Focal Points Blog

Forget the Final Status Issues

Kerry and Israeli Officials

Secretary of State John Kerry with Israeli officials/Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: “Final status” refers to the last step toward completing a full peace agreement between Israel and the state of Palestine.

For decades the international community — led by the United States — has been stuck on the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be resolved through a long, drawn-out negotiation process culminating in a comprehensive agreement to settle the full range of final status issues. This idea has become so ingrained in the way the conflict is discussed, that the process itself is now considered something inherently valuable and worth fighting for, rather than just a means to an end.
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Will Discovery of Torture Trove Weaken Syria’s Hand at Geneva II?

Assad, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

One shudders at the phrases “systematic” and “industrial-scale” killing used by the three lawyers who prepared a report on torture and killing of detainees by the Assad regime. (Yet another huge story broken by the Guardian.) A military policeman secretly working with a Syrian opposition group smuggled out 55,000 images of 11,000 bodies tortured and/or starved to death. It gets worse.

Many other photographers are attached to security units elsewhere in the country and are likely to have been asked to provide visual evidence of deaths.

Even just trying to imagine the suffering is unimaginable. One can only hope it will put Syria on the defensive at the upcoming Geneva II peace talks. It already bodes ill for Assad when Secretary of State John Kerry says, as he did yesterday:

“The right to lead a country does not come from torture. . . . The only thing standing in the way is the stubborn clinging to power of one man.”

Why were these pictures taken? As proof that detainees were tortured and killed. Just like the Nazis, Syria finds itself tripped up by a perceived need for recordkeeping.

Algeria’s Energy Company Sonatrach: 50 Years of Corruption

Algeria’s In Amenas natural gas facility

Algeria’s In Amenas natural gas facility

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Note: What follows is an English translation of an open letter (original in French) to the Algerian people reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the founding of Sonatrach, the Algerian energy company.
― Rob Prince

Sonatrach: Algeria’s Energy Company, 50 Years Later1 by Hocine Malti2

December 25, 2013

In a few days, Sonatrach, the Algerian energy company, will celebrate its 50th anniversary. I am not sure how to begin reflecting upon its half century of history. Should 31 December [2013] be cause for celebration? Or should it be more somberly noted that on that date, the national oil company marked its 50th year of existence. A celebration usually includes a formal ceremony that takes place in an atmosphere of joy, if not jubilation.

Does such an atmosphere exist today in Sonatrach or even in Algeria? Obviously not!
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No, Really, the Sarin Attack Wasn’t Assad’s

Chemical weapon in Syria. Image Wikipedia Commons

Chemical weapon in Syria. Image Wikipedia Commons

Benghazi has given conservatives another chance to sink their teeth into a conspiracy (and Hillary Clinton’s pant leg) and hold on for dear life. Its most recent installment is their “knee-jerk claim,” as Media Matters’ Eric Boehlert referred to it earlier this month, that David Kirkpatrick’s Times series, A Deadly Mix In Benghazi, “was really an elaborate effort to aid Hillary Clinton if she runs for president in three years.”

In the meantime, conservatives are neglecting another controversy that’s morphing into a conspiracy ― allegations that Syria’s Assad regime launched a sarin gas attack on Damascus’s Ghouta suburb. The Obama administration was prepared to use that as a pretext for military intervention (until, of course, Secretary of State Kerry said of Assad, “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week” and Russia jumped into the void).
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Missile Force: First Safety Violations, Then a Drunken Commander, Now Cheating

Image Wikimedia Commons

Image Wikimedia Commons

For the past couple of years, Robert Burns of the Associated Press has been chronicling what he describes as the “deliberate violations of safety rules, failures of inspections,” and “breakdowns in training” of the United States nuclear missile force. He’s also found “evidence that the men and women who operate the missiles from underground command posts are suffering burnout.”

His latest discovery:

In what may be the biggest such scandal in Air Force history, 34 officers entrusted with land-based nuclear missiles have been pulled off the job for alleged involvement in a cheating ring that officials say was uncovered during a drug probe.

