IPS Blog

Japan’s Right Seeks to Leverage Islands Dispute With China Into a Nuclear-Arms Program

SenkakusBehind the current impasse among China, Japan and Taiwan over five tiny specks of land in the East China Sea is an influential rightwing movement in Japan that initiated the crisis in the first place, a crisis it is using it to undermine Japan’s post-World War II peace constitution and, possibly, break the half-century taboo on building nuclear weapons.

The dispute over the islands China calls the Diaoyus, Taiwan the Diaoyutais, and Japan the Senkakus, is long-standing, but it boiled over when the right-wing governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, provoked a confrontation with China by trying to buy the uninhabited islands from their owners. When the Japanese government bought three of the islands, ostensibly to keep them out of Ishihara’s hands, China accused Japan of “stealing” the disputed archipelago.

Ishihara, who has long pressed for building nuclear weapons, is generally portrayed as a bit of a loose cannon—the Economist calls him the “old rogue of the Japanese right”—but he is hardly an anomaly. Toru Hashimoto, leader of the rightwing National Japan Restoration Association and just re-elected mayor of Osaka, is cut from the same cloth.

Hashimoto and Ishihara both deny Japan’s record of brutality during World War II—in particular, the horrendous Nanking Massacre in China and the sexual enslavement of Korean women—sentiments echoed by some of Japan’s leading political figures, many of whom advocate Japan acquiring nuclear weapons.

The recent election of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is a case in point. The LDP is favored to win upcoming elections, and Abe—who would become prime minister— calls for revoking a 1993 apology for the Japanese Imperial Army’s use of sexual slavery. He also seeks to remove Article 9 of Japan’s constitution that forbids Japan from waging war.

And while Abe has recently been vague about nuclear weapons, before he became prime minister in 2006, he argued that Japan’s constitution allowed the country to build nukes so long as they were defensive in nature. Many leading figures in his party openly advocate they do so.

Former foreign minister Taro Aso and Shoichi Nakagawa raised the issue of nuclear weapons back in 2006, when Aso was a member of Abe’s government and Nakagawa was chair of the LDP’s Policy Research Council. Abe refused to repudiate Aso’s and Nakagawa’s remarks on nuclear weapons.

But the LDP is not the only section of Japan’s ruling elite that is considering ridding the country of its so-called “nuclear allergy.”

Ichiro Ozawa—once a leader of the now defunct Liberal Party and currently heading the People’s Life First Party, the third largest party in the Diet—says Japan should consider building nukes in order to confront “excessive expansion” by China.

According to Tokyo-based journalist Hiusane Masaki, “…what has long been considered a taboo subject after World War II is now being openly discussed, not just by the rightwing but even in the mainstream.”

In 1970, Japan signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the following year the Diet adopted three “non-nuclear principles” to not build, possess, or host nuclear weapons. Japan currently has enough plutonium to produce about 700 nuclear warheads and the ballistic missiles to deliver them. Most experts think building a bomb would take about a year.

The Japanese right is also waging war on what it calls “treasonous history.” Its current target is the enormously popular anti-war comic-book novel, or “manga,” Barefoot Gen, by Hiroshima bomb survivor Kakazawa Keiji. The manga has sold millions of copies, been turned into a film, and is used as an educational resource in Japan’s schools. Barefoot Gen is sharply critical of Japan’s military and of the elites that fueled its rise to power.

Writing in Japan Focus, Matthew Penny, a professor of history at Concordia University in Montreal and an expert on Japanese nationalism, says “those with an interest in chipping away at Japan’s anti-war norms…are now pushing for the work to be removed from the classrooms.”

According to Penny, the right has created an organization called the “Association of Atomic Bomb Victims for Peace and Security,” which apparently doesn’t include any real victims. Its spokesmen are two right-wingers, Tamogami Toshiro and Kusaka Kimindo, both of whom deny the Nanking Massacre and “call for nuclear armament of Japan and expanded conventional military capabilities.”

All this nuclear talk comes at a time when Japan is at loggerheads with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyus, with South Korea over the Dokdo/Takeshimas, and with Russia over the southern Kurlies, although the situation for each island chain is different. Japan currently controls the Senkaku/Diaoyus, while South Korea and Russia occupy the other disputed island groups.

Japan’s claim on the Senkaku/Daioyus is shaky at best, dating back to the 1895 Sino-Japanese War. The islands were first claimed by the Ming Dynasty in 1368, and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) considered the chain part of its western sea border. According to Japanese scholar Unryu Suganuma, “There is no ambiguity about the Diaoyu islands” being part of China, “because the islands belonged to the Middle Kingdom, period!” Suganuma says the US turned the chain over to Japan in 1971 during the Cold War “because they didn’t want the islands to fall into communist hands.”

Some of the right’s rhetoric is aimed at embarrassing the ruling Democratic Party before the upcoming Japanese elections, but some goes further than election eve posturing, reflecting a long-standing illusion by Japan’s right concerning the capabilities of its military.

Kunihiko Miyake, research director of the Canon Global Institute, told the Financial Times that he thought that the crisis would not come to blows because of the strength of Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces and its US alliance. “China will not use force because it would lose,” he said.

While it is true that the Washington has said that it will honor Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty and come to Japan’s aid over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the US is neutral on who owns them and would certainly be reluctant to let Japan draw it into a military confrontation with China.

Which might not stop Japan from trying to do exactly that.

Unless the US gets involved, Japan is no match for China. While Japan has more surface warships (78 to 48) it has far fewer submarines (18 to 71) and its air force is only about a quarter the size of China’s.

The Japanese right likes to invoke the early days of World War II when it crushed British, Dutch and American forces on land and smashed a good part of the U.S.’s Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. But many of those victories were the result of stunning incompetence on the Allied side, rather than the superiority of Japan’s samurai tradition. When Japan provoked a war in 1939 with the Soviet Union at Khalkin Gol on the border between Manchuria and Mongolia, they took a terrible shellacking.

