Focal Points Blog

Taliban Compounds Crime of Shooting Malala With Its Legal Justifications

Of course, with all the Pakistani children that the United States has killed in drone strikes, the extent to which we have the right to condemn the Taliban for shooting Malala Yousufzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl who challenged its rigid views on education for girls, is debatable.

But the Taliban only compounded its crime when it tried to justify an act more befitting straight out of the 1300s, if guns existed then. At the Atlantic, Ron Synovitz writes about a letter in which

… the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) states its case for the attack and threatens anyone who challenges its strict interpretation of Shari’a law. … the letter says that “Yousafzai was playing a vital role in bucking up the emotions” of Pakistan’s military and government “and was inviting Muslims to hate mujahideen.”

… “[i]t is a clear command of Shariah that any female who, by any means, plays a role in the war against mujahideen should be killed.” It then seeks to justify the shooting of the schoolgirl by citing passages from the Koran in which a child or woman was killed.

“If anyone argues about [Yousafzai's] young age, then [consult] the story of Hazrat Khizar in the Koran relating that Hazrat Khizar — while traveling with the Prophet Musa — killed a child,” the letter reads. “Arguing about the reason for his killing, he said that the parents of this child are pious and in future [the child] will cause a bad name for them.”

A mind like a steel trap — one shudders to think that one day the Taliban, at least in its Afghan incarnation, may one day be represented at the United Nations.

In the meantime, the TTP has vowed, if she survives, to target Malala again.

On the Margins in Serbia

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and surveying its transformations since 1989.

By Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin.

By Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin.

All eyes were on Serbia again this last week with the multiple controversies over the events of Gay Pride week. First came Ecce Homo, the exhibition of Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin, which depicted Jesus integrated into the gay community. Christ cross-dresses at the Last Supper; he ministers to a flock of leather-clad men. The Orthodox Church called for a ban, which the Islamic community signed onto as well. The police turned out in force to separate exhibition-goers from protestors.

I’m sorry I missed the excitement. By the time I made it to the Center for Cultural Decontamination, where the exhibition had a one-day showing, the exhibit was gone. There were plenty of police still hanging around the center’s courtyard with nothing to do, as if to ensure that the place was truly “decontaminated.” Since its founding in 1994, this center has been one of the most courageous pockets of resistance to nationalism, xenophobia, and intolerance in Serbia, and I’ll go back to interview the director, Borka Pavicevic.

The bigger controversy, however, was the decision of the Serbian interior ministry to cancel the Pride march on Saturday. There have been Pride marches and Queer Parades throughout the region, and many have attracted violent responses from neo-Nazis and skinheads. Violent demonstrators confronted marchers and the police at the Pride marches in Belgrade in 2001 and 2010, turning what should have been opportunities for the display of tolerance into ugly riots. The city authorities cancelled the march here in Belgrade last year as well, ostensibly to prevent violence but just as likely in response to pressure from religious and other groups.

The European Union has reacted strongly to the cancellation, basically telling the Serbian authorities to rein in the extremist elements and guarantee LGBT rights or risk further delays in accession. The current government of Tomislav Nikolic, of the rather conservative Serbian Progressive Party (an offshoot of the Serbian Radical party), has already expressed some reservations about fast-track membership in the EU, particularly if it requires recognition of an independent Kosovo. So, the EU’s stern response might not cause any sleepless nights for Nikolic and crew.

I was politically but also personally disappointed by the cancellation of the march because I had structured my itinerary so that I could be back in Belgrade to attend it. The events around Pride week are indeed a major test of how open Serbian society is becoming. I was struck by the superficial comparisons of the Ecce Homo exhibition to the recent controversy of the video, Innocence of Muslims. The latter was designed with the sole purpose of defaming Islam. The former draws on the teachings of Jesus who consistently stood with the marginalized. One preaches hate, the other love.

The message of standing with the marginalized should have particular resonance in Serbia these days, where the margins can often seem rather crowded. The EU focuses on ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. But even though the Orthodox Church is overwhelmingly the dominant faith, only a fraction of the population actually goes to church regularly, leaving the truly faithful feeling beleaguered. And many ethnic Serbians themselves feel as if they are on the margins of Europe, forced by more powerful countries to give up historic Kosovo and pushed nearly to the end of the line for EU membership.

Marginality is, of course, relative. My interpreter in Bulgaria spoke wistfully of how much better things were for Serbia.

“Really?” I asked. “After all that Serbia has gone through over the last 20 years? War, sanctions, refugees – ”

“Yes,” she said. “But they have Novak Djokovic, one of the top tennis players in the world. Don’t underestimate the importance of having a winner like that for the national psyche.”

And then there are all the Serbians who don’t live in Belgrade. According to a recent study of the news media by the National Coalition for Decentralization (NKD), only 17 seconds of the national TV news report is devoted to events outside the capital. Talk about marginalization! Milos, my interpreter in the lovely city of Nis, told me that 1,500 people a day move to Belgrade (other cited figures are lower, 300-500, but still sobering). The countryside is emptying out. The young and the talented, if they aren’t leaving Serbia altogether, gravitate to the capital.

It’s a shame, since Nis should be a thriving center of southern Serbia. The city is dominated by an enormous Ottoman-era fortress built on the foundations of a Roman outpost. Inside this well-preserved structure are cafes, an art gallery in a former mosque, a lapidarium of exquisite Roman fragments. Nis is an historic crossroads, the former Naissus where the Roman emperor Constantine was born in 272 AD. During the second Crusade, Serbian leader Stefan Nemanja had a historic meeting in Nis with Frederick Barbarossa. Stefan ate with a fork, according to a story dear to the heart of all Serbians, while Frederick ate with his hands (this symbol of Serbian civilization is immortalized in the powerful anti-war film Pretty Village, Pretty Flames). The city continues to be a crossroads, a busy bus portal halfway between Belgrade and Skopje and on the way from Sofia to Sarajevo.

