Focal Points Blog

Is Disarmament to Proliferation as Spending Is to Austerity?

The Institute for Science and International Security is dedicated to preventing nuclear proliferation and its president, David Albright, is often quoted in the mainstream media. Much of its energy is spent in raising the alarm about Iran, though — thank goodness for small favors — it doesn’t call for an attack.

For example ISIS declared that the recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran contained “the most comprehensive detail and analysis to date [of] evidence of nuclear weaponization-related activities conducted by Iran.” Nevertheless, it concluded, “Notably absent … is any assessment by the IAEA of Iran’s capability to make a nuclear explosive device based on what it learned through these activities.”

Meanwhile, at Race for Iran, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett write that in no way does the IAEA report “demonstrate that Iran is ‘developing a nuclear weapon.” Besides, according to Article II of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a party, “non-nuclear-weapon state signatories [are not permitted] ‘to manufacture or otherwise acquire’” nuclear weapons. In other words, write the Leveretts:

The Treaty prohibits the building of actual weapons. It does not prohibit signatories from studying nuclear weapons designs … or even conducting experiments on high-explosives of the sort that could be used in a bomb.

However, in a paper for the “Nuclear Iran” section of ISIS’s website in November of last year titled Iran Nuclear Issue – Considerations for a Negotiated Outcomet, John Carlson begs to differ. The former Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office writes: “To ‘manufacture’ cannot be interpreted so narrowly that there is no violation of Article II until a nuclear weapon is fully assembled – this would be an unreasonably rigorous approach that would undermine the practical value of the NPT.” He continues:

Since the purpose of nuclear hedging [the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons as opposed to their actual possession] is to be in a position to make nuclear weapons, at the very least nuclear hedging is not a “peaceful purpose”, hence is not a purpose permitted by Article IV [the general right to use nuclear energy]. … But it is not clear how far preparations to make nuclear weapons can progress before a state will be regarded as being in violation of Article II.

How is whether or not “the real purpose of an ostensibly peaceful program is to establish a nuclear weapon capability” determined? Carlson answers.

The fact that [determining] this might not be straightforward is no justification for accepting hedging as a legitimate activity. A number of indicators can be identified that would help distinguish a peaceful program from one whose purpose is hedging. [Such as] determining whether pursuit of the fuel cycle in question — uranium enrichment or reprocessing — is consistent with the state’s nuclear energy needs.

Carlson concludes:

Any outcome to the Iranian situation that proceeds on the basis that hedging is acceptable will be fundamentally flawed — it would mislead Iran about international tolerance levels, and mislead the international community about Iran’s commitment to non-proliferation. No outcome will provide the necessary international confidence if states continue to think the real purpose of Iran’s nuclear program is to establish a break-out capability.

This disarmament advocate is inclined to agree as long as this argument isn’t used to threaten Iran further. Furthermore, write the ISIS staff (David Albright, Paul Brannan, Andrea Stricker and Andrew Ortendahl) in a January 2012 report titled Reality Check: Shorter and Shorter Timeframe if Iran Decides to Make Nuclear Weapons:

Given Iran’s steady, albeit slow progress, downplaying the threat can end up serving to undermine the development of non-military methods to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons.

In other words, they support continued sanctions. But, from this disarmament activist’s point of view, what “can end up serving to undermine the development of non-military methods to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons” to an even greater extent is failure by Western nuclear powers to show unconditional disarmament leadership — whether it’s likely to succeed or not. Though states that seek to proliferate may either ignore such substantive steps or even gloat over them, there’s no other recourse for the West if, in the long term, it seeks to stay the hand of proliferators.

Though it’s the correct course of action, calling for disarmament to prevent proliferation is as counterintuitive as asking states to attempt to solve financial crises by spending instead of cutting in the cause of austerity. A tough sell, in other words.

The End of the Iraq War: the Proverbial Tree Falling in the Forest

We present an excerpt from Donald Kaul’s latest column at the Institute of Policy Studies’ OtherWords.

Among the strange things that happened last year — and there were many — perhaps the strangest was the end of the Iraq War.

Did you notice it? I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. It hardly even registered on the home front’s Richter scale.

We didn’t leave in triumph (that was World War II). We didn’t leave in confused embarrassment (that was Vietnam). We just left. We practically tiptoed away, hoping nobody would notice. And nobody did, hardly.

I remember the end of World War II. I was a 10-year-old in Detroit. My parents took me downtown to experience the celebration, for which I am forever grateful.

It was an extraordinary moment — an explosion of joy and relief and sense of victory, unlike any I had seen before or since.

Visit OtherWords to read Donald Kaul’s column in its entirety.

What Country Most Resembles Iran in Its Power Structure?

