IPS Blog

Changing of the Guard All Too Common in the Central African Republic

President Michel Djotodia of the Central African Republic

President Michel Djotodia of the Central African Republic

Described by journalist Graeme Wood as a “black hole of governance at the center of the continent,” the Central African Republic has been plagued by conflict and coups since its birth. In the most recent unrest, President Francois Bozize (who himself led a coup to become president) was ousted by rebel forces that have been slowly pushing for a full takeover of the C.A.R.

Michel Djotodia, national defense minister turned rogue, entered the capital in late March with rebel forces and declared himself president. There were reports of heavy gunfire throughout the day the following Sunday as a United Nations official in Bangui called the situation “confusing and very tense.”

Characterized by fragile political and economic systems together with a weak military, the C.A.R. has repeatedly fallen victim to takeovers. Scholar Louisa Lombard, who has studied the country extensively, claims that “factionalism flourishes because heading up a rebel group is a good way to be taken seriously” in a country with weak political and civil institutions.

Seleka, the rebel movement that has taken responsibility for this most recent ousting, is a coalition of groups from around the country disenfranchised with the country’s kleptocratic government and its cronies. But after the ousting, Seleka lost control of itself. Unable to deal with the ensuing chaos, regional peacekeeping forces were called to stop the looting of businesses, U.N. offices, and hospitals. Although there are still areas of resistance from pro-Bozize forces, things are slowly returning to normal as Central Africans acclimate to this latest unscheduled changing of the guard.

How long until the next one?

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

This Week in OtherWords: Tax Day Special Edition

This week in OtherWords, we’re running a Tax Day special edition. Sam Paltrow-Krulwich talks about the “gay tax” her family must pay until the nation fully embraces marriage equality, Scott Klinger highlights the declining share of tax revenue that American corporations contribute, and Gerald Scorse calls for parity between the taxes on income from wealth and work.

Speaking of taxes, here’s a friendly reminder: OtherWords is a free and non-profit editorial service funded by tax-deductible donations from people like you. Please consider making one today.

Here’s a clickable summary of our latest commentaries and a link to our new cartoon. If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. Transplanting Taxes from Corporations to the Rest of Us / Scott Klinger
    American taxpayers are increasingly picking up the tab for unpaid corporate taxes.
  2. The Gay Tax / Sam Paltrow-Krulwich
    Marriage equality is about civil rights — and tax justice.
  3. Futile Military Financing / Chris Toensing
    Almost all the $3.1 billion in yearly U.S. aid to Israel is now slated for weapons.
  4. New Health Care Taxes: A Poor Prescription / Gerald Scorse
    Hitting the rich on Medicare blurs the case for a major tax reform.
  5. We’re Watching a Great Depression Re-Run / Donald Kaul
    Virtually everything about the economic catastrophe of the 1930s has a precise parallel in today’s major political dilemmas.
  6. A Wall Street Powerhouse Attorney Talks Sense / Sam Pizzigati
    Taxes can do more than simply raise revenue.
  7. A Recipe for a Sounder Diet / Jill Richardson
    There are ways to make healthy food affordable that don’t require abusing farmworkers.
  8. Fracking Free Speech / Jim Hightower
    The gagged townspeople of Sanford, New York are suing their town board over the infringement of their First Amendment rights.
  9. Under-Taxing the Rich Is Uncivilized / Emily Schwartz Greco and William A. Collins We all pay for those cuts down the road.
  10. Taxing Economics / Khalil Bendib Cartoon
    Taxing Economics, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    Taxing Economics, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Bulgaria’s Labor Perpetually in Crisis

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

In the early 1990s, I helped put together a delegation on the topic of women and workplace in East-Central Europe. Several U.S. groups invited the delegation to the United States, with support from the German Marshall Fund, to meet with women’s organizations, trade unions, and a variety of Washington-based organizations.

It was not an easy task to identify women for the delegation. Many unions wanted to just pick the participants and didn’t understand my request for several candidates and their CVs. Also, there were two types of unions in the region: former official unions and new unions affiliated in some way with the political opposition. In those days, they didn’t get along very well. The U.S. government, and most U.S. organizations, only worked with the independent unions. So, it was challenging to put together a delegation with representatives of both sides.

I pushed hard to include representatives from the former official unions. As I wrote in a 1993 report, “The former communist trade unions have been doing a reasonably good job of democratizing themselves, and they still command the lion’s share of workers’ support. This despite several years of money and effort on the part of the AFL-CIO and the U.S. government to strengthen the ‘alternative’ unions. Now the international unions are having to adjust their strategies and open doors to the very unions they initially spurned.”

It seemed like the people who might benefit the most from a trip to the United States would be representatives from these former official trade unions. And it would have been educational, to say the least, for U.S. trade unions and government staff to meet with “the other side.” But for a mixture of external and internal reasons, a mixed delegation didn’t happen.

Still, I learned a great deal from my meetings at these former official unions. Some of the best discussions that I had on these topics, for instance, were at the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CITUB) in Sofia, thanks to the help of Snezhana Dimitrova who was working with the international affairs division.

Twenty-three years later, I returned to the CITUB building and met in her office. CITUB still owns a big building in the center of Sofia. But whereas many other offices in Bulgaria’s capital have been remodeled and modernized, the CITUB building has none of the fancy furniture and outfitting that USAID recipients enjoy. It looks much as it did during the communist period, though without the bustle or the security. There was no guard in the booth in the lobby on the day I visited, and I pushed through the turnstile without having to announce myself.

Indeed, it has not been an easy time for CITUB. It has seen its membership base decline from 2.5 million to 300,000. However, it is still by far the largest union confederation.

