IPS Blog

U.S. Could Take a Lesson From France on LGBT Rights

France’s National Assembly approved a bill last week that legalizes gay marriage in the country and allows same-sex couples to adopt children. Final approval rests with the Senate, which like the Assembly is controlled by the left. This is a major victory for advocates of gay rights, and those French members of parliament who voted to change the course of the nation.

Opponents of the bill introduced some 5,000 amendments to the gay marriage proposal—an attempt to effectively block the bill. But despite the efforts of the opposition, the bill passed with a vote of 329 in favor and 229 against.

Public opposition to gay marriage and adoption has come in the form of high-profile rallies against the legislation, with the adoption issue proving particularly controversial. Yet unlike in the United States—where opposition to same-sex marriage is strongest among certain religious communities—the issue appears to be more secular in France, where the influence of the church has long been on the decline. According to a survey in France’s Catholic Daily, La Croix, 58 percent of French Catholics never go to mass, and 83 percent said the church should keep out of politics.

Polls show that nearly two thirds of French voters support the gay marriage bill, aligning with the makeup of the French parliament. The Socialist Party and its allies control both the National Assembly and the Senate, likely securing the bill’s final passage in the coming months. Corinne Narassiguin, representative for the Socialist Party of France has called the bill “a first necessary step [in] a social evolution that benefits society overall.”

France has taken a step toward the future of equality for all people, regardless of sexual orientation; the United States could look to its European counterpart for a lesson in advancing LGBT rights.

France’s National Assembly approved a bill last week that legalizes gay marriage in the country and allows same-sex couples to adopt children. Final approval rests with the Senate, which like the Assembly is controlled by the left. This is a major victory for advocates of gay rights, and those French members of parliament who voted to change the course of the nation.

Opponents of the bill introduced some 5,000 amendments to the gay marriage proposal—an attempt to effectively block the bill. But despite the efforts of the opposition, the bill passed with a vote of 329 in favor and 229 against.

Public opposition to gay marriage and adoption has come in the form of high-profile rallies against the legislation, with the adoption issue proving particularly controversial. Yet unlike in the United States—where opposition to same-sex marriage is strongest among certain religious communities—the issue appears to be more secular in France, where the influence of the church has long been on the decline. According to a survey in France’s Catholic Daily, La Croix, 58 percent of French Catholics never go to mass, and 83 percent said the church should keep out of politics.

Polls show that nearly two thirds of French voters support the gay marriage bill, aligning with the makeup of the French parliament. The Socialist Party and its allies control both the National Assembly and the Senate, likely securing the bill’s final passage in the coming months. Corinne Narassiguin, representative for the Socialist Party of France has called the bill “a first necessary step [in] a social evolution that benefits society overall.”

France has taken a step toward the future of equality for all people, regardless of sexual orientation; the United States could look to its European counterpart for a lesson in advancing LGBT rights.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

This Week in OtherWords: February 20, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Donald Kaul puts the brutality of drone warfare into historical context, Jill Richardson explains why you should compost and replace your lawn, and Jim Hightower says that a $9 minimum wage would still be too low.

Below you’ll find links to our latest work. If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. These Laws Make Me Want to Gag / Will Potter
    States are adopting laws meant to keep consumers in the dark about where their food comes from.
  2. Presidential Distortion / Peter Hart
    The message we’ve been hearing from the mainstream media about Obama’s push for a renewed brand of liberalism is flagrantly false.
  3. New World Disorder / Donald Kaul
    Modern warfare is an exercise in savagery.
  4. Segregation 2.0 / Sam Pizzigati
    America’s residential divide now goes beyond race.
  5. Lose Your Lawn / Jill Richardson
    Turning your lawn into something more beautiful and useful would save time and money while curbing pollution and water usage.
  6. Putting Some Real Pop in Populism / Jim Hightower
    Washington should do more than the minimum on minimum wage
  7. Downwardly Mobile Nation / William A. Collins
    America’s working class has been magically transformed into the working poor.
  8. Minimum Wage, Maximum Drama / Khalil Bendib cartoon
    Minimum Wage, Maximum Drama, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    Minimum Wage, Maximum Drama, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Iran’s Weak Emergency Infrastructure Would Only Compound Effects of an Attack

In October, 2012 I wrote a post titled Attacking Iran Is Like Setting Off Nuclear Bombs on the Ground about a report released the previous month. Titled The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble, it’s the product of an organization called Omid for Iran, along with the Hinckley Institute of Politics and the University of Utah. Omid for Iran was founded by Khosrow B. Semnani, the Iranian immigrant who became a radioactive waste disposal magnate. A controversial figure often embroiled in lawsuits, he served as president of his company Envirocare until the Department of Energy requested he step down in the wake of a bribery scandal.

Like many immigrants who make good in the United States, he draws on a reserve of rancor toward the forces in his country of origin (usually, in these cases, communist) that keep an entrepreneur like him from fulfilling his dream. You can tell by this excerpt from the executive summary of “The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble” that, should they attack Iran, he’s less interested in blaming Israel and the United States than he is Tehran for inciting them.

The best long-term strategy would be a democratic, transparent, and accountable government in Iran. In such a scenario, political leaders would quickly understand that their people want jobs, dignity, opportunity, and political freedoms, not the false promise of nuclear weapons bought at a heavy, even existential, cost. A military strike would not only kill thousands of civilians and expose tens and possibly hundreds of thousands to highly toxic chemicals, it would also have a devastating effect on those who dream of democracy in Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei has proven that he cares little for the Iranian people. It is up to us in the international community, including the Iranian-American diaspora to demonstrate that we do.

As for the attack…

Based on the best information available as well as discussions with Iranian and Western nuclear experts, we have estimated the total number of people—scientists, workers, soldiers and support staff—at Iran’s four nuclear facilities to be between 7,000 and 11,000. … However, unlike traditional targets, the risks to civilians extend well beyond those killed from exposure to thermal and blast injuries at the nuclear sites. Tens, and quite possibly, hundreds of thousands of civilians could be exposed to highly toxic chemical plumes and, in the case of operational reactors, radioactive fallout. … Additionally, the environmental deg­radation due to the spread of airborne uranium compounds, and their entry into water, soil and the food chain would introduce long-term, chronic health risks such as a spike in cancer rates and birth defects.

Nor have Iran’s leaders shown any inclination to present such an assessment.

[They] have had no interest in making the risks of their reckless nuclear policies obvious to its citizens even though the resulting economic toll—inflation, unem­ployment, and the loss of international credit—has devastated the Iranian people. The Iranian military has not provided the Iranian people with any description of potential casualties resulting from attacks on these nuclear facilities. Nor has the parliament encouraged an open assessment of the grave implications of the government’s policies for Iranian scientists, soldiers and civilians working at or living within the vicinity of Iran’s nuclear facilities. This study seeks to address this deficit.

Or, in my words …

… the attack and radiation will work its synergistic black magic in conjunction with Iran’s meager disaster management and emergency preparation capabilities. … bombing Iranian nuclear facilities is like setting off nuclear weapons on the ground.