Even in China, where Tokyo had enormous superiority in weapons and equipment, Japan never succeeded in defeating the Chinese, though they killed millions and millions of soldiers and civilians. In the end, of course, Japan was devastated by WW II, its economy shattered, its cities leveled by massive fire bombings and two atomic bombs.

The right is keen to erase those memories and has already managed to whitewash Japanese imperial history by expunging much of it from history books. Barefoot Gen is its latest target.

The dispute over the islands does not seem to be going away, in part because Japan keeps sending mixed signals. Japan’s economic minister recently said Tokyo “cannot compromise,” but according to Japanese news reports, Japan is preparing to take note of China’s and Taiwan’s claims, something they have refused to do in the past.

A drawn-out fight could inflict major damage on both economies, and there is always the chance of stumbling into a military confrontation. The recent US “pivot” toward Asia—which includes a major military buildup—adds to the regional tensions, particularly since it includes the possible collision of two nuclear-armed powers.

Japan’s greatest modern tragedy was the triumph of militarism, but as memories of WW II fade, there are those that would like to take her back down the same road. Adding more nuclear weapons to what is already a dangerous situation could be catastrophic. It would sink the Non-Proliferation Treaty in Asia—South Korea and Taiwan would almost certainly follow suit—escalate an already dangerous regional arms race, and could bring Japan back that moment on the morning of Aug. 6. when, in the words of John Hersey, “the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima.”

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.

This Week in OtherWords: October 17

Half a century ago this month, the Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t culiminate in an exchange of nuclear blows between Washington and Moscow. This week in OtherWords, Arnold Oliver recaps the lessons of that showdown, reminding us of how lucky we were and still are for that. And guest columnist Jill Richardson points out that just eating a bowl of rice is more dangerous than it needs to be.

As always, I encourage you to visit our blog and subscribe to our weekly newsletter. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. Can Obama Get His Groove Back? / Steven Gray
    This election is the president’s to lose.
  2. Pulling the Plug on Ex-Gay Quackery / Christine Sun
    More states should follow California’s lead and protect minors from the junk science known as “conversion therapy.”
  3. A Plan for the Democratic Party / David Elliot
    If the Dems win big in November, they should use their newfound political capital.
  4. More Lucky than Brilliant / Arnold Oliver
    Moscow and Washington almost blew up the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis over a misunderstanding.
  5. Empty Anti-Wall Street Rhetoric / Sam Pizzigati
    Lots of office-seekers this fall are campaigning against the 1 percent, but will they govern that way?
  6. The Risky Business of Eating in America / Jill Richardson
    How can eating too much rice can give you cancer?
  7. Fracking Liars / Jim Hightower
    Supporters and leaders of the hydraulic fracturing industry aren’t being honest about government support for this new natural gas boom.
  8. One Nation, Under Surveillance / William A. Collins
    The cell phone has become the instrument of choice for tracking your every move.
  9. Anti-Proliferation Brigade / Khalil Bendib (Cartoon)
Anti-Proliferation Brigade, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Anti-Proliferation Brigade, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Rope-A-Dope Revives the Hope

President Obama owned Governor Romney in their second debate on issues of foreign policy, women, immigration, and the 47 percent. He even leveled a fatal blow regarding Benghazi. Don’t get me wrong: Mitt was no wimp, and Obama was no progressive, but Obama had the better plans, the better attacks, and the better handle on the truth than Romney.

Obama strongly called out the funny math of Romney’s claims that he can lower taxes across the board and not raise the deficit. Mitt’s only defense was: “Of course my numbers add up. I am Mitt Romney.” He may convince Ann with that response, but such a defense does little to engender confidence in the rest of us.

Obama was aggressive on jobs, touting his added 5 million jobs and his support of high-wage, good jobs over winning the global race to the bottom apparently favored by Romney. Obama hit Romney over the head repeatedly with his tax-cutting record, while maintaining his position that the wealthy must pay more.

By contrast, Romney was evasive and inauthentic. He tried to get away with answering a question about equal pay for women with a strange explanation about asking women’s groups to find qualified women for his Massachusetts cabinet. Mitt said that women could be hired if only employers would figure out that they also need time to cook for their families. Pay? Isn’t the gratification these women gain from putting some Hamburge Helper into the bellies of their families pay enough?

In an equally evasive and puzzling response, Romney blamed single mothers and a failed federal sting operation in Mexico for assault weapon violence in the U.S.

Then came the knockout blow, something like this: “The President took two weeks to call the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya a terrorist attack.” “Governor Romney, I called it a terrorist attack the very next day.” “No, Mr. President, you most certainly did not.” “Candy, tell him…I did, didn’t I?” “Uh…yes Governor, the President did say that. He is right. You are wrong. You are down for the count.”

Boom.

DonkeyHotey/Flickr

DonkeyHotey/Flickr

Obama, for all his aggressiveness and better policy positions from Romney on jobs, taxes, women’s health and economic issues and immigration, failed on the question of energy and the kind of revenue raising we need to get the country on track and to be the kind of country we want to be.

The incumbent almost channeled Sarah Palin with refrains of Drill Baby Drill. He agreed with Romney that the corporate tax rate is too high, and he again missed the opportunity to tell the truth that Social Security, Medicare and social programs don’t need fixing, reforming, and slashing to reduce our deficit.

I still want to see Obama lead on the direct creation of jobs, and taxing financial speculation, dividends, and interest. I want to see him stand up and tell the truth: With the right priorities, we can spend far less on military, close corporate tax loopholes, and fund a transformative shift to an economically and environmentally more sound energy policy. I want to see him lead on real cost-control in a universal type Medicare-for-All health plan.

I want more than just a rope-a-dope surprise and a knockout punch. I want to hear the words: America Is Not Broke, we just have our priorities wrong. Then, I will be able to cheer a victory as something that is a victory for all of us, not just for a candidate’s campaign.

Karen Dolan is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. She’d appreciate it if the candidates could read the IPS report, America Is Not Broke.

