Focal Points Blog

No One Supports the Troops More Than Bradley Manning

Even though the yellow ribbons of the Bush era are out of fashion, the admonition to support our troops continues to grate. In January 2006 then-Los Angeles Times humor columnist Joel Stein wrote an inflammatory oped titled Warriors and Wusses. “I don’t support our troops,” he began. “But I’m not for the war. And being against the war and saying you support the troops is one of the wussiest positions the pacifists have ever taken — and they’re wussy by definition.”

Despite his gutsiness, Stein doesn’t seem like the most politically savvy guy — by pacifists he most likely meant mainstream liberals. His reasoning, however, was impeccable.

Blindly lending support to our soldiers, I fear, will keep them overseas longer by giving soft acquiescence to the hawks who sent them there — and who might one day want to send them somewhere else.

Of course he did ask

…that we give our returning soldiers what they need: hospitals, pensions, mental health and a safe, immediate return.

He understood the support-our-troops campaign, though.

We know we’re sending recruits to do our dirty work, and we want to seem grateful. After we’ve decided that we made a mistake, we don’t want to blame the soldiers who were ordered to fight. … But blaming the president is a little too easy. The truth is that people who pull triggers are ultimately responsible, whether they’re following orders or not.

Then he posed one of war’s ultimate dilemmas.

An army of people making individual moral choices may be inefficient, but an army of people ignoring their morality is horrifying.

Most who join the service today, with the age of the draft long gone, likely have no opposition to the use of force. Many, to whom the service is just a job and a steppingstone to a college degree, no doubt hope to avoid combat. It’s unfair to expect them, once in the thick of it, to exhibit the wherewithal to determine exactly which civilians it’s okay to kill. All too often they fall back on the default position of protecting their squad, their buddies. They can’t know that their superiors are counting on exactly that to get them to carry out ill-defined missions.

Of course, one soldier able to clearly differentiate between the good guys and bad guys was Bradley Manning. Among the best profiles of him thus far is Bradley Manning’s Army of One in New York Magazine by Steve Fishman, who writes that an intelligence analyst such as Manning was trained to sit

… at his work station and [target] the enemy, reducing a human being to a few salient points. Then he made a quick decision based on imperfect information: kill, capture, exploit, source.

Visiting a counselor unaffiliated with the army, Manning told him

… about a targeting mission gone bad in Basra. “Two groups of locals were converging in this one area. Manning was trying to figure out why they were meeting,” the counselor told me. On Manning’s information, the Army moved swiftly, ­dispatching a unit to hunt them down. Manning had thought all went well, until a superior explained the outcome. … Manning felt that there was blood on his hands. “He was very, very distressed.”

… Manning later ­explained … “i was actively involved in something that i was completely against.” The job wore down lots of soldiers. Some survived by becoming desensitized—the blood and death goes right past them. Manning took it personally.

No matter what other issues, such as being bullied because he was gay, are factored in to his decision to turn government files over to WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning saw for himself what was going on and chose to try to put a stop to it in his own way. In fact, he has done more to support the troops by attempting to get them out of harm’s way than those who’ve charged and jailed him.

WikiLeaks: Haiti Disaster Capitalism’s Latest Electroshock Patient

Naomi Klein was asked today about what additional case studies she would add to future editions of her 2007 Shock Doctrine. Klein’s answer: Greece and Wisconsin.

Fair enough, but I was surprised that she did not also include Haiti which, if recently released Wikileaks documents are accurate, provides a textbook case of disaster capitalism. The embassy documents, obtained by Haïti Liberté and The Nation, paint a disturbing if not unexpected picture of American coercion of the struggling Caribbean nation between 2004 and the month following the 2010 earthquake that flattened Port-au-Prince.

Among other important revelations that emerged over the past six weeks or so, the cables reveal that the Barack Obama administration aggressively lobbied the Haitian government to resist calls to raise the national minimum wage from 24 to 61 cents an hour. The Atlantic notes that

The bump 37¢ bump seems small by American standards, but considering it would raise wages by 150 percent…the new rule stood to dramatically affect the lives of poor Haitians. However, it would also dramatically affect the bottom line of American companies, like Hanes and Levi Strauss who contracted labor in Haiti to sew their clothes. The companies insisted on capping the wage increase at 7¢ an hour, and the U.S. ambassador pressured Préval into a $3 per day wage for textile workers, $2 less than the original $5 a day that Préval had wanted.

More shocking still—to my mind at least—was a cable dated just weeks after the 2010 earthquake. Written by US Ambassador Kenneth Merton, the cable doesn’t mince words about the opportunity available to investors willing to capitalize on suffering. “THE GOLD RUSH IS ON!” Merton announces.

As Haiti digs out from the earthquake, different companies are moving in to sell their concepts, products and services. President Preval met with Gen Wesley Clark Saturday and received a sales presentation on a hurricane/earthquake resistant foam core house designed for low income residents. AshBritt has been talking to various institutions about a national plan for rebuilding all government buildings. Other companies are proposing their housing solutions or their land use planning ideas, or other construction concepts. Each is vying for the ear of President in a veritable free-for-all. Presidential advisor Leslie Voltaire and Minister of Tourism Patrick Delatour, working with the NGO and the UN shelter “cluster” have a systematic approach, but the attention of the President is on impressive new (expensive) designs.

