Focal Points Blog

Jon Stewart’s False “Moderation”

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

Back in December 2007, I was visiting my home state of Iowa. The presidential primary season was in full flower. It seemed like you couldn’t make a run to the supermarket without bumping into Hillary. My brothers and I joked with a neighbor (perhaps the strongest Biden supporter in the precinct) that the future vice president had been so ingratiating that we expected to see him come over soon to personally shovel the snow off her sidewalk.

That month, I went out to see both John Edwards and Barack Obama stump. Obama gave a solid speech, but he was far less specific and unrelenting in taking on corporate power than Edwards. Instead, Obama stuffed his speech with a lot of filler. He savored lines such as, “I don’t want to be president of Red State America or Blue State America. I want to be president of the United States of America.”

OK, I get it. The line got a lot of applause. But I had a hard time taking that stuff seriously. After all, what politician doesn’t claim to want to transcend the fray, work as a diligent bipartisan, and be a “uniter, not a divider”? Far from shaking up the political status quo in Washington, such appeals to high-minded moderation are an ingrained part of business as usual. I guess some people view these pledges as refreshing; I think they are pretty cynical.

Obama’s line came to mind when I saw that Jon Stewart—an undeniably funny guy and often brilliant satirist—has announced a “Rally to Restore Sanity,” which is to take place in Washington the week before the midterm elections. His premise with the event (originally dubbed the “Million Moderates March”) is that politics has been taken over by the lunatic fringes on “both sides.” He believes that everyone needs to “be reasonable” and “take it down a notch.” As of this writing over 160,000 people on Facebook have vowed to attend, and the rally has garnered enthusiastic support from some political commentators as well.

I understand what Stewart is going for. Most Americans are fed up with the overheated hectoring of the political class. Glenn Beck’s posturing deserves to be challenged. And, sure, it’s possible to find examples of excess on both ends of the political spectrum. I’ve written against the “End of America” or “descent into fascism” thesis presented by folks like Naomi Wolf, and I strongly oppose 9/11 conspiracy theorists (although they are as likely to be right-leaning libertarians as leftists). Moreover, I didn’t like it when lefties carried signs comparing Dick Cheney or George W. Bush to Hitler; I think it reflected a lazy and unhelpful analysis. (On a side note, I’m currently in a debate at Dissent in which my interlocutors have invoked Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini in describing elements of the Latin American Left. I don’t think it has been particularly helpful in that instance either!)

But are the problems with American politics really a case of “both sides” equally going overboard? The Right has Fox News spouting extremist ideas about Obama on a 24/7 basis. The Left had…what? The people making equivalent claims about Bush tended to be very much on margins and got very little airplay.

My colleague Daniel Denvir, over at the Huffington Post, and Glenn Greenwald at Salon have each done a fine job of taking on what the latter author calls “the perils of false equivalencies and self-proclaimed centrism.” The two pieces are well worth a read.

Denvir writes:

As Jon Stewart has it, the problem is “loud folks” and a tone of political debate that has become untempered: too many crazies yelling and screaming, comparing people they don’t like to Hitler.

But yelling is not just a matter of loud noise expelled through the human throat. It matters what’s being yelled. When it comes to the Republican Party—and Democratic fellow travelers—they are shouting in favor of corporate exploitation and war.

The Tea Party far right leans on made-up things, also known as lies—“ground zero” Mosque, illegal immigrants purposely causing highway accidents, death panels killing grandma—to win political power. The left has a different problem. We could have used a little more hysteria in recent years, as Wall Street robbed Main Street and the most powerful military on earth invaded multiple countries. Instead, a real anti-war movement never materialized to challenge one of this nation’s most violent presidencies. The people “who have shit to do” that you cited as your fan base, Jon Stewart, should have been out in the streets protesting and putting our 1960s radical parents to shame. But we’ve got “shit to do.” On the Internet, I suppose….

Ironically, the Rally to Restore Sanity repeats the liberal establishment’s greatest error: when Republicans go on attack—either at home with lies or abroad with bombs—hunker down somewhere in the middle and plead for civility. This young century’s great problems are a government abetting ruthless misadventure at Wall Street and the Pentagon, not rudeness and rank partisanship.

Greenwald adds:

Leave aside the fact that, as Steve Benen correctly notes, Stewart’s examples of right-wing rhetorical excesses (Obama is a socialist who wasn’t born in the U.S. and hates America) are pervasive in the GOP, while his examples of left-wing excesses (Code Pink and 9/11 Truthers) have no currency (for better or worse) in the Democratic Party. The claim that Bush is “a war criminal” has ample basis, and it’s deeply irresponsible to try to declare this discussion off-limits, or lump it in with a whole slew of baseless right-wing accusatory rhetoric, in order to establish one’s centrist bona fides.

It’s admirable to want to apply the same standards to both sides, but straining to manufacture false equivalencies doesn’t accomplish that; sometimes, honestly applying the same standards to each side will result in a finding that one side, at least in that regard, is actually worse. When that’s the case, a person engaged in truly independent, non-ideological inquiry—rather than the pretense of such—will expressly acknowledge the imbalance, not concoct an equivalency where it doesn’t exist….

