Focal Points Blog

Exactly Why Is President Obama Going to Israel?

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he and U.S. President Barak Obama have agreed that when the U.S. President visits Israel they would discuss “three main issues … Iran’s attempt to arm itself with nuclear weapons, the unstable situation in Syria … and the efforts to advance the diplomatic process of peace between the Palestinians and us,” that’s not exactly what others are saying in either Washington or Tel Aviv.

As soon was announced that the President would be visiting the Middle East, supporters of the policies of the Netanyahu government went into overdrive in an effort to throw cold water on any idea that the diplomatic mission could achieve any breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.”

“While the US ambassador to Israel said today that Mr. Obama would visit the country with an ‘urgent’ mission to revive peace negotiations, Israeli diplomats said talks with Benjamin Netanyahu would focus on Iran,” reported the British daily Telegraph. “The peace process may be the subject that is initially emphasized in public but there are other issues on the table that must be addressed before the summer,” one diplomat told the paper, alluding to Israel’s spring deadline for Iran to stop enriching uranium. “The deal they will have done may be on the subject of war, not of peace.”

“There are currently bigger and much more urgent issues to address than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” one Israeli official told the Telegraph.

To say the U.S. moved quickly to squash any expectation that the President’s visit to the Middle East might move toward resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be an understatement. At a press briefing February 6, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that “this is a trip the President looks forward to making that is timed in part because we have here obviously a second term for the President, a new administration, and a new government in Israel, and that’s an opportune time for a visit like this that is not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals. I’m sure that any time the President and Prime Minister have a discussion, certainly any time the President has a discussion with leaders of the Palestinian Authority, that those issues are raised. But that is not the purpose of this visit.”

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, national security and foreign policy commentator Josh Rogin quoted former Congressman Robert Wexler, the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, as saying, “I don’t think it would be prudent to raise expectations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The trip is about Israeli security in the face of Iran’s nuclear program and in the context of the violence and conflict in Syria. Certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an important part of that, but I don’t think it would be accurate to highlight the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over other aspects of the relationship.”

All of this would seem to raise the question: why is he going?

In response to the demands of the Republicans and rightwing supporters of the Netanyahu government that he make such a pilgrimage? Not likely.

To bolster the standing of Netanyahu following the shellacking he and his Likud party suffered in the recent Israeli parliamentary elections? That has been suggested by Israeli critics of government policy.

To engage the embattled regime of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, with whom Obama will also meet after the visit to Israel, as some have suggested? That last suggestion is not farfetched. One element largely overlooked so far in the discussion about Obama’s visit next month is that he will also visit Amman.

“With the region already in flames – Egypt no longer a reliable US partner, and Syria in utter chaos – stability in the Hashemite Kingdom and the survivability of King Abdullah II is a crucial interest not only to Israel, but to the US,” wrote Keinon in the Jerusalem Post,” adding that Obama’s visit to Amman “and the signal that sends of US support for Abdullah – is not insignificant.” Evidence that Washington is concerned about the stability of the Jordanian regime has been around for some time.

Last October, the U.S. rushed troops to the Jordan-Syria border to bolster that country’s military capabilities. One hundred military planners and others are already on the scene, operating from a joint U.S.-Jordanian military center, and the U.S. forces are said to be building another base for themselves. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the move was prompted by developments in adjacent Syria.

On January 28, Abdullah II met with Khaled Mashaal, leader of the Palestinian political movement Hamas for the third time in one year. Abdullah is said to have told Mashaal that direct negotiations with Israel and the creation of a timetable for the two-state solution are “the only way to achieve security and stability in the Middle East.” Mashaal was reported to have said later that he and the king had discussed the inner-Palestinian reconciliation and examined the Palestinian issue and its future in light of the then upcoming U.S. and Israeli elections.

Mashaal, a Jordanian citizen, was exiled from the country in 1999, accused of being a risk to Jordan’s security.

During the meeting the king expressed his support of the inter-Palestinian reconciliation attempt, saying it forms the basis to bolster the Palestinian people’s unity and that only through unity could they achieve their legitimate rights, including a Palestinian state’s establishment.

Last year, Abdullah II met twice with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

On the other hand, there has been some speculation that there is, indeed, agreement between Washington and Tel Aviv on an approach to the Palestinian question. It’s called “get Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.” That’s the way U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro put it last week.

Herb Keinon, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, wrote February 8 that the U.S. “is looking for something from Jerusalem to dangle in front of the Palestinians and thereby bring the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table.”

It didn’t dangle long.

A headline two days later said it all: “Israel approves new settler homes ahead of Obama visit.”

It’s hard to get more provocative than that.

In defiance of international law that bars an occupying power transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territory – and overwhelming world public opinion – the Netanyahu regime has decided to build additional 90 units – the first of a planned 300 unites – in the Bet El illegal settlement, just east of the central West Bank city of Ramallah, the majority Christian capital of the Palestinian Authority.

“The advancement of this program could overshadow Obama’s visit,” said Yariv Oppenheimer, a spokesman for Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes settlement construction to the media. “This is a misguided and ill-timed decision.”

Misguided it was but there is little reason to think the timing was unintentional.

One idea being floated in the Israeli media (but so far disavowed by the government) is that Netanyahu has offered to suspend settlement activity in the West Bank, except in Jerusalem and around existing colonial blocks.

“While there are no guarantees, it is hard to believe that if Netanyahu made such an offer, and Obama and his new Secretary of State John Kerry pushed hard on Ramallah, PA President Mahmoud Abbas would reject it,” Keinon wrote February 8. “And one of the arguments likely to be used in prodding the Palestinians is that a failure to accept the offer, a continued refusal to reenter talks, could have negative repercussions on an already precarious Jordan.”

“The Palestinian position is clear,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in response to the new Beit El construction. “There can be no negotiation while settlement continues.”

The Secretary-General of Palestinian People’s Party Bassam al-Salhi told the news agency Ma’an that Obama’s visit may create the “illusion” of returning to negotiations, but would have no impact on the peace process. Jamal Muhaisen, a member of the Central Committee of the Palestinian political party Fatah, said negotiations can resume only when Israel fulfills its previous commitments under international law and stops settlement construction on occupied land.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official with the Palestine Liberation Organization and member of the Palestinian National Council, said she and other Palestinians would welcome Obama’s visit “if it signals an American promise to become an honest and impartial peace broker…which requires decisive curbs on Israeli violations and unilateral measures, particularly settlement activity and the annexation of Jerusalem, as well as its siege and fragmentation policies.”

“Negotiating in good faith means you don’t place preconditions,” Netanyahu recently told a group of settlers. “In the last four years, the Palestinians have regrettably placed preconditions time after time, precondition after precondition. My hope is that they leave these preconditions aside and get to the negotiating table so we don’t waste another four years.” Well, not exactly. The chief impediment to achieving a solution to the conflict has been and remains the Israeli governments continued colonial expansion. While Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party didn’t do as well as it had expected to in the last election, gains were made by coalition partners even further to the right who oppose a Palestinian state and advocate outright annexation of major parts of the West Bank.

“Should we be happy or not?” Israeli writer Uri Avnery asked last week, concerning the upcoming visit of the U.S President. Writing from Tel Aviv in Counterpunch, he answered: “Depends. If it is a consolation prize for Netanyahu after his election setback, it is a bad sign. The first visit of a US President since George Bush Jr. is bound to strengthen Netanyahu and reinforce his image as the only Israeli leader with international stature.

But if Obama is coming with the intention of exerting serious pressure on Netanyahu to start a meaningful peace initiative, welcome.

Netanyahu will try to satisfy Obama with “opening peace talks.” Which means nothing plus nothing.

Yes. Let’s talk. “Without preconditions.” Which means: without stopping settlement expansion. Talk and go on talking, until everyone is blue in the face and both Obama’s and Netanyahu’s terms are over.

“But if Obama is serious this time, it could be different,” wrote Avnery, a founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, who has been advocating a two-state solution for decades. “An American or international blueprint for the realization of the two-state solution, with a strict timetable. Perhaps an international conference, for starters. A UN resolution without an American veto.”

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator , where he serves on its editorial board. His writing can also be found at Left Margin.

