Focal Points Blog

Peruvian President Fujimori’s Right-Hand Man Was a Gun Runner and Drug Dealer — and Employed by the U.S.

Vladimiro MontesinosA Supreme Court verdict in Peru this week once again shows how the U.S. government has engaged in unholy alliances — often with those involved in the very drug trade it claims to be combating — in order to further its short-term drug policy objectives and to the detriment of broader U.S. foreign policy goals.

After four years of deliberations, a tribunal of the Peruvian Supreme Court finally upheld the 2006 verdict sentencing Peru’s Vladimiro Montesinos to 20 years in prison and a steep monetary reparation for selling weapons to the Colombian Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia, or FARC. At the same time that Montesinos was running guns to the FARC, he was the right-hand man of then-Peruvian president turned dictator Alberto Fujimori, functioning as de facto security adviser and drug czar. He was also a key ally of the U.S. government in the so-called war on drugs. Even more ironic, Montesinos’ arrangements with the FARC coincided with the launching of Plan Colombia.

As in the case of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (a paid CIA informant until the 1989 U.S. invasion), the U.S. government’s relationship with Vladimiro Montesinos shows the absurd lengths that U.S. policy makers have been willing to go in attempting to show progress in the “war on drugs.” While in power in Peru, Montesinos organized death squads, orchestrated the undermining of Peruvian democracy with the aim of keeping Fujimori in power indefinitely, and amassed a huge illegal fortune (by some estimates over $250 million) through corruption and blackmail. He was also the U.S. government’s prime interlocutor on drug policy issues.

Before emerging as Fujimori’s trusted aide, Montesinos was widely known as a lawyer for major drug traffickers. Now-declassified 1991 cables from the U.S. Embassy in Lima carried clear warnings; one stated, “There is substantial circumstantial evidence linking Montesinos to past narcotics activity…among the police and military figures recommended by Montesinos are men with possible ties to drug trafficking.” Yet even that did not persuade U.S. intelligence and drug-related agencies from seeking to forge an alliance with him. Montesinos quickly won the support of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which then, with Montesinos’ help, edged out the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as the lead anti-drug agency for the U.S. government in the country.

He was soon courted by State Department officials as well. He became known in U.S. government circles as “Mr. Fix It.” If you wanted to get something done, you went to Montesinos. But the strategy worked both ways. If Montesinos didn’t like what he thought Washington was up to, he would withhold drug-related intelligence and slow down or even cease drug control activities. One U.S. official told me privately that Washington was always quick to give in. It seems that Montesinos, an expert in blackmail, managed to get the upper hand over his U.S. backers.

Montesinos was also quietly running the drug business behind the scenes. During Fujimori’s ten years in power, Peru went from being a coca producer (coca being a primary product in the production of cocaine) to a player in the cocaine business. And if you wanted to do business in Peru, you had to pay off Montesinos. The consequences for not abiding by his rules were steep: “intelligence” would be provided to the DEA and Peruvian anti-drug policy that would result in the arrest of any potential rivals.

Even as evidence mounted of Montesinos’ involvement in the drug trade, the U.S. government provided important political backing to him and it appears that the CIA continued to provide him with a lucrative monthly stipend. That assistance continued until the bitter end. After fraudulent elections and a series of outrageous scandals, Fujimori finally accepted defeat and on Sept. 16, 2000 he announced that he would call new elections, deactivate the notorious national intelligence services (which also got U.S. drug control assistance, despite its involvement in horrific human rights abuses) and fire Montesinos. It was only four days later that then Secretary of State Madeline Albright issued a directive that the U.S. government was to have no further contact with Montesinos. A week later, he fled to Panama. In June 2001 he was arrested in Venezuela and extradited to Peru, where he has remained in prison facing more than 60 separate court cases. Sentences run consecutively in Peru, so this verdict ensures that — barring some sort of political pardon — he will spend 20 years behind bars.

In Peru, justice has been served in this particular case. But what about in Washington? No serious effort to evaluate U.S. drug policy in Peru in the 1990s (or in any other period) has taken place. One 1994 inter-agency working group concluded only that relations with Montesinos should be downgraded slightly (one U.S. official involved at the time told me that despite a majority in favor of more drastic action, the CIA managed to get the upper hand in the internal debate). Later calls for investigations into U.S. support for Montesinos and intelligence agencies in Peru have gone unheeded. Similarly, efforts to obtain declassified documents have been met with resistance.

While allowing the full truth to come out about the U.S. relationship with Montesinos may be embarrassing for the U.S. government, such transparency and an honest reflection is necessary to avoid continuing to repeat the same bad strategies in the future. It is time for Washington to do two things: open up the files on Montesinos and undertake a serious review of how the U.S. government ended up throwing its support behind a corrupt, gun-running, drug-trafficking thug.

