Focal Points Blog

Finally, a Forum for Victims of the “Wars on Drugs”

When was the last time you heard of a drug user, or a coca grower, or even a mother of a drug addict testifying at a U.S. congressional hearing on drug policy? The sad reality is that those most affected by drugs and drug policies – from urban youth in the slums of Lima to coca farmers in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley – are for the most part excluded from the drug policy debate. This is true not only in the United States, but across the globe.

Take the United Nations, for example. At the 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), a coalition of civil society organizations fought long and hard to have alternative voices heard from the official podium. In the end, a Colombian woman from a coca growing town in the Guaviare region of Colombia and a representative of U.S. drug users were given 5 minutes each. Ten years later, when a mandated review of the UNGASS took place, a similar effort failed. Such voices could be heard among the protestors outside the UN compound in Vienna, Austria, but they were not given an official platform at the meeting. Those who most needed to hear alternative points of view were deaf to the voices outside.

Yet listening to those from the communities most affected by drug use, drug related violence and corruption, and the negative impact of drug policies themselves is crucial to developing sound public policies. And without listening to their voices, the human side of the story is lost.

Perhaps one of the groups most excluded from the policy debate are low-level offenders or those who are unknowingly used as drug couriers and who end up in jail, with sentences that are usually greatly disproportionate to the crime committed. Incarceration and long-term jail sentences affect not only those incarcerated, but also their spouses, children and communities. When they are released from prison, these individuals face the same lack of socio-economic opportunities that may have led them to get involved in the drug business in the first place, compounded by the fact that they now have criminal records.

In listening to their stories, two things become clear. First, the “drug war” can be profoundly unjust, with harsh mandatory minimum and tough sentencing laws – often combined with extremely abusive prison conditions – that are in direct contradiction of established international human rights norms. And second, addressing the roots of the drug issue is not simply a matter of law enforcement, but necessitates broader public policies, including policies that focus on the lack of economic opportunity for a growing number of urban and rural poor, particularly youth.

To bring the human face of the “drug war” into the policy debate, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Transnational Institute (TNI) released two videos this week with interviews of women incarcerated on drug charges.

One is filmed in Mexico, where the Mexican government has launched an all-out war on the drug cartels, leading to unprecedented levels of violence. Nonetheless, the vast majority of those imprisoned on drug charges are low-level offenders or consumers – not those connected to the cartels that we read about every day in the press. Mexican jails are bursting at the seams with those from the most vulnerable sectors of Mexican society, while the drug trade remains alive and well.

As reported by WOLA and TNI:

In this video, Rosa Julia Leyva Martinez tells the story of how one day in 1993, she decided to travel from her home state of Guerrero to Mexico City. According to her testimony, a few people she knew from her town convinced her to travel with them, and without her knowledge, had her carry a bag with heroine inside through airport security. She says that she was tortured into signing a confession and as a result spent close to 11 years in prison. In this video Rosa Leyva comes to the following conclusion: “I think I finally accepted what that judge and that criminologist said ‘I don’t care if they tricked you, if you were a victim of a thousand and one things, what matters to me is that you were carrying it, and this is what matters for my sentence.’ And I thought to myself, what brought Rosa Julia Leyva to jail? I was brought because of ignorance, social-cultural isolation, hunger, a thousand and one reasons.”

Watch Drugs and Prison in Mexico:

The second video is filmed at the El Inca women’s prison in Quito, Ecuador. That country has one of the harshest drug laws in the hemisphere: Sentences for drug offences range from 12 to 25 years, whereas the maximum sentence for murder is 16. As a result, a non-violent drug offender can receive a higher sentence than someone who has committed murder. The Correa government is seeking to reform Ecuador’s drug law, but in the meantime, the existing law continues to be implemented.

Again, as reported by WOLA and TNI:

In this video, Analia Silva says she started dealing drugs out of poverty. She explains that she did not even know the type of drugs she was selling; that she only knew that being the sole provider of her two children, and she needed to make ends meet. She was caught in 2003 and sentenced to 8 years in jail. In the video she comes to the following conclusion: “When they sentenced me, and it’s the same for every woman they sentence, they not only sentence the person who committed the crime, they also sentence their family, they also sentence their children. […] [Authorities] don’t realize that they want to get rid of crime, but they are the ones promoting it because if they [the children] are left alone… what can they do? Go and steal… my daughter would become a prostitute, my son would become a drug addict, deal drugs, sell drugs.”

