Focal Points Blog

Corporate Accountability In Liberia Gets A Fresh Look

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s first woman president, has been praised internationally for her efforts to address war crimes from the country’s civil war and for negotiating significant debt relief, even winning the Noble Peace Prize as a result. However, a briefing held last Thursday by IPS’ Foreign Policy in Focus coinciding with Sirleaf’s recent visit to the United States drew attention to areas that Sirleaf has failed to adequately address. The event was well attended, with more people than could fit into our conference room.

Emira opening remarksDuring the briefing, two of Liberia’s most important civil society leaders discussed issues of land grabbing, corporate responsibility and worker rights in extractive industries. Alfred Brownell is an environmental justice lawyer with Green Advocates, a Liberian environmental justice advocacy organization. He noted that the level of foreign investment in Liberia is between 18 and 20 billion dollars, pointing out the dangers of relying so heavily on foreign investment when Liberia is still attempting to build its economic foundations in the wake of civil war. He also criticized continuing land grabs by foreign companies such as Sime Darby. While there has been some reimbursement for crops taken in these land grabs, the reimbursement is often far lower than the crops’ actual value. One difficulty that Liberians have faced is that often land claims are based on ancestral rights, and while the people know where their land’s boundaries are, they do not have deeds or leases to prove their ownership. When communities and environmental justice lawyer Brownell filed a complaint against Sime Darby on behalf of the local communities, Sirleaf told local communities and Brownell at a town hall meeting “When your government and the representatives sign any paper with a foreign country, the communities can’t change it. “You are trying to undermine your own government. You can’t do that. If you do so all the foreign investors coming to Liberia will close their businesses and leave, then Liberia will go back to the old days.”

Our two panelistsBrownell was followed by Edwin Cisco, General Secretary of the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL). Firestone is Liberia’s largest producer of rubber, the country’s biggest export, and as such has significant economic and political power. Cisco commended Sirleaf for opening space for workers to advocate for their rights as equals with Firestone, which has led to positive changes including occupational health and safety advances such as establishing a safety department and a community relations committee. The company was pressured into building schools and the plantation is also officially rid of child labor — however, this does not extend all the way through Firestone’s supply chain. Despite progress, as it stands, Liberia’s labor law is centered around Firestone’s needs. Currently, a Decent Work bill is before the National Legislature and would improve working conditions and provide minimum wage standards and overtime regulations. Cisco highlighted the importance of pushing this bill forward and expanding protections to other industries.

Maybe the richest part of the event was the dynamic Q & A that followed. U.S. labor union representatives showed up to give support and learn a thing or two from Edwin Cisco and the Firestone Agricultural Worker’s Union of Liberia’s incredible successes. Liberian-Americans working for human rights and the environment added their voices and shared their visions of a peaceful, just, and representative Liberian leadership. There was tension in the room as the Packed House and PowerPointdialogue shifted from celebrating Sirleaf, particularly her support of workers rights, to keeping her accountable after her appointment of her third son and Senior Adviser as the chairman of the National Oil Company of Liberia. This tension reminded us that searching for black and white solutions to complex problems may feel easier and more satisfying, but that it is the if’s, and’s, but’s and also’s that really serve to provide solutions. Can we celebrate Africa’s first elected woman head of state and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate while raising concern at her appointment of her son to one of the most lucrative and influential positions in the country? Yes. Can we appreciate Sirleaf’s willingness to create space for trade unionists to advocate for their rights, leading to safer working conditions and better schools, while remembering that under her rule massive land grabs are taking place? Yes. Can we celebrate and gain energy from the successes along the way without forgetting all of the work yet to be done? We certainly hope so.

Sudan on Verge of Bankruptcy — Militarily, Economically and Politically

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Amnesty International reports that ahead of a new round of protests against the government in Khartoum, activist Magdi Aqasha, the head of Sharara (Youth for Change), was arrested on the pretext of causing a traffic accident. Sudanese security agents, who used the accident as a pretext to take him in before Friday’s demonstrations begun, were reportedly tailing Aqasha.

Additionally, internet users in Sudan reported that Zain Mobile, one of Sudan’s largest cell phone providers, went down for two hours early on Friday morning, though state-owned media and other private outlets were apparently not affected. Though Zain Sudan’s services are now functioning, the blackout — and the censure of the Arabic-language news outlet Hurriyat Sudan plus three independent dailies — unnerved Sudanese activists and reporters, who expect the next few days to see further crackdowns on demonstrators protesting government austerity measures. There are also rumors that classes at the University of Khartoum and other schools will again be suspended, as they were last winter, as a result of the protests.