“Tolerating” the Ground Zero Muslim Center Is Damning It With Faint Praise

Ground Zero Islamic CenterAs the headlines and blogs about the “Ground Zero mosque” mounted in recent weeks, I, like many, wished the whole “debate” would just go away. To even refer to it as a legitimate debate struck me as far too generous. As many have noted, when opponents of the community center shifted the issue away from freedom of religion, they merely laid bare their irrational prejudices that equated Islam with terrorism. I’m sorry, I don’t have the patience to attempt a real exchange of ideas with anyone who argues that however irrational and hateful the feelings of some non-Muslims toward Muslims may be, they ought to guide the nation’s response to this issue.

But that doesn’t mean supporters of the community center are necessarily on the same page. There are actually several overlapping, but different claims on behalf of the community center. The most prominent is freedom of religion. Articulated weakly by Obama and with more gusto by Bloomberg, this legal emphasis stresses the constitutional right of Muslims in America to practice their religion without interference from the state. In its strictest version, this argument makes no claim about whether Islam is “good” or “bad” or whether the feelings of those who oppose the community center are legitimate or not. As critics of Obama’s politically cautious stance have suggested, the legal emphasis leaves an important part of the opponents’ position unanswered and constitutes a very weak form of support for the project.

Unfortunately, the void left by the legal argument has been filled by what I would call the “tolerance proselytizers.” These are groups and individuals who take the general freedom of religion argument and turn it into the specific need for Judaeo-Christian America to tolerate Muslims in our midst. Take a look at the editorials, organizational emails, and speeches on behalf of the community center, and you will find that the word tolerance has become especially prominent. “Ground Zero Mosque Testing Our Tolerance,” “Two Cheers for American Tolerance,” and “Fan the Flames of Tolerance,” to name just a few examples of the word in pro-mosque circles. Even Christopher Hitchens, who wrote an opposing piece in Slate, conceded that the debate is, in part a “test of tolerance,” although he and other critics were quick to turn the tables and demand tolerance from Muslims, as though the vast majority of Muslims in the U.S. were anything but tolerant of non-Muslims.

Surely tolerance is preferable to intolerance. But is tolerance really the appropriate ideal for those who support the community center? At a basic, everyday level, the word smacks of negativity. To tolerate something is to put up with it, even or especially if we don’t like it or it is somehow deemed bad for us. We tolerate our neighbor’s loud music, excessive heat, obnoxious children, and alcohol. Schools have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and drugs. And the military has a no-tolerance policy for gays, on the insane rationale that homosexuals pose a danger to the force. If you apply this logic to the mosque debate, tolerating Islam is accepting it within limits, while still suggesting something inherently negative about it.

Then, there is the more thorny issue of tolerance in a religious context. The concept of tolerance has a deeply religious history. It is linked to the notion of Christ’s endurance of hardship and the subsequent virtue of charity in Christianity. In the Reformation, tolerance referred to Catholic co-existence with Protestants, even though the Catholic church still regarded Protestants as heretics. Today, when we invoke tolerance in support of the mosque, we use a term laden with religious baggage. To call for tolerance is thus to reinforce the reigning, though problematic, notion that America is a Judaeo-Christian country, rather than a secular state. In this framework, the ideal is that established Christians and Jews in the United States will extend civil rights to Muslims, as though these things were theirs to grant.

The dangerous assumption that rights can be bestowed by those that have them onto those that do not raises the more basic issue of the relationship between tolerance and power. As the philosopher Jacques Derrida insightfully observed, tolerance “is most often used on the side of power.” People and groups in positions of power choose whether or not to tolerate people and groups with less power. Whether practiced by the Catholic church of early modern Europe or religious and civic associations in the United States today, there is, as Derrida noted, a certain “condescending concession” in the call for tolerance. This concession is inherently conditional. If civil rights are something that “real” Americans can grant to Muslims in the United States, it is also something that they can take away. People who call for tolerance of Islam believe that they are making Muslims feel welcome in America. But it’s hard to feel truly at home when your status in this country depends on the whims of those who welcomed you.

Well-intentioned though it may be, the call for tolerance is even more problematic than the limited freedom of religion argument. In addition to backing away from stronger support for Muslims in America, tolerance replicates many of the prejudices and assumptions of the community center’s opponents.

So, where does that leave us? What would a stronger civic argument for the community center entail? I don’t pretend to have THE answer. But it seems to me that real support would involve adding to the freedom of religion argument without reproducing the prejudicial and religiously-inflected arguments associated with tolerance. It would underscore the Muslim community’s right to be in lower Manhattan, but challenge any suggestion that this right is a conditional gift bestowed onto them by “real” Americans. It would also be more vocal about the community center as a potential asset to the neighborhood rather than something to be endured, while still vigorously reinforcing rather than muddying the line between church and state. And finally, in addition to challenging the irrational argument that links Islam with terrorism, it would challenge the fundamental hypocrisy and exclusionary notion of a Judaeo-Christian America.

Don’t Let Eugenicists Like the Discovery Channel Gunman Hijack the Overpopulation Issue

Our intuition informs many of us that the single greatest problem on earth, along with — and inextricably linked to — climate change is overpopulation. The earth is beginning to seem as overrun by humans as a neglected granary is by mice.