While reading “The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble” I couldn’t help but wonder how Iran was allowed to sign the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and to become a member state of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) without instituting an effective emergency preparedness program. (Or one that at least upheld the pretense that it’s possible to deal with a meltdown or attack on a nuclear-energy facility effectively.) It seems wildly irresponsible, kind of like starting a war without medical staff and hospitals.

A passage from the IAEA’s website sheds some light on this.

Many Member States are currently not adequately prepared to respond to such emergency situations. Moreover, without standard procedures or common approaches, protective actions can differ between countries resulting in confusion and mistrust among the public, interfering with recovery operations and possibly leading to severe socioeconomic and political consequences.…

The Agency has a statutory function to develop standards for the protection of health and the environment and to provide on request for their application, through encouraging research and development; fostering information exchange; promoting education and training; and rendering services. Moreover, the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident (Early Notification Convention) and the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency (Assistance Convention) place specific functions on the Agency with regard to developing appropriate radiation monitoring standards and to assisting States in developing their own preparedness arrangements for nuclear and radiological emergencies.

The IAEA’s programs, as was pointed out to us by Institute for Policy Studies author Robert Alvarez, can be found on its Emergency response & preparedness page. For example: “Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency Safety Requirements” (2002), “Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency Safety Requirements” (2007), “Criteria for Use in Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency General Safety Guide” (20110).

In the second paragraph from the IAEA website quoted above, note that conventions (as in agreements) “place specific functions on the Agency with regard to developing appropriate radiation monitoring standards and to assisting States in developing their own preparedness arrangements for nuclear and radiological emergencies.” (Emphasis added.) Developing and assisting — but not requiring. From the 2007 report referred to above…

The IAEA’s safety standards are not legally binding on Member States but may be adopted by them, at their own discretion, for use in national regulations in respect of their own activities. The standards are binding on the IAEA in relation to its own operations and on States in relation to operations assisted by the IAEA.

By all appearances, allowing member states to develop nuclear-energy programs without requiring them to meet certain standards of emergency preparedness looks as if it’s a loophole designed to either allow states to develop nuclear-energy programs without delay or to aid the nuclear-energy industry (or both). It’s incumbent on the United States and Israel to refrain from attacking Iran and turning that loophole into a gaping abyss of human torment.

Israel Sees Syrian Civil War as Blow to “Iran-Hezbollah Axis”

Russia's SA-17 anti-aircraft system

Russia’s SA-17 anti-aircraft system

Now that the dust has settled—literally and figuratively—from Israel’s Jan. 29 air attack on Syria, the question is, why? According to Tel Aviv, the bombing was aimed at preventing the transfer of sophisticated Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, which one former Israeli military intelligence officer said would be “a game-changer.” But there are major problems with that story.

First, it is highly unlikely that Damascus would turn such a system over to Hezbollah, in part because the Russians would almost certainly not have allowed it, and, secondly, because the SA-17 would not be terribly useful to the Lebanese Shiite organization. In fact, we don’t even know if an SA-17 was the target. The Syrians deny it, claiming it was a military research center 15 miles northwest of Damascus that was bombed, killing two and wounding five. The Israelis are refusing to say anything. The story that the anti-aircraft system was the objective comes mainly from unnamed “western officials.”

The SA-17 is a capable, mid-range, anti-aircraft weapon. Designated “Grizzly” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it consists of four missiles mounted on a mobile launcher. It has a range of 30 miles, a ceiling of close to 50,000 feet, and can down anything from aircraft to cruise missiles. Introduced in 1998 as a replacement for the SA-11 “Gadfly,” the SA-17 has been sold to Egypt, Syria, Finland, China, Venezuela, India, Cyprus, Belarus, and the Ukraine.

It has a bite. During the 2008 Russia-Georgian War, the SA-17 apparently downed three Russian SU-25s close-support attack planes, and an ancient long-range Tupolev-22 bomber. It appears Georgia acquired the anti-aircraft system from the Ukraine without the Russians knowing about it.

The SA-17’s manufacturers claim the system is immune to electronic countermeasures, but every arms maker claims their weapons are irresistible or invincible. The SU-25s and the bomber were downed in the first day of the fighting, before the Russians figured out that the Georgians had a trick up their sleeves and instituted countermeasures. Those apparently worked because the four planes were the only ones the Russians lost. Clearly, however, if one gets careless or sloppy around a “Grizzly,” it can make you pretty uncomfortable.

But “game-changer”? The SA-17 is big and vulnerable, a sitting duck for aircraft armed with long-range bombs and missiles and backed up by electronic warfare capabilities. Israeli counter-warfare electronics are very sophisticated, as good—if not better—than the American’s. In 2007 Israeli warplanes slipped through the Syrian radar net without being detected and bombed a suspected nuclear reactor. Damascus acquired the SA-17 following that 2007 attack.

Given that there is open talk by NATO of establishing a “no-fly zone” over Syria, why would Damascus hand over one of its most modern anti-aircraft systems to Hezbollah? And what would Hezbollah do with it? It is too big to hide and is generally used as one piece of a larger anti-aircraft system, which Hezbollah does not have. In any case, it would have been a provocation, and neither Hezbollah nor Syria wants to give the Israelis an excuse to beat up on them. Both have plenty on their plates without adding war with a vastly superior military foe.

In brief, there is no evidence that the attack had anything to do with the SA-17, which, in any case, both Tel Aviv and Washington know would not pose any real danger to Israel. According to UPI, the attack was cleared with the U.S.

So what are some other possible reasons for the attack?

The most obvious target is the Assad regime in Syria, which at first glance would seem to be a contradiction. Wouldn’t Israel bombing Syria unite the Arab countries behind Damascus? Indeed, there were condemnations from the Arab League, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and even some of Assad’s Syrian opponents—although the Gulf Cooperation Council, the league of oil-rich monarchies bankrolling the Syrian civil war, was notably quiet.

But the “protests” were mostly pro-forma, and in the case of Turkey, rather bizarre. Ankara has played a major role in supplying the anti-Assad insurgents, deploying Patriot missiles on its border with Syria, and demanding that the president of Syria step down. Yet Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu denounced Assad for not “upholding the dignity of his country” and retaliating against Israel.

According to press reports, Israel is strengthening its forces on the occupied Golan Heights that border Syria and preparing to establish a buffer zone on the Syrian side. Israel established a similar “buffer” in Lebanon following its 1982 invasion of that country, a “buffer” that eventually led to the formation of Hezbollah and a humiliating Israeli retreat in 2000.

Israel claims it has no dog in the Syrian fight and is supposedly worried about Islamic extremists coming out on top in the civil war. But for all the hype about Islamists leading a jihad against Israel, Tel Aviv knows that al-Qaeda and its allies pose no serious threat to Israel. It is good politics (and good theater)—in Washington, as well as Tel Aviv—to cry, “the turbans are coming” (quick, give us lots of money and your constitution), but religious extremism and Sharia law hardly pose an existential danger to nuclear-armed countries with large militaries. Fighters from the salafist Jabhat al-Nusrah will not get far marching on Jerusalem.

The bombing attack was certainly a slap in the face to Assad, but not the first, and seems less directed at the Damascus regime than adding yet another ingredient to the witch’s brew of chaos that is rapidly engulfing Syria and the surrounding countries. And chaos and division in the region have always been Israel’s allies. Divide and conquer is an old colonial tactic dating back to the Roman Empire. After World War I, the English used Jews and Arabs as pawns in a game to control the British Mandate in Palestine. In short, the Israelis have learned from the best.

