Focal Points Blog

To Chalmers Johnson, American Militarism Was to Colonialism as Overseas Bases Are to Colonies

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

On November 20, Chalmers Johnson, scholar of East Asian development and critic of American empire, died at age seventy-nine.

While Johnson arguably finished his career as a member of what White House press secretary Robert Gibbs calls the “professional Left,” he did not begin it that way. Iwrote in a 2007 review of Johnson’s book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic:

Johnson’s writing is often described as “polemic,” but that doesn’t capture the heartfelt concern that underlies his distress about our country. Whereas many of us have grown numb to White House outrages, Johnson’s indignation at the administration—its torture memos, its contempt for the freedom of public information, its defacing of established treaties—is vivid. This might be due to his conservative background: a Navy lieutenant in the early ‘50s, a consultant for the CIA from 1967 to 1973, and a long-time defender of the Vietnam War, Johnson became horrified at American militarism and interventionism only later in life. He now writes like he is making up for lost time.

Interestingly, he retained some more conservative supporters. In an obit at the National Interest, Jacob Heilbrunn writes: “In a sense, it may be a mistake to say that Chalmers moved to the ‘left.’ He personified many of the ‘old right’ themes as well.”

Whatever the case, Johnson made some fine contributions to debates in international politics and political economy. Of his early work, Steve Clemons comments:

[Johnson] invented and was the acknowledged godfather of the conceptualization of the “developmental state”. Chalmers Johnson led the way in understanding the dynamics of how states manipulated their policy conditions and environments to speed up economic growth. In the neoliberal hive at the University of Chicago, Chalmers Johnson was an apostate and heretic in the field of political economy. Johnson challenged conventional wisdom with he and his many star students—including E.B. Keehn, David Arase, Marie Anchordoguy, Mark Tilton and others—writing the significant treatises documenting the growing prevalence of state-led industrial and trade and finance policy abroad, particularly in Asia.

Today, the notion of “State Capitalism” has become practically commonplace in discussing the newest and most significant features of the global economy. Chalmers Johnson invented this field and planted the intellectual roots of understanding that other nation states were not trying to converge with and follow the so-called American model.

I haven’t personally investigated the debate over Japan that Clemons references, but I can say that there has been discussion of “state capitalism” in the socialist tradition that long predates Johnson. Nevertheless, the idea that the “Asian Tigers” did not successfully develop their economies as a result of neoliberal adherence to IMF dictates—but rather, in many instances, by blatantly defying these dictates—is an important concept that deserves frequent reiteration.

The other two ideas of Johnson’s that stood out for me come from his later work. They are the concepts of “Blowback” and “Baseworld.”

The first notion is quite well-known at this point. “Blowback” is apparently a CIA-originated term, but Johnson popularized it with a book of that name that became a bestseller in the wake of 9/11. The term refers to unintended consequences of a country’s foreign policy—particularly its covert actions. The United States government’s arming of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Cold War, something that doesn’t look so wise in retrospect, stands as a prime example.

“Baseworld,” a less-discussed idea, is Johnson’s proposal that America’s imperial reach (and hubristic overstretch) can be measured by its far-flung web of military bases. As I wrote in 2007:

Johnson’s most distinctive contribution to the debate about U.S. empire is his documentation of America’s vast network of overseas military bases, a project he began in his 2004 book The Sorrows of Empire. “Once upon a time, you could trace the spread of imperialism by counting up colonies,” he writes in Nemesis. “America’s version of the colony is the military base.” The United States officially maintains 737 bases worldwide, worth more than $127 billion and covering at least 687,347 acres in some 130 foreign countries. For local populations exposed to the pollution, bar fights, and brothels that surround such encampments, they are wounds that fester daily. At home, Johnson argues, Americans suffer from the bloated military budgets required to maintain this “baseworld.”

At the time, I criticized Johnson for only measuring U.S. influence in terms of military assets and paying insufficient attention to soft power. I would still contend that looking at military bases only provides a partial view of the American role in the world. Yet “baseworld” is one of those ideas that, once it’s on your radar, keeps popping up again and again. In recent years, I’ve found myself frequently citing Johnson when trying to convey the extent of everyday U.S. power projection throughout the world—an aggressive posturing that consistently goes unnoticed here at home.

Likewise, I disagreed with Johnson when he used language (as he often did in the last decade of his life) suggesting that the military industrial complex and George W. Bush’s executive power grabs had fundamentally undermined our democratic republic. When he argued, “the structure of government in Washington today bears [no] resemblance to that outlined in the Constitution of 1787,” Johnson subscribed to something like Naomi Wolf’s “End of America” thesis, which I think is bunk.

Nevertheless, I agree with Johnson’s admonishment that adventurist foreign policy comes at a steep cost for our country, and not only in financial terms. Remembering the late scholar, we do well to take to heart his warning that, unless we seriously reexamine our astronomical military spending and disastrous record of military interventionism, we risk “losing our democracy for the sake of keeping our empire.”

