Focal Points Blog

Israel Ups the Stakes With Assassination of Jaabari

First posted at the Nation.

Ahmad Jaabari and Gilad Shalit.

Ahmad Jaabari and Gilad Shalit.

Tuesday’s Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Gaza and Israel collapsed today when Israel launched a major escalation. In airstrikes almost certainly involving U.S.-made F-16 warplanes and/or U.S.-made Apache helicopters, Israel’s air force assassinated Ahmad Jaabari, the longtime military leader of Hamas. As the Israeli airstrikes continued Wednesday, seven more Palestinians were killed and at least 30 were injured, ten of them critically.

Jaabari had been chief negotiator with Israel in the deal that led to the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian political prisoners held illegally in Israeli jails. He had negotiated the ceasefire that had mostly held over much of the last year or more. The attack, code-named “Operation Pillar of Defense” [sic], also killed someone else in Jaabari’s car, and quickly expanded with additional airstrikes against Palestinian security and police stations in Gaza, making it impossible for Palestinian police to try to control the rocket-fire.

So why the escalation? Israeli military and political leaders have long made clear that regular military attacks to “cleanse” Palestinian territories (the term was used by Israeli soldiers to describe their role in the 2008-09 Israeli assault on Gaza) is part of their long-term strategic plan. Earlier this year, on the third anniversary of the Gaza assault, Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told Army Radio that Israel will need to attack Gaza again soon, to restore what he called its power of “deterrence.” He said the assault must be “swift and painful,” concluding, “we will act when the conditions are right.” Perhaps this was his chosen moment.

It is an interesting historical parallel that this escalation – which almost certainly portends a longer-term and even more lethal Israeli assault – takes place almost exactly four years after Operation Cast Lead, the last major Israeli war on Gaza that left 1,400 Gazans dead in 2008-09. Then, as now, the attack came shortly after U.S. elections, ending just before President Obama’s January 2009 inauguration.

But the timing for this escalation is almost certainly shaped more by Israel’s domestic politics than by the U.S. election cycle. The most likely timeline is grounded in Netanyahu’s political calendar – he faces reelection in January, and having thoroughly antagonized many Israelis by his deliberate dissing of President Obama, needs to shore up the far right contingent of his base. With regional pressures escalating, particularly regarding the expanding Syrian crisis, Netanyahu needs to reassure his far-right supporters (an increasing cohort) that even if he doesn’t send bombers to attack Damascus, he still can attack, bomb, assassinate Arabs with impunity.

There is a U.S. connection, of course – however much domestic politics motivated Tel Aviv’s attack, Israel’s backers in Congress (lame-duck and newly-elected) will still demand public U.S. support for the Israeli offensive. Netanyahu will get that backing – there is no reason to think the Obama White House is prepared yet to challenge that assumption. But it’s unlikely that even Netanyanu believes it will somehow recalibrate his tense relationship with Israel by forcing Washington’s hand to defend Israel’s so-called “right of self-defense.” They will do that – but Obama will still be pretty pissed off at Netanyahu.

As is always the case, history is shaped by when you start the clock. In the last several days U.S. media accounts have reported increasing violence on the Gaza-Israel border, most of them beginning with a Palestinian attack on Israeli soldiers on Thursday, November 8th. What happened before that Palestinian attack?

For starters, the soldiers, part of an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) squad that included four tanks and a bulldozer, were inside the Gaza Strip. According to the IDF spokeswoman, Palestinians fired at “soldiers while they were performing routine activity adjacent to the security fence.” Really. What kind of activities inside the supposedly not-occupied Gaza Strip, by a group of armed soldiers, tanks and a bulldozer (almost certainly an armored Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer manufactured in the U.S. and paid for with U.S. taxpayer military aid to Israel), could possibly be defined as anything close to “routine”? Unlike the illegal Palestinian rockets fired against civilian targets inside Israel, using force to resist an illegal military force in the context of a belligerent military occupation is lawful under international law.

Later that day, an 11-year-old child was killed. Israel was “investigating the boy’s death.” Not many U.S. media outlets reported that within the next 72 hours the Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights documented five more Palestinians killed, including three children, and 52 other civilians, including 6 women and 12 children, wounded in Israeli airstrikes. Four of the deaths and 38 injuries resulted from a single Israeli attack on a football playground in a neighborhood east of Gaza city. Twelve Israelis, four of them soldiers, were injured by Palestinian rockets fired into Israel.

The cross-border clashes continued, until Egypt was able to negotiate a ceasefire on Wednesday. Today, that fragile ceasefire was violently breached as Israel sent warplanes to assassinate a Hamas leader and destroy key parts of Gaza’s barely-functional infrastructure.

This is primarily about Netanyanu shoring up the right-wing of his base. And once again it is Palestinians, this time Gazans, who will pay the price. The question that remains is whether the U.S.-assured impunity that Israel’s leadership has so long counted on will continue, or whether there will be enough pressure on the Obama administration and Congress so that this time, the U.S. will finally be forced to allow the international community to hold Israel accountable for this latest round of violations of international law.

Will Obama Back Israeli Punishment of Palestinians for U.N. Overture?

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The arrogance of the man seemingly has no bounds but still it seems highly presumptuous for Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to claim to speak for the United States. However, according to AFP, last week, on the eve of the U.S. Presidential election, he said the U.S. would subject the Palestinians to “severe measures” if their leaders go ahead and seek non-member status at the United Nations General Assembly. Israeli television Channel 10 reported that the rightwing minister said the U.S. would join Tel Aviv in assuring that the Palestinian Authority would “collapse” if the initiative proceeded.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas is planning to take the bid for recognition and admission to the UN assembly November 29. The body’s approval by majority vote in the 193-member body is considered a foregone conclusion.

The strange irony of all this is that for months now the Israeli leaders and their supporters in the U.S. and Europe, and most of the major media in this country, have insisted that a UN vote in favor of the Palestinians would be meaningless, have no effect on the situation in the region, and that a Middle East settlement can only be secured through negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Somehow that view doesn’t mesh with the near hysterical response and threats emanating from the Israeli government in response to the decision by Palestinian President Abbas to seek UN recognition. What is obvious, however, is that the Israelis are aware that the UN action would only increase the growing isolation of Tel Aviv in the international community, and lay bare the opposition to the continuation of Israel occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the unrelenting Israeli colonial settlement expansion.

On November 9, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Lieberman has also threatened to accelerate settlement building in the occupied territories should the Palestinians go to the UN.

Much media attention in the U.S. over the past couple of weeks has centered on the consequences of the re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama on U.S. –Israeli relations and the outlook for moving ahead with the “peace process.” It appears the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu was badly misled by its supporters in the U.S. Sensing some diplomatic advantage, the Israeli Prime Minister injected himself into U.S. politics on behalf of defeated candidate Republican Mitt Romney. Now that Obama has returned to the White House, the Israeli leadership has – at least in public – adopted a more conciliatory attitude toward the Administration. Supporters of the Netanyahu government, both in Israel and here, appeared to have concluded the prime minister’s bold intrusion into U.S. politics was unwise.

However, the official Israeli response to the prospect of a vote at the UN remains unchanged. “Only in direct negotiations can the real positions be clarified,” Netanyahu says. Adding that if the Palestinians are serious about a peaceful settlement they would agree to sit down together “immediately” and negotiate. A bid for UN membership will “only push peace back and will only produce unnecessary instability,” Netanyahu says.

Not all the hawks in the Netanyahu’s Likud party government are being restrained. Last week, Danny Danon, deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset, reacted to Obama’s re-election by telling reporters that “Obama’s victory demonstrates that the state of Israel must take care of its own interests.”

“We cannot rely on anyone but ourselves. Obama has hurt the United States by his naïve leadership in foreign policy, which prefers the Arab world over the Western world, along with Israel.” Dayan continued, “The state of Israel will not capitulate before Obama.”