One other point about this fixation on the “tone” of our politics. Political debates are inherently acrimonious—much of the rhetoric during the time of the American Founding, as well as throughout the 19th Century, easily competes with, if not exceeds, what we have now in terms of noxiousness and extremity—but far more important than tone, in my view, is content. For instance, Bill Kristol, a repeated guest on The Daily Show, is invariably polite on television, yet uses his soft-spoken demeanor to propagate repellent, destructive ideas; I don’t think anyone disputes that our discourse would benefit if it were more substantive and rational, but it’s usually the ideas themselves—not the tone used to express them—that are the culprits.

I’m not as hung up as Greenwald on defending the “Bush as war criminal” point. (I always thought that was a losing cause for the Left.) But I think Denvir’s argument about the Democrats’ tendency to run for the middle at the first sign of trouble is very important, as is Greenwald’s observation about the problems of fixating only on tone.

It was for this same reason that I was never particularly impressed by Jon Stewart’s famous takedown of Tucker Carlson on Crossfire.

Stewart argues that tone of the show was “hurting America” and that we need more “civilized discourse.” I’ll admit that it’s sort of satisfying to see him accuse Crossfire of “partisan hackery,” and that his refusal to play along with the hosts creates some rare and unsettling television. Then again, I’m not convinced his critique of the program is all too deep. Stewart says he wants less political “theater” and more “real debate.” But in my view he never gets beyond platitudes.

A lot of people loved the appearance, so I’m sure plenty of folks will disagree with me. Therefore, I’ll end with something around which we can all come together: in response to Stewart’s rally, fellow comedian Stephen Colbert announced that he would hold a counter-demonstration of his own. It’s called the “March to Keep Fear Alive.” Now that one is simply brilliant.

Mark Engler can be reached via his website, Democracy Uprising.

Never Mind the Black Helicopters, Coming Soon to an Airspace Near You: Drones

Reaper droneI’m not sure how others feel, but when I hear a helicopter overhead I feel uneasy. My initial exposure was to the innocuous weather whirlybirds, but I suspect that Apocalypse Now ruined helicopters for many of us. With their use in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we view them as bringers of death.

Then there are those who fear “black helicopters.” I was first exposed to that concept in books about UFO — they’re alleged to appear when aliens are attempting to intermingle with humans. More commonly, U.S. militia types, perhaps because Customs and U.S. marshalls have used black-painted helicopters, associate them with a military takeover of the nation. Never mind, though — here to realize even more deeply seated fears and represent a projection of your unconscious is our new old friend, the drone.

At the British site Open Democracy, in an article titled From Helmand to Merseyside: Unmanned drones and the militarisation of UK policing (thanks to Focal Pointer John Goekler for drawing my attention to it), Steve Graham writes:

In February of this year, Merseyside Police became the UK first police force to routinely deploy unmanned drones for normal policing duties. . . . Whilst not equipped with weapons, civilian police drones . . . are equipped with digital closed circuit TV. . . . The drone has a built-in speaker to allow instructions to be relayed to civilians on the ground.

Yes, I know — too much like a parody of Big Brother to be real. First, though, let’s explore another element of civilian police drones that’s equally disturbing (emphasis added).

The Merseyside deployment is [part of] a much wider push by arms contractors and security and technology corporations. . . . The European Defence Agency, for example, a body funded by the UK and other European governments, is lobbying hard to support the widespread diffusion of drones within UK and EU policing and security as a means to bolster . . . European security corporations like BAE systems, EADS and Thales within booming global markets for armed and military drones. The global market for drones is by far the most dynamic sector in the global airline industry.

Their potential applications include detecting “fly-posting [advertising posters], fly-tipping [illegal dumping], abandoned vehicles [and] theft from cash machines,” not to mention “preventing theft of tractors.” Sounds small-time, but some U.K. police officials think it would “revolutionise policing.” In fact, they’re looking forward to deploying “both civilian and military (RAF) ‘Reaper’ drones to monitor the 2012 London Olympics.”

As for “broader concern about the regulation and control of drone surveillance of British civilian life,” it’s been notable by its absence, writes Graham.

And yet the widespread introduction of almost silent, pilotless drones . . . raises major new questions about . . . the UK as a ‘surveillance society’. Is the civilian deployment of such drones a justified and proportionate response to civilian policing needs or a thinly-veiled attempt by security corporations to build new and highly profitable markets?

It’s hard to deny that drones seem like the over-reaction to real or imagined threats that’s typical of domestic security forces, such as the police, carried to new heights. You almost feel embarrassed for them using drones to spot abandoned cars or ATM theft.

Near as I can tell, no U.S. police force is currently using them, but Miami and Houston have them in their sights. Once they’re deployed in the United States, maybe it’s our patriotic duty to keep police forces from looking silly for investing in them by staging some vigorous resistance and giving the drones a real show.

