Focal Points Blog

Republican Senate Rejection of START Could Actually Work in Disarmament’s Favor

The New York Times saw fit to provide valuable op-ed space to John Bolton and John Yoo on November 9. You’d think the latter, especially, best known for providing the Bush administration with legal justification for torture, would be reluctant to show his face — or byline — in public again. In this instance Bolton and Yoo are turning their collective wisdom to the new START treaty.

“The sweeping Democratic midterm losses last week raise serious questions for President Obama and a lame-duck Congress,” they write. “Voters want government brought closer to the vision the framers outlined in the Constitution” — laying it on a little thick, guys — “and the first test could be the fate of the flawed New Start arms control treaty [which] awaits ratification. The Senate should heed the will of the voters and either reject the treaty or amend it so that it doesn’t weaken our national defense.”

In his November 8 column for the Week, Daniel Larison of (the libertarian) American Conservative also addressed the fate of new START.

After the Republican gain of six seats in the Senate, including Mark Kirk of Illinois, who will be seated immediately, the arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, known as START, has much less of a chance of passing during the lame-duck session before January. . . . After the start of the new Congress, the treaty will be as good as dead.

When he then warns that such a course of action will “harm U.S. security interests,” he means something entirely different from Bolton and Yoo when they call for rejecting or amending new START in order that “it doesn’t weaken our national defense.” Larison is referring to the danger that “it will wreck the one mechanism available to the United States for verifying the nature and extent of Russia’s nuclear arsenal.”

In fact, there’s no love lost between this author and new START. For starters, as explained in April by Michael Bohm in the Moscow Times . . .

. . . Russia and the United States have agreed to apply “creative accounting” to pad the reductions on both sides to get to the much-desired 30 percent figure. . . . one trick was to count the 20 warheads on B-52 bombers as only one. At the end of the day, the real net cuts, according to Hans Kristenson of the Federation of American Scientists, will be only 100 U.S. deployed warheads and 190 Russian ones. [Another trick was revealed when] the two sides announced the final number — 1,550 deployed warheads — the key qualifier is “deployed.” The roughly 2,000 non-deployed warheads stored in U.S. military warehouses were not included in the New START.

More to the point, if Republicans truly reject or further water down new START, what becomes of the $80 billion for the next 10 years that the Obama administration promised to the nuclear-weapons industry in part to win Republican votes for ratification? Not to mention funding for, as Greg Mello writes in the latest bulletin of the Los Alamos Study Group, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility planned for Los Alamos, the cost of which “per square foot of useful space has grown to more than 100 times what [Los Alamos's] existing plutonium facility cost in 1978, in constant dollars.” In fact, “it’s the biggest project ever proposed for Los Alamos — six times the size of the whole Manhattan Project in New Mexico,” also in constant dollars. (I’ve still yet to digest that last revelation.)

Obviously concerned about losing that funding, Bolton and Yoo write, “Congress should pass a new law financing the testing and development of new warhead designs before approving New Start.” If it’s rejected or neutered, does the Obama administration plan to retract some or all of that funding? Unlikely, I know, but were that to occur it would look a lot more like disarmament than new START.

Yemenis More Sensitive to Disinformation Than Americans

Cargo explosivesIt’s not entirely certain whether the two packages containing explosives sent to the United States were meant to explode at the Chicago synagogues to which they were addressed or in mid-air. But since then the United States has been leaning especially hard on Yemen to roust members (perceived or not) of al Qaeda in its midst. On Saturday a Yemeni judge ordered the arrest of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric active in terror operations in Yemen and elsewhere.

He’s been high on America’s s**t list since it was discovered he’d been a mentor (if you can call advising on terror operations mentorship) to the accused Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan and to would-be underpants bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a jet liner last Christmas.

