Focal Points Blog

Iran’s Parchin Clean-up a “Tease”

On July 2 at Truthout, Gareth Porter wrote:

For many months, the most dramatic media storyline on Iran’s nuclear program has been an explosives containment cylinder that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says was installed at Iran’s Parchin military base a decade ago to test nuclear weapons. The coverage of the initial IAEA account of the cylinder in its report last November has been followed by a steady drip of reports about Iran refusing to allow the agency’s inspectors to visit the site at Parchin and satellite photos showing what are said to be Iranian efforts to “sanitize” the site.

But

… the images in question suggest something quite different from the “clean up” of the site reported in global news media.

As opposed to a sanitization or clean-up, the activities, Porter writes, may constitute a lure to induce the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit the site. Tehran may be thinking that

… the agency would be more open to compromise on its demand to … to continue investigating allegations of Iranian covert nuclear weapons work indefinitely, regardless of the information provided by Iran in response to its questions.

Former IAEA inspector Robert Kelley explained

… why that makes no sense. “The Uranium signatures are very persistent in the environment,” he wrote in an article for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in May. “If Iran is using hoses to wash contamination across a parking lot into a ditch, there will be enhanced [not fewer, as one would think if Tehran was hiding activities -- RW] opportunities for uranium collection if teams are allowed access.”

Meanwhile, David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security

… was back again in June with a new satellite image taken May 25 showing that soil had been moved from two areas north and south of the building said to have held the explosive chamber. … But it also showed that the same soil was dumped only a few hundred feet farther north of the building, making environmental sampling quite simple.

Assuming that Tehran doesn’t know that leaving the soil beside the building or that, by washing “contamination across a parking lot into a ditch, there will be enhanced opportunities for uranium collection if teams are allowed access” strikes this observer as part of a pattern of underestimating the intelligence of Tehran. As Kelley wrote in a comment at Arms Control Wonk on June 19, “I think [Iran is] teasing the international community with these activities.” (In the same comment thread, Albright defends his findings.)

The pattern on the part of the United States of underestimating and condescending towards Tehran — and other states that aspire to develop nuclear-weapons programs — can best be observed in two examples. The first is the New START treaty, which is long on confidence building but short on weapons reduction. The second is the $700 billion the United States expects to spend on nuclear weapons over the next ten years. While those realities may not drive it to develop nuclear weapons, they’re not exactly lost on Tehran.

Why Couldn’t the Left Prevail in Mexico?

Enrique Pena Nieto, winner of the recent Mexican presidential election.

Enrique Pena Nieto, winner of the recent Mexican presidential election.

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

In the past dozen years, left parties in a whole lot of Latin America countries—from Argentina to El Salvador—have won elections and taken power. But, so far, Mexico has not joined the list. The country’s most recent presidential elections, held last Sunday, did not change that.

Initial election results show Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) prevailing with approximately 38 percent of the vote. (For non-Mexico watchers: the PRI was the party that governed Mexico for some seven decades before one-party rule was shattered in 2000, and it was subsequently thought to be headed for the trash heap of history.)

Progressive Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) trailed behind Peña Nieto with around 32 percent. Right-wing Josefina Vázquez Mota of the incumbent National Action Party (PAN) garnered only around 29 percent of the vote.

Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research had a nice op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the results reflected nearly a dozen failed years of neoliberal economic policies, enacted by two PAN presidents. Weisbrot wrote:

If ever there were an election preordained as a result of economic performance, it would be Mexico’s election on Sunday.

…Commentators, focused on the six-year-old drug war, have largely neglected to note the depth of Mexico’s economic problems. Let’s start with the basics: Since 2000, when the PAN was first elected, income per person in Mexico has grown by just 0.9 percent annually. This is terrible for a developing country, and less than half the rate of growth of the Latin American region during this period—which was itself not stellar. If we just look at per capita growth since the last election, in 2006, Mexico finishes dead last of all the countries in Latin America.

Between 1980 and 2000, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, lost control of Mexico for the first time in more than 70 years, the country saw a precipitous drop in economic growth. Before the 1980s, Mexico was growing at a rate that would have lifted the country to European living standards, had it continued.

It is not fashionable among observers, in the United States or Mexico, to mention that Mexico’s economy has performed abysmally for more than 30 years. Starting with the recession and Latin American debt crisis in the early 1980s, the PRI shifted toward what economists call “neoliberalism”: abandoning state-led industrial and development policies, tightening monetary and fiscal policies and liberalizing foreign investment and trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994, was only the most visible example of this transformation.

Of course, not all of these policies were mistaken, but the overall result was an unqualified failure. The same thing happened across Latin America from 1980 to 2000, where gross domestic product, per capita, grew by 6 percent, as compared with 92 percent over the prior two decades.

The failure of neoliberalism provides a compelling reason for why the PAN lost big. But it doesn’t account for why the Left was unable to capitalize on the situation, trailing instead behind the PRI.

There are a few things that can be said about this. First, the PRI was never as dead as some imagined. While many voters and officials fled the party after its hold on presidential power was cracked in 2000, the party was still strong in many Mexican states and remained a major presence in the country’s legislature.

As for AMLO’s failure, Weisbrot points to two factors weighing against left candidates:

Part of the answer may be found in Mexico’s electoral institutions, and especially the ownership of the news media. In 1988, the PRI candidate, Carlos Salinas, was declared the winner over a leftist candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, only because of widespread electoral fraud. The 2006 election was too close to call: the PAN candidate, Felipe Calderón, who is now finishing his six-year term as president, was declared the winner by a razor-thin margin, and only after a partial recount, the results of which were never released to the public.

