Focal Points Blog

Did U.S. Support for Brutal Honduran Coup Encourage Ecuador Coup?

Correa EcuadorA police riot over an austerity bill, or a failed attempt to oust leftist Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa from office? In the aftermath of the Sept. 30 attack on Correa by police in Quito, it is looking more and more like this was an orchestrated coup. And while there is no evidence that the U.S. was directly involved, the Obama administration’s strong support for the current Honduran government may well have encouraged the plotters to expect similar treatment by Washington.

The police attack on Correa was co-coordinated with similar takeovers in several other cities, the seizure of Ecuador’s two largest airports by army troops, and the occupation of the National Assembly. In the end the Ecuadorian Army supported the President, freed him from the police hospital where he was being held, and whisked him to safety, but only after a firefight killed one soldier and a student who had turned out to support Correa. The President’s car was struck by five bullets. According to the Latin American Herald Tribune, eight people died and 274 were wounded in incidents nationwide.

Suspicion has fallen on former president and army colonel Lucio Gutierrez, who led a 2000 coup and has called for Correa’s ouster. Gutierrez currently lives in Brazil and denies any link to the attempted coup. Correa also charges that Gutierrez’s brother Gilmar, a member of the National Assembly, supported the coup.

Last year’s coup in Honduras that ousted Manuel Zelaya has cast a shadow across the region, raising up the ghosts of a previous era when military takeovers routinely toppled governments in Latin America, including those in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador. According to The Guardian, Correa said in the aftermath of the Honduran coup, “We have intelligence reports that say after Zelaya, I’m next.”

After Zelaya was ousted, the coup-led government of Roberto Micheletti organized elections—boycotted by most the population—and put Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo into power. Most countries in the region refuse to recognize the Lobo government, including the region’s major players, Brazil and Argentina.

In spite of the fact that the Lobo government has overseen a wave of terror directed at journalists, trade unionists, gays and lesbians, and opposition activists, Washington is pushing hard for countries to end Honduras’s regional isolation and its suspension from the Organization of American States (OAS).

“Now is the time for the hemisphere as a whole to move forward and welcome Honduras back into the inter-American community,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the OAS.

But most countries are wary of anything that might give the appearance of endorsing a government brought in via a coup. There is also concern about the ongoing human rights crisis in Honduras. Reporters Without Borders has labeled Honduras the most dangerous country in the world for journalists—eight have been murdered in the past year—and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have all condemned the ongoing reign of terror directed at members of the Honduran opposition, the National Front of Popular Resistance.

While most nations in the region are reluctant to bed down with the Honduran government, the U.S. has opened the military aid spigot, donating $812,000 worth of heavy trucks to the Honduran Army. In the meantime, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is handing out $75 million for development projects, and $20 million for the “Merida” security program.

“Washington’s support for the coup government in Honduras over the past year has encouraged and increased the likelihood of rightwing coups against democratic left governments in the region,” writes The Guardian’s Latin American correspondent Mark Weisbrot. “This attempt in Ecuador has failed, but there will likely be more threats in the months and years ahead.”

Two obvious candidates are Bolivia and Paraguay. In the case of the former, organizations like USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)—both of which gave active support to organizations behind the Honduran coup—are active.

In Honduras, NED and USAID helped finance the Peace and Democracy Movement and the Civil Democratic Union, both dominated by the country’s tiny elite, and which strongly supported the coup. Many of the Honduran Army’s officers, including coup leaders Gen. Vasquez Velasquez and Gen. Prince Suazo, have been trained by the U.S. Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, the former “School for the Americas” that has trained coup makers and human rights violators from throughout Latin America.

According to !Presente!, a publication critical of the School for the Americas, the commander of the police barracks where Ecuadoran President Correa was attacked, Col Manuel Rivadeneira Tello, is a graduate of the school’s combat arms training course.

Bolivian President Evo Morales recently threatened to expel USAID for its role in financing opposition separatist groups based in the country’s wealthy eastern provinces. Along with the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD)—an organization long associated with the Central Intelligence Agency—USAID and NED have underwritten separatist media and organizations based in the wealthy province of Santa Cruz, where most of the country’s natural gas deposits lie.

The possibility of Eastern Bolivia declaring independence is very real and, if it happens, U.S. organizations will have played a major role in encouraging it.

In May of this year, Fernando Lugo, the progressive president of Paraguay, reported to the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) meeting in Buenos Aires that he had evidence of a coup aimed at overthrowing his government. Lugo had a closed-door meeting with the UNASUR members, following which UNASUR reaffirmed its full support for the Paraguayan government.

Paraguay is one of the poorest and most unequal countries on the continent, and it was long dominated by a military dictatorship. Lugo, who took office in August 2008 for a five-year term, put together a coalition that broke the 60-year stranglehold the conservative Colorado Party had over the country.

