Focal Points Blog

April 17: Global Day of Reckoning

Cross-posted from OpEdNews.

On Tuesday, April 17, the International Peace Bureau and the Institute for Policy Studies will kick off its second annual “Global Day of Action on Military Spending.” The event seeks to bring public, political, and media attention to the rising costs of military spending and the folly of war. It also aims to stress the dire need to realign our priorities to address the crises impacting our troubled world.

The annual occasion coincides with the release of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) new annual figures on military expenditures. In 2010 alone, global military spending rose to an all-time high of $1.63 trillion. Organizers of the event are calling for a united focus on “human lives and needs” and new direction in tackling the scourges of poverty, hunger, lack of education, poor health care and environmental issues that threaten the planet.

In America, the Global Day of Action should also be a day when politicians are forced to obey the will of the people. On that day vast constituencies of conscientious Americans ought to send a message to war hungry political candidates and a Congress stubbornly intent on slashing America’s safety nets for the poor and disadvantaged while refusing to trim a military budget gone drastically awry.

According to researchers at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will eventually cost Americans between $3.2 and $4 trillion. That amount — according to several anti-war organizations — is more than enough to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, fully fund a national health care plan, provide free college education to all high school graduates and completely fund a nationwide renewable energy program.

Even though the primary factor that led to the nation’s current deficit dilemma was war spending, bull-headed politicians astonishingly declare they will initiate yet another deadly military adventure in Iran if necessary.

If all other strategies fail, GOP presidential nominee hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich said they’d be willing to go to war to keep Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. Ron Paul, who definitely won’t be the GOP nominee, was the only candidate who voiced a common sense retort to war rhetoric: “I’m afraid what’s going on right now is similar to the war propaganda that went on against Iraq,” Paul said.

President Barack Obama also challenged candidates who expressed a need for the U.S. to harden its position against Iran: “When I see the casualness with which those folks talk about war, I am reminded of the costs involved in war,” Obama said. It’s not the candidates “popping off” about war who will make sacrifices, Obama added, “it’s these incredible men and women in uniform and their families who pay the price.”

Not only are political candidates and mostly right-leaning legislators ignoring Paul and Obama, they continue to disregard the wishes of the American people. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released in March, the majority of Americans prefer cutting defense spending to reduce the federal deficit rather than taking money from public retirement and health programs. The polling data indicates that 51 percent of Americans support reducing defense spending and only 28 percent want to cut entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid for the elderly and poor.

Romney, the candidate most likely to challenge Obama in the 2012 elections, has introduced a plan that’s 60 percent higher than the $525 billion Obama proposed in his FY 2011 defense budget, according to the Cato Institute .

Since the so-called “Super Committee” failed to produce a debt reduction plan, $1.2 trillion in across-the-board defense and non-defense cuts are supposed to kick in automatically. Some Republican lawmakers, like Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who sat on the super committee, vow to fight military spending cuts. The “off limits” approach is unacceptable, said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who insists deficit-reduction efforts include more military cuts: “Under an all-of-the-above approach, the Pentagon should not be treated as off limits,” Schumer said. “There is waste in defense just like there is waste in the rest of the discretionary budget.”

The military industrial complex is a powerful force supported by war barons and private-sector monopolies dependent on the production of weaponry and exorbitantly-paid privatized security forces to maintain the messes they create. Politicians have turned a deaf ear to the will of the people and are perfectly content with bartering new jobs and the safety of elderly and impoverished Americans in order to protect and increase an already out-of-control military spending budget.

The Global Day of Action on Military Spending is the appropriate time to refute the “propaganda” Paul mentioned and beat back the callous drumbeat of war and more wars. April 17 should be the day we collectively stir the nation’s consciousness and direct its attention to issues that really matter. It should be a time of reckoning for morally reckless politicians-a rallying cry for massive reaction. The global day of action is the perfect time to bring international attention to the real costs of war and the desperate need to protect our planet and defend humanity.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is an award-winning journalist, former publisher of Take Five Magazine and metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

A Test Case on Iran Sanctions

Cross-posted from the Project on Government Oversight .

