Focal Points Blog

New Arab Democratic Governments May Neither Demonize Nor Embrace Iran

Suez Canal Iran warship(Pictured: Iranian warship passing through the Suez Canal.)

While popular fodder for Fox News’ commentators, the notion that the Arab world of 2011 in any way resembles an Iran of 1979 has gained relatively limited traction in our mainstream papers of record. But if Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck are stuck in 1979, some journalists have yet to dislodge themselves from the Cold War.

“Iran has already benefited from the ouster or undermining of Arab leaders,” reports the New York Times, an assessment attributed to unnamed “analysts.”

But while the subsequent spike in oil prices has probably meant an extra infusion of cash into an Iranian regime saddled by sanctions, other concrete indications of this supposed Iranian influence have yet to manifest themselves.

The Times points to two Iranian warships that Egypt’s new leaders allowed to pass through the Suez Canal en route to Syria, the first such passage permitted since 1979. But however much hand-wringing this precipitated in the region’s capitals, it’s hard to imagine that it evinced more than a shrug from an ordinary Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, or Bahraini. The Times further laments that, with respect to Israel, the “pro-engagement camp of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia is now in tatters.”

If all this sounds like a reach, it probably is.

“By allowing the Iranian ships to transit the Canal,” explains Time’s Tony Karon, “Egypt’s military rulers are signaling they want to normalize ties with Iran. That doesn’t make them proxies of Tehran any more than Iraq, Turkey or, for that matter, Brazil are. They’re simply opting out of a U.S. regional strategy of confronting Iran.” Nor should the apparent refusal of ordinary Egyptians to facilitate the strangulation of Gaza render them partners in Iran’s support for Hamas.

Indeed, ordinary Arabs have been by and large relatively unconcerned about Iran. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, they tend to perceive far greater threats to regional stability from the United States and Israel, an orientation that a cursory review of the region’s recent history might well justify. And given the Western backing for most of the regimes presently under siege, the near complete absence of anti-American or anti-Israeli sloganeering from the uprisings is frankly remarkable. If anything, it should indicate that the authors of the extraordinary revolutions sweeping the region are firmly committed to the democratic futures of their own countries — not to the regional ambitions of outsiders.

Additionally, both the Times and the Washington Post have stoked concerns about restive Shiite populations in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, areas that the Post has called “a focus of Iranian influence.” But to graft an Iranian power play onto the democratic aspirations of these aggrieved populations is to take a page from the sectarian playbook of the ruling Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It also harkens back to a more general American paranoia about the Shiite sect, which has been difficult to erase since the Iranian hostage crisis and has left American policy makers almost to this day wondering whether Osama bin Laden is a Sunni or Shiite.

Any notion that the democratic aspirations of Shiites (or anyone else) could be abetted by Iranian meddling is quickly dispelled by the behavior of the Iranians themselves. Just days after disingenuously praising Egypt’s and Tunisia’s “Islamic liberation movements,” the Iranian regime cracked down hard on its own pro-democracy protestors. Should they come into being, nascent democratic governments in the Arab world may carry on relatively normalized relations with Iran. But few democrats in the region will overlook the bankruptcy displayed by Iran’s leaders.

In the end, the popular rejection of U.S.-backed autocrats certainly amounts to a diminished American influence in the region. But it is a relic of Cold War analysis to suppose that the influence lost by one regional hegemon must automatically accrue to another. There is simply little evidence that Iran has gained where the U.S. has lost.

The real fundamental change has been the audience for such influence – where it was once a coterie of aging autocrats, it is now the people themselves. If the U.S. is concerned about Iran, the Obama administration must prove itself a greater friend of democracy than Iran’s clerics. Let’s not make that more difficult than it sounds.

Peter Certo is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus as well as the Institute of Policy Studies Balkans Project and the Global Day of Action on Military Spending.

Raymond Davis Incident Shows How Tangled U.S.-Pakistan Web Is

Raymond DavisWas American CIA agent Raymond Davis secretly working with the Taliban and al-Qaeda to destabilize Pakistan and lay the groundwork for a U.S. seizure of that country’s nuclear weapons? Was he photographing sensitive military installations and marking them with a global positioning device? Did he gun down two men in cold blood to prevent them from revealing what he was up to? These are just a few of the rumors ricocheting around Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar in the aftermath of Davis’s arrest Jan. 27, and sorting through them is a little like stepping through Alice’s looking glass.

But one thing is certain: the U.S. has hundreds of intelligence agents working in Pakistan, most of them private contractors, and many of them so deep in the shadows that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), doesn’t know who they are or what they are up to. “How many more Raymond Davises are out there?” one ISI official asked Associated Press.

Lots, it would appear. Five months ago, the Pakistani government directed its embassies in the U.S. to issue visas without letting the ISI or Pakistan’s Interior Ministry vet them. According to the Associated Press, this opened a “floodgate” that saw 3,555 visas for diplomats, military officials and employees issued in 2010.

Many of those visas were for non-governmental organizations and the staff for the huge, $1 billion fortress embassy Washington is building in Islamabad, but thousands of others covered consular agents and workers in Lahore (where Davis was arrested), Karachi and other cities. Some of those with visas work for Xe Services (formerly Blackwater), others for low-profile agencies like Blackbird Technologies, Glevum Associates, and K2 Solutions. Many of the “employees” of these groups are former U.S. military personnel—Davis was in the Special Forces for 10 years—and former CIA agents. And the fact that these are private companies allows them to fly under the radar of congressional oversight, as frail a reed as that may be.