The downtown is full of cafes, which are in turn full of people. This gives Nis a festive air, though my interpreter explained that unemployment means that people have lots of time on their hands to sit around and drink coffees. With Belgrade the artistic center of the country, the provinces are starved of culture. For a ten-year period until recently, Nis didn’t even have a movie theater.

My guide to Nis was Mladen Jovanovic, who runs NKD and is passionately devoted to decentralization. Distributing power more equitably around the country is essential to providing Serbians with a voice in their public affairs. The municipalities don’t even own the public facilities – the airport, the public buildings – because these remain in the hands of the national authorities. Investment is highly centralized. Politics is controlled through Belgrade, and the MPs from the regions are more likely to represent their parties than their constituents.

The issue of decentralization is critical to Serbia’s future. The regions of Vojvodina and Sandzak have pushed for greater autonomy. The European Union requires a measure of decentralization as part of the membership process. The conservatives in Belgrade raise the specter of disintegration. But Mladen points out that a refusal to decentralize responsibly will only produce greater resistance and provoke an increase in separatist sentiment.

Our conversation takes place over several hours at a mehana, or tavern, where we eat grilled rib meat and skewers of chicken livers wrapped in bacon, along with roasted lamb and potatoes and three different salads. This mehana, close to the wall of the fortress and next to a tennis club, brews its own brandy, and we sip from little flagons of their quince rakia. The mayor is sitting several tables away, conferring with his associates. The weather is perfect. The thwack of tennis balls hitting racquets fills the air.

Nis seems, at this moment, like such a sensible place to live, far from the bruising politics of Belgrade. All it needs, perhaps, is what Richard Florida has called the “creative class,” young software engineers and artists and, yes, gay people. Someday, in some not-too-distant future, rainbow flags will appear on the streets of Nis, and the margins in Serbia will be the new center.

How Much of Romney’s Bellicosity Toward Iran Is Just Campaign Theatrics?

Cross-posted from OtherWords, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.

The war of words over Iran’s nuclear program keeps expanding.

It’s now a multi-sided melee pitting Iran against the West and Israel, Israel against the Obama administration, Mitt Romney against Barack Obama, and neo-conservatives like William Kristol against the rest of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

The rhetoric is more heated, too. President Obama swears that his administration “will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” It’s his clearest indication to date that he would, if he deemed it necessary, order military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Robert Gates, Obama’s former defense secretary and a Republican, thinks such an attack would be “catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world.” Yet Romney and his hawkish advisers are accusing Obama of coddling the Islamic Republic, which the GOP challenger claims “has never posed a greater danger to our friends, our allies, and to us.” But neither he nor Obama will draw the “red line” for war that Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu demands.

A great deal of this bellicosity is mere campaign theatrics. Netanyahu is shamelessly interfering in U.S. politics, trying to paint Obama as a betrayer of Israel in the eyes of swing-state Jewish and evangelical Christian voters. We know he’s bluffing when he suggests Israel might attack Iran by itself because Meir Dagan, the former Israeli intelligence chief and no dove, called this threat “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”

Romney is playing the same cynical game as Netanyahu. In his October 8 foreign policy speech, he didn’t offer a single idea about Iran that differs from what Obama is already doing.

And here’s the deadly serious part: Amid the hullabaloo, Washington has indeed been “tightening the noose” (the White House’s phrase) on the Iranian economy with ever more stringent sanctions. The rial, the Iranian currency, went into freefall over two days in early October — losing 40 percent or more of its value. Even Iran’s smugly self-confident president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been forced to acknowledge that the sanctions are stinging.

Sanctions punish entire nations for the misdeeds of their leaders. In theory, if the general population suffers enough, it will get rid of those leaders and replace them with a more congenial elite.

There’s more to this dubious logic in Iran than there was in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where the people were powerless over the fearsome dictatorship. While hardly fully democratic, the Islamic Republic does hold regular elections that have meaning. There are real policy differences between Ahmadinejad, whose two terms in office are almost up, and the more mainstream conservatives who are working to anoint his successor as president next June. Iranian elections are unpredictable. If enough voters blame the hardliners for economic woes, a maverick candidate might emerge.

Ahmadinejad is already signaling a renewed interest in talks about the nuclear program. Obama might calculate that, after the twin presidential contests are over, Washington will be in a good position to get what it wants at the negotiating table. Romney may be thinking the same way.

The problem, as it always has been, is that the technology for generating peaceful nuclear power and building a bomb is the same. The United States and Israel have insisted that Iran can’t have atomic energy capacity, because the same highly enriched uranium could be fashioned into a warhead.

Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, however, Iran has the right to produce nuclear power — and the whole Iranian political spectrum believes in that right. To persuade Tehran to halt enrichment, Washington will have to offer a lot more than the prospect of more coercion.

In 2013, the U.S. president will need to accept this reality or inch down the path to another war in contravention of international law.

Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report , published by the Middle East Research and Information Project.


R2P Strikes a Chord: Sovereignty Alone Is Not Enough

Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy.

Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy.

While it is no consolation for beleaguered Syrians, the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has moved to general acceptance much more rapidly than many of those who steered the 2005 World Summit declaration expected at the time. They saw it as a first, almost tentative, step on a Long March to global acceptance. In 2009, for example, only four manifestly expediently motivated states (Venezuela, Cuba, Sudan, and Nicaragua) expressed any wish to rescind the 2005 decision—despite the latter’s foreign minister pushing that view in his capacity as President of the General Assembly.

