Focal Points Blog

Is a Desperate Assad Lashing Out With Chemical Weapons?

The alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria last week garnered international attention and prompted the UN—after receiving requests from both Syria’s government and opposition—to initiate an official investigation into the incident.

The attack, launched via a rocket allegedly containing “chemical materials,” was reported in Khan al-Assal—a village in Aleppo province—where 16 people were killed instantly. The death toll has since risen to 31. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the leading umbrella organization for the opposition, reported a second chemical attack in rural suburbs outside Damascus, though the number affected is still unknown.

Whether chemical weapons were actually used—and which party would be responsible—remains unverified. Both the Syrian government and the opposition accuse the other of using chemical weapons and propagandizing the attacks.

Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari implored UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to form a “specialized, independent and neutral technical mission” to investigate the opposition’s involvement in the Aleppo incident, which was first reported by the state-run news agency SANA as an attack by “terrorists,” the term the regime uses to refer to rebels. Jaafari also claimed that the government was “not aware of a second attack” in Damascus and insinuated that the SNC was using the Damascus attack to distract the UN from Aleppo.

The opposition denies the regime’s claims. A Free Syrian Army spokesman was quoted by Middle East Online as saying that, “We have neither long-range missiles nor chemical weapons. And if we did, we wouldn’t use them against a rebel target.” The opposition also requested that the UN investigate the attack, a view that Western countries such as the United States, France, and Britain support.

During a debate in the UN Security Council, France insisted that both incidents in Aleppo and Damascus should be investigated as part of the official inquiry and that the UN should also investigate whether or not the Syrian regime possesses chemical weapons. However, Russia—who backs the regime and claims to have evidence that rebels are behind the chemical attack—responded that such an inquiry echoed Iraq’s inspection a decade ago and that the United States, France, and others were “launching propaganda balloons” and engaging in “delaying tactics.”

Crossing Red Lines

The attacks—coming after an unverified chemical attack in Homs last December—could be significant because their use, if confirmed, would mark a new stage in the Syrian war and could spur the United States to intervene.

U.S. President Barack Obama has previously stated that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be “totally and completely unacceptable” and would constitute a “red line,” which if crossed would be a “tragic mistake” with “consequences.” Though Obama has yet to specify what these consequences entail, many have interpreted his speech to indicate some form of military intervention, whether putting troops on the ground or arming the opposition. At a news conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama reiterated this stance, saying, “Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.”

However, other U.S. officials have expressed skepticism that chemical weapons were deployed. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee that, “So far, we have no evidence to substantiate the reports that chemical weapons were used … But I want to underline that we are looking very carefully at these reports.”

In addition to the official UN inquiry, U.S. intelligence agencies are also investigating the attacks. The conflict in Syria, however, compounds the difficulties of conducting any investigation in the country. In an interview with NBC, Ralf Trapp—a specialist on chemical and biological weapons—noted that it could take “weeks” for the UN to pull together a team to investigate and “each day lost will influence the speed with which the investigation can be concluded… because as more time elapses before biological sampling occurs, more sophisticated DNA and other toxicological testing is required.”

Not to mention, the investigation team would need to be able to get to—and operate within—Aleppo safely, which would largely depend upon cooperation from both state and rebel agents.

UPDATE

Al Arabiya reports:

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed a Swedish professor who was a U.N. chemical weapons inspector in Iraq and now works at a research institute that deals with chemical incidents to head the U.N. fact-finding mission that will investigate allegations of the reported use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Leslie Garvey is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus and Focal Points.

King Abdullah of Jordan Learns How Loaded His Gestures, Words, and Facial Expressions Are

King AbdullahWhen the April issue of Atlantic Magazine published an article by its national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg about his interview and impressions of King Abdullah of Jordan, Jordan was swept in a political storm that has yet to quiet down. The problem isn’t with what the King actually said in the interview, rather with the perception it created for him at home. In fact, and at least from the perspective of an American reader, he did not say anything wrong or even controversial. Conversely, however, the King appeared to be more of a modernizing force with progressive views about transforming Jordan into a democracy with constitutional monarchy as a unifying symbol of all Jordanians.

But, at the heart of the controversy is the word “dinosaurs” the King used to describe the old guard Jordanian politicians. Another one is, as trivial as it may sound, a facial impression of the King opening his eyes wide when an important tribal chief suggested hiring the local young men as neighborhood watch as in the old days. Other statements that were troublesome for the King was his anecdotal stories about other Arab leaders, mainly Bashaar al Assad and Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi, whom, according to Goldberg’s phrasing, were portrayed negatively by the King.

From an American or western perspective, where media is much more open and aggressive, and where politicians and the public are always engaging in some kind of debate or even at war with each other, this hardly qualifies as a “ scandal” or even hard news.

But in Jordan or any other Arab country for that matter where the media is not really free and where the society is not as open or as free as the American or Western ones, gestures, words, and facial expressions can have dangerous consequences.

After all, the manner in which the King conducted this free-style interview with the Atlantic was a disaster that could have been easily prevented.

Although Goldberg did not commit any unethical conduct as far his article goes and in describing the King’s reactions and statements as he observed them during the stay and travels with the King in Jordan. It was however, a grave mistake to let Goldberg use his own words and impressions to create a psychological profile of the king. If this were war time, or in a different setting, this interview and others like it that the King gave in the past could be considered a treasure trove of intelligence about the King, his own family, his likes and dislikes, his vacation spots, and how he governs his kingdom and who his enemies and friends are. The King was too open, too trusting and did not take into the account the unintended consequences that can result from failure to know how Western media or Western journalists operate. Normally, professional journalists are out to write a story; they are not your friends.