More important, the media, which are essentially owned by a monopoly, were found to have played a significant role in the 2006 elections, more than enough to prevent the most left-wing candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who ran again this year, from winning. With 95 percent of TV broadcasts controlled by just two media outlets with a strong and documented bias against Mr. Obrador’s party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, a true left-of-center candidate has little chance.

The first point, fraud, is one that AMLO [López Obrador] himself has emphasized—steadfastly maintaining that the 2006 election was stolen from him. Now, there’s no question that Cárdenas was robbed in 1988. (He was leading in the count until a notorious power outage occurred. When the computers came back up, Cárdenas was suddenly behind, never to recover.) However, I covered the 2006 elections from Mexico City, and, while generally sympathetic to the PRD, I never found López Obrador’s charges of fraud to be credible. There was nothing like a repeat of the blatant chicanery of 1988. AMLO’s official complaint was an everything-but-the-kitchen sink attempt to show voting irregularities, yet its charges were still not enough to convincingly demonstrate ballot stealing or other such improprieties on a scale that would have swung the election.

In this case of the current elections, AMLO trails Peña Nieto by a much wider margin than in 2006. So, while the PRI is still perfectly capable of using dirty tricks, it is very unlikely that fraud would account for a large portion of the three-million-vote difference.

The charge of media bias against the left is more compelling. Indeed, this issue sparked the mass student movement (the #YoSoy132 movement) that galvanized Mexican politics in the last months of the election. The movement emerged on May 11, when student protesters rattled the PRI’s Peña Nieto—then the dominant frontrunner—at what was supposed to be a friendly and carefully staged event at a private university called Iberoamericana.

#YoSoy132 organizer Valeria Hamel explains:

Thousands of students protested against him and then uploaded their videos on YouTube. Meanwhile, the media said that the people involved in the protest were “acarreados y porros” (recruited and paid participants to protest) and that his visit had actually been a success. In response, the students involved made a video in which 131 students showed their university credential identifying themselves as protestors and denied what the media claimed….After this, we [students at other universities] knew that we couldn’t stay silent and allow Mexico to continue through the road of destruction. We had to organize ourselves and unite with other students in order to fight towards democratizing the media and fighting its dual monopoly.

The movement went viral, throughout May and June it helped chip away at Peña Nieto’s double-digit lead in the polls, and it contributed to a late surge by AMLO. Had the PRI candidate gone down in a last-minute upset, #YoSoy132 would have been a huge international story, drawing a raft of comparisons to the most successful of the Arab Spring revolutions. Alas, the Mexico City–based insurgency was not enough.

While bias on the part of the country’s two media giants can serve as one explanation for the Mexican Left’s defeat, it can also become an excuse. Certainly, negative reception of progressives in dominant corporate media outlets is not a condition unique to Mexico, and yet left-of-center parties in many other parts of the Americas have overcome this disadvantage. Other factors weighed against the PRD: since the 2006 elections, AMLO—forever insisting that fraud had deprived him of his rightful presidency—had become a more and more polarizing figure. The party itself was divided, and this bade ill for its general election prospects. To use an analogy from U.S. politics: yes, John Kerry was swift-boated, but that does not account for all of his weaknesses as a candidate.

Despite disappointment at the top of the ticket, all was not lost. Over at NACLA, Fred Rosen notes:

Despite AMLO’s (apparent) loss, the election left the PRD with several things to celebrate. The party won a resounding victory in the race for governor of Mexico City (PRD candidate Miguel Angel Mancera received some 63% of the vote); it won governorships in the states of Morelos and Tabasco; and it made significant gains in the congressional races, keeping the PRI from winning an absolute majority in either the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies, and positioning itself to become the country’s principal opposition party.

Being in the opposition, of course, is a familiar position for left parties. But it’s helpful to remember that Mexico is a rare case in Latin America right now, and that progressives in far more foreboding circumstances have experienced reversals of fortune in the course of a single presidential term. The hope that this could happen for the United States’s southern neighbors is not entirely fanciful. Here’s looking to 2018.

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

Caught Red Handed: Rwanda, Violence in Eastern Congo, and the UN Report

The atmosphere was tense during the DRC Briefing at IPS on June 29, 2012. The audience of 45 squeezed into the conference room to hear the updates on Rwanda’s most recent breach of Congolese sovereignty, and the Q & A session threatened to reach a fever pitch.

The panel, comprised of three Congolese and one Rwandan, represented integral members of panelist and moderatorCongo’s extended civil society family. Each panelist expressed concerns about the future of Eastern DRC, yet convictions about the recent M23 uprising diverged dramatically. Some were convinced the conflict was spurred on by remaining post genocide ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis. Others blamed the Congolese government for its lack of political will to handle conflict. Yet others maintained that the external influence of international actors was muddling the picture and exacerbating the poor image of African nationhood. And, of course, the “corruption card,” omnipresent in conversations of the “dark continent’s” troubles, was placed on the table early on.

Anyone who has heard of the DRC knows it’s a country with some issues but despite the devastating numbers (200,000 displaced), popular media has largely ignored the gravity of the latest mutinies in the Kivu provinces. Perhaps the “resource curse” seems too cliché to make headlines anymore…Or, perhaps the ugly effects of Western involvement are too unpleasant for America’s tender ears.