In the recent UN General Assembly debate on R2P, few delegates questioned the principle itself. Indeed, the Assembly, representing mostly the smaller states which are supposedly so concerned about their sovereignty, had already overwhelmingly supported action in Syria and were clearly as unhappy with the Russian and Chinese abuse of veto power as they often are with Washington’s. Countries like Brazil and other “middle powers” have been actively working out methods of ensuring that R2P can be implemented over expedient superpower objections – while making sure those powers do not abuse the principle as, for example, some of them tried in Iraq.

Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, now President of the University of Winnipeg, comments, “In 10 years [R2P] has moved from a concept to a principle to a basis for some action. It has had a very fast track, going from being accepted as a concept, on to being enshrined in the 2005 resolution to being cited in the Libya Security Council resolution. If you think about the ways the world runs, the present nation states have been around for about 250 years, while R2P has only been around for ten—and it has made huge inroads. It clearly struck a response: people really understand that sovereignty is not enough.”

However, on Syria, Axworthy sees “A perfect storm of self interest. Putin coming back to the presidency in Russia, [President Obama] coming up for reelection reluctant for stronger action, the EU financial crisis where the Europeans got cold feet. My own country now has a very conservative government that does not recognize R2P. The major players needed to make R2P work have been absent.”

Axworthy also admits that the current form of R2P suffers from the compromises that were needed to pass the concept initially.

The concept of humanitarian intervention flew in the face of the founding principle of the United Nations. Despite the reference in the preamble of the Charter to “We the Peoples,” the UN has always stood for national sovereignty, as well as the somewhat idealistic notion of equality that gives China the same vote as Nauru in the General Assembly, even if the pragmatism of the veto for the larger powers tempered that metaphysical concept.

In that respect, the UN has been more successful than people give it credit. There might have been annexations, but with few exceptions those have yet to be accepted as legitimate by the world community—whether Kuwait or East Timor. Mired in exegesis about sovereignty, however, the organization failed in Rwanda and the Balkans, just as it had failed the Kurds and Shi’a in Iraq.

The two principles intersected with the second Iraq War in 2003, which, as Kofi Annan admitted, had no UN legitimacy whatsoever, and which terminally polluted the concept of humanitarian intervention when British PM Tony Blair expediently added it to the list of dodgy excuses for the war.

Just as “ethnic cleansing” became a near synonym for genocide, so “humanitarian intervention” was transformed to signify Western neocolonialism under camouflage of do-gooding. That made the achievement of Annan, Axworthy, and the others so much more creditable when they shepherded R2P through the GA. For those who scorn the weaselly language of diplomacy, the evolution of R2P is instructive not least for the way it neatly replaced the degraded phrase of humanitarian intervention.

The failings of the 2005 Declaration are part of the price it took to get the concept accepted. Axworthy points out that the delicate negotiations had to stroke susceptibilities about expedient use of the concept, so “every sentence in the crucial paragraph 139 of the Outcome Document repeats verbatim the formula that prescribes the only four events agreed to trigger rise to R2P’s application: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.”

That, he points out, narrows the scope. “Simply measure the elements of risk. … Disasters, environmental disasters, changes, refugees, desertification in Sahel or hurricanes in Caribbean,” and of course, shortly afterwards, we had governments refusing international aid for populations devastated by storms and floods. What does that mean for R2P, if your life is threatened? It doesn’t matter if it’s a new epidemic virus or environmental disaster or an AK47 transcending boundaries, if you can’t feed your kids.” Within three years in 2008, the world looked on horrified as the government of Burma decided its sovereignty was more important than rescuing typhoon victims.

Even so, he considers that “It’s very healthy that it is now a basis for discussion. But there has to be a better balance between those who lean to the Old Westphalian system, and establishing an international framework, ensuring that it is used positively for a practical function and not for fairly narrow purposes. Safeguards issues should be built on exit issues, early warning issues, some form of constabulary.”

He cites Libya, as “a case in which political will (largely inspired by strong regional calls for action) combined with R2P’s principles to produce effective action to stop a threatened atrocity. The Security Council’s steadily escalating responses included sanctions, referral to the ICC, an arms embargo and then the imposition of a ‘no fly zone.’ These culminated in the Council’s authorization of ‘whatever steps may be necessary’ to protect the Libyan population.”

It is sad but true that often in the court of world public opinion actions that are entirely justifiable in themselves can be damned as expedient because opponents can point to other cases that implied impunity. Why is it so insufferable to allow the Libyan or Syrian governments to murder—but not Bahrain? Why should the world unite to stop the shelling of Homs, but nod understandingly when Gaza comes under fire? So, although the Russians and Chinese did not directly veto the action, they used it to mitigate effective action.

They might not have been that attached to Gaddafi’s survival but they used the exigencies that the compromise resolutions forced on NATO and the Arab League first to hamper effective action and then to decry it as going too far. It gave them the traditional prerogatives of the harlot: power without responsibility. As a result, Axworthy points out, “Part of the problem is that the way the Libyan thing ended up, since it did end up looking like the white guys in suits running the world.” That perception obviously plays to the pro-Assad gallery at the UN — although his friends are noted more for their obduracy and power than the number. But one of the reasons the P5 still have a real veto is that they are among the few powers that could threaten a force projection that would be effective in R2P.”

The veto will stay for the foreseeable future, although, just like R2P itself, that should not stop the small and medium powers waging a campaign of attrition against it. Somewhat naively the original Axworthy Commission looked to the GA and “the Uniting for Peace Resolution” as a means of bypassing the veto if the P5 refused to accept limits. But the US, which had originated the bypass mechanism to bypass unreasonable Soviet vetoes has since denied it when the Palestinians brought into play to bypass what most of the world sees as equally unreasonable vetoes on behalf Israel.

“What we are missing is a voice around the issue that can contend with these things, that can raise issues,” concludes Axworthy—even as he points out that the Harper government in Ottawa has effectively abandoned the high moral ground Canada once had.

