Focal Points Blog

Iran Missile Tests Timed to Capitalize on Gates’s Acknowledgment U.S. Tired of War?

Iran missile tests: domestic and geopolitical probes and the key to disarm it

Recently, Iran has publicly stated that it launched two ballistic missiles with medium-range capability at least months three months after the fact. This perhaps to break the silence about the experiment in, literally, untested Indian Ocean waters, which was contrary to in-house desert test in Iran. Had the rest of the world not noticed this unusual break with tradition? Iran’s military technological aspirations have long been ignored in the West where confidence in the tight international sanctions reigns supreme. Abolghasem Bayyenat notes this characteristic skepticism in his July 6th piece “The politics of Iran’s space program” published by Foreign Policy in Focus.

As Bayyenat notes, Iran’s technological progress cannot be ignored. With regard to its recent military exercises, these couldn’t have gone unnoticed by US spy planes operating in the region, but they were not acknowledged publicly by American authorities. But not the British though: William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary told parliament two weeks ago that these tests included testing missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload. This, he said, was in contravention of U.N (Security Council) resolution 1929 that enshrines a number of sanctions, which among other things ban Iran from such ballistic missile tests. As such, this announcement that came close on the heels of a ten-day military exercise of the elite Guards was a denial of British accusations about nuclear capability experiments.

Military fetes – a domestic politics diversionary tactic?

What this means is that Iran is playing a whole different, multiple hands ball game. On the one hand, it hopes to distract the West from the real story in Iran. That is, the simmering dissatisfaction with the government there since the 2009-2010 elections. There is no doubt that both the launch of what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called “the ambassador of death” – a long-range bomber drone – in August 2010 and the missile tests between January and February 2011 were calculated to drown the groundswell of disgruntled Iranians. At the same time, Iranian leaders faced with domestic turmoil are harking to that old foreign policy ploy of attempting to create diversion through these military fetes. Tehran streets, however, did not bite the bait hence the series of protest, which began on February 14 that dovetailed with the general surge of citizen demonstrations in most parts of North Africa and the Middle East around the same time. Diversionary military showmanship having failed and faced with rabid heat from the streets, the government turned to mass arrests including those of the two main leaders of the Iranian political reform, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, which has temporarily fixed the problem. This security-enforced lull in the streets has emboldened the powers that be to up the stakes through more sabre rattling the latest one coming at the end of June.

By jove, the Americans are er…tired

If the US isn’t keeping tabs on the Iranian public, Tehran’s thumb is on the former’s public pulse. It may have been a coincidence but the latest round of missile tests came seven days after the outgoing US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that Americans were “tired of a decade of war.” This came a day before President Barack Obama announced plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan amid concerns about the cost of the war – on the economy and casualties. In addition, Tehran must have also plucked some extra courage from US engagement with NATO in Libya since March, thus aware of how stretched the American military is at this time. Tehran is aware that the US cannot afford, logistically and economically, to continue policing the world, promote democracy or secure its interests abroad militarily. This reality’s an invitation for Iran to play even where it hasn’t ventured. Analysts see the launch of missiles from northern Iran into the mouth of the Indian Ocean as a demonstration of being able to attack US interests in the Middle East or its bases in East Africa. While appreciating the danger posed by nuclear proliferation in Iran, there is need to pursue nonproliferation less hawkishly. If there’s any lesson that can be drawn from the miracle of the Arab Spring, it is the need for American alertness with regard to the state of domestic democracy around the world and to foster it through peaceful change.

Leading by example

For this to happen, the US must lead by example: this will entail promoting forces of democracy through more acceptable tools such as cultural and educational channels as Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies argues in her News Eagle piece of March 2011. As such, there ought to be less emphasis on military spending, which is currently fiscally hemorrhaging the US. Disarming Iran literally will entail much more than the threat of a military intervention. This, instead, must involve allying itself with democratic forces that have demonstrated the quest for change and have paid the price in the process.

Nicholas Kariuki Githuku is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Myanmar May Be Closer to Becoming Burma Again Than You Think

As a concession to demands for reform, the generals of Myanmar’s ruling junta permitted elections in 2010. Rigged, though, they resulted in a victory for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. While long-time junta chief Than Shwe stepped aside, the new president is his former adjutant Thin Sein. In other words, a junta by any other name.

