Focal Points Blog

Senate Again Undermines Obama’s Middle-East Peace Efforts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for Israel joining the NPT . . .

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

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

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

Nick Kristof’s Calls for Force No Antidote to Genocide in Sudan

The New York Times’ man-about-the-global-village returned to his op-ed spot yesterday with a grisly timeline of how genocide might play out in Sudan over the coming months. Kristof sets the scene:

The place is southern Sudan, and the timetable is the next few months. The South, which holds more than 75 percent of Sudan’s oil, is scheduled to hold a referendum on Jan. 9 on seceding from the rest of Sudan. Here’s how one more [it] might unfold.

You can imagine what follows—it begins as “word trickles out of massacres and widespread rapes by tribal militias from the North in the boiling borderlands between North and South,” picks up steam when “the South issues a unilateral declaration of independence,” and really gets going as “tribal militias from the North,” respond by “sweep[ing] through South Sudan villages, killing and raping inhabitants and driving them south.” Kristof’s ghastly fantasy reaches a cinematic climax as Sudanese president Omar Bashir, seeing the raw chaos spreading throughout the south, wonders aloud “How can those people think that they can run a country?” Soon, “he calls for ‘peaceful negotiation with our brothers to resolve these problems and restore unity,’” but not before “warfare ripples through the Nuba Mountains and then Darfur as well,” leaving the world, and specifically Barack Obama, with a world-class mess to clean up.

Despite Kristof’s disclaimer that his only confident prediction is that events won’t unfold exactly as he describes, something similar may very well be in the cards for the Sudanese in coming months. Then again, it may not. But Kristof isn’t concerned with weighing alternatives, and where he goes next is more disturbing still. Kristof points out that while Obama’s recent focus on Sudan is to be applauded (“That’s terrific”!), “there’s a fatal flaw” in his approach: “The carrots being offered to Khartoum by Mr. Obama are juicy and smart,” but “I see no evidence of serious sticks.”

Fair enough, but what makes for a compelling model of tough-minded seriousness? Apparently, George W. Bush:

The Bush administration mapped out exactly what would happen to Sudan if it did not share intelligence on Osama bin Laden. C.I.A. officers met in a London hotel with two top Sudanese leaders. An excellent new book from Yale University Press, “Sudan,” reports that the C.I.A. officers explained that America would use bombers or cruise missiles to destroy the oil refinery at Port Sudan, the port itself and the pipeline carrying oil to the port Sudan decided to cooperate…Why shouldn’t we privately make it clear to Mr. Bashir that if he initiates genocide, his oil pipeline will be destroyed and he will not be exporting any oil?

Sorry, what?

There are plenty of reasons, moral and pragmatic, that the prospect of military strikes against Sudan is too stupid a notion to contemplate. Here are just a few.

In the first place, the idea that macho chest-thumping and threats of military violence should be central to Obama’s foreign policy constitutes either distressing naiveté or willful cynicism. We saw this movie on constant re-run over the last decade or so in the United States, and the ending was rarely positive. What good comes of American bellicosity in a situation that demands peaceful resolve above all else? Nothing as far as I can see, and yet it’s curious to note that Kristof is silent on what might be done before any genocidal violence breaks out other than threaten to contribute further to what would be an after-the-fact bloodbath.

But even if you believed that military intervention was the way to go…bombing pipelines? My unfailingly perceptive friend Nomvuyo Nolutshungu points out that depriving Bashir of oil revenue would hardly bring the violence to an end, and certainly not in the short term. If anything, we would likely see an uptick in fighting.

American intervention solely from the skies might just lead Bashir to ratchet up state aggression, not scale it back. Bashir demonstrates considerable cunning at testing other countries’ stomachs for confrontation. Igniting greater levels of violence would force the White House to decide just how far it’s willing to go prevent genocide from taking place on its watch. Needless to say, boots on the ground is all but out of the question, especially in the midst of withdrawal from two deeply unpopular wars and an economic depression at home.

At the same time, as Oscar Blayton argues in his smart analysis on the Social Science Research Council’s Sudan blog, American military intervention, in threat or deed, could very easily encourage the Southern Sudanese to engage the north in violent conflict with the understanding that the United States had its back. Neither of these scenarios auger well for peace. And we haven’t even discussed the effects that disrupting Sudan’s oil production might have on international oil markets, nor the US relationship with China.

