IPS Blog

The Futility of Seeking “Strategic Clarity” on Iran

"Gulp." (Netanyahu gets word that attack on Iran is underway.)

“Gulp.” (Netanyahu gets word that attack on Iran is underway.)

Three recent reports highlight the appeal (and folly) of demanding greater clarity in the case of Iran’s nuclear capabilities in the hopes that an equally obvious US/Israeli policy response can be devised. Seeking such clarity in inherently ambiguous situations has a tremendous emotional and political appeal. Decision-makers contemplating foreign policies ranging from negotiations to war instinctively strive to uncover the final bit of conclusive evidence that will demonstrate a clear opportunity or threat requiring an equally firm and compelling policy response.

However, the real-world ambiguities and uncertainties of policy and strategy rarely accommodate this understandable desire. George Tenet’s assertive claim to President George W. Bush preceding 2003 American invasion of Iraq that Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was a ‘slam-dunk’ case did not make it necessarily so. The CIA director’s confident assertions were conclusively proven wrong. In hindsight, this false sense of certainty rested on a flimsy case of largely circumstantial evidence underpinned by the unquestioned logic that Saddam had to be guilty of developing WMD because he hadn’t proven himself innocent through total unconditional cooperation with international inspectors.

The parallels with present-day Iran are striking. The international community is essentially requiring Iran to prove the negative case that it doesn’t have a covert nuclear weapons program. As I’ve suggested elsewhere (here and here), no international inspection regime can guarantee success although a rigorous regime can be an effective deterrent to developing a nuclear weapons capability.

The most recent IAEA report does not definitively clarify the status of Iran’s nuclear program, although it largely confirms the assessment of the US intelligence community that Iran has not yet made a decision to go forward with a nuclear weapons program. For instance, the report notes that “the Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities…declared by Iran.” This is a clear statement that there is no concrete evidence indicating Iran is diverting its nuclear fuels for military purposes. This conclusion is consistent with repeated claims by Iranian political and religious leaders that Iran has no intent of producing nuclear weapons. Indeed the highest religious authority in Iran – a country whose identity is grounded in Shi’a Islamic theology — has declared the pursuit of nuclear weapons a ‘big and unforgiveable sin’. Eternal damnation can be a powerful incentive for good behavior.

However, the IAEA report goes on to say in the very same summary concluding paragraph that without unrestricted cooperation with the IAEA (something no sovereign government would tolerate from an outside international body), “the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.” In other words, Iran – like Saddam – has to prove its innocence. Clearly, this latest IAEA assessment on Iran falls far short of George Tenet’s ‘slam dunk’ standard of proof for Iraq. Nonetheless, there remains sufficient ambiguity in the report’s language providing alarmists both here and in Israel with sufficient fodder to protest about the continued possibility that Iran could have a covert nuclear weapons program hidden from view of international inspectors. The likelihood is that future IAEA reports will continue to offer similarly ambiguous and qualified assessments. Thus informational clarity will continue to elude policymakers as the IAEA hedges its bets.

Of course, some policymakers will strive to compensate for this inherent ambiguity by creating a sense of policy certainty. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is only the most recent example as he pushes the international community (read the United States) to remove any uncertainty in Iranian calculations by setting a “clear red line” for military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. This demand for clarity is especially ironic given Israel’s long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity regarding its own nuclear weapons capabilities. Apparently, it is uncertainty and ambiguity in the case of Israel’s nuclear capabilities that has its apparent strategic advantages.

PM Netanyahu’s essential argument is that the chances of Iranian miscalculation are reduced if leaders in Tehran are convinced that overwhelming military action will be taken if certain ‘red lines’ are crossed. The problem, however, is in determining where the appropriate ‘red line’ is to be drawn. PM Netanyahu, as well as some American politicians, would seek to make the mere possession of a “nuclear-weapons capability” by Iran a red line; others suggest drawing the line before Iran has reached a suspected ‘zone of immunity’ – a point at which when military action becomes ineffective at eliminating an Iranian nuclear weapons program. However, these are themselves ambiguous thresholds that defy clear definition. Is this line crossed when Iran has produced sufficient nuclear fuel for a bomb? When Iranian underground enrichment facilities are in theory capable of producing highly enriched uranium? When Iran actually produces weapons-grade fuel? When Iran has acquired the scientific knowledge needed to design a nuclear weapon; to actually produce a nuclear weapon? When Iran has successfully tested a nuclear weapon? When Iran has successfully mated a nuclear warhead to a missile capable of hitting targets in Tel Aviv, Madrid, or New York? And the list goes on. The search for clearly identifiable ‘red lines’ in Iran’s case is illusory.