“We no longer have heavy industry in Bulgaria,” Snezhana Dimitrova explained to me as a major reason for the decline in membership. “There are still union members in the big cities, where there is work. Also, it’s very difficult for workers at small enterprises to organize, because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs.”

The economic reforms, from a trade union perspective, were largely disastrous. “From 1991, controls on prices were removed and industry was privatized,” she continued. “Collective farms were dissolved. A new constitution was introduced in July 1991. Economic reform started off in the wrong way. For example, agriculture was destroyed. Now they are saying that they made a mistake when they destroyed the cooperatives. They also didn’t privatize the right way. When they privatized and sold off the enterprises and the machinery, we lost many enterprises and many many jobs. The chemical industry, the Kremikovtsi steel complex, heavy industry in general: everything was destroyed.”

We also talked about the relationship between CITUB and the other major trade union organization (Podkrepa), the role of strikes, and the economic prospects for Bulgaria. Economic crisis in Europe? “Here in Bulgaria,” Snezhana Dimitrova told me, “we say that we are not feeling the crisis because we’ve always been in crisis.”

The Interview

Can you tell me how you got involved in your current work at the union?

After university, I started as a translator in the international department of the Trade Union School because my languages are Slavic: Czech and Russian. At that time, we had a lot of contacts with trade unions in Slavic countries – Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia – so I had a lot of work then. After that, I started to learn English, because we had a trade union school with many people coming from Latin America, United States, United Kingdom, Australia. Because I was in the international department, I started to translate English too, but my English is not fluent.

The transformation of society begins with trade unions. We had a lot of contacts with friends in the United States, from Western countries, and we began to have exchanges with them. We had a lot of groups from the West, like British coal miners, who were having a lot of problems with the Thatcher government because it was cutting jobs. It was interesting to work here at that time because of these contacts. There was more freedom. It wasn’t like in the Center of the Communist Party, which was much stricter.

The Institute for Social and Trade Union Research (ISTUR) is a research institute at the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CITUB) in Bulgaria. CITUB is the successor to the 100-year union tradition. The Confederation brings together 35 federations, trade unions, and associations and a number of associate members. The main subject area for ISTUR is to analyze the processes associated with social and economic reforms in Bulgaria in the transition to a market economy and prospects for trade union policy and industrial relations. Research is being conducted at three levels: theoretical, applied and as ordered by public organizations.

The Institute employs 12 researchers representing different specialties: economics, sociology, political science, psychology, and computer science.. ISTUR maintains a network of outside contacts with relevant research institutions, universities, social partner organizations, state administration, and NGOs. Now we are only 12 people, so I have to do a lot of work. I’m the national coordinator of Eurofound, the librarian of our small collection of books, and I also translate.

CITUB was the only trade union for a long time. And then Podkrepa began in the late 1980s. What was the relationship like between the two union confederations?

Podkrepa started out very well. It was a new trade union. It was accepted by the population as a break from the old. Many of the trade unions in our confederation went over to Podkrepa. I couldn’t say why. We have a very wise leadership here.

I expected one large trade union to emerge here in Bulgaria, but that didn’t happen. All the time we were the largest trade union organization, but of course the membership is not the same as in 1989. We are the better trade union than Podkrepa. I can’t say why they lost their initial advantage. I suppose maybe it’s poor leadership. They had everything. They were new. They were supported by western countries. They received material support.

But we remain the largest. We have about 300,000 members. Podkrepa has 60,000. In 1989, our membership was 2.5 million, because membership was obligatory. All workers had to be members of trade unions.

In the beginning, because CITUB was thinking in terms of the old-style trade unions, the relationship with Podkrepa was not good. Now, with compromises by both sides, it is good. Over the last 10 years, we’ve coordinated our strikes with Podkrepa, and they’ve coordinated theirs with us.

CITUB has proven that it is a new organization with new vision. Our leader is a relatively young man: Plamen Dimitrov. He started activity in trade unions as Varna district coordinator, executive secretary of CITUB, and vice president of CITUB.

Why has there been such a big decline in union membership?

We no longer have heavy industry in Bulgaria. There are still union members in the big cities, where there is work. Also, it’s very difficult for workers at small enterprises to organize, because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs.

Bulgarian workers are losing jobs, and they have lower pay. Compared to other European countries, we are at the bottom in terms of wages. Also, pensions are very small. If pensioners didn’t live with their families, they couldn’t pay for electricity and heating.

As a trade union, CITUB attaches great importance to collective bargaining as an essential tool for the effective protection of the rights and interests of employees. Since 1995, CITUB is a member of the European Trade Union Confederation, which is an institutional partner of the European Commission. Representatives of CITUB participate actively in the work of the European Economic and Social Council.

In Bulgaria, we have many trade union organizations. The labor code defines the criteria for trade union representativeness at national, branch, and sectoral levels. According to this labor code , only Podkrepa and CITUB are national representatives of workers. Other trade union organizations are present only at the enterprise level. They can’t negotiate at the national level. This kind of trade union has no power. Wages more often depend on the ministry, at the national level. Because of that, it is necessary to have a bigger trade union that can negotiate with the ministers. But still, more aggressive and more charming union leaders are appearing at the enterprise level, perhaps because they are not satisfied with either CITUB or Podkrepa.

Have there been a lot of strikes?

There were many strikes, especially between 1991 and 1993. There were meetings, rallies, political strikes, economic strikes. And sometimes the government resigned because of the strikes. After this political turmoil, they strike only for wages, to improve working conditions. They strike because they don’t want to lose their jobs if the enterprise closes. You can read about every strike at Eurofound, where we are the correspondent for Bulgaria. You can read about what happened, the results, and who was the leader, whether CITUB, Podkrepa, or another organization.

Have there been any particularly successful strikes?