Watch Drugs and Prisons in Ecuador:

(Or go to Vimeo itself.)

While the videos were released without much fanfare, they quickly became a bit of a media sensation in Latin America – much to the surprise of those involved in their production. An EFE story with links to the video was reproduced in numerous places and mainstream media that has traditionally backed present drug policies picked up the story. The two most important newspapers in Lima, Peru (El Comercio and La Republica) gave the videos significant coverage, as did the leading daily El Universal in Mexico. In Colombia, both El Tiempo and Semana reported on the videos’ release. Semana’s front page coverage (including links to the videos) was picked up by non-other than Colombian rock superstar, Juanes – who has close to a million followers in Twitter and another million followers on Facebook – who tweeted the videos and linked to them from his website. Twenty-four hours later, more than 500 people had commented on the videos on his Facebook page.

So in the end, these two moving stories of “drug war” injustices may have had more immediate impact in raising awareness of the collateral damage of the so-called war on drugs than the detailed policy analysis that NGOs tend to churn out. And the audience reached went beyond policy wonks to Juanes fans across Latin America. Maybe hearing more stories like those of Rosa Julia and Analia is what we need to bring about much needed drug policy reform.

Israel: Warped Mirrors and White House Sofas

Israeli settlers protestIf anyone had doubts about the outcome of recent talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barak Obama, they were put to rest July 13 when Israeli authorities demolished three Palestinian houses and announced the construction of 32 new homes in East Jerusalem. According to the British Guardian, “A further 48 housing units are expected to be approved next week.”

So much for the “freeze” on evictions and settlement building; so much for the “peace process.” According to Jeff Halper of the International Committee against Home Demolitions, “The rule of thumb in this part of the world is that in the run-up to the U.S. elections Israel has a free hand. Israel is now taking advantage of that.”

The collapse of the “freeze”—which wasn’t a freeze in any case because it did not cover East Jerusalem or “existing settlements”—will spike any negotiations between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinians, and accelerate Israel’s take-over of the West Bank. According to a recent study by the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, that process is rapidly reaching the point of no return.

The B’Tselem report found that settlers now control 42 percent of the West Bank, far more than was previously thought, and much of the land seized from private Palestinian landowners. Any settlement land in the Occupied Territories is considered a violation of international law, but taking privately owned land also contravenes rulings by the Israeli Supreme Court.

“The settlement enterprise has been characterized, since its inception, by an instrumental, cynical, and even criminal approach to international law, local legislation, Israeli military orders, and Israeli law, which has enabled the continuous pilfering of land from Palestinians in the West Bank,” the report states.

Settler councils have either fenced off or designated massive tracts of land for future expansion, and they have seized 21 percent of the privately owned land on the West Bank. This drive to take over the entire West Bank has been greatly aided by Israeli government policies, including subsidized housing, tax breaks, bypass roads, and the seizure of scarce water resources.

Israeli groups that oppose the settler expansion, or are critical of government policies vis-à-vis Gaza, are finding themselves increasingly under fire. In recent months demonstrators have been arrested for peacefully assembling and picketing, and a bill that demonizes non-governmental organizations (NGO) that accused the government of war crimes during the 2008-09 “Cast Lead” operation in Gaza is working its way through the Knesset.

The bill would outlaw any NGO that provides information to foreign or international organization, like the United Nations, that results in a charge of war crimes. When the Israeli government refused to cooperate with the UN’s investigation of Cast Lead, groups like B’Tselem provided about 14 percent of the information that eventually went into the Goldstone Report. The Report found that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes.

According to the Forward, “The proposed legislation would apply to NGOs that provide information directly to accusers, or to NGOs that put information in the public domain that leads to such accusations.”

Some 17 Knesset members from the Kadima Party and other right-wing parties have signed on to the legislation. Some observers say it has little chance of passing, but that will depend on the position of the government.

“Instead of defending democracy, the sponsors of this bill prefer to reduce it to ashes,” reads a statement signed by 10 human rights NGOs.

Polls show the legislation—ram-rodded by Kadima Knesset member Ronit Tirosh—has support. A Tel Aviv University survey found that 57.6 percent thought that NGOs that exposed “immoral conduct” by Israel should not be allowed “to operate freely.”

There is a growing chasm “between the slogans like, ’Israel is a great democracy,’ and ‘the army is the most moral in the world’—and the reality,” says Professor Daniel Bar-Tal who conducted the poll. Israelis, he says, “do not look in the mirror” and do not wish to be reminded by NGOs about their image. The result, he says, is that “the foundations” of democracy in the country are under siege.

