Focal Points Blog

Taliban Vaccination Ban: Paranoia or Based in Fact?

Reports Declan Walsh for the New York Times on June 18:

A Pakistani Taliban commander has banned polio vaccinations in North Waziristan in the tribal belt, days before 161,000 children were due to be vaccinated. He linked the ban to American drone strikes and fears that the C.I.A. could use the polio campaign as cover for espionage, much as it did with Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor who helped track Osama bin Laden.

The commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, said that polio vaccinations would be banned until the C.I.A. stopped its drone campaign, which has been largely focused on North Waziristan.

One’s initial instinct is to chalk it off to Taliban dogmatism and savgery. But, their suspicions may be warranted. Walsh refreshes our memories about Dr. Afridi.

In March and April 2011, Dr. Afridi ran a vaccination campaign in Abbottabad that was designed to covertly determine whether Osama bin Laden lived in a house in the city. Dr. Afridi failed to obtain a DNA sample, a senior American official said, but did help establish that Bin Laden’s local protector, known as “the courier,” was inside the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad.

Dr. Afridi was arrested three weeks after American Navy SEALs raided the house on May 2, 2011, killing the Al Qaeda leader. But the Abbottabad operation was not his only vaccination campaign.

American officials say Dr. Afridi had been working with the C.I.A. for several years, at a time when he was leading polio vaccination efforts in Khyber Agency, a corner of the tribal belt that harbors a rare strain of the disease.

Western aid workers have sharply criticized the C.I.A. for recruiting a medical personnel and have complained of harsh restrictions on their work imposed by suspicious Pakistani authorities.

For their part

American officials say Dr. Afridi was targeting a mutual enemy of Pakistan and the United States.

And polio isn’t?

U.S. in No Position to Condemn Alleged Russian Transfer of Helicopter Gunships to Syrian Regime

AH-64A Apache gunship firing rockets during exercise.

AH-64A Apache gunship firing rockets during exercise.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has claimed that “there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria,” though the Russian government denies the accusation. If true, it would be highly disturbing, given the Syrian regime’s widespread use of such weapons against unarmed civilians. Amnesty International and other human rights groups have called for an immediate end of arms transfers to the Syrian regime, particularly of weapons that have been used to target civilians.

However, the United States is hardly in a position to criticize arms transfers to governments which use them to attack innocent civilians, particularly helicopter gunships.

Thousands of Salvadoran civilians are believed to have been killed by U.S.-supplied helicopter gunships during the 1980s. Obama named Robert Gates, one the key architects of the Reagan administration’s Central American policy during that period, as Secretary of Defense.

The administration of Clinton’s husband provided helicopter gunships to the Turkish government despite their widespread use again civilians in Kurdish areas of the country. U.S. arms were responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in that country during the 1990s and over 3000 villages were burned.

Similarly, both the Clinton and Bush administration provided helicopter gunships to the Colombian military, despite their use against civilian targets.

Amnesty International called on the United States to cease such arms transfers to both Turkey and Colombia, but both the Clinton and Bush administrations rejected the plea.

In early October of 2000, immediately following the killing of a dozen Palestinian civilians by U.S.-supplied helicopter gunships killed a dozen Palestinians—including attacks on apartment complexes in Netzarim—the Clinton administration announced a new shipment of advanced Apache attack helicopters. The Pentagon acknowledged that, “U.S. weapons sales do not carry a stipulation that the weapons can’t be used against civilians. We cannot second-guess an Israeli commander who calls in helicopter gunships.” Amnesty International called for a cessation of all attack helicopter transfers to Israel, but Clinton administration rejected this call as well.

Similarly, the widespread use of helicopter gunships by Israeli forces against civilian targets in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009 led Amnesty to again call for an end to the U.S. providing such materiel to the Israeli government, but the incoming Obama administration—like the Bush, Clinton and Reagan administrations before it—rejected the call to consider human rights in the transfers of such deadly technologies.

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has tried to justify such transfers on the grounds that these governments were faced with armed insurgencies, including groups which had engaged in acts of terrorism. This is the exact same rationalization currently being used by the Syrian regime and its apologists. Yes, there is indeed an armed insurgency underway, and some elements are indeed terrorists, but that still does not give a government the right to target civilians. This is true regardless of the offending governments’ relations with the United States.

The very idea that the Obama administration even cares the slightest about civilians killed by helicopter gunships is debunked by the incident involving the release of audio and video footage of U.S. helicopter pilots in Iraq killing two unarmed Reuters journalists and several would-be rescuers. Not only did the Obama administration refuse to indict the pilots responsible, they chose to prosecute the private who exposed the illegal killings for “aiding the enemy.”