Trita Parsi may be the world’s leading authority on the triangulation between Israel, Iran, and the United States. In an op-ed for the Washington Post on January 13 titled How Obama should talk to Iran, he wrote: “A paralyzing question often asked in Washington is: Who do we talk to in Iran?”

The futile search for a sole authoritative Iranian partner often causes diplomacy to be rejected before it even begins. [When negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran] Turkey and Brazil did not fall into this trap. Instead, they recognized that there are many power centers in Iran — including the supreme leader’s office, the parliament, the president’s circle of advisers, the National Security Council and influential clergymen — all of which need to be included in the process. … Brazil and Turkey built confidence with the relevant Iranian players and won their support for mediation.

In fact, the United States should know that. For

“There is one country that resembles the Iranian power structure,” a prominent journalist close to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told me. “It’s the United States of America. [To get a deal], talking to the president is not enough. You have to talk to everyone.”

In other words (jerked-around sentence alert!)

Just as … no major decision is likely to be made in Iran unless a range of decision-makers is brought into the discussion. … no country expects to sign a significant deal with the United States without addressing the concerns of the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and Congress.

New York Times Continues to Conceal U.S. Role in 1965 Indonesia Coup

Gen. Suharto (left)

Gen. Suharto (left)

Why is the New York Times concealing the key role that the United States played in the 1965 coup in Indonesia that ended up killing somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million people? In a story Jan. 19—“Indonesia Chips Away At the Enforced Silence Around a Dark History”—the Times writes that the coup was “one of the darkest periods in modern Indonesian history, and the least discussed, until now.”

Indeed it is, but the Times is not only continuing to ignore U.S. involvement in planning and carrying out the coup, but apparently doesn’t even bother to read its own clip files from that time that reported the Johnson administration’s “delight with the news from Indonesia.” The newspaper also reported a cable by Secretary of State Dean Rusk supporting the “campaign against the communists” and assuring the leader of the coup, General Suharto, that the “U.S. government [is] generally sympathetic with, and admiring of, what the army is doing.”

What the Indonesian Army was doing was raping and beheading communists, leftists, and trade unionists. Many people were savagely tortured to death by the military and its right-wing Muslim allies in the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah. A number of those butchered were fingered by U.S. intelligence.

According to a three-part series in the July 1999 Sydney Morning Herald, interviews with Indonesian political prisoners, and examinations of U.S. and Australian documents, “Western powers urged the Indonesian military commanders to seize upon the false claims of a coup attempt instigated by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), in order to carry out one of the greatest civilian massacres of the 20thcentury and establish a military dictatorship.”

General Suharto claimed that the PKI was behind the assassination of six leading generals on the night of July 30, 1965, the incident that ignited the coup. But the Herald series included interviews with two of the men involved in the so-called July 30 putsch, both of who claim the PKI had nothing to do with the uprising. At the time, the PKI was part of a coalition government, had foresworn violence, and had an official policy of a “peaceful transition” to socialism. In fact, the organization made no attempt to mobilize its three million members to resist the coup.

The U.S. made sure that very few of those communists—as well as the leaders of peasant, women, union, and youth organizations— survived the holocaust. According to U.S. National Security Archives published by George Washington University, U.S. intelligence agents fingered many of those people. Then U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, Marshall Green, said that an Embassy list of top Communist leaders “is being used by the Indonesian security authorities that seem to lack even the simplest overt information on PKI leadership at the time…”

The U.S. was well aware of the scale of the killings. In an April 15, 1966 telegram to Washington, the Embassy wrote, “We frankly do not know whether the real figure [of PKI killed] is closer to 100,000 or 1,000,000, but believe it wiser to err on the side of the lower estimates, especially when questioned by the press.”

Besides helping the military track down and murder any leftists, the U.S. also supplied the right-wing Kap-Gestapu movement with money. Writing in a memo to then Assistant Secretary of State McGeorge Bundy, Green wrote “The chances of detection or subsequent revelation of our support in this instance are as minimal as any black bag operation can be.”

States News Service reporter Kathy Kadane interviewed several former diplomats and intelligence agents and found that the list turned over to the Indonesian security forces had around 5,000 names on it. “It was really a big help to the Army,” former embassy political officer Robert J. Martens told Kadane. “They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that is not all bad. There is a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.”

At the time, Washington was beginning a major escalation of the Vietnam War, and the Johnson administration was fixated on its mythical domino theory that communists were about to take over Asia. The U.S. considered Indonesia to be a strategically important country, not only because it controlled important sea passages, but also because it was rich in raw materials in which U.S. corporations were heavily invested. These included Richfield and Mobil oil companies, Uniroyal, Union carbide, Eastern Airlines, Singer Sewing Machines, National Cash Register, and the Freeport McMorRan gold and copper mining company.

