IPS Blog

Obama Administration May, in Fact, Have Let Its Guard Down on Benghazi

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Remarks from witnesses called for the Congressional hearing over the Benghazi attacks last month seem to indicate that there was no mass protest against the video “Innocence of Muslims” concurrent with the attacks. In the New York Times:

[T]he new account provided by the State Department made no mention of a protest. In this account, Mr. Stevens met with a Turkish diplomat during the day of the attack and then escorted him to the main gate of the mission around 8:30 p.m. At that time, there were no demonstrations and the situation appeared calm.

Congressional Republicans quickly seized on the fact that the State Department downgraded security in Benghazi despite the ratcheting up of warnings about the security threat to US nationals in the country ahead of 9/11/12. (Democrats struck back that it was Congressional Republicans who cut funding for such security in the first place.)

Beyond these Beltway-minded hearings, though, that will focus on (and politicize) these failures, the Libyan response to the attacks gives me more hope, rather than less, that the country is at the very least capable of confronting the militias in the long run. What is still of great concern is where the country will go next now that tensions over the militias are back to the fore, and the US enters an election year with a bone to pick over the North African nation?

A more detailed (and official) presentation of the events of that day has now emerged from testimony delivered by Charlene Lamb, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs, Bureau of Diplomatic Security:

The attack began at approximately 9:40 pm local time. Diplomatic Security agents inside the compound heard loud voices outside the walls, followed by gunfire and an explosion. Dozens of attackers then launched a full-scale assault that was unprecedented in its size and intensity. They forced their way through the pedestrian gate, and used diesel fuel to set fire to the Libyan 17th February Brigade members’ barracks, and then proceeded towards the main building.

At the same time, attackers swept across the compound …. At 11pm, members of the Libyan 17th February Brigade advised they could no longer hold the area around the main building and insisted on evacuating the site.

…. They took heavy fire as they pulled away from the main building and on the street outside the compound.

…. In the early morning, an additional security team arrived from Tripoli and proceeded to the annex. Shortly after they arrived, the annex started taking mortar fire, with as many as three direct hits on the compound. It was during this mortar attack that Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed and a Diplomatic Security agent and an annex quick reaction security team member were critically wounded.

A large number of Libyan government security officers subsequently arrived in more than 50 vehicles and escorted the remaining Americans to the airport. While still at the airport, we were able to confirm reports that the Ambassador’s body was at the Benghazi General Hospital.

Witnesses also told Congress that they had felt in the months prior to the attack that the new Libyan government did not have the capability to protect the consulate or confront the “al Qaeda” presence in the country.

The biggest headache for the White House has been that contradictory remarks made by Obama Administration officials and the US intelligence community last month about the nature of the attacks have yet to be fully resolved. Arch-neoconservative John Podhoretz implied that the Foreign Service and intelligence community are falling on their swords to protect the White House, which is surely a stretch given the reality of the Administration’s simple unpreparedness in light of a disaster like this goes a long way in explaining the muddled responses. But given the way in which information has been leaked/obtained by other news outlets about intelligence community assessments about the attack, it’s hard to not come to that conclusion Podhoretz does. Former DCIA (and current Romney advisor) Michael Hayden certainly feels this way as well, taking a defensive tone in a CNN editorial criticizing the White House.

I think what we will end up seeing, though, is that Obama Administration just failed to gauge the warnings it was receiving. Libya simply does not seem to have been prioritized despite the warnings; it was the success story, things were under control, the peripheral MENA theater compared to Syria or Egypt, and even Yemen.

Anti-interventionists in Congress reiterated their opposition to the whole Libyan issue by noting that NATO intervention gave Islamists breathing room. One such Islamist is Abd al Hakim Bilhaj, who has an instructive interview on his countrymen’s views of the attacks circulating in the UK Arabic press.

