IPS Blog

Worst Fears May be Realized In Iraq

In December, 2002, the talk of our holiday gathering was the looming possibility of the invasion of Iraq. The conversation was not just political — it was personal. For one of us, born in Baghdad, the faces of those back home were imagined and fears for their future gripped like a vise.

But it was not just the immediate future that cast the deepest shadows across their imagined faces. It was the fear that once Saddam fell, US strategy would never allow for a full Iraqi exit. Heated debates over if the invasion would occur ensued at that gathering in 2002, but no one could believe that the fears of continued occupation would ever be realized.

Now, in 2010, a drawdown of troops in the barely organized chaos of Iraq marches towards benchmark dates. But with the sharply decreased American media coverage of Iraq, much of the news has focused on random bombings around the country and partial coverage of the recent Iraqi elections. How many average Americans are aware that while troop numbers come down, contractor numbers go up? The number of troops in Iraq is supposed to go down by this August to 50,000 but with contractors the number would be 125,000. Can you imagine that candidate Obama would have campaigned on the promise of having 125,000 personnel in Iraq by the end of summer 2010? How many total U.S. personnel would be left by the end of 2011? Is the number by end of 2011 zero as promised, or 50,000 or more? Who is reporting about special operations in Iraq involving troops that are not Iraqi-based, but merely sweep in, do their work, and sweep out again?

In order to understand policy implications, Americans need information about the current status of Iraq, as well as the impact of policies as changes are anticipated. Should we keep large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq for an extended period to ensure security in Iraq? Should we withdraw as quickly as possible so that Iraqis fully determine the outcome of their country? Is our oil policy good for Iraq or good for America and the West or both? Do policies based on sectarian divisions in Iraq promote fairness — or rabid sectarianism? These are the kind of questions that many Iraqis are asking and Americans must openly discuss. Democracy in our country and in Iraq depends on information, and with that, open and honest discussions.

Much of the mainstream media coverage of the war in Iraq has focused on the impact on American military personnel. By withdrawing many of the journalists from Iraq, America’s mainstream media has turned their backs on Iraqis. With 2.5 million refugees outside the country, 2.0 million displaced in the country, and many of the country’s most educated professionals gone for good, Iraqis are determined, hopeful — but suffering and still in shock. As American policy shifts, Americans need information to debate and deliberate in order to steer a moral and humane course. Without it, hope is as fleeting today as it was in 2002.

Nicholas Kristof: Moonshine or the Kids?

NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof is almost always a pleasure to read. He’s thoughtful and balanced while at the same time bold in calling for meaningful change, particularly for women and children around the world.

Kristof rarely spares details or truths from his trips, and his Sunday column, “Moonshine or the Kids?” is no different. But his thesis is an uncomfortable one: “If the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed.”

He’s quick to qualify the observation – even admits it sounds “sanctimonious” – but his interviews with locals (in Congo, this time) open up another facet of the already-tangled development debate, involving cultural and societal mores vs objective long-term well-being. The Malaria Policy Center has a post on this as well.

What do you think?

From the Frontlines: May 24th, 2010

Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal (full disclosure: also an IPS board member) on the proposed DC budget cuts: “Sure, raising taxes for this reason is in my self-interest. I’m a business owner in this city, and I want more customers to have money to spend at my restaurants. Having a city with a widening gulf of haves and have-nots simply doesn’t bode well for my long-term business plans.”

Are fines in the millions enough to deter reckless and damaging behavior from oil giants like BP? (Hint: Probably not.)

Activists in London stage some creative protests against Tate Modern, which has ties to BP.

The DISCLOSE Act, which would “ensuring that new disclosure reports detailing electioneering and independent expenditures will be electronically filed and disclosed on the FEC’s website within 24 hours,” passed out of committee a few days ago. Would be a great win for transparency if it went any farther.

ProPublica has new details on the Times Square bomber investigation.

And while we’re on the topic of investigations, CPI’s latest blog post has an entry on some of the other investigations going on around the world – particularly the Balkans, Mexico, and U.S. for-profit colleges.

Where’s taxpayer money in the defense budget going? Not to health care for vets, under our current system. But Alan Grayson’s “War Makes You Poor” Act, just introduced, would “make the DoD work within its means, and the money would instead be used for an across-the-board tax cut that would make the first $35,000 each American earns tax-free.”

