Focal Points Blog

Torture Covers a Multitude of Sins

Torture comes in many forms from excruciating pain to death — of the soul, if not the body — by a thousand cuts.

Recently the conservative American Enterprise Institute held a forum on the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Its panel was composed of veterans of the Bush torture years: then CIA director Michael Hayden led the panel and was joined by Jose Rodriguez, then head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, and John Rizzo, then the CIA’s chief legal officer.

I intend to read the transcript in full, but, in the interim, will respond to William Saletan provocatively titled analysis at Slate, The Case for Torture. The forum on “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EITs) was, he writes

… a chance to examine our own thinking. Do we really understand what the CIA did and why? Was the payoff worth the moral cost? And what can we learn from it? … The stories [Hayden, Rodriguez, and Rizzo] told, and the reasons they offered, shook up my assumptions about the interrogation program. They might shake up yours, too.

Assumptions about the validity of torture were not shaken up on this author’s part. But the forum did provide information about torture to which the public might not hitherto have been privy and which might prompt us to fine-tune our arguments against “EITs.” For starters, you may have heard this one.

If you refuse to exploit prisoners, you’ll end up killing your enemies instead. All three panelists trashed the Obama-era conceit that we’re a better country because we’ve scrapped the interrogation program. What we’ve really done, they argued, is replace interrogations with drone strikes. “We have made it so legally difficult and so politically dangerous to capture,” said Hayden, “that it seems, from the outside looking in, that the default option is to take the terrorists off the battlefield in another sort of way.”

“Default option?” Why, exactly, are we stuck with one or the other: torture or drone strikes? Talk about your false equivalencies. As for sidestepping the “legal difficulties and political dangers” of torture, the answer isn’t drone strikes, but inundating drone strikes, too, with “legal difficulties and political dangers.”

Meanwhile, even for someone who has read as much about torture as I have, what follows was news to me. Hayden said that interrogators “never asked anybody anything we didn’t know the answer to, while they were undergoing the enhanced interrogation techniques. The techniques were not designed to elicit truth in the moment.” (Emphasis added.)

What, you ask, was the objective then? Saletan writes that “EITs were used in a controlled setting, in which interrogators [inflicted] misery only when the prisoner said something false.”

The point was to create an illusion of godlike omniscience and omnipotence so that the prisoner would infer, falsely, that his captors always knew when he was lying or withholding information. More broadly, said Hayden, the goal was “to take someone who had come into our custody absolutely defiant and move them into a state or a zone of cooperation” by convincing them that “you are no longer in control of your destiny. You are in our hands.” Thereafter, the prisoner would cooperate without need for EITs. Rodriguez explained: “Once you got through the enhanced interrogation process, then the real interrogation began. … The knowledge base was so good that these people knew that we actually were not going to be fooled. It was an essential tool to validate that the people were being truthful.”

To say that torture was intended to tune up (as they say in crime dramas) the suspect for a later interrogation instead of during the “EIT” itself is to put too fine a point on it. In truth, no qualitative difference exists.

Meanwhile, I always wondered how Abu Zubaydah could withstand 83 waterboarding sessions and Khalid Seikh Mohammed (KSM) 183. (See my recent post: Who’s Degraded More: the Torture Victim or the Torturer?) The disturbing symmetry in the figures aside, wouldn’t a suspect subjected to such torture suffer either a psychotic break, or — the presence of a doctor notwithstanding — brain damage? Saletan sheds light on why this apparently didn’t occur.

While citing the program’s rules as a moral defense, the panelists also groused that the rules cost them leverage. KSM, for instance, noticed a time limit on waterboarding. “Pretty quickly, he recognized that within 10 seconds we would stop pouring water,” said Rodriguez. “He started to count with his fingers, up to 10, just to let us know that the time was up.”

If Rodriguez is telling the truth, what Zubaydah and Mohammed were subjected to might strike some as less like torture and more like extreme discomfort. We’ve been accustomed to thinking of waterboarding as existentially frightening — a near-death experience. Now it seems less like peeling off fingernails or chopping off digits (the film torture du jour) and more like forcing a prisoner to stand, or subjecting him to loud music, cold, or round-the-clock lighting.

In fact, waterboarding for 10 seconds, as with the other practices mentioned, still falls under the heading of torture. But rather than a dramatic act of excruciating pain, torture becomes the accumulation of lesser agonies, not the least of which is the anticipation of the frequent episodes.

Unfortunately, there are those who would react to KSM’s torture thusly: “Everyone knows he was responsible for 9/11 and we’re supposed to care because he has to hold his breath for 10 seconds?”

If we want to present a credible argument to rebut proponents of torture, we need to be able to differentiate the different levels of torture from a near-death experience to death (of the soul, anyway) by a thousand cuts.

It might seem that, as with the word “genocide,” we need to guard against applying the term “torture” with sweeping strokes lest the impact of the concept be diluted. In fact, though, torture is a large umbrella sheltering a world of torments.

Escape From Ignorance and Chalga (Part 2)

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

Read Part 1.

You spent a good bit of time in the opposition movement in UDF, Demokratsia, Vek 21. Thinking back now, what’s your impression of the opposition? Are there things that the opposition did really well and others that it did poorly?

There was a lot of enthusiasm but a lot of incompetence, a lack of basic knowledge and concepts. Some of the people were quite idealistic, honest people, but they knew nothing about social development, social structures, social change, how to work with crowds when there are crowds, and how to work with civil society. I now can recount numerous cases of flagrant ignorance, stupidity, and incompetence in the official opposition.

Can you give an example?

Here’s an example close to my editorial practice. Every day hundreds of people — some of them normal supporters of UDF, some of them in some position like regional coordinator or city boss — came to the editorial room of Vek 21. We were in one room, two editors and one assistant and one photographer. They would bring stuff that was unreadable, let alone publishable. Even if I put my best effort into polishing it, it wouldn’t work. It didn’t say anything. There was no message. There was just the eagerness to show off. You couldn’t even explain it to them. I told them that I could work with them, help them. “Nooo, who are you to say this to me? I’m the party leader in Yambol! I want this published! Otherwise I’ll complain to your boss!” There was no boss. He couldn’t complain to anyone. These people were hungry for glory, recognition, to be of importance. They had been so insignificant in their past, and now they saw their chance.

I remember during that strike in late December, some of the bus drivers I was on friendly terms with were coming to talk to me. “Tomorrow, will you give me a job?” they asked. I said, “I’m not becoming a political leader. I’m not doing this for myself!” But they saw an opportunity: if they were friendly with me, one day I’d make them deputy minister or something. I know why they did this. They wanted something better for their kids. Or vanity. Or to have their kids respect them more because now they were someone of importance, not just a plain Jane.

There are many more examples. If I have to be more honest: some of us including myself — and I don’t know if I said this in my first interview — were in favor of shock therapy. I knew nothing about economy, about shock therapy! I must have been influenced by the Polish experience: what Walesa was talking about, the Polish leading experts. I must have been a parrot who heard something and said, “Oh, wow, why not?” That’s an example of my own stupidity, ignorance, and incompetence.

That’s how the UDF lost their position with society, and that’s how people started disliking the opposition. Some of them were obnoxious. I’ll tell you a joke about that. There was this Bulgarian dissident, Radoy Ralin. He was a writer, a smart guy, well liked. He played a double game during communism: tolerated by the communists but at the same time writing some critical stuff about them. One day he comes to our office and he was gloomy, which was unlike him, particularly in those years when he was very optimistic about the changes. He wasn’t himself.

We asked him, “What’s wrong?

And he said, “Things are not going very well.”

We asked, “Why are you pessimistic?”

And he said, “To be honest, the former communists belong in jail. That’s clear. But the new ones, they should be institutionalized.”

Back then I did not pay much attention. But Radoy Ralin must have been smarter than I. He must have seen the truth. The communists were criminals, but the new ones are so incompetent and corrupt that they look and behave like crazy people. That struck me a couple years later as something that I should have understood back then.

Here’s another example. We had two spokespeople for the UDF. One of them was a literary person, a writer, a literary critic, exceptionally smart, a true erudite: Mihail Nedelchev. He knew everything. But he was very vain. He thought he was Louis XIV. The other one was a rough person, Georgi Spasov. Nedelchev was the civil one, Spasov the uncivil one. They would take turns every night on national TV. They had 5-10 minutes to present whatever happened with the UDF: declarations, statements, whatever. They had a guaranteed time, but it could be a half an hour if they wanted. There were no rules. It was a chaotic time. It would come on about 8 pm, around the time of this nightly broadcast for young children. Children would be in front of the TV waiting for their program, and then this Spasov guy would appear. Kids would start crying immediately, that’s how frightful he was! He had no charm, no presence. He was like the devil on screen.