Moreover, there is also the alternative prospect that strategic clarity itself could be counterproductive — especially if the goal is to reach a diplomatic resolution of this problem. Most analysts recognize that the minimum acceptable deal from an Iranian perspective is an agreement that will allow some level of domestic nuclear fuel enrichment by Iran in exchange for intrusive inspections that verify the non-diversion of technologies and fuels to military purposes. Such an agreement would be consistent with the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which confers on Iran (as with any signatory to the treaty) the “inalienable right…to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” However, permitting these activities would necessarily enhance Iranian nuclear know-how, expand Tehran’s access to advanced nuclear technologies (even if only civilian), and thus likely shorten the timeline to nuclear weaponization if that were the intent of leaders in Tehran. In this case, the strategic ‘clarity’ demanded by PM Netanyahu could well undermine the achievement of his basic strategic objectives – limiting Iran’s access to nuclear technologies in order to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state. Of course, this is exactly why the ‘red lines’ envisaged by Prime Minister Netanyahu are likely to abridge the basic rights entailed within the NPT (to which Israel is not a signatory) and thus serve to simultaneously undermine prospects for a diplomatic resolution – raising an entirely different set of strategic complications and challenges for decision-makers in Washington and Tel Aviv.

Finally, the Christian Science Monitor recently echoed these calls for certainty by making an empty plea for “more information, not less…for decisions of peace and war”; by critiquing President Obama for not having a clear “red line” for military action; and by calling for the President to ‘clarify’ his position at the upcoming Democratic National Convention. As we’ve already discussed, the latest IAEA report is evidence enough that no definitive evidence in Iran’s case is likely to be forthcoming. Moreover, echoing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desire for specific triggers for military action also has its practical downsides, as we’ve already explored. Additionally, clear ‘red lines’ now would obligate the actors – whether the international community, the United States, or Israel — to specific actions down the road. Those ‘red lines’ made explicit now will necessarily narrow the future flexibility of the decision-makers at a time when nuance and sophistication may be required to avert a crisis. These ‘red lines’ could also limit the ability of policymakers to adopt a more favorable course of action that is not readily apparent in the present. Unfortunately, President Obama has already unwisely fallen victim to this trap by publicly dismissing the viability of a strategy of containment in his AIPAC speech earlier this year. Finally, these premature pledges to action ultimately risk the credibility of these actors should they fail to make good on these commitments whatever the subsequent justification.

The nature of the strategic environment is one of volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity (VUCA). To be successful, policies and strategies must admit to these realities. To pretend there is certainty where there is none, to create a false sense of assurances about the present or future actions of states, or to overly simplify a complex problem is to court disaster.

Christopher J. Bolan, Ph.D., Col. (R), U.S. Army, is a Professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the U.S. government.

7 Ways to End the Deficit (without Throwing Grandma under the Bus)

This post originally appeared on Yes! Magazine’s New Economy blog.

This fall, the U.S. Congress is going to wage a pitched, dragged-out battle over cutting roughly $120 billion a year to solve the so-called deficit crisis. Vital things like teachers’ jobs and Medicare could well get cut.

The Right is already launching new coalitions to push for an austerity budget, calling for cuts in “wasteful government spending,” including key safety-net programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and food stamps. America has overspent, they say. America is broke. But at the same time, they are calling for an extension of the Bush tax cuts and ruling out cuts in military spending—both policies that will increase the deficit.

It doesn’t have to be this way. My colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) have identified seven steps that, together, more than eliminate the deficit while making the country more equitable, green, and secure.

America is not brokeThese proposals, from the IPS study called “America is Not Broke,” would also address the two deficits that author David Korten says do more to erode our society than the fiscal deficit does: our social deficits (rising poverty and inequality) and environmental deficits (starting with the climate crisis).

More Fairness, Less Deficit

Our first three proposals could bring in $329 billion a year; this alone would solve the deficit problem while helping to close the yawning inequality gap.