Before his rise to prominence in the Tripolitanian Military Council as a leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Bilhaj was a person of interest to US intelligence because of his anti-Qadhafi AfPak excursions (arrested and extradited to Libya in 2004, he was pardoned by the regime in 2010). Bilhaj, whose Al-Watan Party was creamed in the summer elections, recently granted an interview to the UK’s Arabic press in which he condemned the attacks specifically, and al Qaeda in general, though ever politic, he did not blame any particular group.

Bilhaj, whose position has weakened greatly the 2012 elections and probably hopes to regain some influence in the new, “tense” atmosphere, is no fool. His reading of the mood in Libya — simmering anger at the militias, limited confidence in the government, an unwillingness to handover weapons “just in case” — shows that while Libya is not coming apart at the seams, it has weathered some truly trying tests better than others since 2011. Some of them have not gone so well, as we’ve seen with the highly symbolic airport siege, but other tests, such as the summer elections, did not end badly at all (and as the Arabist’s Issandr el amrani has noted, when we talk about Libyan Islamists were are not generally talking about Salafists, though such men are represented among the militias and new political parties).

The attacks are indeed troubling because they illustrate how organized and professionally competent these Islamist organizations are — and how they have likely infiltrated the government.

But, for starters, the Libyan military did not abandon its posts when asked to defend American lives and property.

And if there were no crowds railing against that stupid Muslim-trolling con-artist film in Benghazi, there certainly were crowds protesting the attacks after the fact. Bear in mind that even in, say, Yemen, where protestors did storm embassy compounds and the US is deeply unpopular for its involvement in the government’s counterinsurgency campaign, the anti-American turnout was at most a few hundred people — perhaps a hundred times that number turned out to protest the attacks in Libya in a “Friday of Outrage.” The attacks were a final straw for many Libyans already tired of the militias’ gun slinging (as was the case in Yemen, and elsewhere).

Perhaps the aftermath of the attacks will serve as a wake-up call for the new Libyan government, which is still reporting clashes in the stronghold of Bani Walid and hasn’t gotten the worst of the militias to cease their “polity within a polity” behavior. Problems with the judiciary and police are not going away anytime soon, either. Obviously, Libyans will have a long road to walk, as Borzou Daragahi notes in his latest dispatch for The Financial Times, with the grim subheading of “[o]ptimism born of the July elections has been replaced by uncertainty and fear.” It’s worth noting that the protests turned violent in some cases and demonstrators clashed with fighters:

The result [of the “Friday of Outrage”] has been political and economic deadlock in Tripoli as the various political forces battle for control of the direction of the new Libya. No camp wants any other to achieve success. Laws to clarify the role of civil society and private investment have been stuffed into drawers.

…. Islamist militias and their political allies now seethe with anger, feeling betrayed by the nation they defended during the revolution. They are openly mistrustful of the former exiles now dominating the government. They whisper of dark conspiracies by Gaddafi loyalists teaming up with liberal politicians and western powers.

But they are walking it, no one can deny that … except for Fox News, apparently.

While I’ve been critical of the Libyan government’s response to the militias, I’ve also been critical of the US for thinking that intervention could be carried out from 30,000 feet and everyone goes home in time for happy hour (Libyans not included).

They claimed interventionism, now they’d better act the postwar part of helping the government handle such difficult matters as setting up a judiciary, training a police force and securing loose arms, and that doesn’t mean putting dead Navy SEALs in a talking points memo or dispatching a fleet to show that all of a sudden “we mean business.”

Whether a less muscle-bound policy in Libya would have somehow prevented this all is going to be debated for years to come. Our track record in the region suggests, though, that more of such policies now, directed at Libya out of a desire to “avenge” our loss of life and face there, are not going to help anyone — except the armed Islamist spoilers Libyans are demonstrating their disdain for.

2012 Letelier-Moffitt Awards Uncut

Brave activists from Chile and Boston speaking from the heart. A cameo appearance by actor and humanitarian Danny Glover. The former first lady of Costa Rica and hundreds of other fabulous guests. Peruvian wine. Hearty hors d’oeurves. The top U.S. student leader. An elegant venue dedicated to scientific discovery.

The Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards reception and ceremony is always moving and fun. This year was truly terrific. We know some of our supporters had to miss this great event, which we filled to capacity. But you can still watch the whole ceremony right here on our blog, including stellar performances by the DC Youth Slam Team and Patricio Zamorano and his band.

The Institute for Policy Studies has hosted this progressive convergence every year since 1976, when our colleagues Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt were murdered in a car bombing near Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle. Along with an opportunity to greet old friends and make new ones, it offers a chance to salute new heroes of social movements who are, as IPS director John Cavanagh put it in his speech, “expanding our imaginations on how to make change happen.”

Another Global Issue the Foreign Policy Debate Will Pretend Doesn’t Exist

GMOAt Foreign Policy in Focus on October 16, in an article titled Six Global Issues The Foreign Policy Debates Won’t Touch, acting editor Peter Certo wrote:

“There is no other policy arena in which the president of the United States has greater latitude than foreign affairs. With U.S. foreign policy less constrained by Congress and relatively free from the media scrutiny that attends the president’s more domestic endeavors, foreign affairs largely remains the domain of the commander in chief. Indeed, broadcast regularly into living rooms all across the globe, the U.S. president is often the singular face of the United States of America in the world—especially in lands where few Americans tread.

“Yet global issues routinely get short thrift in presidential debates, especially in yet another election year characterized by economic malaise and divisive social issues. And with media coverage focused primarily on the performance of the candidates and the debates’ impact on the national horserace, crucial questions about how the United States behaves on the world stage routinely fall between the cracks. This neglect is exacerbated by the fact that, when it comes to foreign policy, there is a tremendous amount of overlap between the major candidates.

“In the interest of keeping vital global issues in the discussion, Foreign Policy in Focus reached out to scholars at the Institute for Policy Studies.”

We also reached out to those outside the IPS community. Kenneth Anderson weighed in thusly:

One thing that almost never appears on the radar, even for people with finely tuned radar, is the global machinations of corporate GMO pushers (esp. Monsanto), the various troubles that are becoming more and more manifest (superweeds, new parasites), and the rising suspicions that GMO are, or already have, introduced a host of health problems to the general population.

A Wikileaks document revealed how the US government was doing Monsanto’s duty by coercing the Sarkozy administration to relax GMO regulations in France. The EU remains resistant, and is about the only place that conducts research into GMO effects on mammals (see the recent “New study suggests tumors & organ damage from GMO foods“). Monsanto has been pushing, or is trying to push, their GMO onto farmers around the world, driving farmers in India into debt, despair and record suicides. Farmers in the US are routinely harassed by Monsanto lawyers, while evidence exists that agents purposefully seed fields with Monsanto grain where farmers have resisted using their seeds. Mega-soybean growers in South America — all using Monsanto GMO soy — are deforesting Amazonia, and devastating local ranching and farming in Argentina and elsewhere.

This is a global issue, and one which, so far as I have seen, is never discussed at any political level.

Seminal New Book Shows Just How Little German Army Objected to Holocaust

SoldatenWhen Hitler’s Willing Executioners (Knopf) was published in 1996, many took exception to author Daniel Goldhagen’s portrayal of the extent to which ordinary Germans were complicit in the atrocities committed by the Third Reich. But a book recently translated into English adds more fuel to that fire. As its subtitle within a subtitle suggests, in Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying (The Secret World War II Transcripts of German POWs) (Knopf, 2012) Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer interpret the comments of Wehrmacht soldiers taped without their knowledge in Alllied prisoner of war camps.