The railways wanted to stop increasing wages. They threatened to cut jobs. Both CITUB and Podkrepa negotiated with the management. We had a strike. Now the railways make reforms but without cutting jobs, and they even increased the wages a little bit.

How would you evaluate the economic reforms that have taken place here in Bulgaria?

From 1991, controls on prices were removed and industry was privatized. Collective farms were dissolved. A new constitution was introduced in July 1991. Economic reform started off in the wrong way. For example, agriculture was destroyed. Now they are saying that they made a mistake when they destroyed the cooperatives. They also didn’t privatize the right way. When they privatized and sold off the enterprises and the machinery, we lost many enterprises and many many jobs. The chemical industry, the Kremikovtsi steel complex, heavy industry in general: everything was destroyed.

Sold to whom?

Most enterprises were sold to domestic buyers. But Balkan Airlines was sold to foreigners and then closed down. We are now without an airline. We had access rights in airports in London, Vienna, Paris. But we’ve lost those rights. I fly now only with Turkish airlines.

Are there any positive signs economically?

They are now developing the tourist industry. And agriculture has started again. The agricultural produce grown here is a hundred times better than what we are buying from Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

Are there positive signs for growth in union membership?

There is no potential for growth. This is normal, not to be a big organization. It’s better to be a strong organization, to organize people whether they are members or not. If we negotiate something for a branch, the deal is valid for all people working in the branch, not just the members of trade union organizations. It’s better to give all the people the possibility to increase wages and not just your trade union members. It’s easier at the national level to negotiate with the minister to increase the wages for all branches, for all enterprises.

Where would you put CITUB along the political spectrum?

Normally, trade unions are closer to the left wing. But here in Bulgaria, I couldn’t say. First, the trade union supported the economic reforms, and the reforms were made by the right wing. That meant that we supported the right-wing party. But then CITUB decided to be an independent trade union and not to support a particular party. Now, the union supports the party that has programs similar to ours in terms of economic development, wages, and jobs. Now we support the party that wants to increase wages and create new jobs.

All parties are the same. They implement only a small part of their programs. Most people don’t believe in the parties. Only the people on the left and the right vote for particular parties. Most people don’t vote. They don’t know whom to choose.

The current government is popular. The leader speaks with ordinary people. He makes jokes. Women like him: not me, but other women.

How do you evaluate the future prospects for Bulgaria?

I can’t see anything positive. Most young people want to work abroad. For example, the young people who win the medals from math or science Olympiads, when they return to Bulgaria, they get offers from American or British universities to study there. And they agree immediately, without thinking that they could study and work here.

A friend of mine told his children to stay where they are. One is in Belgium, the other in France. Mothers don’t want their children to come back here: because it is difficult to get a job, especially a job with a good salary, even for people who are educated. As for people in the villages, there aren’t any jobs, good or otherwise.

What about foreign investment?

Everybody knows that it’s good to attract foreign capital. We have no capital. We are not a rich country. Only the trade unions can protect the rights of workers in this situation. If foreign investors want to cut jobs, the trade unions negotiate how many and and under what conditions. We negotiate so that they pay six months of wages, and we make sure that pensioners get their pensions.

Can you explain the pension situation here?

The minimum retirement age in Bulgaria has been increased by 4 months as of Sunday, January 1, 2012, as part of a controversial retirement reform package. The same measure will be applied on the first day of each of the upcoming several years until the retirement age in Bulgaria reaches 65 years for men and 63 for women. Up until the new pension reform was approved in December 2011, Bulgaria’s retirement age was 63 years for men and 60 years for women.

There are three kinds of pensions: the government pension fund, an obligatory fund for people born after 1960, and private pension funds. In terms of the private pension fund, you can pay into this fund for an additional pension. The employer can also pay for an additional pension to the worker, particularly if the trade union negotiates this arrangement. In the beginning, this private fund was interesting because it was very new. It was also important because the government pensions in Bulgaria were very low. The trade union believed that it was important to have this additional pension, especially if the employer was paying into it.

What kind of international cooperation do you now have at CITUB?

For instance, at ISTUR we are working with Turkish trade unions with women in trade unions there on career development. This project, led by Italians, has EU funding, and we participate as lecturers.

How do you feel about Bulgaria’s own membership in the EU?

I am optimistic about Europe. I still think that membership is a good thing. But I think that most people here had high expectations that wages would increase automatically and everything here would be closer to the living standard for Europe. That didn’t happen, so they are disappointed.

We lost our former markets in the region. Russia was a big market. It accepted everything that we produced. Now with the EU, we can’t sell them our products in the same way. So, it’s quite difficult.

People in Europe talk about the economic crisis. But here in Bulgaria, we say that we are not feeling the crisis because we’ve always been in crisis.

Sofia, September 27, 2012

Despite Funneling Money to the Corporations That Run the Nuclear Labs, the Administration Finds Itself in Their Debt

Dienekes was a Spartan soldier noted for his bravery. Herodotus wrote of him in The Histories (via Wikipedia).

It is said that on the eve of battle, he was told by a native of Trachis that the Persian archers were so numerous that, their arrows would block out the sun. Dienekes, however, undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, ‘Good. Then we will fight in the shade.’

A reporter using the name Dienekes produced a paper in February titled Broken Promises: The White House, Special Interests, and New START that the Los Alamos Study Group featured on its website. Perhaps, he identifies with Dienekes because he feels vastly dwarfed by the forces of the Iron Triangle (his description: “the relationship between congressional committees, federal agencies, and special interest groups seeking to benefit from public policy”) against which he pits himself. Meanwhile, this reader can’t help but observe that in the event of a nuclear war, the survivors will be living in the shade of nuclear winter.

Here’s the central question that Dienekes invokes.