The growing sectarian war between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds stirred up by the Syrian civil war lets Israel stand on the sidelines. Who is going to notice the steady encroachment of settlements on Palestinian lands when the Syria war has killed some 60,000 people, created almost 800,000 refugees, and is destabilizing Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan?

Lastly, there is Iran. Getting rid of Assad would remove one of Iran’s major allies in the region, and also weaken Shiite Hezbollah, the organization that fought Israel to a standstill in 2006. Assad, says former Israeli Gen. Michael Herzog, “is a linchpin of the radical Iran-Hezbollah axis…his fall would therefore deal a major blow to Tehran, significantly weaken Hezbollah and dismantle the trilateral axis.”

Sectarian chaos in Syria is already washing over into Iraq, where a brutal bombing campaign by Sunni extremists is fueling talk about re-establishing Shiite militias to defend their communities. Islamists are also increasingly active in Lebanon and Jordan.

For several years the U.S. and the Sunni-dominated Middle East monarchies have warned about the dangers of a “Shiite crescent” of Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah. But the idea of a “crescent” was always more hype than reality—Shiites make up about 15 percent of the region, and are majorities only in Iraq, Iran and Bahrain. Lebanese Shiites constitute a plurality. In general, Shiites are the poorest section of the Muslim community and with the exception of Iran and Syria, have long been marginalized politically. Shiite “domination” has always been a bug-a-boo, not very real but useful for stoking the fires of sectarianism.

And sectarianism is on the march today in the Middle East, financed by the cash-rich Gulf monarchies and the hostility of the U.S. and its allies to authoritarian secular governments. While NATO overthrew the Libyan government and aids the Syrian insurgency in the name of democracy, it has no qualms about supporting the absolute monarchs that rule from Morocco in the west to Saudi Arabia in the east.

Was the ease with which the Israelis penetrated Syrian air space a message to Tehran as well? Certainly although the odds on Israel attacking Iran sometime this spring are rather low (though hardly non-existent). Israel could do a lot of damage to Iran, but it doesn’t have the weapons or the air power to take out Tehran’s nuclear program. Plus the Iranians, while angry about the onerous sanctions—and cranky as ever about negotiations—are carefully diverting their nuclear stockpiles into civilian use.

Israel would need the U.S. to really beat up on Iran, and that does not seem to be the direction that the Obama administration is moving. An attack on Iran would isolate Israel and the U.S. diplomatically, and deeply fracture NATO at a time when Washington is desperately trying to keep the alliance together.

In any case, Tel Aviv and Washington are well aware that Iran does not pose an “existential” threat to Israel. Even if Iran were to build several nuclear weapons—and there is no evidence that they have any intention of doing so—it would face an Israel armed with between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy Iran as a society. Even Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak admits Iran does not pose a threat to Israel’s existence.

If there is one thing that the bombing has accomplished, it is to thicken the walls between Israel and the rest of the Middle East. Tel Aviv is deploying anti-missile systems on its northern border and handing out gas masks in the Galilee. It is beefing up its presence in the Golan Heights, and reinforcing its border with Egypt. In the meantime, the Netanyahu administration just announced yet another round of settlement building.

Whether division and chaos, along with those walls and missiles and gas masks, will keep the surrounding anarchy at bay is altogether another matter. Bricks and bombs never produce real security.

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.

The U.S. Would Face a Harsh Choice — and Economic Loss — in War Between China and Japan

Cross-posted from One Minute MBA.

Global economists are keeping their eyes glued to the Asia-Pacific region, where a bitter feud is brewing between two of the world’s most powerful nations over a small collectivity of islands in the East China Sea. The Chinese government argues that a treaty signed during the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) conferred ownership of the islands to China. Japan has long disputed these claims, and today argues that the islands are integral to its national identity.

The argument came to a head last September, when a boycott of Japanese products led Chinese demonstrators to target fellow citizens who owned Japanese cars. Three months later, the situation escalated when when Japanese jets confronted a Chinese plane flying over the islands; no shots were fired, but the act of antagonism has set a troubling precedent between the military forces of both nations.

The conflict between China and Japan has put the United States in a precarious position: if a full-scale war were to erupt, the U.S. would be forced to choose between a long-time ally (Japan) and its largest economic lender (China). Last year, China’s holdings in U.S. securities reached $1.73 trillion and goods exported from the U.S. to China exceeded $100 billion. The two countries also share strong economic ties due to the large number of American companies that outsource jobs to China.

However, the U.S. government may be legally obligated to defend Japan. In November, the U.S. Senate added an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that officially recognizes Japan’s claims to the disputed islands; the U.S. and Japan are also committed to a mutual defense treaty that requires either country to step in and defend the other when international disputes occur. Not honoring this treaty could very easily tarnish America’s diplomatic image.

The countries of the Asia-Pacific region are collectively responsible for 55 percent of the global GDP and 44 percent of the world’s trade. A major conflict between the region’s two largest economies would not only impose a harsh dilemma on U.S. diplomats, but also have a significant impact on the entire global economy. It is in every nation’s best interest that the Chinese and Japanese settle their territorial dispute peacefully.

The video:

Did John Brennan’s End Run Lead to the Death of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi?

BenghaziBenghazi: The Definitive Report is the title of an e-book published on February 12 by William Morrow. It’s written by two editors at SOFREP.com, the unofficial special operations site: Brandon Webb — a former Navy SEAL — and Jack Murphy — a former Army Ranger and Green Beret. What’s unique about the report is its bipartisan appeal. Its fodder for those who would attack the State Department, the administration, and the CIA from both the right and the left. Sure enough, it’s caused ripples in Washington and garnered significant attention from the mainstream media.

To sum up, Webb and Murphy allege that the Benghazi terrorist attack, during which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed, was mounted by Islamist militants in retaliation for attacks on them by JSOC forces. Worse, the authors claim, neither Stevens nor CIA director David Petraeus knew about the raids, which were ordered by President Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan, who was acting outside the command structure.

Webb and Murphy also declare that Petraeus’ affair with Paula Broadwell was leaked by the members of his personal protection detail in conjunction with members of the CIA who were unhappy with his emphasis on paramilitary activities over traditional espionage.

About Brennan, Murphy told Human Events:

The Senate should not confirm him as the new director of the CIA and Brennan should not continue in public life. … “I think we need to let this guy go.”

Meanwhile, Eli Lake, the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and Newsweek, writes:

… while the book is filled with juicy revelations that promise to shock even the most casual followers of counterintelligence gossip, government officials, including spokesmen for the National Security Council and Special Operations Command, dispute some of the key claims. … Ken McGraw, a spokesman for Special Operations Command, declined to discuss specific missions, but said “all U.S. Special Operations Forces work inside the established military chain of command,” and wouldn’t “work in a foreign country without the knowledge and permission of the U.S. ambassador or chief of mission.”