The surveillance was conducted in hopes of obtaining intelligence useful to the conduct of the war. While not much of value to that end was unearthed, the authors’ latter-day examination of the tapes provide us with a wealth of information. They gleaned the perspectives of Wehrmacht soldiers’ on the progress of the war, its leadership, and, especially, the killing of noncombatants. An excerpt at the Daily Beast shows how little offense they took to the Third Reich’s policy of mass killings of Jews and the citizens of Poland and East Russia.

Let’s clarify that: the soldiers taped — many of them high-ranking — suffered few humanitarian qualms. Neitzel and Welzer write:

Within the Wehrmacht, there was a consciousness that certain acts were criminal, although that knowledge was not sufficient motivation for refusing to carry them out. There were a number of social and pragmatic reasons for continuing even when one realized standards boundaries were being transgressed.

But the soldiers objected to those policies on the grounds that they were handled inefficiently or that they would set Germany up for reprisals at the end of the war, including war-crime trials. In other words, the Wehrmacht did not wish to be blamed for the policies of the Third Reich and the SS. Here are two soldiers talking (emphasis added):

Aue: Perhaps we didn’t always do right in killing Jews in masses in the East.

Schneider: It was undoubtedly a mistake. Well, not so much a mistake as un-diplomatic.

Another soldier said:

They even filmed it and the films, of course, have got abroad; it always leaks out somehow. … Sometime the world will take revenge for that.


No telling what’s going to happen to us.

What is it that inured Wehrmacht soldiers inured to the suffering of noncombatants, especially Jews? Perhaps the “eliminationist anti-Semitism” that Goldhagen claims was central to the German psyche played a part. Almost all the soldiers simply assumed that, at the least, Jews should lose their rights and/or be deported. (One always wonders how a totalitarian regime forgets about the effect of brain drain on its future when it targets a society’s intelligentsia.) Other factors include the success of the Third Reich’s success in establishing a climate of submission and abject obeisance, and the military tradition that Germany instituted in the preceding century.

I would be remiss if I failed to address another cause, one that the authors no doubt felt was beyond the scope of their investigations: the harsh childrearing practices prevalent in Germany and Austria at the time. But that’s better explained by the dean of psychohistory, Lloyd deMause. By way of introduction, read his 2005 speech The Childhood Origins of the Holocaust.

Arguably, though, the sentiments — or lack thereof — expressed by Wehrmacht prisoners are as symptomatic of total war as any other cause. The authors conclude:

In our view, the decisive factor in the atrocities discussed in this book was a general realignment from a civilian to a wartime frame of reference. It is more significant than all issues of worldview, disposition, and ideology.

Meanwhile, imagine that the United States invaded the Japanese mainland and, after capturing Japanese civilians, instituted a policy of exterminating them in numbers comparable to what the Germans did to Jews. Would American soldiers have objected any more than Wehrmacht soldiers did to the Third Reich’s policies?

If you doubt that, read John Dower’s classic War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (Pantheon, 1986). If that had come to pass, the argument could be made that, while the Jews presented little threat to Germans, except for a few pockets of resistance once the Third Reich began persecuting them, the Japanese treated U.S. prisoners of war with brutality. In the end, of course, nothing excuses mass killings.

Camila Vallejo’s Letelier-Moffitt Acceptance Speech

I would like to thank the Institute for Policy Studies. I thank IPS not only for this Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award that you’ve given the Chilean Students Movement for our struggle to recover the right to an education, but also for what you stand for and your ties to everything that’s happening today in Chile.

Camila Vallejo speaksAfter 39 years, it’s impossible — even for young people like us who were born after 1988 — to study the history of Orlando Letelier or anyone else who was tortured or assassinated during the dictatorship without feeling paid. We feel the pain of injustice, the pain of that inhumanity, and the pain of a great blow to democracy that hasn’t healed to this day.

And although there’s been a powerful attempt to erase our collective memory and silence our entire nation, in Chile we won’t forget. We can’t forget the Pinochet dictactorship’s victims, just as we can’t forget the aspirations of the movement that gave rise to Salvador Allende’s government.