How one views the incident that touched off the current diplomatic crisis is an example of how deep the differences between Pakistan and the U.S. have become.

The Americans claim Davis was carrying out surveillance on radical insurgent groups, and was simply defending himself from two armed robbers. But Davis’s story has problems. It does appear that the two men on the motorbike were armed, but neither fired their weapon and, according to the police report, one did not even have a shell in his pistol’s firing chamber. Davis apparently fired through the window of his armored SUV, then stepped out of the car and shot the two men in the back, one while attempting to flee. He then calmly took photos, called for backup, climbed into his car, and drove off. He was arrested shortly afterwards at an intersection.

The Pakistanis have a different view of the incident. According to Pakistani press reports, the two men were working for the ISI and were trailing Davis because the intelligence agency suspected that the CIA agent was in contact with the Tehrik-e-Taliban, a Pakistani group based in North Waziristan that is currently warring with Islamabad. As an illustration of how bizarre things are these days in Pakistan, one widespread rumor is that the U.S. is behind the Tehtik-e-Taliban bombings as part of a strategy to destabilize Pakistan and lay the groundwork for an American seizure of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal.

The ISI maintains close ties with the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, as well as its allies, the Hizb-e-Islami and the Haqqani Group. All three groups are careful to keep a distance from Pakistan’s Taliban.

Yet another rumor claims that Davis was spying on Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group with close ties to the ISI that is accused of organizing the 2008 massacre in Mumbai, India. The Americans claim the organization is working with al-Qaeda, a charge the Pakistanis reject.

When Davis’s car was searched, police turned up not only the Glock semi-automatic he used to shoot the men, but four loaded clips, a GPS device, and a camera. The latter, according to the police report, had photos of “sensitive” border sites. “This is not the work of a diplomat,” Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah told the Guardian (UK), “he was doing espionage and surveillance activities.”

The shooting also had the feel of an execution. One of the men was shot twice in the back and his body was more than 30 feet from the motorbike, an indication he was attempting to flee. “It went way beyond what we define as self-defense, “ a senior police official told the Guardian (UK). “It was not commensurate with the threat.” The Lahore Chief of Police called it a “cold-blooded murder.”

The U.S. claims that Davis is protected by diplomatic immunity, but the matter might not be as open and shut as the U.S. is making it. According to the Pakistani Express Tribune, Davis’s name was not on a list of diplomats submitted to Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry on Jan. 25. The day after the shooting the embassy submitted a revised list that listed Davis as a diplomat.

Washington clearly considered Davis to be important. When he asked for backup on the day of the shooting, another SUV was dispatched to support him, apparently manned by agents living at the same safe house as Davis. The rescue mission went wrong when it ran over a motorcyclist while going the wrong direction down a one-way street. When the Pakistani authorities wanted to question the agents, they found that both had been whisked out of the country.

Almost immediately the Obama administration sent Sen. John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to Islamabad to apologize and pressure Pakistan to release Davis. But the incident has stirred up a hornet’s nest in Pakistan, where the CIA’s drone war has deeply alienated most Pakistanis. Opposition parties are demanding that the CIA agent be tried for murder. A hearing on the issue of whether Davis has diplomatic immunity is scheduled for Mar. 14.

In the meantime, Davis is being held under rather extraordinary security because of rumors that the Americans will try to spring him, or even poison him. Davis is being shielded from any direct contact with U.S. officials, and a box of chocolates sent to Davis by the Embassy was confiscated.

The backdrop for the crisis is a growing estrangement between the two countries over their respective strategies in Afghanistan.

The U.S. has stepped up its attacks on the Afghan insurgents, launched a drone war in Pakistan, and is demanding that Islamabad take a much more aggressive stance toward the Taliban’s allies based in the Afghan border region. While Washington still talks about a “diplomatic resolution” to the Afghan war, it is busy blowing up the very people it will eventually need to negotiate with.

This approach makes no sense to Pakistan. From Islamabad’s point of view, increasing attacks on the Taliban and their allies will only further destabilize Pakistan, and substitutes military victory for a diplomatic settlement. Since virtually every single independent observer think the former is impossible, the current U.S. strategy is, as terror expert Anatol Lieven puts it, “lunatic reasoning.”

Pakistan wants to insure that any Afghan government that emerges from the war is not a close ally of India, a country with which it has already fought three wars. A pro-Indian government in Kabul would essentially surround Pakistan with hostile forces. Yet the Americans have pointedly refused to address the issue of Indian-Pakistan tension over Kashmir, in large part because Washington very much wants an alliance with India.

In short, the U.S. and Pakistan don’t see eye to eye on Afghanistan, and Islamabad is suspicious that Americans like Davis are undermining Pakistan’s interests in what Islamabad views as an area central to its national security. “They [the U.S.] needs to come clean and tell us who they [agents] are, what they are doing,” one ISI official told the Guardian (UK). “They need to stop doing things behind our back.”

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the matter. Was the ISI onto Davis, and was he really in contact with groups the Pakistani army didn’t want him talking to? What did Washington know about Davis’ mission, and when did it know it? Did Davis think he was being held up, or was it a cold-blooded execution of two troublesome tails?

