Focal Points Blog

Obama and Gates Disagree to Agree on Military Spending

Obama GatesLast week Barack Obama announced that he wants to cut $400 billion in military spending and said he would work with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs on a “fundamental review” of U.S. “military missions, capabilities and our role in a changing world” before making a decision.

Spokesman Geoff Morrell responded by hinting that Gates was displeased with having to cut that much from his spending plan. Gates “has been clear that further significant defense cuts cannot be accomplished without future cuts in force structure and military capability,” said Morrell, who volunteered that the Secretary not been informed about the Obama decision until the day before.

But it is difficult to believe that open display of tension between Obama and Gates was not scripted. In the background of those moves is a larger political maneuver on which the two of them have been collaborating since last year in which they gave the Pentagon a huge increase in funding for the next decade and then started to take credit for small or nonexistent reductions from that increase.

The original Obama-Gates base military spending plan – spending excluding the costs of the current wars – for FY 2011 through 2020, called for spending $5.8 trillion, or $580 billion annually, as former Pentagon official Lawrence Korb noted last January. That would have represented a 25 percent real increase over the average annual level of military spending, excluding war costs, by the George W. Bush administration.

Even more dramatic, the Obama-Gates plan was 45 percent higher than the annual average of military spending level in the 1992-2001 decade, as reflected in official DOD data.

The Obama FY 2012 budget submission reduced the total increase only slightly – by $162 billion over the four years from 2017 to 2020, according to the careful research of the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA). That left an annual average base military spending level of $564 billion – 23 percent higher than Bush’s annual average and 40 percent above the level of the 1990s.

Central to last week’s chapter in the larger game was Obama’s assertion that Gates had already saved $400 billion in his administration. “Over the last two years,” he said, “Secretary Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending. I believe we can do that again.”

The $400 billion figure is based primarily on the $330 billion Gates claimed he had saved by stopping, reducing or otherwise changing plans for 31 weapons programs. But contrary to the impression left by Obama, that figure does not reflect any cut in projected DOD spending. All of it was used to increase spending on operations and investment in the military budget.

The figure was concocted, moreover, by using tricky accounting methods verging on chicanery. It was based on arbitrary assumptions about how much all 31 programs would have cost over their entire lifetimes stretching decades into the future, assuming they would all reach completion. That methodology offered endless possibilities for inflated claims of savings.

The PDA points out that yet another $100 billion that Gates announced in January as cost-cutting by the military services was also used to increase spending on operations and new weapons program that the services wanted. That leaves another $78 billion in cuts over five years also announced by Gates in January, but most of that may have been added to the military budget for “overseas contingency operations” rather than contributed to deficit reduction, according to the PDA.

Even if the $400 billion in ostensible cuts that Obama is seeking were genuine, the Pentagon would be still be sitting on total projected increase of 14 percent above the profligate level of military spending of the Bush administration. Last week’s White House fact sheet on deficit reduction acknowledged that Obama has the “goal of holding the growth in base security spending below inflation.”

The “fundamental review” that Obama says will be carried out with the Pentagon and military bureaucracies will be yet another chapter in this larger maneuver. It’s safe bet that, in the end, Gates will reach into his bag of accounting tricks again for most of the desired total.

Despite the inherently deceptive character of Obama’s call for the review, it has a positive side: it gives critics of the national security state an opportunity to point out that such a review should be carried out by a panel of independent military budget analysts who have no financial stake in the outcome – unlike the officials of the national security state.

Such an independent panel could come up with a list of all the military missions and capabilities that don’t make the American people more secure or even make them less secure, as well as those for which funding should be reduced substantially because of technological and other changes. It could also estimate how much overall projected military spending should be reduced, without regard to what would be acceptable to the Pentagon or a majority in Congress.

The panel would not require White House or Congressional approval. It could be convened by a private organization or, better yet, by a group of concerned Members of Congress. They could use its data and conclusions as the basis for creating a legislative alternative to existing U.S. national security policy, perhaps in the form of a joint resolution. That would give millions of Americans who now feel that nothing can be done about endless U.S. wars and the national security state’s grip on budgetary resources something to rally behind.

Three convergent political forces are contributing to the eventual weakening of the national security state: the growing popular opposition to a failed war, public support for shifting spending priorities from the national security sector to the domestic economy and pressure for deficit and debt reduction. But in the absence of concerted citizen action, it could take several years to see decisive results. Seizing the opportunity for an independent review of military missions and spending would certainly speed up that process.

Could “Virtual Deterrence” Actually Increase the Chances of Nuclear War?

Virtual deterrence, while not new, has gained some currency in recent years as a means to both avert nuclear war and expedite nuclear disarmament. “Virtual,” in this instance, means abolishing nuclear weapons, which the United States maintains primarily to deter, or prevent, other states from attacking us with theirs. Instead, only the know-how and production capacity (as well as the fuel) to reconstitute them would be retained in case of a perceived national security emergency.