Redshirts: To Thai Middle Class They’re Terrorists

BANGKOK — Nearly three days after the event, the country is still stunned by the military assault on the Redshirt encampment in the tourist center of this city.

Captured Redshirt leaders and militants are treated like POWs and the lower class Redshirt mass-base like an occupied country. No doubt about it, a state of civil war exists in this country, and civil wars are never pretty.

The last few weeks have hardened the Bangkok middle class in their view that the Redshirts are ‘terrorists’ in the pocket of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, at the same time convincing the lower classes that their electoral majority counts for nothing.

Pro-Thaksin versus anti-Thaksin: this discourse actually veils what is–to borrow Mao’s words–a class war with Thai characteristics.

No doubt there will be stories told about the eight weeks of the ‘Bangkok Commune.’ As in all epic tragedies, truth will be entangled with myth. But of one thing there will be no doubt; that Prime Minister Abhisit’s decision to order the Thai military against civilian protesters can never be justified.

Reader Challenge: Does Afghanistan Spell the End of NATO as We Know It?

Is NATO’s Excellent Afghanistan Adventure a blessing in disguise? At Foreign Policy, Robert Haddick writes:

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright chaired a commission charged with reviewing NATO’s “strategic concept.” . . . On May 17, Albright’s “Group of Experts” released its report. . . . The group’s conclusion? NATO should slim down, scale back, and pass the ball. . . . NATO needs better preparations against cyberattacks, ballistic missiles, and unconventional threats. [Meanwhile] NATO headquarters, with a bloated staff and far too many generals walking its halls, is itself due for slimming down.

But looming over the panel’s effort is . . . a review of lessons learned in Afghanistan [and] the report calls for guidelines on when and where the alliance will again operate outside its borders. . . . Those member states with detachments in Afghanistan will no doubt be eager to join the U.S. caravan that will begin departing in 2011 . . . crushing fiscal retrenchment and sour memories of Afghanistan will likely leave most member states . . . incapable of any significant military expeditions. . . .

After Afghanistan, NATO’s military character will shrink, making way for a more purely diplomatic role. The staff in Brussels — those who remain after the pink slips — will spend more time coordinating NGOs and contractors than directing tank brigades.

Still, do Focal Points readers think confining NATO to its own backyard and scaling back its mission could spell the beginning of its end? Or, as with corporations, might “downsizing” only serve to ensure NATO’s continuation?

From the Frontlines: May 21st, 2010

barricade in thailand. credit: andre vltchekYou can now see a live stream of the BP oil spill, courtesy of Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA). And Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland is tweeting about what she’s finding on a beach in the Gulf.

The Thai government is cracking down on protesters, but don’t expect much criticism from Washington. FPIF contributor Andre Vltchek wrote about his visit to the troubled country (picture of barricade at right), while cleanup operations begin in Bangkok.

The Senate passed the Wall Street reform bill…but what’s in there, exactly? Brian Beutler gives a good, quick rundown.

China’s invading the Arctic Circle in a quest for fossil fuel.

Yes! has a great interview with Donna Edwards on the Citizens United case.

AZ Gov. Jan Brewer has a lame response to those criticizing the immigration bill.

Financial Reform Bill Could Stabilize Commodities

The financial reform bill that has finally cleared the Senate would help stabilize commodities markets, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), an OtherWords partner. “The Senate bill helps make the market function like a market should–in an open and transparent way, instead of like a casino where only five big financial firms know what is going on,” said IATP analyst Steve Suppan. “Excessive speculation has hurt U.S. agriculture by undermining the original purpose of commodity exchanges–to help commodity sellers and buyers manage price risk. We don’t want a repeat of 2008, when prices were so volatile that U.S. grain elevators couldn’t hedge their own risks on commodity exchanges. Some elevators refused to contract to buy farmers’ grain in advance, leading to a cash flow crisis on many farms.” That volatility hammered American agriculture, and exacerbated hunger in developing countries that import much of their food.

Kagan’s Opponents

Conservative criticism of Kagan’s nomination might be getting more ink, but plenty of people on the left don’t want Elena Kagan to serve on the Supreme Court either. For years, Republican presidents have reliably appointed strongly conservative justices, while Democratic presidents kept nominating centrists. As progressive writer Mark Engler puts it: “Kagan is a needless concession to conservatives.” Next week OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul will discuss his problem with Kagan: her alma mater.