The book also claims elements of the U.S. government either allowed or ran an operation to funnel weapons collected in Libya to Syria. The authors write, “[Ambassador] Stevens likely helped consolidate as many weapons as possible after the war to safeguard them, at which point Brennan exported them overseas to start another conflict.” … but Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, says there was no program to send weapons from Libya to Syria. “This has no basis in reality and is completely made up,” he says. Hillary Clinton also denied any knowledge of this when she was asked about it by Sen. Rand Paul during last month’s hearings on the Benghazi attack.

Hmm, two spokespersons, plus Hilary Clinton during a hearing: that’s all you’ve got, Eli? From the Human Events piece:

Because of the sensitivities involved, the authors double-source the claims in the book, he said. Many more stories were left out because there was no independent confirmation.

It all comes down to who you want to believe: the U.S. government or JSOC operatives past and present? In my case, it’s more personal — who do I want to believe: the U.S. government or my nephew? (By way of “full disclosure,” as they say, Jack Murphy is my wife’s sister’s son.)

February 15, 2003. The Day the World Said No to War.

Antiwar Protests 2003 - LondonTen years ago people around the world rose up. In almost 800 cities across the globe, protesters filled the streets of capital cities and tiny villages, following the sun from Australia and New Zealand and the small Pacific islands, through the snowy steppes of North Asia and down across the South Asian peninsula, across Europe and down to the southern edge of Africa, then jumping the pond first to Latin America and then finally, last of all, to the United States.

And across the globe, the call came in scores of languages, “the world says no to war!” The cry “Not in Our Name” echoed from millions of voices. The Guinness Book of World Records said between 12 and 14 million people came out that day, the largest protest in the history of the world. It was, as the great British labor and peace activist and former MP Tony Benn described it to the million Londoners in the streets that day, “the first global demonstration, and its first cause is to prevent a war against Iraq.” What a concept — a global protest against a war that had not yet begun — the goal, to try to stop it.

It was an amazing moment — powerful enough that governments around the world, including the soon-famous “Uncommitted Six” in the Security Council, did the unthinkable: they too resisted pressure from the United States and the United Kingdom and said no to endorsing Bush’s war. Under ordinary circumstances, alone, U.S.-dependent and relatively weak countries like Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan could never have stood up to Washington. But these were not ordinary circumstances. The combination of diplomatic support from “Old Europe,” Germany and France who for their own reasons opposed the war, and popular pressure from thousands, millions, filling the streets of their capitals, allowed the Six to stand firm. The pressure was fierce. Chile was threatened with a U.S. refusal to ratify a U.S. free trade agreement seven years in the making. (The trade agreement was quite terrible, but the Chilean government was committed to it.) Guinea and Cameroon were threatened with loss of U.S. aid granted under the African Growth & Opportunity Act. Mexico faced the potential end of negotiations over immigration and the border. And yet they stood firm.

The day before the protests, February 14, the Security Council was called into session once again, this time at the foreign minister level, to hear the ostensibly final reports of the two UN weapons inspectors for Iraq. Many had anticipated that their reports would somehow wiggle around the truth, that they would say something Bush and Blair would grab to try to legitimize their spurious claims of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, that they would at least appear ambivalent enough for the U.S. to use their reports to justify war. But they refused to bend the truth, stating unequivocally that no such weapons had been found.

Following their reports, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin responded with an extraordinary call, reminding the world that “the United Nations must remain an instrument of peace, and not a tool for war.” In that usually staid, formal, rule-bound chamber, his call was answered with a roaring ovation beginning with Council staff and quickly engulfing the diplomats and foreign ministers themselves.

Security Council rejection was strong enough — enough governments said no — that the United Nations was able to do what its Charter requires, but what political pressure too often makes impossible: to stand against the scourge of war. On the morning of February 15, just hours before the massive rally began at the foot of the United Nations, the great actor-activist Harry Belafonte and I accompanied South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to meet with then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan on behalf of the protesters. We were met by a police escort to cross what the New York Police Department had designated its “frozen zone” — not in reference to the bitter 18 degrees or the biting wind whipping in from the East River, but the forcibly deserted streets directly in front of UN headquarters. In the secretary-general’s office on the 38th floor of the United Nations, Bishop Tutu opened the meeting, looking at Kofi across the table and said, “We are here today on behalf of those people marching in 665 cities all around the world. And we are here to tell you, that those people marching in all those cities around the world, we claim the United Nations as our own. We claim it in the name of our global mobilization for peace.”

It was an incredible moment. And while we weren’t able to prevent that war, that global mobilization, that pulled governments and the United Nations into a trajectory of resistance shaped and led by global movements, created what the New York Times the next day called “the second super-power.”

Mid-way through the marathon New York rally, a brief Associated Press story came over the wires: “Rattled by an outpouring of international anti-war sentiment, the United States and Britain began reworking a draft resolution….Diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the final product may be a softer text that does not explicitly call for war.” Faced with a global challenge to their desperate struggle for UN and global legitimacy, Bush and Blair threw in the towel.

Our movement changed history. While we did not prevent the Iraq war, the protests proved its clear illegality, demonstrated the isolation of the Bush administration policies, helped prevent war in Iran, and inspired a generation of activists. February 15 set the terms for what “global mobilizations” could accomplish. Eight years later some of the Cairo activists, embarrassed at the relatively small size of their protest on February 15, 2003, would go on to help lead Egypt’s Arab Spring. Occupy protesters would reference February 15 and its international context. Spain’s indignados and others protesting austerity and inequality could see February 15 as a model of moving from national to global protest.

In New York City on that singular afternoon, some of the speakers had particular resonance for those shivering in the monumental crowd. Harry Belafonte, veteran of so many of the progressive struggles of the last three-quarters of a century, called out to the rising U.S. movement against war and empire, reminding us that our movement could change the world, and that the world was counting on us to do so. “The world has sat with tremendous anxiety, in great fear that we did not exist,” he said. “But America is a vast and diverse country, and we are part of the greater truth that makes our nation. We stand for peace, for the truth of what is at the heart of the American people. We WILL make a difference – that is the message that we send out to the world today.”

Belafonte was followed by his close friend and fellow activist-actor Danny Glover, who spoke of earlier heroes, of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, and of the great Paul Robeson on whose shoulders we still stand. And then he shouted “We stand here today because our right to dissent, and our right to participate in a real democracy has been hijacked by those who call for war. We stand here at this threshold of history, and we say to the world, ‘Not in Our Name’! ‘Not in Our Name!’” The huge crowd, shivering in the icy wind, took up the cry, and “Not in our Name! Not in Our Name!” echoed through the New York streets.

Our obligation as the second super-power remains in place. Now what we need is a strategy to engage with power, to challenge once again the reconfigured but remaining first super-power. That commitment remains.

Phyllis Bennis’ book, Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power, with Foreword by Danny Glover, is on the legacy of the February 15 protests. She was on the steering committee of the United for Peace & Justice coalition helping to build February 15, 2003.

Exactly Why Is President Obama Going to Israel?

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he and U.S. President Barak Obama have agreed that when the U.S. President visits Israel they would discuss “three main issues … Iran’s attempt to arm itself with nuclear weapons, the unstable situation in Syria … and the efforts to advance the diplomatic process of peace between the Palestinians and us,” that’s not exactly what others are saying in either Washington or Tel Aviv.