In its inability to signal a true commitment to nuclear disarmament, virtual deterrence is hardly ideal. But it sounds like a step in the right direction, right? In fact, the sad irony is that divesting ourselves of the hardware and retaining only the knowledge might actually increase the risks of nuclear war. Worse, it might hasten it.

In a paper that the Hudson Institute published in November titled Nuclear Weapons Reconstitution and its Discontents: Challenges of “Weaponless Deterrence”, fellows Christopher Ford explains why as well as anybody. First, though, let’s deal with a questionable claim he makes first.

The logic of reconstitution would seem to presuppose what the disarmament community often takes as axiomatic, but what is in fact a highly contested issue — namely, that the only use of nuclear weapons is in fact for deterring the use of similar weapons by others.

He also alluded to this in a recent talk he gave on nuclear deterrence.

Discussions of nuclear deterrence, in some quarters, tend to presuppose what the disarmament community often takes as axiomatic, but which is, in fact, a highly questionable claim — namely, that the only use of nuclear weapons is in fact for deterring the use of other nuclear weapons by others. This is a seductive idea [which seems] to offer a kind of “fast-track” to nuclear disarmament. . . . because nuclear deterrence is assumed not really to “touch” any of the other structures of our lives, it could simply be lifted up and tossed away. [But if] nuclear weapons turn out to be entangled in various ways with broader security or other issues . . . it is much harder to imagine them being surgically excised, and nuclear deterrence so cleanly disposed of.

Among the ways in which nuclear weapons are entangled in broader security is deterring the use of not only nuclear weapons, but a larger conventional army, a service nuclear weapons ostensibly performed during the Cold War in Europe versus the massive Red Army. Also, states seek to proliferate for reasons other than national security, such as prestige. Besides, like a national airline, it’s just what a state often thinks it should do to show it’s arrived on the international scene.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to assert that disarmament advocates believe that deterrence is the only use of nuclear weapons. More likely, they were originally inspired to take up the cause and, for the most part, still are by the fear that states will use nuclear weapons offensively. It’s hawks and realpolitik types who have homed in on deterrence.

In recent years replacement of the phrase “nuclear weapons” with “our nuclear deterrent” has become commonplace. It’s as if not only is deterrence the primary reason that nuclear weapons are maintained by the United States, but nukes have no actual use in fighting a war. This phenomenon can be seen in the title of the most recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Schultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn (the Four Horsemen of the Un-Apocalypse): How to Protect Our Nuclear Deterrent.

I’ve been unsuccessful in discovering who “re-branded” nuclear weapons thusly. But this kind of “messaging” is an attempt to convey the notion that instead of the principal threat to life on earth (along with global warming), nuclear weapons actually make us safe.

We’ll return now to how virtual deterrence can make us less safe. In his talk, Christopher Ford cites nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling, who expressed a concern that, if nuclear weapons are de-mobilized

. . . “every responsible government must consider that other responsible governments will mobilize their nuclear weapons base as soon as war erupts, or as soon as war appears likely.” As a result, “there will be at least covert frantic efforts . . . to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible.” Worse yet, there might be incentives for the country that acquired nuclear weapons first actually to use them preemptively. . . . employing a temporary monopoly upon nuclear weaponry. . . . in order to halt its opponent’s analogous rush toward nuclear armament.

In short, Schelling

. . . suggests that a world without nuclear weapons would become one in which many countries “would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons. . . . The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world.”

Hawks and realpolitikers both discount disarmament because the road to it is filled with potholes or, if it were a healthcare policy, gaps in coverage. But, even if one believes that proceeding down that path is more of a risk than retaining nuclear weapons, the balance of power that deterrence supposedly affords is an illusion. States that aspire to nuclear weapons aside, some that possess them, such as North Korea, Pakistan, and perhaps Israel, haven’t given up the notion that they’re just as essential for their offensive, first-strike capability than for deterrence.

Al Qaeda Has Its Own “Superusers” and “Badges”

Nothing if not web-savvy, al Qaeda has learned to exploit gimmicks devised by Western game and social network developers to expand and inspire its base. Jarret Brachman and Alix Levine explain in a Foreign Policy piece titled World of Holy Warcraft.

The counterterrorism community has spent years trying to determine why so many people are engaged in online jihadi communities in such a meaningful way. . . . Explanations from scholars have ranged from the inherently compulsive and violent quality of Islam to the psychology of terrorists.