Rumor has it that the CIA and the ISI are in direct negotiations to find an acceptable solution, but there are constraints on all sides. The Pakistani public is enraged with the U.S. and resents that it has been pulled into the Afghan quagmire. On the other hand, there are many in Washington—particularly in Congress—who are openly talking about cutting off the $1.5 billion of yearly U.S. aid to Pakistan.

What the incident has served to illuminate is the fact that U.S. intelligence operations are increasingly being contracted out to private companies with little apparent oversight from Congress. At last count, the U.S. Defense Department had almost 225,000 private contractors working for them.

The privatization of intelligence adds yet another layer of opacity to an endeavor that is already well hidden by a blanket of “national security,” and funded by black budgets most Americans never see. The result of all this is a major diplomatic crisis in what is unarguably the most dangerous piece of ground on the planet.

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

Leveraging Its Latest Nuclear Setback to Further Tighten the Screws on Iran

Blink and you might have missed it. Or, more to the point, fallen asleep before you got to item number 42 under “Other Matters” of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report on Iran’s nuclear program. (Link courtesy of Arms Control Wonk.) It reads:

On 15–16 February 2011, the Agency conducted an inspection at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant . . . and has verified the nuclear material present in the facility. On 23 February 2011, Iran informed the Agency that it would have to unload fuel assemblies from the core.

In the New York Times William Broad and David Sanger explain the significance of that item.

Iran told atomic inspectors this week that it had run into a serious problem at a newly completed nuclear reactor that was supposed to start feeding electricity into the national grid this month, raising questions about whether the trouble was sabotage, a startup problem, or possibly the beginning of the project’s end.

It doesn’t appear to be connected with the Stuxnet computer virus that ravaged Bushehr’s reactors, though. Instead, Reuters reports:

Mark Hibbs, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Bushehr may have a problem with equipment in its primary cooling circuit.

“At Bushehr there is a critical interface in this area between equipment supplied by German industry and equipment supplied by the Russians,” Hibbs said.

“If there is a problem in that equipment . . . that could delay the start-up of the unit for a few months.”

Reuters also quotes Olli Heinonen, former head of IAEA inspections, who said that “the issue could be embarrassing for the Russian operator of Bushehr, Rosatom. Full responsibility for the plant is only ‘supposed to be turned over to the Iranians after the first refuelling which is estimated to take place perhaps two years from now,’ he said.” In other words, it’s happening under Rosatom’s more than Iran’s watch.

Thanks, Reuters, for that measured account. If only Broad and Sanger could have refrained from once again soliciting comments from one of the mainstream media’s go-to guys on nuclear issues, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. Never one to let an opportunity to ratchet up pressure on Iran pass him by, Albright said:

It raises questions of whether Iran can operate a modern nuclear reactor safely. . . . The stakes are very high. You can have a Chernobyl-style accident with this kind of reactor, and there’s lots of questions about that possibility in the region.

Note that Albright has doubled his Iran alarmism fun. First, invoking Chernobyl may be a sly attempt to leverage an intelligence report about which George Jahn wrote for the Associated Press last month. It was, “drawn up by a nation closely monitoring Iran’s nuclear program” on the effects of Stuxnet.

“The minimum possible damage would be a meltdown of the reactor,” it says. “However, external damage and massive environmental destruction could also occur . . . similar to the Chernobyl disaster.”

Number two: by applying the Chernobyl comparison to the fuel unloading as well, Albright, aided and abetted by Broad and Sanger, is making it look like another setback to Iran’s program that originated from outside the country has joined Stuxnet in making a second Chernobyl even more likely.

True Reason for China’s Appeal to American Industry Even More Shameful Than Low Wages

All too often the mainstream media, whether out of cowardice or lack of curiosity, defaults to a reflexive replication of the meme of the day. They’re apparently oblivious to the maxim — apologies to Socrates — that a meme (a cultural practice or idea) unexamined is a meme not worth repeating. In the process, they pass along assumptions as outrageous as they are dangerous to said culture.

Two such examples of conventional wisdom that are almost universally unquestioned by corporate news recently came to our attention. Bear with us as we stray into domestic policy before returning to foreign affairs.

At, David Cay Johnston, one-time The New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner, writes:

Among the reports that failed to scrutinize [Wisconsin Gov. Scott] Walker’s assertions about state workers’ contributions and thus got it wrong is one by A.G. Sulzberger, the presumed future publisher of The New York Times, who is now a national correspondent. He wrote that the Governor “would raise the amount government workers pay into their pension to 5.8 percent of their pay, from less than 1 percent now.”

Wrong. The workers currently pay 100 percent from their compensation package, but a portion of it is deducted from their paychecks and a portion of it goes directly to the pension plan. [In other words] Out of every dollar that funds Wisconsin’s pension and health insurance plans for state workers, 100 cents comes from the state workers.

Meanwhile, at Salon, Michael Lind, Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and as valuable a commentator as Johnston on affairs of the wallet, debunks a myth about China. (My initial impulse was to italicize some of his statements to emphasize them. But the extent to which it’s all surprising is added testimony to the slovenly — or deceitful — job that the MSM is doing.)

We’ve heard it a thousand times, from American CEOs, pundits and politicians. . . . The U.S., we are told, is losing its manufacturing industries to competitors like China because America is falling behind in innovation and education.


It’s not true. . . . Innovation and education are red herrings, tossed out to distract the American public from the real problem. . . .

