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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries since July 2010

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Dave Zirin on 'Bad Sports'

July 29, 2010 ·

Bad sports"I'd like to thank Dan Snyder for inspiring this book," Dave Zirin began. His DC audience, apparently dotted with disgruntled Skins fans, loudly protested this inauspicious introduction. Snyder, I later learned, was just one of many team owners who treat "their fanbase like a baby treats a diaper." They've taken billions in taxpayer money, only to betray those same people, their teams' fans, by jacking up prices and funneling cash into private projects.

Zirin, who blogs at The Edge of Sports, is the sports writer for The Nation. He was at Busboys and Poets last night, promoting his new book Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Game We Love.

Snyder, Ken Kendrick, the Dolan family, Dick DeVos, and the late George Steinbrenner all topped the list of Zirin's worst team owners. Kendrick, who owns the Arizona Diamondbacks, not only backs his state's absurd immigration law but has funneled cash – using the Diamondbacks arena, a public venue – to Republican candidates he supports. The Dolans, who own the Knicks (and Cablevision) boast high profits as they drive their once-respectable name into the ground. DeVos uses his billions to fund the Dominionists, a radical right-wing group that wants to put homosexuals and "women who seek abortions" into prison. And George Steinbrenner, who Zirin calls the bridge between the old and new ways of running sports teams, began this era (helped along by his chum Rudy Giuliani), during which $30 billion was spent on public stadiums in the last 30 years.

All across the country, cities desperately in need of public funds instead capitulated to sports team owners – Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Detroit, instead of job-growth programs or infrastructure improvements, got new parks in the last 10 years, funded by taxpayers. In exchange, these cities get a few hundred low-paying, non-union jobs. Of course, if Detroiters cough up large sums of money to go to Tigers games in Comerica Park, they can drown their sorrows in overpriced beer.

I'm an avid college and pro sports fan myself. One who, at the tender age of 13, was betrayed by Whalers owner Pete Karmanos as he ruthlessly broke his promise to keep the team in Hartford (never mind that it was due to low ticket sales), instead moving them to the hockey-fan desert of North Carolina. Despite events like this, it's hard to separate the wrongdoings of team owners from the emotional ties fans have to the teams. But even I managed to set aside my blind fanaticism and think, yeah, this is a problem.

It's not like we can't do something about it – we even have a model to follow. The best sports owner, according to Zirin, is Green Bay, WI, where everyone in the city is a shareholder of the Packers. Zirin later outlines a "Fans' Bill of Rights" – tickets should be affordable for the working class; the game blackout deal with cable companies should end; and mass-produced, watery beer should cost less than $8.

In Bad Sports, Zirin evokes George Costanza, Keyser Söze, and Homer Simpson to drive his points home. But, at the risk of sounding like the guy from "Reading Rainbow," you don't have to take my word for it.

Split This Rock Poem of the Week: Jody Bolz

July 28, 2010 ·

A weekly featured poem of provocation and witness. You can find more poetry and arts news from Blog This Rock.

Mutanabi Street

 In March 2007, a car bomb exploded in the heart of Baghdad’s centuries-old literary center, igniting bookstores and stationery shops.
                                   

Pages flit above the ruined bookstalls.
Blank or dark with words, it doesn’t matter:

paper is as dangerous as ink — as thought.
And as for the student who was reading

in a dim café, the old men buying envelopes
across the lane, flames turned them to light,

then ash, with chemical indifference.
War tossed a match and stayed to watch

the old block burn — journals, histories,
novels, verse, dictionaries, textbooks,

anatomy primers with charts of the body
like maps of a familiar country — shops on fire

with what’s been written and what hasn’t:
the script in which mercy might repeat itself.

Jody Bolz

Used by permission.

Jody Bolz is the author of A Lesson in Narrative Time. Her poems have appeared widely in literary magazines--The American Scholar, Indiana Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry East among them--and in many anthologies. She taught creative writing for more than 20 years at George Washington University, and in 2002 became an executive editor of Poet Lore, America's oldest poetry journal, founded in 1889.

Bolz appeared on the panel What Makes for Effective Political Poetry: Editors' Perspectives with Poet Lore co-editor E. Ethelbert Miller during Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2010.

The Wikileaks Afghan War Diary: More Evidence of a Failed Mission

July 26, 2010 ·

Afghan soldiersI wrote an assessment of last week’s meeting in Kabul on Friday, before news had, ahem, leaked of Wikileaks' extraordinary new trove of documents, the Pentagon Papers: Afghanistan. I think the earlier piece is still useful.