Because of the omnipresence of his sermons on the web, Awlaki is sometimes called the bin Laden of the Internet. Dangerous as bin Laden 2.0, his crimes pale before those of the original version. Though, in comparison with Yemen, the closest Pakistan, the country in which bin Laden seems to be hiding, has come to apprehending him was arresting the American who came in search of him earlier this year, Gary Brooks Faulkner.

Meanwhile, shortly before the order for Awlaki’s arrest was issued, the New York Times ran an article by Mona El-Naggar and Robert F. Worth titled Yemen’s Drive on Al Qaeda Faces Internal Skepticism. “As Yemen intensifies its military campaign against Al Qaeda’s regional arm,” they wrote, “it faces a serious obstacle: most Yemenis consider the group a myth, or a ploy by their president to squeeze the West for aid money and punish his domestic opponents.”

Turns out that (and this is a collage of quote from the article) “many Yemenis seem doubtful that Al Qaeda was guilty [of the killings attributed to them], which took place in the same southern parts of the country where a secessionist movement has been growing for the past three years [or that they were] an excuse for American military intervention. [Meanwhile] counterterrorist raids are often described as punitive measures against domestic foes.”

One’s first impulse is to suspect that some deny the existence of al Qaeda because they don’t want to let on that they’re either working with or sympathetic to it. But that seems unlikely. El-Naggar and Worth report:

Yemen’s tribes are often cast as the chief obstacle in the fight against Al Qaeda, sheltering the militants because of tribal hospitality or even ideological kinship. In fact, few tribal leaders have any sympathy for the group, and some tribes have forced Qaeda members to leave their areas in the past year.

Whether or not they may carry it too far, it’s funny how alert Yemenis are to disinformation from their government compared to the public of a country awash in information like the United States. For instance, some Yemenis, as Awlaki himself once claimed, no doubt believe that Israel was responsible for 9/11. Whereas despite all the revelations about the CIA that have been dug up over the years, including possible responsibility for the assassination of President Kennedy, few Americans subscribe to alternate accounts of key events such as that and 9/11. The typical American fears being marginalized as a conspiracy theorist, a death-knell to one’s credibility.

When it comes to taking what their government says with a grain — okay, a mine — of salt, Americans could learn a lesson from Yemenis.

Housing Demolition in East Jerusalem

East Jerusalem

Walking through the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City is a pleasure to the senses: smells of garlic and tea sift through the air, bright colored scarves, coffee pots and evil eye jewelry hang in tiny shops, and crowds of locals and tourists clog the tiny, stone-paved streets. Though most tourists are drawn to Jerusalem for its historical and religious sites, the city is actually a huge locus of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The most tangible manifestation of injustice in Jerusalem is arguably the government sanctioned housing demolitions in Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem.

During a recent trip to Israel, I saw firsthand the discrepancy between Jewish and Muslim communities and the physical divide between West and East Jerusalem. I went on a day tour of East Jerusalem with the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolitions (ICAHD), a non-violent organization that resists housing demolitions in East Jerusalem through direct action, domestic and international advocacy, as well as tours.

The difference between East and West Jerusalem is stark: where West Jerusalem has tree-lined sidewalks and functioning infrastructure, East Jerusalem has dusty, narrow streets, no trash pick-up, and water storage containers on top of houses because most residents are not connected to the municipal water mains. The separation wall stands eight meters high with barbed wire at the top, dividing Arabs in East Jerusalem from their families in the West Bank. Along with the lack of infrastructure in this area, there are no zoning laws so Palestinian residents are not permitted to build new houses: the legal measure that allows the Israeli government to demolish homes. This system serves as a means of making Palestinians leave East Jerusalem. The situation is complex, however, because once Palestinians leave the city, they lose their residency and therefore access to the Old City, their old homes, and their community. Because of this, many people do decide to remain in East Jerusalem despite the constant threat of housing demolitions.