Of all these things, I suspect Kristof is fully aware. Why, then, the repackaging of arguments for Iraq for sale in North Africa?

Again, Blayton: “These drumbeats of doom seem to be coming from those most interested in regime change in Sudan. Like snipers in the bush, many Westerners…are taking a page out of the playbook for the Iraq invasion, with the hopes that history will repeat itself.” Blayton pins the majority of blame on those “with an interest in a divided and weakened Sudan.” It’s not clear that Kristof should be pegged with membership in that category: his arguments derive instead from a misplaced, arrogant, and unexamined morality. Yet good intentions are hardly permission for the Times to allow their op-ed pages to become a launching pad for arguments justifying unprovoked American military aggression abroad…again.

Kristof seems to recognize this himself, but appears too intellectually exhausted to think through the issue any further. “Yes, [this] would be a dangerous and uncertain game. But the present strategy appears to be failing, and the result may be yet another preventable genocide that we did not prevent.” Hardly the clinching conclusion to a defense of the use of force.

If Kristof is taxed out from meditating on Sudan, perhaps he should silence his pen. Perhaps he should relinquish the bully pulpit of the Times’ editorial spread and make room for other writers on the subject: writers who refuse to shrink in the face of complexity, writers who reject abdicating their commitment to values and peace in a world that privileges violence.

Is Mumbai-Style Attack Scuttlebut Just Cover for Increased Drone Strikes?

CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips writes: “According to reports . . . al Qaeda affiliated groups have been planning Mumbai-style commando attacks in western Europe — and only [increased] strikes using unmanned U.S. drones in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan have derailed those attacks by targeting the terror cells which have been planning them.” He continues.

But others in the security establishment are wondering . . . whether [instead] the new alleged threat is being used as a cover for a drone offensive in Pakistan. [After all] Germany’s interior minister said Wednesday that there are “no concrete pointers to imminent attacks in Germany. . . . Meanwhile, a well-informed British source went so far as to [told] CBS News he’s been told by law enforcement officials that the reports of a foiled plot are, “a load of old rubbish which have been planted to justify the increased drone attacks taking place in the tribal areas” of Pakistan.

Do such tactics strike Focal Pointers as something the Obama administration was reject as too Bush-like? Or is it still operating from the old playbook that Bush & Co. left lying around the Oval Office?

Jon Stewart’s False “Moderation”

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

Back in December 2007, I was visiting my home state of Iowa. The presidential primary season was in full flower. It seemed like you couldn’t make a run to the supermarket without bumping into Hillary. My brothers and I joked with a neighbor (perhaps the strongest Biden supporter in the precinct) that the future vice president had been so ingratiating that we expected to see him come over soon to personally shovel the snow off her sidewalk.

That month, I went out to see both John Edwards and Barack Obama stump. Obama gave a solid speech, but he was far less specific and unrelenting in taking on corporate power than Edwards. Instead, Obama stuffed his speech with a lot of filler. He savored lines such as, “I don’t want to be president of Red State America or Blue State America. I want to be president of the United States of America.”

OK, I get it. The line got a lot of applause. But I had a hard time taking that stuff seriously. After all, what politician doesn’t claim to want to transcend the fray, work as a diligent bipartisan, and be a “uniter, not a divider”? Far from shaking up the political status quo in Washington, such appeals to high-minded moderation are an ingrained part of business as usual. I guess some people view these pledges as refreshing; I think they are pretty cynical.

Obama’s line came to mind when I saw that Jon Stewart—an undeniably funny guy and often brilliant satirist—has announced a “Rally to Restore Sanity,” which is to take place in Washington the week before the midterm elections. His premise with the event (originally dubbed the “Million Moderates March”) is that politics has been taken over by the lunatic fringes on “both sides.” He believes that everyone needs to “be reasonable” and “take it down a notch.” As of this writing over 160,000 people on Facebook have vowed to attend, and the rally has garnered enthusiastic support from some political commentators as well.