If there’s one thing most Americans support in foreign policy, it’s sanctions against Iran to halt its alleged drive for nuclear weapons. From President Obama to Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, leading candidates all want to put the economic squeeze on Tehran and to signal their support for Israel. President Obama recently announced he will ratchet up sanctions on the country’s oil exports and declared a “national emergency” to deal with the Islamic Republic. The Senate will try to iron out its differences over anti-Iran measures in coming weeks, as bus stations around Washington, DC, are studded with advertisements questioning the President’s resolve on the issue.

In this politicized environment, the last thing any candidate or legislator would countenance is gobs of U.S. taxpayer money going to a military contractor caught doing business with the Islamic Republic. Indeed, Congress specifically addressed that possibility in 2010, when contractors were required to certify in writing that they have no ties to Iran’s sanctioned enterprises.

And that’s why the current situation surrounding one big military contractor known as Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Company, or KGL, seems so puzzling. Amid renewed allegations that the Kuwait-based behemoth is involved in dealings with Iranian shipping interests, ports, and front companies, KGL continues to hold up to $1 billion worth of contracts with America’s armed forces. No contractor to the U.S. military has ever been debarred for doing business with Iran, so KGL could emerge as a test case.

At the Pentagon, its number two official has repeatedly told skeptical Members of Congress that KGL is free of ties to Iran and has broken no law. Yet documents reviewed and interviews conducted by POGO show that the FBI and the Pentagon’s own Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS) are apparently conducting a non-public probe of KGL that is at least a year old, taking evidence from former employees and others about alleged business dealings that could violate Iran sanctions laws.

The upshot is that instead of projecting a message of American resolve and clarity, the case of KGL seems to offer an ambiguous quagmire of mixed signals as key issues surrounding the company remain to be sorted out. Indeed, as the undisclosed federal probe of KGL drags on, the giant logistics provider continues to have access to U.S. military facilities and provide support for American troops in the tense Gulf theater.

To read in its entirety, visit the Project on Government Oversight.

Adam Zagorin is Project on Government Oversight‘s journalist in residence.

Guatemalan President Perez Blows up the War on Drugs

Otto Perez MolinaThe war on drugs is America’s forgotten war. For over 40 years, it has continued largely unnoticed outside the region and, for the last decade, has been almost completely overshadowed by the war on terror and the related conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the illicit drugs trade and the militarised government responses are the greatest threats to state and human security in the Americas; many analysts and policymakers now conclude that the war on drugs has largely failed.

Open Briefing has today published a policy briefing outlining a ‘sustainable security’ alternative to the war on drugs.

Rehabilitating the war on drugs: Central America and the legalisation debate assesses the implications of Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina’s surprise announcement that he wants to open a regional debate on the legalisation of drugs. The authors, Chris Abbott and Joel Vargas, conclude that decriminalising some drugs and legalising others should form the foundation of a sustainable security strategy to tackle the violent crime associated with the illicit drugs trade in the Americas. The report outlines the following integrated programmes that would constitute an effective strategy:

• Decriminalising some drugs and legalising others in a staged process.

• Separating the law enforcement and military elements of tackling drug-related organised crime.

• Addressing citizen security challenges, including lack of personal safety.

• Addressing police corruption through career-long training, supervision and assessment.

• Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programmes for former cartel members.

• Radically increasing funding for drug education and treatment programmes in North America.

By focusing on ineffective supply reduction strategies, the war on drugs is destroying the countries of Latin America in order to protect those of North America. The Sixth Summit of the Americas on 14-15 April needs to allow for a proper debate on the potential legalisation of drugs, and Central American leaders must be prepared to develop policy strategies that also ensure the health and security of their own citizens rather than only benefiting others. The sustainable security strategy outlined in Rehabilitating the war on drugs could form the basis of such an alternative to the war on drugs.