  • 1. Tax Wall Street: $150 billion per year. A tiny tax on stock and derivatives transactions, which several European countries are on track to adopt, would discourage Wall Street speculation, fill the hole in the deficit left by the Bush tax cuts, and leave plenty left over to fund lots of programs. The National Nurses Union and many other allies are fighting hard for this.
  • 2. Tax Corporations and Stop Tax Haven Abuse: $100 billion per year. The Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency coalition has pointed out that one of the main ways that corporations avoid paying taxes is by declaring their profits in overseas tax havens like the Cayman Islands.
  • 3. Tax the Wealthy Fairly: $79 billion per year. Our rigged tax code lets CEOs pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries do (as Warren Buffett keeps pointing out). The proposed Fairness in Taxation Act (HR 1124) would address this by adding five additional tax brackets for incomes over $1 million.

These three policy changes would go a long way toward making our society more equal, and that means better health, too. There is a terrific body of global evidence, a lot of it compiled by British researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, that more equal societies are much healthier. People at all income levels live longer; they are more fulfilled; and there is less violence. The United States, a relatively equal society as recently as the 1970s, is now off the charts in terms of wealth and income inequality. It doesn’t have to be that way. Just as we created a more just and vibrant economy and a strong middle class through fair taxes between 1940 and 1980, we can do it again through progressive taxation.

More Green, Less Pollution

The second source of revenue would make the economy more green, a key imperative in a world where the environmental crisis is now as deep as the economic one. We found two simple ways to raise revenues and help save the environment.

  • 4. Tax Pollution: $75 billion per year. A tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels would reduce our dependence on oil while cutting air pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases. And, as economist Robert Frank pointed out on August 25 in The New York Times, “News that a carbon tax was coming would create a stampede to develop energy-saving technologies.”
  • 5. End Fossil Fuel Subsidies: $12 billion per year. This call should unite left and right. Why would anyone want to maintain a giant government subsidy to an industry that is the world’s major contributor to fossil-fuel emissions? 350.org has made this a centerpiece of their work. We should be able to win this.

More Savings, Less War

Finally, there are simple ways to cut the military while making the country and the world more secure. More than half of government discretionary spending now goes to the military. Congress has long avoided cuts, in part because they equate military spending with jobs, but IPS has pointed out that almost every other industry employs more workers per dollar than the military. Plus, there is now bipartisan support for two sets of significant cuts.

  • 6. End Military Waste: $109 billion per year. A broad spectrum of experts has found over $100 billion a year in waste that could be eliminated with no sacrifice in security. Three recent commissions, two of them bi-partisan, have recommended roughly $1 trillion in military cuts over 10 years.
  • 7. Close a third of our overseas bases and our Iraq operations: $21 billion per year. Over two decades after the Cold War ended, the United States still maintains roughly 1,000 military installations in other countries. A majority of the President’s own deficit commission, which includes three Republican senators—the National Commission on Financial Responsibility and Reform—backed a proposal to close one third of our overseas military bases.

These seven simple steps would raise close to $550 billion a year. They would quickly erase the fiscal deficit and return the country to a healthy budget surplus. There would be hundreds of billions left to invest in key sectors that could make the country more secure, more green, and more equitable: care jobs, green jobs, infrastructure jobs.

In other words, this plan could help erase the nation’s dangerous social and environmental deficits.

Many groups—from Jobs with Justice to National People’s Action to the AFL-CIO—are organizing to counter a push by the Right to use the deficit crisis to shred social programs and our nation’s safety net. Let’s up the ante and spread the message. America is not broke. We have plenty of resources to rebuild shared prosperity in the U.S.

What Will Excluded Workers Celebrate Next Labor Day?

While the Labor Day holiday is meant to give us time to reflect on the victories in human progress that were hard-fought by the Union movement, it is also a great time to check in on the “excluded workers” movement — workers who, because of policy or practice, fall outside the traditional labor protections offered to other workers in the US.

On August 29th, domestic workers all over the US celebrated the California Assembly’s passage of AB889, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. A coalition of domestic workers, employers, and allies have come together in an unprecedented way to organize fellow Californians in support. Even actress and comedian Amy Poehler produced a PSA urging action. The bill is now awaiting signature by Governor Jerry Brown, and organizers are hopeful that he will act quickly, allowing California to become the second state to pass legislation that specifically addresses the needs of domestic workers who are largely excluded from protection under current labor laws.

Direct care workers in Florida are using their stories to fight their exclusion from the Fair Labor Standards Act. Photo by Direct Care Alliance.

Direct care workers in Florida are using their stories to fight their exclusion from the Fair Labor Standards Act. Photo by Direct Care Alliance.