I understand what Stewart is going for. Most Americans are fed up with the overheated hectoring of the political class. Glenn Beck’s posturing deserves to be challenged. And, sure, it’s possible to find examples of excess on both ends of the political spectrum. I’ve written against the “End of America” or “descent into fascism” thesis presented by folks like Naomi Wolf, and I strongly oppose 9/11 conspiracy theorists (although they are as likely to be right-leaning libertarians as leftists). Moreover, I didn’t like it when lefties carried signs comparing Dick Cheney or George W. Bush to Hitler; I think it reflected a lazy and unhelpful analysis. (On a side note, I’m currently in a debate at Dissent in which my interlocutors have invoked Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini in describing elements of the Latin American Left. I don’t think it has been particularly helpful in that instance either!)

But are the problems with American politics really a case of “both sides” equally going overboard? The Right has Fox News spouting extremist ideas about Obama on a 24/7 basis. The Left had…what? The people making equivalent claims about Bush tended to be very much on margins and got very little airplay.

My colleague Daniel Denvir, over at the Huffington Post, and Glenn Greenwald at Salon have each done a fine job of taking on what the latter author calls “the perils of false equivalencies and self-proclaimed centrism.” The two pieces are well worth a read.

Denvir writes:

As Jon Stewart has it, the problem is “loud folks” and a tone of political debate that has become untempered: too many crazies yelling and screaming, comparing people they don’t like to Hitler.

But yelling is not just a matter of loud noise expelled through the human throat. It matters what’s being yelled. When it comes to the Republican Party—and Democratic fellow travelers—they are shouting in favor of corporate exploitation and war.

The Tea Party far right leans on made-up things, also known as lies—“ground zero” Mosque, illegal immigrants purposely causing highway accidents, death panels killing grandma—to win political power. The left has a different problem. We could have used a little more hysteria in recent years, as Wall Street robbed Main Street and the most powerful military on earth invaded multiple countries. Instead, a real anti-war movement never materialized to challenge one of this nation’s most violent presidencies. The people “who have shit to do” that you cited as your fan base, Jon Stewart, should have been out in the streets protesting and putting our 1960s radical parents to shame. But we’ve got “shit to do.” On the Internet, I suppose….

Ironically, the Rally to Restore Sanity repeats the liberal establishment’s greatest error: when Republicans go on attack—either at home with lies or abroad with bombs—hunker down somewhere in the middle and plead for civility. This young century’s great problems are a government abetting ruthless misadventure at Wall Street and the Pentagon, not rudeness and rank partisanship.

Greenwald adds:

Leave aside the fact that, as Steve Benen correctly notes, Stewart’s examples of right-wing rhetorical excesses (Obama is a socialist who wasn’t born in the U.S. and hates America) are pervasive in the GOP, while his examples of left-wing excesses (Code Pink and 9/11 Truthers) have no currency (for better or worse) in the Democratic Party. The claim that Bush is “a war criminal” has ample basis, and it’s deeply irresponsible to try to declare this discussion off-limits, or lump it in with a whole slew of baseless right-wing accusatory rhetoric, in order to establish one’s centrist bona fides.

It’s admirable to want to apply the same standards to both sides, but straining to manufacture false equivalencies doesn’t accomplish that; sometimes, honestly applying the same standards to each side will result in a finding that one side, at least in that regard, is actually worse. When that’s the case, a person engaged in truly independent, non-ideological inquiry—rather than the pretense of such—will expressly acknowledge the imbalance, not concoct an equivalency where it doesn’t exist….

One other point about this fixation on the “tone” of our politics. Political debates are inherently acrimonious—much of the rhetoric during the time of the American Founding, as well as throughout the 19th Century, easily competes with, if not exceeds, what we have now in terms of noxiousness and extremity—but far more important than tone, in my view, is content. For instance, Bill Kristol, a repeated guest on The Daily Show, is invariably polite on television, yet uses his soft-spoken demeanor to propagate repellent, destructive ideas; I don’t think anyone disputes that our discourse would benefit if it were more substantive and rational, but it’s usually the ideas themselves—not the tone used to express them—that are the culprits.

I’m not as hung up as Greenwald on defending the “Bush as war criminal” point. (I always thought that was a losing cause for the Left.) But I think Denvir’s argument about the Democrats’ tendency to run for the middle at the first sign of trouble is very important, as is Greenwald’s observation about the problems of fixating only on tone.

It was for this same reason that I was never particularly impressed by Jon Stewart’s famous takedown of Tucker Carlson on Crossfire.