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

Japan May Become Both More Independent and More Allied With the U.S.

There are signs of a growing debate between Japanese politicians over the future of its weapons export ban. Last month, newly appointed Foreign Minister, Seiji Maehara intimated that revisions to the export ban would be necessary in order to bolster its military in the face of a challenging security environment. Some have pointed to the economic growth such a move would engender; particularly as increasing exports is seen as fundamental to Japan’s recovery. Furthermore, engaging in joint weapons projects could allow for serious savings by reducing Japan’s reliance on imported military equipment. However, others, including Prime Minister Kan, view the ban as a core principle of Japanese pacifist defense policy and are sure to oppose revision.

The outcome of this debate will shape the future evolution of Japanese defense policy. The attempt to revise the weapons export ban is part of a dual-hedge strategy of Japan’s defense policy and its alliance with the United States. Such a strategy aims to achieve two goals.

First, Japan would grow its own indigenous capabilities, enabling it to pursue more unilateral action, less encumbered by American influence. This will allow it a modicum of independence that many Japanese see as necessary to both avoid costly entanglement within the U.S. alliance and permit Japan to exercise a foreign policy commensurate with Japan’s status as a great power.

Second, although this strategy will allow Japan the option of exercising a greater amount of independence, it will also enable Japan to tighten the alliance with the United States. This will be achieved by greater engagement in joint weapons development as well as by acquiescing to Washington’s demands that Japan take a more equal share of alliance burdens. Furthermore, revision will allow Japan another avenue to further engage other regional allies such as South Korea, Australia, and Indonesia. Japanese proponents also point to the savings joint weapons development would bring, particularly by reducing Japan’s reliance on costly arms imports.

Finally, in light of recent regional security developments, primarily China’s increasingly assertive attitude and growing concern over North Korean instability, some Japanese politicians are advocating a more muscular approach to regional diplomacy. Although Japan already maintains robust military capabilities, some fear falling behind China in the strategic balance.

The United States has recently increased its demands that Japan take on a greater share of alliance burdens to allow for a drawdown of U.S. forces in the region. This reflects a growing realization that in light of current circumstances, primarily budgetary constraints coupled with domestic Japanese hostility toward the extensive U.S. presence, that the existing posture is unsustainable.

This realization leaves Japan between a rock and a hard place. The regional environment facing Japan remains uncertain, with China flexing its muscles and North Korea a wild card. U.S. force reduction creates an operational gap, which must either be filled by the Japanese or tolerated. Given the current climate, it seems unlikely that the Japanese will allow such a gap to exist and therefore, will improve indigenous capabilities.

However, there is concern that revision of the export ban would further stoke fears in China. When Beijing surveys the map, it sees an alarming trend of militarizing neighbors, aligned with the United States, encircling China. A classic security dilemma could result in a regional arms race as China, Japan, as well as North and South Korea attempt to balance against what each perceives is a threatening regional environment.

It will be interesting to see how this debate develops. The shifting security environment as well as internal pressures may lead the Japanese government to rethink its position on the export ban and compromise by reverting back to the original 1967 structure. However, the weapons export ban has been a core element of Japanese defense policy for the past four decades, and it will be difficult, though not impossible, for revisionists to convince many of their colleagues, as well as the Japanese public, that change is warranted.

Greg Chaffin is an Intern/Research Assistant with Foreign Policy in Focus.

Insert Your Own Julian Assange Slur Here: __________

Julian Assange has been slandered and maligned more than anyone in recent years on the international scene save Iran’s President Ahamadinejad. In North America, for example, Bill O’Reilly called him a traitor and Representative Peter King (R-NY), who would seeks the designation of WikiLeaks as a foreign terrorist organization, called him a “clear and present danger.” Sarah Palin claimed he has “blood on his hands” and should be pursued “with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaida and Taliban leaders?”

But here’s my favorite, reported by Raphael Satter and Malin Rising for the AP:

“I think Assange should be assassinated, actually,” Tom Flanagan, a former adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told the CBC. “I think Obama should put out a contract or maybe use a drone or something.”

You understand what Flanagan, who later apologized, is saying here right? In effect, a Canadian is suggesting that the United States attack a man on the territory of Great Britain (where Assange has been attempting to lay low). Obviously he didn’t think it through. Not to mention the V-1/buzz bombs association that a drone over London might invoke.

Satter and Rising also report:

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. Assange is “trying to undermine the international system that enables us to cooperate and collaborate with other governments. . . . I think he’s an anarchist.”

Anarchist? Why not “anti-Christ” while you’re at it?

WikiLeaks XII: If It Had Its Druthers, Would North Korea Take the U.S. Over China?

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twelfth in the series.

A curious document dropped in the WikiLeaks dump this week casts a sliver of light on the world’s most mysterious regime. The cable, issued from the US embassy in Ulaanbaatar, discussed a meeting that took place just over a year ago between representatives of Mongolia, including the president, and North Korean vice foreign affairs minister Kim Yong II.

