Focal Points Blog

From Hero to Villain: The Arab World’s Hugo Chavez Arc

When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez passed away last week, the public in the Arab world felt as if they lost one of their own. Chavez who ruled Venezuela for 14 years did make a huge impact on the lives of ordinary Venezuelans and at the same time made very important gestures toward the Arab world and the Middle East. Ever since he assumed power, Chavez made it his life work to end poverty in his country and expand education and health care to millions of poor and underprivileged Venezuelans.

Although he supported and befriended the hated Arab dictators, he, however, was unlike them on several levels. Chavez for example was interested in reshaping the Venezuelans’ society and empowering the poor classes he was born into. Before Chavez came to power, Venezuelan society was divided along racial lines where the light-skinned or white Venezuelans, known as mestizos, sat at the top of the food chain and controlled much of its wealth and resources. Meanwhile, millions of black, Indian or mixed-race Venezuelans struggled in abject poverty at the bottom in one the richest countries on earth.

For those poor classes, Latin America analyst Oliver Barrett wrote on the Foreign Policy Blog that Chavez was their modern day “Robin Hood” and “Libertador.” Barrett added that Chavez used socialism as his vehicle to utilize the vast riches of the country to slash poverty levels by seventy percent, while cutting unemployment rate by half, and expanded health and education opportunities to millions of his beloved poor citizens. Chavez’s accomplishments in this regard were an impressive feat that no Arab leader, dictator or not, was able to accomplish.

In that respect, moreover, Chavez looked more like the late revolutionary Egyptian leader-dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who also used socialism to reshape the Egyptian society and the Arab world but failed in both endeavors. Nasser, albeit operating in a different world system, nevertheless fell victim to his own rhetoric and failed to deliver many of his lofty Pan-Arab goals. In addition, he was directly responsible for the humiliating Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. His life however was conspicuously cut short at the age of 52, Chavez at 58.

Both Nasser and Chavez dwelled on anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism rhetoric and opposing Israel where both saw the three with little delineation. This kind of rhetoric was the main engine for their popularity among the poor and disenfranchised in the Arab World. When Chavez severed the diplomatic relations with Israel in protest for its attack on Gaza in 2008, his popularity in the region skyrocketed.

Chavez’s anti-Israeli pronouncements enamored him to an Arab public hungry for a charismatic leader in the mold of Nasser amid increasing marginalization, oppression and fragmentation that became the order of the day in many Arab countries especially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings. Chavez therefore was that “distant” hero that reminded the Arab public of a bygone era when the Arab world led by Nasser was defiant and resisted the encroaching western influence.

But not many in the Arab World view Chavez as a hero, especially after he expressed his public support to Arab dictators Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad. Chavez’s support for Arab dictators came across as a contradiction for the self-styled revolutionary who spoke against “American world domination” and “imperialism” yet supported brutal and bloody Arab dictators.

It was precisely this contradiction that propelled Shireen Mriash a Dubai-based pediatrician and a writer to write on her social network page accusing Chavez of dishonesty. For Mraish it was Chavez’s support for Gaddafi that made her change her perception of him: “If a man or a leader supports oppression and injustice against others, he himself, therefore, is unjust and an oppressor.”

Journalist Eman El-Shenawi, an editor at Al Arabiya news channel, voiced the same sentiments in an article she wrote last week. El-Shinawi cataloged Chavez’s cold and insensitive statements in support of Gaddafi and Assad which disillusioned his Arab admirers.

She explained further that while Chavez’s “vehement anti-Israel stance stood strong” it was “his support for the region’s dictators that millions had come out to oppose in mostly blood-soaked battles” that ended the Arab World infatuation with him.

Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: [email protected] and on Twitter at @clearali.

Promoting Peace, But Fueling War in Syria

The international community largely supports the U.S. and Saudi Arabia on Syria: hope for peace, but failing that, throw more money at the conflict.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal.

At a joint news conference last week in Riyadh, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal stressed the importance of a peaceful, democratic transition in Syria and renewed pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down, with both men declaring that the Syrian president has “lost his legitimacy” as a ruler of the Syrian people.

