Focal Points Blog

U.S. May Rue the Day It Won Viktor Bout Tug of War With Russia

Viktor BoutAfter spending more than two years in a Southeast Asian prison cell, international arms-trafficker and so-called “Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout faces imminent extradition to the United States. Last Tuesday, Thailand’s Criminal Court dismissed charges of money laundering and fraud leveled against the infamous “Lord of War” in Bangkok, all but clearing the way for his eventual hand-off to American authorities. Prosecutors here eagerly await his arrival, where they plan to try Bout for conspiracy to kill Americans, and a handful of other terrorism-related charges.

Bout has become something of a flashpoint in US-Russian affairs of late. While Washington has made the arms dealer’s extradition to US soil a matter of priority, Moscow has just as vehemently demanded his release. Bout, a former Soviet air force officer with deep ties to Moscow, is widely believed to possess intimate knowledge of Russian military intelligence, secrets that might be revealed during trial. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signaled the importance Moscow places on Bout’s future by publicly announcing his personal commitment to securing the arms dealer’s return to Russia, a vow that to this point has been brushed aside by US authorities. But Vladimir Kozin, a high-ranking member of the Russian foreign ministry, has underscored the Russian position, warning that American hopes of a “reset” with Moscow will simply not take place if Bout lands in the States.

Yet any fears Moscow may harbor could prove negligible when compared with the anxiety being experienced in certain quarters of Washington’s Beltway. As it turns out, Bout’s extensive resume includes dealings not only with international bogeymen like Charles Taylor, the Taliban, and Colombia’s narcotrafficking FARC, but also with the United Nations and George W. Bush. This inconvenient fact could provoke conflict between federal lawyers intent on bringing Bout to justice and a Pentagon determined to protect its own.

In the grand scheme of international arms dealing, Bout is a bit player. As FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan notes, “the global arms trade is a $60 billion yearly enterprise,” the great majority of which is controlled licitly by states. Businessmen like Bout are nothing more than “shadowy actors that play on the margins.” Hugh Griffiths, a small-arms expert with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, concurs, adding that he’s a dime-a-dozen actor on the international stage. “There are thirty to forty other individuals just like Viktor Bout.”

Yet the media attention devoted to Bout’s case is not without merit. Beyond the cinematic quality of Bout’s personal story, the trafficker’s case offers insight into the poorly understood intersections between nation-states and criminal markets. The fact that Bout enjoys personal ties both with leaders in the Global South as well as superpower political elites in the North demonstrates the tightness with which formal actors in the global arena are bound to organized crime.

The Lord of War’s story is itself incredible, bearing all the hallmarks of a Hollywood action flick. Originally hailing from Tajikistan, Bout established himself early within the Soviet military as an aircraft pilot and skilled linguist. He was deployed frequently to Africa during the 1980s as a translator, experiences that laid the groundwork for his dealings on the continent a decade later, feeding arms to rival factions battling for natural resources and state power. Bout emerged from the wreckage of Soviet collapse well-connected and eager to make money. Der Spiegel charts the early years in its extensive six-part investigation into the Bout affair:

Unused aircraft stood idle on the tarmac at the waning superpower’s airports, and unsold weapons were piled high in the country’s weapons factories. The enterprising Bout purchased—with the help of military intelligence, some claim—three old Antonov cargo planes for the ridiculously low price of $40,000 apiece…There was no shortage of pilots…during those months of turmoil [and] Bout was clever enough to register his fleet, which soon grew to four dozen aircraft, in obscure countries…like Equatorial Guinea and Central African Republic.

Soon, Bout was running everything from guns to flowers, and even UN peacekeepers, to spots as far-flung as Somalia, Congo, Colombia, Iran and North Korea. In return, Bout received cash and, at least in his dealings with Charles Taylor, looted diamonds from Sierra Leone.

But his high-flying adventures through the world’s top shelf warzones took an unexpected turn following 9/11. As Washington allowed its attention to wander from Afghanistan to the Middle East, the US government began subcontracting Bout to supply its war effort in Iraq. According to Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, authors of Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible, Bout was awarded $60 million in American contracts between 2003 and 2004, flying over 1,000 missions to the Middle East on behalf of the US government. Der Spiegel reports that:

To this day, it remains unclear whether the collaboration [between Washington and Bout] was the result of sloppy work on the part of US officials or whether Washington knew who was the owner of Irbis air…It is clear, however, that Bout’s aircraft were subcontracted to the US Air Mobility Command, as well as to defense contractor KBR, a company owned by the Halliburton conglomerate [of which] then-US Vice President Dick Cheney was the CEO…until 2000.