Algerians Shed Few Tears for Deceased President Chadli Bendjedid

Chadli Bendjedid’s Funeral: The Hypocrite’s Ball

“Ils sont tous venus, aujourd’hui, célébrer celui qu’ils brocardaient hier. Il a été traîné dans la boue pendant 20 ans. C’est le bal des hypocrites” (1)

(Translation: Yes, today they all showed up to honor the person they had savaged yesterday and whose reputation they had dragged through the mud for twenty years. It was a hypocrite’s ball)

1.

Chadli Bendjedid and General Khaled Nezzar.

Chadli Bendjedid and General Khaled Nezzar.

In Algeria, presidents come and go; only the military and the security establishment remain, a platitude reflected by recent events. A state funeral was held for former Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid. He died of cancer in Algiers on October 6.

In contrast with the death of neighboring Tunisia’s founding president, Habib Bourguiba similarly removed from office in 1987, whose passing in 2000 provoked a genuine outpouring of national grief, the response to Bendjedid’s death in Algeria was, at best, muted.

If the broad masses of Algerians shed few tears still, much of the Algerian elite, past and present were in attendance at the funeral, including:

• Those who had essentially `drafted’ Chadli Bendjedid for the presidency at the outset in 1979 (and then ran him from the shadows);

• Those who, like Khaled Nezzar, in 1992 Algeria’s Defense Minister, (now facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in a Swiss Court) threatened Bendjedid’s life to pressure him to resign the presidency;

• Those who, like Abdulaziz Bouteflika, (since 1999 Algeria’s president) somehow wiggled out of a corruption scandal during Bendjedid’s time in power.

• Some of the ministers who served in his administration, among them the economic reformer, Mouloud Hamrouche, whose late 1980s market-oriented reforms threatened the Algeria’s military junta’s hold on power (and so they dumped him along with Bendjedid).

• High level delegations from Tunisia, Mauritania Egypt and Palestine were present as were a number of key figures from the Algerian trade union movement, political parties.

It was all rather formal – drum roll, kind words, burial with honors – feigned respect and an attempt to polish his image, to lend Bendjedid the dignity in death that often had been previously denied him. For in life, at least as president, he was used, abused and then basically discarded when his services were no longer needed. Now the crocodile tears flowed. Perhaps they were present to confirm that Bendjedid really was dead and gone, taking his secrets on all of them with him to the grave? Were they jittery about Bendjedid’s soon to be released memoires?

The eulogies contrasted with how he was viewed during his lifetime. Described by his associates in the military as `a trilingual illiterate’ (‘analphabète trilingue’), a bit of an exaggeration, Bendjedid was akin to `Algeria’s Ronald Reagan’; he was considered quite incompetent, a man whose main skill consisted of reading other people’s scripts. According to some, it was in fact hisabsence of credentials which `qualified’ him for the job making him a fine cover and fall guy for those manipulating the body politic ! (2)

2.

When late in his presidency, Bendjedid began to function under the illusion that as president he actually could wield some power, he was rather rudely reminded of the limits of his mandate…and in short order, unceremoniously dumped. Not unusual by the way for an Algerian president! It had happened a number of times in the past.

The Algerian military and security forces, that had stolen power early in the country’s post 1962 independence – and have clung to it until today – prefer to manage affairs and milk the country’s rich energy resources from behind the scenes, giving a democratic gloss to what for half a century has been little other than a military dictatorship. Such arrangements play well in Paris and Washington.

The years that Bendjedid presided – or thought he did – over the Algerian nation, 1979 – 1992 saw the country plunge into an economic and social tailspin that triggered an all-out political crisis in 1988. That was only the beginning of the country’s crisis. On January 11, 1992, just weeks before the second round of scheduled national elections, Bendjedid, now expendable, was pressured to resign `with honor’ by a military delegation headed by Minister of Defense, General Khaled Nezzar.

The elections were immediately suspended by the self-appointed military junta led by General Larbi Belkheir (d. 2007), who had spent the Bendjedid years consolidating his power behind the scenes, and with it control of the country’s rich oil and natural gas resources. A full scale domestic armed conflict erupted, lasting until 1999, that is today referred to as `the dirty war’ (la sale guerre).

It was during the decade of the 1980s when Bendjedid was present that Algeria’s relationship with the United States, which had been strained since the early 1960s, slightly improved. Bendjedid and the U.S. Vice President George H. W. Bush exchanged visits. U.S. investments into Algeria’s energy sector rose. Exchanges of military personnel were established with the presence of high level Algerian military officers at U.S. embassy parties in Algiers becoming a normal occurrence (although closet security relationships between the two countries’ military and security agencies would not fully blossom until after September 11, 2011).

Having quietly improved ties with Algiers in the 1980s probably helps explain why, in the 1990s, when the Algerian Civil War was in full swing, the mainstream media in the United States barely covered it – and when they did, it was almost always with the spin shaped by the Algerian generals – that the war was against a rising, almost unstoppable Islamic fundamentalism that had to be crushed.

3.

Chadli Bendjedid was in fact part and parcel of a long-standing post-independence tradition that placed a purposefully ineffectual people in the presidency to give cover to the country’s behind-the-scenes political masters: the military and the security apparatus.

So it was in 1965 with Ben Bella, removed from power in a naked coup d’etat, when Boumedienne no longer needed his guerilla image to rule. In 1992, Bendjedid was followed by Mohammed Boudiaf, a genuine hero and guerilla leader of the country’s 1954-1962 revolution against French colonialism, who tragically, was under the illusion he was being offered executive powers. Boudiaf was coaxed back from his Moroccan exile and promised by the military-security complex that he would be given executive powers.

Boudiaf appeared serious about curtailing rampant high level corruption, reigning in the power of the military-security `clans’ (3) and bringing Algeria’s rampant violence to an end through some sort of negotiated settlement, all of which threatened the status of the powers that be. After two unsuccessful attempts to poison him, Boudiaf was `publicly’ assassinated (ie – it was shown on Algeria television), most probably by the same people who `offered’ him the presidency in the first place.