While on the tour, we spoke with a Palestinian woman in the contested neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah. She had been displaced over a year ago – the Israeli government evicted her family and gave her home to Jewish settlers who often spark violence in the area. An international solidarity tent stands nearby where someone sleeps every night to keep watch on the neighborhood. The neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah has entered the limelight because of the scope of its injustice and the ways in which the Israeli government uses its legal system to expand Jewish settlements thereby shrinking the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem.

The most recent East Jerusalem protest ensued on October 25th after the Israeli police gave 231 demolition orders to Palestinian families all across East Jerusalem, including Silwan, an Arab neighborhood in close proximity to the Old City. According to Human Rights Watch, Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes peaked this year, reaching 141 in July. This is the largest number of demolitions per month since 2005. Meanwhile, the Israeli government subsidizes Jewish settlements all over the occupied territories and in East Jerusalem as well.

Though Israel places most its inexcusable violent measures under the banner of “security,” this particular form of destruction is purely discriminatory and does not fall into the category of Israeli defense. If Israel intends to continue the peace process, it must stop demolishing Palestinian homes and building Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.

Metropolitan Diary (Apologies to Times): Military Groupies Merrily Convene in D.C.

Military chaplainDear Diary:

Overheard below Washington, DC’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center last month on the Green Line Metro platform during the annual conference of the Association of the United States Army, which describes itself as a “private, non-profit educational organization that supports America’s Army” and “provides numerous Professional Development Opportunities.”

Above the Metro, banners for the Association were hanging from seemingly every lamp pole in sight. The banners featured a line of gun-carrying soldiers and read, “America’s Army: The Strength of the Nation.” Facing the Convention Center, two large, desert-tan armored military vehicles (one, fully amphibious and tracked), bearing the license plates “BAE” (a British weapons manufacturer), sat, at the ready, on the grass alongside the busy New York Avenue thoroughfare that runs through the heart of DC. Around the corner, inside a vacant storefront adjacent to the Convention Center, a local bike shop was running a “bike valet” as part of Green Festival DC, which was also being held at the Center.

On the subterranean Metro platform, which was festooned with posters for ITT Defense & Information Solutions, a group of well-dressed men were standing together in a small circle, waiting for a train, each wearing a pass from the Army conference around his neck.

One of the men, in civilian khaki pants and a smooth blue polo shirt, said, “Isn’t it ironic that there’s a Green Festival [just above ours]?”

“Yeah,” replied an Army chaplain in combat fatigues. “War is a terrible thing for the environment, not to mention for people.” And then he laughed.

Election Was Missed Opportunity to Convince Voters to Abandon Current Afghanistan Strategy

By all accounts, the war in Afghanistan was a non-issue in last week’s mid-term elections. As poll after poll has shown, the number one issue was jobs and the economy. Afghanistan ranked at or near the bottom of the list.

And yet, polling also shows that Americans are more optimistic about the direction of the economy than they are about the prospects of the war in Afghanistan. According to the most recent RBC Consumer Outlook Index, only 25 percent of Americans believe that the economy will get worse over the next year. Meanwhile, a vast majority of Americans (somewhere around 60 percent) believe that we are losing the war in Afghanistan.

If these numbers even come close to reflecting what Americans think, two things should have been true: the Democrats should have been able to convince voters to stick with their economic strategy and opponents of the war should have been able to convince voters to abandon the current strategy in Afghanistan.

But of course, neither of those things happened. Republicans succeeded in turning the electorate against the administration’s economic agenda and supporters of the war succeeded in keeping Afghanistan off the table altogether. The existence of a double-standard could not be more clear.

As we wallow in the post-election depression, we might stop for a moment and play a little what-if exercise. What if the same standard that was applied to the economy in this election were applied to the war in Afghanistan?