“Recent second-term presidents, most tantalizingly Bill Clinton, turned their attention to the Middle East,” the British newspaper The Independent said editorially November 8. “Mr. Obama, faced with the complexities of the Arab Spring, a civil war in Syria that threatens to destabilize the whole region, and pressure to use force to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb, may have a unique opportunity, post-Afghanistan, to address Israel-Palestine in a wider context.”

On the day of the U.S. election the Netanyahu government’s nine senior ministers were scheduled to discuss the Palestinian Authority’s decision to request an upgrade of its status at the United Nations. According to Haaretz, they were to “consider a range of retaliatory actions against the Palestinian leadership,” an official in Jerusalem said.

“This unilateral step has broken the rules and crossed a red line,” Lieberman said before heading to Vienna to attend a gathering meeting of Israeli ambassadors to Europe where, according to the Jerusalem Post, they were to “discuss ways to lobby European governments not to support the plan and to pressure the Palestinian Authority to either delay, or drop, its bid.”

A Palestinian official recently told Reuters that the votes of 12 states of the 27-member European Union states are committed to vote for the admission of Palestine and that some were still undecided. Among the European delegations expected to vote “no” on the admission of Palestine are the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Georgia. Palestinians can expect overwhelmingly support from the delegates of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The ambassadors evidently won’t have to spend much effort on France. Last month Netanyahu met with President Francois Hollande in Paris after which the Israeli leader slammed the Palestinian efforts toward international recognition, saying, “Going to the UN with unilateral declarations is not negotiations. It’s the opposite of negotiations.” The Socialist Party President called for an “unconditional” resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. According to the Israel media, he added that France was still committed to a two-state solution in the Middle East but warned the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas against trying to force the issue unilaterally.

Following Netanyahu’s visit to France, Hollande called for an “unconditional” resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. “There is the temptation of the Palestinian Authority to seek at the UN General Assembly that which it fails to obtain through negotiation,” he said. However, without at least a settlement freeze the likelihood of a resumption of talks is remote.

Following announcement last week that the Israeli government intends to build 1,200 new houses in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, expressed Europe’s “deep regrets.” She wrote, “Settlements are illegal under international law. The EU has repeatedly urged the government of Israel to immediately end all settlement activities in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, in line with its obligations under the roadmap.” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the Israeli decision a “hindrance” to the peace process

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn this week told Spiegel Online that the Palestinian application to the UN “is an absolutely justified request and not a provocation. It is often forgotten that the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine of 1948 provided for two states — Israel next to an Arab state,” said Asselborn. “After the Palestinians failed in their bid last year to be recognized as a state by the UN Security Council, Abbas announced he would follow the Vatican model and apply for the status of an observer state at the General Assembly. He even offered to formulate the resolution together with the Israelis, but Netanyahu refused.”

The real question is whether the Israelis are committed to a “two-state” solution, or any solution, or whether their strategy is to continue to establish “facts on the ground” through continued settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

On November 12, Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the Palestinian team working on the UN bid, said President Obama had voiced his opposition to the UN move, but that the Palestinian leader made it clear the decision was final. “I find it extremely shocking that the US and Israel would oppose this step,” Shtayyeh was quoted by Prensa Latina as saying. “What did we do to deserve this punishment? Did we declare war?”

Another Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, told official Voice of Palestine radio, “Obama did not utter any threats but there are threats from the [US] Congress, which has a draft bill, according to which it would demand closing the PLO office in Washington and cutting off aid if the Palestinian leadership pursues any move at the UN and its related agencies.”

This week the U.S. stepped up efforts to defer the Palestinians from going to the UN, including sending a special envoy to Europe to meet with Abbas. “We’ve been clear in the past about what some of the consequences that this would generate, or engender,” State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said November 13.

“The stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the lack of prospects for their resumption anytime soon has persuaded the Palestinian Authority (PA) to chart its own course by applying to the United Nations General Assembly (U.N.G.A.) as a non-voting member state,” wrote Alon Ben-Meir, a senior fellow at New York University, at the Huffington Post October 31. “However uncertain the prospect of such a move may be from the PA’s perspective, there is very little to lose at this juncture and perhaps much to gain in taking such a unilateral step.

“The Palestinians are counting on Israel’s increasing isolation in the international community and the overwhelming political support for their cause, which is also the official policy of the U.S. The forthcoming elections in the U.S. as well as in Israel, regardless of their outcome, will provide the Palestinians with an opportune time to thrust the nearly forgotten Palestinian problem into the Israeli and American political agendas while ensuring that the conflict returns to the forefront of the international community’s attention.”

Ben-Meir pointed to the recent uniting of Netanyahu’s Likud Party with the Yisrael Beytenu group, led by Lieberman, seriously suggests that coalition government “will hold onto even more extremist views than the current one, which will further diminish any hope for achieving a peaceful solution if Netanyahu wants to legalize settlements.”

Lieberman’s threats to harm Palestinians have included withholding from the Palestinian Authority government the tax and tariff revenues Israel collects and canceling working permits of Palestinians who are in Israel. “If the Palestinians go to the UN General Assembly with a new unilateral initiative, they must know they will be subject to severe measures by Israel and the United States,” Lieberman said, adding, “If they persist with this project, I will ensure that the Palestinian Authority collapses.” So far, there has been no word as to whether the Obama Administration will go along with what would amount to not only collective punishment but action taken against a whole people for an action that involves no violence.

The U.S. State Department is trying to twist the arms of the Europeans to induce them to act against the Palestinians at the UN and Washington’s seeming willingness to let the far right in Israel speak for it in the international arena and make threats on behalf of the Obama Administration is not a pretty sight. Carrying out such threats would be ugly. It is not in the interest of peace in the Middle East. It would be a mockery of the lofty pledges the President made at Cairo University three years ago and it is not the kind of thing the people who gave Obama the Nobel Peace prize had in mind.

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. He also serves on its editorial board.

Equatorial Guinea Briefly Disappears Dissident

Human rights lawyer Fabian Nsue Nguema.

Human rights lawyer Fabian Nsue Nguema.

Equatorial Guinea is one of those friends Washington generally prefers not to publicize. A most recent embarrassment only adds to an international reputation as one of the most corrupt and unjust nations on the planet. One of the nation’s leading human rights lawyers, Fabian Nsue Nguema, was temporarily disappeared.

After vanishing on October 22nd, he was presumed to be under secret detention. He was released on October 30th after enduring nine days of solitary confinement. Such are the punishments for dissenters in Teodoro Obiang’s fiefdom.

Nsue has been tortured and harassed by the government for years. He was held during his recent stint at the gruesome torture chamber Black Beach prison.

Black Beach Prison.

Black Beach Prison.

Obama has not substantially altered the Bush administration’s reopening of relations with Equatorial Guinea. The reasons are the usual ones. EG is the “Kuwait of Africa” and Obiang is happy to arrange greater profits from the natural national resource for foreign oil companies than the general citizenry of his country. The nation is a major supplier to the U.S. crude market, situated as it is, on the West African coast – a source Washington has increasingly favored for domestic consumption. The U.S. is EG’s largest buyer.

President and Mrs. Obiang and friends.

President and Mrs. Obiang and friends.

For this reason, relations between the two nations are “positive and constructive” according to the State Department. In September 2009, Obama even consented to a photo with Obiang and their spouses.

Obiang’s rule is so corrupt however – per capita the nation is one of the world’s wealthiest, at parity with Belgium, though citizens live in grinding poverty and die young – that he enlists extra help to manage his image from the likes of the notorious pal of Bill Clinton, Lanny Davis.

The ties to the U.S. go beyond government relations. Teodoro’s son has a mansion estate in Malibu and calls himself a prince, requiring his employees to line up to greet him and bid him farewell as he comes and goes, as if he is living out a sinister version of Eddie Murphie’s Coming to America. The excellent journalist Ken Silverstein depicts a man who literally does no work: “His days consisted entirely of sleeping, shopping and partying.” His theft of his country’s resources has financed such an array of luxury cars he is able to tell his drivers things like, “I’m wearing blue shoes, so get me the blue Rolls today.”