That movement was interrupted by a violent coup and a brutal and bloody dictatorship. But it wasn’t defeated, it was interrupted. Its driving force and principles were to defend the interests and dignity of the people.

That movement respected human rights while aspiring to grant all men and women access to a decent education and quality health care. That movement aimed to bring the benefits of our nation’s natural wealth to all Chileans. That movement built sovereignty while strengthening democracy.

In that movement, men and women developed the awareness and will to organize for justice and freedom.

I believe that the Institute, through its work, represents women and men like Ronni and Orlando — people who embodied this movement’s ideals and gave their lives for their activism.

It is with sorrow, but also with joy and hope that we cherish the ideas and ideals that embody this movement — the defense of human rights and the struggle for social justice.

Many Chileans are now taking back the reins of history, as indicated by today’s great social movements. We must recover from the Pinochet dictatorship’s terrible consequences if we want to have a true democracy.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights affirmed that even today there still is no justice in Chile because our electoral sytstem guarantees that human rights violators are over-represented in our parliament, relative to their victims.

In our country, there is no justice. Even if we don’t have a dictator anymore, we still haven’t gotten rid of the political model that his regime imposed upon us — a market-driven dictatorship. This neoliberal model has proven to be incompatible with respect for human rights. When the great wealth of the very few is derived from the life and work of the vast majority, it isn’t compatible with democracy.

Our best way to thank you for this award is to carry on with the historic work to which we have dedicated our lives. We will continue to fight for universal, high-quality, and free public education, workers’ rights, and excellent health care for all. We will fight to nationalize Chile’s natural resources once again. We will continue the struggle for self-determination and respect that our indigenous peoples deserve.

Today, Chile’s indigenous people are a shining example of resistance to the repression and militarization they endure at the hands of our government. We should fight for a new Chilean Constitution, which will shed the neoliberal state the dictatorship imposed on us for the benefit the nation’s richest people.

As Allende said, the Chilean people’s struggle isn’t a fight among generations, and it’s certainly not the monopoly of one political party. This must be a struggle by workers, students, professionals, and many social and political movements ready to take on the challenge of joining together despite our differences, because we have grasped the historic challenge that we face.

That is why I would like to dedicate this award not just to all Chilean students, who technically won it, but also to our professors and teachers, as well as the indigenous peoples of Chile.

Appropriately enough, in Chile we celebrate Teachers Day every October 16. Just yesterday, we paid tribute to them.

I am also dedicating this award to the indigenous Mapuche people currently held as political prisoners — including the four who have been on a hunger strike for nearly two months. After hundreds of years of resistance, they are not giving up the fight for their land or their right to their own culture. This award is for everyone who is fighting to make Chile a better place.

Camila Vallejo is the vice-president of the Confederation of Chilean Students (Confederación de Estudiantes de Chile). She and Noam Titelman accepted a 2012 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies.

Tiffany Dena Loftin’s Letelier-Moffitt Award Speech

Tiffany Dena Loftin at Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award 2012

I consider it a honor to have been asked to present this award to the Chilean Student Movement and to the two remarkable leaders seated here before me, Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman.

I serve as president of the United States Student Association, the country’s oldest and largest student run student lead organization. For 65 years, we have pressured decision-makers for an accessible and affordable higher education for everyone. This year, student leaders and allies across the country have focused on federal and state-based legislation that give undocuments students an opportunity to apply for federal loans and afford a public education.

We have mobilized students across the country to register to vote, to fight against budget cuts for important programs for communities of color, and we demand corporate accountability and student loan debt forgiveness. All while training young people to build community by learning skills that build real power on their campus to fight for a just society.

Many of our students are inspired and fired up from the strategy and power lead forward by the Chilean Student Movement.

They have created and sustained, for over a year and a half, one of the most dynamic student movements the world has ever seen, raising up the right to education as a fundamental right for every student in Chile and inspiring the tactics of other student organizations across the world.

