Focal Points Blog

Last Chance to Put Climate on the Debate Agenda

obama-romney-climate-change-global-warming-debateBoth President Obama and Governor Romney have to break their silence on climate change in the third and final presidential debate tonight. Unfortunately it appears they’ll get little help from moderator Bob Schieffer, who has chosen to focus on war, the Middle East, and China, while presumably lumping all other matters of global importance under “America’s role in the world.”

It may not fit neatly into the categories presented tonight, but the next president’s approach to climate change will impact the real security of our nation, and global economic and political stability. Global warming – and the extreme weather, displacement, scarcity conflicts, and humanitarian crises it promises to bring with it—will affect every aspect of U.S. foreign policy. To be a responsible electorate on November 6th, we need to know how each candidate plans to address the threat of climate disruption.

The best first step to addressing global climate change is reducing greenhouse gas pollution at home in the United States—still the world’s biggest overall climate culprit. The incoming president should start by ending tax breaks to dirty energy like coal, oil, and gas, beefing up investment in clean wind, solar, and energy efficiency, and letting the EPA do its job of enforcing existing rules to protect the planet. The last thing we need is a pair of politicians falling all over each other on the debate floor to prove who loves coal better and who’s going to open up more gas and oil fields.

Barring an apology for their wanton wooing of the fossil fuel industry in previous debates, here are four things I hope to hear both candidates talk about getting done on climate and the environment in the next four years:

1. Stand up for multilateralism and global democracy. When U.S. envoy Todd Stern first addressed the 192 member countries of the UN climate convention after Obama’s inauguration, he received a standing ovation. Since then he’s worked to steadily lower expectations of what the United States—and democratic spaces like the United Nations—can accomplish on climate. Regrettably, it’s worked. Confidence in the UN as the best forum in which to seal a global climate deal is staggeringly low. But a growing chorus of international civil society and official voices alike is calling for the United States to bargain in good faith for a fair and effective climate treaty in 2015, or step aside and let the rest of the world do so.

We need to get verbal confirmation that our next leader understands the magnitude of the threat that climate change poses, and hear how he would promote multilateral efforts to solve this global challenge.

2. Put his money where his mouth should be. Taking global warming seriously means spending money to help poorer countries steer away from cheap but polluting energy toward low-carbon development. It also means paying our fair share to support communities as they adapt to the effects of warming already “locked in” by existing emissions. It’s a moral obligation and a legal commitment, but it also makes economic sense. Every dollar we spend today staving off climate chaos saves three in future disaster response costs. And since climate change threatens to derail and even roll back development gains in the global south, paying for prevention is part of protecting 60 years of U.S. investment in reducing poverty.

The candidates should signal support for international climate finance by naming innovative proposals to raise funds like a financial transaction tax (popularly known as a Robin Hood Tax)—a tiny tax on trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives that can raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year—and committing to put that money in the Green Climate Fund.

3. Don’t trade away our future. Trade may not seen like a climate issue, but the United States is in the midst of negotiating a free-trade agreement (FTA) called the Trans-Pacific Partnership that could stop us, and our allies, from passing laws that protect the planet and our families. FTAs give countries—and even companies—the power to sue governments for policies that they say hurt their bottom line. In a current case, Japan and the European Union are suing Canada for Ontario’s new feed-in tariff program to increase the share of green energy in province electricity markets and encourage “made-in-Ontario” goods and labor. Sadly, the United States has sided against the climate, submitting an official brief calling Canada’s support of local renewable power “trade-distorting.” The United States could be in the same boat in the future if a member of the TPP doesn’t like one of our environmental regulations. Add to the mix a major potential ramp-up in natural gas exports to Asia, and the biggest free-trade agreement on the table is a climate disaster waiting to happen.

Both Obama and Romney should talk tonight about how their policies on trade would protect our environment and local jobs, and what they would do to correct past mistakes that undermine our partners’ forward-looking initiatives.

4. Champion real security for all. The debate tonight will no doubt focus heavily on security and the military, and there’s no better reminder of the urgency of climate change than voices from the front line. From the 2007 Blue Ribbon Panel to current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, security officials have been sounding the alarm about the increased risks of instability that global warming poses. The next president needs to make clear his plans for bolstering human security in the face of climate chaos, steps that could include cutting the military budget and spending those dollars instead on helping communities keep good jobs in the transition from military manufacturing to solar panel production.

It may not be realistic to expect these words to fall from either candidate’s lips—and if we don’t hear most of what I’ve outlined here, I’ll be disappointed, but not surprised. But if the next president doesn’t take climate change seriously as a central issue in his foreign policy platform, then he’s not being realistic either.

Janet is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies.

McGovern’s Progressive Leadership on Middle East Policy

McGovernThough former senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, who died Sunday at age 90, was best known for his opposition to the Vietnam War and his efforts in fighting world hunger, he also made a mark regarding U.S. Middle East policy.

Like many liberals of his generation, he had a strong attachment to Israel as the national homeland for the Jewish people returning to the lands of their forefathers to escape centuries of oppression. It was only later in his Senate career, in 1975, when asked by Foreign Relationship chairman J. William Fulbright to chair the Middle East subcommittee, did he learn about the plight of the Palestinians. He became a strong supporter of a two-state solution at a time when the Democratic Party was on record opposing Palestinian statehood and emerged as an outspoken opponent of Israeli human rights abuses and other violations of international law while maintaining his steadfast support for Israel’s right to exist in peace and security.

He emphasized that, as a friend of Israel, he was obliged to do what a real friend must do when they see someone behaving in ways that are both immoral and threaten their own self-interest: tell them to stop.

His support for international law and self-determination was rooted in his taking part in the war on fascism. In his foreword to my most recent book, which analyzes the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, he noted how that experience helped teach him that the right of self-determination “is one of the most fundamental rights of all” and that “no government should get away with denying that right by invading, occupying and annexing another national and oppressing its people.” He faulted successive administrations of both parties for failing to uphold such fundamental principles of international law.

His interest in Middle Eastern affairs led him to become president of the Middle East Policy Council in 1991, a non-profit group based in Washington addressing political, economic and security issues in the region impacting the United States. In a 1993 interview I did with him for The Progressive magazine which took place while we were both visiting Damascus, he observed, “What I’m picking up now in my travels is a feeling that… a new form of imperialism is now operating in the Middle East. We may not have any colonies as did previous Western powers, but there is a belief that many of the ruling regimes are somehow tied in to the West in a way that does not enhance the well-being of the ordinary citizen. I think we’re headed for trouble if that perception prevails, particularly since there is a lot of truth behind it.”