Teaming with Saudi Arabia to denounce Assad’s regime and promote democracy is a rather questionable choice, as John Glaser of observes: “You really have to swim through a lot of cognitive dissonance to understand how the secretary of state of the world’s only empire and the foreign minister of the Middle East’s worst dictatorship can stand united on bringing democracy to Syria.” And truly, Faisal’s statement that Saudi Arabia cannot “bring [itself] to remain quiet in front of this carnage” and “morally” has “a duty to protect” these citizens seems overly saccharine for the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups.

Moreover, while both men stated the “urgent” need for a peaceful transition, neither seems to see a problem with simultaneously funding and arming the opposition in the meantime. Only a week before his conference in Riyadh, Kerry revealed that an additional $60 million of non-lethal aid, such as food and medical supplies, would be provided to the Syrian opposition. And Saudi Arabia (along with its nearby ally Qatar) has been not-so-discreetly funneling arms to the opposition for some six months at least.

In fact, the international community largely seems to support the stance presented by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia: hope for peace, but failing that, throw more money into fueling the conflict.

Britain has already petitioned the EU to lift its embargo on the arms trade to Syria, and recently announced it will be sending armored vehicles and other “non-lethal” equipment to the opposition in addition to providing training for rebel groups. Turkey has also supported this stance, joining Britain in petitioning to have the arms embargo lifted on Syria. Not to mention, it is through Turkey that the arms provided by Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been able to make it across the border.

Joining these countries, the Arab League—after its decision to reinstate Syria’s membership in the League with a representative from the Syrian National Coalition, the main umbrella organization for the opposition—called arming Syrian rebels “logical.” Whereas the Arab League previously advocated a political resolution to the conflict, it overturned this decision and now condones the arming of the Syrian opposition by its member states.

On the other side of the conflict, whereas both Iran and Russia support peaceful talks between the regime and opposition (without the precondition that Assad step down), both countries throughout the conflict have reportedly been supplying Assad with weapons shipments.

Countries such as Canada and Germany seem to be the only remaining voices of reason in the international funding mania. Canada, in response to Kerry’s announcement to pledge further aid to Syria, called such funding “too risky,” adding that “the answer to the crisis in Syria is not more violence.” Germany also chimed in, stating that support should be shown for the opposition in a “responsible” way and that the EU’s decision not to lift its embargo was “wise and right.”

Kerry, for his part, seems undisturbed by the risk arming the rebels presents. When Anne Gearan of The Washington Post asked Kerry whether the arms already being funneled into the country could fall into the wrong hands, Kerry replied that while “there is no guarantee that one weapon or another might not at some point in time fall into the wrong hands … there is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them.”

Kerry’s rather long-winded answer simply confirms that the opposition has no ability to prevent arms from reaching extremists.

And this is no hypothetical. At least some of these arms have already fallen into the hands of hard-line Islamists, but in the midst of this international arming frenzy, few seem to be overly concerned by it—least of all those doing the arming.

Leslie Garvey is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus and Focal Points.

The Pedigree of the “Horsewich”

HorsewichConn Hallinan began a recent Focal Points post titled The Sunset of the “Celtic Tiger” Led to the Dawn of the “Horsewich”:

“As the Great Horsemeat Crisis continues to spread—“gallops” is the verb favored by the European press—across the continent, and countries pile on to blame Romania (France, Holland, Cyprus, etc.), what is becoming increasingly clear is that old-fashioned corporate greed, aided and abetted by politicians eager to gut “costly” regulations and industrial inspection regimes, is behind the scandal.”

Another excerpt:

“’It is a shame that testing by the FSA has been reduced,’ Dr. Chris Smart told the Guardian. ‘I am sure there will be other crises that come along in the next few years.’ And given that UK food prices have risen nearly 26 percent that will surely be the case. Inspectors have already uncovered adulterated olive oil and paprika made from roof tiles. … At the heart of this are the continent-wide austerity programs that have driven up the ranks of the poor, requiring low-income families to rely on cheap meat or go without.”

To illustrate the crisis — and Conn’s post — Foreign Policy in Focus and Focal Points contributor Leslie Garvey has created the accompanying infographic.

The Two Europes

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

The subtitle of Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil, about Britain of the mid-19th century, refers to the “two nations” of rich and the poor. The gap between these two halves of society was a central preoccupation of social reformers during the Industrial Revolution. Nor has this divide between rich and poor in Europe gone away, despite the efforts of the welfare state. Indeed, in recent years, the divide has only grown wider.

