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What’s Not at the Museum of Broken Relationships: The Yugoslavian Six-way Marriage

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

From the Museum of Broken Relationships.

From the Museum of Broken Relationships.

You can find a Newsweek cover depicting President Barack Obama with the caption, “I really wanted it to work out.” There is also a portrait of Ivo Sanader, the former Croatian prime minister. The accompanying note from Kasum Cana, the president of the Croatian Roma Forum, explains that his “emotional relationship” with Sanader failed because of the latter’s broken promises.

The Museum of Broken Relationships, located in Zagreb’s Old Town, showcases the artifacts of failed romances, from discarded teddy bears to unsent love letters. Most of these items are personal, and the “relationship” refers to a tie between two people that has been sundered. Several, like the Obama and Sanader contributions, are overtly political.

But one obvious broken relationship is missing. Perhaps I somehow neglected to visit one of the rooms of the museum, or this item is traveling to some other museum in the world.

A picture of Obama, a portrait of Sanader: but no picture of Yugoslavia? This six-way marriage (of Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia) lasted for more than four decades before it fell apart in the least amicable way possible. But the Museum of Broken Relationships has no bumper stickers proclaiming “After Tito, Tito!,” no little model sculptures dedicated to brotherhood and unity, not even a missive from an abused spouse saying “I never loved you and good riddance!”

Maybe the end of Yugoslavia was just too obvious a broken relationship to memorialize. Maybe it was too controversial. Or maybe it would have generated enough items to necessitate another entire museum space. After all, “Yugonostalgia” has been all the rage among a certain class of cognoscenti over the last few years.

In Dubravka Ugresic’s novel The Ministry of Pain, the main character teaches Serbo-Croatian literature in Amsterdam to a group of mostly former Yugoslav students. At a loss for how to engage the class, she decides to ditch the curriculum and just reminisce with her students. This Yugonostalgia enables them to focus on the “good old days,” which weren’t necessarily all that good, but at least they can avoid talk of war and hatred. Instead, they go on about cartoons and favorite foods and how they reacted to the death of Tito in 1980. And they meditate on what they have lost.

“The list of things we had been deprived of was long and gruesome,” she writes. “We had been deprived of the country we had been born in and the right to a normal life; we had been deprived of our language; we had experienced humiliation, fear, and helplessness; we had learned what it means to be reduced to a number, a blood group, a pack.”

I haven’t encountered much Yugonostalgia during my travels across the northern tier of former Yugoslavia. Some people have spoken wistfully of the days when everyone seemed to have enough money for a trip to the coast during the summer, when Yugoslavia was the freest of a set of un-free Eastern European countries, when the music scene was the envy of even many Western Europeans. These virtues aside, the phenomenon of Yugonostalgia comes across as nothing more than Balkan kitsch.

“Slovenia, in fact, is the main producer and main consumer of Yugonostalgia, much more than in Croatia or in other parts,” anthropologist and writer Svetlana Slapsak told me in her apartment in Ljubljana. “Slovenians are the most prominent Yugonostalgia suckers. I really hate it. Because it’s commercialized, and it buries all the criticism in a deep concrete grave, never to be revealed again. All the former dissident culture is lost in nostalgia. Here in Slovenia it becomes a very simplified version of the reds against the blacks.”

She continued, “This Yugonostalgia serves as a placebo for desperate people. It destroys not only criticism but also freedom of mind, and it makes people non-active, just consumers of silly things. The Internet is full of Yugonostalgia objects. You can buy the old comic books, periodicals, pictures, paraphernalia, all kinds of rubbish: good for research, bad for the spirit. It’s also about being sentimental for no good reason. We could publish the memoirs of people, which would be as a rule different, diverse and rich in information. But no, we have this uniforming of the past. I’m terribly against this nostalgia, and also the Tito-nostalgia – except for satirical purposes.”

Even without an entry on former Yugoslavia – or perhaps because of it – the Museum of Broken Relationships is a very popular place.

Not so the other museums I visited in Zagreb, and that’s a shame. Because the city is a mecca for contemporary art and artists.

I had an in-depth conversation with the artist Andreja Kuluncic, who has done some wonderfully provocative work, including a set of “Bosnians Out!” posters that the Ljubljana City Council removed (and then restored after museum protests). I also talked with curator Branko Franceschi, who recently presented a show in New York on the psychedelic films, visual arts, and music of socialist Yugoslavia (a critical and zany antidote to Yugonostalgia) and currently has a show up on the surveillance-inflected work of Croatian artist Zeljko Kipke at the extraordinary fin-de-siècle Art Pavilion in Zagreb. Both interviews are forthcoming.

The enormous Museum of Contemporary Art in Novi Zagreb opened just a couple years ago, and its permanent collection contains many essential works from around the region. But other than some skateboarders zooming around outside, the place was quite empty on a Sunday afternoon, and I was practically alone to wander through the first-class exhibits. Particularly powerful, Ivan Grubic’s East Side Story juxtaposes shocking footage from the anti-LGBT protests in Zagreb and Belgrade with two couples enacting their own tormented drama in public spaces before bewildered onlookers. Mladen Stilinovic’s pink banner proclaims “An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is No Artist.” And Selja Kameric’s Bosnian Girl – ugly graffiti from an unknown UN peacekeeper superimposed on the self-portrait of the artist — remains as shiver-producing as when I first saw it four years ago.