Whatever the truth, Bout was cut off from American funding in 2005, and busted by DEA agents posing as FARC guerillas two years later in Thailand. Why the sudden change of heart? “Bout was caught because he pissed off the Americans” by selling weapons to the Taliban, small arms expert Michael Ashkenazi told Deutsche Welle, “not because anyone thought he was a bad guy. Everyone knew he was a bad guy, but suddenly he stepped on the wrong toes.”

The Bush administration’s willingness to enrich a man who actively undermined American security will surely complicate proceedings once Bout lands in an American courthouse. It’s interesting to note that American prosecutors have thus far refused to expand their charges against Bout beyond his alleged dealings with the FARC. Some observers point out that evidence establishing Bout’s international exploits is flimsy, and thus the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been forced to pursue a narrow line of inquiry. But the indictment also raises questions about what, if any, pressure the Pentagon has put on the DOJ to prevent embarrassing revelations of its own complicity with the globe-trotting salesman. Brian Johnston-Thomas, a former UN arms trafficking expert, believes American authorities will take pains to prevent Bout from letting slip his connections to the United States government. “It’s unlikely that his defense team will be able to bring into evidence that he has on occasion been of assistance both to the Pentagon and to other NATO countries.”

Regardless of whether specific individuals from the former or current presidential administrations are implicated in the “Merchant of Death” affair, Bout’s appearance in the United States will offer hopeful possibilities for public deliberation. The wheels of a UN-sponsored international arms trade agreement have been slowly churning since 2008, and are set to produce a complete treaty by 2012. While the terms of negotiation will likely focus on big-ticket weapons production, the Bout case offers Washington the chance to focus on small-time dealers who nevertheless wield gigantic influence in world affairs. Particularly, if the United States is serious about combating the Viktor Bouts of the world, it must reckon with what, exactly, it’s willing to do in the name of fighting terror and—perhaps more importantly—with whom.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Under Obama, Intelligence Community Still Subject to Pressure

George Slam Dunk TenetAs we all know, in making the case for the Iraq War, the Bush administration pressured the U.S. intelligence community to massage intelligence to its own ends. Vice-President Cheney’s people were notorious for showing up at CIA headquarters to lean on Langley. Highlights include former CIA director George Tenet’s declaration that WMD evidence was a “slam dunk” and the Niger yellowcake debacle. Apparently, though, Bush & Co. was not the only administration capable of showing more concern with political implications than national security.

At Huffington Post, Kristen Breitweiser, the courageous 9/11 widow who helped prompt the creation of the 9/11 Commission, draws our attention to a section of Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars that has been overshadowed by his revelations over Afghanistan decision-making. She explains that she “once spent a large amount of time fighting for the release of information related to the 9/11 attacks. One document, in particular, was a primary focus — the August 4, 2001, Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB).”

You remember Condoleezza Rice’s moment of glory in 2004 when she was forced to read the PDB’s title to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike In the United States.” Ms. Breitweiser continues.

Welcome to October 2010, where . . . Obama’s Wars . . . details an incident of the Obama administration and their handling of one particular PDB. . . . According to Woodward, the PDB said: “At least 20 al Qaeda converts with American, Canadian, or European passports were being trained in Pakistani safe havens to return to their homelands to commit high-profile acts of terrorism.” Woodward goes on to state [then Director of National Intelligence] Dennis Blair “thought the reports were alarming and credible enough that the President should be alerted.”

And then Woodward adds this alarming vignette about former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel: “Rahm Emanuel summoned Blair to his office after the al Qaeda report had been briefed. ‘Why’d you put that in the PDB?’ [Emanuel] asked. . . . “You’re just trying to put this on us, so it’s not your fault.”

To which Blair responds, according to Woodward, “No, no. I’m trying to tell you. I’m the President’s intelligence officer and I’m worried about this, and I think I owe it to him — and you — to tell him.”

Perhaps solace can be derived from Emanuel’s exit from the White House. Harkening back to the Bush administration, many remain unaware that it continued to lean on the intelligence community to soften its assessments during its conduct of the war as well. In his book Still Broken: A Recruit’s Inside Account of Intelligence Failures From Baghdad to the Pentagon (Ballantine Books, 2008), A.J. Rossmiller places the reader right smack in the middle of an intelligence community, in his case the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency as an analyst, trying to function under that kind of pressure. Random excerpts follow.

A process that inhibits analysts’ ability to do their job correctly, and that hurts the ability of decision makers to see and act on accurate, unadulterated assessments, is crippling to the safety and security of Americans and to a capable and effective foreign policy. [My superior] didn’t like the “too pessimistic” material we produced, so he created his own briefing team from scratch, grossly narrowing the perspectives he received . . . Every single time I heard “That’s too pessimistic,” it was a reminder that agreement with the majority . . . was more important than . . . accuracy.