At the time, Indonesian President Sukarno was one of the leaders of the “third force” movement, an alliance of nations that tried to keep itself aloof from the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The 1955 Bangdung Conference drew countries from throughout Asia and Africa to Indonesia to create an anti-colonialist, non-aligned movement. It also drew the ire of the U.S, which refused to send a representative to Bangdung.

In the polarized world of the Cold War, non-alignment was not acceptable to Washington, and the U.S. began using a combination of diplomacy, military force and outright subversion to undermine countries like Indonesia and to bring them into alliances with the U.S. and its allies. The CIA encouraged separatist movements in the oil-rich provinces of Sumatra and Sulawesi. The British and the Australians were also up to their elbows in the 1965 coup, and France increased its trade with Indonesia following the massacre.

The relations between Jakarta and Washington are long and sordid. The U.S. gave Indonesia the green light to invade and occupy East Timor, an act that resulted in the death of over 200,000 people, or one-third of the Timorese population, a kill ratio greater than Pol Pot’s genocidal mania in Cambodia. Washington is also supportive of Indonesia’s seizure of Irian Jaya (West Papua) and, rather than condemning the brutality of the occupation, has blamed much of the violence on the local natives.

The Cold War is over, but not U.S. interests in Asia. The Obama administration is pouring military forces into the region and has made it clear that it intends to contest China’s growing influence in Asia and Southeast Asia. Here Indonesia is key. Some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies pass through Indonesian-controlled waters, and Indonesia is still a gold mine—literally in the case of Freeport McMoRan on Irian Jaya—of valuable resources.

So once again, the U.S. is turning a blind eye to the brutal and repressive Indonesian military that doesn’t fight wars but is devilishly good at suppressing its own people and cornering many of those resources for itself. The recent decision by the White House to begin working with Kopassus—Indonesia’s equivalent of the Nazi SS—is a case in point. Kopassus has been implicated in torture and murder in Irian Jaya and played in key role in the 1999 sacking of East Timor that destroyed 70 percent of that country’s infrastructure following Timor’s independence vote. Over 1,500 Timorese were killed and 250,000 kidnapped to Indonesian West Timor.

It appears that Indonesians are beginning to speak up about the horrors of the 1965 coup. Books like Geoffrey Robinson’s “The Dark Side of Paradise” and Robert Lemelson’s documentary film, “40 Years of Silence: an Indonesian Tragedy,” are slowly wearing away at the history manufactured by the military dictatorship.

But the U.S. has yet to come clean on its role in the 1965 horror, and the New York Times has apparently decided to continue that silence, perhaps because once again Indonesia is pivotal to Washington’s plans for Asia?

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

Jeffrey Sachs’s Metamorphosis From Neoliberal Shock Trooper to Bleeding Heart Hits a Snag

Angelina Jolie and Jeffrey Sachs

Angelina Jolie and Jeffrey Sachs

Cross-posted from Warscapes.

No crisis of economy would be complete without a couple of cents from Jeffrey Sachs. The godfather of shock-turned-bleeding heart advocate for poverty eradication has simply dominated development economics — in both theory and practice — for the better part of the past two decades. From his days pimping out neoliberal privatization programs to the world’s poorest countries, to his more recent stint as passionate advocate of kinder, gentler, but equally fraught policies of external debt cancellation, Jeff Sachs — as he never tires of telling us — has been all over the map.

Sachs is best known as a crusading activist for eliminating poverty who enlists the help of folks like Angelina Jolie and Bono. But his fame circumvents an understanding of his economic theories, which have been applied with disastrous consequences. He first came to global prominence in the mid-1980s as the wunderkind of Harvard University’s econ department. He became one of the school’s youngest tenured professors at twenty-eight, and quickly sold himself as an advisor to struggling governments dealing with crises of hyperinflation, a topic about which Sachs boldly claimed to know “just about everything that is needed to be known.”

It was during this period that the young economist fashioned his unique brand of shock therapy — a free market fundamentalism of privatization, deregulation, and government subsidy-slashing for commodities such as oil, met with debt relief and foreign aid — that would later take shape as the Washington Consensus and be subsequently savaged by the likes of Naomi Klein, William Easterly, and Dambisa Moyo. Despite massive policy failures in countries that followed his advice, Sachs has successfully avoided accepting any responsibility for suboptimal outcomes of his theory. On the contrary, he has reinvented himself as an economic tutor to the stars, and now with his new book on how to fix the American economy, his position as the most influential commentator on economic crises is more secure than ever.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise to find the tirelessly self-promoting Sachs holding forth on the recent Nigerian crisis in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, despite the fact that the former boy wonder of development theory has been, well, wrong on just about every major crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Wasting no time in publicizing his own elite status in the current crisis in Abudja, Sachs argues that despite continuing demonstrations against the government’s surprise decision on New Year’s Day to halt state subsidies of oil for millions of Nigerians, things aren’t as bad as they seem.