But no one seems to have noticed that the fervor of online jihadists is actually quite similar to the fervor of any other online group. The online world of Islamic extremists, like all the other worlds of the Internet, operates on a subtly psychological level that does a brilliant job at keeping [its users] clicking and posting away — and amassing all the rankings, scores, badges, and levels to prove it. Like virtually every other popular online social space, the social space of online jihadists has become “gamified,” a term used to describe game-like attributes applied to non-game activities. It turns out that what drives online jihadists is pretty much exactly what drives Internet trolls, airline ticket consumers, and World of Warcraft players: competition. . . . Users can now earn status for the messages they post and the quality of the messages as judged by other members. In many of the forums, members can only receive points after they have posted a certain number of messages, enticing users to post more messages more quickly.

Are these techniques capable of producing actual terrorists? According to Brachman and Levine, they’re liberally used by the web designers for former imam turned regional al-Qaeda planner Anwar al-Awlaki, who inspired the Fort Hood shooter, the Times Square bomber, and the Christmas Day airline bomber.

Last year badges and levels popped up on Huffington Post in the form of “HuffPost Badges.” Still in beta, it encompasses various levels of “Networkers,” “Superusers” and “Moderators.”

It seems unlikely that progressives will take to such a juvenile system. But this author, for one, will be all too happy to stifle his condescension if badges and levels prove capable of generating Middle-East- or Wisconsin-style protests in the United States.

Taking R2P to the Next Level

On Monday, April 18, Citizens for Global Solutions ran a full page advertisement in the New York Times that calls for three essential actions for the U.N. to take in Libya. We are reaching out to Americans because we now live in a new age where the international community has accepted its responsibility to protect. But you can’t protect babies from 30,000 feet nor should this be the job of the U.S. and its allies alone. The United Nations must have the support and tools that it needs to get these jobs done:

  1. Deployment of U.N. Peacekeepers On the Ground to Protect Libyan Civilians;
  2. Provision of Food, Water, Medicine and Shelter for Displaced People in Libya;
  3. U.N. Sponsored Elections to Bring Democracy and a Legitimate Government.

Take action now – sign the petition.

These goals are in line with the Opinion Editorial written by President Obama, UK Prime Minister Cameron, and French President Sarkozy. In a joint editorial published in the Times, they declared:

The United Nations and its members should help the Libyan people as they rebuild where Qaddafi has destroyed — to repair homes and hospitals, to restore basic utilities, and to assist Libyans as they develop the institutions to underpin a prosperous and open society.

U.N. Peacekeeping

Today 64% of Americans supports a standing peacekeeping force led by the United Nations. Such a force would have the strength and legitimacy to halt the fighting in Libya without having to rely on NATO ground forces. While a standing U.N. peacekeeping force does not yet exist, this is the moment for the international community to establish it. This force could integrate within its ranks all those Libyans who desire peace, the protections of civilians and a legitimate government within their nation.

Sixteen U.N. peacekeeping operations are currently deployed worldwide, involving nearly 100,000 troops and police from about 120 countries. Peacekeeping has proven to be one of the most effective tools available to the U.N. to assist countries navigating the difficult path from conflict to peace. U.N. peacekeepers provide security and the political and peace building support to help countries make the difficult, early transition from conflict to peace.

Historically, peacekeeping missions have done vital work in helping countries torn by conflict create conditions for lasting peace. For example, the U.N. mission to East Timor in the early 2000s helped the country recover from a bloody Civil War and transition successfully to a relatively stable democracy. In Côte D’Ivoire, the U.N. peacekeeping mission has done similar work, helping to remove the brutal dictator, Laurent Gbagbo, put an end to the 2nd Ivorian Civil War in the past decade, and facilitate the peaceful transition to democracy.

In Haiti, U.N. peacekeepers helped in the recovery following the 2010 earthquake by restoring a secure and stable environment and by facilitating a legitimate election, the results of which are soon to be officially released. Now U.N. peacekeepers are looking to continue aiding people as Haiti looks to rebuild its economy and transition to democracy.

In Sudan, U.N. peacekeepers have worked to enforce the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army. U.N. peacekeepers there have provided much needed humanitarian aid to the Sudanese people and helped oversee the election on the referendum to make Southern Sudan an independent state.

Humanitarian Assistance

The United Nations refugee agency has warned that a lack of funding could undermine its ongoing efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to tens of thousands of people displaced by the unrest in Libya, saying it has so far received slightly over half of the funding it requested for the operation.

On April 1, U.N. High Commissioner António Guterres said it was “essential that humanitarian access is provided to all people in need throughout Libya.” Speaking specifically on the coastal city of the coastal city Misrata, Guterres said, “This is a situation where life-saving humanitarian access should be guaranteed.” According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), since mid-February more than 320,000 Libyans have fled to neighboring countries to escape the violence in Libya.

The UNHCR, along with the World Food Programme, UNICEF and other U.N. entities, have been able to supply some aid to the Libyan people, but the work is difficult. In late March a World Food Programme convoy delivered 5,000 blankets and 5,000 sleeping mats to the people of Benghazi, the Libyan opposition’s stronghold. However, the UNHCR reported “shortages of medical supplies and basic commodities” in the city.