I remember the debates on TV during those first couple of elections. You know the infamous example of how Nixon’s looks during his TV debate with Kennedy probably ruined him: this was much worse. UDFers here didn’t know how to dress. They’d come out almost in their pajamas. They had no manners. When they talked in those debates, they would be gesturing and yelling and fighting. It was horrible. How can you trust the government of a nation to someone who doesn’t know how to behave, how to talk? The Socialists, meanwhile, were better trained. They spoke more eloquently, spoke better, quieter: “speak low, speak slow, don’t say much”. And the opposition people were ruffians. So, when people had anecdotes — truthful or not, and some of them might have been exaggerated or the communist propaganda may have dreamed up some sins of the new people — but people believed them, because it was plausible that these savages would be greedy, corrupt, and incompetent. And we were incompetent. I have to admit it.

When I went to the States in 1990 — you met me just before I left — I learned a lot. But I would have been much better if I had learned all that before the changes, before my initial involvement with the opposition. I was ashamed of some of the things I had done prior to going to Tufts. Did I really say that? Did I behave like that? And I didn’t know that I shouldn’t have done that?

On the other hand, you were working in pretty difficult conditions. One of the big concerns when we were talking in 1990 was the lack of print paper. You told me that each issue was read by five or six people because you didn’t have enough paper.

I had to deliver the Vek 21 paper myself every week. I took it from the printing house in a van donated to us by some Bulgarian émigrés in France, and I drove around the city to deliver it to people, to leave it at clubs, drop it in mailboxes.

Given those conditions, you achieved quite a lot.

Yes, But it wasn’t enough to convince a nation that they could entrust the their future to us, to the then-UDFers. I wasn’t involved in the politics of that. Honestly, I was enticed to become a member of the National Assembly, to be elected, to become a politician. I said, “You can’t mix the two. I can be either a journalist or a politician, and I choose to be a journalist.” So, I declined.

I remember the first and the second elections, all the people lining up at the headquarters of the UDF who wanted to be included in the UDF party ticket. Those people were fighting, hitting each other. They stayed there overnight. They wouldn’t dare go to the washroom, because then they would lose their position in line. It was horrible. They would kill each other to jump ahead in line to be higher on the ticket. It’s unbelievable what people would do to be in power. I know: It happens everywhere. I can’t believe that normal people in their right mind would run for elected position. There has to be something wrong in their value system to go through what they have to go through. What I saw here was much worse: so much humiliation to run for office.

I have a couple of favorite movies that I watch over and over again. One of them is Paths of Glory.

With Kirk Douglas.

He’s being court-martialed, and he says, “There are times when I am ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion..” In those days of rampant democracy, those early stages of the opposition, there were many moments when I went home and I would suffer and I wouldn’t want to go back and I felt ashamed to be a member of the human race — for my own mistakes and for the obvious misbehaviors of others.

Back in 1990, someone in the opposition said to me that ethnic Turks in Bulgaria would represent the path by which Islam and fundamentalism would enter Europe. I quoted that to you and you said, “That’s stupid!” To be honest, you were an exception. I was surprised at the level of nationalism and ethnocentrism in the opposition. Did that surprise you too?

It wasn’t surprising to me because I was a teacher at the beginning of my career. I saw the shortcomings of education in Bulgaria. The EU rewrote the curriculum so that countries like France and Germany or Italy and Germany don’t teach the next generation fanatically about the past, about the glorious battles that they won over the neighboring country. That’s how you encourage nationalism. It’s one thing if young boys of one soccer club fight another soccer club without thinking of historic reasons for them to hate each other aside from soccer reasons.

I saw with my own eyes how Bulgarian history and related subjects induced this hatred in “others,” particularly the Turks. My job as a teacher was in a village that was half-Turkish, half-Roma around Russe in northeastern Bulgaria. I know they’re wonderful people. They were not religious. If they are returning to religiousness, it’s happening at the same time and at the same rate that Bulgarians are returning to the Orthodox Church. When I was a teacher in that Turkish-populated area, they didn’t even have mosques. There is no way that these people could be radical, fundamentalist Islamists. There might be one or two or three, not being able to get educated here, they would go to Turkey or Saudi Arabia, just like Bulgarians go to Germany. One or two of them might go to educational institutions that teach more radical ideas. But they wouldn’t even be aware of the differences in Islam. That’s why I don’t buy it.

When I was a journalist, the Macedonian republic declared independence, and there was a lot of anti-Macedonian feeling in Bulgaria (which still exists today). “They’re stealing our history,” people would say. “They’re actually just Bulgarians!” I even wrote a couple articles, saying that we should just leave them alone. If they feel that they’re different, then they are different. The more you try to stop them, argue with them, and say there’s no such thing as the Macedonian language or nationality, or identity, the more counterproductive it is. They’re a young nation, and they want their new identity.

It’s the same with the ethnic Turk minority. They are not a source of danger unless you antagonize them like they’re antagonizing them now with this stupid court case against the imams. We never learn from the past. We antagonized those people in the 1980s by making a huge issue out of nothing. Luckily, things started to subside, and now they live normally and we live normally and there is no tension any more. But now the nationalists are trying to bring back these tensions.

Were you surprised when you came back from Canada that this issue had still not gone away?

I was. I thought that with time, with membership in the EU, these things would have mellowed. I know they can’t disappear overnight or in 10 years or even 20 years. But I thought that at least you wouldn’t see it at the government level, at the level of national media, I thought it would only be at the lowest level of pub talk or gossip. I was very disappointed that people I considered smart are still wasting their time on this.

I’ve been following the news. I hear that there are some attempts to rewrite history books. There is a huge outcry, and even intellectuals say, “You can’t rewrite history. You can’t say that the Turks are not bad!” We talk about the five centuries of Ottoman occupation as something that ruined the Bulgarian nation. Not at all. You know the joke from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”: what have the Romans ever given us? Nothing. Other than the aqueduct and sanitation, and the roads, and irrigation, and medicine, and education, health, public baths, other than government, other than… All nations controlled by the Romans benefited from the Roman experience.

The same here. The Balkans before the Ottomans came here were savage, fighting tribes that could never develop because of how hostile they were toward each other: brother against brother, Slav against Slav. It was like Europe was, divided into small serfdoms. Thanks to the positive Turkish influence in the first three centuries of their presence here, lots of culture came from the East, from the Arab world, through the Ottoman Empire, through trade, through commercial roads. Every time commerce comes to your ports and crosses your country, something falls out of the cart, and that’s what’s left for you. Look at the Bulgarian language: probably some 20 to 30 percent of the contemporary spoken vernacular still consists of loan words that are of Persian or Arabic or Turkish origin and came into the Bulgarian language through the Ottoman Turkish influence.

How come we don’t appreciate the positive influence of the Ottomans? It’s true that the last 50 to 70 years of the Ottoman occupation were the worst, the empire was falling apart and couldn’t support the army, so the army engaged in pillage. But the worst bandits were the Bulgarian bandits. So much so that the traders from western Europe wouldn’t venture to cross Serbia or Bulgaria. You know the word hajduk? Hajduks were the Bulgarian equivalent of the Greek Klefts. The word kleft itself is exactly the same word that is known to the world from the term “kleptomania.” That’s basically a thief, a bandit, even though they have since been glorified in Balkan folk tradition and history books as rebels: they’d rob anyone who crossed the woods.

There was no caravan of carriages that could go through without being looted or people killed. You had to be very lucky to cross the Balkans without losing half your goods or your life. In the 1860s, they built the first railway between Russe and Varna so that the commercial traffic wouldn’t cross the mountains any more, for fear of the hajduks of Serbia and Bulgaria. They would use ships to Russe — the Danube is not navigable as it gets to the Black Sea — then they would use this railway that was guarded very heavily by Turkish garrisons. Then they’d get to Varna, and then by ship to Istanbul. It wasn’t always the Turks, it was more often our own lazy buggers who would hide in the forests all year long and steal from their own people.

In Serbia, at least some of the hajduks were leaders of resistance against the Ottoman and are considered heroes.

Same here. But most of them were not. As leaders of the resistance, they would fight the Turks, but on the side they would be terrorizing their own population in order to survive.

Did it take a long time for you to decide to leave Bulgaria?

No, it was not long. There were two reasons behind it. I heard yesterday someone on the radio say something very simple, and I thought, “Yes, that’s probably why I left too.” Most people didn’t leave the country because they couldn’t find gainful employment. No, they were running from ignorance and the bad taste of contemporary music, arts and entertainment. Has anyone mentioned the word chalga to you? Well, Bulgarians have been running away from ignorance and chalga.

Back in 1996 or 1997, I had returned from Radio Free Europe, from Munich and Prague. I was also stationed in Sofia as the manager of the bureau here. When Radio Free Europe closed, I had two options. I could do journalism here. But at that time, I would not lower myself to work for any of the media that were operating in this country in the mid to late 1990s. It was horrible. Or I could leave the country.