He presciently added, “These Arab regimes are going to have to become more sensitive to the problems of their own people. This is what this Muslim extremism is all about: It’s a kind of desperate move by people who do not know how to get the attention of the ruling regimes any other way but to shake them up with extremist, radical, and sometimes violent methods.”

McGovern later became an outspoken critic of the Iraq War, comparing it to the tragedy of Vietnam. In 2006, he wrote Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now, which helped a number of Democrats who had been too timid to speak out against the war previously to become bolder. In a Washington Post op-ed in January 2008, McGovern – arguing that “Nixon was bad [but] these guys are worse” – called for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice-president Cheney over their violations of the U.S. constitution and of national and international law, and their repeated lies to the American people. Speaker of the House and Democratic Congressional leader Nancy Pelosi, however, dismissed such calls for impeachment as “off the table.”

McGovern also expressed concern about the bipartisan threats of war against Iran and the hypocrisy in U.S. nonproliferation policy. In 2006, George and I wrote an op-ed for the San Jose Mercury News criticizing the Bush administration for signing a nuclear cooperation agreement with India. We argued, “How can we have any credibility in trying to block Iran’s nuclear program, which is still many years away from weapons capability, when we are supporting the nuclear program of a neighboring country which has already developed a dangerous nuclear arsenal? Maintaining such flagrant double-standards regarding nuclear proliferation is simply not worthy of a country which asserts the right to global leadership.”

It is disappointing to see so many of today’s otherwise liberal Democrats taking belligerent stances towards Iran and allying with Israel’s right-wing government by defending its occupation policies and other violations of international humanitarian law.

It is important to realize that McGovern – despite representing an under-populated state in the Great Plains – became such a prominent voice in foreign policy not just because of his many qualities, but because there were movements that magnified that voice. Ultimately, then, it is up to us to make possible the emergence of political leaders who will challenge both the Republicans and the Democratic establishment on the Middle East, as McGovern did on Southeast Asia.

Obama Administration May, in Fact, Have Let Its Guard Down on Benghazi

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Remarks from witnesses called for the Congressional hearing over the Benghazi attacks last month seem to indicate that there was no mass protest against the video “Innocence of Muslims” concurrent with the attacks. In the New York Times:

[T]he new account provided by the State Department made no mention of a protest. In this account, Mr. Stevens met with a Turkish diplomat during the day of the attack and then escorted him to the main gate of the mission around 8:30 p.m. At that time, there were no demonstrations and the situation appeared calm.

Congressional Republicans quickly seized on the fact that the State Department downgraded security in Benghazi despite the ratcheting up of warnings about the security threat to US nationals in the country ahead of 9/11/12. (Democrats struck back that it was Congressional Republicans who cut funding for such security in the first place.)

Beyond these Beltway-minded hearings, though, that will focus on (and politicize) these failures, the Libyan response to the attacks gives me more hope, rather than less, that the country is at the very least capable of confronting the militias in the long run. What is still of great concern is where the country will go next now that tensions over the militias are back to the fore, and the US enters an election year with a bone to pick over the North African nation?

A more detailed (and official) presentation of the events of that day has now emerged from testimony delivered by Charlene Lamb, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs, Bureau of Diplomatic Security:

The attack began at approximately 9:40 pm local time. Diplomatic Security agents inside the compound heard loud voices outside the walls, followed by gunfire and an explosion. Dozens of attackers then launched a full-scale assault that was unprecedented in its size and intensity. They forced their way through the pedestrian gate, and used diesel fuel to set fire to the Libyan 17th February Brigade members’ barracks, and then proceeded towards the main building.

At the same time, attackers swept across the compound …. At 11pm, members of the Libyan 17th February Brigade advised they could no longer hold the area around the main building and insisted on evacuating the site.

…. They took heavy fire as they pulled away from the main building and on the street outside the compound.

…. In the early morning, an additional security team arrived from Tripoli and proceeded to the annex. Shortly after they arrived, the annex started taking mortar fire, with as many as three direct hits on the compound. It was during this mortar attack that Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed and a Diplomatic Security agent and an annex quick reaction security team member were critically wounded.

A large number of Libyan government security officers subsequently arrived in more than 50 vehicles and escorted the remaining Americans to the airport. While still at the airport, we were able to confirm reports that the Ambassador’s body was at the Benghazi General Hospital.

Witnesses also told Congress that they had felt in the months prior to the attack that the new Libyan government did not have the capability to protect the consulate or confront the “al Qaeda” presence in the country.

The biggest headache for the White House has been that contradictory remarks made by Obama Administration officials and the US intelligence community last month about the nature of the attacks have yet to be fully resolved. Arch-neoconservative John Podhoretz implied that the Foreign Service and intelligence community are falling on their swords to protect the White House, which is surely a stretch given the reality of the Administration’s simple unpreparedness in light of a disaster like this goes a long way in explaining the muddled responses. But given the way in which information has been leaked/obtained by other news outlets about intelligence community assessments about the attack, it’s hard to not come to that conclusion Podhoretz does. Former DCIA (and current Romney advisor) Michael Hayden certainly feels this way as well, taking a defensive tone in a CNN editorial criticizing the White House.

I think what we will end up seeing, though, is that Obama Administration just failed to gauge the warnings it was receiving. Libya simply does not seem to have been prioritized despite the warnings; it was the success story, things were under control, the peripheral MENA theater compared to Syria or Egypt, and even Yemen.

Anti-interventionists in Congress reiterated their opposition to the whole Libyan issue by noting that NATO intervention gave Islamists breathing room. One such Islamist is Abd al Hakim Bilhaj, who has an instructive interview on his countrymen’s views of the attacks circulating in the UK Arabic press.

Before his rise to prominence in the Tripolitanian Military Council as a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Bilhaj was a person of interest to US intelligence because of his anti-Qadhafi AfPak excursions (arrested and extradited to Libya in 2004, he was pardoned by the regime in 2010). Bilhaj, whose Al-Watan Party was creamed in the summer elections, recently granted an interview to the UK’s Arabic press in which he condemned the attacks specifically, and al Qaeda in general, though ever politic, he did not blame any particular group.