According to the cable, the meetings represented a surprising change of tone and tactics on the part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The North Korean delegation did not robotically read from a prepared script, did not waste time criticizing the United States, but repeatedly voiced displeasure with Russia and China.

Also noteworthy was the DPRK delegation’s insistence that they were optimistic about possibilities for rapprochement with the United States, given the changed nature of politics in the Oval Office. Discussing former president Bill Clinton’s undercover rescue mission to the northern peninsula last year, the DPRK delegation noted that

The groundwork for such a visit was already in place because of the progress the United States and the DPRK made during the Clinton presidency. Kim said forward motion stopped during the Bush Administration but was now able to proceed because of President Clinton’s recent involvement in a personal capacity, because President Obama is of the same party, and because former First Lady Clinton is now the Secretary of State. The North Koreans were expecting a dialogue with the United States to start soon as an extension of President Clinton’s visit.

But the vice foreign minister also hammered home the fact that any diplomatic advances would most certainly not take place in the now defunct six party talks.

Kim took a “very hard line” on the Six Party Talks according to xxxxx stating that the DPRK will never return to the talks, that the talks were dead, but that the door has not closed on an opportunity for negotiations. During discussion of the Six Party Talks, Kim criticized Russia and China for their support of recent UN resolutions aimed at the DPRK. Kim said Japan and the ROK were natural allies of the United States during the talks, and that Russia and China ended up supporting the other three, so that the DPRK felt it was five against one. Kim stated the real intention of the Six Party Talks was to destroy the DPRK regime, and that at present the DPRK wants to talk only to the United States.

Given recent flare-ups along the Korean peninsula, any attempts at squeezing meaning from this cable may be nothing more than academic at this point. Still, it’s hard not to feel as if important information might be gleaned, and not necessarily all of it about North Korea.

What’s most immediately striking is the picture painted by the Mongolians of a DPRK delegation that went out of its way to signal openness to a relationship with the United States. True, this portrait may have been touched up here and there through the filter of Mongolian interests (more on that in a moment). But if we reject the idea that the whole thing is nothing more than fully fabricated nonsense, then we have to assume that there is a kernel of truth in the narrative—perhaps without the warts and all. We also have to assume that the DPRK would have been fully aware that the Mongolians intended to pass along the contents of the meetings to their American allies. Can we then play with the idea that the North Koreans were testing the waters to see about possible negotiations with the United States?

Critics will surely reject this notion, arguing that the cable relates just another attempt by the wily DPRK to extract further concessions from the consistently gullible Americans with no intention whatsoever of participating in good faith negotiations to end the country’s sixty year standoff with the West. It’s a valid point.

But then why not extend the olive branch in public, yet one more time? Were elements in the isolated DPRK brain trust, perhaps sensing an imminent changing of the guard at the top of their government, feeling out possibilities for a new, more productive relationship with Washington? Perhaps too they have been sensing that China’s patience with Kim Jong Il is rapidly winding down, and that the time has come to establish relations with new partners to hedge against unpredictable future relations with Beijing.

And then there’s Mongolia. The cable clearly serves the best interests of Ulaanbaatar, which not-so-subtly positions itself as a trusted potential arbiter between Washington and Pyongyang. The cable ends with this:

xxxxx further noted that a xxxxx in Ulaanbaatar xxxxx on the way to the airport on August 11 that he had suggested to VFM Kim that it would be good to host U.S.-DPRK talks in Mongolia, but that Kim offered no reaction. xxxxx that the timing was right to establish a regional security mechanism whose organization the Mongols should spearhead.

Of course they should!

And so what? If Mongolia wants to situate itself as the hub of a regional security mechanism, whatever that means, serving the interests of peace in the area while simultaneously offering an anchor of US influence smack-dab in the middle of the Eurasian heartland, then all the more reason for Washington to endorse the move.

The only missing piece in all this is the American reaction, if any, to the news conveyed in the leaked cable. Given other cables issuing alarms about underwater nuclear reactors and Kim Jong Il’s recreational drug abuse, the State Department could very well have had its mind on other things.

WikiLeaks Cables Reveal Use of Environmentalism by US and UK as Pretext to Keep Natives From Returning to Diego Garcia

A confidential cable released by Wikileaks demonstrates that despite U.S. and U.K. claims, little has changed over the four decades since the two governments conspired to exile the people of the Chagos Archipelago and build a major U.S. military base on the people’s largest island, Diego Garcia.

The U.S. Embassy in London’s May 2009 cable summarizing Anglo-American talks reveals policymakers using a racial slur to refer to the Chagos islanders and planning to create a an allegedly environmentally-friendly “Marine Protection Area” in Chagos as a way to prevent the exiled islanders from ever returning to their homeland.