The crackdowns have been going on since June 16th, when students from the University of Khartoum took to the streets, supported by opposition parliamentarians in the Sudanese legislature. Protests have now spread across the country. Any demonstrations held on June 30th are expected to draw a large security presence because it is the anniversary of the coup that overthrew the government of PM Sadiq al-Mahdi. Sudan’s leader, then-Brigadier General Omar al-Bashir, led the coup and then appointed himself President in 1993. He has threatened the protestors with draconian measures if they do not disperse, and the students who have led the protests have reportedly been attacked by pro-regime gangs as well.

Human Rights Watch estimates that around 100 demonstrators are still being held without charge after hundreds were arrested over the course of the week and released. Student leaders and journalists1 have been particularly suspect by the security forces. Sudanese journalist Moez Ali tweets that Ahmed Ibrahim Mohammed, Secretary-General of the UMST (University Of Medical Sciences and Technology) Graduates Union was recently arrested, as was “citizen journalist” Usamah Mohammed, who had been covering the demonstrations up until last Friday and compiling “a collection of tips and technical information about the best ways to demonstrate in Sudan and deal with the suppression of the police.”

Though a nationwide telecommunications shutdown has not occurred, the regime is still thought to be manipulating the Internet to quash protests. Lisa Goldman notes that activists have been using Facebook and other websites to organize protests, and Evgeny Morozov has written that in the past, the Sudanese government has “cleverly mixed provocation and intimidation, by publicizing fake protests online and then arresting those who show up.” Some activists fear that police informants are trying to incite people on Twitter.

But despite al-Bashir’s curt, dismissive remarks — he has called those chanting the Arab Spring slogan “the people want to overthrow the regime” pie-in-the-sky “elbow lickers” — his actions evidence a deep sense of unease over the protests (for their part, organizers have taken his words and are calling the planned marches “Elbow-Licking Friday”). The loss of three-quarters of the country’s oilfields to South Sudan in 2011 — and a stalemate in negotiations between Khartoum and Juba over affecting (among other issues) a possible pipeline agreement that could ameliorate the loss of oil revenue — has undercut government spending significantly as inflation, fuel prices and food costs have all risen dramatically. Around 40% of Khartoum’s revenue comes from its oil fields, and the recent clash between Sudan and South Sudan over disputed territory is thought to have cost Khartoum some US$741 million this year.

On top of this, an arm of the southern liberation movement now governing in Juba continues to fight in the Juma Mountains and Blue Nile Province of Sudan, as do other armed groups in Darfur and the southwestern border areas. Khartoum is on the verge of bankruptcy — militarily, economically and politically, opines Eric Reeves at Muftah.org:

… although the regime has vaguely promised to cushion the blow of inflation for food purchases, there are simply no means available to halt the effects of inflation, even for food. A typical food basket that today costs what is deemed an exorbitant 30 Sudanese pounds could very soon cost 60 pounds; and any stabilizing (i.e., subsidizing) of this price at previous price levels (in non-inflated pounds) will then be twice as expensive and will create an even greater budget gap—and more inflation.

The National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) are likely to remain loyal to the end, but the army is potentially another story, especially given the evident rift between the most senior generals now exercising greatest political power in the regime, and the mid-level officer corps. The NIF/NCP ruthlessly purged the army on coming to power in 1989, and effectively destroyed it as an institution in the Egyptian mold. The army has never regained a true esprit de corps, and disaffected officers up to the rank of colonel may soon refuse to obey orders to use violence against protesting civilians.

Sudan is not on the verge of state collapse, Reeves believes. But the economy shows little sign of improving absent an end to fuel subsidies (the governing party’s MPs already struck down attempts to do so) or a pipeline deal with South Sudan: Sudanese economist Yousif Elmahdi even goes to far as to call the country a failed state.

None of this month’s events bodes well for the government, especially if violence escalates and it finds itself confronting major demonstrations all over the country.

1Foreign reporters are also being made to feel unwelcome: Egyptian Bloomberg correspondent Salma El-Wardany was interrogated and then deported from the country this week as a result of her coverage of the demonstrations.

What Have These Ultra-Orthodox Jews Got Against Honoring Holocaust Victims?

Neturei KartaHave you ever felt you knew less about a news item after you read an article about it? That’s the state in which an article at Haaretz by Oz Rosenberg and Chaim Levenson on June 26 left us. It was bedecked with a title that was puzzling as it was provocative: Three ultra-Orthodox men arrested for vandalizing Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

As if that wasn’t enough cognitive dissonance, the reporters explained that the three suspects (ages 18, 26, and 27) were not only accused of vandalizing the memorial as well as another in April (Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill memorial site), but their vandalism took the form of anti-Zionist slogans. It’s strange enough for ultra-Orthodox Jews to be vandalizing Holocaust memorials, but anti-Zionist, too?

Working backward, since when do ultra-Orthodox Jews (haredim) stand in opposition to the Jewish state? Since 1938, it turns out, if they’re part of Neturei Karta. Members of this sect walk like haredim and they talk like haredim, but, according to Neturei Karta International, their view of the Jewish state stands in stark contrast with most haredim.