To get that training at Tufts and the Fletcher School, I had to apply and probably compete with other people who had been nominated. Apart from providing your resume and some samples of your work, I went for a brief interview at the embassy. I also had to write an essay on “press under pressure.” You write the essay and they think about whether you are worth being trained there. I didn’t write a long essay. I only wrote about 3-4 sentences. I wrote, “Like any other thing on earth, press under pressure tends to become flat. With a flat press you can use it as wrapping paper, to wrap someone’s ideas. You can’t use it to support liberal democracy. You can’t use it to educate values. It’s only rubbish wrapping paper and you use it only once and then dispose of it.” Media today in this country is not independent media. It’s just wrapping paper for people who want to use the media to amplify their messages.

So, I could not stay here and work as a journalist. Radio Free Europe was not the best radio ever. My model media, the media I would love to work for and what I most often listen to, is BBC, NPR, even CBC which isn’t quite as good, but still good. Radio Free Europe was not the model of great journalism. But we were pretty good. We were aspiring. Dropping from there to yellow journalism? I wouldn’t do that. I was too proud to do it just for sustenance.

My daughter had already gone to the States to study there. And I only have one daughter. So that was another reason to leave.

If Bulgarians maintain today that they’re running away now because of ignorance and chalga, it was much worse then. Back then, in addition to aggressive ignorance and aggressive chalga, there was too much crime. It was not a healthy environment for any person to be in. I couldn’t stay here, or I would have lost my sanity. I wasn’t here when there was the worst adversity, when there wasn’t food, when they had to line up for milk and bread for their kids. I missed that. I missed that humiliating state. It wasn’t much better, and it wasn’t going to get much better any time soon. I could survive with an expectation of a better world. I could stay and try to help ameliorate the environment. But that just wasn’t feasible at all.

Still, when I left, I did follow the news. I knew that governments had changed, I knew about Tsar Simeon. But I was surprised when I returned about the level of nationalism and anti-Turkish and anti-Roma feelings.

And the popularity of your old friend, Volen Siderov, the head of Ataka.

Say hello to him. And say to him, “Vic asks, when did you lose your mind?” He was my best friend. He drank tons of alcohol in my presence, crying on my shoulder, He was a decent guy even if he wasn’t the smartest guy.

You know how he became the editor of Demokratsia? He graduated from a photography high school. He’s a photographer. During the communist years at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences — it’s called that, but it was just a nomenklatura institute — there’s this institute of literature. People who consider themselves literary critics or knowledgeable about writing all worked there as a team. Volen was their staff photographer. When they were going to publish a new book on the works of a Bulgarian writer, they illustrated the book with pictures of the childhood home of the writer, and Volen prepared the artwork. Volen was a friend of theirs. They drank together.

One form of dissidence back then was drinking. We don’t agree with communism, we can’t fight it, so let’s go and drink and talk about it in the pub! Then probably we’ll forget, and tomorrow we’ll drink again. Some of them, that’s how they fought communism: by drinking. Volen was one of those brave drunkards.

He was part of the team — Aleksandar Yordanov, Elka Konstantinova, Iordan Vasiliev, Mihail Nedelchev, Edvin Sugarev — and all of them were at the same time members of the opposition, about 10-15 people. Right after November and January, all of them joined the UDF. Of course, Volen joined too because he was a friend of ours, it didn’t matter that he wasn’t a literary expert. So when Iordan Vasiliev, who was the first editor-in-chief of Demokratsia, quit the editorial position, they had to appoint someone. Iordan suggested that Volen take over. People wondered: he knows nothing about journalism, he just photographs. But back then, I knew at least three people who are now renowned journalists who came up and said, “I’m an elementary school teacher, but I want to be a journalist.” And they were given a chance. Some of them developed; some of them remained at the elementary school level. But that’s how Volen became a journalistic star. How he became such a rabid nationalist, it beats me. I hope he can explain it to you.

End Part 2.

How Our Obsession With Iran Increases Chances of Nuclear War With Russia

It’s common knowledge that, when it comes to protecting us from a nuclear launch by a major power such as Russia or China, missile defense has been found woefully lacking. At best, it’s supposed to protect the United States and Europe from states with small nuclear weapon programs such as North Korea and Iran. (Even though it’s efficacy in those situations is questionable as well.)

Nevertheless, Moscow professes to believe that our installations in Europe are intended as a defense against Russia’s nukes. It also maintains that missile defense deployed in the United States, as well, is a cover behind which the United States could launch a first strike. Much of its counterstrike, Moscow fears, would then be deflected by U.S. missile defense, while the United States would wipe out much of Russia’s remaining land-based nuclear missiles, thus diminishing the latter’s second-strike capabilities.

Thus, according to this line of thought, the state against which a state such as the United States is seeking to defend itself with nuclear weapons is motivated to build that many more nuclear weapons and delivery systems to make up for those it would lose in the air and on the ground. That’s why missile defense is considered “destabilizing” to the balance of nuclear power.

Missile defense also cuts off our defense nose to spite its face with Iran, but in a different way. By way of prelude to an explanation comes a summary of a new Threat Assessment Brief for the Arms Control Association by Greg Thielmann titled Iran’s Missile Program And Its Implications For U.S. Missile Defense.

Although plans for expanding U.S. strategic missile defenses focus on the Iranian ICBM threat, that threat is not emerging as was previously predicted. Iran conducted no long-range ballistic missile tests in 2012 and has not flown even the larger space launch vehicle that it displayed two years ago, which could have helped advance ICBM technology. [It] continues to focus on short- and medium-range rather than longer-range ballistic missiles.

Nor, the summary reminds us, has Iran even decided to build nuclear weapons yet. Thielmann himself writes that

… although neither Iran nor North Korea has deployed ICBMs, ambitious U.S. missile defense efforts to counter them have [as explained above -- RW] helped dim immediate prospects of negotiating additional limits on the countries that potentially pose the greatest threats to the United States—Russia and China.

He expands on what I wrote above.

Although often dismissed in the West as disingenuous in expressing concerns about U.S. missile defense, Russian and Chinese security officials are not immune to the kind of “worst-case” analysis [that was] frequently demonstrated by the U.S. officials with regard to Soviet strategic missile defense capabilities throughout the Cold War.

Thus …

An understanding that the Iranian ICBM threat is less acute than previously depicted dovetails with the growing realization that U.S. strategic defense capabilities are less robust than previously portrayed. A logical response to these developments would be to suspend the deployment of a new, more advanced … interceptor in the fourth phase of the planned European [missile defense] deployment until the Iranian ICBMs against which it is directed start to materialize.

In fact …

If properly communicated to Moscow and Beijing, such a U.S. policy adjustment … could give Russia and China additional incentives to help restrain Iran’s missile program. It could also open a pathway to progress in negotiating further reductions in Russia’s excessive strategic nuclear forces and reduce the likelihood that China will substantially increase its long-range ballistic missile forces.

In other words, if the United States backed off on missile defense, it might increase Russia and China’s cooperation — setting aside for the moment that it’s in the service of a pitiless sanctions regiment — with us on Iran. As it stands now, a toxic byproduct of our obsession with Iran’s nuclear program is the increased chance of nuclear war with Russia and China.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, you have to keep your eye on the ball.

Escape From Ignorance and Chalga (Part 1)

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

Vihar Krastev

Vihar Krastev

There is a joke in Bulgaria. What are the two ways out of the current crisis?

Terminal One and Terminal Two.

Those would be, of course, the terminals at the Sofia airport. An enormous number of people have left Bulgaria since 1989. Over the last quarter century or so, the population dropped from approximately 9 million to approximately 7.3 million people. Some of the population reduction is the result of a low birthrate. But the rest just left.

In 2011, Bulgaria earned the dubious distinction of topping the list of the world’s most rapidly shrinking countries.

This outmigration is often referred to as a “brain drain,” though many people who have remained in Bulgaria naturally bristle at this phrase.

Vihar Krastev is one of the many people who left Bulgaria in the 1990s. He’s also part of the more recent and more modest wave of returnees. Not long ago, he retired from his job in Canada and now lives in a lovely house in the hills above the port of Varna, on the Black Sea. The house is filled with the beautiful weavings of his partner, Yassena Yurekchieva.

I met Vihar in 1990 when he was working at an opposition newspaper called Vek 21 (21st Century) which was affiliated with the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), the coalition of opposition groups. At the time he was quite enthusiastic about the changes and was optimistic about how quickly Bulgaria could be turned into a westernized country. He was also about to take his first trip to the United States, to attend a journalism seminar at Tufts.

A couple decades later, he looks back at that period with no small amount of bemusement and honest self-criticism. “If I have to be more honest: some of us including myself — and I don’t know if I said this in my first interview — were in favor of shock therapy. I knew nothing about economy, about shock therapy! I must have been influenced by the Polish experience: what Walesa was talking about, the Polish leading experts. I must have been a parrot who heard something and said, ‘Oh, wow, why not?’ That’s an example of my own stupidity, ignorance, and incompetence. And that’s how the UDF lost their position with society, and that’s how people started disliking the opposition.”

Vihar Krastev has been through a lot. When I met him in 1990, I didn’t know about all the twists and turns his life had taken before he landed at Vek 21. And, of course, I could know nothing about all the subsequent snakes and ladders he would traverse after 1990. It is a powerful story, and I am grateful that he sat down for two hours in Varna to relate it to me. Below this, I’ve also reproduced our discussion from 1990.