Bilhaj, whose position has weakened greatly the 2012 elections and probably hopes to regain some influence in the new, “tense” atmosphere, is no fool. His reading of the mood in Libya — simmering anger at the militias, limited confidence in the government, an unwillingness to handover weapons “just in case” — shows that while Libya is not coming apart at the seams, it has weathered some truly trying tests better than others since 2011. Some of them have not gone so well, as we’ve seen with the highly symbolic airport siege, but other tests, such as the summer elections, did not end badly at all (and as the Arabist’s Issandr el amrani has noted, when we talk about Libyan Islamists were are not generally talking about Salafists, though such men are represented among the militias and new political parties).

The attacks are indeed troubling because they illustrate how organized and professionally competent these Islamist organizations are — and how they have likely infiltrated the government.

But, for starters, the Libyan military did not abandon its posts when asked to defend American lives and property.

And if there were no crowds railing against that stupid Muslim-trolling con-artist film in Benghazi, there certainly were crowds protesting the attacks after the fact. Bear in mind that even in, say, Yemen, where protestors did storm embassy compounds and the US is deeply unpopular for its involvement in the government’s counterinsurgency campaign, the anti-American turnout was at most a few hundred people — perhaps a hundred times that number turned out to protest the attacks in Libya in a “Friday of Outrage.” The attacks were a final straw for many Libyans already tired of the militias’ gun slinging (as was the case in Yemen, and elsewhere).

Perhaps the aftermath of the attacks will serve as a wake-up call for the new Libyan government, which is still reporting clashes in the stronghold of Bani Walid and hasn’t gotten the worst of the militias to cease their “polity within a polity” behavior. Problems with the judiciary and police are not going away anytime soon, either. Obviously, Libyans will have a long road to walk, as Borzou Daragahi notes in his latest dispatch for The Financial Times, with the grim subheading of “[o]ptimism born of the July elections has been replaced by uncertainty and fear.” It’s worth noting that the protests turned violent in some cases and demonstrators clashed with fighters:

The result [of the “Friday of Outrage”] has been political and economic deadlock in Tripoli as the various political forces battle for control of the direction of the new Libya. No camp wants any other to achieve success. Laws to clarify the role of civil society and private investment have been stuffed into drawers.

…. Islamist militias and their political allies now seethe with anger, feeling betrayed by the nation they defended during the revolution. They are openly mistrustful of the former exiles now dominating the government. They whisper of dark conspiracies by Gaddafi loyalists teaming up with liberal politicians and western powers.

But they are walking it, no one can deny that … except for Fox News, apparently.

While I’ve been critical of the Libyan government’s response to the militias, I’ve also been critical of the US for thinking that intervention could be carried out from 30,000 feet and everyone goes home in time for happy hour (Libyans not included).

They claimed interventionism, now they’d better act the postwar part of helping the government handle such difficult matters as setting up a judiciary, training a police force and securing loose arms, and that doesn’t mean putting dead Navy SEALs in a talking points memo or dispatching a fleet to show that all of a sudden “we mean business.”

Whether a less muscle-bound policy in Libya would have somehow prevented this all is going to be debated for years to come. Our track record in the region suggests, though, that more of such policies now, directed at Libya out of a desire to “avenge” our loss of life and face there, are not going to help anyone — except the armed Islamist spoilers Libyans are demonstrating their disdain for.

Another Global Issue the Foreign Policy Debate Will Pretend Doesn’t Exist

GMOAt Foreign Policy in Focus on October 16, in an article titled Six Global Issues The Foreign Policy Debates Won’t Touch, acting editor Peter Certo wrote:

“There is no other policy arena in which the president of the United States has greater latitude than foreign affairs. With U.S. foreign policy less constrained by Congress and relatively free from the media scrutiny that attends the president’s more domestic endeavors, foreign affairs largely remains the domain of the commander in chief. Indeed, broadcast regularly into living rooms all across the globe, the U.S. president is often the singular face of the United States of America in the world—especially in lands where few Americans tread.

“Yet global issues routinely get short thrift in presidential debates, especially in yet another election year characterized by economic malaise and divisive social issues. And with media coverage focused primarily on the performance of the candidates and the debates’ impact on the national horserace, crucial questions about how the United States behaves on the world stage routinely fall between the cracks. This neglect is exacerbated by the fact that, when it comes to foreign policy, there is a tremendous amount of overlap between the major candidates.

“In the interest of keeping vital global issues in the discussion, Foreign Policy in Focus reached out to scholars at the Institute for Policy Studies.”

We also reached out to those outside the IPS community. Kenneth Anderson weighed in thusly:

One thing that almost never appears on the radar, even for people with finely tuned radar, is the global machinations of corporate GMO pushers (esp. Monsanto), the various troubles that are becoming more and more manifest (superweeds, new parasites), and the rising suspicions that GMO are, or already have, introduced a host of health problems to the general population.

A Wikileaks document revealed how the US government was doing Monsanto’s duty by coercing the Sarkozy administration to relax GMO regulations in France. The EU remains resistant, and is about the only place that conducts research into GMO effects on mammals (see the recent “New study suggests tumors & organ damage from GMO foods“). Monsanto has been pushing, or is trying to push, their GMO onto farmers around the world, driving farmers in India into debt, despair and record suicides. Farmers in the US are routinely harassed by Monsanto lawyers, while evidence exists that agents purposefully seed fields with Monsanto grain where farmers have resisted using their seeds. Mega-soybean growers in South America — all using Monsanto GMO soy — are deforesting Amazonia, and devastating local ranching and farming in Argentina and elsewhere.

This is a global issue, and one which, so far as I have seen, is never discussed at any political level.

Seminal New Book Shows Just How Little German Army Objected to Holocaust

SoldatenWhen Hitler’s Willing Executioners (Knopf) was published in 1996, many took exception to author Daniel Goldhagen’s portrayal of the extent to which ordinary Germans were complicit in the atrocities committed by the Third Reich. But a book recently translated into English adds more fuel to that fire. As its subtitle within a subtitle suggests, in Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying (The Secret World War II Transcripts of German POWs) (Knopf, 2012) Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer interpret the comments of Wehrmacht soldiers taped without their knowledge in Alllied prisoner of war camps.

The surveillance was conducted in hopes of obtaining intelligence useful to the conduct of the war. While not much of value to that end was unearthed, the authors’ latter-day examination of the tapes provide us with a wealth of information. They gleaned the perspectives of Wehrmacht soldiers’ on the progress of the war, its leadership, and, especially, the killing of noncombatants. An excerpt at the Daily Beast shows how little offense they took to the Third Reich’s policy of mass killings of Jews and the citizens of Poland and East Russia.