But, in American politics, the issue is, to use a term bordering on over-used these days, a “third rail.” (In other words, to those unfamiliar with subways and commuter rail lines, no one wants to touch it.) First, it antagonizes conservative Christians, who view the edict “go forth and multiply” as a virtual amendment to the Ten Commandments. Second, many whites interpret advisory warnings to keep family size down as an open invitation to American Latinos to surpass them in numbers The third concern comes from the left, some of whom think that attempts to control population are the work of those who believe in modern-day eugenics (the dark side of genetic engineering).

Unadorned, the voice of eugenics today is no more evident than in the manifesto cum ultimatum that the Discovery Channel hostage taker James J. Lee issued. According to an AP article, Lee, who obviously watches too much TV, had previously “demanded an end to Discovery Communications LLC’s shows such as TLC’s ‘Kate [Gosselin] Plus 8′ and ’19 Kids and Counting.’” He wrote ["sics" where called for]:

The Discovery Channel and it’s affiliate channels MUST [focus] on how people can live WITHOUT giving birth to more filthy human children since those new additions continue pollution and are pollution. A game show format contest would be in order. Perhaps also forums of leading scientists who understand and agree with the

Malthus-Darwin science and the problem of human overpopulation. . . . All programs on Discovery Health-TLC must stop encouraging the birth of any more parasitic human infants and the false heroics behind those actions. In those programs’ places, programs encouraging human sterilization and infertility must be pushed.

Admit it, don’t you kind of wish Lee had fleshed out the game show idea? Exactly how would that work? Also, referring to giving birth as “false heroics” is pure genius to those of us who believe that it may be more heroic for a married couple to choose not to reproduce and add to the overpopulation problem.

Okay, snap out of it. Whether or not events in his life helped drive him to his moment of infamy, Lee was obviously in the grips of advanced mental illness. His phrase “parasitic human infants” invokes how the Nazis killed “useless eaters” (the disabled). Also, thinking that media corporations would respond to his call for TV programs promoting sterilization is further evidence of how deluded he was.

Lee also invoked influential nineteenth century British scholar Thomas Malthus, who wrote:

The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

Lee and his ilk vastly simplify Malthus. Still, the term Malthusian has come to mean that population increases more rapidly than the food supply unless slowed by disease and war. This concept, rightly or wrongly, instills fear in those who believe that the ruling class and the corporate rich seek ways to “cull the herd.” (More in a future post about how that helps oligarchs and their associates.)

In 1994 Webster Tarpley, who describes himself as an activist historian (though whose hyperbole, as seen in the excerpt quoted below, sometimes results in him being categorized as a conspiracy theorist ) wrote:

During their preparations for the United Nations’ so-called International Conference on Population and Development, scheduled to be held in Cairo in September of this year, the genocidal bureaucrats of the U.N. are seeking to condition governments and public opinion worldwide to accept the notion of a “carrying capacity” for our planet. In other words, the U.N. butchers would like to establish scientific credibility for the idea that there is an absolute theoretical maximum number of persons the earth can support. Some preliminary documents for the Cairo conference set a world population level of 7.27 billion to be imposed for the year 2050, using compulsory abortion, sterilization, euthanasia and other grisly means. It is clear that the U.N. and its oligarchical supporters seek to exterminate population groups in excess of the limit.

Whether or not overpopulation has the potential to be turned to its own uses by the ruling and corporate classes doesn’t make it any less pressing an issue. Nor does it absolve us of the responsibility to devise and implement solutions. (Culling the herd aside, that is.)

Viktor Bout, Much Bruited About by Far Left (and Right), Just a Fall Guy?

Viktor Bout“Justice Department officials were relieved on Aug. 20 when a Thai appeals court approved the extradition” of Russian Viktor Bout, who is accused of “a 15-year run as one of the world’s biggest arms traffickers,” reports Scott Shane in the New York Times. They seek to tap into “his vast insider’s knowledge of. . . . the trade and the transport that fuel drug cartels, terrorism networks and insurgent movements from Colombia to Afghanistan, according to former officials who tracked him.”

Question: How does news of Bout’s extradition intersect with Fidel Castro surfacing to support Bilderberg alternate historians? (We decline to use the term “conspiracy theorists,” because, no matter how wild their formulations might seem, nobody deserves to be reflexively corralled and branded as unfit for public consumption.) Some background on the latter from the AP:

Fidel Castro is showcasing a theory long popular both among the far left and far right: that the shadowy Bilderberg Group has become a kind of global government, controlling not only international politics and economics, but even culture. The 84-year-old former Cuban president published an article Wednesday that used three of the only eight pages in the Communist Party newspaper Granma to quote — largely verbatim — from a 2006 book by Lithuanian-born writer Daniel Estulin.

Estulin was actually photographed shaking hands with Castro. Turns out he also wrote a book in which key chapters cover the career of Bout. Before we explore Estulin’s findings, some of you may be familiar with Bout through the work of Wayne Madsen, another journalist who, like Estulin, is sometimes written off as a “conspiracy theorist.” For example, a year ago Madsen wrote . . .