It appears, then, that the Obama administration’s opposition to the alleged Russian arms sale is not out of any concern for civilians, but out of a desire to weaken the Syrian government’s ability to combat rebel fighters armed by such U.S. allies as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Hypocrisy aside, it is still imperative for anyone concerned about human rights to categorically oppose Russian military assistance to Syria, such as helicopter gunships, which could be used against civilians, as it is imperative to oppose arms shipments by any country to governments which would likely target innocent civilians.

Unfortunately, the United States is in no position to preach to the Russians about the sanctity of arms.

Congress Attempts to Legislate Away Containment of Iran and Replace It With War

At Foreign Policy in Focus Stephen Zunes reports on a resolution (HR 568) that the House passed in a show of bipartisanship (401-11) that couldn’t have come at a worse possible time (as is usually the case with bipartisanship these days). He explains that HR 568 calls for “the president to oppose any policy toward Iran ‘that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.’”

… Congress has essentially told the president that nothing short of war or the threat of war is an acceptable policy. Indeed, the rush to pass this bill appears to have been designed to undermine the ongoing international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

Even Colin Powell, as quoted by Dennis Kucinich, “has stated that this resolution ‘reads like the same sheet of music that got us into the Iraq war.’”

First, the vote shows yet again that Democratic congress-persons would rather pander to their donors (in this case, lobbying groups such as AIPAC) rather than represent their constituents. Sure, talk tough on defense, especially with respect to Iran, plays well with most American voters. But many of those voters don’t understand, as congress-persons do — or would if the psyches of many of them weren’t as compartmentalized as they are — the extent to which such talk can pave the way to catastrophic war. Besides, though best left to legal scholars, HR 578 smells either illegal or unconstitutional.

What escapes most observers — Professor Zunes conspicuously excepted — is that as apocalyptic as war with Iran would be, the implications of HR 568 are even more sweeping. He writes:

The language of this resolution, however, significantly lowers the bar [for taking military action against Iran] by declaring it unacceptable for Iran simply to have “nuclear weapons capability” — not necessarily any actual weapons or an active nuclear weapons program.

Nuclear weapons capability, which isn’t technically illegal under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is also known as “virtual deterrence,” because the program has yet to become “bricks and mortar.” One can’t help but wish that the missiles and bombs with which we threaten Iran were also virtual and it were all a videogame.

More to the point, writes Professor Zunes:

There is enormous significance to the resolution’s insistence that containment, which has been the basis of U.S. defense policy for decades, should no longer be U.S. policy in dealing with potential threats. Although deterrence may have been an acceptable policy in response to the thousands of powerful Soviet nuclear weapons mounted on intercontinental ballistic missile systems aimed at the United States, the view today is that deterrence is somehow inadequate for dealing with a developing country capable of developing small and crude nuclear devices but lacking long-range delivery systems.

Indeed, this broad bipartisan consensus against deterrence marks the triumph of the neoconservative first-strike policy, once considered on the extreme fringes when first articulated in the 1980s.

According to this line of thinking, no need to rely on deterrence alone with non-nuclear weapon states: we’re free to mount an offensive attack, as well. Meanwhile, with nuclear-weapons states, first strikes are almost entirely out of the question — not only nuclear strikes, but conventional. Thus do states that aspire to nuclear weapons draw the inevitable conclusion that they need to develop a nuclear-weapons program to avoid offensive attacks and “qualify” to be handled with a deterrence policy by the United States.

In a similar vein, Martin Hellman, arguably the world’s clearest quantifier of nuclear risk and proprietor of the site Defusing the Nuclear Threat, recently wrote:

The logical inconsistency – and danger – of nuclear deterrence should be obvious, but it still forms the foundation of our national security strategy. Yet, for nuclear deterrence to work:

• we must be irrational enough for our adversary’s threats not to deter us, yet
• our adversary must be rational enough that our threats will deter them.

As I commented at Defusing the Nuclear Threat in response:

I think I’ve got it: The rational us are supposed to act irrational in hopes the irrational them acts rational. Makes perfect sense!

Blogging the Rio+20 Earth Summit for the Rest of Us: What’s at Stake with the Green Economy

President Barack Obama may be steering clear of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, but thousands of government delegates, civil society activists, and business lobbyists are already streaming into Brazil.

I arrived last night and will blog throughout this UN Conference on Sustainable Development. I’ll bring you the latest about the talks among those somber-suited delegates who’ll buzz around a complex of aircraft hangars on the edge of the city. And I’ll sum up the action at the tent city that has sprung up in Rio’s vast and verdant Flamengo Park — where the People’s Summit for Social and Environmental Justice is taking place.