First, of course, there would have been a discussion of the war’s cost and its contribution to the soaring deficit. Between 2003 and 2008, the deficit went from $6.4 trillion to $10 trillion. Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have shown that at least a quarter of that increase came directly from the war in Iraq. Currently, the U.S. is spending $3 billion dollars a week on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stiglitz and Bilmes estimate the total cost of these wars, including medical care for veterans, will be between 4 and 6 trillion dollars. These numbers make the bank bailout, estimated at $350 billion (most of which has already been recovered), and Obama’s recent stimulus, which was trimmed to just $34 billion, look like pocket change.

Secondly, there would have been a backlash at the call for patience in seeing the war through. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell told voters that Obama and the Democrats in Congress had two whole years to turn the economy around. Now, they said, it’s time for a change. Imagine if they had applied the same logic to Afghanistan—which entered its ninth year one month before the election. Even if one concedes that the strategy changed under Obama, that would still be two years. If two years is long enough for a referendum on the economy, why isn’t it long enough for a referendum on a war?

Last but not least, there would have been a backlash against Obama’s war. The Republicans and Tea Partiers succeeded in making voters believe that Obama had single-handedly undermined their freedoms. Despite the fact that the health care and stimulus bills passed by the administration were products of compromise with the insurance companies and financial institutions, Republicans spoke of Obamacare, Obamanomics, and Obamunization. As general-in-chief, Obama had more power to shape the war in Afghanistan than he did healthcare or the economy.

What if the president’s opponents had expressed the same vehemence against Obama’s war as they did against the administration’s other policies?

Had even one of these things happened, I would be willing to credit the Republicans with fostering a real debate about the war, something that, up to this point, the Democrats have utterly failed to do.

A Progressive-Tea Party Foreign Policy Coalition? Don’t Hold Your Breath

For those of us who wearied of the “rejection of progressivism” storyline tailing the midterm election results before even the first votes were counted, a new and potentially more interesting sort of speculation has emerged as a welcome, if ultimately unconvincing, distraction.

Over at Foreign Policy, John Norris of the Center for American Progress has seized on the Tea Party’s opaque foreign policy messaging to assemble a speculative list of potential areas of foreign policy cooperation between progressives and Tea Partiers in the next Congress. Most interesting are his first two suggestions.

On Afghanistan and Iraq: “Some Tea Partiers, such as Marco Rubio and Sarah Palin, favor aggressive international interventions along the lines of Dick Cheney, but the majority of them view foreign entanglements of any kind with skepticism.”

On cuts to defense spending: “The Tea Partiers say they are serious about balancing the budget and substantially cutting the deficit, a goal that is almost impossible to achieve without taking a hard look at the Pentagon… The philosophy of the movement’s leaders on defense spending runs a remarkable gamut — from Palin’s preference for increased spending to Ron Paul’s libertarian argument that sharp cuts are needed.”

Tea-Party Senate candidates like Rand Paul, Ken Buck, Joe Miller, and John Raese bandied about varying degrees of skepticism regarding the role of the United States as an interventionist power, but of these, only Paul was elected (not that this is a huge loss – Raese also called for a missile defense system consisting of “1,000 laser systems put in the sky”). Paul also bears the distinction of being among the very few Tea Party candidates to explicitly put military cuts on the table. Senator-elect Mike Lee of Utah has similarly called for an emphasis on “military targets” in Afghanistan, followed by a troop withdrawal “as soon as possible.” But while Paul and Lee may be worth watching on these issues, they can hardly monopolize the Tea Party’s foreign policy voice among its Senate inductees. Marco Rubio’s victory speech dripped with the trappings of American exceptionalism, and indeed his first action as Senator-elect has been to schedule a trip to Israel, perhaps echoing his earlier demand that the United States endorse Israeli policies “without equivocation or hesitation.”