It is unthinkable for example, for a sitting president of the United States to allow this kind of free and unlimited access to journalists unless it is for a book or a biography and even at that presidents rarely veer from their prepared scripts and official remarks.

In fact Goldberg did what any crafty journalist would do when speaking to his subject by providing a scope and a context for the subject’s statements, facial impressions, and demeanor.

One incident that set off the tribal sensitivities was Goldberg’s recounting of what took place inside a meeting between the King and tribal elders in the southern town of Kerak. The story as described by Goldberg was about a simple yet a brilliant idea made by one of the tribal leaders in Kerak to ease unemployment in the town. His idea was to have the young and unemployed men perform something like a neighborhood watch, just like the old days, and without arming them with firearms, except for batons. In Goldberg’s account, he described the King’s “wide-eyed look” in reaction to the proposal which reflect, most likely, the King’s surprise at the simplicity of suggestion. Obviously the King was more interested in long-term solutions to the woes of the Jordanian economy. The King’s “wide-eyed look” was perceived as if the King was looking down on the tribal leaders who represent the traditional backbone of the Jordanian monarchy.

It was, however, the fault of the royal court in allowing such easy and free access to the head of the state and a sovereign king whose words and utterance and even his facial expressions do in fact matter and might even cause problems.

The King also made a strategic plunder by letting his guard down in the presence of foreign journalists who by instinct are human tape-recorders and can unravel Jordan’s relations with other Arab states or even damage the economy.

There is also the element of cultural differences between the political terminology the King used in English, such as the word “dinosaurs,” which would sound normal, and the impressions he made in a Western setting. But in a traditional and tribal society such as Jordan, titles, status and prestige do matter more than reality sometimes.

This does not mean, of course, that the Jordanian society should all of the sudden become Western in order to understand what its king means when he speaks. Rather, it is the other way around. The King’s advisors should have advised him about the pitfalls of letting his guard down with foreign journalists, which is akin to stepping into a minefield.

In addition, his remarks about the Jordanian “Muslim brotherhood” being a “Masonic cult” were taken literally, when in fact he most likely was referring to their proclivity to secrecy. Still, using the term “Masonic cult” to describe an Islamic group is considered very offensive. The same goes for his remarks about the Egyptian and Turkish leaders which can have dire political ramifications for Jordan, which needs friends and allies more than it needs enemies.

But the King also spoke about other important issues, such as the need to reform the Jordanian intelligence Department, the Mukhabarat, which has injected itself in the Jordanian political and economical life and is mainly responsible for sowing the seeds of divisions within the Jordanian society along the Jordanian-Palestinian lines. Outside the wrong impressions the interview created for him, the reality is that King Abdullah is trying to be a liberal and progressive reformer while many in his inner circle are working against him, as he put it in the interview. But the sad reality, for the King, however, is that many in the Jordanian society and its political elite were more in interested in gossip and wild conspiracy theories about facial gestures or this or that word than the important issues.

Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: [email protected] and on Twitter at @clearali.

What Does Italy Hope to Gain by Re-trying Amanda Knox?

As you’ve no doubt heard by now an Italian appellate has court overturned a lower court decision that acquitted Amanda Knox in the Perugia murder of her housemate Meredith Kercher. Two questions immediately present themselves: 1. If she’s found guilty, would the United States extradite her at Italy’s request? 2. Why won’t Italy let this go?

By way of addressing the first question, in response to a New York magazine article, a commenter named Soma writes:

Extradition treaties work both ways. The US recently extradited Al Qaeda terrorism suspects from Italy … would they want to jeopardise future extradition requests to Italy & the larger EU? I doubt it.

At Slate, Justin Peters writes:

More likely is that, if Knox is convicted again, Italy won’t even bother requesting her extradition. Doing so would cause a small but real international incident, something that both nations would prefer to avoid. The two countries will reach some sort of agreement, and Knox will never spend another day in an Italian jail.

In the same vein, MSN reports that it

…spoke with English and Italian legal consultant and attorney Alessandro Canali from Rome [who said that] extraditing Knox would run up against an insurmountable legal hurdle: It would be unconstitutional. … “The United States will never grant extradition to Italy because the conviction of Amanda would be in conflict with the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.…

Indeed, the Fifth Amendment’s “double jeopardy clause” states, “[N]or shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb,” … Italy may have different constitutional principles when it comes to double jeopardy, but Knox isn’t in Italy anymore, and she can rest assured that she won’t be forced to go there.

But, reports Gary J. Remal for the Boston Herald, “if anyone believes they know how Knox’s case will be resolved, [Paulo Barrozo, a Boston College international criminal law expert] believes they are likely mistaken.” If Ms. Knox were found guilty again

American officials would then have to decide whether to honor an extradition request that violates a constitutional protection against double jeopardy. In Italian law, based on Roman and Athenian law, double jeopardy protections only kick in after all prosecution appeals in an original case are exhausted.

… “So maybe this will become the setting for double jeopardy to be decided” between Italy and the U.S., said. “But both countries are likely to want to make that move carefully since it could affect legal relations between the two for years or decades to come. They have extraditions all the time. They may not want this case to set a precedent.”

“The one certainty I have,” Barrozo told Remal, “is it will take a long time.”

He expects legal wrangling in Italy and in the U.S., if the conviction is restored, will last for as long as six years.

Returning to the New York magazine article, commenter Bradley writes that extradition treaty between the United States and Italy is (emphasis added — assuming he’s correct)

… a little less permissive than you sometimes find. Many countries negotiate provisions giving them the explicit discretion to refuse extradition of one of their own nationals. This treaty doesn’t say that, and it contains a provision suggesting the opposite.

Still, Bradley

…can think of a few reasons why the U.S. Justice Department, for practical and political reasons, might not consent to her re-trial in this case in which she was already acquitted. And relations with Italy on justice issues are a little frosty right now over that CIA hit or kidnapping or whatever it was we did over there. Doesn’t seem to me as though we owe the Italians any favors at the moment.