And this is only the beginning of the story. As Haiti Liberte reports:

One man who had the ear of President Préval, perhaps more than anyone else, was Lewis Lucke, Washington’s “Unified Relief and Response Coordinator,” heading up the entire U.S. earthquake relief effort in Haiti. He met with Préval and Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive two weeks after the quake, and at least one more time after that, according to the cables. Lucke, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Agency for International Development, had overseen multi-billion contracts for Bechtel and other companies as USAID Mission Director in post-invasion Iraq.

Lucke didn’t stick around very long, however, abandoning his post after just a few months of work only to be hired in a private capacity by AshBritt to lobby the Haitian government on their behalf. The relationship soured, it seems, as Lucke sued the multinational later that year for not paying “him enough for consulting services that included hooking the contractor up with powerful people and helping to navigate government bureaucracy.” Lucke reportedly earned $30,000 a month for his services. And he was effective: the Associated Press reports that AshBritt was awarded $20 million in reconstruction contracts in Haiti.

You might think that Lucke would be reticent about discussing the situation in public. But then you’d be wrong. In fact, the former USAID officer has vomited up a number of statements tailor made for a sequel to Shock Doctrine should Klein ever endeavor to write it. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake’s destruction, for example, Lucke told the Austin-American Statesman that

It became clear to us that if it was handled correctly, the earthquake represented as much an opportunity as it did a calamity… So much of the china was broken that it gives the chance to put it together hopefully in a better and different way.

And just recently, Lucke continued to spell out his perspective even more clearly for Haiti Liberte. “It’s kind of the American way,” he told a reporter for the paper. “Just because you’re trying to do business doesn’t mean you’re trying to be rapacious. There’s nothing insidious about that… It wasn’t worse than Iraq.”

Oh! Well, I suppose if that’s the benchmark…

Re-emergence of Shining Path as Drug Syndicate Paints New Peruvian President Humala Into a Corner

I’ve spent the last week or so preparing for an interview with the British travel writer Michael Jacobs. In the process, I plowed through his wonderful recent book Andes, an account of Jacobs’ journey along the Andean spine of South America. A beautiful mix of history and first-person observation, Andes above all showcases Jacobs’ talent for dialogue, as he conveys tidbits of talks with academics, politicians, artists and regular Joes.

In one scene, Jacobs relates his chance encounter on a bus journey with a witness to the mid-1980s slaying of German couple at the hands of the Shining Path in Peru, a story that shocked Westerners into awareness of the violent civil war that devastated the country throughout significant chunks of the 1980s and early 1990s. The tale—as terrifying as it is sad—takes place “at around this time of year, on a bus owned like this one by the Molina Union.”

A group of Sendero Luminoso terrorists, some little more than young boys, had blocked the road with boulders. We all had to get out of the bus. They took everything we had, even though most of us were as poor as they were…The Germans of course did not really know what was going on. I told them there was nothing to worry about. But they weren’t stupid. Many people around them were sobbing and moaning.

Eventually we were all told we could get back on the bus. The Germans were on the point of stepping in through the door. A young man, the leader of the terrorists, held them back. “Not you!” he shouted. I pleaded with him to let the Germans go. I said they have done nothing…” They are traitors,” he replied. “All foreigners are traitors.”

The Germans asked me to repeat what had been said. Strangely, they did not seem frightened any more. It was if they suddenly knew they were going to do, and that there was nothing that they could do about it. I just told them that everything was going to be alright. They held hands tightly and looked into each other’s watery eyes. They obviously were very much in love. I was shoved onto the bus. I could hear the gunshots as we pulled away.

I was reminded of this story by the news this week that Peruvian intelligence officers had arrested Elisa Monica Culantres Cordova, partner of Shining Path leader “Comrade Artemio,” who was nabbed outside Lima seven months pregnant. Besides being a direct connection to the most powerful surviving member of the once-revolutionary movement, Cordova had been wanted for numerous acts of terrorism that left dozens dead, including eleven national police officers.

This may not seem like a big deal: the conventional wisdom holds that the Shining Path has been reduced to a skeleton of its former self, and poses no serious threat to Peruvian state security. As it so often happens, however, the conventional wisdom is wrong.

One of the perverse effects of the American-led war on drugs in South America—largely under the umbrella of Plan Colombia—has been the so-called balloon phenomenon, where drug production has been pushed out of Colombia and spread around to its neighbours in the continent’s south and east. New market opportunities produced exploding profits seized by armed factions associated with traditional coca farming families, chief among them the Shining Path.