Why did the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) approve an under-the-radar process for transferring money each year to the nuclear weapons labs of the Department of Energy (DOE)? Why did the DoD do this when it has its own labs and [it] partners with the nuclear labs as needed, already funding [the latter] with about $900 million annually? Normally fiercely protective of their budgets, why did the heads of these agencies move so swiftly in June 2009 to implement what was a mere proposal made only three months earlier by a DOE-sponsored think tank? … Why, given the considerable negatives, was the new funding stream created?

The seeds of the answer can be found in another question he asks.

Was it just a coincidence that these agencies signed a formal charter setting up the funding scheme nine days before the nuclear lab directors appeared on Capitol Hill to give their expert testimony on the administration’s New START treaty?

Dienekes created a timeline to exhibit “evidence that the private contractors running the DOE nuclear weapons labs (Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia) got the coveted interagency charter by helping the president win a major foreign policy victory.” He elaborates.

The administration needed support from the CEO lab directors of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia to win ratification of New START. The public record shows the labs got $357 million in stimulus dollars. In addition, the White House hiked investment to a level, in constant dollars, nearly 70% more than the Cold War average, causing a former NNSA administrator to say he would have, “killed for that budget and that much high-level attention in the administration.” And DoD agreed to kick in nearly $6 billion over a five-year period to modernize nuclear weapons infrastructure. But this was not enough to satisfy the CEO lab directors. They wanted more.

The corporations (Bechtel, Babcock & Wilcox, URS, Battelle and Lockheed Martin) that run the nuclear labs coveted non-nuclear missions with binding long-term financial commitments from multiple federal agencies. Why? Because they foresaw a smaller nuclear stockpile as a result of the administration’s arms control initiatives, and without new projects to replace old warheads, this meant less workload, greater excess capacity, and higher overhead costs – all of which would spark more calls for downsizing. [They] will lobby for greater commitments to expand missions, increase workloads, build new facilities, and move more public money into the pockets of private firms. Unfortunately, such commitments will likely be made off-the-radar within the Interagency Council on the Strategic Capability of the National Laboratories, basically a top-level pressure group designed to serve the interests of the Iron Triangle.

But, “expert testimony” aside, why else did the administration feel it needed to accede to the demands of the CEO slash lab directors of Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia? Aren’t the labs subordinate to the federal government and dependent on it for funds? Dienekes reminds us of what happens “when the Oval Office embraces the Iron Triangle.” In the White House, “a gathering of administration officials and corporate contractors indulged their sizeable appetites for political gain, commercial profit, and personal advancement.”

Though he doesn’t spell it out, what I think Dienekes means is that corporate contractors contribute money to Democratic campaigns. If they’re not kept happy, they’ll cut off funding. It’s a pity that when ownership of the national laboratories was privatized (Los Alamos in 2006, Lawrence Livermore in 2007), the Department of Energy couldn’t foresee — or wasn’t concerned with — how much influence the corporate contractors would exercise over not only their own funding, but national nuclear-weapons policy.

Syria: Chess Match Turned Free-for-All

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey

In some ways the Syrian civil war resembles a proxy chess match between supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime—Iran, Iraq, Russia and China—and its opponents—Turkey, the oil monarchies, the U.S., Britain and France. But the current conflict only resembles chess if the game is played with multiple sides, backstabbing allies, and conflicting agendas.

Take the past few weeks of rollercoaster politics.

The blockbuster was the U.S.-engineered rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, two Washington allies that have been at loggerheads since Israeli commandos attacked a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza and killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American. When Tel Aviv refused to apologize for the 2010 assault, or pay compensation to families of the slain, Ankara froze relations and blocked efforts at any NATO-Israeli cooperation.

Under the prodding of President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and buried the hatchet. The apology “was offered the way we wanted,” Erdogan said, and added “We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past.”

The détente will align both countries with much of Washington’s agenda in the region, which includes overthrowing the Assad government and isolating Iran. Coupled with a Turkish push to resolve the long simmering war between Ankara and its Kurdish minority, it was a “Fantastic week for Erdogan,” remarked former European Union policy chief Javier Solana.

It was also a slam dunk moment for the Israelis, whose intransigence over the 2010 incident and continued occupation of Palestinian and Syrian lands has left the country more internationally isolated than it has been in its 65 year history.

Israel’s apology might lay the groundwork for direct intervention in Syria by NATO and Israel. In recent testimony before Congress, Admiral James Stavridis, the head of U.S. European Command and NATO’s top commander, said that a more aggressive posture by the Obama administration vis-à-vis Syria “would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the regime.”

According to the Guardian (UK), Netanyahu raised the possibility of joint U.S.-Israeli air strikes against Syria, which Israel accuses of shifting weapons to its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. There is no evidence that Syria has actually done that, and logic would suggest that the Assad regime is unlikely to export weapons when it is fighting for its life and struggling to overcome an arms embargo imposed on it by the EU and the UN. But Tel Aviv is spoiling for a re-match with Hezbollah, the organization that fought it to a standstill in 2006. “What I hear over and over again from Israeli generals is that another war with Hezbollah is inevitable,” a former U.S. diplomat told the Guardian.

There is some talk among Israelis about establishing a “buffer zone” inside Syria to prevent Islamic groups becoming a presence on the border. A similar buffer zone established after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon turned into a strategic disaster for Tel Aviv.

Admiral Stavridis suggested that a more aggressive posture would almost certainly not include using U.S. ground troops. According to former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar, a more likely scenario would be for NATO air power to smash Assad’s air force and armor—as it did Mummer Khadafy’s in Libya—and “if ground forces need to be deployed inside Syria at some stage, Turkey can undertake that mission, being a Muslim country belonging to NATO.”

