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Entries tagged "Syria"

Four Things Obama Should Say During his State of the Union Address

January 23, 2014 ·

President Obama

What should President Obama say during his State of the Union address this year? IPS experts have come up with a few suggestions:

Sarah Anderson commends the administration's commitment to improve conditions for the poorest among us, but urges Obama not to forget to do something about the “overprivileged” as well.

Emily Schwartz Greco, together with William A. Collins, asks Obama to stop talking about lowering the corporate tax rate, since there would be plenty of cash to go around if only everyone paid their fair share.

Ron Carver calls on Obama to stop pressing Congress to grant his administration fast-track authority to expedite the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other global deals that are good for corporations but bad for people.

Phyllis Bennis urges Obama to reverse course in the global Syria talks and let Iran participate in them.

What do you think Obama should say in the State of the Union? Weigh in on these issues and others below, and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter during the address for more commentary from our experts.

My Socrates Wore a Guayabera

September 13, 2013 ·

Cross-posted from CounterPunch with permission.
Read the Institute's tribute to Saul Landau.
IPS will celebrate the life of Saul Landau in Washington, DC on October 12. If you can join us, please RSVP

Saul LandauBy Divine Intervention, Saul Landau entered my life 12 years ago and taught me how to write, film, and live with dignity.

We instantly bonded over having fathers from the “old country” — his father, from Ukraine, mine, from Syria — and being Semites with prominent noses. We communicated by exchanging stories and news articles, watching and dissecting films, exploring puns, and testing one another’s tolerance for salacious humor (his was particularly impressive).

Regardless of the time of day, or time zone, he delivered his pearls of wisdom in pairs: “Don’t be a victim,” followed by, “Unless you believe in reincarnation, you only have one shot at life.” Unrelenting wit, even at bleak moments, encapsulated his pearls: “If you ask the Rabbi, nothing’s kosher.”

And sadly, in more recent months, “Cancer schmancer, as long as you have your health!”

I met Saul just after finishing my freshman year at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, where he taught courses on Latin America, history, and digital media. A wide-eyed 19-year-old at the time, the formation of my political consciousness had coincided with the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000. From what I could comprehend, the continued occupation of Palestinian territory seemed “wrong” and contrary to international law, but I lacked the language, tools, and platform to thoughtfully explain why.

In August 2001, I walked into Saul’s office. For the next three years, it became my intellectual equivalent of Warhol’s Factory, without the Velvet Underground, drugs, hangers-on, and troubled pseudo-starlets, but where film scripts, detective novels, and muckraking commentaries percolated at a fiendish pace. His friends would often stop by, including Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, and Arianna Huffington, before giving campus-wide talks organized by Saul.

“So, are you interested in making movies and learning how to play a part in your history?” he asked me nonchalantly, during my research assistant job interview.

“Sure!” I replied, captivated by both his lofty proposition and his eyes that narrated more riveting stories than Scheherazade, radiating whimsy, strength, and unabashed soul.

“Watch these films that I made with Castro [“Fidel,” 1968; “Cuba and Fidel,” 1974; “The Uncompromising Revolution,” 1988] and Allende [“Que Hacer?” and “Conversation with Allende,” 1971] and read some of my books [The Dangerous Doctrine;Guerrilla Wars of Central AmericaRed Hot Radio]. If you’re interested in working with me after that, let me know next week.”

And that began my real political education, outside the stifling halls of academia, thanks to the ever generous, ever humble, Saul. On my first day at work, I prepared to bombard him with questions about Cuba, given his history of making six films there. Why did the 1959 Cuban Revolution succeed? Is revolution in the 21st Century still possible? What crossed your mind as you were sitting next to Fidel, filming him in his Jeep? And, what compelled you to show footage of him striking out while playing baseball, alongside the extreme close-up shots of dirt in his fingernails?

He answered these questions throughout our relationship. But on this particular day, September 11, 2001, Cuba took a back seat to the acts of terrorism against the United States. No sooner had Saul arrived to the office that we had to depart for the day, as the state-university closed early in the aftermath of the events. Nonetheless, he still managed to instill the most valuable lesson of my life—in a parking lot, no less.

As the hours passed and it became clear that Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and those who looked “suspicious” would face backlash, for no other reason than their identity, Saul uttered these immortal words as I entered my car: “Do not be afraid. You have a duty to speak out.” He knew I was an Arab. And a Muslim. But for him, righting wrongs, regardless of where they occurred, always trumped narrow identity politics. How else would a boy from the Bronx go on to make documentaries exposing hypocrisy, torture, militarism, and the consequences of neoliberalism in Cuba, Brazil, Iraq, and Mexico, respectively?

It did not matter that I had never before penned an article, op-ed, or letter-to-the-editor. Or, that I feared public speaking. At a moment when the Bush administration launched its wide-reaching assault on civil liberties in the U.S. and its war on Afghanistan, my guayabera-wearing Socrates, whose probing questions always revealed higher truths about power and injustice, empowered me to play a role (however modest) in my history.