Let’s clarify that: the soldiers taped — many of them high-ranking — suffered few humanitarian qualms. Neitzel and Welzer write:

Within the Wehrmacht, there was a consciousness that certain acts were criminal, although that knowledge was not sufficient motivation for refusing to carry them out. There were a number of social and pragmatic reasons for continuing even when one realized standards boundaries were being transgressed.

But the soldiers objected to those policies on the grounds that they were handled inefficiently or that they would set Germany up for reprisals at the end of the war, including war-crime trials. In other words, the Wehrmacht did not wish to be blamed for the policies of the Third Reich and the SS. Here are two soldiers talking (emphasis added):

Aue: Perhaps we didn’t always do right in killing Jews in masses in the East.

Schneider: It was undoubtedly a mistake. Well, not so much a mistake as un-diplomatic.

Another soldier said:

They even filmed it and the films, of course, have got abroad; it always leaks out somehow. … Sometime the world will take revenge for that.

Another:

No telling what’s going to happen to us.

What is it that inured Wehrmacht soldiers inured to the suffering of noncombatants, especially Jews? Perhaps the “eliminationist anti-Semitism” that Goldhagen claims was central to the German psyche played a part. Almost all the soldiers simply assumed that, at the least, Jews should lose their rights and/or be deported. (One always wonders how a totalitarian regime forgets about the effect of brain drain on its future when it targets a society’s intelligentsia.) Other factors include the success of the Third Reich’s success in establishing a climate of submission and abject obeisance, and the military tradition that Germany instituted in the preceding century.

I would be remiss if I failed to address another cause, one that the authors no doubt felt was beyond the scope of their investigations: the harsh childrearing practices prevalent in Germany and Austria at the time. But that’s better explained by the dean of psychohistory, Lloyd deMause. By way of introduction, read his 2005 speech The Childhood Origins of the Holocaust.

Arguably, though, the sentiments — or lack thereof — expressed by Wehrmacht prisoners are as symptomatic of total war as any other cause. The authors conclude:

In our view, the decisive factor in the atrocities discussed in this book was a general realignment from a civilian to a wartime frame of reference. It is more significant than all issues of worldview, disposition, and ideology.

Meanwhile, imagine that the United States invaded the Japanese mainland and, after capturing Japanese civilians, instituted a policy of exterminating them in numbers comparable to what the Germans did to Jews. Would American soldiers have objected any more than Wehrmacht soldiers did to the Third Reich’s policies?

If you doubt that, read John Dower’s classic War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (Pantheon, 1986). If that had come to pass, the argument could be made that, while the Jews presented little threat to Germans, except for a few pockets of resistance once the Third Reich began persecuting them, the Japanese treated U.S. prisoners of war with brutality. In the end, of course, nothing excuses mass killings.

Japan’s Right Seeks to Leverage Islands Dispute With China Into a Nuclear-Arms Program

SenkakusBehind the current impasse among China, Japan and Taiwan over five tiny specks of land in the East China Sea is an influential rightwing movement in Japan that initiated the crisis in the first place, a crisis it is using it to undermine Japan’s post-World War II peace constitution and, possibly, break the half-century taboo on building nuclear weapons.

The dispute over the islands China calls the Diaoyus, Taiwan the Diaoyutais, and Japan the Senkakus, is long-standing, but it boiled over when the right-wing governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, provoked a confrontation with China by trying to buy the uninhabited islands from their owners. When the Japanese government bought three of the islands, ostensibly to keep them out of Ishihara’s hands, China accused Japan of “stealing” the disputed archipelago.

Ishihara, who has long pressed for building nuclear weapons, is generally portrayed as a bit of a loose cannon—the Economist calls him the “old rogue of the Japanese right”—but he is hardly an anomaly. Toru Hashimoto, leader of the rightwing National Japan Restoration Association and just re-elected mayor of Osaka, is cut from the same cloth.

Hashimoto and Ishihara both deny Japan’s record of brutality during World War II—in particular, the horrendous Nanking Massacre in China and the sexual enslavement of Korean women—sentiments echoed by some of Japan’s leading political figures, many of whom advocate Japan acquiring nuclear weapons.

The recent election of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is a case in point. The LDP is favored to win upcoming elections, and Abe—who would become prime minister— calls for revoking a 1993 apology for the Japanese Imperial Army’s use of sexual slavery. He also seeks to remove Article 9 of Japan’s constitution that forbids Japan from waging war.

And while Abe has recently been vague about nuclear weapons, before he became prime minister in 2006, he argued that Japan’s constitution allowed the country to build nukes so long as they were defensive in nature. Many leading figures in his party openly advocate they do so.

Former foreign minister Taro Aso and Shoichi Nakagawa raised the issue of nuclear weapons back in 2006, when Aso was a member of Abe’s government and Nakagawa was chair of the LDP’s Policy Research Council. Abe refused to repudiate Aso’s and Nakagawa’s remarks on nuclear weapons.

But the LDP is not the only section of Japan’s ruling elite that is considering ridding the country of its so-called “nuclear allergy.”

Ichiro Ozawa—once a leader of the now defunct Liberal Party and currently heading the People’s Life First Party, the third largest party in the Diet—says Japan should consider building nukes in order to confront “excessive expansion” by China.

According to Tokyo-based journalist Hiusane Masaki, “…what has long been considered a taboo subject after World War II is now being openly discussed, not just by the rightwing but even in the mainstream.”

In 1970, Japan signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the following year the Diet adopted three “non-nuclear principles” to not build, possess, or host nuclear weapons. Japan currently has enough plutonium to produce about 700 nuclear warheads and the ballistic missiles to deliver them. Most experts think building a bomb would take about a year.

The Japanese right is also waging war on what it calls “treasonous history.” Its current target is the enormously popular anti-war comic-book novel, or “manga,” Barefoot Gen, by Hiroshima bomb survivor Kakazawa Keiji. The manga has sold millions of copies, been turned into a film, and is used as an educational resource in Japan’s schools. Barefoot Gen is sharply critical of Japan’s military and of the elites that fueled its rise to power.

Writing in Japan Focus, Matthew Penny, a professor of history at Concordia University in Montreal and an expert on Japanese nationalism, says “those with an interest in chipping away at Japan’s anti-war norms…are now pushing for the work to be removed from the classrooms.”