Stewart argues that tone of the show was “hurting America” and that we need more “civilized discourse.” I’ll admit that it’s sort of satisfying to see him accuse Crossfire of “partisan hackery,” and that his refusal to play along with the hosts creates some rare and unsettling television. Then again, I’m not convinced his critique of the program is all too deep. Stewart says he wants less political “theater” and more “real debate.” But in my view he never gets beyond platitudes.

A lot of people loved the appearance, so I’m sure plenty of folks will disagree with me. Therefore, I’ll end with something around which we can all come together: in response to Stewart’s rally, fellow comedian Stephen Colbert announced that he would hold a counter-demonstration of his own. It’s called the “March to Keep Fear Alive.” Now that one is simply brilliant.

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

Never Mind the Black Helicopters, Coming Soon to an Airspace Near You: Drones

Reaper droneI’m not sure how others feel, but when I hear a helicopter overhead I feel uneasy. My initial exposure was to the innocuous weather whirlybirds, but I suspect that Apocalypse Now ruined helicopters for many of us. With their use in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we view them as bringers of death.

Then there are those who fear “black helicopters.” I was first exposed to that concept in books about UFO — they’re alleged to appear when aliens are attempting to intermingle with humans. More commonly, U.S. militia types, perhaps because Customs and U.S. marshalls have used black-painted helicopters, associate them with a military takeover of the nation. Never mind, though — here to realize even more deeply seated fears and represent a projection of your unconscious is our new old friend, the drone.

At the British site Open Democracy, in an article titled From Helmand to Merseyside: Unmanned drones and the militarisation of UK policing (thanks to Focal Pointer John Goekler for drawing my attention to it), Steve Graham writes:

In February of this year, Merseyside Police became the UK first police force to routinely deploy unmanned drones for normal policing duties. . . . Whilst not equipped with weapons, civilian police drones . . . are equipped with digital closed circuit TV. . . . The drone has a built-in speaker to allow instructions to be relayed to civilians on the ground.

Yes, I know — too much like a parody of Big Brother to be real. First, though, let’s explore another element of civilian police drones that’s equally disturbing (emphasis added).

The Merseyside deployment is [part of] a much wider push by arms contractors and security and technology corporations. . . . The European Defence Agency, for example, a body funded by the UK and other European governments, is lobbying hard to support the widespread diffusion of drones within UK and EU policing and security as a means to bolster . . . European security corporations like BAE systems, EADS and Thales within booming global markets for armed and military drones. The global market for drones is by far the most dynamic sector in the global airline industry.

Their potential applications include detecting “fly-posting [advertising posters], fly-tipping [illegal dumping], abandoned vehicles [and] theft from cash machines,” not to mention “preventing theft of tractors.” Sounds small-time, but some U.K. police officials think it would “revolutionise policing.” In fact, they’re looking forward to deploying “both civilian and military (RAF) ‘Reaper’ drones to monitor the 2012 London Olympics.”

As for “broader concern about the regulation and control of drone surveillance of British civilian life,” it’s been notable by its absence, writes Graham.

And yet the widespread introduction of almost silent, pilotless drones . . . raises major new questions about . . . the UK as a ‘surveillance society’. Is the civilian deployment of such drones a justified and proportionate response to civilian policing needs or a thinly-veiled attempt by security corporations to build new and highly profitable markets?

It’s hard to deny that drones seem like the over-reaction to real or imagined threats that’s typical of domestic security forces, such as the police, carried to new heights. You almost feel embarrassed for them using drones to spot abandoned cars or ATM theft.

Near as I can tell, no U.S. police force is currently using them, but Miami and Houston have them in their sights. Once they’re deployed in the United States, maybe it’s our patriotic duty to keep police forces from looking silly for investing in them by staging some vigorous resistance and giving the drones a real show.

Cyberwarfare Works on Same Premises as Nuclear War

The computer worm Stuxnet didn’t exactly bore into the computers of workers in Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, whoever unleashed it — Israel or another state — sprayed it indiscriminately like machine gun fire. John Markoff of the New York Times reports:

The most striking aspect of the fast-spreading malicious computer program — which has turned up in industrial programs around the world and which Iran said had appeared in the computers of workers in its nuclear project — may not have been how sophisticated it was, but rather how sloppy its creators were in letting a specifically aimed attack scatter randomly around the globe.