Saul gave me my radio debut on Pacifica Network News a few days after 9/11, challenging me to write a commentary from my community’s perspective. With his literary scalpel, he rearranged my sentences, deleted extraneous words, and converted the passive into the active voice. By the end of it, my first draft hemorrhaged from his edits. He winked, delivering another Saulism that still haunts me: “Never fall in love with your own work.”

As a student of history, who studied with William Appleman Williams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Saul implored me to look beyond the accepted version of news events, especially when broadcast by the corporate media. He reminded me of that other 9/11 in Chile, when General Augusto Pinochet, backed by the U.S., overthrew the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973. That “altered the destiny of the Chilean people,” he would say, pointing to the ensuing reign of terror targeting his own friends, like Orlando Letelier, the Defense Minister under Allende who was arrested and imprisoned on Dawson Island following the coup, and later assassinated by agents of the Chilean secret police in Washington D.C. on September 21, 1976.

Three months after 9/11, Saul wrote a ZNet commentary called “The Logic of Our Time,” where he questioned the new axioms offered by the Bush administration justifying a military response to terrorism. His still relevant conclusion merits repeating:

I plan to persuade my university colleagues to begin offering courses in the new logic so that students can compare the words officials use against what they see, hear and read. If anyone doubts the veracity of our leaders, recall Richard Pryor’s wife when she discovers him in bed naked with a naked woman.

“Hey, sugar, it’s not what you think,” says Pryor.

“What do you mean? Are you nuts? I’m seeing this scene with my own eyes,” she says.

“Hey, honey,” says Pryor, “who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, and in the midst of President Barack Obama’s momentary pushback on bombing Syria, I miss my mentor and friend’s shrewd analysis and penetrating wit more than ever. As I walked around the humid streets of D.C. last night, where he called home for over 20 years before moving to California, I felt limbless without my guayabera-wearing Socrates. How would he respond to Obama’s Syria’s remarks? What will he write his next commentary on? And, when will he release his next film?

I could barely make out the stars the night after Saul died, so instead I turned to the streetlights. In them, I saw the perpetual gleam in his eyes, illuminating the far corners of the Earth, however imperfect, disheveled, disillusioned. In the morning, the birds on my windowsill chirped in my ears, reminding me just how privileged I was to work with and learn from the best. I treasure every article we wrote together, including our film reviews and Syria pieces for CounterPunch. I traveled to Syria for the first time with my mentor just after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, allowing me to simultaneously discover my roots and the art of filmmaking. All roads lead to Damascus — and Saul.

“In times of need the living need a poem,” he once wrote.

I call mine Saul Landau.

Farrah Hassen, a Syrian-American writer and filmmaker, was the associate producer of the 2004 film, “Syria: Between Iraq and a Hard Place,” directed by Saul Landau. She is currently a first-year law student at Howard University in Washington DC. For two years, she served as the Carol Jean and Edward F. Newman Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and she made several short films featuring Landau that the Institute will screen at its upcoming 50th anniversary celebration.


Is the State Department Going Rogue? Or Did It Just Forget How to Spell?

July 13, 2012 ·

The State Department, reporting on the latest U.S.-Israel "Strategic Dialogue," was very proud of the "productive, wide ranging discussion of issues of mutual concern."  (Apparently the recommended legalization of all the illegal and expanding settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory is not an issue of "mutual concern" to the U.S. deputy secretary of state and his Israeli counterpart).

No, the focus was only on the regional situation. Regarding Iran, the State Department made odd allusions to facts about the crisis of which nobody else in the administration seems to be aware.  To begin, State noted that the U.S. and Israel had addressed their concern that Iran is engaged in a "continued quest to develop nuclear weapons." There was no explanation of why the conclusion of this U.S.-Israeli dialogue seems to fly in the face of the US intelligence agencies' actual position with regard to Iran's nuclear program, which is that Iran not only does not have any nuclear weapons, and is not building a nuclear weapon, but that Tehran has not even made the decision about whether to build a nuclear weapon.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta asked his own rhetorical question about Iran: "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon?" He then answered with an unequivocal "No."

It was General James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, who made clear that the U.S. does not even know "if Iran will eventually decide to build" a nuclear weapon.

Is that what a "continued quest to develop nuclear weapons" looks like?  Or is State running its own intelligence agencies these days? 

And then they discussed Syria. Of course it's widely known that the Syrian regime has assisted Hezbollah, a political and paramilitary organization that happens to be the strongest party in Lebanon’s parliament.  But State's view, following its strategic dialogue with Israel, is apparently the other way around – that it is Hezbollah that is somehow shoring up a reprehensible neighboring regime. And apparently, the reprehensible killings it is assisting in that neighboring state are being carried out by a heretofore unknown regime led by someone named "Asad." Perhaps State's note meant to reference the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the brutally repressive government that has reigned over Syria for the past 12 years. But we can't be sure. 

When dangerous regional escalations are at stake, when Israel is threatening war against Iran, and the U.S. and its allies are threatening to join and thus further escalate the civil war in Syria, one would hope for a bit more consistency in U.S. policy – whether or not policymakers are talking to Israel.  Not to mention a bit of attention to spelling.