Similarly, not long after assuming power, Liamine Zeroual, who followed Boudiaf to the presidency in 1994, made serious efforts to bring an end to Algeria’s cruel civil war of the 1990s by trying to negotiate with moderate Islamicists; this rankled his military-security handlers. Soon he too was discarded. Like Boudiaf, Zeroual’s problem was he took his job too seriously. In turn, in 1999, Zeroual was replaced by Abdulaziz Bouteflika, the current president, who has been more pliable.

Bendjedid served as Algeria’s president 1979 through the beginning of 1992 when he was forced from office by the country’s ruling military clique. Bendjedid returned briefly to the public eye in 2008 when he gave a controversial speech at a conference in el-Tarif suggesting that 16 years after his dismissal, or `resignation’, he remained bitter for how he was summarily dismissed. Bendjedid became Algeria’s president in 1979, just after the death of Houari Boumedienne. The latter had seized power from the country’s first post-independence president, Ahmad Ben Bella in 1965 in what amounted to a military coup.

(1) El Watan, 9 octobre 2012. “Obsèques nationales pour Chadli Bendjedid : L’adieu”

(2) Lounis Aggoun and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire. http://www.editionsladecouverte.fr/catalogue/index-Francalgerie__crimes_et_mensonges_d__tats-9782707147479.html. La Découverte. 2004-5. p.72

(3) The term is something of a misnomer as it does not refer to people who share blood relations as much as certain tightknit groupings vying for power within the military-security complex.

Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

America’s Warfare Welfare State

Illustration by Tjebbe van Tijen, Imaginary Museum Projects

Illustration by Tjebbe van Tijen, Imaginary Museum Projects

The United States has been at war for more years than it has been at peace. War is not a “last resort,” something we fall back on when diplomacy, sanctions and other tools fail. It has become our normal condition. Within just the past two decades, we have been engaged in two Iraqi wars and an ongoing war in Afghanistan, and perhaps soon we will be at war with Iran. We justify these adventures in terms of spreading freedom abroad and making our world safe for democracy, but we are accomplishing neither. Meanwhile, badly needed resources to confront a range of domestic challenges are redirected to the war efforts. Maybe it is time to reconsider how readily we prepare for and engage in war.

During times of crisis, real or imagined, we are fond of saying “all options are on the table.” We hope diplomacy, sanctions or other tools will work. But the world now knows we are more than ready to opt for the military option. If we ever suffered from a “Vietnam syndrome,” in which we hesitated to take military action, we have overcome it. President Obama so warned Iran in his speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last spring. This is not to suggest that our leaders would not prefer diplomacy or other tools short of war. But somehow, some way, we have found ourselves almost always at war somewhere.

Nor do we suggest that the costs are unknown, at least some of them. But most are explained away as the inevitable collateral damage. From My Lai in Vietnam to the civilian murder spree in Afghanistan in March resulting in seventeen deaths, apparently at the hands of one US military officer, we regret such incidents but acknowledge that in times of war not everything and everyone can be controlled. Even the most strategic missions and surgical air strikes are going to have unintended casualties.

Read the rest of this article in The Nation megazine’s website.

The Attack-Syria Coalition’s Neocon Roots

Cross-posted from IPS Special Project Right Web.

In late September 2001, less than 10 days after the 9/11 attacks, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC)—a group of prominent neoconservatives, liberal interventionists, and members of the religious right who advocated a host of U.S.-led regime changes in the Middle East—drafted a letter to President George W. Bush, commending his promise to “go after terrorism wherever we find it in the world” and offering a number of recommendations for the remainder of the president’s term.[1] The steps outlined in the letter were prescient in predicting Bush’s foreign policy priorities (and to a lesser extent, the priorities of his successor, Barack Obama).[2]

In addition to their advocacy positions on Iraq (invade immediately), Israel (support unconditionally), and military spending (abide “no hesitation in requesting whatever funds for defense are needed”), the signatories urged a tougher stance on Hezbollah, as well as its state sponsors in Damascus and Tehran.

In the letter, they argued that “any war against terrorism must target Hezbollah,” and urged the administration to “demand that Iran and Syria immediately cease all military, financial, and political support for Hezbollah and its operations. Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known state sponsors of terrorism.”

Today, as Syria remains mired in a seemingly limitless spiral of violence, the question arises—what has become of this attack-Syria coalition and what, if anything, has changed in its view of U.S. intervention?

Target: Syria

Because of the many ties between PNAC and the Bush administration, it came as little surprise to close observers that the Bush administration eventually followed much of the letter’s advice with respect to Syria.[3] After supporting the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, the Bush administration capitalized on the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri to galvanize political opposition to Hezbollah (and Syria by proxy), culminating in the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanese territory.

Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, produced a “Road Map for Syria” proposing a number of military options for weakening the Syrian regime, including “docking an aircraft carrier within Syrian territorial waters” and “using proxies to undermine Syrian intelligence agents inside Lebanon.”[4] Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad with a long list of U.S. demands, including that Syria cooperate in the “war on terrorism” in Iraq, end its support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad, and withdraw its troops from Lebanon.[5]

The administration’s pressure was highly effective in the heady days after Hariri’s assassination, and the Assad regime scrambled to provide the Bush administration with an acceptable counteroffer to prevent a second “regime change” in the region. Bahjat Suleiman, the chief of the internal branch of Syria’s General Intelligence Directorate, took the unprecedented step of publishing an article in the Lebanese daily al-Safir, where he outlined a course of action that could be acceptable to the Syrian regime. In the article, he implied that Assad would be willing to rein in Hezbollah, control Palestinian armed groups and Salafi extremists in Lebanon, and secure Iraq’s long border with Syria in order to guarantee the regime’s preservation.[6]