Lugo has weathered some personal scandals—he is a former Catholic Bishop who fathered a number of children—and is currently suffering from lymphoma. He is locked in a battle with his more conservative vice-president, Federico Franco, and at loggerheads with a fractious congress that has made getting legislation through a trial. Those are the kind of difficulties that might well encourage Paraguay’s rightwing military and the Coloradoans to consider a coup, particularly if they think that Washington will eventually take a position similar to the one it took on Honduras.

Of course not all coups are successful these days. An outpour of popular support for Hugo Chavez reversed the 2001 Venezuela coup, and Correa’s 67 percent positive rating—he has doubled healthcare spending, increased social services, and stiffed a phony $3.2 billion foreign debt—certainly played a role in spiking the Ecuador coup.

But U.S. organizations like NED and AIFLD, active throughout the hemisphere, were closely associated with the Venezuelan coup makers.

The Obama Administration promised a new deal in Latin America and a break from the policies of the Bush Administration. Instead it has beefed up its military presence in Colombia, sharpened its attacks on Venezuela, refused to back away from its blockade of Cuba, and played footsie with the Honduran government.

If countries in the region are paranoid, maybe they have reasons for it.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches from the Edge.

It’s Not Nuclear Weapons That Need “Modernization,” But New START

I’m aware that I’m committing arms-control heresy. But the new START treaty that Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed looks like more trouble than it’s worth. To begin with, as Ivan Oelrich and Hans Kristensen reported for the Federation of American Scientists back in June . . .

. . . while the treaty reduces the legal limit for deployed strategic warheads, it doesn’t actually reduce the number of warheads. A peculiar counting rule increases the importance of bombers: each bomber counts only as one nuclear bomb although the B-52 can carry 20 nuclear-armed cruise missiles. [Also] the treaty does not require destruction of a single nuclear warhead and actually permits the United States and Russia to deploy almost the same number of strategic warheads that were permitted by the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

Worse, to secure the eight Republican votes needed for ratification by the United States Senate (and in the interest of pork husbandry in general), the Obama administration is requesting $7 billion, a 10 percent increase, in funding for nuclear weapons “modernization” (as the defense world calls it) and stewardship. Typical of Republicans seeking funds for the nuclear-weapons industry is Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Speaking of work inside Y-12, the facility in his state, as it exists now, he said, “It’s like building a Corvette in a Model-T factory.”

As if that’s not bad enough, as Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group makes clear in a press release, on September 30, “Congress completed action on a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the federal government in the new fiscal year (FY), which begins today. The President signed the bill.”

What’s a continuing resolution? Here’s what it means in this instance (apologies for lack of link; can’t recall where I found this).

Due to the failure of the Democrat [sure sign it’s from a conservative site! — RW] Congress to enact a single Appropriations bill so far this year to provide funding for Federal Government programs and agencies, a CR will be necessary to continue government operations past the end of the fiscal year, which expire[d] on September 30th. These emergency appropriations last until December 3, by which time Congress must either pass appropriations bills or another CR.

Mello again: “This CR continues funding for federal agencies at the same level as [fiscal year] 2010, with very few exceptions.” Among them were some which, even though a CR is intended as essentially a holding pattern, actually received more money. “One of those rare exceptions was an emergency increase in nuclear weapons spending in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).” He continues (emphasis added):

According to historical data in [the Los Alamos] Study Group files, today’s increase [in the case of Los Alamos in New Mexico] is the largest annual increase, in both absolute and percentage terms, since the Manhattan Project. Annual nuclear weapons appropriations in New Mexico [just] increased by about $527 million . . . 84% of the $625 million net overall increase at all the [NNSA] sites.

But an emergency? Again, it’s to secure Republican vote for ratification by the Senate which, Mello explains, “the Administration hopes to accomplish prior to seating a new Congress, widely expected to contain fewer members of the President’s party.” But . . .

To pick this particular emergency priority over nearly all other objectives of government at this time speaks volumes about the priorities of Congress and this Administration. These are not the priorities that would put people to work, provide health care or education, protect the environment, or halt what most ordinary people understand to be a continuing economic decline, with no end in sight.

This is cynicism to the third power: First, calling it an emergency. Second, trading funding to the nuclear-weapons industry for START votes. Third and even worse, turning START into a front — or more to the point, an engine — for securing said funding.

The Limits of Internet Organizing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nigeria @ 50

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

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

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

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

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

Middle-East Peace Talks: Thin Pickings for Abbas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for the Palestinians?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Chavez Following Iran Down the Radioactive Brick Road?

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

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

Indeed, the evidence is alarming.

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

Noriega concludes:

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

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

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

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

The New York Times reports today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is exactly what the Nation fears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flat-lined Iraqi Politics Shocked Back to Life

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

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

This is good news, of a sort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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