The US government certainly seems to believe the latter is the case. Portions of a recent leaked UN Report provide implicating evidence that Rwandan leaders have been aiding and abetting mutinous rebel leaders. Furthermore, the US has turned a blind eye to its ally’s behavior, suspiciously delaying the release of the report.

However, the root motivation for Rwanda’s and the State Department’s covert support of violence was largely overlooked by the panel. What the conversation lacked was a focus on the vast amount of valuable minerals in the region and potential succession of the Kivu Provinces. It has been said that Rwanda wishes to see the Eastern DRC break off and form a South Sudan-esque situation. A vulnerable and independent Eastern DRC would make an easily manipulated nation state for the resource hungry Rwanda.

audienceMore troubling was the lack of solutions with real teeth. Increased diplomacy between the Rwandan’s and Congolese has a warm fuzzy feel to it but in a situation driven by layers of greed, it sounds hollow and unlikely. Security sector reform was also mentioned as a potential answer to the problematic mutiny. However, if the Congolese government lacks political will and all of its members are defecting to the M23 in the Kivus, it’s likely that Kabila’s government simply doesn’t have the capacity to undertake such reforms.

The situation is likely to remain sticky if the international community continues to play the role of concerned onlooker.

The Wall Street Journal reported the State Department’s tepid response:

“‘We are deeply concerned about the report’s findings that Rwanda is implicated in the provision of support to Congolese rebel groups,’ said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. The U.S. has ‘asked Rwanda to halt and prevent the provision of such support from its territory.’”

Pentagon, it is time to put your money where your mouth is. Politely asking to cease and desist is3 of the panelists a little too polite with the amount of lives at stake.

One of our panelists, Kambale Musavuli, summed up the situation tidily in a July 3rd Al Jazeera interview:

“We are funding half of the [Rwandan] military. They are being trained by AFRICOM and we are still not holding them accountable… Military aid [to the Rwandan Government] is causing conflict in the Congo, and we are partly responsible in the United States.”

Ultimately, a push for greater corporate responsibility is needed in the mining regions and must take a increased policy priority. In the mean time, the US government must suspend all aid to Rwanda until the Rwandan army discontinues its supply of ammunition, recruits, and weapons to M23. It’s time to stand with the people of the Congo. Let’s talk about an sanctions, not pathetically stand by because we can’t let our corporations suffer from lack of access to minerals. The US has a law that requires the revocation of aid from countries who contribute to violence in the Congo. It’s called Public Law 109-456. Let’s see that it gets enforced.

Israeli Border Police Conduct Surveillance on Israeli Protesters and Journalists

Long story short: the Israeli Border Police’s Lebanese listeners have come to Tel Aviv to keep tabs on J14 (July 14 movement) marchers.

Or to paraphrase a paraphrase of Leon Trotsky, “you may not be interested in the Occupation, but the Occupation is interested you.”

As our domestic and international readers know, it is common for metropolitan police forces to videotape and photograph demonstrators, as well as journalists at the protests (and then, following standard post-9/11 counterterrorism procedures, match up faces or license plates with police records and other publicly available information in “data centers“). Anyone who had encountered an “Occupy” protest march since last September has surely seen police officers videotaping the march, and knows that the aforementioned data centers can and have been keeping tabs on Occupiers. Surveillance towers, aircraft and vans are deployed as well, most recently in Chicago, Illinois to surveil anti-NATO demonstrators.

And, it almost goes without saying, the Israeli security services do the same beyond the Green Line and on Israel’s borders day in and day out, monitoring the movements of demonstrators, militants, infiltrators, undocumented immigrants, even shepherds. “The Raccoon,” more widely known as the Israeli-built STALKER system, is merely one of their many tools. War is a mother to innovation, after all.

So what makes its deployment these past nights so unnerving for J14? Because it is clear now that in addition to the police, the Border Police are videotaping and photographing Israeli demonstrators, as well as Israeli journalists at the protests. Protests that are taking place inside the Green Line not at all focused on the Occupation. And yet Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino has reportedly told his subordinates to “to document every ‘involvement of the Arab community in the protests’.”

The already blurred line between the West Bank and Israel proper is getting ever more blurred, +972′s Noam Shezaif notes.

Considering Israel’s national service policies, I wonder if it would be fairly easy for the military to identify most people there based on file photos in their service records using face recognition software. Not a pleasant thought to have as a protestor in any country. Though certainly not one that will deter them.

Agreement on Syria Reached Without Syrians

Scene from Homs.

Scene from Homs.

Cross-posted from There Will Be War.

The June 30 round of United Nations–led chats about the Syrian conflict, once again starring envoy Kofi Annan—but not including Iran or Syria—has led to an “agreement” that would “support” a new “transitional body in Syria that would lead a United Nations-backed political transition…that could potentially strip the president of his executive authority” as the Wall Street Journal attempts to put it. The reason anyone should take this seriously is that Russia has pledged its support for this creation. However, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton still verbally jousted over whether this means President Bashar al-Assad actually has to give up power.

I doubt that those in villages besieged by mortar shells or militiamen, as well as those security forces routinely ambushed by the rebels, will be sleeping any more soundly in coming months. No doubt commentators will be skeptical of the agreement’s efficacy in stemming the almost 40-killings-a-day average in the near future.