On October 23, 2006, WMR [the Wayne Madsen Report] reported the following concerning Bout’s activities in Afghanistan on behalf of the U.S.-led NATO military force: “WMR has learned from an intelligence source in Afghanistan that the aircraft of the enigmatic Viktor Bout, who works as a Pentagon contractor, flew arms and passengers for the Taliban and ‘Al Qaeda,’ and maintains close links with the Russian-Ukrainian-Israeli criminal syndicates. [A few weeks later Madsen reported:] “A Ghanaian Boeing 707 [supposedly flying for Bout] was recently spotted off-loading 40 tons of ammunition at Mogadishu Airport in Somalia [for] the Union of Islamic Courts” [the precursor to al Shaabab that controlled much of the country at the time].

While I haven’t read the Daniel Estulin book that covers Bout titled Shadow Masters: An International Network of Governments and Secret-Service Agencies Working Together with Drugs Dealers and Terrorists for Mutual Benefit and Profit, a friend of mine has and provided some insights:

According to Estulin, Bout is basically just a fall guy, a low level arms dealer being used as a patsy in a Russian/US policy struggle. In Shadow Masters [Estulin] details the conversations he had with other writers (newspapers and magazines) who did stories on Bout. It was pretty funny seeing that the writers for Men’s Health and GQ straight-up fabricated information about Bout and got the rest off the internet.

The front man for the UN who has produced reports and “evidence” against Bout (actually pronounced Butt, Bout comes from an obsolete French-based translation model) is a guy named Peleman who has received millions of dollars in funding from the UN to write these reports. He has created a kind of flow chart which is cited as evidence by everyone else but there is apparently no tangible proof against Bout at all.

When the Thai judged asked the DEA agents present if they knew who Bout was they answered, “Yeah, we saw the movie” referring to the horrible Nicolas Cage movie, Lord of War. . . .

Having read the Times article I’m more convinced then ever that Estulin is on the right track. The NYT [pulls] the same players out of the closet to compose their thesis on Bout. They quote [Douglas Farah, author of a 2007 book about Bout titled Merchant of Death, to the effect, "He knows a lot about Russian intelligence as it's been restructured under Putin"] who has been discredited [doesn't say why -- RW]. They also quote a former DEA agent now working for Spectre Group International . . . which is another dubious organization.

My friend concludes:

This thing smells like a disinformation campaign which is about par for the course with the NYT [considering how they danced] to the CIA’s tune in regards to Vietnam and Guatemala.

Still, if Bout talks, the United States Justice Department will get a lot more than it bargained for.

The Lebanon Border: “Uniquely” Dangerous

HezbollahWhile the Middle East—indeed, the world—is riveted by the ongoing crisis around Iran’s nuclear program, the most immediate danger of a war may be on Israel’s border with Lebanon: “Exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous” was how the Independent’s Robert Fisk described it last month.

That quiet was broken Aug. 3 when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) got into a firefight over tree trimming that ended up killing one Israeli and three Lebanese. Both sides backed off, but events over the past several months suggest Tel Aviv may be looking for a fight.

“Israel has to be ready for any sudden provocation or outbreak of hostilities, the same way the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war was triggered over Hezbollah capturing Israeli soldiers,” Dan Dicker from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs told the Inter Press Service.

The IDF has been smarting since Hezbollah fought it to a standstill in the 2006 war. While the Israeli air force inflicted massive damage on Lebanon’s infrastructure during the 34-day conflict, even Israel’s vaunted Golani Brigade could make little headway against Hezbollah’s tough and competent militia fighting on its home turf.

For the past two years the IDF has been training for a rematch: “Should another war break out—like the one with Hezbollah almost exactly four years ago—the Golani Brigade will not be unprepared,” reads a headline in the Israeli daily, Haaretz. At the Elyakim army base in northern Israel, soldiers are training how to take bunkers and fight in villages.

The IDF has also made it clear the next war will be vastly more destructive than the 2006 conflict that killed 1,200 Lebanese and inflicted $10 to $12 billion in damage. The IDF has instituted the “Dahiya Doctrine,” named after the Shiite quarter of Beirut that the Israeli air force flattened in 2006. According to Amos Harel of Haaretz, the doctrine means the IDF will “respond to rocket fire originating from Shiite villages by unleashing a vast destructive operation.”

Over the past several months the Israelis—sometimes with Washington’s help— have unleashed a steady stream of accusations that Hezbollah is preparing for war, that Syria is smuggling arms, and that Iran is up to no good.

Israeli intelligence claims that Hezbollah has up to 40,000 rockets aimed at Israel, and in April Israeli President Shimon Peres charged Syria with supplying the Shiite organization with powerful Scud missiles. Syria vigorously denies the charge, and the United Nations says there is no evidence for the accusation.

Then the Wall Street Journal reported that a “U.S. defense official” told the newspaper that Iran had deployed” sophisticated” radar in Syria as an early warning device for a possible Israeli attack on Teheran’s nuclear sites. The U.S. State Department’s Philip Crowley chimed in that the radar was a “matter of concern” because of Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah.