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro/Shutterstock.com

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio de Janeiro/Shutterstock.com

To kick things off, here’s some recommended reading for anyone who’s about to board a plane to Rio to attend the summit from June 20-22, or to help you follow the action if you’re not. To learn what’s at stake, I recommend reading the Rio Conventions, which world leaders agreed to follow during the meeting they held here in 1992. These landmark treaties laid out the principles under which key issues of environmental protection are to be discussed. The three landmark conventions address climate change, biodiversity, and desertification.

Then there’s Agenda 21 — a modest and rather toothless action plan for supposedly “sustainable development.” (While over-excited tea partiers may consider that document to be a Soros-funded, left-wing conspiracy for the United Nations to achieve world domination, it never had much impact.)

And although the first Rio Earth Summit successfully established a framework for multilateral environmental negotiations, its impact has remained limited. Nature magazine’s damning report card, which makes that clear, is also very disturbing. Global greenhouse gas emissions have risen at even faster rates than before. We continue to lose biodiversity at an unprecedented rate. Land degradation is causing the continued spread of deserts.

For this reason, many delegates in Rio this time around are simply calling for measures to implement existing commitments. They say that would be better than creating any new corporate-driven initiatives or issuing yet more empty promises. The Third World Network has a comprehensive overview of the key issues, and is publishing regular updates with details of who said what at the Rio+20 talks.

“Green economy” proposals have proven to be some of the most contentious so far. On June 14, the 133 countries that comprise the G77+China (the largest negotiating bloc, representing the majority of the world’s population) walked out of talks on this element of the text. They cited a lack of progress on funding to help developing countries achieve more sustainable development and “technology transfer” mechanisms that could ease patent restrictions to promote the spread of cleaner technologies. Today, they kicked out of the agreement text that would have advocated a “transition to a green economy.”

That’s a win for progressives. Really. Wait — don’t we want a greener economy? Of course we do, but as this briefing, this video , this animation, and this report clearly show, there’s widespread concern that the term “green economy” is being used as a cover by rich countries lobbying for new markets to be created in biodiversity and ecosystems, and new avenues for financial speculation. A truly green economy, by contrast, would recognize the limits of what can be “financialized.” It would protect both the common good and public resources.

The battle between these very different worldviews will continue here over the coming days. The Rio+20 negotiating text remains littered with language that could be used to promote markets for environmental services. And the fight against the anti-democratic variety of green economics must be waged outside this conference too, because the World Bank and other powerhouses are busily building institutions to support these new markets.

Oscar Reyes is an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies’ Sustainable Energy & Economy Network. www.ips-dc.org

Multinationals Use International Tribunals to Overpower Nation-States

A leaked document posted at Public Citizen last night offers a stark reminder of the rising power transnational corporations enjoy in the domestic settings of nation-states where they do business. The Huffington Post’s Zach Carter writes that “The newly leaked document is one of the most controversial of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. It addresses a broad sweep of regulations governing international investment and reveals the Obama administration’s advocacy for policies that environmental activists, financial reform advocates and labor unions have long rejected for eroding key protections currently in domestic laws.” As Carter points out, “The terms run contrary to campaign promises issued by Obama and the Democratic Party during the 2008 campaign.”

The threat faced by nation-states from the growing power of multinational corporations is very real. At the center of concern is the power that multinationals have to override the domestic laws of countries through the arm of international tribunals tasked with adjudicating trade disputes between states and multinational firms. The most important example that illustrates this concern, as Carter rightly points out, is the case currently before a World Bank tribunal assessing the claims of a Canadian firm arguing for its right to mine for gold in El Salvador irrespective of the objections of the country’s government and people.

The case of El Salvador is worth more consideration that Carter is able to devote in his article. In early 2009, the multinational firm Pacific Rim Mining Corporation filed suit against San Salvador for its refusal to allow exploitation of gold deposits in El Salvador’s rural north. The corporation claimed that the government violated its Chapter 10 responsibilities under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) by refusing to issue exploitation permits after Pacific Rim filed an Environmental Impact Assessment in accordance with El Salvador’s national law.

The stakes for Pacific Rim were potentially quite high. The corporation had began exploring for gold in El Salvador years earlier, and in fact was given the green light by a previous administration to map out possible sites where the country’s deposits could be exploited to greatest profit. Pacific Rim subsequently identified some 25 sites where they believed gold could be successfully mined. But as exploration efforts expanded, so to did the worries of environmentalists and social activists. Critics of Pacific Rim’s intentions argued that mining operations would contaminate the country’s water channels and arable soil with the cyanide-laced water used to extract gold from subterranean rock. A sustained protest movement formed around the issue which succeeded in moving public opinion against the corporation’s presence in the country.