This spoiled child of the ruling class has been treated gently by the U.S. government, which continues to suffer his presence in the country in apparent violation of U.S. law against the entry of foreign corrupt officials. Despite amassing a damning amount of evidence on his corruption on an epic scale, the government has declined to prosecute him. Why alienate the future ruler of such a useful ally?

It is worth pausing to emphasize that everyone who collaborates with Equatorial Guinea’s oil exploitation, from governments, to foreign oil firms like Exxon, to private security companies like Virginia’s Military Professional Resources Initiative, are complicit in the theft of an entire people that should be living comfortable lives off the wealth under their soil, not the destitution they are currently condemned to.

Meanwhile, Equatorial Guinean human rights advocates like Nsue and the writer Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, who fled to Spain earlier this year after going on a hunger strike in protest of Obiang’s rule, continue their lonely fight against the superpower’s partner in crime.

Along with Kevin Funk, Steven Fake is the author of “Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books). They maintain a website with their commentary at scrambleforafrica.org.

The U.S. and the Middle East: The Next Four Years

Over the next four years the U.S. will face a number of foreign policy issues, most of them regional, some of them global. Conn Hallinan outlines and analyzes them, starting with the Middle East.

Syria

The most immediate problem in the region is the ongoing civil war in Syria, a conflict with local and international ramifications. The war—which the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad ignited by its crushing of pro-democracy protests— has drawn in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iran, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The U.S., France and Great Britain are also heavily involved in the effort to overthrow the Assad government.

The war has killed more than 30,000 people and generated several hundred thousand refugees, who have flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. It has also badly damaged relations between Turkey and Iran. The former supports the insurrection, the latter supports the Assad regime. Pitting Shite Iran (and to a certain extent, Shite Iraq and the Shite-based Hezbollah in Lebanon) against the largely Sunni Muslim opposition has sharpened sectarian tensions throughout the region.

The war itself appears to be a stalemate. So far, the regime’s army remains loyal, but seems unable to defeat the insurrection. The opposition, however, is deeply splintered and ranges from democratic nationalists to extremist jihadist groups. The US and Britain are trying to weld this potpourri into a coherent political opposition, but so far the attempts have floundered on a multiplicity of different and conflicting agendas by the opponents of the Assad regime.

Efforts by the United Nations (UN) to find a peaceful solution have been consistently torpedoed, because the opposition and its allies insist on regime change. The goal of overthrowing the government makes this a fight to the death and leaves little room for political maneuvering. A recent ceasefire failed, in part, because jihadist groups supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia refused to abide by it and set off several car bombs in the capital. The Sunni extremism of these groups is whipping up sectarian divisions among the various sects of Islam.

There are a number of things the Obama administration could do to alleviate the horrors of the current civil war.

First, it should drop the demand for regime change, although this does not necessarily mean that President Assad will remain in power. What must be avoided is the kind of regime change that the war in Libya ushered in. Libya has essentially become a failed state, and the spinoff from that war is wreaking havoc in countries that border the Sahara, Mali being a case in point. In the end, Assad may go, but to dismantle the Baathist government is to invite the kind of sectarian and political chaos that the dissolution of the Baathist regime in Iraq produced.

Second, if the US and its allies are enforcing an arms embargo against Assad’s government, they must insist on the same kind of embargo on arms sent to the rebels by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Third, China and Russia should be asked to negotiate a ceasefire and organize a conference aimed at producing a political settlement and transition government. China recently proposed a four-point peace plan that could serve as a starting point for talks. A recent Assad government controlled newspaper, Al Thawra, suggested the Damascus regime would be open to such negotiations. A key aspect to such talks would be a guarantee that no outside power would undermine them.

Palestinians

The conflict that will not speak its name—or at least that is the way the current impasse between Israel and the Palestinians was treated during the 2012 US elections. But as U.S. Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, the military formation responsible for the Middle East, said last spring, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a “preeminent flame that keeps the pot boiling in the Middle East, particularly as the Arab Awakening causes Arab governments to be more responsive to the sentiments of their populations” that support the Palestinians.

Rather than moving toward a solution, however, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu recently announced yet another round of settlement building. There are approximately 500,000 Jewish settlers currently on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, although all such settlements are a violation of international law. While Netanyahu says he wants negotiations, he continues to build settlements, which is like negotiating over how to divide a pizza while one of the parties is eating it.

Proposals to annex the West Bank, once the program of far-right settlers, have gone mainstream. A conference this past July in the West Bank city of Hebron drew more than 500 Israelis who reject the idea of a Palestinian state. The gathering included a number of important Likud Party officials and members of the Knesset. Likud is Netanyahu’s party and currently leads the Israeli government.

“Friends, everybody here today knows that there is a solution—applying sovereignty [over the West Bank]. One state for the Jewish people with an Arab minority,” Likud Knesset member Tzipi Hotovely told the audience.

Conference organizer Yehudit Katsover put the matter bluntly “We’re all here to say one thing: the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Why? Because!”

A major argument against absorbing the West Bank is that it would dilute the Jewish character of Israel and threaten the country’s democratic institutions. “As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish or non-democratic,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak argues. “If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

But right-wing conference goers dismissed that argument because they reject that there is a demographic threat from the Palestinians. According to The Times of Israel, former ambassador to the US Yoram Ettinger told the crowd that estimates of the Palestinian population are based on “Palestinian incompetence or lying” and that there are actually a million fewer than the official population count.

Legal expert Yitzhak Bam said he expected there would be no fallout from the Americans if Israel unilaterally annexed the West Bank, since Washington did not protest the 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights from Syria. Both areas were conquered in the 1967 War.

The Times reporter Raphael Ahern writes that that the conference reflects “The annexationists are growing in confidence, demanding in outspoken fashion what they always dreamed of but have never dared to say quite so publically.”

The expanding settlements are rapidly making the possibility of a viable two-state solution impossible. Eventually there will be no pizza left to divide.

The Obama administration has dropped the ball on this issue and needs to re-engage, lest the “pot” boil over.

First, the Tel Aviv government needs to be told that all settlement expansion must cease, and that failure to do so will result in a suspension of aid. At about $3.4 billion a year, Israel is the US’s number-one foreign aid recipient.

Second, the US must stop blocking efforts by the Palestinians for UN recognition.

Third, negotiations must cover not only the West Bank and Gaza, but also the status of East Jerusalem. The latter is the engine of the Palestinian economy, and without it a Palestinian state would not be viable.

Iran

The immediate danger of a war with Iran appears to have slightly receded, although the Israelis are always a bit of a wild card. First, the Obama administration explicitly rejected Netanyahu’s “red line” that would trigger an attack on Teheran. The Israeli prime minister argues that Iran must not be allowed to achieve the “capacity” to produce nuclear weapons, a formulation that would greatly lower the threshold for an assault. Second, there are persistent rumors that the US and Iran are exploring one-on-one talks, and it appears that some forces within Iran that support talks—specifically former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani— are in the ascendency.

Netanyahu continues to threaten war, but virtually his entire military and intelligence apparatus is opposed to a unilateral strike. Israeli intelligence is not convinced that Iran is building a bomb, and the Israeli military doesn’t think it has the forces or weapons to do the job of knocking out Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Polls also indicate overwhelming opposition among the Israeli public for a unilateral attack. This doesn’t mean Netanyahu won’t attack Iran, just that the danger does not seem immediate. If Israel should choose to launch a war, the Obama administration should make it clear that Tel Aviv is on its own.

US intelligence and the Pentagon are pretty much on the same page as the Israelis regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Even with its powerful military, US generals are not convinced that an attack would accomplish much more than delaying Iran’s program by from three to five years. At least at this point, the Pentagon would rather talk than fight. “We are under the impression that the Iranian regime is a rational actor,” says Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Polls also indicate that nearly 70 percent of the American public favors negotiations over war.

In short, a lot of ducks are now in a row to cut a deal.