The mood to pull the wagons in a circle has helped revive a push by right-wing Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to cancel Israeli citizenship for the country’s 1.3 million Arabs, and transfer them to a “Palestinian state.” The plan—which would violate international law—was first proposed in 2003, but then shelved. In the current atmosphere, Lieberman has dusted it off and put it back on the agenda.

The Obama Administration says Netanyahu accepts a two-state solution, but the Prime Minister has filled his pledge with so many caveats that there appears little possibility that such an entity could ever appear under his government. Indeed, his national security advisor and close friend, Uzi Arad, recently attacked the “magic” of the two-state solution and told a meeting of the Jewish Agency, “The more you market Palestinian legitimacy, the more you bring about a detraction of Israel’s legitimacy.”

Israel has never been so isolated internationally. Several nations recalled their ambassadors in the aftermath of the Israeli commando raid on the Gaza flotilla, and leading politicians, including Kadima leader Tzipi Livini and Vice Prime Minister Mosche Ya’alon, have decided to curb travel to Britain because they fear an arrest warrant.

This isolation is likely to get worse with the Goldstone Report coming before the UN’s General Assembly in late July and Turkey assuming the chair of the Security Council in September.

The current Israeli leadership is a major part of the problem. “Ever since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Israel has been ruled by one of the stupidest and least responsible leaderships in the world. Their failings have been masked by propaganda and by Israel’s American insurance policy,” says the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn.

Cockburn points out that the last Israeli military victory was the 1973 war against Syria and Egypt, and that over the past 37 years Israel has lurched from one failure to another. “Israel’s only victories these days are won on the sofa of the White House.”

The reason, he argues, “is that Israelis believe their own propaganda and their supporters abroad adopt a skewed view of events as if it was an article of faith. Israelis, leaders and followers alike, acquire a wholly distorted picture of the world around them. Hubris breeds self-righteousness and arrogance robs Israel of friends and allies and repeatedly leads its leaders to underestimate their enemies.”

None of that is likely to be changed by refusing to look in the mirror or by killing the NGO messenger.

Visit Conn’s blog, Dispatches from the Edge.

U.S.-Iran: Small Voice of Optimism, Deafening Chorus of Dread

Israel Air ForceAt Arms Control Wonk, Jeffrey Lewis linked to an article that provides a glimmer of hope in U.S.-Iran relations. Stephanie Cooke is the editor of Uranium Intelligence Weekly. (Right beside Entertainment Weekly on my night table.) In a piece sporting the tantalizing tltle, US May Drop Insistence That Iranians Shut Down Natanz — Eventually, she points out: “A little-noticed modification in its [new] National Security Strategy (NSS) document allows the US more flexibility in negotiations over Iran’s enrichment activities.”

The new NSS “no longer states, as did the 2006 NSS, that a key US nonproliferation objective is ‘to keep states from acquiring the capability to produce fissile material suitable for making nuclear weapons.’ The new document . . . says only that: ‘The United States will pursue the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and work to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.’” Iran “need only meet its ‘international obligations on its nuclear program’ to enjoy ‘greater political and economic integration with the international community.’” Meanwhile, it’s already “proposing discussion questions for talks, rather than setting conditions.”

Elsewhere, though, prognostications have turned as dire as they were at the peak of the Bush administration. For example, Foreign Policy in Focus’s own Conn Hallinan writes at Focal Points (and at AlterNet):

“According to the [Jerusalem] Post, [Israeli] supplies were unloaded June 18 and 19 outside the Saudi city of Tabuk, and. … an ‘anonymous American defense official’ claimed that Mossad chief Meir Dagan was the contact man with Saudi Arabia and had briefed Netanyahu on the plans.

“The Gulf Daily News reported June 26 that Israel has moved warplanes to Georgia and Azerbaijan, which would greatly shorten the distance Israeli planes would have to fly to attack targets in northern Iran. The U.S currently has two aircraft carriers . . . plus more than a dozen support vessels in the Gulf of Hormuz. … The rhetoric is getting steamy, the weapons are moving into position, and it is beginning to feel like ‘The Guns of August’ in the Middle East.”

As usual, along with Israel, U.S. hawks are largely responsible for turning up the temperature on said rhetoric. Jim Lobe reports at Asia Times Online that “a familiar clutch of Iraq war hawks appear to be preparing the ground for a major new campaign to rally public opinion behind military action against the Islamic Republic.” If ever a bunch deserved the term “the usual suspects,” they include aging neocons like Stephen Hadley, John Bolton, and William Kristol. The hawks, Lobe writes . . .