Neturei Karta followers do not participate in “Israeli” elections nor do they accept any aid from “Bituach Le’Umi” (Social Security), and the educational institutions of the Neturei Karta reject any form of financial support from the [Department of Education].

In fact

Neturei Karta oppose the so-called “State of Israel” not because it operates secularly, but because the entire concept of a sovereign Jewish state is contrary to Jewish Law [and] in direct conflict with a number of Judaism’s fundamentals. … The Talmud … teaches that Jews shall not use human force to bring about the establishment of a Jewish state before the coming of the universally accepted Moshiach [Messiah].

Furthermore, they believe:

Jews are not allowed to dominate, kill, harm or demean another people and [they are] against dispossessing the Arabs of their land and homes. According to the Torah, the land should be returned to them.

Returning to the Haaretz piece:

At least 10 slogans were found on the walls outside the museum, with slogans such as: “Hitler, thank you for the Holocaust”, “If Hitler did not exist, the Zionists would have invented him”, and “Zionists! You declared war on Hitler in the name of the Jewish people, you brought upon the Holocaust.”

In fairness, presumably these young men were “rogue” Neturei Karta. Though Googling the phrases “Neturei Karta condemn Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial vandalism” and “Neturei Karta condemn Ammunition Hill memorial vandalism” returns nothing relevant. Why do they invoke Hitler?

After reading the quotes over a couple of times (okay, about ten), I finally began to appreciate their sense of irony. The first two quotes are meant to be read from the perspective of Zionists who are supposedly in debt to Hitler because the Holocaust helped them justify the creation of the Jewish state. The third is some variation on that which I was unable to grasp; we’ll return to it. Anyway they seem like the extreme end of those who — foremost among them Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry — charge Israel with using the Holocaust to win sympathy and justify its aggression and oppression.

A friend who’s a veteran Israel watcher agrees and notes that “it’s really interesting what they’ve done.”

In rightwing, Zionist discourse, “Hitler” lives, if only as a figure to use to justify negative treatment of the Palestinians.

But, he adds:

The Arab world, in [Zionist] worldview, is ideologically consistent with that of Hitlerian fascism, and its genocidal politics. Therefore Zionism continues to make war on Hitler and Nazism. [For the young men, it's] a sarcastic way of criticizing Bibi and his ilk, but irony is important to Jewish politics.

Regarding the third quote — “Zionists! You declared war on Hitler in the name of the Jewish people, you brought upon the Holocaust.” — he writes:

Aside from it being a possible criticism of how mired in the 20th century the present government and its supporters are, it’s also a potential double entendre, if you take Bibi’s sabre rattling against Iran seriously. Any attack by Israel on Iran will result in massive civilian casualties in Israel, as well.

Substitute President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khameini for Hitler. Thus war with Iran

…may not be another Holocaust, but Israel has never suffered any substantial civilian casualties as a consequence of its military engagements, of that kind. This government risks that with its positioning on Iran. Therefore you could read the “responsibility for the Holocaust” rhetoric as though it were a warning. It would not be out of place.

What’s ironic about it is that they’re attributing responsibility for the rise of a new fascism and a new holocaust to Bibi, by placing him in the past. [Emphasis added.]

On the surface, Neturei Karta bear a certain resemblance to Reverend Fred Phelps and his Westboro (Kansas) Baptist Church members protesting at the funerals of war veterans with signs bearing slogans such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” But Neturei Karta deserves respect for its condemnation of Israeli oppression of Palestine.

Egyptian Revolution Frozen in Its Tracks

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

In the past, when he ruled Egypt with an iron hand with ample U.S. encouragement, support and financing, Hosni Mubarak repeatedly used the Islamic fundamentalist threat as blackmail against the Egyptian people, suggesting they only had two choices – either Mubarak or ‘the people of the book’ – Shari’a. Mubarak put himself forth as the lesser of two evils. He might have been authoritarian and corrupt as hell, but at least didn’t spout the politics of seventh century Islam. This played well enough in both Washington and Tel Aviv.

A year and a half after the Tahir Square uprising, the Egyptian military, the main source of political power in the country for the past sixty years, used its considerable power to offer the Egyptian people the same electoral non-choices they have had in the past. After all was said and done, these recent Egyptian elections mirrored the past: a Mubarak clone facing off against a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood’ all other choices – including the possibility of far reaching economic and political change – were ruled out.

This resulted in the election of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, to the presidency. With Morsi’s main opposition being the country’s former prime minister under Mubarak, Ahmed Shafik, Egyptians didn’t have much of a choice. All the other possible candidates, including some connected to the Tahrir Square uprising, were eliminated early on.