However, the US cannot make uranium enhancement a red line. Iran has the right to enhance nuclear fuel under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and as long as inspectors are in place—as they currently are—it is virtually impossible to create bomb-level fuel in secret.

Not only has intelligence failed to show that Iran is creating a nuclear weapons program, the country’s leader has explicitly rejected such a step. “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons,” says the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, calling nuclear weapons “a great and unforgivable sin.” The Iranian government has also indicated that it will take part in a UN-sponsored conference in Helsinki to create a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

The Obama administration should endorse this effort to abolish nuclear weapons in the Middle East, although this will force it to confront the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel. Israel is not a NPT signatory and is thought to have some 200 nuclear weapons. Such a monopoly cannot long endure. The argument that Israel needs nuclear weapons because it is so outnumbered in the region is nonsense. Israel has by far the strongest military in the Middle East and powerful protectors in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While Egypt and Syria did attack Israel in 1973, it was to recover territories seized by Tel Aviv in the 1967 war, not an attempt to destroy the country. And that was almost 40 years ago. Since then Israel has invaded Lebanon twice and Gaza once. Countries in the region fear Israel, not vice-versa.

While the White House has recently eased restrictions on the sale of critical medicines to Iran, the sanctions are taking a terrible toll on the economy and the average Iranian. So far, the US has not explicitly said it will remove the sanctions if talks are showing real progress. Since no one likes negotiating with a gun to the head—in this regard Iranians are no different than Americans—there should be some good faith easing of some of the more onerous restrictions, like those on international banking and oil sales.

Lastly, the option of war needs to be taken off the table. Threatening to bomb people in order to get them not to produce nuclear weapons will almost certainly spur Iran (and other countries) to do exactly the opposite. A war with Iran would also be illegal. The British attorney general recently informed the Parliament that an attack on Iran would violate international law, because Iran does not pose a “clear and present danger,” and recommended that the US not be allowed to use the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to launch such an attack.

The Gulf

Because US relies on the energy resources of the Persian Gulf countries, as well as strategic basing rights, it is unlikely that the Obama administration will challenge the foreign and domestic policies of its allies in the region. But then Washington should not pretend that its policies there have anything to do with promoting democracy.

The countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are monarchies that not only suppress dissent but also systematically oppress women and minorities and, in the case of Bahrain, the Shite majority. The extreme jihadist organizations that the countries of the Gulf fund and arm are destabilizing governments across the region and throughout Central Asia. Washington may bemoan extremism in Pakistan, but its Gulf allies can claim the lion’s share of the credit for nurturing the groups responsible for that extremism.

The Gulf Council is not interested in promoting democracy—indeed, political pluralism is one of its greatest enemies, nor does it have much interest in the modern world, aside from fancy cars and personal jet planes. This past summer Saudi Arabia executed a man for possessing “books and talismans from which he learned to harm God’s worshippers,” and last year beheaded a man and a woman for witchcraft.

Lastly, the Obama administration should repudiate the 1979 Carter Doctrine that allows the US to use military force to guarantee access to energy resources in the Middle East. That kind of thinking went out with 19thcentury gunboats and hangs like the Damocles Sword over any country in the region that might decide to carve out an independent policy on politics and energy.

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

Attacks on First Responders Transform Criminality of Drone Strikes to Sadism

Remember the “dead bastards” — as in “look at those” — video, which was the first of the Bradley Manning stash released by WikiLeaks? It depicted an April 2010 Apache helicopter strike that killed a dozen Iraqi civilians, including two Reuters employees. Its impact was fourfold because it featured:

1. an attack on civilians
2. an attack on journalists
3. callous pilots, and the icing on the outrage cake …
4. a second round of missiles launched at those who arrived in a van to assist at the scene.

Those of us on the left who came of age during the Vietnam War, as well as the period when CIA meddling in foreign affairs to deadly effect was at its peak, may have thought we’d lost our capacity to be shocked at what the United States has shown itself capable. But attacking those coming to the assistance of the injured, which the military calls “double tapping” and doesn’t even attempt to hide, caught me off-guard with its cold-blooded cruelty. It’s not only used in helicopter attacks, but in drone strikes as well.

A February article by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) provides more insight into this insidious practice. TBIJ also served as a key source for the landmark report Living Under Drones released in September by the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law. The TBIJ article reads:

A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims.

Attempting to prove its legality is a non-starter.

… Naz Modirzadeh, Associate Director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) at Harvard University, said killing people at a rescue site may have no legal justification. ‘Not to mince words here, if it is not in a situation of armed conflict, unless it falls into the very narrow area of imminent threat then it is an extra-judicial execution’, she said. ‘We don’t even need to get to the nuance of who’s who, and are people there for rescue or not. Because each death is illegal. Each death is a murder in that case.’

It’s hard enough to digest the information that the nation in which one lives and to which one pays taxes attacks those rushing to the aid of the injured. But it gets worse.

More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners.

One scheme was positively diabolical.

On June 23 2009 the CIA killed Khwaz Wali Mehsud, a mid-ranking Pakistan Taliban commander. They planned to use his body as bait to hook a larger fish – Baitullah Mehsud, then the notorious leader of the Pakistan Taliban.

‘A plan was quickly hatched to strike Baitullah Mehsud when he attended the man’s funeral,’ according to Washington Post national security correspondent Joby Warrick, in his … book The Triple Agent. ‘True, the commander… happened to be very much alive as the plan took shape. But he would not be for long.’

The CIA duly killed Khwaz Wali Mehsud in a drone strike that killed at least five others.

You can see that Langley remains as much of a conceptual charnel house as ever.

Up to 5,000 people attended Khwaz Wali Mehsud’s funeral that afternoon, including not only Taliban fighters but many civilians. US drones struck again, killing up to 83 people. As many as 45 were civilians, among them reportedly ten children and four tribal leaders. Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud escaped unharmed, dying six weeks later along with his wife in a fresh CIA attack.

None of this, of course, is new. If not by the United States, medics have long been attacked in war. Today, Israel has targeted Palestinian medics and the Syrian army has targeted resistance medics. Meanwhile, Bahrain persecutes medical personnel who have assisted the injured opposition.

But, in the case of the United States, drone attacks are intended, in part, to act as an alternative to — and method of fending off — a declaration of war on another country. Yet, with its barbaric tactics, the drone program not only apes the tactics of war, but draws the opposition into believing all-out war is what both sides are fighting.

Petraeus Biographer Strokes More Than Just His Ego

While interviewing General David Petraeus’s co-biographer Paula Broadwell, John Stewart asked her what it was like to be “embedded with a person at this level.” Little did he know how embedded she was.

Of course, Petraeus resigned after his brief affair with Ms. Broadwell — and his obsessive attempts to revive it in the form of over one thousand emails — were discovered. Still, today’s climate is forgiving enough to allow someone in such a high position to continue his job. One thinks of President Clinton.

However, it was out of the question in Petraeus’s case, not only because he was head of an intelligence organization, but because Ms. Broadwell is under investigation for reading sensitive emails that Petraeus wrote. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The computer-security investigation … points to one reason Mr. Petraeus and the White House decided he couldn’t remain in the senior intelligence position. An extramarital affair has significant implications for an official in a highly sensitive post, because it can open an official to blackmail. Security officials are sensitive to misuse of personal email accounts—not only official accounts—because there have been multiple instances of foreign hackers targeting personal emails.

FBI agents on the case expected that Petraeus would be asked to resign immediately rather than risk the possibility that he could be blackmailed to give intelligence secrets to foreign intelligence agencies or criminals. In addition, his pursuit of the woman could have distracted him as the CIA was giving Congress reports on the attack on the Benghazi consulate on Sept. 11.

Conservatives had already been claiming that someone at the CIA was “asleep at the wheel” of the Benghazi train wreck. Some now view one-time favorite Petraeus as a means by which they can further savage the administration over the attack. At Danger Room, Spencer Ackerman writes:

The Wall Street Journal cites several anonymous officials who go after Petraeus hard. The CIA [presence in Benghazi] … with the mission of hunting down ex-dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s unsecured rockets and missiles … operating out of an “annex” near the 13-acre consular compound, dwarfed the regular diplomatic presence in Benghazi. That apparently led to an expectation at the State Department that the CIA would secure the compound in the event of a disaster, which never congealed into a formal arrangement.