When people asked me, as they often did, whether I was glad I went to Iraq, I usually said that I thought I had done more good than harm. . . . But as the weeks and months progressed, I continued to ask myself if . . . my presence was helping validate the broken system. The individual ideologies and the desire to please (or fear of aggravating) superiors in the chain of command were insidious forces, and they were not only perpetuating the errors of the past, but in fact reinforcing them.

As I was trying to decide whether to leave. . . . I felt somewhat freed [of concern over my] career prospects, so I was increasingly taking on more controversial issues. I tried to write about civil war indicators, but the paper was killed. . . . Then I wrote a comprehensive assessment of increased Shia dissatisfaction with the United States; after weeks of work that, too, was shelved, and I was told that the ruling Shia would “come around.” . . . Good thing civil war and conflict with Shia leadership never became problems.

Finally . . .

I’d worked much of my life to get a job like the one I had just quit . . . . and I desperately wanted to work for my country. But not like this. Not providing cover for a morally and strategically bankrupt set of leaders, and not as part of a system that was inverting its vital purpose by fitting analysis to policy instead of the other way around.

As with the Emanuel-Blair incident, we can never hear enough of these cautionary tales to guard against intelligence analysis ever becoming warped in the wholesale fashion it was during the Bush years.

How Green Grows My War Economy

“America is addicted to oil.” It’s been more than five years since George W. Bush made this bizarre declaration. For a president who opposed virtually every piece of legislation to curb the use of fossil fuels, it was, shall we say, ironic. And even more so in light of the Iraq War, which may or may not have been about oil, but which certainly consumed huge amounts of it. In 2006, when Bush made this argument that the nation’s dependence on oil posed a threat to its security, the Pentagon consumed 320,000 barrels of oil a day, making this one department of the US government a bigger guzzler of oil than all but 35 countries in the world. Here was a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

With the war in Afghanistan and the upkeep of America’s vast military apparatus around the world, the Pentagon continues to be the government’s biggest consumer of oil. In addition to contributing to the nation’s long-term security threat, this situation poses a more immediate danger. Oil, the lifeblood of modern war, has become a target on the battlefield. Nowhere is this more evident than along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where dozens of US convoys carrying fuel have been exploded by insurgents. These attacks are just the latest examples of a vicious circle in which oil begets war and war begets oil.

If asked to offer a solution to this seemingly intractable problem, a Martian looking down on planet Earth might recommend a drastic reduction in the nation’s military ventures, thus tackling the oil problem by tackling the war problem. But the self-identified guardians of US national security would surely label such advice dangerous and naïve. Instead, the Pentagon has offered its own solution to the problem, one that will allow it to keep its wars but lose its oil. Last week, The New York Times and others reported that the military is, to use the proverbial phrase of our day, going green. This transformation will involve changes across the spectrum, from powering assault vessels and aircraft with algae and other biofuels to using solar panels and efficient light bulbs on military bases.

The coverage of this announcement has been overwhelmingly positive. The story in The New York Times quoted military spokespeople and officials who outlined all the strategic and economic advantages of the initiative. Writing for Slate, Fred Kaplan suggested that this development “could lower the entire nation’s energy costs.” And Jon Stewart had a bit in which he suggested that this was a progressive initiative, which conservatives would oppose, if they were actually consistent with their principles.

These responses aren’t surprising. Greening, we all know, is good pr for any organization. Then, there is the more specific association of innovation in the military with innovation and economic uplift for America writ large. When we get excited about greening the military, we think of how military initiatives such as the interstate highway system, NASA, and early computers, ultimately benefitted the country and the economy as a whole.

Before we pop the recycled cork and let the organic champagne flow, let’s take a moment to consider the problems with this position. First, there is no assurance that the promise of a significantly greener military will actually be realized. This isn’t the first time the Defense Department announced a green initiative. As with most organizations that promise to become green, the results of these past initiatives have been much more modest than their advertisements. Second, as The New York Times reports, “Because the military has moved into renewable energy so rapidly, much of the technology currently being used is commercially available or has been adapted for the battlefield from readily available civilian models.” So far, at least, the military is not really innovating green technology so much as consuming it.

Many progressives, including myself, would support the government using its buying power to invest in green energy. It’s unfortunate that such initiatives only gain broad support in the context of war spending. America, it seems, is addicted not just to oil or even to war, but also, to the war economy. This is an addiction that we could break, if only we stopped using war to solve all of our problems.

Backed-up NATO Vehicles Stood in Mute Testimony to Futility of Afghanistan War

Torkham NATO ConvoyAfter a 10-day blockade, the Torkham border crossing to Afghanistan in the Khyber Pass was reopened by Pakistan. It had, of course, been closed after a U.S. helicopter gunship mistakenly killed three Pakistani troops in a raid for which U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson apologized and called a “tragic accident.”

Washington must have breathed a sigh of relief not only because it can resume its operation, but because the situation had become embarrassing. At IPS News Gareth Porter had painted this picture on Friday: “Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported Friday that 6,500 NATO vehicles are backed up along the entire 1,500 km route from the port of Karachi to the Khyber Pass.”