In the cities of Tobruk and Benghazi in eastern Libya local authorities have identified at least 35,000 displaced people, mostly from Ajdabiyya and Brega. U.N. sources believe the actual number is likely to be around 100,000, since the population of Ajdabiyya is 120,000 and most people are thought to have left. While a few thousand have crossed into Egypt, the majority are displaced in Benghazi and Tobruk.

The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a fact sheet on April 15 reporting that at least 250 people including 20 children have been killed since hostilities began in Misrata. The report also stated that “Humanitarian needs are increasing amidst the ongoing heavy fighting inside the city of Misurata [Misrata]”; “There are reports of shortages of medical supplies, food and water”; and “the water supply to Misrata City has been cut off.” International medical organizations including the World Health Organization and Doctors without Borders have provided some medical assistance to the people of Misrata, as have other U.N. entities such as the World Food Programme and UNICEF. However, additional aid is desperately needed. A more concerted effort by the U.N. in coordination with individual nations and NGOs is essential to adequately address the humanitarian needs in Libya.


In their editorial, Obama, Cameron, and Sarkozy stated, “it will be the people of Libya, not the U.N., who choose their new constitution, elect their new leaders, and write the next chapter in their history.” They are exactly right, but without the United Nations the people of Libya will never get the chance. The end result in Libya, as demanded by the Libyan people, must be a democracy with free and fair elections, government accountability, and rule of law. We ask the U.N. to take it upon itself to call for such elections and oversee the election process when fighting lessens and Muammar Gaddafi has been dethroned.

On April 14, the U.N. called on Somalia’s transitional government to hold democratic elections before the end of its term in August. A U.N. sponsored conference of Somali officials, the European Union, and the African Union has agreed that elections must take place within the next four months. Somalia has not had a legitimate, stable government in over 20 years. Thanks to the efforts of the U.N., E.U., and A.U., upcoming elections could help with Somalia’s transition to peaceful, stable democracy. And this is just one of many examples of successful U.N. sponsored elections.

Once democratic elections are held in Libya, the nation can finally move forward and look to a future where leaders are accountable to the people and human rights atrocities, like those committed by the Gaddafi regime, no longer have a place in Libyan society.

Citizens for Global Solutions believes that these three actions are necessary to ensure that we are living up to our ideals as Americans, as citizens of the world, and as human beings. The world has already shown the commitment to the responsibility to protect — the responsibility the global community has to step in when the government of a nation cannot or will not protect its people. If the three actions outlined above are taken, we believe that Libyan lives will be saved and the future of the country hopeful.

Take action now – sign the petition.

Don Kraus is the chief executive officer of Citizens for Global Solutions.

Enhanced Drone-Strike Accuracy Makes Accidents Look That Much More Suspicious

Pakistan drone strike(Pictured: Site of a drone attack in Pakistan.)

“When the US began drone strikes in Pakistan in 2006, drone attacks were notoriously inaccurate,” wrote retired Pakistani military officer Shaukat Qadir at Counterpunch in an article about the release of CIA contractor Raymond Davis.

Their kill ratio was approximately 2 militants to 8-10 ‘collateral damage’. . . . However, from about March/April 2008, they became increasingly accurate, probably due to more accurate HUMINT [intelligence on the ground]. In recent times, the kill ratio swung dramatically; 8-10 militants to 2 in collateral damage.

Then Qadir explained

About a month ago, some helicopter-borne snipers killed nine children in Afghanistan who were out gathering firewood. An ex-marine turned journalist accused the snipers of deliberate murder. He argued that, with the technology available, it was impossible not to be able to differentiate between children aged nine to thirteen, carrying sticks, and armed militants.

But another reason beyond improved technology led Qadir to conclude that a subsequent drone attack, on March 17, in which 41 individuals, including women and children, were killed, was deliberate.

. . . the CIA was furious over the deal negotiated between the two militaries [Pakistan and the U.S.] to oust them from Pakistan. Given their record of pretty consistent accuracy for over two years, during which, never more than a total of twenty people have been killed, the majority being militants, and the manner of the attack, no other credible conclusion comes to mind.

In other words, Qadir maintains that the March 17 attack was a petty vendetta. Meanwhile, at Wired’s Danger Room Richard Wheeler wrote last week of U.S. Air Force attempts to improve targeting:

The Air Force has problems distinguishing men from women and adults from children. Which means pilots sometimes target — and kill — the wrong people. The air service’s solution: a nationwide contest, to help the military pick out kid from grown-up.

With the “Remote Human Demographic Characterization” challenge, the Air Force is looking for descriptions of a system “that can determine approximate age (adult, teen, child) and gender of small groups of people at a distance.” The challenge “requires a written proposal only.” So if your idea works and you can get the technical details right, you could walk away with $20,000.