How to Top Off a Protest

There couldn’t have been a better conclusion for the Showdown on K Street than with the evening’s DC premiere screening and discussion at Busboys & Poets and organized by IPS. The new documentary, PLUNDER; The Crime of Our Time, by Danny Schechter “looks at the financial crisis, not as a business or a political story, but as a crime story”. And Mr. Schechter (a.k.a. the News Dissector) was in town for the post screening discussion.

The purpose of the event was for us to arm ourselves with what I like to call information ammunition. Building a progressive movement necessarily includes those with arsenals of information and analysis. Because acting thoughtfully is just as important as action oriented thinking. The two are not the same nor does one presuppose the other.

Before the event that night Danny did a short radio interview with Dr. Jared Ball, host of Jazz & Justice on WPFW 89.3 FM, which proved to be a very interesting. Check it out and fortify yourself with that.

After a rainy day and people having protested and marched all day we had no idea what kind of turn out to expect for the 9pm event. To our surprise and satisfaction the post Showdown screening was a success. Plunder was a timely and perfect culmination for everything that had taken place. While the film did simplify a lot, it also showed just how complex the crime(s) that had been committed were and how slippery it makes the work of anyone trying to prosecute the criminals. James Early mc’d the event superbly and moderated the post panel discussion in a packed Langston Room. There was also a surprise cameo appearance by Ralph Nader who opened the film with remarks about Danny and the issue of news media integrity.

The panel that followed was energized by Erica Smiley, Southern Regional Organizer for Jobs with Justice and involved in the organizing of the K Street Showdown. IPS fellow and director of the Cities for Progress and Cities for Peace projects, Karen Dolan also spiced up the panel. And, of course there was Danny Schechter, independent filmmaker and TV producer with the award-winning independent company, Globalvision.

This funky little mix was put together to give you a feel for the evening. Take a listen (MP3) at some highlights and enjoy.

Cheonan: Retaliate with Diplomacy

The South Korean government has released its report on the sinking of the Cheonan, the ship that went down in March in the Yellow Sea near the maritime border with North Korea. Not surprisingly, Seoul has fingered Pyongyang as the culprit. The evidence is rather strong.

First, the South Koreans have produced a fragment from a torpedo propeller. Second, there’s Korean lettering that matches the font used in another North Korean torpedo the South Koreans have. Third, the South Koreans have matched traces of propellant to an earlier North Korean torpedo.

There are some reports of other possible culprits, including friendly fire from either South Korea or the United States. While such speculation is interesting, it seems rather far-fetched. In this age of wiklleaks, it’s hard to imagine a cover-up of such friendly fire succeeding. And the evidence implicating other actors is circumstantial to say the least.

More germane is the backstory that Mike Chinoy provides over at Forbes. When South Korean president Lee Myung Bak took office, he backtracked on his predecessor’s pledge to work with North Korea to build confidence around the disputed maritime boundary.

The North was infuriated by what it saw as a deliberate belittling of accords signed by its all-powerful leader–what one western analyst described as “sticking a finger in Kim Jong Il’s eye.” So Pyongyang responded in a predictably belligerent fashion–by ratcheting up tensions in the disputed waters.

Fortunately, no one is calling for military retaliation against North Korea. Even the Heritage Foundation is going only so far as to recommend an economic cut-off, further isolation of North Korea, and a clear condemnation in the Security Council.

Other than express legitimate outrage, what would these stepped-up containment efforts achieve? About as much as Lee Myung Bak’s initial hard-line posture. The North Korean government doesn’t apologize when pushed up against the wall. And the North Korean people have not risen up against their rulers when pushed into starvation.

Joel Wit points out that diplomacy remains our most viable strategy: “In the aftermath of the Cheonan sinking, the United States and South Korea must recognize that a return to dialogue would serve our interests. It is the only realistic way to rein in North Korea’s objectionable activities.”

This is not a particularly palatable message right now in Seoul. And it probably won’t go down very well here in Washington. But after a couple months of denunciations and attempted arm-twisting, it would be best if the countries involved in the Six Party talks take this advice to heart. If we want to prevent any future Cheonans, we need to sit down with North Korea. The last thing we want is a country with nothing to lose and plenty of weapons to go out in a blaze of juche.*

*Juche: North Korea’s state ideology of self-reliance.

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