Like the FARC in Colombia, elements of the Shining Path have switched gears from Marxist revolution to the trafficking of drugs in an attempt to maintain relevance and a measure of political power. According to InSight,

The new reach of the Shining Path has also allowed the rebels to diversify the routes they use to smuggle cocaine out of the Peruvian highlands on their way down to the Pacific Coast, where shipments are bought by the Mexican drug cartels and smuggled northwards through the Pacific…Shining Path rebels escort shipments across stretches of Peru, charging drug traffickers up to $30 a kilo. The rebel columns are not only marching through the mountainous terrain but have access to vehicles and are able to cover large distances quickly.

Recently elected president Ollanta Humala made the war on drugs a priority concern in his successful bid for the country’s highest office, but there’s reason enough to be skeptical of his ability to follow through successfully. As government attention to the drug trade intensifies, and becomes increasingly violent, Shining Path traffickers have invested their booming proceeds in outfitting the movement’s foot soldiers with the latest in military technology. Again, Insight:

Another effect of the army offensives against the rebels has been to force them to better arm and equip themselves, using the proceeds from drug trafficking to buy weapons on the black market. Police intelligence sources are cited tracking more than 100 rifles (mostly AKMs, the upgrade of the basic AK-47 Kalashnikovs produced in the 1960s) and some rocket-propelled grenades used to target military helicopters, one of which was hit in 2009 in Santo Domingo de Acobamba (Huancayo province).

But the bigger threat may reside in Humala’s constituent base made up in part by the country’s powerful coca growers union, the leadership of which has demonstrated ties to the Shining Path. If Humala institutes aggressive policies that threaten coca production generally and leave behind piles of bodies, his political future will be cast in serious doubt. On the other hand, if the Shining Path is permitted to reconstitute itself in any guise—political movement or trafficking outfit—Humala will almost certainly guarantee himself a legacy of failure. Meanwhile, the country’s conservative forces, who have demonstrated no qualms about instituting human-rights abusing mano dura policies to squash threats to the state—will be primed to recapture the mantle of political leadership.

With Surgical Implantation, Jihadists Take Suicide Bombing to New Heights

By now you’ve probably heard of reports that the al Qaeda franchise based in Yemen is entertaining the idea of implanting explosive devices and/or materials inside the bodies of suicide bombers. At the Financial Times, Daniel Dombey (registration required) reports:

Washington has warned that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula may plan to surgically implant explosive devices in suicide bombers in order to blow up US-bound flights and that air passengers face more security measures as a result.

At Slate, William Saletan explains that jihadists have been caught thinking aloud online about potential procedures.

Seal a plastic explosive such as PETN in a packet, cut open your volunteer, insert the packet, stitch up the incision, and let it heal. In a man, the packet could go into the buttocks or abdomen. In a woman, it could be a breast implant. [Never mind if it sounds like a Lady Gaga outfit. – RW] Give the bomber a syringe to inject TATP, which will detonate the bomb.

Said syringe might be allowed past the TSA check via a doctor’s note explaining that the passenger is a diabetic. Meanwhile, detecting what’s beneath the skin is beyond the capabilities of airport scanning equipment. That kind of technology – X-ray, MRI, CT scans — is usually confined to medical facilities. But it may soon be coming to an airport near you. Saletan again.

Morpho, a global security firm, is working on a radio-wave device to detect what it calls “bombs in bodies.” Nesch, an imaging company, advertises low-dose X-ray technology that can detect explosives “hidden both inside & outside of the human body.” Valley Forge Composite Technologies, which makes screening devices for bombs and weapons, is marketing a radiographic imaging system that can “see through individuals”…

Spending exorbitant amounts of money and taking invasiveness of physical privacy about as far as it can go is one way of handling it. Then, of course, the United States could intensify international and domestic surveillance – of necessity, focusing on health professionals – not to mention drone strikes.

It can’t be denied that these approaches smack of panic. But, it’s unrealistic for progressives to expect the public to live with, however slight, a threat this nightmarish. Who isn’t freaked out by the prospect of his or her flight blown up mid-air and the passengers cast out into the sky, spending their last minutes watching the earth rush up at them? (Personally, when flying after 9/11, I needed to play this scenario out in my mind while waiting for take-off. Staring it down seemed to help. I mean, there are worse ways to die. Oh, right, there aren’t.)

Along with resisting yet more civil liberties restrictions, as progressives, we seek, of course, to lighten or erase entirely U.S. footprints in the Middle East, perhaps the only sure way to cool jihadists’ fevered imaginations. Since that’s not happening anytime soon, a word to the wise in the interim: Even though jihadists lose – their lives, anyway – in suicide attacks, ultimately they win. Like bin Laden famously did, their survivors take delight in the extent to which the United States spends down its “national treasure” (as if there’s anything left there) on ill-advised invasions abroad and of its own citizens’ bodies in airports.

Purely as a military tactic, because those attacked are reluctant to reply in kind, suicide bombing has no answer. We in the West can console ourselves with the thought that we’re supposedly too civilized to both use ourselves as weapons and target civilians. But we need to face facts and acknowledge that jihadists, and their terrorist ancestors who also employed the practice, have built a better weapon.