Although Susan Rice is a strong supporter of the concept, the US and even President Obama are hamstrung by domestic politics in relation to Israel and the veto. Looking around the world, there is a distinct shortage of the presence that could once have shamed Moscow and Beijing, let alone the financial clout to make them listen.

It is fortunate that SG Ban Ki Moon is a strong supporter of R2P, but his diplomatic work-style is built on strong talking in private but less ostentatious, albeit firm, statements in public. He lacks that concentration of global influence that Annan could call upon — and he has surely been trying.

R2P as a concept might have arrived sooner than expected — but who would have expected such an almost complete absence of ethics and charisma in world capitals. Almost, with Syria, the endgame might depend on the Ba’athist regime doing something silly to provoke Turkey to invoke the traditional right of self-defense, as did for example Vietnam, Tanzania and India to halt atrocities in neighboring countries. It would not be the best outcome for international law, the UN or R2P—or for that matter, the Syrians.

More realistically, those Middle Powers could put their efforts together with those of Ban Ki Moon and his new Deputy Jan Eliasson to press the recalcitrant superpowers to show them that there is a price, diplomatic or financial, for covering for mass murder.

Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world. He is currently writing a book on the Americans who blame the United Nations for all the ills of the United States. For more by Ian Williams visit Deadline Pundit.

Attacking Iran Is Like Setting Off Nuclear Bombs on the Ground

As you can tell by the title, this 61-page paper, The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble, is not Tehran-friendly. The report, released in September, is the product of Khosrow B. Semnani, an Iranian-American industrialist and philanthropist with, according to his bio, “extensive experience in the industrial management of nuclear waste and chemicals.” I’m in the midst of reading it in its entirety.

In the meantime, an excerpt from the executive summary (also available to those non-executives just as time-pressed as executives!) provides a good indication of exactly where Omid for Iran, Semnani’s organization, which released the report along with the Hinckley Institute of Politics and the University of Utah, is coming from.

The best long-term strategy would be a democratic, transparent, and accountable government in Iran. In such a scenario, political leaders would quickly understand that their people want jobs, dignity, opportunity, and political freedoms, not the false promise of nuclear weapons bought at a heavy, even existential, cost. A military strike would not only kill thousands of civilians and expose tens and possibly hundreds of thousands to highly toxic chemicals, it would also have a devastating effect on those who dream of democracy in Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei has proven that he cares little for the Iranian people. It is up to us in the international community, including the Iranian-American diaspora to demonstrate that we do.

Semnani et al state that while (all emphases theirs)

… there has been considerable debate about the timing and targets of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program, the costs and consequences of such strikes have not received sufficient atten­tion. Military planners at the Pentagon do provide policymakers with estimates of civilian casualties; these estimates are typically for operational purposes and not made available to the general public. Virtually no one has presented a scientific assessment of the conse­quences of military strikes on operational nuclear facilities. What is certain is the gravity of the risk to civilians: The IAEA has verified an inventory of at least 371 metric tons of highly toxic uranium hexafluoride stored at Iran’s nuclear facilities . The release of this material at sites that are only a few miles from major population centers such as Isfahan warrants a thorough and comprehensive assessment of the potential risks to thousands of civilians living in the vicinity of Iran’s nuclear sites.

Nor have Iran’s leaders shown any inclination to present such an assessment.

[They] have had no interest in making the risks of their reckless nuclear policies obvious to its citizens even though the resulting economic toll—inflation, unem­ployment, and the loss of international credit—has devastated the Iranian people. The Iranian military has not provided the Iranian people with any description of potential casualties resulting from attacks on these nuclear facilities. Nor has the parliament encouraged an open assessment of the grave implications of the government’s policies for Iranian scientists, soldiers and civilians working at or living within the vicinity of Iran’s nuclear facilities. This study seeks to address this deficit.

In regards to the Western and IAEA view that Iran is developing nuclear capacity, they write:

While no smoking gun has emerged to prove that Iran is pursuing a weapon. … Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, is making a deadly nuclear gamble .

Whether or not Iran is pursuing a weapon

… the political reality is this: Israel continues to threaten military strikes, should diplomacy fail. In a post-election United States, either a newly re-elected President Barack Obama or an incoming President Mitt Romney will face a ticking clock that will add an element of urgency to their decisions on Iran’s nuclear program. The risks to the Iranian people of military strikes have never been greater.

Holding all parties liable, they write:

By quantifying the costs of military strikes, we have sought to make the scale of the Ayatollah’s reckless gamble and the gamble of possible U.S. and/or Israeli strikes apparent not only to the Iranian people but also to the international community, including policymakers in the United States and Israel.

That the West isn’t contemplating nuclear strikes provides scant solace.

Conventional strikes involving the systematic bombing of nuclear installations can be far more devastating than nuclear and industrial accidents such as Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island or Bhopal. The damage from strategic aerial bombardment is planned to be total and irreversible. It leaves no time for intervention, no chance for evacuation and no possibility for containment.

Exactly what do Semnani et al see as the targets?

Beyond the sites, some military planners have suggested that any strike against Iran could extend to more than 400 targets, or “aim points.” The goal of the strikes would be to permanently cripple Iran’s ability to revive its nuclear program by targeting site personnel as well as the auxiliary and support infrastructure.

For the purposes of this study, we have assumed a conservative strike scenario and analyzed the impact of conventional military strike against four targets: Isfahan, Natanz, Arak and Bushehr. … We have not included the deeply buried Fordow site near Qom in our analysis due to the incomplete nature of information about this site. However, it is almost certain that Fordow would be targeted with powerful bunker busters. … We have restricted our estimates of casualties to those injured or killed as a direct result of strikes at the four nuclear facilities and the immediate vicinities only.

What kind of numbers are we talking about?