Meeting with the president and his economic team in Abuja last week, in the midst of protests against the subsidy removal, confirmed my view that the Nigerian government has an unprecedented opportunity to clean up its act and win back the support of a long-suffering population. The president spoke of taking the tough medicine necessary to build the foundations for long-term growth. His lead economic architect is Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, newly returned from a top spot at the World Bank.

What should raise the eyebrows of even the most casual observer of political economy – that policy is now being shaped by a World Bank alum — is for Sachs precisely the “glimmer of hope” in an otherwise bleak landscape of corruption, political instability, and staggering nationwide poverty. At the core of the subsidy dilemma, Sachs correctly argues that corruption and elite free-riding represent the most formidable roadblocks preventing equitable reform.

When a country depends excessively on one or two key resources like oil, gold, or diamonds, politics too easily descends into megacorruption and a brutal struggle over the resource earnings…Oil exporters like Nigeria very often keep domestic oil prices low as an easy sop to powerful local interests. Nigeria’s oil prices were among the lowest in Africa until the subsidies were abruptly ended January 1. According to the government’s estimates, the oil subsidy in 2011 amounted to a staggering $8 billion, roughly 4 percent of GDP…Nigeria’s well-to-do households, with their cars and large diesel generators, and also some adroit oil smugglers, captured much of the subsidy.

These observations are largely correct as far as they go. What’s instructive, however, is that when dishing out prescriptions to help remedy the situation, Sachs does not suggest that the government reform its own rotten institutions or prevent poaching by the nation’s wealthiest families. Instead, we’re told that the vast majority of the country’s poor — who depend on oil subsidies to make possible everyday things like getting to market and keeping cool — should be forced to shoulder the lion’s share of sacrifice as Goodluck Jonathan pursues market reform under heavy pressure from the International Monetary Fund.

Welcome to Shock Therapy 2.0. The effects of the entirely unexpected subsidy removal were profound. The price for fuel doubled overnight, inflationary pressures quickly took hold as the price for basic commodities skyrocketed by as much as 100 percent, and people poured into the streets in protest. But for Sachs, these are simply the spasmodic death throes of the country’s old, decrepit order giving way to a “new day for Nigeria.” The rewards for short-term pain, Sachs tells us and as advocates of austerity always promise, will arrive down the line in the form of long-term socioeconomic improvement. Says Sachs,

The government ended the subsidies to redeploy the 4 percent of GDP toward long-term development needs, including health, roads and power. The reform logic is sound. Using the 4 percent of GDP in a strategic manner can do far more for Nigeria’s poor and the country’s long-term growth than haphazard giveaways of cheap oil.

Trouble is, none of this is true. Nigeria’s “new day” looks increasingly like days of old when the country suffered under military rule. Faced with growing street demonstrations, Jonathan emptied the barracks, ordered the arrests of lead activists, and threatened to charge citizens with treason if they didn’t abandon their protests and get back to work. Thus far, at least twenty people have been confirmed killed in the protests, with hundreds more sustaining injuries at the hands of Nigerian soldiers charged with suppressing dissent.

And to suggest, as Sachs does, that Jonathan’s administration can be trusted to carry out the sort of reforms promised is to ignore reality entirely. “When Nigeria won relief on its external debt in the mid-2000s,” Sachs argues, “the savings on debt service were actually redirected to meaningful social investments in the states and local governments. The government is now promising to turn the outlays on subsidies into outlays on specific and closely monitored investments in health care, infrastructure, job training and other areas.” Sachs’ embedded embrace of austerity — implicitly suggesting that debt relief schemes, when managed successfully, allow governments to accumulate reserves of public trust that can be drawn down on at a later date to soften the blow of social spending cuts — is as troubling as it is based in fantasy. Nigerians have seen little improvement of the sort Sachs suggests, even as the government continues to lavish grotesque sums of capital on itself.

After difficult negotiations this past weekend, the Jonathan administration reversed itself on the question of subsidies. The government reinstituted subsidies to roughly half their previous levels prompting labor unions to call for an end, if only temporary, to nation-wide strikes which had brought the country’s economy to a halt. Nevertheless, as CNN reports, “heavy military presence was still evident in [Lagos’] streets in the evening, with armed checkpoints set up at most key bridges and along major roads in the city.”