Thus, perhaps because of a perceived time crunch on the part of the creators, it created what Markoff called “collateral damage” as if it were a military attack. Now for a riddle: name the weapon which never causes collateral damage? Nuclear weapons. Civilians, of course, form the better part of their intended targeted and are in no sense of the word collateral.

But cyberwarfare resembles nuclear weapons in other ways. Markoff also writes that cyberwarfare is . . .

. . . also raising fear of dangerous proliferation. . . . “Proliferation is a real problem, and no country is prepared to deal with it,” said Melissa Hathaway, a former United States national cybersecurity coordinator. The widespread availability of the attack techniques revealed by the software has set off alarms among industrial control specialists, she said: “All of these guys are scared to death. We have about 90 days to fix this before some hacker begins using it.”

Of course, with nuclear weapons, proliferation occurs at a glacial pace compared with malware. In other words, the dangers of proliferation, purely as a concept, are much greater with a worm. To a certain extent, the immediacy of the threat of worms and viruses makes up for the immensity of the threat from nuclear weapons.

At War in Context, Paul Woodward called Stuxnet the Trinity test of Cyberwarfare. Which brings us to the most important similarity between nuclear war and cyberwarfare: love it or leave it — deterrence. Woodward rhetorically asks what the implications of Stuxnet are.

1. Iran has been served notice that not only its nuclear facilities but its whole industrial infrastructure is vulnerable to attack. As Trevor Butterworth noted: “By demonstrating how Iran could so very easily experience a Chernobyl-like catastrophe, or the entire destruction of its conventional energy grid, the first round of the ‘war’ may have already been won.”

2. The perception that it has both developed capabilities and shown its willingness to engage in cyberwarfare, will serve Israel as a strategic asset even if it never admits to having launched Stuxnet.

That’s why Woodward compares the Stuxnet attack to Trinity, the first U.S. nuclear test. A demonstration of the weapon’s power, it was intended to act as a deterrent to keep other states, such as Iran, from . . . what exactly? It might only motivate Iran to complete the nuclear-weapon development process. After all, it wouldn’t want to be two weapon systems — nuclear and cyber — down on Israel, would it?

Is It Time to Worry About Ahmadinejad’s Apparent Fanaticism?

Ahmadinejad at UNThose who claim that the time for diplomatic engagement with Iran on the part of the United States has long passed are fond of citing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s extremism. His greatest hits include hosting a holocaust deniers’ conference, calling for the day when Israel would cease to exist as a state, and, of course, speculating before the United Nations last week that the United States was behind the 9/11 attacks.

Then there’s his apparent apocalypticism. What could be more frightening in the leader of a sizeable nation than an eagerness to see the world go up in flames? We quoted The Rise of Nuclear Iran recently. However hawkish author Dore Gold’s agenda, facts are facts.

Besides the escalation of Ahmadinejad’s anti-western incendiary rhetoric, the second feature of his presidency that has received enormous attention has been his repeated references to the imminent return of the Twelfth or Hidden Imam. In Twelver Shiite tradition, Muhammad ibn Hasan was the twelfth descendent of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. He was born in 868, but at the age of six, he vanished and was expected to reveal himself as the Mahdi (literally, the “Rightly Guided One”) at the end of days before the Day of Judgment, when a new era of divine justice will prevail, and Shiite Islam will be recognized as the true global faith. . . .

Ahmadinejad made the re-appearance of the Twelfth Imam [who] was expected to reveal himself as the Mahdi (literally, the “Rightly Guided One”) at the end of days before the Day of Judgment. . . . into a hallmark of his presidency. [For instance, he] declared in an address to the Iranian nation shortly after his 2005 election victory: “Our revolution’s main mission is to pave the way for the reappearance of the Mahdi.” . . . Ahmadinejad’s Mahdism had been advanced and supported by those who served as his religious mentors, particularly Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi [whose lectures] repeatedly stressed the theme of hastening the coming of the Mahdi.

Progressive commentators tend to think that hawks are being disingenuous in failing to acknowledge that in Iran, the executive branch’s function is managerial and its foreign policy input limited. For instance, while the president appoints the minister of defense, he doesn’t control the armed forces. In fact, Ahmadinejad answers to Supreme Leader Ayataollah Khameini, who presides over foreign policy.