The Egyptian election results in many ways mirrored those for the Constituent Assembly in Tunisia where a supposedly ‘moderate’ Islamic Party, Ennahda, rode the path to electoral power on a combination of its own genuine suffering during the Ben Ali years and the promise of the ‘new face’ (more democratic) of their brand of political Islam. But most of all the Ennahda victory was a rejection of everything Ben Ali stood for and anyone even distantly associated with the old order got trounced in those elections, including some secular elements that had flirted, not very effectively, with nudging Ben Ali left.

So it was in Egypt.

If, given the narrow almost non-choices between a Muslim Brotherhood – with its long and enduring relationship with Saudi Wahhabism on the one hand and a carbon copy of Mubarak’s neo-liberal authoritarianism (who could be closer to the now disgraced Egyptian strongman than his former prime minister?) on the other, the Egyptian people, hoping for at least a minimal amount of change, rejected Mubarak and, given no other option, chose the Brotherhood candidate. There were reports that, had Ahmad Shafik won, angry riots would have erupted throughout the country. This just might have had something to do with the announced result.

From a distance, it appears that the military would have preferred a victory for the Mubarak man, Ahmed Shafik; this would have meant the smoothest and most predictable transition for them in the post Mubarek era. But Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Military Council that took power after Hosni Mubarak stepped down, knows that accommodation with Mohammed Morsi and the Brotherhood, is possible. The ‘Algerian Option’ ruled out, Egypt’s Military Council accepted – it seems after consultation with the usual international suspects – the Morsi-Muslim Brotherhood victory.

This is not much of a gamble on the Egyptian military’s part.

The military and an Islamic party co-exist – somewhat uneasily, but still – in Turkey, the country whose political history parallels that of Egypt in certain ways. Ennahda appears to be consolidating its hold in Tunisia. If Mubarak’s secularism stands in stark contrast to the Brotherhood’s Islamicism culturally, politically, their differences narrow considerably. Not to worry about a Brotherhood-led government moving to the left economically or strategically! Economically the new government will probably be even more open to World Bank and IMF structural adjustment like programs, privatization, opening Egypt to foreign economic control than in the past. As these economic policies were an essential part of the mix triggering the Egyptian rebellion in the first place, their intensification does not bode well for the country in the long run.

At the same time, expect few to no changes in Egyptian strategic policy. As it has since the 1979 Camp David Accords, the new Egyptian government will stay – albeit with a few symbolic gestures of little import towards Israel – within the U.S.-NATO strategic orbit. The slight breathing space given to Palestinians in Gaza will be the extent of the shift in their policy towards Israel.

Those Zionists in the U.S. and Israel, anxious at the prospect that the Camp David Accords will be abrogated, can breathe more easily. Won’t happen. And watch as Egypt, along with Tunisia, cooperates with the United States in Libya, Syria as they are re-integrated into the anti-Iranian alliance which drives U.S. and Israeli Middle East policy at present.

For the moment, the Egyptian Revolution is frozen in its tracks, its ruling class recovered and regrouped from the national uprising, its social activists arrested and tortured by the military, more than even in the past, its domestic and foreign policy frozen in old models. But this is not the end of the Egyptian Revolution, instead, it is just the beginning. Nasser’s shadow cannot be so easily snuffed out.

Turkish F-4 Activated Syrian Radar to Scope Out Blind Spots

Downed Turkish F-4.

Downed Turkish F-4.

What was that Turkish F-4 Phantom II up to when the Syrians shot it down?

Ankara said the plane strayed into Syrian airspace, but quickly left and was over international waters when it was attacked, a simple case of carelessness on the part of the Turkish pilot that Syrian paranoia turned deadly.

But the Phantom—eyewitnesses told Turkish television that there were two aircraft, but there is no official confirmation of that observation—was hardly on a Sunday outing. According to the Financial Times, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told the newspaper “the jet was on a test and training mission focused on Turkey’s radar defense, rather than Syria.”

Translation: the F-4 was “lighting up” a radar net. It is a common—if dangerous and illegal—tactic that allows one to probe an opponent’s radar system. Most combat radar is kept in a passive mode to prevent a potential enemy from mapping out weaknesses or blind spots that can be useful in the advent of an attack. The probes also give you valuable information on how to neutralize anti-aircraft guns and ground to air missiles.

“Lighting up” radar was what the US Navy EP-3E Aries II was doing near China’s Hainan Island when it collided with a Chinese interceptor in 2001. Nations normally take a very dim view of warplanes entering their air space, particularly if there is tension between the countries involved.

As a warplane, the F-4 is a pretty ancient. It was introduced back in 1960, and became the mainstay of the U.S. air war in Southeast Asia. In its day it was a highly capable aircraft, able to hold its own against interceptors like the MIG-21 in a dogfight, and could also carry heavy bomb payloads. It was also cheap and relatively trouble free, unlike the current crop of US high performance aircraft.