The Bulgarian Turn

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

When I visited North Korea in the late 1990s, I ended up having the longest conversations with my interpreters. When you’re an infrequent visitor to that benighted country, it’s not possible to travel freely and talk to whomever you like. You invariably spend a lot of time eating and drinking with the people who have been vetted to interact with you. One of my interpreters had spent several years in New York City, could sing You Are the Sunshine of My Life, and spoke fondly of Jewish delicatessens. It was fascinating to talk with him, but I would never equate his opinions with those of an average North Korean.

On my recent trip to Bulgaria, in contrast, I could of course go anywhere and talk to anyone. But here too I had some very in-depth conversations with my interpreter, Vihra Gancheva, and these proved considerably more representative than my discussions with my North Korean guide. What I found particularly interesting was her evolution over the years toward a greater appreciation of Bulgarian ways. She didn’t go so far as to proclaim herself a Bulgarian nationalist. She preferred the designation “patriot.”

Our discussion was sparked by a meeting with Volen Siderov, the controversial leader of Ataka, an unabashedly populist-nationalist party. When we walked out of the meeting, Vihra remarked that he seemed much more sensible than she’d expected. I was surprised. She was a well-read intellectual who knew a great deal about the world outside Bulgaria. She did not, in other words, strike me as a natural constituent of Ataka. But it would be a mistake to assume that Bulgarian nationalism – or patriotism, as some would define their belief system – has no appeal for people who might otherwise appear to be cosmopolitan.

I asked Vihra if she thought there had been an increase in nationalism over the last two decades. She believed there had been. “If you had asked the question 20 years ago, I was a victim of Western influence back then,” she said. “I loved everything Western and hated everything Bulgarian. I was so ashamed at how Bulgarians worked and even attitudes toward hygiene (well, I’m still ashamed about hygiene). But back then I wanted to embrace everything Western. And now I realize that this shouldn’t have happened because we have our own way. We should try to learn, but we should not forget where we come from.”

She continued, “This rise of nationalism is, I suppose, a reaction to this, a shift in the opposite direction from what happened in the 1990s. I think it’s a natural thing.”

Interpreters translate language. But they also translate culture. Here, Vihra Gancheva interprets a certain cultural shift that has taken place since 1990 that might be called “the Bulgarian turn.”

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Surprisingly when I thought hard about it, I couldn’t remember when I heard about the Berlin Wall falling. Information wasn’t coming so quickly to us back then. I remember hearing rumors about it. But I didn’t actually believe them because communist propaganda was very strong at the time. And I didn’t trust rumors. I thought they were just deliberate rumors.

Besides, I was not interested in politics at all. I was 23. I was in my third year at university. I was as far as possible from politics or anything related to news. It took me about 10 days to become completely hooked. I embraced the whole thing. It didn’t happen immediately because I was busy doing other things.

When I came home on the 10th of November in the evening, my mother told me that Todor Zhivkov was forced to step down or he was ousted. I wasn’t impressed. I said, “They’ll replace him, it’s not a big deal.” Incidentally it was meant to be not a very big deal. I believe it was a coup d’etat. At that time, I hated this idea because I don’t like conspiracy theories. I don’t like imagining a bunch of crooks sitting around a table like Greek gods deciding the fate of the nation. I thought it was something that we had earned through street protests and rallies. But 20 years on, I realize that this was not the case. It was a coup d’état, and it had been organized for several years, maybe since the mid-1980s.

There was a point when the Communist Party thought that things were getting out of hand. They were not prepared for the hatred that poured out at them. They thought that they could control everything, as they did in Russia perhaps and are still doing. But the hatred from the Bulgarian people was so strong that there were street fights because someone called the other person “comrade,” even though people were just saying it out of habit. Even the choice of words placed you with the Communist Party or against it. People accused each other of being members of the Party.

I remember being so excited about it all. I stopped going to school. I only went to school to see the list of rallies and decide which one to go to. I remember when Demokratsia newspaper was being printed. It was not sold in kiosks because the kiosks were run by the establishment. People stood at corners selling the newspaper. I remember getting up early just to buy it. I bought so many newspapers, and I still have them somewhere at home. The articles were so interesting, so cleverly written. It was an enlightenment that I went through.

My grandfathers were both members of the Communist Party — since the 1930s when it was progressive to be a communist, when it was about liberating the people, the workforce, social welfare. One of my grandfathers was expelled from university for communist propaganda. He was even sent to a kind of prison in Greece. My parents were among those few who refused to become members of the Communist Party. It was a great honor to be invited. And if you refuse, it’s weird. But my parents found some excuse. It was a problem for their career afterwards, but they survived.

For me, it was never an option because I hated the meetings. It was such a waste of time, such a cliché, all those set phrases that the communists used. There was a “military movement of the children” that was like the Boy Scouts but with communist propaganda. The communists were very clever to invite the more active children, the conscientious pupils who wanted to progress in life, to become leaders of these organizations. As one of these pupils, I was also invited. I was bored to death! I couldn’t stand it. But at the time, when you’re so young, you can’t protest. I’m not a fighter. I was just bored. For me, communism was something to be endured.

On the other hand, I was so scared by the threat of a war that I thought that the collapse of communism would mean World War III. Years later when I realized that the Americans were living in fear of Russia, I laughed. There’s this poem — Xotyat li Russkie Voyni?Do the Russians Want War? – by Yevtushenko. For me this was laughable, but now I realize that there was some reason for this fear. But anyway, I lived in fear and I remember when SALT II was signed, I was worried: will they sign it? Will there be peace?

Communists were there to be endured. My idea at the time was that we should just live our lives trying not to cross their paths. Later I realized how brainwashed I’d been. I knew nothing about the concentration camps. Of course I knew about Belene, but I thought this was only a problem for the first years after the war. I had no idea that these things were still happening — probably because my family and my immediate friends were not affected. I trusted the police completely. I trusted them more than I do now! I was definitely not politically minded.

But when this process started and I started reading and realizing the way things were, I was really shocked. I hated the Communists so much. When I hear good things said about the Party, about the leaders, it just gives me the creeps. Although I must admit that they are well-educated, smooth talkers. The former prime minister from this party, he was a much better educated and sophisticated person than the current prime minister. But the previous government was one of the worst. It made so many mistakes. Though some people say that it introduced some economic benefits through the taxation process that benefited anyone but the poor who are their electorate.

In 1989, we realized that anyone could become a politician. Before that politics was a place reserved only for the political elite, for the communist bourgeoisie. Then, in 1989, there was such turmoil that anybody could make it. This is also a bad thing too, because a lot of people ended up as politicians without being prepared in any way. They were not even good professionals. On the other hand, there were some good professionals who became politicians and made policies.

After the elections of June 1990 my hopes were crushed very quickly. There was a famous rally of one million people on Eagle’s Bridge. I was there and so excited and full of hope, and I was sure that Bulgaria would become like Austria in a couple years. The next day was election day. And then we realized that the Communist Party would be in power and everything would be the same. I remember going to the party headquarters of the UDF on Rakovsky Street, and I sat there with hundreds of other people on the pavement and we were in a stupor. I didn’t cry, but I felt as if someone had died. It was so sad and hopeless and stupid. I was angry, but mainly I was disappointed.

Were you tempted at that time to join the City of Truth?

Yes, from the ideological point of view. But I didn’t do it because I wasn’t ready to sacrifice my comfort at home. I was not much of a revolutionary. I went there every evening and spoke to people and signed petitions. I did whatever I thought I could. But I didn’t join. Surprisingly, none of my friends joined. We were all excited about it. We worried that the police would come and chase them away, but nobody decided to live there.

When you think back to 1989 and 1990, do you think this shift came along just at the right time personally for you?

Yes, it came at the right time for me to appreciate it fully. Honestly, if I had been younger, I wouldn’t have been able to understand it much. If I had been older, I would have been cynical about it. I was very open. I embraced it. I reveled in my naiveté. There were so many people who said, “Don’t believe these guys. They’re the same. They are only thinking about their own gain.” But I didn’t want to listen. I believed them, although I didn’t join a party. Party life is not something that I’m after. I never joined a party, never even considered it. Maybe that’s my nature. I prefer to be an observer than an activist.

How about your parents? How did they react?