Worse …

The CIA had 10 people to protect its annex in Benghazi, but the State Department relied on a previously obscure British firm, Blue Mountain, [which] … paid its Libyan guards $4 an hour … to guard the entire compound. … It’s speculative, but the State Department’s expectation that the CIA would be “the cavalry” in an assault … might have contributed to State’s relatively lax security posture at the consulate.

Meanwhile, let’s try to envision a scenario in which Ms. Broadwell perused Petraeus’s official email account.

1. While he’s deep in post-coital sleep, she sneaks off to his laptop. He has carelessly failed to log out of his email account.
2. While he scrolls through his emails, he lets her look over his shoulder.
3. He actually gave her his password. His intent might have been to allow her to log on and view saved drafts of emails he’s written, but refrained from sending to avoid tracking. But, the sheer volume of emails he sent otherwise tends to invalidate this hypothesis.

Still a key question remains: was Ms. Broadwell just poking around on Petraeus’s account out of curiosity? Or was she looking for something specific? If so, what?

In the end — in fact, this story is just getting started — it’s ironic to those of us who have long stood in opposition to Petraeus that the woman who helped “hagiograph”* him was the catalyst for his fall from grace. Thanks to Petraeus’s fatal encounter with Ms. Broadwell, he was transformed from engaged CIA director and “national hero” to a man who wrote over one thousand emails to the woman who’d broken up with him — a common cyber-stalker, in other words.

*Write an idealizing biography.

Drones Obliterate Shades of Gray Between Militants and Civilians

Killing someone because they looked like they were “up to no good” doesn’t really pass legal muster.

Under the Obama administration, the CIA drone program uses what they call signature strikes, as you’ve no doubt heard. Usually, the term “signature” has a positive connotation, as in a characteristic that distinguishes one from others. But, to the CIA, it just means that any military-age males in an area it has decided is a strike zone are combatants. In other words, they look like they’re “up to no good” and deserve to die.

In September, as you may be aware, the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law released a landmark report titled Living Under Drones. In one section it reveals the sheer simple-mindedness of dividing individuals under surveillance into either civilians or militants. In fact, most of those labeled militants should be painted in shades of gray. (Emphasis added.)

Major media outlets in the US, Europe, and Pakistan that report on drone strikes tend to divide all those killed by drone strikes into just two categories: civilians or “militants.” This reflects and reinforces a widespread assumption and misunderstanding that all “militants” are legitimate targets for the use of lethal force, and that any strike against a “militant” is lawful. This binary distinction. … distinction is extremely problematic, however, from a legal perspective.

[First] use of the word “militant” to describe individuals killed by drones often obscures whether those killed are in fact lawful targets under the international legal regime governing the US operations in Pakistan. It is not necessarily the case that any person who might be described as a “militant” can be lawfully intentionally killed.

Even if one buys into the drone program, he or she must acknowledge that

… in order for an intentional lethal targeting to be lawful, a fundamental set of legal tests must be satisfied. For example … the targeted individual must either be directly participating in hostilities with the US (international humanitarian law) or posing an imminent threat that only lethal force can prevent (international human rights law).

But that’s only the beginning of the criteria that should be used in determining if someone is Predator or Reaper fodder.

[First] members of militant groups with which the US is not in an armed conflict are not lawful targets, absent additional circumstances … Further, simply being suspected of some connection to a “militant” organization—or, under the current administration’s apparent definition, simply being a male of military age in an area where “militant” organizations are believed to operate–is not alone sufficient to make someone a permissible target for killing.

… Second, the label “militant” also fails to distinguish between so-called “high-value” targets with alleged leadership roles in Al Qaeda or [the Taliban], and low-level alleged insurgents with no apparent … means of posing a serious or imminent threat to the US. National security analysts—and the White House itself—have found that the vast majority of those killed in drone strikes in Pakistan have been low-level alleged “militants.”

To make matters worse, along with the CIA failing to properly discriminate about who it attacks

… Often, little to no information is presented to support the claim … that a certain number of those killed were “militants.” And, it is entirely unclear what, if any, investigations are carried out by the Pakistani or US governments to determine who and how many people were killed.

The drone program was key in preventing many of us from throwing our support behind President Obama in the election. In future posts, we’ll examine further atrocities within the atrocity that the drone program as a whole constitutes.

Benghazi: Conservative Concerns May Be Reality Based for Once

Mitt Romney embarrassed himself at the second presidential debate when he tried to score points against President Obama over the attack on the U.S. Benghazi consulate. As you no doubt recall, he claimed that the president didn’t label it an “act of terror” for two weeks. However feeble a “gotcha” it would have been, as debate moderator Candy Crowley informed Romney, the president used the words in a press conference the day after the attack.

Romney supporters then mounted a brief campaign in an attempt to kill the messenger (Crowley) by insisting that correcting Romney showed partisanship on her part. The right has continued to make the case that the president and his administration were unprepared for the attack and responded poorly. In fact, some thought this would be critical to election results.

Specifically, the right asked:
1. Why wasn’t the consulate more secure, especially with al Qaeda in the region?
2. Why weren’t U.S. forces able to fend off the attackers?
3. Why is the Obama administration hiding the truth about the attack?

Obama supporters brushed them off. But is there any truth to the right’s concerns about the Benghazi attack? At Counterpunch, Melvin Goodman, who writes about the decline of the CIA [I'm not exactly sure what constituted its peak -- RW], answers in the affirmative, but for reasons more complicated than the right believe.

It’s now apparent that the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was no ordinary consulate; in fact, it probably was. … the diplomatic cover for an intelligence platform and whatever diplomatic functions took place in Benghazi also served as cover for an important CIA base.

Furthermore

Any CIA component in the Middle East or North Africa is a likely target of the wrath of militant and terrorist organizations because of the Agency’s key role in the global war on terror waged by the Bush administration and the increasingly widespread covert campaign of drone aircraft of the Obama administration. … The U.S. campaign to overthrow Gaddafi didn’t clean the slate of these abuses; it merely opened up the opportunity for militants and Islamists to avenge U.S. actions over the past ten years.

In other words, speaking as the former CIA analyst that he is, Goodman writes

Americans are devoting far too much attention to whether a so-called proper level of security in Benghazi could have prevented the attack, instead of trying to learn the motives and anticipate the actions of these militant organizations.

The CIA should have learned from a previous incident.

The CIA failure to provide adequate security for its personnel stems from degradation in the operational tradecraft capabilities of the CIA since the so-called intelligence reforms that followed the 9/11 attacks. Nearly three years ago, nine CIA operatives and contractors were killed by a suicide bomber at their base in Khost in eastern Afghanistan in the deadliest attack on CIA personnel in decades.

Virtually every aspect of sound tradecraft was ignored in this episode.

But not much improved between then and the Benghazi attack.

The security situation in Libya, particularly Benghazi, was obviously deteriorating; the consulate was a target of a bomb in June. … Overall security for the consulate had been in the hands of a small British security firm that placed unarmed Libyans on the perimeter of the building complex. The CIA contributed to the problem with its reliance on Libyan militias and a new Libyan intelligence organization to maintain security for its personnel in Benghazi.

On the night of the attack, the CIA security team was slow to respond to the consulate’s call for help. [Also] Ambassador Christopher Stevens was an extremely successful and popular ambassador in Libya, but he had become too relaxed about security in a country that had become a war zone.

Meanwhile, at GQ, Sean Flynn, who recently wrote the definitive account of the Utoya kilings, also provides one for Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’s final days. He concludes:

Even the apparently important operational question—namely, was there enough security—seems irrelevant, because there can never be enough to prepare for every scenario. “The lethality and the number of armed people is unprecedented—there had been no attacks like that anywhere in Libya,” a senior State Department official said. “In fact, it would be very, very hard to find an attack like that in recent diplomatic history.”