Chris Abbott is the founder and Executive Director of Open Briefing.

Many Share Blame With Sgt. Bales for Killing of 17 Afghans

John Stephenson for McClatchy reports that Afghan army chief Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, the chief Afghan investigator in the killing of 17 civilians with which U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been charged, says “there’s strong evidence that only one killer was involved, a view that puts him at odds with Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai.”

A U.S. defense official said “such speculation was ‘commonplace, especially in small villages and especially about something as horrific as an event like this.’” Referring to a relative of victims, Karzai said: “‘In his family, in four rooms people were killed — children and women were killed — and then they were all brought together in one room and then set on fire. That, one man cannot do.’”

Gen. Karimi reiterated that. “And everybody said (to the president), ‘Sir, it was not one person. … How can one guy shoot people in four rooms, kill them, then lift them, bring them to one room and set them on fire?’”

But, if Bales acted alone, by returning to the base after the first round of shootings and heading out again for another, it’s as if there were two shooters since it happened in two stages.* Or to put it another way, since it was two separate incidents, Bales is a serial killer.

In any event, failure to notice his exit not once but twice — how often does an American soldier leave his base in Afghanistan in the middle of the night? — makes the army complicit in the murders. From the soldiers on his base to the Pentagon to the president and everyone responsible for our Afghan policy, the killers were legion.

*Incidentally Marcy Wheeler of Empty Wheel speculates on a plausible explanation for Afghan suspicions of more than one shooter. (Thanks to Steve Hynd of the Agonist and Newshoggers for the link.)

… I’m suggesting that it’s possible Bales went first to Alkozai and in a spray of gunfire killed 4 or 5 and wounded at least 5 more, then returned to the base, told others what he had done, and more followed him in helicopters to Najiban. That would explain the larger number of men described by Dawood’s children, how 11 people in 4 rooms were killed in Wazir’s home, and also how Bales was able to drag all 11 bodies to one room and attempt to burn them (though the timing is still short, given that Najiban is at least a mile from the base and Bales was reportedly gone just an hour total on that second trip).

Cuba: Ever the Scapegoat Closest to Hand

Cross-posted from Other Words.

It’s election season. When they’re not kissing babies or holding staged conversations with average voters at coffee shops, presidential hopefuls will dust off tired arguments about the national security threat posed by Cuba, an island with a population the size of Ohio.

Thanks to Florida’s sacred 29 electoral votes, the candidates spend an outsized amount of time bowing before the altar of the creaky Cuban embargo. The GOP contenders made their views on the economic blockade clear in the run-up to the primary there. Before claiming that “jihadists” and Iranians were planning to use Cuba as a platform for attacks on U.S. soil, Rick Santorum said, “We have and have had for 50 years a dictatorship in Cuba. We’ve had sanctions on them. They should continue. They should continue until the Castros are dead.”

Mitt Romney seemed to suggest that he would sanction an assassination attempt against Fidel Castro. “If I’m fortunate to become the next president of the United States it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet,” he said.

And while President Barack Obama has courageously rolled back some travel and humanitarian restrictions on U.S. citizens and Cuban-Americans, he too has stated his continued support of the embargo.

Why, in an era of unprecedented partisanship gridlock, is there such widespread support among Washington’s leading politicians for an outdated and inhumane embargo?

It’s certainly not because the policy has succeeded. The embargo began in 1960, soon after the successful revolution led by Fidel Castro ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista and nationalized a great deal of property belonging to U.S. corporations and citizens. Washington has amended and tightened the embargo, even expanding its reach to punitive measures against foreign companies doing business with Cuba, many times in its half-century of failure.

The embargo certainly hasn’t weakened Cuba’s regime. Nor has it changed its political or economic systems.

In fact, the embargo may have helped brothers Fidel and Raúl Castro retain power by offering a ready-made excuse to point to when things go poorly in the country.

