IPS Blog

Pollan Digests the Latest Food Politics Books

Are you too busy cooking fabulous meals to read a book about how costly cheap food is for America? No problem. In his essay in the June 10 edition of the New York Review of Books, Michael Pollan discusses five new books on food politics, a diverse movement that’s about more than how broccoli sprouts taste so much better than wedges of pesticide-imbued iceberg lettuce. “Perhaps the food movement’s strongest claim on public attention today is the fact that the American diet of highly processed food laced with added fats and sugars is responsible for the epidemic of chronic diseases that threatens to bankrupt the health care system,” Pollan explains. And despite its proponents’ many perspectives, he says that they all generally believe “that today’s food and farming economy is ‘unsustainable’–that it can’t go on in its current form much longer without courting a breakdown of some kind, whether environmental, economic, or both.” OtherWords will run a related op-ed in our next editorial package by Kristi Ceccarrosi.

Split This Rock Poem of the Week: Remica L. Bingham

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

Final Exam Administration

I enter to find all the students in uniform
occupying a small room.

I hand out pencils and registration forms.
Some begin without orders.

I remind them to remain anonymous
no names, just ID numbers should appear

on the waiting pages, white and clean
as unwritten letters or discharges.

Just a number the private
in BCGs and fatigues mumbles

from the back that’s all
we are. A number

and a gun. His comrades laugh,
erasing what might have been.

Do your best I say,
and they settle, salute.

-Remica L. Bingham
Used by permission.

Readers’ Challenge: Was Gaza Flotilla Right to Refuse Gilad Schalit’s Father?

Haaretz reports:

A group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators sailing toward Gaza with humanitarian supplies on Thursday have refused a request by the father of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to deliver a package and letter to his son.

Activists rejected Noam Shalit’s offer to mediate on their behalf with the government, which has vowed to block the flotilla’s entry to Gaza, if they agreed to his request.

A forum of seven senior ministers decided on Wednesday that Israel would attempt to turn back the ‘Freedom Flotilla’, on course to enter a 20-mile Israeli-imposed exclusion zone off Gaza this weekend.

The government said it would allow the United Nations to transfer the flotilla’s humanitarian cargo to Gaza after security inspections at the Israeli port.

Do Focal Points readers think Noam Schalit, however quid-pro-quo, was trying to be genuinely helpful? Or was he being disingenuous and trying to make the demonstrators look self-serving? Should the demonstrators have refused him or not?

Readers’ Challenge: Have IR Deadlines Outlived Their Usefulness?

Day of the Deadlines, as well as timelines, in the world of international relations (at least in so far as they were brought to my attention) . First this: at IPS News, Gareth Porter writes about General McChrystal:

McChrystal’s shift in emphasis toward the targeted raids against the Taliban was undoubtedly accelerated by the message from the Barack Obama administration in March that he had to demonstrate progress in his counterinsurgency strategy by the end of December 2010 rather than the mid-2011 deadline for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

That earlier deadline, first reported by the Washington Post Mar. 31, was confirmed this month by U.S. Gen. Frederick Hodge, the director of operations for all of southern Afghanistan. “Our mission is to show irreversible momentum by the end of 2010 — that’s the clock I’m using,” Hodge told The Times of London.

Second, at Foreign Policy, Barbara Slavin writes about the Israel-Palestine peace process:

George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Middle East peace, plans to set a deadline for an Israel-Palestinian agreement, applying lessons learned from his successful mediation in a previous conflict. [Asked] whether he intended to set a similar deadline for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Mitchell said that he would do so after indirect talks between the two sides progress to direct negotiations. … In his public remarks, the former Senate majority leader acknowledged widespread skepticism both in the region and in Washington that he can broker a deal between the center-right government of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas.

So far, the skeptics would seem to have the better of the argument. . . . But Mitchell . . . noted that the Netanyahu government has endorsed the concept of an independent Palestinian state and agreed to freeze new housing construction on the West Bank for 10 months. The Palestinians, the envoy said, are working to stop attacks on Israel. . . . Mitchell omitted mention of the toughest issues impeding Israeli-Palestinian peace: the fate of Jerusalem and of Palestinian refugees.