Interestingly, the compromise seems to have shaken Sachs out of his development reverie. When I asked Sachs, via Twitter, to comment on Jonathan’s about-face Sunday, he responded that he was “glad there was compromise reached today. The whole episode was very poorly managed. Nigeria needs more basic reforms.” I responded that it was messy, and pressed him on what I take to be his application of a double-standard — raging against neoliberalism this past fall in Zuccotti Park but defending policies of austerity and “shared sacrifice” for Africans. Sachs replied that he “wasn’t calling for shared sacrifice and austerity in Nigeria. I was calling fr [sic] end of subsidies to rich and targeting poor.” When I pointed out that he explicitly employed the rhetoric of shared sacrifice (“To share the pain, the president has ordered cuts in top salaries in the government…”), Sachs clarified that he “meant to be saying that the subsidy removal was causing pain, not to be recommending pain! Perhaps badly phrased.”

Badly phrased, indeed. My suggestion that he write a follow-up editorial making his new position clear was met with silence. Perhaps he was otherwise engaged: Sachs got pounded repeatedly throughout the day by Nigerian bloggers and other informed observers for his defense of Jonathan’s original policy posture in the matter. This morning, in a flurry of tweets, Sachs retreated from his editorial, noting that he “spoke too fast, too soon, without knowing the details,” that he “had nothing to do with the policy, learned of it after,” that “he knew nothing of about [the policy] beforehand,” and that his “comments were misjudged,” but managed to slap a Band-Aid on the mess by noting that “I always try, but I do not always get it right.”

Unfortunately for everyone else, there will be no penalty or meaningful censure for such profoundly dangerous sloppiness. Sachs’ most recent fit of poor judgment will be quickly forgiven — rewarded, even, with future opinion pieces in the world’s most influential editorial section. For this very reason, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the important lessons to be drawn from this episode: Sachs had no idea what he was talking about, his knee-jerk response to the crisis celebrated policies of austerity and economic shock, and the Grey Lady gave none of it a second thought. Neoliberalism, it would seem, is alive and well.

Exactly Why Did Ehud Barak Postpone a Joint U.S.-Israeli Military Exercise?

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

Yahoo News’s Laura Rozen has reported an important story: tips from anonymous US sources, as well as information leaked to Israel Radio, suggest that it was Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak who actually postponed a US-Israeli missile defense exercise, which would have seen 5,000 US personnel and advanced American missile defense systems deployed to Israel.

Multiple analysts have suggested that the postponement demonstrates the Israeli government’s contempt for Obama and an ongoing effort to back the president into a corner in an election year over Iran. Two theories stand out.

The first view is that the postponement is supposed to send Obama a message that he had better be more assertive against Iran if he wants Israel to stand down. The hawkish, pro-Netanyahu Israeli site DEBKAfile reports that the cancellation was approved at the top by Bibi himself and that critical statements made by hardliners in the government around this time were made to call the President out over his “flagging resolve”:

It was perceived as a mark of Israel’s disapproval for the administration’s apparent hesitancy in going through with the only tough sanctions with any chance of working against Iran’s nuclear weapon program: penalizing its central bank and blocking payments for its petroleum exports.

This was the first time Israel had ever postponed a joint military exercise; it generated a seismic moment in relations between the US and Israel at a time when Iran has never been so close to producing a nuclear weapon.

This week, Netanyahu further orchestrated a series of uncharacteristically critical statements by senior ministers: Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon called the Obama administration “hesitant” (Jan. 15), after which Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman urged the Americans to “move from words to deeds” (Jan 16).

Given DEBKAfile’s right-wing bent, it is safe to say that the aforementioned narrative is how the warhawks in the Israeli government wish their actions to be perceived in the US.

The second theory is that the postponement of the exercise stems from decisions by the IDF on how and when it will attack Iran. Ehud Barak told Israel Army Radio that there are no immediate plans for Israel to attack Iran, seemingly distancing himself from his earlier statements that Israel’s bombing window would close by the end 2012 (Israeli intelligence reported that, like the U.S. intelligence community, it cannot discern Iran’s nuclear intentions). Rozen suggests one possible Israeli rationale for such maneuvering:

The United States did not seek the delay–and American sources privately voiced concern that the Israeli request for a postponement of the exercise could be read as a potential warning sign that Israel is leaving its options open to conduct a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the spring. Thus, the concern went, it may not want 5,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Israel in April and May, as had been scheduled for the exercise.

This is a sensible course of action (if you believe, as Ehud Barak does, that Israel has only a year-long window to act in). But Haaretz’s Amos Harel suggests a different military calculus– the delay is not a way of getting the US out of Israel’s way, but of forcing Washington’s hand if an attack materializes this year:

. . . [by] putting off the joint exercises until the second half of the year actually fits into a scenario that has Israel attacking Iran in that time framework. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said on a number of recent occasions, including in a November interview to CNN, that the window during which an effective strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is possible will close in about one year. A massive U.S. military presence in Israel, especially advanced antimissile air defenses, would be very useful in protecting Israel in the event of an Iranian counterattack.