The offer fell on deaf ears. Fresh off the invasion of Iraq, U.S. neoconservatives and their allies were optimistic that strong and uncompromising force— and unconditional support for the enemies of their enemies—would be sufficient to reshape the regional order. “There’s no reason to think engagement with Syria will bring about any change,” said letter signatory Richard Perle in 2006. He argued that Syria “has never been weaker, and we should take advantage of that.”[7]

Assad Rebounds

Backed into a corner and facing an existential crisis unlike any it had previously experienced, the regime chose instead to double down and force Washington’s hand. Assad worked to subvert the U.S. experiment in the Middle East, exploiting Syria’s proximity to Iraq and Lebanon to undermine the Bush administration’s cornerstone projects. Syrian intelligence services suddenly began to wreak havoc along the Syrian-Iraqi border, while political machinations in Lebanon helped the regime regain the upper hand in the Lebanese parliament.[8]

The tide quickly turned against Washington as an increasing number of complicating factors undermined its regional leverage. The implosion of Iraq, the rebounding political power of Syria’s allies in Lebanon, the deteriorating state of Afghanistan, and growing discontent at home forced the Bush administration to retreat from its hardline anti-Syrian approach. Thus assured of its safety, Damascus quickly reverted to its old ways.

The neoconservative-led PNAC coalition that had once pushed for a unified and hard-fisted approach to redesigning the Middle East was also crumbling in the face of these and other failures.

Though much of the beltway intelligentsia originally supported the “war on terror” in all its iterations, ensuing disasters deeply undermined the neoconservative ideology as well as its liberal interventionist counterpart. Some of the original signatories of the letter, like Francis Fukuyama,[9] became deeply critical of the Bush administration’s policies; others, however, maintained a strong allegiance to their hawkish worldview and continued to defend it against any perceived modifications by the Obama administration.

The ongoing crisis in Syria, however, has become something of a litmus test for these individuals, and the coalition has begun to resemble its old self. But the emerging consensus among Washington’s Syria hawks belies the complexity of the circumstances surrounding Syria’s spiraling civil war, the difficulty of pro-war ideologues to adapt to modern international conflicts, and the dangers of the zero-sum approach to Syria currently circulating through Washington.

Syria Redux

PNAC’s dyed-in-the-wool neoconservatives—the ideologues most responsible for the formulation of the Bush doctrine—have mostly stayed true to the priorities laid forth in the PNAC letter, and they’ve found new energy in calling for regime change in Syria. Most of the signatories to that September 2011 letter—including the likes of William Kristol, Jeffrey Bergner, Seth Cropsey, Midge Decter, Thomas Donnelly, Nicholas Eberstadt, Aaron Friedberg, Jeffrey Gedmin, Rueul Marc Gerecht, Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer, John Lehman, Clifford May,Richard Perle, Norman Podhoretz, and Gary Schmitt—have largely kept their initial worldview intact, even if their earlier predictions for a Middle East “democratized” by American arms has proved dramatically off mark.

Many of these same individuals and their fellow travelers are at the forefront of the current push to escalate Syria’s ongoing civil war, arguing that active U.S. support for Syrian rebels—or outright military intervention—would hasten the fall of Bashar Al-Assad and maximize U.S. interests. A recent New York Times op-ed by Max Boot, a frequent PNAC letter signatory, and Michael Doran, a Bush National Security Council member, is a case in point. In promoting direct U.S. intervention in Syria, the authors—remarkably—were unable to identify any negative consequences of such engagement, instead identifying a plethora of positive developments for U.S. interests, such as improving ties with Turkey, “diminishing” Iran, and “equipping reliable partners” within Syria’s internal opposition.

In February, many of the same individuals who signed the September 2001 PNAC letter—this time operating under the mantle of successor organizations like theForeign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies—penned a missive to President Barack Obama, arguing that the only way to “win” the civil war, and ensure that Syrian security forces do not regain the upper hand, is to supply the Syrian opposition movement with sufficient capital, weapons, and intelligence to overwhelm government forces on the battlefield. The signers urged Obama to “immediately establish safe zones within Syrian territory,” as well as to “provide a full range of direct assistance, including self-defense aid to the [Free Syrian Army].”[10]

The neoconservative establishment, along with a growing number of liberal interventionist allies, explicitly rejected all overtures for negotiation and compromise. They consistently mocked or undermined efforts by the United Nations and the Arab League to mediate the dispute and reach a diplomatic settlement, warning that “the United States cannot continue to defer its strategic and moral responsibilities in Syria to regional actors such as the Arab League, or to wait for consent from the Assad regime’s protectors, Russia and China.”[11]

“If we were being serious in the Middle East,” William Kristol recently said on Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio program, “we would be using air strikes in Syria [and] we would topple the Assad regime.”

Evolving Militarization

Though Obama has been reticent to embrace full-on militarization of the conflict—preferring instead an approach that relies more on diplomatic pressure and crippling economic sanctions—the continued stalemate has nudged policymakers ever closer to openly arming the rebels. Already the administration has steadily increased the military capabilities of the armed opposition elements, drifting away from its original policy of providing diplomatic support only.

Though this escalation has significantly narrowed the possibilities for any diplomatic solution to the conflict, foreign policy hawks have chided the administration for not going further. In a column for the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer lambasted Obama for seeking international support against Syria “as he stands by and watches Syria burn.”[12]

In an earlier column, Krauthammer wrote that “the fate of the Assad regime is geopolitically crucial” in the campaign to undermine Iran: “Imperial regimes can crack when they are driven out of their major foreign outposts…[and] the fall of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria could be similarly ominous for Iran.” As in the 2001 letter, he argued that all America’s regional ambitions can be met, “so long as we do not compromise with Russia or relent until Assad falls.”[13]

Similarly, Rueul Marc Gerecht used the pages of the Wall Street Journal to chastise the Obama administration’s inaction and advocate a “a muscular CIA operation…to pour anti-tank, antiaircraft, and anti-personnel weaponry through gaping holes in the regime’s border security.” Gerecht acknowledged that such a policy would mirror the Syrian regime’s own machinations in 2006, when it “encouraged suicide bombers and other lethal cross-border trade against the U.S. in Iraq.”[14]

The parallels with Washington’s approach to Syria in 2006 are both ominous and telling. In effect, the same approach of uncompromising militancy is being advocated by the same individuals, and all indications point to a similarly disastrous outcome.