Luckily, we were on the same side. We went together to rallies. We discussed things at home. We cursed at the communist propaganda on TV. We were worried about whether there would be enough paper for Demokratsia. I say “luckily” because there were families where this was a major problem. I can understand that this could be a serious problem. Even nowadays, when I meet people, I try to ask a question quite early on — not whether they support the Communist Party, it’s not that simple any more — but to understand what kind of frame of mind the person has, to know where to place them. Maybe this is prejudice. I have friends who vote for the Bulgarian Socialist Party. I don’t like that part about them. I accept them, but with reservations.

Did you think about going abroad after your disappointment? Did you talk about it with your circle of friends?

All the time. This was the topic that everyone was discussing. But I don’t think any of my close friends actually left. First, we didn’t have exit visas, but then exit visas were dropped in the 1990s, quite early on. I wanted to travel. When I went to Bratislava in the early 1980s I had a cultural shock because it was so much better than Bulgaria in terms of goods. My consumerism was stirred for the first time. I went to a stationery shop and I said, “I’m not leaving here!” I loved everything about it. Even Slovakia was better off back then.

Travelling around was something we cherished. I still can’t say that I’m widely travelled. I wish that I could say that. It’s a matter of money, mainly. Of course we talked about emigration. Surprisingly 20 years on, this is still a hot topic at dinner parties, between friends. It’s still an issue because Bulgarians keep emigrating in new waves every couple years. This is very sad. One million people from the active population, ambitious people with professions, have left the country. It’s very sad. It’s one of the worst outcomes of the changes.

And I still have friends who are seriously talking about leaving. But I don’t think they’ll ever do it. In order to emigrate you have to sever all the ties with the past. And I don’t think we’re ready for that. I’m middle class. I’ve always been. And I don’t want to become an immigrant. I don’t even want to work abroad, well, maybe for a couple years, but only if there’s a time limit on it. Maybe I’m too much of a nationalist, I don’t know. And I think I have too much here to give up. Those people who are poor, who have no family relations, who have no jobs, for them, it’s easier to emigrate. I have a good life here. Why should I give it up?

Do you feel any pride about staying behind?

I don’t know. The pride of being here to endure…

Or to help build the country?

Actually this is an interesting discussion. The Bulgarians who emigrated always say that only the ones who are no good stayed, and we who stayed say that those with nothing to lose left. This is a never-ending discussion. There’s no clear answer to it. Maybe I am proud. If I had emigrated, I would have felt uprooted and lost, because only a few years after leaving your country you feel neither with your own people nor with the people of the other country. This is the way I was raised. I’m not much of a cosmopolitan. I would love to travel for a year in the United States, for instance, this would be a life’s dream. But living there, settling down? I can’t imagine myself doing that.

It’s interesting that you don’t consider yourself much of a cosmopolitan. But your job is very cosmopolitan.

Yes, it is. And it’s getting even more so. Maybe the upbringing that I received during communism, all this patriotism that was instilled in us, is strong in me. I have a love for the Bulgarian language. I can’t imagine my children speaking Bulgarian with an accent. I think that this is disgusting. So many Bulgarians speak English to their children just so that they don’t learn Bulgarian. And I think this is outrageous. I have an interest in other nations, which is one of the characteristics of being cosmopolitan. But apart from that….Maybe I like Bulgaria too much.

That’s a good segue into your evaluation of how much Bulgaria has changed or hasn’t changed since 1989. What score would you give it, on a scale of one to 10, with one being dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

I would say 6, even though I was deeply disappointed. Still, after 2000 and after Bulgaria joined the EU, things changed for the better here in many ways. Bulgaria is a better place to be. The cities look better. The highways look better. So, I think that we are on the right track.

But things in Bulgaria are moving very slowly because this is our mentality, which is the result of our 500 years of Turkish occupation. We have the Turkish occupation and the Russian occupation to use as excuse, but I think the Turkish occupation was the worst. It just changed Bulgaria completely forever. We are slow, we don’t make decisions. The decision-making process in Bulgaria is absolutely corrupt. Nobody wants to commit to a decision. They always push decisions upward. And then the prime minister has to decide simple, silly things. And things don’t happen because the prime minister can’t do every single thing in the country. People don’t take responsibility. They just sit back and wait for the storm to pass. We just kill time and wait for the problem to hit the bone, as we say. Once the bone is hit, then we might be stirred to action.

As far as my personal life is concerned, I would say 6 or 7 because I think first of all, one should be thankful for what one has — for being healthy, for having a job, for being able to express freely what you think. I didn’t say 10 because there are a lot of things in life that I didn’t do. As I said, many of my classmates are millionaires, and I’m far from that.

How would your life be different if you were a millionaire?

I don’t know! I think that money corrupts. I don’t want to be a millionaire. One of the problems in Bulgarian society nowadays is that we allowed ourselves to be corrupted by money. But it’s inevitable. Once the market economy starts commanding things, consumerism comes in and money comes into play. In the past, in communist times, it was considered bad taste to ask someone about money, to ask even about how much you paid for these shoes. We never asked that question. Nowadays, it’s become much more common to talk about salaries, about debt, car prices. I don’t like this. It’s definitely a drawback. And I’ve become a person whose life is ruled by money too, as much as I dislike it. Of course I could have become like a hermit and lived in the mountains, and I’m sure I would have planted potatoes. But I’m not that kind of person. So I don’t want to be a millionaire.

There is no free lunch, you know. It’s a trade-off. Even if you don’t make your hands dirty with some illegal business – because millionaires in Bulgaria are not really self-made — you should work very hard. And perhaps I don’t want to work that hard.

And how about the future of Bulgaria, on a scale of one to 10 with one being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

Having in mind what the Mayans predicted for December 21, 2012, I prefer to think positively. I hope that my life will turn for the better. I have no way but to hope. I think that’s the right frame of mind. If you’re down, you can only go further down. So, 7. Maybe I’m too naive but I think that being naive makes you closer to childhood. If you’re too cynical — though I’m quite cynical too — but if you’re cynical all the time, it makes you old.

On several occasions you’ve said that maybe you’re a Bulgarian nationalist. You love the language. You like living here. Presumably you know a lot about Bulgarian history…

Not as much as I should.

If you were talking to a fellow Bulgarian, would you call yourself a Bulgarian nationalist?

Maybe not a nationalist, but a Bulgarian patriot. In the past, we distinguished between being a nationalist and a patriot. I still think I’m a patriot rather than a nationalist. Progress in life doesn’t depend on your genes or your nationality. It depends on the chances that you are given in life and on some gifts that should be allowed to evolve. But I like Bulgaria and I’m very sorry that it’s developing so poorly.

Do you feel like there has been an increase in nationalism in Bulgaria?

Yes, I think so. If you had asked the question 20 years ago, I was a victim of Western influence back then. I loved everything Western and hated everything Bulgarian. I was so ashamed at how Bulgarians worked and even attitudes toward hygiene (well, I’m still ashamed about hygiene). But back then I wanted to embrace everything Western. And now I realize that this shouldn’t have happened because we have our own way. We should try to learn, but we should not forget where we come from.

This rise of nationalism is, I suppose, a reaction to this, a shift in the opposite direction from what happened in the 1990s. I think it’s a natural thing. When you give too much liberalism to one group, the other group wants its own position back. It’s always a trade-off. I think that given what happened with the Roma population over the years, nationalism was inevitable. Even people who had no frame of mind of the sort became nationalists after seeing what happened. We have nothing against anyone provided they pay their taxes and are law-abiding citizens.

Is there something today that you do that, 22 years ago, you would have made a choice to do in a Western way?

Maybe it’s my frame of mind not so much what I do. Well, I read Bulgarian books today, which I didn’t do in the past. Twenty years ago, I only read the English or American books that I could get hold of. But this was related to my job, my studies. Maybe I don’t hate the Bulgarian style so much. I’ve found something charming about it. Back then, I was definitely against it. I was keen to become totally different: to work totally hard, to adopt a different mentality just to be different. Now I realize that it’s not possible, not necessary, and it can’t happen.

And your decision-making skills?

I’m very bad at decisions. I try to imagine myself in both ways and I can’t. I definitely put things off until the last moment, just like the Bulgarian that I’m proud to be! But there are some things that I feel strongly about. The nuclear power plant, for instance.

Yes or no?

Definitely not. I’m an environmentalist too. My father said if everyone was hesitant like me, mankind would still be in the primordial soup.