When not an act of desperation, as with the Japanese at the end of World War II, suicide bombing is fundamentally an act of the voiceless. Give them a voice, honor their, uh, commitment to their cause, and bring them to the table. Won’t that be an incentive for more groups to use suicide bombing? In fact, if earth is crawling with that many individuals ready and willing to blow themselves up, what’s called for are desperate measures – like forging foreign policies that drive fewer people to blow themselves up everywhere from their own marketplaces to our skies.

Despite Triumphant Return of Chavez, Questions About His Health Linger

Chavez returns to VenezuelaDressed in his customary military attire, President Chávez appeared a picture of health on Monday, ready to address anxious supporters and clarify speculations concerning his battle against cancer and his ability to lead the nation.

This has been a triumphant return for Chávez, who departed his homeland abruptly on June 10th to receive medical attention in Cuba. Appearing frail and apologetic in a national broadcast on Thursday, the president disclosed that he had recently undergone surgery to remove cancerous cells. Following weeks of speculation, citizens were faced with the possibility that their head of state would be incapable of returning to Venezuela for several months.

Chávez’ arrival on Monday thus came as a shock to citizens and opposition leaders alike. It seems that the president deliberately wished to surprise the nation: his plane landed at Maiquetia airport in the small hours of Monday morning in total darkness. When pictures of his recuperation in Cuba were released on Sunday, there was also no word that he was preparing to return to Caracas within a matter of hours.

There can be no question that the president was proud of his surprise return. He arrives just in time for Venezuela’s bicentennial celebrations, marking the country’s independence from Spain in 1811. For Chávez, who frequently compares his efforts for the socialist cause with Simon Bolivar’s struggles for Venezuelan independence, this return was a considerable personal triumph.

Indeed, addressing the nation from the balcony of the Miraflores presidential palace on Monday, Chávez asserted that he would win his battle for health. He thanked citizens for their support, declaring that this was “the best medicine for whatever illness.” Although he admitted that he would be unable to join the people in today’s official celebrations, he affirmed that his return to strength had begun. “I continue in charge,” he declared.

In spite of these statements, many remain skeptical over the timeline of Chávez’ road to recovery and the extent to which he will be able to resume customary duties in the weeks ahead. Since his departure for Cuba, Chávez’ ministers have regularly insisted that the president would be capable of addressing political responsibilities from his hospital bed in Havana. Although this support might be regarded as a clear vote of confidence in Chávez’ abilities, others have seen it as an indication of the fact that there is no obvious successor. President Chávez, who has acted as head of state for 12 years and survived an attempted coup in 2002, continues to be a dominant player in Venezuelan politics.

Opposition leaders have nonetheless been quick to highlight the government’s lack of transparency in coping with the president’s illness and recovery. According to the BBC’s Sarah Grainger, over the weeks since Chávez’ departure for Cuba, officials have consistently denied rumors of cancer, often insisting instead that the president was recuperating from the removal of a pelvic abscess. For one opposition lawmaker, Alfonso Marquina, these former assertions constitute a government betrayal. Marquina informed the Associated Press that greater responsibility needed to be taken “…not only on the president’s part but by all of those high in the government to inform the Venezuelan people properly about the president’s real situation.”

Chávez’ extended stay in Cuba has already led to the postponement of a critical regional summit with Latin American and Caribbean leaders, which was scheduled to commence on Tuesday. Venezuela’s lack of affordable housing, high inflation, and recurring electricity shortages are just some of the issues which Chávez will need to meaningfully address if he intends to seek another presidential term. Nevertheless, the lack of a magnetic successor in his stead, coupled with his ingrained support among the poor, makes Chávez a fierce political competitor. If his health permits, it is still widely expected that he will run again for the presidential office in the 2012 elections.

Syria Just Might Be More Cooperative if Its Reactor Hadn’t Been Blown to Bits

Just “weeks after the International Atomic Energy Agency referred it [to the] U.N. Security Council,” reports George Jahn for the Associated Press, the Council plans to “discuss what to do about Syria’s refusal to cooperate with an investigation of its alleged secret nuclear activities.”

The IAEA has tried in vain since 2008 to follow up on strong evidence that a site in the Syrian desert, bombed in 2007 by Israeli warplanes, was a nearly finished reactor built with North Korea’s help. [It] expressed “serious concern” over “Syria’s lack of cooperation with the IAEA Director General’s repeated requests for access to additional information and locations.”

The Syrian government is scarcely deserving of sympathy. Just yesterday, it killed at least 14 protesters in Hama, adding more insult to injury in that city of infamy where, in 1982, President Bashir al-Assad’s father, then-President Hafez al-Assad, killed10,000 of its residents. But, whether or not Syria was seeking to develop nuclear weapons, it’s pretty cold, not to mention unrealistic, to ask a country that’s been bombed to cooperate with forces implicated in its bombing.

Of course, Syria was investigated before it was bombed, but obviously insufficiently if the West knows little about its alleged program. Not only that, but the bombing played havoc with evidence of said program.

Once again: bombing beget bombs begets bombing begets bombs.