The Gulf monarchies—specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan—have increased arms shipments to the anti-Assad insurgents, and France and Britain are considering breaking the embargo and arming the Free Syrian Army. If this were a normal chess game, it would look like checkmate for Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran. But this game is three-dimensional, with multiple players sometimes pursuing different goals.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are pouring what one American official called “a cataract of weaponry” into Syria, but the former apparently double-crossed the latter in a recent leadership fight in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the umbrella organization for the various groups fighting against the Damascus government. Qatar derailed Saudi Arabia’s candidate for the SNC’s prime minister and slipped its own man into the post, causing the organization’s president, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, to resign. While most the western media reported Khatib resigned because SNC was not getting enough outside help, according to As-Safir, the leading Arabic language newspaper in Lebanon, it was over the two big oil monarchies trying to impose their candidates on the Syrians.

Qatar ally Ghassan Hitto, a Syrian-American, was anointed prime minister, causing a dozen SNC members to resign. The Free Syrian Army, too, says it will not recognize Hitto.

Khatib also objected to the Qatari move to form a Syrian government because it torpedoed last June’s Geneva agreement that would allow Assad to stay on until a transitional government is formed. The Qatari move was essentially a statement that the Gulf monarchy would accept nothing less than an outright military victory.

Qatar is close to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia favors the more extremist Islamic groups, some with close links to al-Qaida, that the U.S. and the European Union have designated as “terrorist.” Tension between extremist and more moderate insurgents broke into an open firefight Mar. 24 in the northern border city of Tal Abyad. The secular Farouq Battalions, which favor elections and a civil government, were attacked by the Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, that wants to impose Sharia Law and establish an Islamic emirate. Four people were killed, and the leader of the Farouq Battalions was severely wounded.

The Nusra Front has also tangled with Kurdish groups in Syria’s northwest, and its militias currently control much of the southern border with Iraq, Jordan, and the Golan Heights that borders Israel. It was the Nusra Front that recently kidnapped UN peacekeepers for several days and attacked Iraqi soldiers escorting members of the Syrian military who had fled across the border. There have also been clashes between secular and Islamic forces in the Syrian cities of Shadadeh and Deir el Zour.

The Turkish government backing of the Syrian insurgency is not popular among most Turks, and that has to concern Erdogan, because he is trying to alter the Turkey’s constitution to make it more executive-centered and to himself become the next president. Although he is currently riding a wave of popularity over the Kurdish ceasefire, that could erode if the Syria war drags on.

And without direct NATO-Israeli intervention there does not appear to be any quick end to the civil war in sight. Assad still has support from his minority ethnic group, the Alawites, as well as among Christian denominations and many business groups. All fear an Islamic takeover. “If the rebels come to this city,” one wealthy Damascus businessman told Der Spiegel, “they’ll eat us alive.”

The longer the war goes on, the more the region destabilizes.

Fighting has broken out between Shiites and Sunnis in northern Lebanon, a Sunni-extremist fueled bombing campaign is polarizing Iraq, and Jordan is rent by an internal opposition that poses a serious threat to the Hashemite monarchy. Even Saudi Arabia has problems. A low-level but persistent movement for democracy in the country’s eastern provinces is resisting a brutal crackdown by Saudi authorities. As National Public Radio and GlobalPost reporter Reese Erlich discovered, some of those regime opponents are being given a choice between prison and fighting the Assad government, a strategy that the Saudi government may come to regret. It was jihadists sent to oppose the Soviets in Afghanistan who eventually returned to destabilize countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, and who currently form the backbone of al-Qaida-associated groups like the Nusra Front.

Aaron Zelin, Middle East expert and Fellow at the Washington Institute told Erlich that fighters from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, and Jordan are being funneled into Syria.

Chess with multiple players can get tricky.

Turkey wants regional influence and Assad out, but it does not want a neighbor dominated by the Gulf monarchies. It may also find that talking about Turkish “power” doesn’t go down well in the Middle East. Arab countries had quite enough of that during the Ottoman Empire.

The Gulf monarchies want to overthrow the secular Assad regime, isolate regional rival Iran, and insure Sunni supremacy over Shites in the region. But they don’t agree on what variety of Islam they want, nor are they the slightest bit interested in democracy and freedom, concepts that they have done their best to suppress at home.

The French and British want a replay of Libya, but Syria is not a marginal country on the periphery of the Middle East, but a dauntingly complex nation in the heart of the region that might well atomize into ethnic-religious enclaves run by warlords. That is not an outcome that sits well with other European nations and explains their hesitation about joining the jihad against Assad.

Even the Israeli goal of breaking out of its isolation, destroying Hezbollah, and strangling Iran may be a pipe dream. Regardless of Turkish-Israeli detente, the barriers that keep Palestinians out of Israel also wall off Tel Aviv off from the rest of the Middle East, and that will not change until there is an Israeli government willing to remove most of the settlements and share Jerusalem.

As for Hezbollah, contrary to its portrayal in the Western media as a cat’s paw for Teheran, the Shite group is a grassroots organization based in Lebanon’s largest ethnic group. It is also being careful not to give the Israelis an excuse to attack it. In any case, any Israeli invasion of Lebanon would automatically rally international sentiment and Arab public opinion—Shite, Sunni, Alawite, etc.—against it.

If Assad falls, Iran would lose an ally, but Teheran’s closest friend in the Middle East is Baghdad, not Damascus. And despite strong American objections, Teheran recently scored a major coup by inking an agreement with Pakistan’s government to build a $7.5 billion gas pipeline to tap Iran’s South Pars field. The pact will not only blow a hole in western sanctions against Iran, it will play well in the May 11 Pakistani elections. “The Pakistani government wants to show it is willing to take foreign policy decisions that defy the U.S.,” says Anthony Skinner of the British-based Maplecroft risk consultants. “The pipeline not only caters to Pakistan’s energy needs but also logged brownie points with the many critics of the U.S. among the electorate.”