“. . . also pounced on reported remarks made by United Arab Emirates ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba at a retreat sponsored by The Atlantic magazine in Colorado last week to nullify another obstacle to military action — the widespread belief that Washington’s Arab allies oppose a military attack on Iran by the US or Israel as too risky for their own security and regional stability. ‘We cannot live with a nuclear Iran,’ Otaiba was quoted as saying.”

Special shout-out to the Atlantic for the nobility it showed by sacrificing its good name for a cause it (apparently) believes in! Meanwhile, let’s not forget the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which, Lobe reports, declared that most Arab officials “desperately want someone, and that means the US or Israel, to stop [Iran], using force if need be.”

But how could the Israeli Air Force reach Iran without being intercepted or shot down? Also at ATimes, David Moon explains in a widely read piece.

“Overflight of Iraq on a direct bearing to Iran is out of the question. Such a path would cause friction between the US, responsible for Iraq’s aerial sovereignty, and the next Iraqi government. … The likely route to Iran . . . is to fly a great circle around Iraq. … For this route, almost every applicable IAF logistics and support asset would be utilized.

The first leg for [IAF] fighter bombers is a low-level run up the Mediterranean [when tankers would] top up the tanks of the strike group. … To skirt Turkish airspace and the ability of the Turkish military to raise an alarm [to NATO], the strike group [would be accompanied by an aircraft [that] ferrets out air defense radars. [Another] beams a data stream containing . . . a ‘worm’ into air defense radars with the capability of incapacitating an entire air defense network.”

You get the idea — the highest of high-tech.

In a third ATimes article, Victor Kotsev agrees that, “By most accounts, a cataclysm is approaching. The situation, according to analyst Tony Badran, is ‘arguably similar to the one immediately preceding the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.’” But how could an attack not end badly for the West? Kotsev explains.

“. . . the Iranian regime could be quickly humiliated and weakened, its nuclear program set back by many years, and its international isolation deepened. In this case, seething internal tensions would eventually lead to regime change in the Islamic Republic. … such a development would [give] Obama much needed leverage to push through an Arab-Israeli peace agreement [which] would make Netanyahu more prone to compromise. Hamas would be left adrift.”

From neocon wish list to wishful thinking . . . do you ever get the feeling that nations go to war just because they can’t stand the suspense of having an incipient war hanging over their heads? They just want the tension to cease and desist. What better way to remove the ongoing pressure of what also amounts to temptation than to give in to it?

Israel: World’s Most Aggressive Ebay Bidders

You may have heard of Budrus, a documentary about nonviolent resistance in the West Bank town of the same name soon to make its U.S. debut. In the course of a commentary on the film at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Hugh Gusterson writes that when it comes to dealing with Palestine, Israel is all about the bidding up.

“Israel follows an escalatory strategy of violence. … Whatever resistance the Palestinians attempt is treated as a bid that the Israelis must counter. [For example, if] the resistance is non-violent, the response is tear gas, nightsticks, and rubber bullets. … The theory seems to be that the exercise of violence is like bidding at an auction and that the Palestinians, once they see they are outbid, will, like a good rational actor, fold their hand. …

“But Palestinians . . . are not rational actors. … They are enraged and humiliated human beings who are embittered by life under collective punishment and determined not to surrender the one thing left to them: the ability to resist. Unless Israel wants an endless emergency, a permanent cycle of violence, their Palestinian strategy is failing miserably.”

To show why it’s failing, Gusterson circles back to Palestinian terrorists.

“. . . Budrus dramatizes the no-win situation within which Israel has imprisoned the Palestinians. If the Palestinians resist the occupation with violence . . . they are shot at, imprisoned, blockaded, their homes destroyed — and their land is taken away, bite by bite. If, as in Budrus, they resist with non-violence . . . they are tear-gassed, beaten, shot at with rubber bullets — and their land is taken away, bite by bite.”

A rigged auction, in other words.

Think Tanks Are Rolling Over Moderate Republicans

“[A] divide has emerged between the ‘realist’ wing of the Republican foreign policy establishment and its more radical right-wing counterpart. The debate over nuclear policy has demonstrated that the latter now essentially dominates the institutional apparatus of right-wing foreign policy thinking.”