The convoys rolling again is, in fact, an oopportunity missed. Porter also noted that the halt in NATO convoys had momentarily “brought an end to the unilateral attacks in Pakistan pushed by Gen. David Petraeus and forced Washington to make a new accommodation.” Furthermore, it might have made it “impossible for Petraeus to make the argument in the future that the United States can succeed in Afghanistan, given the refusal of Pakistan to budge on the issue.” [Emphasis added.]

You’ve heard the vaguely Eastern expression “Within crisis lies opportunity.” In this case, within chagrin would have lied opportunity. In its refusal to uncategorically go after insurgents within its borders (which it engages less as if they were a threat than a chance to hone the fighting skills of both its army and the Taliban), Pakistan might seem to be an endless source of headeaches to Washington.

But, if, along with refusing to commit itself wholeheartedly to eliminating the Palistani Taliban, Pakistan had kept the border closed, the case could have been made that Pakistan not only seeks no help with its internal security but in shoring up Afghanistan as a bulwark against India. The United States could then have begun in earnest to back away from the crime scene that has become Afghanistan.

Did U.S. Support for Brutal Honduran Coup Encourage Ecuador Coup?

Correa EcuadorA police riot over an austerity bill, or a failed attempt to oust leftist Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa from office? In the aftermath of the Sept. 30 attack on Correa by police in Quito, it is looking more and more like this was an orchestrated coup. And while there is no evidence that the U.S. was directly involved, the Obama administration’s strong support for the current Honduran government may well have encouraged the plotters to expect similar treatment by Washington.

The police attack on Correa was co-coordinated with similar takeovers in several other cities, the seizure of Ecuador’s two largest airports by army troops, and the occupation of the National Assembly. In the end the Ecuadorian Army supported the President, freed him from the police hospital where he was being held, and whisked him to safety, but only after a firefight killed one soldier and a student who had turned out to support Correa. The President’s car was struck by five bullets. According to the Latin American Herald Tribune, eight people died and 274 were wounded in incidents nationwide.

Suspicion has fallen on former president and army colonel Lucio Gutierrez, who led a 2000 coup and has called for Correa’s ouster. Gutierrez currently lives in Brazil and denies any link to the attempted coup. Correa also charges that Gutierrez’s brother Gilmar, a member of the National Assembly, supported the coup.

Last year’s coup in Honduras that ousted Manuel Zelaya has cast a shadow across the region, raising up the ghosts of a previous era when military takeovers routinely toppled governments in Latin America, including those in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador. According to The Guardian, Correa said in the aftermath of the Honduran coup, “We have intelligence reports that say after Zelaya, I’m next.”

After Zelaya was ousted, the coup-led government of Roberto Micheletti organized elections—boycotted by most the population—and put Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo into power. Most countries in the region refuse to recognize the Lobo government, including the region’s major players, Brazil and Argentina.

In spite of the fact that the Lobo government has overseen a wave of terror directed at journalists, trade unionists, gays and lesbians, and opposition activists, Washington is pushing hard for countries to end Honduras’s regional isolation and its suspension from the Organization of American States (OAS).

“Now is the time for the hemisphere as a whole to move forward and welcome Honduras back into the inter-American community,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the OAS.

But most countries are wary of anything that might give the appearance of endorsing a government brought in via a coup. There is also concern about the ongoing human rights crisis in Honduras. Reporters Without Borders has labeled Honduras the most dangerous country in the world for journalists—eight have been murdered in the past year—and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have all condemned the ongoing reign of terror directed at members of the Honduran opposition, the National Front of Popular Resistance.

While most nations in the region are reluctant to bed down with the Honduran government, the U.S. has opened the military aid spigot, donating $812,000 worth of heavy trucks to the Honduran Army. In the meantime, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is handing out $75 million for development projects, and $20 million for the “Merida” security program.

“Washington’s support for the coup government in Honduras over the past year has encouraged and increased the likelihood of rightwing coups against democratic left governments in the region,” writes The Guardian’s Latin American correspondent Mark Weisbrot. “This attempt in Ecuador has failed, but there will likely be more threats in the months and years ahead.”

Two obvious candidates are Bolivia and Paraguay. In the case of the former, organizations like USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)—both of which gave active support to organizations behind the Honduran coup—are active.

In Honduras, NED and USAID helped finance the Peace and Democracy Movement and the Civil Democratic Union, both dominated by the country’s tiny elite, and which strongly supported the coup. Many of the Honduran Army’s officers, including coup leaders Gen. Vasquez Velasquez and Gen. Prince Suazo, have been trained by the U.S. Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, the former “School for the Americas” that has trained coup makers and human rights violators from throughout Latin America.