But the stakes for El Salvador are even higher. If the tribunal finds in Pacific Rim’s favor, the country would be forced to pay out damages it cannot afford. While the country’s economic situation is not nearly as dire as some of its regional neighbor’s, its fiscal health is far from secure. Just recently, the country’s economic minister stepped down after the International Monetary Fund shut the tap on a $750 million dollar loan and budget numbers took a turn for the worse. The Wall Street Journal reports that “El Salvador’s economic growth of 1.5 percent last year was lower than projected, while public spending and debt soared past expectations.” Another possible outcome from the tribunal’s deliberations is a negotiated settlement. The most likely outcome would involve amending El Salvador’s environmental and mining laws which in turn could open the door to foreign corporations and ease access to the country’s natural resources.

Barack Obama was a staunch opponent of CAFTA before he was president, which makes the leaked trade document especially upsetting. The Obama administration, despite its rhetoric to the contrary, has largely failed to curb the power of multinationals to hold sway in domestic policies. But the documents published by Public Citizen last night suggest that the White House is actively in league with them — a revelation that should give even Obama’s staunchest supporters pause and offer incontrovertible evidence that on this issue, at least, the president and his challenger Mitt Romney hold the same policy preference. Thus, regardless of the electoral outcome later this fall, supposed allies of the United States can expect to receive a raw deal.

Spanish Austerity Savage to the Point of Sadism

Spanish prime minister -- and bailout apologist -- Mariano Rajoy.

Spanish prime minister — and bailout apologist — Mariano Rajoy.

Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz characterizes the Spanish bank bailout as “voodoo economics” that is certain “to “fail.” New York Times economic analyst Andrew Ross Sorkin agrees: “By now it should be apparent that the bailout has failed—or at least on its way to failing.” And columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman bemoans that Europe (and the U.S.) “are repeating ancient mistakes” and asks, “why does no one learn from them?”

Indeed, at first glance, the European Union’s response to the economic chaos gripping the continent does seem a combination of profound delusion, and what a British reporter called “sado-monetarism”—endless cutbacks, savage austerity, and widespread layoffs.

But whether something “works” or not depends on what you do for a living.

If you work at a regular job, you are in deep trouble. Spanish unemployment is at 25 percent—much higher in the country’s southern regions—and 50 percent among young people. In one way or other, those figures—albeit not quite as high—are replicated across the Euro Zone, particularly in those countries that have sipped from Circe’s bailout cup: Ireland, Portugal, and Greece.

But if you are Josef Ackermann heading up the Deutsche Bank, you earned an 8 million Euro bonus in 2012, because you successfully manipulated the past four years of economic meltdown to make the bank bigger and more powerful than it was before the 2008 crash. In 2009, when people were losing their jobs, their homes, and their pensions, Deutsche Bank’s profits soared 67 percent, eventually raking in almost 8 billion Euros for 2011. The bank took a hit in 2012, but the Spanish bailout will help recoup Deutsche Bank’s losses from its gambling spree in Spanish real estate.

And, just in case you thought irony was dead, it was the Spanish housing bubble that tanked that country’s economy—at the time Madrid’s debt was among the lowest in the Euro Zone—and German banks (as well as Dutch, French, British and Austrian) financed that bubble. German Banks also financed the real estate bubble that crashed Ireland’s economy. Some 60 percent of Deutsche Bank’s income is foreign based.

Consider this figure: in 1997 real estate loans in Ireland were 5 billion Euros. By 2007 they were 96.2 billion Euros, a jump of 1730 percent. Real estate prices rose 500 percent, the same amount that Spanish housing prices increased. The banks didn’t know they were pumping up a bubble? Of course they knew, but they were making money hand over fist.

When the American financial industry self-destructed in 2008, the Irish and Spanish bubbles popped, and who got the bill? Irish taxpayers shelled out $30 billion to bail out the Anglo-Irish Bank—essentially the country’s total tax revenues for 2009—and in return got a 15 percent unemployment rate, huge cuts in the minimum wage, pension reductions, and social service cutbacks. Spain is headed in the same direction.

As Spanish economist and London School of Economics professor Luis Garicano told the New York Times, “Unfortunately, Spain did not manage to reach one of its main goals in the negotiations [over the bailout], which was to have Europe bear part of the risk of rescuing the financial sector, without letting it fall instead directly onto the shoulders of the Spanish taxpayers.”

Garicano went on to complain, “Those who lent to our financial system were the banks and the insurance companies of Northern Europe, which should bear the consequences of these decisions.”

But of course they will not. Instead, the banks got to go to the casino, gamble other people’s money, and get repaid for their losses. That’s sweet work if you can get it.

However, the “sado-monetarism” strategy is about more than just bailing out the banks at the expense of the vast majority of European taxpayers. It cloaks its long-term designs in coded language: “rigid labor market,” “internal devaluation,” “pension reform,” “common budgetary process,” “political union.”

A quick translation.