It is doubtful that Syria identified exactly what the Turkish plane was, just that an unidentified warplane, flying low—generally the altitude one takes when trying to avoid radar—was in Syrian airspace. Paranoia? In 2007 Israeli warplanes—US-made F-16s, not Phantoms—slipped through Syria’s radar net and bombed a suspected nuclear reactor.

Even if Syria identified the plane as a Phantom, they could have taken it for an Israeli craft. Israel was the number-one foreign user of F-4s, although they retired them in 2004. Indeed, the Turkish Phantom might even have begun life as an Israeli warplane.

If the Syrians are on hair-trigger alert, one can hardly blame them. The US, the European Union (EU), and NATO openly admit they are gunning to bring down the Assad regime. Turkey is actively aiding the Free Syrian Army to organize cross-border raids into Syria, and it is helping Saudi Arabia and Qatar supply arms and ammunition to the rebels.

For Turkey to send a warplane into Syrian airspace—or even near the Syrian border—on a radar-mapping expedition at this moment was either remarkably provocative or stone stupid. The explanation could be more sinister, however.

NATO has established a command and control center in Iskenderun, Turkey, near the Syrian border, that is training and organizing the Free Syrian Army. It surely has a sophisticated setup for tapping into Syrian electronic transmissions and, of course, radar networks. If NATO eventually decides to directly intervene in Syria, the alliance will need those electronic maps. NATO aircraft easily overwhelmed Libya’s anti-aircraft systems, but Syria’s are considerably more sophisticated and dangerous.

There are a number of things about the incident that have yet to be explained. Turkey says the F-4 was 13 nautical miles from Syria when it was attacked—which would put it in international waters—but it crashed in Syrian waters. Damascus claims the plane came down less than a mile from the Syrian coast.

Turkey says one of its search planes was shot at as well—the Syrians deny this—and has called for a meeting of its NATO allies. So far, Ankara is only talking about invoking Article Four of the NATO treaty, not Article Five. Four allows for “consultations”; Five would open up the possibility of an armed response.

A thorough investigation of the incident seems in order, although Turkey’s Davutoglu says, “No matter how the downed Turkish jet saga unfolds…we will always stand by the Syrian people until the advent of a democratic regime there.” In short, regardless of what happened, Turkey will continue to pursue regime change in Damascus.

The Assad regime’s heavy-handed approach to its opponents played a major role in sparking the current uprising, but the default position of regime change by the EU and NATO has turned this into a fight to the death. Assad is broadly unpopular, but not universally so, and the support of the regime is not limited to his own Islamic sect, the Alawites, or other minorities, like the Christians.

Nor is all of the opposition a paragon of democratic freethinking. The heavy role played by Saudi Arabia and Qatar in supplying arms and money to the rebels, means the deeply conservative Salafist sect of Islam has a major presence in the resistance. This is exactly how the Afghan mujahedeen mutated into the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The demand for regime change by the US, the EU, and NATO torpedoed the United Nations effort for a diplomatic solution. The Assad regime had no stake in a peaceful resolution, since it would mean its ouster in any case. And the opposition knew it need not respect a ceasefire, since everyone who supports them supports regime change.

It was into this situation that Turkey flew an F-4 Phantom through Syrian airspace. Exactly what did Ankara think Syria would do? On the other hand, maybe it knew exactly what Syria would do.

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.

Heavy Grows Israel’s Finger on the Trigger

P5 +1, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, and Iran failed to secure a breakthrough at the third round of talks in Moscow last week. Meanwhile, Israel’s trigger finger remains itchy. On May 17 Michael Stott of Reuters reported:

“I think they’ve gone into lockdown mode now,” the senior Western diplomat said. “Whatever happens next, whatever they decide, we will not find out until it happens.” …

“I think they have made a decision to attack,” said one senior Israeli figure with close ties to the leadership. “It is going to happen. The window of opportunity is before the U.S. presidential election in November. This way they will bounce the Americans into supporting them.”

Also, on June 22 at Christian Science Monitor, Scott Peterson reported the comments of Sergei Markov, a Kremlin adviser, who said:

… the talks need a “more clear advance and quicker developments” if they are to forestall a conflict [and] there is a “quite high” chance of an Israeli attack on Iran in July or August – just months before the US presidential election in November.

Why exactly does Israel see the American elections as, at best, a window of opportunity, or, at worst, a deadline for mounting an aerial attack on Iran?

Part of the reason, according to Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic in May, is that when Netanyahu solidified his coalition, he dodged his own election this September and, with all parties on board, is able to proceed.

A month earlier, at Slate, Fred Kaplan wrote:

In fact, if the Israelis really are intent on attacking the Iranian nuclear facilities, they’re likely to do so before this November’s American presidential elections. If they started an attack and needed U.S. firepower to help them complete the task, Barack Obama might open himself up to perilous political attacks—for being indecisive, weak, appeasing, anti-Israel, you name it—if he didn’t follow through. It could cost him the votes of crucial constituencies. If the Israelis tried to pressure the United States into joining an attack after the election, Obama would have … more flexibility [about whether or not to attack].