According to !Presente!, a publication critical of the School for the Americas, the commander of the police barracks where Ecuadoran President Correa was attacked, Col Manuel Rivadeneira Tello, is a graduate of the school’s combat arms training course.

Bolivian President Evo Morales recently threatened to expel USAID for its role in financing opposition separatist groups based in the country’s wealthy eastern provinces. Along with the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD)—an organization long associated with the Central Intelligence Agency—USAID and NED have underwritten separatist media and organizations based in the wealthy province of Santa Cruz, where most of the country’s natural gas deposits lie.

The possibility of Eastern Bolivia declaring independence is very real and, if it happens, U.S. organizations will have played a major role in encouraging it.

In May of this year, Fernando Lugo, the progressive president of Paraguay, reported to the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) meeting in Buenos Aires that he had evidence of a coup aimed at overthrowing his government. Lugo had a closed-door meeting with the UNASUR members, following which UNASUR reaffirmed its full support for the Paraguayan government.

Paraguay is one of the poorest and most unequal countries on the continent, and it was long dominated by a military dictatorship. Lugo, who took office in August 2008 for a five-year term, put together a coalition that broke the 60-year stranglehold the conservative Colorado Party had over the country.

Lugo has weathered some personal scandals—he is a former Catholic Bishop who fathered a number of children—and is currently suffering from lymphoma. He is locked in a battle with his more conservative vice-president, Federico Franco, and at loggerheads with a fractious congress that has made getting legislation through a trial. Those are the kind of difficulties that might well encourage Paraguay’s rightwing military and the Coloradoans to consider a coup, particularly if they think that Washington will eventually take a position similar to the one it took on Honduras.

Of course not all coups are successful these days. An outpour of popular support for Hugo Chavez reversed the 2001 Venezuela coup, and Correa’s 67 percent positive rating—he has doubled healthcare spending, increased social services, and stiffed a phony $3.2 billion foreign debt—certainly played a role in spiking the Ecuador coup.

But U.S. organizations like NED and AIFLD, active throughout the hemisphere, were closely associated with the Venezuelan coup makers.

The Obama Administration promised a new deal in Latin America and a break from the policies of the Bush Administration. Instead it has beefed up its military presence in Colombia, sharpened its attacks on Venezuela, refused to back away from its blockade of Cuba, and played footsie with the Honduran government.

If countries in the region are paranoid, maybe they have reasons for it.

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

It’s Not Nuclear Weapons That Need “Modernization,” But New START

I’m aware that I’m committing arms-control heresy. But the new START treaty that Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed looks like more trouble than it’s worth. To begin with, as Ivan Oelrich and Hans Kristensen reported for the Federation of American Scientists back in June . . .

. . . while the treaty reduces the legal limit for deployed strategic warheads, it doesn’t actually reduce the number of warheads. A peculiar counting rule increases the importance of bombers: each bomber counts only as one nuclear bomb although the B-52 can carry 20 nuclear-armed cruise missiles. [Also] the treaty does not require destruction of a single nuclear warhead and actually permits the United States and Russia to deploy almost the same number of strategic warheads that were permitted by the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

Worse, to secure the eight Republican votes needed for ratification by the United States Senate (and in the interest of pork husbandry in general), the Obama administration is requesting $7 billion, a 10 percent increase, in funding for nuclear weapons “modernization” (as the defense world calls it) and stewardship. Typical of Republicans seeking funds for the nuclear-weapons industry is Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Speaking of work inside Y-12, the facility in his state, as it exists now, he said, “It’s like building a Corvette in a Model-T factory.”

As if that’s not bad enough, as Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group makes clear in a press release, on September 30, “Congress completed action on a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the federal government in the new fiscal year (FY), which begins today. The President signed the bill.”

What’s a continuing resolution? Here’s what it means in this instance (apologies for lack of link; can’t recall where I found this).

Due to the failure of the Democrat [sure sign it's from a conservative site! -- RW] Congress to enact a single Appropriations bill so far this year to provide funding for Federal Government programs and agencies, a CR will be necessary to continue government operations past the end of the fiscal year, which expire[d] on September 30th. These emergency appropriations last until December 3, by which time Congress must either pass appropriations bills or another CR.

Mello again: “This CR continues funding for federal agencies at the same level as [fiscal year] 2010, with very few exceptions.” Among them were some which, even though a CR is intended as essentially a holding pattern, actually received more money. “One of those rare exceptions was an emergency increase in nuclear weapons spending in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).” He continues (emphasis added):

According to historical data in [the Los Alamos] Study Group files, today’s increase [in the case of Los Alamos in New Mexico] is the largest annual increase, in both absolute and percentage terms, since the Manhattan Project. Annual nuclear weapons appropriations in New Mexico [just] increased by about $527 million . . . 84% of the $625 million net overall increase at all the [NNSA] sites.