But, at least the brutal Than Shwe was sidelined, right? Turns out, operating in the shadows only gives him more leeway to get into even more mischief.

At Dictator Watch, Roland Watson writes that Than Shwe is “continuing his quest for nuclear arms, as the May interdiction by the U.S. of a North Korean ship bound for Burma illustrates. … The WMD program is in no way sidelined.”

While that’s a distant threat, more to the point, “Setting up a puppet government has freed him to focus on the war” against Myanmar’s ethnic minorities. But, “the Burma Army is becoming stretched, and suffering large-scale casualties. Further, these casualties are more frequently extending into the officer ranks. Than Shwe doesn’t give a damn about rank and file soldiers, but he relies on mid and upper level officers for his support.” However, “An important issue with the Civil War is how much Than Shwe’s orders are being followed. … As they are increasingly targeted by the resistance, and die, the survivors will become less likely to follow his orders.” In fact

The Tatmadaw [Myanmar government army] is already having a hard time with the Karen, Shan and Kachin [ethnic minorities, as are those listed next]. Will its commanders agree to open even more fronts, against the Wa, Mongla and Mon, especially since the morale of the rank and file, already low, must be plunging even further?

Strike while the iron is hot? Watson again.

Some people are calling for the hostilities throughout all of Burma to cease. This too is a mistake. The Tatmadaw is [an] invading army, a colonizing force, in the ethnic areas. It should be treated as such, and fought against tooth and nail. The goal should be to inflict as many casualties as possible. Then, not only is there a good chance that the commanders will ignore Than Shwe’s orders; the coherence of the Tatmadaw itself may crack, leading to its downfall.

As for Aung San Suu Kyi

Is she a pacifist true-believe … or is her position more pragmatic, to avoid conflict if at all possible? … With the Civil War escalating, the pro-democracy movement’s commitment to nonviolence is being reexamined. … Her recent remarks in the BBC’s Reith Lectures have clarified her position. From the first lecture, in response to a question:

It’s possible because I have said in the lectures that I do not hold to non-violence for moral reasons, but for practical and political reasons, because I think it’s best for the country. And even Ghandiji, who is supposed to be the father of non-violence, said that between cowardice and violence, he’d choose violence any time.”

Finally, writes Watson

Simply put … the Tatmadaw cannot win the Civil War in Burma. Given the terrain, and their tenacity, the ethnic resistance armies can never be summarily defeated. [In fact] the expanding conflict in Burma is a good thing. It can be the “short burst of violence” that Daw Suu finds acceptable. If the ethnic armies can continue to wear down the Tatmadaw, and the people find a way to renew their protests … Than Shwe can be expelled.

Will Fukushima Survivors Be Doubly Victimized With Radiation Sickness and Stigmatization?

Watching ARS: Fukushima, the sequel to Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS): Hiroshima and Nagasaki, play out on the world stage spurred me to view an actual drama about radiation sickness. Black Rain, the 1988 film by Shohei Imamura, begins with, and occasionally flashes back to, the bombing of Hiroshima. It depicts the lives of a group of survivors five years later when they begin to succumb to ARS.

As you may be aware, radiation sickness was a stigma to many in post-war Japan. A primitive response, to be sure, but one which served as a coping mechanism. Film reviewer Roger Ebert provided some insight into how it works shortly after Black Rain was released in the United States (emphasis added).

The immediate impulse of the Japanese in the aftermath of such a cataclysm, Imamura shows in his film, is to re-establish the rhythms and values of traditional life. By returning to old ways, the wound can be healed and even denied. That’s the act that metastasizes the illness by guaranteeing its perpetuation as an infection on society.…

Imamura’s anger in “Black Rain” is directed not so much at those who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima as at the way his Japanese characters immediately started behaving as if somehow it has been their own fault. [They] seem almost to be apologizing for having been beneath the fallout.

This syndrome is embodied in the inability of an attractive young woman, Yasuko, to hold on to suitors when they learn that she was exposed to the nuclear fallout encapsulated in the grimy raindrops that fell on her shortly after the bomb dropped. It resurfaced in a story originally thought to be an Internet myth. On June 11, at the Australian, Rick Wallace reported:

It was supposed to be a lifetime highlight, but the wedding plans of a bride-to-be from Fukushima have turned into a nightmare thanks to the new post-crisis phenomenon of radiation discrimination. her plans turned to ashes when her future mother-in-law blurted out: “What if we don’t have a healthy child because of the radiation?”