According to Penny, the right has created an organization called the “Association of Atomic Bomb Victims for Peace and Security,” which apparently doesn’t include any real victims. Its spokesmen are two right-wingers, Tamogami Toshiro and Kusaka Kimindo, both of whom deny the Nanking Massacre and “call for nuclear armament of Japan and expanded conventional military capabilities.”

All this nuclear talk comes at a time when Japan is at loggerheads with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyus, with South Korea over the Dokdo/Takeshimas, and with Russia over the southern Kurlies, although the situation for each island chain is different. Japan currently controls the Senkaku/Diaoyus, while South Korea and Russia occupy the other disputed island groups.

Japan’s claim on the Senkaku/Daioyus is shaky at best, dating back to the 1895 Sino-Japanese War. The islands were first claimed by the Ming Dynasty in 1368, and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) considered the chain part of its western sea border. According to Japanese scholar Unryu Suganuma, “There is no ambiguity about the Diaoyu islands” being part of China, “because the islands belonged to the Middle Kingdom, period!” Suganuma says the US turned the chain over to Japan in 1971 during the Cold War “because they didn’t want the islands to fall into communist hands.”

Some of the right’s rhetoric is aimed at embarrassing the ruling Democratic Party before the upcoming Japanese elections, but some goes further than election eve posturing, reflecting a long-standing illusion by Japan’s right concerning the capabilities of its military.

Kunihiko Miyake, research director of the Canon Global Institute, told the Financial Times that he thought that the crisis would not come to blows because of the strength of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces and its US alliance. “China will not use force because it would lose,” he said.

While it is true that the Washington has said that it will honor Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty and come to Japan’s aid over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the US is neutral on who owns them and would certainly be reluctant to let Japan draw it into a military confrontation with China.

Which might not stop Japan from trying to do exactly that.

Unless the US gets involved, Japan is no match for China. While Japan has more surface warships (78 to 48) it has far fewer submarines (18 to 71) and its air force is only about a quarter the size of China’s.

The Japanese right likes to invoke the early days of World War II when it crushed British, Dutch and American forces on land and smashed a good part of the U.S.’s Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. But many of those victories were the result of stunning incompetence on the Allied side, rather than the superiority of Japan’s samurai tradition. When Japan provoked a war in 1939 with the Soviet Union at Khalkin Gol on the border between Manchuria and Mongolia, they took a terrible shellacking.

Even in China, where Tokyo had enormous superiority in weapons and equipment, Japan never succeeded in defeating the Chinese, though they killed millions and millions of soldiers and civilians. In the end, of course, Japan was devastated by WW II, its economy shattered, its cities leveled by massive fire bombings and two atomic bombs.

The right is keen to erase those memories and has already managed to whitewash Japanese imperial history by expunging much of it from history books. Barefoot Gen is its latest target.

The dispute over the islands does not seem to be going away, in part because Japan keeps sending mixed signals. Japan’s economic minister recently said Tokyo “cannot compromise,” but according to Japanese news reports, Japan is preparing to take note of China’s and Taiwan’s claims, something they have refused to do in the past.

A drawn-out fight could inflict major damage on both economies, and there is always the chance of stumbling into a military confrontation. The recent US “pivot” toward Asia—which includes a major military buildup—adds to the regional tensions, particularly since it includes the possible collision of two nuclear-armed powers.

Japan’s greatest modern tragedy was the triumph of militarism, but as memories of WW II fade, there are those that would like to take her back down the same road. Adding more nuclear weapons to what is already a dangerous situation could be catastrophic. It would sink the Non-Proliferation Treaty in Asia—South Korea and Taiwan would almost certainly follow suit—escalate an already dangerous regional arms race, and could bring Japan back that moment on the morning of Aug. 6. when, in the words of John Hersey, “the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima.”

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.

Algerians Shed Few Tears for Deceased President Chadli Bendjedid

Chadli Bendjedid’s Funeral: The Hypocrite’s Ball

“Ils sont tous venus, aujourd’hui, célébrer celui qu’ils brocardaient hier. Il a été traîné dans la boue pendant 20 ans. C’est le bal des hypocrites” (1)

(Translation: Yes, today they all showed up to honor the person they had savaged yesterday and whose reputation they had dragged through the mud for twenty years. It was a hypocrite’s ball)

1.

Chadli Bendjedid and General Khaled Nezzar.

Chadli Bendjedid and General Khaled Nezzar.

In Algeria, presidents come and go; only the military and the security establishment remain, a platitude reflected by recent events. A state funeral was held for former Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid. He died of cancer in Algiers on October 6.

In contrast with the death of neighboring Tunisia’s founding president, Habib Bourguiba similarly removed from office in 1987, whose passing in 2000 provoked a genuine outpouring of national grief, the response to Bendjedid’s death in Algeria was, at best, muted.

If the broad masses of Algerians shed few tears still, much of the Algerian elite, past and present were in attendance at the funeral, including:

• Those who had essentially `drafted’ Chadli Bendjedid for the presidency at the outset in 1979 (and then ran him from the shadows);

• Those who, like Khaled Nezzar, in 1992 Algeria’s Defense Minister, (now facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in a Swiss Court) threatened Bendjedid’s life to pressure him to resign the presidency;

• Those who, like Abdulaziz Bouteflika, (since 1999 Algeria’s president) somehow wiggled out of a corruption scandal during Bendjedid’s time in power.

• Some of the ministers who served in his administration, among them the economic reformer, Mouloud Hamrouche, whose late 1980s market-oriented reforms threatened the Algeria’s military junta’s hold on power (and so they dumped him along with Bendjedid).

• High level delegations from Tunisia, Mauritania Egypt and Palestine were present as were a number of key figures from the Algerian trade union movement, political parties.

It was all rather formal – drum roll, kind words, burial with honors – feigned respect and an attempt to polish his image, to lend Bendjedid the dignity in death that often had been previously denied him. For in life, at least as president, he was used, abused and then basically discarded when his services were no longer needed. Now the crocodile tears flowed. Perhaps they were present to confirm that Bendjedid really was dead and gone, taking his secrets on all of them with him to the grave? Were they jittery about Bendjedid’s soon to be released memoires?