Cyberwarfare Works on Same Premises as Nuclear War

The computer worm Stuxnet didn’t exactly bore into the computers of workers in Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, whoever unleashed it — Israel or another state — sprayed it indiscriminately like machine gun fire. John Markoff of the New York Times reports:

The most striking aspect of the fast-spreading malicious computer program — which has turned up in industrial programs around the world and which Iran said had appeared in the computers of workers in its nuclear project — may not have been how sophisticated it was, but rather how sloppy its creators were in letting a specifically aimed attack scatter randomly around the globe.

Thus, perhaps because of a perceived time crunch on the part of the creators, it created what Markoff called “collateral damage” as if it were a military attack. Now for a riddle: name the weapon which never causes collateral damage? Nuclear weapons. Civilians, of course, form the better part of their intended targeted and are in no sense of the word collateral.

But cyberwarfare resembles nuclear weapons in other ways. Markoff also writes that cyberwarfare is . . .

. . . also raising fear of dangerous proliferation. . . . “Proliferation is a real problem, and no country is prepared to deal with it,” said Melissa Hathaway, a former United States national cybersecurity coordinator. The widespread availability of the attack techniques revealed by the software has set off alarms among industrial control specialists, she said: “All of these guys are scared to death. We have about 90 days to fix this before some hacker begins using it.”

Of course, with nuclear weapons, proliferation occurs at a glacial pace compared with malware. In other words, the dangers of proliferation, purely as a concept, are much greater with a worm. To a certain extent, the immediacy of the threat of worms and viruses makes up for the immensity of the threat from nuclear weapons.

At War in Context, Paul Woodward called Stuxnet the Trinity test of Cyberwarfare. Which brings us to the most important similarity between nuclear war and cyberwarfare: love it or leave it — deterrence. Woodward rhetorically asks what the implications of Stuxnet are.

1. Iran has been served notice that not only its nuclear facilities but its whole industrial infrastructure is vulnerable to attack. As Trevor Butterworth noted: “By demonstrating how Iran could so very easily experience a Chernobyl-like catastrophe, or the entire destruction of its conventional energy grid, the first round of the ‘war’ may have already been won.”

2. The perception that it has both developed capabilities and shown its willingness to engage in cyberwarfare, will serve Israel as a strategic asset even if it never admits to having launched Stuxnet.

That’s why Woodward compares the Stuxnet attack to Trinity, the first U.S. nuclear test. A demonstration of the weapon’s power, it was intended to act as a deterrent to keep other states, such as Iran, from . . . what exactly? It might only motivate Iran to complete the nuclear-weapon development process. After all, it wouldn’t want to be two weapon systems — nuclear and cyber — down on Israel, would it?

Is It Time to Worry About Ahmadinejad’s Apparent Fanaticism?

Ahmadinejad at UNThose who claim that the time for diplomatic engagement with Iran on the part of the United States has long passed are fond of citing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s extremism. His greatest hits include hosting a holocaust deniers’ conference, calling for the day when Israel would cease to exist as a state, and, of course, speculating before the United Nations last week that the United States was behind the 9/11 attacks.

Then there’s his apparent apocalypticism. What could be more frightening in the leader of a sizeable nation than an eagerness to see the world go up in flames? We quoted The Rise of Nuclear Iran recently. However hawkish author Dore Gold’s agenda, facts are facts.

Besides the escalation of Ahmadinejad’s anti-western incendiary rhetoric, the second feature of his presidency that has received enormous attention has been his repeated references to the imminent return of the Twelfth or Hidden Imam. In Twelver Shiite tradition, Muhammad ibn Hasan was the twelfth descendent of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. He was born in 868, but at the age of six, he vanished and was expected to reveal himself as the Mahdi (literally, the “Rightly Guided One”) at the end of days before the Day of Judgment, when a new era of divine justice will prevail, and Shiite Islam will be recognized as the true global faith. . . .

Ahmadinejad made the re-appearance of the Twelfth Imam [who] was expected to reveal himself as the Mahdi (literally, the “Rightly Guided One”) at the end of days before the Day of Judgment. . . . into a hallmark of his presidency. [For instance, he] declared in an address to the Iranian nation shortly after his 2005 election victory: “Our revolution’s main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the Mahdi.” . . . Ahmadinejad’s Mahdism had been advanced and supported by those who served as his religious mentors, particularly Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi [whose lectures] repeatedly stressed the theme of hastening the coming of the Mahdi.

Progressive commentators tend to think that hawks are being disingenuous in failing to acknowledge that in Iran, the executive branch’s function is managerial and its foreign policy input limited. For instance, while the president appoints the minister of defense, he doesn’t control the armed forces. In fact, Ahmadinejad answers to Supreme Leader Ayataollah Khameini, who presides over foreign policy.