In all fairness to those trying to stop the bloodshed, it’s hard to imagine a more frustrating situation than the Syrian conflict. For the world to bear YouTube and AlJazeera English witness to the mass murder of innocent men, women and children in the 21st century is both a human tragedy and a tragedy of the nation-state system. (On the bright side, at least the United States didn’t directly cause this one.) But it is clear from the year-plus of international hand-wringing, including this latest quarter-measure, that there is little will or call to stop it by military means.

It’s not only the U.N., whose observers are manipulated by both sides on the ground, that’s having little luck coming up with solutions. Op-ed writers and think-tankers are having a hard time coming up with new angles on this stalemate of death and destruction. Knowledgeable realists can no longer get away with advocating intervention as editors at The New Republic and John McCain once did. Even as recent events, such as the Houla massacre of women and children and the downing of a Turkish jet by Syrian guns, have exacerbated tension with the U.N. and NATO, the echo chamber of condemnation against the Syrian government continues to ring hollow. And debates over whether or not to call it a “civil war,” while ostensibly altering international legal actions, are exercises in semantics.

While speculation about the nature of the opposition and CIA involvement mounts, little has changed in Syria in the last six months aside from the rising death toll and heated rhetoric between Russia and the U.S. There are three main reasons intervention is currently untenable: the fragmented and Islamic nature of the opposition, the Syrian regime’s backers (Iran, Russia and to a lesser extent China), and the war-weary, insolvent West. Without intervention, there is little hope this bloody revolt will not end without at least another 10,000 slaughtered.

It never seems to fail that after the regime gains the upper hand by retaking a rebel stronghold, more high-level military officers defect to the Free Syria Army in Turkey and the insurgents are re-supplied by their regional Sunni benefactors, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The consistent back and forth portends an endlessly even match, piling high civilian atrocities and refugees.

But there is some good news: U.N. observers and Human Rights Council still can’t piece together whether government forces or rebel groups were behind the massacres in Houla and Mazraat al-Qubeir. Why is this good? When reports of the Houla massacre first surfaced, media outlets blamed the al-Assad government without question based on a very early report of some U.N. folks—remember all that “tipping point” talk? Eventually stories with eyewitness accounts trickled in from Europe that at least gave the Syrian regime spokesman’s denials some weight. When both the Syrian opposition and the powers-that-be in Damascus have every reason to belch propaganda, the media has a responsibility to admit to itself and its subscribers that the fog of war has descended and that it’s OK to say “We don’t know.”

A Brief Glimpse of Syria Six Months Ago

In mid-December 2011 James Harkin’s report from Homs, the foremost symbol of the decimation wrought by the regime against its own cities, was published in Newsweek.

Homs, where [Mohammed] lives, is home to just over a million people, right in the heartland of Syria. It’s where Syrians go to flee the bustle of Damascus and relax in its cafés and restaurants and to watch soccer (Homs boasts two popular soccer teams, Al-Karamah and Al-Wathba). Not anymore; since March, when its people rose up to complain against economic injustice and demand more political freedom, and its armed forces replied with guns and repression, the city has been under a fierce siege. Most of the city is under total military lockdown, Mohammed tells me. No one can go out; everyone stays at home. “There are tanks in the streets where I live. You can’t really walk around; it’s dangerous.”

Bombs started detonating on the streets of Damascus, which previously had not seen much violence, with increased frequency. On January 6, an explosion killed 26 just two weeks after a bomb targeting security installations killed 44, which had officials believing al-Qaeda had stepped in. The nonstop fighting persuaded Arab League monitors to flee Syria, saying their mission to forestall bloodshed was a failure.

Syrian opposition groups say the monitors, who deployed on December 26 to check whether Syria was respecting an Arab peace plan, have only bought Assad more time to crush protests.

On January 11, 2012, President Bashar al-Assad addressed the public for the first time in six months. Cheering thousands show that his support among the people can still be wielded as a countermeasure to the reams of negative press his regime has received worldwide. He said:

“We do not close the door for solutions or suggestions, and we do not close any door for any Arab initiative, as they respect Syrian sovereignty and the freedom of our decision and care about the unity of our nation.”

“There is no order at any level within the levels of our country to shoot at any civilian.”

The fact that al-Assad needed to come out and say that has its own inferences. In the January 6 Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami, author of a book that came out in June 2012, The Syrian Rebellion, gave a sharp critique of Bashar al-Assad’s regime—overstating his case by comparing Syria to a “North Korea on the Mediterranean”— and the do-nothing West. He bemoaned the fact that the Syrian people are on their own, as they very much are six months later.

The U.S. response has been similarly shameful. From the outset of the Syrian rebellion, the Obama administration has shown remarkable timidity. After all, the Assad dictatorship was a regime that President Obama had set out to “engage” (the theocracy in Tehran being the other). The American response to the struggle for Syria was glacial.

Another voice pushing forceful regime change, according to the Washington Times, is Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian National Council’s executive board.

Mr. Nashar noted why U.S. officials might be “very hesitant to pursue this particular policy,” citing the recent U.S. military exit from Iraq and upcoming elections. He also suggested they might be “waiting for a certain international coalition spearheaded, not by the U.S., but perhaps more so by Turkey.” “And it’s quite unfortunate because, after all, the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world,” he said, nonetheless adding that a Turkish-led NATO operation with “cover” from Arab states would enjoy the greatest support among Syrians. Mr. Nashar said the U.S. has a “historic opportunity” to improve its image in Syria. “The vast majority of the Syrians I know were completely supportive of what NATO did [in Libya],” he said.