But perhaps the most remarkable piece I saw in my Zagreb museum-hopping, at the monumental circular pavilion designed by the famous sculptor Ivan Meštrović, was not from this region at all. The work by Dutch artist Jonas Staal began with a proposal in Rotterdam by a politician of ethnic Turkish heritage to erect a monument to the guest workers who devoted so much of their lives to building the city. This politician proposed the sculpture for Afrikaanderwijk, a section of the city where immigrants are now the majority and where there were terrible race riots in the 1970s.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the idea, however. The far-right party ridiculed the proposal. There should be a monument to all the hard-working native Rotterdammers, the party representatives argued, particularly the ones “chased out” of Afrikaanderwijk.

Jonas Staal set to work. The result was a mock-up of a Monument for the Chased-off Citizen of Rotterdam, a 3-D computer animation that he showed to the right-wing politicians. One of them remarked, “Well, this isn’t what we expected. I don’t know if this was done on purpose, but it isn’t really out to provoke us. It’s simply being objective. I think it is beautiful!” Beautiful it may be, but the overall project definitely challenges the assumptions of the nativists.

The work is also an important reminder that racism and xenophobia is deeply entrenched throughout Europe, not just on the eastern periphery. And nostalgia for a “simpler” and “less contentious” time is not just sentimental, but potentially dangerous as well.

This Week in OtherWords: Halloween Fare

This week in OtherWords, you’ll find several commentaries about the scary stuff we eat.

Guest columnist Jill Richardson talks about how food companies scoop too much sugar into our bread and salad dressing. Former dairy farmer Donna Hall introduces readers to an under-regulated ingredient that’s in everything from candy to pizza — her op-ed will make you spend way more time reading food labels. Andrew Korfhage’s commentary about how Big Chocolate hasn’t yet kept a longstanding pledge to fight its suppliers’ reliance on child labor in West Africa is accompanied by Khalil Bendib’s weekly cartoon.

I’ve been getting a few questions about our schedule. So here’s a quick reminder: OtherWords is now distributing our newsroom-ready commentaries and cartoons on Wednesdays. We made this change earlier this month and hope that it hasn’t proven too disruptive to your own schedules. As always, everything we run is free of charge for editors to use in newspapers and new media outlets under a Creative Commons license.

I also encourage you to visit our blog, subscribe to our weekly newsletter, and send me any feedback you may have. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. Remembering George McGovern and Old-School Campaign Tools / Steve Cobble
    Being decent, humane, smart, caring, and brave was not enough.
  2. The Spooky Side of Chocolate / Andrew Korfhage
    There’s nothing sweet about child labor.
  3. The Ingredient Haunting our Candy / Donna Hall
    Milk protein concentrate is in thousands of the things we eat, but there’s no government oversight ensuring that this ingredient is safe for consumers.
  4. Supremely High Stakes in This Election / Marge Baker
    When it comes to workers’ rights, some of the most influential government officials we’ll be voting for are ones whose names don’t actually appear on the ballot.
  5. Where’s Joe the Plumber When You Need Him? / Sam Pizzigati
    Without someone at least ranting about sharing the wealth, no one’s talking about sharing the wealth.
  6. Tricky Treats / Jill Richardson
    Sugar haunts too much of what we eat these days.
  7. GOP Looks in Mirror, Spots Voter Fraud / Jim Hightower
    Records show that a Republican running for county commissioner in Texas has been casting ballots there and in Pennsylvania.
  8. Middle Class Fantasy / William A. Collins
    Median family income is sliding, the social safety net is tattered, and only the top 5 percent are making any real monetary headway.
  9. Trick or Mistreat / Khalil Bendib (Cartoon)
Trick or Mistreat, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Trick or Mistreat, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Attacking the Nuclear Weapons-Industrial Complex on Both the Macro and Micro Levels

It’s sometimes lost on the arms control community that halting the spread of nuclear weapons begins at home. The disarmament community, on the other hand, has long understood the importance of going local. These days, no one embodies that more than the Los Alamos Study Group. For instance, it was instrumental in letting the air out of the CMRR-NF balloon. The CMRR-NF (Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility) is a building that the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico seeks to construct. It’s intended to carry out design work on plutonium pits — the living, breathing heart of nuclear weapons.

Among the LASG’s efforts to halt the CMRR-NF have been sustained lobbying on Capitol Hill and two separate lawsuits that it filed against the Department of Energy on the grounds that the planned facility was environmentally and seismically un-safe. Thanks to the LASG and a sputtering economy, it’s now unlikely that the CMRR-NF will ever see the light of day.

Greg Mello, LASG‘s executive director, also frequently points out of how little benefit the nuclear-weapons labs based in New Mexico (Los Alamos and Sandia) have been to the state. In his latest newsletter he writes:

Here in New Mexico we see what appear to be desperate attempts to promote nuclear weapons, in editorials in our largest newspaper and from Senate candidates. Oddly and wrongly, weapons projects are usually linked to the state’s economic health. The reality is otherwise.

