Focal Points Blog

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.

A World Bank President Who’s Not a Crony or a War Criminal?

On Friday, President Obama announced that he is nominating physician and Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim to lead the World Bank. This likely appointment was greeted with approval by many long-time critics of corporate globalization. And it came after an unprecedented level of debate about who should be the institution’s next president.

By tradition, the World Bank president has been a political appointee named by the White House. Europe has agreed to go along with this arrangement, with the tacit agreement that a European, in turn, would be named as director of the International Monetary Fund. As for the rest of the world…well, the IMF and World Bank haven’t traditionally put too much weight on what the global South thinks.

This year things have been a bit different. For the first time, there’s been a concerted—and effective—effort to intervene in the nominating process and prevent a crony coronation. To this end, a variety of developing countries and progressive leaders got behind the candidacy of economist Jeffrey Sachs, who in recent years has refashioned himself as an anti-poverty crusader.

But other critics of the status quo were skeptical of this pick. Although Sachs now tries to highlight his anti-poverty credentials, he was previously known as a neoliberal “doctor shock,” advising on “stabilization” programs in countries such as Bolivia, Poland, and Russia in the 1980s and 90s. This history earned him a place as a leading villain in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

Sachs has never been big on apologizing. And many followers of Latin American politics, including me, find his lack of remorse for his role in Bolivia to be a big problem. But, in a debate hosted at the Nation (in which John Cavanagh and Robin Broad made the case against Sachs), progressive economist Mark Weisbrot—an outspoken defender of Latin America’s “New Left”—wrote in the nominee’s defense. Weisbrot contended:

“Sachs has a reform agenda for the Bank, including having the Bank focus more on treatment and prevention of infectious diseases, support for small farmers, education and primary health care, and renewable energy (as opposed to fossil fuels). He also has a track record of having fought for debt cancellation, an end to the World Bank’s policies of imposing user fees for primary health care and education, for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (which has saved millions of lives), increased access to essential medicines, and having been outspoken against war and other abuses by the US government.”

Weisbrot and others also made a few arguments on the strategic level. First, they contended that Sachs was far preferable to Larry Summers, who was seen prior to the Kim announcement as Obama’s likely pick. (I can hardly argue with them on that point.)

Second, they emphasized that putting forth a credible opposition candidate would throw open what is usually a closed process and pave the way for more progressive candidates in the future. Indeed, as the Sachs nomination gained steam, two candidates from the global South also entered the fray: Colombian José Antonio Ocampo, a former finance minister and UN official, and Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, also a finance minister of his country and a former managing director at the World Bank.

In the end, Obama did not nominate Summers. And, ultimately, Jim Yong Kim might be a better pick than anyone for whom critics of the World Bank could have realistically hoped. Kim’s main progressive credential—and it’s a compelling one—is having served as executive director of Partners in Health (PIH), co-founded by Paul Farmer. If you haven’t picked up Tracy Kidder’s excellent book about Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, there’s no point in delaying any longer. Farmer’s work is remarkable by all accounts and, grounded in liberation theology, it shows a deep preference for the world’s poor against the Washington Consensus.

Kim has been lower-profile than Farmer. But there are some good signs that he will bring a very different perspective to the job of World Bank president than his predecessors. One is the fact that Kim is now drawing heat from the right for writing in a 2000 book, Dying for Growth, that “the quest for growth in GDP and corporate profits has in fact worsened the lives of millions of women and men.”

Then again, the Wall Street Journal writes, “Over Dr. Kim’s three years at Dartmouth he has proved to be higher education’s Paul Ryan. He decisively resolved the school’s financial problems that he inherited on taking office—with real budget cuts, over the objections of the faculty.”

I called up Mark Weisbrot to talk more about the Kim nomination, about the debate around Sachs, and about what difference having a new World Bank president might make. Some edited excerpts from our conversation follow:

Engler: Are you happy with the nomination of Jim Yung Kim?

Weisbrot: Yes, I think it’s great. To have somebody who cares about health issues is completely different. Look at the past eleven presidents. They’re all bankers, war criminals—not the kind of people I’d want to run my restaurant.

Engler: By “war criminals,” you’re referring to…

Weisbrot: McNamara and Wolfowitz. I don’t know if Wolfowitz is technically a war criminal, but he was one of the architects of the Iraq War. Can you imagine? This is what annoys me when leftists complain about Sachs.

Engler: I’m one of those people who complains about Sachs. True, he’s not as bad as Larry Summers. But I was surprised to see you get behind him.

Weisbrot: Well, do you ever vote in elections?