The Syrian National Council, along with its supporters in Washington, has decided that there can be no compromise with the Assad regime.[15] The Syrian government, as it did the last time it faced total intransigence in Washington, has adopted a similarly uncompromising stance. Faced with the prospect of annihilation, Assad has refused to acknowledge the demands of the protestors, and has met every challenge with overwhelming violence. In so doing, it has confirmed for the armed opposition that the Assad regime has no intention for dialogue, compromise, or reform, and the only remaining option is a zero-sum fight to the death.

Considering the scope and horror of the regime’s massacres in the past two years alone, this conclusion may seem reasonable. But it overlooks—and in many ways undermines—alternative approaches that have been drowned out by the same voices that called for Syria’s destruction less than a decade ago.

Looking Forward

The illegitimacy of the Syrian regime is beyond question, but the manner and process of its ouster are not. The armed opposition appears to enjoy limited popular legitimacy,[16] in part because it has committed its own share of atrocities[15] and has been deeply compromised by its affiliations with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States.

Popular movements within the country have offered a number of alternative pathways out of the conflict. Syrians on both sides have put down their weapons and started channels of dialogue to find a way out of their current impasse.[18]Even the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), the grassroots groups most responsible for organizing the uprising, have publicly stated that dialogue with the regime is the only credible way to pull the country out of civil war. A statement issued by the LCC in July emphasized “the importance of ending the military and intelligence solution and immediately transitioning to the political process.”[19]

The Syrian revolution remains one in which the vast majority of participants simply want freedom, dignity, and an escape from the brutality of the Assad regime. However, an overreliance on the military capabilities of an unrepresentative few is unlikely to bring about such an outcome. Instead it has produced an even more intransigent government and an opposition that is ever more dependent on the support of foreign powers, with both sides fully committed to the total annihilation of the other.

As the violence escalates, the window for dialogue narrows, and voices from the diaspora calling for maximalist objectives will only serve to narrow these opportunities further. The same individuals who squandered an opportunity to weaken Assad’s grip on power in 2006 have embarked on a similar course of action five years later, with no real modifications but the same grand expectations.

The result, as before, is likely to be one in which everyone loses.

Samer Araabi is a contributor to Right Web.

Notes:

[1] William Kristol et al., Project for the New American Century, September 20, 2001, http://www.newamericancentury.org/Bushletter.htm

[2] Marc A. Thiessen, “The Obama-Bush doctrine,” The Washington Post, May 31, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-obama-bush-doctrine/2012/05/31/gJQAGZmM4U_story.html

[3] PBS Frontline, “Chronology: The Evolution of the Bush Doctrine,” Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/iraq/etc/cron.html

[4] http://www.tnr.com/article/few-good-men#

[5] Nqoula Nasif, “Mq Taqaluh Washington wa Dimashq ‘an Muhadathat Burns,” Al-Nahar, May 5, 2003.

[6] Bahjat Sulaiman, “Suriya wa-l-Tahdidat al-Amerkiya,” al-Safir, May 15, 2003.

[7] H.D.S. Greenway, “The Return of the Neocons,” Boston Globe, December 13, 2005.

[8] Bassel F. Salloukh, “Demystifying Syrian Foreign Policy under Bashar al-Asad,” Demystifying Syria, Saqi Books, London, 2009.

[9] Francis Fukuyama, “The Neoconservative Moment,” The National Interest, June 1, 2004, http://nationalinterest.org/article/the-neoconservative-moment-811

[10] Khaira Abaza et. al., “Foreign Policy Experts Urge President Obama to Take Immediate Action in Syria,” Foreign Policy Institute, February 17, 2012, http://www.foreignpolicyi.org/content/foreign-policy-experts-urge-president-obama-take-immediate-action-in-syria

[11] Ibid.

[12] Charles Krauthammer, “While Syria Burns,” The Washington Post, April 26, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/while-syria-burns/2012/04/26/gIQAQUC0jT_story.html

[13] Charles Krauthammer, “Syria: It’s not just about freedom,” The Washington Post, February 2, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/charles-krauthammer-syria–its-not-just-about-freedom/2012/02/02/gIQAYVhVlQ_story.html

[14] Reuel Marc Gerecht, “To Topple Assad, Unleash the CIA,” The Wall Street Journal July 11, 2012, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303567704577518402270940124.html

[15] Agencies, “Syrian opposition ‘will negotiate with government officials once Assad goes,” The Guardian, August 5, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/05/syrian-opposition-negotiate-government-assad

[16] Al Jazeera, “Civilians plead with Syrian fighters,” Al Jazeera.com, October 3, 2012,http://www.aljazeera.com/video/middleeast/2012/10/201210215395058626.html

[17] Ian Black, “Syrian rebels accused of war crimes,” The Guardian, September 17, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/17/syrian-rebels-accused-war-crimes

[18] Phyllis Bennis, “Syrian Uprising Morphs Into Regional and Global Wars,” Institute for Policy Studies, August 10, 2012, http://www.ips-dc.org/articles/syrian_upri_sing_morphs_into_regional_and_global_wars

[19] “Joint Statement on Conditions for Talks,” Local Coordination Committees, May 15, 2011, http://www.lccsyria.org/725

Taliban Compounds Crime of Shooting Malala With Its Legal Justifications

Of course, with all the Pakistani children that the United States has killed in drone strikes, the extent to which we have the right to condemn the Taliban for shooting Malala Yousufzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl who challenged its rigid views on education for girls, is debatable.