Harel’s thinking makes sense too. This is more or less how NATO worked during the Cold War: the USSR was deterred from attacking NATO military formations in West Germany because an attack on any NATO member would have been treated as an attack on all of them. The Warsaw Pact copied this deterrence mechanism on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Such binding agreements forced all parties to either limit their autonomy in the name of the alliance, or give up their multinational security umbrella and go it alone. The Israeli logic would work the same way: force Iran to soak up losses inflicted by the IAF without responding, or risk the US military mission’s wrath.

But would the White House be cooperating with Tel Aviv — as it would in the event of any attack on a NATO member — or be taken by surprise by Israeli preemption? I imagine the former is the most likely option, as the U.S. would still have some advance warning of Israeli mobilization. In any event, Obama would not disengage these troops and ships to try and avoid being associated with Israel’s actions. Amos Harel puts it best: Washington “is asking Israel’s boat not to enter the path charted by its aircraft carrier.” But if and when the chips are down, the President will not cut and run, prior warning or not.

There are all kinds of contingencies that might escalate the conflict. Iran’s own military calculus, for instance. What would the Gulf states, who are most vulnerable to Iran’s armed forces, think of the timing and placement of American forces in Israel? It would be challenging to manage diplomacy and military coordination with the Gulf states against Iran in such an event, even though we’d be attacking a non-Arab country that the GCC governments fear. They fear Iran, but they also fear public opinion in their own countries (and Iranian retaliation). How would Islamist organizations sympathetic to Iran such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah react to an Israeli strike? Would events spiral out of control on the border with Gaza, Syria or Lebanon? It’s easy to suggest that Iran and its proxies would temper their actions because of “redlines,” but no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Barak has seemingly stepped back from his countdown to infinite crisis this week. But as Marsha Cohen writes at LobeLog, “the Obama administration is now trapped in a lose-lose situation, with Israeli politicians doing everything possible to sabotage Obama’s re-election bid while undercutting any movement he might be tempted to make to ease tensions with Iran.”

Nick Clegg’s Pro-Israeli Pronouncements Pale Beside Washington’s

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made quite a claim on Monday. Hosting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in London, Clegg declared that “there is no stronger supporter of Israel than myself.” Well, I’ve got news for you, Nick: there’s some very stiff competition for the title of Israel’s strongest supporter, and you’re not even a contender.

For one thing, Nick Clegg has actually had the temerity to criticize Israel on occasion, which immediately disqualifies him. For instance, at Monday’s press conference with Abbas, he stated that “I condemn the continued illegal [Israeli] settlement activity [in the Palestinian Territories] in the strongest possible terms.” He has also spoken out in the past against the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, describing that territory as “one of the most… wretched stretches of land on the planet.”

Let’s compare Clegg’s remarks with what Newt Gingrich has had to say about Israel and the Palestinians. The Republican presidential candidate isn’t exactly mealy-mouthed when it comes to giving his views on the Middle East, as exemplified by his now famous statement that “we’ve had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs.” (In fact, they are both Palestinian and Arab, but let’s put that to one side).

More of Gingrich’s uncompromising views on Israel can be found on his campaign website, where he accuses the Obama administration of “actively and materially harming Israel.” The White House has, he asserts, “unacceptably interfered in internal Israeli politics on a range of issues (from settlement construction to domestic legislation), challenging Israeli sovereignty in the process.”

It would be understandable if President Obama was somewhat resentful of this characterization of his policies towards Israel. After all, his administration has been very generous when it comes to dishing out aid to Israel, and has requested from Congress the not insubstantial sum of $3.075 billion for Israel for fiscal year 2012. And while administration officials have indeed claimed to oppose Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Territories, this stance was severely compromised in February 2011 when US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice vetoed a Security Council Resolution that condemned the settlements as “illegal”. Every other member of the Security Council voted in favour of this resolution.

Now, I’m not saying I agree with the President’s policies towards Israel. I’m just pointing out that Gingrich’s assertion that the Obama administration is “actively and materially harming Israel” is untenable.

It’s pretty clear then that Clegg is some way behind not only Gingrich, but also the US President, in the pro-Israel stakes. And Clegg is certainly no match for Gingrich’s fellow Republican presidential hopefuls (except for Ron Paul, of course), who share the former Speaker’s penchant for issuing statements that are eerily reminiscent of Israel’s ruling Likud Party.

Consider the attitude of the two Ricks to Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It begins and ends here: both Perry and Santorum firmly reject the notion that the West Bank is occupied, viewing it as Israeli land. It follows that Israel has the right to build all the settlements it wants. For instance, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in December, Perry stated that “I consider the Israeli settlements to be legal.” When Blitzer observed that the US State Department deems the West Bank to be occupied, Perry replied “I think our State Department from time to time gets it wrong.”