American multinationals are not shutting factories in the U.S. and transferring production to China because of China’s superior innovation culture or superior educational achievements. Nor are low Chinese wages the major factor. For the most part, multinationals are pressured or bribed by the Chinese dictatorship into producing in China. In some cases, U.S. multinationals are told they must produce inside China in order to have access to China’s large and growing consumer market. In other cases, multinationals are bribed to relocate production to China by enormous subsidies from the Chinese government. . . .

How many American CEOs boast about how their companies have been bribed or pressured by the Chinese government into producing inside China’s borders, hiring Chinese workers and transferring American intellectual property to Chinese corporations?

Probably about the same number as have any shame about it. Alas, another story the mainstream media sidesteps.

WikiLeaks: AFRICOM’s Gen. Ward the Beneficiary of Gaddafi’s Wit and Wisdom

Gaddafi ObamaWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the forty-second in the series.

As US embassy cables from Libya continue pouring out of the WikiLeaks archive with each new day, the whistle-blowing group yanked the faucet off this afternoon, reducing the deluge to a drip. A single document, dating from May 2009, was released by the group, describing a meeting between Muammar Qaddafi and AFRICOM Commander William “Kip” Ward which naturally took place in the Libyan dictator’s trademark tent in Tripoli.

Not like they need it, but if any of Qaddafi’s sons take up the Boston Review’s suggestion to shoot “S**t My Dad Says: Libya Edition,” this cable will offer them yet more material. From carving up Switzerland to initiating a multilateral pirate peace process, Qaddafi treated Ward to a glimpse of the vagaries driving his distorted understanding of world affairs. And yet, before Qaddafi’s train of thought runs off the rails, the cable records some remarkably prescient and ironic observations from the Libyan leader on his region’s politics.

After exchanging pleasantries, al-Qadhafi noted that during Gen. Ward’s earlier trip to Libya, he had been visiting Mauritania, where a political crisis was ongoing. “Every time we put out a fire in Africa, another one breaks out. We used to say this was a US conspiracy, but not anymore.”

Qaddafi then described, at great length, the evolutionary anatomy of Middle East and North African regimes

during which he related the stages of governance in Africa from revolutionary liberation, to dictatorship, to multi-party elections.

Not clarifying his own government’s position in this schematic, nor seemingly concerned that the winds of change would whip against the walls of his army-issue tent anytime in the near future, Qaddafi concluded

that now was the time to establish common African institutions, such as a Ministry of Defense, that would better represent African interests before the world.

Up next on the Libyan ruler’s talking points memo: China.

Al-Qadhafi turned to U.S. and Chinese involvement on the continent, characterizing the Chinese approach as soft, the U.S. as hard, and predicting that China would prevail because it does not interfere in internal affairs. He criticized what he said was a U.S. tendency to place military bases near energy sources, observing that [if] the U.S. did this in the Gulf of Guinea, it would spark terrorism. Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, al-Qadhafi questioned what he characterized as U.S. support for Israel at the expense of Palestine, and advised that it would be in the best interest of the U.S. to support the Palestinians.

Immediately on the heels of this advice, Qaddafi unceremoniously attempted to corner the market on influencing US policy in the Middle East.

He cautioned against trusting the advice of Arab leaders in the Gulf and Levant and offered to play a role in that region if the U.S. desired. The Leader concluded his remarks by expressing a desire for President Obama to come to the African Union Summit in Libya in July, and after that meet him in Italy at the G-8 conference.

The conversation between Warden and the Libyan leader takes a surprising turn when

In response to Gen. Ward’s profession of respect for the sovereignty of African countries, al-Qadhafi said he understood the U.S. position, but questioned the U.S. military presence in Djibouti, noting military power would be used by extremists to justify terror.

He then

proceeded to identify two sources of terrorism, Wahabism and Switzerland. Qadhafi stated that the Swiss banking system was used to fund terrorists, and proposed that Switzerland be split among its neighboring countries according to language.

A fine idea, indeed.

From there, the conversation continues down the bizarre highway of Qadaffi’s self-aggrandizing imagination into a discussion of his plans to solve the pirate problem in Somali waters.

On the topic of Somali piracy, al-Qadhafi asserted that “foreign entities” had violated Somalia’s territorial waters. The solution to the problem of Somali piracy was therefore to forge an agreement between the countries exploiting Somali waters and the pirates. Al-Qadhafi offered to identify a pirate spokesman and broker this agreement.

The meeting concluded with Qaddafi emphasizing

that as Libya now presides over the AU, there was a possibility for cooperation with AFRICOM in combating terrorism in the Sahara and piracy. He said that he could deal with “the new America without reservation”, now that the United States was governed by “a new spirit of change.”

That may be. But as we’ve seen, for Qaddafi, it’s one thing if foreign leaders are possessed by the spirit of change. It’s quite another when that same spirit drives Libyans into the streets demanding his removal.

One Creature That Deserves Extinction: the V-22 Osprey

V22 OspreySome animals should be endangered. Consider the V-22 Osprey. The tilt-rotor aircraft, which takes off like a helicopter but flies like a plane, costs more than a $100 million apiece, killed 30 personnel in crashes during its development stage, and survived four attempts by none other than Dick Cheney to deep-six the program. Although it is no longer as crash-prone as it once was, the Osprey’s performance in Iraq was still sub-par and it remains a woefully expensive creature. Although canceling the program would save the U.S. government $10-12 billion over the next decade, the Osprey somehow avoided the budget axe in the latest round of cuts on Capitol Hill.