Based on the best information available as well as discussions with Iranian and Western nuclear experts, we have estimated the total number of people—scientists, workers, soldiers and support staff—at Iran’s four nuclear facilities to be between 7,000 and 11,000. … However, unlike traditional targets, the risks to civilians extend well beyond those killed from exposure to thermal and blast injuries at the nuclear sites. Tens, and quite possibly, hundreds of thousands of civilians could be exposed to highly toxic chemical plumes and, in the case of operational reactors, radioactive fallout. … Additionally, the environmental deg­radation due to the spread of airborne uranium compounds, and their entry into water, soil and the food chain would introduce long-term, chronic health risks such as a spike in cancer rates and birth defect

You get the idea. Beyond that, the attack and radiation will work its synergistic black magic in conjunction with Iran’s meager disaster management and emergency preparation capabilities. In other words, bombing Iranian nuclear facilities is like setting off nuclear weapons on the ground.

Semnani et al eloquently summarize (and remember this is just the executive summary):

Rather than dismiss them as collateral damage, it is time to factor the Iranian people into any equation involving military strikes. There is a strong moral, strategic, political and military argument for counting the Iranian people’s interests as a key factor in the nuclear dispute.

Compared to the interests of Jerusalem, Tehran, and Washington, those of the Iranian people come in a distant last.

Thanks Due Netanyahu for Forcing Obama’s Hand on Iran

“The rest of the world can stop worrying about Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s supposed threat to bomb Iran,” writes Gareth Porter at AlJazeera. “Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly last week appears to mark the end of his long campaign to convince the world that he might launch a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear programme.

“The reason for Netanyahu’s retreat is the demonstration of unexpectedly strong pushback against Netanyahu’s antics by President Barack Obama. And that could be the best news on the Iran nuclear issue in many years.”

I suppose we owe Netanyahu a debt of gratitude for his unrelenting pressure on the Obama administration to back him up in his threats to attack Iran. Were it not for that, as Porter reports, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey might not have said: “I don’t want to be complicit if they [the Israelis] choose to do it.” [and] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton [might not have] declared, “We’re not setting deadlines” [and Leon Panetta might not have said] “Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to put people in a corner.”

Balkan Blues

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and surveying its transformations since 1989.

The Bulgarian rock band Tangra.

The Bulgarian rock band Tangra.

In my last road trip in the Balkans several years ago, I drove from Bosnia to Albania because the other methods of transportation either took too long or cost too much. I didn’t relish the idea of driving in Albania. Still, I managed to survive the reckless traffic of Tirana — only to have someone in a small town in Montenegro take a sharp right from the far left lane directly in front of my car. A Kafkaesque ordeal followed – which involved an unwanted weekend layover, a bout of food poisoning, a lengthy interview with a judge, a long argument in Russian about traffic rules in Montenegro, a late-arriving interpreter who was the son of the person who ran into me, and finally a minor fine that I would have been happy to pay at the point of impact just so that I could have avoided this two-day Montenegrin interlude. As it was, to catch my flight home from Sarajevo, I had to drive at near-reckless speed through the mountains straddling Montenegro and Bosnia, during a major storm and with my stomach still roiling from my run-in with, I think, a bad squid the night before.

Despite this experience, I decided to take another Balkan road trip this last weekend. The editor of a Bulgarian opposition newspaper from 1990 was now living in Varna, a Bulgarian city on the Black Sea. I rented a car in Sofia and set off across Bulgaria. I planned to stop over in Veliko Tarnovo, to see where the first Bulgarian parliament met in 1878 (and again in 1990 to celebrate the return of democracy). After a day in Varna, I would make my way back to Plovdiv, the country’s second largest city, and then on to Sofia for a final meeting on Sunday evening.

It’s not a road trip without music. I didn’t have any CDs, so I went back and forth across the radio spectrum in search of something palatable. It was not initially auspicious. The stations were full of bad U.S. rock and the Bulgarian version of turbofolk called chalga. Finally, I happened on a station playing choir music. A Roma choir from Plovdiv was particularly good, with the characteristic yipping sounds that anyone familiar with Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares would instantly recognize.

I arrived in Veliko Tarnovo on a musical high. The city too was a revelation – a gorgeous medieval hillside town that would have made a more picturesque and centrally located capital than Sofia. I was told that the 19th-century Bulgarian leadership revealed their nationalist aspirations with the choice of Sofia. Although not as historically interesting as Veliko Tarnovo, Sofia was located closer to the lands to the west and south that the leaders coveted as part of their dreams of a Greater Bulgaria.

The next day, outside of Varna, I stopped for gas and bought a few CDs – a three-CD set of the music of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, some more Bulgarian choir music, and a compilation of Bulgarian rock music. It was on this last CD that I finally listened to a cut by Tangra, the legendary group that started out as a heavy metal band in the late 1970s and became a New Wave group in the 1980s.

A friend of a high school friend ended up marrying the lead singer of Tangra and moving to Bulgaria in 1990. So I was very fortunate to have a chance to interview Konstantin Markov. Rock and roll in the 1980s in Bulgaria meant freedom, he told me. So Tangra was constantly at risk of arrest – for transmitting Western influences to Bulgarian youth. Informers attended the concerts to make sure that the band didn’t depart from their officially approved lyrics. Still, they were able to write ambiguous lyrics that promoted freedom of thought in allegorical ways. Eventually frustrated by the worsening repression of the mid-1980s, the band left the country for Scandinavia. Once I’ve transcribed the interview – and I will go over all the transcripts with the interviewees to correct any errors – I’ll post the whole conversation.

