Focal Points Blog

Alignment of Views on the Middle East a Little Too Serendipitous

Of course it was a coincidence. Of course. Even if it did sound to me like talking points.

A number of pundits and reporters came to the same conclusion at about the same time. To wit (as one of them put it), “the Palestinian leadership has found itself orphaned. Politically divided, its peace talks with Israel collapsed and its foreign support waning, the Palestinian Authority is sidelined, confused and worried that its people may return to violence.”

Those are the words of soon-to-be-ex New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner. They appeared March 7 on the paper’s web site in advance of his story – “Mideast Din Drowns out Palestinians” – that showed up above the fold in the print edition the following day.

Coincidently, on March 8, Reuters carried a report by correspondent Noah Browning titled “Amid Iran war of words, Palestinians are forgotten,” which contained this colorful bit of analysis: “A monumental wooden chair erected in Ramallah to symbolize the Palestinians’ sought-after United Nations seat collapsed this week after months of wind and rain. Bulldozers quietly took away the shattered remains by night.

“It’s (sic) collapse and stealthy removal could well serve as an emblem of Palestinian hopes for statehood.”

Palestinian officials are said to be drafting a statement setting forth guidelines for the resumption of peace talks with Tel Aviv. In Browning’s view, “The Israelis will certainly reject the demands, if they ever arrive, and will face no international pressure to back down, with world attention fixed firmly on the Iranian nuclear row.”

Browning’s obituary for Palestinian hopes for a settlement appeared the day after Bronner’s. The same day, Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary magazine, a neo-conservative monthly, wrote:

“For decades, the chattering classes have been working hard to teach us that the central issue of the region was not the Shia-Sunni conflict or the struggle for freedom by Arabs longing to rid themselves of autocratic monarchs or dictators. The belief in the centrality of the Palestinian issue was so strong that every other consideration had to be subordinated to the cause of trying to assuage the anger of the Muslim world at their plight. But in the past year, the main subjects of discussion have been the Arab Spring revolts and the debate over how best to stop the Iranian nuclear threat. The result is that the world is getting on with its business these days without obsessing about the Palestinians. Even President Obama, who had picked an annual fight with Israel, chose this year to abandon his usual attempt to pressure Israel into concessions to the Palestinians.”

Tobin’s piece (“Who Marginalized the Palestinians?”) cited Bronner’s, “the “substance” of which was, he wrote, that “The Palestinian answer to their dilemma is much like that of a child who threatens to hold his breath until he turns blue.”

Those words were not in the version of the article he wrote the night before that dealt with the pending unity agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. It said, “The lack of alarm, or even much worry, about the impact of Hamas on the peace process makes it clear that not only is there no more peace process to worry about, but that the Palestinians have made themselves irrelevant.”

“Where once the international chattering classes doted upon every aspect of Palestinian politics in a way that confirmed the prevalent myth that Israel’s antagonists were truly at the heart of all the problems of the Middle East, it is no longer possible for even their cheerleaders and apologists to pretend this is so. In the 18+ years since the signing of the Oslo Accords,” wrote Tobin. “The Palestinians have talked and bombed their way not only out of peace and the independent state they claimed they wanted but also off the front pages. While supporters of Israel still keep their eyes on the goings-on in Ramallah and Gaza, the rest of the world is gradually moving on.”

All of U.S. President Barack Obama’s initiatives “to push the Israelis to give in on Jerusalem, settlements, and the 1967 borders have been rendered moot by the Palestinian refusal to negotiate” wrote Tobin. “At this point, and with his campaign staff worried about shoring up his popularity in an election year, any further attention paid to the Palestinians is not only bad policy but also a waste of time. Though the Palestinians’ erstwhile European friends have no such worries, even they have figured out there are other more pressing issues.”

In the same haughty, arrogant spirit, Tobin went on to declare, “there is little the world can do” for the Palestinians “unless they decide to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Until they do so — and that seems unlikely for the foreseeable future — they are going to have to reconcile themselves to being marginal players on the world stage rather than the focus of the world’s sympathy.”

The coincidence of this theme of Palestinian defeat and isolation by Bonner, Browning and Tobin, all appearing within a 24-hour period coinciding with the gathering in Washington of the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appearance there, and his meeting with President Obama is as fascinating as it is troubling. An effort to get that message out was, however, foreseen.

“Peace talks with the Palestinians dominated President Barack Obama’s meeting last year with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but will barely warrant a mention at their White House session Monday or in speeches to a powerful pro-Israeli lobby,” Associated Press reporters Bradley Klapper and Matthew Lee wrote March 3. “Iran is now the issue commanding urgent attention.”