As soon was announced that the President would be visiting the Middle East, supporters of the policies of the Netanyahu government went into overdrive in an effort to throw cold water on any idea that the diplomatic mission could achieve any breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.”

“While the US ambassador to Israel said today that Mr. Obama would visit the country with an ‘urgent’ mission to revive peace negotiations, Israeli diplomats said talks with Benjamin Netanyahu would focus on Iran,” reported the British daily Telegraph. “The peace process may be the subject that is initially emphasized in public but there are other issues on the table that must be addressed before the summer,” one diplomat told the paper, alluding to Israel’s spring deadline for Iran to stop enriching uranium. “The deal they will have done may be on the subject of war, not of peace.”

“There are currently bigger and much more urgent issues to address than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” one Israeli official told the Telegraph.

To say the U.S. moved quickly to squash any expectation that the President’s visit to the Middle East might move toward resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be an understatement. At a press briefing February 6, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that “this is a trip the President looks forward to making that is timed in part because we have here obviously a second term for the President, a new administration, and a new government in Israel, and that’s an opportune time for a visit like this that is not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals. I’m sure that any time the President and Prime Minister have a discussion, certainly any time the President has a discussion with leaders of the Palestinian Authority, that those issues are raised. But that is not the purpose of this visit.”

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, national security and foreign policy commentator Josh Rogin quoted former Congressman Robert Wexler, the president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, as saying, “I don’t think it would be prudent to raise expectations on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The trip is about Israeli security in the face of Iran’s nuclear program and in the context of the violence and conflict in Syria. Certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an important part of that, but I don’t think it would be accurate to highlight the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over other aspects of the relationship.”

All of this would seem to raise the question: why is he going?

In response to the demands of the Republicans and rightwing supporters of the Netanyahu government that he make such a pilgrimage? Not likely.

To bolster the standing of Netanyahu following the shellacking he and his Likud party suffered in the recent Israeli parliamentary elections? That has been suggested by Israeli critics of government policy.

To engage the embattled regime of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, with whom Obama will also meet after the visit to Israel, as some have suggested? That last suggestion is not farfetched. One element largely overlooked so far in the discussion about Obama’s visit next month is that he will also visit Amman.

“With the region already in flames – Egypt no longer a reliable US partner, and Syria in utter chaos – stability in the Hashemite Kingdom and the survivability of King Abdullah II is a crucial interest not only to Israel, but to the US,” wrote Keinon in the Jerusalem Post,” adding that Obama’s visit to Amman “and the signal that sends of US support for Abdullah – is not insignificant.” Evidence that Washington is concerned about the stability of the Jordanian regime has been around for some time.

Last October, the U.S. rushed troops to the Jordan-Syria border to bolster that country’s military capabilities. One hundred military planners and others are already on the scene, operating from a joint U.S.-Jordanian military center, and the U.S. forces are said to be building another base for themselves. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the move was prompted by developments in adjacent Syria.

On January 28, Abdullah II met with Khaled Mashaal, leader of the Palestinian political movement Hamas for the third time in one year. Abdullah is said to have told Mashaal that direct negotiations with Israel and the creation of a timetable for the two-state solution are “the only way to achieve security and stability in the Middle East.” Mashaal was reported to have said later that he and the king had discussed the inner-Palestinian reconciliation and examined the Palestinian issue and its future in light of the then upcoming U.S. and Israeli elections.

Mashaal, a Jordanian citizen, was exiled from the country in 1999, accused of being a risk to Jordan’s security.

During the meeting the king expressed his support of the inter-Palestinian reconciliation attempt, saying it forms the basis to bolster the Palestinian people’s unity and that only through unity could they achieve their legitimate rights, including a Palestinian state’s establishment.

Last year, Abdullah II met twice with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.

On the other hand, there has been some speculation that there is, indeed, agreement between Washington and Tel Aviv on an approach to the Palestinian question. It’s called “get Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.” That’s the way U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro put it last week.

Herb Keinon, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, wrote February 8 that the U.S. “is looking for something from Jerusalem to dangle in front of the Palestinians and thereby bring the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table.”

It didn’t dangle long.

A headline two days later said it all: “Israel approves new settler homes ahead of Obama visit.”

It’s hard to get more provocative than that.

In defiance of international law that bars an occupying power transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territory – and overwhelming world public opinion – the Netanyahu regime has decided to build additional 90 units – the first of a planned 300 unites – in the Bet El illegal settlement, just east of the central West Bank city of Ramallah, the majority Christian capital of the Palestinian Authority.

“The advancement of this program could overshadow Obama’s visit,” said Yariv Oppenheimer, a spokesman for Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes settlement construction to the media. “This is a misguided and ill-timed decision.”

Misguided it was but there is little reason to think the timing was unintentional.

One idea being floated in the Israeli media (but so far disavowed by the government) is that Netanyahu has offered to suspend settlement activity in the West Bank, except in Jerusalem and around existing colonial blocks.

“While there are no guarantees, it is hard to believe that if Netanyahu made such an offer, and Obama and his new Secretary of State John Kerry pushed hard on Ramallah, PA President Mahmoud Abbas would reject it,” Keinon wrote February 8. “And one of the arguments likely to be used in prodding the Palestinians is that a failure to accept the offer, a continued refusal to reenter talks, could have negative repercussions on an already precarious Jordan.”

“The Palestinian position is clear,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said in response to the new Beit El construction. “There can be no negotiation while settlement continues.”

The Secretary-General of Palestinian People’s Party Bassam al-Salhi told the news agency Ma’an that Obama’s visit may create the “illusion” of returning to negotiations, but would have no impact on the peace process. Jamal Muhaisen, a member of the Central Committee of the Palestinian political party Fatah, said negotiations can resume only when Israel fulfills its previous commitments under international law and stops settlement construction on occupied land.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official with the Palestine Liberation Organization and member of the Palestinian National Council, said she and other Palestinians would welcome Obama’s visit “if it signals an American promise to become an honest and impartial peace broker…which requires decisive curbs on Israeli violations and unilateral measures, particularly settlement activity and the annexation of Jerusalem, as well as its siege and fragmentation policies.”

“Negotiating in good faith means you don’t place preconditions,” Netanyahu recently told a group of settlers. “In the last four years, the Palestinians have regrettably placed preconditions time after time, precondition after precondition. My hope is that they leave these preconditions aside and get to the negotiating table so we don’t waste another four years.” Well, not exactly. The chief impediment to achieving a solution to the conflict has been and remains the Israeli governments continued colonial expansion. While Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party didn’t do as well as it had expected to in the last election, gains were made by coalition partners even further to the right who oppose a Palestinian state and advocate outright annexation of major parts of the West Bank.

“Should we be happy or not?” Israeli writer Uri Avnery asked last week, concerning the upcoming visit of the U.S President. Writing from Tel Aviv in Counterpunch, he answered: “Depends. If it is a consolation prize for Netanyahu after his election setback, it is a bad sign. The first visit of a US President since George Bush Jr. is bound to strengthen Netanyahu and reinforce his image as the only Israeli leader with international stature.

But if Obama is coming with the intention of exerting serious pressure on Netanyahu to start a meaningful peace initiative, welcome.

Netanyahu will try to satisfy Obama with “opening peace talks.” Which means nothing plus nothing.