But an emergency? Again, it’s to secure Republican vote for ratification by the Senate which, Mello explains, “the Administration hopes to accomplish prior to seating a new Congress, widely expected to contain fewer members of the President’s party.” But . . .

To pick this particular emergency priority over nearly all other objectives of government at this time speaks volumes about the priorities of Congress and this Administration. These are not the priorities that would put people to work, provide health care or education, protect the environment, or halt what most ordinary people understand to be a continuing economic decline, with no end in sight.

This is cynicism to the third power: First, calling it an emergency. Second, trading funding to the nuclear-weapons industry for START votes. Third and even worse, turning START into a front — or more to the point, an engine — for securing said funding.

The Limits of Internet Organizing

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

Some of the best organizers I know hardly have time to check their e-mail; they don’t spend any of their days on Twitter; and they certainly don’t count on Facebook to turn people out for events.

These notions may come as a surprise to those who have been bludgeoned with the idea that the Internet is the future of social change and is revolutionizing the way organizing is done. But they are true, and there are plenty of reasons why the great bulk of serious organizing still happens off-line.

I will state up front the conclusion that almost all articles of this sort come to: the Internet is a tool. It is potentially a rather useful tool, but it is not more than that, and it is no substitute for person-to-person organizing.

This conclusion is the correct one. Still, it never seems to quell the high-tech evangelists or to sink in with the public at large.

Partially, I think this is a product of the widespread failure, outside of social movement circles, to understand what organizing really is. You can raise money on-line, you can widely disseminate information, and you can get people to sign a petition. But it’s very difficult and rare to be able to use the Internet to build the types of deep relationships that move people to make serious commitments to and sacrifices for social movements. In fact, on-line platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are in many ways designed to do the opposite—to minimize commitment and sacrifice in favor of speed and convenience.

For those trying to build movements in countries with repressive governments, such as Iran, relationships based on personal trust are all the more important. That’s why it’s hardly surprising that many knowledgeable analysts have concluded that the high-tech hype around last year’s “Twitter Revolution” in that country was dramaticallyoverblown.

On this general theme, Malcolm Gladwell has a new article in the New Yorker about “Why the revolution will not be Tweeted.” I think Gladwell is one of the most readable writers in the business; his books and articles are consistently vivid, fun, and interesting (if debatable in terms of their final arguments). He’s not a social movement guy, and I don’t really trust him as a political thinker. But in this instance I think he gets the fundamental ideas right.

First, he convincingly contends that the Internet promotes lots of “weak ties” rather than a smaller number of strong ones.

“Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” [Jennifer] Aaker and [Andy] Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.

Gladwell also does a good job of pointing out that the type of networking the Internet favors does not serve social movements well in terms of fostering discipline and coherent strategy:

Boycotts and sit-ins and nonviolent confrontations—which were the weapons of choice for the civil-rights movement—are high-risk strategies. They leave little room for conflict and error. The moment even one protester deviates from the script and responds to provocation, the moral legitimacy of the entire protest is compromised. Enthusiasts for social media would no doubt have us believe that King’s task in Birmingham would have been made infinitely easier had he been able to communicate with his followers through Facebook, and contented himself with tweets from a Birmingham jail. But networks are messy: think of the ceaseless pattern of correction and revision, amendment and debate, that characterizes Wikipedia. If Martin Luther King, Jr., had tried to do a wiki-boycott in Montgomery, he would have been steamrollered by the white power structure. And of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church? The things that King needed in Birmingham—discipline and strategy—were things that online social media cannot provide.

Of course, there was plenty of messy internal debate in the Civil Rights movement. Nevertheless, I appreciate Gladwell’s conclusion that Internet organizing, at least in its most commonly heralded forms, “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.” Web defenders will argue that this is oversimplified, but I think Gladwell makes the general case well.

Moreover, he’s certainly not the only one to make the case. A quick search will get you dozens of sources criticizing “slacktivism,” which, as Wikipedia describes it, is “a pejorative term that describes ‘feel-good’ measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts also tend to require little personal effort from the slacktivist.” Along similar lines, Adbusters’ Micah White recently wrote a commentary for theGuardian arguing that “Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism” by accepting the logic of corporate marketing.

White’s piece is short on convincing examples, and I’d say he’s less accurate than Paul Loeb of Soul of a Citizen fame, who recently contributed a more tempered entry into this debate entitled, “The Seductions of Clicking: How the Internet Can Make It Harder to Act.” There, Loeb argues that “far too many of [Obama’s] supporters have come to believe they can act exclusively through these online technologies, to the exclusion of face-to-face politics.”

Loeb is probably too conscientious about being balanced, leading him to the tame position that “[W]e’d do well to remember that our new technologies work best when we combine them with more traditional mechanisms of engagement.” Yet he’s right in arguing that this is not a matter of abandoning new technological innovations. It’s about understanding that “if we want to realize their potential, we’re going to have to sooner or later step away from our screens.”