But what if Ahamadinejad accumulated enough power to rival the Supreme Leader? In fact, that’s not outside the realm of possibility. One of the most incisive Iran watchers is USC professor of chemical engineering Muhammad Sahimi, the lead political columnist for PBS Frontline’s Tehran Bureau. In an article titled Ahmadinejad-Khameini Rift Deepens, he writes about changes in the Tehran landscape after the elections (emphasis added):

Ahmadinejad has recognized that the ayatollah needs him more than he needs the ayatollah. When he sided with Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader lost any residual credibility that he had with a very large segment of the population. [Presumably because of the post-election violence -- RW.] . . . reliable sources in Tehran say that the ayatollah is keenly aware of the loss of his prestige and recognizes that his popular support has grown very narrow. Ahmadinejad recognizes his own lack of significant support, as well. So he has been active on two fronts: defying the ayatollah both covertly and openly, and trying to generate more support for himself. . . . The president and his right-hand man, Mashaei, clearly recognize that a large majority of the Iranian people are tired of the brand of Islam enforced by the clerics. . . .

The second development concerns Ahmadinejad’s recent attempt to take full control of Iran’s diplomatic efforts. In the meeting of his cabinet with Khamenei, the president noted that he has made 81 trips to foreign nations and 70 foreign delegations have visited Iran during his tenure. He claimed that these figures indicated his government’s activism and success in the international arena. The ayatollah responded, almost angrily, “More important than the trips is the spirit and content of the diplomacy,” an oblique reference to Ahmadinejad’s aggressive foreign policy and belligerent rhetoric. Khamenei then emphasized that diplomacy must be led by the Foreign Ministry, that “parallel diplomacy is not acceptable,” . . .

Should Ahmadinejad come out on top in this power struggle, he needs to drop the holocaust denial, death-to-Zionism talk, and Mahdism like, yesterday, or there will be legitimate cause for concern on the part of the West.

Disingenuousness Rules the Nuclear Roost

It’s bad enough that Israel, along with North Korea, Pakistan, and India, maintains an unacknowledged nuclear arsenal outside the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). But, unlike the other three, which are all too happy to trumpet their possession of nukes to their neighbors and world, Israel continues to keep up the farcical, not to mention insulting, pretense that it’s nuke-free. Worse, the United States enables it in the ultimate game of don’t ask, don’t tell.

Obviously that doesn’t sit well with Arab states, not to mention Iran. At the 2010 General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week, they once again called for Israel to join the NPT. But, on Friday, their resolution, even though it was nonbinding, was rejected by the other members states of the IAE. Reuters reported:

Washington had urged countries to vote down the symbolically important although non-binding resolution, saying it could derail broader efforts to ban nuclear warheads in the Middle East and also damage fresh Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“The winner here is the peace process, the winner here is the opportunity to move forward with a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East,” said Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

But as Steve Hynd at Newshoggers writes:

That Israel seems able to entirely dictate the agenda, with the US bending over to accommodate its demands that it hang onto both its nuclear arsenal and the almost non-existent veil of “ambiguity” draped over it, does not seem to me to bode well for Middle-Eastern peace or for regional disarmament.

To expand on that, Washington seems to think that helping Israel keep up non-nuclear appearances might make Israel less inclined to once again undermine the Israel-Palestine peace process. Especially since, as the World Bank pronounced last week: “If the Palestinian Authority maintains its current performance in institution-building and delivery of public services, it is well-positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future.”

To even suggest that facilitating Israel’s silence about its nuclear weapons program paves the way for both peace in the Middle East and making it a nuclear-free weapons zone is yet another slap in the face to the Arab states and Iran. The latter, especially, can scarcely be expected to to surrender to the the view that its obstructionism, however maddening, around a program that nowhere close to weaponized, is an exponentially — not to mention “existentially” — greater threat than a state that has had nukes for years and refuses to admit as much.

The other discordant nuclear note of the week arrives courtesy of Greg Mello in a Los Alamos Study Group mailing. On September 14, the 23 Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee issued a press release that stated: “Due to the failure of the Democrat [sic] Congress to enact a single Appropriations bill so far this year to provide funding for Federal Government programs and agencies, a CR [Continuing Resolution] will be necessary to continue government operations past the end of the fiscal year, which expires on September 30th.” They insist that the CR “be ‘clean’ and free of any extraneous spending or policy provisions” and focused instead on “continuing the activities of government at the absolute minimum level necessary until we finish our work on the fiscal year 2011 spending bills.”

Amazingly, the “extraneous spending” to which they seek to put a stop for now includes not only typical Democratic measures like a “$1.9 billion increase for new Race to the Top grants, $250 million increase for new and expanded programs to implement the health care bill,” but a “$624 million increase for programs related to the unratified START Treaty.”

If the Republicans are cutting off their nose to spite their face, their owed grudging credit for sticking to their big government principles. Wait: isn’t it more likely that they’re intent on hitting the Obama administration up for an even larger increase in nuclear-weapons spending next year?

Getting Into Bed With the Devil in Indonesia

Bedding down with the devil is the only way one can describe a recent decision by the Obama administration to resume contact with the Indonesian military’s (TNI) most notorious human rights abuser, the Special Forces unit, Kopassus. Following a July meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lifted the 1999 ban on any contact with the unit.

