Focal Points Blog

The Limits of Internet Organizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nigeria @ 50

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

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

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

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

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

Middle-East Peace Talks: Thin Pickings for Abbas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for the Palestinians?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Chavez Following Iran Down the Radioactive Brick Road?

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

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

Indeed, the evidence is alarming.

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

Noriega concludes:

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

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

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

For Pakistan, All Roads May Lead to U.S. and NATO Confiscation of Its Nukes

The New York Times reports today:

Dozens of tankers carrying fuel to Afghanistan for NATO troops were torched near Quetta [capital of the southern province of Balochistan and base of the Quetta Shura Taliban -- RW] on Wednesday, the third major attack on supplies since Pakistan closed one border crossing to Afghanistan a week ago and the first at the only checkpoint that remained open. . . . That crossing was closed last week in protest over NATO helicopter strikes against a mountainous border post at Kurram manned by Pakistani paramilitary soldiers. . . . Pakistan was demanding an apology from NATO for the helicopter attacks, but NATO was only willing to offer regrets, the newspaper said.

Meanwhile, a Pakistani newspaper, the Nation, represented the views of those who expected a stronger response on the part of Pakistan to what it called “effectively an act of naked aggression” on the part of the United States and NATO.

It is becoming pathetic to see the Pakistani state whimpering its protests against the spiralling aggression against its territory and people by NATO and the US. . . . Pakistani security forces blocked only one . . . of two vital NATO supply routes — a mere symbolism rather than an actual act of reciprocal hostility. Even worse was President Zardari’s request to the CIA Chief not to breach Pakistan’s sovereignty. He should have refused to meet the CIA Chief. . . .

At this time the nation has a right to ask why we are accumulating such expensive and state of the art weaponry and why we are maintaining such a large military . . . if this military machine cannot protect its people or the country’s borders?

The Nation’s editorial writer isn’t the only one advocating a military response. The Washington Post writes (thanks to Bernhard of the late, essential Moon of Alabama for bringing it to my attention):

Pakistan’s punishment of NATO [notwithstanding] its resistance to a more muscular U.S. campaign in North Waziristan, where the Haqqani faction is based, is unacceptable. The Obama administration has repeatedly pressed the Pakistani military to act against the Haqqani and al-Qaeda sanctuaries — and the military has just as often refused, arguing that its forces are stretched too thin by other campaigns and by the need to respond to massive flooding. These explanations have some substance. But if Pakistan is really unable to tackle the sanctuaries, it cannot be allowed to prevent the United States and its allies from doing so. . . . The administration. . . . must insist on a robust military campaign in North Waziristan — if not by Pakistani forces, then by the United States.

Which is exactly what the Nation fears.

If the Pakistani rulers continue to give this “unable or unwilling signal” now, it will encourage the US to go to the next level of aggression — that is sending in ground troops into Pakistan. That will cause even greater instability in the country and lead the US to push the argument of Pakistan being “unable to” protect its nuclear assets to the international community [enabling] the US to get control of these assets.

Pakistan seems to be in a double bind: Resist the United States and NATO and open the door to loss of your nukes; cooperate and suffer the same results.

“Nuclear Spy” Arrests: Remember Who Your Friends Are, Iran

As you may have heard, in response to the Stuxnet cyber attack on its nuclear program, Iran has been detaining Russian personnel working on Iran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr. Hence, “dozens of Russian nuclear engineers, technicians and contractors are hurriedly departing Iran for home since local intelligence authorities began rounding up their compatriots as suspects of planting the Stuxnet malworm into their nuclear program,” reports Israel’s DEBKAfile.

Hold on there, Tehran, don’t go off half-cocked. Chances are, if transmitted via the Russians, unless one was on the pad of the cyberwarring entity, that one of them is not to blame. Jason Fritz provides some perspective in Hacking Nuclear Command and Control, a paper commissioned by the ICNND (International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament) (emphasis added).

All computers which are connected to the internet are susceptible to infiltration and remote control. Computers which operate on a closed network may also be compromised by various hacker methods, such as privilege escalation, roaming notebooks, wireless access points, embedded exploits in software and hardward, and maintenance entry points. For example, e-mail spoofing targeted at individuals who have access to a closed network, could lead to the installation of a virus on an open network. This virus could then be carelessly transported on removable data storage between the open and closed network.