Among other such incidents

The government of the city of Tsukuba, just northeast of Tokyo, was forced to apologise after forcing Fukushima area refugees who had sought shelter to obtain “radiation-free” certificates or undergo screening. The Mayor of Minamisoma, a town of 71,000 that lies 25km from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, said this week … “I was told by a mother with some children that when they went to a different area of Japan, they were warned by other children: ‘You are contaminated don’t come near me.’

But Wallace reminds us that, for the most part, “Japanese society’s cohesion and strength has shone through during this disaster.”

Though still a somewhat insular society, especially considering its international status, Japan has become far too modern to regress to the kind of prejudice it demonstrated against the radiation sickness victims of World War II. But visions of racial purity, dormant since World War II, may re-emerge. In addition, radiation sickness may be responded to as HIV often is, with the attendant fears about contact with bodily fluid. One just hopes that the vast majority of Japanese swallow those fears and leave them unvoiced in polite company. And God knows – stereotype alert – the Japanese are polite.

Afghanistan Bleeding U.S. Financially Even More Than It Did the Soviet Union

Cross-posted from the IPS blog.

At this moment the hollow debate on the deficit has sucked up almost all the oxygen in the Capitol. Yet the war in Afghanistan which costs us hundreds of billions of dollars a year is scarcely mentioned. Sixty-four percent of the people of this country believe that the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting, so representing “the people” should mean using Congressional power to end that war — not least because the war budget is the biggest potential source of money to pay for jobs.

Congress isn’t doing that yet. But it’s encouraging to remember that there are a few — painfully few! — members of Congress still prepared to really represent the views of their constituents. Seattle-area Congressman Jim McDermott spoke on the floor of the House this week, focusing once again on the unacceptable costs of the Afghanistan war.

McDermott identified the war as reflecting the kind of military expansion that brings about the collapse of empires. And he even took on the popular claim that it was Ronald Reagan’s presidency that brought down the Soviet Union, reminding us all that it was military spending, especially in Afghanistan, that actually brought about Soviet collapse.

Crucially, McDermott noted that the U.S. is now spending two-and-a-half times as big a percentage of its GDP on its ten-year war in Afghanistan, as the Soviet Union spent during its ten years of war in Afghanistan. Here’s the speech:

Obsolete Pentagon Programs Among Beneficiaries of House Funding Increases

Last week the House passed a defense spending bill that increases military spending $17 billion over last year’s allocation. While many hawkish commentators have blasted Obama’s deficit reduction plan for supposedly prioritizing domestic spending over national defense, the shape of the recent House bill demonstrates that not all military spending is motivated by legitimate security concerns. ExecutiveGov describes the broad outlines of what went into this bill:

The bill would provide $530 billion to the Pentagon and $119 billion to cover the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would provide a 1.6 percent increase in pay and buy various warships, aircraft and weapons, including a C-17 cargo plane that the Pentagon did not request but is good news for the Boeing production line in Long Beach, Calif.

The Chicago Tribune also notes a questionable spending addition introduced in the House:

[The Bill] also barred the Pentagon from retiring six of 66 B-1 bombers, as the White House prefers. So what if these Cold War-era bombers look increasingly less vital in an age of pilotless drones? The measure prohibiting the use of funds to shelve the planes was sponsored by Texas Republican Randy Neugebauer — whose district happens to include a B-1 base.

Gooznews offers yet another example of an earmark slipped into the bill to serve political interests:

[T]he legislation includes $453.3 million for refurbishing 70 M1A2 Abrams tanks in Lima, Ohio. A coalition of legislators led by Ohioans Jim Jordan, a Republican from Lima, and Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Toledo, earmarked $272 million more than the Pentagon had requested in order to keep the plant, which employs about 1,000, operating throughout next year.

In anticipation of the bill’s passage, the White house threatened a veto “citing limits in the legislation on the president’s authority to transfer detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and money for defense programs the administration didn’t want.”

Before passage, the bill faced two attempts at limiting the size of the budget increase, from Barney Frank (D-MA) on the Democratic side and tea party-backed freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney, (R-SC):

In Congress this year, anti-war lawmakers and budget-conscious tea partyers have banded together to try to rein in military spending with some success.

“We are at a time of austerity,” Frank said. “We are at a time when the important programs, valid programs, are being cut back.”