Interview (2012)

Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall fell and what you were thinking?

I remember when I heard the news about the Berlin Wall being stormed and when it fell and when Berlin was no longer divided. I was driving a city transit bus along the streets of Sofia. During its last 2-3 years, the socialist-communist regime banned me from being a teacher or a journalist, jobs which I used to have. I couldn’t do anything except be a menial worker, which I did not mind, because I could talk to people.

It wasn’t a shock because I’d read about the Prague Spring, and in Bulgaria we had the Ecoglasnost movement in my native city of Russe where people were disgruntled with local policy and the thoughtless, irresponsible industrialization of both Bulgaria and Romania. So I knew that things were in the air. And we knew that in Moscow the regime was crumbling. With Reaganomics, it was clear that communism wouldn’t survive. It was clear in my mind back in 1989 that it would not be long before our wall – we didn’t have a real wall, just an imaginary wall — would fall too. It happened a little sooner than I expected. I thought it would be within one year, and it happened within a few weeks.

Did you think about what the impact would be for Bulgaria?

I did. I have to admit that there were a couple of things that I could not envision — because I was not at that time, being 22 years younger, as familiar with human nature as I am now. I knew that liberalism and liberal values were somehow vague and ill-defined, and different people view liberalism differently. And liberalism comes with different adjectives: like “welfare” and “social.” In Canada, they even had a liberal-conservative party, which is an oxymoron, but it existed. So, I was expecting that there would be some confusion in Bulgaria about the values of liberalism, and free society, and less state involvement in our lives. But I had no idea that people would feel so excessively unrestricted as to disregard the law and to disregard decency, and that there would be so much loose behavior. Yes, we have natural rights and liberties and that’s great and the sooner we have it, the better. But we still have our responsibilities at the same time.

My first awakening was the night of August 11, 1990 when the former party headquarters was set on fire. I was there….

I think I saw you there. I was there as well that night. We met again in the crowd.

As a journalist, I was running all over the place that night. Then I realized that the police were not there and that nobody feared the police any more. What I didn’t realize when the Berlin Wall fell — during that beautiful autumn when the Berlin Wall fell and made the fall even more beautiful — was that once the fear disappears, society cuts loose. Crime becomes rampant, and there’s chaos. The inherent qualities of human nature — greed, selfishness — had been more or less subdued during the authoritarian regime. Not even half a year later, there was no fear of God, because religion was exterminated in this country and this part of the world. There was no fear of government, because it was a government-less country. There was no fear of the police and no fear of the law, because there was no concept of the rule of law. There was no mechanism to control the rampant horrible qualities of human nature.

I was much more optimistic about the change. I was part of the effort to educate people about the free market economy and competition and the John Stuart Mills idea that the government should not interfere apart from preventing people from harming other people (with the one possible exception of economic competition where I can hurt you because I am better in fair competition). I thought this would happen quicker with the shock economy. I thought it would be a couple of years. But I had not anticipated, in the very first couple of weeks and months in this exhilarating expectation of faster change, I had not envisaged the tax evasion, the incompetent bureaucracy, the incompetent leadership. The failures of the transition in my view are due to incompetent managerial skills on behalf of every government that has been in power since 1989. I expected things to happen faster and in a better way. I was very quickly disappointed. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want to stay here.

Was there a moment when you were in university or before when you thought, “I am out of touch with the dominant politics of this society. I consider myself either a liberal or a dissident.”

There was a long period of such moments, starting in 1968 when I was 14. I was accepted at my mother’s request or insistence — she kind of begged me – into an English-language school in Russe. I knew that she wanted a better future for me. I was her only son. She knew from coworkers about this English-language school. At 14, I loved playing in the streets. I was not an excellent student by any standard. I read a lot, and I had an inquisitive mind. But I didn’t like the way things were taught at school. I wasn’t liked by my teachers, particularly in the “propaganda” subjects in the socialist curriculum like literature, where they teach you about socialist realism and the proletariat and the proletariat poets, which is bullshit, pardon my French. It wasn’t poetry. It was just about praising the workers and the working class. It was a misinterpretation of Marx, because Marx’s philosophy is not communist propaganda if you read it properly and you don’t misinterpret the economics of Marx.

Even then I had my misgivings about the world I was living in. I did not want to go to this English language school. The foreign language schools, English or French or German, were set up in mid to late 1960s throughout Bulgaria. They were elitist schools for the offspring of the communist nomenklatura, the idea being that they should learn languages and then go on to become diplomats and/or KGB spies.

The instruction there was way better, and you had more open horizons. I learned a lot from my British and American teachers. It changed my whole perspective on society. When I went to that school, I felt that the world outside was no longer my world any more. But inside the school, most of my classmates were the offspring of very special people, while my mother was an ordinary office worker in the employ of the national railroads, a working person. I didn’t belong in their society. Ever since I was 14, I felt like a tree without roots. I didn’t belong anywhere. I knew differently — not more — about the world outside of school. But at the same time, that clique of people who were my mates at school was not really and entirely my sort of people.

Come to think of it, that was basically the beginning of the end. What happened in 1989 was basically sowed in the 1960s, because the nomenklatura educated the people who were to subvert their own system. Their own children, by learning from English or foreign teachers and reading in foreign languages and listening to The Beatles and to the British invasion, were the ones who said, “We don’t want to live in this world anymore. We don’t want to represent our nomenklatura parents abroad. We want to change this world.” Most of the active people in the velvet revolutions, or whatever you want to call them in our countries, were the graduates of foreign language schools.

Then, after I graduated from university, I went to teach. I didn’t like teaching. I taught between 1980 and 1982, that’s how much I liked it! You were not required to be a good teacher. You were required to be strict and to be a good brainwasher. The other teachers were accustomed to this or didn’t want to resist, while I did. I introduced certain novelties in the schools where I taught. For instance, I refused to allow the students to call me Comrade Krastev. “If I call you by your first names,” I told them, “you should call me Vihar or Vic. And if you insist on calling me comrade, then I’ll have to call you Miss or Mister.” They couldn’t believe it!

I did two lessons in class and then the third time, I would take them out of the classroom – to a movie in English with subtitles. Or I would take them to a café. I talked to the waiters beforehand and said, “I’ll bring a group of people who don’t know much English if any, but I want you to talk to them only in English.” That really motivated the kids. They were trying to learn. It was a practical application of their limited knowledge of the English language. None of them was going to become an English teacher. They were going to be accountants or chemists. The other teachers didn’t like that. It was revolutionary. “Why are you taking kids out of the school?” they asked. “Who allowed you to do that?”

I was more liberal with grades. I gave them all As one semester. Then, at the beginning of the next semester, there was a teacher’s conference, and other teachers said in a bitter tone, “How could you have given all the girls As?” They were implying that maybe I had more than a teacher-student relationship with them. I said, “Come on, they will never know English as much as a teacher will. I’m not teaching English linguistics. They will never teach English themselves. It’s about the willingness to learn, with or without mistakes. I’m not judging their errors. I’m judging their efforts. I believe all teachers should be like that.”

We had these ideological subjects, like the history of the communist party of Bulgaria. And the way that history was taught in school, it was very nationalistic: Bulgaria versus everyone else. “There was the Russo-Turkish war, and Bulgarians were liberated, then the Turks were animals and we won, and then we won over the Serbs, and then we own Macedonia and the Macedonians, and then we beat the Romanians….” Balkan people still live in the past. They still hate each other. Like most of southern Europe, we still live with what happened in the past. We should forget about that. We should even forget about 1989 and the sooner the better. We should pay attention to what’s in front of us. Going back is not only painful, it’s counterproductive in my view. Here, when people look back, they look back in anger, with more anger than normal.

I couldn’t survive in teaching, so I became a journalist wannabe. I was working for the national TV’s local affiliate in Russe. Whatever you did in those days, even writing the local weather forecast, you had to give it to the censor – the communist party secretary — to read it. And s/he’d say, “You can’t say it’s too bright for tomorrow. It can’t be too gloomy either. It has to be just right.” It was horrible.

In the early 1980s, Solidarity emerged and grew in Poland. I began writing about it. Solidarity was, I felt, the promise of the future.

You were writing about Solidarity for the TV station in Russe in the 1980s?!

Yes, I was trying to. And for certain newspapers as well. I was about 30 years old. That wasn’t accepted very well. You couldn’t talk or write favorably about Solidarity. So I left Russe and went to Sofia. I wouldn’t have lived much longer if I kept praising Solidarity — not just Solidarity, but the winds of change, the need for “socialism with a human face,” as we called it back then. No, I was not allowed to do that. That’s why I wasted two years being the manager of pop singers.

Why do you say that you wasted that time?