Bradley may be referring to Italy’s conviction of 23 Americans for CIA renditions in 2009. Peters at Slate reinforces his view:

I predict that, even if she is convicted in absentia, there’s no way that Knox will be extradited back to Italy to serve her sentence. Knox is a cause célèbre in the U.S., and her partisans will exert significant pressure on the government to deny any extradition request.

Whether or not Barrozo is correct and the United States does consent to extradite (from MSN again):

As to whether Italian prosecutors know that the U.S. Constitution gives them no chance of getting Knox back into prison, Canali says “I don’t think they’ve realized that yet.”

That’s as poor a reflection on Italy as reopening this farce of a case. One can’t help but think it’s just a last-ditch effort to save face. Along with the emotional wear and tear on Ms. Knox and her family, as well as the central tragedy of Ms. Kercher’s murder, we shouldn’t forget Ms. Knox’s then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, who was also convicted, cleared, and re-charged. As MSN reports:

Sollecito, an Italian, isn’t in the same boat and could find himself behind bars if he’s reconvicted.

Nixon’s “Madman Theory” Was Not the Vietnam War’s Only Nuclear Weapons Test Case

You’ve probably heard that, as Jeremi Suri reported in Wired five years ago, after the Paris Vietnam peace talks broke down in 1969…

Frustrated, Nixon decided to try something new: threaten the Soviet Union with a massive nuclear strike and make its leaders think he was crazy enough to go through with it. His hope was that the Soviets would be so frightened of events spinning out of control that they would strong-arm Hanoi, telling the North Vietnamese to start making concessions at the negotiating table or risk losing Soviet military support.

Codenamed Giant Lance, Nixon’s plan was the culmination of a strategy of premeditated madness he had developed with national security adviser Henry Kissinger. … Giant Lance was the leading example of what historians came to call the “madman theory”: Nixon’s notion that faked, finger-on-the-button rage could bring the Soviets to heel.

Nixon and Kissinger put the plan in motion on October 10 … They wanted the most powerful thermonuclear weapons in the US arsenal readied for immediate use against the Soviet Union. … After their launch, [B-52s armed with nuclear weapons] pressed against Soviet airspace for three days. They skirted enemy territory, challenging defenses and taunting Soviet aircraft. [The strategy] appeared to be a direct application of … game theory. H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, wrote in his diary that Kissinger believed evidence of US irrationality would “jar the Soviets and North Vietnam.” Nixon encouraged Kissinger to expand this approach. “If the Vietnam thing is raised” in conversations with Moscow, Nixon advised, Kissinger should “shake his head and say, ‘I am sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but [the president] is out of control.” Nixon told Haldeman: “I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he is angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

Whether it helped end the war, but the U.S.S.R. bought Nixon’s act. Suri again:

Brezhnev’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Dobrynin, urgently set up a meeting with Nixon and Kissinger. … Dobrynin warned Soviet leaders that “Nixon is unable to control himself even in a conversation with a foreign ambassador.” He also commented on the president’s “growing emotionalism” and “lack of balance.”… On October 30, Nixon and Kissinger ordered an end to Giant Lance, and the B-52s turned and headed back home. The sudden conclusion reinforced the madman pose.

Hmm, one would have thought the Soviets already knew Nixon was crazy. Anyway, the Vietnam War was a test case for yet another element of U.S. nuclear-weapons policy. I’m currently reading Francis J. Gavin’s illuminating Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age by (Cornell University Press, 1912). He writes (emphasis added):

The dilemmas associated with nuclear proliferation influenced US military strategy throughout the world, most obviously in Europe. But a linkage also existed between a more active nonproliferation policy and the US military presence in Southeast Asia. The Gilpatric committee discussions [which led to the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty] took place when the Johnson administration was debating whether to escalate US military involvement in Vietnam. China’s atomic test was bound to influence these discussions. President Kennedy had considered a nuclear-armed China a grave threat that would “so upset the world political scene [that] it would be intolerable.” Convinced that China was “bound to get nuclear weapons, in time, and from that moment they will dominate South East Asia,” Kennedy feared that even a minimal Chinese nuclear force could prevent US military intervention. As Kennedy had once noted, just a few missiles in Cuba had “had a deterrent effect on us.”

President Kennedy’s analysis implied that once China acquired a nuclear capability, the United States would likely withdraw from Vietnam.… But government officials, as well as members of the committee, wanted to make clear that the United States would not break its commitments in the face of a nuclear threat. If the United States acquiesced to a nuclear-armed adversary, the incentives for small powers to develop nuclear weapons would increase exponentially. Vietnam would be the test case of this new commitment. In a paper for the Gilpatric committee, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs Henry Rowen wrote, “A U.S. defeat in Southeast Asia may come to be attributed in part to the unwillingness of the U.S. to take on North Vietnam supported by a China that now has the bomb. Such a defeat is now much more significant to countries near China than it was before October 16.”

How Do Buddhist Attacks on Muslims Help Burma’s Government?

Global Post reports on another outbreak of sectarian violence in Burma this week that left “thousands homeless and more than 50 people confirmed dead. Video footage and photos taken at the scene by the local media and wire agencies showed that three days of rioting has transformed the town of Meiktila south of Mandalay in central Myanmar into a war zone scattered with burnt houses, mosques and unrecognizable human dead bodies.”

What was the immediate catalyst for the violence? Radio Free Asia:

Some believe intense business rivalry between Muslims and Buddhists in the city had contributed to the violence.

More specifically…

…a quarrel between the Muslim owner of a goldsmith shop and a Buddhist villager and his wife who had gone there to sell a gold hair pin, a police source said.