“Rigid labor market” means getting rid of contracts that guarantee decent wages, working conditions and benefits, all won through a long process of negotiations and industrial action. As the New York Times put it, the current rightwing Spanish government is attempting to “loosen collective bargaining agreements.”

The drive to scrap union contracts is coupled with “internal devaluation,” which, as Krugman points out, “basically means cutting wages.” If the working class can be forced to accept lower wages and slimmer benefits—and there is no better disciplinarian in these regards than a high unemployment rate—profits will go up. Sure, the vast majority will be poorer, but not the people who run Deutsche Bank.

“Pension reform” simply means impoverishing old people, who had nothing to do with the real estate bubbles that brought down Ireland and Spain. But again, someone has to sacrifice, and old people don’t have all that much time left anyhow.

Oh, for ice floes to put them on.

“Common budgetary process” and “political union” means giving up national sovereignty in the service of keeping the banks solvent—in essence, the end of democracy on the continent. People could then elect any one they pleased, but no national government would have any say over economic policy. Want to do a bit of pump priming to get the jobless rate down and tax revenues up? Nope. But feel free to paint park benches any color you like.

The 100 billion Euro ($125 billion) Spanish bailout will fail for the average Spaniard, as bailouts have already failed the Irish, Portuguese and Greeks, and it will lock Spain into generations of debt. Italy is next (not counting the small fry like Cyprus and several Eastern European countries that may fall before Rome is finally sacked). The Euro Zone’s economies are predicted to contract 0.1 percent for all of 2012, and the jobless rate for the 17-country bloc is 11 percent, higher than at any time since the Euro was established in 1999.

Spain’s right-wing prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has tried to argue that the bailout was not as onerous as those imposed on Ireland, Portugal and Greece, but the Germans soon set him straight: “There will be a troika [the European Union, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund] and it will make sure the program is being implemented,” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaube told the Financial Times.

It is not unlikely that the Euro will fall sometime in the next year, but of course the debts will remain. The dead hand of the past will lie on the brow of the living for a long, long time to come.

Financier George Soros puts much of the blame for the current crisis on Germany—indeed, he accuses Chancellor Andrea Merkel of trying to establish a “German Empire”—but that is simplistic. Germany has certainly led the “sado-monetarian” charge, but this strategy is not just about unleashing the austerity Panzers to establish a Fourth Reich. All over the world, capital is on the march, with the goal of rolling back the social programs of the post-World War II period and returning to the Gilded Age when the rich did pretty much as they pleased.

Weakening unions is central to this, as is privatizing everything capital can get its hands on, and the economic crisis is the perfect cover to try an accomplish this. For a fascinating analogy, pick up Indian journalist P. Sainath’s brilliant “Everyone Loves A Good Drought” that exposed how wealthy landlords in India manipulated a natural crisis to increase their grip over agriculture.

Former Deutsche Bank head Ackermann recently prattled on about the “social time bomb” of economic inequality, but so far he has not offered to share his 8.8 million Euro bonus. In the meantime, according to the International Labor Organization, youth global unemployment will reach 12.7 percent this year and stay there for at least four years, creating a “lost generation” of workers.

So, the answer to Krugman’s question, “why are they repeating ancient mistakes?”

Because they are making out like bandits.

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.

Violence, Human Rights Abuses, and Corruption Exploded After Mexico’s Military Entered the Drug War

The New York Times reported Monday on the positions of each of the three candidates for Mexico’s presidency, an election which will be decided on July 1. The core argument of the article is that each candidate is promising a “major shift” away from the drug war policy of Mexico’s current president, Felipe Calderón. They each are placing, according to the Times,

a higher priority on reducing the violence in Mexico than on using arrests and seizures to block the flow of drugs to the United States. The candidates, while vowing to continue to fight drug trafficking, say they intend to eventually withdraw the Mexican Army from the drug fight. They are concerned that it has proved unfit for police work and has contributed to the high death toll, which has exceeded 50,000 since the departing president, Felipe Calderón, made the military a cornerstone of his battle against drug traffickers more than five years ago.

This sounds well enough and good. Doubly so if it were true which, in all likelihood, it isn’t. The Times article, to its credit, suggests as much itself, noting that Enrique Peña Nieto–who will almost certainly walk away with an easy victory–has lately ”suggested that while Mexico should continue to work with the United States government against organized crime, it should not ‘subordinate to the strategies of other countries. The task of the state, what should be its priority from my point of view, and what I have called for in this campaign, is to reduce the levels of violence,’ he said in an interview.”

But the reality is that Washington isn’t having it. “One senior Obama administration official said on Friday that Mr. Peña Nieto’s demand that the United States respect Mexican priorities ‘is a sound bite he is using for obvious political purposes.’ In private meetings, the official said, ‘what we basically get is that he fully appreciates and understands that if/when he wins, he is going to keep working with us.’