While leaving the government unscathed, the embargo has had a punishing impact on the Cuban people. From restricting the availability of medication to limiting access to technology, it has caused widespread hardship.

Last September, Cuban Vice Foreign Minister Abelardo Moreno suggested the embargo had cost his country a total of more than $104 billion in economic damages.

The rest of the world wants the embargo to end. Once a year, the United Nations General Assembly passes a resolution calling on Washington to end the embargo. In 2011, UN members voted 186-2 on the latest version of this measure. The United States and Israel cast the only “no” votes.

Even here at home, many polls show that voters are ready to move beyond the embargo and re-establish normal diplomatic relations.

The reason Washington is so head-over-heels in love with this Cold-War-era failure speaks more to what’s wrong with Washington than what’s wrong with Cuba. An entrenched special interest group — the well-heeled Cuban-American lobby — has scared both major political parties into believing they must toe the line on the embargo or lose Florida.

But don’t assume this lobby represents ordinary Cuban Americans. It doesn’t. A 2008 poll by the Florida International University showed that 55 percent of Cuban Americans oppose continuing this antiquated embargo.

Maybe this campaign season, voters — not special interests — can dictate the direction our foreign policy toward Cuba.

Jess Hunter-Bowman is Associate Director of Witness for Peace, a nonprofit organization with a 30-year history analyzing U.S. economic and military policy in Latin America.

Justifications for Slaughtering Muslims Were in Ample Supply for Crusaders

First crusadeIslamic extremists have been known to cite passages of the Koran to justify killing non-believers. Western conservatives, in turn, such as those at (facetious), delight in such quotes. For example:

(8:12) – “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.”

As well as Hadith (sayings ascribed to Muhammad):

Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 327: - “Allah said, ‘A prophet must slaughter before collecting captives. A slaughtered enemy is driven from the land.”

On the other hand, conservatives are only too happy to give the Old Testament of the Bible a pass on its vaunted violence. From ReligionofPeace again:

Unlike nearly all of the Old Testament verses of violence, the verses of violence in the Quran are mostly open-ended, meaning that they are not restrained by the historical context of the surrounding text. They are part of the eternal, unchanging word of Allah, and just as relevant or subjective as anything else in the Quran.

In two previous posts — Sanctifying the Killing of Muslims and The Secret to Islam’s Rapid Expansion: Free Love (?) — I wrote about and excerpted Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse (Basic Books, 2011) by American medieval historian Jay Rubenstein. The first Crusade provided Christians with their first opportunity to indulge in wholesale killing of Muslims, which include. The book of the Bible they used to justify it — if not the decapitation and even cannibalism that succeeded the killing — was Deuteronomy. From Armies of Heaven again:

According to Deuteronomy 20:20-15, if the Children of Israel intended to attack a city, they were obligated first to offer it peace. If the city accepted, its inhabitants would be spared but enslaved. … if negotiations failed, the Israelites were to lay siege to the city, capture it, kill all of the men, and claim everything else therein — women, children, and livestock — as plunder.

Tough to figure out why that has to be included in a holy book. But, wait, it gets worse. Rubenstein explains that “Deuteronomy describes a third possible outcome: ‘In the cities of the nations that the Lord God is giving you as an inheritance [alleged author Moses is stretching the definition of the word inheritance pretty wide here -- RW] — “do not leave alive anything that breathes. Complete destroy them.”

Thus did the first Crusade apply these laws to the grisly Siege of Antioch on the way to Jerusalem. Rubenstein:

Albert of Aachen estimated the number of Saracens [Muslims] dead at 10,000 and said that the Franks [Crusaders] “spared none of the [Muslims] on the basis of age or gender, as the earth grew covered with the bodies and blood of the dead.” As Raymond of Aguilers [a Crusade commander] hurried to see the killing, he found it “an amusing spectacle,” … “All the public squares were filled with dead bodies,” another eyewitness observed. … “In truth, no one could walk through the city streets without treading on corpses.”