I recently traveled by train from London to Berlin and was struck by a different divide that has opened up in Europe. These “two nations” are the mobile and the stationary. And this divide, like the one that so engaged Disraeli, has had an equally profound impact on the politics of the moment.

Europe has fully entered the era of the mobile. You can commute by train from London to Brussels in two hours, faster than the trip by Amtrak from New York to Washington, DC. For all British Prime Minister David Cameron’s talk of the UK choosing the a la carte option for EU membership, his country is now tethered firmly by its Chunnel umbilicus. Once on the continent, the train system puts Amtrak to shame at every level: speed, reliability, comfort, food (well, the currywurst I ate on the train to Berlin was approximately equal to an Amtrak hotdog). For those in a greater hurry, cheap airline tickets bring people rapidly from Dublin to Athens and Lisbon to Gdansk.

The tribe of the mobile is not restricted to the leisure class. The opening of the borders within the European Union facilitated an extraordinary labor migration as Poles moved westward, the British moved south, Spaniards moved north, and the adventurous sought jobs eastward in Prague and Bucharest and Sofia. The definition of guest workers (gastarbeiter), as well as their overall numbers, has expanded enormously, and bureaucrats now prefer the term “mobile workers.” Nor is it just the young who are on the move. “Retirement migration” has created the European version of snowbirds. And, of course, there are the involuntary migrants, escaping the war in former Yugoslavia or trafficked against their will to brothels.

This mobility within Europe, on top of the waves of immigrants and asylum-seekers coming from outside the continent, has destroyed any vestige of the ethnically homogenous European state. The end of empire, and the flow of people from former colonies to the imperial metropoles, had already made England and the Netherlands and France into multiethnic environments. But now even Scandinavia and Ireland are being remade by the new otherlanders. Europe has now become not just a continent of regions but a continent of neighborhoods: the French quarter of South Kensington in London, the Turkish environment of Kreuzberg in Berlin, the Vietnamese community in Warsaw’s Praga section.

This is the Europe of shifting cosmopolitan identities: the Manhattanization of the continent. Philip Roth’s brilliant novel The Counterlife imagines a movement called Diasporism devoted to the return of Jews not to Israel but to the Europe of Polish shtetls and tony German neighborhoods. This obviously hasn’t happened. Instead, regardless of its religion, this half of Europe has embraced Diasporism, and the era of fixed national identities is over.

Or perhaps not. There is another Europe. After all, not everyone is on the move. The other half of Europe has stayed put. It has remained in the same place, the same village, even the same house for generations. It speaks of centuries of family involvement in municipal affairs or tending the same vineyards or defending the country against invaders. This part of Europe has no intention of pulling up roots and moving to some strange land. The younger generation might peel off and join mobile Europe. But still, someone continues to tend the family hearth.

According to a 2005 study, only 22 percent of Europeans moved outside their region or country – compared to 32 percent of Americans who moved outside the state where they were born. That’s a very big majority of people who stay close to home.

The great debates raging in Europe today are a function of this divide between the mobile and the stationary. Do you support a headscarf ban, an end to the new construction of minarets, stricter controls on immigration, and a go-slow approach to European expansion? Or do you celebrate multicultural education, Gay Pride festivals, more generous benefits for foreign workers, and the greater diversity of restaurants in your neighborhood?

You could simply attribute this divide to liberals versus conservatives. But what makes these debates so heated is not so much the ideological division but the deep cultural division. Half of Europe clings to what it believes are native traditions tied to land, language, and traditional lifestyle. The other half has embraced a completely different Europe that is not defined by national identity or, at least, one national identity. There is hybrid Europe, and then there is the Europe that imagines itself to be a collection of indivisible nation-state billiard balls that can kiss or collide but not merge.

Let me be clear. Some of the people who are in flux are as traditional and conservative as you can get. And some of the people who are staying in one place are paragons of tolerance and open-mindedness. But the members of the first group, however conservative their mores might be, are creating a fundamentally new European reality that transcends their own personal politics.

We might celebrate the Europe of terroir, of culture based in a specific locale. But, increasingly, the people who will be perpetuating this terroir will themselves come from different lands – like Korean-Americans who become involved in Civil War reenactments or Italian-Americans who run gumbo restaurants in New Orleans. This comparison is not chosen at random. Europe is becoming ever more American in its demography. Once the exporter of immigrants, Europe must now refashion itself as an immigrant society.