In the end, the effort to knock Syria off the board may succeed, although the butcher bill will be considerably higher than the current body count of 70,000. But establishing a pro-western government in Damascus and inflicting damage on Iran is mostly illusion. “Victory”—particularly a military one—is more likely to end in chaos and instability, and a whole lot more dead chess pieces.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces (4/1)

War: Not Just Hell, But the Tenth Circle Thereof

War is obscene. I mean that in every sense of the word. Some veterans will tell you that you can’t know war if you haven’t served in one, if you haven’t seen combat. These are often the same guys who won’t tell you the truths that they know about war and who never think to blame themselves in any way for our collective ignorance.

Who Did You Rape in the War, Daddy?, Nick Turse, The Nation

Thank Goodness for Small Favors

The very fact that our policy of regime change is aimed at the same rulers our principal enemy wishes to overthrow should give logical pause. … Yet for all the clarity of this logical fallacy in the American democracy project, it has not stopped President Obama from helping to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya, or from calling for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad in Syria — even though the fall of the former and the uprising against the latter have given al Qaeda new “active fronts” (to use the jihadis’ own term) in which to operate. … So far, it hasn’t. But at least there are some limits to the American pursuit of folly; there is no call in Washington for overthrow of the regime in Riyadh. For this we should at least be thankful.

The Illogic of Iraq, John Arquilla, Foreign Policy

Transparency About Drones May Only Serve to Legitimate Them

So, moving [drone] operations to the Pentagon may modestly improve transparency and compliance with the law but — ironically for drone critics — it may also entrench targeted-killing policy for the long term.

For one thing, the U.S. government will now be better able to defend publicly its practices at home and abroad. The CIA is institutionally oriented toward extreme secrecy rather than public relations, and the covert status of CIA strikes makes it difficult for officials to explain and justify them. The more secretive the U.S. government is about its targeting policies, the less effectively it can participate in the broader debates about the law, ethics, and strategy of counterterrorism. … Under a military-only policy, the United States would also be better positioned to correct lingering misperceptions about targeted killings and to take remedial action when it makes a mistake.

Moreover, clearer legal limits and the perception of stricter oversight will make drone policy more legitimate in the public’s eyes.

Going Clear, Matthew Waxman, Foreign Policy

Two-Score Years Hence

Furthermore, since launching an ICBM from Iran towards the United States or Europe requires going somewhat against the rotation of Earth the challenge is greater. As pointed out by missile and space security expert Dr. David Wright, an ICBM capable of reaching targets in the United States would need to have a range longer than 11,000 km. Drawing upon the experience of France in making solid-fuel ICBMs, Dr. Wright estimates it may take 40 years for Iran to develop a similar ICBM – assuming it has the intention to kick off such an effort. [Author's emphasis.] A liquid fueled rocket could be developed sooner, but there is little evidence in terms of rocket testing that Iran has kicked off such an effort.

… The central conundrum of midcourse missile defense remains that while it creates incentives for adversaries and competitors of the United States to increase their missile stockpiles, it offers no credible combat capability to protect the United States or its allies from this increased weaponry.

Q&A Session on Recent Developments in U.S. and NATO Missile Defense with Dr. Yousaf Butt and Dr. George Lewis, Charles Blair, FAS Strategic Security Blog

At This Point, the Only Defense Against Missile Defense May Be Black Humor

Now for the really fun part: Let’s say one of these interceptors does manage to hit an incoming North Korean missile. While the folks at Greely are celebrating with a little Harlem Shake, what’s happening with the other interceptors we shot off? If you said “They are lighting up the early-warning radars as they streak into the heart of Mother Russia,” you win a prize! I am sure there is no chance that will spark an accidental nuclear war, the firing-missiles-into-Russia-on-purpose thing. There is no way the Russians could miss a North Korean missile launch or get an itchy trigger finger when they see missiles converging on their country. [Double emphasis -- bold and italic -- added.]

Billion Dollar Baby, Jeffrey Lewis, Foreign Policy

Key Fact Suppressed in the Israel-Turkey Reconciliation Story

Mavi MarmaraCertain facts simply do not find purchase in the Western corporate press. A seemingly minor example is furnished in the latest round of reporting on the 2010 Israeli naval assault on the Mavi Marmara vessel. The basic facts are circulating as background for the just announced reconciliation between Ankara and Tel Aviv. (As a side note, the significance of this development is that ruling class solidarity between two important regional allies of Washington is restored, increasing pressure on Iran and others outside the U.S.-led framework). The common boilerplate language states that nine Turkish activists were killed by the Israeli commandos. This is simply false.

To give a sense of how widespread this rendering of the facts is, I have reproduced a series of screen grabs from my news alert on the topic. In the UK, the left-leaning Guardian:

FakeUK1

A German publication similar to the BBC World News and France 24 (citing AFP and the AP):

FakeGermany

In Canada (citing the AP):

FakeCanada

In UK again (citing the major European news outfit, Sky News):

FakeUK2

In Israel, Haaretz, which more than any leading newspaper, should really know better:

FakeIsrael

Not to be outdone by AP, Reuters also included the falsehood:

FakeReuters

In reality, one of those nine civilians executed was a US citizen. Furkan DoÄŸan was of Turkish ancestry but did not have Turkish citizenship. Flubbing this detail in the initial round of reporting just after the incident in 2010 would have been understandable. However, by now nearly three years have passed since the attack and there has been plenty of time to absorb the correct set of facts.

The discrepancy is significant because it reduces the Israeli violence to an exclusively Turkish grievance. Reporting the detail accurately casts Washington’s behavior in an odd light. Why has the Obama administration not joined Turkey in expressing opprobrium towards Tel Aviv? Does Turkey care for the safety of its citizens but not the U.S.?