But what if Ahamadinejad accumulated enough power to rival the Supreme Leader? In fact, that’s not outside the realm of possibility. One of the most incisive Iran watchers is USC professor of chemical engineering Muhammad Sahimi, the lead political columnist for PBS Frontline’s Tehran Bureau. In an article titled Ahmadinejad-Khameini Rift Deepens, he writes about changes in the Tehran landscape after the elections (emphasis added):

Ahmadinejad has recognized that the ayatollah needs him more than he needs the ayatollah. When he sided with Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader lost any residual credibility that he had with a very large segment of the population. [Presumably because of the post-election violence — RW.] . . . reliable sources in Tehran say that the ayatollah is keenly aware of the loss of his prestige and recognizes that his popular support has grown very narrow. Ahmadinejad recognizes his own lack of significant support, as well. So he has been active on two fronts: defying the ayatollah both covertly and openly, and trying to generate more support for himself. . . . The president and his right-hand man, Mashaei, clearly recognize that a large majority of the Iranian people are tired of the brand of Islam enforced by the clerics. . . .

The second development concerns Ahmadinejad’s recent attempt to take full control of Iran’s diplomatic efforts. In the meeting of his cabinet with Khamenei, the president noted that he has made 81 trips to foreign nations and 70 foreign delegations have visited Iran during his tenure. He claimed that these figures indicated his government’s activism and success in the international arena. The ayatollah responded, almost angrily, “More important than the trips is the spirit and content of the diplomacy,” an oblique reference to Ahmadinejad’s aggressive foreign policy and belligerent rhetoric. Khamenei then emphasized that diplomacy must be led by the Foreign Ministry, that “parallel diplomacy is not acceptable,” . . .

Should Ahmadinejad come out on top in this power struggle, he needs to drop the holocaust denial, death-to-Zionism talk, and Mahdism like, yesterday, or there will be legitimate cause for concern on the part of the West.

Disingenuousness Rules the Nuclear Roost

It’s bad enough that Israel, along with North Korea, Pakistan, and India, maintains an unacknowledged nuclear arsenal outside the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). But, unlike the other three, which are all too happy to trumpet their possession of nukes to their neighbors and world, Israel continues to keep up the farcical, not to mention insulting, pretense that it’s nuke-free. Worse, the United States enables it in the ultimate game of don’t ask, don’t tell.

Obviously that doesn’t sit well with Arab states, not to mention Iran. At the 2010 General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week, they once again called for Israel to join the NPT. But, on Friday, their resolution, even though it was nonbinding, was rejected by the other members states of the IAE. Reuters reported:

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

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

But as Steve Hynd at Newshoggers writes:

That Israel seems able to entirely dictate the agenda, with the US bending over to accommodate its demands that it hang onto both its nuclear arsenal and the almost non-existent veil of “ambiguity” draped over it, does not seem to me to bode well for Middle-Eastern peace or for regional disarmament.

To expand on that, Washington seems to think that helping Israel keep up non-nuclear appearances might make Israel less inclined to once again undermine the Israel-Palestine peace process. Especially since, as the World Bank pronounced last week: “If the Palestinian Authority maintains its current performance in institution-building and delivery of public services, it is well-positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future.”

To even suggest that facilitating Israel’s silence about its nuclear weapons program paves the way for both peace in the Middle East and making it a nuclear-free weapons zone is yet another slap in the face to the Arab states and Iran. The latter, especially, can scarcely be expected to to surrender to the the view that its obstructionism, however maddening, around a program that nowhere close to weaponized, is an exponentially — not to mention “existentially” — greater threat than a state that has had nukes for years and refuses to admit as much.

The other discordant nuclear note of the week arrives courtesy of Greg Mello in a Los Alamos Study Group mailing. On September 14, the 23 Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee issued a press release that stated: “Due to the failure of the Democrat [sic] Congress to enact a single Appropriations bill so far this year to provide funding for Federal Government programs and agencies, a CR [Continuing Resolution] will be necessary to continue government operations past the end of the fiscal year, which expires on September 30th.” They insist that the CR “be ‘clean’ and free of any extraneous spending or policy provisions” and focused instead on “continuing the activities of government at the absolute minimum level necessary until we finish our work on the fiscal year 2011 spending bills.”

