Focal Points Blog

Ian Williams’s Lost 9/11 Chronicle, Part I

On 9/11, noted reporter and author, and Foreign Policy in Focus contributor, Ian Williams lived near the World Trade Center and reported on the attacks for Canadian Broadcasting. Not long afterward, he wrote a heretofore unpublished account, which we present in two parts. – Ed.

I moved from midtown to lower Manhattan in late August 2001. South Street Seaport seemed like home to someone who left Liverpool twelve years before. Indeed in some ways I had hardly left. The plaque on the esplanade mentioned that it was built on rubble landfill from blitzed London that returning supply ships used as ballast. Those ships actually came from bombed Liverpool. I’d used it to illustrate my thesis that American civilian experience of war was vicarious and inaccurate compared with that of Europeans, even younger ones like me brought up playing in bomb sites and listening to tales of evacuations and bomb shelters from older family members.

I had developed a routine in the new apartment. A brisk cycle ride round the southern tip of the island, past Battery Park and up the new bike path up the Hudson that begins by running through the dark valley between the World Trade Center and the World Financial Center. On the morning of September 11, I began my day as usual by checking my email as I swigged my first mug of tea, sitting, I must confess, in stark naked comfort.

The email brought several promising commissions, and so I decided to postpone my daily ride, even though the blue skies and equable temperature outside promised one of New York’s few sweet spots between its more customary extremes of frigidity and torridity. Instead I began work on an article for Punch, on the underlying wobbliness of the American economy.

I had written “The” when I heard the bang. It sounded like a building collapsing, so I ran to the window to look out. The fish porters from the Fulton market were standing in the square of Peck Slip staring up as if at the Second Coming. I pulled on clothes and ran down with a cell phone, recorder, binoculars and a camera. If this was indeed the second coming, it was the early stages, the arrival of Satan on Earth. The World Trade Center’s north tower had an exit wound some three quarters of the way up, with flames erupting from the northeast corner, and thick black smoke framing the brightness.

“Look there’re people jumping” a woman shouted in anguish. As far as I could see, what she thought were people was in fact metal siding drifting downwards on the wind. However, my reassurance was premature: shortly afterwards, that’s just what people trapped in the upper floors began doing.

I began trying to call various newsrooms on my cell phone, to no avail. Either everyone else in Lower Manhattan was hitting their dial buttons at the same time, or, I suspected, the antennae were on top of the Twin Towers.

I ran inside to call from my desk phone, but Canadian Broadcasting’s Toronto newsroom was already calling. Ducking between my fire escape platform and the phone, I began to tell them what was happening. The other tower exploding at a slightly lower level. Then the apocalyptic crash as it collapsed.

Up the East River Drive, the FDR, I could see along the shore line as ambulances, fire trucks and police cars fought the rush hour traffic to get closer. Then the evacuees began to trudge by. I had seen refugees in war zones before, but to see endless columns of necktied office workers was a new experience. Most of them marched onwards stolidly without a backward glance, perhaps not realizing that this stretch of their route offered a direct view of the disaster they were fleeing.

On the Brooklyn Bridge, the marching files were silhouetted against the sky like a scene from an Eisenstein film. But then, even those who still stood transfixed in the square had no view. A white cloud, like Pliny’s description of Vesuvius spread from the tower. Heavy, choking, white ash, which fell like snow over the area. By then, most of the rubberneckers had joined the majority marching out the city. A few optimistic ones tried to stop yellow cabs, which sensibly wanted nothing to do with them: just to get out.

In the square some young Indian women had lost their shoes in the rush, and were bleeding from head wounds. My girlfriend invited them to wash off in the bathroom and phone relatives before setting off. A young African man, probably illegal since he did not want to give his name, waited anxiously. He’d been taking his three year old son to pre-school and had lost him in the stampede. In one of the day’s happy stories, he found him, intact at the nearby hospital where some passerby had taken him. He stood in the square in front of us, hugging him thankfully and staring at the column of smoke that marked the site.

I’d been describing the scene from my fire escape for CBC in Toronto, who told me to stand by for ninety seconds for “local announcements.” As they did so, the second tower collapsed. It was the first time I lost my calm. I bellowed down the phone, cursing them and telling them what to do with their local announcements, but to no avail. I had to hold the line open as it was transferred from editor to editor, producer to producer, mostly ignoring the call waiting signals which represented the more successful attempts of friends and family to check on our safety. As the news spread, inward circuits were blocked as people across the world tried to do the same.