Yes. Let’s talk. “Without preconditions.” Which means: without stopping settlement expansion. Talk and go on talking, until everyone is blue in the face and both Obama’s and Netanyahu’s terms are over.

“But if Obama is serious this time, it could be different,” wrote Avnery, a founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement, who has been advocating a two-state solution for decades. “An American or international blueprint for the realization of the two-state solution, with a strict timetable. Perhaps an international conference, for starters. A UN resolution without an American veto.”

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator, where he serves on its editorial board. His writing can also be found at Left Margin.

The Bulgarian Turn

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

When I visited North Korea in the late 1990s, I ended up having the longest conversations with my interpreters. When you’re an infrequent visitor to that benighted country, it’s not possible to travel freely and talk to whomever you like. You invariably spend a lot of time eating and drinking with the people who have been vetted to interact with you. One of my interpreters had spent several years in New York City, could sing You Are the Sunshine of My Life, and spoke fondly of Jewish delicatessens. It was fascinating to talk with him, but I would never equate his opinions with those of an average North Korean.

On my recent trip to Bulgaria, in contrast, I could of course go anywhere and talk to anyone. But here too I had some very in-depth conversations with my interpreter, Vihra Gancheva, and these proved considerably more representative than my discussions with my North Korean guide. What I found particularly interesting was her evolution over the years toward a greater appreciation of Bulgarian ways. She didn’t go so far as to proclaim herself a Bulgarian nationalist. She preferred the designation “patriot.”

Our discussion was sparked by a meeting with Volen Siderov, the controversial leader of Ataka, an unabashedly populist-nationalist party. When we walked out of the meeting, Vihra remarked that he seemed much more sensible than she’d expected. I was surprised. She was a well-read intellectual who knew a great deal about the world outside Bulgaria. She did not, in other words, strike me as a natural constituent of Ataka. But it would be a mistake to assume that Bulgarian nationalism – or patriotism, as some would define their belief system – has no appeal for people who might otherwise appear to be cosmopolitan.

I asked Vihra if she thought there had been an increase in nationalism over the last two decades. She believed there had been. “If you had asked the question 20 years ago, I was a victim of Western influence back then,” she said. “I loved everything Western and hated everything Bulgarian. I was so ashamed at how Bulgarians worked and even attitudes toward hygiene (well, I’m still ashamed about hygiene). But back then I wanted to embrace everything Western. And now I realize that this shouldn’t have happened because we have our own way. We should try to learn, but we should not forget where we come from.”

She continued, “This rise of nationalism is, I suppose, a reaction to this, a shift in the opposite direction from what happened in the 1990s. I think it’s a natural thing.”

Interpreters translate language. But they also translate culture. Here, Vihra Gancheva interprets a certain cultural shift that has taken place since 1990 that might be called “the Bulgarian turn.”

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Surprisingly when I thought hard about it, I couldn’t remember when I heard about the Berlin Wall falling. Information wasn’t coming so quickly to us back then. I remember hearing rumors about it. But I didn’t actually believe them because communist propaganda was very strong at the time. And I didn’t trust rumors. I thought they were just deliberate rumors.

Besides, I was not interested in politics at all. I was 23. I was in my third year at university. I was as far as possible from politics or anything related to news. It took me about 10 days to become completely hooked. I embraced the whole thing. It didn’t happen immediately because I was busy doing other things.

When I came home on the 10th of November in the evening, my mother told me that Todor Zhivkov was forced to step down or he was ousted. I wasn’t impressed. I said, “They’ll replace him, it’s not a big deal.” Incidentally it was meant to be not a very big deal. I believe it was a coup d’etat. At that time, I hated this idea because I don’t like conspiracy theories. I don’t like imagining a bunch of crooks sitting around a table like Greek gods deciding the fate of the nation. I thought it was something that we had earned through street protests and rallies. But 20 years on, I realize that this was not the case. It was a coup d’état, and it had been organized for several years, maybe since the mid-1980s.

There was a point when the Communist Party thought that things were getting out of hand. They were not prepared for the hatred that poured out at them. They thought that they could control everything, as they did in Russia perhaps and are still doing. But the hatred from the Bulgarian people was so strong that there were street fights because someone called the other person “comrade,” even though people were just saying it out of habit. Even the choice of words placed you with the Communist Party or against it. People accused each other of being members of the Party.

I remember being so excited about it all. I stopped going to school. I only went to school to see the list of rallies and decide which one to go to. I remember when Demokratsia newspaper was being printed. It was not sold in kiosks because the kiosks were run by the establishment. People stood at corners selling the newspaper. I remember getting up early just to buy it. I bought so many newspapers, and I still have them somewhere at home. The articles were so interesting, so cleverly written. It was an enlightenment that I went through.

My grandfathers were both members of the Communist Party — since the 1930s when it was progressive to be a communist, when it was about liberating the people, the workforce, social welfare. One of my grandfathers was expelled from university for communist propaganda. He was even sent to a kind of prison in Greece. My parents were among those few who refused to become members of the Communist Party. It was a great honor to be invited. And if you refuse, it’s weird. But my parents found some excuse. It was a problem for their career afterwards, but they survived.

For me, it was never an option because I hated the meetings. It was such a waste of time, such a cliché, all those set phrases that the communists used. There was a “military movement of the children” that was like the Boy Scouts but with communist propaganda. The communists were very clever to invite the more active children, the conscientious pupils who wanted to progress in life, to become leaders of these organizations. As one of these pupils, I was also invited. I was bored to death! I couldn’t stand it. But at the time, when you’re so young, you can’t protest. I’m not a fighter. I was just bored. For me, communism was something to be endured.

On the other hand, I was so scared by the threat of a war that I thought that the collapse of communism would mean World War III. Years later when I realized that the Americans were living in fear of Russia, I laughed. There’s this poem — Xotyat li Russkie Voyni?Do the Russians Want War? – by Yevtushenko. For me this was laughable, but now I realize that there was some reason for this fear. But anyway, I lived in fear and I remember when SALT II was signed, I was worried: will they sign it? Will there be peace?

Communists were there to be endured. My idea at the time was that we should just live our lives trying not to cross their paths. Later I realized how brainwashed I’d been. I knew nothing about the concentration camps. Of course I knew about Belene, but I thought this was only a problem for the first years after the war. I had no idea that these things were still happening — probably because my family and my immediate friends were not affected. I trusted the police completely. I trusted them more than I do now! I was definitely not politically minded.

But when this process started and I started reading and realizing the way things were, I was really shocked. I hated the Communists so much. When I hear good things said about the Party, about the leaders, it just gives me the creeps. Although I must admit that they are well-educated, smooth talkers. The former prime minister from this party, he was a much better educated and sophisticated person than the current prime minister. But the previous government was one of the worst. It made so many mistakes. Though some people say that it introduced some economic benefits through the taxation process that benefited anyone but the poor who are their electorate.

In 1989, we realized that anyone could become a politician. Before that politics was a place reserved only for the political elite, for the communist bourgeoisie. Then, in 1989, there was such turmoil that anybody could make it. This is also a bad thing too, because a lot of people ended up as politicians without being prepared in any way. They were not even good professionals. On the other hand, there were some good professionals who became politicians and made policies.