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

Nigeria @ 50

Nigeria turned 50 last week. It’s been a turbulent fifty, a time of great success and more than a few crushing defeats. The paradoxes of the last 50 years were captured during independence festivities in Abuja last Friday, as thousands gathered in Nigeria’s capital to celebrate Nigeria 50th Independence Day with food and fireworks only to be flee in horror when two car bombs exploded outside the Ministry of Justice, killing twelve.

The occasion of Nigeria’s 50th birthday provided many news outlets and commentators with the hook they needed to perform an autopsy of Nigeria’s history, with the usual analyses of Nigeria’s successes (its literary icons, its contemporary status as peacekeeper and stabilizer of West Africa), and its many failures (the oft-mentioned 419 email scams and the Biafran War among them). It was jarring to see again the pictures of the Biafran war – the carnage of bodies piled atop each other, the stomachs of children bulging from hunger. Yet Nigeria survived the catastrophe of its civil war, and has remained unified since.

Nigeria’s future, in many ways, turns on the question of ethnicity and politics, the same questions that have hounded Nigeria since its founding. These questions will be at the fore as Nigerians head to the polls next year to elect their next president. The last year has been an especially interesting one in Nigerian politics; the current president, Goodluck Jonathan (a Christian Southerner), ascended to the presidency only after his predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua (a Muslim Northerner), died in office in May. Jonathan recently announced his bid for the presidency; if he is selected as his party’s candidate, it would throw a wrench into the ruling party’s finely calibrated North-South arrangement whereby a candidate from one half of the country is replaced in the following election cycle by a candidate from the other half. Since Yar’Adua only served a portion of his term, there are some who believe that a Northerner is entitled to another term as President. If Jonathan manages to win the political primaries for his party, his candidacy will upset the system, and perhaps for the best. A Jonathan campaign would hopefully provide an opportunity for Nigerians to focus a bit more on the qualifications and credentials of their presidential candidates, and a bit less on their ethnic background and religious beliefs.

There are many others who aspire to become the next president of Nigeria, the most interesting of whom, perhaps, is Nuhu Ribadu, the former Executive Chairman of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Division, the anti-corruption agency. Ribadu has returned to Nigeria after several years in exile; he fled Nigeria after several attempts on his life as a result of his anti-corruption work. Now he is mounting a campaign that he promises will be based on the ideals he’s spent his career defending – honesty, integrity, and a promise to crack down on the graft and corruption that has become an endemic part of the political culture in Nigeria. His campaign has already attracted attention among many youth across ethnic boundaries in Nigeria.

The fate of Nigeria in the next half-century hangs in the balance. The direction that Nigeria takes – towards a future of hope and growth, or one of backsliding and defeat – depends, to a great extent, on leadership. For this reason alone, the next few months in Nigerian politics will be of critical importance.

Middle-East Peace Talks: Thin Pickings for Abbas

Clinton Netanyahu AbbasIn the New York Times yesterday, Mark Landler wrote of the Obama administration’s bafflement at the lack of progress in the latest Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, hung up since last month on the issue of prolonging the Israeli government’s nominal settlement freeze as a condition for continuing the discussions. For the respective Israeli and Palestinian leaders, extending the settlement “freeze” has entailed attempting to reconcile the mutually antagonistic political interests of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas, whose claim to represent Palestinians in any meaningful capacity is already tenuous at best, can hardly negotiate with Israel as an equal while a theoretical Palestinian state is being settled by Israeli Jews (connected integrally to Israel proper by Jewish-only highways). Netanyahu, conversely, has argued that an extension of the freeze could dissolve his parliamentary coalition as rightwing parties flee in protest. Landler notes that no amount of American concessions to either side has managed to bridge this gap:

Not only is the Obama administration holding hands, [veteran negotiators] said, it is also handing out concessions to each side, in a bid to keep Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas at the table. The generosity of the American offers, and the reluctance of the Israelis or the Palestinians to accept them, have been telling.

What this apparent generosity entails for either side, of course, requires some examination:

In the case of Israel, officials said, the United States is offering military hardware, support for a long-term Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley, help with enforcing a ban on the smuggling of weapons through a Palestinian state, a promise to veto Security Council resolutions critical of Israel during the talks and a pledge to forge a regional security agreement for the Middle East.

For all this, people briefed on the details said, the United States is seeking a single 60-day, nonrenewable extension.

“It’s an extraordinary package for essentially nothing,” said Daniel C. Kurtzer, who also served as American ambassador to Israel and was a negotiator in the Clinton administration. “Given what’s already happened, who thinks that a two-month extension is enough?”