A second cloud headed across Manhattan, adding more white ash to the dust that drifted like snow across downtown. By now I was recounting the morning’s events for the BBC, while wrestling with an illustrative side issue. I had mentioned to another editor earlier that Mayor Rudy Giuliani had built his $16 million dollar command and control center for emergencies and disasters in the World Trade Center. She commissioned an immediate piece.

I thought it was a potent metaphor for the inefficacy of expensive Star Wars defence systems against this type of attack and spent several hours alternating between radio interviews by phone and checking my memories. It was true. The “bunker,” widely derided as a grandiose folly when it was built, was indeed on the 23rd floor of number 7 WTC, already aflame and later to collapse.

I clicked the send button and as the call volume fell, the adrenaline aftershock set in. Coughing and hoarse with dust and talking, I decided I could take it no longer. I had to go to see what was happening closer to the scene.

The Pompeii parallels became more apt outside. On Fulton Street, the local deli’s display of flowers was shrouded in ash. A fish porter’s breakfast lay in its foil tray, similarly coated, and the little mobile hot dog stands stood abandoned, their bagels and buns buried in a drift of grey dust.

Smoke streamed across towards Brooklyn, and the emergency vehicles stirred up dust devils as if on a desert road as they sped through the police lines to the epicenter. Looking straight down Fulton Street, I expected to see a stump, a pyramid of rubble. But who’d a thought the old towers had so little substance in them. It was clear that despite the column of smoke, there was nothing to be seen.

I could flee, or carry on working. First, I wanted to pay my debts so we went to the downtown hospital to give blood. They were not accepting it, and what’s more, there was what I thought of as a “fee fo fi fum” warning out. The blood of Englishmen smelt of mad cow disease and was not acceptable.

So, brandishing a tape recorder I approached Alex MacLain, a junior doctor at NYU hospital. She had been on duty forty hours, she recalled just as she was leaving. She described an early rush of burn victims — “glove injuries.” She explained. “Like one woman came in, and all the skin on her arm and shoulder came off.” Then there was a rush of impact injuries and fractures: followed by an ominous hiatus. She had come to the corner of Fulton Street to see what was happening.

As we spoke, behind us I could the lighthouse-shaped Titanic monument. In front of us the world was ending in fire, not ice. Coughing despite the masks that the local hospital was distributing, I suddenly had a terrible thought. We were breathing people. There was no way that everyone could have escaped. This smoke, these ashes, were from a massive funeral pyre: the Windows on the World had become a peephole into Hell.

Blowing around in the ashes, the memories of the world’s life were flashing by in the form of charred and chewed papers. Plans for environmental projects financed by Wall Street bonds, cheques for unimaginable numbers of zeroes, bunkering invoices from Pakistan, Japanese investment reports, and personnel files. I learned from a police deposition that a Ms. Watkins earned $500 a day in a massage parlour, charging $40 for a hand job, $80 for oral sex and $150 for full sex. But it had done her little good since her pimp took the lot. Down by Wall Street, in front of Federal Hall, where George Washington was proclaimed the first president, his statue overlooked his handiwork, his hair appropriately powdered like a Georgian wig for the first time in two centuries.

The NYPD working press pass says it entitles the bearer to cross police lines. It had never worked before, so I was not surprised to be greeted with customary brusqueness when I probed the police perimeter to get closer. I moved south and discovered a motley Dunkirk-style line of tour boats and tug boats at Battery Park, waiting for evacuees. It was a weak link in the cordon and I sidled through.

Part II on September 11.

We Could Take a Lesson From Islamist Militants When It Comes to ROI

“Determining just how expensive,” an improvised electric device is, writes Spencer Ackerman at Wired’s the Danger Room, “is difficult, owing to all of the different components in the bombs. But according to the Pentagon’s bomb squad, the average cost of … the cheapo IEDs have dropped from $1,125 in 2006 to $265 in 2009.”


… the U.S.’ measures to stop them — robots, optics, flying sensors — are orders of magnitude more expensive. Explosive ordnance detection teams in Afghanistan use a small robot called a “Devil Pup” to locate IEDs. JIEDDO has paid $35 million for the 300 mini-robots.

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is becoming not only an occasion to take the national pulse, but to add up the figures spent on war. On June 29, a Brown University research team issued a report that grew into a website named Costs of War. Contributors include Andrew Bacevich, Dahr Jamail, and William Hartung. At Huffington Post, Elise Foley wrote:

Even just paying the interest on the United States’ war debt will be a large endeavor, according to the report, at a time when the country is set to exceed its current debt limit of $14.29 trillion. The government has already paid about $185 billion in interest on war spending, and could accrue another $1 trillion — an amount not included in the $3.7 trillion estimate — in interest by 2020.