The foreign policy orientation of the few dozen Tea Partiers on the House side of the aisle, however, has received considerably less scrutiny. And while the Tea Party is certainly better represented in the House than in the Senate, it will confront a markedly different institutional context. Whether it was an attempt to co-opt the Tea Party or merely an effort to capitalize on its brand name, the inception of Michelle Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus last July means that the institutionalization of the Tea Party in the House has begun before the first members have even arrived – and with the Caucus’ 44 well-financed and often high-placed members, the new arrivals may find a more crowded “Tea Party” venue than they might have before imagined. To my knowledge, the Caucus’ most notable (and perhaps only) foray into foreign policy has been to endorse a resolution calling for an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities (although, a side note: tolerance for Israeli militarism already enjoys a fine degree of bipartisan approval).

Then there are the Tea Party voters themselves. According to a study by the Sam Adams Alliance, 69% of members identified “defense” as a “very important” national priority when they joined the Tea Party, while nearly 80% of members classify it so “today.” While the survey does not wander into the thornier territory of polling on actual policies, it seems clear that the projection of American power assumes a greater importance for Tea Partiers once they are inside the movement. It must be admitted that measuring Tea Party sentiment has proven a daunting task for many pollsters and that even reasonably accurate measures of Tea Party sympathy for this or that policy would not translate to predicting the behavior of newly elected officials. But one can probably be safely skeptical of a groundswell in Tea Party sentiment for major American foreign policy changes.

Without any clear popular mandate on foreign policy and without any information about how new members will assimilate into their respective legislative caucuses – not to mention any real evidence yet of a convergence of Tea Party and progressive foreign policy priorities – thoughts of such cooperation must be treated as mere speculation. One can certainly imagine a Washington that is rather more eccentric but fundamentally unchanged in its foreign policy disposition. Whatever the case, at least Mr. Norris has not told us that progressivism is dead.

Americans Still Turn Blind Eye to the Savagery We Unleashed in Iraq

Bush & BushIt was bad enough when, before the fourth game of the World Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, George Bush drove his father and himself out to the pitching mound in a golf cart to toss out the traditional first ball. (One could be forgiven for wondering if it was part of his book tour.) But it was galling when he threw a near-perfect pitch.

Worst of all, though, as opposed to when he performed the same function on baseball’s 2008 opening day at Nationals Park in Washington and was jeered, this time only cheers could be heard on T.V. by the naked ear. No doubt many in the crowd weren’t happy to see him and held their applause. Still, even though it was Bush’s home state, couldn’t anybody see his or her way clear to expressing contempt for his poor excuse for a presidency?

Along with playing an instrumental role in wrecking the economy and threatening our civil liberties, Bush will mostly be remembered for the disproportionate and — less broadly targeted than mis-targeted — response to 9/11 that he took out on Iraq, a nation that had nothing to do with the attack on American soil. Emphasizing what a raw open wound Iraq remains, as I wrote yesterday:

Brutality in Iraq still flares up at critical times on a scale commensurate with that seen during the height of the sectarian strife (aka, civil war). On Sunday, in what has already come to be known as the Baghdad Church Massacre, insurgents representing the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq attacked and seized a church in Baghdad leaving 58 dead and 75 wounded. Then on Tuesday, November 2, insurgents set off more than a dozen car and roadside bombs across Baghdad leaving at least 63 dead and nearly 300 wounded.

Though the odds of a cause-effect relationship are minimal, those attacks came on the heels of the WikiLeaks document dump, which refreshed our memories about the part that the United States played in the savagery that gripped Iraq after our invasion and during our occupation. At IPS News, Gareth Porter writes about a key revelation:

. . . a U.S. military order directing U.S. forces not to investigate cases of torture of detainees by Iraqis has been treated in news reports as yet another case of lack of concern by the U.S. military about detainee abuse.

It was much more, however. Porter explains.

But the deeper significance of the order, which has been missed by the news media, is that it was part of a larger U.S. strategy of exploiting Shi’a sectarian hatred against Sunnis to help suppress the Sunni insurgency when Sunnis had rejected the U.S. war. . . . The strategy involved the deliberate deployment of Shi’a and Kurdish police commandoes in areas of Sunni insurgency in the full knowledge that they were torturing Sunni detainees. . . . That strategy inflamed Sunni fears of Shi’a rule and was a major contributing factor to the rise of al Qaeda’s influence in the Sunni areas. The escalating Sunni-Shi’a violence it produced led to the massive sectarian warfare of 2006 in Baghdad in which tens of thousands of civilians — mainly Sunnis — were killed.