The Palestinians “probably will not get much more than a passing reference by the U.S. and Israeli officials, lawmakers, GOP presidential hopefuls and others” at the AIPAC conference “nor in the Obama –Netanyahu meeting in the Oval Office,” the AP story read. “Shifting focus from the seemingly intractable Mideast conflict has political advantages for both Obama and Netanyahu, even if they also don’t see eye to eye on the preferred tactics to prevent Iran from being a nuclear-armed state.”

As the country’s “pro-Israel advocates gather again, the call for peace with the Palestinians has succumbed to fever-pitched talk of military action against Iran,” Klapper and Lee wrote.

“Putting the peace process on the back burner has not solved any of the underlying tension and mistrust between the Obama administration and Netanyahu government,” Haim Malka, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told AP. “If anything, tension over the Palestinian issue has been eclipsed by bilateral tension over how to address Iran’s nuclear program.”

“Relegating the peace process to the background is a coup for Netanyahu. His government has brushed aside American criticism of Jewish settlement expansion in lands the Palestinians want for their future state, and has insisted on Palestinian concessions, notably their endorsement of Israel’s Jewish character, before any talk of granting Palestinian independence,” concluded Klapper and Lee.

The issue of Palestine and the occupation is not going away – even if Netanyahu and perhaps Obama wish it to. The Palestinian leadership is hardly likely to remain holed up in Ramallah ruing their alleged impotence until next year. Tobin’s notion that they “are going to have to reconcile themselves to being marginal players on the world stage rather than the focus of the world’s sympathy” is a pipe dream.

Gershom Gorenberg wrote on the American Prospect site March 7 that a count of the words devoted to each subject in his AIPAC speech “shows that Netanyahu has succeeded in defining the agenda in U.S.-Israel relations as being all Iran, all the time. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, truly the key to Israel’s future, has been demoted to less than a distraction.”

“Compare this year’s speeches to last year’s,” wrote Gorenberg. Addressing AIPAC in 2011, Obama devoted about 200 words of a 3,000-word speech to Iran. The concluding section, nearly half the speech, portrayed the urgent need for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, ‘based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.’ This year, the proportions were reversed: Obama spent less than 200 words defending the very fact that he’d ever engaged in peace efforts. His long crescendo dealt with Iran. Last year, Netanyahu had to declare, ‘Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a vital interest for us,’ even while putting all blame for the failure to achieve it on the other side. This year he felt free to leave the word ‘Palestinian’ out completely.

“That doesn’t mean the issue has disappeared. There’s nothing static about the status quo. Two weeks ago, an Israeli planning authority approved nearly 700 new homes in settlements in an area north of Ramallah that Israel would have to give up in any two-state accord. Palestinian frustration with the diplomatic stalemate is growing; the only question is whether it will explode in violent or non-violent protest. Even conservative European leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel are tired of Netanyahu’s policies. Without a two-state agreement, international pressure to declare a single state between the Mediterranean and Jordan will grow—a ‘solution’ almost certain to be disastrous.”

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.

Timing of Stop Kony Campaign Suspicious

Cross-posted from the NY Times eXaminer.

As anyone who regularly utilizes the mixed blessing that is social media now knows, an internet campaign to “#stopkony” has exploded in popularity within the last few days. The target in question is the infamous (now more than ever) Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which haunts East-Central Africa.

Today’s New York Times picked up on the phenomenon in a front page article and in a piece at The Lede blog on the paper’s website titled “How the Kony Video Went Viral.” Both articles note some of the criticism directed at the campaign, included the failure of the organizers, namely those in a neophyte group by the name of Invisible Children, to mention the brutality of the Ugandan military, which the campaign seeks to support as a means to capturing Kony.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this story lies in how it demonstrates that social media can be incorporated, with novel features, into a propaganda model of the traditional media. Let’s return to the Times’ question: how did the video go viral in just a few days? (The post at the Lede has a graph which demonstrates the meteoric rise of the trending topic nicely.)

In answer, the Times notes, “Mr. Russell explains the social media strategy, which includes getting people to enlist celebrities on Twitter.”

When Kim Kardashian, with her 13 million ‘followers,’ joins in, exclaiming “#Kony2012 Wow just watched! What a powerful video! Stop Kony!!!,” we may acknowledge their success at raising awareness. But then, a propaganda poster from World War I also raised awareness – about the fearsome Huns – whether it does more good than harm is another matter.

The Times’ ‘celebrity Twitter’ explanation for the topic’s sudden popularity is fine, so far as it goes. However, why should this story be the one to blow up big? Why the LRA and not lawless drone strikes on a growing number of countries, or any number of other issues? Do the idealists at Invisible Children simply have unusual marketing savvy? To ask the question is to know the answer.

Celebrities, in the main, will only promote social media campaigns which are safe for their image, a desideratum of which is that they cannot conflict with the geopolitical interests of Washington. A “#stopdrones” Tweet will do nothing for Justin Bieber’s career and, if he were to keep it up, could well do it serious damage. Nor will a campaign hashtag for Washington to end its alliance with Meles Zenawi’s regime in Ethiopia likely be ReTweeted by brand Oprah Winfrey. Thus, no exponential rise in ‘awareness’ about the topic will occur – at least not with the help of most Twitter celebrities.