Meanwhile, direct care workers (those who provide vital in-home assistance to seniors and people with disabilities) are organizing for action from the Obama Administration to close the “companionship exemption” — which has kept direct care workers from receiving guaranteed minimum wage and overtime protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act since 1974. Earlier this year, the Department of Labor finally issued a proposed rule to close this loophole, and during the public comment period more than 26,000 Americans weighed on the regulation. The vast majority of them were in favor of extending basic protections to these workers.

With baby boomers turning 65 (one every eight seconds) and advances in medicine and public policy allowing people with disabilities to live in their homes and communities instead of institutions, the need for direct care workers and attendants is expected to grow. Yet because the job quality is so low (nearly half of direct care workers rely on public assistance to make ends meet), turnover is high and there may not be enough trained, dedicated workers to provide the kind of quality care that our families will need. Closing this loophole is one of the first steps we can take as a country to ensure that this workforce is ready for the change in demographics that has already begun. On September 21st, the Direct Care Alliance is putting together a day of action for direct care workers, you can learn more about it at www.directcarealliance.org.

Here in DC, after news broke that a group of students on J-1 “summer work travel” visas had been exploited at a Hershey Company packing plant in Pennsylvania, the National Guestworker Alliance successfully pushed for changes in the State Department-monitored visa program to reduce participants’ vulnerability to abuse. Earlier this summer NGA joined forces with other worker and immigrant advocacy groups, including my project at the Institute for Policy Studies, to examine the full range of temporary work visa programs and recommend changes in policy that could help prevent human trafficking and exploitation. Another organization in this new coalition, the Global Worker Justice Alliance, released a report in May called Visas, Inc., which digs deeply into the world of foreign temporary work visas: in particular how unscrupulous corporations have found ways to exploit the regulatory weaknesses in these programs to undermine US workers’ employment, and exploit foreign guestworkers for profit.

The traditional labor union movement brought enormous gains in working conditions for our country, and led the way for other civil rights breakthroughs throughout history, but it is important to remember how far we still have to go. Not only are these gains being threatened every day, there are still workers who remain excluded from even the most basic protections like minimum wage and health and safety regulations, and workers who are tricked into exploitative visa programs rigged by corporate interests. But there is hope: workers have earned many victories over the past century, and with more people joining us in organizing and advocacy for excluded workers, next Labor Day I am sure we will have even more to celebrate.

Can the Consciousnesses of Chinese Nouveau Riche Be Raised About Ivory?

Would that the Chinese rich were addicted to designer drugs instead of ivory.

Elephants seem to be evolving smaller tusks.

Elephants seem to be evolving smaller tusks.

“Africa is in the midst of an epic elephant slaughter,” wrote Jeffrey Gettleman in the New York Times on September 3. Sounds like a headline from another era, doesn’t it? Sadly, it’s not. “Conservation groups say poachers are wiping out tens of thousands of elephants a year, more than at any time in the previous two decades.” Who exactly are the poachers? Gettleman explains.

Some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Shabab and Darfur’s janjaweed, are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem. … But it is not just outlaws cashing in. Members of some of the African armies that the American government trains and supports with millions of taxpayer dollars — like the Ugandan military, the Congolese Army and newly independent South Sudan’s military — have been implicated in poaching elephants and dealing in ivory.

The principal market, as is widely known, is China, with its confluence of “old customs and traditions with new money.” Many Chinese, of course, including one of its more affluent, see the cruelty involved. Yahoo Sports reported in August:

Retired NBA star Yao Ming is using his international renown and domestic status as one of China’s most recognizable public figures to try to convince his fellow Chinese citizens to stop seeking products made from elephant ivory and rhino horn, hoping to curb the demand that fuels poaching in Africa and is helping bring Kenyan elephants and rhinos perilously close to extinction. [He] arrived in Kenya on Friday, Aug. 10, 2012 — his first-ever visit to the African nation — to meet with local scientists and conservationists, to begin filming and to see the animals first-hand.

In the interim wouldn’t common sense dictate that to ensure a continued supply of ivory, poachers, instead of killing elephants, tranquilize elephants and just trim the ivory, which would then grow back? But they probably just assume that some other poacher will just kill the elephants and extract the whole tusk, from which elephants, even if not killed by the poachers, can’t recover.

Meanwhile elephants seem like they may actually be evolving smaller tusks in the last 150 years presumably in response to poaching. They’re thus left at a disadvantage because fully-grown tusks are critical for digging and defense, not to mention establishing social dominance. But growing smaller tusk may be further counterproductive because, conceivably, it only incites poachers to fill their quota of ivory. In any event, evolution can’t outrace poachers.