Added to the growing tension on Lebanon’s southern border was the exposure of an extensive Israeli intelligence operation aimed at Hezbollah that had successfully penetrated Lebanon’s telecommunication system. More than 70 suspects have been arrested and some 20 charged with treason.

According to UPI, intelligence observers say the ring was uncovered because Israel could be gearing up for war and took some chances. “It may have been the Israelis drive to amass intelligence on Hezbollah’s military capabilities ahead of renewed conflict…that prompted the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, to pull out all the stops in Lebanon when it did.”

The tree-trimming incident is an indication of how volatile the Lebanese-Israeli border is. While the Israelis claim they were on their side of the border, the UN only drew that border in 2000, and Beirut has never fully accepted it. While the UN found the tree was on Israel’s side of the border, Lebanon’s Information Minister Tarek Mitri said the section is “Lebanese territory.”

One reason for Lebanon’s sensitivity over the border is that its placement may have relevance to the enormous natural gas deposits off the coast of Gaza, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Extended out to sea, a matter of a mile or so in the land border could affect whether Lebanon has a claim on some of the gas.

The U.S. Geological Service estimates the fields could yield up to 122 trillion cubic feet of gas, and the Israelis have already laid claim to it. When the Lebanese protested, Israel’s Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau said that Israel “will not hesitate to use force” to defend its claim on the gas field. Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, responded, “Lebanon’s army, people and the resistance will be ready to thwart any attempts to steal its resources.”

Added to the tense border, natural gas deposits, and Israel’s cold war with Syria and Iran, is a UN investigation that, according to most reports, will charge Hezbollah with involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah claims the investigation is an Israeli plot and that Tel Aviv pulled off the hit, but it has yet to produce any evidence to support that charge.

The UN charge could have a destabilizing effect on Lebanon—Hezbollah is the country’s most important political and military force—and a destabilized Lebanon is in no one’s interest, with the exception of Israel and possibly the U.S. That is why long-time antagonists Saudi Arabia and Syria huddled in Damascus and then flew to Beirut July 30 to confer with the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on how to avoid a Lebanese meltdown.

In the middle of all this, Israel’s supporters in the U.S. Congress decided to stick their finger in the pie and hold up $100 million in military aid to the Lebanese army. “I am concerned that the training and equipment we have provided the LAF for the purposes of counter-terrorism may in fact be used by the LAF against the Israelis,” said House Armed Service Committee chair, Ike Skelton (D-Mo). Skelton went on to say that, since the LAF collaborated with Hezbollah, the latter organization was an “indirect recipient of our aid.”

The U.S. started aiding the LAF after the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” put a pro-Washington coalition into power and forced Syria to withdraw following the assassination of Hariri. But the reality of Lebanon’s complex and fractious politics soon reasserted itself and what finally emerged from the last round of elections was a coalition government in which Hezbollah plays a prominent role. Regardless of what the Americans think of the Shiite group, marginalizing the largest ethnic group in the country is not an option.

That the military aid the U.S. is sending could pose a threat to Israel is simply silly. Most the aid consists of body armor, uniforms and unarmored Humvees. It includes neither warplanes nor anti-aircraft, and the tanks are M41 Walker “Bulldogs” designed for the Korean War. The Walker is an under-armored, gas guzzling light tank that wouldn’t last five minutes against the Israel’s modern armor or anti-tank weapons. Indeed, one military expert remarked that he was surprised there were any M41s—a weapon more “quaint” than threatening—that still ran.

If a war does break out between Hezbollah and Israel it might spread to Syria, and even Iran. In his recent report to the Council on Foreign Relations entitled “A Third Lebanon War,” former U.S. ambassador Daniel Kurtzer argues that Israel is likely to initiate the war, and that it might “also use the conflict with Hezbollah as a catalyst and cover for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” The former ambassador said Syria might also be a target. Kurtzer predicts a crisis sometime in the next 12 to 18 months, “but the situation could change or deteriorate rapidly.”

One explanation for Israel’s unwillingness to escalate the tree-trimming incident was because its antagonists were the LAF, not Hezbollah. Kurtzer—who was a Middle East advisor to President Obama during the last election—says Israel would rather “lure [Hezbollah] into a war.” In the tree trimming crisis the Shiite group stayed on the sidelines.

“Hezbollah is keen to avoid an escalation,” says Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, “knowing how tough an all-out confrontation could be to the movement in Lebanon, and more broadly to the region.”

As analyst Jim Lobe points out, the Obama administration has little ability to prevent a war because it is hamstrung by its refusal to engage with either Iran or Hezbollah, and because it has allowed the Republicans to derail its efforts to improve relations with Syria.

A uniquely dangerous time, indeed.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays, visit Dispatches from the Edge.

Withdrawal from Iraq: Remembering the Quaker’s Colonel

Earlier this month, long time FPIF senior analyst, Col. Dan Smith (Ret.) passed away. Dan worked at the Friends Committee for National Legislation and the Center for Defense Information after 26 years of military service which ranged from the war in Vietnam to the Gulf War in Iraq.