It was stifling the way pop culture was used and abused, the way some of the singers and entertainers were forced to sing about socialism. They were given lyrics to make a song. It wasn’t conducive to their personal development as creators and songwriters and lyricists. They were kept on a short leash. That’s why some of the better and smarter entertainers left the country and went to work abroad. But the “creative intelligentsia” as they were called could make lots of money if they stayed and glorified the communist regime or painted pictures that were approved as socialist realism — with a factory worker next to a person from the fields, the sickle and the hammer. If they did that, the regime paid a lot of money and gave them all the goodies they wanted.

That’s why it was a waste of time for me. It wasn’t developing the culture or the aesthetics or the good taste of the young generation through the music we created or performed at concerts. I felt guilty at times. Those teenagers who crowded the concert halls were hungry for music, for entertainment, like all young kids. But we didn’t give them really good music. Most of the “hits” from back then have faded and are forgotten now. We did not produce a smart generation through the Bulgarian music of that time. That’s why Tangra and many other bands left — they couldn’t take it either. On top of that, which was the worst part, the Bulgarian version of Stasi was spying on this sector. That German movie, The Lives of Others, you’ve seen that? That tells you everything. Everyone who was in this field of writing or journalism or music or creativity would think, “I don’t know which person in this room will be telling things tomorrow.”

Who were you working for at that time?

I worked from 1984 to 1986 with twin male singers who were very popular at the time: Bratya Argiroivi (the Argirov Brothers duet). They were from Plovdiv. If you ask anyone from Plovdiv, anyone in their 40s, they’ll know this duo.

After that, I had different jobs here and there, like writing scripts for concerts to glorify the achievements of communism. I was good at it, and they paid me good money. I also worked for those large communist enterprises. They had a house of culture where workers would be entertained in the way that increased their feeling of belonging to the working class. That was an easy job to make money from.

I also worked with a folk dance ensemble that had an exchange with a volunteer folk dance club in Scandinavia. Every summer, the Scandinavians would pay to go to a particular country and specialize in the local folk dance tradition there. They came here in the summer of 1986 for a month to learn from Bulgarian folk dancers and choreographers. I was attached to the Scandinavians as their interpreter and to organize their accommodations. We toured the country.

Right after that, I was accused of being too close to the foreigners. They wanted you to work with the foreigners, but they didn’t want you to commit to them; they wanted you to be their host, but at the same time “keep your distance because they come from Scandinavia, they’re capitalists, some of them must be spies.”

In the autumn of the same year, after the Scandinavians were here, the Bulgarian folk dancers were invited to Scandinavia and I was supposed to go with them. But guess what: I was not given a passport. Freedom of movement didn’t exist back then. Even worse: I was born in Russe and I was supposed to live in Russe. Instead, I was unlawfully residing in Sofia. Nobody could live anywhere without the permission of the Communist regime. Also, travel abroad required a special passport, which I did not get — because I was told that I was suspicious and too fond of being with foreigners. They said, “We can’t risk sending you out because you probably won’t return.” That was probably September 1986 when I realized that I was not particularly liked by the regime. It might also have been the previous sin of writing about Solidarity.

Or it may have been an even earlier incident that took place in our graduating year at the English language school in Russe. Back then we were studying shorthand. At the end of the school year, we were sent to the capital city for two weeks to practice shorthand at the National Assembly and the National Radio. We watched shorthand stenographers to see how shorthand is done. On the last day, we were to travel back by train at night, and the day was given to us to enjoy in Sofia, to visit friends, relatives.

Four of us got together and wandered around downtown. The American embassy in those days was in downtown Sofia, next to the Central Bank, in a very old building. You walked along the street and in the window of the embassy you saw lots of pictures. This was June 1973. We stopped outside to look at those pictures of American reality, Apollo rockets and so on. And there was a sign that said in English and Bulgarian that the library of the embassy was open to all citizens. Curious as we were, we walked through the door. The library was in the very first hall behind the entrance doors. You didn’t even have to penetrate the embassy any further than the hallway to enter this small library. We looked at some poetry, some magazines. We spent less than an hour in there. We were kids, 18-year-olds. We talked to the Bulgarian librarian. We approached her because we were wondering whether she spoke English or Bulgarian. We were very proud of our English after four years of study. But it was rudimentary, really. We didn’t know any English at all. But when you’re young, you think you know everything.

We walked out. We were joking about maybe being taped and how do we look on camera, and so on. We walked less than a block. There was a traffic light that was red. As we waited for the light, a gentleman came up behind us and grabbed us from behind. When the light became green, we crossed the street together. It was so unbelievable. He sort of hid us in the corner of the building across the street. So, we were in the street, people passed by, but nobody realized that something was happening to us.

This person started to ask questions: “Why did you go to the embassy? You can’t go to the embassy.”

“Why not?”

“It’s the American embassy, you can’t do that.”

“But it says the library is open, it says you can do that.”

“Where did you go? Who did you talk to? Who did you meet? Who told you to go in there?”

“No one,” I told him. “I looked at this magazine, this book, I read about Apollo.”

“Let me see your IDs.”

The other three kids were either too smart or much smarter than I. They didn’t produce IDs. Back then we didn’t have ID cards. We had this funny booklet called an internal passport. I had it on me and showed it to him. The other three said they didn’t have it. I loved those guys dearly, we grew up together from 14 to 18. But all of them had fathers in the nomenklatura, I was the only one who was different. They did not antagonize me. They did not treat me as though I was different. They respected me. At that age, you mix. You’re not really aware of those caste differences, so inherently typical of socialism, that one probably enjoys later. But I felt different. I knew their parents would come in limousines for parents’ meetings. And that proved to be a critical point.

When we went back to our city a week later, we started to be called to the state security, like the Stasi. And we had to repeat the story over and over again. Eventually, the question was asked, “Who gave the idea to walk into the embassy?” And guess what: I was pointed to as the instigator.

Now, I’ve thought about it a lot, and it must have been this 1973 juvenile sin of walking into the American embassy. And then the 1983-4 sympathy for the Solidarity movement, and then this Scandinavian affair…

Was there any punishment associated with that visit to the embassy?

No. There was just a stern warning that we should never do such a thing again. There was no immediate punishment in terms of the legal system. But if you think of the methods of the communist regime, the punishment is that you don’t have any future any more. It’s a long-term punishment. Technically, you are not given a verdict. But you are deprived of a normal future. If I had attempted to study anything other than linguistics, I wouldn’t have been allowed. If I tried to travel abroad, I wouldn’t be allowed. In 1986, the Scandinavians were very pleased with the time they spent here. They insisted that I accompany the Bulgarian group on the trip to Scandinavia. They were so insistent that they wanted to cancel the trip if I couldn’t accompany them. Which made it even worse for the police: “Oh really, so that’s how important you are for them? They insisted that you have to go?” Maybe they drew the conclusion that the Scandinavians wanted me there to keep me there.

There’s an old saying: the snake bites worst when it feels that it’s dying. That was the communist regime in its last years. From the late 1970s to the collapse, those were the worst years of the state security. The events inThe Lives of Others movie took place during the same period – 1980s. They were feeling the end coming.

That happened in September 1986. I knew that I was doomed. I didn’t want to even go back and work for this cultural house. At that time, friends of mine who worked for an interpretation bureau called me and said they needed someone for 45 days. There was an American exhibit coming to Bulgaria under an agreement between the State Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a Bulgarian exhibit also going to Washington. They needed someone available for 45 days to help the American manager of the exhibit as a personal assistant. For me that was wonderful. We came here to Varna in mid-October and stayed until the end of November.

I became very close with Richard Browne, the American exhibit director, who became a very good friend of mine. But I was accused again of being too close to foreigners. It was an American this time, so even worse. There was a break for the New Year, and then the exhibit was supposed to move from Varna to Sofia to reopen in February. But I was called in and told that I was not going to work with the exhibit. Actually, I was told that I couldn’t work on anything else. I was to be put on a bus and sent to Austria. I refused to do that. The other option was to have my family interned in a very small village on the Turkish-Bulgarian border. I checked: there were fewer than a 100 elderly people living in that place, with no school and no jobs. I was in my early 30s. My daughter was about nine years old. My wife was 30.

I said, “What are we going to do there? There’s no school there, there’s nothing. You’re sending me there basically to die.”

They said, “If you don’t like communism, you do whatever you want there.”

I said, “I can’t live there. If you want to kill me, do that, but don’t kill my family. Really, isn’t there something else I can do here?”

That was my first actual punishment — to answer your earlier question. They told me that I couldn’t work as an interpreter, a teacher, an editor, an intellectual, anything. They told me I could do any menial labor that allows people who are not officially residents of Sofia to work in Sofia due to the deficiency of menial laborers. “If you find a job like that,” they said, “we’ll allow you to be in Sofia.”

Militiamen were coming to the house each morning, early, waking up the family. My daughter would be horrified and would be crying. Everyone would be scared. They brought me to the 6th precinct where there was a bad cop and a good cop.

The bad copy would yell at me and say, “You’re in trouble now, really in trouble, you’re a traitor, you betrayed us. You have to sign this document that you’ll never talk to a foreigner again.”