The European Community was an effort to erase the traumas of the first and second World Wars. The new Europe Union, if it is to survive its current economic challenges, will similarly attempt to erase the traumas of the Cold War and the conflicts that immediately sprang up in its wake. But the EU must also grapple with a more fundamental tension between a traditional past and a multicultural future.

This tension between the mobile and the stationary can be creative and not just contentious. The two Europes could, for instance, consummate an opposites-attract marriage. But before we send out that particular marriage announcement, we’ll have to see the political defeat of the Geert Wilders and Marie Le Pens and Victor Orbans of Europe and the victory of politicians and artists who are more sensitive to the paradoxes of modern European life.

With Bus Segregation Israeli Apartheid Becomes More Blatant

Israel’s continued disregard for Palestinians is yet again highlighted in its latest segregation of the region’s bus system—modern day apartheid at its finest. Especially problematic is the fact that the bus system is a public service and under law should employ nondiscriminatory practices. The Palestinian Deputy Labor Minister and the Workers’ Union have denounced the “racist measures.”

The Israeli transportation authorities have said that segregation of the bus lines was put into effect to improve overall service for Palestinians by making the transport more effective. They also claim costs will fall—Palestinians will no longer be required to pay high prices for private, unregulated taxis to bring them to and from checkpoints.

Media reports indicate, however, that Jewish settlers lodged complaints with the government concerning safety on the buses with Palestinians aboard. Settlers also claimed buses were crowded and that high tensions between Palestinians and settlers pose security risks. This reasoning is likely the real reasoning for this troublesome policy.

The plan has drawn the opposition of the Israeli Knesset’s more progressive members. Zahava Gal-On, leader of the leftist Meretz leftist political party, called for the immediate cancellation of the segregated bus lines. “Separate bus lines for Palestinians prove that occupation and democracy cannot coexist,” he said. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem also condemned the move, calling it “revolting.”

A few citizens took drastic measures to protest the segregation policy by setting aflame two of the buses just one day after its implementation. Discontent amongst Palestinians is apparent—how much further will Israel go to isolate this continually marginalized population?

The monetary savings of having segregated bus lines may be helpful to Palestinians but overall this policy does nothing to improve or even sustain the delicate political balance between these two populations. Israel continues to implement segregationist policies, pushing political boundaries to the breaking point while at the same time having no regard for the resulting repercussions.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces (3/8/13)

Emphasis, as always, added.

The UN Temperance League

“We make the modest proposal that the negotiating rooms should in future be an inebriation-free zone,” Joseph Torsella, deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for management and reform, told the General Assembly’s budget committee.

“While my government is truly grateful for the strategic opportunities presented by some recent past practices, let’s save the champagne for toasting the successful end of the session, and do some credit to the Fifth Committee’s reputation in the process,” he said.

An annual vote of the budget committee … tends to come at Christmas time in late December. The debates often become heated marathon sessions that run into the early hours of the morning.

Diplomats who participate [in] sessions have told Reuters that it is not unusual to see delegates showing visible signs of having imbibed heavily.

U.S. urges ban on drunk diplomats at UN budget debates, Reuters

Reserve First Use of Nukes for Hackers Along With Nuclear and Biochemical Weapon Attacks!

The United States should be prepared to use every military option, including nuclear retaliation, in response to a huge computer attack, an independent Department of Defense task force said.

… “It would have to be extreme,” Paul Kaminski, chair of the Science Board and a member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, said about the kind of attack that might trigger a nuclear response. “It would have to be the kind of attack that we would judge would be threatening our survival.”

Well, as long as it’s extreme.

Report: US Should Keep Nuke Option for Cyberattack, Andrew Conte, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Would Sanctions Drive Iran from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?

Enmity with Iran is deeply institutionalized in the US political system. This explains many lost opportunities to improve relations, as well as the swiftness with which Obama’s initial diplomatic failure was translated into a determination to sanction the Iranian economy into ruins. Given Obama’s unprecedented success on the sanctions front, it might just be too tempting to keep Iran on its knees until it capitulates or its regime changes. [But] Absent a way out of the current predicament, Iran has little to lose in withdrawing from the Treaty of Nuclear Non-Proliferation.