They have organized a half million people onto the streets of Chile, a nation of only 17 million people. That would be the equivalent of us getting over 9 million people on the streets in this country.

These brave demonstrators have stood up to brutal police repression, and they come back the next day even stronger. Camila has faced death threats. One senior government official tweeted to they wanted her dead but Camila did not stand down. She stood up defiantly and said: “What motivates me most is to fight for the dignity of human beings.”

The organizing that has held this movement together motivates me because the tactics are non-traditional, non-violent, and accessible so that every student is educated.

They have rethought social protest in bold and often humorous ways, from kissathons to superhero dance offs, to a mass zombie Michael Jackson Thriller dance routine.

They have innovated with social media — Camila has a half million followers on twitter.

They have forged alliances with miners and unions and a broad spectrum of Chilean societies.

They have focused and never compromised on their demands for free universal education, and they have rejected “piecemeal” government offers of reform. They have refused to be bought off.

While focusing in on education, they’ve made the critical leap to the larger development model and the inequality that is endemic in that model.

For us in the United States, they are a model of forcing a society to face and grapple with the giant crisis of millions of students who cannot repay their student loan debt.

This Chilean Student Movement is led by internationalists. They are making links to, and helping to motivate, a global movement. They see the links from the indignations of Spain to the revolutionaries of Egypt to the Occupiers of the United States.

Tonight, I pledge to you that students of the United States stand in solidarity with you, we have your back. We join in your demands to end student debt fairly and justly, and will continue to fight for a free education.

Tiffany Dena Loftin, president of the United States Student Association, presented Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman with a 2012 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies.

Curdina Hill’s Letelier-Moffitt Acceptance Speech

We are pleased and deeply honored to receive a Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award from the Institute of Policy Studies, an organization whose mission and values mirror our own.

Curdina HillFor 40 years, City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots social justice organizing organization, has organized tenants against displacement in Boston’s working class communities of color as part of a larger economic and social justice agenda to put people before profits.

Housing is a human right, not a commodity. In the face of one of the worst economic recessions, in the wake of the bank bailout, and the increasing loss of homes through bank foreclosures, and ultimately the huge loss of wealth for people and communities of color, City Life/Vida Urbana, started its Post-Foreclosure Eviction Defense Campaign.

Our strategy was a call for tenants and homeowners to stay in their homes and fight, and to push the banks for principal reduction for those with underwater mortgages. At the time we were seen as those “crazy, radical organizers.Well, let me tell you what we “crazy organizers,”and these brave families who have refused to move have achieved:

  • We have backed down the banks time and time again on eviction day, often making it possible for people to stay in their homes long-term or permanently.
  • We and our regional networks have won new statewide and local protections for tenants and owners living in foreclosed homes.
  • Our members have fought their cases fiercely in court, even all the way up to the highest court in Massachusetts and they have set new legal precedents.
  • Today, principal reduction is part of national policy consideration, and some of the large commercial banks have begun to offer principal reduction to fair market value.
  • With initial support from Open Society Foundations, our organizing has expanded regionally and nationally. In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, four groups in town or cities with high foreclosure rates are replicating our Bank Tenant organizing model, and this work is being shared with groups nationally. City Life originally convened and is participating in a regional network, NEWROAD, New England Workers and Residents Organizing Against Displacment that has stopped foreclosures and coordinated actions as part of Fannie & Freddie Campaign, Boston, New York and D.C.

Across the country, many groups in Orlando, Baltimore, Atlanta, D.C., and Seattle are following this foreclosing organizing model. Now as national elections loom large, with one candidate deeming close to 50 percent of Americans irresponsible and erosion of social supports with a transfer of wealth of country to the 1 percent, we are heartened by our growing movement and alliances.

Since 2007, when City Life first began fighting the loss of homes through foreclosure, our strength and power has been in the formation and growth of the Bank Tenant organizing movement from seven people to over 1000, the involvement of everyday women and men, tenants and homeowners, who have decided to stand up and fight not only for their homes but theirs of their neighborhoods and all those who are in foreclosed houses and building.