While we’re on the topic, it should be noted that the problem with the ‘stop Kony’ campaign is not really one of oversimplification. As if the limits of messaging ensure inevitable distortions. It is perfectly possible to reduce complexity to some simple messages without doing violence to reality.

The problem is rather with how the initial messaging is simplified, particularly in its target and solutions. The target, much as in the Save Darfur campaign, is poorly chosen because leverage over the situation is remote for Western publics. Unless one resorts to the dangerous fantasy that Western militaries are merely the armed wings of Amnesty International. Instead, how about a call for Washington to stop supporting the Museveni government, target of brave and brilliant democracy protests last year?

If we nonetheless accept the target of Kony, we must still acknowledge the terrible violence unleashed upon civilians as a result of Operation Lightening Thunder, the previous U.S.-Ugandan military alliance, which must surely be judged a failure if the purpose was truly to chase down the LRA. That’s right – the military route has been tried before. The barest respect for recent history forces us to reject the solution proffered by Invisible Children. Rather, why not support and amplify the goals of those activists and civil society campaigners in the region who have established strategies for obtaining peace?

Returning to the Times coverage, both pieces fail to observe the Invisible Children campaign’s neat parallel with Washington’s military adventures in the area. To little publicity, in the last few months the Obama administration has deployed Special Forces to Uganda, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in a “shadowy” mission ostensibly designed primarily for the purpose of catching Kony. Just over two weeks ago, on Feb. 23rd, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa briefed reporters at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The timing of the ‘stop Kony’ trend in social media is certainly convenient.

The Times’ front page print article merely limits itself to commenting that, “The surge of awareness [about Kony] is even more remarkable considering that President Obama, under pressure from Congress, announced in October that he had authorized the deployment of about 100 American military advisers to help African nations working toward ‘the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield,’ a major step in American foreign policy in Africa.” Surely, ‘remarkable’ is not the first adjective that comes to mind when promotional campaigns happen to track military expeditions. ‘Predictable’ might be a better word choice.

Already, observers have warned of the likelihood that this campaign could reinforce the U.S. military presence in the region.

To Israel, an Iranian Bomb Is a Hegemonic as Well as “Existential” Threat (Part Two)

Thirty years ago, the Reagan Administration went on a crash program to increase the U.S. military budget, cut social programs, escalate the nuclear arms race to a degree unprecedented during the Cold War (1945-1989) and revive U.S. interventionalism in the Third World.

Looking back, it’s not hard to discern the Reagan Strategy:

• most of all — either fabricate or greatly exaggerate ‘the threat’, giving the impression that ‘the end of the world’ is at hand through nuclear holocaust

surround the Soviet Union with U.S. bases, with sea-based Trident submarines, a single sub armed with possibly 154 nuclear warheads

impose an economic embargo and engage in counterinsurgency

construct an anti-communist alliance (NATO)

use the nuclear arms race to push the Soviet Union to the limit, making it difficult for the communist government to both re-tool its economy and keep up with military expenditures at the same time

It worked.

Understanding that the USSR could not participate in an arms race and reform its economic and political structures at the same time, Mikael Gorbachev tried to reduce global tensions to reshape his country economically. But it was too little too late — the USSR had long before lost its moral compass; its economy was so hopelessly grid-locked that reform proved impossible. The whole structure collapsed, with the World Bank and IMF finishing off what remained of Soviet Communism with their punishing structural adjustment programs in exchange for financial aid.

Fast forward to today.

A similar political witches’ brew, with slight modifications, is being concocted to bring down the Islamic Republic of Iran one way or another by both the USA and Israel. The exaggerated threat, the vilification of the Iranian leadership, the economic boycott, the ring of military bases surrounding Iran combined with the presence of a naval armada in the Persian Gulf all follow the Reagan prescription for triggering Soviet collapse. The much-inflated Soviet threat has been replaced by the much inflated Iranian threat; the anti-Iranian coalition has replaced the anti-Communist crusade. Add to that the new, often insidious role of NGOs and special forces operations and the more modern-day version of ‘regime change,’ i.e., overthrowing governments, comes into focus.

These last months both the United States and Israel have ratcheted up the anti-Iranian rhetoric to an unprecedented level reaching a new crescendo of hysteria in Netanyahu’s March 5, 2012 speech before AIPAC. The Obama and Netanyahu administrations have painted Iran with such dark colors that should they want to change gears and NOT attack Iran, they would have difficulty explaining it to their peoples who have been worked into a frenzy; it is reminiscent of the media build up preceding the March 2003 U.S. led invasion of Iraq, or as one colleague compared put it — the period just before the outbreak of World War One.