Engler: Sure…

Weisbrot: I respect the position that the World Bank should just be abolished. I think that’s an argument that people can make. But if you’re going to have a World Bank, there’s more of a difference between Sachs and anybody that Obama was going to appoint than there is between, I don’t know, [former Brazilian President] Lula [da Silva] and his predecessor. There’s a huge difference between Sachs and Summers. That’s what I go by.

Engler: Especially as someone who watches Latin America, as you do as well, I’ve felt that Sachs is inadequately repentant for his past.

Weisbrot: I really don’t care about his immortal soul. That’s for the Pope to judge or whoever else wants to judge that. That’s not my job.

Engler: How much of a difference do you think the World Bank president makes?

Weisbrot: That’s an interesting question. We don’t know because we’ve never had a president there who was anything but a crony. We’ll see what he can change. He has a bully pulpit too if that’s something he wants to use. That’s something I think Sachs would have used a lot, and it would have been hard to fire him. I don’t know if Kim is going to do it.

Engler: What are some of the things that you see a more independent World Bank president promoting, using this bully pulpit?

Weisbrot: The Bank publishes Global Economic Prospects, and they comment on the world economy. So the World Bank president could speak out on the big economic questions that the G20 is dealing with: how to handle the next global economic crisis; how to handle the European crisis, because it affects the developing world. They could speak out on spending priorities for the Bank itself.

But if Kim wants to change anything, he’s going to have to fight. He’s still going to have the Bank’s board [of directors] to deal with. And that board is dominated by the United States and its allies.

It’s not just a question of votes. It’s the fact that developing countries don’t fight. They just don’t fight within the IMF and World Bank the way they do within the World Trade Organization (WTO). In the WTO they form blocks, they fight, and they win. And they’re going to have to get used to doing the same thing in these two institutions.

I think that was a positive part of developing countries supporting Sachs. There were about a dozen of them by the end. That made a difference. I’m not sure the other nominations would have happened if Sachs hadn’t gone in there first. He was the one who busted up the normal process.

Engler: In your mind, what would be a desirable set of spending priorities for the Bank?

Weisbrot: I want them to do more about the things that they can do, like disease prevention and treatment. Kim will do that. And if he does nothing else, that’s still a huge improvement. I think [people at the Bank] can do more in education. They can do more to support small-scale agriculture.

But once you get into their economics, their economics are usually bad. One of the Financial Times reporters today asked me, “What if Kim doesn’t know that much about development economics?”

I said, “I don’t think that’s a handicap. I don’t think the Bank should be involved in that anyways. Let them do what they can do, because they usually get the economics wrong.”

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.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Sanctions

After months of conflating punitive sanctions with diplomatic engagement, President Barack Obama apparently believes he has nearly exhausted his diplomatic options for dealing with Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.

“I believe there is a window of time to solve this diplomatically, but that window is closing,” he told reporters in Seoul on the eve of a nuclear summit. And given Washington’s apparent distaste for letting any problem in the world go “unsolved,” the president’s words should be read as yet another military threat against the Iranian homeland.

Of course, exactly what problem remains to be “solved” is a little less clear on further examination.

In a lengthy interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a sometimes-hawkish journalist with close ties to both the Obama administration and the Israeli defense establishment, Obama emphasized that preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon “is profoundly in the security interests of the United States, and that when I say we’re not taking any option off the table, we mean it. We are going to continue to apply pressure until Iran takes a different course.”

One might get the impression that Obama is accusing Iran of building a nuclear weapon—and that the goal of sanctions, therefore, is to persuade the Iranian regime to stop. However, the president also conceded to Goldberg that “our assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt.”

By its own assessment, then, the United States is sanctioning Iran over a nuclear weapons program that neither the Mossad nor the CIA nor the president of the United States himself believes to exist. And they’ve repeatedly promised military action if the sanctions “fail” to make Iran give up a program that no one believes it has in the first place! In his 45-minute interview with the president, Goldberg never once seemed to catch onto this.

Nor is it an issue of inspections. Iran has already admitted inspectors into some of its more sensitive nuclear installations, and yet the U.S. Congress is still trying to push through ever newer rounds of sanctions against the regime.

Iran’s Supreme Leader even called possession of nuclear weapons “a sin” and “against Islamic rules.” The Supreme Leader may not be the most credible source on the matter, but that’s about as close to a Rushdie-style fatwa against nukes as one is likely to hear.

So why the sanctions?

The most sinister explanation is that the sanctions are little more than a prelude to regime change. If sanctions “fail” – and they can’t really succeed, since the problem they purport to address is a fantasy – then America’s Iran hawks will have checked off yet another box on the road to war.