 

The Right Path for Washington in Syria

June 14, 2012 ·

The Syrian conflict continued to boil - or boil over - when Syrian troops fired across the Turkish border on April 9, apparently killing either fleeing refugees or armed combatants. However, despite continued words of caution from the Pentagon and White House about getting into another messy Middle East war, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton pressed for more intervention.

Hillary Clinton speaks about Syria in Istanbul. Photo by U.S. State Department.The Syrian Accountability Act of 2003 began the formal U.S. attempt to bring down Assad, but Clinton, the imperial princess, now demands Syrian President Assad resign in favor of the Syrian National Council (SNC). This hastily formed group composed of exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members, and other groupings, many in exile, would magically transform Syria via fair elections into a good democracy - and sheep will fly.

Washington's "humanitarian" assistance fund for Syria escalated into "non-lethal" aid -- sophisticated satellite communications equipment, and night-vision goggles so "rebels" could "evade" Syrian government assaults. U.S. and Western media have underscored Assad's butchery, but offered little of substance on the opposition and its often savage behavior.

Just weeks after the first March 2011 protests - Arab Springtime - the media disregarded eyewitness evidence of armed groups shooting at and killing members of Syria's security forces as well as civilians. Reporter Pepe Escobar witnessed "the shooting deaths of nine Syrian soldiers in Banyas" as early as April 10, 2011 (Asia Times, April 6, 2012). By focusing only on Assad's violence, Western leaders could promote a lopsided view of the conflict. In recent weeks, however, the media could not ignore all "photos and video footage of armed men with heavy weapons proudly declaring their stripes - some of them religious extremists advocating the killing of civilians based on sectarian differences."

Suicide bombings took place in Damascus and Aleppo, and al-Qaeda called its minions "to battle." The U.S. government ignored al-Qaeda's role and refers only to the "good" SNC, the majority who appear to ally themselves with Syria's Muslim Brotherhood. At a March meeting in Istanbul, sponsored by Turkey and Qatar, however, an unlikely source of dissent emerged. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said: "We reject any arming [of Syrian rebels] and the process to overthrow the [Assad] regime, because this will leave a greater crisis in the region."

Al-Maliki questioned the motives of Qatar and Saudi Arabia who "are calling for sending arms instead of working on putting out the fire." Iraq, he continued, opposed "arming" the Free Syrian Army and he feared, "those countries that are interfering in Syria's internal affairs will interfere in the internal affairs of any country." Maliki, who governs Iraq as a result of the U.S. invasion and devastation of that country, questioned equating a cause backed by Saudi funding with freedom. "What's wrong with the Free Syrian Army getting funding from Saudi Arabia? Or, when did Saudi Arabia ever support freedom?" he asked (Suadad al-Salhy, Reuters, April 1, 2012).

These remarks were not featured in headlined stories; nor did TV or radio news provide coverage of Maliki's statement. Until recently, we might have depended on Al Jazeera, whose Iraq war coverage won it praise from journalists. However, the network's Syria reports led some reporters to resign over the network's biased reporting. Hassan Shaaban, the Beirut bureau's managing director, resigned in March, "after leaked emails revealed his frustration over the channel's coverage."

Shaaban had filed a story showing armed men fighting with the Syrian army in Wadi Khalid. Al Jazeera dropped the story. Two other Al Jazeera staff quit for the same reasons. Al Akhbar claimed Qatar's foreign policy influenced the reporting on Syria. Al Jazeera maintains headquarters in Qatar and the royal family helped establish the network.

The question in Washington should be: will adding fuel to the violence make matters worse? Assad's forces have defeated -- with huge civilian casualties -- the formal rebel uprisings, but the SNC could sponsor a prolonged terrorist war, which would increase civilian casualties, and not succeed in removing Assad or his Party [the Baath Party] from power.

Logic and reason dictate that Obama should follow the Syrian majority. A February 2012 poll showed "55% of Syrians want Assad to stay," [NOT] motivated by fondness for his government, but "by fear of civil war." The poll also ascertained "that half the Syrians who accept him staying in power believe he must usher in free elections in the near future." (YouGov Siraj poll on Syria commissioned by The Doha Debates, funded by the Qatar Foundation, connected to the royal family. The family has taken a hawkish position on Syria. See Jonathan Steele, The Guardian, January 17)

These facts have not oozed into State Department consciousness, where the rush for U.S. entanglement appears contagious. Good sense should command Secretary Clinton to help save the process former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan set in motion for a negotiated cease fire. The opposition and the Assad side negated the April 10 deadline. This means Syrians will pay a higher human toll. The suffering is already immense.

On April 14, the UN Security Council backed a deployment of the first wave of U.N. military observers to monitor the tentative cease-fire between the Syrian government and opposition combatants. Before the arrangements become final, Washington should weigh in now with Russia, China and the western powers - not Saudi Arabia and Qatar - to pressure both sides to stop shooting and start serious talking.