It’s fitting to think about Dan today as President Obama makes his official speech marking the end of combat operations in Iraq. Dan wrote more than 70 articles for FPIF and blogged regularly at The Quaker’s Colonel on the Iraq War.

With 50,000 troops still on the ground inside Iraq, and many military brass and diplomats arguing that the final withdrawal date of December 2011 should be pushed back, the war is anything but over.

Pundits and politicians, such as John Boehner are focusing on the narrow issue of if the surge worked. Lost in the mix is the question of how we got into war in the first place, what the effects have been on our military readiness, and what has been the true economic, political and human toll to the United States and more importantly Iraq. Juan Cole has a must-read speech that Obama should give tonight where he touches on many of these critical issues.

Looking forward, Anne Applebaum writing in The Washington Post argues that despite the debate over the “success” of the war, it’s too soon to know the result. Applebaum is sadly wrong here—we do know the answers. Dan was writing about them before the war even began: we are weakened in our ability to organize coalitions, influence the Middle East, and have largely failed to care for our veterans. If things get better for Iraq, it will largely be in spite of the war, not because of it.

Dan wrote about many of the speeches President Bush gave on Iraq. He often chided Bush for declaring success where there was none. In reaction to a speech given at the Pentagon by Bush in 2005, he wrote:

Even the most casual review of the past five years substantiates the opinion of the majority of Americans that Bush administration claims of victory in Iraq are false. They don’t pass the sight, sound or scent tests – which is to say they don’t look like a duck, quack like a duck, or smell like a duck.

So why is the president still calling it a duck by giving victory speeches?

Obama will be careful not to declare victory tonight but he’ll likely be using the speech as a marker of progress and as a strong signal that it’s time to move on. I’m pretty sure Dan would argue that still doesn’t pass the sight, sound or scent tests.

I’ll be thinking of him when I’m listening.

Israel and the Rise of Ultra-Semitism

A prominent Israeli rabbi whose party shares power in the Netanyahu government called for the extermination of Arabs in a recent sermon.

The 89-year-old Ovadia Yosef urged God to strike “these Ishmaelites and Palestinians with a plague; these evil haters of Israel.” He then singled out the Palestinian leader of Fatah, exclaiming that “Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this earth.” Yosef is the spiritual leader of the Shas Party, an ultra-Orthodox right-wing outfit that governs in concert with other parties, including Likud.

In religious terminology, the Ishmaelites are the descendants of Ishmael, who was Abraham’s elder son. As the rabbi doubtless knows, the Arabs are considered the descendants of the Ishmaelites in Islamic tradition.

In response to the genocidal exhortation, Netanyahu issued a mild non-rebuke; his office meekly offered that the rabbi’s ravings “do not reflect” the views of the prime minister or the government. The lukewarm criticism is not surprising, since Netanyahu may harbor genocidal views of his own.

In May, a Netanyahu advisor told the American-Israeli “journalist” Jeffrey Goldberg that Netanyahu is serious about striking Iran and considers the Islamic Republic the modern-day equivalent of Amalek.

For those unfamiliar with the Old Testament narrative, the Amalekites didn’t make out too well. God commands the Jews to utterly exterminate them—“Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

But returning to Rabbi Yosef: what elicited his angry declamation? It seems that the approaching peace talks are the culprit. Yosef and the rest of the far-right, who now loom large in Israeli society, loathe the prospect of “conceding” any lands they have stolen from the Palestinians, including the vast swath of Jewish-only settlements.

Of course, the far-right doesn’t see the land as stolen. For one thing, what’s commonly called the “far-right” in Israel-polite media parlance is best described as proto-fascist. This is, after all, the crowd that wants to impose state loyalty oaths on Israel’s Arab citizens—or even better, purge them from Israel altogether, lest the precious racial purity of the “democratic” Jewish state be further diluted. This is also the same crowd that seeks to erase history by making banning references to refer to Israel’s creation as “Al-Naqba”, or “The Disaster.” That’s the term used by Palestinians—and rightly so: even Israel’s own historians have conceded that their state was established through mass terror and ethnic cleansing.

But that doesn’t matter to Rabbi Yosef and friends. For them, the Palestinians are an annoyance, inserted by the irritating hand of history into lands that were ordained as Jewish by a divine real estate agent. Hence the favored Zionist slogan of “redeeming” the land.

What all this confirms is the hardening of hatred in Israeli society. Israelis have grown increasingly indifferent to the fate they mete out to their victims. The public did not question the obscene one-sided massacre in Gaza in 2008 (euphemistically called a “war”), in which Israel slaughtered 1,000 Palestinians, half of them women and children, putatively in “response” to unguided rocket fire that had all but ended.

Nor did the public quiver over the 2006 assault on Lebanon, during which Israel shattered Lebanese civilian infrastructure because Hezbollah kidnapped two soldiers. All told, 1,000 Lebanese were killed and entire neighborhoods were flattened; compare that with the Israeli death toll of 43 civilians and 117 soldiers.