The fact does not serve (indeed undercuts) geopolitical aims and thus it does not do to mention it in press accounts. It is frequently therefore simply filtered out, per the propaganda model of the media. Though the media do not always misstate the fact (e.g. the NYT piece on the reconciliation did not repeat the falsehood), the false version is pervasive. (I have not attempted to quantify the error rate using a database like LexisNexis but I suspect the majority of Western press articles regurgitate the error; and few indeed explicitly mention the U.S. fatality.)

Perhaps, it may be said, the error is not deliberate but born of ignorance and lazy reporting. Nonetheless, it is because the error conforms to propaganda needs that it is allowed to stand uncorrected after all this time. That one of the victims was American is hardly a secret. Even Wikipedia gets the nationalities right. All a journalist would have to do to get the story straight is consult the most accessible reference in the Western world.

Incidentally, it is worth noting that, though many passengers on the Mavi were injured, one man, UÄŸur Süleyman Söylemez, was shot in the head and remains in a coma to this day. I have seen no indication that he is expected to ever regain consciousness. His fate is virtually never mentioned in press accounts.

Along with Kevin Funk, Steven Fake is the author of “Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA” (Black Rose Books). They maintain a website with their commentary at scrambleforafrica.org.

Is a Desperate Assad Lashing Out With Chemical Weapons?

The alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria last week garnered international attention and prompted the UN—after receiving requests from both Syria’s government and opposition—to initiate an official investigation into the incident.

The attack, launched via a rocket allegedly containing “chemical materials,” was reported in Khan al-Assal—a village in Aleppo province—where 16 people were killed instantly. The death toll has since risen to 31. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the leading umbrella organization for the opposition, reported a second chemical attack in rural suburbs outside Damascus, though the number affected is still unknown.

Whether chemical weapons were actually used—and which party would be responsible—remains unverified. Both the Syrian government and the opposition accuse the other of using chemical weapons and propagandizing the attacks.

Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari implored UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to form a “specialized, independent and neutral technical mission” to investigate the opposition’s involvement in the Aleppo incident, which was first reported by the state-run news agency SANA as an attack by “terrorists,” the term the regime uses to refer to rebels. Jaafari also claimed that the government was “not aware of a second attack” in Damascus and insinuated that the SNC was using the Damascus attack to distract the UN from Aleppo.

The opposition denies the regime’s claims. A Free Syrian Army spokesman was quoted by Middle East Online as saying that, “We have neither long-range missiles nor chemical weapons. And if we did, we wouldn’t use them against a rebel target.” The opposition also requested that the UN investigate the attack, a view that Western countries such as the United States, France, and Britain support.

During a debate in the UN Security Council, France insisted that both incidents in Aleppo and Damascus should be investigated as part of the official inquiry and that the UN should also investigate whether or not the Syrian regime possesses chemical weapons. However, Russia—who backs the regime and claims to have evidence that rebels are behind the chemical attack—responded that such an inquiry echoed Iraq’s inspection a decade ago and that the United States, France, and others were “launching propaganda balloons” and engaging in “delaying tactics.”

Crossing Red Lines

The attacks—coming after an unverified chemical attack in Homs last December—could be significant because their use, if confirmed, would mark a new stage in the Syrian war and could spur the United States to intervene.

U.S. President Barack Obama has previously stated that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be “totally and completely unacceptable” and would constitute a “red line,” which if crossed would be a “tragic mistake” with “consequences.” Though Obama has yet to specify what these consequences entail, many have interpreted his speech to indicate some form of military intervention, whether putting troops on the ground or arming the opposition. At a news conference with Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama reiterated this stance, saying, “Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.”

However, other U.S. officials have expressed skepticism that chemical weapons were deployed. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee that, “So far, we have no evidence to substantiate the reports that chemical weapons were used … But I want to underline that we are looking very carefully at these reports.”

In addition to the official UN inquiry, U.S. intelligence agencies are also investigating the attacks. The conflict in Syria, however, compounds the difficulties of conducting any investigation in the country. In an interview with NBC, Ralf Trapp—a specialist on chemical and biological weapons—noted that it could take “weeks” for the UN to pull together a team to investigate and “each day lost will influence the speed with which the investigation can be concluded… because as more time elapses before biological sampling occurs, more sophisticated DNA and other toxicological testing is required.”

Not to mention, the investigation team would need to be able to get to—and operate within—Aleppo safely, which would largely depend upon cooperation from both state and rebel agents.

UPDATE

Al Arabiya reports:

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed a Swedish professor who was a U.N. chemical weapons inspector in Iraq and now works at a research institute that deals with chemical incidents to head the U.N. fact-finding mission that will investigate allegations of the reported use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Leslie Garvey is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus and Focal Points.

King Abdullah of Jordan Learns How Loaded His Gestures, Words, and Facial Expressions Are

King AbdullahWhen the April issue of Atlantic Magazine published an article by its national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg about his interview and impressions of King Abdullah of Jordan, Jordan was swept in a political storm that has yet to quiet down. The problem isn’t with what the King actually said in the interview, rather with the perception it created for him at home. In fact, and at least from the perspective of an American reader, he did not say anything wrong or even controversial. Conversely, however, the King appeared to be more of a modernizing force with progressive views about transforming Jordan into a democracy with constitutional monarchy as a unifying symbol of all Jordanians.

But, at the heart of the controversy is the word “dinosaurs” the King used to describe the old guard Jordanian politicians. Another one is, as trivial as it may sound, a facial impression of the King opening his eyes wide when an important tribal chief suggested hiring the local young men as neighborhood watch as in the old days. Other statements that were troublesome for the King was his anecdotal stories about other Arab leaders, mainly Bashaar al Assad and Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi, whom, according to Goldberg’s phrasing, were portrayed negatively by the King.