Talk about pouring gasoline on a fire. I suspect that among those who thought about it, much of the American public rationalized the violence in Iraq thusly: even if the war was fought for the wrong reasons, we gave Iraqis their freedom from a tyranny. If the best they could do with it was to kill each other with impunity, not only is that not our problem, but they don’t deserve our respect or concern. Most of us feel no responsibility whatsoever for the Pandora’s box we opened. However heartless that attitude, it ventures into the realm of cruelty when we learn that the U.S. pursued policies that constituted a de facto sanction of torture and killing.

Since, personally, I view Americans as victims of our government (though not to the same extent as if our rulers were Saddam Hussein or Stalin) and our corporate rich, who are just trying to stay upright in these vertiginous times, I try to be understanding about their inattentiveness to how our policies affect the lives of those elsewhere. But these recent developments make it considerably more difficult to overlook their lack of compassion.

In the course of a day in the United States, one meets individuals who, however stressed, are caring, considerate, as well as eager and willing to help each other on a family, church, and community level. But when it comes to people elsewhere, except for contributing aid for tsunami-like disasters (the Pakistani floods excluded), they exclude them from their consciousnesses.

For instance, while most Americans know that the vast majority of Muslims would never join in an al Qaeda-like attack on the United States, I suspect they’re convinced that most Muslims, if not openly, secretly cheered 9/11. I submit, however, that tuning out news from Iraq and about WikiLeaks, and voting for candidates who perpetuate war in the Middle East virtually cancel out the good — however heartfelt — that Americans do on a local level.

Returning to Bush, in retrospect, his World Series appearance was a major opportunity lost. When it was announced, progressives should have fired up the social media, bought tickets, and organized a chant — such as “War criminal!” — to greet him. Leave us be on the lookout for future such occasions.

Method to the Madness of Iraqi Insurgents’ Mindless Violence

Brutality in Iraq still flares up at critical times on a scale commensurate with that seen during the height of the sectarian strife (aka, civil war). On Sunday, in what has already come to be known as the Baghdad Church Massacre, insurgents representing the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq attacked and seized a church in Baghdad leaving 58 dead and 75 wounded. Then on Tuesday, November 2, insurgents set off more than a dozen car and roadside bombs across Baghdad leaving at least 63 dead and nearly 300 wounded.

In the New York Times, Jack Healy reported that the explosions struck “Shiite . . . Sadr City, a Sunni mosque, public squares . . . and middle-class shopping districts. . . . They tore across divisions of sect and class.” What’s italicized highlights how nihilistic and anarchistic the attacks struck us. Yesterday, we wrote about the second set of attacks.

No group has yet claimed responsibility, but the U.S. military suspects Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group, also known as Al Qaeda in Iraq [AQI]). Why include Sunnis then? Healy writes that the attacks “took dead aim at the sheen of normalcy that had settled over Baghdad” and were an attempt to “undermine popular confidence in the government,” as well as “a bloody declaration of their ability to thwart the government’s efforts to secure” the city.

That’s it? Attacking your own people is supposed to undermine confidence in the government? Sounds more like a mindless admixture of anarchy and nihilism.

Setting aside for the moment the role that the United States played in lighting Iraq’s fuse by invading and occupying the country, we instead asked our readers if the Sunni insurgents are just mindless sociopaths or if they have an overarching strategy (other than the long-term creation of a caliphate) .

In reply, John Goekler, an esteemed member of the Focal Points blog staff, revealed not one, but four, possible methods to their madness.