Along with manned aircraft attacks, this system is intended for use in drone attacks. But the military better file it under Watch Out What You Wish For. Once designed and implemented, accidents will look even more deliberate. Whatever remains of the U.S. relationship with Pakistan will go the way of the wind.

New Nuclear Project Distracts From Existing Safety (Read: Seismic) Issues

“The vastly ambitious CMRR project has greatly detracted from the attention needed to solve existing nuclear safety problems at LANL,” writes Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) in its latest newsletter. LANL, of course, is the Los Alamos National Laoratory, one of the United States’ two nuclear weapons-design laboratories. The CMRR, about which I’ve often written about in conjunction with LASG’s attempts to retard its progress, is the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility, intended to expand production of plutonium pits (where the chain reaction occurs in a nuclear weapons).

In a cruel joke at a time of supposed disarmament, the CMRR promises to be the most expensive construction project in the history of Los Alamos. As for those safety problems, Mello writes, “LANL harbors many buildings which do not meet even the optimistic seismic hazard assessment of 1995.”

In a press release, the LANL admits as much, announcing

. . . that it has self-reported to the National Nuclear Security Administration a new preliminary analysis of structural load capacities at [PF-4 plutonium processing facility]. That analysis, which incorporated new geological data and sophisticated computer modeling, showed that a large earthquake that might occur in north-central New Mexico every 2,500 years could cause significant damage to some parts of the facility.

In response, LANL’s associate director for nuclear and high hazard operations, Bob McQuinn said, “While the latest calculations revealed some new areas to improve, we will quickly incorporate those into our ongoing facility improvement activities.”

But Greg Mello says:

On 3/25/11 I spoke with a senior NNSA official in DC who offered the opinion that PF-4 would “never” meet modern seismic and safety requirements. It is not clear to me that any large-scale plutonium processing facility can be built at LANL, for any reasonable price, which does meet those standards.

Hey, look at the bright side. At least there’s no danger that Los Alamos, on a plateau in the middle of desert country, will be overcome by a tsunami.

From Baghdad’s Own Tahrir Square to Mosul: The Friday of the Free

Lieven De Cauter presents a letter from his colleague in Iraq, Asma Al Haidari:

April 15th. What am I to write to you about today? It is the Friday of the Free! For this is what our young revolutionaries have called it. I will start with the demonstrations on Tahrir Square in Baghdad. Of course all the bridges and streets leading to Tahrir were cut off but people came all the same and are still there. They are chanting that Maliki is a liar and a thief. They are chanting that whoever does not say Tahrir, “Liberation”, his life is a loss. They are daring the security forces who are there in great numbers to detain them. I have always known and told you what we are made of, how could the Americans have ever thought that they can colonize us? You can feel the atmosphere of Tahrir. You can see and feel the life that is Tahrir. Tahrir belongs to the People.

A man of 50 who cries, says: ‘Death to Iran! Death to America! Death to Maliki! 80% of Parliament and the people who rule are Iranians, there is no loyalty to Iraq. Long Live Iraq! All our sons are in detention centers, my 16 year old son is in prison. Iraq is the crown on our heads. We will all die for Iraq. Iraq will live forever!’ Then there is a young man who shouts: ‘Down with sectarianism! Down with the Quota System! Death to Iran! Let all Iraqi Young Men rebel and fight for Iraq! If Mohammed is a Sunni then I am a Shia, but we are all one. We are all brothers. We all have the same blood!’ Women cry and men, grown up men shed tears of agony and anguish for Iraq and for our sons and daughters, for our country that has been raped and pillaged.

Ah, the scenes in Tahrir were phenomenal, because Maliki and his henchmen yesterday ordered people to demonstrate in two football grounds, again on a sectarian basis, can you imagine? But he is a stupid man and so are his advisors. The Iraqis are much too intelligent and clever for all of this and proved that they are now at the point of no return in their rebellion and revolt. They assembled in Tahrir and told Maliki and his parliamentarians to go and play football in the stadiums he has assigned.

The young man who said let’s all unite and fight also said that he was sure a massacre was going to be committed by the security forces against the demonstrators today. But these same security forces could not stop them from coming to Tahrir. Men, women, and children, Muslims and Christians who are speaking out about the “government’s” criminality against them – it was amazing and enthralling. The crushed Iraqi middle class in all its colours and hues is out and will remain out. This is the beginning of civil disobedience, all very peaceful but full of force. The women who are in Tahrir are in the hundreds, all women whose sons or husbands have disappeared in the secret prisons of Maliki and the Occupation. But Iraqis have broken the chains. The world should watch this. But the world is silent and apparently deaf and blind. Where is the free western press? Reading the New York Times one would believe that their correspondents are living on another planet. All the mainstream press is silent, in fact.