The Persian Gulf: an “Aquatic Tinderbox”

At the Daily Beast, Michael Adler reports on an incident that took place in the Persian Gulf in April. It seems that a speedboat approached a British frigate that specializes in anti-submarine warfare.

The confrontation is captured in a video obtained by The Daily Beast. The video shows the speedboat powering parallel to the British warship HMS Iron Duke, which was patrolling off of Bahrain, and then turning directly towards it. Foghorns blaring, gunners on the Iron Duke then fired 100 yards to the side of the speedboat, causing its two crew members to duck and stop – they then wave at the British sailors as they speed away.

Adler speculates that this was a show of bravado by members of Iran’s “second navy,” that of the Revolutionary Guard, for the benefit of Western ships that Iran believes are violating its territorial waters. Such situations are difficult to catch before they spiral out of control because — never mind the “second navy” — communication between the navy of the Islamic Republic’s itself and the West is poor. Adler writes that U.S. officials said that “the incident only highlights their worry that the Gulf is an aquatic tinderbox.”

Allow me to muddle this mixed metaphor – wet v. dry – even further: In an aquatic tinderbox, it can’t be easy to keep your powder dry.*

*These days, especially in the United States, “keep your powder dry” is taken as an admoninition to stay calm. But, as William Safire wrote in the New York Times in 1997, “Oliver Cromwell, at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, is supposed to have told his Roundhead troops in that opening fight of the English civil war, ”Put your trust in God, my boys, but mind to keep your powder dry.” Of course, “when the powder is wet, the gun does not go off and the ammunition just sits there.” In fact, “The purpose of keeping powder dry is to be able to blaze away at the proper time. Thus, the phrase keep your powder dry is not limited to ”stay calm” but carries an implicit, most ominous threat: ‘and be prepared to blow the enemy’s head off at the propitious moment.'”

Libya: Will Air War Become an Occupation? (Part Two of a Series)

Libyan refugees(Pictured: Libyans seeking refuge in Tunisia.)

Part one here.

Obama: The U.S. Is Bombing Libya But This Isn’t War

The U.S. Congress’s informal protest over Obama’s sidestepping the War Powers Act concerning U.S. participation in the NATO bombing campaign in Libya included elements of the surreal. First, the president was charged with violating the law in what could be classified as an impeachable act; then in spite of this slap in the face, Congress, showing its more genuine colors, turned around and voted to approve the funding of the U.S. military action in Libya for the next year, suggesting that when all is said and done, the protest vote didn’t amount to much.

The Obama Administration’s response to the criticism was, if one thinks about it, something approaching pathetic. No, the Administration need not get congressional approval, the argument went, because the United States does not have troops ‘on the ground’ and without troops on the ground, the United States is not at war with Libya. It appears that Congress lamely accepted this logic.

Actually we do not know that the United States does not have troops on the ground. Are the Special Forces, whose mission is secret, involved? Are there U.S. military advisors there? But the bombing missions are not considered war. Al Qaeda did not have ‘troops on the ground’ when they sent hijacked civilian airliners careening into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which Congress labeled an act of war.

Using the cover of humanitarian interventionalism, – it seems to play well in Peoria – the United States has launched deadly airstrikes against the Libyan military; provided military aid to the Libyan rebels; pressed sanctions against Libya, froze its assets and called for the overthrow of Khadaffi. According to the Obama Administration and the president himself, these acts do not constitute ‘war’, thus the War Powers Act does not apply.

Looks like war. Tastes like war. Smells like war, but if Obama says it’s not war, I guess it just can’t be war.

But what if the United States and/or its NATO allies bring the air war down to the ground, and introduce ground troops? If they are American, will Obama seek the authorization as required under the War Powers Act, or when the time comes, will he seek another ‘out’ from Congressional scrutiny? Out of the question? Sending U.S. ground troops to Libya is going beyond a line the Obama Administration will not cross? Will what begins as humanitarian interventionalism morph into permanent U.S./NATO military bases in Libya?

German, Russian Press Worried the U.S./NATO Planning to Send Ground Troops to Libya

Articles are beginning to appear in German and Russian press suggesting that there might be plans afoot for NATO, through various means, to introduce ground troops in the fall into both Libya and Syria (Syrian situation will be treated in a forthcoming piece) to accelerate the overthrow of Khadaffi in Libya and to ‘support the process of reform’ in Syria. Both U.S. and NATO spokespeople deny these claims as do a number of Middle East experts asked to comment. Given recent history (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia), such denials should not be taken too seriously.

Still, the prospect of NATO ground troops in the Middle East cannot be written off so easily. Nor would it be especially surprising that the United States and its NATO allies would try to downplay or deny the allegations. The arguments against a more direct U.S. led military intervention are weighty enough. The U.S. is already overextended with its open military commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq; its less publicized activities in Yemen and Somalia. It cannot afford – either economically or politically – to open another military front at this time, especially with an upcoming presidential election. Recent surveys suggest that here in the United States, people are tiring of U.S. foreign military intervention and their spiraling costs, rightly associating the money wasted on war with funds that could be better used here at home. True enough.