With an election around the corner, Barack Obama is trying to cool down the flames and put the brakes on the very sentiment his administration has helped unleash. ”Too much war talk,” the president told a meeting of AIPAC, that powerful and reactionary pro-Israeli lobbying group a few days ago! Unfortunately, that message was embedded in an otherwise groveling-to-AIPAC, militaristic series of remarks about Iran which watered down Obama’s ‘message of peace.’

Cut out the war talk?

It suggests that the Obama Administration does not want to attack Iran, and does not want Israel to do so… for now, at least until after the elections.

But if Obama and his defense secretary, Leon Panetta, are saying this is not the time for an invasion, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu along with the Republican Party presidential candidates, neo-conservatives, Zionist organizations in the USA like AIPAC , the Looney Tunes Christian Zionists like Hagee and his band of ‘end-of-the-worlders’ are all pushing hard for military intervention.

Do they mean it? Is it not, as Colorado peace activist Arnie Carter suggested ‘just plain nuts’ to engage Iran militarily?

What is crystal clear is that for different reasons, both the United States and Israel are doing their utmost to overthrow the Islamic Republic. The means by which they hope to accomplish this is more a tactical than a strategic question at this point. But the indications are growing that any planned major military action — if it indeed takes place — will be put on hold until after the November 2012 U.S. presidential elections. Unleashing a war against Iran now with all its possible complications could cost Obama the elections and he will do what he can to avoid it.

Obama’s caution on attacking Iran is clashing with Netanyahu and American Republican presidential hopeful’s recklessness. Netanhayu and the Republicans are using the increased Iran war talk to pressure Obama.

What is going on here?

As stated in Part One, we believe Netanyahu is talking tough on Iran in an effort both to weaken Obama’s chances for a second term and to press the President for major concessions on the Palestinian issue (more settlements, complete annexation of Jerusalem, even greater integration into US strategic operations in the region).

As for the Republicans, throughout the primary campaign, other than attacking each other, the main candidates have failed to come up with an issue to get traction against Obama.

Attacking Charles Darwin just didn’t fly; not even the abortion issue is getting the attention it used to. Balancing the budget on the backs of the unemployed, working class and middle classes while cutting taxes for the rich does not seem to have the appeal it used to either.

Now the Republicans think they have come up with the answer: using the Iran issue to create global jitters which push up oil prices which in turn, among other things, threatens the weak economic recovery here in the United States. This could not only hurt the fragile U.S. economy but undermine the weak global recovery. Having contributed in large measure to the oil jitters and understanding well its consequences, then they attack Obama for the economic slowdown. Nice!

Openly nervous, Obama made reference to the spike in oil prices in his AIPAC talk and called for a toning down of the rhetoric. In an effort to drive oil prices back down again he has continued since his AIPAC speech to publicly challenge the Republican hopefuls on Iran, calling their tough talk bluff. Obama and his coterie have responded to their offensive by arguing that the sanctions against Iran are working.

The rational case against a US and/or Israeli attack on Iran has been repeatedly stated1 (see end note 1).

There is now another consideration that enters the picture, the Syria crisis, which Obama is also using as a pretext for not attacking Iran. Regardless of outcome of the present crisis there, the Syrian regime will be weaker and accordingly, its regional coalition with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas somewhat diminished in strength, placing Iran in a more difficult, weaker position vis a vis the U.S. and Israel. Iran will be more isolated — it is only a question of how much more. Hamas has already jumped ship (with promises of Saudi and Qatari money?) from the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah-Hamas alliance. Attacking Iran at this moment (or a Libyan NATO-like invasion of Syria) could only bring together and unify what is an increasingly less potent Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah alliance.

But if the timing is not right for a U.S. and/or Israeli attack on Iran, will the plans for military intervention turns to Syria?

End note:

1.1. It would probably further strengthen the authority and position of the mullahs, uniting the Iranian nation against the outside aggressor (as the threats have already done) and weakening the democratic movement in the country considerably.

2. There is nothing to indicate that invading Iran – whatever shape the military action might take – would result in the collapse of the government there as it did in Iraq in 2003. Without overstating the case – the 2009 protests revealed deep fissures within the country – still, the current government in Iran has considerable mass support. It is easy to forget one of the worst wars of the 20th century – the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988 when Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger and the like argued that supporting Iraq would result in the collapse of the Iranian regime. Didn’t happen then; won’t now either.

3. If war did break out, it would probably not be as one-sided as the U.S. led 2003 Iraq invasion where the Iraqi military all but collapsed. Iran is in a position to hurt the U.S. and its closest allies in the region militarily and politically. A ‘shock and awe’ type military offensive would cause great suffering in the country, but it is doubtful such a campaign would either bring down the regime, or for that matter, eliminate its potential to strike back militarily and politically.