One of Costs of War’s directors, Catherine Lutz, said “Wars, in a sense, are never over when they’re over. … They go on for decades, and [some of] the peak costs for this war will be incurred forty years from now.”

A double standard exists for the defense budget. Even when it’s being scrutinized — and even cut by Republicans — the underlying assumption seems to be that national security is automatically entitled to a disproportionate amount of the budget. During wartime, constraints against spending are further loosed and the prevailing attitude seems to be that we’ll figure out how to pay for it later.

Those days are obviously over. If only to avoid being humiliated by insurgents pulling off successful operations for what amounts to a handful of change, boring principles such as cost-benefit analysis and return on investment must assume pride of place.

100 Members of Hamas Arrested Just Before UN Vote for Palestinian Statehood

Israeli security forces report that they have arrested at least 100 suspected members of Hamas and claim to have foiled multiple bombing and kidnapping plots. These actions would seem to indicate a severe setback for Hamas’s influence in the Occupied Territories and undermine prospects for reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. With the UN vote approaching, the timing of the announcement can only help buttress the Netanyahu government’s security credentials after the embarrassment of the August 18th Eilat attacks. The arrests also coincide with a major media and diplomatic campaign by the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian activists ahead of the UN vote for recognition of a Palestinian state.

The Israeli government states that it is not holding the Palestinian Authority responsible for the cells’ presence in the Occupied Territories and that the IDF is “cooperating” with Ramallah to conduct further security sweeps and prepare for Palestinian demonstrations later this month. The following information has been officially released:

On Wednesday (September 7), it was released for publication that the IDF, Israel Security Agency and Israel Police prevented a major terrorist attack in Jerusalem last month.

The attack was thwarted after a terrorist had already entered Jerusalem planning to activate an explosive device on a bus or at a shopping mall in the Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood [ed note: According to unnamed sources, the “explosive device” was being delivered to a suicide bomberYnet reports that the alleged suicide bomber, a 20-year old male from Hebron, is now in police custody].

The attack was prevented through joint operations by the IDF, ISA and police. During those operations, members of 13 terrorist cells (around 100 terrorists) were arrested. The detained terrorists included some senior operatives.

The ISA has noted that Hamas has been trying to rehabilitate its military infrastructure in Judea and Samaria in order to carry out attacks against Israeli targets.

According to the ISA, Hamas leadership abroad (in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) has provided funding, guidance and training for the establishment of terrorist infrastructure. Hamas in the Gaza Strip has been involved as well, attempting to move weaponry into Judea and Samaria and providing funding for terrorist activities.

Questioning of detained terrorists has revealed that they were instructed to carry out a kidnapping in order to bargain for the release of prisoners [according to media reports, these capture operations constituted the cells’ main operational preparations].

Some of those arrested are being linked to a bus bombing in Jerusalem this past March. Connections with Hamas cells and fundraisers in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Turkey and China have been alluded to by the IDF and Shin Bet.

Few of the arrested individuals have yet been identified, though the Israeli media report that most of those being held in custody are “repeat offenders.” These arrests follow the detention of amnestied Hamas founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef (better known as the father of the Shin Bet’s former Hamas double agent Mosab Hassan Yousef).

Regarding that arrest, Defense Minister Ehud Barak had this to say, which reflects the Israeli government’s position on these most recent arrests:

Readiness is very high. We are determined to strike at those carrying out the attacks, to take action as much as possible to intercept the attack and we are reiterating that responsibility stems from the Gaza Strip. It is not just Islamic Jihad but also Hamas.

It looks like every player in this game is running out of options these days.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

How Can a Junta Survive With a Weak Army?

Officially, the junta known as the SPLDC (State Peace and Development Council) no longer rules Burma. It was dissolved for the 2010 elections, in which Thein Sein was “elected” president and a veneer of democracy was applied to the country. But the military still rules. In Asia Times Online, Bertil Lintner writes about the expansion of Burma’s arms manufacturing.

Myanmar has embarked on a massive expansion of its military and military capabilities since the country was shaken by a nationwide pro-democracy uprising that almost toppled the regime in 1988. … Recent defectors from the Myanmar military say that the number of infantry battalions and other military units have been increased dramatically since 1988, but most of these are understaffed and the foot soldiers are often forcibly recruited, poorly paid and badly motivated [and] the troops, and even most of the officers, lack combat experience.

… Myanmar’s newly recruited infantry may lack combat experience, and the quality of the weapons produced in its defense industries may be of poor quality. … But it is clear that the Myanmar regime is in no hurry to change its priorities, as defense spending still accounts for as much as 50% of the central government’s budget.