Well then.

The article then goes on to discuss fears that a Peña Nieto presidency–under the banner of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)–would possibly return Mexico to the bad old days of PRI authoritarianism. For his part, Peña Nieto

insisted in an interview that he was a fresh face representing a new democratic era for the party — going as far as to say he has never tried any illicit drug. But he nevertheless defended the PRI, saying the other parties have had their share of bad apples and suggesting that the return of the party would be another sign of Mexico’s maturing democracy.

Even if he was lying, many believe that the institutional arrangement of Mexico in the post-PRI authoritarian era would prevent a return to the old way of doing things. “They can get some of the guys at the top, but now you’ve got all these other guys running around doing whatever they want, and the state and local police can’t handle it,” said an American official who requested anonymity because of the political sensitivities….“What’s really quite clear is that the presidency is not what it used to be,” said Arturo Valenzuela, a Georgetown University professor and former top State Department official in the region. He added: “If the PRI comes back, it’s not going to be the way the PRI governed before, because the country is just so different. So the question is how will they run the country? They will have to function in a very complicated electoral democracy.”

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Shannon O’Neil makes much the same point, and in greater detail, in a post at ForeignAffairs.com:

On a broader scale, over the last 12 years, power has been increasingly decentralized, making a return to the PRI’s historical hallmark, the “imperial presidency,” virtually impossible. Once upon a time, a leader such as Carlos Salinas — president from 1988 to 1994 — could dismiss half of the sitting governors during his term without a hint of blowback. Today states and their elected leaders are autonomous, both politically and increasingly economically, from the federal government.

In fact, states wield great power at the national level through their federal senators and representatives (who now often depend on the favor of the governor to stand for office). Peña Nieto knows this — he spent six years as governor of the State of Mexico. Although many scholars argue that this decentralization has not in fact been good for democracy — protecting the last bastions of authoritarianism in less electorally competitive states — it will nevertheless deter a return to the old political model in which Los Pinos could steamroll regional-level executives.

Civil society is stronger in Mexico today, too. A few decades ago, if the PRI found itself displeased with news coverage, it could literally stop the presses, as it held a monopoly on newsprint. Now Mexico has developed a vibrant and fiercely independent press, led by El Universal, Reforma, and La Jornada. Mexican voters and society have also gained a stronger voice, using social media and information now publicly available through Mexico’s freedom of information law to shame corrupt bureaucrats and politicians.

This is all true. But what is left out of these discussions, curiously, is the fact that the intersection between security and representative government is precisely the spot where Mexico is at its most deeply undemocratic. The Mexican military is not under civilian control, nor is it really under the unified command of a single military figure save the president who technically is the highest ranking member of all. In this sense, then, Mexico’s much-touted democratic transition has been incomplete, a fact that relates directly to the questions at hand about the current election.

Until recently, the military high command has not been directly involved in fighting drug trafficking. Its entrance into the country’s drug wars have resulted in three chief outcomes–skyrocketing violence, human rights abuses, and corruption of the military ranks. None of these can be effectively checked without proper civilian oversight, and the third may prove to be most pernicious of all as the military’s ability to carry out its objectives, no matter how questionable, gets compromised by the personal interests of those at the top. Selective application of military power for the purposes of fighting certain cartels, and protecting others, is the worry here which holds out the possibility of the kind of complicity between government operators and the monied interests of drug traffickers that were a hallmark of the authoritarian era.

And yet the incomplete transition to democracy in Mexico is never discussed. A deeper conversation about the threats facing the country would move beyond the recognition that greater representative governance has been a positive step for Mexico–which in many ways it has–and shine the light on those pockets where there is still much work to be done, and problems to be tackled. Some of those challenges, including asserting greater civilian control of the military–a prerequisite, after all, in any fully democratic context–may prove frighteningly intractable. This is especially true when we consider polling data that suggests Mexicans don’t have a problem with the military as is so much as the way in which it has been ineffectively deployed by the president.

But the future of the country lies in such considerations, not in a hoped-for balance of power within the Mexican Congress or further decentralization of decision making in the name of some phantom democracy. And until these debates are fully engaged, we can expect more of the same from whomever becomes Mexico’s next president and worse from a military quickly disintegrating under the weight of inexorable corruption.

Afghanistan Dominates Latest U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue

Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Just days before the Third U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue between the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and the Indian Foreign Minister, S.M. Krishna, in Washington, D.C., an important address was given by Robert O. Blake, a U.S. State Department official, at a meeting of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Blake stressed the unique importance of the U.S.-Indian bilateral relationship, not only to the two countries but to the world. It was noted that since these talks began in 2010, our strategic ties have led to an ever greater confluence of views on the important issues of our time. This address, the only indication thus far of the latest official thinking about this important Dialogue, was as significant for the issues it addressed as it was for those he failed to mention.