The Syrian opposition and their divided institutions-in-exile were ambivalent about foreign intervention.

The National Coordination Committee had disagreed with the Syrian National Council’s calls for foreign intervention – one of several disputes that had prevented opposition groups agreeing on what a post-Assad Syria should look like.

Under their pact, the two sides “reject any military intervention that harms the sovereignty or stability of the country, though Arab intervention is not considered foreign.”

Paul Mutter at Salon.com summed up the myriad intervention considerations and comparisons to Libya at the time.

Other prominent voices in the insular but influential world of neoconservative thought include a team of defense specialists at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy who recently issued a report concluding, “Intervention in Syria would be a demanding mission carrying significant risks,” while also asserting that “intervention also presents policy opportunities.”

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

Syria’s Stalin and His Gulag

By now Focal Points readers are no doubt aware of the report that Human Rights Watch issued titled Torture Archipelago: Arbitrary Arrests, Torture, and Enforced Disappearances in Syria’s Underground Prisons since March 2011. From the summary:

Since the beginning of anti-government protests in March 2011, Syrian authorities have subjected tens of thousands of people to arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment, and torture using an extensive network of detention facilities, an archipelago of torture centers, scattered throughout Syria.

Based on more than 200 interviews with former detainees, including women and children, and defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies, this report focuses on 27 of these detention facilities.

On the other hand, the reader may not be aware of Syria’s chemical weapons program and suspected biological weapons program. At the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Charles Blair wrote in March:

Syria likely has one of the largest and most sophisticated chemical weapon programs in the world. Moreover, Syria may also possess an offensive biological weapons capability that Libya did not.

To wit:

Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is thought to be massive. One of only eight nations that is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention — an arms control agreement that outlaws the production, possession, and use of chemical weapons — Syria has a chemical arsenal that includes several hundred tons of blistering agents along with likely large stockpiles of deadly nerve agents, including VX, the most toxic of all chemical weapons

Between that and their gulag-like archipelago, one can’t help but suspect that Syria takes too much of its cue from the former Soviet Union, with President Bashar al-Assad serving as Syria’s Stalin.

U.S., Russia Continue to Jockey for Influence in Syria

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

The New York Times reports that the CIA has been on the ground in Turkey vetting armed opposition groups in Syria. The anonymous sources cited by the Times say that the US itself is not providing weapons to the rebels, in keeping with its earlier declarations to not directly arm them, but is apparently tracking weapons going into Syria and “advising” allies in the region as to which groups should get what weapons. Reports on alleged Western intelligence-gathering operations along Syria’s borders several months ago were denied then, but the Times asserts that the CIA presence has been on the ground “for several weeks” at least.

The promise of weapons sales to the rebels has been advanced as a cost-effective way for the US and its allies to direct the course of the Syrian uprising’s armed resistance to the Assad regime. With arms comes influence — or so Washington, Doha and Riyadh hope — and the armed opposition has been hard-pressed to provision itself.

Even with these promises, armed groups in Syria, who are frequently at odds with one another, have relied and continue to rely on materials produced by Syrian expatriates, captured battlefield detritus or purchased from black marketeers. With the exception of equipment seized from a battlefield or brought over by defecting soldiers, the regime can still bring much greater firepower to bear, which manifests itself in the form of besieging and shelling neighborhoods concealing (or thought to be concealing) insurgents fighting the Syrian Army. As such, some factions of the anti-Assad movement continue to call for direct foreign military intervention, notably from the Turkish Army.

Ankara, for its part, denies it is helping arm the rebels, and even the recent shootdown of a Turkish fighter jet in Syrian airspace is unlikely to result in directly military action by NATO. Indeed, Turkey’s reluctance to “get involved” more proactively remains a major stumbling block for interventionists. (Ed. note from the Arabist: is it Turkey that is holding back NATO, or the reverse?)

The Times report paints a picture of a more engaged American intelligence effort in Syria, one that critics of both intervention and non-intervention say has been lacking since 2011. The perception of expanded US handling has been buttressed by recent reports in the Wall Street Journal and Time that the US is assisting activists on the ground report on atrocities ascribed to the Syrian Army and pro-regime militias accused of committing civilian massacres in the conflict.1

As has been the case with reports on US efforts in Yemen, it is not clear whether the government sources speaking for these reports are engaging in unsanctioned leaks, or are going to the press with the White House’s acknowledgment. Despite years of talk about regime change in Syria and past US support for Syrian dissent groups in Istanbul and London, the Syrian uprising — like those in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain — clearly caught the Obama Administration (and Syria’s neighbors) by surprise. The White House has been scrambling to implement something like it’s “leading from behind” model for Libya in building an international consensus to take more decisive action, though denies Russian claims that through NATO, it intends to directly intervene in Syria.

Recently, there have been several spats between Washington and Moscow, which is Assad’s main arms supplier. The UK Foreign Office managed to fire a warning shot across Moscow’s bow over the Syrian crisis when the Standard Club withdrew insurance for the MV Alaed, a Russian freighter carrying repaired Syrian attack helicopters and “air defense systems” to Syria. This act of “lawfare” forced the Alaed to turn back to port. Shortly before this incident, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton raised Cain over the use of Russian-made helicopter gunships by the Syrian military. One of the outcomes of this diplomatic protest, though, has been some embarrassing revelations about US-Russia defense sector links.