You’re a freelancer. Was there a point at which you left an office job to become a freelancer?

I worked for the government for a day and a half, as an interpreter for the minister of energy. That was my charity work, and I was done with it. I’ve worked other office jobs, with very strict, long hours. I was lucky to land a corporate job in 1991. It was my first employment, and I learned a lot there about corporate culture.

But one should find the office environment that corresponds to one’s age and frame of mind. A fresh graduate can work hard, do long hours. But as I grew older, I decided I needed more freedom. I became a teacher for a private school, teaching English to adults. I enjoyed that freedom. Then I got back into business. I became a freelancer in 2005, which is not very long ago. But I can’t imagine myself back in an office. I hope that the crisis will not get that bad to force me to do it.

How is the situation in Bulgaria for freelancers?

It’s quite bad because the demand is not very high and the supply of translators and interpreters is very high. It used to be great in 2007, but then we joined the EU, which changed the kind of work we were supposed to do. Then the crisis started, and companies stopped having trainings and workshops and conferences. They just reduced these activities to the limit.

Do you consider yourself a European?

Yes, I would say that I’m a European. I’m proud of Bulgaria’s history, especially the ancient history. Back then, Bulgaria was a European power. No question about it. Culturally, Bulgaria was quite strong too. I’m okay with being European.

How do you feel about Bulgaria’s integration into Europe? Did you have the same hopes around that as you did in 1989-90?

As for the European Union, we also had high hopes, but it came too late. Of course I realize that Bulgaria and Romania were not ready to join. We were let in for political reasons, mainly to sever our links to Russia. And I think that this has saved us. Knowing our sentiments toward Russia, we would have always been their satellite. We still are. We are the Trojan Horse of the Russians in the EU. Everyone says that, it’s not a secret at all. And I’m sorry about that, but that’s the way things are. People here just like the Russians.

The Lukoil gas stations are very nice.

The owner of Lukoil is a good friend of the former Bulgarian president and of the current prime minister: he’s friends with everyone. I think that a lot of things can be explained with that.

As far as the EU is concerned, some cynics said that now that Bulgaria is in the EU, the EU will collapse. It didn’t look like that in 2007, but now one starts wondering if this might not happen quite soon. It’s good for us to be placed within certain limits, for rules to be imposed on us. We tend to wander off because we’re so undisciplined.

On the other hand, the EU is so bureaucratic. If you consider how much money is wasted, even on the translation of documents. They translate every single directive into Gaelic. This is ridiculous. In a time of crisis, why not invest this money into something more normal? I don’t think the EU is very productive, the way it is dealing with the crisis. But we have no other choice. So I’m glad that we joined the EU, although we were not ready to do it. But I don’t want us to join the Shengen area because I don’t want so many immigrants to come and live in Bulgaria. We have a lot of people to give social assistance to, even without the Africans or Asians coming here.

Even though Bulgaria’s population has lost 1.5 million people…?

Yes, but these are the working people who left. I realize that Bulgaria is very sparsely populated. I realize we can’t be a vacuum for long. Bulgaria is a beautiful country, with a beautiful climate, beautiful food. We will be populated by somebody. But we should work on bringing over the ethnic Bulgarians living in Moldova. There’s a large group living there that’s not doing very well in terms of their ethnic rights. The Macedonians are also welcome, of course!

Sofia, September 30, 2012

John Keegan: Soldiers and Pacifists Share the Same Qualities

John KeeganWhen John Keegan died on August 2, 2012, it escaped me — I’m embarrassed to admit that I was unaware of his existence. Keegan, a lecturer in military history of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and later military affairs editor at the Telegraph, wrote influential books on military history designed to appeal to the public, as well as historians. An obituary in the Washington Post spoke of Keegan, “whose groundbreaking book “The Face of Battle” cast a fresh look at warfare, capturing the fears, anxiety and heroism of the front-line soldier.”

In a 1994 interview with Brian Lamb on C-Span, he speculated on his popularity in the United States.

I think Americans like — they like the practical; they like the human. And I like both those things myself, and I try and put them into my books. I like to try and pick problems to pieces in a practical way and also pick them to pieces in a human way. eals to American readers.

This was exactly the approach Keegan took in The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme (Viking, first edition 1976), which I just finished reading. He quickly dispenses with the military command’s planning to focus on both the soldier’s experience on the battlefield and the details — such as equipment and positioning — which may play an even larger role in determining victory than the overarching strategy.

It’s as if Keegan transports readers to the battlefield in a helicopter where they can hover and observe in detail the myriad linchpins on which the outcome of the battle turns. I fail, however, to do him justice. An excerpt might help.

For example, at Agincourt in 1415 during the Hundred Years War, the French forces vastly outnumbered the British. But that advantage worked against them. Why? The “enormous press of the numbers,” Keegan writes. At a critical point, the French (emphasis added)

… numbering some 5,000 in all, those in the base a shapeless and unordered mass amounting to, perhaps, another 3,000 — and all of them, except for the seven or eight hundred in the leading ranks, unable to see or hear what was happening, yet certain that the English were done for [because they were outnumbered -- RW], and anxious to take a hand in finishing them off.

Worse …

No one … had overall authority in this press [the operative word here -- RW], nor a chain of command through which to impose it. The consequence was inevitable: the development of an unrelenting pressure from the rear on the backs of those in the line of battle, driving them steadily into the weapon-strokes of the English, or at least denying them that margin of room for individual manoeuvre which is essential if men are to defend themselves — or attack — effectively. This was disastrous, for it is vital to recognize, if we are to understand Agincourt, that all infantry actions, even those fought in the closest of close order, are not, in the last resort, combats of mass against mass, but the sum of many combats of individuals — one against one, one against two, three against five. … At Agincourt, where the man-at-arms bore lance, sword, dagger, mace or battleaxe, his ability to kill or wound was restricted to the circle centred on his own body, within which his reach allowed him to club, slash or stab. Prevented by the throng at their backs from dodging, side-stepping or retreating from the blows and thrusts directed at them by their English opponents, the individual French men-at-arms must shortly have begun to lose their man-to-man fights, collecting blows on the head or limbs which, even through armour, were sufficiently bruising or stunning to make them drop their weapons or lose their balance or footing. Within minutes, perhaps seconds, of hand-to-hand fighting being joined, some of them would have fallen their bodies lying at the feet of their comrades, further impeding the movement of individuals and thus offering an obstacle to the advance of the whole column.

In the C-Span interview, Lamb posed a provocative question to Keegan.

LAMB: Are you a pacifist?

KEEGAN: Ninety five percent.

LAMB: What’s the 5 percent?

KEEGAN: There are certain wicked people in the world that you can’t deal with except by force.

LAMB: That 5 percent, then, allows what?

KEEGAN: It allows the use of extreme force in a measured way — if possible, in a measured way in order to curtail or extinguish the activities of these wicked men we’re talking about.

His definition of pacifism grew even broader.

KEEGAN: … I will never oppose the Vietnam War. I thought that the Americans were right to do it. I think they fought it in the wrong way, but I think that they were right to oppose the attempts by Ho Chi Minh and Giap to make the whole of Vietnam into a Marxist society.

LAMB: Let me go back to your thing about being a pacifist. Is that your 5 percent coming out?

KEEGAN: Yes. I wouldn’t have felt it was the end of the world if the Vietnam War hadn’t been fought. It’s not that kind of war. I don’t think it’s a war like fighting Hitler, but I think it was a correct war, a right war, and it had indirect effects of the greatest importance as well.…

LAMB: Does that make you a conservative?

KEEGAN: I did vote conservative in the last two or three elections. …

LAMB: With American conservatives hearing you say, “How could he be a pacifist, almost, and be a conservative at the same time?”

KEEGAN: No difficulty at all. Even a pacifist, I think, should admire the military virtues. And, indeed, the best pacifists have those virtues themselves: self abdication and willingness, if necessary, to sacrifice their lives for what they believe. … I would say a soldier has mortgaged his life. He said, “Here is my life, and I can only have it back again when the end of my service comes and I salute for the last time and take my pension.” I think a pacifist is the same, except, perhaps, his willingness to sacrifice his life never goes.