But there are counter arguments of what the United States could gain strategically from upping the ante and sending in ground troops to Libya. Those who write the possibility off as frivolous do so at their own risk. There are those within the Obama Administration who argue for a kind of Shock Doctrine approach to the current Arab Revolt, i.e., to use the current crisis in the Middle East and North Africa to ultimately reshape and strengthen the U.S. position in the region. The United States might have been caught unprepared for the uprising, but it is still possible to manage it and even for the U.S. to come out ‘ahead’ strategically. The signs that more direct military intervention is at least on the drawing board are growing and with them, increased alarm in the international press.

Deutsche Welle ran a piece on June 27, 2011, ‘Rumors For U.S. Plans for Libya, Syria Cause Concern,’ detailing the extent of the U.S. naval build up in the Eastern Mediterranean and enhanced activity at Fort Hood, Texas where military preparations are allegedly gathering steam. The article also notes the changing nature of the NATO involvement, more ‘mission leap’ than mission creep.’ An article in the Russian press on June 29, 2011, entitled ‘Democracy By Order Of Washington,’ doesn’t give details but ends with a note of concern: “The next plan of the U.S is the redrawing of the maps of North Africa, the Middle and Near East. America is counting on the support of its most loyal allies.”

NATO’s role has already morphed from securing a no-fly zone over Libyan air space – a somewhat defensive step to defend civilians – to the more offensive operations of targeting Khadaffi’s forces, attempting to assassinate him by cruise missile attack and the introduction of French and British attack helicopters. The goal of the mission has also shifted from protecting civilians from attacks by pro-Khadaffi forces to regime change – a euphemism for overthrowing Khadaffi. But then once wars start, they tend to have their own merciless logic, don’t they?

Not many more conceptual shifts are needed to defend the introduction of ground troops, especially if the military stalemate on the ground in Libya continues. The longer Khadaffi can hold out, the more sympathy he has been able to garner, especially in Africa and the Middle East, complicating the NATO mission and its humanitarian cover. At a certain point, NATO might feel mounting pressure to move towards sending ground troops to break the stalemate, of course, under the cover of an increasingly cynical ‘humanitarian intervention’ excuse.

Ground Troops or Not, Will NATO Set up an “Enduring” Military Base in Libya?

Tactically, it would be much simpler for the United States and NATO if the Libyan rebels can overthrow Khadaffi without NATO sending troops but it might not be possible. So while it might be possible for NATO to avoid sending ground troops, the notion that it simply won’t happen or can’t happen is becoming less and less tenable – the opinions of experts aside. Whether Khadaffi is overthrown with or without sending NATO ground troops, the strategic implications of a ‘post Khadaffi’ Libya are beginning to come into focus.

Should Khadaffi’s rule be overthrown one way or another, any rebel government would be exceedingly weak and could not rule without support and ‘supervision’ by its NATO ‘allies’. The end game could, in many ways, resemble what has been played out in Iraq.

  • For starters, there will be a much tighter control of Libyan oil and the profits thereof by Western oil companies. That has already started. In the areas it controls, the rebels are already selling oil to Western companies at rock bottom prices to pay for arms and supplies. Western hold over Libyan oil will tighten. OPEC will be weaker, etc.
  • The likelihood of permanent NATO/US military presence – excuse me – ‘enduring’ military bases in Libya is a more than likely possibility regardless if ground troops are introduced or not. If NATO ground troops are introduced, there simply will be some pretext for them to stay, in the name of supporting the rebel government. There is the possibility that even if NATO ground troops are not necessary to overthrow Khadaffi the rebel government, almost certain to be shaky – will invite them in anyway as advisors in one capacity or another. Regardless the presence will be substantial.

Redrawing the Political Map of North Africa, Strategic Considerations

A NATO permanent military presence in Libya would in many ways be the beginning of redrawing the map of North Africa – as the Russian press piece cited above alleges. Such a presence would have a number of potentially profound consequences, among them:

  • Within Libyan context it would prevent, at all costs, any move to re-instate Khadaffi or those close to him to power. Such a presence would go far to insuring a ‘U.S.-friendly’ government would be ruling Libya and its sizeable amounts of low sulphur oil for a long time into the foreseeable future
  • The US and NATO would be in a position to monitor – if not manage – the Arab Revolt in its strongest manifestations – Tunisia and Egypt. Placed squarely between the two countries, a U.S. military presence in Libya could be easily mobilized to counter political developments Washington finds objectionable. This is not insignificant as, remember how, events that started in ‘little Tunisia’ exploded region wide and were for several month seemingly beyond U.S. influence
  • On a broader scale, a NATO military presence in Libya becomes an important springboard for the alliance in Africa, a continent whose strategic mineral resources, oil and gas cannot be underestimated. Competition for these resources between Europe and the USA on the one hand, India and China on the other will only intensify in the years to come. It is noteworthy (as mentioned in the first part of this series) that Khadaffi’s Libya sells 60% of its oil to China, a situation certain to change should Khadaffi be removed
  • There have been strong tensions inside NATO with the United States trying to internationalize security operations (under Washington’s direction), with Afghanistan being a kind of test case for taking the alliance outside of Europe and making into a worldwide police force. Although NATO reps claim the contrary, within the coalition there has been strong reservations and opposition to being forced to fight in Afghanistan. A NATO military base in Libya (or military ‘presence’) would give the alliance another lease on life outside of Europe and draw the Europeans into shouldering some of the costs of U.S. security strategy in Europe.