With Iran posed to be a regional player, US should find ways to repair relations, Tytti Erästö, Global Post

Be There or Be Square: the Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit

At this conference, like the previous ones, the most tedious aspect is the fundamentalist flavor of much of the discourse – the intense intellectual and psychological attachment and rehearsal of a nebulous and highly abstract construct. … Nuclear Deterrence. … It reminded me of Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy, or their evil twins. … The nuclear tooth fairy leaves billions of dollars under the pillow each and every year.

… This year, like other years, aging cold warriors are brought forth to lead the hosannas, renew the faith, recall the glory days when the enterprise was running on all eight cylinders (when it was as large and “important” as the U.S. automobile industry itself) and contribute their ideas as to how to keep faith alive in an age of doubt.

Reflections on the Deterrence Summit, Greg Mello, the Los Alamos Study Group

Ability of Nuclear Deterrence to Defuse Crises Exaggerated

Nuclear StatecraftWe may owe thanks for the absence of war (other than proxy) during the Long Peace — aka the Cold War — between the United States and the Soviet Union less to nuclear deterrence, as is commonly assumed, than to the “underlying politics.” That’s a thesis beginning to gain credibility which Francis J. Gavin presents as well as anyone (though I’ve just begun the book) in Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Cornell University Press, 2012).

Theories about nuclear weapons, he writes (my additions bracketed):

… were based on a certain view of the world: that the international system was no longer solely driven by geopolitical competition between the great states. While these drives still mattered, international relations were now shaped by the existence of and interaction between rival nuclear forces. The weapons themselves — their lethality, their numbers, their deployments — drove the politics, not the other way around. The interaction could produce outcomes — arms races, dangerous crises, and even inadvertent war — separate from the political sources of the rivalry. These theories implied that the most effective policy might not be focusing on the underlying political dispute between rivals but to control their [nuclear] weapons and their interactions. [In part, it] meant that mutual efforts had to be made to limit dangers and to negotiate, not about the core geopolitical issues driving the dispute, but control of the weapons themselves.

“This is an extraordinary way of viewing international relations,” Gavin continues. But, he asks, “does it accurately reflect the way the world works?” He then attempts to answer his own question. (Emphasis added.)

It is interesting to reflect on how rarely the ups and downs of the superpower geopolitical competition mirrored the movements of the arms race. The Soviets pushed the United States aggressively on the issue of West Germany’s military status by threatening West Berlin’s viability at a time when the USSR was not only weak but potentially open to a US first strike in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Soviets left West Berlin alone after 1962, even as the US nuclear superiority that arguably helped protect the city disappeared. Why? Because the core geopolitical questions surrounding West Germany’s military and political status were resolved, largely to the Soviet Union’s satisfaction. In fact, it is very hard to find any evidence that … the Soviets ever considered launching a “bolt from the blue” against the United States.

Ward Wilson also approached the failure of deterrence in the Berlin crisis of 1948. In his book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), about which we recently posted, he writes:

Historians debate whether the redeployment of [nuclear weapons-capable] B-29s to England successfully deterred the Soviets. But few ask how Stalin could have initiated the crisis in the first place. When he ordered access to Berlin cut off, the United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons. (the Soviet Union would not explode its first nuclear weapons for another year). Cutting off access to Berlin carried with it a significant risk of war. Where two large armed groups confront each other in a narrow space, there is always the possibility of accidental escalation. Or escalation could have been intentional. One of the options considered by Washington during the crisis was sending an armored column to force its way up the autobahn to Berlin. Given the risk of provoking a nuclear war and the U.S. nuclear monopoly, why wasn’t Stalin deterred from initiating the blockade? If the risk of nuclear war deters, why did Stalin start a crisis that could have led to the use of nuclear weapons against his country?

In other words, politics often proceed independently of considerations of the threat of a nuclear attacks. Meanwhile, far from lending clarity to international relations, nuclear deterrence just creates another obstacle and adds another layer of complexity to world peace.

Will the Next Pope Embrace Liberation Theology?

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

Will the next pope embrace liberation theology? The conventional answer would be: fat chance. However, without going too far out on a limb, one could also answer in the affirmative. In their own ways, both responses will likely be correct.

The chances that a true radical will be selected as Pope are next to nil. That’s because none are in the running. Technically, any baptized male Catholic can be elected to the post. But, in practice, the pope is selected from the church’s cardinals under the age of eighty. At this point, all the eligible cardinals were appointed to their positions either by Pope Benedict XVI or by Pope John Paul II. Both men vigilantly stacked the deck with cardinals whose views range, in the words of one religion professor, from conservative to ultraconservative.