Washington Post Breaks Lockstep on Israel and Iran

LockstepThe United States seems to devote less energy to developing a constructive solution to what’s been called the Iran nuclear standoff than it does to convincing Israel it will attack Iran if push (however imagined) comes to shove. At the New York Times, David Sanger and Eric Schmitt wrote on Monday (Sept. 3):

“One other proposal circulating in Washington, advocated by some former senior national security officials, is a ‘clandestine’ military strike, akin to the one Israel launched against Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007. It took weeks for it to become clear that site had been hit by Israeli jets, and perhaps because the strike was never officially acknowledged by Israel, and because its success was so embarrassing to Syria, there was no retaliation.”

Yeah, as if Iran, unlike Syria, won’t officially acknowledge an attack by Israel and be too embarrassed to retaliate. That’s wishful thinking a la the Neocon mind. More important, it’s sad day when a major power such as the United States is reduced to appeasing — yes, appeasing — a smaller state such as Israel. Especially when Israel is not only dependent on it for defense aid, but for assistance in the event it attacks Iran. Of course, Israeli supporters’ disproportionate influence on American elected officials precludes the United States informing Israel it will be left to hang out and dry if it attacks Iran. Or, in a sane world, should that come to pass, that the United States will sharply reduce its defense aid to Israel.

The United States though continues to overlook the sophistry of not only Israel’s, but its own policy, toward Iran. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors are present in Iran every day of the years and sometimes show up for inspections with only two-hours notice. Israel, on the other hand, has never publicly acknowledged its nuclear-weapons program. In other words, it never signed the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, as Iran did, and thus isn’t subject to inspections.

The unstated assumption on the West’s part is that Israel doesn’t pose a nuclear threat because it’s “rational.” But what demonstrates irrationality more than threatening to attack Iran, a state with an accredited nuclear-energy program replete with invasive inspections?

I’m usually loath to praise the Washington Post, which has drifted rightward since the Woodward and Bernstein years when conservatives famously called it “Pravda on the Potomac.” But on August 31, its ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, actually dared to invoke the specter of Israel’s nuclear-weapons program in a piece titled What about Israel’s nuclear weapons?

Readers periodically ask me some variation on this question: “Why does the press follow every jot and tittle of Iran’s nuclear program, but we never see any stories about Israel’s nuclear weapons capability?”

It’s a fair question. Going back 10 years into Post archives, I could not find any in-depth reporting on Israeli nuclear capabilities, although national security writer Walter Pincus has touched on it many times in his articles and columns.

He reminds us of Israel’s preposterous

… official position, as reiterated by Aaron Sagui, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy here, is that “Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. Israel supports a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction following the attainment of peace.”

After reviewing reasons why Israel’s nuclear-weapons program isn’t reported, Pexton writes (emphasis added):

I don’t think many people fault Israel for having nuclear weapons. If I were a child of the Holocaust, I, too, would want such a deterrent to annihilation. But that doesn’t mean the media shouldn’t write about how Israel’s doomsday weapons affect the Middle East equation. Just because a story is hard to do doesn’t mean The Post, and the U.S. press more generally, shouldn’t do it.

Despite the presumptuousness of what’s italicized, Pexton acquitted himself admirably. The second time in a week, in fact, on the subject of Iran and Israel that the Washington Post did so. Nuclear activist Alice Slater wrote about the 2012 session of The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which is now under the chairmanship of Iran.

Significantly, an Associated Press story in the Washington Post headlined, “Iran opens nonaligned summit with calls for nuclear arms ban”, reported that “Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi opened the gathering by noting commitment to a previous goal from the nonaligned group. … ‘We believe that the timetable for ultimate removal of nuclear weapons by 2025, which was proposed by NAM, will only be realized if we follow it up decisively,’ he told delegates.”

By contrast (emphasis added)

… the New York Times, which has been beating the drums for war with Iran, just as it played a disgraceful role in the deceptive reporting during the lead-up to the Iraq War, never mentioned Iran’s proposal for nuclear abolition. The Times carried the bland headline on its front page, At Summit Meeting, Iran Has a Message for the World”, and then went on to state, “the message is clear. As Iran plays host to the biggest international conference …it wants to tell its side of the long standoff with the Western powers which are increasingly convinced that Tehran is pursuing nuclear weapons”, without ever reporting Iran’s offer to support the NAM proposal for the abolition of nuclear weapons by 2025.