4. Although rarely discussed, the U.S. actually needs (and cooperates with) Iran for stability in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Any U.S. military operation against Iran would seriously undermine the U.S. position, already quite tenuous, in these two countries. The U.S. military is obviously much stronger, but in any war, you can expect that there will be serious U.S. casualties with the naval fleet in the Gulf being essentially sitting ducks. Then there are the Saudi (and Kuwaiti and Emirates) oil fields. One has to be either pretty stupid or blinded by arrogance to believe the strategic resources the U.S. military is in the Middle East to protect, would not be hit in the event of war.

5. An attack on Iran – or some kind of regional military confrontation involving Iran, Israel, the US and other regional players – would almost certainly lead to a spiking in the world price of crude oil, something which could easily cause the current very weak global economic recovery to collapse. Such price increases would seriously undermine both the European and East Asian economies that are more reliant on Gulf oil than the USA.

Also read Part One.

Ibrahim Kazerooni is finishing a joint Ph.D. program at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. More of his work can be found at the Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni Blog. Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Assad Is Not All That’s Toxic About Syria

“As possible military action against Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program looms large in the public arena, far more international concern should be directed toward Syria and its weapons of mass destruction,” writes the American Federation of Scientists’ Charles P. Blair at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “Syria likely has one of the largest and most sophisticated chemical weapon programs in the world.”

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.

The arsenal includes 100 to 200 Scud missiles equipped, poison arrow-like, with warheads brimming with the nerve agent Sarin.

Here it is — served up on a platter. Finally, an airtight rationale for military intervention against the Bashar al-Assad regime by NATO and the United States. Right?

Uh, not so fast. Let’s review: VX and Sarin are weapons of mass destruction. What do they share with their big brother, nuclear weapons? By all rights, they should deter a wholesale assault. Conventional wisdom holds that Assad likely wouldn’t use his WMD, as Saddam Hussein refrained from doing against the United States. But, backed into a corner, he might lash out at neighboring Israel, if only because it represents NATO and the United States. Nor, like his father, has he shown any compunctions about slaughtering Syrians.

The key question is: when a regime acquires WMD does it do so for the protection of the state … or the regime? Once again, commonplace, un-sexy diplomacy is recommended as not only the weapon of first resort but last resort.

Body Counts in Libya Could Prove Embarrassing

Excerpted from Other Words.

Libya is commonly counted as a success story among the ongoing Arab uprisings. NATO bombing, the story goes, saved thousands of lives and allowed Libyans to overthrow the absurd and murderous Muammar Gaddafi. The intervention proves that the West has aligned its interests in the Arab world with its values — and may even be a measure of redemption for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the deeper colonial past.

Not much of this comforting tale rings true.

The regime Gaddafi led was violent and decrepit. It did, however, have a support base that, albeit narrow, was broader than those of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. Libyans were also divided, to some degree, by long-standing regional and tribal claims, some of which Gaddafi’s regime had exploited to consolidate its rule. The situation a year ago was part popular uprising, part civil war. NATO’s intervention seems to have strengthened the latter half of the equation.

It’s far from clear that NATO warplanes saved lives. When Libya’s deputy UN ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi warned of “genocide” as he defected from the regime in February 2011, the death toll was 233, according to Human Rights Watch. Estimates of the total number dead are now all over the map and run as high as 30,000, but all sources agree that most of these people were killed after the UN Security Council authorized the NATO sorties on March 17.

No one knows how many were civilians, or how many died under NATO bombs, but NATO and allies like Qatar badly overstepped the stricture to “protect civilians” laid out in the UN Security Council resolution. They ignored, for instance, the arms embargo stipulated in the previous resolution, supplying weapons, training, and in the end tactical instructions to the rebels.

The overall effect of the intervention was thus to intensify and prolong the combat on the ground rather than end it swiftly. And the long-term consequences for Libya grossly contradict the NATO mission’s spirit

To read Chris Toensing’s column in its entirety, visit Other Words.

Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report , published by the Middle East Research and Information Project.

Cut Off the Money From Syria’s Enablers

Cross-posted from the United to End Genocide Blog.

The shocking stories of state-sponsored torture and murder coming out of Syria make it easy to feel helpless, but there are opportunities to take action.

The United Nations estimates that at least 7,500 Syrians have died at the hands of their government’s military. As the death toll mounts, people and governments around the world are looking for levers to escalate the pressure on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

One such lever is the economic one: where does the regime get its money, who is bankrolling it, and how can we cut off the flow of funds?

Investors, consumers, workers, and governments have a moral responsibility to avoid complicity in Syrian atrocities. We also have a strategic opportunity to identify those sectors, such as weapons, from which the Assad regime derives its power—and disrupt business as usual.

And when economic sanctions are in place—as they have been against Syria for several decades—that legal obligation reinforces the moral and strategic rationales for action.