Leaving aside most of the errors on which the myth of our nuclear dependence rests, these writers and politicians fail to explain how nuclear weapons will be an engine of growth, an assumed good in their world.

… Our congressional delegation, without fail, serves the labs first. Every hour so spent, every meeting, every committee assignment so oriented, is a loss to our state. Cumulatively, in our competitive world, these losses have been very damaging to the state’s economic and social development, to our civic institutions, and to the protection of our environment.

After all, Mello asks:

How in the world will static, Soviet-style, pure federal employment, comprising two or three percent of the state’s total workers, become an engine for economic growth?

Meanwhile, at the federal level, U.S. nuclear policymakers have suffered a setback since Russia decided to opt out of the Cooperative Threat Initiative. Nunn-Lugar, as it was referred to out of deference to its creators, Senators Sam and Richard respectively, was a model federal program. Engineered in 1992, it enabled the security and dismantlement of an extraordinary number of nuclear weapons in the states of the former Soviet Union. Why then is Russia allowing it to lapse?

Russia claims that it can now afford to ride herd of its own loose nukes. Meanwhile, a New York Times editorial calls “Cutting off this successful program now is perverse and reckless — and all too typical of President Vladimir Putin’s sour, xenophobic and self-isolating worldview.” But, at Foreign Policy, Jeffrey Lewis provides more broad-based insights into Russian suspiciousness. Among them:

In recent years, American officials have been driven bonkers by Russia’s refusal to accept their assurances that missile defense interceptors deployed in Europe won’t threaten Russia’s deterrent. The United States shows PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide to demonstrate the physical impossibility that these interceptors could hit a Russian ICBM. The Russians remain unmollified. Frustrated U.S. officials claim the Russians either don’t understand or don’t want to.

In fact, he writes, “We may be wrong about what frightens the Russians.”

In September 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted that the Russians had expressed concern that U.S. missile defense interceptors in Europe “could be fitted with nuclear weapons and become an offensive weapon.” … (The United States and Soviet Union prohibited such missiles under the 1987 INF Treaty.) … It is a funny sort of paranoid fantasy, the notion that the United States might place nuclear weapons on missile defense interceptors and use them to decapitate the Russian leadership in Moscow.

But, writes Lewis, there may be method to their madness. In fact, they may be living in “sheer terror at the persistent technological advantage held by the United States.”

The simplest explanation for Russia’s overwhelming concern with missile defense is that the General Staff fears that Russia is much, much more vulnerable to an attack against the country’s command-and-control infrastructure — what used to be called decapitation — than we realize. … And, as a result, they make strange, dangerous, and seemingly irrational decisions.

In a follow-up post to the Foreign Policy piece at Arms Control Wonk, the leading arms-control blog that he administers, Lewis offers solutions.

How do we start talking about command and control with Russia, especially if the Russians won’t address the matter directly? I would propose that the US and Russian agree to a joint statement prohibiting the placing of nuclear weapons on missile defense interceptors. … of a ten-year duration signed by both Presidents.

This should be a relatively easy proposal for the United States to accept. [But the] Russians might be less interested. As best I can tell, the Moscow ABM defense system still relies on nuclear warheads.


… An agreement to prohibit nuclear-armed ABM interceptors would provide at least two benefits. First, a prohibition on nuclear-armed missile defense interceptors would provide a mechanism to address the least difficult portion of Russia’s stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons.

… Second, a prohibition on nuclear-armed missile defense interceptors would enhance strategic stability by reinforcing the prohibition on intermediate-range nuclear forces. … A ban on nuclear-armed ABM interceptors, combined with some confidence-building measures, might make the difference in preserving INF.

The LASG’s work in New Mexico (and on its behalf in Washington) and Jeffrey Lewis’s policy proscriptions are arguably the most cutting-edge approaches on, respectively, the local and the policy levels. Let’s hope that, working in secret synergy, they create anti-nuclear fusion.

Bahrain Sought to Divide and Conquer Protestors by Blaming Shias

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

The Uprising is Over. But What Is the Price of Bahrain’s Victory?

So asks Bahrain watcher Justin Gengler in a post at Religion and Politics in Bahrain on September 30 regarding the state of the protests there that began on February 14, 2011 in the island nation. Despite an ever-growing dearth of international media coverage, Bahraini tweeps are still being arrested for criticizing the ruling family, the riot police are surrounding entire villages to go after “enemies of the state,” whether they are dissidents or street thugs, and jail sentences are upheld against doctors who treat injured protestors:

[T]he uprising proper has ended. Or, rather, it was made to end by the sweeping security response initiated with the State of National Security and subsequently entrenched via Bahrain’s effective “sectarianism as security” political strategy. In this sense, the actual rebellion has long been over, and “major combat operations,” as some like to say, essentially were concluded with the second clearing (and for good measure razing) of the former Pearl Roundabout.