The history of the 2009 meeting dates to the 1960s when U.S. and British officials secretly orchestrated the expulsion of the people known as Chagossians to make way for a base on Diego Garcia. Following years of secret negotiations with Britain, U.S. officials secured an agreement in 1966 to make $14 million in hidden payments in exchange for the base and British action to remove the Chagossians. Between 1968 and 1973, British agents used trickery, starvation, and ultimately deportations to dump the Chagossians on the western Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles. In the process, British agents and U.S. sailors on Diego Garcia herded up the Chagossians’ pet dogs and gassed and burned them in front of their traumatized owners awaiting deportation. Upon arrival, the people received no resettlement assistance and found themselves homeless, jobless, and soon living in what the Washington Post called “abject poverty.”

During planning for the removals, as previously released documents have shown, British and U.S. officials designed a policy to “maintain the fiction” that the Chagossians were not native to the islands when in fact their African and Indian ancestors had lived there since the late 18th century. Officials agreed in secret memos to represent the Chagossians to Congress, Parliament, the United Nations, and the world, “more or less fraudulently,” as “a floating population” of “transient contract workers” with no connection to the islands. One British official reflected the racism underlying the entire history when, in one dispatch, he described the islanders as “some few Tarzans or Men Fridays.”

In recent years, British officials, in particular, have repeatedly distanced themselves from the actions of their predecessors. “We do not seek to justify those actions,” wrote former Foreign Secretary David Miliband in 2008, “and do not seek to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation.”

But now, a Wikileaks cable shows how little has changed: During 2009 discussions about a British proposal to create a Marine Protection Area (MPA) in the islands, Foreign and Commonwealth Office official Colin Roberts is quoted as saying the MPA would allow “no human footprints” or—repeating the Robinson Crusoe-derived name that has caused so much pain for Chagossians—“Man Fridays.”

Tellingly, Roberts admitted, “We do not regret the removal of the population.”

The cable provides additional revelations in showing that the MPA was explicitly designed to prevent Chagossians from returning to their islands as Chagossians have demanded since the expulsion. According to the cable, “a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) official” said the “former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.”

While Colin Roberts acknowledged “there are proposals (for a marine park) that could provide the Chagossians warden jobs,” creating an MPA with the help of “a public relations campaign” funded by the influential Pew Charitable Trust “would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents.”

U.S. officials seemed to agree immediately, commenting, “Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO’s Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling.”

Not surprisingly, U.S. officials’ main concern revolved around the MPA’s impact on military operations. In response, British officials repeatedly assured the Embassy that there would be “‘no constraints on military operations’ as a result of the establishment of a marine park.” The MPA, they said, would “not impact the base on Diego Garcia in any way.”

U.S. officials’ only other worry was the possibility that someone, some day, might find something a wee bit incongruous about having a massive military base (which has inflicted serious environmental damage on Diego Garcia in the form of jet fuel leaks, the blasting of coral reefs, and other daily harm) in the middle of a marine protection zone. “We are concerned,” the Embassy wrote, “that, long-term, both the British public and policy makers would come to see the existence of a marine reserve as inherently inconsistent with the military use of Diego Garcia.”

Given that the British Government ultimately established the MPA this year, with U.S. approval, over the protests of Chagossians and other environmentalists, the Pew-funded public relations campaign appears to have worked wonders. Gone was the racism and cynical manipulation now revealed by Wikileaks, and in its place, only “a historic victory for global ocean conservation.”

WikiLeaks XI: Release of Sri Lankan Cables Timed to Shine Light on Government and Tamil Tigers Savagery

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the eleventh in the series.

The beginning of 2009 brought an end to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelaam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. Government forces crushed the rebel movement in a final push that imperiled the lives of nearly 200,000 civilians, and ultimately left thousands dead. In January, the Sri Lankan military seized the LTTE stronghold of Killonichi, trapping untold numbers of innocent civilians between the Sri Lankan military and the rebel Tiger fighters facing their last stand. Neither side, according to humanitarian groups, exercised much regard for the safety of locals in their fighting, a situation that grew so alarming that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights accused both sides of committing war crimes. By May of that year, the Sri Lankan government had claimed victory, but at no small cost. Human rights groups and Tamil activists abroad, who had raised the alarm during the worst of the fighting, began demanding a public investigation into claims that the Sri Lankan military had committed war crimes en route to defeating the LTTE. 

And yet, nothing much happened. 

A new cable released by WikiLeaks suggests a very good reason why there’s been so little movement on the investigation. Writing in January of this year, US Ambassador Patricia Butenis writes that

There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power.

But in Sri Lanka

this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President [Mahinda] Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate General Fonseka.

Not only that, it’s not clear that surviving Tamils are eager to reopen a door to the past. In the first place, it stands to reason that they wouldn’t want to draw too much attention to the fact that the Tigers were themselves guilty of some heinous crimes against humanity in the final months of battle. But Butenis also points out some other, less obvious reasons for Tamil reticence on the matter.

While Tamils have told us they would like to see some form of accountability, they have been pragmatic in what they can expect and have focused instead on securing greater rights and freedoms, resolving the IDP question, and improving economic prospects in the war-ravaged and former LTTE-occupied areas.