Third, at Global Security Newswire (of which Focal Points is an unabashed fan), Elaine Grossman writes of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty review conference yesterday:

“It is almost an impossible task,” said Zimbabwean Ambassador Boniface Chidyausiku, who chaired the conference’s committee on disarmament, describing his unsuccessful effort to obtain support from all of the accord’s 189 member nations for a draft joint statement about efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons. . . . One central point of contention in Chidyausiku’s draft text pertains to whether the five nuclear powers recognized under the treaty — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — should be pressed to establish a set schedule for eliminating their atomic arms.

“The conference affirms that the final phase of the nuclear disarmament process and other related measures should be pursued within a legal framework with specified time lines,” reads a particularly controversial passage of the disarmament committee’s in-progress report. The reference to adhering to disarmament “time lines” has raised the ire of Washington and others. Representatives of a number of nations — including the United States, France and Russia — called yesterday for any timing imperative to be removed from the resolution.

“We remain resolute” in backing the draft’s “very mild language” regarding an initiative to draft time lines for disarmament, South Africa’s delegate to the disarmament committee said.

Then, with some poignancy, the delegate added: “Allow us to take something home.”

Some quick impressions . . . In the first instance, a timeline seems to have driven Gen. McChrystal to increased brutality. (Not that I’m advocating a longer timeline!) In the second, one can’t help but wonder if Mitchell is just reliving past glories (his success in Northern Ireland). In the third, as during the Bush administration, the United States seems to reflexively balk at measures initiated by other nations.

Getting down to basics, most humans resist pressure. Do Focal Points readers see an alternative to deadlines and timelines? After all, recent discoveries about the “emergent phenomena” of complexity science makes a mocker of them. (Kind of an abstract question, I know.) Or do you think they’re valid in one or all of the above instances?

Troops to the Mexico Border

Nat'l Guard troops on border duty. Credit: US Military

Only a couple of days ago, I wrote that “U.S.-Mexican relations might look at little different in the age of Obama, but the Bush-era priorities remain the same.” Today, I think this statement was reinforced.

Only a few days after Mexico’s President Calderon went back to Mexico from the U.S. after being praised for his military efforts in combating the narco (notwithstanding the spiral of violence it has caused) Obama decided to step it up at home, sending 1,200 troops to the border states. Just as when Bush sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the border in 2006, the purpose is to appease Republicans in their calls to secure the border, and to try to gain support for the pending migration reform.

However, this decision is deeply contradictory. Although the stated goal is to secure the border from criminal drug gangs — and the illicit traffic of drugs, money and arms — the victims of this military escalation might well be the millions of undocumented immigrants to whom the reform is supposed to eventually benefit. The calls from Republicans and border state governors to seal the “porous” border are aimed at curbing “illegal immigration” as well. Hence, the differences between criminals and undocumented workers are becoming muddled, even when both issues — drug trafficking (and the violence it conveys) and migration — have quite distinct causes and consequences.

This generalization comes from the Bush-led Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America that Obama supposedly (but never officially) wrote off. One of the SPP’s stated goals was secure borders and combat “transnational threats to the United States, Canada, and Mexico, including terrorism, organized crime, illegal drugs, migrant and contraband smuggling and trafficking” and to promote the “legitimate flow of people and goods”. Implicitly, illegal migration became equated to a security threat.

Today, when states like Arizona are criminalizing “illegal migration,” Obama’s decision to send the National Guard to the border might end up reinforcing persecution of those that are in this country without papers. People that came to this country looking for work — mainly because of joblessness at home, due to failed economic policies like NAFTA and privatization — are ending up being as illegal as drugs, arms or dirty money.

That’s a shame. Obama should rapidly distinguish the issues and act accordingly. The “war on drugs” has already proven fatal for millions of innocent Mexicans. Will the same start happening here?

Benefits for the Long-Term Unemployed to be Debated Again

Democrats are working to pass legislation that will extend unemployment benefits, but it faces GOP opposition. “Republicans in the Senate will likely do everything they can to stand in the way of a bill projected to add $123 billion to the deficit,” wrote Huffington Post reporter Arthur Delaney. So far, there’s been no action on this measure in the House or Senate. OtherWords columnist Jim Hightower recently noted the extent private companies sometimes go in order to deny unemployment benefits.