Many are tired of hearing the charge that Israel, or more to the point, its American supporters (read: campaign contributors) “drive” U.S. foreign policy. But, after three rounds of P5+1 talks with Iran, one can be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that the United States has lost sight of its own goals toward Iran because of the overriding imperative to arrive at an agreement that will keep Israel from attacking Iran.

One can’t help but wonder what U.S. policy toward Iran would look like shorn of the need of preventing that from happening, as well as the perceived need of presenting a front toward Iran that’s sufficiently bellicose for Israel’s Americans supporters.

Iran Nuclear Standoff: What Israel Has Wrought

Kenneth Waltz, the noted international relations scholar, wrote an article for the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, titled “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb” (behind a pay wall).* Not “We Can Live With an Iranian Bomb,” but an actual declaration that “it would probably be the best possible result” of the “current standoff” — the “one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East,” in fact.

Before proceeding, this author feels compelled to state that he has no confidence whatsoever in the thesis that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. It seems to have ended its program since 2003 and any design work since has been negligible. Meanwhile, its enrichment of uranium is, in large part, intended to serve as a bargaining chip with the West. Those who see this as signs it’s developing nukes are not only disingenuous but demonstrating willful ignorance for the purpose of inducing regime change in Iran. That said, here’s why Waltz thinks an Iranian bomb would “restore stability to the Middle East.

Iran’s regional nuclear monopoly, which has proved remarkably durable for the past four decades, has long fueled instability in the Middle East. In no other region of the world does a lone, unchecked nuclear state exist. It is Israel’s nuclear arsenal, not Iran’s desire for one, that has contributed most to the current crisis. Power, after all, begs to be balanced. What is surprising about the Israeli case is that it has taken so long for a potential balancer to emerge.

Of course, it is easy to understand why Israel wants to remain the sole nuclear power in the region and why it is willing to use force to secure that status. In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq to prevent a challenge to its nuclear monopoly. It did the same to Syria in 2007 and is now considering similar action against Iran. But the very acts that have allowed Israel to maintain its nuclear edge in the short term have prolonged an imbalance that is unsustainable in the long term. Israel’s proven ability to strike potential nuclear rivals with impunity has inevitably made its enemies anxious to develop the means to prevent Israel from doing so again. In this way, the current tensions are best viewed not as the early stages of a relatively recent Iranian nuclear crisis but rather as the final stages of a decades-long Middle East nuclear crisis that will end only when a balance of military power is restored.

In other words, Israel’s development of nuclear weapons, as well as its failure to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or even acknowledge the program, has long been an “i” waiting to be dotted. Proliferation, however, is not the answer to proliferation. I’d say that Waltz, despite his exalted status, undermines his credibility when he closes with this statement:

… policymakers and citizens in the Arab world, Europe, Israel, and the united States should take comfort from the fact that history has shown that where nuclear capabilities emerge, so, too, does stability.

But Waltz has long claimed that, as he states in the closing line of the Foreign Affairs article “When it comes to nuclear weapons, now as ever, more may be better.”

If the only sure way to make a state respect another’s sovereignty is to risk blowing both off the face of the earth, that’s a pretty sad commentary on not only international relations, but humanity itself.

*Thanks to Focal Pointer Michael Busch for bringing it to my attention.

As Talks Fail Media Mounts a Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Facilities

Cross-posted from There Will Be War.

The recently wrapped up Moscow talks between the P5+1 (the five U.N. Security Council members plus Germany) and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, the second round after those held Baghdad in late May, have failed to bear fruit. To play the blame game and castigate just one side would be an exercise in schoolyard oversimplification.

In the end, it seems Iranian negotiators could not entertain a strict demand to “stop, shut and ship”—stop enriching, shut down the Fordow site and ship out their load of 19.75 percent uranium. Not a shock that they balked: this is basically telling a proud nation it has no right to an independent nuclear program, that it should dismantle years of hard, complicated work and toss hundreds of millions of rials into the Gulf. Meanwhile Iranian promises of a fatwa against nuclear weapons, of full cooperation with the IAEA, and of low-grade enrichment limits—should sanctions be relaxed—did little to assuage the U.S. and its cohorts. Rightly so: Why would the Western nations trust an antagonistic, power-hungry regime who will say or do anything to improve its chances at regional hegemony? Indeed, much has been written about how both sides have overplayed their hands, feeling they have the leverage to walk away from the negotiating table.

This breakdown means we must prepare for the return of an endless onslaught of articles baldly assuming an imminent military strike on Iran’s enrichment facilities, similar to those we saw on cover stories through January and February. We will see not only straight-up calls for a pre-emptive attack but articles like those in The New York Times that correctly caught flak for their subtle allusions to Iran’s nuclear arsenal, which doesn’t exist. Back then, the eager calls by war hawks in the U.S. and Israel to bomb Iran backfired, even as scare tactic, by prompting numerous Israeli military and Mossad vets to denounce the plan as nothing short of stupid.