Whichever the case, Keegan was concerned with how the risk to troops increased in rough proportion to how technological the military was becoming. He was also troubled by the gap between how civilized peacetime society — we’ll put aside mass murder in the United States for the moment! — has become compared to war’s increasing lethality (the ability of military medicine to snatch soldiers from the jaws of death notwithstanding). From The Face of Battle again:

The modern Western state accepts the responsibility not merely to protect the individual’s life and property, traditionally the legal minima, but to educate and heal him, support him in old age and when unemployed, and increasingly to guarantee his prosperity. [Remember: This is 1976. -- RW] Might the modern conscript [again, remember that this is 1976] not well think, at first acquaintance with the weapons the state foists on him, that its humanitarian code is evidence either of a nauseating hypocrisy or of a psychotic inability to connect actions with their results?

A final note on Keegan: he was a literary stylist of the first order. Next, I’ll read The Second World War (Viking Press, 1990) and report back.

Obama Could Go it Alone, Bring All the Troops Home, and Stop the Killing

Obama State of the UnionPresident Obama said during his State of the Union address that he would focus on things he could do alone — without having to depend on a badly divided, partisan Congress. And the powerful imagery he summoned in support of voting rights — real, implementable voting rights, based on the example of a 102-year-old voting rights hero, could and should indeed be a critical focus of executive energy. His story of Desiline Victor waiting six hours to vote in North Miami even brought members of Congress — at least some of them — to their feet in a powerful ovation.

But Obama didn’t seem to include in the list of “things he could do alone” the solo, individual decisions that are fundamental to the role of commander in chief. And that role could include, without Congress having to have any role in it, bringing home all the troops from the failed war in Afghanistan. Ending it. Totally. Quickly.

Bringing home half the troops this year reflects the pressure of massive public opposition to the war — but it’s far from enough. All 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be pulled out by the middle of this year. And that role of the president, without Congress, could include announcing that the “winding down” of the U.S. war in Afghanistan won’t be transformed into an expanding drone war waged in shadows across the world.

When Obama claims that budget cuts “would jeopardize our military readiness,” he is signaling a rejection of what his own nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, acknowledged is the need to cut the “bloated” military budget.

And crucially, when we look at areas in which the President can make executive decisions, independent of the whims of a paralyzed, partisan congress, is there any clearer example than the Obama administration’s strategy of targeting and killing “terror suspects,” along with unknown numbers of civilian “collateral damage” in Obama’s Global War on Terror 2.0?

We heard a claim about those drone assassinations during his address, that “we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts.”

There’s no way that would fly, given recent revelations of the administration’s efforts to claim a legal right to murder anyone, U.S. citizen or not, who they “believe” may be guilty of something they identify as a terrorist attack. So Obama went on. “I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”

What about the KILLING of the people he calls terrorists, beyond detention and prosecution? The reference to checks and balances referred back to the Justice Department’s claim that “due process” didn’t necessarily mean anything having to do with courts and judges, the claim that a decision by a “decision-maker” — not even necessarily the president — was enough to qualify as due process sufficient to take someone’s life, way beyond taking their liberty and their pursuit of happiness.

Focusing on the executive actions you can take without Congress is a great idea, Mr. President. But not unless that focus includes reversing the individually taken military actions that brought such disgrace on your administration’s first term.

Phyllis Bennis is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. Her books include Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN. www.ips-dc.org

Low Fertility and Labor Shortages Might Save the World

There has been much discussion very recently about the rapid and deep fall of global fertility rates. The conversation is not new, but has become more intense recently as more evidence has emerged of the depth and scope of the worldwide trend. One factor remains consistent: commentators nearly always assume that this is largely a problem, even a crisis, due to aging populations, shrinking labor forces, and unsustainable government initiatives. At times, increased global migration is mentioned as a coping mechanism, but is usually dismissed as inadequate for various reasons.

In contrast, it looks very likely that a massive increase in global migration, mostly temporary but often permanent, will emerge as the only method of compensating for this situation. Capitalists will not tolerate labor shortages if they can help it, in fact they are willing to bend and break the law in order to get around them, and thus they will inevitably and increasingly push for greater access to the world’s available workers. Government after government will likely bow to the pressure, because, faced with the power of business lobbies and the prospect of companies shutting down due to lack of workers, they will not have a choice. This state of affairs might just save the world.

From 1948 until 1962, it was possible for roughly one-quarter of the world’s population to migrate freely to the United Kingdom. In response to labor shortages resulting from high levels of death and disability inflicted upon two generations by two world wars, along with some geopolitical maneuvering in the face of strong anti-colonial movements, the British Nationality Act of 1948 enabled all residents of the British Commonwealth (consisting mostly of the then-current and former nations of the British Empire) to migrate to the UK without legal restrictions. In practice, this meant that British companies were free to seek out workers from throughout the Commonwealth. Additionally, the relatively tiny numbers of upwardly-mobile Commonwealth residents who were aware of this new opportunity and had the wherewithal to pursue it began migrating on their own to the UK.

Such were the beginnings of the modern, diverse, multicultural UK. Though immigration restrictions began in 1962 and have been refined over the years, the United Kingdom remains a destination for migrants from around the world. In contrast to the perennial worries of nativists and restrictionists, nowhere close to one-quarter of the world’s population migrated to the UK as long as they had the opportunity. It is an empirical fact, routinely stated and re-stated by economists across the spectrum, that immigrants by and large only bother to travel when jobs are available, and the net effect is largely positive for both sides. This can be observed within free-migration zones such as the United States and European Union. Massive hordes of people did not arrive to leech off of the National Health Service; in contrast, the British economy got the workers it needed to shake off its deep post-war doldrums and rebound strongly.

It cannot be stated conclusively (and may be unlikely) that a continued open immigration policy would have prevented subsequent economic troubles, but the ensuing restrictions cannot have helped. In any case, taking the long view, the economic results have been good for the UK and good for the world. Besides the stimulus to to the United Kingdom (whose citizens were able to buy more of the world’s products and invest more heavily elsewhere), immigrants took pressure off of the markets for jobs and public goods in their home countries, and, much more importantly, sent (and continue to send) home financial remittances. More recently, immigrants commonly invest in businesses and other ventures in their countries of origin. All of this activity alleviates poverty and increases access to education, among other factors which contribute to the ongoing decline in fertility in most of the poorer countries of the world. Such is the immigrant experience around the world, and it only looks likely to replicate itself in more and more countries.

One important caveat must be made here, in that it is entirely possible for a country to have low fertility and high rates of unemployment -underemployment-poverty-etc. At the moment, this is true on both sides of the Mediterranean. Forgetting this would be succumbing to the “lump of labor” fallacy, in this case the mirror-image of complaining that immigrants “take” jobs from locals. The upshot of this is that, as labor shortages do inevitably develop in certain sectors of many economies, this will create more opportunities for people from areas with fertility above the job-creation capacity of the local market, and from areas that are simply stagnant for other reasons.

To reiterate, as long as one solution exists, business leaders are going to do all they can to pursue it, and their governments are almost certain to oblige them. Singapore, long a nation of immigrants, seems to be ahead of the curve. The prosperous island nation’s government has been filling its labor shortages with large numbers of migrants for years, and they may have recently learned the hard way that there might not be anything else they can do. This cannot have gone unnoticed in another island nation on the other end of East Asia: Japan. Xenophobic stereotypes (and realities) notwithstanding, Japanese business leaders have been agitating for increased access to foreign workers for years, and a bloc of legislators agrees with them.

Speaking of xenophobia, nativist backlashes are a guaranteed sure thing, and the results can be ghastly. In any case, those who would prevent the movement of labor to fill vacancies are transparently on the wrong side of history. With prevention of cultural conflict in mind, look for governments to rush to broker bilateral deals with nations with cultural similarities (however tenuous), or, failing that, with societies that lack any particular seemingly irreconcilable differences. Specifically, look for European countries to look first towards the Philippines and parts of Latin America, before eventually turning elsewhere. Look for Bangladesh’s leaders to promote their population’s secularism, relatively tolerant atmosphere, and common use of English to lure recruiters. Look for China’s government to encourage its millions of surplus men to emigrate to nations with longstanding Chinese communities, even as China paradoxically is already suffering from labor shortages of its own.