The crusaders not only used rules from the Bible but sought to emulate battles from the Bible. They compared another battle that turned into a slaughter to, Rubenstein writes, “what happened to the tribe of Benjamin in the Book of Judges [when the Israelites] killed 25,000 of the [Benjaminites] and then afterward they destroyed their cities, their animals, their women, and their children.”

In short …

Had the crusaders ever followed this ethos in their European homeland, their actions would have been viewed as atrocities. But in the context of a holy war intended to re-create those same Old Testament battles fought in the same deserts where the Israelites had wandered, atrocities were standard practice. The result was a new level of violence, leading to battles that in scale and character were truly apocalyptic.

No doubt more atrocities ensued when the crusaders reached Jerusalem — my history is weak and I’m 100 pages from concluding the book. But at least there’s this …

The levels of bloodshed and brutality were so far beyond ordinary warfare that the experience of it would have changed the warriors’ sense of their own humanity.

Enduring post-traumatic stress syndrome is a small price to pay when God is on your side.

Congress Tunes Out Lt. Col. Davis’s Allegations It’s Been Misled on Afghanistan

Cross-posted from Other Words.

When Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis returned from his second tour in Afghanistan, he knew that what he’d witnessed firsthand didn’t match the rosy progress reports that top military officials were giving Congress.

What Davis decided to do next could be called courageous or, perhaps, idealistic. The 17-year Army veteran put his career at risk by speaking out for what he felt was right — he publicly called out his superior officers on their assessments of the war.

Specifically, Davis alleged that top commanders had misled Congress and the public. He briefed four members of Congress on his version of events and sent reports he authored, one unclassified and the other classified, to the Department of Defense Inspector General.

Then, he took the extraordinary step of bringing his story to light: He did an interview with The New York Times and authored an op-ed for the Armed Forces Journal. His unclassified report was linked to by both Rolling Stone and the Times. With all of this national coverage of Davis’ report, which alleged that senior military officials have lied to Congress about conditions on the ground, you would think that Congress would be jumping at the opportunity to hold hearings. At least six members of Congress have come forward publicly supporting Davis, but no hearings have been scheduled.

It’s incredible that Congress has virtually ignored Davis’ allegations that it’s been misled. You might expect that the Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, or Intelligence Committees would jump at the chance to hold hearings on Afghanistan and ask Davis to testify. But you’d be wrong.

Why should we listen to Davis? He’s a soft-spoken, unassuming soldier who was described in one evaluation as someone whose “devotion to mission accomplishment is unmatched by his peers.” Davis also made the point that he is no “WikiLeaks guy part II”— he’s made a concerted effort to protect classified information.

“Entering this [most recent] deployment, I was sincerely hoping to learn that the claims were true: that conditions in Afghanistan were improving, that the local government and military were progressing towards self-sufficiency,” Davis wrote in his op-ed. “Instead, I witnessed the absence of success on every level.”

In Davis’ 84-page unclassified report, he outlined the misconduct he perceived among senior officials in Afghanistan after interviewing a reported 250 soldiers — from low-ranking 19-year-old privates to division commanders. He alleged that the March 2011 congressional testimony by Gen. David Petraeus on the surge in Afghanistan ranged from “misleading” to “completely inaccurate.” Petraeus is now the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Additionally, according to Davis, the “inaccurate assigning of the reason for the 2007 Iraq surge’s success had profound implications for our current war in Afghanistan and doubly so for the surge forces ordered by the President in late 2009.” One senior ground commander who led much of the U.S. fight in Anbar province told Davis that “75 to 80 percent of the credit” for the success in Iraq’s surge lay elsewhere.

A bipartisan group of representatives sent a letter on Feb. 14 urging House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to hold hearings on Davis’ allegations because they are supported by the 2011 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Afghanistan. The 2011 NIE has not yet been declassified, but two members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama in February asking that he declassify it.