Today, there were also large demonstrations in Basra, all over Anbar province and in Babil as well. In Diwaniya they were threatened by the security forces that they would all be detained. Of course, in Sulaymaniya the crowds are in the tens of thousands on Azadi Square. The scene is developing and the protest is building up. Then there is Mosul, where for the past 6 days a huge demonstration and gathering has been gradually grown in numbers and today there are 5,000 people in The Square of the Free, the old prison square. All the tribal sheikhs who had not sold themselves to the occupation came from the very south of Iraq, from Nassiriya and Basra. There were tribal sheikhs and leaders from Kut, Diyala, a contingent of Kurdish demonstrators from Sulaymaniya. They came from Haweeja and Tikrit. The Christians in the north as well as tribal leaders from Anbar, Kubaissa and Fallujah. We have come together again, this time publicly, for all the world to see.

But what is most amusing is that today the American Occupation’s helicopters made a great entrance on the stage demonstrating that the American Administration really does believe the democracy it alleges it brought to Iraq is in fact equal to garbage… literally! It was funny and it is all on film: daily, since the vigil and demonstration started in Mosul, American helicopters buzzed the demonstrators and the demonstrators answered back by throwing their shoes at them in disdain! Today, the helicopters performed what they considered their coup de grace, by flying very low over their heads and throwing down bags of garbage. When the people were asked for comments they answered that the Americans throw garbage every day since the occupation: all the depleted uranium, all the white phosphorous, all the drugs, all the disease, tyranny, oppression, plunder, theft, lies and illiteracy they brought with them. So we, Iraqis, know everything and we will have justice at the end of the day, when a new dawn comes. The feeling is that it is going to be quite soon.

Lieven De Cauter is a philosopher, writer and activist. He teaches philosophy of culture (in Leuven, Brussels and Rotterdam). 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.

Nuclear Disarmament Can Be a Very Disarming Experience

“Is Zero realistic, possible?” asks Ron Rosenbaum in his provocative new book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III (Simon & Schuster). After listing reasons why it may not be, he writes:

But the Zero advocates have answers. They concede that the moment of Zero won’t arrive instantaneously tomorrow. . . . But the most persuasive argument they make is a cultural one: that as the world moves toward Zero by means of sharper and sharper reductions, and works together each step of the way toward solving the problems of inspection and verification procedures, presumably including the development of advanced detection technology, this diminution of the role of nukes and concomitant cooperation will draw the world into a different mind-set.

As often happens, when gazing at a distant goal, not only those critical of it but those drawn to it find that the obstacles loom larger than interludes of smooth sailing. Few foresee that, in and of itself, facing hardship together might have a transformative effect on all concerned that facilitates the success of the enterprise.

Rosenbaum writes that former Cold warrior Richard Burt turned Zero advocate

. . . admits the final stage will be the hardest to conceive much less execute, but he argues that the cumulative trust-building effect of the arms reduction to near-Zero will encourage confidence in the final step across the final line.

Skeptical realists might be better off kept in the dark about the transformative powers of the collaborative process, at least in this case. Should they be privy to advance knowledge that they might wind up meeting disarmament advocates halfway, or further — as with Burt, their resistance fallen way like a molting carapace — they may not embark on the journey. After all, disarmament can be a very disarming experience.

Want to Die in a Fire? No? Then You’re Opposed to Nuclear Weapons

What’s the worst way to die? Most will agree that perishing in a fire is at or close to the top of their list.

A number of factors inform those members of the America public who are in favor of the United States maintaining nuclear weapons to deter other nations. On one level, they fear the loss of liberty, which, during the Cold War, translated into life under communism should the Soviet Union defeat us. (Of course, the fall of communism begs the question: to which form of government do we fear being subjected should Russia defeat us today? A nominally more flagrant plutocracy than currently rules in the United States?)

Meanwhile, those subject to fear of a nuclear-terrorism attack by Islamist extremists tend to operate under the assumption that only death awaits us. Faced by an equally plausible scenario in which we’re held hostage to their demands, we’d instead fear shariah law. (Just a cut below Stalinism, according to the hard right.)

Much of the public believes that even if nuclear weapons fail to prevent an attack by another nuclear-weapon state, at least we’ll be able to use them to retaliate and ensure the survival of the United States. Of course, this reflects an ignorance of just how damaged the United States would be after a first strike by another country, as well as a disturbing acceptance of mass death in warfare to the nth agree (a topic for another day).

To reiterate, at the most primal level, we fear fire. But, the implications of it are too dreadful for most of us to contemplate. Instead we erect a firewall, if you will, in our psyche that insulates us from the knowledge that nuclear war likely means death by fire.

Nor does our lack of knowledge of history help. Hiroshima aside, how many have learned or recall learning of the firestorms created by the bombing of Hamburg and Dresden in World War II? If war is a nightmare, firestorms are the stuff of horror films.