Rosoboronexport is hardly a household name. But the Russian state-owned weapons dealer highlights a dangerous disconnect between U.S. foreign and economic policy—in which our government’s purchasing power is undermining efforts to prevent mass atrocities in Syria.

United to End Genocide and our allies at Human Rights First have learned that Rosoboronexport—which earlier this year signed a deal to sell combat jets to the Syrian government—also has contracts with the U.S. Department of Defense worth nearly $1 billion.

Take action: tell Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to cut ties immediately with the Russian firm.

The U.S. should not be doing business with Rosoboronexport. Breaking these ties would send a strong message to the corporation, and to all other corporations, that the U.S. is serious about cutting off the flow of weapons and cash to murderous regimes. It will let Assad know that his days of murdering his own people are numbered.

Kathy Mulvey is the director of the Conflict Risk Network at United to End Genocide.

To Israel, an Iranian Bomb Is a Hegemonic as Well as “Existential” Threat (Part One)

In politics, a “gaffe” is a politically inconvenient truth. The first George Bush committed a gaffe when he said that the idea that cutting taxes would increase government revenue was “voodoo economics.” Similarly, it was a gaffe when Barack Obama said that insecure right-wingers “cling” to religion and guns.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak gaffed big-time last November. This gaffe is even more colossal than what he said back in 1999 that if he were a stateless young Palestinian, he would “have joined one of the terror organizations.”

Barak’s November 2011 remark is breathtaking in both its honesty and in its deviation from the Israeli government line (Iran being an existential threat to Israel, Europe and the rest of the world) that has not only been sold to the Israeli people, but also to the United States government — especially to Congress, where anything from Netanyahu’s office is treated as gospel.

Appearing on PBS’ Charlie Rose, Barak was asked if he would want nuclear weapons if he were an Iranian government minister. He said he probably would.

BARAK: Probably, probably. I know it’s not — I mean I don’t delude myself that they are doing it just because of Israel. They look around, they see the Indians are nuclear, the Chinese are nuclear, Pakistan is nuclear, not to mention the Russians.

Barak did not “delude” himself with the belief that Iran’s nuclear weapon program is “just because of Israel.” Well, it’s always nice to be true to yourself. After the Israeli right went ballistic over Barak’s remarks, he qualified them, but in such a half-hearted way that it is clear what he said on PBS is what he believes.

Barak is not the only leading Israeli leader that has spoken the truth.

Meir Dagan, the recently retired Mossad chief, called bombing Iran a “stupid idea.” He said: “A military attack will give the Iranians the best excuse to pursue the nuclear race. Khamenei will say ‘I was attacked by a country with nuclear capabilities; my nuclear program was peaceful, but I must protect my country.’”

Of course, Barak and Netanyahu and a host of officials in successive Israeli governments for the past 15 years have sold the entire world on the idea that Iran seeks nuclear weapons for the purpose of destroying Israel. Repeatedly, Israeli officials have said that the Iranian government is insane with anti-Semitism, so insane that it would joyfully nuke Israel without any regard for the fact that Israel has 200 land, air and sea-based missiles that could kill millions.

Among the leading advocates for “crippling sanctions” against Iran and for keeping the “bomb Iran” option “on the table” are the right-wing “pro-Israel” organizations led by AIPAC, its congressional cutouts, and, in the blogosphere, Commentary, which is central command headquarters for the “Bomb Iran” movement.

With one honest comment, Barak demonstrated that the hysteria surrounding an Iranian bomb is, in fact, not about an “existential threat” to Israel, but about the fact that: Israelis don’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon because, if it does, Israel will not be free to continue its role as regional hegemon and to do whatever it wants in the Middle East. It will change the balance of power in the region.

Disregarding the Israelis publically stated reasons for attacking Iran, one needs to ask the question: why the saber-rattling? We believe that part of the answer lies in the unstated circumstantial factors.

In about nine months, the US will hold a presidential election. All the noise about striking Iran could have more to do with American domestic politics than any real or perceived threat to the Israelis.

It is no secret that the right-wing government in Israel in general, and Netanyahu in particular, would prefer a new US president in January 2013. This is not simply because Netanyahu had some tense moments with Obama, but also because in a second term Obama would not face the type of electoral constraints he faces in his first term.

It is no secret that US presidents who have engaged in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking have been most active in their second terms as Bill Clinton was at Camp David and George W. Bush was in Annapolis. Those that were particularly active in their first terms — Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush — were defeated in their re-election bids. Netanyahu does not want an unrestrained Obama demanding that he halt settlement expansion in 2013. Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich is more likely to be more susceptible to the pro-Israel pressures AIPAC is apt to apply.

Netanyahu also knows that if Israel went ahead and attacked Iran on its own before the election, he would put Obama in an extremely compromising position. Obama does not want to get into a war with Iran as it is against American interests. But Obama also knows that should Israel go it alone, he’d be pressured to participate lest he appear weak before the electorate.