In exchange for extending the freeze a mere 60 days, Israel stands to gain American approval for Israeli military presence “in the Jordan Valley” (i.e., Israeli control of the borders of the West Bank, which should ostensibly be Palestinian territory) in order to crack down on “the smuggling of weapons,” a scenario that sounds not at all unlike the current blockade of Gaza. This comes in addition to the largely unqualified military and diplomatic support that Israel receives from the United States anyway.

And for the Palestinians?

For now, at least, [extending the freeze] has trumped even an offer by the United States to formally endorse a Palestinian state based on the borders of Israel before the 1967 Middle East war, something for which the Palestinians have long pushed. Some Palestinians say that an American endorsement is not worth a great deal if the Israelis refuse to recognize it.

An American endorsement of a Palestinian state defined against Israel’s 1967 borders might certainly appear significant, but, as Landler notes, it is only an Israeli endorsement that would matter. What good are the 1967 borders if Israel is permitted to maintain an overbearing presence in the West Bank, and most likely Gaza as well? Abbas is essentially invited either to negotiate without standing or to accept a face-saving endorsement that changes nothing on the ground.

Now comes the news that Netanyahu, presumably deferring to the right wing of his cabinet, has decided to reject the Americans’ offer. As Barak Ravid reports in Ha’artez, American negotiators are incensed.

But should they be surprised? They offered Netanyahu what amounted essentially to political cover – making a meaningless 60-day concession in exchange for further American support and the façade of negotiating cooperatively. But since Netanyahu is almost certainly counting on American support to continue anyway, it is probably unsurprising that he demurred on political cover with the Americans in favor of cover with his own hard right cabinet.

It is hard to see how the talks might continue under these circumstances, at least under the terms preferred by the Obama administration. Netanyahu has bolstered his own political standing at virtually no cost to his American support. Abbas’ options remain restricted to saving face or skipping town. Perhaps the only new casualty of Netanyahu’s refusal will be the ready-made media narrative that the talks collapsed because of Palestinian intransigence, as Abbas’ refusal to choose from among a lack of real options has receded, for the moment at least, into the background.

If American negotiators truly are properly incensed, perhaps they will trade their carrots for sticks and link the continuation of current aid to Israel to the extension of the settlement freeze – and perhaps while they are at it, they might insist that the freeze be properly comprehensive and subject to renewal, neither of which condition applies to the current proposal. An additional American endorsement of the 1967 borders might then begin to matter, and Abbas would at least begin to acquire some of the requisite standing for him to make meaningful agreements down the line. As long as Netanyahu is content to jettison peace to stay afloat in his cabinet, perhaps American negotiators could see to it that he takes on more water with the Israeli public.

Peter Certo is an intern with Foreign Policy in Focus, to which he contributes along with the Balkans Project.

Is Chavez Following Iran Down the Radioactive Brick Road?

“Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez admitted last week that his government is ‘carrying out the first studies’ of a nuclear program [but his] suggestion that he is merely studying the idea . . . is misleading,” according to a Foreign Policy article by Roger Noriega. (Let the buyer beware: a one-time diplomat, the author is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.) He continues.

Chávez has been developing the program for two years with the collaboration of Iran, a nuclear rogue state. In addition to showing the two states’ cooperation on nuclear research . . . sensitive material obtained from sources within the Venezuelan regime [suggests] that Venezuela is helping Iran obtain uranium and evade international sanctions [in apparent violation of] U.N. Security Council resolutions. . . . All countries have the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Venezuela is a signatory. However, Chávez’s decision to rely on one of the world’s worst proliferators [sic] to help develop his country’s capabilities in this sensitive technology sets alarm bells ringing.

Indeed, the evidence is alarming.

Deep suspicions . . . were raised in December 2008 when Turkish customs authorities intercepted a shipment sent from Iran to [a] “tractor factory” in Venezuela. According to media reports, 22 cargo containers and crates labeled “tractor parts” were found to contain barrels of nitrate and sulfite chemicals — bomb-making material — as well as components of what Turkish experts described as an “explosives lab.”

Noriega concludes:

If the United States and the United Nations are serious about nonproliferation, they must challenge Venezuela and Iran to come clean and, if necessary, take steps to hold both regimes accountable.

We all know that the United States is “serious about nonproliferation.” Would that it felt the same way about disarmament. Conservatives and some centrists maintain that states aspiring to nuclear weapons may actually be immune to disarmament on the part of the United States. But, should the United States enact substantive disarmament measures — aside from the new START, which is leavened with eye-popping funding for the nuclear-weapons industry — at least we’d have more of a leg to stand on when calling on other states to refrain from proliferating.

Common sense — not to mention courtesy, a crucial component of negotiations — dictates that, without disarmament, nonproliferation is a non-starter. Disarmament might also might decrease the chances that the steps we take “to hold both regimes accountable” are military in nature.

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