In particular, those priorities are

… creating a loyal officer corps that the regime can depend on for its survival rather than building a professional fighting force. Regime survival has always been the main prerogative of Myanmar’s generals and thus a loyal and well-supplied officer corps is still of utmost importance, regardless of their weakness on the battlefield.

Obviously when a populace is as disempowered as Burma’s, the junta doesn’t need a strong army.

Saudis: “We’re Killing Too Many Civilians in Yemen? Then Give Us Drones”

Yemeni militants

Yemeni militants

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

U.S.-Saudi military cooperation in Yemen (which I reported on for The Arabist a few months ago) has not been without controversy. While the U.S. conducts its own drone strikes in Yemen against suspected al Qaeda targets and provides extensive funding, intelligence and training to government forces, it also provides satellite imagery to the Saudis, who conduct airstrikes and ground offensives against suspected al Qaeda targets and anti-government Shia militias. Given that much of the U.S.-Saudi joint effort has come in the form of airstrikes, many of the same objections regarding civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been raised over the air campaigns in Yemen. In February 2010, according to diplomatic cables from the U.S. embassy in Riyadh recently released by Wikileaks, the U.S. raised such objections with the Saudi Ministry of Defense, but was satisfied with their response to the matter and has continued supplying them with satellite data.

The Saudi military, never ones to pass up an opportunity to expand their capabilities, used the opportunity of a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to suggest that “if we had the Predator, maybe we would not have this problem [of killing Yemeni civilians].”

“Obviously, some civilians died, though we wish that this did not happen,” Saudi Defense Minister Prince Khaled concluded, when the U.S. presented him with evidence that Saudi airstrikes were inaccurate and caused collateral damage to civilian facilities, such as medical clinics.

So despite U.S. concerns over civilian casualties, the defense minister’s assurances were stated to be sufficient to warrant continued cooperation in Yemen, much like the decision to provide Saddam Hussein with satellite imagery of Iranian positions during the Iran-Iraq War. Yemen’s domestic turmoil is viewed as a sideshow, an impediment, to the real purpose of Saudi and U.S. intervention. Like then, the Islamist specter is driving cooperation between the U.S. and an Arab government with a questionable human rights record. In the 1980s, it was Khomeinism. Today, it is al Qaeda. From Wikileaks:

[The] Ambassador met with Assistant Minister of Defense and Aviation Prince Khaled bin Sultan to relay U.S. concerns about sharing USG imagery with Saudi Arabia in light of evidence that Saudi aircraft may have struck civilian targets during its fighting with the Houthis in northern Yemen. Prince Khaled described the targeting decision-making process and while not denying that civilian targets might have been hit, gave unequivocal assurances that Saudi Arabia considered it a priority to avoid strikes against civilian targets. Based on the assurances received from Prince Khaled, the Ambassador has approved … the provision of USG [United States Government] imagery of the Yemeni border area to the Saudi Government.

Some examples of black comedy can be found in the Saudi explanation of their airstrikes in Yemen, particularly their growing reluctance to take everything President Saleh’s forces are telling them at face value:

There was one occasion when Saudi pilots aborted a strike, when they sensed something was wrong about the information they received from the Yemenis. It turned out that the site recommended to be hit was the headquarters of General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, the Yemeni northern area military commander, who is regarded as a political opponent to President Saleh. This incident prompted the Saudis to be more cautious about targeting recommendations from the Yemeni government.

Another classified cable from this period, discussing the opinion of the powerful Saudi Ministry of the Interior [MOI] on events in Yemen, evidences extreme frustration and disdain on the part of the Saudis towards the Yemenis (including their strongman, President Saleh):

The reality is that “everything failed,” and “repression is back,” exercised by political parties, tribes, the military and corruption. Today, “everything is for sale in Yemen, including loyalty.” Saudi Arabia believes that the reconciliation effort failed, in part because President Saleh’s opponents were largely excluded

MOI has concluded that Yemeni leaders are now playing a “survival game,” with no clear strategic plan to take Yemen into the 21st century. Instead, most of the government’s tactics seem focused on maintaining the status quo.

When even the Saudi government says that political exclusion is a problem, then it is indeed a problem. But, it is not the main problem. The main reason all of this galls the Saudis (and Americans) is that they see Yemen turning into a new Afghanistan because of Yemeni actions.