It’s bad enough that U.S. taxpayers have to continue to support the care and feeding of this particular Osprey. Worse, we’re inflicting the bird on others.

In a small village in the Yanbaru Forest in northern Okinawa, the residents of Takae have been fighting non-stop to prevent the construction of six helipads designed specifically for the V-22. The protests have been going on since the day in 2007 when Japanese construction crews tried to prepare the site for the helipads. “Since that day, over 10,000 locals, mainland Japanese, and foreign nationals have participated in a non-stop sit-in outside the planned helipad sites,” writes Jon Mitchell at Foreign Policy In Focus. “So far, they’ve managed to thwart any further construction attempts. At small marquee tents, the villagers greet visitors with cups of tea and talk them through their campaign, highlighting their message with hand-written leaflets and water-stained maps.”

YanbaruIt’s all part of the plan that would shut down the aging Futenma air base in Okinawa, relocate some of the Marines to Guam, and build a new facility elsewhere in Okinawa. The overwhelming majority of Okinawans oppose this plan. They want to shut down Futenma, and they don’t want any new U.S. military bases.

But the Japanese government has essentially knuckled under to U.S. pressure to move forward with the agreement. Building these helipads in a subtropical forest, with a wide range of unusual wildlife, is all part of the deal.

The recently re-elected Okinawan governor Hirokazu Nakaima opposes the relocation plan. And, according to Pacific Daily News, “Nakaima may actually have the authority to disrupt the plan because of his authority under the Japan Public Water Reclamation Act, which gives the Okinawa governor final authority over reclaimed land.” Washington has said that it won’t move forward on the deal without local support.

The Osprey is a budget-busting beast. The Okinawans don’t want it. Both Tokyo and Washington are desperate to trim spending.

The V-22 is one animal well worth driving toward extinction.

Nonviolence Guru Gene Sharp Gets His Due

Gene SharpOn February 16, the New York Times ran an article on the “Shy U.S. Intellectual” who “Created Playbook Used in a Revolution.” Author Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports:

“Few Americans have heard of [political scientist Gene] Sharp. But for decades, his practical writings on nonviolent revolution — most notably “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” a 93-page guide to toppling autocrats . . . have inspired dissidents around the world.”

According to a recent BBC article

. . . Sharp provides in his books a list of 198 “non-violent weapons”, ranging from the use of colours and symbols to mock funerals and boycotts. Designed to be the direct equivalent of military weapons, they are techniques collated from a forensic study of defiance to tyranny throughout history. . . . From Dictatorship to Democracy was written for the Burmese democratic movement in 1993, after the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi. . . . From Burma word of mouth spread through Thailand to Indonesia where it was used against the military dictatorship there. Its success in helping to bring down Milosevic in Serbia in 2000 propelled it into use across Eastern Europe, South America and the Middle East.

Including Egypt. Ms. Stolberg explains.

Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement was struggling to recover from a failed effort in 2005 [and] its leaders tossed around “crazy ideas” about bringing down the government, said Ahmed Maher, a leading strategist. They stumbled on Mr. Sharp while examining the Serbian movement Otpor, which he had influenced.

She then quotes Foreign Policy in Focus’s Stephen Zunes: “He is generally considered the father of the whole field of the study of strategic nonviolent action.”

Obviously Sharp is far left, right? Think again. Ms. Stolberg:

Some people suspect Mr. Sharp of being a closet peacenik and a lefty . . . he once worked as personal secretary to A. J. Muste, a noted labor union activist and pacifist [and] as a young man he participated in lunch-counter sit-ins and spent nine months in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., as a conscientious objector during the Korean War.

But . . .

. . . he insists that he outgrew his own early pacifism and describes himself as “trans-partisan.”

Still, you might be surprised to learn that he has been the subject of withering attacks from the left. In a 2008 Foreign Policy in Focus piece, Zunes reports that Sharp was

. . . under attack by a number of foreign governments that claim that he and his small research institute are key players in a Bush administration plot against them.

Though there is no truth to these charges, several leftist web sites and publications have been repeating such claims as fact. [Apparently] as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration’s open advocacy for “regime change,” any American group or individual who provides educational resources on strategic nonviolence to . . . human rights activists in foreign countries has suddenly become suspect of being an agent of U.S. imperialism — even Gene Sharp and [his] Albert Einstein Institution.

For example, in February [2008] Iranian government television informed viewers that Gene Sharp was “one of the CIA agents in charge of America’s infiltration into other countries.” [Meanwhile] Tony Logan insists that AEI [It doesn’t help that it has the same initials as the conservative American Enterprise Institute. — RW] “is a U.S. government run operation designed to link Gandhian methods of nonviolent protest to [U.S.] efforts to overthrow foreign governments.” [And] a commentary published in the Asia Times . . . accused Sharp of being the “concert-master” for the Saffron Revolution in Burma, claiming that [AEI] is funded by an arm of the U.S. government “to foster U.S.-friendly regime change in key spots around the world” . . . Implicit in such charges is that Burmese monks and other pro-democracy activists in that country are unable to initiate such actions themselves and their decision to take to the streets . . . without some Western scholar telling them [what] to do.

The closest thing to a charge that sticks, according to Zunes:

Well prior to the Bush administration coming to office, AEI received a couple of small grants from the congressionally funded [and soundly discredited — RW] National Endowment for Democracy . . . and the International Republican Institute . . . to translate some of Gene Sharp’s theoretical writings. [As noted in the Times article, Sharp takes] a “transpartisan” position that cuts across political boundaries and conceptions and makes their educational resources available to essentially anyone.