I said, “Come on, you’ll send someone tomorrow to ask me the time in English, and someone else will see this person talking to me and then you’ll accuse me of talking to foreigners. I’m not signing anything.”

As things got desperate, the “good cop” came in and said, “Hey, he’s a good guy. Let me try. Hey son, what have you done, why are they torturing you?”

Eventually, this good cop says, “Go find a job, and let me know when you get one.”

I went out and saw this advertisement for a training course to operate electric trolleybuses in Sofia. It was probably in the middle of the week, and the ad said that there would be a training course starting the following Monday. I went to the HR hiring office. They said, “We never had a university graduate come for training. Wonderful! Come on Monday morning for the training.”

Stupid as I was, when I found this new job driving a trolleybus, I called back the “good cop” and told him that I had found this job starting Monday morning. “Excellent,” he said, “Good luck, go ahead.”

On Monday morning, there were about 15 of us. They led us to a training room. As we are entering the room, a lady pulls me to the side and says, “Unfortunately you can’t start your training today.”

“Why not?”

“I didn’t realize that you’re not a resident of Sofia.”

“But I told you this. I gave you my documents.”

“Yes, but I overlooked this. Unless you go back to your native city and get permission from the local committee of the Communist Party, you cannot start the course.”

“How about if I go to Russe today and get the permission and come back tomorrow morning?”

“Well, no, then you’ll have missed the day of training.”

Obviously they received a call. The security police were trying to force me into a corner. Even worse, they sent over to my house a classmate of mine, probably my closest friend. His father was a traffic police officer — police is police, right? – and this person was probably helped by his father to get a job with state security. They sent him to conduct surveillance on me and to talk with me. If I confessed that I had done a crime against the state, that I had been an American spy or collaborator, he told me, then they would be merciful. “We’ve been good friends,” I told him, “but if you come to my door to talk like this, I don’t want to see you any more.”

Did you ever find out what happened to him?

I’ve heard from other classmates that he left the Stasi police after 1990. He was married to a Russian woman. It was an advantage to marry a Russian if you worked for state security: they’d give you large apartment, a better job. He left the secret police and I heard from someone else that he started an import-export business with Scandinavian partners.

So, they didn’t let me drive the trolley bus. That same day, when they turned me away from the course, I was walking home and I was desperate. I didn’t call this “good cop”. I was passing by a streetcar depot. I saw at the entrance of the garage that they were hiring people to work night shifts fixing the brakes on the streetcars. I went in and asked if I could start. They said, “Sure, tonight!” So I started. Several days later, I called the guy at the police station and said that I’d been working for three days. And he said, “Why didn’t you call me?” Because I didn’t want to call you! I worked there about two months every night fixing the brakes of streetcars.

Something you learned on the job!

It’s not difficult. You just replace the disks. It’s a tough job, but it’s not difficult to learn. It’s not brain surgery. Two months later there was a training course for bus drivers. Being in the system of the transit corporation, I just moved to that. And I learned to drive a bus. From the spring of 1987 to late December of 1989, I drove busses.

You mentioned that you were part of a blockade.

In December 1989, I was the leading force organizing a strike. We bus drivers went on strike. We were joined by other city transit workers. The transit in Sofia stopped for about four or five business days.

The specific demand was….?

The specific demand was better salaries, better working conditions, and better social benefits. But it was clearly a political strike, because it happened in December when events were brewing and the Union of Democratic Forces was being formed. I assume that this enhanced the development of all those events. That was in late December, early January 1989. And then days after that I went back to journalism, toDemokratsia and Vek 21.

End Part 1.

The In Amenas Fiasco Throws Cold Water on the Algeria-U.S.-France Love Fest (Part Two)

Read Part 1.

“There are two kinds of history – the official kind, full of lies, which is taught in schools – history ad usum delphini; and there is secret history – in which we learn the real causes of events – a shameful chronicle.”
Les Illusions Perdues, Balzac

Mali: New Front of the War on Terrorism

No doubt the attack on the In-Amenas oil and gas facility in the Algerian Sahara is related to the events in Mali, where France has just landed troops in an effort to dislarge the Islamic militants who have taken over Mali’s northern regions. What are the pretexts, the deeper logic of the French Malian intervention? One would think that people wouldn’t fall for it yet again: ‘We’re just sending the troops to protect innocent lives and support democracy’ – humanitarian interventionalism. Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.

Now add Mali to the list.

But once again, it works like a charm, long enough at least to get French troops on the ground in Mali from whence it will difficult to extract them for some time. It helps to have a weak UN Security Council resolution a la Libya which doesn’t condone sending troops but is vague enough to give a thin veil of legitimacy – the suggestion of international law at work – to cover war crimes. Combine that with some wacko Salafist radicals, a vital element in the mix, who destroy Sufi shrines and rough up women, forcing them, veiled, back in the kitchen without music on the radio and the combustible mix is complete.

Enter French President Francois Hollande, his popularity sagging at home as the French socio-economic crisis deepens. Lying with a straight face, Hollande told his nation and the world that by sending French troops to Mali with jet fighter cover that “France has no other purpose than to fight terrorism.” France only wants to help Mali ‘recover its territorial integrity’ and make sure there are “legitimate authorities and an electoral process.”

Touching.

It plays well in Paris where the Mali diversion works to make a weak and confused French president look strong and determined. The call for a French-led, secular jihad to counter an exaggerated Islamic jihad gets the French public singing La Marseillaise! in unison. If the United States led the charge in opening the first front on the War on Terrorism, France, where Islamophobia has a long and esteemed history, can provide the shock troops for the second front, the Sahara. French military intervention plays well in Washington too.

The Obama Administration has been unable, until now, to pressure its choice strategic ally, Algeria, to enter the Malian fray. With its eye on an Asian-Pacific military buildup, Washington itself is unwilling to send U.S. troops (other than some Special Forces types we have to assume are involved) to Mali. Hollande’s willingness to act as the Sahara’s Netanyahu suits the Obama Administration and its likely new Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel.

Hollande’s Song

Missing from Hollande’s ‘We-only-want-to- help-out-the-poor-Malian-people’ scenario is France’s sorry history in post-colonial history of shamelessly supporting some of the worst African dictators in exchange for economic access, its complicity in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and its specific historic interest going back to the 1890s to control the Sahara and its extraordinary wealth in oil, natural gas, uranium, gold and other natural resources.

The French even have a term for it: ‘Francafrique‘. Some French commentators speak of the French military incursion into Mali as the ‘return of Francafrique’, a bit misleading, as, since the independence wave of the 1960s, France never left Africa. Its neo-colonial relationship with its former colonies is an unbroken chain of cynical economic deals lubricated by massive corruption of its African client elites.

To understand the French intervention in Mali, it helps to take Hollande’s words and rework them a bit to ‘France is intervening in Mali to protect the extensive French economic interests in the region – oil, natural gas, uranium and gold’. These interests, both those in full operation and those yet to come extend across the Sahara in Chad, Niger, Mali, Algeria and Mauritania. For example. although uranium is not yet mined in Mali, it is mined in nearby northern Niger by Areva, one of the world’s largest uranium mining companies, French owned. The French get most of the profits and benefits thereof. The Sahara locals wind up with little more than polluted water tables and piles of radioactive tailings.

Pre-empting the Spectre of Chinese Influence

Under the surface, beneath the French song about promoting liberté, égalité, and fraternité in Mali with French Special Forces troops and Mirage jet fighters, one notices ‘un certain nervosite’. Yep, the French power circles are getting the shakes over the instability in Mali. The fear, like most paranoia, is vague, and while not totally imaginary, it is grossly exaggerated.

No, it is not the Algerian-trained (by the DRS) Saharan Islamicists that strike fear into the heart of the French elite…small potatoes. It’s China! Of course. Uncertainty over how the situation might play out throughout the Sahara region is at the source of French concern. Political changes in the region could jeopardize France’s sizeable uranium, petro-chemical and other strategic raw material access. For a country in which 70% of electrical power comes from nuclear power, and most of the uranium to run it comes from the Sahara, this is serious.

If this part of the scenario is accurate then there is another way to consider French military actions in Mali: little more than a pre-emptive, defensive military maneuver meant to keep China out of Mali (and Niger and Chad among other places) and for France to retain its access to the Saharan wealth on which it depends.

While uranium has not been mined yet in Mali (or in Chad), surveys done by the French in the 1950s located significant potential sources of the stuff there. Geologists also claim there could be yet more Saharan oil and natural gas throughout the Sahara region from Mauritania to the Sudan, much of which – including Mauretania, Mali, Niger and Chad – has yet to be unearthed.

But for the people of the Sahara, the French-created Saharan national boundaries mean little. Where Mali ends and Niger begins is not found on the Tuareg mental map of the region they have lived in for several thousand years. The French fear that the instability in Mali could spill over into Niger, where France has several major uranium mine, with another one about to open for business. Perhaps this gives some insights as to why France has concentrated virtually all of its African military bases in Africa, either in, or within striking distance of the Sahara. One should expect that one outcome of the current French military campaign in Mali is another permanent base somewhere, perhaps between Timbuctou and Gao, north of the Niger River.