These moves were plainly aimed at signaling to Russia that it needs to exercise more influence on Assad in ways favorable to the West’s demands, or to back away from the dictator. A CNN report that the US military has revised/prepared contingency war plans for Syria is also part of this messaging — as is the Iranian media pushback in the form of announcing war games to be conducted in Syria by the Russians (these reports have been denied by Russia and do not seem credible).

More concretely, Russia has dispatched three amphibious landing craft to its naval base in the Port of Tartus, increasing their security presence there. Significantly, this force is thought to include heavy weapons and advanced anti-air systems. Russia’s mistrust of Washington’s efforts to address the conflict stems from fears that Syria will turn into Libya again, where the Russians and Chinese essentially allowed the UN Security Council and NATO to invoke a “responsibility to protect” that turned into a coordinated effort to oust the late Colonel Qadhafi from power. Russia’s stated principles are closely linked to its national interests. Arms, allies and naval basing rights matter too, analyst Dmitri Trenin notes, but “Moscow is concerned that allowing the United States to use force at will and without any external constraints might lead to foreign interventions close to Russian borders, or even within those borders.” So even absent the Libyan card, for Russia, there are few prices short of war the Kremlin will not pay to avoid the humiliation of “losing Syria,” its sole remaining Arab ally in the region.

So while the arming of rebel groups under US auspices is ostensibly aimed at redressing this imbalance of firepower, so far, no policy has been articulated in public as to whether this aid is supposed to help take down Assad with extreme prejudice, or compel him to broker a ceasefire and exeunt, even though members of the Syrian opposition have now repeatedly rejected a “Yemeni solution.” Assad, for his part, shows no signs of backing down despite combat fatigue, desertions and attacks within the heart of Damascus itself.

The US is still not willing to take that bet for Syria, though, at least not yet. Moscow shows no signs of backing down. Syrian activist Haytham Manna recently told the Guardian that “foreign influence and arms have split Syria’s civil movement.” The continued failure of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan, and the efforts of the Syrian Army or the rebels to maintain secure zones for civilians, show that this split may be irreconcilable, even if foreign powers press harder on Assad by all means short of open war.

1While media activists have specific agendas and incentive to spin events, such activists have been politicized from the start in this conflict, with or without US dollars or cameras. Another complication is that the conflict has seen the deaths of Syrian media activists who were not associated with one particular armed camp or another, such as Bassel Shehadeh, who was killed by the Syrian Army in Homs this May. Ideally, third party sourcing to evaluate competing claims would be easier to come by. But even when such reports appear, the coverage quickly turns into a debate over the credibility of each outlet’s narratives.

Depth of Republican Enthusiasm for Condi Rice Matched by Lack Thereof for Romney

Clearly Condoleezza Rice doesn’t waste time. When she appeared at a special behind-closed-doors luncheon at a Park City, Utah retreat for big money Republican Party donors it was for only 15 minutes. But apparently that was enough to bring down the house. One attendee later told the Washington Post she was the “the star of the show,” and another said that, if it was a vice presidential tryout, “she hit it out of the park.” An international banker from Boston was quoted as saying, “she rocked it.” Former ambassador to Iceland Charles Cobb said Rice was “spectacular” and described her as a “very bright, sophisticated, articulate lady.” According to CBS, “her remarks were widely praised by attendees. One called her brief address “electrifying,”

That might be considered an understatement. A couple from Los Angeles, attending the three-day gathering and “who did not want to be identified’ told the New York Times Rice’s message was one of “America needing to take charge.” “We can’t stand by and let things happen,” the wife said. “If we do, someone else will take that leadership role.”

They both described her address as an “impassioned plea” for the country to “stand up and take charge.”

There is something mysterious about all of this. It’s a little hard to imagine what one could say in 15 minutes that would evoke that kind of reaction described. Perhaps we will never know. If there is a transcript it has not been made public

Rice herself said later, “I talked about the need for American leadership, I talked about the importance of the United States to a more peaceful world, a world that has been quite turbulent in recent years, and needs a strong American anchor,” she said.

“I also talked about the essence of America, and I think perhaps that is what people resonated with, that this is a country in which people really believe that it doesn’t matter where you came from, it matters where you’re going and that we really need to concentrate on rebuilding our strengths as a country of immigrants, a country where it doesn’t really matter your zip code so that you can get a good education, and the need to really pay attention to those strengths so that we can lead from an internal strength at home,” she added.

Two standing ovations for that?

Rice’s “reappearance on the scene, however fleeting, is unhelpful to Mitt Romney,” Carter Eskew wrote in the Washington Post last week. “The Bush administration is a reminder of one of the two main pillars of the Obama campaign: ‘We tried that; it didn’t work.’ Ms. Rice and I do agree on one thing: she said that she is not a very good politician.”

However, she did tout her own ability in the field of policy. But that’s not much of a plus either. She was, after all, an original and leading member of “The Vulcans,” a group that served as a foreign policy advisory team for George W. Bush when he was running for the Presidency. It included Richard Armitage, Robert Blackwill, Stephen Hadley, Richard Perle, Dov S. Zakheim, Robert Zoellick and Paul Wolfowitz, and Scooter Libby, all of whom secured top positions in the new administration, Rice as National Security advisor and later Secretary of State. All of them played key roles in launching the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

(Zakheim recently wrote a book: A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan.)