From an American or western perspective, where media is much more open and aggressive, and where politicians and the public are always engaging in some kind of debate or even at war with each other, this hardly qualifies as a “ scandal” or even hard news.

But in Jordan or any other Arab country for that matter where the media is not really free and where the society is not as open or as free as the American or Western ones, gestures, words, and facial expressions can have dangerous consequences.

After all, the manner in which the King conducted this free-style interview with the Atlantic was a disaster that could have been easily prevented.

Although Goldberg did not commit any unethical conduct as far his article goes and in describing the King’s reactions and statements as he observed them during the stay and travels with the King in Jordan. It was however, a grave mistake to let Goldberg use his own words and impressions to create a psychological profile of the king. If this were war time, or in a different setting, this interview and others like it that the King gave in the past could be considered a treasure trove of intelligence about the King, his own family, his likes and dislikes, his vacation spots, and how he governs his kingdom and who his enemies and friends are. The King was too open, too trusting and did not take into the account the unintended consequences that can result from failure to know how Western media or Western journalists operate. Normally, professional journalists are out to write a story; they are not your friends.

It is unthinkable for example, for a sitting president of the United States to allow this kind of free and unlimited access to journalists unless it is for a book or a biography and even at that presidents rarely veer from their prepared scripts and official remarks.

In fact Goldberg did what any crafty journalist would do when speaking to his subject by providing a scope and a context for the subject’s statements, facial impressions, and demeanor.

One incident that set off the tribal sensitivities was Goldberg’s recounting of what took place inside a meeting between the King and tribal elders in the southern town of Kerak. The story as described by Goldberg was about a simple yet a brilliant idea made by one of the tribal leaders in Kerak to ease unemployment in the town. His idea was to have the young and unemployed men perform something like a neighborhood watch, just like the old days, and without arming them with firearms, except for batons. In Goldberg’s account, he described the King’s “wide-eyed look” in reaction to the proposal which reflect, most likely, the King’s surprise at the simplicity of suggestion. Obviously the King was more interested in long-term solutions to the woes of the Jordanian economy. The King’s “wide-eyed look” was perceived as if the King was looking down on the tribal leaders who represent the traditional backbone of the Jordanian monarchy.

It was, however, the fault of the royal court in allowing such easy and free access to the head of the state and a sovereign king whose words and utterance and even his facial expressions do in fact matter and might even cause problems.

The King also made a strategic plunder by letting his guard down in the presence of foreign journalists who by instinct are human tape-recorders and can unravel Jordan’s relations with other Arab states or even damage the economy.

There is also the element of cultural differences between the political terminology the King used in English, such as the word “dinosaurs,” which would sound normal, and the impressions he made in a Western setting. But in a traditional and tribal society such as Jordan, titles, status and prestige do matter more than reality sometimes.

This does not mean, of course, that the Jordanian society should all of the sudden become Western in order to understand what its king means when he speaks. Rather, it is the other way around. The King’s advisors should have advised him about the pitfalls of letting his guard down with foreign journalists, which is akin to stepping into a minefield.

In addition, his remarks about the Jordanian “Muslim brotherhood” being a “Masonic cult” were taken literally, when in fact he most likely was referring to their proclivity to secrecy. Still, using the term “Masonic cult” to describe an Islamic group is considered very offensive. The same goes for his remarks about the Egyptian and Turkish leaders which can have dire political ramifications for Jordan, which needs friends and allies more than it needs enemies.

But the King also spoke about other important issues, such as the need to reform the Jordanian intelligence Department, the Mukhabarat, which has injected itself in the Jordanian political and economical life and is mainly responsible for sowing the seeds of divisions within the Jordanian society along the Jordanian-Palestinian lines. Outside the wrong impressions the interview created for him, the reality is that King Abdullah is trying to be a liberal and progressive reformer while many in his inner circle are working against him, as he put it in the interview. But the sad reality, for the King, however, is that many in the Jordanian society and its political elite were more in interested in gossip and wild conspiracy theories about facial gestures or this or that word than the important issues.

Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: [email protected] and on Twitter at @clearali.

This Week in OtherWords: March 27, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Jill Richardson makes the case for raising chickens in your backyard and Sam Pizzigati discusses Ford’s worker-financed bailout.

Donald Kaul is taking a spring break this week and will be back on April 3, when we’ll run a Tax Day special edition.

Here’s a clickable summary of our latest commentaries and a link to our new cartoon. If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. A Plateful of Justice / Javier Rojo
    The people that wash your dishes and the folks who cook and serve your food deserve better.
  2. Ditching ‘Rape Culture’ for Good / Alana Baum
    From HBO’s “Girls” to CNN’s coverage of the Steubenville case, it’s time for people to start talking about rape in a more productive way.
  3. A Dubious Honor / Wenonah Hauter
    How can Smithfield rank so high on Fortune’s list of most-admired companies?
  4. Don’t Cheat Your Grandma / Martha Burk
    One idea for cutting Social Security that’s gaining popularity in Washington would hurt the elderly, especially older women.
  5. When Workers Foot the Bill for Bailouts / Sam Pizzigati
    U.S. executives, including Ford CEO Alan Mulally, are personally profiting off their employees’ pain.
  6. Why I’m a Chick with Chicks / Jill Richardson
    As a visit to my Cluckingham Palace coop proves, small-scale chicken raising is compatible with modern city life.
  7. Obama’s Unethical End Run / Jim Hightower
    Obama’s transparent deception on special-interest money.
  8. A Tortured History / William A. Collins
    Could you or I be kidnapped and waterboarded and still have no right to sue?
  9. Invisible Hand University / Khalil Bendib cartoon
Invisible Hand University, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Invisible Hand University, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

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