In addition,

while they wanted to keep the issue alive for possible future action, Tamil leaders with whom we spoke in Colombo, Jaffna, and elsewhere said now was not time and that pushing hard on the issue would make them “vulnerable.”

The question that remains, then, is when the time will ever be ripe for investigation. On this, Butenis is clear.

Accountability is clearly an issue of importance for the ultimate political and moral health of Sri Lankan society… A few have suggested to us that while they cannot address the issue, they would like to see the international community push it. Such an approach, however, would seem to play into the super-heated campaign rhetoric of Rajapaksa and his allies that there is an international conspiracy against Sri Lanka and its “war heroes.”

This may be, but any investigation into the first months of fighting in 2009 would also shine light on American—indeed, international—inaction despite full awareness of events on the ground. It bears reminding that the United States did little more than express “disappointment†during the crisis, and only began taking more serious action when the fighting had more or less concluded. At the same time, the issue was never raised at the UN Security Council and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon shamefully never demanded that it be placed on the council’s agenda. 

As I mentioned in a previous post, the timing of this cable suggests some clever marketing strategy. The Sri Lankan president arrived in England on Monday and had been scheduled to speak at a high-profile Oxford gathering today. The appearance has been cancelled on the grounds that security concerns threaten Rajapaksa’s safety. 


WikiLeaks X: Russia — From Tyranny to Kleptocracy

Medvedev toasts PutinWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the tenth in the series.

(Pictured, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin raise a toast.)

When the late Charles Tilly suggested that “war making and state making—quintessential protection rackets with the advantage of legitimacy—represents our largest examples of organized crime,†he was understating the case. At least that’s what seems to be the case if the recent WikiLeaks documents from the US Embassy in Moscow are accurate. They paint a grim picture of the quintessential mafia state being run out of the Kremlin’s bowels and the hopeless politics it engenders. Nevertheless, they offer an insightful anatomy of how crime operates in post-Soviet Russia under the rule of Vladimir “Batman†Putin and his sidekick Dmitry “Robin†Medvedev.

Writing earlier this year, US ambassador John Beyrle had this to say about the ways in which crime had hollowed out the Russian state:

The Moscow city government’s direct links to criminality have led some to call it “dysfunctional,” and to assert that the government operates more as a kleptocracy than a government. Criminal elements enjoy a “krysha” (a term from the criminal/mafia world literally meaning “roof” or protection) that runs through the police, the Federal Security Service (FSB), Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), and the prosecutor’s office, as well as throughout the Moscow city government bureaucracy. Analysts identify a three-tiered structure in Moscow’s criminal world. [Moscow mayor Yuriy] Luzhkov is at the top. The FSB, MVD, and militia are at the second level. Finally, ordinary criminals and corrupt inspectors are at the lowest level. This is an inefficient system in which criminal groups fill a void in some areas because the city is not providing some services.

XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that Moscow’s ethnic criminal groups do business and give paybacks. It is the federal headquarters of the parties, not the criminal groups, who decide who will participate in politics. XXXXXXXXXXXX argued that the political parties are the ones with the political clout; therefore, they have some power over these criminal groups.

Crime groups work with municipal bureaucrats, but at a low level. For example, the Armenians and Georgians were formerly heavily involved in the gambling business before city officials closed the gambling facilities. These ethnic groups needed protection from law enforcement crackdowns, so they sought cooperation with the municipal bureaucrats. In such scenarios, crime groups paid the Moscow police for protection.

If all this isn’t depressing enough, it only gets worse from there:

XXXXXXXXXXXX told us everyone knows that Russia’s laws do not work. The Moscow system is based on officials making money. The government bureaucrats, FSB, MVD, police, and prosecutor’s offices all accept bribes. XXXXXXXXXXXX stated that everything depends on the Kremlin and he thought that Luzhkov, as well as many mayors and governors, pay off key insiders in the Kremlin. XXXXXXXXXXXX argued that the vertical works because people are paying bribes all the way to the top. He told us that people often witness officials going into the Kremlin with large suitcases and bodyguards, and he speculated that the suitcases are full of money. The governors collect money based on bribes, almost resembling a tax system, throughout their regions. XXXXXXXXXXXX described how there are parallel structures in the regions in which people are able to pay their leaders. For instance, the FSB, MVD, and militia all have distinct money collection systems. Further, XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that deputies generally have to buy their seats in the government. They need money to get to the top, but once they are there, their positions become quite lucrative money making opportunities. Bureaucrats in Moscow are notorious for doing all kinds of illegal business to get extra money.

According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, Luzhkov is following orders from the Kremlin to not go after Moscow’s criminal groups. For example, XXXXXXXXXXXX argued that it was only a public relations stunt from Putin to close gambling. XXXXXXXXXXXX said he did not see the sense in suitcases of money going into the Kremlin since it would be easier to open a secret account in Cyprus. He speculated that the Moscow police heads have a secret war chest of money. XXXXXXXXXXXX said that this money is likely used to solve problems that the Kremlin decides, such as rigging elections. It can be accessed as a resource for when orders come from above, for example, for bribes or to pay off people when necessary.