In the end:

Activists from groups ranging from . . . Code Pink to the Brown Berets — as well as such radical scholars as Noam Chomsky [and] Howard Zinn [signed] an open letter in support of Gene Sharp and the Albert Einstein Institution.

We’ll end with some “sharp words,” as quoted by Ms. Stolberg.

“If you fight with violence,” Mr. Sharp said, “you are fighting with your enemy’s best weapon, and you may be a brave but dead hero.”

American Conservatives Choking on Arab Democracy

Hannity IslamIn the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, a cavalcade of conservatives tapped open their sunroofs to profess love for democracy as the wheels slipped off their war plan and crushed countless thousands. In a time replete with scenes of grotesque carnage, this spectacle vied for a top spot.

Having unleashed hell on Iraq’s society, unearthed no weapons of mass destruction, and unmasked no al-Qaeda links, advocates of invasion were keen, even desperate, to emphasize their one surviving rationale for war: Saddam’s removal could herald the creation, however bloody and disjointed, of the first democracy in the Arab world.

Other, more believable motives, such as the desire to exercise revenge or secure Israel’s regional dominance, faded from public view as conservatives saturated the media with love poems to democracy.

But now, as millions of Arabs rise up against despotic regimes, the poets seem to have misplaced their lines.

Glenn Beck, the archenemy of America’s socialist tyranny, loudly laments the loss of Arab tyranny. The revolt against Hosni Mubarak, he warns, will inaugurate a new “Islamic caliphate,” which, allied with Google and liberals, will destroy America. Israel, the “only democracy in the Middle East”, as the slogan goes, is hyperventilating over the liberation of Egypt, joined as always by its Israel-first allies in the United States. Lead neocon John Bolton and Fox News buffoon Sean Hannity go a step farther, arguing that Mubarak’s demise should be used as a pretext to attack Iran.

Though conservatives have long maintained that they see America as a force that favors freedom, the hysterics over Mubarak’s ouster give us a glimpse behind the mask.

What motivates conservatives’ hatred of freedom? Why spill blood and spend billions with the putative aim of liberating Arabs only to now insist that Arabs not liberate themselves?

The answer, of course, is that freedom is to conservatives what a scabbard is to a swordsman: a means to protect and conceal the implement of choice.

For conservatives, that implement is a sword forged of religious fundamentalism and nationalist zealotry. Protestant and Jewish fundamentalists applaud Israel’s expansion as the fulfillment of God’s promise, Palestinian rights be damned. American nationalists believe terrorism is a product of violent Arab-Muslim culture rather than blowback for violent American policy. Neocon “theorists” assert that despotism and violence are inherent defects of Arab-Muslim thinking. Therefore, a largely peaceful Arab movement against despotism, led by secularists, joined by Islamists, and disinterested in appeasing Israel, must be vilified and denounced as sham.

Deviating from these conservative commandments is forbidden regardless of the harm done to our national standing or security. Best illustrating this mania is our awesome decision to pipe up as the lone enablers of Israeli colonialism at the U.N., a move made on the back of conservative pressure to “stand with Israel at all costs.” Thus, as conservatives bleat about the dangers of Islamic extremism, they encourage and incite Judeo-Christian extremism.

These past weeks have revealed a huge gap not just between the rulers and the ruled in the Arab world, but also between the rhetoric and reality of American conservatism. While no one can predict how the wave of democracy will recast Arab politics, the disapproval of America’s authoritarian-minded conservatives should serve as one reliable index of progress.

Will Protests Prompt Obama to Focus on Economic Development and Human Rights in Africa?

Ali Bongo(Pictured: President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon.)

Shortly after this year got underway, two military leaders from Gabon visited air bases in Germany for a three day sojourn with some of their U.S. counterparts. The consultations were said to have focused on air base defense. Little was said publicly about the gathering or what prompted it. “The sorts of threats that exist in Gabon also exist here,” Colonel Jean Paulin Asseko Makoka , commander of Libreville Air Force Base, told the Armed Forces New Service (AFSN). “We have spent time discussing various threats, and we now have a better understanding of how the U.S. Air Force confronts these threats and the measures they take to mitigate them.”

Military forces in Gabon count less than 5,000. About 1,000 are in the country’s air force and they have at their disposal 5 attack helicopters and 13 ground attack planes. Gabon is also said to have a 1,800-member guard that provides security for country’s president.

According to AFNS, U.S. Master Sgt. Mike Keeler termed the visit the latest in a series of capacity-building engagements between the two countries, adding, “We are always eager to engage with our African partners and we are especially proud when we can bring them here and show them the kind of quality people we have standing watch over our forces and resources.”

The trip serves to highlight the increasing efforts by the U.S. to forge close links with African military leadership. What happened shortly after it ended speaks volumes about the risks to such relationships and the challenges facing the Obama Administration as it seeks to increase its presence on the continent.

Just as the Egyptian military delegation in Washington at the end of January cut short its stay and returned to a country in open rebellion, the Gabonese Air Force commanders returned home to a land seething in anger that exploded in a bloody fashion a few weeks later. Protesters soon took to the streets with a litany of complaints much like those heard across North Africa and elsewhere in recent weeks. In a demonstration in Meyo-Kyé, a small city in northern Gabon, a banner read: “In Tunisia, Ben Ali left. In Gabon, Ali Ben [president Bongo] out.”