Migration is one of the best mechanisms for reducing poverty, and the inexorable decline of global fertility rates will just as inexorably lead to more migration of the world’s people. As the pool of available labor gradually becomes dry, a world becoming gradually much wealthier (and producing less carbon!) will be in a far better position to deal with aging, shrinking populations, along with all the other problems feared by today’s chroniclers of falling fertility.

Scott Ryan Charney received an M.A. in U.S. Foreign Policy from American University.

The West Must Help Syria’s Neighbors Absorb the Impact of Its Refugee Crisis

At a donor conference in Kuwait last week addressing the ongoing humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria, more than 1.5 billion dollars was pledged to aid Syrians affected by the conflict. UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), in conjunction with Mid-East countries hosting the onslaught of refugees, have been calling for donors to ward off an international disaster in the region.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates each pledged 300 million dollars to assist in funding efforts, alongside the total pledge of 300 million promised by the US and the EU. These pledges must materialize in coming weeks to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. Will other countries step forward to provide assistance?

The mass exodus of refugees to countries such as Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and even Egypt, shows no signs of relenting—in fact, the reverse is true—the numbers of refugees have ballooned in past weeks. Syrians fleeing violence, rape, and death are met with open arms by friendly neighboring countries, but the sheer number of refugees seeking safe haven is taking a toll on these countries.

In Jordan, for example, nearly 3 percent of its GDP has gone to addressing basic needs of the 340 thousand refugees living inside its borders—and supplies are running out. Jordan’s King Abdullah stated recently, “We have reached the end of the line, we have exhausted our resources.” With Jordan buckling under the economic strain of the situation, other countries need to step up to the plate.

A majority of refugees in the region are registered with UNHCR or are awaiting processing but many go undocumented in their haste to reach safety and also due to the lack of staff on the ground assisting in the process. The conflict, and resulting refugee problem, has created dire circumstances in many countries hosting Syrian refugees and this will only continue as long as Syria remains engulfed in conflict.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Administration Appoints Itself Judge and Jury on Death by Drone

A Department of Justice memorandum leaked by NBC News has garnered considerable controversy this week, renewing the ongoing discussion over the legality—and morality—of the Obama administration’s targeted killing program. The disclosure comes as John Brennan goes before the Senate as President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA.

The sixteen-page legal memo—a white paper composed by the DOJ for Congress—outlines the supposedly “lawful” justifications for the targeted killing of U.S. citizens: reasons which, as many commentators have observed, are disturbingly vague. The memo states that first, the citizen must be a senior member of Al-Qaeda; second, that this person must pose an “imminent threat” to the U.S.; and third, that the capture of the individual in question must be “infeasible.”

However, as Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian aptly observes:

The most vital fact to note about this memorandum is that it is not purporting to impose requirements on the president’s power to assassinate US citizens. When it concludes that the president has the authority to assassinate “a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US” where capture is “infeasible”, it is not concluding that assassinations are permissible only in those circumstances.

Peter Grier of the Christian Science Monitor elaborates on this problem:

All that’s required, under the memo’s wording, is for a well-informed top official of the US government to decide that the person in question is a top terrorist. As for “imminent,” that does not mean “about to happen” in this case. It means only that the alleged terrorist must have recently been involved in activities posing a threat of violent attack and that there is no evidence they’ve renounced those activities.

Other criticisms of the memo have primarily repeated the unlawful and immoral nature of the drone strike program in general, namely that there is no judicial process involved for the target; that the president acts as judge, jury, and executioner in this matter; that such strikes completely violate sovereignty and international law; and that the very notion of drone strike killings, for many of the reasons above, is forthrightly unconstitutional.

Essentially, as Juan Cole explains on his blog Informed Consent, the president derives the power for the drone strike program from a 2001 legislative act, specifically the Congressional Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF.) However, Cole asserts that this act fits the description of a “bill of attainder,” which is a “legislative act that singled out one or more persons and imposed punishment on them, without benefit of trial.” The framers of the Constitution rather smartly decided to forbid bills of attainder for this very reason in Article I, Section 9, paragraph three of the Constitution, which states, “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law will be passed.”

Thus, the AUMF “in singling out all members of al-Qaeda wherever they are and regardless of nationality or of actual criminal action, as objects of legitimate lethal force,” Cole explains, makes it precisely a bill of attainder—and therefore, explicitly unconstitutional.

The leaked memo, in the very least, has placed more public pressure on the Obama administration to address the drone strike program transparently, an issue it has so far avoided or ignored. Yet the administration cannot hope to conceal the program indefinitely: already, the United Nations is conducting an inquiry into both the U.S. and U.K. drone programs, and—since the release of the leaked DOJ memo—President Obama’s nominee for the CIA director, John Brennan, will likely be grilled on the subject as well in his confirmation hearing.

One can only hope that holding the administration’s feet to the fire on this issue will prompt meaningful, lawful change to the drone strike program—yet the United States’ poor track record of respecting the judicial process and international law perhaps makes such expectations altogether too optimistic to hold.

Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Washington Post Keeps Administration’s Secret About Drone Base in Saudi Arabia

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Abdulrahman al-Alawki

Abdulrahman al-Alawki

The Washington Post, among “several” other unnamed news outlets, has reportedly known of a US airstrip in Saudi Arabia that, aside from the apparent distinction of being the first new US base opened on Saudi soil since the 2003 troop withdrawals, was the airstrip that participated in the 2011 raid(s) that killed Anwar al-Awlaki.

According to the Post, it and those outlets have sat on the information for a year at the administration’s request for fear it would jeopardize the base’s security and the secrecy of US combat operations in Yemen, which are also supported by the Saudi Air Force. It is also notable that the US has set up this while still retaining its heaviest aerial assets (which are reserved for contingencies against the Islamic Republic of Iran) in the region in Qatar, so this is solely an anti-AQAP program that’s been set up.

One of the outlets — not the Post — was going to break the self-observed gag order on the basing details, so the details have begun to emerge, which for presumptive CIA Director John Brennan is hardly pleasant news since his Senate confirmation hearings have begun and there is much talk of him throwing a wet towel on the campaign. However, as Matt Appuzo points out, this is not the first we’ve heard of this base. “In addition to Seychelles and Ethiopia, the senior U.S. military official said the United States got permission to fly armed drones from Djibouti, and confirmed the construction of a new airstrip in Saudi Arabia” was what Fox News reported in 2011, citing a Washington Post report on the expansion of drone efforts worldwide, though the remarks quoted above came from Fox’s own source.

Considering how contentious US basing in the Kingdom was when it began in the 1990s (and, we thought, largely came to an end in the 2000s except for the two military training/modernization programs run for the Saudi military and National Guard), one really has to marvel at how this White House earned the accolade of “transparency” in its first term with actions such as these. It’s worth noting that while detailed explanations — but not material evidence or witnesses — have been offered for targeting him as an active AQAP member, there have been no such specifics with regards to the death of his 16-year old son, Abdulrahman, who was killed in an operation against another target few days later — though unlike his father, he had not been deliberately targeted (the operation was targeting an Egyptian national). Bad parenting has even been offered as an explanation — well, justification — by one official for the son’s death once it became clear he was a minor and therefore not subject to the “signature strikes” that treat all adult males in the targeted areas as militant until proven innocent. (NB: Brennan convinced Obama to maintain this policy and have the CIA “tighten its targeting standards,” according to the Daily Beast.)

But if we are talking in terms of leaks, then yes, this has been a very “Sunshine Week” for the Administration. Since I’m on the subject of drones — though as Gregory D. Johnson points out drones are not the only weapons the US deploys in the Yemeni and Pakistani highlands — there have been some important new stories out about the US’s national counterterrorism strategy here in the Middle East:

1. The black sites legacy of the Bush Administration detailed in a new OSI report, though as OSI itself notes, “it appears that the Obama administration did not end extraordinary rendition,” though it has been much-scaled back. Both Eli Lake and Jeremy Scahill have been to Somalia in the past two years to report on these alleged CIA black sites and the local prisons that feed into them. However, it is clear that the administration has shied away from the sites in favor of drone operations.

2. Not a leak, but Micah Zenko’s discussion of outgoing SecDef Leon Panetta’s recent remarks on drones is still illuminating into the debate that goes on at these levels.