Interestingly, Beyrle closes his cable with the following observations:

Despite Medvedev’s stated anti-corruption campaign, the extent of corruption in Moscow remains pervasive with Mayor Luzhkov at the top of the pyramid. Luzhkov oversees a system in which it appears that almost everyone at every level is involved in some form of corruption or criminal behavior. Putin and Medvedev’s dilemma is deciding when Luzhkov becomes a bigger liability than asset… Ultimately, the tandem will put Luzhkov out to pasture, like it has done with fellow long-term regional leaders like Sverdlovsk oblast governor Edward Rossel and Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaymiyev.

Boy, was he right! Luzhkov was given his walking papers by President Robin at the end of September. Still, if the cables accurately reflect the reality of Russian politics, and the endemic corruption that defines them, then it won’t much matter if Luzhkov is mayor of Moscow, or if it’s someone else. It’s clearly not the men who run the Russian political establishment that are the heart of the problem. It’s the establishment itself.  

Even Obama Wouldn’t Trade DADT and Dream Act for New START. Would He?

The Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Global Security Newswire reports: “Key Senate leaders and the White House today appeared closer to striking a deal” to vote for New START before year’s end, “but only if Democrats are willing to drop or vote down legislation on immigration and permitting gays to serve openly in the military.”

President Obama wouldn’t agree to that, would he? Especially after he’s let the Republicans extort him to the tune of a commitment to spend $86.2 billion over the next decade on maintaining current operations of the nuclear weapons complex along with modernization of its stockpile and infrastructure. In fact, Republican may have held one gun too many to the administration’s head on New START. Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation and Arms Control Wonk told GSN: “I don’t know if the White House is willing to accept such a trade.”

Meanwhile, the New START-has-no-clothes message has finally gone mainstream. In Overwrought on START,* posted at the centrist National Interest, Benjamin Friedman and Owen Cote first point out, as many have:

Administration officials like noting that New START’s eventual limit of 1550 deployed strategic warheads is 30 percent less than what the 2002 Moscow Treaty allowed. But that is an accounting trick. Under New START’s counting rules, all warheads assigned to each bomber count as one warhead.

Beyond that, Friedman and Cote may be the only mainstream writers to have noted the true extent to which the administration has gone to win Republican votes for ratification (emphasis added):

The problem is that the price is already too high. . . . By faking a drawdown [New START] keeps Americans from noticing that deterring our enemies requires nothing like the force structure we plan to retain. . . . A submarine only force would provide all the deterrence we need at far less cost. We don’t need Russia’s permission to give taxpayers that break.

Funny how, when it comes to nuclear weapons, deficit hawks go all deficit dove.

*Thanks to Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group for brining the National Interest piece to our attention.

Opposition to New START Pits Republicans Against Traditional Allies

Jon Kyl, Republican senatorsIt’s not just the Obama administration against which Republican senators under the guidance of Jon Kyl pit themselves when they oppose New START. In fact, perhaps bewitched by Tea Party-style incoherence, they’ve also placed themselves in the unlikely position of bucking the national defense establishment, to which traditionally they’ve been joined at the hip. New START, of course, enjoys the support of Secretary of Defense Gates and the Pentagon.

There’s no love lost on New START by this author, in part because its cuts are token, but, more to the point, because it’s come at too high a cost — a commitment to spend $86.2 billion on maintaining current operations of the nuclear weapons complex along with modernization of the stockpile and infrastructure. The Republicans and the Obama administration, in fact, are making it more and more difficult to pin the label “paranoid” on left-wing disarmament advocates who suspect New START is just a smokescreen that they’re both using to ensure that the nuclear weapons industry continues in perpetuity.

But, let’s view national security through the lens of conventional thinking and see how Republican opposition to New START looks. Oddly, Republicans have been less concerned about the actual numbers of deployed warheads reduced than with counting technicalities which they feel leaves Russia at an advantage. Aside from that, at first glance, opposition to New START is consistent with Republican values because it:

  • Demonstrates continued belief in the importance of nuclear weapons to national security.
  • In an effort to keep the Cold War view of Russia-United States relations alive, it stays Washington’s hand as it edges ever closer to the Russia “reset” button.

We didn’t include “because it stands in opposition to the Democrats” since the reflexive obstructionism with which Republicans in the House and Senate respond to Democrat’s initiatives is of comparatively recent vintage, dating back to the Gingrich revolution. About Republican opposition to New START Paul Krugman wrote: “if sabotaging the president endangers the nation, so be it.” You’ve no doubt seen or heard many New START supporters make that argument. In that vein, what follows are responses to Republicans who operate under the assumption that they make up the national-security party.