While we don’t know exactly what Rice said in the two private sessions that appeared to light the lights of the Republican honchos, what reports we have from the fleeting public appearances are consistent with the unilateralism and belittling of world public opinion that marked the Vulcans’ rise and characterized Rice’s stay at the White House and later at the State Department.

“The United States has to have a view, it has to gather people around that view, and frankly, I think we need to do more of that, and the last several years I think we’ve been lacking on that front,” Rice told CBS. She said the U.S. should “make alliance” with those who want to see the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, evoking memory of the “coalition of the willing” she helped lead into Iraq.

“President Bush was willing, against a lot of criticism, to assert American leadership,” she said, adding: “I’m pretty certain I don’t see that same level of willingness to assert this: That the United States is indeed exceptional, the United States isn’t just the lowest common denominator of what the [United Nations] Security Council can deliver.”

“The international system is a system,” she explained. “It has certain rules, power relationships, and people respond to those,” Rice told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren. “If the United States is not setting that agenda, then someone else will, and that might be a country that doesn’t believe in free markets and free peoples.”

A few days after reportedly bringing down the house in Park City, wrote Chris Moody of Yahoo News, Rice flew to Washington to headline a fundraiser at the Capitol Hill Club, “a private hangout for Republicans” for ShePAC, a new super PAC that supports conservative female candidates. The appearance included “a private foreign policy briefing with sitting female lawmakers and Republican House and Senate candidates from across the country.” “While Rice spoke to the candidates on the third floor of the club, about 150 ShePAC supporters waited in a reception room downstairs, noshing on a spread of roast beef, glazed ham, sweet potato puffs and watermelon soup while bartenders poured glasses of whiskey, vodka and wine in the back,” wrote Moody.

The backdrop and the drama must have been slightly surreal. Moody wrote: “Introduced as the ‘smartest woman in the world,’ Rice emerged from a side kitchen to address the group.”

We have no idea what she said in the upstairs meeting while the activist downstairs steeled themselves for her appearance which when it occurred lasted only 10 minutes. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Rice encouraged the mostly female crowd to keep fighting for America.” “It just has to be that the freest and most compassionate and most generous country on the face of the earth has to continue to be the most powerful,” she said.

“When she finished, Rice promptly exited through a side door without talking to reporters waiting nearby,” Moody reported. “As she walked toward a vehicle waiting in an alley, an aide said she would not be answering questions because she had a scheduled appearance on Fox News later that night and wanted any new comments to be exclusive to the network.”

On June 26, Rice went on “CBS This Morning” where she called for the U.S. to arm opposition fighters in Syria. There she took on the Obama over Syria, arguing that “regional players are already arming the Assad regime and the opposition in pursuit of their own agenda in the Middle Eastern nation.” She cited Iran and Russia as examples of countries arming the Assad regime but she might just as well been talking about Saudi Arabia and Turkey. She later said mysteriously the latter was beginning “to suffer from the instability.”

Rice has had fulsome praise for candidate Romney whom she says will bring “first and foremost an understanding” of “the role the U.S. in the world,” that he understands the “essence” of America, which she called “free markets and free people,” and would be a solid leader on the international stage.

“America has a way of making the impossible seem inevitable in retrospect, and we’re going to do it again,” she said. “We’re going to strengthen ourselves, our democracy at home, we’re going to strengthen our economy, we’re going to do it with great leadership like the people in this room and like Governor Mitt Romney, who will be a terrific president.”

On CBS, Rice contrasted the Obama Administration’s foreign policy with Romney’s “understanding of the role the United States has to play in the world.”

“We need a greater, more assertive America in the world,” Rice said. “The United States can’t lead from behind. The United States has to have a view, it has to gather people around that view, and frankly… the last several years I think we’ve been lacking on that front.”

“We really do need to have a view,” said Rice. “It cannot be the lowest common denominator view of the international community through the Security Council of the U.N., and secondly this really counts on rebuilding our strengths at home, and so the state of our economy, continuing to borrow money that we cannot afford, entitlements, if we don’t get a handle on who we are at home and fix our multiple problems at home then we will not lead.”

“This is a truly consequential election. This is perhaps a turning point for the country. I’m very often asked to speak about the foreign policy aspects and there are some key important foreign policy issues before us,” Rice said at one point. “There are many foreign policy issues on the agenda, but we are not going to address any of those international challenges unless we get it right at home. And it’s not right at home right now, and the American people know it.”

At each appearance Rice said emphatically that she is not a candidate for Romney’s running mate. “Not going to happen,” said, “I love policy, I don’t really love politics.”

“But there are many ways to put together an administration so that you represent all of the challenges that the President of the United States will face and it doesn’t all have to be in the presidency and in the vice presidency.” Rice told Fox News Host Greta Van Susteren. “I am quite certain because I know him and I admire him and I trust his judgment. Governor Romney is going to find the right person for the number two place on the ticket. The most important thing is going to be that it’s somebody who is ready to serve should something, God forbid, happen to the president. That’s the most important characteristic of the vice president and I know he’s going to make a good choice but I know it won’t be me.”

Sounds to me like she’s running for something – secretary of state? — or maybe national security advisor. In any case, it would be nice to know what she said in Utah to the GOP’s big money people that got them so excited.

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.