The eulogies contrasted with how he was viewed during his lifetime. Described by his associates in the military as `a trilingual illiterate’ (‘analphabète trilingue’), a bit of an exaggeration, Bendjedid was akin to `Algeria’s Ronald Reagan’; he was considered quite incompetent, a man whose main skill consisted of reading other people’s scripts. According to some, it was in fact hisabsence of credentials which `qualified’ him for the job making him a fine cover and fall guy for those manipulating the body politic ! (2)

2.

When late in his presidency, Bendjedid began to function under the illusion that as president he actually could wield some power, he was rather rudely reminded of the limits of his mandate…and in short order, unceremoniously dumped. Not unusual by the way for an Algerian president! It had happened a number of times in the past.

The Algerian military and security forces, that had stolen power early in the country’s post 1962 independence – and have clung to it until today – prefer to manage affairs and milk the country’s rich energy resources from behind the scenes, giving a democratic gloss to what for half a century has been little other than a military dictatorship. Such arrangements play well in Paris and Washington.

The years that Bendjedid presided – or thought he did – over the Algerian nation, 1979 – 1992 saw the country plunge into an economic and social tailspin that triggered an all-out political crisis in 1988. That was only the beginning of the country’s crisis. On January 11, 1992, just weeks before the second round of scheduled national elections, Bendjedid, now expendable, was pressured to resign `with honor’ by a military delegation headed by Minister of Defense, General Khaled Nezzar.

The elections were immediately suspended by the self-appointed military junta led by General Larbi Belkheir (d. 2007), who had spent the Bendjedid years consolidating his power behind the scenes, and with it control of the country’s rich oil and natural gas resources. A full scale domestic armed conflict erupted, lasting until 1999, that is today referred to as `the dirty war’ (la sale guerre).

It was during the decade of the 1980s when Bendjedid was present that Algeria’s relationship with the United States, which had been strained since the early 1960s, slightly improved. Bendjedid and the U.S. Vice President George H. W. Bush exchanged visits. U.S. investments into Algeria’s energy sector rose. Exchanges of military personnel were established with the presence of high level Algerian military officers at U.S. embassy parties in Algiers becoming a normal occurrence (although closet security relationships between the two countries’ military and security agencies would not fully blossom until after September 11, 2011).

Having quietly improved ties with Algiers in the 1980s probably helps explain why, in the 1990s, when the Algerian Civil War was in full swing, the mainstream media in the United States barely covered it – and when they did, it was almost always with the spin shaped by the Algerian generals – that the war was against a rising, almost unstoppable Islamic fundamentalism that had to be crushed.

3.

Chadli Bendjedid was in fact part and parcel of a long-standing post-independence tradition that placed a purposefully ineffectual people in the presidency to give cover to the country’s behind-the-scenes political masters: the military and the security apparatus.

So it was in 1965 with Ben Bella, removed from power in a naked coup d’etat, when Boumedienne no longer needed his guerilla image to rule. In 1992, Bendjedid was followed by Mohammed Boudiaf, a genuine hero and guerilla leader of the country’s 1954-1962 revolution against French colonialism, who tragically, was under the illusion he was being offered executive powers. Boudiaf was coaxed back from his Moroccan exile and promised by the military-security complex that he would be given executive powers.

Boudiaf appeared serious about curtailing rampant high level corruption, reigning in the power of the military-security `clans’ (3) and bringing Algeria’s rampant violence to an end through some sort of negotiated settlement, all of which threatened the status of the powers that be. After two unsuccessful attempts to poison him, Boudiaf was `publicly’ assassinated (ie – it was shown on Algeria television), most probably by the same people who `offered’ him the presidency in the first place.

Similarly, not long after assuming power, Liamine Zeroual, who followed Boudiaf to the presidency in 1994, made serious efforts to bring an end to Algeria’s cruel civil war of the 1990s by trying to negotiate with moderate Islamicists; this rankled his military-security handlers. Soon he too was discarded. Like Boudiaf, Zeroual’s problem was he took his job too seriously. In turn, in 1999, Zeroual was replaced by Abdulaziz Bouteflika, the current president, who has been more pliable.

Bendjedid served as Algeria’s president 1979 through the beginning of 1992 when he was forced from office by the country’s ruling military clique. Bendjedid returned briefly to the public eye in 2008 when he gave a controversial speech at a conference in el-Tarif suggesting that 16 years after his dismissal, or `resignation’, he remained bitter for how he was summarily dismissed. Bendjedid became Algeria’s president in 1979, just after the death of Houari Boumedienne. The latter had seized power from the country’s first post-independence president, Ahmad Ben Bella in 1965 in what amounted to a military coup.

(1) El Watan, 9 octobre 2012. “Obsèques nationales pour Chadli Bendjedid : L’adieu”

(2) Lounis Aggoun and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire. http://www.editionsladecouverte.fr/catalogue/index-Francalgerie__crimes_et_mensonges_d__tats-9782707147479.html. La Découverte. 2004-5. p.72

(3) The term is something of a misnomer as it does not refer to people who share blood relations as much as certain tightknit groupings vying for power within the military-security complex.

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.

The Attack-Syria Coalition’s Neocon Roots

Cross-posted from IPS Special Project Right Web.

In late September 2001, less than 10 days after the 9/11 attacks, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC)—a group of prominent neoconservatives, liberal interventionists, and members of the religious right who advocated a host of U.S.-led regime changes in the Middle East—drafted a letter to President George W. Bush, commending his promise to “go after terrorism wherever we find it in the world” and offering a number of recommendations for the remainder of the president’s term.[1] The steps outlined in the letter were prescient in predicting Bush’s foreign policy priorities (and to a lesser extent, the priorities of his successor, Barack Obama).[2]

In addition to their advocacy positions on Iraq (invade immediately), Israel (support unconditionally), and military spending (abide “no hesitation in requesting whatever funds for defense are needed”), the signatories urged a tougher stance on Hezbollah, as well as its state sponsors in Damascus and Tehran.

In the letter, they argued that “any war against terrorism must target Hezbollah,” and urged the administration to “demand that Iran and Syria immediately cease all military, financial, and political support for Hezbollah and its operations. Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known state sponsors of terrorism.”

Today, as Syria remains mired in a seemingly limitless spiral of violence, the question arises—what has become of this attack-Syria coalition and what, if anything, has changed in its view of U.S. intervention?

Target: Syria

Because of the many ties between PNAC and the Bush administration, it came as little surprise to close observers that the Bush administration eventually followed much of the letter’s advice with respect to Syria.[3] After supporting the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, the Bush administration capitalized on the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri to galvanize political opposition to Hezbollah (and Syria by proxy), culminating in the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanese territory.

Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, produced a “Road Map for Syria” proposing a number of military options for weakening the Syrian regime, including “docking an aircraft carrier within Syrian territorial waters” and “using proxies to undermine Syrian intelligence agents inside Lebanon.”[4] Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad with a long list of U.S. demands, including that Syria cooperate in the “war on terrorism” in Iraq, end its support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad, and withdraw its troops from Lebanon.[5]

The administration’s pressure was highly effective in the heady days after Hariri’s assassination, and the Assad regime scrambled to provide the Bush administration with an acceptable counteroffer to prevent a second “regime change” in the region. Bahjat Suleiman, the chief of the internal branch of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, took the unprecedented step of publishing an article in the Lebanese daily al-Safir, where he outlined a course of action that could be acceptable to the Syrian regime. In the article, he implied that Assad would be willing to rein in Hezbollah, control Palestinian armed groups and Salafi extremists in Lebanon, and secure Iraq’s long border with Syria in order to guarantee the regime’s preservation.[6]

The offer fell on deaf ears. Fresh off the invasion of Iraq, U.S. neoconservatives and their allies were optimistic that strong and uncompromising force— and unconditional support for the enemies of their enemies—would be sufficient to reshape the regional order. “There’s no reason to think engagement with Syria will bring about any change,” said letter signatory Richard Perle in 2006. He argued that Syria “has never been weaker, and we should take advantage of that.”[7]

Assad Rebounds

Backed into a corner and facing an existential crisis unlike any it had previously experienced, the regime chose instead to double down and force Washington’s hand. Assad worked to subvert the U.S. experiment in the Middle East, exploiting Syria’s proximity to Iraq and Lebanon to undermine the Bush administration’s cornerstone projects. Syrian intelligence services suddenly began to wreak havoc along the Syrian-Iraqi border, while political machinations in Lebanon helped the regime regain the upper hand in the Lebanese parliament.[8]

The tide quickly turned against Washington as an increasing number of complicating factors undermined its regional leverage. The implosion of Iraq, the rebounding political power of Syria’s allies in Lebanon, the deteriorating state of Afghanistan, and growing discontent at home forced the Bush administration to retreat from its hardline anti-Syrian approach. Thus assured of its safety, Damascus quickly reverted to its old ways.

The neoconservative-led PNAC coalition that had once pushed for a unified and hard-fisted approach to redesigning the Middle East was also crumbling in the face of these and other failures.

Though much of the beltway intelligentsia originally supported the “war on terror” in all its iterations, ensuing disasters deeply undermined the neoconservative ideology as well as its liberal interventionist counterpart. Some of the original signatories of the letter, like Francis Fukuyama,[9] became deeply critical of the Bush administration’s policies; others, however, maintained a strong allegiance to their hawkish worldview and continued to defend it against any perceived modifications by the Obama administration.

The ongoing crisis in Syria, however, has become something of a litmus test for these individuals, and the coalition has begun to resemble its old self. But the emerging consensus among Washington’s Syria hawks belies the complexity of the circumstances surrounding Syria’s spiraling civil war, the difficulty of pro-war ideologues to adapt to modern international conflicts, and the dangers of the zero-sum approach to Syria currently circulating through Washington.

Syria Redux

PNAC’s dyed-in-the-wool neoconservatives—the ideologues most responsible for the formulation of the Bush doctrine—have mostly stayed true to the priorities laid forth in the PNAC letter, and they’ve found new energy in calling for regime change in Syria. Most of the signatories to that September 2011 letter—including the likes of William Kristol, Jeffrey Bergner, Seth Cropsey, Midge Decter, Thomas Donnelly, Nicholas Eberstadt, Aaron Friedberg, Jeffrey Gedmin, Rueul Marc Gerecht, Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer, John Lehman, Clifford May,Richard Perle, Norman Podhoretz, and Gary Schmitt—have largely kept their initial worldview intact, even if their earlier predictions for a Middle East “democratized” by American arms has proved dramatically off mark.

Many of these same individuals and their fellow travelers are at the forefront of the current push to escalate Syria’s ongoing civil war, arguing that active U.S. support for Syrian rebels—or outright military intervention—would hasten the fall of Bashar Al-Assad and maximize U.S. interests. A recent New York Times op-ed by Max Boot, a frequent PNAC letter signatory, and Michael Doran, a Bush National Security Council member, is a case in point. In promoting direct U.S. intervention in Syria, the authors—remarkably—were unable to identify any negative consequences of such engagement, instead identifying a plethora of positive developments for U.S. interests, such as improving ties with Turkey, “diminishing” Iran, and “equipping reliable partners” within Syria’s internal opposition.

In February, many of the same individuals who signed the September 2001 PNAC letter—this time operating under the mantle of successor organizations like theForeign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies—penned a missive to President Barack Obama, arguing that the only way to “win” the civil war, and ensure that Syrian security forces do not regain the upper hand, is to supply the Syrian opposition movement with sufficient capital, weapons, and intelligence to overwhelm government forces on the battlefield. The signers urged Obama to “immediately establish safe zones within Syrian territory,” as well as to “provide a full range of direct assistance, including self-defense aid to the [Free Syrian Army].”[10]

The neoconservative establishment, along with a growing number of liberal interventionist allies, explicitly rejected all overtures for negotiation and compromise. They consistently mocked or undermined efforts by the United Nations and the Arab League to mediate the dispute and reach a diplomatic settlement, warning that “the United States cannot continue to defer its strategic and moral responsibilities in Syria to regional actors such as the Arab League, or to wait for consent from the Assad regime’s protectors, Russia and China.”[11]

“If we were being serious in the Middle East,” William Kristol recently said on Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio program, “we would be using air strikes in Syria [and] we would topple the Assad regime.”

Evolving Militarization

Though Obama has been reticent to embrace full-on militarization of the conflict—preferring instead an approach that relies more on diplomatic pressure and crippling economic sanctions—the continued stalemate has nudged policymakers ever closer to openly arming the rebels. Already the administration has steadily increased the military capabilities of the armed opposition elements, drifting away from its original policy of providing diplomatic support only.