City Life is a lead organization in a national Right-to-the-City campaign to get Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to give loan modifications with principal reduction. Last month, as part of this campaign, we brought a large contingent from Boston and surrounding communities to a rally and march to New York. This contingent included 50 eighth-graders from the Smith Leadership Academy. It was inspiring to hear them speak clearly and powerfully with reporters about foreclosure and our demands.

Our connection with education and the involvement of young people — this is the promise of our future. We are here not just for the short term but for the long haul. City Life and Bank Tenant Association members plan to be tenacious in this fight for human dignity and for housing as a human right.

I’d like to close with the words of one of our Bank Tenant Association members about her journey and commitment to this struggle.

“I’m still trying to get the bank to negotiate with me to reduce the principal on my mortgage, but now I have the power of the people of City Life on my side. I am not alone…Thanks to City Life for throwing me a lifeline. I walked in worried, and I walked out a warrior. I am not just in a private struggle to save my home. I am in a much larger struggle for housing justice.”
—Carolyn Lomax, a Bank Tenant Association member

Curdina Hill is the executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana. She and her colleague Steve Meacham accepted a 2012 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies, alongside attorneys Lauren Song of Greater Boston Legal Services and Andrea Park of Harvard Legal Aid. CLVU.org

John Cavanagh: Letelier-Moffitt Awards Speech

Welcome to the 36th annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards.

John Canagh at the 2011 LM Awards.

As I look around this room, I am in awe of the thousands of collective years of committed activism and scholarship and struggle for a better world that this crowd represents. When Ronni Karpen Moffitt and Orlando Letelier were murdered 36 years ago by agents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Orlando was only 44 years old. And yet he’d achieved enough to be considered one of the revered elders of the human rights movement.

Tonight, we have many long-time progressive heroes in the room. Let me recognize just two. First, a man who began stirring up trouble as a White House aide when he questioned the military build-up in the early 1960s — IPS co-founder Marcus Raskin. And second, the woman who turned her husband Orlando Letelier’s tragic death into a force for justice and democracy: Isabel Letelier.

But, tonight — in many ways — is about the generation that Ronni Karpen Moffitt represents — the teens and twentysomethings. Ronni’s life was cut short at 25, but she’d already made big contributions to the world, and these young people are too. Many here tonight are fighting outrageous student loans, fighting against sweatshops, and shaking up the world in other creative ways. We salute you and your Chilean counterparts here tonight.

At the Institute for Policy Studies, our long-term goal is to speed the transition from a militarized and casino Wall Street economy to a green, caring and democratic Main Street economy. I want to give shout outs to two sets of allies who are giving us a lot of hope these days. First, how about those striking Walmart workers? Isn’t it about time we replaced the union-busting, community-destroying Walmart model of business?

My second shout out goes to our European allies in the fight for a financial transaction tax — what many are calling a Robin Hood Tax. Last week, they got 11 of their governments on board — proving it is possible to fight the financial industry and win. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the The Nation magazine, yesterday referred to my IPS colleague Sarah Anderson, as a “relentless warrior” in this fight. And she is. We’re proud to be working with many of you on this and looking forward to celebrating a U.S. victory.

So, tonight. Tonight, amidst the clutter of money-soaked politics, we have an opportunity to look into the future and celebrate some clear and inspirational paths forward. For this next generation of struggle, a central part of all of our tasks is to figure out how to roll back corporate rights as we strengthen human and labor rights, environmental rights, and peace. With this lens, our distinguished Letelier-Moffitt selection committee has picked two groups on the front lines of urgent battles: the right to education and the right to housing.