The Iranian computers were initially spread using flash drives, which anyone could have infected. Tehran: remember who your friends are. When it comes to “crippling sanctions” and even an attack on your nuclear facilities, you don’t want to drive Russia into the full embrace of the West.

It’s When He Most Tries to Appear Strong That Obama Is at His Weakest

Obama PetraeusIn Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, as you’ve no doubt heard by now, he describes the procedure that President Obama attempted to follow in determining how to proceed on Afghanistan. After informing the Pentagon of his need for distinctive policy options, he was instead presented with three variations of a single course of action. Rather than send it back to the drawing board, he grudgingly chose one.

As Andrew Bacevich explains in Obama Can’t Stand Up to His Generals — And That’s Dangerous at the New Republic (emphasis added) . . .

. . . presidential weakness — even an inkling of weakness — can have international as well as domestic implications. This is notably the case in matters related to national security. If the occupant of the Oval Office appears less than fully in command, friend and foe alike will wonder who exactly is in charge. . . . [Whether Obama] possesses the temperament to govern is fast becoming an open question. Put simply, the question is this: Does Obama have sufficient backbone?

No doubt Obama had fallen prey to the conventional thinking that proceeding with the war was actually a sign of said “backbone.” Of course, that was predicated on the notion that news of his capitulation to the generals didn’t leak out. Once that happened, we see how an attempt to appear strong on national security was actually a demonstration of weakness. In fact, as a reversion to the default position of Democratic presidents to reflexively come down on the side of the military out of deference to the misconception that Democrats are weak on national security, it was especially cowardly.

Also, writes Bacevich, “Once Obama endorsed choices made by unelected subordinates, the office of commander-in-chief had acquired additional tenants.”

You mean in addition to the coporations that have taken up lodging in the Oval Office? It’s getting pretty crowded in there.

Flat-lined Iraqi Politics Shocked Back to Life

Congratulations were in order last Friday for Iraq, which set the world’s record for the longest stretch of parliamentary statehood without an actual government. Dutch politicians took 208 days to form a government in 1977, a period of political log-jamming that Iraqi politicians not only surpassed this past week but will likely dwarf once they finally assemble a ruling coalition in Baghdad.

Apparently satisfied with having achieved this disreputable honor, however, a significant bloc of Iraqi politicians celebrated by taking the first steps to break their stalemate and ultimately produce a functioning government. On Friday, followers of Shiite firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr dropped their longstanding opposition to Nouri al-Maliki’s bid for a second term as Iraqi prime minister. This unexpected development—undoubtedly the product of behind-the-scenes horse trading between Shiite political factions—seemed to shock flat-lined Iraqi politics back to life. The following day, Kurdish lawmakers signaled willingness to align with the would-be premier, a move that would firmly give al-Maliki the majority support needed to form a functioning coalition government.

This is good news, of a sort.

Iraq needs a working government, and quick. While lawmakers in Baghdad continue practicing petty kabuki politics with little regard for the broader public, ordinary Iraqis suffer from a dearth of basic public services, a decimated infrastructure, deteriorating security, and a broken economy. Understandably, Iraqi faith in democracy has worn thin, and regional neighbors grow increasingly wary of the country’s political vacuum. Whatever the merits of al-Maliki’s potential stewardship of the Iraqi state, a functioning government will at least stop the bleeding.

But the news highlights the problems that still lie ahead. The most immediate challenge will be roadblocks thrown up by the Sunni opposition. Of central concern is former prime minister Ayad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya party, a self-professed secular organization that enjoys widespread Sunni support. Al-Iraqiya captured the most seats outright in the country’s March election but failed to build on its electoral gains by establishing a governing coalition. Allawi and his followers refuse to accept al-Maliki’s return to the executive and have signaled their intention to boycott any government with al-Maliki at its head.