Some Historical Considerations

Hollande’s ‘solidarity’ with Mali, his eagerness to send French troops there, is merely the latest episode in France’s 125-year effort to gain control the Sahara belt countries from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, an effort in which they were only partially successful.

French conquest of the Sahara began badly. The first mission, the so-called Flatters Mission, taken in 1881 from Algeria, was entirely wiped out by Tuareg bands. Others would proceed only with difficulty. It would take the French nearly twenty years to recover and reconvene its Sahara thrust eastward. The French march to the Red Sea was again stopped at Fashoda in 1898 when the French offensive ran into British troops which it wisely decided not to confront militarily.

The decisive military confrontation that gave France control of the rest of the Sahara took place shortly after, in 1902. A French military contingent under Lieutenant Cottenest wiped out a band of 300 Tuareg fighters in the Ahaggar region (in the Sahara by the current Algerian-Libyan border) .

There were other setbacks. Early 20th-century attempts to dominate the Fezzan (Western Libya) were checked first by the Italians and later after World War II by combined U.S. and British pressure which expelled their military missions from Libya. France had hoped to annex this region to Algeria. Shortly thereafter, in the early 1950s, oil was discovered there.

French military activity in Mali, as part of a larger plan to dominate the region and its resources, is nothing new. Twice in the 20th century, France considered creating something of an independent Saharan political unit, under French control of course first during World War One, and later, a more serious attempt in the 1950s.

The first campaign to create a ‘French Sahara’ was led by a French priest, one Father Charles de Foucauld, assassinated in Tamanrasset (in the Algerian Sahara) in December, 1916. Foucauld’s vision, which had some support in French circles of power, was to create an ethnic state, what he referred to as a ‘pan-Tuareg’ political entity in the Sahara that would cut the Algerian Sahara off from the northern part of the country, isolating the Arab North from sub-Saharan Black Africa.

Following the racist logic of French colonialism, Foucauld believed that the Tuaregs, an offshot of the Berbers, were racially close to Europeans, superior to the Arabs who represented a kind of second rung of humanity. Black Africans, whom Foucauld considered virtually ineducable, were at the bottom of his racial pyramid. According to his thinking Foucauld hoped to create an ethnically pure Tuareg Sahara that would be closely linked to France culturally and economically.

These ideas were clearly expressed in one of Foucauld’s many letters to members of the French parliament:

“How can we civilize our African empire?” he asks, the ‘burning question’ of the pre-WW I years. “Doubtless it consists of variable elements: Berbers (the Tuareg) capable of rapid progress, Arabs slow to progress. The diverse Black populations, by themselves, cannot achieve civilized status, but all should advance to the degree capable.”1

How generous and liberal a spirit!

Although Foucauld’s ideas never materialized into an all-Saharan entity that would rip off the Algerian Sahara and combine it with French colonized Saharan areas of Chad, Niger and Mali, his program resonated among certain pro-colonial and mining circles in the French Parliament, and like a phoenix these ideas would rise from oblivion in the early 1950s.

At that time the French government proposed what is referred to as “l’Organisation commune des regions sahariennes” (the Common – or Combined – Organization of Sahara Regions), its acronym – OCSR. The OCSR created a series of bureaucracies to research the region’s mineral wealth, to administer the region, to set up a communications network. It was a serious endeavor that went much further than Foucauld’s less practical colonial vision.

The Sahara and the Algerian War for Independence: 1954-1962

Not much has been written about the fact that the French had started secretly negotiating with the Algerian rebels – the FLN (Front de la liberations nationale) – as early as 1956 and that even at this early date, the French offered the Algerians a modicum of independence; but it was a truncated independence that Paris was willing to concede, one which granted independence to Algeria essentially north of the Atlas Mountains with France retaining control of the Algerian Sahara.

What figured large into the French plan was the fact that oil, oil in very large quantities, was discovered in 1956 in the Sahara. France thought of that oil as its own and was unwilling to part with it. The Algerians, for their part, were unwilling to accept a truncated independence. One probable reason for the utter ferocity of the independence war both by the French and Algerians was that oil-related economic stakes were so high.

France hoped to sever the Algerian Sahara from the north and connect it in a vast industrial, communication network zone that it would control that would be spread out over much of the region, which during the colonial period was known as French Sudan. At independence in 1960, that region would become four independent countries – from west to east: Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad. The economic integration of the Sahara itself was a part of a larger plan to link the former French colonies by roads, railway from the Congo Brazzaville further south with metropolitan France.2

In the postwar decade from 1945-1955, the region had been heavily surveyed by French geologists and geographers whose reports – still valid today – gave indications and hints of vast as yet untapped mineral and petro-chemical wealth that France was anxious to dominate. While the OCSR would formally recognize the independence of these countries, the program, a classic neo-colonial venture, was based on effective French economic, political and military control of this vast region.

Financial backing for such a large undertaking, considered essential for France’s future energy and economic security, were undertaken. There was considerable support for the idea in the French parliament and in the ruling circles in general. Much organizational infrastructure for the project, the political reorganization of the region, some infrastructural development was already underway even before 1960.

However, Algerian resistance combined with French inability to get all the newly independent political players on board stymied the formal implementation of the plan. The loss of the Algerian Sahara, a key element, made the plan unworkable in the form France had envisioned.
But France has never given up on the idea of a French-controlled Sahara zone. Unable to formally undertake the program, Paris has for the past half century, largely successfully one might add, attempted to implement the OCSR informally and that has worked better. France’s Mali military mission is little more than the latest attempt to follow through, slightly revised, of these earlier efforts to control the Sahara and its resources.

1. My translation from Andre Bourgeot. “Sahara: espace geostrategique et enjeux politiques (Niger)” Autrepart (16) 2000L 21-48. I am indebted to this author for many of the insights cited in this last section of this entry

2. Ibid

Links:

Immanuel Wallerstein. The Very Risky Bet of Hollande in Mali: The Probable Long Term Disaster.

John Pilger. The Real Invasion of Africa and Other Not-Made-For-Hollywood-Holy-Wars.

Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Republicans Use Border Control to Obstruct Immigration Reform

On Tuesday, President Obama addressed the issues surrounding immigration reform and what he would like to see accomplished. The address came on the heels of a meeting of the bipartisan Senatorial “Gang of Eight,” which includes John McCain and Marco Rubio. There is bipartisan consensus on the need for reform, but policymakers have varying opinions on how to tackle the status of the immigrants themselves.

Obama proposes swift reform to lead the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants on a direct path to citizenship—placing the issue of immigrant status over border control. However, the Gang outlines a plan making any reform contingent upon strictly enforced border control measures. Reform supporter Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) believes that the standard set to first control the border is an impossible one. “At what point is it secure?” he asks.

Conservative and liberal media alike highlight the opposition of the president to any provision linking citizenship to a “secure” border. Despite bipartisan efforts, divisions between the two parties could hinder any resolution on future reform, with Republicans opting for border control legislation before anything else.

Sen. Marc Rubio (R-FL) spoke with Fox News Tuesday, clearly standing his ground: “If the [border enforcement] is not in place,” he said, “I won’t support it.” While his sentiment mirrors that of many conservatives, Obama stands just as firm in his position: “If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal, and insist that they vote on it right away.”

Although the bipartisan efforts of these eight senators can be applauded, the likelihood of any swift legislation being passed is slim. Democrats and Republicans stand behind party lines—just as they have in the past—putting politics over people.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Salvadoran Gang Leaders Achieve a Measure of Redemption

Experts traveled to El Salvador to gain insight into how a truce between the gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 led to a marked decrease in violence.

In recent years, El Salvador, like many of its Latin American counterparts, has witnessed an explosion in violence. The contentious fighting between two of the country’s biggest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, is largely responsible for fueling much of the carnage.

Both of these gangs trace their roots to poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles where young, marginalized Latin American immigrants clustered together to form them. When the United States started deporting convicted felons to their native countries, many MS-13 and Barrio 18 members found themselves in countries they hardly knew, including El Salvador. Driven by fear of the unknown and an instinct for survival, they gravitated to the only piece of their past that still remained—the gangs. Today, approximately 20,000 MS-13 and Barrio 18 members populate the streets of El Salvador.

Armed with an arsenal of weapons, including assault-style rifles and grenades, and saddled with a lack of economic opportunity, these gang members proceeded to slaughter each other over arbitrarily designated chunks of territory. That is until last spring, when the gang leaders met in their dungeon-like prisons and decided to enact a truce.

The results of the truce have been nothing short of miraculous. Homicides in the country have decreased by 40 percent, kidnappings have been slashed in half, and extortions have fallen by 10 percent. Hardened gang members, who at times appear to don more ink than skin, accomplished in a matter of weeks what the government failed to do in the past decade—deliver a modicum of peace to El Salvador.