But we’ll give Goodman the final word.

The Benghazi failure is one more reminder of the unfortunate militarization of the intelligence community, particularly the CIA, in the wake of 9/11 that finds our major civilian intelligence service becoming a paramilitary center in support of the war-fighter.

Once More Into the Breach for the “Savior of Pakistan”

AQ KhanThere’s only person who’s less worthy of being referred to by cool initials than A.Q. Khan. That’s Khalid Sheik Mohammed: KSM sounds way too familiar, creepy, even in its coziness.

Before interviewing him for a September 5 piece at Foreign Policy, Simon Henderson reminds us that

Abdul Qadeer Khan is the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program — and, according to Washington officialdom, the architect of the greatest violation to the nuclear non-proliferation regime that the world has ever seen. Starting in the 1980s and continuing for roughly two decades, the nuclear scientist oversaw the transfer of crucial nuclear technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

Why interview him now? It seems

… the controversial nuclear scientist is entering Pakistan’s political arena. He recently announced the formation of the Movement for the Protection of Pakistan … which he conceives as an organization that will back worthy candidates in the country’s upcoming national assembly elections.

And why launch the party now? AQ Khan responds:

At the moment Pakistan is in an extremely precarious and dangerous condition – no law and order, widespread load shedding [planned rolling blackouts -- RW], a high crime rate. … In short, it has gone to the dogs thanks to our most incompetent and corrupt rulers and their Western patrons. … I can’t simply sit back and see it destroyed. I feel that I must do something to try to save the situation,

In fairness, Khan claims to partly motivated by preventing the spread of anti-Islamist extremism. Khan said he is concerned about “target killing on religious, sectarian or provincial bases” (the plural of basis, that is). He adds:

I have noticed that Western countries are nervous about my Movement, possibly suspecting that I might be a fundamentalist or a jihadi. They forget that I studied in Europe, lived there for 15 years, have a foreign wife, have two daughters who studied in the UK and have two granddaughters studying abroad, one in the UK and one in the USA. … I seek … sanctity of our sovereignty, non-participation in mercenary activities or allowing our country to be used for terrorism, either from within or from outside.

To the West, Pakistan presents national-security concerns that can be distilled thusly: that it will use nuclear weapons on India, that it’s a breeding ground of extremist Islamists, and that said extremists might seize the nuclear weapons. Asked about their safety, Khan — never less than quoteworthy — replies:

Pakistan’s nuclear assets are as safe as President Obama’s black box. Nobody can even steal a screw from them. … The world should worry about their own problems, not about ours.

That last statement does not bode well for his grasp on reality. Nor does this.

Nobody in Pakistan doubts my integrity, honesty, sincerity or patriotism. … Pakistani historians will remember me by the nickname they have given me: “Mohsin-e-Pakistan” (Saviour of Pakistan).

His remarks can even be construed as delusional. He claims it’s not national office he seeks.

I am just a guide — some sort of Lee Kwan [sic] Yew, the former PM of Singapore, Mahathir [of Malaysia] or, hopefully, Mandela.

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is known as the “founding father” of modern Singapore; Mahathir bin Mohamad was the prime minister under whom Malaysia experienced modernization and growth. Meanwhile the narcissism of comparing oneself to Nelson Mandela speaks for itself.

The Surrealism of the Everyday in Serbia

The author interviews Aleksandar Zograf, who first gained notoriety for his political cartoons during the NATO bombing of Serbia.

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

ZografPancevo is a small Serbian city located just northeast of Belgrade. It has some lovely Habsburg architecture. There’s a thriving arts scene and a growing Chinese community. But this city of about 73,000 people is perhaps best known for the damage it sustained during the NATO bombing in 1999, when an industrial park containing an oil refinery, a petrochemical plant, and a fertilizer factory was hit.

The most vivid reporting from Pancevo during the NATO bombing came from a cartoonist publishing under the pen name of Aleksandar Zograf. His weekly dispatches, Regards from Serbia, appeared in various magazines and websites, and were translated into several languages. A collection of these columns, plus the emails that he wrote during this period and some work from both before and after the bombings, is available from Top Shelf Productions.

In a drawing style reminiscent of R. Crumb, Zograf produces frequently acerbic cartoons, for instance one that depicts the residents of Pancevo welcoming the “smart bombs” and “cute little cluster bombs” of NATO. He catalogues the victims of the Yugoslav wars and the NATO attacks. He chronicles life under sanctions. He struggles to put pen to paper. “Invisible NATO bombers, hundreds of thousands of refugees, crazy dictators, army moves, explosions, propaganda lies,” he writes in one panel. “Hey! Somebody wake me up! I just want to sit and draw my pathetic little cartoons!!”

In late September, I took a bus from Belgrade to Pancevo to meet Aleksandar Zograf, who turns out to be Sasa Rakezic, a thoughtful man who was born in 1963, the same year I was. He rode his bike to the bus station to meet me, then pushed it along as he took me on a tour of Pancevo. He showed me the cultural center, and we talked about one of his recent fascinations: Neolithic life at the confluence of Pancevo’s rivers, the Danube and the Tamis. Eventually we sat down at a café to talk about life during wartime, the challenges of lucid dreaming, and the surrealism of the everyday. During our conversation, I realized that Rakezic was very much an archaeologist by inclination. He likes to dig into history, into the substratum of human experience, into what lies beneath consciousness.

The collapse of Yugoslavia and the wars that engulfed the region had a profound effect on the cartoonist and his art. “Before, I was just another guy in a small town in a small country who was not asking himself very important questions,” he told me. “After that I began to question everything. A time of crisis can be horrible, it can bring doom to a person’s physical existence. He could kill himself or be killed or kill someone else. He could become depressed. But in a crisis, you begin to question things you take for granted. But in a psychological sense, it’s good to go through the crisis. You learn something about yourself.”

The Interview

Do you remember when the Berlin Wall fell and how you felt about it? Your book begins with 1993-94. There’s nothing before that. Were you doing comic strips at that time?

At that time, I was not really doing comics of the same type that I did later. I was still at that point experimenting with comics. I was also a writer, and I was writing about mostly rock music and art and also a little bit about comics and literature. It was at that point that I started experimenting with publishing comics.

It was different here in Yugoslavia — at that point, Yugoslavia still existed – since we had a different history compared to the rest of Eastern Europe. We were a mixture of a socialist bloc country and a more Western country. We were somehow on the brink of the two worlds. So, for us, it was not so dramatic, the end of the Berlin Wall. It was happening elsewhere.

Most people here, if you ask them about normal life in the time of socialism, they would say it was more comfortable than now. I have this feeling that 80 percent of the people, particularly if they are old enough to remember these times, would say that their life was easier then. It was not the same as it was in other Eastern European countries. But still, I would say that we expected that things would change in many ways. We were not sure if it was going to be for the better or the worse.

And how did you feel personally about life in Yugoslavia?

Generally I would say that I had a happy life in those days. For example, life was cheap and you could live with a small amount of money, which is good for artists. The level of stress was somehow much less. But on the other hand, some of the opportunities that you have now were not present at that time. For me, I wish that I had used this time better than I did. I was not very clever when I was younger. I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen.

There was this famous musician from Belgrade, who said — not about these times, but about the wars in former Yugoslavia — that “we’ll spend the rest of our lives trying to understand what happened during the wars of the 1990s.” This is also true about this socialist period. We will spend ages thinking about what happened and what was good and what was bad. It was far from a black-and-white picture, especially for the artists. Artists are never satisfied with the general atmosphere of the system in which they live. They always feel a little to the side of society, rejected in some way. They would have to struggle in any form of society anyway. They also learn not to be excited by the system they live in. I could imagine that someone with a steady career and a job in a society that would enable him to live comfortably will be excited about the system that allows him to live like that. But for the artist, he knows that he will have to struggle in this system as he would struggle in any other one.