If continuing without on-site inspection of Russian nuclear weapons, which expired with old START a year ago, is your idea of a sound national-security policy, then vote no on New START. Rebuffed on New START, Moscow might consider rescinding its support for the latest U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran and, as well, change its mind about that air defense system it had cancelled on behalf of U.S.-Russia relations. If that’s your idea of a sound national-security strategy, then, please, vote no. Both the Anti-Defamation League and the National Jewish Democratic Council favor ratification of New START for the same reason. If threatening Israeli national security is your idea of a sound national-security policy, then don’t hesitate to vote no.

Despite Republican objections to New START on the grounds that it impedes missile defense, the administration has not only inserted language into the treaty’s preamble to keep it from interfering with missile defense, but seeks $700 million more for missile defense in 2011. If using that as a pretext to oppose New START is your idea of a sound national-security policy, then vote no.

If a rebuffed Russia deciding to disallow U.S. and NATO from continuing to use its territory and airspace as a supply route to Afghanistan is your idea of a sound national-security policy, then vote no. If throwing away an opportunity to strengthen Russian President Medvedev’s hand at home at the expense of the more autocratic Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is your idea of a sound national-security strategy, then vote no.

Under the Nunn-Lugar Umbrella Agreement, the United States and Russia have agreed to continue the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program for decommissioning WMD from the former Soviet Union states while ratification of the New START Treaty is pursued. But Senator Lugar himself said that “it is unlikely that Moscow would sustain cooperative efforts indefinitely without the New START Treaty coming into force.” If endangering Nunn-Lugar is your idea of a sound national-security policy, then, by all means, vote no.

In the end, Republican strategy on New START may not turn out to be refusing to ratify New START, but, deficit hawks or no, extorting every last penny it can from the Obama administration for nuclear modernization before finally voting yes. We briefly interrupt this expose of the Republicans idea of a sound national-security policy to advise them that, if this is your idea of sound fiscal policy, then vote yes.

In the end, Republican balking at ratification of New START may be strictly in the service of helping to ensure a Republican victory in the next presidential election. They will then be free to engage in that other form of obstructionism so dear to them — an aversion to treaties in general. The ratification process for New START is yet more confirmation that the Republican party, as it’s currently constructed, is constitutionally incapable of conceding that the rival party has anything at all of merit to offer. Furthermore, when their actions run counter to not only the consensus view on national security, but their own, it’s apparent that what they once referred to as “creative destruction” has less to do with politics than with breaking toys. Clearly, calling in in the social sciences in an attempt to make sense of their behavior is a course of action that’s long overdue.

WikiLeaks IX: Wires Show U.S. Embassy Actually Got It Right on Honduras

Ousted Honduran President ZelayaWe’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the ninth in the series.

(Pictured: Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya)

Whoever’s behind the strategy of what WikiLeaks documents to drop, and when, has a keen sense of marketing. The information released thus far has provided nothing short of a fascinating, if sometimes downright trashy, tour through the nuts and bolts of American foreign policy practice. While very serious matters of international relations have been revealed so far, much of the dump seems designed to appeal to the Jersey Shore dimension of our imagination—which leaders have the most scandalous personal lives, which embassies generate the most consistently cutting, clever and humiliating analysis of foreign politicians, and the like.

Beyond all the sensationalist gossip that has come to dominate the headlines and is undoubtedly causing headaches within the White House, however, a number of leaked cables detail not only the professionalism and good judgment of American foreign service staff abroad, but offer real cliff-hangers that leave readers licking their chops for more.

One such document is a brilliant cable sent to Washington by the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The cable is dated July 24, 2009, right in the thick of the constitutional crisis that led to then-President Manuel Zelaya’s ouster by the Honduran military. As I argued repeatedly throughout the summer of last year, far from the leftist hero many—who had never followed Honduran politics before the coup—made him out to be, Zelaya is a despicable opportunist whose political loyalties extend only so far as himself. Still, while Zelaya undoubtedly pushed the envelope by seeking to reform the country’s constitution with no clear legal mandate, his removal by an even more contemptible cast of goons marked nothing less the lowest moment of Honduran politics in over a generation.

The embassy wire more or less confirms this analysis, acknowledging that all sides behaved badly. But what makes this a standout piece of diplomatic intelligence is its insistence on getting to the bottom of the legal dimensions of the situation—conclusions upon which to chart a responsible American foreign policy moving forward.

The cable lays out at length and with great care the various legal arguments put forth by coup supporters, including but not limited to accusations that Zelaya had failed to present the Congress with a budget, proposed illegal constitutional amendments of unreformable articles, illegally dismissed the head of the armed forces, and defied the judgment of an appeals court that demanded an end to Zelaya’s constitutional reform efforts. All of which may have been true. Only problem was, as the cable points out, “there was never any formal, public weighing of the evidence nor any semblance of due process.”

What follows is a breathlessly efficient rejection of the arguments put forward to justify Zelaya’s removal from office on the grounds that they are, well, nonsense and canards.