. . . writes Robert Farley at at IPS’s own Right Web in a piece he quotes on his own Lawyers, Guns and Money (as reproduced at the Progressive Realist). He’s demonstrating how Mitt Romney‘s infamous anti-START op-ed reflects that trend. More:

Many of the moderate Republicans who favored arms control and engagement with the Soviet Union [such as] Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, and George Schultz have [failed to develop] an extensive base within the institutional right wing, the constellation of independent organizations and foundations (including the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute) that have emerged as key players in internal Republican Party debates.

In his Lawyers, Guns and Money post, Farley concludes that . . .

. . . it’s worth additional investigation to determine why [the moderates] were so helpless in the face of the dire fanatics when it came to developing an institutional [think-tank] base. I suspect that at least part of the answer is personality based; Baker and Scowcroft, for example, seem to have eschewed institution building in favor of cultivating an elite consensus. For whatever reason, [the moderates'] strategy has failed utterly to steer the last ten years of foreign policy production in the Republican Party.

I imagine hawkish Republican think tanks rumbling over the countryside flattening everything — whether former friend or foe — in their path.

Iran Sanctions a Slap in the Face to Other Countries Too

Iran Turkey Brazil nuclear fuelIn a Washington Post op-ed, former Senator Charles Robb and retired General Charles Wald — the Chuck & Chuck show — align themselves with those for whom sanctions against Iran are not enough. It’s not that they don’t welcome the sanctions that President Obama signed against companies that provide gasoline to Iran, as well as again financial institutions that handle Iran’s nuclear transactions. But without “a broader and more robust strategy. . .” they write, “sanctions alone will prove inadequate to halt Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. … Similarly, even many supporters of the new U.S. law acknowledge that without multilateral participation and enforcement, Iran will continue to evade many of these new U.S. restrictions and acquire gasoline . . . beyond the reach of U.S. law.”

First, no matter how targeted sanctions are, the ruling classes always seem to find a way to pass the hardships they cause along to the public. Besides, it’s true that sanctions are as unlikely to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons as they are Burma from improving its human rights record (or, for that matter, developing nuclear weapons as well).

As Alastair Crooke wrote at Foreign Policy: “No one really believes sanctions will force a change in Iranian policy; nor will they improve the chances of renewing real negotiations.” But the “single-minded furor to impose these sanctions. … speaks to us about something other than Iran.” In part, “the rush to sanctions [was] hurried forward to torpedo the Turkish and Brazilian” nuclear fuel swap deal those states brokered with Iran.

This “speaks to us about rising American fears . . . about the evaporation of deference toward American leadership, and the concern about the rise of ‘the new powers.’ In fact, Crooke notes, the “bringing forward of sanctions were intended to ‘stiff’ two of these new powers — Brazil and Turkey.” [Emphasis added.]

While many of us on the left agree with Chuck & Chuck that sanctions will once again prove ineffective, few of us would see eye to eye with them about a solution: “The stakes are too high to rely on sanctions and diplomacy without credibly preparing for a potential military strike as well.”

Then they add: “We cannot fall prey to the inertia of resignation.” If I were charitable, I wouldn’t have included that last line. It’s just too funny, though, how flat their attempt at a rallying cry falls. Even more humorous — in a vein as bleak as it is unwitting — they write:

“An even more likely scenario, however, is that Israel would first attack Iranian nuclear facilities, triggering retaliatory strikes by Iran and its terrorist proxies. This would put the United States in an extremely difficult position. [It] could be dragged into a major confrontation at a time not of its choosing.”

Do you catch their meaning? The United States should bomb Iran to keep Israel from bombing Iran. I think we’ve caught Chuck & Chuck in a true “Are you even listening to yourselves?” moment. All frivolity aside, it’s discouraging that in the 21st century a strategy such as bombing Iran is being discussed in U.S. policy circles. It’s just so, I don’t know, stone age.

Meanwhile consider what the New America Foundation’s Michael Lind wrote at Salon in How I learned to stop worrying and live with the bomb.

“Genuine great power status today requires massive, expensive conventional forces. Iran would be much more alarming if instead of trying to obtain nuclear weapons it were building up a first-rate navy, a long-distance air force and an enormous army capable of occupying one or more of its neighbors. The fact that it is not doing so suggests that the nuclear weapons capability it evidently seeks is for deterrence, not offense.”

I’m the last one to make excuses, as some progressives actually do, for Iran developing nuclear weapons. But if the world is doomed to grow ever more nuclear, Lind’s observation can be the source of some small measure of solace.