But first, a couple of quick thoughts on the Wikileaks documents. There will be much more to come, as we find the time to dig through the reports.

This set of documents is unquestionably an important first history of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Of course, mistakes will be found — but these are reports of military leaders to others in the military. This is where they tell the truth. It's significant that the Obama administration has carefully avoided claiming the reports aren't accurate. Instead, they're claiming that disclosure of the reports somehow endangers U.S. troops while at the same time disparaging the documents as having no new information. There's no way these reports will endanger the troops — Afghans and Pakistanis clearly know far better than we do what U.S./NATO forces are actually doing in their countries.

What the leaks will do is stoke even greater global anger around the world, as evidence comes to those who didn’t know firsthand what the U.S./NATO occupation means for Afghans and Pakistanis. That will certainly mean rising anger toward U.S. policy and Americans as a whole. But more importantly, it will spur enormous antiwar activity in places like Europe, Canada, Australia, and Turkey. And that means greater pressure on those governments now providing troops for the war in Afghanistan — and on the Obama administration to end the war.

There is no evidence yet of a new smoking gun among the documents. But taken as a whole, the documents provide a collective arsenal of evidence of a brutal war that never did have a chance to succeed — and evidence of two administrations of a government determined to mislead its own people and the rest of the world.

The documents indicate significant shifts in the nature of how the war is being fought, with documentation of escalating Special Forces operations and drone attacks. The Pentagon's "nation-building" efforts are failing in places like Marja, last spring’s poster-city of a U.S.-backed government-in-a-box.The handpicked mayor-in-a-box, who spent most of the last 15 years living in Germany, is so unpopular that he has to be ferried into town on military helicopters for occasional meetings and then quickly whisked away.

So perhaps it isn't surprising that the new documents describe activities like those of Task Force 373, a death-squad that goes after identified individuals on a kill-or-capture list. No trial, of course. And if drones are called in to do more of the dirty work so U.S. troops are not at risk, and more Afghan or Pakistani civilians are killed as a result — well, that’s just part of the cost of war.

The documents include evidence of civilian deaths never reported in the press, many of them probably never even mentioned or asked about in the virtually nonexistent congressional oversight of the years documented in these reports. They detail massive levels of corruption, extortion, and constant violence inflicted on Afghan civilians by the U.S.-backed, U.S.-trained and U.S.-funded militias known as the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.

And they demonstrate, again, the continuing links between Pakistan’s top military intelligence agency, the ISI, and the top leadership of the Taliban — despite claims by Secretary of State Clinton and others in the Obama administration that Pakistan is a reliable U.S. ally that just needs to work a little harder on going after terrorists. Ironically, the Obama administration’s answer to the documents repeats the effort to blur the very distinct organizations known as the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban into a generic presence in Pakistan known as “the terrorists” or “the Taliban.”

The Wikileaks documents provide a treasure trove of evidence — of what we already knew. This war has already failed. Every death, of civilian and soldier, is needless. The cost of this occupation and this war — in Afghan blood, in U.S. and NATO military blood, in billions of dollars needed for jobs at home and real reconstruction in Afghanistan and elsewhere — is too high. 

We need to stop the funding now, bring the troops and contractors home, support regional diplomacy, and begin the long effort of repaying our huge debt to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Wikileaks Releases 'Afghan War Diary'

July 26, 2010 ·

The analogy between the Vietnam War and the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has taken on a new uncanny similarity. The New York Times leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, unveiling years of classified government documents detailing unlawful behavior and wartime atrocities. Simply change the names and locations and you have the Afghan War Diary, a compilation of 91,370 war documents released by WikiLeaks, revealing what the Guardian calls "a devastating portrait of the failing war in Afghanistan.”

The leak was distributed to three Western news sources (Der Spiegel, The New York Times, and The Guardian) on the condition that they wait until the July 26th release date. Responses to the latest WikiLeak have been mixed, with some fearing that transparency and accountability will come at the price of more American lives.

The White House promptly condemned WikiLeaks as “irresponsible” and a “threat to our national security”; however, they were also prompt to note that the report covers 2004-2009, when the war was directed by a Republican administration and before President Obama’s surge was implemented.

Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project here at the Institute, warns that the leak might lead to more violence against Americans, but critically points out that “The solution is not less information, but to stop U.S. activities leading to higher than acknowledged civilian casualties.”