After the elections of June 1990 my hopes were crushed very quickly. There was a famous rally of one million people on Eagle’s Bridge. I was there and so excited and full of hope, and I was sure that Bulgaria would become like Austria in a couple years. The next day was election day. And then we realized that the Communist Party would be in power and everything would be the same. I remember going to the party headquarters of the UDF on Rakovsky Street, and I sat there with hundreds of other people on the pavement and we were in a stupor. I didn’t cry, but I felt as if someone had died. It was so sad and hopeless and stupid. I was angry, but mainly I was disappointed.

Were you tempted at that time to join the City of Truth?

Yes, from the ideological point of view. But I didn’t do it because I wasn’t ready to sacrifice my comfort at home. I was not much of a revolutionary. I went there every evening and spoke to people and signed petitions. I did whatever I thought I could. But I didn’t join. Surprisingly, none of my friends joined. We were all excited about it. We worried that the police would come and chase them away, but nobody decided to live there.

When you think back to 1989 and 1990, do you think this shift came along just at the right time personally for you?

Yes, it came at the right time for me to appreciate it fully. Honestly, if I had been younger, I wouldn’t have been able to understand it much. If I had been older, I would have been cynical about it. I was very open. I embraced it. I reveled in my naiveté. There were so many people who said, “Don’t believe these guys. They’re the same. They are only thinking about their own gain.” But I didn’t want to listen. I believed them, although I didn’t join a party. Party life is not something that I’m after. I never joined a party, never even considered it. Maybe that’s my nature. I prefer to be an observer than an activist.

How about your parents? How did they react?

Luckily, we were on the same side. We went together to rallies. We discussed things at home. We cursed at the communist propaganda on TV. We were worried about whether there would be enough paper for Demokratsia. I say “luckily” because there were families where this was a major problem. I can understand that this could be a serious problem. Even nowadays, when I meet people, I try to ask a question quite early on — not whether they support the Communist Party, it’s not that simple any more — but to understand what kind of frame of mind the person has, to know where to place them. Maybe this is prejudice. I have friends who vote for the Bulgarian Socialist Party. I don’t like that part about them. I accept them, but with reservations.

Did you think about going abroad after your disappointment? Did you talk about it with your circle of friends?

All the time. This was the topic that everyone was discussing. But I don’t think any of my close friends actually left. First, we didn’t have exit visas, but then exit visas were dropped in the 1990s, quite early on. I wanted to travel. When I went to Bratislava in the early 1980s I had a cultural shock because it was so much better than Bulgaria in terms of goods. My consumerism was stirred for the first time. I went to a stationery shop and I said, “I’m not leaving here!” I loved everything about it. Even Slovakia was better off back then.

Travelling around was something we cherished. I still can’t say that I’m widely travelled. I wish that I could say that. It’s a matter of money, mainly. Of course we talked about emigration. Surprisingly 20 years on, this is still a hot topic at dinner parties, between friends. It’s still an issue because Bulgarians keep emigrating in new waves every couple years. This is very sad. One million people from the active population, ambitious people with professions, have left the country. It’s very sad. It’s one of the worst outcomes of the changes.

And I still have friends who are seriously talking about leaving. But I don’t think they’ll ever do it. In order to emigrate you have to sever all the ties with the past. And I don’t think we’re ready for that. I’m middle class. I’ve always been. And I don’t want to become an immigrant. I don’t even want to work abroad, well, maybe for a couple years, but only if there’s a time limit on it. Maybe I’m too much of a nationalist, I don’t know. And I think I have too much here to give up. Those people who are poor, who have no family relations, who have no jobs, for them, it’s easier to emigrate. I have a good life here. Why should I give it up?

Do you feel any pride about staying behind?

I don’t know. The pride of being here to endure…

Or to help build the country?

Actually this is an interesting discussion. The Bulgarians who emigrated always say that only the ones who are no good stayed, and we who stayed say that those with nothing to lose left. This is a never-ending discussion. There’s no clear answer to it. Maybe I am proud. If I had emigrated, I would have felt uprooted and lost, because only a few years after leaving your country you feel neither with your own people nor with the people of the other country. This is the way I was raised. I’m not much of a cosmopolitan. I would love to travel for a year in the United States, for instance, this would be a life’s dream. But living there, settling down? I can’t imagine myself doing that.

It’s interesting that you don’t consider yourself much of a cosmopolitan. But your job is very cosmopolitan.

Yes, it is. And it’s getting even more so. Maybe the upbringing that I received during communism, all this patriotism that was instilled in us, is strong in me. I have a love for the Bulgarian language. I can’t imagine my children speaking Bulgarian with an accent. I think that this is disgusting. So many Bulgarians speak English to their children just so that they don’t learn Bulgarian. And I think this is outrageous. I have an interest in other nations, which is one of the characteristics of being cosmopolitan. But apart from that….Maybe I like Bulgaria too much.

That’s a good segue into your evaluation of how much Bulgaria has changed or hasn’t changed since 1989. What score would you give it, on a scale of one to 10, with one being dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

I would say 6, even though I was deeply disappointed. Still, after 2000 and after Bulgaria joined the EU, things changed for the better here in many ways. Bulgaria is a better place to be. The cities look better. The highways look better. So, I think that we are on the right track.

But things in Bulgaria are moving very slowly because this is our mentality, which is the result of our 500 years of Turkish occupation. We have the Turkish occupation and the Russian occupation to use as excuse, but I think the Turkish occupation was the worst. It just changed Bulgaria completely forever. We are slow, we don’t make decisions. The decision-making process in Bulgaria is absolutely corrupt. Nobody wants to commit to a decision. They always push decisions upward. And then the prime minister has to decide simple, silly things. And things don’t happen because the prime minister can’t do every single thing in the country. People don’t take responsibility. They just sit back and wait for the storm to pass. We just kill time and wait for the problem to hit the bone, as we say. Once the bone is hit, then we might be stirred to action.

As far as my personal life is concerned, I would say 6 or 7 because I think first of all, one should be thankful for what one has — for being healthy, for having a job, for being able to express freely what you think. I didn’t say 10 because there are a lot of things in life that I didn’t do. As I said, many of my classmates are millionaires, and I’m far from that.

How would your life be different if you were a millionaire?

I don’t know! I think that money corrupts. I don’t want to be a millionaire. One of the problems in Bulgarian society nowadays is that we allowed ourselves to be corrupted by money. But it’s inevitable. Once the market economy starts commanding things, consumerism comes in and money comes into play. In the past, in communist times, it was considered bad taste to ask someone about money, to ask even about how much you paid for these shoes. We never asked that question. Nowadays, it’s become much more common to talk about salaries, about debt, car prices. I don’t like this. It’s definitely a drawback. And I’ve become a person whose life is ruled by money too, as much as I dislike it. Of course I could have become like a hermit and lived in the mountains, and I’m sure I would have planted potatoes. But I’m not that kind of person. So I don’t want to be a millionaire.

There is no free lunch, you know. It’s a trade-off. Even if you don’t make your hands dirty with some illegal business – because millionaires in Bulgaria are not really self-made — you should work very hard. And perhaps I don’t want to work that hard.