Even the recent flotilla massacre elicited scant moral outrage in Israel. The national media merely indulged in the tired victimhood narrative, peddling the awesome claim that the Israeli soldiers were defending themselves from the crew. Never mind that the soldiers boarded an aid vessel in international waters and shot people in the face; pirates with public relations, you see, are completely different from regular pirates.

And what public relations it is. As Netanyahu smugly observed to a settler audience some years ago, “I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.”

Yes, the “right direction”—as determined by Israeli fanatics who openly clamor for genocide and Israel-first lobbies who suppress criticism with hysterical charges of “anti-Semitism.”

And so long as Americans adhere to the fiction of Israeli victimhood, Netanyahu’s boasts will remain well-grounded.

M. Junaid Levesque-Alam also posts at Crossing the Crescent.

Reader Challenge: Why Did al Qaeda Jump the Gun on U.S. Retreat From Iraq?

“Insurgents affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility on Saturday for a wave of car bombings, roadside mines and hit-and-run attacks this week in at least 13 Iraqi cities and towns,” reports Anthony Shadid in the New York Times. Bear in mind that they’re mounting this “deadly and relentless campaign whose breadth surprised American military officials and dealt a blow to Iraq’s fledgling security forces just as the United States will formally end [*snicker*] what it describes as combat operations in the country.” (Apologies for editorial interjection. Couldn’t resist.)

Questions for Focal Points readers: How does this help al Qaeda? Wouldn’t it make more sense for it to lay low until U.S. combat forces exit? Thus assuring the United States doesn’t delay its departure and leaving al Qaeda freer rein to inflict its usual harm.

Or are these attacks just a symptom of al Qaeda’s decentralized structure and how little influence the command has over its franchises, which might lack the strategic savvy to delay the attacks until some of the U.S. troops leave? Or does al Qaeda in Iraq just think it will be business as usual since we’re leaving armed contractors behind and that whether it attacks now or later is immaterial?

Most likely, the reason for the attacks is something else entirely. Kindly enlighten Focal Points readers if you can.

How Nonproliferation Became a Dirty Word

Nuking the English language

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will use its nuclear arsenal if attacked by the United States and South Korea, DPRK ambassador to Cuba Kwon Sung Chol said Friday,” reported the Chinese news site Xinhua on August 27. Kwon added, “If Washington and Seoul try to create a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, we will respond with a holy war on the basis of our nuclear deterrent forces.”

What’s unusual about this warning? Perhaps you find the invocation of holy war incongruous since, at best, the North Korean government only tolerates certain religious groups. (Its idea of religion, you’ll recall, is a decidedly unholy admixture of the cult of the Kim dynasty’s personality and juche, a secular doctrine that combines will with self-reliance.)

In fact, the discordant note sounded by Ambassador Kwon is more subtle. In a recent post at the Economist’s Language blog, the author, known only as T.C., sheds some light.

Britain is currently pondering whether to replace its nuclear-armed Trident submarines. It is striking that virtually every British media outlet follows the government line in talking delicately about the nation’s “nuclear deterrent”, rather than “nuclear weapons”. You might expect it from the right-wing Daily Telegraph, but the leftie New Statesman uses it too, even while bashing the programme for not being sufficiently independent of the United States.

In other words, “our nuclear deterrent” is a euphemism that facilitates “talking delicately” about nuclear weapons. It well serves its intended purpose: casting nuclear weapons in a purely defensive light. However, the United States, for example, has never forsworn first use of nuclear weapons. Not to mention that even if nuclear weapons were retained purely for defensive purposes, their very possession by a state invites development by other states for their defense (ostensibly), as well. Meanwhile, North Korea’s use of the term is a sign that we shouldn’t underestimate how media-savvy NORK’s representatives can be.

Along with a euphemism’s effectiveness hiding the true meaning of a word, the measure of its success lies in how difficult it is to spot. While the American disarmament community doesn’t fall into the same trap of using the term as the New Statesman did, the implications of “our nuclear deterrent” succeeded in escaping me until recently. Furthermore, my efforts to trace its origins have been unsuccessful, though one can’t help but suspect it’s the work of a communications firm.

In other words “nuclear deterrent” is what the good guys retain for emergencies; “nuclear weapons” are what the bad guys wield — or seek to. The former word blunts the impact of the latter.

Nuclear advocates have taken another term from the field of nuclear weapons and not only turned it on its head, but appropriated the concept for their own use. Though linguistically a negative, “nonproliferation” has long been a word that offers us hope for a safer future. It’s memorialized, of course, in the landmark Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which has been instrumental in keeping nuclear war at bay since it was ratified. But somewhere along the way the word “nonproliferation” was hijacked. It’s come to mean, for starters, keeping nuclear weapons, materials, and know-how from states that the Western world has deemed unstable, or more to the point, irrational (read Muslim).