“Thousands of opposition supporters took to the streets of the nation’s capital, Libreville, on January 29th, and faced violent suppression from Ali Bongo’s troops,” Ethan Zuckerman wrote on his blog February 9. “Protests have spread to other cities, and the crackdown against them has become increasingly fierce. Protests planned for February 5th and 8th were both suppressed with tear gas. At this point, it’s unclear whether protesters will be able to continue pressuring the government, or whether the crackdown has driven dissent underground.”

Since the uprising began in Tunisia the outpouring of rage has almost always been described as something happening in “the Arab world.” However, in the weeks that followed rebellious manifestations showed up in other parts of Africa as well as in non-Arab Iran and Central Asia. Actually, one might say the most common link in the events has been the oil related wealth of the nations involved.

Oil accounts for nearly half of Gabon’s government budget, 43 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and 81 percent of its exports. Some experts say Gabon will run out of oil in a couple of decades. Central Africa has acquired significant strategic importance because of its richness in petroleum and other natural resources.

The insurgents who took to the streets in Gabon were protesting a 2009 election they said was stolen by Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba. Interestingly enough, the election was prompted by the death of Al Bongo’s father Omar Bongo, who had run the country for nearly 50 years. A major complaint that had drawn masses into the streets of Egypt was the intent of President Hosni Mubarak to be succeeded by the younger of his two sons, Gamal Sayed Mubarak. A large banner carried aloof by the Gabon demonstrators read: “Le Gabon n’est pas une monarchie.”

In one of the few major media reports on the situation in Gabon, Christian Science Monitor correspondent, Drew Hinshaw, wrote February 12, “The protests that are reshaping the Arab world weren’t supposed to spread south to sub-Saharan Africa. But for weeks, while scenes of Egyptians overtaking their capital have mesmerized global TV audiences — and brought the world’s most recognized names in TV news to Cairo — Gabonese protesters have been facing death and imprisonment in a series of anti-repression demonstrations consciously modeled off the Tunisian example.

“The former French colony has been run for 34 years, with open support from France, by the Bongo family — first by Omar Bongo, and then by his son, Ali. In the family’s first act, Bongo Sr. ran up a rap sheet with Amnesty International that includes political murders and tortures of opposition leaders. The family managed to survive the winds of democratization that swept Africa in the early 1990s, before Bongo Sr. died in 2009, passing power to his son, Ali.”

“In the meantime, the family has channeled at least $100 million of state money into US banks alone, according to an investigation by the US senate,” Hinshaw wrote. “To make a point, Bongo Jr.’s wife was at one point renting a $25,000 a month house from the rapper then known as Puff Daddy.

“Critics say the Bongos got away with these sort of antics, which have cost so many autocrats their Western backing because of one thing only: Oil. The country used to pump 370,000 barrels a day of the stuff, but finds its reserves running drier by the week. No matter. The damage has already been done. Petrol has made this corner of the continent an African banana republic — except that commercial farmers no longer bother to grow bananas in what would be great soil for the crop, thanks the limits of an oil-inflated currency…”

Ali-Ben Bongo Ondimba is said to have spent $136 million on a 48,000 square foot, 14-bedroom mansion with seven parking spaces, a tennis court and a heated swimming pool on an acre of land in the heart of Paris.

Although it is one of Africa’s more prosperous countries the richest 20 percent of the population receive over 90 percent of the income while about a third of all Gabonese live in poverty. Average income is $2 a day. The jobless rate stands at 21 percent.

Sometime around New Year’s Day while the Obama family was on holiday in Hawaii, the Associated Press was informed that the President is — in AP’s words, “quietly but strategically stepping up his outreach to Africa, using this year to increase his engagement with a continent that is personally meaningful to him and important to U.S. interests.”And that Obama intended to focus in Africa “on good governance and supporting nations with strong democratic institutions.”

The report suggested the President will travel to Africa this year and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said stops will reflect positive democratic models. “The official said the administration must persuade African nations that their interests are better served by aligning with the U.S.” said AP.

That was before Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Algeria. Now it appears the Administration has an additional challenge on the continent: getting its own act together in the face of the ongoing storm.

“Over the last decade we have invested heavily in toppling an oil rich Iraqi regime and committed the lives of our troops to nation building in Afghanistan, but there has been no real initiative to transform the human rights platform and economic empowerment of African people from the Sinai Peninsula to the Sub-Saharan desert,” MSNBC political commentator Edward Wyckoff Williams noted recently on the website Grio. “Why? It seems the crisis unfolding in Egypt and Tunisia will provide a teachable moment for Americans to become more politically aware of the true state of democracy (or lack thereof) in these African nations. American diplomacy can no longer hide behind pretense.”

“And herein lies the even greater conundrum: if Egypt is in crisis, then what does that say for the rest of Africa?” Williams wrote. “Will the events unfolding across this ancient land lead the Obama administration to implement real changes on how America approaches foreign policy in Africa? So much rhetoric and lip-service has been paid to the atrocities in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and the political and social unrest demonstrated in Rwanda and the Congo, but instead of real intervention, America has maintained a status quo of inaction.”

On December 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. viewed that Bahrain was “a model partner for not only the United States, but for so many countries that are looking to see the way that Bahrain decides about its future” and that she was “impressed by the commitment that the government has to the democratic path that Bahrain is walking on.” On January 25, while riot police were attacking protesters in Cairo, Clinton said the Mubarak government appeared to be stable and looking for ways to respond to the needs of Egyptians.