An argument broke out when the item was purportedly damaged as it was being authenticated by the goldsmith.

Tension grew as the two sides began to haggle over the price to be offered for the item and people in the shop beat the customers, causing an uproar in the bazaar, the source said.

When the villager was wounded, his sympathizers burned the goldsmith shop and ignited a mass riot, according to the source.…

“This problem erupted because business issues were mixed with religion,” said Pinnyasiha, a prominent Burmese Buddhist monk popularly known as Shwe Nya Wa Sayadaw. … Adding fuel to fire was a report that a Buddhist monk had been killed by Muslims.

The emotions of Muslims in Burma are still rubbed raw over “the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, who rights groups say bore the brunt of the Rakhine violence in June and October last year which had left at least 180 dead and tens of thousands homeless.”

In the aftermath of this latest incident, the government called for a state of emergency. But security forces did little or nothing to stop the attacks. The Global Post again.

… some Buddhist monks publicly called for a boycott of Muslim businesses — against which [the call, that is -- RW] the authorities took no actions at all.

Worse…

Myint Than, an eyewitness who saw the charred human bodies in the town yesterday, said that police have merely stood by while the arson attacks and the killings occurred over the past few days.

“The police said they had no order to shoot.…,” he added.

Min Ko Naing, a leader of influential 88 Generation Students Group, who visited the conflict area on Thursday, also blamed the security forces’ idleness for the deadly violence. “It is totally unacceptable that the security forces did not take any actions just because they were not ordered to.”

Furthermore…

Some observers suspect that the former generals ruling the government and the army which remains as powerful [even though Burma is no longer officially ruled by a junta -- RW] as ever are trying to divert the public attention with sectarian violence and hatred [from] the growing public protests stemming from old grievances against the abuses by the army such as land grabs.

In fact

Myat Ko, an official from Yangon School of Political Science, accused the high-ranking military generals of having a hand in the latest clashes.

“We don’t have the evidence to prove it. But this is happening in our country,” he said. According to Dr.Maung Zarni, a visiting fellow at London School of Economics, the army is creating chaos which will continue to strengthen its centrality in politics.

Finally, this is fairly damning.

Writing on his Facebook page today, Zarni said, “There is a consistent and recognizable pattern of violence: the plan is hatched elsewhere. Out-of-town armed mobs are bused in to a targeted locality. All hell broke loose. The police and military stand by until the job is done. Local authorities would say they are waiting for orders from above, which never come.”

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces (3/22)

Emphasis, as always, added.

Worst Fatwa Ever

Another clergy member offered biblical justification for the military’s death flights, according to an account by one of the pilots anguished about dumping drugged prisoners out of aircraft and into the sea.

Starting a Papacy, Amid Echoes of a ‘Dirty War’, William Romeiro and Simon Neumann, The New York Times

Taking Saddam Hussein at Face Value

… the deception measures that the Iraqis were discovered to be making. Both deception and denial measures. … all of the camouflage, the obstruction of UN weapons inspectors, signals deception that was clearly related to the WMD sites.

But there was a single presumption about what that meant. And at a very fundamental level deception is conducted for one of two purposes. You either hide strength, or you hide weakness. It does not seem anybody explored the idea that they were hiding the fact that they had no WMD at all. [Or wanted it known. -- RW] Of course, the target audience for that was the Iranians, and we were the unintended audience for the deception.

Ends and Means, Kalev Sepp, Foreign Policy

Sound Familiar, Americans?

“Economically, culturally, and socially, London has now left Britain behind, blasting off from the rest of the nation like some vast U.F.O.,” says Neil O’Brien, director of the think tank Policy Exchange. “The politicians, civil servants, and journalists who make up Britain’s governing class run one country, but effectively live in another.” As Abrahmsohn sees it, London could “easily declare independence. A lot of these wealthy people don’t even know these outlying regions exist. They don’t care.”

A Tale of Two Londons, Nicholas Shaxson, Vanity Fair

Iraq War: Carrying Collective Punishment to Absurd Proportions

But he never understood the call to invade Iraq. “When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor we didn’t invade China just because they looked the same,” [Tomas Young] said.

The Crucifixion of Tomas Young, Chris Hedges, TruthDig

Depleted Uranium’s Legacy Not That Different From a Nuclear Bomb’s

In July 2010 … a study … showed a 12-fold increase in childhood cancer in Fallujah since the 2004 attacks. The report also showed the sex ratio had become skewed to 86 boys born to every 100 girls, together with a spread of diseases indicative of genetic damage — similar to, but of far greater incidence than Hiroshima. … a log of cases of birth defects amounts to a rate of 14.7 per cent of all babies born in Fallujah, more than 14 times the rate in the effected [sic] areas of Japan.

Iraq: War’s Legacy of Cancer, Dahr Jamail, Truthout

Ugandan Human Rights Group Using U.S. Law to Sue Anti-Gay Pastor

American pastor Scott Lively

American pastor Scott Lively

The Alien Tort Statute gives foreign nationals the right to sue U.S. citizens or corporations for human rights violations committed overseas. The law goes back hundreds of years but has been historically underutilized in the prosecution of abuses by U.S.-based entities. This could begin to change, however, in the case of Sexual Minorities Uganda v. Lively.

Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), the primary rights group in Uganda, has filed suit against evangelical pastor Scott Lively in U.S. federal court in Springfield, Massachusetts. SMUG has accused Lively of promoting widespread anti-gay sentiment throughout Uganda and assisting in the development of a lethal government policy towards homosexuals in the country.

Representing SMUG is the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which is working to ensure that the group presents a solid case without violating Mr. Lively’s First Amendment right to free speech. This is precisely the argument for the defense—Lively is only expressing himself, even if he is condemning the entire LGBT community. The CCR argues however, that his rhetoric impinges on the safety and security of an already persecuted population, classifying it as a crime against humanity.