Of course, nobody wants another nuclear-armed state like Pakistan, with its compromised army and intelligence agency, or North Korea, ruled by a tyrant. Or, for that matter, an Israel that’s irrational when it comes to the subject of Islam.

But when it comes to reciprocity, nuclear advocates now give only a cursory nod to the section of the NPT that calls for nuclear disarmament (divesting yourself of nuclear weapons as opposed to nonproliferation, stopping the spread). However famously nebulous, it reads in part: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.” Meanwhile, nuclear advocates are impervious to the claim that disarmament is what provides nuclear states with credibility when calling upon states with aspirations to nuclear weapons to abandon such dreams.

To others (such as myself), substantive — and nuclear modernization-free — disarmament measures demonstrate leadership in an international campaign to make the world free of nuclear weapons. But to American nuclear hawks, the military, not to mention the nuclear-weapons program itself, is all the credibility that the United States needs to halt nuclear powers-in-waiting in their tracks.

In other words, nonproliferation has come to mean checking the spread of nuclear weapons to countries that don’t have them while we get to keep ours (on a reduced scale but with vastly increased funding for modernization).

Even worse, a state like Iran that seems to be be seeking the means to develop a nuclear weapon — if not the actual weapon — finds itself in the sights of a West all too willing to use nonproliferation as a pretext to make said state’s nuclear facilities the bulls eye for an air attack.

Stripping End-Timers of Their Nuclear Ticket to Armageddon

As with many religions, elements of Christianity look forward to an apocalypse and their subsequent ascension to heaven. In a surprising article at USA Today titled “What if the end isn’t near?” Tom Krattenmaker writes, “As signaled by the runaway success of the Left Behind books, end-time expectations hold undeniable sway in evangelical America.” Furthermore, “According to this reading of the bible’s Book of Revelation, what awaits those on the wrong side of the ecclesiastical line is not so wondrous: seven years of unimaginable suffering, war and destruction that ends with the Second Coming of Jesus.”

However lacking in compassion and exclusionary to the point of cliquishness this outlook may be, it evinces some disturbing symptoms. Krattenmaker again.

Work for a better future? What future?

In this view, staving off wholesale destruction is viewed as a distraction from evangelism or, worse, as . . . getting in God’s way. . . . which makes long-term investments in a better future seem utterly beside the point. . . . For liberal religionists or non-believers, this kind of stance is one of the least appealing aspects of evangelicals’ popular image.

“Least appealing”? Try: passive, fatalist, evidence of a death wish. Or as Krattenmaker writes:

It’s as if one group is rowing the boat in the direction of species betterment (or, at least, survival), while another group sits idly as the vessel drifts closer to the precipice of the waterfall, convinced that the divine hand will pluck them and their religiously correct fellows from disaster.

While these types of Christians may be unmoved by the judgments of the social scientists about their motives, they still need to explain the absence of Christ’s teachings in their equation. Reverend Tyler Wigg-Stevenson (who I cite regularly) is the founder and director of the Two Futures Project, created to enlist Evangelicals in a mission that, at first glance, seems counterintuitive for them — ridding the world of nuclear weapons. (The other future is one in which nations continue to be armed with nukes.)

Born again himself, Rev. Wigg-Stevenson tells Krattenmaker, “It’s been my mission to carve out space for evangelicals to engage this issue on their own terms.” Furthermore . . .

Wigg-Stevenson takes pains not to criticize those who read Revelation as a blueprint for rapture and apocalypse in our time. “There are people with integrity who think this way,” he says. “But it leads to an unbiblical focus on the mechanics of the end times.”

My interpretation of his use of the word “mechanics” is that he’s encouraging Christians to cease focusing on their heavenly reward and pay more attention to what they need to do to earn it beyond just professing their faith. As for Krattenmaker, his conclusion is less than satisfactory.

Taking Wigg-Stevenson’s two-futures paradigm a step further, Christians might see a choice concerning their approach to the future as well. They can bet on a supernatural rescue for themselves and their kind and wait for the cataclysm. Or they can dedicate themselves to compassionate action to alleviate suffering and injustice, to creating a better world.

Talk about your leaps of faith, how likely is that conservative Christians, many of whom believe that helping the needy only enables them, will change their stripes that dramatically? Nevertheless, they need to confront Krattenmaker’s question about the two paths he describes in that paragraph: “Which would their savior have them do?”

Meanwhile, fleshing out Rev. Wigg-Stevenson’s argument about nuclear weapons, we’ll turn to a guest column he wrote for the Washington Post’s On Faith section in April. He warned that Christians must guard against “fearing mortal enemies more than God’s judgment.”

A commenter, one Arancia12, responded:

I do not believe in survival at any cost . . . Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian. Not living as a Christian is the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.

Or as Tony Campolo, Professor Emeritus, Eastern University, wrote in a testimonial on the Two Futures Project website . . .

Fear of what other nations could do to us with their weapons is no justification for developing nuclear weapons ourselves. As Christians, perfect love should cast out that fear and allow us to take the risks that go with disarmament.

Page 170 of 183« First...102030...168169170171172...180...Last »