… To reference the “failed February 14 uprising” is seen as insulting the very memory of those who died, and who continue to die and risk bodily harm, in their pursuit of basic societal and political reform. In fact, however, it is simply to admit the overwhelming material and tactical superiority of one side over the other, a military dominance that students of insurgency and civil war have long noted.

… With its sustained deployment of police and military units along with a labyrinthine edifice of security checkpoints, the state has largely succeeded in penning demonstrators into their respective villages, now isolated even more than they were prior to February 2011 (which is saying a lot). (More recently, the state has shifted to allow protests in finite areas, namely along al-Budaiyi’ Road, while blocking them elsewhere.) Such an effort, combined with the decades-long exclusion of Shi’a from those professions that entail the use of weapons, has created a sort of double defense.

… Bahrain has also seemingly won its other war on the international front. Having done its diplomatic duty in allowing the BICI to investigate the uprising, it has successfully resisted pressure to do anything more. On the contrary, since December 2011 political change has been in the opposition direction. As witnessed once more only days ago, protesters continue to be met with deadly force in confrontations with police. Activists, including Nabeel Rajab and most recently Zaynab al-Khawajah, have been sentenced to prison for no more than insulting the prime minister and King Hamad, respectively. One political society (’Amal) has been dissolved, while another (al-Wifaq) may be on the brink.

Looks like those PR Newswire plants and anti-Iranian tirades paid off. Of course, such massaging of the facts on the ground don’t alone account for this. The US’s overriding concern was its 5th Fleet, but even the US saw no such thing as an Iranian hand in the protests. It wasn’t inclined to take anything but the most tepid of steps in support of the protestors, regardless, having “lost” Egypt and Tunisia already. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, was willing to throw thousands of security officers across the border, terrified of what might happen in its Shia-heavy Eastern Province should dangerous thoughts like constitutional reform spill over, as the Washington Post reported recently, outlining how Shia activists and (Wahhabi) security officers are trading bards (and according to both sides, gunfire) in the key, but impoverished, oil producing region.

While some demonstrators have resorted to violence and sectarianism, Gengler has shown how the regime used disproportionate force against the opposition and worked to make the atmosphere as sectarian as possible to discredit the predominantly Shia initiators of the protests. Not unlike how Assad wants the world to think that his fight can be reduced to a narrative of cosmopolitan Syria versus angry Sunni peasants (beards!) and foaming-at-the-mouth jihadists (even thicker beards!) being armed by a neo-Ottoman Empire.

The Syria comparison (minus the snark, obviously) is Gengler’s. He sees a Bahrain now increasingly riven by sectarianism, as two of the short-term benefits the monarchy won for itself was a more energized Sunni minority and a discredited Shia parliamentary bloc. These accomplishments diffused the “Arab Spring” in the Gulf state, to the delight of the royals, but what are you left with when your core supporters are now demanding a bigger slice of the welfare cake to “keep the peace,” and the critics now view the constitutional reformers as naive at best, Quislings at worst?

To turn an old Russian saying on its head, no matter how hard you hit them, they don’t stay quiet forever afterwards.

Reading the Yugoslav Tribunal Prosecutor’s Memoir While in Serbia and Croatia

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

CCarla Del Pontearla del Ponte’s memoir of her time as the chief prosecutor of the two major international tribunals – on Yugoslavia and Rwanda – is basically a tedious book. It can be summed up in a single sentence: she fought tooth and nail against stubborn national leaders, indifferent UN bureaucrats, and elusive war criminals, and although they all put up their “rubber wall” (muro di gomma), she managed in the end to achieve some measure of justice. During her tenure, the Yugoslav tribunal indicted 161 individuals and, through August 2007, took 91 accused into custody.

The book made headlines back in 2009 with its allegations of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members establishing a network to harvest organs from Serbs and sell them on the global market. An investigation into these allegations is still ongoing, with a KLA witness recently coming forward with some new and horrifying details.

But perhaps the most telling part of the book comes at the very beginning when del Ponte confronts George Tenet, the head of the CIA under George W. Bush, and tries to enlist the U.S. intelligence service in her fight to apprehend the two top suspects, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.

Tenet is not particularly forthcoming with promises of assistance.

“If you won’t do anything, I think you should at least support our efforts,” she pressed.

“Look, Madame,” Tenet replied. “I don’t give a shit what you think.

Tenet was only giving voice to what many people were thinking in those days, and continue to think today, when confronted with appeals for justice from victims, lawyers, or even top international officials like Carla del Ponte. Tenet was also summing up U.S. foreign policy at its unilateral worst: we’re the United States, and we don’t give a shit what you think.

Still, del Ponte’s book is a powerful – though repetitious – reminder of what it takes to achieve justice in today’s world: relentless, single-minded pressure. Del Ponte simply showed up, day in and day out, to make the same demands of the same people in power.

At the same time, reading the book while traveling through ex-Yugoslavia has meant that every time I encounter a group of men of a certain age, I can’t help but think of where they were, and what they were doing, 20 years before. I say “groups of men” rather than individuals because it’s the group behavior that prompts me to reflect on the relationship between hooliganism and war crimes. A single individual can be loud or drunk or obnoxious, but his impact is generally limited. Groups, on the other hand, make my palms sweat.