The Indonesian military has a long record of brutality toward its own people, starting with the massacre of somewhere from 500,000 to one million Communists and leftists during a 1965 military coup. That massive bloodletting was followed by a reign of terror against separatist groups in Aceh and West Papua and the invasion of East Timor. In the latter case, the UN estimated that as many as 200,000 died as a direct result of the 24-year occupation, a per capita kill rate that actually surpasses what Pol Pot managed in Cambodia.

But, even by the brutal standards of the TNI, the 5,000-man Kopassus unit has always stood out. It kidnapped and murdered students in 1997 and 1998, made up the shock troops for the Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, and ruthlessly suppressed any moves toward independence in West Papua.

West Papua is the western half of New Guinea that Indonesia invaded in 1969.

“Working with Kopassus, which remains unrepentant about its long history of terrorizing civilians, will undermine efforts to achieve justice and accountability for human rights violations in Indonesia and Timor-Leste [formally East Timor],” says John M. Miller, national coordinator of East Timor & Indonesia Action Network (ETAN).

The Obama administration’s rationale for lifting the ban is that U.S. contact with Kopassus will serve to improve the unit’s human rights record. “It is a different unit than its reputation suggests,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morell told the New York Times. “Clearly, it had a very dark past, but they have done a lot to change that.” In any case, he said, “the percentage of suspicious bad actors in the unit is tiny…probably a dozen, or a couple of dozen people.”

The aid to Kopassus appears to violate the Leahy Law that prevents the U.S. from training military units accused of human rights violations. “Kopassus has a long history of abuse and remains unrepentant, essentially unreformed, and unaccountable,” U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told the Times.

No one in Kopassus or the TNI accused of human rights violations has ever been tried or removed from their position. “We regret this development very much,” Poengky Indarti of the Indonesian human rights group Imparsial told Reuters. “There is still impunity in the Indonesian military, especially in Kopassus.” She added, “We are confused about the position of Barak Obama. Is he pro-human rights or not?”

According to ETAN, Kopassus—sometimes called Unit 81—helped organize the murder of five Australian journalists in Balibo on the eve of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor. Kopassus is also accused of a 2002 ambush in West Papua that killed three teachers, two from the U.S. According to Australian intelligence, the ambush was an effort to discredit the Papuan liberation movement.

There is also suspicion that the attack was aimed at blackmailing mine owners into paying protection money. From 2000 to 2002, Freeport McMoRan paid the TNI $10.7 million in protection money, but the company shut down the payments shortly before the ambush.

No one in Kopassus has ever been disciplined for the unit’s role in organizing nationalist militias to terrorize the East Timorese into voting against independence. TNI-financed and -led militias’ killed some 1,500 people, displaced two-thirds of the population, and systematically destroyed 75 percent of East Timor’s infrastructure.

It was Kopassus’ involvement in forming and directing the militias that was responsible for the U.S. decision to stop military training for the unit.

And, rather than improving Kopassus’ human rights record, U.S. training appears to have had the opposite effect. The “worst abuses” by the Indonesian military, according to Ed McWilliams, a former U.S. State Department counselor in Jakarta from 1996-99, “took place when we [the U.S.] were most engaged.”

According to Karen Orenstein, former Washington coordinator of ETAN, “History demonstrates that providing training and other assistance only emboldens the Indonesian military to violate human rights and block accountability for past injustices.”

This pattern is not confined to Indonesia. A recent study by the Fellowship for Reconciliation found that Colombian army units trained by the U.S. were the troops most likely to be associated with human rights violations.

“There are alarming links between increased reports of extrajudicial executions of civilians by the Colombian army and units that receive U.S. military financing,” John Lindsay-Poland told the Inter Press Service. Lindsay-Poland is a research and advocacy director for the Fellowship and an author of the two-year study.

Called “Military Assistance and Human Rights: Colombia, U.S. Accountability, and Global Implications,” the report examined 3,000 extrajudicial executions by the Colombian military. “We found that for many military units, reports of extrajudicial executions increased during and after the highest levels of U.S. assistance,” Lindsay-Poland told IPS.

The U.S. “School for the Americas” has trained numerous Latin American leaders associated with human rights abuses and death squads.

ETAN points out that Maj. Gen. Hotma Marbun, a senior Kopassus commander, has just been appointed regional commander in West Papua. Marbun was a highly placed officer during a particularly bloody period in East Timor from 1983-86, and was also involved in military operations in West Papua in 1982 and 1994.

Human rights organizations are reporting that the INF has stepped up its counterinsurgency operations in West Papua, including numerous sweeps aimed at “separatists.” The Indonesian military tends to describe any West Papuan who objects to Indonesia’s military occupation as “separatists.”