According to The New Yorker, which also called for the document’s declassification: “[The NIE] is said to raise doubts about the authenticity and durability of the gains the military commanders believe they have made since Obama’s troop surge began in 2009. The findings also raise questions about the Administration’s strategy for leaving behind a stable Afghanistan.”

The lawmakers’ letter is on target. If taxpayers are to get a full picture of what’s happening on the ground, Obama needs to declassify the National Intelligence Estimate. Additionally, whistleblowers like Davis shouldn’t be dismissed once the media fanfare has died down. His allegations should be seriously considered in congressional hearings. With the cost of the Afghanistan War climbing far past the Obama administration’s estimate, the public deserves to hear the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.

Dana Liebelson is the Beth Daley Impact Fellow at the Project On Government Oversight.

To Know Your “Enemy,” Know Yourself: Towards a More Profound Objectivity

“Objectivity” in reporting and analysis has developed a bad rep in recent years. The mainstream media is often blamed, but they’ve long considered it their responsibility to pit the two prevailing positions against each other. You could say it’s not the media’s fault that said positions, far from conservative and liberal, are most often center right to extreme right. But in the perceived need for access to power, the media too often accepts how far right well-funded conservative groups have slid the Overton Window.

When the spotlight is trained on reporting and analysis on our perceived enemies, the issue of objectivity is more deeply illuminated. In the spring issue of the Journal of Psychohistory (print only), psychoanalyst and Journal of Psychohistory assistant editor David Lotto explains in an article titled “On the Pot Calling the Kettle Black: The Perils of Psychohistorical Partisanship.”

Much of what psychohistorians are interested in is to understand the why of the many violent and destructive events which have and continue to cause so much misery in our world.

Difficulties ensue because …

A psychohistorian, being a part of the human race, is most often a member of or identified with one or more groups: an ethnic group, a nationality, or religion or perhaps more than one of each. … When the subject of a psychohistorical inquiry is one of these groups that the investigating psychohistorian does not belong to or is not identified with, the possibility arises of a biased or partisan account being given.

Especially “where the other can be accurately described as your enemy.” What Lotto is referring to, in part, is the endless psychoanalyses of the “terrorist mind” undertaken by authors and institutions. In other words, much more effort is expended on figuring out what makes al Qaeda and suicide terrorists tick than on what motivates the war-making mentality — and will to dominate — of the United States. “So what can be done?” asks Lotto.

One solution would be that anyone who is an “interested party” should remain silent — as a lawyer or judge might recuse her or himself from a case in which there was some meaningful connection to one of the parties.

But …

As psychohistorians we also want to encourage and not discourage those who want to explore, analyze, and hypothesize about the psychological motives that drive the actions of large groups or nations. Writing and publishing about such matters should be welcomed, not censored.

Aside from owning up to one’s affiliations, Lotto suggests (emphasis added) …

… that when engaging in psychohistorical analysis it would be useful to examine the behavior and motives of one’s own group or groups with whom one identifies that are similar to those being examined with respect to the other before embarking on the psychohistorical analysis of one’s enemies.

Furthermore, Lotto writes, if one sees only “the faults and psychopathology of others while being blind to similar processes operating within oneself and one’s own group. … there is the suspicion that projective identification is occurring — that one’s nasty and unacceptable aspects are too readily seen as being present in the enemy while absent in one’s own group.” As well “it affects the credibility of the source.”

Whenever I see a negative or harsh analysis of an enemy group which ignores the similar sins and shortcomings of one’s own group, I am immediately skeptical, as anyone who takes psychoanalytic psychohistory seriously should be, of the arguments made and conclusions drawn.

To help us further understand how to approach a “traumatic historical event such as a war, genocide, massacre, or forced migration that involves victim and perpetrator groups [Lotto] would argue that it would be beneficial to discuss the trauma history of both groups.”