Middle East: What’s Hot — North, What’s Not — South

The title, no doubt chosen by the editors of the Washington Quarterly, is corny at best, stereotypical at worst. But the article itself, The Shifting Sands of State Power in the Middle East by Alastair Crooke of Conflicts Forum, couldn’t be more enlightening. Thanks to Paul Woodward at War in Context for alerting us to the piece, which we present in digest form. [All emphases added.]

Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Syria — nothing has been exactly easy for U.S. policymakers this past year. … In a sense, the president is facing the consequences of three key events that took place in the region more than 20 years ago. … the implosion of the Soviet Union, the military defeat of Iraq in 1991 [and the 1992] overthrow of the Ben-Gurion doctrine [in which Israel allied] itself with the region’s non-Arab periphery, namely Ethiopia, Iran, Lebanon, and Turkey.

[Among the consequences] is that the United States’ old allies in the ‘”southern tier” — namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia — are likely to wield less influence in the future. The “northern tier” — which includes Turkey along with Iran, Qatar, Syria, and possibly Iraq and Lebanon — represents the nascent “axis of influence.”

On Turkey . . .

[P]otentially balancing the rising power of Tehran in the future. … Turkey had been the “wing” state of NATO for 44 years — at the Soviet Union’s periphery, it was in charge of containing communism. … Ahmet Davutoglu, the architect of Turkey’s new stance and now its foreign minister, argued in his 2001 book, Strategic Depth, that Turkey no longer needed to be NATO’s wing state [and should instead] position itself at the pivotal point between Asia, Europe, and the Middle East [using] its unique geography and history to its own advantage.

On Israel-Palestine . . .

[When] U.S. policymakers indicate that it was unrealistic . . . to ever expect Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to be able to freeze settlement expansion, this is seen widely as confirmation that the settlement project has now become irreversible. In other words . . . no Israeli prime minister can aspire to reverse the settlements.

The unraveling of [the Oslo process] naturally weakens U.S. allies within the region, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia [who] have justified their alliance with the United States, and warded off internal dissent, [with] the receding prospects of the realization of a Palestinian state.

On Syria . . .

[The] ascent of Iran as well as Turkey more or less at the expense of Egypt and Saudi Arabia . . . forms the background to Syria’s re-entry into the mainstream of Arab politics as a key figure in a new regional alliance. … Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 . . .

. . . not only to consolidate its position there, but also to realize the goal of its commander, Ariel Sharon, to bring about the fall of [Hafez al-Assad] in Syria.

At this point, [Assad] made a strategic alliance: he linked with his fellow Shi’a . . . in Lebanon and with Ayatollah Sayyed Khomeini of Iran. This . . . enabled the Shi’a movements in Lebanon to successfully resist Israeli and U.S. ambitions there.

[Hafez's son] Bashar al-Assad’s own strategic contribution to Syria, however, has been to recognize Turkey’s aspiration to resume its traditional central position [and to unleash] a cascade of trade and visa alleviation agreements, Syria has opened a window for Turkey into the Sunni Arab world that had effectively been closed since Kamal Ataturk’s time.

On Islam . . .

What is more striking, however, is that much of the new thinking in Islam . . . is taking place outside of the traditional centers of Sunni Arab strength. … Should the northern tier assume some political ascendency in the region, it is not hard to see that the Shi’a orientation, together with the Turkish and other forms of Sufi Islam . . . are likely to gain influence at the expense of literal, dogmatic, and intolerant Islam.

In conclusion . . .

Behind the northern tier’s ascendancy in regional politics lies the perception that Syria and its allies have read the Middle Eastern ground better than the United States and its allies, especially since they — Iran, Syria, and Turkey — judged the Iraq war correctly from the perspective of the region. … More importantly, all three are seen to have read the prospects for a Palestinian state more accurately [and] are in a better position, especially due to their links with Hamas and other Palestinian groups, to be able to craft a comprehensive regional solution.

Ultimately, the United States, as it digests the significance of the region’s shifting strategic balance as well as the drift toward this “other” reading, may well conclude that its true interests lean more toward working with this emergent northern tier than by clinging to its hitherto exclusive reliance on the wobbling platform of U.S. traditional regional allies.

[Also] the political vision of the northern tier is rapidly acquiring a commercial dimension. One key element is the proposed Nabucco gas pipeline, bringing gas from Azerbaijan to central Europe, and probably from the giant South Pars field in Iran through Turkey to Europe. … In this new decade, it seems that the politics of supplying natural gas to the Europeans are likely to eclipse the importance of traditional oil as the touchstone to Middle East politics, which makes a shifting center of gravity toward the northern tier even more likely.