But although Obama’s posturing toward Iran has been on balance quite hawkish, the president himself seems keen to avoid an overt military confrontation with the Islamic Republic—at least in an election year.

Maybe there’s another reason. Obama hinted as much when he told Goldberg that “as Israel’s closest friend and ally,” it is incumbent on the United States to “point out to them that we have a sanctions architecture that is far more effective than anybody anticipated; that we have a world that is about as united as you get behind the sanctions.” According to the president, then, the primary purpose of U.S. sanctions on Iran is to persuade Israel that both the United States and the international community are committed to Israel’s security—and, therefore, that there’s no need for Israel to do something rash like unilaterally attacking Iran.

Put another way, Obama is sanctioning Iran to influence Israel’s behavior. One could almost forgive Iran for feeling a little burned up about it.

Of course, once upon a time, a nuclear-armed country making open threats to attack a regional rival—particularly one that has never admitted IAEA inspectors and has chalked up a recent history of invading neighbors, bombing civilian population centers, and working with a terrorist organization to assassinate civilian nuclear scientists—would have found itself a prime target of international sanctions.

Apparently these are not ordinary times. But if Obama is concerned that his efforts at “diplomacy” are going nowhere, maybe it’s because he’s sanctioning the wrong country.

Peter Certo is an editorial assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies as well as IPS Special Project Right Web.

Republicans Never Let a Chance to Call Obama an Appeaser Pass Them By

At the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit on Monday (March 26), the Washington Post reported that camera crews caught President Obama and outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, apparently unaware of the presence of the all-seeing media eye, speaking with each other.

“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for him to give me space,” Obama can be heard telling Medvedev, apparently referring to incoming Russian president — and outgoing prime minister — Vladi­mir Putin.

First impression: That was the only chance they had to meet one on one at the summit? Whatever the case, conservative Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post said:

This is a stunning gift to Romney from the Obama camp. The legitimate concern that Obama will take his re-election as a mandate to head left is likely to become an all-purpose weapon.

Mitt Romney’s foreign-policy advisors expressed their appreciation by writing an open letter to President Obama for the National Review. In part, it reads:

Too often, the United States under your leadership has been neither strong nor constant. Your inadvertently recorded remarks to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in South Korea raise questions about whether a new period of even greater weakness and inconstancy would lie ahead if you are reelected.

Then the advisors raised the “p” word (emphasis added).

Should the American people expect more efforts to placate Russia by weakening the missile defense systems that protect us and our allies?

But at least they didn’t hurl conservatives favorite foreign-policy epithet at the president — the “a” word. Ms. Rubin, however, had no such constraints (again, emphasis added).

It’s remarkable, actually, that Obama could be any more flexible with Russia than he’s already been under his “reset” — which is indistinguishable from appeasement. His administration praised rigged Russian elections, helped get Russia into the World Trade Organization, has tried to slow down human rights legislation aimed at Russian perpetrators, and yanked missile defense sites out of Eastern Europe.

Though some think Neville Chamberlain was correct to sign the Munich Agreement in 1938, which ceded the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Germany, he’ll never be allowed to rest in peace. In fact, many progressives agree that President Obama placates and appeases — conservatives, of course.

The latest development, reports Elaine Grossman at Global Security Newswire:

All but four of the U.S. Senate’s 47 Republicans have called on President Obama to explain remarks on missile defense made on Monday in an informal discussion with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

They were led, of course, by Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), chair of the Senate Contrariness Committee.

Meanwhile, at Democracy Arsenal, Heather Hurlburt wrote about the letter.

I was mesmerized thinking about the idea that two-thirds of the signatories served in the second-term Reagan, Clinton and Bush Administrations — administrations that saw major positive steps in arms control, relations with enemies, and attempts to broker ends to decades-long wars (and that’s just Reagan and Bush) — would sign such a letter.

But she also seems to view the letter as a message to Romney from his own advisors.

Clearly, Romney’s team is right to worry that a President Romney might follow the lead of their former bosses, not to mention Presidents Clinton, Nixon and Eisenhower, and grow more confident and more concerned with pragmatic solutions to the world’s most pressing national security problems in a second term.

Romney himself also responded to the open-mic moment and then President Medvedev, in turn

… rebuked US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney for saying Russia is the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US. … Mr Medvedev said Mr Romney’s comments “smelled of Hollywood” and advised him to “use his head”.

Whatever President Obama’s faults, one can’t imagine Medvedev or Putin saying that about him.

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