At the same time, both groups keep their sites on larger systemic change. The Chilean Students Movement is not just taking on the need for affordable education, they’re taking on the whole free market legacy of the Pinochet era. As our awardees, Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman pointed out on Democracy Now! yesterday, it was Orlando Letelier who predicted that free-market economics would lead to privatization and inequality. Likewise, City Life/Vida Urbana isn’t just taking on the mortgage lenders, they’re taking on the whole free market legacy of the Reagan and Bush eras. Both movements are planting the seeds of transformative change through direct action. Both are expanding our imaginations on how to make change happen.

John Cavanagh is the director of the Institute for Policy Studies, which hosts the annual Letelier-Moffitt human rights awards ceremony and reception. www.IPS-dc.org

Danny Glover’s Letelier-Moffitt Award Speech


I’m so sorry I can’t be with you in person tonight. I would love to be there with my dear IPS friend Saul Landau, with whom I’ve been fighting hard for the freedom of the Cuban 5. I was honored when IPS asked me to present the LM HRA to another group of freedom fighters: City Life/Vida Urban. Here’s why.

City Life/Vida Urbana is a grassroots community organization, led by low-income and working class people fighting for social, economic, racial justice and gender equality. Their struggle is focused on the right to decent housing for all of us. They fight slumlords, neglect, segregation, environmental hazards, gentrification. This is a group at the front lines of the fight not just against foreclosure, but against the entire economic model that started with Reagan and that deregulated Wall Street

You name it, they fight it. And they win.

With the Recession, came a big spike in foreclosures and evictions, hitting communities of color and low-income communities the hardest.

City Life/Vida Urbana was there, confronting bank power with people power.

City Life/Vida Urbana was there with their Shield and Sword.

The Shield they bring is their Legal Defense support for families facing evictions and foreclosure.

The Sword they bring is Direct Action. Using People Power, CityLife brings people together to create human blockades to obstruct and prevent home repossessions and evictions. Man, talk about courage. And guess what, when people have used their “sword and shield” strategy, 95% of the time they’ve been successful.

Here are two of their stories I found particularly moving:

  • Tenants Reggie Fuller and Louanna Hall were faithfully paying rent on their apartment when they heard rumors their landlord was in foreclosure. Now, after two years living in limbo as the only remaining tenants in the building, they’ve become leaders in the movement to support others facing displacement after foreclosure.
  • When Marshall Cooper couldn’t qualify for a traditional mortgage, the bank referred him to an alternative lender who offered him a loan with twice the interest rate. As the expense of caring for his aging parents made it harder and harder to meet his increasing mortgage payments, he fell behind. After two bankruptcies and a failed modification, the house went into foreclosure. Now Marshall, 75, is fighting eviction by the bank and doing everything he can to hold on to his home.

Now CityLife/Vida Urbana is taking their successful strategy beyond Boston to help keep more and more families in their homes. They provide community education, organize vigils, marches, meetings, empower affected people to become the very leaders of this growing movement.

And they expose the banks, the very financial systems which use predatory lending practices, high interest rates, unethical eviction and foreclosure practices to increase profits even as families are stripped of homes that under fair terms, they could afford to keep. They partner with alternative non-profit financial institutions such as Boston Community Capital to ensure real and affordable valuations of homes, so people can stay in them. They use the court system to “slow down” the eviction process till the financial situation can be made manageable. These folks work hard to keep roofs over people’s heads.

As A. Philip Randolph said, “Freedom is never given. It is won.” And, City Life/Vida Urbana is fighting, and winning.

For their courage in doing what so many say cannot be done, for standing up to corrupt institutions and speaking truth to power, it is my distinct pleasure to welcome to the stage City Life/Vida Urbana’s Executive Director Curdina Hill and Organizing Coordinator Steve Meacham, who will be accepting the Institute for Policy Studies’ 2012 Letelier-Moffit Human Rights Award on behalf of their organization and members.

Danny Glover — the actor, director, producer, and fearless activist — presented Curdina Hill and Steve Meacham of City Life/Vida Urbana with a 2012 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies.

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.