Fire has a way of reducing matters to the essentials. In other words, if being consumed by flames ranks as the most frightening form of death, ergo, avoiding death by fire outranks avoiding life under communism or under shariah law. But there also exists among the American public those who seek not to escape death by fire, but actually embrace the prospect of an apocalyptic conflagration. This theatrical means of escorting them to the afterlife will also, they believe, purge the planet of its wickedness.

The difficulty that nuclear disarmament advocates face is opening up Americans (those who don’t embrace the end times, anyway) to the fear of fire that nuclear war represents. Unfortunately, Americans seem only to respond to scare tactics from the right.

Tunisian Jews Resist Pressure From Israel to Emigrate

Tunisian fathers of independence(Pictured: Fathers of Tunisian independence Mohammed Masmoudi, Mongi Slim, and Albert Bessis.)

Writing in his journal on June 7, 1967, in the aftermath of anti-Jewish vandalism in Tunis following the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli Middle East War, Albert Bessis, a Jewish community leader and collaborator with Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia’s anti-colonial pro-independence movement, wondered, “What is the future of Tunisia’s Jewish Community? The old ones are dying off, our youth is leaving.”1, 2

When Bessis was writing in his diary, the Jewish population of Tunisia had already plummeted from perhaps 120,000 on the eve of independence in 1956 to a modest 5,000.3 Today it has shrunk to 1,500, among an overall population of 10.5 million. Despite the drop in Jewish numbers, the historically relaxed nature of Jewish-Muslim- relations that has characterized Tunisian society before the outbreak of the 1967 war comes through vividly in Ferid Boughedir’s film A Summer In La Goulette.

That spirit of tolerance, of a Jewish place in Tunisia’s past and present, never died. It remains alive and well in the post Ben Ali era that has just begun to unfold. The youth-led revolution that is sweeping through the Arab world is not driven by Islamic fundamentalist themes. Its referred to by some as ‘the third wave’ (the first the anti-colonial movement; the second the Islamic wave beginning in the 1980s).

Although not anti-religious, this revolution rejects the ideological approaches of the first wave and the narrow religious fundamentalism of the second. The movement instead is profoundly democratic, recognizing the legitimate place of the country’s minorities which make up a small percentage of the overall population.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that manifestations of anti-Jewish prejudice are not taken lightly. This past February 11, two months ago, 40 demonstrators, posing as Islamic fundamentalists, chanted anti-Jewish slogans in front of the main synagogue in Tunis. They were immediately condemned by the Tunisian government transition Interior Ministry as extremists inciting racial violence. In the United States, Los Angeles based ‘Free Tunisia‘ joined in the criticism:

What occurred outside the Jewish synagogue in central Tunis last Friday should never happen again. The Quran defends the right of religious expressions and defends religious institutions.(Quran, 5, 69) There should be no tolerance for hatred in the new Tunisian State. The oppression of religious minorities and the language of hatred towards the Jewish community must not be tolerated. It’s the Tunisian pride that one of the oldest Jewish Synagogues in the world is located in Tunisia.

Suspicions abounded among Tunisian social activists that this anti-Jewish outburst, so untypical of Tunisia’s uprising, was orchestrated by deposed President Ben Ali’s security apparatus to sow confusion and discredit the Tunisia revolt as Islamic-fundamentalist driven. There are indications that the crowd included members of ‘Tahrir’, a small splinter Islamic movement still banned in Tunisia that has barely a few hundred members. Tahrir’s goal is the establishment of an Islamic caliphate that unites all Moslem countries. Anti-Jewish and anti-Christian – indeed anti-everything that is not Islamic, it is also banned in most Arab countries. Movements like ‘Tahrir’ are often heavily infiltrated by security forces.

While such actions sent a temporary chill through the country’s tiny Jewish community, its message fell flat. As elsewhere throughout the Arab World, the Tunisian protests are youth, labor movement and student driven with a generally secular and democratic orientation. Islamic fundamentalists have played a limited role, if any. Established Islamic groups in Tunisia let it be known that they were not behind the synagogue protest. No public Islamic figure took part, and underneath their traditional Arab garb, protesters wore modern European garb typical of the security personnel.

It appears that through its contacts – Israelis who previously lived in Tunisia – Israel has exerted pressure on Tunisian Jews to emigrate. Given that Tunisia’s Jewish population is so small, one would think it is not worthwhile for Israel to engage in such a misguided ‘public relations’, or more precisely, ‘disinformation’ campaign.

At least one major American based Jewish organization, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, also participated in its own way, embellishing the situation all out of proportion, suggesting Tunisia’s Jewish Community is in danger. Without the myth of radical Islamic threat to guide them, the Center seems at sea. Ideological blinders prevent them from appreciating the obvious: that there is very little – no – there is no place in Tunisia’s great democratic upsurge for the kind of anti-semitism that the Center argues is lurking in every Tunisian olive grove.