For more about Turkey ascendant, see John Feffer’s Foreign Policy in Focus piece Stealth Superpower.

Africa: No Butter, But Lots of Guns

The developed world has a message for Africa: “Sorry, but we are reneging on our aid pledges made at the G8 summit at Gleneagles, Scotland back in 2005, but we do have something for you—lots and lots of expensive things that go ‘bang’ and kill people.”

And that was indeed the message that came out of the G8-G20 meetings in Canada last month. The promise to add an extra $25 billion to a $50 billion aid package for the continent went a glimmering. Instead, the G8 will cut the $25 billion to $11 billion and the $50 billion to $38 billion. And don’t hold your breath that Africa will get even that much.

The G8 consists of Britain, the U.S., Germany, France, Italy, Japan, France, and Russia, although Moscow is not part of the aid pledge.

Canada’s Muskoka summit hailed “significant progress toward the millennium development goals”—the United Nations’ target of reducing poverty by 2015—but when it came time to ante up, everyone but the United Kingdom bailed. The Gleneagles pledge was to direct 0.51 percent of the G8’s gross national income to aid programs by 2010. The UK came up to 0.56 percent, but the U.S. is at 0.2, Italy at 0.16, Canada at 0.3, Germany at 0.35, and France at 0.47. Rumor has it that France and Italy led the charge to water down the 2005 goals.

The shortfall, says Oxfam spokesman Mark Fried, is not just a matter of “numbers.” The aid figures “represent vital medicines, kids in school, help for women living in poverty and food for the hungry.”

AIDS activists are particularly incensed. “I see no point in beating around the bush,” said AIDS-Free World spokesman Stephen Lewis at a Toronto press conference. He charged that Obama Administration’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief “is being flat-lined for at least the next two years.” Lewis said AIDS groups were treating five million patients, but that another nine million needed to be in programs. “There are AIDS projects, run by other NGOs [non-governmental organizations], where new patients cannot be enrolled unless someone dies.”

But if the poor, sick, and hungry are going begging, not so Africa’s militaries.

According to Daniel Volman, director of the African Security Research Project, the White House is following the same policies as the Bush Administration vis-à-vis Africa. “Indeed, the Obama Administration is seeking to expand U.S. military activities on the continent even further,” says Volman.

In its 2011 budget, the White House asked for over $80 million in military programs for Africa, while freezing or reducing aid packages aimed at civilians.

The major vehicle for this is the U.S.’s African Command (AFRICOM) founded in 2008. Through the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative, AFRICOM is training troops from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Chad. The supposed target of all this is the group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Meghreb (AQIM), but while AQIM is certainly troublesome—it sets off bombs and kidnaps people— it is small, scattered, and doesn’t pose a serious threat to any of the countries involved.

The worry is that the various militaries being trained by AFRICOM could end up being used against internal dissidents. Tuaregs, for instance, are engaged in a long-running, low-level insurgency against the Mali government, which is backing a French plan to mine uranium in the Sahara. Might Morocco use the training to attack the Polisario Front in the disputed Western Sahara? Mauritanians complain that the “terrorist” label has been used to jail political opponents of the government.

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said the U.S. was seeking to bolster Nigeria’s “ability to combat violent extremism within its borders.” That might put AFRICOM in the middle of a civil war between ruling elites in Lagos and their transnational oil company allies, and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Delta, which is demanding an end to massive pollution and a fair cut of oil revenues.

The National Energy Policy Development Groups estimates that by 2015 as much as 25 percent of U.S. oil imports will come from Africa.

So far, AFRICOM’s track record has been one disaster after another. It supported Ethiopia’s intervention in the Somalia civil war, and helped to overthrow the moderate Islamic Courts Union. It is now fighting a desperate rear-guard action against a far more extremist grouping, the al-Shabaab. AFRICOM also helped coordinate a Ugandan Army attack on the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—Operation Lightning Thunder— that ended up killing thousands of civilians.

The U.S. has been careful to keep a low profile in all this. “We don’t want to see our guys going in and getting whacked,” Volman quotes one U.S. AFRICOM officer. “We want Africans to go in.”

And presumably get “whacked.”

AFRICOM’s Operation Flintlock 2010, which ran from May 3-22, was based in Burkina Faso. Besides the militaries of 10 African nations, it included 600 U.S. Special Forces and elite units from France, the Netherlands, and Spain. Yes, there are other arms pushers out there, and the list reads like an economic who’s who: France, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, Sweden, and Israel. Some 70 percent of the world’s arms trade is aimed at developing countries.