Glenn Greenwald from Salon also lauds the value of the new information, defending that “WikiLeaks has yet again proven itself to be one of the most valuable and important organizations in the world.” But Greenwald forecasts that, like the controversy that embroiled the release of the Pentagon Papers, “The war on WikiLeaks, unfortunately, will only intensify now.”

Wikileaks has respectfully withheld 15,000 of the documents at the request of its source for “harm minimization,” but plans to release them all at some point. With this careful understanding of wartime information management, is all of the criticism and concern for Americans’ welfare warranted?

The 75,000 documents already released offer plenty of critical, disparaging fodder to attack the credibility of the U.S. operation ”supporting the aspirations of the Afghan people,” as officially claimed by National Security Advisor General James Jones. WikiLeaks reports instead that, “the material shows that cover-ups start on the ground. When reporting their own activities U.S. Units are inclined to classify civilian kills as insurgent kills, downplay the number of people killed or otherwise make excuses for themselves.”

The report also contains unprecedented news on U.S. Special Ops unit, Task Force 373, which The Guardian describes as a “secret ‘black’ unit of special forces” with the mission to hunt down Taliban leaders for ‘kill or capture’ without trial. This unit, as revealed by the files, is responsible for some of the worst civilian atrocities in a war that has already led to at least 12,000 civilian deaths, according to UN and Human Rights Watch estimates. Gut-wrenching excerpts on the activities of TF373 can be found here.

The logs contain details of 144 incidents of US troops directly causing civilian casualties, but David Leigh and Nick Davies of AlterNet point out that these only account for 195 civilian deaths. That leaves an estimated gap of 11,900 civilian deaths completely unaccounted for and undocumented by the US in Afghanistan. 

Rather than playing defense and condemning WikiLeaks’ action as an “irresponsible leak,” the Obama administration has an invaluable opportunity to utilize this sensation constructively: With a bright spotlight illuminating shortcomings of the past, Obama ought to galvanize this energy to change the war’s present futile trajectory.

Senate Committee Holds Hearing on Africa

July 26, 2010 ·

Many African nations are approaching their 50th anniversary of independence this year, but have they achieved independence worth celebrating? The U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on Africa exemplified a troubling trend among the world’s leading economic powers, characterizing relations with African nations in vividly imperialist terms. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) emphasized twice during the hearing that “Africa is the continent for America in the 21st century.” The troubling truth is that U.S. economic and military imperialism is accelerating, as the scramble to dominate African resources takes on a new dimension and direct competition with China intensifies.

The purpose of the Senate hearing was to review the nomination of eight new U.S. ambassadors to African posts, but the discussion remained focused on African economic trends, overshadowing important issues of human rights atrocities, political instability, and development initiatives in the countries in question: Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, Gabon and Sao Tomé and Principe.  Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Isakson opened the hearing by optimistically depicting Africa’s economic potential, lauding its recent meager GDP growth of 4.9 percent, and encouraging the ambassadors to cultivate more bilateral trade relations. Each nominee in turn tipped his hat (yes, all were men) to this economic opportunism, pledging to support the interests of his respective African state “second only to American citizens and interests.”

Repeated promises of U.S. resources were also made to train and equip indigenous African security forces. Although only Thomas Dougherty, "Ambassador to be" of Burkina Faso, specifically referred to AFRICOM, the nominees’ repeated pledges for enhanced security almost certainly mean a renewed commitment to the ill-conceived command. The support for AFRICOM disregards serious concerns about the command’s methods and mandate. For example, the notion that increased military presence is what Africa needs to create security overlooks the root causes of conflict — poverty, disease, marginalization of certain groups — and the serious need for stronger civilian oversight and independent legal institutions. AFRICOM is known to train and equip numerous abusive regimes with grave human rights violations, such as the Gabonese military that killed several dozen people in Port-Gentil following the election results in September of 2009.

The bipolar Cold War mentality of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was made most overtly apparent, however, in the sole question posed by the committee to each nominee. The question of utmost importance seemed to be, “Is China present in a growing capacity?” (Translation: "Should the U.S. feel threatened?")

Adding a moral dimension to the competition for resources, Isakson vilified the nation, warning, “China will use its friends and funds for, I think, more self-centered purposes.” It is a sorry joke to pretend that all U.S. activity on the continent is for legitimate, benevolent purposes.  In 2000, 71.6 percent of bilateral aid commitments to the continent required that goods and services needed for development be purchased from US companies. Economic colonization of Africa is alive and well, and the U.S. is as much a perpetrator as China.

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