3. A leaked white paper released by NBC’s Michael Isikoff — perhaps from a White House source not happy with John Brennan (finally) moving (back) to the CIA in Obama’s second term? — that providers more detail on the speeches given by Brennan and others about the criteria for putting people, including US citizens, in the sights. Again, this isn’t the official policy document, but as a white paper signed off on by lawyers within the Administration, it is as good as we are going to get bar the Times or the Post releasing audiotape of a “Terror Tuesday” briefing. Glenn Greenwald details the implications in greater detail here.

A Valentine’s Day Gift That Keeps on Giving

Cross-posted from Other Words.

This year I came up with the best Valentine’s Day gift ever for my wife and daughter. It’s inexpensive and, unlike a bouquet of flowers, should last beyond their lifetimes. They’ll love it! I can’t think of a better way to express how much I love them.

Rather than chocolates or jewelry, I am going to join a One Billion Rising rally to end the violence against women that has shattered lives and torn the fabric of societies around the world.

A billion women — one out of every three on the planet — will be raped or beaten sometime in their lifetime. That’s one billion moms, sisters, daughters, and friends violated, one billion lives shattered, one billion hearts broken, and one billion reasons to rise up and put an end to this violence.

On February 14, rallies around the world are giving a billion women, and those who love them, an opportunity to dance, speak out, and say, “Enough!” There are many ways to make a difference, but here in the United States we have a 32-year-old obligation that I’m focused on: Senate passage of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

This landmark international agreement affirms principles of fundamental human rights and equality for women around the world, including the rights not to be raped or beaten. But ours is one of only seven countries — including Iran, Sudan, and Somalia —that haven’t ratified this treaty.

This accord offers countries a practical blueprint to achieve progress for women and girls by calling on each ratifying country to overcome barriers of discrimination. Around the world it has been used to reduce sex trafficking and domestic abuse, provide access to education and vocational training, guarantee the right to vote, ensure the ability to work and own a business without discrimination, improve maternal health care, end forced marriage and child marriage, and ensure inheritance rights.

Although the Obama administration strongly supports its ratification and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has voted in favor of it twice with bipartisan support (in 1994 and 2002), it has never been brought to the Senate floor for a vote. It’s time to change that.

Why? Joining this convention would continue our nation’s proud bipartisan tradition of promoting and protecting human rights. Ratification requires two-thirds of the Senate to stand together. The good news is that in this time of tight budgets, it would cost us absolutely nothing.

Ratifying it would strengthen the United States as a global leader in standing up for women and girls around the world. Unfortunately today, our diplomats who speak out to end violence against women are too often told that since we are not part of the women’s treaty, we should mind our own business. Under the leadership of Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, we ratified similar treaties on genocide, torture, and race.

Finally, bringing it to a full Senate vote would open up important conversations. While American women enjoy opportunities and status not available to most of the world’s women, few would dispute that more progress is needed. A Senate vote would provide an opportunity for a national dialogue on how to address persistent gaps in women’s full equality regarding closing the pay gap, reducing domestic violence, and stopping human trafficking.

This is something that I know my wife and daughter would love. So I’m speaking out to end violence against women. It will be the very best Valentine’s Day gift ever.

Don Kraus is the chief executive officer of Citizens for Global Solutions.

Escape From Ignorance and Chalga (Part 3)

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

Read Parts 1 and 2.

So, you arrive in Canada and you make a decision not to pursue journalism…

I thought about becoming a journalist in Canada. But I was told at the National Institute of Broadcasting that I would have to take a training course. It would cost about $10,000. That was a lot of money for me, basically all the money that I’d brought with me. I had to think of my daughter and the cost of her education. But I said, okay, if I take this course, then I will be able to get a job as a journalist here in Canada. And they said, no, there was no such guarantee. They would try to help me. I thought that I just couldn’t take that risk. Same thing with teaching English as a second language in Toronto. One has to spend years to get their credentials acknowledged. Professionals trained outside of Canada, including teachers, have a very hard time to get certified to become even supply [substitute] teachers, to get their foot in the door. And still there is no guarantee you would get a steady job. However, I really needed to get a job. And, of course, the other experience I had in Bulgaria was driving a bus, so…

The very first year, before I joined the Toronto Transit Commission as a bus driver, it was difficult. I didn’t have money. The $10,000 in my pocket melts very quickly. The rent alone is $1200 a month. If you don’t work, you can spend it on rent alone in less than a year. Toronto, it’s not as expensive as New York, but it’s close. I worked two jobs for a year. One of them was as an interpreter for the Immigration and Refugee Board in downtown Toronto, and sometimes I was sent to courts or the airport. Lots of people wanted to immigrate to Canada, and Canada has a somewhat loose immigration policy. They need people, but being Canadian, they do not openly say, “we’ll take anybody because we need young blood to support the pension plan, decent people who will work and pay taxes.” They can’t do that, so instead they have a system of criteria and evaluation.

Some people are eager to get to Canada sooner rather than wait 2-3 years. They also maybe don’t clearly meet the criteria — the point system where you have to have education or language skills or be in one of those occupations that are required. If you don’t meet those criteria, you don’t have a chance. There were lots of people from Bulgaria who wanted to escape ignorance and chalga, from the late 1990s until 2007 when Bulgaria joined the EU. Hundreds of people from former communist countries would arrive and declare themselves political refugees or seek refugee status. Canada in that respect is very generous. You’re given social support, housing, medical support, until your case is heard. It goes to a kind of tribunal.

You know that a lot of these people are lying, and the judge knows that they’re lying and the ministry of immigration knows they’re lying. Many claimed that they were persecuted for being Roma (and organizations were regularly writing reports about the condition of the Bulgarian Roma). Or they said they were gay. Some people were obviously not Roma or gay. They had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to corrupt lawyers and interpreters who wrote them a story and worked with them on how to present the story, and produced counterfeit photographs or facts. I interpreted cases where the judge humiliated them by telling them that s/he didn’t believe them, and then the judge allowed them to remain in Canada anyway because they were needed.

I had a case where two pilots and a stewardess arrived together. They said that they were Roma and had been deprived of education. The judge told them, “There’s no way you’re not educated and you fly a plane!” At the same time, these people would probably find a job, get a good salary, and pay a lot of taxes.

So I spent a year working there. When I wasn’t working there, I was a mover, moving furniture and driving a truck, I learned the province of Ontario. Then I went to the Toronto Transit Commission, a.k.a. TTC, and they hired me first as a driver. You can become the chief general manager one day, but you have to start at the bottom first.

Two years later, I became a route supervisor where my job was to ”keep TTC on track.” In a nutshell, if and when one or more of the thousands of vehicles moving Torontonians around fell behind schedule due to construction, an accident, traffic or the weather, thus resulting in bunching on a line, and/or when delays to service happen during bad weather conditions or because of construction or traffic congestion, a decision is made and instructions are communicated, accordingly, by supervisory staff to make a service adjustment. A typical and easiest example of a service adjustment would be a short turn. That is when a vehicle will not continue to the end of the scheduled route but will be turned to travel in the opposite direction to balance service on the route.

There are dozens of other tricks, a.k.a. service adjustments, that route supervisors have up their sleeves to expediently ensure the provision of consistent service and uninterrupted flow of vehicles along all routes. One could compare the job of a route supervisor to that of air traffic controllers. Additionally, supervisors are middle management and are in charge of supervising the performance of hourly-paid staff (union positions, almost all operators – a total of some 10,000 – and maintenance workers). They are also first responders to all accidents, incidents and occurrences throughout the system, such as collisions – both property damage and personal injuries, all possible kinds of medical emergencies, assaults, fires, vandalism, loitering, sleepers, thefts, robberies, lost and found articles, lost children separated from their parents, lost and disoriented elderly, inebriated persons, mentally disturbed persons, counterfeit fares, various mishaps, all imaginable kinds of technical issues and equipment failures. It would take a multi-volume book to retell all the “usual, normal stuff” and weird things I have seen and dealt with as a supervisor.

My last position at the Toronto Transit Commission, which I held for some 7 years until I retired, was an instructor with their Operations Training Centre, which is a sort of vocational adult training facility where new hires are initially trained and the unionized workforce are regularly retrained in customer service, professional communications, safety at work, vehicle operation, defensive driving, various work skills and qualifications, etc. If I had stayed, I might have possibly become the chief general manager someday in the 22nd century, but I just got too old and tired and decided to return here: back to chalga and ignorance.