Most noteworthy was his emphasis on Afghanistan as the principal subject of the upcoming meeting. It was noted that past and continuing actions by both countries in this respect centered on economic and developmental goals, to be achieved through “strategic partnership” agreements signed by each government with Afghanistan. While both agreements include the training of Afghan forces, the American agreement (signed on May 1st, 2012) commits Kabul to allow the U.S. access and use of Afghan facilities beyond 2014 for purposes of “targeting the remnants of al-Qaeda” and for security and defense cooperation over the long-term. The security concern was once again emphasized in his closing remarks.

Thus, despite Blake’s focus on economic and scientific cooperation between India and the U.S., we see emerging a strong military and security theme, especially with regard to Afghanistan (a concern shared by the Indian Government). In his keynote address, Mr. Blake emphasizes Afghanistan’s security, as do the agreements signed by New Delhi (last year) and Washington (this year) with Afghanistan. This should not surprise us. After all, Afghanistan is a country which, in the public mind and in our daily news, is identified with the 10-year war being waged there, primarily by American military forces.

It must be stressed, however, that this emphasis goes far beyond the need to ensure Afghanistan’s stable and prosperous future. Indeed, its ramifications extend to Pakistan as well as Central Asia, and beyond that, to South and Southeast Asia. As Mr. Blake states in his concluding remarks, he feels encouraged by the progress made by the two governments towards broadening “our counter-terrorism and defense cooperation.” The economic goals, moreover, are to be achieved through cooperation and integration, not only bilaterally, but also along broad geographical lines, encompassing essentially all of Asia.

One might be tempted to question this as an overly ambitious scope on the part of an assistant secretary, until we hear Defense Secretary Panetta’s statement that the U.S. plans to increase its military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, Blake goes on to praise India’s “Look East Policy” and sees the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Myanmar in May and the signing of multiple agreements while there as an example of India “assuming a larger role in the broader Asia-Pacific.” It should be noted, however, that while the Look East Policy has included recent attempts to develop economic relations with Singapore and the Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN), it is a policy of long-standing, initiated in 1991, and may have little to do with the current American decision to militarize its presence in the entire Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, Mr. Panetta’s announcement was almost immediately followed by a report in the Indian press that the Minister of Defense opposed India joining the U.S. “bandwagon” on the Asia-Pacific and that the U.S. ought to rethink this policy. But while some reports indicated that the Minister of Defense was in disagreement on this issue with the Indian Foreign Minister, other reports stated that Foreign Affairs Minister Krishna had told the Chinese Vice Premier at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit that “India’s relations with China are a priority in India’s foreign policy”. This could be seen as directed to the U.S. Defense Secretary whose Asia-Pacific policy is widely thought to be aimed at China.

Mr. Panetta has also figured prominently in various Asian media because of comments about Pakistan. On June 7, while in New Delhi, he warned Islamabad that Washington is “losing patience” with the Government of Pakistan, for letting its territory be used as a safe haven for those who attack American and Afghan forces and then cross back into Pakistan. He singled out the Taliban and the Haqqani network. It is believed at the highest levels of the U.S. Government that this conduct reflects long-standing official policy by Islamabad. This is what has fueled Washington’s anger with Pakistan. On top of that, the six-month blockade of NATO’s military supply route into Afghanistan has brought American patience to a breaking point.

An important issue not raised by Mr. Blake is Iran, including the question of whether America’s friends and/or interlocutors will yield to Washington’s counsel or demand to impose sanctions on Iran or face U.S. sanctions. But there has been a reversal of this policy — in the case of India. If so, it is unlikely that China alone would be singled out for sanctions. Both countries are critically important to the U.S. for a variety of reasons, some similar, some quite different. Clearly, Washington thought it best to clear the air ahead of the Strategic Dialogue.

Moreover, as American economic power weakens, it negatively affects its political influence abroad. At a time when the economic crisis has become almost worldwide, and the U.S. is involved in numerous conflicts — open, quiet or covert — Washington can hardly afford to alienate a rising power like India, who has been a hesitant friend at best and whose economic relationship with the U.S. is not as healthy as the U.S. — or India for that matter — would like. Nor can the U.S. alienate powerful adversaries like China, who is already unhappy with the return — in a big way — of U.S. military power in the Asia-Pacific region. Perhaps the most important conflict of interest between Washington and Beijing may be building up in the South China Sea, where China has important economic and energy interests. With U.S. military commitments being quite extensive, and the Defense Department facing severe budget cuts, Washington can hardly afford to pick a big fight with China. It is therefore likely that the threat of sanctions against China will be quietly abandoned, now that India has been exempted. If not, we may expect the Asia-Pacific region to heat up considerably.