Still, President Saleh is one of the Saudis’ and Americans’ few viable choices for a southern ally, so the Saudis are not quite willing to hang him out to dry. And on a related note, while bemoaning Yemeni mendacity, the Saudi Ministry of the Interior simultaneously expressed optimism about the expansion of the U.S.-trained Facilities Security Force to provide military protection to critical Saudi infrastructure. Once a ceasefire in Yemen goes into effect, Prince Khaled told the U.S. Ambassador, “we can concentrate on Al-Qaida.”

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

China Forced to Temper Its Mercenary Approach to International Trade

China trades with authoritarian regimes, such as Burma, sells arms to human rights abusers, and exploits its own workforce. It seems determined to take the ethos of Western corporations – “ye who enter the marketplace, abandon all ethics” – to the next level. Recently though, called out for such behavior, it’s been forced to backtrack. Toronto’s Globe and Mail broke the story.

China offered huge stockpiles of weapons to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi during the final months of his regime, according to [showing] that state-controlled Chinese arms manufacturers were prepared to sell weapons and ammunition worth at least $200-million to the embattled Col. Gadhafi in late July, a violation of United Nations sanctions.

The Christian Science Monitor captures China backpedaling.

China has denied selling weapons to Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in violation of a UN embargo, but admits that Libyan officials did meet with Chinese arms manufacturers over the possibility of a sale.

China also felt compelled to withdraw from a trade agreement with Iran, which, of course, is under heavy U.S. sanctions. Reuters reports.

China has put the brakes on oil and gas investments in Iran, drawing ire from Tehran. … The slowing of China’s energy investments in Iran was prompted, at least partly, by Beijing’s efforts since late 2010 to ease tension with the Obama administration and cut the risk of Chinese oil firms being hit by U.S. sanctions that Congress has vigorously backed, said officials.

Maybe China’s recent prudence reflects a new policy. Xinhuanet reports on a white paper that the Chinese government just released. (Thanks to Bernhard of Moon of Alabama for bringing it to our attention.)

The white paper, titled “China’s Peaceful Development”, was released by the State Council Information Office. It introduces the path, objective and foreign policy of the peaceful development and elaborates on what China’s peaceful development means to the rest of the world. … The Chinese have a strong collective consciousness and sense of social responsibility. The paper says “we believe that ‘you should not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.'”

… China has no reason to deviate from the path of peaceful development. China’s … national interests and its long-term interests — all these factors have created the innate force driving China’s peaceful development [which] has broken away from the traditional pattern where a rising power was bound to seek hegemony.

China gets a lot of mileage out of not having started any wars recently. But it’s about time it started factoring into its decisions the impact of its international trade policies on the world. China’s belief that business outranks all other considerations is extremely short-sighted, nor is it becoming of a world citizen.

To Whatever Extent Libya Is a Victory, It’s a Defeat for Nuclear Nonproliferation

However one might care to characterize the U.S.-NATO campaign in Libya, it’s another blow to worldwide nuclear nonproliferation. At the Christian Science Monitor, Reza Sanati writes:

The lesson is elementary. Eight years ago, Libya agreed to dismantle its infant nuclear program. … Would NATO have launched a bombing campaign against Libya if [it] had possessed nuclear weapons?

The United States set a precedent when it attacked Iraq in 2003. The door had been shut on Iraq’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons by the UN inspections regime known as UNSCOM (United Nations Special Commission). Which, of course, didn’t prevent George W. Bush’s administration from propping up the corpse of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program to justify its invasion.

Thus, adding insult to injury, not only did the U.S. attack a country without nuclear weapons, it conjured up the fiction that Iraq had renewed its program. This constituted a double blow to nonproliferation. What’s the point of a state disarming if it’s not only subjecting itself to attack, but leaving itself vulnerable to the possibility that a nuclear-weapons state might make the claim that, in fact, it hasn’t disarmed?

Of course, if Saddam Hussein, in the interests of regional security as he saw it, hadn’t tried to keep up the pretense that Iraq still possessed a nuclear weapons program, the accusations about its program might never have been mounted. What’s worrisome today is that Iran’s contentiousness makes it ripe for exactly that sort of double crossing.

More from Sanati:

Qaddafi’s forceful downfall will make acquiring nuclear weapons all the more justifiable to states that feel threatened by outsiders. In turn, that will erode the vision of nonproliferation that held such promise in the post-cold-war era.

Furthermore, while Iraq and Libya were attacked, “troublesome nuclear-armed states such as North Korea and Pakistan have not been attacked since they acquired the bomb. They’ve also garnered multilayered benefits from the international community.” In other words, Sanati eloquently writes:

The threat or reality of military intervention against nonnuclear states … at times done to dissuade them from acquiring nuclear capability, can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By which he means that those states might seek to develop nuclear weapons. In fact, the United States would be better served if it paid more than lip service to the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty’s Article VI, which reads: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.”