Frank’s amendment to cut $8.5 billion failed on a 244-181 vote Thursday.

“Many of us have gone around back home and told people how serious we are,” Mulvaney said. “But how can we look them in the eye and tell them that we are serious about cutting spending and then come in and plus up the base defense budget?”

He added: “We have made hard decisions. We have made hard choices. The Defense Department needs to do exactly the same.”

His amendment to set the Pentagon budget at current levels failed 290-135.

Only 12 Republicans and 75 Democrats opposed bill in its final form, and many of those nay votes reflected a belief that the bill left the military underfunded. While Rep. Tom Price, (R-Ga), chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, stated that “House Republicans demonstrated responsible leadership that sets priorities and does not jeopardize our national security interests and our nation’s ongoing military efforts,” the House has in fact constructed a bill that burdens taxpayers with additional spending of little relevance to national security concerns. Contrary to the Congressman’s statement, parochial political interests have been the priority, not national interests.

For more insights on how the budget allocation process often prevents rational allocations of security resources, review the “Budget Process Reform” section of FPIF’s FY 2012 Report on a Unified Security Budget.

In addition to facing a potential presidential veto, the house’s bill must also be reconciled with the Senate’s defense spending bill, which remains in committee. Some reports note that military reductions remain within the realm of the possible:

The secret Senate Democratic budget resolution drafted by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and shared with the White House suggests even larger cuts to the Pentagon which would see its budget slashed by more than $800 billion over 10 years, according to sources.

Bold action would be required to realize these potential cuts to the soaring military budget. Political leaders and the American people must recognize that defense cuts do not always equate to cuts in national security. Indeed, in this time of soaring budget deficits, a military spending bill that cuts out politically motivated programs would do little to damage American security, and would offer an opportunity to reallocate resources in more rationale directions.

Keith Menconi is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

On Heels of Anti-BDS Bill, Israel’s Right-Wing Parties Seek to Further Limit Dissent

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

Preface: BDS is a campaign initiated in 2005 by Palestinian NGOs of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel until it treats the Palestinian people with human rights and in accordance with international law. — Editor

Flush with victory from the passage of the anti-BDS bill by the Knesset on Monday, the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party and Netanyahu’s Likud party are pushing two controversial legislative bills, both designed to further limit dissent and debate within Israel.

The first, and frankly scarier, of the bills proposes the creation of a “commission of inquiry” to investigate outspoken human rights groups like B’Tselem. The idea was first floated over a year ago but gained traction in sync with the anti-BDS bill. Now Yisrael Beiteinu is pushing for a vote as early as Next Wednesday.

“The Boycott Law has whetted the appetite of the settler Coalition,” MK Zahava Gal-On, chairwoman of the Knesset’s Meretz contingent, told Ynet. “This is an attempt at perpetuating the persecution of left-wing and civil organizations. What will be the next step? Sham trials? Throwing people into gulags.”

The proposal, she added, is nothing less than “a political inquisition.”

Meanwhile, the second bill, which was proposed by Likud MKs Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin, seeks to grant the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee veto power over appointments to the Israeli Supreme Court. This would effectively give the members of the committee co-equal power with the Judicial Appointments Committee over the appointment process for Supreme Court justices and Supreme Court presidents.

What’s the big deal? One of the bill’s primary sponsors, Yariv Levin, argued that “the [judicial appointments’] bill will break the control of the elite, the radical left in the justice system and restore the sovereignty of the people and the introduction of democratic life in Israel. Those who see themselves fit to annul legislation should be subject to public scrutiny through a democratic and transparent process.”

But to the bill’s critics, the proposal is the opposite of democratic. Not only does it threaten to erase the separation between two historically independent branches of government, it also looks an awful lot like an attempt to “politicize” judicial appointments. Some of the bill’s opponents, like Hadash MK Dov Hanin, have gone so far as to suggest that it is a direct attempt to intimidate judges.

“This proposal was intended to send the Supreme Court a threatening and powerful message ahead of the hearing on the legality of the Boycott Law,” he told Ynet.

“A wave of anti-democratic legislation is threatening to drown us,” he added.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Will Iraqi Commandos Trained by U.S. Be Turned Into Another Republican Guard?