I was on the train between Belgrade and Zagreb, for instance, when I had my first del Ponte moment. From the Serbian capital to the Croatian border, I had the compartment to myself, and it was glorious. I relaxed and read her memoir, feet up on the chair cushion across from me.

In the city of Slavonski Brod, however, a crowd of people got on the train, and my compartment was suddenly full. One guy sat down and quietly read a magazine. Another guy installed himself across from me and started to talk loudly on his cell phone. But it was the two last arrivals that worried me – two 40-something guys with a bag full of beer. They popped the tops off the first two, interrupted the conversation of the guy on the cell phone (possibly they knew each other), and generally created what I’m sure they considered to be a festive atmosphere in our compartment. I was sitting next to the window, and I shrank into my seat. It was only a couple more hours to Zagreb. I was sure I could endure the party.

Then one of them lit a cigarette.

I’d chosen the compartment precisely because it was non-smoking (later I learned that smoking is forbidden throughout Croatian trains). I pointed to the No Smoking icon on the door and said, more or less, “not allowed.” The magazine-reading passenger translated my garbled phrase into proper Croatian. The guy laughed, but eventually stood up and took his cigarette out to the corridor and the open window there. That didn’t last long. For his second cigarette, he sat back down in the compartment, tapping the ash and exhaling the smoke into the corridor. For the third cigarette, he didn’t even bother to do this.

I glared at him.

He and his friend laughed again. But not in a friendly manner. They’d already finished their first beers. They looked at me in that challenging, alpha-male way. It didn’t look like the magazine reader and the cell phone user were going to link arms with me in solidarity. I’m not one to fight.

So, with a curse, I got up and gathered my belongings. I was convinced at this point that they were not just football hooligans but actual war criminals. I could see them in uniforms with closely cropped haircuts. I cursed them some more, which was really not the smartest thing to do. Eventually, after I’d already made it several steps down the corridor, they managed to dig up some half-remembered English curses to hurl in my direction.

I’m sure they were just jerks, and there are jerks everywhere, particularly among the tourist class. But I was more upset about the failure of the other two passengers to come to my defense and the conductor’s lack of interest in enforcing the non-smoking rules. First they come for the non-smokers, I thought, still under the influence of del Ponte. After I cooled off in another compartment, I reflected on my over-reaction. Surely the conductor and my fellow passengers would have intervened in the case of actual violence.

In countries where the rule of law holds, such altercations remain minor annoyances. But in countries where a culture of impunity reigns, these trifles somehow become unspeakable horrors. In her book Madness Visible, journalist Janine di Giovanni tells the story from the war period of a Bosniak judge who recognizes his ethnic Serbian torturer. In this case familiarity bred much worse than mere contempt. “So now you’ll never give me a parking ticket again!” the torturer thundered at his victim.

Croatia has moved far beyond the impunity of the Tudjman era. It eventually complied fully with del Ponte’s investigations, and now it is poised to join the European Union next year. The conservative party, the Croatian Democratic Union, is out of power, its leadership on trial for corruption, and its politics considerably more centrist than in the past. The Party of Rights, further to the right, has only one representative in parliament (coming up soon: my interview with that representative).

So, when I encountered other vaguely aggressive groups of men in Croatia, it’s the del Ponte in me that keeps me fixated on the past. But Croatia has moved on.

Just like the craft-store owner that I met later in Zagreb. He too was a man of a certain age. We were alone in the store, and we were speaking in English. Unbidden, he told me that he was in the Croatian army in the 1990s. They sent him to the border with Slovenia.

“It was terrible,” he said quietly. “I’m a pacifist. I hope I didn’t kill anyone.”

As with so much that happens in the past, uncertainty is what we are left with, and this uncertainty holds its own terrors.

Mitt Wants to be President – This President

Obama v Romney Debate - WSJ.com image

Obama v Romney Debate – WSJ.com image

Mitt Romney wants to be president alright… this president.

We knew the foreign policy positions of the the two candidates were similar, but who knew Mitt copped a peek at Obama’s notes before the debate and wrote them on his hand? Romney now is a peacenik, supports an announced date to pull-out of Afghanistan and wants gender equality to solve the “tumults” in the Middle East.

When Mitt wasn’t aspiring to be Obama, he seemed to be channeling Sarah Palin: “I look around the world…” (I look out my back door and see Russia… I don’t know what I am saying about these difficult issues in places like China, Pakistan and who the Pashtuns are, but I will try to remember the talking points and hope I come close… China is our friend — those lying cheating bastards — I forget where Syria is, but when I have looked around the world, I think I saw some Jihadists there…)

Conservatives are going to bed very nervous tonight. They must be realizing that Mitt really is the liberal they were afraid he was. Peace, love, and… gender equality? They thought they won that war with the “binders of women” but they forgot to give Romney the binders on foreign policy. They forgot to hide his battleship.

Barack Obama was presidential and commanding, truly baffled by the reversal of Romney’s positions and his blatant lies about Obama’s “Apology Tour,” professions of championing the car industry, calling for a publicly announced withdrawal date from Afghanistan.