Nuclear-weapons advocates sometimes claim that Article VI is lip service itself. They maintain that Article VI does not actually require states party (aka signatories) to negotiate said “treaty on general and complete disarmament” into actual existence. They’re only required “to negotiate in good faith” to that eventual end. That’s despite an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice in 1996 which maintained: “There exists an obligation to … bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament.”

In any event, non-nuclear-weapon states, especially those that belong to NAM (the Non-Aligned Movement) delight in throwing Article VI back in the faces of the nuclear weapons states. Failure on the part of nuclear-weapon states to take substantive disarmament measures, they claim, only allows states that aspire to nuclear weapons to justify their needs as they see them. But nuclear-weapons advocates believe that western leadership on disarmament would not only do nothing to discourage states that aspire to nuclear weapons but might even encourage them. Nevertheless, even though it might not produce immediate results, there’s really nothing for it but to deprive states that aspire to nuclear weapons of justification.

For its part, though, the United States will probably stick to the status quo. A token treaty like New START while it commits $85 billion to its nuclear weapons program over the next decade. Continuing to contain Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs with sanctions and incentives respectively.

Furthermore, the United States may comfort itself with the knowledge that the state of surveillance today makes it possible to detect nuclear programs in their infancy and cut them off at the root. How, though, is another matter. While Israel got away with its 2007 airstrike on an alleged undeclared reactor in Syria, just as it did in 1981 with Iraq’s Osirak reactor, the odds of arriving at an international consensus on an attack on, say, Burma, are slim to none.

As long as the United States continues to cultivate a thriving nuclear-weapons program, states that aspire to nuclear weapons — whether or not the effect of our disarmament on them is salutary or not — can continue to use ours to justify growing them in their own defense garden.

Christian and Muslim Extremists: Power-Mad Brothers Under the Skin

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

With national elections approaching in Egypt, Islamists are increasing their public presence through mass demonstrations and media action. Some seems to be trundling out this gem from 2009 — favorably featured by a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated site — that (according to The Arabist) raises the alarms about what secularism will do to Egypt:

  • In 2013, the Egyptian parliament outlaws polygamy.
  • In 2014, women’s rights organizations celebrate a new law that gives women equal inheritance rights.
  • In 2015, women are prohibited from wearing the hijab in public buildings.
  • In 2017, the first movie theater “specializing in porno films” opens.
  • The Ministry of Higher Education decides all students will learn “Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Baha’ism on an equal footing.”
  • In 2019, there is the first gay marriage in Egypt.
  • In 2020, all religious references are removed from official documents and government buildings.
  • In 2022, the call to prayer is prohibited.
  • In 2024, Egypt and Israel sign a joint defense agreement, and an Egyptian soldiers raises an Israeli flag over Gaza.

In the end, “street fighting breaks out between the religious and secularists,” and the streets fill with sexual predators, aggressive women and drunks. The chaos of godlesness ensues.

As disconcerting as this reactionary ad is, don’t a lot of the bugaboos sound familiar to, well, the fears expressed by the 2012 Republican presidential field? Same page, different book, really. As Jeff Sharlet of The Revealer writes:

The movement’s increasingly religious economic conservatism is cast in gender terms, as a quest for the restoration of masculine dignity, a revival of breadwinning in an era of genuinely humiliating economic conditions. What do social conservatives want in 2012? Same thing they’ve always wanted. “One man, one woman,” and a passel of kids. A family, narrowly defined, daddy in charge, with maybe some gentle wisecracks about how the wife is really in control.

“Daddy” would be in charge, from the household to the halls of government. Gay rights, feminism, pornography, secular education, the separation of church and state — all pernicious, character-destroying concessions to faux-humanitarians (aka liberals). According to Christian Dominionism, “salvation by [secular] law is the rankest form of humanistic paganism.” Government is a “mission field” to be dominated by true believers. Granted, this sounds like fundamentalism, but this is a bit of a misnomer. This isn’t just fundamentalism, this is “dominionism.” It is domination of state and society by a particular set of religious codes, a domain modeled after an ideal kingdom in heaven. It’s no coincidence that Regent University (motto: “Christian leadership to change the world”), a bastion of far-right Christian education, is called “regent.” The word refers to those whole will rule:

Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ — to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness. But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice. It is dominion we are after. Not just influence. It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time. It is dominion we are after. World conquest. That’s what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish. We must win the world with the power of the Gospel. And we must never settle for anything less.