In Varna, I was the guest of Vihar Krastev and Yassena Yurekchieva, who were the souls of hospitality. In 1990, I interviewed Vihar when he was the editor of an opposition newspaper called Vek 21. For two hours, with classical music playing in the background, he recounted his remarkable career. Kicked out of journalism in the 1980s because of his political views, he could only find a job as a bus driver. After the changes of 1989, he made his way back into journalism only. After a stint with Radio Free Europe, he did what many Bulgarians did in the 1980s: emigrate. A million people – out of a population of roughly 9 million – left the country. Many experienced what Vihar did. In Canada, the barriers to access to journalism were simply too high. So, he ended up doing something he’d learned how to do under communism: drive a bus. He eventually rose through the ranks to manage the Toronto transportation system, but it was a stressful job. He has now retired to Varna.

I left Varna in the early evening, with fruit and delicious homemade muffins courtesy of Yassena and Vihar. The drive from Varna to Yambol – about halfway to Plovdiv – was a harrowing experience that brought back memories of my Montenegrin odyssey. Navigating the mountains near the Black Sea coast at night was quite a challenge. There are few streetlights on the two-lane highway, of course. If you’re stuck behind a truck, you either creep along or muster the courage to pass. Meanwhile, drivers going up to the 140 km-per-hour speed limit are whizzing by you, sometimes around blind curves. At one point, an otherwise straight stretch suddenly banked to the left, and my headlights picked up the arrows only at the last minute. I simultaneously turned the wheel and braked, nearly spinning out of control and overturning the car. If there had been a car coming in the other direction, I would have had a head-on collision. Even without a collision, stuck with an upside-down car and a non-functioning cell phone would have made my Montenegrin experience seem like a holiday on the sea.

Once I turned away from the coastal highway and toward the interior, the road became much straighter, and the traffic thinned considerably. But one peculiar feature of the first section of this highway, before it became a brand-new expressway outside of Yambol, was the speed bumps. These are located in the small towns that the highway passes through. Perhaps during the day, these are easily anticipated. But at night, I’d be cruising along at 60 km per hour, having slowed down to pass through the town, and suddenly I’d be practically airborne as I flew over the hump in the road. It’s hard not to think of these speed bumps as a metaphor for Bulgaria’s development.

I had hoped to turn south from this road and venture into the Rhodope Mountains to track down an elusive Bulgarian poet and activist. Boris Hristev’s political career began in 1968 when he called up a Bulgarian radio station and asked why there were no reports about the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The producers at the station asked who he was: he gave his name. The next day the police came to his house and thus began twenty years of arrests and harassment.

While we were talking, Boris suddenly interrupted himself and asked me if I knew about the Balkan blues. I asked him what he meant. The color blue, he said, could be glimpsed in the architecture of Hungary, but as you travelled further south into the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, the blues became more and more significant. And it wasn’t just architecture, he said. It was also the music. He insisted that I couldn’t understand Bulgaria until I’d listened to the Balkan blues.

Later, I ran into Boris on the street. He pushed a cassette tape into my hands. “The Balkan blues,” he whispered into my ear.

“Whether or not listening to the music truly provides me with additional insights into Bulgarian culture, the music is certainly excellent,” I wrote at the time. There was panpipe music from Romania’s Gheorghe Zamfir, the flute playing of Bulgaria’s Theodosii Spassov, blues music from Albania and Greece, and much more crammed onto the cassette. I made copies for all my friends as a holiday present. It was one of my favorite stories from my travels in 1990.

Then, shortly before leaving for Bulgaria this time around, I was reading the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic’s collection of essays, The Culture of Lies. In one section, she writes of meeting a Bulgarian poet, Boris H. In the middle of their conversation, he suddenly mentions the Balkan blues and then…

Oh no, I thought. My wonderful story, which I always thought of as uniquely my own, was not unique at all. Boris Hristev was promiscuous with his musical affections! The mix tape, immortalized in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity as a supreme expression of idiosyncrasy and affection, turned out in this case to be a more general means of communication. Next year, I will try to interview Dubravka Ugresic to dig out more details about her own Balkan blues experience.

The mysterious Boris H., meanwhile, is holed up like a hermit in a mountain village and isn’t scheduling interviews at the moment. I’ll continue my entreaties. I’ll continue to listen to the Balkan blues. And I’ll keep hoping for another road trip, this time to the Rhodope Mountains to discover what the Bulgarian poet is listening to these days. Next time, though, maybe I’ll take the bus…

Romney’s Debate Zinger About China Provides Opening for Constructive Policy Debate

Cross-posted from the Peace Action Peace Blog.

So I have to admit that when I heard it last night during the presidential debate, I thought this was a clever zinger by Mitt Romney (or his speech writers more likely):

“What things will I cut from spending? Well, first of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don’t pass it: Is the program so critical that it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I’ll get rid of it.”

This needs a bit of unpacking (and my few points about this quote are far from comprehensive; I’m sure others have very different takes in it).

First, Romney’s “test” is somewhat appealing, purposely so I’m sure, to folks who are concerned about the U.S. debt, much of which is owned by China. However, one could have made the point in a generic way, leaving out the fact that China is our largest banker (“Is the program worth continuing to borrow money to pay for it?”). That would still be a good test, yes? In addition to judging government programs by that standard, people make that judgement in their personal lives all the time, determining whether to borrow money to buy a car or a house or to go to college is a smart move.

So was Romney’s mention of China just an off-hand remark? I don’t think so. “China” to many Americans can mean very different things, but many of them are, in my observation, unfortunately pejorative. So my guess is this was intentional, meant to raise unhelpful and maybe even racist stereotypes about China, and concerns about the U.S.-China economic relationship.

However, Romney gave us an opening, unwittingly I presume, for deeper analysis and conversation about the U.S.-China relationship, especially in the “security” realm (others could certainly go much deeper than I into the economic interdependency, not always healthy, between the world’s two largest economies).