The case focuses on a 2009 anti-gay conference in Kampala, “Exposing the Truth About Homosexuality and the Homosexual Agenda,” in which Lively and two other U.S. pastors compared homosexual acts to bestiality and claimed that gay people were primary offenders in the molestation of children.

Lively also preached to the Ugandan parliament which subsequently introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009—the infamous “Kill the Gays” law. International outcry ensured that this was never passed, but a new version has since been reintroduced in the current session of the Ugandan Parliament.

The homophobia spread to Uganda by American Evangelicals must be blocked before the Parliament passes lethal anti-gay legislation. Advocates hope this case will set international precedent in halting the anti-gay sentiment imported to Uganda and throughout the world.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Is Egypt Being Primed for a Coup?

Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi

Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi

When an important leader of the political opposition hints that a military coup might be preferable to the current chaos, and when a major financial organization proposes an economic program certain to spark a social explosion, something is afoot. Is Egypt being primed for a coup?

It is hard to draw any other conclusion given the demands the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is making on the government of President Mohamed Morsi: regressive taxes, massive cuts in fuel subsidies, and hard-edged austerity measures whose weight will overwhelmingly fall on Egypt’s poor.

“Austerity measures at a time of political instability are simply unfeasible in Egypt,” says Tarek Radwan of the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “He [Morsi] is already facing civil disobedience in the streets, protests on a weekly, if not daily basis, clashes between protestors and security—he does not want to worsen the situation.”

The “situation” consists of widespread police strikes, particularly in the industrial city of Port Said, but also including parts of Cairo and the heavily populated Nile Delta. The police in Sharqiya have even refused to protect Morsi’s house. At its height the strike spread to half of Egypt’s 27 administrative governorates.

Microbus drivers, angered at rising diesel prices and fuel shortages, blocked roads leading into Cairo, setting off massive traffic jams. Farmers in the Delta joined them, refusing to ship crops and shutting down farm machinery.

Added to the tense political situation are rapidly shrinking foreign currency reserves, an economy that is dead in the water, and an unemployment rate that has risen to 13.5 percent, and close to 25 percent for Egyptians aged 15 to 29. The number of Egyptians living below the poverty line has increased from 20 percent in 2010 to 25 percent today. And tourism, which contributes 11 percent of the gross domestic product, has tanked.

Morsi’s Islamist government appears increasingly isolated, although the Muslim Brotherhood is still the best organized political force in Egypt. Reaching out to the opposition, however, is not its strong point. Morsi was elected with only 52 percent of the vote, and most observers think that support has eroded in the face of economic crisis and political instability. The government managed to ram through an Islamist constitution, but only 33 percent of the voters went to the polls. The government had planned on elections sometime between April and June, but a court recently overturned that decision.

The Morsi government has increasingly resorted to the use of force against opponents, including police tactics similar to those used by the Mubarak government. The government Attorney General recently caused an uproar by asking for “civilians” to arrest “lawbreakers.” The opposition charges that the call is cover for the Morsi government to set up militias dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The plagues being visited upon Egypt may not be of Biblical proportions, but they are serious enough to destabilize the biggest Arab country in the Middle East. They certainly threaten the gains of the January 2011 revolution that overthrew the autocratic and corrupt government of Hosni Mubarak and sent the powerful Egyptian army back to the barracks.

They may not stay there long.

Opposition leader Essam Al-Islambouli of the National Salvation Front told Al-Ahram Weekly, “Today, we don’t just have a convoluted political process, but we are also facing confused and disturbing economic challenges, and we are seeing the threat of citizens bearing arms against each other. We might be reaching a point at which it will become inevitable for the Armed Forces to step in.”

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of Egypt’s Constitutional Party and founding member of the opposition National Salvation Front, told Ahram Online that while he doesn’t “hope the military takes over,” it would be better to be ruled by the military than by Islamic militias.

The Muslim Brotherhood does have a paramilitary wing called the “Hawks” that surfaced in 2006 during demonstrations at Al-Azhar University, and one rumor is that the MB has as many as 5,000 soldiers. There is also a reputed pledge by Hamas to send fighters from Gaza to support the MB. But it is very unlikely that the Brotherhood has anywhere near 5,000 armed men, and Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahar denied that the Palestinian organization intends to interfere in Egypt, calling the rumor nothing more than an attempt to smear Hamas. Indeed, relations between Hamas and the Morsi government have recently cooled.

The puzzling thing about the IMF’s demands is that they fly in the face of a recent study by the organization’s chief economist Oliver Banchard, which found spending cuts and taxes hikes only make recessions worse. Stimulus spending are far more effective in restarting an economy.

The Morsi government was hoping the international lending organization would front it $4.8 billion to pull Egypt through the current crisis, but Cairo has delayed asking for the loan, in large part because it is afraid of what the reaction would be. Cutting fuel subsidies would fall heavily on the poor, who use kerosene for cooking. However, without the IMF loan, loans from the U.S. and the European Union will be put on hold as well.

The Morsi government’s fear is well founded. Egypt has long been a difficult country to govern without the consent of its people unless rulers can call on a powerful army. Its population of 83 million is concentrated in a few urban areas, the Delta, the narrow strip of land bordering the Nile, and several cities in the Canal Zone.

That concentration makes demonstrations formidable, as the Mubarak government found out in 2011. The Morsi government recently discovered that fact when it sentenced 21 soccer fans to death for their part in a 2012 riot in Port Said that killed 74 people. Port Said exploded at the verdict.