1. Staying relevant. Other Guys ["gangs, tribes, sects and all those miscellaneous 'post national' groups," as John explains in another Focal Points post] have to maintain visibility/credibility to attract followers and funds.

2. Maintaining the sense of insecurity/dysfunction necessary to sustain and exploit “sink holes” (or what John Robb of Global Guerillas would call “Temporary Autonomous Zones”) which Other Guys control and profit from. (Think control/sales of diesel, electricity, housing, security, etc. in neighborhoods.)

3. Sowing confusion/dysfunction/discontent with the (Shia dominated) government. Sunnis are already extracting concessions for pushing the Allawi coalition to a plurality. The new attacks may also be a means of pressuring al-Maliki for similar accommodations.

4. And, of course, for guys with little else in their lives but cause, compañeros and Kalashnikovs, it’s good, clean fun.

Do Focal Points readers agree on the plausibility of those reasons?

Note to Al Qaeda in Iraq: How Does Attacking Your Own People Undermine Their Confidence in the Government?

“Insurgents unleashed attacks across Baghdad on Tuesday night, setting off more than a dozen coordinated bombs,” reports Jack Healy for the New York Times. “It was among the fiercest assaults on the capital since the United States invaded in 2003. . . . At least 63 people were killed and about 285 were wounded. . . . The explosions — devastating car bombs and roadside blasts — struck . . . Shiite . . . Sadr City, a Sunni mosque, public squares . . . and middle-class shopping districts. . . . They tore across divisions of sect and class.” [Emphasis added.]

No group has yet claimed responsibility, but the U.S. military suspects Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group, also know as Al Qaeda in Iraq [AQI]). Why include Sunnis then? Healy writes that the attacks “took dead aim at the sheen of normalcy that had settled over Baghdad” and were an attempt to “undermine popular confidence in the government,” as well as “a bloody declaration of their ability to thwart the government’s efforts to secure” the city.

That’s it? Attacking your own people is supposed to undermine confidence in the government? Sounds more like a mindless admixture of anarchy and nihilism. I picked up this quote off the Internet by the nineteenth century Russian nihilist Dmitri Pisarev:

Here is the ultimatum of our camp. What can be smashed must be smashed; whatever will stand the blow is sound, what flies into smithereens is rubbish; at any rate, hit out right and left, no harm will or can come of it.

Besides, doesn’t attempting to make the case that the government is unable to keep the peace suggest that you’re an insignificant opponent that the government should be able to contain? Doesn’t that reflect poorly on your status as a threat?

Just for a moment, let’s set aside the role of the United States in lighting Iraq’s fuse by invading and occupying the country. Instead, let’s ask: Is AQI trying to alienate — sociopaths like themselves excluded — every last Middle-Easterner? If Focal Points readers have more profound insights into their strategy, or lack thereof, than the author does, he would be in your debt if you shared them with us in the comments column.

Brazil’s First Female President Expected to Carry on Lula’s Work — for Better or Worse

President Dilma RouseffWhile the election of a former Marxist guerrilla has captured attention, prospects for further advances in Brazilian democracy largely lie outside of the electoral arena.

As expected, Dilma Rousseff won the Oct 31st runoff to become the next president of Brazil. Lula’s chosen successor has captured attention abroad for her past as a Marxist guerrilla and torture victim during the years of the dictatorship.

Her former life as a militant advocate for societal change and democracy may mislead as to her contemporary political positions. No radical, she downplays her early years and is expected to continue Lula’s center-left policies.

For many Brazilians, that was reason enough to vote for her. Certainly, the election of the first female president in the world’s fourth largest democracy, and one with her past, is indicative of the progress Brazil has made since military rule.