Thus, Christian politics has as its primary intent the conquest of the land — of men, families, institutions, bureaucracies, courts, and governments for the Kingdom of Christ. It is to reinstitute the authority of God’s Word as supreme over all judgments, over all legislation, over all declarations, constitutions, and confederations.

The above could be applied to any far-right political-religious movement, Christian, Muslim, Jewish or otherwise. About the only difference between the Islamist far-right and the Christian (and Jewish) far-right is the tone. Such movements, whether branding themselves as Muslim, Christian or Jewish, are all essentially the same: alarmist, anachronistic and most, of all, power-hungry. As Bertrand Russell put it:

Men who allow their love of power to give them a distorted view of the world are to be found in every asylum: one man will think that he is the Governor of the Bank of England, another will think he is the King, and yet another will think he is God.

Still, the U.S. (and Israel) would never reconcile themselves to mainstreaming such thinking at home, right?

Well, you have this. And this. These are not isolated incidents, but indicators of a growing rightward shift. And there was a time when Islamists (including Egyptian Islamists) were here counted among the moral equivalents of the U.S. Founding Fathers.

Theocratic views, as opposed to somewhat more benign evangelical and fundamentalist rhetoric, are becoming more mainstream among all the Abrahamic faiths in the 21st century. Such views been the norm in Iran (and to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia) for decades now, but Iran isn’t so singularly different from other nations where the authorities use religious and ethnocentric rhetoric to justify power plays. Look at Netanhayu and Likud’s governing arrangement with Lieberman and Yisrael Beitenu. Or the way American conservatives have turned Evangelicalism into policy through the seemingly unassailable Defense of Marriage Act and repeated fits of “pro-life” foreign aid. Muslim-baiting in Western countries is a lucrative business (not unlike Copt-baiting in Egypt, or Baha’i-bashing in Iran). So whether the leadership and rank-and-file seriously believe their own press, there’s no denying that it’s good for votes and good for business (and are not commercial and electoral success a sign of divine favor in all of the Abrahamic faiths?).

For deeply religious government types, like former Secretary of States John Foster Dulles, “success” in policymaking (and moneymaking) was religious. The practice of power is part of God’s plan (the Abrahamic faiths are all pretty good at ignoring what Jesus had to say on the matter). No contradictions to worry about! Defend your hold on power (and your profit margins), and you defend your God! The business of fundamentalism is booming all over the world (especially if you’re in defense, energy, construction, or finance). And since private enterprise (/corporatism) can function in a theocracy, the capitalists can honestly say that “we are not selling them the rope with which they will hang us.”

And there has been a long history of collusion (though sometimes strained) between the religious right and military-industrial interests in Egypt, Israel and the U.S. (of course, in Iran, this strained collusion is already the norm). Until it became a challenge to his domestic authority, Anwar Sadat grudgingly tolerated the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign policy tool and played up Islamist rhetoric (in place of “Arab nationalism”) against Israel. The IDF, when not evicting settlers, is either bulldozing Palestinian homes for them, heavily subsidizing their lifestyles, or actively arming them to beat back demonstrators.

U.S. officials, as noted above, have not always been so picky about which religious rightists they do business with. Many of the loudest and most well-placed voices in the American right easily move between socially conservative, national security circles in the U.S and Israel. “Homeland Security” is for God and country! Brilliant!

Oh, if only they were all members of the same religion! They’re already members of the same faith after all! Such wonderful theocracy they could make together!

“Moshiach” Qutb feat Santorum. The hit single for 2012. David Yerushalmi does a cover version.

Oddly enough, the supposed porno theater looks like one of my psychology lecture halls from college.

We never got to watch anything good in that class.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Libyan Rebel Forces Continue to Detain Sub-Saharans and Black Libyans

The Associated Press reported on Friday that rebel forces and sympathetic Libyan civilians have been rounding up sub-Saharan Africans and black Libyans in Tripoli, accusing them of serving as “mercenaries” for the Gaddafi regime:

Virtually all of the detainees say they are innocent migrant workers, and in most cases there is no evidence that they are lying. But that is not stopping the rebels from placing the men in facilities like the Gate of the Sea sports club, where about 200 detainees — all black — clustered on a soccer field this week, bunching against a high wall to avoid the scorching sun.

The report quotes a prison director who acknowledges that many of the detainees are likely stranded migrant workers, but insists that “a big percentage” had been “fighting against our people.” The report adds that while there is little “credible” evidence of widespread violence against the prisoners (if racially motivated detention cannot be said already to constitute “violence”), Amnesty International and the African Union have warned that “there is potential for serious abuse.”

Racially motivated violence, which the United Nations had warned could occur prior to the NATO intervention, has marked a seedy and under-reported underbelly of an uprising that has otherwise professed democratic aspirations.