Obama did a good job of bridging the gap between foreign and domestic policy and won points with his base by declaring that it’s time to end the war in Afghanistan and use those resources for “nation-building at home.” Obama hit some of the right notes by calling for investment in public education, fair taxes for the wealthy, ending wars, and looking toward future, sustainable energy sources.

Romney felt queasy redux of his Benghazi moment when Obama told him that we have fewer horses and bayonets than in 1916, too, the year lamented by Romney as when we had more “navy ships.”

I wish the candidates had vowed to cut military spending substantially, disavowed the reckless use of drone warfare, talked about the path of worker rights, good jobs and liveable wages as a path to stability in the global economy and detailed the revenues we can raise through corporate tax reform. But to hear Obama highlight an end to war and increase in taxes on the wealthy in order to build up education, infrastructure, and future energy sources at home was a hopeful sign.

Hey, Mitt — 2012 called. They want this president back.

Last Chance to Put Climate on the Debate Agenda

obama-romney-climate-change-global-warming-debateBoth President Obama and Governor Romney have to break their silence on climate change in the third and final presidential debate tonight. Unfortunately it appears they’ll get little help from moderator Bob Schieffer, who has chosen to focus on war, the Middle East, and China, while presumably lumping all other matters of global importance under “America’s role in the world.”

It may not fit neatly into the categories presented tonight, but the next president’s approach to climate change will impact the real security of our nation, and global economic and political stability. Global warming – and the extreme weather, displacement, scarcity conflicts, and humanitarian crises it promises to bring with it—will affect every aspect of U.S. foreign policy. To be a responsible electorate on November 6th, we need to know how each candidate plans to address the threat of climate disruption.

The best first step to addressing global climate change is reducing greenhouse gas pollution at home in the United States—still the world’s biggest overall climate culprit. The incoming president should start by ending tax breaks to dirty energy like coal, oil, and gas, beefing up investment in clean wind, solar, and energy efficiency, and letting the EPA do its job of enforcing existing rules to protect the planet. The last thing we need is a pair of politicians falling all over each other on the debate floor to prove who loves coal better and who’s going to open up more gas and oil fields.

Barring an apology for their wanton wooing of the fossil fuel industry in previous debates, here are four things I hope to hear both candidates talk about getting done on climate and the environment in the next four years:

1. Stand up for multilateralism and global democracy. When U.S. envoy Todd Stern first addressed the 192 member countries of the UN climate convention after Obama’s inauguration, he received a standing ovation. Since then he’s worked to steadily lower expectations of what the United States—and democratic spaces like the United Nations—can accomplish on climate. Regrettably, it’s worked. Confidence in the UN as the best forum in which to seal a global climate deal is staggeringly low. But a growing chorus of international civil society and official voices alike is calling for the United States to bargain in good faith for a fair and effective climate treaty in 2015, or step aside and let the rest of the world do so.

We need to get verbal confirmation that our next leader understands the magnitude of the threat that climate change poses, and hear how he would promote multilateral efforts to solve this global challenge.

2. Put his money where his mouth should be. Taking global warming seriously means spending money to help poorer countries steer away from cheap but polluting energy toward low-carbon development. It also means paying our fair share to support communities as they adapt to the effects of warming already “locked in” by existing emissions. It’s a moral obligation and a legal commitment, but it also makes economic sense. Every dollar we spend today staving off climate chaos saves three in future disaster response costs. And since climate change threatens to derail and even roll back development gains in the global south, paying for prevention is part of protecting 60 years of U.S. investment in reducing poverty.

The candidates should signal support for international climate finance by naming innovative proposals to raise funds like a financial transaction tax (popularly known as a Robin Hood Tax)—a tiny tax on trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives that can raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year—and committing to put that money in the Green Climate Fund.

3. Don’t trade away our future. Trade may not seen like a climate issue, but the United States is in the midst of negotiating a free-trade agreement (FTA) called the Trans-Pacific Partnership that could stop us, and our allies, from passing laws that protect the planet and our families. FTAs give countries—and even companies—the power to sue governments for policies that they say hurt their bottom line. In a current case, Japan and the European Union are suing Canada for Ontario’s new feed-in tariff program to increase the share of green energy in province electricity markets and encourage “made-in-Ontario” goods and labor. Sadly, the United States has sided against the climate, submitting an official brief calling Canada’s support of local renewable power “trade-distorting.” The United States could be in the same boat in the future if a member of the TPP doesn’t like one of our environmental regulations. Add to the mix a major potential ramp-up in natural gas exports to Asia, and the biggest free-trade agreement on the table is a climate disaster waiting to happen.

Both Obama and Romney should talk tonight about how their policies on trade would protect our environment and local jobs, and what they would do to correct past mistakes that undermine our partners’ forward-looking initiatives.

4. Champion real security for all. The debate tonight will no doubt focus heavily on security and the military, and there’s no better reminder of the urgency of climate change than voices from the front line. From the 2007 Blue Ribbon Panel to current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, security officials have been sounding the alarm about the increased risks of instability that global warming poses. The next president needs to make clear his plans for bolstering human security in the face of climate chaos, steps that could include cutting the military budget and spending those dollars instead on helping communities keep good jobs in the transition from military manufacturing to solar panel production.