The First Cut is the Deepest

Cantor speaking on YouCutHouse Republicans, led by Eric Cantor (VA), are channeling American Idol. They’ve started a program called “YouCut,” an election-year gimmick where people can vote online for services they’d like to see cut from the budget. The winners would be pushed by the GOP for elimination.

Current issues on the virtual cutting block, for example, include the Byrd Honors Scholarships, a proposed federal employee pay raise, federal land purchases, and UNESCO.

But the first “winner”? Welfare.

In a blog post for CSRWire, I write:

House Republicans have chosen to make our tattered Social Safety Net into a game. Chock full of ideological misrepresentations, the site “You Cut” asks its followers to vote on which federal programs should get the ax in the federal budgetary funding process. Flaunted as the “First Winning Cut,” is $2.5 billion in proposed TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) Emergency Fund money. Says the site: “This program was recently created to incentivize states to increase their welfare caseloads without requiring able-bodied adults to work, get job training, or otherwise prepare to move off of taxpayer assistance…

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities affirms that the TANF Emergency Fund does not in anyway incentivize an increase in caseloads nor undercut welfare reform, as the “You Cut” propaganda asserts. It explains, in a recent publication, that TANF recipients remain fully subject to all the stringent work requirements of the TANF program. One could argue that these requirements make no sense whatsoever during this time of high unemployment, but the TANF Emergency Fund does not alter this unfortunate reality.

Let’s work together with sensible policymakers to create, rather than further tatter, an effective safety net so that we may all weather the current economic storm and those to come. We can start by recognizing the need for continued funding of the TANF Emergency Fund.

Iran, Brazil, Turkey and the Ghost of Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston—twice England’s prime minister during the middle 1800s—once commented, “England has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.” Watching the fallout over Brazil’s and Turkey’s recent diplomatic breakthrough on Iran brings Palmerston’s observation to mind: while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was hailing our “friends” support for tough sanctions aimed at Teheran, much of her supporting cast were busy hedging their bets and deciding that their interests just might lay elsewhere.

True, Russia and China signed on, but their endorsements were filled with ambiguity and diplomatic escape hatches.

As Clinton was dismissing the efforts of Brazil and Turkey, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said his country “expressed its welcome and appreciation for the diplomatic efforts of all parties.” A Foreign Ministry spokesman added that the agreement to send 58 percent of Iran’s nuclear fuel to Turkey for enrichment “will benefit the process of peacefully resolving the Iran nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiations.”

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for “urgent consultations with all interested parties, including Iran, to decide what to do next,” hardly a call to arms. His First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergi Ivanov, said that while his country was “supportive” of the U.S., it was drawing a “red line” at sanctions that were “suffocating” or would affect ordinary Iranians.

He then added a pinch of Palmerston: “We have a completely different position. We have a trading relationship, and the potential to develop it. We have energy interests, human interests, and tourism.”

The Russians also made it clear that they would be unhappy with unilateral sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union. Such unilateral actions would be “of an extraterritorial nature beyond the agreed decision of the international community and contradicting the principle of the rule of international law, enshrined in the UN Charter,” according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The U.S. State Department’s claim that the “international community” is behind the U.S. is increasingly sounding like whistling past the graveyard.

Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna said the Brazil/Turkey/Iran deal was “a constructive move,” and pointed out that India has a “deep desire to have a friendly relationship” with Iran. He also pointed out that “The U.S. has its own foreign policy and India has its own.”

The Arab League’s General Secretary Amr Moussa said he hoped the agreement would “solve the current problem regarding the Iranian nuclear file.”

United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “We hope that this and other initiatives may open the door to a negotiated settlement.”

France’s President Nicholas Sarkozy, normally hawkish on Iran, called the deal a “positive step.”

Even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Supreme Commander, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis said the fuel swap deal was a “a potentially good development.”

This should hardly come as a surprise; just follow the ruble, the yuen, and the franc.

In his visit to Ankara earlier this month, Medvedev said, “Russia and Turkey are strategic partners, not only in words but genuinely.” That was certainly strange talk about a key member of NATO with which Moscow has gone to war in the past.

But with rubles at stake, who worries about history?

Medvedev and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed 17 agreements worth some $25 billion, including building four nuclear power plants. The two countries also discussed Russian participation in a Black Sea- Mediterranean pipeline that would make Ankara a player in the Central Asia energy game. The Turks also seem to be more favorably disposed toward Moscow’s South Stream natural gas pipeline to Europe.