With the police overwhelmed—and on strike—Morsi was forced to call in the Egyptian Army to confront the rioters, but military commanders were less than happy at being caught between the demonstrators and the government. “The Egyptian armed forces is a combat institution not a security institution,” grumbled Gen. Ahmed Wasfi, head of the Army division sent into Port Said. “No one can imagine the Army replacing the Interior Ministry.”

Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi warned the Morsi government not to try and “brotherhoodise” the military, and also hinted darkly that the continued unrest could bring about a possible “collapse of the state.” It was a sobering statement from an institution that has intervened on other occasions in Egypt, including during the 1952 coup/ revolution that put Gamal Abdel Nasser into power.

As long as Mubarak controlled the army, he could rule Egypt. When the army stepped back in 2011, the government fell.

It is an old story. Ancient Egypt was one of the few areas in the Roman Empire that required two full legions just to keep the peace. And the Romans found that when Egyptians got riled, it was best to back off and cut a deal. Cleopatra used the power of Egypt’s population to hold off Roman rule for more than two decades. It is a force that no government can afford to take lightly.

It is no secret that the U.S. is not overly enthusiastic about the Morsi government. During his recent visit, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry offered aid—and a modest $250 million at that—but only if the government instituted “painful” austerity measures and kept Cairo’s foreign policy consistent with Washington’s. The U.S. has the most powerful voice in the IMF—it outvotes Japan, Germany and France combined—and the fact that the lending organization demands essentially parallel those made by Kerry is hardly coincidence.

The oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the U.S.’s major allies in the Middle East, have been telling Washington “We told you so” about Islamic governments, and GCC member Qatar, which initially pledged $4.3 billion in aid, has yet to make good on it. Qatar and other GCC nations have also reneged on an economic assistance package.

Morsi’s government is hardly radical. Its economic policies reflect its urban professional roots, and what MB business leader Hassan Malek calls “capitalism with attention to the poor,” a pledge that will be hard to reconcile with the IMF’s formula.

But Egypt has adopted a foreign policy that is not always in perfect alignment with Washington, including re-establishing relations with Iran and sharpening the criticism of Israel for its occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights.

The U.S. has traditionally been more comfortable with authoritarian governments in the Middle East than democratic or Islamic ones, and it has influence with the Egyptian military through its $1.3 billion in yearly aid.

Are the statements by Egypt’s opposition concerning the possibility of a military takeover simply a political maneuver aimed at forcing the Morsi government to be more inclusive, or are they laying a foundation for a coup? Loose talk about an Army takeover in Egypt is a little like hand feeding a crocodile: a good way to lose a body part.

Why is the IMF ignoring its own findings on austerity to push a program that can only ignite massive resistance? And why is the U.S. piling on?

Egypt is looking at a summer of higher food prices, rising unemployment, blackouts, fuel shortages, and growing political unrest. If the country were a chessboard, it looks like a lot of pieces are lining up for an assault on the king.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

SOPAC Expedites New Seabed Mining Legislation for Lockheed Martin

Cross-posted from Moana Nui.

FijiCurrently, US military contractor Lockheed Martin is negotiating with Fiji’s Bainimarama administration to fast-track and sponsor new legislation that would allow the private U.S.-based transnational titan to delve into experimental deep seabed mining. Because the U.S. has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), U.S. industries cannot engage in deep seabed mining in international waters, outside of a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In the 1970s, before UNCLOS, Lockheed had conducted an analysis of the nodules found in the Clarion-Clipperton zone, just below the Hawaiian Islands. Now, large industrial mining companies are jockeying for position to be the first to successfully vacuum up Pacific resources, which include rich deposits of gold, silver, copper, nickel, manganese, and rare-earth minerals.

Little is known about the deep seabed, and no conclusive environmental study has been completed. What is known is that the life that thrives in this unusual environment is sulfur-based rather than oxygen-based and we do not know how this sulfuric sediment will impact ocean bio-diversity. There is also no regulatory oversight guiding the technology that seeks to raze the deep ocean floor and suck up the minerals.

SOPAC (the Applied Geoscience and Technology Division of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community) began operation on January 1, 2011 and was established by the Pacific Island Leaders Forum to include the assessment of the potential of ocean and onshore mineral resources, coastal protection and management, and geohazard assessment. However, with no conclusive Environmental Impact Assessment or statement, the concern that SOPAC is working on behalf of Lockheed Martin, one or the world’s largest private military contractors, should not only betray the trust of Pacific Island Forum countries, but also damage the legitimacy of the scientific community at large.

In an October 2011 press release, SOPAC announced the contracting of Hannah Lily, Solicitor for the British Government to be their legal advisor to the Deep Sea Minerals Project and she has since been working on behalf of Lockheed Martin, advocating for legal changes to Fijian law. Her comments governing the environmental, regulatory and investment agreements concerning deep seabed mining are further troubling since Fiji’s president Bainimarama is viewed to be illegitimate by many. The Bainimarama regime has not held elections since the 2006 military coup, and New Zealand and Australia have only recently restored diplomatic ties with Fiji.

It could very well be that it is through Hannah Lily’s contract with SOPAC, that British PM David Cameron has just pledged to “put Britain at the forefront of a new international seabed mining industry, which he claimed could be worth £40bn to the UK economy over the next 30 years,” according to the Guardian.

Further entrenching SOPAC into what is beginning to look like a cover-up, on March 6, SOPAC requested that the Pacific Network on Globalization (PANG) remove an article, “U.S. giant using SOPAC and Fiji regime to access seabed minerals in international waters” from its website and we have obtained copies of both the article and Hannah Lily’s comments to the draft decree.

Additionally, section 46 of the draft decree criminalizes protest of the Fiji International Seabed Sponsorship Authority (FISSA), which could be read as providing a blanket of coverage for Lockheed Martin to pursue experimental deep seabed mining without public protest.