Inspired by the unprecedented events in El Salvador, the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGPPES)—a coalition of experts in the fields of gang intervention, human rights, post conflict work, and economic development—traveled to the Central American country to better understand the roots of the largely unexpected peace agreement.

What the group found was that despite the strong animosity that existed between the gangs, the yearning for some sense of peaceful normality—the ability to take their kids to school without the fear of getting shot—was stronger.

The group also visited the prisons where some of the gang leaders who brokered the peace were held. The gang leaders, the coalition reported, were often troubled men who had experienced and done terrible things. Their families and friends had been vanquished by the gang war. Many of them had killed, kidnapped, and even tortured their rivals. To many onlookers, the gang leaders appeared devoid of any humanity, which is what made the peace agreement even more remarkable.

But they weren’t devoid of their humanity at all. Despite the darkness of their past and the horrid conditions of their prison cells, the gang leaders still held on to redeeming qualities that shone through their hardened exterior. They wanted a better life for their children and they wanted the opportunity to right some of their wrongs.

“I know I’ve done terrible things,” said one. “I know I’ve thrown my life away. I’m not asking for mercy. I’ll pay for my crimes. All I want is a better life for my children. That is why I agreed to the peace agreement. If I can secure a better future for them, then at least I’ll know my life was not a complete waste.”

Tupac Shakur, who coincidentally is one of the best-known “gangster” rappers, once wrote a short poem entitled, The Rose that Grew from Concrete. The poem is worth quoting at length:

Did you hear about the rose that grew / from a crack in the concrete? / Proving nature’s law is wrong it / learned to walk without having feet. / Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, / it learned to breathe fresh air. / Long live the rose that grew from concrete / when no one else ever cared.

If a rose can grow from concrete, then surely peace can emerge from the depths of a dark Salvadorian prison.

Javier Rojo is the New Mexico Fellow at the institute for Policy Studies.

Egyptian Protesters Eat Their Own

Remember the Tahrir Square attack on Lara Logan two years ago while she was covering the demonstrations for CBS News? It seems that women — even protestors — continue to be sexually assaulted. At the Egypt Independent, Tom Dale writes:

A woman was sexually assaulted with a bladed weapon on Friday night, leaving cuts on her genitals, in central Cairo, in the midst of what was purportedly a revolutionary demonstration. … She was one among at least 19 women sexually assaulted in and around Tahrir Square on Friday night, according to accounts collated by Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, an activist group. … There were other attacks involving bladed weapons. Six women required medical attention. No doubt there were more assaults, uncounted.

To experience the sheer horror of one of these attacks second-hand, read this account at the Nazra for Feminist Studies website. Meanwhile, Dale again:

It is neither my place nor my wish to draw conclusions about “the revolution” from all this: I do not believe that is possible or wise. But I can say that as the familiar chants resonated in the square, the demands for justice, a new government and new constitution, I felt a little sick.

“Tahrir Square,” he writes, “is both a place in which people both demand dignity for themselves and, in some cases, violently strip it from others. … It is not inevitable that Egypt’s revolutionary street politics be undercut by a current of rape.”

Still, there’s a certain inevitability to the emergence of mob mentality. Especially with all the unemployed — and thus un-marriageable — young men in Egypt. Ideally, the perpetrators would be singled out and subjected to some form (not fatal!) of “revolutionary justice.” Still, these crimes can be classified as fallout from not only the Egyptian government’s repressive policies, but its failure to improve the economy. At Time, Tony Karon elaborates on Egypt’s foundering economy.

Youth unemployment, one of the key drivers of the revolutionary upsurge in 2011, continues to grow, with official figures revealing that 25% of economically active [not sure what that means -- RW] people ages 25 to 29, and 41% of those ages 19 to 24, are jobless.

Karon again: “President Mohamed Morsi’s plans to save Egypt’s sinking economy hinge on” — stop me if you’ve heard this one before –

… a $5 billion loan from the IMF [which] can be accessed only on the condition of implementing austerity measures that will bring a sharp spike in the economic pain suffered by millions of impoverished households.

In any event, male Egyptian protesters would do well to remember it’s not their sisters who are oppressing them. Diverting resources to policing their own while at the same time fighting the Egyptian government only slows the advance of their cause and diminishes its integrity.

The Sunday Times of London’s Odd Timing on Controversial Netanyahu Cartoon

The Sunday Times of London’s controversial Netanyahu cartoon highlighted the difficulty many experience differentiating between a political comment and a religious insult.

Netanyahu cartoonBritain’s The Sunday Times featured a controversial cartoon this past Sunday depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a bloody brick wall on the bodies of trapped, screaming Palestinians with the caption: “Israel elections. Will cementing the peace continue?”

The cartoon—drawn by veteran cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who often utilizes blood in his work—has garnered the attention of Israeli officials and international Jewish groups who have declared the cartoon “sickening,” “anti-Semitic,” and “grotesque.”

Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub, demanded an apology from the newspaper, stating that “We’re not going to let this stand as it is…We genuinely think that a red line has been crossed and the obligation on the newspaper is to correct that.” Other Israeli officials have also spoken out against the cartoon, such as Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who wrote, “For me and for other Israelis, this cartoon was reminiscent of the vicious journalism during one of the darkest periods in human history,” and that he was “shocked that such cartoons can be published in such a respectable newspaper in the Great Britain of today.”

Much of the outrage has been in response to the fact that Scarfe’s cartoon was printed on Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day, which coincides with the International Holocaust Remembrance Day marking the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945. Scarfe himself has stated he was unaware of the timing and publicly apologized in a statement on his website:

First of all I am not, and never have been, anti-Semitic. The Sunday Times has given me the freedom of speech over the last 46 years to criticise world leaders for what I see as their wrong-doings. This drawing was a criticism of Netanyahu, and not of the Jewish people: there was no slight whatsoever intended against them. I was, however, stupidly completely unaware that it would be printed on Holocaust Day, and I apologise for the very unfortunate timing.

Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media mogul whose company owns the Sunday Times, also publicly tweeted an apology, labeling the cartoon “grotesque” and “offensive,” adding that it “has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times.”

Some members of the Jewish community have come to Scarfe’s defense, however, such as Anshel Pfeffer from Haaretz, who listed four reasons why the cartoon “isn’t anti-Semitic in any way: ”first, that it is not directed at Jews; second, that it does not use Holocaust imagery; third, there was no discrimination; and lastly, that “this is not what a blood libel looks like.”

Simon Kelner of The Independent also came to Scarfe’s defense, replying to Murdoch’s tweet:

Of course it’s grotesque. Has he never seen a Scarfe cartoon before? But offensive? I can’t find any impulse, emotionally or intellectually, that causes me to be offended. Does this make me a bad Jew? Maybe it does, but I do think the world would be a better place if people were able to tell the difference between a political comment and a religious insult.

Yet for all the controversy one cannot help but wonder whose decision it actually was to print Scarfe’s cartoon on such a date, especially since it would seem that such a cartoon would have been much more timely—and a lot less offensive—had it been featured the Sunday before Israel’s elections.

Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Cracks in the Eritrea Edifice

Eritrea President Isaias Afewerki

Eritrea President Isaias Afewerki

The small, isolated African nation of Eritrea has received considerable scrutiny for its secretive and repressive policies since its break from Ethiopia in 1993. The socioeconomic condition of Eritrea is one of the worst in the world, leaving many citizens, including members of the military, disenchanted with President Isaias Afewerki.

This simmering discontent reached a boil last week when rogue soldiers seized the Eritrean Information Ministry, sparking worldwide attention—except within Eritrea itself, which strictly controls the flow of information.

Reports indicate that 100 to 200 dissident soldiers overtook the Ministry of Information and forced a newscaster to deliver a statement on air. Their primary demands included the release of political prisoners as well as the implementation of a constitution drawn up in 1997 that was never enforced.

Cracks are beginning to appear in Afewerki’s dictatorship, and the attempted coup may herald the crumbling of his regime in the near future. What will the impact of this event be on the already deteriorating situation in the country?

Because of the geostrategic location of Eritrea in regards to international shipping routes—particularly for oil—via the Red Sea, the world must pay close attention to what unfolds in the coming months. With tensions on the rise, the unstable Horn of Africa could be further engulfed in strife, only worsening the plight of Eritrea’s people.

But would-be interventionists should stay their hand.

For years, Eritrea funded and armed Somali militants, including the terrorist group al-Shabaab, though its support for the group appears to have waned in recent years. But with tensions now on the brink of exploding, any interference from the outside could lead Eritrea to resume its funding of al-Shabaab. The resulting escalation of violence in Somalia could well spawn a new quagmire altogether.

There are few details regarding the events that unfolded last Monday, but in an update from TIME, it was reported that the Information Ministry was off the air for an entire day—contrary to initial reports that it was off for only a few hours. For the members of the Eritrean diaspora, any news from the country is a breath of fresh air. Although a few officials “hinted” that something happened on January 21, the government did not respond to requests for information from TIME.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Page 52 of 183« First...102030...5051525354...607080...Last »