I’m against this idea that the time before the fall of the Berlin Wall, especially in former Yugoslavia, was exclusively bad. Every time that you live in, you have an opportunity to live the best way that you can. There is no perfect society.

I was just now reading an anthropological study about cannibalism. It’s horrible. I had to read only a small portion of the book at a time because it is so difficult to take. A lot of different cultures practiced cannibalism throughout human history. For us, in this age, it’s something horrifying, and I was horrified to read about it. But generations were born within this different social and cultural framework, within these societies that are called “primitive” and where such practices were part of the belief system and sometimes simply because they were using humans as food. It was very widespread until the 19th century, which was just yesterday. Within these cultures, they also produced great stories, great traditional dances, great thoughts.

It’s not that I would enjoy being a cannibal. But I should understand that this was part of the human experience, and there were people who were born and died with this mind frame. Someone living in a different society in the future would probably say that Western European people who lived in the European Union in 2012 were primitive idiots, just as we think about cannibals today. It’s all relative.

The fall of the Berlin Wall itself, do you remember thinking that this was great for the Germans and then you went about your own life? Or did you say, that will have implications for life here in Yugoslavia?

I didn’t really realize that it would have any impact on our life. I didn’t realize that it would have such an impact on Yugoslavia. It was just like a foreign affair. It was maybe silly of me. That’s why I say, sometimes when you live so much in one society, in one society’s mind frame, you just don’t see what’s going on. Someone from outside can see things more easily.

I’ll give you an example. I have a friend who did an interview with the British music deejay John Peel, a very interesting personality, a very clever man. This was in 1991 just shortly after the first incidents in Croatia with the Serbian minority there opposing the Croatian government, which would eventually lead to the war in ex-Yugoslavia. When the interview was over, my friend was asked by John Peel, of all people, “Okay, can I ask you one question?”

My friend said, “Yeah sure.”

John Peel said, “What is going on in your country? It seems like there’s going to be a war over there. ”

And my friend said, “War? No, no. They quarrel all the time over some stupid thing. But in the end they eventually end up in a bar getting drunk. It will be like an affair that lasts a few days and everything will be fine after that.”

My friend never mentioned this in the article he wrote for a paper here. I remember this incident years after the interview because I was just like my friend. I thought everything would stop after a few days. So, I was thinking how was it possible that a disk jockey understood what was going to happen in Yugoslavia? But we the people living here couldn’t understand.

I want to talk about your work. What struck me the most about Regards from Serbia is the reluctance. So much of your work is about your dream life. At several points, you say that you started observing the life around you, that there were interesting things if you just paid attention to them. But you often were running away from this. At some points you were just drawing things in your head – demons, and so on. Can you talk about this dream life and this reluctance?

It’s connected to my own personal quest. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, just a little before the crisis started, and just when the crisis started, I stated to explore these inner realities. I was very interested in presenting different material from the dream states in comics. Comics are a very good way of presenting your dreams. You can use pictures and words to explain these different experiences. I was also interested in different dream states. I started to practice lucid dreaming. I was successful to a certain extent. I was able to wake up in my dreams and explore the reality of the dream.

It was a very overwhelming thing to experience. Suddenly I was becoming aware of another state of being. There is wakened reality, there are dreams, and there is the state of lucid dreaming. I managed to look at my hands in my dreams and become lucid while I was dreaming. I was able to go very deep into all these things. It was very exciting, as if I were conquering a distant country or another realm. I was trying to capture a lot of information coming from inside, from these very deep inner realities, and turn it into artistic material.

But it stopped when the crisis emerged in ex-Yugoslavia. You have to use a lot of your energy connected to your awakened reality to achieve the state of lucid dreaming. Since I was a very poor artist who didn’t have any savings when the crisis started, it was very difficult for me. I started to struggle with everyday reality. I realized that what was happening around me were these tragic things – the splitting up of the country called Yugoslavia. Like many other people I had to struggle just to be alive in this situation. There was not enough food, for instance. I had to go from this inner reality to an outside reality that was very dramatic and sometimes even more surrealistic than what I would find inside.

Can you give an example of something that was more surrealistic outside than inside?

Everything was more surrealistic. In 1993, when I started to make comics about what was going on around me, we went into a period of hyperinflation that was very much like what happened in Germany or Hungary after the first World War. You go to buy bread. In the morning, the price was 10 dinars. At noon it was 100 dinars. In the evening it was 1000 dinars. It was a completely crazy situation just to buy regular things. I remember thinking that it had been like this forever, ever since I was born.

I was very curious about these quests that I was doing in lucid dreaming – and several other dream states that I tried to explore – and I was not very happy to return to the grey and stupid reality of being in a country that was on the brink of a war for an unknown reason with a crazy leader leading everyone straight into a catastrophe with an economy that was completely destroyed. It was not a reality that I liked very much.

I started to think that at least I should take the premise of this and use it for the scripts of comics. If you take it as it is and make a script for a comic strip, it actually functions like an appealing description of the most surrealistic things on earth. It was strange to become awake every night and be inside the dream reality. It was just as strange to wake up and find yourself in the midst of the huge crisis going on all around. I tried to struggle between these two strange realities.

Both of these experiences changed me for good. Before, I was just another guy in a small town in a small country who was not asking himself very important questions. After that I began to question everything. A time of crisis can be horrible, it can bring doom to a person’s physical existence. He could kill himself or be killed or kill someone else. He could become depressed. But in a crisis, you begin to question things you take for granted. But in a psychological sense, it’s good to go through the crisis. You learn something about yourself. You learn to ask yourself questions. It’s horrible to go numb in very comfortable circumstances. A lot of people have enough to eat, they have enough material goods, they feel safe within their social situation, and they don’t want to change it. That’s also dangerous. Sometimes you need a slap in the face. You need a crisis. You need to get wild. You need to ask yourself questions. That’s what happened to us. I should not be complaining.

One of your stories is about your Hungarian colleague who set up an exhibition about life in Serbia under Milosevic and under sanctions. He said he would keep it going as long as Milosevic was in power.

This was a friend in Hungary who did an exhibition of my stuff and he said it would last until the fall of Milosevic. It opened in 1999, when the bombing of Serbia started. I was thinking that it was going to the longest running exhibition in the history of Hungary. It’s another indication that if you live inside a reality you cannot judge it. I thought he would rule forever, that we were doomed to live under his reign for the rest of our lives. The exhibition lasted until the year 2000 when Milosevic fell from power. I guess this friend in Hungary was able to detect something that we were not aware of. I can go into the underground levels of society, just like many artists do. But somehow I can’t predict what will happen in the surface reality the next day.

You talk about outside perceptions of Serbs in your comic strip. You travelled some during the time you were making the strips. Were you surprised at the reactions when you said you were from Serbia?

Basically, I should say that we are living in a different time. It’s not like the 1940s. At that point in history, even in Western Europe, people were relying so much on national identities, also religious identities. These were much more important than in modern time, when we live in an ambiguous culture which can be very narrow-minded but which can also accept many different types of information from many different parts of the world. I didn’t encounter any problems from most people when I said that I was from Serbia, which was at that point a place with a burning crisis with a crazy president Milosevic in charge. I think people understood that they were meeting somebody from another country where the situation is not so stable. Basically they were polite. Maybe because I was in my circle of friends and acquaintances. They were mostly artists. It might have been different if I’d gone to a bar where truck drivers were hanging out.

For most people, if you said you were from Serbia in the 1990s, it was scary. You were part of a reality presented like it was Nazi Germany, which was not really the case. It was very much a society that turned the wrong way in many ways, that made many bad decisions politically and also strategically. But if I had to judge it now, it was a confused country with confused people who were not able to realize what was going on around them. Sometimes when you are confused, you act violently. It’s again this psychological thing. I think most of the atrocities done on the Serbian side were done not with some strict plan, like was the case with Nazi Germany, where they had a plan of the different society they wanted to build. Here, the people were bewildered by everything going on.