The 34 are suspected of cheating several months ago on a routine proficiency test that includes checking missile launch officers’ knowledge of how to handle an “emergency war order,” which is the term for the authorization required to launch a nuclear weapon.
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The New Wave of NGOs in Slovakia and East-Central Europe

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

Alena Panikova, Executive Director of the Open Society Foundation in Slovakia

Alena Panikova, Executive Director of the Open Society Foundation in Slovakia

When I started working on U.S.-Soviet relations in the 1980s, I encountered my first GONGO. This was a “government-organized non-governmental organization.” It was like something out of Alice in Wonderland. An early GONGO, the Soviet Peace Committee styled itself as an NGO. It worked with various NGOs in the West. But it closely hewed to the Party line. Later, as Gorbachev began to shake up the Party, the GONGOs adopted more interesting positions. By 1989, throughout the Soviet bloc, they’d become dinosaurs, and real NGOs rapidly took their place.

As the executive director of the Open Society Foundation in Slovakia since 1995, Alena Panikova has focused on nurturing this new wave of NGOs in East-Central Europe. These organizations were important at two levels – to provide direct service and to put pressure on a government that was becoming increasingly authoritarian under Vladimir Meciar.
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Al Qaeda Seizure of Falluja Throws U.S. Attitudes Toward Iraq Into Sharp Relief

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

After the fall of Falluja to al Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, disappointment was expressed by many U.S. Marines who fought to wrest it from Iraqi insurgents. In a New York Times article on January 9, Richard Oppel quoted Kael Weston, who he described as “a former State Department political adviser who worked with the Marines for nearly three years in Falluja and the surrounding Anbar Province.”

Though he would not send troops back, Mr. Weston, the former State Department official, said it was “almost immoral for us to say, ‘It’s all up to them now, we’re out of there.’ ”
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A Tale of Two Jesuits

Early Jesuit Mission. Wikimedia Commons

Early Jesuit Mission. Wikimedia Commons

The election of a Jesuit priest, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as pope has shined a spotlight on a religious order that has traditionally preferred to work in the background ― or in the shadows, as some would have it. Jesuits were initially known for their missionary work, zeal, and a kind of ruthlessness in the name of their beliefs. Conspiracy theories hold that the order is a secret society bent on world domination.

In fact, due to their predisposition to operate outside the bounds of the church, the Society of Jesus was often looked on unfavorably by the Papacy. Prominent in education (in the United States, think Boston College, Fordham, and Georgetown), they also have reputation for free-thinking. For instance, Daniel Berrigan is a Jesuit.
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Foreign Policy Thin-Sliced (1/13)

Al Aqsa Mosque

Al Aqsa Mosque

You Can’t Win a Nuclear War, Chapter 743

Another reason we cannot credibly threaten to use nuclear arms against small states is that our retaliation would seem disproportionate, even to our own allies. This matters both strategically and morally. If the United States uses a nuclear weapon, whatever started the war will quickly become irrelevant, as attention will immediately turn to the casualties from the U.S. retaliation. The burn victims alone will present a ghastly moral dilemma we have never encountered before; like it or not, the United States will end up responsible for the care of its defeated enemy, and troops advancing through areas destroyed by an American nuclear response (who themselves will be at risk in a nuclear environment) will quickly realize that they will have no humane choice but to euthanize many of those civilian casualties on the spot. That footage, and not the initial attack on the United States, will be the images that will run in perpetuity on the world’s television screens, and perhaps might even achieve the propaganda victory the enemy wished for in the first place.

The Case for Conventional Deterrence, Tom Nichols, the National Interest
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Overpopulation Makes a Mockery of Citizenship

Alan Weisman

Alan Weisman

In his highly acclaimed book World Without Us (Picador, 2008), Alan Weisman  speculated on how the earth would fare in our absence (even worse … then much better, thank you). In his most recent book, Countdown (Little, Brown and Company, 2013), Weisman chronicles the impact of population growth on the earth. He attempts to determine its ― in technocrat speak ― “carrying capacity” and reports on what forces are working towards and against that end. As you can imagine, much of it revolves around agriculture, resources, and climate change. Countdown is required reading for all earthlings.

Some thought-provoking excerpts:

. . . at the First World Optimum Population Conference [in 1993], [environmental scientist] Gretchen Daily and [population studies authority Paul Ehrlich and his wife stated that optimum population] did not mean the maximum number that could be crammed onto the planet like industrial chickens, but how many could live well without compromising the chance for future generations to do the same. At minimum, everyone should be guaranteed sustenance, shelter, education, health care, freedom from prejudice, and opportunities to earn a living.
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