Though this escalation has significantly narrowed the possibilities for any diplomatic solution to the conflict, foreign policy hawks have chided the administration for not going further. In a column for the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer lambasted Obama for seeking international support against Syria “as he stands by and watches Syria burn.”[12]

In an earlier column, Krauthammer wrote that “the fate of the Assad regime is geopolitically crucial” in the campaign to undermine Iran: “Imperial regimes can crack when they are driven out of their major foreign outposts…[and] the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria could be similarly ominous for Iran.” As in the 2001 letter, he argued that all America’s regional ambitions can be met, “so long as we do not compromise with Russia or relent until Assad falls.”[13]

Similarly, Rueul Marc Gerecht used the pages of the Wall Street Journal to chastise the Obama administration’s inaction and advocate a “a muscular CIA operation…to pour anti-tank, antiaircraft, and anti-personnel weaponry through gaping holes in the regime’s border security.” Gerecht acknowledged that such a policy would mirror the Syrian regime’s own machinations in 2006, when it “encouraged suicide bombers and other lethal cross-border trade against the U.S. in Iraq.”[14]

The parallels with Washington’s approach to Syria in 2006 are both ominous and telling. In effect, the same approach of uncompromising militancy is being advocated by the same individuals, and all indications point to a similarly disastrous outcome.

The Syrian National Council, along with its supporters in Washington, has decided that there can be no compromise with the Assad regime.[15] The Syrian government, as it did the last time it faced total intransigence in Washington, has adopted a similarly uncompromising stance. Faced with the prospect of annihilation, Assad has refused to acknowledge the demands of the protestors, and has met every challenge with overwhelming violence. In so doing, it has confirmed for the armed opposition that the Assad regime has no intention for dialogue, compromise, or reform, and the only remaining option is a zero-sum fight to the death.

Considering the scope and horror of the regime’s massacres in the past two years alone, this conclusion may seem reasonable. But it overlooks—and in many ways undermines—alternative approaches that have been drowned out by the same voices that called for Syria’s destruction less than a decade ago.

Looking Forward

The illegitimacy of the Syrian regime is beyond question, but the manner and process of its ouster are not. The armed opposition appears to enjoy limited popular legitimacy,[16] in part because it has committed its own share of atrocities[15] and has been deeply compromised by its affiliations with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States.

Popular movements within the country have offered a number of alternative pathways out of the conflict. Syrians on both sides have put down their weapons and started channels of dialogue to find a way out of their current impasse.[18]Even the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), the grassroots groups most responsible for organizing the uprising, have publicly stated that dialogue with the regime is the only credible way to pull the country out of civil war. A statement issued by the LCC in July emphasized “the importance of ending the military and intelligence solution and immediately transitioning to the political process.”[19]

The Syrian revolution remains one in which the vast majority of participants simply want freedom, dignity, and an escape from the brutality of the Assad regime. However, an overreliance on the military capabilities of an unrepresentative few is unlikely to bring about such an outcome. Instead it has produced an even more intransigent government and an opposition that is ever more dependent on the support of foreign powers, with both sides fully committed to the total annihilation of the other.

As the violence escalates, the window for dialogue narrows, and voices from the diaspora calling for maximalist objectives will only serve to narrow these opportunities further. The same individuals who squandered an opportunity to weaken Assad’s grip on power in 2006 have embarked on a similar course of action five years later, with no real modifications but the same grand expectations.

The result, as before, is likely to be one in which everyone loses.

Samer Araabi is a contributor to Right Web.

Notes:

[1] William Kristol et al., Project for the New American Century, September 20, 2001, http://www.newamericancentury.org/Bushletter.htm

[2] Marc A. Thiessen, “The Obama-Bush doctrine,” The Washington Post, May 31, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-obama-bush-doctrine/2012/05/31/gJQAGZmM4U_story.html

[3] PBS Frontline, “Chronology: The Evolution of the Bush Doctrine,” Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/iraq/etc/cron.html

[4] http://www.tnr.com/article/few-good-men#

[5] Nqoula Nasif, “Mq Taqaluh Washington wa Dimashq ‘an Muhadathat Burns,” Al-Nahar, May 5, 2003.

[6] Bahjat Sulaiman, “Suriya wa-l-Tahdidat al-Amerkiya,” al-Safir, May 15, 2003.

[7] H.D.S. Greenway, “The Return of the Neocons,” Boston Globe, December 13, 2005.

[8] Bassel F. Salloukh, “Demystifying Syrian Foreign Policy under Bashar al-Asad,” Demystifying Syria, Saqi Books, London, 2009.

[9] Francis Fukuyama, “The Neoconservative Moment,” The National Interest, June 1, 2004, http://nationalinterest.org/article/the-neoconservative-moment-811

[10] Khaira Abaza et. al., “Foreign Policy Experts Urge President Obama to Take Immediate Action in Syria,” Foreign Policy Institute, February 17, 2012, http://www.foreignpolicyi.org/content/foreign-policy-experts-urge-president-obama-take-immediate-action-in-syria

[11] Ibid.

[12] Charles Krauthammer, “While Syria Burns,” The Washington Post, April 26, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/while-syria-burns/2012/04/26/gIQAQUC0jT_story.html

[13] Charles Krauthammer, “Syria: It’s not just about freedom,” The Washington Post, February 2, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/charles-krauthammer-syria–its-not-just-about-freedom/2012/02/02/gIQAYVhVlQ_story.html

[14] Reuel Marc Gerecht, “To Topple Assad, Unleash the CIA,” The Wall Street Journal July 11, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303567704577518402270940124.html

[15] Agencies, “Syrian opposition ‘will negotiate with government officials once Assad goes,” The Guardian, August 5, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/05/syrian-opposition-negotiate-government-assad

[16] Al Jazeera, “Civilians plead with Syrian fighters,” Al Jazeera.com, October 3, 2012,http://www.aljazeera.com/video/middleeast/2012/10/201210215395058626.html

[17] Ian Black, “Syrian rebels accused of war crimes,” The Guardian, September 17, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/17/syrian-rebels-accused-war-crimes

[18] Phyllis Bennis, “Syrian Uprising Morphs Into Regional and Global Wars,” Institute for Policy Studies, August 10, 2012, http://www.ips-dc.org/articles/syrian_upri_sing_morphs_into_regional_and_global_wars

[19] “Joint Statement on Conditions for Talks,” Local Coordination Committees, May 15, 2011, http://www.lccsyria.org/725

Taliban Compounds Crime of Shooting Malala With Its Legal Justifications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Margins in Serbia

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

By Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin.

By Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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