lose in an attack. (Sorry, just don’t have the time to comb through his writings to confirm that ). But, considering his position in the mainstream arms control world, Perkovich’s cynicism is eye-opening.

Yet, when it comes to nuclear disarmament, there are even more cynical depths to which one can sink. As is apparent to those who read him, this author believes that what passes for disarmament — for example, New START — is actually a smokescreen behind which the U.S. nuclear weapons program is retrenching for the long haul.

I believe that the eyes of China, Russia, North Korea, and especially Iran are also open to U.S. intentions. They’re troubled by more than the notion that the United States seeks to abolish nuclear weapons because it makes states with nominal nuclear arsenals (if any can be referred to as such) theoretically equal to the larger, more “rational” nuclear-weapon states. Even more disturbing to them is the sight of a United States that talks a good game about disarmament but plans to spend $180 billion over the next decade on its nuclear industrial complex.

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