Liberal theologian Hans Küng gives a harsh assessment of Benedict’s selection of Vatican personnel. “Under the German pope, a small, primarily Italian clique of yes-men, people with no sympathy for the calls to reform, were allowed to come into power,” Küng stated. “They are partly responsible for the stagnation that stifles every attempt at modernization of the church system.”

The most brilliant suggestion I’ve seen for a candidate who would decisively break with established traditions (and who would need to come from outside the current pool of cardinals) was penned by E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. In a recent column entitled, “The best choice for pope? A nun,” Dionne argued that “An all-male hierarchy adopted policies to cover up the [sex abuse scandal plaguing the church] and seemed far too inclined to put protecting the church’s image ahead of protecting children.” He added, “Throughout history, it’s not uncommon for women to be brought in to put right what men have put wrong.”

Since that’s not going to happen, we can at least hope for a church leader who recognizes and validates the critical social justice work carried out largely by nuns, rather than spending his time reprimanding women religious.

One of the candidates considered to be among the frontrunners in the papal conclave would appear, at first look, to fit that bill: Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. Not only would Turkson, as an African, break the European stranglehold on the papacy, he would come to the office straight from serving as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In this capacity, Turkson oversaw the release of a 2011 document that gave a fairly stinging critique of the international financial system. It blasted speculative trading, reiterated previous church warnings against “idolatry of the market,” and argued, “No one can in conscience accept the development of some countries to the detriment of others.” This is what has led some commentators to suggest that liberation theology may make a comeback if Turkson becomes pope.

But as Naunihal Singh explains at the New Yorker, Turkson has a strong conservative side. He is notably homophobic, even by church standards, having defended anti-gay legislation in Africa and having linked the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandals to cultures that are permissive of homosexuality (rather than to an internal institutional culture that prizes secrecy, hierarchy, and obedience). Turkson also caused a scandal last year by showing a fear-mongering and discredited anti-Muslim video to a meeting of church officials. The British Independent has dubbed the cardinal “Conservatism’s Cape crusader.”

While they may seem incongruous, Turkson’s seeming contradictions speak to a wider point: in order to understand the Vatican’s response to liberation theology, one must appreciate how individuals such as Turkson can be considered conservatives within the church and nevertheless produce statements strongly critical of neoliberal capitalism.

It is widely noted that, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the office of the Inquisition. There he earned the nickname “God’s Rottweiler,” leading the effort to silence creative and non-conformist voices within Catholicism. During Ratzinger’s tenure as doctrinal enforcer, the church is said to have officially rejected liberation theology.

But this is only true in part. The Vatican did object to liberation theologians’ use of Marxist sociological analysis, and it rejected their challenges to the centralized authority of Rome. Yet, at the same time, it affirmed many of the central doctrines of liberation theology, especially those relating to poverty, inequality, and economic justice. Most notably, the “preferential option for the poor,” the once-radical idea that God takes sides and identifies with the oppressed and impoverished, has been mainstreamed as Catholic theological doctrine.

To this extent, if not necessarily in the overall orientation of his ministry, the next pope is almost certain to carry forward the liberationist tradition.

Under each of the last two popes, the church has released statements about the global economy that take cues from liberation theology’s teachings. John Paul II condemned “the resurgence of a certain capitalist neoliberalism which subordinates the human person to blind market forces.” And it is worth remembering that Pope Benedict gave Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the founders and leading lights of liberation theology, a place of honor at anAsh Wednesday mass in 2007. Religion & Politics editor Tiffany Stanley notes that Ratzinger’s current replacement as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, German Archbishop Gerhard Müller, “is said to be sympathetic to liberation theology and even co-authored a book with Gutiérrez.”

Likewise, it’s fascinating to read the reflections of prominent Brazilian liberationist Leonardo Boff, who was famously silenced for a year in 1985 and who ultimately left the priesthood in 1992. Boff is critical of Benedict. But he was also on friendly terms with Ratzinger, and he cites occasions upon which the former cardinal referred favorably to his books.

As for the upcoming conclave, probably the best candidate one can hope for from the perspective of liberation theology is another Brazilian, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, the former archbishop of São Paulo. Hummes has shifted towards the center in recent decades and, like Turkson, has taken some controversial and reactionary stances (in his case, opposing the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Brazil). That said, he has significant progressive bona fides.