Article 239, which coup supporters began citing after the fact to justify Zelaya’s removal (it is nowhere mentioned in the voluminous judicial dossier against Zelaya), states that any official proposing to reform the constitutional prohibition against reelection of the president shall immediately cease to carry out their functions and be ineligible to hold public office for 10 years. Coup defenders have asserted that Zelaya therefore automatically ceased to be President when he proposed a constituent assembly to rewrite the Constitution. ..

The Article 239 argument is flawed on multiple grounds:

– Although it was widely assumed that Zelaya’s reason for seeking to convoke a constituent assembly was to amend the constitution to allow for reelection, we are not aware that he ever actually stated so publicly;

– Article 239 does not stipulate who determines whether it has been violated or how, but it is reasonable to assume that it does not abrogate other guarantees of due process and the presumption of innocence;

– Article 94 states that no penalty shall be imposed without the accused having been heard and found guilty in a competent court;

– Many other Honduran officials, including presidents, going back to the first elected government under the 1982 Constitution, have proposed allowing presidential reelection, and they were never deemed to have been automatically removed from their positions as a result.

And here’s the real kicker:

It further warrants mention that Micheletti himself should be forced to resign following the logic of the 239 argument, since as President of Congress he considered legislation to have a fourth ballot box (“cuarta urna”) at the November elections to seek voter approval for a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution. Any member of Congress who discussed the proposal should also be required to resign, and National Party presidential candidate Pepe Lobo, who endorsed the idea, should be ineligible to hold public office for 10 years.

But the cable’s obliteration of arguments in defense of the coup gets better still.

Regardless of the merits of Zelaya’s alleged constitutional violations, it is clear from even a cursory reading that his removal by military means was illegal, and even the most zealous of coup defenders have been unable to make convincing arguments to bridge the intellectual gulf between “Zelaya broke the law” to “therefore, he was packed off to Costa Rica by the military without a trial.”

– Although coup supporters allege the court issued an arrest warrant for Zelaya for disobeying its order to desist from the opinion poll, the warrant, made public days later, was for him to be arrested and brought before the competent authority, not removed from the county;

– Even if the court had ordered Zelaya to be removed from the country, that order would have been unconstitutional; Article 81 states that all Hondurans have the right to remain in the national territory, subject to certain narrow exceptions spelled out in Article 187, which may be invoked only by the President of the Republic with the agreement of the Council of Ministers; Article 102 states that no Honduran may be expatriated;

– The armed forces have no/no competency to execute judicial orders; originally, Article 272 said the armed forces had the responsibility to “maintain peace, public order and the ‘dominion’ of the constitution,” but that language was excised in 1998; under the current text, only the police are authorized to uphold the law and execute court orders (Art. 293);

– Accounts of Zelaya’s abduction by the military indicate he was never legally “served” with a warrant; the soldiers forced their way in by shooting out the locks and essentially kidnapped the President.

The Armed Forces’ ranking legal advisor, Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza, acknowledged in an interview published in the Honduran press July 5 that the Honduran Armed Forces had broken the law in removing Zelaya from the country. That same day it was reported that the Public Ministry was investigating the actions of the Armed Forces in arresting and deporting Zelaya June 28 and that the Supreme Court had asked the Armed Forces to explain the circumstances that motivated his forcible exile.

As reported reftel, the legal adviser to the Supreme Court told Poloff that at least some justices on the Court consider Zelaya’s arrest and deportation by the military to have been illegal.

In sum? Zelaya may indeed have been the dangerous, self-interested jackass many suspected him to be all along, but the coup constituted nothing less than a naked, illegal power grab by the conservative Honduran elite.

And yet despite this incisive analysis, the United States hemmed and hawed throughout the summer as the crisis intensified, innocent people were murdered, and Honduran politics seemingly returned to the bad old days of death squads and dictators.

The biggest as yet unanswered mystery in all this is why Washington retreated from its initial, admirable condemnation of the coup in its immediate aftermath, to a wish-washy acceptance by the fall of last year that the preservation of Honduran democracy necessitated toleration of its own egregious violation. It’s not as if the State Department, the White House, and the CIA—all of whom received the embassy cable—were unaware of the facts on the ground. And still, as Robert Naiman argues, even a month after this cable was sent

The State Department, in its public pronouncements, pretended that the events of June 28 –in particular, “who did what to whom” and the constitutionality of these actions—were murky and needed further study by State Department lawyers, despite the fact that the State Department’s top lawyer, Harold Koh, knew exactly “who did what to whom” and that these actions were unconstitutional at least one month earlier. The State Department, to justify its delay in carrying out US law, invented a legal distinction between a “coup” and a “military coup,” claiming that the State Department’s lawyers had to determine whether a “military coup” took place, because only that determination would meet the legal threshold for the aid cutoff.

So what happened? Was the changing face of American policy on the crisis the result of Republican congressional pressure on the Obama White House, as some claim? Or did the State Department sacrifice its commitment to democracy on the altar of larger, regional stability considerations, as some others have suggested? Let’s hope that more documents emerge that shed light on these questions, and fill in the timeline gaps of perhaps the most important event in recent US-Latin American relations.

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.

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