And lastly, the Russian president said he would push to raise bilateral trade from $40 billion a year to $100 billion within five years.

If the U.S. thinks the Russians are going to have a falling out with the Turks over the Iran sanctions, then delusion is the order of the day in Washington.

And China? Brasilia’s number one trading partner, which loaned Petrobras $10 billion to develop Brazil’s huge South Atlantic subsalt oil deposits? And just signed an agreement with Brasilia to develop a joint defense industry (no doubt lured by the $20-plus billion that Brazil is handing out in defense contracts)? Will China go to the mat for the U.S. over the Iran sanctions? See “order of the day” above.

France appears to be playing the dog that didn’t bark. Might Gallic discreetness have anything to do with a $12 billion defense deal with Brazil for 50 helicopters and four Scorpene submarines? Could it be the $10.2 billion Brasilia is shelling out for 36 of France’s Rafale fighter jets? The Rafale is very a cute airplane, not terribly fast, that came in third in an open competition with fighters made by Boeing and Saab. But as Rhys Thompson of ISN Security Watch notes, “The Brazilian government reiterated that the final choice of a fighter jet would be based on political and strategic considerations and not primarily guided by technical aspects.” In short, we buy your cookies, you be nice to us in return (and maybe lower European Union tariffs for Brazilian agricultural goods).

As more and more countries line up behind the Turkish-Brazilian deal, it looks less and less likely that the Security Council will pass sanctions, in part because the deal is a good one and represents a sea change in international power relations. But also because countries like Russia, China, India, and France are also keeping Lord Palmerston’s dictum in mind.

The Low-Key Weekend Faceoff

If we know that some of the biggest and most important demonstrations in Washington DC only get a smidgen of news coverage, then it’s no surprise that things deserving at least that much get no coverage at all. Last Saturday, May 22nd was one of those demonstrations brought to you by an IPS exclusive.

Because the Cuban Interest Section (CIS) is located here, DC has seen this one before and it’s usually a fairly interesting spectacle.

Three (3) anti-Castro Cubans protested across the street from the Interest Section to “honor” the birthday of Jose Marti and to protest the Cuban government. In response two or three dozen people opposed to US policy toward Cuba and in solidarity with the Cuban people counter demonstrated on the other side, in front of the CIS. Apparently the petition that had circulated toward the end of last year, “Acting on Our Conscience: A Declaration of African American Support for the Civil Rights Struggle in Cuba” didn’t affect the support from the significantly African participation of the counter-demonstrators. The whole group, in fact, was reasonably multi-ethnic.

The anti-Castro Cubans say that Cuba is a tyrannical dictatorship, claiming that hundreds of political prisoners languish in prison there. They cited the example of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died in prison recently due to a hunger strike. The counter demonstrators expressed gratitude for Cuba’s humanitarian assistance around the world and condemned the US for harboring Cuban terrorists and jailing of Cuban fighters of terrorism.

Take a listen to this to get a flavor for the counter demonstration. And we would be remiss if we didn’t provide you with something from the other side (MP3).

Reader’s Challenge: ‘Ritual Nick’ — Preventive Measure or Cultural Relativism?

Earlier this month, as you no doubt have heard, the American Academy of Pediatrics moderated its policy on female circumcision. As a preventive measure to keep families from taking their daughters outside the country for full circumcision procedures, its committee on bioethics suggested that doctors perform a “ritual nick.” Right or wrong, it provides plenty of fodder for the hard right. For example, at Jihad Watch, blogger Marisol wrote:

This decision — to approve of the idea of a “ritualized nick” on a girl’s genitalia — is as pointless as it is dangerous. For those who insist on following prescribed degrees of mutilation, which are primarily enforced in Muslim countries, a token gesture will not be enough to keep them from traveling overseas or seeking a more severe form of the practice wherever they can. And the girl still suffers the trauma of a ritualized sexual assault — potentially twice, if, for example, the “nick” is the parents’ ruse to throw health care providers off the trail of further intended damage, or if they simply change their minds.

It’s probably academic since U.S. federal law prevents “any nonmedical procedure performed on the genitals” of females. But do Focal Points readers agree with Jihad Watch in this instance? Is this cultural relativism run amok? Or does the American Academy of Pediatrics have its heart in the right place?

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