Preaching in working-class areas in and around São Paulo in the 1970s, Hummes supported Worker’s Party dissidents organizing against the country’s military junta. As Anna Flora Anderson of the Dominican School of Theology in São Paulo explained to the BBC in 2005: “The military would quickly shut down any union meeting. So one of the great things Claudio did was to open up the smaller churches [to activists]—so the unions could meet without interference.”

Hummes is a personal friend of former Brazilian president and Worker’s Party leader Lula da Silva. He has defended the land occupations of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra. And he has long been regarded as an ally of the grassroots “base communities” that put liberation theology into practice throughout Brazil. As the Washington Post reports, on his first day on the job as archbishop of São Paulo, in 1998, Hummes “attacked the spread of global capitalism, saying the privatization of state companies and the lowering of tariffs had contributed to the ‘misery and poverty affecting millions around the world.’”

Much more than the many yes-men in the conclave, Hummes would open the door for the revival of social justice ministry in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, you should only put your money on the Brazilian to become the next pope if you like betting on long shots. As of this writing, the odd-makers have him at 50-1.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising. You can follow Mark at his Facebook page.

Nuclear Weapons Have Outlived Their Usefulness — if They Ever Had Any

Five Myths About Nuclear WeaponsLong awaited by many of us in the arms control and disarmament communities, historian Ward Wilson’s book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January. It doesn’t fail to deliver. What at first seems like a short book soon becomes a distillate of years of the author’s thinking, to which the expansive footnotes and lengthy bibliography also attest.

Wilson is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. For years unaffiliated, though, with either academy or a foundation, his writing style can be characterized as plain speaking and congenial, accessible to the general public as well as policymakers, strategists, and historians.

Sixty-eight years after the Trinity test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, arms control moves in fits and starts and total disarmament is considered unrealistic — unattainable to its advocates, inadvisable to most. Meanwhile, those members of the public who aren’t too frightened by existential issues or too distracted to face them view global warming as more urgent than nuclear weapons. Others operate under the illusion that the end of the Cold War has diminished the nuclear threat to the point where we can live with it.

Besides, the primal logic of deterrence — discouraging an attack by your ability to respond — makes perfect sense to many. But, nuclear weapons may not lend themselves to deterrence as well as conventional thinking holds. In fact, the idea that “nuclear deterrence works in a crisis” is one of Wilson’s myths — as is even the proposition that they keep us safe.

Actually, deterrence is the second pillar of faith in nuclear weapons. The first was erected when their detonation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II supposedly forced Japan to surrender. It’s also the first myth that Wilson attempts to debunk: “Nuclear weapons shock and awe opponents.” For one cannot stand without the other. As he wrote in a 2008 article (The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence) for Nonproliferation Review that helped put him on the map as a nuclear-weapons historian: “The collapse of the Hiroshima case undermines one of the cornerstones of nuclear deterrence theory.”

Turns out, as Wilson writes in Five Myths, “Japan’s leaders consistently displayed a lack of interest in the [conventional] bombing that was wrecking their cities.” To them, it was the Russian invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island upon which the war hinged. With Russia also planning to invade Hokkaido, the northern-most of Japan’s islands, Japan realized it could not fight a war against both Russia and the United States-led Western powers. Wilson then turns the question around.

Proponents of nuclear weapons who claim that Japan was forced to surrender because of the bombing of Hiroshima face a difficult question: Why would Japan’s leaders have been motivated to act by an event that was not strategically decisive?

The main piece of evidence that Wilson uses to build his case against the efficacy of nuclear weapons is the Cuban missile crisis, about which you’ve no doubt already seen much revisionist history in commemoration of its fiftieth anniversary last year. Wilson, though, instead of concentrating on why our nukes didn’t deter Russia, focuses on why Russia’s nuclear threat didn’t deter President John Kennedy from blockading Cuba and demanding that nuclear missiles be removed from Cuba. “So why did,” Wilson asks, “nuclear deterrence fail? And why did Kennedy take steps that seem to meet [a] definition of reckless lunacy?” (Author’s emphasis.)

In still more picturesque language, he rephrases the question directly.

In the most dangerous nuclear crisis the world has ever known, one leader saw the nuclear deterrence stop sign, saw the horrifying image of nuclear war painted on it, and gunned through the intersection anyway.