If Allawi and his Sunni bloc simply refuse to participate, as some experts fear, the prospect of increased political violence will present itself. On Sunday, a leading Sunni politician, Atheel al-Nujaifi, told the Associated Press that al-Maliki’s reinstatement as prime minister would mark dictatorship’s defeat of democracy in Iraq. Pointing to the possibility of Sunni refusal at the local level to carry out decisions emanating from Baghdad, al-Nujaifi predicted that this state of affairs “could lead to government institutions ceasing to work—they just won’t function anymore,” but added that the resumption of sectarian violence is unlikely. “People are really tired of that kind of thing.” Still, the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which has brutally reasserted itself over the past few months by exploiting political and economic frustrations, compounds concern of Sunni disenfranchisement.

But the longer-term sticking point in establishing a secure framework for governance could come from the Kurdish north. Smelling the opportunity to play kingmaker in whatever coalition government moves forward, the Kurds made plain their intention to marry al-Maliki’s fledgling premiership to a series of potentially explosive demands. Chief among them, the Kurds will look to reinstall Jalal Talabani in the presidency, push for greater autonomy over the country’s oil-rich north and assume formal control of the disputed territory in and around the northern city of Kirkuk —traditionally a graveyard for political negotiations in Baghdad. The Kurds may budge on Talabani but are less likely to soften on concessions concerning oil and have ruled out, at least publicly, accepting anything less than a constitutional mandated referendum on the future of Kirkuk.

Meanwhile, the internal dynamics of Iraqi politics have kicked off a diplomatic proxy war between the country’s neighbors, and frustrated the political calculus of American withdrawal. Thus far, Iran looks to be the big winner. Widely believed to have had a hand in convincing al-Sadr to throw his weight behind al-Maliki, Tehran can expect to enjoy considerable influence over a united Shiite front in Baghdad. At the same time, Allawi’s possible sidelining would further hobble the interests of Saudi Arabia and other regional Sunni powers in Iraq.

But without a doubt, developments over the weekend tag Washington as the biggest loser. On the one hand, tolerating the legitimate presence of al-Sadr—who is responsible for the considerable bloodletting of American troops—in a collation government will be a difficult pill for the Obama administration to swallow. On the other, the marginalization of Allawi threatens to further exacerbate Iraq’s fragile security conditions, and preemptively discredits American claims to leaving behind functioning democratic institutions in the wake of withdrawal. It will be interesting to see whether Washington, which up to this point has largely kept its hands off Iraq’s political stalemate, will continue resisting the impulse to do so.

All totaled, the good news of progress in Baghdad will produce, necessarily, more frustration in the short term. Even if al-Maliki takes control of the rudder and successfully steers the country through these choppy waters, it will be months before anything meaningfully coalesces. The International Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann warned the New York Times on Saturday not to “expect a government before January.” Given the myriad tensions in need of resolution, however, even this disheartening forecast may prove prematurely optimistic.

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

Senate Again Undermines Obama’s Middle-East Peace Efforts

Once again, as President Barack Obama began pressuring the right-wing Israeli government to freeze the expansion of its illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, leading Congressional Democrats have joined in with Republicans to try to stop him.

Recognizing that increased Israeli colonization on occupied Palestinian land would seriously threaten the viability of an independent Palestinian state that could emerge from the peace talks and thereby make the process worthless, and recognizing that he would lose any popular mandate to continue negotiations under such conditions, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to withdraw from the negotiating table. As a result, Obama has been trying to get the rightist Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to extend the partial freeze on new construction of the Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank.

In an apparent effort to undermine administration’s efforts, Democratic Senators Barbara Boxer and Robert Casey joined with Republican senators Johnny Isakson and Richard Burr in preparing a letter to President Obama that criticizes Abbas’ threat to withdraw from the talks while completely ignoring the threatened resumption of Netanyahu’s illegal colonization drive that would prompt it. According to the letter, “…it is critical that all sides stay at the table. Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started.”

There is no mention in the letter that Netanyahu should abide by commitments of previous Israeli governments to freeze the settlement drive nor is there any mention of the five UN Security Council resolutions and the 2004 World Court decision calling on Israel to withdraw from the already-existing settlements. Instead, they praise the right wing prime minister for “not abandon(ing) the talks.”

It appears that Boxer and the other initiators of the letter decided that rather than emphasize the importance of both sides refraining from taking actions that would undermine the credibility of the negotiations, they were determined to put the U.S. Senate on record putting all the blame for the possible collapse of the talks on the Palestinians and none on the Israelis.