A year ago, Ali Bongo met privately in New York with Clinton who called him a “valued partner.” After the meeting she, said “I want to recognize President Bongo’s efforts to improve government efficiency, eliminate waste and fight corruption.”

According to Global Voices, two press releases issued by the Gabonese opposition accused the U.S. ambassador in Gabon Eric D. Benjaminson of keeping a guilty silence on violations by Ali Bongo and his regime against civil liberties.

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.

The Key to Understanding Tahrir Square: Swarm Intelligence

SwarmingThe Arab Revolutions change everything. Or at least: a lot. We have to reconsider the entire picture. It is a geopolitical paradigm shift. But I cannot even start to tackle all this. Let’s start with trying to begin to understand this new form of self organising protest. A while ago I made some notes on ‘swarm intelligence’. I dropped them as misty, premature musings. Now they make sense to me, in a very concrete way. Here my notes (written somewhere end 2009):

Recently intelligent behaviour of swarms (ants, bees, birds, bats and fish, but also mammals) has been studied and this sort of survival of and by big quantities has been called ‘swarm intelligence’. It truly is one of the wonders of nature. Herd mentality is a well known word to point to the same phenomenon but it is old fashioned: the individual is intelligent (at best) but the mass is stupid (by essence). It is a basic ideological presumption of much ethico-political philosophy, from Seneca to the present. Swarm intelligence is a contemporary concept and reverses the logic: the swarm is more intelligent than small groups of intelligent animals. Gnus crossing the river en masse are more successful against crocodiles than the more intelligent but small groups of zebras. A swarm of small birds is swirling so close at such speed that a prey bird can seriously hurt itself if it dives into it. In a similar vein small fish move so fast and close that much bigger predators can’t get a prey as it behaves as mist, as an ever changing cloud. Maybe it is this swarm intelligence that could save us. Maybe this swarm intelligence will somehow help to cross this maelstrom of rapids and heavy waters humanity has ahead; by being such a mass of interconnected creatures. But how can we think that massive anonymity of the human herd — a herd of say 10 billion people — as a saving grace?

Well, Tahrir Square gives an idea. Small in comparison with the scale we will need, but huge, gigantic, never seen. Ten of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Nineteen days, nineteens nights. The biggest and longest mass event ever, I think. And, from the side of the masses: peaceful, non-violent. A logistical nightmare turned into a fairy tale. Well, no fairy tale: a miracle (almost biblical, like the miraculous proliferation of breads). Thousands of people to be fed, to be cared for, waste, human waste, wounded people — a field hospital was installed in a side street — and urgent and crucial decisions to be made at every moment, all this. . . . Besides the Coptic Christian who laid down his coat so his Muslim co-protestor could kneel and pray, or the guy who united the sign of the cross and the crescent in front of a camera on Aljazeera, or the women chanting and leading the crowds, the children leading the crowds, all this…

This is it! This is the swarm intelligence we will need! Oh God, was I pessimistic when I made my first notes: ‘So far, we see no sign for hope: we use more 24/24 electronic gadgets, more cars, etc. The exponential growth of air travel is expanding our personal ecological footprint at a pace that ridicules all our attempts to sort out garbage or take public transport, etc. etc. No, it will have to come from elsewhere. Slum intelligence as swarm intelligence? Swarm intelligence will be massively important to survive the 21st century’.

But I could not see a light, however hard I tried: ‘But will the quarrel of the villagers, the identity politics of the quarters, and neighbourhoods, the factions and interests, not foreclose this? Individualism has become one of our biggest enemies, at least in ecological terms. 10 billion people deserve a car. And they all have the right to travel by plane, no? Logic, Watson. But this madness needing 10 planets or something like that. Human (post?) history… a tale told by an idiot. Or the birth pangs of transhumanism? Or else, a vibrant planet of slums? The beat, the heat, the creativity of a new young urbanised world population. Maybe. Swarm intelligence it should be. But so far we have not come further than ostrich policy, at best.’

Well, again, Tahrir Square has changed the entire equation. Swarm intelligence was just a metaphor for the power of the interconnected multitude of the Middle East. It is a model for a planetarian multitude to come. A planetarian multitude in the making. It is from the squared circle of Tahrir Square — how beautiful it was, this circle of tents in the middle of the square — that we have to build the theorems and stratagems of a future politics; the politics of globalized, and therefore united humanity. After Tahrir Square there is hope again. This can and should be the beginning of a truly new era. It depends on every single one of us if it will come true.

No, it will not be paradise. Just less hellish. If we are able to bring down all tyrants and all tyrannies and the extremisms they breed. This should make fundamentalisms implode. Which will delegitimize neocon Empire even further. As rampant identity politics will wane, so will the legitimacy of the war on terror. Let’s cross our fingers. Because, that is just a start, before we can even begin to tackle the Herculean, cosmic tasks ahead: the ecological and demographic challenges. But how to wake up the European youth? How to wake up the American Youth? How strange it is: that wake-up calls in history tend to come on unexpected times and in unforeseen places. I pray that this is not the end. It is just a beginning. This could be truly awesome. But it depends on all of us. On all of us at once. We have to learn to think and move in sync, without leader, without party, without manual. Swarm Intelligence Now!

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

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

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