Some 22 non-governmental organizations from Indonesia, Australia, Germany, Britain, Timor-Leste, and the Netherlands have written a letter to President Yudhoyono protesting the imprisonment of scores of Papuans arrested for peacefully demonstrating or expressing their opinions. Some of these activists have been sentenced for “rebellion” under the criminal code that goes back to the Dutch colonial period.

According to the NGOs the use of the criminal code to imprison dissenters is a violation of the Indonesian constitution that guarantees citizens the right to “freedom of association and expression of opinion,” and the right to “seek, acquire, possess keep, process and convey information by using all available channels.”

Sentences have ranged from three to 15 years, and human rights groups say that the prisoners have been mistreated.

More than 50 members of the U.S. Congress recently sent a letter to President Obama stating that the Indonesian government may have committed “genocide” against West Papuans. “Genocide is usually difficult to document since leaders are often reluctant to state their intentions to destroy another nation, race, or ethnic group,” the letter stated. “Even still, in 2007 Col Burhanuddin Siagian, who was then the local commander said, ‘If I encounter elements that use government facilities, but still are betraying the nation, I will destroy them.’”

Members of the congressional black and Hispanic caucuses are prominent in the group of 50. The Congress members urged President Obama to meet with representatives of the West Papua during his upcoming November visit to Indonesia and to make the island “one of the highest priorities of the American administration.”

West Papua groups have called for an “international dialogue” on the current situation, and Komnas Ham, the Indonesian government’s official human rights commission, recommends withdrawing military forces from the island to encourage an atmosphere for talks.

In the meantime, ETAN and the West Papua Advocacy Team (WPAC) have asked the Obama administration to reject Indonesia’s new ambassador to the U.S., Dino Djalal. The groups claim that Djalal has been a tool for the Indonesian military and that he blamed the violence in East Timor on the Timorese. ETAN and WPAC say that Djalal was “a dogged critic of international journalists and human rights organizations who sought to report these atrocities.”

Why is the U.S. bedding down with these thugs?

According to the New York Times, Indonesian “officials dropped hints that the unit [Kopassus] might explore building ties with the Chinese military if the ban [against training] remained.” With the U.S. taking a more aggressive stance Asia—the recent U.S.-South Korean war games, and the immense pressure the Obama administration put on Japan to let it build a new Marine base in Okinawa come to mind—the U.S. clearly saw a Chinese incursion into Indonesia as a threat.

Of course, there might never have been a Chinese offer. Indonesia learned long ago that all one had to do to open the U.S. aid spigot was to become chummy with Beijing.

The U.S. has a long and sordid relationship with Indonesia’s military. According to documents uncovered by George Washington University, the U.S. fingered leftists for military death squads during the 1965 coup. During the Ford administration, then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave Indonesia the green light to invade East Timor. And the Americans acquiesced with Jakarta’s torpedoing of a UN-sponsored referendum on independence following Indonesia’s 1969 invasion of West Papua.

It looks like we are about to once more bed down with some pretty awful characters.

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

Is “Cyber Missile” Launched at Iran Israel’s Handiwork?

At War in Context in an, uh, colorfully titled post, Stuxnet: the Trinity test of cyberwarfare, Paul Woodward continues his coverage of the cyber attack on Iran.

. . . since the worm targets Siemens SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition [like Iran runs]) management systems that control energy utilities, and since its design strongly suggested that it had been created for sabotage, it seemed likely that the specific target was Iran’s nuclear program.

Woodward quotes from a Christian Science Monitor article in which German industrial security expert Robert Langner “speculates that Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant may have been the Stuxnet target. He also writes: ‘The forensics that we are getting will ultimately point clearly to the attacked process — and to the attackers. The attackers must know this. My conclusion is, they don’t care. They don’t fear going to jail.’”

I know, that sounds like terrorists, but the resources required to develop Stuxnet seem to require state backing. The German site Digitales Denken (awkwardly translated) reports:

The question remains how the attackers came into the possession of the necessary detailed knowledge, including access to the software of the affected system. Without perfect information about the target is not apparent from the analysis of stuxnet payload possible. It is conceivable that one of the various Iranian defector who arrived in recent years in the West, brought the necessary data. . . . stuxnet will go down well apparently first used by a nation-state cyber weapon in history.

In a Forbes blog, Trevor Butterworth adds:

By demonstrating how Iran could so very easily experience a Chernobyl-like catastrophe, or the entire destruction of its conventional energy grid, the first round of the “war” may have already been won.

The computer world is rife with speculation that Israel is responsible. Do Focal Points readers think it likely?

Getting History Right the First Time

German novelist Hans Fallada’s last book, Every Man Dies Alone, was written shortly after World War II ended and he was released from a hospital for the criminally insane to which the Nazis had relegated him for refusing to write an anti-Semitic novel. It was published in German in 1947 but, for a reason that I have yet to discover, it wasn’t until 2009 when it made its way into the English-speaking world, where it exploded on the literary scene.

Typical of the reactions to Fallada’s narrative of war-time Berlin was that of a reviewer who exclaimed that the response the book elicited was “the journalistic equivalent of a collective dropped jaw.” Having recently finished reading Every Man Dies Alone, I can confirm that’s a normal response for any reader.