The specter of an Israeli strike on Iran will have Obama asking Netanyahu what he can do to change Netanyahu’s mind and put off the strike to say, at least after November. (Remember Golda Meir’s threat of bombing Cairo with nuclear weapons in October 1973 war?) Netanyahu’s government has a great deal to gain from hanging the possibility of a unilateral strike ominously over the head of President Obama before an election.

Israel is hedging its bets for November in the hopes that they will either get a first-term Republican facing domestic constraints that prevent him from pressuring Israel, or a docile Obama, who has already given away the house on Jerusalem and settlements.

Did Netanyahu ask for specific guarantees, similar to the ones George W Bush made, which Obama does not recognize, about Israel’s retention of major settlement blocs in any deal with the Palestinians? Did he ask for guarantees about the future of Jerusalem, which he wants to keep in violation of international law, and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, over which he seeks to maintain a long-term military presence, rendering a would-be Palestinian state dead on arrival?

Ibrahim Kazerooni is finishing a joint Ph.D. program at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. More of his work can be found at the Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni Blog. Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

President Obama Drinks the Israel “Delegitimization” Kool-Aid

In his report on the Oval Office meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for the New York Times, Mark Landler writes:

Mr. Netanyahu, according to the official, argued that the West should not reopen talks with Iran until it agreed to a verifiable suspension of its uranium enrichment activities — a condition the White House says would doom talks before they began.

In other words, don’t hold talks until a goal of the talks has been reached before the talks themselves. In the United States we’re familiar with that practice from the Bush administration. It also parallels the Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2011 which prohibited U.S. diplomacy with “any Iranian official who poses a threat to the United States.”

In the same vein, in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic a few days before, President Obama said (emphasis added):

When you look at what I’ve done with respect to security for Israel, from joint training and joint exercises that outstrip anything that’s been done in the past, to helping finance and construct the Iron Dome program to make sure that Israeli families are less vulnerable to missile strikes, to ensuring that Israel maintains its qualitative military edge, to fighting back against delegitimization of Israel, whether at the [UN] Human Rights Council, or in front of the UN General Assembly, or during the Goldstone Report, or after the flare-up involving the flotilla — the truth of the matter is that the relationship has functioned very well.

“Deligitimization of Israel”? As what? A legitimate, certified tyranny? President Obama has not only drunk but regurgitated the deligitimization Kool-Aid. The other Rosenberg — M.J. wrote about the concept in 2010 for the Los Angeles Times.

Suddenly, all the major pro-Israel organizations are anguishing about “delegitimization.” Those who criticize Israeli policies are accused of trying to delegitimize Israel, which supposedly means denying Israel’s right to exist.

The concept of delegitimization has been used as a weapon against Israel’s critics at least as far back as 1975, when then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Patrick Moynihan accused the international body of delegitimizing Israel by passing a “Zionism is racism ” resolution. That may have been the last time the term was used accurately.

After all …

Israel achieved its “legitimacy” when the United Nations recognized it 63 years ago. It has one of the strongest economies in the world. Its military is the most powerful in the region. … So why are the pro-Israel organizations talking about it? The answer is simple: They are trying to divert attention from the intensifying world opposition to the occupation of the West Bank and to the blockade of the Gaza Strip, both of which, by almost any standard, are illegitimate. They are trying to divert attention from the ever-expanding settlements, which are not only illegitimate but illegal under international law. They are trying to divert attention from the ever-louder calls for Israel to grant Palestinians equal rights.

In any event, the New York Times reported yesterday (March 6):

The global powers dealing with Iran’s disputed nuclear program said Tuesday that they had accepted its offer to resume negotiations broken off in stalemate more than a year ago — a move that could help relieve increased pressure from Israel to use military force against Tehran.

“I have offered to resume talks with Iran on the nuclear issue,” said Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, who represents the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany as the contact on the nuclear issue with Iran. “We hope that Iran will now enter into a sustained process of constructive dialogue which will deliver real progress.”

Quoted for the article, Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran , said.

“If the two sides fail to establish a process rather than just another meeting, the risk of war will rise significantly.”

In other words, if unsuccessful, talks with Iran could “delegitimize” diplomacy.

The Life of an Iraqi Legislator Is Profitable But Perilous

Iraq parliament“In a late-night vote with little scrutiny, [the Iraqi] parliament last week approved spending $50 million on … armored cars out of the $100 billion Iraqi budget for 2012,” according to the Associated Press. With some quick math, I figured that if all 325 members of the Iraqi parliament halved their monthly salaries ($22,500, according to the AP) for a year and pooled the money together, they’d only be about $6 million short of being able to afford the cars without needing to increase to the budget. Perhaps halving their salaries would be seen as a goodwill gesture, even though the Wall Street Journal notes that most of the budget is fed by oil revenues.