A peace movement in the United States split over the U.S./NATO intervention in Libya only makes it more likely for Washington to implement its program.

Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Chavez’s Cult of Personality Creates Succession Problems

Chavez illVenezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s approach to power has been so centered on himself — la revolución soy yo — that it is unclear who can pick up the reins should Chávez either depart from this world or not be fit enough to seek re-election next year. Constitutionally, Venezuela does have a Vice President, Elías Jaua, and should Chávez not be able to finish his term, Jaua would become President to fill the remainder of the current term which runs through the end of 2012.

The bigger question is who can fill the immense void that Hugo Chávez’s departure from the scene creates? The Foreign Minister, Nicolás Maduro, is perhaps the second best known voice of the revolution internationally but there are other actors who perform more on the domestic stage like Cilia Flores, Aristóbulo Isturiz and Diosdado Cabello, all of whom are leaders of the PSUV (the United Socialist Party of Venezuela). All three currently serve in the National Assembly and have played leading roles in Venezuelan politics during the past 12 years. Flores is the President of the National Assembly (she’s also married to Nicolás Maduro). Isturiz, an academic by training and an Afro-Venezuelan, is the former Minister of Education. Cabello is a decades long Chávez confidant having served in the military with Chávez and who with Chávez participated in the failed coup against Carlos Andrés Perez in 1992. It was Cabello who regained control during the abortive 2002 coup that aimed to topple Chávez. After detaining the coup leaders, Cabello assumed the presidency briefly before restoring Chávez to power. Cabello has also served in the cabinet holding key ministries such as the Interior and Housing & Public Works. Meanwhile the youthful Jaua — he’s 42 — in addition to being the Vice President is also the Minister of Agriculture having previously headed the land expropriation program. Returning to Maduro, he is a former bus driver with a high school degree who worked his way up the trade union movement becoming a founder of the Movimiento V República, the Fifth Republic Movement, one of the main left-wing factions that supported Chávez in his political rehabilitation back in 1998.

None of these political actors are really popular on the level that Chávez is with the lower strata of Venezuelan society, many of whom genuinely worship Chávez. However with the Chávez regime very much a throwback to the political tradition of caudillismo that was prevalent in many, but not all, LATAM countries in the 19th and through the mid-20th century, Chávez simply never the prepared the groundwork for a successor. On more than one occasion, Chávez envisioned staying at the helm through 2025 or even 2031. Should Chávez not be able to continue in power, filling the vacuum should strenuously test the PSUV.

Beyond those mentioned above, there are others who might seek to fill Chávez’s shoes. Among these is the well-known former Vice President and the leading ideologue of the PSUV José Vicente Rangel. Rangel’s main drawback is that he is in his mid 80s though he remains quite active. Another aspirant might be the dashing, charismatic and fiery Tareck el Aissami, who serves as Minister of the Interior and Justice. He is of Syrian descent but he’s just 36 and not immune to controversy. Still el Aissami has worked his up way the ladders of chavismo rather quickly first running the youth movement of the party while still a university student. That earned him an appointment as the Deputy Director of the Identification and Immigration Directorate which handles the national identity card essential to virtually all legal and financial transactions which in turn led to his appointment as Vice Minister for Public Security. Perhaps the most formidable candidate is Energy and Oil Minister Rafael Ramírez Carreño who has been an important player in the PSUV party hierarchy for over a decade and who also, perhaps more importantly, happens to run PDVSA, the state oil company. By virtue of these posts he is well known abroad and his controlling position at the head of the still vast Venezuelan energy sector provides Ramírez Carreño an important platform that others lack. He comes with a fiefdom that remains a cash cow. Still the wild card is Adán Chávez, the President’s older brother who is currently the Governor of the state of Barinas.

It is quite possible that Chávez keeps it in the family and uses his “dedazo” to anoint his older sibling as his successor, a rare event in the annals of Latin American history. Dynastic regimes have arisen in Nicaragua and in Paraguay and most recently Cuba but even there Raúl Castro is preparing Cuba for a Castro-less future. The Venezuelan press seems to think, or perhaps better put, seems to hope that the heavyweight contender to lead a post-Chávez Venezuela is Rafael Ramírez Carreño. Perhaps tellingly however, the ones in Havana with Chávez are his brother, Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro and Henry Rangel Silva, the Armed Forces Chief.