Josh Rogin, blogging for Foreign Policy, captured this very nicely: “Is Romney saying it’s worth borrowing from China to build more ships to contain China?” This is so brilliant and succinct because this is exactly what the U.S. is doing now, and planning to increase in the future, under the military’s much-ballyhooed but little understood “Asia-Pacific pivot.” (For example, and speaking directly to Rogin’s point, the U.S. Navy has announced it plans to station 60% of the overall fleet in the Pacific.)

While Romney won’t publicly say this (and neither will Obama), the U.S. war machine needs an enemy to continue to justify its raison d’etre and its stranglehold on the lion’s share of our federal tax dollars. “International terrorism” just doesn’t cut the mustard. China is the only plausible “enemy” that might fit the bill.

Except China, which certainly has many economic, environmental, energy, human rights and democracy challenges, has no real interest in an arms race or global competition for military hegemony with the U.S. China certainly has regional interests that are of serious concerns to its neighbors, but it is simply not an expansionist power to anything like the degree the U.S. is. A few factoids on this are instructive:

• The U.S. has somewhere between 800 and 1,000 foreign military bases (there is no agreement on the number or even the definition of a “base,” which is why the number is so imprecise). China has one, a relatively new one at that, in Seychelles (which is telling, representing as it does a key Chinese concern, keeping open shipping lanes).

• At $711 billion per year, the U.S. spends about as much on the military as the rest of the world combined (and the full “national security” budget is over $1 trillion per year). China, with the number two military budget, spends about one-fifth of what the U.S. does, at $143 billion (figures from SIPRI, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute).

• The U.S. has a dozen aircraft carrier battle groups, able to project fearsome military might worldwide (to say nothing of our nuclear arsenal). China just recently inaugurated its first aircraft carrier, which experts say is at least several years away from minimal combat readiness, according to a recent Wall St. Journal article. At present it is fit only for training purposes, and China doesn’t have any jets that can land on it. So by U.S. standards, the number of Chinese aircraft carriers would be “none.”

• The U.S. military divides the entire planet into regional “commands,” with forces and power projection plans covering basically the whole planet. Neither China nor any other country has any such structure or capability.

So the wisdom and advisability of “pivoting” in order to economically, militarily and politically isolate your main banker is a head scratcher. Why would China want to underwrite that? Especially when its biggest economic interest will soon probably be to stimulate domestic consumer demand.

And why would this pivot, offering only a pointless, counter-productive military competition with China, be in the interests of the people of this country? It would certainly fail this test – should we spend our tax dollars on an idiotic, open-ended military buildup to “contain” China (when the best policy would be to rely on non-coercive diplomacy to balance the interests of all the peoples of the region), instead of on schools, sustainable energy and jobs, affordable housing, infrastructure and addressing climate change?

Kevin Martin is the Executive Director of Peace Action.

Off-Topic: The Presidential Debate — Does Aggressiveness Play With Swing Voters?

(Two notes: 1. Though the debate isn’t about foreign policy, Focal Points couldn’t help but weigh in. 2. The author is not a supporter of President Obama.)

Acquiescing to the conventional wisdom that Mitt Romney won the debate last night is surrendering to the notion that appearances are all that matters while content counts for nothing.

Romney labors under the handicap of trying to make policies that are unpalatable to the public palatable, which requires him to contort himself or outright lie. Also, his organization seems to have viewed the debate as an opportunity to solidify his drift from the far right in hopes of winning swing voters. But, assuming they were listening and not just watching, that segment of the population, as well as his supporters — not to mention his opponents — can’t help but be confused by the state of flux in which they found the candidate’s message last night.

Let’s, though, reduce ourselves to reducing the debate to appearances — to wit, Romney’s aggressiveness. First, seldom remarked upon is how, even in his most buoyant moments, tightly wound Romney seems. His presentation last night only made him look that much more excitable, a character trait that obviously doesn’t befit a presidential candidate.

Second, both conservatives and progressives urge their candidates to go on the offensive and puncture what they perceive as the other’s lies. But, arguably, much of the American public prefers that conflict and aggression be confined to reality TV shows.

One of my key electoral handbooks is Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work (Cambridge University Press, 2002) by political scientists Elizabeth Theiss-Morse and John Hibbing. Using focus groups and polls, the authors, as you may know, determined that more of the American public doesn’t participate in democracy because of an aversion to conflict in, say, town meetings and between candidates. The message that Americans are too soft for democracy aside, incivility in politics seems to make them as uneasy as corruption.

Like a spurned lover who doesn’t get the message, President Obama may have clung to his dream of bipartisanship with Republicans too long. But, outside of Washington, civility and cooperation in politics are alive and well. Most Americans believe those are principles to which politicians should adhere. Viewed through that prospective, Romney may have seemed less like an attack dog than a mad dog.

Belgrade: Gritty City

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and surveying its transformations since 1989.

The Turkish bath of Milos Obrenovic, now a bathroom and storage space for the Monument restaurant.

The Turkish bath of Milos Obrenovic, now a bathroom and storage space for the Monument restaurant.

Sometimes that person you immediate dislike becomes, over time, a close friend. In fact, the very things you disliked about that person can end up becoming his or her chief virtues in your eyes.

That’s been my experience with Serbia. The first encounter was certainly not auspicious. I first visited Belgrade in 1989, on my way south from Poland to the beaches of the Croatian coast. Or, at least, that’s where I thought I was heading. I arrived in Belgrade that July only to discover that all the bus and train tickets to Dubrovnik were sold out. During that summer, even with the Yugoslav economy in difficult straits, Dubrovnik remained a popular destination. Air tickets were available, but I didn’t have that kind of money. So, I ended up staying in Belgrade, disgruntled.