Rick Santorum likewise supports Israel’s right to construct settlements in the West Bank. He has declared that “This [the West Bank] is Israeli land and therefore… they have the right to build things based upon their ownership of that land.” Santorum also espouses Gingrich’s view that “there is no Palestinian.”

As noted above, these Republicans sound at times like spokesmen for Likud. Last May Israeli Prime Minister “Bibi” Netanyahu received a rousing reception when he spoke before the US Congress. He declared that “You have to understand this: In Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers.” As we have seen, Perry and Santorum hold exactly the same view.

In the same speech Netanyahu underscored that “Israel will not return to the indefensible borders of 1967.” Taking his cue from “Bibi,” Santorum has excoriated Obama for having “deliberately put Israel in a vulnerable position by publicly stating that he supports Israel going back to the borders of Israel prior to when they were attacked [in 1967].” Israel actually attacked Egypt in June 1967, but we needn’t get into that.

Again, this characterization of Obama’s policy is distorted. The President’s position, which he outlined while speaking at the State Department last May, is that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” This would be an intolerable compromise in the eyes of Santorum and Perry, though, as they consider the whole of the West Bank to be Israeli land.

So Nick Clegg has a very long way to go before he can join the likes of Gingrich, Perry and Santorum among the ranks of Israel’s most fervent foreign supporters. To be part of that club, you must do the following: misrepresent the US president’s policies, declare that there is no such thing as a Palestinian, support settlement activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and assert that the West Bank rightfully belongs to Israel. Oh, and any criticism of Israel is unacceptable.

I’m guessing that Nick Clegg, the leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, doesn’t want to be a member of that particular team.

Michael Walker has a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.


Israel and U.S. Militaries Increasingly Joined at the Hip

Fifth FleetThe United States and Israel have been quietly building up their military cooperation. During a visit to Israel last December, General Frank Gorenc announced that thousands of U.S. troops would be deployed to Israel for an exercise that has been code named “Austere Challenge 12.” Additionally, Israel plans on moving a significant number of its troops to a U.S. European Command Headquarters base in Germany.

These moves come as tensions with Iran have escalated in response to the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist last week, the third attack of its kind since 2010. Relations between the United States and Iran began to sour most recently after Iran captured a fallen American drone and refused to return it to the United States. Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak said as early as last November that Israel will not “take any option off the table,” echoing similar statements from the Obama administration. The Revolutionary Guard, Iran’s most elite military branch, has indicated that it will move ships into the Strait of Hormuz in February to conduct training exercises and has already performed some exercises in the strait earlier this month. The U.S. Fifth Fleet, currently based in Bahrain, already has a presence in the area and is in a position to call for additional support from other U.S. ships on anti-piracy missions around the horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean. Britain has announced that it will be sending one of its largest destroyers, HMS Daring, to the strait as well. Together these combined naval forces leave the Iranian navy “significantly outgunned,” according to the Military Times.

Although General Gorenc emphasized to the Jerusalem Post that Austere Challenge 12 is part of a larger U.S. troop deployment, little information is currently available as to how long the Defense Department intends on having U.S. troops stationed in Israel, though Al Jazeera notes that many American servicemen are expected to stay till the end of 2012. The Israeli Air Force is considering setting up a base for an Iron dome counter rocket system near Haifa where it will protect oil refineries in Northern Israel.

As of January 5, debka.com, an Israeli website providing political and security analysis, stated that around 9,000 U.S. soldiers were already on the ground Israel. Austere Challenge 12 will test two separate types of missile defense systems: the land-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system alongside the naval-operated Aegis system. These systems include both relatively short- range defensive ballistic missile systems such as the Arrow, which Israel produced specifically to defend itself from Iranian attacks, and other systems such as a drone that could be used for a counter-attack or even a pre-emptive attack. This is slated to be the largest missile exercise to date in both U.S. and Israeli history with the long term objective of “establishing joint task forces in the event of a large-scale conflict in the Middle East” in which case this may be the beginning of a long-lasting U.S. military presence in Israel.

Israel isn’t the only U.S. partner in the region beefing up its military capacity. Last month the United States agreed to sell Saudi Arabia $30 billion worth of F15 fighter jets. This followed shortly after the November 2011 sale of nearly 5,000 bunker-busting bombs to the United Arab Emirates. These would prove especially threatening to the UAE’s Persian neighbor as Iran’s alleged illegal nuclear processing plants are located underground well within the range of these munitions.

In a recent development, however, Israel and the United States jointly agreed to postpone Austere Challenge 12 from this April to sometime in the latter half 2012. According to Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesperson, “The thinking was it was not the right timing now to conduct such an exercise.”