The purpose of this would be to attempt to avoid the demonization of the perpetrator group by understanding that the perpetrator group may be responding to some historical trauma of their own which is being enacted through the violence directed to the victim group.

Lotto concludes that …

… the two actions of applying one’s analysis of the enemy other to one’s own group and of attempting to be aware and open about one’s own identifications and personal motives for writing about the subject under consideration could lead to a lessening of the influence of unconscious and unacknowledged motives and feelings.

Islamic terrorists, he adds …

… have replaced the godless communists whom were the enemy that we obsessed over for almost 50 years. The hypocrisy, in which an analysis of the behavior and motives of our terrorist enemies that makes no effort to acknowledge behavior and motives that are identical or very similar to those for which the United States is responsible, can be seen as an expression of American exceptionalism.

Which is [insert drum roll introducing the money quote here] …

… basically a form of national narcissistic personality disorder.

Friends of Syria Meeting Today a Tipping Point?

Friends of SyriaCross-posted from the United to End Genocide blog.

There have been a lot of developments around Syria this week but ultimately landing the world in the same place.

Joint UN and Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan appealed to Russia and gained the explicit backing of the UN Security Council and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accepted Annan’s plan, at least verbally. Yet the very next day there were widespread reports of military attacks on towns and villages by the Syrian army, adding to the more than 9,000 people killed so far, and UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, said detained children are being tortured; hardly the ceasefire and military drawback stipulated in Annan’s peace plan.

Yet, the Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul, Turkey on Sunday, April 1st, has the potential to change the stalemate. If Assad does not cease attacks against civilians by that time, there will be added motivation for the Friends of Syria group to view Annan’s gambit as a failed attempt for peace. Moving on could mean the announcement of new confidence in the unity of the Syrian opposition which has already met in Turkey this week, and greater pressure for outside actors to arm the opposition. The United States and United Kingdom announced again this week that they will be stepping up nonlethal aid to the opposition, but seems a long way from providing arms. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar may not be so patient.

On the other side, Assad may very well see this danger and seek to make symbolic withdrawals of his forces. Recent attacks may be just a final push to gain ground before a ceasefire locks in those gains. This could be a continuation of Assad’s strategy to buy time and stave off growing international condemnation. Whether a calculated short-term move against international pressure or the beginnings of a longer term self-interested rapprochement, it would have the advantage of stopping the killing at least for the immediate future and create space for diplomacy.

However, that also assumes opposition forces would be willing to accept the ceasefire. This is an unlikely scenario given the lack of unity, let alone clear command and control among the opposition, and even less likely if that opposition senses a willingness for other countries to provide it with arms.

What we are left with is a dangerous balancing act in which the international community is trying to entice Assad to move toward peaceful settlement, but wary of his intentions as it seeks to support an opposition that struggles to unify, without encouraging a protracted civil war. Key to this balance will be the stances of Syria’s key remaining allies, Russia and possibly Iran, both of whom have endorsed Annan’s peace plan. The visit of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to Iran this week adds to the intrigue.

Will Russia and Iran (perhaps with self-serving incentives) be willing to increase pressure on Assad if he does not draw back, or is this stalling the very strategy they are suggesting he follow? On the other side, can the Friends of Syria help to unite the opposition and convince them to agree to a ceasefire or will they, by word or deed, encourage further fighting?

As we wait for these questions to be answered, and hope that this weekend’s Friends of Syria meeting adds some clarity, there are at least some things that can be controlled by the United States. Russia continues to provide weapons to the Syrian regime that are being used against civilians and the U.S. government continues to hold contracts with the very same Russian state-owned arms dealer that is providing those weapons. Two weeks after 17 Senators sent a letter asking for clarification from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on this issue, there are still no answers to why this is happening. Join your voice to those calls by clicking here.

Daniel P. Sullivan is the Director of Policy and Government Relations for United to End Genocide.