Belgrade seemed to me quite ugly, and I couldn’t wait to leave. I rescheduled my flight but still had to pass three days there. I could never get the hang of the city’s geography. Even with a map I was always getting lost. And everywhere I went I ran into the same two guys. Next to all the pictures of Tito hanging on the walls of restaurants and newsstands was this other fellow, Slobodan Milosevic, who looked like an apparatchik from central casting. I couldn’t wrap my head around all the signs that proclaimed “I [heart] Serbia.” I naively thought the creation of Yugoslavia had meant the death of nationalism. I obviously hadn’t been following recent events in the country.

My next visit to Belgrade was a 1990 flight with Yugoslav Air that passed through the country on the way to Poland. In those days, JAT was the cheapest way to get to Eastern Europe, but many of the flights with connections to points north required an overnight stay in Belgrade. On that particular night, we arrived late at night, near 10 pm, and were driven from the airport into the city to a reasonably nice three-star hotel. Sixty or seventy very hungry people crowded into the hotel lobby, waiting for the distribution of room keys. We waited. And waited. After an hour, it turned out that the hotel didn’t have rooms for us.

“Not to worry,” said our JAL representative. He packed us back into our bus, and we drove in the direction of the airport again. Near midnight, the bus stopped at a no-star hotel. Again we waited for an hour for our room keys to be distributed. The hotel had rooms for us, just not enough. I spent a restless night in a small room in a double bed with another guy, sleeping head to foot. Dinner that night was a huge platter of grilled meat that, because we were all ravenous, we tore into with abandon. There was plenty of alcohol to make us forget our ordeal and then, the next morning, to remember it in painful detail.

They woke us early enough to get to the airport three hours before our flights left. The airport wasn’t even open. I sat on a hard plastic seat and tried to sleep. Finally, it was time to check in.

“Ah,” said the young woman behind the counter, “you have to pay the airport tax.”

“Airport tax? No one had said anything about an airport tax.” I didn’t have any Yugoslav dinars, so I offered dollars.

“Oh no,” she said, “it has to be in dinars.”

“But the exchange booths aren’t open,” I pointed out.

She shrugged.

It turned out that I had a 15-minute window to exchange money, pay the tax, and, running with several other unhappy travelers, get onto the plane before it left. Goodbye and good riddance, I thought as Belgrade retreated into the distance.

An acquaintance later told me that she’d been in a similar situation at the Belgrade airport with one important difference: her early-morning flight left before the exchange booths opened. She waited until the last moment, walked up to the ticket-taking official, and threw a crumpled bill in his direction in lieu of the airport tax receipt. Then she ran through the turn style, down the ramp, and onto her plane just before they closed the doors. She became breathless all over again in the retelling, which made the improbable story believable.

Later that same year, I finally made it to Belgrade as part of my multi-country tour of the region. As soon as I arrived in the city, all of these bad memories flooded back. I had only one contact in the city. I called her up, interviewed her, and left for Zagreb the next day. There were even more pictures of Milosevic around, and the news of confrontations between Serbs and Croats in the Krajina region of Croatia were filtering in. Foreboding was thick in the air. The woman who owned the private flat where I was staying told me in a mix of Serbian and Russian that the Croatians were all fascists and the Albanians produced too many children. Civil society activist Sonja Licht, my one interviewee, provided me with an incisive critique of Milosevic and suggested that civil war had become increasingly likely. I couldn’t wait to leave.

Now, on my return to the region to retrace my steps, I’ve decided to start with Serbia. This might seem strange, since it’s the place where I talked to the fewest people. But I felt that I had been unfair to Belgrade. On a trip to the city a few years ago, I discovered that it wasn’t such a bad place after all. In fact, the pedestrian area in the downtown was charming and festive. I talked with artists and activists who were doing difficult and important work. But this visit in 2008 had also been brief, and I still felt that I hadn’t really seen Belgrade or Serbia.

I’ve already had several interesting encounters on this latest trip. I interviewed Sonja Beserko, once a member of the Yugoslav foreign ministry and long a sharp critic of authoritarian and nationalist politics. I ventured by bus to Pancevo, a suburb of Belgrade that NATO bombed repeatedly in 1999, to meet Sasa Rakevic, who writes comic strips under the name Alexander Zograf and published the wonderful book, Regards from Serbia. Later I’ll write more about these fascinating conversations along with a return visit with Sonja Licht.

But this Sunday I had a chance to wander around Belgrade and appreciate its intriguing tangle of streets. The city has been repeatedly destroyed over the years, by the Ottomans, the Austrians, and most devastatingly during World War II. Some buildings damaged during the 1999 bombing have been left standing as a reminder. Despite all this destruction, you can still find some lovely architecture – an art nouveau building, an old palace, an stately Orthodox church.

I had dinner at a restaurant called Monument, located in an addition to an old haram, or Turkish bath, that once was part of the extensive quarters of Milos Obrenovic. The placards hanging near the restaurant describe Obrenovic’s key role in Serbian history as a participant in the first uprising against Ottoman rule, a leader of the second uprising, and then a ruler who established the country as an autonomous dukedom.

Coincidentally, I was reading over dinner Helen Leah Reed’s 1916 book, Serbia: A Sketch. Just as I started in on my trout, I came upon the passage about Obrenovic. Reed adds something that the placards leave out: that Obrenovic had likely betrayed Serbian resistance leader Karadgordge to the Ottomans. So, it is fitting perhaps that all that remains of Obrenovic’s once vast estate – he was reputed to be one of the richest men of the Balkans – is this modest stone bathhouse, which now serves as a bathroom and storage facility for the restaurant.

Belgrade is not Prague. It’s not a beautiful city set up to accommodate tens of thousands of tourists. You have to work a little harder to appreciate the charms of the city. You have to dig a little to uncover its quirky history. But in the end, this struggle becomes perhaps this gritty city’s chief selling point.

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