Here is the removed article:

US giant using SOPAC and illegal Fiji regime to access seabed minerals in international waters

FEBRUARY 28, 2013 · 9:09 AM

The illegal government in Fiji is being squeezed by the American corporate giant, Lockheed Martin, to sponsor its search for seabed minerals in international waters. To that end, Lockheed is pushing the Fiji regime to fast track legislation and is being assisted in this endeavor by the Deep Sea Minerals Project (run by SOPAC, part of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community) and its British lawyer, Hannah Lily.

Fiji’s cabinet is expected to approve a new Decree on seabed mineral management by March the 5th. Consultation on the draft Decree has been fast tracked with relevant stakeholders given less than 3 days to make submissions whilst US giants Lockheed were consulted well in advance. The new law is required before Lockheed will enter into a formal joint-venture with the Fiji regime. Lockheed will then apply in April to the International Seabed Authority for a new exploration licence.

The new law, which SOPAC, has assisted in drafting, makes vague statements about applying a precautionary approach and best environment practices and requiring Environment Impact Assessments but without specifying where or how Fiji is suddenly to get the expertise to manage and enforce these.

Lockheed has already been granted approval by the International Seabed Authority to explore for polymetallic nodules in one area in partnership with the UK government. It now wants to join Fiji as its official national partner for further exploration licences – but first Fiji needs to have the necessary laws to allow seabed mining in place.

The proposed legislation covers the various aspects and issues arising out of experimental seabed mining operations, including establishing a regulatory authority within Fiji, and introducing a licensing regime, provisions on the protection of the marine environment, and delineating Fiji’s and the company’s duties and responsibilities.

Hannah Lily, employed as a legal adviser by SOPAC, has been advising on the drafting process directly on behalf of Lockheed (LH). Here are some of her comments on a draft version of the new law embedded below:

“LH would not accept the jurisdiction of the courts of Fiji, in case of dispute. The sub-contract would specify that the parties would be subject to UK law and courts. LH therefore suggest section 14 be deleted to avoid confusion. However UNCLOS Art 235 requires that: “States shall ensure that recourse is available in accordance with their legal systems for prompt and adequate compensation or other relief in respect of damage caused by pollution of the marine environment by natural or juridical persons under their jurisdiction”. the ITLOS Advisory Opinion summarises this as ‘requiring the sponsoring State to establish procedures, and, if necessary, substantive rules governing claims for damages before its domestic courts’. Whether the proposed Fiji / LH model can navigate this requirement and LH’s requirement for UK arbitration remains a point to be explored.”

“LH consider it unfair both to be charged the admin fee and to require the Company to cover its application costs. They suggest it should be one or the other, not both. “LH would expect a standalone non-disclosure agreement to cover Fiji’s handling of their commercial data.”

“Query whether there is a reason Fiji would like this notice period to be so lengthy? LH would prefer this to be shorter, or if that is not possible to clarify that they would not be penalised for failure to conduct activities during that 6-month notice period.”

“LH request to delete, otherwise Fiji could unilaterally revoke the licence after 2 years’ inaction, which creates too great an uncertainty for the company.”

“LH request that these specific figures are removed from the Decree and replaced with a provision permitting the Government to negotiate financial terms in a Sponsorship Agreement. NB The suggested fees are too high for LH. The UK rates (GBP 10k for application, 15k for first year, 25k after 6 years , 25k on each extension), which use an actual cost recovery mechanism would be more feasible for LH – perhaps with some small room for negotiation, given that this is a developing country.”

“LH would require that the contract stipulates the UK as the prevailing law and dispute resolution mechanism.”

The International Sea Bed Authority (ISBA) which regulates the leasing of seabed deposits have not yet developed a mining code to regulate the exploitation of minerals in international waters. NGOs have raised serious concerns about the experimental nature of the industry as well as its relevance as a development option for island nations. In addition NGOs have raised concerns about the need to protect the marine environment, prevention of pollution from seabed activities and whether states such as Fiji have the ability to monitor the environment impact.

Arnie Saiki is the coordinator for Moana Nui Action Alliance, which focuses on Pacific Island political and economic justice issues.

Pope Francis Has an Opportunity to Redeem Himself for His Sins of Omission During the Dirty War

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

Also see Mark’s previous post, Will the Next Pope Embrace Liberation Theology?

In November 2000, as Argentina’s economic crisis escalated, the country’s bishops, led by Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, emerged from a plenary conference with a statement that was hardly welcome news to proponents of economic neoliberalism. Arguing that the true debt of Argentina was not financial but “social,” it blasted the “growing gap between rich and poor,” the “negative aspects of globalization,” and “the tyranny of the markets.”

“We live in world in which the primacy of economics, without a base of reference in…the common good, impedes the resurgence of many nations,” the statement read. It further contended, “To accustom ourselves to living in a world of exclusion and inequality is a serious moral failure that erodes the dignity of mankind and compromises peace and social harmony.”

In a subsequent interview, Bergoglio charged “wildly economistic” ideas with manufacturing poverty.

Almost thirteen years later, Bergoglio has been selected as the new pontiff, Pope Francis I. Despite his statements about the global economy, Bergoglio is no radical. Indeed, figuring out what his selection represents for the Catholic Church, and what it portends for the future direction of the Vatican, involves reckoning with a number of contradictions.

Born in Buenos Aires, Bergoglio is the first pope in the modern era to come from a country in the global South, yet both his parents were immigrants born in Italy.

He is from a region (Latin America) where the Catholic Church was infused with a social justice ethos in the post–Vatican II period, yet he comes from a country within that region (Argentina) whose church remained among the most conservative.

He is from a religious order (the Jesuits) regarded as having progressive leanings, yet he has been a conservative force within that order.