Heath Mitchell is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

How Does Netanyahu Think He Can Get Away With Bombing Iran?

Leaders of states are less often voted out of office for initiating a war gone wrong than for exhibiting good sense and drawing the brakes on the war-fever express when called for. Or that’s the assumption on which Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is no doubt operating. But if, as influential Yediot columnist Nahum Barnea has written, “all his life he’s dreamed of being Churchill,” Netanyahu either forgets that Winston Churchill wasn’t re-elected prime minister in 1945 or envisions himself, if out of office, retaining the same influence that Churchill did.

As for other personal consequences, Netanyahu is no doubt aware that the attacks Churchill called for on Germany, such as the “area” bombing that resulted in atrocities like Dresden and Hamburg, never resulted in him standing in the docket at Nuremberg. In present times, he may further be emboldened by the United States invasion and occupation of Iraq. Except for a few scattered charges by courts overseas (though they seem to be gaining momentum), George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have yet to be tried for war crimes. Not only do they remain free men, they’re still accorded respect in many quarters.

No matter what happens after an attack on Iran, Netanyahu knows that he will still be accorded the same respect in the same quarters, at least in the United States.

“October Surprise” by Israel Could Sink Obama’s Re-election Chances

Zbigniew Brzezinski

Zbigniew Brzezinski

Edward Luce, Washington columnist and commentator for the Financial Times, waited to the next to the last paragraph of his description of lunch with his friend, Zbigniew Brzezinski, to drop a bombshell. As they finished off their lasagna and taglierini, and after he recorded that the former U.S. National Security adviser is worried about China and President Obama, the subject of the next presidential election came up.

During the interview at Washington’s Teatro Goldoni restaurant, Brzezinski admitted to having voted for Republicans a couple of times (one being George H.W. Bush). “A good election is one that would shape out in an intelligent victory by Obama,” he said, adding that, however, “There is no sign of that from the other side.” “Which means Obama will win,” asked Luce. Well, not at all, says Brzezinski. “My fear is that two or three weeks before the election something will happen – an October surprise. If Iran were struck by Israelis during October, the negative effects would not be felt until late November and December. The first effect would be, ‘Ah, how wonderful. Let’s get behind the Israelis.’ Then all bets would be off.”

Now, Brzezinski is no peacenik, and most of his policies are not something any progressive could support. The bloody mess in Afghanistan is largely his fault. But when you read his writings or hear him speak you come away confident that he is, for the most part, sane and sensible. His comment about Iran should have made the front pages of the big newspapers – and gone viral on the blogs.

Nobody I know who pays attention to such things imagines that the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu would launch a strike against Iran without at least the tacit okay from Washington. If Brzezinski thinks it might, that’s scary news.

However, on January 14, the Wall Street Journal reported “U.S. defense leaders are increasingly concerned that Israel is preparing to take military action against Iran, over U.S. objections, and have stepped up contingency planning to safeguard U.S. facilities in the region in case of a conflict.” According to the paper, the alarm grew to the point last week that President Obama got Netanyahu on the telephone and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was dispatched this week to Tel Aviv.

“U.S. officials briefed on the military’s planning said concern has mounted over the past two years that Israel may strike Iran. But rising tensions with Iran and recent changes at Iranian nuclear sites have ratcheted up the level of U.S. alarm,” said the Journal.

The article’s authors, Adam Entous, Juliane Barnes and Jay Solomon, went on to suggest obliquely –and I think unlikely –that the reason the U.S. is uncertain about Israeli intention is a spy problem. “Some American intelligence officials complain that Israel represents a blind spot in U.S. intelligence, which devotes little resources to Israel,” they wrote. “Some officials have long argued that, given the potential for Israel to drag the U.S. into potentially explosive situations, the U.S. should devote more resources to divining Israel’s true intentions.”

Now that’s really scary.

Over at Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn takes up the questions, “Will Israel attack? Is Obama, coerced by domestic politics in an election year, being dragged into war by the Israel lobby? Will he lunch the bombers? Is the strategy to force Iran into a corner, methodically demolishing its economy by embargoes and sanctions so that in the end a desperate Iran strikes back?”

“As with sanctions and covert military onslaughts on Iraq in the run up to 2003, the first point to underline is that the US is waging war on Iran,” writes Cockburn. “But well aware of the US public’s aversion to yet another war in the Middle East, the onslaught is an undeclared one.”

Still, that’s not the same as a military attack – and its inevitable catastrophic consequences. But Cockburn makes a good – and frightening – observation when he cites former Pentagon official Pierre Sprey saying to him, “Note also that this is one of those rare but dangerous moments in history when Big Oil and the Israelis are pushing the White House in the same direction. The last such moment was quickly followed by Dubya’s invasion of Iraq.”

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.

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