Fast forward to June: Even before the negotiations officially ended, the calls for strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities were coming in loud as well as insidious.

Jumping the gun and surprising no one was The Weekly Standard’s Jamie Fly and Will Kristol. Though the bulk of their advice amounted to “Isn’t it time for the president to ask Congress for Authorization for Use of Military Force against Iran’s nuclear program,” the buildup to this gem was meant to manipulate the uninformed. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion but using a 1936 Winston Churchill speech to make the implicit/explicit connection of Iran to Nazi Germany is tired, cliched and wrong. Points awarded for not referencing the classic warmonger Chamberlain-Munich-1938 catch-all (which was probably considered) though I predict this will be regurgitated ad nauseam soon.

The merits of this Authorization to threaten Iran with ordnance are debatable but Kristol et al come at it from the specious, hackneyed litany of complaints of Iran’s “record of murder and mayhem,” including all its foiled assassinations and of course the plot to “kill the Saudi ambassador (and American bystanders)” in Washington. According to the U.N.’s take on the matter, “the resolution, which was introduced by Saudi Arabia, doesn’t directly accuse Iran of involvement but calls on the country ‘to comply with all of its obligations under international law’ and to cooperate in ‘seeking to bring to justice’ the people who allegedly plotted to kill the envoy.” Not to mention the two-way street comparison in this scenario: The cyber-attacks, sabotage and murders by U.S. and Israeli intelligence aimed at stalling Tehran’s nuclear progress actually worked. I won’t get into the slew of arguments (e.g. Iran has never attacked another country) against Fly and Kristol’s junior high analysis of super villain Iran.

An example of the less straightforward “imminent war” insinuation came Thursday from Reuters in Jerusalem: “Israel Says Clock Ticking After Iran Talks Fail.” Can you feel the doomsday chill yet? How about:

Israel has responded to the failure of the latest nuclear talks between world powers and Iran with a familiar refrain: sanctions must be ramped up while the clock ticks down toward possible military action.

This provocative lede, upon further reading, is misleading, as the third paragraph relays: “Defense Minister Ehud Barak stuck closely to his stated line, without offering any new sense of urgency, when asked by the Washington Post how much more time Israel can allow for diplomacy to work.” (Emphasis added)

Note the journos’ habit of asking questions designed to get juiced-up headlines about when we can expect the war to start. No one has brought up military action except the reporter/writer/editor of the story. Read till the end and the piece balances out somewhat but, unfortunately, Reuters is picked up by tons of blurb driven news sites like Yahoo! where the audience isn’t expected to read on. Headlines and ledes are all we have time for these days.

The Washington Post stoked its own fears with the headline “Faltering Iran talks stoke fears of new conflict.” Even with a day of talks left, the questionable lede was concocted to spook us:

The near-collapse of nuclear talks with Iran has ushered in what experts on Wednesday described as a dangerous new phase in the decade-long standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.

What experts end up describing are potential actions resulting from the sanctions due to hit Iran on July 1, taking us down the slippery hypothetical path of what Iran could do if these sanctions have a particularly nasty effect: “Worsening economic hardship could drive Iran’s leaders to adopt more aggressive and confrontational policies.” Not quite as scary as the dangerous new phase we’ve already entered into.

The third sentence in the piece also particularly troublesome: “At the same time, prominent Israeli and U.S. politicians are renewing calls for preparations for a military strike to halt Iran’s nuclear progress.”

While a specific example is provided of a U.S. Republican senator calling for the Pentagon to prepare bunker-busting bombs, not one Israeli politician is mentioned, even off the record and anonymous. And of course, reserved for the very last line in the piece, apparently offered as a token to balance the story, is a Democratic Congressman calling on his right-of-the-aisle brothers to take a deep breath and calm down.

Nitpicky you say? Try this lede from the June 21 Wall Street Journal:

Tel Aviv – Israel is unlikely to launch a strike on Iran as long as sanctions on Tehran intensify and diplomatic efforts continue, despite the failure of international talk… Israeli officials and security experts say.

Given all the pre-emptive strike hullabaloo we’ve heard for the last two years, isn’t this the real story? That Israel is not shouting about how their window to attack is closing. Instead of America and Israel gearing up for a jet-fighter strike, the Journal piece talks about the breakdown in talks as the impetus that has “fueled talk of military options.” Illustrating how a story can be written to show the realistic thinking of those in power, it goes on to quote officials on the record and describe high-level discussions on how the U.S. could better use the threat of attack as a bargaining chip. Note: In no way could this be taken to mean an attack is imminent or unavoidable.