He has made statements championing the interests of the poor against market fundamentalism, yet he has also been a strong opponent of the left-leaning administrations of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner.

Given all this, it is perhaps not surprising that the announcement of Pope Francis has elicited a divided reaction among two constituencies that normally overlap. Many progressive Catholics in the United States seem to be pleasantly surprised by the pick and happy with Bergoglio’s social justice overtures. Latin Americanists, on the other hand, have expressed horror at the role of the Argentine Church during the military junta’s rule and at Bergoglio’s place within that history.

Let’s begin with the first group. A pope that takes the name Francis is starting out on a good foot from a social justice perspective. At least that was reaction of many progressive Catholics. Jubilee USA executive director Eric LeCompte, for example, released a statement with the headline, “Pope Francis; Pope of Peace, Justice and the Poor.” LeCompte said:

Pope Francis will preach that we need to promote access to food, water, education, employment, and healthcare for every person, without discrimination….This Pope will stand up for the rights of poor people, migrants and, workers.

Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis (not a Catholic, but a prominent Christian progressive) was similarly hopeful, praising the cardinal’s warnings against “a self-referential church” and noting, “In Buenos Aires, the cardinal showed real compassion for HIV victims, and he sternly rebuked priests who refused to baptize children born out of wedlock.”

Those who share these sentiments also note Bergoglio’s personal humility. The cardinal lived in a modest apartment in Buenos Aires rather than the archbishop’s mansion; he took public transportation rather than using a church limousine; he cooked his own food. Yes, these are symbolic gestures. But symbolism matters.

A different strain of reaction has come from Latin Americans and solidarity activists disturbed by Bergoglio’s selection. They focus not on Pope Francis’s coming time in the Vatican, but rather on the Dirty War in the 1970s, when tens of thousands of leftists were killed or “disappeared” by the military. From this perspective, the symbolism of elevating an Argentine bishop is quite different.

In contrast to the Catholic Church in places like Chile and El Salvador, which played an important role in denouncing disappearances, death squads, and military abuses in the 1970s and ’80s, it is well known that the Argentine Church gave aid and comfort to the junta. Writing in 1987, scholar of liberation theology Phillip Berryman put it this way:

In Argentina…the bishops were notably silent even though at least one bishop and some ten priests were murdered. It was the [Madres de Plaza de Mayo], the mothers and family members of the disappeared, who challenged the military, while the bishops temporized and some even made pro-military statements.

My personal pick for the next pope, Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, was also not a radical. (None were in the running.) But he distinguished himself by opposing the Brazilian dictatorship in the late 1970s and taking personal risks to support trade unionists and human rights activists.

Bergoglio earned no such distinction. What he did do is the subject of considerable controversy, accounts of which are now widely available in Spanish and in English. ForDissent, Flavia Dzodan has done a fine job of relating the charges against the cardinal. Most notably, critics claim that he failed to prevent (and tacitly green-lighted) the abduction and torture of two Jesuits identified with liberation theology. Not surprisingly, Bergoglio denies the charges; in recent years, he has claimed that he worked behind the scenes to free the two priests and to help other human rights defenders. His supporters characterize this approach as “pragmatic at a time when so many people were getting killed.”

Even if we take this defense at face value, it is a weak one. To the extent that such behavior was indeed pragmatic, it was the pragmatism of keeping quiet in the face of injustice for fear of being targeted yourself. And it was this type of behavior that allowed the military junta to benefit from the institutional acquiescence of the Catholic Church as it committed its crimes against humanity. There’s no heroism there.

That said, in the wake of Bergoglio’s selection as pope, Nobel Laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel has stated that, while some bishops were truly accomplices of the dictatorship, Bergoglio was not among them. If we accept his judgment, the cardinal’s Dirty War sins are ones of cowardice, not of commission.

There was a figure in the hierarchy of the Argentine Church who had a profile more like that of the courageous and revered Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. Enrique Angelelli was known as a progressive voice in CELAM, the Latin American bishops’ council, which played a pivotal role in making liberation theology into a region-wide force. In 1976, shortly after the Dirty War began, Angelelli was returning from a mass held in honor of two murdered priests when the truck he was riding in was run off the road. His death was labeled a traffic accident by the Argentinean regime.

Thirty years later, presiding over an anniversary mass, Cardinal Bergoglio celebrated Angelelli and obliquely held him up as a martyr, but he neglected to charge the junta with the bishop’s murder.

In the end, what can we make of the divided reaction to Pope Francis I?

The Guardian jumped the gun when (in a since-corrected gaffe) it labeled Cardinal Bergoglio “a champion of liberation theology.” A liberationist he is not. And, given that he was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, it basically goes without saying that has been horrible on issues like gay rights and abortion.

Still, in a field of very conservative candidates, Bergoglio was a relative moderate. It may not be saying much, but it looks likely that his tenure at the Vatican will be an improvement over Benedict’s.

I recently argued that, while it is often reported that the Vatican officially rejected liberation theology under the watch of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, that’s not entirely true. Core tenets such as the “preferential option for the poor” have in fact been mainstreamed within the church. Liberation theology’s positions on poverty, inequality, and the tyranny of the market are often echoed in statements like that released by Bergoglio and the Argentine bishops in 2000.

Neither Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council, nor Archbishop Romero, who became a human rights icon, was brought into his position as a reformer. But each responded, in Catholic parlance, to “the signs of the times.” We can hope that, out of his many contradictions, Pope Francis will emerge with a ministry that emphasizes peace, social justice, and the rights of the poor, and that moves the church out of a state of reactionary self-isolation.

It’s a faint hope. But if you’re in the habit of looking to Rome for leadership, it’s probably the best you’ve got.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising. You can follow Mark at his Facebook page.

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