So, is AFRICOM about fighting terrorism, or oil, gas and uranium? Nicole Lee, the executive director of Trans Africa, the leading African American organization focusing on Africa has no doubts: “This [AFRICOM] is nothing short of a sovereignty and resource grab.”

And who actually benefits from this militarization of the continent? As Nigerian journalist Dulue Mbachu warns, “Increased U.S. military presence in Africa may simply serve to protect unpopular regimes that are friendly to its interests, as was the case during the Cold War, while Africa slips further into poverty.”

Costa Rica’s Love-Hate Relationship With Heavy US Military Footprint

Playa Dominical, Costa RicaThe Costa Rican Congress recently voted to open its country to 46 U.S. warships (with their attendant helicopters and planes) and 7,000 U.S. Marines from July through the end of the year. The U.S. military’s stated mission is to interdict drug dealers and arm merchants, as well as expedite humanitarian missions. (Thanks to Sean Paul Kelley of the Agonist for bringing this to our attention.)

The Tico Times reports:

“What seemed like normal protocol — seeking the approval of the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly for another group of Marines, with their support ships and planes, to monitor the country’s coastline for signs of drug traffickers — erupted into protests and angry comments as some Costa Ricans complained that their country’s sovereignty was being trampled upon.”

Insidecostarica.com reports:

Costa Rica’s opposition [describes] the permission as illegal and in violation of national sovereignty. … Luis Fishman . . . presidential candidate in the past elections, said the legislative approval was like handing over a ‘blank cheque.’

The Tico Times again:

The response caught the U.S. Embassy . . . by surprise. “We are not sure why there is this uproar,” U.S. Ambassador Anne S. Andrew said, explaining that the request is the same one that has been submitted each year for the last 10 years under a bilateral agreement between the two countries.

But, according to the opposition, as reported in the Insidecostarica.com article, the agreement “allowed the entry of coast guard vessels, but not war ships.” Furthermore, it “urged consideration of the geopolitical situation [which] the US [has created] in the region . . . which includes offensive actions such as the coup d’etat in Honduras and the installation of military bases in Colombia.”

Also at Insidecosta rica.com, John Holtz writes:

Limiting the attack to our oceans makes no sense for such a large scale operation. Money is not laundered on the high seas and neither are those who direct the drug trade. … Many Costa Ricans are angry, scared and certainly confused.

On the other hand, it can’t be denied that, devoid of a standing army, they feel more vulnerable than ever. The Tico Times again:

A recently released study by polling company Unimer showed that Costa Ricans’ greatest fears involve issues relating to security and crime. And few disagree the problem has arrived mostly from the outside, much of it on the backs of drug-smuggling cartels that have found room to maneuver along Costa Rica’s lightly protected coastlines and borders. … “This (protest) seems to arise at a point where there is no question that there is a serious security challenge ahead for Costa Rica,” [Ambassador] Andrew said. “In the last 10 years, the efforts of Costa Rica and the United States under the Joint Maritime Agreement have been responsible for the interception of 115,000 kilograms of cocaine and $24 million in laundered money off the coast of Costa Rica.”

From the Tico Times report again, a member of the opposition argues that “the destructive force of the ships and manpower [and] helicopters is disproportionate to the threat caused by drug traffickers.” For one year, the figures above break down to 11,500 kg of coke and $2.4 million of laundered money. Will 7,000 marines, 46 ships, and 200 helicopters and planes substantially improve on that? Oh, sorry. The deterrence inherent in the knowledge that this massive force is patrolling Costa Rica’s shores is, uh, priceless.

Sri Lankan Minister’s Sad Parody of Satyagraha

Sri Lankan housing minister hunger strike“A Sri Lankan minister says he has begun a hunger strike outside the UN’s Colombo offices demanding that it stop its probe into alleged war crimes. Housing Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s announcement follows two days of demonstrations outside the office by protesters angry over the inquiry.”

. . . reports the BBC . . .

“The BBC’s Charles Haviland in Colombo says Mr Weerawansa is lying alone on a mattress on a bed near the main gate of the UN office. …

“Several Buddhist monks are also there and have given blessings to the demonstration.”

Maybe, but Gandhi would be rolling over in his grave to see satyagraha* used as an instrument of the state.

*Satyagraha, of course, is Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance.

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