However, one should not judge Rousseff by the standards of the United States. As Greg Grandin has noted, the entire spectrum of political discussion in Brazil is well to the left of the U.S. The leading opposition candidate, the nominee of the Social Democratic Party, and standard-bearer for the right, nonetheless made a name for himself as health minister for promoting cheap generic medicines and, during the campaign, favored lowering interest rates – a position to the left of Rousseff. And the Green Party candidate (though not as consistently left-leaning as might be supposed) secured 19% of the vote in the first round. In some respects, the country is also more democratic: social movements are vast – the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) has, adjusting for U.S. population size, the equivalent of 2.3 million members; the homeless are organized (for instance, in preparing for the wave of evictions predicted in the wake of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics); labor is stronger – and the candidates are more interesting. In sharp contrast to the Ivy League pedigrees of most U.S. presidents, Dilma’s predecessor never went beyond the 4th grade and began his career as a shoeshine boy-turned-factory worker and union organizer.

Her agenda inevitably reflects the balance of power within Brazilian society. She plans to continue with the massive Belo Monte hydroelectric dam construction project opposed by many indigenous populations and environmentalists. Further, she is expected to maintain the neoliberal policies of Lula. In her acceptance speech on Monday, she uttered the proper words to soothe international financial markets and appointed a “market friendly” team of advisors. Nor is she likely to undertake comprehensive land reform of the sort demanded by the 1.5 million strong MST, or discontinue Lula’s favoritism towards multinational agribusinesses. Brazil’s highly inequitable land holdings, now more concentrated than in 1920, have not seen a serious governmental effort at redistribution since João Goulart was overthrown in 1964.

As João Pedro Stédile, a leading member of the MST and Via Campesina, put it:

“During the Lula administration, we didn’t have the space to discuss true land reform and didn’t have the mass forces to pressure the government and society. Thus, on the one hand the current policy is insufficient, yet on the other, it is a clear expression of the social forces that exist in society.”

Yet Stédile is clear about the value of the Lula-Dilma administrations:

“The Lula government carried out a progressive foreign policy on the level of State policies. And on the economic level, it carried out a policy in the interests of Brazilian companies. Compared to the neoliberal policies of Cardoso, who were totally subservient to the interests of imperialism, this is a huge advance.”

Certainly, on the level of electoral politics, a continuation of the Lula agenda under Rousseff’s helm is a good thing, approximately the best outcome that could be expected. The handover of power cements the developing norms of parliamentary democracy. The economic realities facing laborers saw modest but real improvements under Lula. Inequality declined. The social safety net was extended. Twenty-one million people rose out of official poverty. Lula also guided Brazil on an independent trajectory, loosening the strictures of United States hegemony in the region.

However, if we permit ourselves to depart from the demarcated boundaries of polite discourse and cast a glance outside of the electoral arena, Rousseff’s presidency represents little forward momentum for the left and in fact poses the significant danger that her administration will facilitate the assimilation and neutering of the social movements. It is the expectation of leaders within the MST that Dilma will create a political environment “more conducive to social struggle.” Yet, much as the election of Obama in the U.S. potentially opened up space for the further expansion of left movements but has heretofore had the effect of demobilizing the left, Rousseff’s election and strong coalition of legislators creates both opportunities and threats for the left.

There is reason for optimism, however, as Brazilian people’s movements are not only larger than those in the U.S., but more politically sophisticated. Stédile observes that, “Brazilian society is not democratic…. So even when we elect governments with progressive proposals, they lack sufficient strength to change the laws of the market and the nature of the bourgeois state.”

As in most contemporary democracies, the elections present sharply constrained choices for voters, leading the prominent Indian journalist and agricultural policy analyst Devinder Sharma to remark: “Today, the so-called democracies across the globe, including India, Brazil and the United States, have turned into ‘of the industry, by the industry, for the industry.’” Rousseff’s ascension to power should not obscure the reality that, for the people of Brazil, the future will be determined more by the path chosen by social movements than by the outcome of Sunday’s election.

Steven Fake is coauthor with Kevin Funk of The Scramble for Africa: Darfur — Intervention and the USA, Black Rose Books (2009).

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