Romney’s Defense Plan Means Bad Business for America

Recently, President Obama unveiled a plan he claimed would cut U.S. military spending. However, several independent experts have come forward stating that the “cuts” are simply slowing future growth in military spending from previously projected figures, rather than actually cuts to the Defense budget.

In fact, Obama’s “cuts” are distributed over a period of ten years, over which time the next administration, whether under Obama or a Republican president, could make drastic changes to Obama’s non-binding plan. As the likelihood of his candidacy continues to near inevitability, Mitt Romney’s defense plan sheds light on the GOP’s likely strategy over the next several years.

Romney has been an outspoken critic of Obama’s plan to slow the growth in military spending, arguing instead that spending should be increased at an even greater pace than previously scheduled. According to a recent article in the Dayton Daily News Romney spokesperson Ryan Williams told the paper, “…[he] has set a baseline defense spending target equal to 4 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product,” Williams stated. The Dayton Daily News went on to note, “The nation recorded a $15.2 trillion Gross Domestic Product, the output of goods and services, in 2011.” That would put baseline spending alone, which excludes the war budget, the military programs of the CIA and State Department, and other military contingencies, at $608 billion. Obama has proposed a defense budget of $525 billion for FY 2011. Over the next ten years, Romney’s military spending plan—in comparison to Obama’s—would total at least 61% higher, according to research conducted by the Cato Institute.

And while Romney has advocated for decreasing the size of the Federal Budget, it he has not specified what sectors would be cut under his Administration, citing only that he would cut 20% of overall government spending. A 20% overall reduction amidst a substantial increase in military spending would certainly translate into massive cuts to social programs that Republicans in Congress have already targeted.

Stating an interest in increasing defense spending when America is winding down its involvement in two wars is irresponsible and unnecessary. Ultimately, Romney’s plan would increase defense spending 42% beyond Cold War levels, as Christopher Preble highlighted in his article “Recalculating Romney’s Four Percent Gimmick.” Coupled with the fact that this presidential hopeful has no specific plan where he will decrease spending to offset his plan to build up America’s military in peace-time makes Mr. Romney’s claims to decrease federal spending nothing but words. For Americans concerned with government spending, Mr. Romney’s plan to funnel additional billions of American tax-dollars into military spending increases debt and makes very little business sense.

In fact, one recently published research study by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) found that, contrary to the popularly held belief of many right-wing politicians such as Mr. Romney, an increase in military spending would not produce nearly as many jobs nationwide as would the same amount of money invested in areas such as infrastructure, education, clean energy, or healthcare. In an interview with The Real News, Robert Pollin the Co-Director of PERI stated, “You will get more high-quality jobs spending on the green economy, infrastructure, or healthcare than you will spending on the military.” In one especially hard-hitting example, Pollin sited figures found by PERI, showing that if the government was to spend $1 billion towards job growth, 16,800 jobs would be created by investment in clean energy, compared to just 11,800 jobs through the military. These numbers underscore the particularly faulty logic in Mr. Romney’s belief that increasing the military’s budget at the expense of other sectors is a sound source of governmental funding. The reality is that Mr. Romney’s plan would simply prolong the military industrial complex, consequently continuing to cripple the country in a deeper mire of debt, unemployment, and unwise allocation of funds.

In response to the astronomical rate of American military spending, the Institute for Policy Studies and the International Peace Bureau launched a day for citizens around the world to speak out against their governments’ use of money to sustain the harmful Military Industrial Complex. The second annual Global Day of Action on Military Spending (GDAMS) will be held this year April 17th, which is also Tax Day this year in the U.S. The time has come for people to stand together in solidarity and hold their governments accountable for their actions in collaborating with the Military Industrial Complex. In 2011, GDAMS consisted in over 100 actions in more than 30 countries worldwide. This year, groups in over 35 countries have pledged to take part in what will surely be a loud cry to “Move our money” and fund human needs rather than war-profiteering corporate greed.

Anya Barry is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

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