Amazingly, the “extraneous spending” to which they seek to put a stop for now includes not only typical Democratic measures like a “$1.9 billion increase for new Race to the Top grants, $250 million increase for new and expanded programs to implement the health care bill,” but a “$624 million increase for programs related to the unratified START Treaty.”

If the Republicans are cutting off their nose to spite their face, their owed grudging credit for sticking to their big government principles. Wait: isn’t it more likely that they’re intent on hitting the Obama administration up for an even larger increase in nuclear-weapons spending next year?

Getting Into Bed With the Devil in Indonesia

Bedding down with the devil is the only way one can describe a recent decision by the Obama administration to resume contact with the Indonesian military’s (TNI) most notorious human rights abuser, the Special Forces unit, Kopassus. Following a July meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lifted the 1999 ban on any contact with the unit.

The Indonesian military has a long record of brutality toward its own people, starting with the massacre of somewhere from 500,000 to one million Communists and leftists during a 1965 military coup. That massive bloodletting was followed by a reign of terror against separatist groups in Aceh and West Papua and the invasion of East Timor. In the latter case, the UN estimated that as many as 200,000 died as a direct result of the 24-year occupation, a per capita kill rate that actually surpasses what Pol Pot managed in Cambodia.

But, even by the brutal standards of the TNI, the 5,000-man Kopassus unit has always stood out. It kidnapped and murdered students in 1997 and 1998, made up the shock troops for the Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, and ruthlessly suppressed any moves toward independence in West Papua.

West Papua is the western half of New Guinea that Indonesia invaded in 1969.

“Working with Kopassus, which remains unrepentant about its long history of terrorizing civilians, will undermine efforts to achieve justice and accountability for human rights violations in Indonesia and Timor-Leste [formally East Timor],” says John M. Miller, national coordinator of East Timor & Indonesia Action Network (ETAN).

The Obama administration’s rationale for lifting the ban is that U.S. contact with Kopassus will serve to improve the unit’s human rights record. “It is a different unit than its reputation suggests,” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morell told the New York Times. “Clearly, it had a very dark past, but they have done a lot to change that.” In any case, he said, “the percentage of suspicious bad actors in the unit is tiny…probably a dozen, or a couple of dozen people.”

The aid to Kopassus appears to violate the Leahy Law that prevents the U.S. from training military units accused of human rights violations. “Kopassus has a long history of abuse and remains unrepentant, essentially unreformed, and unaccountable,” U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told the Times.

No one in Kopassus or the TNI accused of human rights violations has ever been tried or removed from their position. “We regret this development very much,” Poengky Indarti of the Indonesian human rights group Imparsial told Reuters. “There is still impunity in the Indonesian military, especially in Kopassus.” She added, “We are confused about the position of Barak Obama. Is he pro-human rights or not?”

According to ETAN, Kopassus—sometimes called Unit 81—helped organize the murder of five Australian journalists in Balibo on the eve of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor. Kopassus is also accused of a 2002 ambush in West Papua that killed three teachers, two from the U.S. According to Australian intelligence, the ambush was an effort to discredit the Papuan liberation movement.

There is also suspicion that the attack was aimed at blackmailing mine owners into paying protection money. From 2000 to 2002, Freeport McMoRan paid the TNI $10.7 million in protection money, but the company shut down the payments shortly before the ambush.

No one in Kopassus has ever been disciplined for the unit’s role in organizing nationalist militias to terrorize the East Timorese into voting against independence. TNI-financed and -led militias’ killed some 1,500 people, displaced two-thirds of the population, and systematically destroyed 75 percent of East Timor’s infrastructure.

It was Kopassus’ involvement in forming and directing the militias that was responsible for the U.S. decision to stop military training for the unit.

And, rather than improving Kopassus’ human rights record, U.S. training appears to have had the opposite effect. The “worst abuses” by the Indonesian military, according to Ed McWilliams, a former U.S. State Department counselor in Jakarta from 1996-99, “took place when we [the U.S.] were most engaged.”

According to Karen Orenstein, former Washington coordinator of ETAN, “History demonstrates that providing training and other assistance only emboldens the Indonesian military to violate human rights and block accountability for past injustices.”