President Obama Takes Globalization to New Heights

Mark EnglerCross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

With recent revelations about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, it is now safe to say that President Obama has surpassed George W. Bush as a champion of the flawed and offensive ideology of corporate globalization.

This argument requires some explanation. Here’s the backstory: As the Bush administration commenced in the early 2000s, many argued that his foreign policy represented a continuation of the Clinton-era approach to promoting “free trade” neoliberalism overseas. However, I contended that, especially after the launch of the Iraq war in 2003, the unilateralist bullying of the neocons represented a split from past practice.

No doubt, big arms and big oil had their needs met by the Bush agenda. But his administration was wary of multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, which were central instruments of U.S. policy under Clinton. The Bush approach relied on our-way-or-the-highway, coalition-of-the-willing hard power. This made a significant portion of corporate America uncomfortable, especially businesses trying to navigate and expand in foreign markets. It also left the soft-power agenda of “free trade” in an uncertain state.

This was essentially the thesis of my 2008 book, How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy. Around the time the book came out, I wrote:

In October 2007…the Wall Street Journal reported that the [Republican] party could be facing a brand crisis as “[s]ome business leaders are drifting away from the party because of the war in Iraq, the growing federal debt and a conservative social agenda they don’t share.”

When it comes to corporate responses to [Bush’s] Global War on Terror, we mostly hear about the likes of Halliburton and Blackwater—companies directly implicated in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and with the mentality of looters. Such firms have done their best to score quick profits from the military machine. However, there was always a faction of realist, business-oriented Republicans who opposed the invasion from the start, in part because they believed it would negatively impact the U.S. economy. As the [Bush administration’s] adventure in Iraq has descended into the morass, the ranks of corporate complainers have only grown.

The “free trade” elite have become particularly upset about the administration’s focus on go-it-alone nationalism and its disregard for multilateral means of securing influence. This belligerent approach to foreign affairs, they believe, has thwarted the advance of corporate globalization. In an April 2006 column in the Washington Post, globalist cheerleader Sebastian Mallaby laid blame for “why globalization has stalled” at the feet of the Bush administration. The White House, Mallaby charged, was unwilling to invest any political capital in the IMF, the World Bank, or the WTO….Frustrated by Bush’s failures, many in the business elite want to return to the softer empire of corporate globalization and, increasingly, they are looking to the Democrats to navigate this return.

My concern back then was that a Democrat (either Obama or Hillary Clinton) would be elected to office and then abandon the overt militarism and “imperial globalization” of the Bush administration, but embrace a subtler, more multilateralist “free trade” neoliberalism—reclaiming the agenda of corporate globalization. I would have been pleased if this prediction had proved wrong. Sadly, Obama has provided irrefutable evidence that he has boarded the corporate globalist bandwagon.

At the end of the administration’s first year, I gave Obama a “B” for trade policy on a report card for Foreign Policy In Focus. While there was some rumbling about resurrecting stalled bilateral trade deals with Korea, Panama, and Colombia, the administration hadn’t done much to push things forward. Things were quiet. And given the kind of trade deals that Washington has brokered in the last couple decades, no news is good news in this arena.

Unfortunately, by 2011, the administration was pushing these so-called “free trade” deals hard. It succeeded in passing them through Congress and then signing them into law last fall.

Obama’s trade policy grade was plummeting, but new information shows things to be even worse. In the past month the president has officially failed out of “fair trade” class. On June 13, Public Citizen released a leaked document showing that the TPP—a trade agreement being negotiated between the United States and eight Pacific countries under considerable secrecy—is shaping up to be as bad as NAFTA or worse.

Public Citizen wrote in a press release:

Although the TPP has been branded a “trade” agreement, the leaked text of the pact’s Investment Chapter shows that the TPP would:

—Limit how U.S. federal and state officials could regulate foreign firms operating within U.S. boundaries, with requirements to provide them greater rights than domestic firms;

—Extend the incentives for U.S. firms to offshore investment and jobs to lower-wage countries;

—Establish a two-track legal system that gives foreign firms new rights to skirt U.S. courts and laws, directly sue the U.S. government before foreign tribunals and demand compensation for financial, health, environmental, land use and other laws they claim undermine their TPP privileges; and

—Allow foreign firms to demand compensation for the costs of complying with U.S. financial or environmental regulations that apply equally to domestic and foreign firms.

In the weeks since that leak, it has been reported that Mexico and Canada will both be joining TPP talks, setting the stage for the creation of a behemoth trading bloc. This bloc will operate based on rules backed (and often concocted) by corporate lobbyists.

It didn’t have to be this way. It was not preordained that President Obama would become Corporate-Globalizer-in-Chief. The base of the Democratic Party has aligned itself firmly against the “free trade” agenda—so much so that both Obama and Clinton campaigned in 2008 against the NAFTA model and in favor of a “fair trade” alternative. In fact, going into the 2012 elections, there’s evidence that Obama’s betrayal of earlier vows could be a significant liability among voters and a bitter pill for key constituencies the president needs if his campaign is going to overcome the enthusiasm gap between progressives and the Republican faithful.

Yet instead of taking the chance to redefine American interests in the world as something other than securing profits for U.S. businesses, Obama has allowed an ingrained pro-corporate obsequiousness to permeate the office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of State.

It’s not the unilaterist hubris of the Bush administration. But it’s still a detestable foreign policy—and a sorely missed opportunity for something better.

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

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