A first impression while reading it is how closely Fallada’s portrayal of Nazis, especially the Gestapo, jibes with those we’ve seen in the years since. Apparently, the author required no hindsight to see them with 20/20 vision. Though one imagines that the broad strokes with which the Gestapo operated didn’t leave much room for mystery or misinterpretation.

Not a book primarly detailing the treatement of the Jews, it’s written from the viewpoint of gentile Germans, especially the middle-aged Quangel couple. The rigid, but righteous, Otto, a factory foreman, and Anna, his idealistic wife, decide to discreetly protest the Nazis and the war by writing polemical postcards and dropping them in public places. Far from political, though, their motives are personal.

Otto Quangel is inspired to act not only by the death of his son in combat, but by the cronyism with which the Nazis run his workplace. Others also resent the Nazis on a quotidian level. They don’t understand why Nazis feel the need to persecute Jews, often local store owners with whom they’ve done business for years. One woman harbors a fugitive from the Gestapo because it has seized her husband. Another, in a state job, narrowly escapes consignment to a concentration camp when she refuses to join the Nazi party, in part because it has turned her son into a war criminal. Another sticking point for Germans is the dues required to be a member of the Nazi party, as is the “Winter Relief Fund” to which citizens are pressued to donate.

Don’t expect much in the way of redemption — though some can be derived from the fate of the Gestapo detective who tracks and finally captures the Quangels. While it weighs in at well over 500 pages, the book provides you with the best of both worlds: its pace that of a thriller, its emotional depth that of great literature. In fact, Every Man Dies Alone is the next best (or worst) thing to living through the war years in Berlin, replete with the capricious effects of Allied bombing, as you’ll find.

CNN’s Michael Ware Tries to Force Iraq War Down Public’s Throat

Iraq WareOn Sunday, Australia’s Brisbane Times reported that native son Michael Ware believes that he filmed a war crime while covering Iraq for CNN. The station, wich claimed the footage was too graphic, refused to air it and neither was it investigated by authorities. (You may also remember Ware when he found himself in the midst of a “steamy Baghdad love triangle,” as Huffington Post called it, with CBS’s now chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan.) For more about the troubling — understatement, if ever there was one — incident, follow the Brisbane Times link.

Thanks to that incident and others, Ware suffers from severe Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Mens’s Journal explains in a December 2008 article.

To begin to understand where he’s coming from, Ware wants you to see a movie. He filmed it. It’s just after midnight during the second battle of Fallujah, November 2004. The marine unit he’s hooked up with has cornered six insurgents inside a house, and with no air support available, the only way to take them out is person-to-person.

Follow the Men’s Journal link for more of what Ware experienced. Meanwhile, here’s what he wants you to understand.

Ware believes he recorded the perfect war experience that night [and] dreams of renting out a theater and subjecting an audience to it in full surround sound. . . . “It’s my firm belief that we need to constantly jar the sensitivities of the people back home,” he says. “. . . when your brothers and sons and mates from the football team come home, and they ain’t quite the same, you have an obligation to sit for three and a half minutes and share something of what it’s like to be there.”

In theory, that’s a good idea. But, while I don’t know about Australians, I’m not sure that would work with Americans. First, we’re already inured to stimuli overload from video games, IMAX movies, and film experiences like Avatar. Second, there still exist those who believe of our military: “Well he knew what he was getting into — he signed up for it, didn’t he?”

Worse, Ware (by no means a dove, incidentally) is asking us to do something impossible for many Americans: hold two ideas in our head at the same time. His imagined film is meant to help us see the war through the eyes of the coalition forces, but the war crime he’s revealing seems to seek sympathy for Iraqis. Americans, though, are congenitally incapable of empathizing with Iraqis. We believe that, by deposing Saddam, we handed them their freedom on a silver platter. What did they decide to do with it? Take advantage of the occasion to blow each other up and make it rain body parts on a regular basis.

Many of us will never grasp what A.J. Rossmiller wrote about what we did to Iraq in Still Broken: A Recruit’s Inside Account of Intelligence Falures, From Baghdad to the Pentagon (Presidio Press, 2008): “. . . it takes a special kind of idiot to push an egg off a table and then blame the egg for exploding into a mess.”

Busting the Myth That Immigrants Drive Down Wages

Immigrant farm workersThis post is an auxiliary to the author’s September 16 Foreign Policy in Focus piece Immigration Economics: An Interview with Professor Giovanni Peri. It was first posted at the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

The emergence of vast inequalities between the wealthy and the rest of us may be the biggest change in American society over the last fifty years. And it’s hardly a change that we should welcome.

Such is the argument that Timothy Noah makes in a well-timed series of articles over at Slate. In his series, Noah explores what he calls the “Great Divergence,” and he looks at possible reasons for skyrocketing inequality.