This pattern is not confined to Indonesia. A recent study by the Fellowship for Reconciliation found that Colombian army units trained by the U.S. were the troops most likely to be associated with human rights violations.

“There are alarming links between increased reports of extrajudicial executions of civilians by the Colombian army and units that receive U.S. military financing,” John Lindsay-Poland told the Inter Press Service. Lindsay-Poland is a research and advocacy director for the Fellowship and an author of the two-year study.

Called “Military Assistance and Human Rights: Colombia, U.S. Accountability, and Global Implications,” the report examined 3,000 extrajudicial executions by the Colombian military. “We found that for many military units, reports of extrajudicial executions increased during and after the highest levels of U.S. assistance,” Lindsay-Poland told IPS.

The U.S. “School for the Americas” has trained numerous Latin American leaders associated with human rights abuses and death squads.

ETAN points out that Maj. Gen. Hotma Marbun, a senior Kopassus commander, has just been appointed regional commander in West Papua. Marbun was a highly placed officer during a particularly bloody period in East Timor from 1983-86, and was also involved in military operations in West Papua in 1982 and 1994.

Human rights organizations are reporting that the INF has stepped up its counterinsurgency operations in West Papua, including numerous sweeps aimed at “separatists.” The Indonesian military tends to describe any West Papuan who objects to Indonesia’s military occupation as “separatists.”

Some 22 non-governmental organizations from Indonesia, Australia, Germany, Britain, Timor-Leste, and the Netherlands have written a letter to President Yudhoyono protesting the imprisonment of scores of Papuans arrested for peacefully demonstrating or expressing their opinions. Some of these activists have been sentenced for “rebellion” under the criminal code that goes back to the Dutch colonial period.

According to the NGOs the use of the criminal code to imprison dissenters is a violation of the Indonesian constitution that guarantees citizens the right to “freedom of association and expression of opinion,” and the right to “seek, acquire, possess keep, process and convey information by using all available channels.”

Sentences have ranged from three to 15 years, and human rights groups say that the prisoners have been mistreated.

More than 50 members of the U.S. Congress recently sent a letter to President Obama stating that the Indonesian government may have committed “genocide” against West Papuans. “Genocide is usually difficult to document since leaders are often reluctant to state their intentions to destroy another nation, race, or ethnic group,” the letter stated. “Even still, in 2007 Col Burhanuddin Siagian, who was then the local commander said, ‘If I encounter elements that use government facilities, but still are betraying the nation, I will destroy them.’”

Members of the congressional black and Hispanic caucuses are prominent in the group of 50. The Congress members urged President Obama to meet with representatives of the West Papua during his upcoming November visit to Indonesia and to make the island “one of the highest priorities of the American administration.”

West Papua groups have called for an “international dialogue” on the current situation, and Komnas Ham, the Indonesian government’s official human rights commission, recommends withdrawing military forces from the island to encourage an atmosphere for talks.

In the meantime, ETAN and the West Papua Advocacy Team (WPAC) have asked the Obama administration to reject Indonesia’s new ambassador to the U.S., Dino Djalal. The groups claim that Djalal has been a tool for the Indonesian military and that he blamed the violence in East Timor on the Timorese. ETAN and WPAC say that Djalal was “a dogged critic of international journalists and human rights organizations who sought to report these atrocities.”

Why is the U.S. bedding down with these thugs?

According to the New York Times, Indonesian “officials dropped hints that the unit [Kopassus] might explore building ties with the Chinese military if the ban [against training] remained.” With the U.S. taking a more aggressive stance Asia—the recent U.S.-South Korean war games, and the immense pressure the Obama administration put on Japan to let it build a new Marine base in Okinawa come to mind—the U.S. clearly saw a Chinese incursion into Indonesia as a threat.

Of course, there might never have been a Chinese offer. Indonesia learned long ago that all one had to do to open the U.S. aid spigot was to become chummy with Beijing.

The U.S. has a long and sordid relationship with Indonesia’s military. According to documents uncovered by George Washington University, the U.S. fingered leftists for military death squads during the 1965 coup. During the Ford administration, then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave Indonesia the green light to invade East Timor. And the Americans acquiesced with Jakarta’s torpedoing of a UN-sponsored referendum on independence following Indonesia’s 1969 invasion of West Papua.

It looks like we are about to once more bed down with some pretty awful characters.

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

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