In other words, fear of Russia’s nuclear weapons didn’t keep President Kennedy from putting the pedal to the metal. Wilson again:

One way that proponents of nuclear weapons explain Kennedy’s willingness to risk nuclear war is by arguing that U.S. nuclear superiority made the risk of nuclear war negligible.…But most of the senior participants and Kennedy himself said, either directly or indirectly, that nuclear superiority had had little to do with decisions made during the crisis.…by the late 1950s both sides had the ability to inflict significant damage in the event of a war, even after absorbing a nuclear strike.

Another approach that helped lend Wilson credibility early in his career was to forbear attacking nuclear weapons from the point of view of morality and, instead, hold them accountable on the basis of their actual usefulness as weapons.

The problem with nuclear weapons is that there is no way to concretely verify the claims that are made about their importance. There is really only one data point — Hiroshima — determining their cash basis. The danger is that we have overinflated their value by misinterpreting that one event.

Confident that he’d win, it’s as if Wilson agreed to cede the home-court advantage to the arrayed forces of national defense: “Body count aside, will nuclear weapons win wars?” (My words, not his.) More to the point, will bombing cities, known as area bombing in World War II, prove decisive in winning wars? Wilson writes:

People often talk about nuclear weapons’ ability to create destruction as if it were an accepted fact that destruction and military effectiveness are the same thing. But.…destruction does not win wars.

Among the instances he cites besides Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the siege of Stalingrad during which the Wehrmacht destroyed the city with bombing and artillery. Soviet soldiers clung to the ruins and eventually outlasted the German assault. Wilson concludes:

Destroying cities and killing civilians is large beside the point in terms of military strategy.

Each of the five myths transitions to the next. Wilson pulls this off exceptional gracefulness when, at the end of Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, he addresses the subject of the nuclear genie — the idea that nuclear know-how and technology can’t be un-developed, as it were, and stuffed back into the bottle. Connecting the circle, he writes that obsolescence will obtain when it’s shown that nuclear weapons are no longer viewed as useful in winning wars.

Reconciling Displaced Libyans and Their Neighbors

While this month marked the second anniversary since the start of Libya’s uprising, the country is still struggling with the ramifications of its upheaval and the difficulties of reconciliation following its violent conflict. Thousands of Libyans remain internally displaced by ethnic tensions unleashed by the revolution.

The city of Tawergha is perhaps the most poignant example of the exile many Libyans have experienced: it is now a veritable “ghost town,” its residents forced to take refuge elsewhere following the catastrophic battles between loyalist and rebel forces that occurred in the area. Tawergha’s estimated 30,000 to 40,000 displaced residents continue to be prevented from returning to their homes due to safety concerns. The few who have tried to return have supposedly been stopped by Misratan brigades who “threatened to kill them and burn the remains of their houses,” according to the Libya Herald.

Tawergha lies along the road between the central coastal city of Sirte—Muammar Gaddafi’s last stronghold and the city where he was both born and killed—and the northwestern city of Misrata, a rebel stronghold that rose up in rebellion in February 2011. As a result of its proximity, Tawergha was occupied by Gaddafi’s forces and used as a base for loyalist military operations against the neighboring Misrata.

Tension between the two cities remains high, as residents of both Tawergha and Misrata have experienced the fallout from the violent clashes between loyalist and rebel forces. Misratans accuse Tawerghans of siding with Gaddafi, participating in his military operations against Misrata, and committing war crimes such as rape and looting. There is also a racial element to this tension, since Tawerghans typically have noticeably darker skin, and many of Gaddafi’s forces were comprised of African mercenaries as well as Libyans.

The reprisal for Tawerghans was swift after Gaddafi’s fall, with Misratan forces launching a series of attacks on the city that Amnesty International characterized as ethnic cleansing. The town’s infrastructure is considerably damaged—even uninhabitable—as a result of the rebel capture of the town in August 2011, which precipitated widespread fires, gunfights, and NATO airstrikes. Tawergha was later looted and pillaged by anti-Gaddafi forces, and the green sign to the city has been vandalized with “Misrata” graffiti.

Libya’s Deputy Prime Minister Awad Barasi has recently announced plans to address these internally displaced citizens, meeting with ministers to discuss solutions to the problem. Without state support, there is little chance that reconciliation or lasting peace can be achieved between these displaced groups and their neighbors.

Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

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