Maybe this is going to sound awful, but in many sense, these were crimes of passion. Most of the people liked Yugoslavia and they didn’t want it to split apart. Sometimes if someone very close to you betrays you, you have violent feelings and you want to kick him or kill him. A huge part of it was done in this strange state of betrayal, like the lover who has been betrayed. And this society was very irrational, and there were a lot of con men who could use that, who said, “Okay, we are going to do everything for you and you just sit there and be quiet. We are going to clear things up for you.”

I was not participating in any of that. Like many artists, we were feeling like we were watching not from the inside but from a point outside. We were disgusted by everything. For many people, for instance in Western Europe or the United States where it is more rational and not so emotional, it was very hard to understand.

But as you point out in one of your strips, after 9-11 the United States was in a similar situation, with big flags and emotional reactions.

Yes, in some way, it is universal. We are not Martians here in the Balkans, and our experiences are similar to other human experiences in other parts of the world. And that’s why it’s so difficult to talk about this. If someone wants to explain what happened here in one sentence, I would say, “Be careful!” I have spent years trying to understand this, and still I don’t understand why it happened or how it happened.

How much do you think people in Serbia or in Croatia or Bosnia have decided to understand this and how much do they want to forget about it because it was so horrible?

People want to forget. That’s certainly the case. Most of them don’t want to be reminded. I mean – look at me. I don’t say that I’m very different. I don’t like to think about these things. It was very difficult. It was very hard to go through all that. I also want to forget about it. I don’t wake up every morning and think about it. It was so horrible and unpleasant that I understand why people don’t want to go back to it. For most people it was like a trauma.

You have to know that something bad happened on your side. You can be a patriot who says “Yeah, we did the right thing.” Still, you know that somebody did something. Maybe you would like to hide this from yourself. So, it’s better to forget than to be reminded of that.

When you look back at the work that you’ve done between 1992 and 2001, can you give an example of something you think you did very well and another example of something you wish you did a little differently?

Whenever I look at my work, I think it could be different. Usually after I do a drawing, I just flip the page over because I always see the wrong things in my drawings. I don’t like to concentrate so much on what I did because I will probably find something that could be changed. I did it with an honest perspective at that point in time. But later I think I could have done better.

I’m proud of some things. I ‘m glad that I used my time in a useful way. At least I tried to make something out of this horrible situation.

And you have a record of it.

Yes.

At one point in your book you are reproducing emails when Pancevo was being bombed. I’m wondering why it was easier to write this in email form rather than make strips.

It was easier because in the emails I was referring to things that were happening on a daily basis. Some of the details weren’t easy to illustrate in drawings. At the same time, I was so depressed that I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to draw. You go through all the different phases in situations like that. Some things were easier to express in drawings, sometimes it was easier to express in words. So I made a combination of these two media, which was based on my mood, nothing else.

The Chinese have a curse: may you live in interesting times. You were obviously living in interesting times. Since the end of these wars, and the end of hyperinflation, the end of sanctions, things have become more normal. Has this been a challenge for you artistically to live in less interesting times?

I have found different challenges. After the end of the crisis in the Balkans, I have started to work on comics for Vreme magazine, a political weekly published here in Belgrade. I do two pages in color every week on a different topic. Usually it doesn’t address the political situation in a straightforward way. I find old articles, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, and then I illustrate them in the form of a comic strip. It was a golden age for the press. You can find many intriguing articles back then. Now the press is becoming less interesting and more analytical and with much less fantasy than in the past.

Even if it is not a political commentary, it also speaks about the people here. People, they don’t change. You can go into the past, and you can find some of the same elements. People were probably in a bar 100 years ago and speaking about similar topics as we do now.

I’ll give you one example. I found one article about a man who came back from the front after the end of the first World War. He lived in Zajechar, a town in eastern Serbia. He began to behave in a funny way. He went to his regular job, but he began to act a little bit differently. At some point, he burst into a strange kind of anger. He began to talk about how the human race is moving toward catastrophe. He went to his own house and burned it down. He ruined it completely and started to live in a hole in the ground next to his house. His wife and his children ran away. For me, it was this fantastical scenario. You can’t imagine that a human being could do something more drastic than that. This story is completely forgotten. I spoke to people from that town and there’s no memory of that man. Newspapers are supposed to live for a day or a week, and then it’s forgotten. But you can find some great stories from the past, and by bringing them to the surface you can learn something from them.

There’s a relatively new government here now in Serbia that at least outsiders call a nationalist government. We’ve seen the rise of some even more nationalistic groups like Dveri Srpske. I’m curious what you think about these formations. Do you think they’re temporary or represent a more fundamental shift?

It’s different from what it used to be. The nationalists of 2012 are different from the Serbian nationalists of the 1990s. The reason is that there is some sort of realization among the people to agree with Western values. The nationalistic government that is in charge says, “We want to play by the rules of the West.” Which means that our nationalism is not going to be like the time of Milosevic. Even these nationalistic forces that are now in change won the elections by speaking about joining the European Union. I would call them conservative-minded people who try to imitate the conservative-minded people in Western Europe. Milosevic didn’t feel like he was following this line. He expressed his nationalism in a much more straightforward and much more brutal way.

These new nationalists, they are politically correct nationalists. They know the line. That is the Western way. If you are polite enough, you can do everything. You can say that you don’t like Muslims, but you can’t say it like that, you have to find a way to put the sentence in a different way with that same meaning. If you say “I hate Muslims” in a correct way, it can pass. So these new nationalists learn this. Which means that Serbs can become part of Western civilization, for better or for worse. It doesn’t mean that these people are any better, at least for me. I despise them the same way I hated them before. But there is a different frame.

Or at least it seems to me at this moment. Maybe I will change my mind. Maybe I will be wrong again. I don’t want to speak in absolute terms.

The people who belong to the parties in charge, they pretend that they want to be part of the European Union, and the EU pretends that it wants Serbia to be part of the EU. So there is this strange game. In Serbia, people are afraid of change, afraid of becoming something else. They are afraid that their substance will be changed when they become something else, which is of course stupid. And the EU is in this crisis where they are very much afraid of having more irrational elements inside the union. So they gave some signals to the Serbian administration that were very discouraging. On the surface, they say they will bring you into the club tomorrow. But under the surface, there is the message: you better stay in your wild part of the world. There is this strange dishonesty on both sides, which is not permanent. It is going to change. Is it going to be a fast change or will it be an exhausting change that lasts for 10-20 years? I don’t know, but I think it will change.

So, that’s why you are reasonably optimistic?

We are living in a world that is transforming, that is reaching some sort of world civilization, a united states of the world. It’s not an easy process. We should not expect it to happen in five days or five years or 50 years. This change is going to happen. It’s just a matter for time. So I’m relatively optimistic. I don’t know whether it will take a long time or a short time. But things are going to change for everyone, including the cannibals and the Serbs and the Eastern European freaks. They will all become well-adjusted citizens.

For better or for worse.

Quantitative Questions

I ask all of those I interview in my travels through Central and Eastern Europe three quantitative questions to see if I can get, by the end, a quick thumbnail assessment, country by country, of what has and has not changed since 1989.

On a scale of one to ten, with one being most disappointed and ten being least disappointed, how do you feel about the changes that have taken place in Serbia since 1989?

I would say five. There are very good points and very bad points.

On the same scale, how do you feel about the changes that have taken place in your own life over the same period of time?

I feel like I’m older and cleverer than I was when I was a kid. So I would say a two. I feel now that most people are not comfortable with getting older. But with me, I feel like I’m getting better as I get older. Maybe I’m crazy this way, I don’t know.

And how do you feel about the near future for Serbia, on a scale of one to ten with one being most optimistic and ten being least optimistic?

I would say two here as well. I’m not very deeply pessimistic but I am a bit pessimistic. I’m not hugely pessimistic because I think that things will get better because here people feel so disappointed that it has to end at some point. We don’t know which point it is. But I believe that it will be change for the better. But I’m bad at predicting things, so who knows.

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