And how about the future of Bulgaria, on a scale of one to 10 with one being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

Having in mind what the Mayans predicted for December 21, 2012, I prefer to think positively. I hope that my life will turn for the better. I have no way but to hope. I think that’s the right frame of mind. If you’re down, you can only go further down. So, 7. Maybe I’m too naive but I think that being naive makes you closer to childhood. If you’re too cynical — though I’m quite cynical too — but if you’re cynical all the time, it makes you old.

On several occasions you’ve said that maybe you’re a Bulgarian nationalist. You love the language. You like living here. Presumably you know a lot about Bulgarian history…

Not as much as I should.

If you were talking to a fellow Bulgarian, would you call yourself a Bulgarian nationalist?

Maybe not a nationalist, but a Bulgarian patriot. In the past, we distinguished between being a nationalist and a patriot. I still think I’m a patriot rather than a nationalist. Progress in life doesn’t depend on your genes or your nationality. It depends on the chances that you are given in life and on some gifts that should be allowed to evolve. But I like Bulgaria and I’m very sorry that it’s developing so poorly.

Do you feel like there has been an increase in nationalism in Bulgaria?

Yes, I think so. If you had asked the question 20 years ago, I was a victim of Western influence back then. I loved everything Western and hated everything Bulgarian. I was so ashamed at how Bulgarians worked and even attitudes toward hygiene (well, I’m still ashamed about hygiene). But back then I wanted to embrace everything Western. And now I realize that this shouldn’t have happened because we have our own way. We should try to learn, but we should not forget where we come from.

This rise of nationalism is, I suppose, a reaction to this, a shift in the opposite direction from what happened in the 1990s. I think it’s a natural thing. When you give too much liberalism to one group, the other group wants its own position back. It’s always a trade-off. I think that given what happened with the Roma population over the years, nationalism was inevitable. Even people who had no frame of mind of the sort became nationalists after seeing what happened. We have nothing against anyone provided they pay their taxes and are law-abiding citizens.

Is there something today that you do that, 22 years ago, you would have made a choice to do in a Western way?

Maybe it’s my frame of mind not so much what I do. Well, I read Bulgarian books today, which I didn’t do in the past. Twenty years ago, I only read the English or American books that I could get hold of. But this was related to my job, my studies. Maybe I don’t hate the Bulgarian style so much. I’ve found something charming about it. Back then, I was definitely against it. I was keen to become totally different: to work totally hard, to adopt a different mentality just to be different. Now I realize that it’s not possible, not necessary, and it can’t happen.

And your decision-making skills?

I’m very bad at decisions. I try to imagine myself in both ways and I can’t. I definitely put things off until the last moment, just like the Bulgarian that I’m proud to be! But there are some things that I feel strongly about. The nuclear power plant, for instance.

Yes or no?

Definitely not. I’m an environmentalist too. My father said if everyone was hesitant like me, mankind would still be in the primordial soup.

You’re a freelancer. Was there a point at which you left an office job to become a freelancer?

I worked for the government for a day and a half, as an interpreter for the minister of energy. That was my charity work, and I was done with it. I’ve worked other office jobs, with very strict, long hours. I was lucky to land a corporate job in 1991. It was my first employment, and I learned a lot there about corporate culture.

But one should find the office environment that corresponds to one’s age and frame of mind. A fresh graduate can work hard, do long hours. But as I grew older, I decided I needed more freedom. I became a teacher for a private school, teaching English to adults. I enjoyed that freedom. Then I got back into business. I became a freelancer in 2005, which is not very long ago. But I can’t imagine myself back in an office. I hope that the crisis will not get that bad to force me to do it.

How is the situation in Bulgaria for freelancers?

It’s quite bad because the demand is not very high and the supply of translators and interpreters is very high. It used to be great in 2007, but then we joined the EU, which changed the kind of work we were supposed to do. Then the crisis started, and companies stopped having trainings and workshops and conferences. They just reduced these activities to the limit.

Do you consider yourself a European?

Yes, I would say that I’m a European. I’m proud of Bulgaria’s history, especially the ancient history. Back then, Bulgaria was a European power. No question about it. Culturally, Bulgaria was quite strong too. I’m okay with being European.

How do you feel about Bulgaria’s integration into Europe? Did you have the same hopes around that as you did in 1989-90?

As for the European Union, we also had high hopes, but it came too late. Of course I realize that Bulgaria and Romania were not ready to join. We were let in for political reasons, mainly to sever our links to Russia. And I think that this has saved us. Knowing our sentiments toward Russia, we would have always been their satellite. We still are. We are the Trojan Horse of the Russians in the EU. Everyone says that, it’s not a secret at all. And I’m sorry about that, but that’s the way things are. People here just like the Russians.

The Lukoil gas stations are very nice.

The owner of Lukoil is a good friend of the former Bulgarian president and of the current prime minister: he’s friends with everyone. I think that a lot of things can be explained with that.

As far as the EU is concerned, some cynics said that now that Bulgaria is in the EU, the EU will collapse. It didn’t look like that in 2007, but now one starts wondering if this might not happen quite soon. It’s good for us to be placed within certain limits, for rules to be imposed on us. We tend to wander off because we’re so undisciplined.

On the other hand, the EU is so bureaucratic. If you consider how much money is wasted, even on the translation of documents. They translate every single directive into Gaelic. This is ridiculous. In a time of crisis, why not invest this money into something more normal? I don’t think the EU is very productive, the way it is dealing with the crisis. But we have no other choice. So I’m glad that we joined the EU, although we were not ready to do it. But I don’t want us to join the Shengen area because I don’t want so many immigrants to come and live in Bulgaria. We have a lot of people to give social assistance to, even without the Africans or Asians coming here.

Even though Bulgaria’s population has lost 1.5 million people…?

Yes, but these are the working people who left. I realize that Bulgaria is very sparsely populated. I realize we can’t be a vacuum for long. Bulgaria is a beautiful country, with a beautiful climate, beautiful food. We will be populated by somebody. But we should work on bringing over the ethnic Bulgarians living in Moldova. There’s a large group living there that’s not doing very well in terms of their ethnic rights. The Macedonians are also welcome, of course!

Sofia, September 30, 2012

4 Things Obama Can Do Now to Fight Climate Change – Without Congress

4 Things Obama Can Do Now to Fight Climate Change - Without Congress

1) Say no to the Keystone XL pipeline.
Without waiting for Congress the State Department can deny TransCanada’s request for permission to build a pipeline across the United States carrying toxic tar sand oil to polluting refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

2) Regulate power plants.
Since the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases are pollutants in 2007, the Environmental Protection Agency has the power to put controls on carbon emissions. This means the EPA has tools to regulate new and existing power plants and industrial sources that are spewing methane, nitrous oxide and soot into the air.

3) Curb natural gas exports.
The Department of Energy can reject licenses for oil and gas industry to expand their export of liquid natural gas to countries with which we don’t already have free trade agreements. And Obama could direct the U.S. Trade Representative to withdraw from negotiations on the TransPacific Partnership, which would fling the doors wide open to LNG export to countries in Asia.

4) Negotiate a global climate deal in good faith.
Obama should instruct the climate team at the State Department to return to the negotiating table ready to compromise in order to reach international consensus for a strong and equitable 2015 climate treaty.

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