Anxiety Hovers Over Iraqi Commandos reads the title of Tim Arango’s July 13 “Baghdad Bureau” post in the New York Times. When one reflects back on all the suicide bombings directed at Iraqi police trainees, that would seem to be an understatement. Arango managed to secure an “embed” with a U.S. Special Operations unit training Iraqis to be commandos. He writes:

These units have worked together since 2003, and so a certain anxiety about what comes next for Iraq — and for their relationships — hung over the conversation. … “Most of the people don’t want the Americans to leave,” said one Iraqi commander, offering his analysis of public opinion here. … He had harsh words for Moktada al-Sadr … who has threatened renewed violence in the country if an element of American forces stays behind this year to keep training Iraqi security forces. … The Americans will leave soon, but the fighting will continue. … “These people are fighting a war in their own country,” said one of the soon-to-depart Americans.

One assumes that Arango’s skimpy post is the first in a series, but he gives no such indication. Since it raises more questions than it answers we contacted Jack Murphy, an eight-year veteran of the 5th Special Forces Group, who has just published a new military action novel Reflexive Fire. His last assignment overseas before leaving the service last year was training these same commandos in northern Iraq. Murphy responded:

The options I see for the guys we trained:

1. The Iraqi government uses them to eliminate political opposition (this has been happening for years now).
2. The Iraqi government disbands them because they see any competent military unit as a threat to their own political power.
3. These units go rogue and becomes bandits or a gang.
4. The Iraqi government doesn’t understand how these units work so they use them as their own bodyguards.

Of course probably all four of those things will happen at the same time when we leave.

It would be yet another Iraq tragedy if the commandos were used as Saddam Hussein did his Republican Guard. One would hope that, before withdrawing, the United States would create an incentive system for Iraq to keep the commando corps self-sustaining.

Murdoch Blinks: News Corp. Drops Its Satellite Bid

This has certainly been a disastrous week for Rupert Murdoch. In conjunction with mounting scandal over intrusive tabloid operations, Murdoch’s News Corporation has not only faced a severe beating from the British press, but has also just abandoned an ambitious television takeover. Today, Murdoch’s News Corporation revealed that it will withdraw a $12 billion bid to take over remaining shares of Britain’s main satellite television broadcaster, British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB).

This development is the latest upheaval to follow News Corp.’s phone hacking fiasco. The latter erupted 10 days ago when reports emerged that the company’s The News of the World tabloid once ordered the hacking of a murdered 13-year-old’s voice mail account in 2002. Since this exposé emerged, nearly every day has brought fresh disclosures and rumors regarding News Corp.’s operations. The continuing scandal, as this latest satellite bid withdrawal demonstrates, has effectively convulsed Murdoch’s British newspaper empire, which has heretofore maintained a snug and remarkably influential relationship with politicians and police across the country.

Recently, allegations against Murdoch’s newspapers have included claims of journalists hacking the family phones of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and soliciting information from police officers by means of bribes. It would seem that Murdoch’s ‘anything goes’ approach to newsroom culture is crumbling before his very eyes. On July 7th, his son James unexpectedly responded to public pressure, announcing that The News of the World would cease publication following its July 11th edition. The following day, Andy Coulson, former communications director to Prime Minister David Cameron, was arrested on suspicion of corruption allegations tied to his role as editor of The News of the World. The publication’s previous editor, Rebekah Brook, who quickly rose to the head of Murdoch’s newspaper empire in Britain, is now also fending off demands for her own arrest.

Revealing of the impact of these scandals, Chase Carey, News Corp’s Deputy Chairman, has stated that the proposed BSkyB acquisition would be “…too difficult to progress in this climate.” Although this apparent retreat was undoubtedly intended to subdue further outcry against News Corp., Carey’s announcement was swiftly followed by calls for greater scrutiny over BSkyB’s ownership makeup. Labour politicians and Liberal Democrats of the government coalition have concurred that authorities should investigate the option of challenging the Murdoch family’s current 39 per cent stake in BSkyB. Prime Minister David Cameron has accordingly sought to distance himself from Murdoch, reversing his previous support for the BSkyB bid and claiming that News Corp. executives should “…stop the business of mergers and get on with cleaning the stables.

Today, Cameron took an even firmer stance against Murdoch’s towering influence on British media sources, announcing the launch of a judicial inquiry into unethical media practices, including phone hacking. Crucially, Cameron has stated that the inquiry will examine why initial police investigations of The News of the World’s operations, which began in 2006, failed to expose the full extent of the scandal. Lord Justice Brian Leveson is set to head this inquiry, which further aims to finalize a report on future regulations of the British press.