But the Taliban only compounded its crime when it tried to justify an act more befitting straight out of the 1300s, if guns existed then. At the Atlantic, Ron Synovitz writes about a letter in which

… the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) states its case for the attack and threatens anyone who challenges its strict interpretation of Shari’a law. … the letter says that “Yousafzai was playing a vital role in bucking up the emotions” of Pakistan’s military and government “and was inviting Muslims to hate mujahideen.”

… “[i]t is a clear command of Shariah that any female who, by any means, plays a role in the war against mujahideen should be killed.” It then seeks to justify the shooting of the schoolgirl by citing passages from the Koran in which a child or woman was killed.

“If anyone argues about [Yousafzai’s] young age, then [consult] the story of Hazrat Khizar in the Koran relating that Hazrat Khizar — while traveling with the Prophet Musa — killed a child,” the letter reads. “Arguing about the reason for his killing, he said that the parents of this child are pious and in future [the child] will cause a bad name for them.”

A mind like a steel trap — one shudders to think that one day the Taliban, at least in its Afghan incarnation, may one day be represented at the United Nations.

In the meantime, the TTP has vowed, if she survives, to target Malala again.

European Victory on Taxing Speculation

Cross-Posted with the Huffington Post

European campaigners for a financial transaction tax have done some awfully goofy things over the past three years.

Global Day of Action FTT-Robin Hood Tax/Flickr

Global Day of Action FTT-Robin Hood Tax/Flickr

At one French demonstration, they stripped down to their skivvies to emphasize the small size of the tax (0.1% on trade of stocks and bonds and 0.02% on derivatives under the European Commission’s proposal). In Germany, they rented a limo and crashed the Berlinale film festival, dressed as Robin Hood characters. In many countries, they’ve gotten elected officials to pose with silly hats and fake bows and arrows.

But after this week, the opponents of the financial transaction tax (aka Robin Hood Tax) will no longer snicker at such antics. At a meeting of European finance ministers on October 9, 11 governments committed to implementing the tax. This is two more than the minimum number needed for an official EU agreement. And it is a huge victory for those of us — not just in Europe but also in the United States and around the world — who’ve been pushing for such taxes as a way to curb short-term speculation and generate massive revenue for job creation, global health, climate, and other pressing needs.

Of course the goofy stunts weren’t the only game-changers. Campaigners have also built up strong technical arguments about the feasibility of such taxes. And a growing number of financial professionals have come out in support, blunting the industry backlash.

The broader European crisis has also been a major factor. In fact, there are rumors that Italy and Spain may have sold their support in exchange for some debt concessions from Germany. The additional eight governments in the new coalition of the willing are France, Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Greece, Portugal, Slovakia, and Slovenia. More may join in the coming months.

There are still a few hurdles ahead. There will be a round of negotiations that could result in the European Commission’s proposal being watered down by lowering the rates or narrowing the base to only cover securities. There will be a fight to make sure revenues help people and the planet instead of the big banks. And EU heads of state will have to vote by a qualified majority to give the initiative the green light. This means some countries that don’t plan to implement the tax themselves will still need to sign off on it. The biggest opponent, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, may have some obstructionist tricks up his sleeve.

But according to Peter Wahl of WEED, one of the key forces behind the German campaign, “there is now quite a strong political will behind the project, so that we can expect definitive implementation rather soon, perhaps already during 2013.”

Europe’s dramatic step forward can only boost the growing U.S. grassroots efforts for a Robin Hood Tax. Our current Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, has been a naysayer, sometimes even chastising European leaders for considering the idea. But with Geithner heading out the door after the election and Europe moving towards raising revenue off the tax, we may get a blast of fresh thinking.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Anderson_IPS

Join Us October 17 at the Letelier-Moffitt Awards

We’d love to see you Wednesday, October 17, at the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards reception and ceremony at the Carnegie Institution. It will be an uplifting evening, with generations of social justice activists on hand to enjoy the artistry of DC’s most powerful and visionary youth poets and the music of Patricio Zamorano and his band as we celebrate national and international voices for justice.

Tickets may sell out soon, so purchase yours now or support this important event even if you can’t attend.

Student leaders Noam Titelman, Camila Vallejo and Boris Gabriel participate in a demonstration in downtown Santiago

Student leaders Noam Titelman, Camila Vallejo and Boris Gabriel participate in a demonstration in downtown Santiago

We are thrilled to honor two amazing organizations in 2012 with much in common. Just as the Chilean Students Movement is challenging Augusto Pinochet’s legacy and free-market ideology, City Life/Vida Urbana is standing up to Ronald Reagan’s legacy and ideology. These struggles are also united in building a better world rooted in the rights to education, housing, and other core needs. And they are planting the seeds of transformative change.

Both groups remind us of what so many of you know so well: Powerful social movements equipped with bold ideas are the catalysts for positive social change. IPS is proud to belong to dynamic coalitions forging powerful new approaches that are making a difference.

The great actor and activist Danny Glover will present the City Life/Vida Urbana award to Curdina Hill and Steve Meacham. Tiffany Loftin, president of the United States Student Association, will present the award to the Chilean student leaders Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman.

City Life action

City Life action

Fun fact: Readers of the UK’s Guardian newspaper chose Vallejo as “the person of the year.”

If you’ve attended in recent years, please take note of our new venue, located at 1530 P Street, NW in Washington, DC. The reception will begin at 5:30 p.m. and the ceremony will get underway at 7 p.m.

The Institute for Policy Studies has honored human rights heroes for 36 years in the names of our colleagues Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt, who were assassinated in 1976 by agents of the Chilean dictatorship. John Cavanagh is the Institute’s director and Joy Zarembka is its associate director. IPS-dc.org

On the Margins in Serbia

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

By Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin.

By Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin.

All eyes were on Serbia again this last week with the multiple controversies over the events of Gay Pride week. First came Ecce Homo, the exhibition of Swedish artist Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin, which depicted Jesus integrated into the gay community. Christ cross-dresses at the Last Supper; he ministers to a flock of leather-clad men. The Orthodox Church called for a ban, which the Islamic community signed onto as well. The police turned out in force to separate exhibition-goers from protestors.