Alas, the Wall Street headline still reads: “Strike on Iran Stays on Hold, FOR NOW.” (Emphasis added)

And this is only the beginning.

Michael Quiñones’ latest project, a fizzy look at foreign policy predictions, launches in July 2012 at There Will Be War.

Syrian Regime Hastening Its Own Demise

The New York Times reports on the Turkish F4 fighter plane (upgraded by Israel). Though

Turkey says the airplane was over international waters when it was shot down after straying briefly into Syrian airspace. [Syrian spokesman, Jihad Makdissi said] “We had to react immediately. … Even if the plane was Syrian we would have shot it down.”

Yeah, right. That makes it okay.

Mr. Makdissi’s comments came a day before emergency talks at NATO headquarters in Brussels over the episode. … Referring to the NATO gathering, Mr. Makdissi said that “if the goal of that meeting is aggression, we say that Syrian airspace, territory and waters are sacred.”

Something missing here … oh, its people. Guess they’re profane to President Assad. Not to mention disposable.

South America Responds to Coup in Paraguay

Cross-posted with permission from the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the Guardian.

A coup is taking place right now – June 22 – in Paraguay. That is how it has been described by a number of neighboring governments. And the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) is treating it as such – and taking it very seriously. All 12 foreign ministers (including those of Brazil and Argentina, who are deeply concerned) flew to Asunción last night to meet with the government as well as the opposition in Paraguay’s Congress.

The Congress of Paraguay ousted the President, Fernando Lugo – in an impeachment proceeding in which he was given less than 24 hours to prepare and only two hours to present a defense. It would be impossible to call this due process under any circumstances, but it is also a clear violation of Article 17 of Paraguay’s constitution, which provides for the right to an adequate defense.

The politics of the situation are pretty clear. Paraguay was controlled for 61 years by the right-wing Colorado Party. For most of this time (1947-1989) it was a dictatorship. Lugo, a former Catholic Bishop from the tradition of liberation theology who had fought for the rights of the poor, was elected in 2008 but did not win much of the Congress. He put together a coalition government but the right – including the media – never really accepted his presidency.

I met Fernando Lugo in early 2009 and was impressed with his patience and long-term strategy. He said that given the strength of the institutions aligned against him, he did not expect to gain all that much in the present; he was fighting so that the next generation could have a better life. But his opposition was ruthless. In November of 2009 he had to fire his top military officers because of credible reports that they were conspiring with the political opposition.

The main trigger for the impeachment is an armed clash between peasants fighting for land rights with police, which left at least 17 dead, including 7 police. The land in dispute was claimed by the landless workers to have been illegally obtained by a Colorado Party politician. But this is obviously just a pretext, as it is clear that the President had no responsibility for what happened – and Lugo’s opponents have not presented any evidence for their charges in today’s “trial.” President Lugo proposed an investigation to find out what happened in the incident; but the opposition was not interested – they wanted to shoot first and ask questions later.

Lugo’s election was one of many – Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador – in which left governments were elected over the past 14 years, changing the political geography of the hemisphere, and especially in South America. With that came increasing political unity on regional issues – and especially in confronting the United States, which had previously prevented left governments from coming to power or governing.

So it is not surprising to see the immediate and urgent response by South America to this coup attempt, which they see as a threat to their democracies. UNASUR Secretary General Ali Rodriguez insisted Lugo must be given “due process” and the right to defend himself. President Rafael Correa said that UNASUR could refuse to recognize the next government – in accordance with a democracy clause in UNASUR’s charter.

Correa was also one of the staunchest opponents of the coup three years ago in Honduras, which ousted democratic left President Mel Zelaya. Honduras continues to suffer from extreme violence, including the murder of journalists and political opponents, under the regime that was established under the coup.

The Honduras coup was a turning point for relations between the U.S. and Latin America, as governments including Brazil and Argentina, which had previously hoped that President Obama would depart from the policies of his predecessor, were rudely disappointed. The Obama administration made conflicting statements about the coup, and then – in opposition to the rest of the hemisphere – did everything that it could to make sure that the coup succeeded. This included blocking efforts by South America, within the OAS, to restore democracy in Honduras. At the latest Summit of the Americas, Obama – in contrast to the Summit of early 2009 – was as isolated as was George W. Bush.

The Obama administration has responded to the current crisis in Paraguay with a statement in support of due process. Perhaps they have learned something from Honduras and will not actively oppose efforts by South America to support democracy this time. And certainly South America will not allow Washington to hijack any mediation process, if there is one, as Hillary Clinton did with the OAS in Honduras. But Washington can still play its traditional role by assuring the opposition that the new government will have support, including financial and military, from Washington. We will see what happens.

It remains to be seen what more UNASUR will do to oppose the right-wing coup in Paraguay. It is certainly understandable that they see it as a threat to regional democracy and stability.

(Updated to reflect actual occurrence of the coup.)

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.

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