According to Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, the inquiry represents “…a once-in-a-generation chance to clean up the murky underworld and the corrupted relationship between the police, politics, and the press.” If effective, the inquiry has the potential to change Britain’s media landscape, altering not only regulations on the press, but also guidelines on media ownership. Considering the lack of media plurality within the U.K., largely resulting from Murdoch’s steady acquisition of British newspapers, this inquiry certainly represents a much needed step towards a less monopolized and corrupted media landscape. To his credit, Cameron has acknowledged that “the people involved [in The News of The World scandal]…must have no future role in the running of a media company in our country.”

According to a report by The Financial Times, several changes regarding how journalists interact with politicians will take effect immediately. The government will require all ministers, special advisors, and permanent secretaries to publish the details of their meetings with media executives, and editors. On Tuesday, a parliamentary committee further announced that Murdoch, his son James, and Rebekah Brooks would be called to testify under oath concerning phone hacking and corruption allegations. With ownership of four leading British newspapers, Murdoch’s News Corp. previously stood as a media force to be reckoned with, a corporation that politicians both feared and courted. Now, with a judicial inquiry on the table, the mogul’s empire seems set to crumble. One can only hope this will bring greater transparency to Britain’s media landscape.

Italy: Barbarians — in Suits — at the Gates

PaestumPAESTUM, ITALY — Walls tell you a lot about a country’s history. Since their purpose is to keep people out who want to get in, they generally mean trouble. In the case of this stunning ruin of a city southeast of Naples, back in the 6th century BC the Greeks were trying to keep out the Etruscans who didn’t cotton to a colony plunked down in their midst.

Italy has lots of walls, particularly in the north and center where towns and cities cluster on the high ground. The Italians did not build on mountain tops for the view. What is picturesque now was safe haven from the barbarians back then.

Except, the barbarians are back, only this time they are not tribes with scary names like Goths, Huns and Lombards. Today the brutes have bland sounding labels like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Union (EU) and Moody’s. And some of the worst are homegrown: Silvio Berlusconi and Giullo Tremonti.

Italy is in deep trouble, though it is hardly alone. While the headlines go to Greece, Portugal and Spain, Italy has the second highest rate of debt in Europe and one of the lowest growth rates. On July 8, Italian bond yields jumped to a nine-year high, and the country’s stock market tanked. Given that Italy has the third largest economy in the Eurozone, if it is in trouble, so is the Euro. And, unlike Portugal, Greece or Ireland, Italy is far too big for a bail out (not that the thuggish austerity programs being forced on all three of those countries have anything in common with “bail outs.” They are simply taxpayers covering ruinous speculation binges by French, German and Dutch banks).

There are signs that the Italian economy is running off the rails, but the signs are subtle. Lots of locked houses and long grass, for instance.

The locked houses are in Pompeii, where the government no longer has the money to shore up the walls of the 2,000 year-old city. From the Pompeii of glorious mosaics and stunning frescos it has become a ghost town that one views from roads and sidewalks.

The immense Doric temples at Paestum are wonderfully preserved, but grass has reclaimed much of the rest of the site. It is charming to wander through the ruins, finding lovely mosaic floors, peristyle gardens or swimming pools, but the Italian authorities did not let the grass grow in order to stimulate the curiosity of tourists; they don’t have the money to cut it.

There is a sense in this country that people are holding their breath. The current center-right government is pushing through a $68 billion austerity package that will increase the retirement age, cut medical benefits, and lay off state workers, but many of the cuts will not take effect until 2013 and 2014. Hoping to avoid the wrath of voters, the current finance minister, Giullo Tremonti, has back loaded the cuts so they won’t take effect until after next spring’s elections.

As in ancient Rome, there are graffiti everywhere. There are hammers and sickles painted on the walls in Naples, as well as scrawls threatening “death to the Communists.” The left took power here in the last elections and is currently locked in a battle with the local Mafia over corruption. A cursory glance at this teeming, energetic, and most Italian of cities suggests the left is holding its own: the Mafia’s tactic of flooding the place with garbage is not working. The streets are chaotic, loud, and anarchic, but clean.