It probably won’t work, though. The 40 Sadrist legislators in the parliament wouldn’t likely participate in such an effort because Muqtada al-Sadr says that any legislator who buys an armored car is “a traitor for his nation and homeland, and moreover, disobedient to God.” Although in theory, 40 fewer members means 40 fewer cars, so I don’t think the calculations would change (if we assume that for $50 million, every member would have gotten their own car).

The AP report said nothing about the possibility of legislators carpooling, unfortunately.

Iraqi legislators certainly feel they need this protection given the fact that car bombings — blamed on “al Qaeda in Iraq” — continue to hit Iraqi cities, and the parliamentary building itself was bombed in 2007 (by a suicide bomber, though, not a vehicle bomb). At least five parliamentarians have been assassinated in office since the body formed, and more have been wounded by failed attempts on their lives. However, the way they’ve chosen to respond to the attacks — by voting themselves money to buy bullet-proof Mercedes — has upset many Iraqis, since there hundreds of people who can’t afford gated compounds, sniffer dog details or armored cars and pay a huge price for continued sectarian violence, which some Iraqis increasingly believe the government itself is complicit in, either through incompetence or worse.

And considering that at $22,500 a month, the average Iraqi parliamentarian would have a higher annual salary than the Speaker of the House in the U.S. Congress, it’s hard to disagree with the assessment of a Mr. Abdul-Wahab of Baghdad that the legislators are “addicted to privilege.”

Perhaps Washington could provide the cars, though, as a gesture of good faith to “reengage” with Baghdad? The Washington Post op-ed went to print urging the U.S. to reassert itself in Iraq by not reducing the number of staff in the U.S.’s bloated Baghdad Embassy and finding a way to redeploy U.S. soldiers to Iraq (some Members of Congress had hoped that we’d be able to keep at least 10,000 soldiers there; the Obama Administration did try to renegotiate the “status of forces” agreement with the Iraqis, though ultimately the White House followed through on the withdrawal schedule set by George W. Bush). “Iraq could be the linchpin of a new U.S. strategy for the Middle East at a time when one is desperately needed,” the authors write, evoking the moment in 2003 and 2004 when we were told that Ahmed Chalabi was a new George Washington.

If George Washington was ever investigated for corruption and providing false intelligence, that is. Matt Duss‘s pithy Twitter riposte to this editorial was simply “Former Chalabi boosters blame Obama for Iranian influence in Iraq.”

While from a neoconservative perspective the authors — who are both from the AEI, a strong booster for regime change in Iraq — make sense, as the neoconservative model for influence via occupation equals postwar South Korea and Japan, they’re advancing a losing argument. There is no political will in the U.S. to redeploy thousands of soldiers back to Iraq, and except for some Iraqi Army officers and parliamentarians, the Iraqis wanted the U.S. to adhere to the agreement. Moreover, there’s little leverage Washington could bring to bear against Baghdad, since the Bush-Maliki relationship was never a partnership: it was an occupation.

Essentially, the only way the U.S. would regain that leverage is if sectarian violence becomes much more widespread (say, a series of attacks precipitates the Sadrists or the Badr Organization or Sunni tribal militias in Anbar Province to quit the electoral process and return to fighting). Then an unequal relationship could be built in to the bilateral relationship — which would prove that 1) a permanent military presence is what the U.S. desires most and 2) Iraq has made little progress despite nine years of occupation. The latter would rather discredit the former, I feel, but as the National Interest pointed out last year, none of those who endorsed the occupation want to admit that “the United States has paid a terrible cost — some $850 billion and more than 4,400 dead American soldiers — to make Iran the most influential power in Iraq” (to say nothing of Iraqi lives lost).

An anonymous Iraqi quoted by WSJ put it best: “They told us in the last elections that our vote is gold. Where is the gold? My vote has become rust.”

Your vote, and the neoconservative Project for a New American Century both, though I imagine many Iraqis do not mourn the latter.

Darned Ingrate Iraqis!

Excerpted from Other Words.

Iraq is a gift that keeps on giving.

We kicked out their murderous dictator for them, helped them institute democracy, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into their recovery, and tried our best to interrupt their civil war. Then we left — or at least our combat troops did.

You would think they’d be grateful, wouldn’t you? I’m not talking about an end-of-World-War-II scene with young women throwing flowers at our soldiers as they departed. Not necessarily.

But maybe a thank you would be appropriate. A salute or two wouldn’t hurt.

What do we get instead? Snarls. Insults. Cries of “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out” (which is terrifying in Arabic).

Now word comes that we’re being forced to cut our planned diplomatic presence in post-war Iraq by some 50 percent and counting. It turns out that the Iraqis don’t want us there.

After all we did for them. Why, just the bombing of their cities alone would have cost them billions if they’d had to do it themselves.

To read Donald Kaul’s column in its entirety, visit OtherWords.

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