In response to international calls for pressure on Israel to live up to its international legal obligations to withdraw from Palestinian territories seized in the June 1967 war in return for security guarantees, the letter also insists that the United States “not to attempt to impose an agreement on the two parties,” and – despite the gross asymmetry in power between the Israeli occupiers and the Palestinians under occupation – that a peace settlement must be “embraced by both sides.”

The letter was strongly criticized by the liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now and praised by the right-wing American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC.)

Back in April, Boxer and Isakson initiated another letter, which was signed by 76 senators (half of whom were Democrats), to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implicitly rebuking President Obama for challenging Israel on its illegal settlements, insisting that “differences are best resolved amicably and in a manner that befits longstanding strategic allies.” The letter, which criticized the Palestinians for conditioning talks on a settlement freeze, insisted that “Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the U.S. and Israel.”

Ironically, despite the efforts of senators like Boxer, Russ Feingold, Patty Murray and others who have signed such letters to undermine President Obama’s peace efforts in the Middle East, liberal groups like Democracy for America and MoveOn have recently been praising Boxer, Feingold, Murray, and other signatories as “progressive heroes” deserving support for their re-election.

It is hard to get excited about defeating Republican challengers, however, when incumbent Democrats embrace the same right-wing foreign policy and try to undermine President Obama when he tries to do something right.

No Mean Feat: Justifying Israel’s Nukes Without Acknowledging Them

What’s it like to be one of the principal keepers of “The Worst-Kept Secret” (as Israel bomb historian Avner Cohen calls it in his new book)? David Danieli, the deputy director general and head of the policy division of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, was recently interviewed by Yossi Melman for Haaretz. Some background: at this year’s General Conference of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), the Arab states, along with Iran, sought to pass a resolution calling for Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In the process, Israel would place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards and, oh yeah, finally admit to possession of nuclear weapons. The resolution failed to pass as narrowly as it succeeded in passing last year (though obviously to little effect that time).

First, Washington’s response. Reuters reports . . .

Washington had urged countries to vote down the symbolically important although non-binding resolution, saying it could derail broader efforts to ban nuclear warheads in the Middle East and also damage fresh Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“The winner here is the peace process, the winner here is the opportunity to move forward with a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East,” said Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

With its insinuation that they’re less invested in the peace process than the United States and Israel, Davies’s gloating is an insult to the Arab states. Worse, its suggestion that all it takes for the Middle East to be a nuclear-weapon-free zone is for the likes of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria to hold their heavy water makes him sound delusional. If Davies wants to pretend that Israel has no nuclear-weapons program, fine, but don’t expect the Arab states — or the citizens, if not the governments, of Western states — to succumb to this mass hallucination.

Neither was Danieli the soul of graciousness when he told Melman: “This was definitely a very important achievement for Israel. . . . This is also an unprecedented decision, in light of the fact that there is an automatic majority against Israel in international organizations. Israel is not blessed with a lot of decisions in the international arena that defeat the bloc of Arab-Muslim states.” In other words, it wasn’t the peace process and the nuclear-free weapons zone in the Middle East to which he was referring, just sheer victory over the Arab states.

In fairness to Israel, it must be pointed out that when it comes to this, he has a case: “One of our more convincing arguments was asking why Israel should be singled out when the IAEA has never passed a resolution against any other country that is not a signatory to the treaty, such as Pakistan and India.”

As for Israel joining the NPT . . .

Israel does not see fit to join the treaty as long as the current conditions in this region remain in place. . . . There are other weapons of mass destruction here — chemical and biological [as well as] terrorist organizations that get aid from terror-supporting states like Iran and Syria [and] have tens of thousands of rockets aimed at Israel.”

See what Danieli is saying here? Because of extenuating circumstances, Israel needs its nuclear weapons. But in the next breath he says: “Israel has a clear and responsible nuclear policy, and it has frequently reiterated that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.”

As you can see David Danieli has a thankless job trying to juggle Israel’s nuclear lies. Unless his audience has undergone mass hypnosis, there’s no way he can keep all those balls in the air.

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