Sometimes it is hard to decide if Italians are holding their breath or their noses. For instance, Tremonti’s political advisor, Marco Milanese, a member of parliament, was arrested last week as part of a corruption investigation, forcing Tremonti to give up using Milanese’s luxury flat in Rome. In the meantime, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi secretly tried to slip a clause into the budget bill that would delay paying a huge $1.5 billion fine against his flagship media company, Fininvest.

Compared to social unrest in Greece, Spain, Britain and Portugal, Italy has been relatively tranquil. While the Greeks are in open rebellion against the austerity packages of the IMF and the EU, Italian demonstrations have been big but generally quiet. Tremonti told the Financial Times that Italians are different than Greeks and would accept austerity, because “The Italian people understand,” he said, “their demand is to be serious and rigorous. People are strongly in favor of this discipline.”

Tremonti is whistling past the graveyard, his words an eerie echo of Greek Prime Minister George Papandrerou’s comment that Greeks were “unified” behind the government program.” Outside the parliament Athens seethes with rage, and hundreds of thousands of Greeks battle tear gas and police batons to demonstrate quite the opposite. A recent poll found that 80 percent of the Greeks oppose the austerity plan.

There is nothing to indicate that Italians won’t follow the Greeks into the streets once the cuts hit home here. A stencil on a wall in Citta de Castello shows two stick figures, one firing a gun at the head of the other. Underneath the picture is one word: “capitalism.”

Europe (and much of the world) is currently in the throes of a counterrevolution led by a combination of local capitalists and international finance. Using the crisis sparked by bank speculation, its goals are to weaken trade unions, roll back social services and pensions, and privatize as much as possible. Wages have fallen across the continent, and temporary jobs with sketchy or non-existent benefits have grown at the expense of regular employment.

The “crisis” is a one-way street. As a Financial Times analysis pointed out last month, “Millionaires across the world are richer they were before the financial crisis, the latest sign that the wealthy have weathered the downturn far better than other groups.”

The number of millionaires in North America went from 2.7 to 3.4 million from 2008 to 2010 and, in Europe, from 2.6 to 3.1 million during the same time period. Italy was the only EU country that saw a slight drop in the number of millionaires: 179 to 170. The countries with the largest number of millionaires are, in decreasing order, the U.S., Japan, Germany, China and Britain.

Capital is playing hardball in this counterrevolution.

On one level, governments like in Greece have unleashed their police in an effort to drive the hundreds of thousands of young people, teachers, government workers and trade unionists off the streets.

On another level, rating agencies like Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch deliberately downgrade bonds in order to protect private investors. When investors are asked to absorb some of the losses that their speculation generated, the rating agencies step in and make an offer no country can refuse: drop efforts to make private speculators pay or we tank your bonds and drive up the cost of borrowing money. “The credit rating agencies are playing politics not economics. The timing of the downgrades are not a coincidence,” one “senior EU official” told the Financial Times.

The “bailout” will not stop Greece from defaulting on its debt (with Ireland, Portugal and Spain likely to follow). Nor is there any way for a country like Greece to climb back out of the debt pit as long as its currency policies are dictated by Germany and France.

Italy has some experience with this business of crisis and currency, although its current leaders choose to ignore it. Back in the early 19th century, Naples was the largest city in Italy, and the south had a diverse and dynamic economy. It was the first region in Italy to build railroads, but the madness of the Catholic Church derailed the effort by blocking passage through the Papal States. Pope Gregory XVI called rails “roads to hell.”

According to Sir Martin Jacomb, former Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the sabotage of railway development marks the beginning of the south’s decline. But it wasn’t until the lira was made the national currency in 1861 that “it [the south] lost its ability to correct its uncompetitive position. Able and enterprising people moved to the north or emigrated, and the situation became permanent, as it remains today. The tragedy endures.”

Southern Italy has been locked into poverty for close to 200 years, a fate that is almost certain to befall other periphery members of the EU. Generations of poverty and emigration will be the price tag for protecting the investments of the very people who brought the current economic crisis on. The Citta di Castello stencil was, if anything, an understatement.

So far Italy is quiet, but everyone is aware that the coup of capital is being contested in the streets of Greece, Spain, Portugal and Britain, as it will eventually be in Rome, Naples, and Milan.

In the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre in 1819, where the British government sent cavalry to scatter a massive demonstration demanding political reform, an enraged Percy Bysshe Shelly penned “The Mask of Anarchy,” which ended in words that today’s powerful would do well to consider:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many—they are few.