Varna, September 29, 2012

Interview (1990)

Vihar Krastev is an editor of Vek 21 (Century 21), the newspaper of the Radical Democratic party, which is a founding member of the UDF. The paper has a circulation of 40,000 and caters mostly to intellectuals. Krastev was recently chosen to participate in Tuft’s Fletcher School journalism program and will spending six weeks in the U.S. working at a local paper. Although quite busy, he was eager to sit down and tell me what distinguishes the Radical Democrats from other parties.

What does the Radical Democratic party stand for?

The RDP actually was reorganized 42 years after it was demolished by the Communists. The party branched from the Democratic party in 1904 by some famous intellectuals of that era who had decided that the Democrats were too close to the King’s regime. They were for a parliamentarian type of republic. They decided not to go deep into government: you should create the laws and not go into executive power. It happened that most of the people who founded the party at the beginning of the century were intellectuals–poets, playwrights, critics–it was considered to be a party only of intellectuals, too small in membership. When a year ago this party was reorganized by Elka Konstantinova, people again started thinking that this will be a party of intellectuals and it would not be easy for common people to be members of the party. This is not so true. The RDP does insist that members all have their own personal performance in society, to be good enough to stand by themselves without being a member of a large group of people, taking strength from a large party like the Communists do. We stand for radical democracy, for democracy that has no alternative, that makes no compromise.

How large is the party’s membership?

Difficult to answer. Maybe because everyone is too personal in this party, we haven’t made a serious effort to find out our membership. We view the party in horizontal principles. There is no hierarchy. There are branches based on the local principle. Some are even organized on a professional basis. There might be a club of doctors or a club of musicians in the RDP. We don’t want hundreds of thousands of members who are officially coordinated, who have cards, etc. Approximately, to my knowledge, somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000 members in the country right now.

The difference between RDP and other parties?

Again, the idea of the role of the personality in the process of democratization. The Social Democrats, for instance, work to make society democratic but they have the socialist idea that society is something organic and you should made the organic body democratic. We think that society will be more democratic when everyone of us is happy.

I need a concrete example of this.

Our party has never wanted to grasp, as I told you, executive power. We would like to make society more democratic through taking part in parliament, by making more democratic and just laws. We don’t want to become ministers.

A perpetual opposition?

Yes.

Are there any particular pieces of legislation that the RDP is pushing for?

Perhaps because of our tradition and the fact that most of our members are highly intelligent people, people believe that it is the RDP’s job to reorganize all the laws having to do with education, culture, law. More or less, we like this sort of work. We also have ideas about reorganizing the military. For example, our president, Ms. Konstaninova has been chosen to be chairman of the committee dealing with education, culture, and science.

What relations does an ostensibly intellectual group have with a trade union like Podkrepa?

I’ll tell you about something which will come out in the next issue of Vek 21. It is an interview with the president of Podkrepa, Mr. Krenchev. He says, and I totally agree: in times like ours, any kind of social organization, even a trade union, cannot help but be involved politically. If you are politically honest, you can’t be but anti-Communist. And if you are anti-Communist, you should be involved on the political level. Right now, we are all together. But when the Communist idea is gone, we will go our separate ways. A trade union will do trade union work and we will do our job in culture and the Social Democrats will try to organize society in smaller groups.

I ask because, in the region I’m travelling, intellectuals are the first to benefit from the changes in terms of culture and freedom. Austerity packages, meanwhile, hurt workers and farmers disproportionately. And the workers are now saying, heck, reform was great when we were all anti-Communists but now it seems that reform only helped intellectuals and we are the ones who have to pay for it.

This is a difficult question but this process is still in front of us: we have not come to the bottom of the crisis. The workers have not come to see the situation as the sin of the intellectuals.

In the elections, the intellectuals supported the opposition and the rest of the country voted for the BSP. Whether the workers blame the intellectuals or not, they certainly voted that way. Are intellectuals trying to bridge this gap?

Personally, I myself have been a worker as well as an intellectual. I started as a teacher, then I worked in TV. Then I was not allowed to do anything in the field of ideology any more. I was good enough to do ideology because I did not have the right thinking. So I had to do other work. My last work was as a city bus driver. I wouldn’t say that I know completely the psychology of the worker. But I more or less think that the mounting crisis will open the eyes of the worker because what has happened in Poland will be felt here in time, in the next couple of months. They have not come to see who their real enemies are. The Communists have managed to make them the spoiled children of the nation. They were given more care, more attention. Now, they will come to realize what they were being used for. They will now come to realize that the artificially created large industrial cities were needed to reproduce the proletariat.

Everyone in the opposition says that they won’t compromise with the Communists. Then, sotto voce, they say that some form of coalition will be formed although no one will call it a coalition.

I think that the Communists are not fit for negotiating because they have never negotiated in their past. If you talk with a Communist on a matter on which you don’t agree about. He might listen to you and not agree. The next day, he’ll come out with nearly your version of the matter as his own. This is their favorite style.

Let me be cynical, for a moment. What you describe as the Communist style could be called, simply, the style of a politician. It is the style of a politician to be manipulative, dishonest, to steal the opinion of others to make it their own.

I get the point. But, I’ll tell you one thing. Politicians in America and Western Europe are actually politicians and try to make the cosmetic effect on a beautiful or healthy body. They will oppose each other to make the surface look better because the body is strong enough. Here, we have to change something much deeper. We have to make the foundations healthy and strong. It’s not politics here.

At first, it seemed as though the opposition was united on the issue of equal rights for ethnic Turks. Now we have two separate movements. Do you think reconciliation is possible?

I think reconciliation is possible though it won’t be soon. You know, when I was a small child, growing up in a region where many Turks lived, we knew in school that some of our classmates were Turks. They got some additional lessons: they studied Turkish, they had Turkish books, they even had a culture house. They knew they were Turks and we knew they were Turks. We studied history and we knew about the Turkish yoke but we did not say that it was the most tragic period of our history. But sometime in the late 1960s, for the first time, the Communists had to do something after Czechoslovakia. They thought that what had happened in Poland and Hungary might happen here. So they tried to do something to release the tension here. Someone here actually created the problem then, here. It was not difficult to make a nation that has suffered under the yoke to feel angry. It was a small beginning, hardly noticed, but the virus was implanted. 1984 when they forced the name changes–this was the final move, the final recourse. They didn’t know what else to do so they used this card. This makes reconciliation difficult: a virus is a virus.

Why did the Bulgarian opposition fall for it? The Polish opposition learned not to be anti-Semitic after 1968 expulsion of 20,000 Jews by the government.

The opposition here was not so undoubtedly popular within the nation. The opposition was not so certain that it was popular within the nation. It felt unsafe, it felt that it might lose position if it stuck to it. Last year, on New Years Eve, the opposition was actually bound together. But the nation responded and said that the opposition was a traitor to the nation. And some people in the opposition did not feel certain enough that they could persuade the nation. We did not have any one of the opposition leaders so popular that he or she could come out in front of the nation and the nation would forget its hatred of the Turks because of their love of this person.

So you didn’t have a Vaclav Havel.

At that time, there wasn’t this someone who could say, “you shouldn’t believe what’s happening” and you should believe the nationalistic demonstrations.

Someone in the opposition told me that they didn’t want Bulgaria to be the path by which Islamic fundamentalism enters Europe.

That’s nonsense if you ask me. I don’t think Europe will need a road for Islamic fundamentalism: it won’t take it. And the best way, actually, to hold Turkey, if at all Turkish fundamentalism is aggressive, is through NATO. My personal opinion is that this nationalistic and chauvinistic remains in our way of thinking in this part of the world is directly proportional to the level of development of our country. Quarrels come with poverty.

And the Macedonian situation?

When Yugoslavia and Bulgaria become normal, well-developed economic countries, there will be no problems. Macedonia will become just another part of the world.

Economic reform will necessarily affect different parts of society differently. What kind of social guarantees, given your individualistic bent, do you support, if any?

It seems to me that the situation as it is depicted at times–with people dying in the streets and mass unemployment–is a portion of the Big Lie. When I am sick, I don’t want the cure to be slow. I want it to be quick. If it has to come, why can’t it be faster. I think everyone will find his or her best way to cushion the crisis.

End Part 3.

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