I’m sorry I missed the excitement. By the time I made it to the Center for Cultural Decontamination, where the exhibition had a one-day showing, the exhibit was gone. There were plenty of police still hanging around the center’s courtyard with nothing to do, as if to ensure that the place was truly “decontaminated.” Since its founding in 1994, this center has been one of the most courageous pockets of resistance to nationalism, xenophobia, and intolerance in Serbia, and I’ll go back to interview the director, Borka Pavicevic.

The bigger controversy, however, was the decision of the Serbian interior ministry to cancel the Pride march on Saturday. There have been Pride marches and Queer Parades throughout the region, and many have attracted violent responses from neo-Nazis and skinheads. Violent demonstrators confronted marchers and the police at the Pride marches in Belgrade in 2001 and 2010, turning what should have been opportunities for the display of tolerance into ugly riots. The city authorities cancelled the march here in Belgrade last year as well, ostensibly to prevent violence but just as likely in response to pressure from religious and other groups.

The European Union has reacted strongly to the cancellation, basically telling the Serbian authorities to rein in the extremist elements and guarantee LGBT rights or risk further delays in accession. The current government of Tomislav Nikolic, of the rather conservative Serbian Progressive Party (an offshoot of the Serbian Radical party), has already expressed some reservations about fast-track membership in the EU, particularly if it requires recognition of an independent Kosovo. So, the EU’s stern response might not cause any sleepless nights for Nikolic and crew.

I was politically but also personally disappointed by the cancellation of the march because I had structured my itinerary so that I could be back in Belgrade to attend it. The events around Pride week are indeed a major test of how open Serbian society is becoming. I was struck by the superficial comparisons of the Ecce Homo exhibition to the recent controversy of the video, Innocence of Muslims. The latter was designed with the sole purpose of defaming Islam. The former draws on the teachings of Jesus who consistently stood with the marginalized. One preaches hate, the other love.

The message of standing with the marginalized should have particular resonance in Serbia these days, where the margins can often seem rather crowded. The EU focuses on ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. But even though the Orthodox Church is overwhelmingly the dominant faith, only a fraction of the population actually goes to church regularly, leaving the truly faithful feeling beleaguered. And many ethnic Serbians themselves feel as if they are on the margins of Europe, forced by more powerful countries to give up historic Kosovo and pushed nearly to the end of the line for EU membership.

Marginality is, of course, relative. My interpreter in Bulgaria spoke wistfully of how much better things were for Serbia.

“Really?” I asked. “After all that Serbia has gone through over the last 20 years? War, sanctions, refugees – ”

“Yes,” she said. “But they have Novak Djokovic, one of the top tennis players in the world. Don’t underestimate the importance of having a winner like that for the national psyche.”

And then there are all the Serbians who don’t live in Belgrade. According to a recent study of the news media by the National Coalition for Decentralization (NKD), only 17 seconds of the national TV news report is devoted to events outside the capital. Talk about marginalization! Milos, my interpreter in the lovely city of Nis, told me that 1,500 people a day move to Belgrade (other cited figures are lower, 300-500, but still sobering). The countryside is emptying out. The young and the talented, if they aren’t leaving Serbia altogether, gravitate to the capital.

It’s a shame, since Nis should be a thriving center of southern Serbia. The city is dominated by an enormous Ottoman-era fortress built on the foundations of a Roman outpost. Inside this well-preserved structure are cafes, an art gallery in a former mosque, a lapidarium of exquisite Roman fragments. Nis is an historic crossroads, the former Naissus where the Roman emperor Constantine was born in 272 AD. During the second Crusade, Serbian leader Stefan Nemanja had a historic meeting in Nis with Frederick Barbarossa. Stefan ate with a fork, according to a story dear to the heart of all Serbians, while Frederick ate with his hands (this symbol of Serbian civilization is immortalized in the powerful anti-war film Pretty Village, Pretty Flames). The city continues to be a crossroads, a busy bus portal halfway between Belgrade and Skopje and on the way from Sofia to Sarajevo.

The downtown is full of cafes, which are in turn full of people. This gives Nis a festive air, though my interpreter explained that unemployment means that people have lots of time on their hands to sit around and drink coffees. With Belgrade the artistic center of the country, the provinces are starved of culture. For a ten-year period until recently, Nis didn’t even have a movie theater.

My guide to Nis was Mladen Jovanovic, who runs NKD and is passionately devoted to decentralization. Distributing power more equitably around the country is essential to providing Serbians with a voice in their public affairs. The municipalities don’t even own the public facilities – the airport, the public buildings – because these remain in the hands of the national authorities. Investment is highly centralized. Politics is controlled through Belgrade, and the MPs from the regions are more likely to represent their parties than their constituents.

The issue of decentralization is critical to Serbia’s future. The regions of Vojvodina and Sandzak have pushed for greater autonomy. The European Union requires a measure of decentralization as part of the membership process. The conservatives in Belgrade raise the specter of disintegration. But Mladen points out that a refusal to decentralize responsibly will only produce greater resistance and provoke an increase in separatist sentiment.

Our conversation takes place over several hours at a mehana, or tavern, where we eat grilled rib meat and skewers of chicken livers wrapped in bacon, along with roasted lamb and potatoes and three different salads. This mehana, close to the wall of the fortress and next to a tennis club, brews its own brandy, and we sip from little flagons of their quince rakia. The mayor is sitting several tables away, conferring with his associates. The weather is perfect. The thwack of tennis balls hitting racquets fills the air.

Nis seems, at this moment, like such a sensible place to live, far from the bruising politics of Belgrade. All it needs, perhaps, is what Richard Florida has called the “creative class,” young software engineers and artists and, yes, gay people. Someday, in some not-too-distant future, rainbow flags will appear on the streets of Nis, and the margins in Serbia will be the new center.

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