West Falls for Iran’s Show of “Sanitizing” Parchin

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Western governments claim that satellite images show Iran is trying to scrub a site at its Parchin military complex clean of evidence of nuclear weapons experiments. In response, Gareth Porter wrote at IPS on June 8:

The nature of the [alleged evidence of activities] depicted in the images and the circumstances surrounding them suggest, however, that Iran made them to gain leverage in its negotiations with the IAEA rather than to hide past nuclear experiments. … the activities shown in those satellite images … appear to be aimed at prompting the IAEA, the United States and Israel to give greater urgency and importance to a request for an IAEA inspection visit to Parchin.

For example water shown in a satellite image and ostensibly used for cleaning “appears to collect in a ditch a short distance away from the building. … soil that was moved from two areas [but appears] to have been carried only a few hundred feet further north of the former area where it is shown to have been dumped, offering another inviting target for environmental sampling.”

In other words, the so-called sanitizing is a show Iran has been putting on for the benefit of the West. Porter further reports that the Arms Control Association’s Greg Thielmann told him “that he didn’t know whether the changes shown in satellite images were part of a conscious Iranian negotiating strategy.” But, the changes, in effect, “‘increase the interest of the IAEA in an inspection at Parchin as soon as possible and to give Iran more leverage in the negotiations.’”

“Access to Parchin,” Porter explains “has been recognised implicitly by both sides as Iran’s primary leverage in those negotiations.”

Gareth Porter is one of the few — perhaps the lone — analyst striking the note that, besides for nuclear power, Iran enriches uranium as a bargaining chip with the West. Arguably it’s a less hostile strategy than the coercive diplomacy to which the United States reflexively defaults.

With its attempts to lure the West in via its scrub-down show Iran seems to be playing negotiating chess while the West is playing checkers. But, as has been pointed out to me, in the end, it may be immaterial since the West can bring its first down on the whole game, crush the board and scatter the pieces.

Besides, Iran may be cutting it too close. For one thing, the worth of its chips is inflated: Both the West and its regional neighbors think Iran is developing a program that all the evidence suggests it isn’t and over-react accordingly. Worse, Iran’s strategy resembles Saddam Hussein’s before the 2003 invasion. While neither Iran nor Iraq had nuclear weapons, both thought it was to their advantage to leave a seed of doubt in our minds, though for different reasons: Saddam for regional security, Iran as a negotiating ploy to get sanctions suspended and advance its nuclear energy program.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, nature couldn’t abhor a void more. Imagination runs rampant and those with an agenda against the state holding its nuke cards close to the best feel justified in pursuing it to the max.

Disarmament’s Cause and Effect Relationship With Nonproliferation — or Lack Thereof

One can’t help but experience something akin to gratification by a June 4 New York Times editorial on nuclear disarmament.

Did House Republicans somehow miss the end of the cold war? At a time when, for the sake of both security and fiscal responsibility, the country should be reducing its nuclear arsenal, the House has approved a defense authorization bill for 2013 that threatens to freeze the number of weapons at current levels and, over time, waste billions of dollars on unnecessary purchases and programs.

Thankfully, the bill isn’t likely to become law. But it is worth taking a closer look, both for what it says about Republicans’ misplaced strategic priorities — and about how far President Obama has already gone to appease them.

The A word — yikes! The editorial writer also injects some sly sarcasm (emphasis added).

The bill would bar reduction, consolidation or withdrawal of tactical weapons in Europe — we can’t imagine a more unnecessary weapon — unless several onerous conditions are met..

The writer also brings to light a point to which I personally hadn’t been exposed (or it hadn’t registered). As regular Focal Points readers know, a recurring theme here is the decoupling of nonproliferation from disarmament in recent years. In other words, Western nuclear powers seem to use the imperative to prevent non-nuclear weapon states, as well as terrorists, from obtaining nukes as a smokescreen. They seek to obscure — or rationalize — the leadership on disarmament that they’re failing to demonstrate by signing anemic treaties such as New START and funding modernization programs intended to endow nuclear weapons into perpetuity.

Meanwhile, hawks and realists both maintain that disarmament leadership means nothing to states that aspire to nuclear weapons anyway. In the past, this author has suspected that, messengers aside, they may be right. But the Times editorial states:

If the United States fails to keep pushing for even deeper cuts — or raises any doubts about its current commitments — it will have an even harder time rallying global pressure to contain the nuclear ambitions of Iran, North Korea and others. Remember George W. Bush’s contempt for treaties?

In other words, failure to disarm may be immaterial to states whose nuclear programs are at the dream stage, but it does have an adverse effect on states we petition to join us in preventing proliferation. Thus disarmament in itself may or may not have a direct effect on proliferation, but it can be a force multiplier in the quest for nonproliferation.

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