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

Cutting Aid to Pakistan More Than Justified

The United States is taking a tougher stance towards Pakistan. It was announced this weekend that the U.S. will withhold $800 million in aid to Pakistan, or between one-third and 40% of U.S. military aid to the country. This funding would have gone towards reimbursing Pakistan for deploying 100,000 troops in the tribal and border-region, training assistance and military hardware. The cut in aid is, as Elise Labott called it, “a calculated risk” meant to pressure Pakistan into cooperating with the effort to end the insurgency and steady the region. Pakistan has never been a staunch ally in the war in Afghanistan. In fact, it has received a great deal of aid for the United States despite acting counter to those goals. Now, the U.S. is applying pressure on them to get in line.

Tensions between the U.S. and its “ally” became further strained in May with the successful assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abottabad on the outskirts of Islamabad. Amidst the somewhat troubling level of celebration over the death of the al-Qaeda leader in the United States rose concerns about how he could have been carrying on as well as he was so close to Pakistani capital. Troubling as rumors were that Pakistan lacked the intelligence or capacity to capture or kill the primary target of the war on terror, other rumors and accusations that Pakistani officials knew where he was and chose not to act are both more likely and more disturbing. Suspicions that Pakistan provides support and a safe haven to the insurgency and its leaders such as bin Laden and Mullah Omar became more pronounced. That Pakistan proceeded to arrest CIA informants involved with the raid and shut down an American program to train Pakistani troops to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the tribal and border areas did not help matters.

Pakistan’s relations towards Afghanistan in recent months have done nothing to help. Afghan President Hamid Karzai called out Pakistan for shooting 470 rockets into Afghanistan since the beginning of June. At the time of that article’s printing, Karzai claimed that the strikes killed 36 people, approximately one-third of which were children, and sent countless people fleeing their homes. If, as is being alleged, Pakistan conducted these attacks to support the Taliban’s operation to occupy border provinces, it “would be one of the most blatant recent examples of Pakistani support [for the insurgency] and bodes ill for the testy relationship among the three countries [Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the U.S.].” In response to Afghanistan’s tougher stance, Pakistan denied intentionally firing into Afghan territory in the first place. Considering Pakistan’s connection to the insurgency, it is hard to take Pakistan at its word. Further poisoning their relationship are rumors, whether real or imagined, that Pakistan had a hand in the infamous attack on the International Hotel in Kabul. If Pakistan has been a bad partner for the United States, it is clear they have been little better to their neighbors.

The decision to cut aid, in light of these developments, appears sound. Pakistan’s lack of cooperation more than justifies reconsidering the amount of military aid given – its status as a true ally in the war should be severely questioned. For the United States to continue supporting a country that is aiding its enemies is utterly absurd. The insurgency is resilient enough – the U.S. does not need to give it guns and bullets to kill its men and the men of its allies. A long-standing lenience towards Pakistan under both the Bush and Obama administrations has clearly done nothing to address its blatantly duplicitous nature. It is only appropriate that the United States conditions its aid based on honest and open cooperation around common goals.

As justified as the U.S is in this action, it is important that a balance is struck and the precise amount of pressure is applied. Despite mutual frustrations and Pakistani frustration, it is clear to Reza Aslan that the two countries desperately need each other. Pakistan provides the U.S. and NATO with much needed access routes for both lethal and non-lethal supplies while Pakistan certainly needs the U.S. to keep the many radical groups currently festering within its borders from bringing their government to ruins much like it did in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Aslan’s argument that the U.S. risks allowing the insurgency to grow stronger in Pakistan without Islamabad’s help seems a little far-fetched considering Pakistan does as least as much to protect the insurgency as it does to stop it. What is more important is that the U.S. would benefit greatly if Pakistan stopped supporting the insurgency and sincerely confronted it. The United States’ punishment of Pakistan needs to be appropriately measured to end its reliance on the insurgency and move it to supporting the coalition.

Despite the hazard involved, the status quo clearly is not working. If this move could ultimately encourage Pakistan to get its act together or strain the Taliban it will be a major success. There is little doubt that Pakistan must be encouraged to choose between supporting the insurgency or working to limit its violence and disruptiveness – and to make the right choice. I can only hope this “calculated risk” pays off: the only way to limit the fighting power of the insurgency is to deny it sanctuary and support from Pakistan.

Adam Cohen is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

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