It may not be realistic to expect these words to fall from either candidate’s lips—and if we don’t hear most of what I’ve outlined here, I’ll be disappointed, but not surprised. But if the next president doesn’t take climate change seriously as a central issue in his foreign policy platform, then he’s not being realistic either.

Janet is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies.

McGovern’s Progressive Leadership on Middle East Policy

McGovernThough former senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, who died Sunday at age 90, was best known for his opposition to the Vietnam War and his efforts in fighting world hunger, he also made a mark regarding U.S. Middle East policy.

Like many liberals of his generation, he had a strong attachment to Israel as the national homeland for the Jewish people returning to the lands of their forefathers to escape centuries of oppression. It was only later in his Senate career, in 1975, when asked by Foreign Relationship chairman J. William Fulbright to chair the Middle East subcommittee, did he learn about the plight of the Palestinians. He became a strong supporter of a two-state solution at a time when the Democratic Party was on record opposing Palestinian statehood and emerged as an outspoken opponent of Israeli human rights abuses and other violations of international law while maintaining his steadfast support for Israel’s right to exist in peace and security.

He emphasized that, as a friend of Israel, he was obliged to do what a real friend must do when they see someone behaving in ways that are both immoral and threaten their own self-interest: tell them to stop.

His support for international law and self-determination was rooted in his taking part in the war on fascism. In his foreword to my most recent book, which analyzes the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, he noted how that experience helped teach him that the right of self-determination “is one of the most fundamental rights of all” and that “no government should get away with denying that right by invading, occupying and annexing another national and oppressing its people.” He faulted successive administrations of both parties for failing to uphold such fundamental principles of international law.

His interest in Middle Eastern affairs led him to become president of the Middle East Policy Council in 1991, a non-profit group based in Washington addressing political, economic and security issues in the region impacting the United States. In a 1993 interview I did with him for The Progressive magazine which took place while we were both visiting Damascus, he observed, “What I’m picking up now in my travels is a feeling that… a new form of imperialism is now operating in the Middle East. We may not have any colonies as did previous Western powers, but there is a belief that many of the ruling regimes are somehow tied in to the West in a way that does not enhance the well-being of the ordinary citizen. I think we’re headed for trouble if that perception prevails, particularly since there is a lot of truth behind it.”

He presciently added, “These Arab regimes are going to have to become more sensitive to the problems of their own people. This is what this Muslim extremism is all about: It’s a kind of desperate move by people who do not know how to get the attention of the ruling regimes any other way but to shake them up with extremist, radical, and sometimes violent methods.”

McGovern later became an outspoken critic of the Iraq War, comparing it to the tragedy of Vietnam. In 2006, he wrote Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now, which helped a number of Democrats who had been too timid to speak out against the war previously to become bolder. In a Washington Post op-ed in January 2008, McGovern – arguing that “Nixon was bad [but] these guys are worse” – called for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice-president Cheney over their violations of the U.S. constitution and of national and international law, and their repeated lies to the American people. Speaker of the House and Democratic Congressional leader Nancy Pelosi, however, dismissed such calls for impeachment as “off the table.”

McGovern also expressed concern about the bipartisan threats of war against Iran and the hypocrisy in U.S. nonproliferation policy. In 2006, George and I wrote an op-ed for the San Jose Mercury News criticizing the Bush administration for signing a nuclear cooperation agreement with India. We argued, “How can we have any credibility in trying to block Iran’s nuclear program, which is still many years away from weapons capability, when we are supporting the nuclear program of a neighboring country which has already developed a dangerous nuclear arsenal? Maintaining such flagrant double-standards regarding nuclear proliferation is simply not worthy of a country which asserts the right to global leadership.”

It is disappointing to see so many of today’s otherwise liberal Democrats taking belligerent stances towards Iran and allying with Israel’s right-wing government by defending its occupation policies and other violations of international humanitarian law.

It is important to realize that McGovern – despite representing an under-populated state in the Great Plains – became such a prominent voice in foreign policy not just because of his many qualities, but because there were movements that magnified that voice. Ultimately, then, it is up to us to make possible the emergence of political leaders who will challenge both the Republicans and the Democratic establishment on the Middle East, as McGovern did on Southeast Asia.

The Poison Pill of Tax Cuts

A quiz: Which candidates and presidents said the following? (Answers below.)

  1. “To repair the nation’s tax code, marginal rates must be brought down to stimulate entrepreneurship, job creation, and investment.”
  2. “We must follow through on the policies that have given us 25 months of economic growth by simplifying our cumbersome tax codes and lowering rates still further.”
  3. “I think if you’re going to have tax relief, everybody ought to get it. And, therefore, wealthy people are going to get it.”
  4. “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

The presidential candidates are debating George W. Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, which were supposed to expire in 2010. Obama wants restore tax rates on the wealthiest families to earlier levels. Romney’s campaign is standing up for the top 2 percent with incomes over $250,000, and then sweetening their pot by abolishing the Alternative Minimum Tax and estate taxes too. His plan would give people earning over a million dollars an average tax break of $160,000 a year.