Black residents of Libya, “mercenaries” or otherwise, might be fairly characterized as victims of the Gaddafi legacy in their own right, caught up in a cynical ploy by a paranoid regime to turn the country’s residents against one another. More immediately, however, they are victims of the revolutionaries on whose behalf NATO has been dropping bombs for months. And more importantly, most are the “civilians” NATO’s mandate compels it to protect, regardless of their stripe. No word on whether to expect new strikes on Tripoli if the situation deteriorates.

With parallel reports of NATO allies working to outmaneuver one another to secure oil contracts in a new Free Libya, the potential spoils of regime change – however well the change might have been deserved – have once more overshadowed the proclamation of a “responsibility to protect.”

Life lesson for liberal hawks: “humanitarian” bombing campaigns are destined to disappoint.

Will Obama Sabotage His Jobs Plan With Job-Killing Free-Trade Agreements?

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

After a slight scheduling kerfuffle, President Obama is now set to give a major speech on jobs before a joint session of Congress next Thursday, September 8. Commentators have speculated that Obama could “go big” in his proposals to fight unemployment, and there are some solid suggestions on the table for how the government could help put Americans back to work. These include major investment in public infrastructure and changing the tax structure in order to reward businesses for creating U.S. jobs, rather than off-shoring their production abroad.

Unfortunately, Obama is also likely to advance some bad ideas. In his pledge to “to find bipartisan solutions” to the country’s economic problems, the president will almost certainly push several neoliberal “free trade” agreements. Specifically, he is expected to reassert his support for previously stalled trade pacts with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.

As Lori Wallach argues, “whatever one thinks about the idea of ‘free trade,’ the federal government’s own studies predict that these three deals would increase the U.S. trade deficit—costing more jobs than they create.” Wallach’s organization, Global Trade Watch, has had to regularly correct news reports that uncritically accept false numbers about trade. In a post on why “Trade Does Not Equal Jobs,” even Paul Krugman, normally a trade booster, has argued that claims about the South Korea trade agreement being an engine of job creation are bunk.

The idea that “free trade” is in fact a bipartisan issue is also debatable. It’s true that President Bill Clinton and his generation of “New Democrats” enthusiastically embraced NAFTA and other neoliberal trade deals—and were far more serious about creating hemisphere-wide pacts like the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) than the administration of George W. Bush ever was. (The argument of my 2008 book, How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy, was that a new Democratic president would be likely to repudiate Bush’s unilateralist, America-first brand of “imperial globalization,” but would revert to promoting a friendlier, more multilateral form of “corporate globalization”—different in some respects, but plenty bad in its own right. Obama hasn’t done much to disprove this thesis.)

Yet while Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council led the “free trade” charge in the 1990s, it is not at all clear that this can still be called a “Democratic” position—and thus form part of bipartisan platform. In the past decade, recognizing a strong voter backlash against the neoliberal trade agenda, Democratic elected officials have increasingly embraced a pro-worker, pro-environment “fair trade” agenda. Global Trade Watch has documented that the fair trade platform was effective even in the 2010 midterms, when the Republicans made gains overall. In fact, many conservatives also adopted “fair trade” messaging, expressing skepticism about future trade deals made in the NAFTA mold.

Even Bill Clinton has shown some remorse for his “free trade” advocacy—at least in selected instances. With regard to Haiti, he said in March 2010 that pushing neoliberal policies was “a mistake” that hurt the poor in that country. “I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else,” he explained.

Apart from sentiments in Washington, it is clear that popular opinion would in no way justify pushing trade deals as a matter of broad, “bipartisan” agreement. Citing a November 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center that showed public support for “free trade” at one of its lowest points in over a decade, Dan Denvir recently pointed out at the Guardian that pushing through the stalled “free trade” agreements could well be a liability for Obama at the polls. Todd Tucker has previously made this case in even stronger terms, calling Obama’s support for “free trade” pacts a “political death wish.”

As a presidential candidate, still in a primary fight against Hillary Clinton, Obama recognized that the base of the party was squarely against “free trade” neoliberalism. He called NAFTA “devastating” and “a big mistake” on the campaign trail. Voters in 2012 will have every right to be disgusted by his subsequent “about-face.”

While the more progressive elements of Obama’s jobs agenda will no doubt have trouble getting through a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, passing the trade deals with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea would also be divisive, requiring him to split the Democrats in Congress. The president therefore has a choice: Fight the Republicans on domestic investment, or fight the prevailing sentiments of his own party—in Washington and beyond—on trade.

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

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