In Tunisia itself, it turns out, the situation is viewed quite differently. One month into the revolutionary upsurge in Tunisia, one of the country’s Jewish leaders, Roger Bismuth, a prosperous developer, was interviewed by JTA (the Jewish Telegraphic Agency is an influential U.S. Jewish source of news and opinion) about the situation. Although a long time advisor to deposed President Zine Ben Ali, Bismuth’s comments were not what the Israelis wanted to hear:

“The community is fine,” Bismuth told JTA by phone from Tunis. “Up until now we’ve had no problems. This is not really a matter of religion; it’s a popular revolution. The Jewish community is very well taken care of.” “He was behaving like a crook,” Bismuth commented about his former boss. He went on to reinforce what is now common knowledge. “He (Ben Ali) and his family stole property from people and the state, and they destroyed everything they could put their hands on.”

Tunisian Jewish sources in contact with the author take Bismuth’s comments further. They note that to date, Tunisian rabbis have resisted the pressure to discredit the changes unfolding by crying wolf about anti-semitism and setting the stage for a Jewish stampede to Tel Aviv. Precious few have responded to Tel Aviv’s siren call. According to press reports only 10 Tunisian Jews – one family – have moved to Israel since the protest movement started on December 17, 2010 when Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in Sidi Bou Zid. Reports of vandalism against Jewish property (beyond the Tunis synagogue demonstration cited above) have proven either exaggerated or fabricated. For example:

  • There was a report that circulated widely in the Israeli press that a synagogue in the southern Tunisian city of Gabes was burnt down. Not mentioned is that Gabes’ small Jewish Community had sold the synagogue to a private party more than 25 years ago.
  • Another rumor which proved less than accurate concerned an alleged burning of a Torah in a synagogue in El Hamma, a conservative Muslim community further south of Gabes. Minor detail: El Hamma hasn’t had a synagogue for nine centuries. El Hamma does have a ‘Jewish cemetery’ consisting of a one room mausoleum which was not vandalized and in any case did not contain a Torah.

It was with surprise and some anger that Tunisians learned that Israel is urging Tunisian Jews to emigrate. Recently the Israeli government approved a funding package to help Tunisian Jews move to Israel citing ‘the worsening of the Tunisian authorities’ and society’s attitude toward the Jewish community; it its offer, Israel also noted the difficult situation that has been created in the country since the revolution. Despite an absence of proof, the Israelis are suspicious that Islamists are somehow driving the Tunisian revolution.

The Tunisian government did not take Israel’s call to gather Tunisian Jews lightly.

Tunisia’s post Ben Ali foreign ministry condemned Israel’s interference in the country’s internal affairs by offering Jews financial incentives to emigrate. The ministry “expressed great regret”, labeling the Israeli offer “a malicious call to Tunisian citizens to immigrate to Israel in an attempt to damage the image of Tunisia after the revolution and to create suspicion about its security, its economy and its stability.” In unusually strong language it continued:

Tunisia is outraged by the statements…(from) a country which still denies the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland, shamefully defying international law.

Interestingly enough, spokespeople for Tunisia’s Jewish Community have publicly rejected Israel’s offer, suggesting that as a community, they too are upset with this pressure. A spokesperson for the Jews of Djerba (where half of Tunisia’s Jewish population resides) echoed the foreign ministry’s comments:

We are Tunisians above all, and we do not have any problems. We live like everyone else and no Jew is going to leave the country.

Do Tunisian Jews face problems? Of course, the short-term economic woes that Tunisia is unlikely to avoid will impact Tunisia’s Jews as well as the rest of the country, especially on Djerba where tourism to the oldest synagogue in North Africa has been an important source of income. Tunisia’s Jews, like the rest of its citizens, are likely in for economic hard times. But it appears those remaining will stick it out – as they have for 2000 years – with their Muslim brothers and sisters.


1. Juliette Bessis. Magreb: La Traversée du Siècle. Harmattan:Paris: 1997. p 361

2. A Peace Corps volunteer in Tunis at the time, I witnessed this disturbing spectacle. Several days prior, the Jewish Community was warned by the Bourguiba government itself to stay away from the synagogue and Jewish owned businesses. The vandalism was well organized. A man with a list was directing his rag-tag mob. I still remember his voice: ‘not, that shop, no! no!, the next one .’ Juliette Bessis suggests that the vandalism was organized from the Algerian and Iraq embassies at the time. I thought differently, concluding that the Tunisian government itself had orchestrated the disruption as a diversion, to take the attention off of the mounting criticisms of the Bourguiba presidency itself. The vandals themselves were mostly lumpen elements, poor, many homeless, recruited by Tunisia’s security forces, trucked to the town’s center, paid a few dinars and directed to do property damage. Later some were arrested, tried and given prison sentences. The government reimbursed the damaged shop owners and the synagogue. But a psychological barrier had been breached and a sense of malaise, already present among Tunisia’s Jews, grew deeper.

3. Bessis, p. 283

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

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