Romney is running on the GOP’s 30-year-old gameplan: promise tax cuts that you swear will pay for themselves while helping the middle class. Since President Ronald Reagan first used this strategy, it’s given the Republican Party 20 years in the White House, versus 12 for the Democrats.



It’s like a drug. The high of tax-cut promises fades, and four years later we need another hit. The economy would be even worse if everyone’s taxes fell every time a Republican gets elected. The secret is that for most of us, our total taxes have remained about the same, while rich people’s taxes have been cut and cut.

Now, Romney is offering us the same old cure-all: if the rich could just pay less in taxes, they would create more jobs and boost government revenue. How has this worked for us?

From the end of WWII through the Carter administration, U.S. federal debt as a percentage of GDP declined or stayed stable. Then came Reagan’s “voodoo economics.” During his eight years in office, tax rates fell and the debt nearly tripled to $2.6 trillion. His lasting popularity, despite the red ink, persuaded Dick Cheney to say, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” The debt grew another 55 percent with President George H.W. Bush, and rose by 86 percent George W. Bush.

In contrast, Bill Clinton gradually slowed the debt’s growth and actually brought in surpluses in his second term in office, for a total 37 percent increase over his eight years in office.

Under Obama, the debt has grown by at least 35 percent so far, expanding at the slowest pace since the Eisenhower administration if you adjust for inflation.

Romney’s continued protection of the richest 2 percent would cost nearly another trillion dollars over the next decade. Republicans may ridicule “Tax and Spend” Democrats, but that beats the “Spend and Spend and Charge it to our Children and Grandchildren” approach.

Tax cuts aren’t a magic bullet for job creation, either. Reagan did the best of the tax-cutters, with 2.06 percent growth in jobs, Bush I got only 0.6 percent, and Bush II a measly 0.1percent growth. None were as successful as Clinton’s 2.38 percent and Carter’s 3.06 percent.

Tax cuts have hurt the middle class. Median household net worth sank to $57,000 in 2010, down from $73,000 in 1983. It would have been $119,000 had wealth grown equally across households in those years. The average wealth of the top 1 percent, on the other hand, grew to $16.4 million, up from $9.6 million in 1983. This is due in large part to the growing income inequality divide, as well as the stock market’s sharp rise. So long to a powerful country of successful working families.

The Republicans’ tax cut mythology is propped up by billionaire donors and organizations like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Currently, 238 House members and 41 Senators have signed Norquist’s pledge to never raise taxes.

In the real world, many government programs help the middle class, like the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, health care and college grants. Cutting taxes and government hurts people in the middle and on the bottom more than the wealthy. A hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly. The rich have always objected to being governed at all.”

We owe it to our children to be responsible adults and pay for our government the way our parents and grandparents did. The country runs better when we do.


  1. Mitt Romney’s website, Restore America’s Promise: More Jobs, Less Debt, Smaller Government February 22, 2012
  2. Ronald Reagan, radio adress, January 26, 1985
  3. George W. Bush, St. Louis debate, October 17, 2000
  4. George H. W. Bush, Republican National Convention, 1988

    Tim Butterworth is an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow. IPS-dc.org

A Tribute to George McGovern

I am saddened to hear that progressive champion Sen. George McGovern is reported to be at the end of his days. He has lived a life nearly as large as his heart.

George McGovern will be remembered as a stalwart of American liberalism. For my generation, he was beloved for his courageous opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. That opposition came from his knowledge of war learned in heroic service in World War II. He brought common sense prairie populism to Washington. His efforts to end hunger both here and across the world made him a remarkable champion for the “least of these.”

Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries

Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries

His candidacy for president in 1972 helped forge the consensus that forced the eventual ending of the war. Along the way, he transformed the Democratic Party, opening up its doors to women and minorities, and making its nominating process far more democratic.

McGovern led the challenge the growing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. He fought for years for a legislative solution; the McGovern–Hatfield Amendment sought to end the Vietnam War. McGovern took a personal financial risk in order to take this fight to the American people. In May 1970, he got a second mortgage on his Washington, DC home to buy TV time to promote the anti-war amendment.

In that debate, McGovern challenged his colleagues with a candor seldom heard in Washington, he said, “It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will someday curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.”

McGovern moved public opinion, but the amendment was defeated in September 1970 by a 55–39 vote.

Demonstrating his compassion for the vulnerable, McGovern worked to feed the hungry, not just in the U.S. but around the world. He issued a report that led to a new set of nutritional guidelines for Americans. He also led the effort for a school meals program that has provided food for millions of children worldwide since 2000.

McGovern worked to unleash the power of grass roots activists. He worked to open up the nominating process of the Democratic Party beyond elite party insiders. The McGovern–Fraser Commission fundamentally altered the Democratic presidential nominating process, by increasing the number of caucuses and primaries and reducing the influence of party insiders.

Robert Borosage is the co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a center for ideas and action that works to build an enduring majority for progressive change. He is also an Institute for Policy Studies trustee.