In the third article in the series, the author asks whether the post-1965 surge of immigrants to the United States from south of the border is a leading factor in creating the gap between rich and poor. His conclusion is that it’s not. If anything, immigration is only a small contributor. “[I]t isn’t the star of the show,” he writes.

This conclusion is the right one. But in making his case, Noah ends up reinforcing some popular misconceptions about the role of immigrants in the economy. Namely, he seems to validate the idea that immigrants drive down wages, particularly for the least educated Americans in the workforce. Noah comes to this conclusion by relying heavily on a single economist, Harvard’s George Borjas, who happens to be one of the most conservative voices on this issue in the field.

Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer did a good job taking on Borjas’s flawed approach a few years ago:

Though definitive evidence is hard to come by, because of less-than-perfect data, most studies of the effects of immigration on wages and employment for the native-born find little or no effect…

But the Harvard economist George Borjas—himself a Cuban immigrant who now acts like he wants to shut the door behind him—argues that comparing local labor markets is wrong, since people and capital are mobile…. Instead, argues Borjas (writing with Lawrence Katz and others), the national labor market is the proper unit of analysis. Borjas & Co., working with heroic models with heroic assumptions about the mobility and substitutability of capital and labor—statistical systems that are always highly susceptible to assumptions—find that high-school dropouts have taken a 4-8% wage hit because of immigration between 1980 and 2000. The rest of the educational distribution took smaller hits. Missing from this analysis are the words ‘union’ and ‘minimum wage,’ making it incomplete and tendentious, since it’s likely that union-busting and the eroding value of the minimum [wage] have had more effects than immigration ever could. And there appears to be no evidence that natives actually migrate in the ways that would be required by Borjas’ assumptions.

In a recent review of the field, the excellent economist David Card notes that studies like Borjas’ are based on ‘the belief that labor market competition posed by immigration has to affect native opportunities, so if we don’t find an impact, the research design must be flawed.’ Card is very familiar with these convenient assumptions; back in the 1990s, he showed, contrary to the deepest faith of most economists, that increasing the minimum wage doesn’t destroy jobs; economists resisted his evidence because it just couldn’t be true. But it was.

Others who are intimately familiar with Borjas’s work have also challenged his assumptions and come up with very different findings about immigration economics. In a late-August summary paper published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, economist Giovanni Peri concluded that “immigrants expand the economy’s productive capacity by stimulating investment and promoting specialization. This produces efficiency gains and boosts income per worker. At the same time, evidence is scant that immigrants diminish the employment opportunities of U.S.-born workers.”

I spoke to Peri recently, and he emphasized that there is some academic debate about whether new immigrants might have a small negative effect on the wages of those in the lowest-paid 10 percent of the economy. But there is broad consensus that, for the economy as a whole, immigration has had a positive impact on productivity, wages, and employment.

This echoes the sentiment of economist Albert Saiz, quoted a while back in the Washington Post: “‘Immigration provides overall economic gains to a country,’ [Saiz] wrote, summarizing the literature in a 2003 article for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. ‘Indeed, the U.S. experience as an immigrants’ country is one of phenomenal economic growth. However, there are winners and losers in the short run.’”

In his recent paper, Peri highlights the overall benefits in the past twenty years:

[T]otal immigration to the United States from 1990 to 2007 was associated with a 6.6% to 9.9% increase in real income per worker. That equals an increase of about $5,100 in the yearly income of the average U.S. worker in constant 2005 dollars. Such a gain equals 20% to 25% of the total real increase in average yearly income per worker registered in the United States between 1990 and 2007.

This brings us back to the question of inequality. While immigrants overall have helped to build the U.S. economy, the lowest-paid American workers are not seeing the benefits. The highest-paid, on the other hand, are taking far more than their fair share of the gains.

We can see a parallel here to the economics of trade. There is little debate that trade overall can help the economy. I have no problem with that idea—even speaking as a long-time globalization activist who has participated in many protests against the World Trade Organization and other international financial institutions. The real question has always been: what kind of trade will we have—and who will receive its benefits?

A lot of what gets labeled as “free trade” (such as patent protections for big pharmaceutical companies) is actually the opposite of what economists are taking about. Moreover, trade that is structured by and for multinational corporations has a way of enriching their coffers—surprise, surprise—while making working people and the environment bear the costs. Thus, the activist demand for “fair trade” is a call both to combat corporate power and to manage trade in a way that is sustainable and beneficial for the less-privileged sectors of our global society.

Something similar can be said about immigration. Right now, immigration to the United States is being managed in a way that primarily benefits the wealthy. There’s no point in blaming immigrants for that. Reactionary anti-immigrant measures only create an ever-more-exploitable pool of labor for employers to take advantage of. The real solution is to pass living wage laws and to build unions that advocate for both immigrant and native-born employees, making sure that all workers are paid fairly and treated with respect.

Of course, fighting inequality in a serious way is much more difficult than finding a scapegoat. So, whatever the economic studies, don’t expect anti-immigrant arguments to go away anytime soon.

Mark Engler can be reached via his website, Democracy Uprising.

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