In the interim, it seems that Venezuela will be governed from Havana. In remarks to a Colombian radio network on June 30th, Vice President Jaua indicated that Venezuelan policy makers and jurists were relying on an interpretation of the Venezuelan Constitution that permits the president to exercise his duties as head of state from abroad for a three-month period, which could then be extended for another three months. It is increasingly unlikely, however, that Chávez will return to Caracas in time for the country’s bicentennial on July 5. So much for the best laid schemes of mice and autocrats.

Charles Lemos writes on politics, international affairs and economics. He has a degree in history from Stanford University and a degree in International Finance from the University of California. He spent a decade on Wall Street working for Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs as an equity analyst. He currently blogs at MyDD.

Oil Transparency Would Start South Sudan Off on Right Foot

In the past months, the South Sudan government has been receiving substantial pressure from the international community to institute greater transparency in its oil industry. This involves full publication of royalties and oil revenue transactions between companies and oil extracting countries. Transparency helps ordinary citizens see exactly how their natural resources are being managed. It helps to prevent corruption, and assist with the avoidance of the resource curse, which is the depreciation of the extractive country’s currency.

Yet, does transparency ensure that South Sudan’s oil assets will be used for advancement? Will transparency initiatives take a back seat to precedence issues like security and violence?

Transparency does not guarantee that the government will use oil revenues for the benefit of the many; however, it will allow publication of oil revenues to be speculated and will hold the government accountable. Transparency is a stepping-stone to supportive governance. South Sudan has already been carrying out the necessary measures to guarantee it does not fall victim to the resource curse. South Sudan plans on becoming a candidate for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which increases transparency over payments by companies to governments and to government-linked entities; as well as transparency over revenues by those host country governments. Before South Sudan seeks candidacy for EITI, it first has to establish a Freedom of Information Law, which ensures public access to government records. Providentially, South Sudan has already composed such a proposal.

The world has already seen countries fall victim to absent transparency initiatives. The Republic of Equatorial Guinea is a prime example of a country that relies heavily upon its natural resources for revenue, but counterproductively spends funds much needed in the development of the country. According to EG Justice and Human Rights Watch, the Republic of Equatorial Guinea’s oil revenues makes the country’s per-capita wealth in 2010 equivalent to that of Germany, Japan, or the United Kingdom; however, poor governance and a lack of transparency has caused the country to remain poor and be ranked as the world’s 14th worst country on UNICEF 2009 indicator.

With the amount of pressure and press that South Sudan has been receiving, it should not be long before South Sudan implements the Freedom of Information Bill and applies for compliance under EITI. On June 16, 2011, the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights held a hearing concerning Africa’s newest nation. During the hearing, Dana L. Wilkins, who is the Sudan campaigner for Global Witness, talked about actions that the South Sudan and U.S. governments should take to ensure successful transparency and accountability of South Sudan’s oil revenue. Ninety-eight percent of the nation’s budget is derived from oil, and South Sudan is in line to be the most oil dependent country in the world when it officially becomes a country on July 9. Transparency initiatives are being heavily pushed from civil society watchdog organizations like Global Witness and Publish What You Pay.

Despite the possible long-term implementation, extractive regulations can benefit the country if enforced correctly. Global Witness’ recommendation of an independently monitored oil sector takes into account the possible mishandling and inaccuracy of production information. According to Wilkins, an office should be established separately from the Ministry of Energy and Mining that should report directly to the Legislative Assembly. This office’s sole responsibility would be to monitor and verify the petroleum sector. So that this office can acquire funding, be independent from the government and gain, the United States should provide this independent office with training and political support to make sure that it does an effective and efficient job of getting the necessary, accurate information published to the public.

Unfortunately, an office independent from the government to monitor and publish revenue data will not be enough to provide security for South Sudan. One essential piece to ensuring a strong nation is focus on sectors that the revenue will be able to benefit. Oil revenues should provide a platform for diversification of the region’s economy through development of the private sector and the agricultural sector. According to the Sudan Tribune, Riek Machar, the future vice president of South Sudan, appealed to international partners to prioritize agriculture and livestock in the private sector program. South Sudan has the most fertile land for agriculture in Africa, which he said could turn the region into a breadbasket on the continent, if not, the world.

A key partner for South Sudan on agricultural development is Malawi. The president of the Republic of Malawi, Bingu Wa Mutharika, proposed a partnership with developing nations, like Southern Sudan, to join together and focus on agriculture and food security as the key for growth. This proposal is known as the African Food Basket Project. This growth involves investments in transport infrastructures, energy development, and climate change mitigation through innovative interventions such as subsidies, increased budgetary allocations, private sector investments, and communication technology. Aside from private sector and agricultural development, South Sudan has already been attracting big time investors into their territory. The international brewery company, SAB Miller, established Southern Sudan Beverages Ltd and developed a brewery in Juba in 2009 with a $37 million dollar investment.

Transparency and accountability initiatives are vital. Yet, these initiatives will take a back seat to other priorities, such as security and violence. Transparency is not the only solution, but it is a major step in the direction of securing a government that earns the support of the South Sudan community.

Simone D’Abreu is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

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