Note the condescending tone of what’s italicized. This is consistent with Times reporting on Iran’s nuclear-energy program in general — as if anybody with any sense knows that Iran seeks to develop nuclear weapons, that Israel’s desire to attack Iran is justified if a little overzealous, and that, again, Israel, unlike Iran, is too rational to ever use its nuclear weapons for anything more than deterrence. (Though, of course, in February, New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane wrote about a Times article that stated: “the IAEA moved much closer with this report toward stating absolutely that Iran is pursuing a nuclear bomb. Yet the fact that the agency has stopped short of such a finding remains significant. Readers complaining about the Jan. 5 article believe The Times should avoid closing the gap with a shorthand phrase that says the IAEA thinks Iran’s program ‘has a military objective.’ I think the readers are correct on this.” Pexton, too, expressed similar sentiments in the Washington Post in December of 2011.)

Maybe — facetiousness alert! — the United States should call Israel’s bluff: we’ll bomb Iran for you if you make your nuclear-weapons program public, sign the NPT, and open your program to IAEA inspections.

This Week in OtherWords: September 3-9, 2012

This week, OtherWords addresses the dangers posed by the resounding lack of competition among the companies that control the smartphone market. Craig Aaron warns that AT&T is about to charge consumers more for less service and Sam Pizzigati explains that the windfalls extracted from Apple’s patenting bonanza will pad its top executives’ pockets. As always, I encourage you to subscribe to our weekly newsletter and visit our blog. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.
  1. The Six Stages of Climate Grief / Daphne Wysham
    I have discovered a new sixth stage, beyond acceptance of the truly depressing climate science: doing The Work.
  2. AT&T’s Upside-Down World / Craig Aaron
    If we had actual competition for mobile phone services in America, AT&T’s decision to charge you more for less would never fly.
  3. Indefensible: The Truth about Pentagon Spending / Suzie Dershowitz
    A mountain of misleading rhetoric from big Pentagon contractors has buried the facts.
  4. Losing Latino Votes / Raul A. Reyes
    The more we know about Ryan, the more obvious it becomes that he and Romney aren’t a winning combination for America.
  5. Who’s Really Winning the Smartphone Wars? / Sam Pizzigati
    We’re letting top executives of giant corporations expropriate public “property” for private gain.
  6. The Koch Brothers’ Moonshine / Jim Hightower
    The paper industry’s titans have teamed up with practitioners of the legislative black arts to turn their sludge into a slick tax loophole.
  7. Sorry, You Can’t Get There From Here / William A. Collins
    The United States has invested big time in roads, but not rails.
  8. Ryan at the Trough / Khalil Bendib (cartoon)
    Ryan at the Trough, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    Ryan at the Trough, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Inspectors’ Year-round Presence in Iran Complicates Israel’s Attack Plans

“Until now,” writes the Carnegie Endowment’s Mark Hibbs at Arms Control Wonk, “one little item … has gotten scarce attention outside the classified world: the messy diplomatic situation Israel would encounter if any IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] personnel were to be casualties of an airstrike on Iran.” Or Washington, should it “react to a serious Iranian escalation by taking matters into its own hands.”

Hibbs explains:

There are IAEA safeguards personnel in Iran 24/7/365. They are there to carry out safeguards inspections at 16 declared facilities plus, if deemed necessary, at nine hospitals in Iran that hold nuclear material [medical isotopes]. The 16 facilities include at least three places I assume would be prime targets of an Israeli air attack in Iran: Natanz … Fordow … and Esfahan.

… So to keep IAEA personnel out of harm’s way, would the U.S. or Israel in advance of launching strikes against Iran … dial up IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and tell him that he would be well advised to move his inspectors out?

One would like to think so. However

… if the attackers intended to keep Iran in the dark, they would have to consider that if they informed the IAEA of their plans, a subsequent exodus of IAEA personnel from Iran might signal to Iran that an attack was imminent.

And another however on top of that last however:

But the IAEA must be careful in going about it. If after such an attack information were to leak, or if Amano were compelled to reveal that he had been warned by surprise attackers to withdraw his inspectors, and if the IAEA had chosen not to pass that warning on to Iran, Iran might conclude afterwards that the IAEA was party to an invasion of Iran. Any IAEA personnel still in the country would be at severe risk. [Even if not] the IAEA’s relationship with Iran would be over.

Never fear: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu possesses an amazing talent for keeping his eye on the prize. In other words, when it comes to attacking Iran he wears blinders, and, as with the Neocons and Iraq, is in denial about complications — not just unforeseen, but foreseen.

We’ll leave the last word to a commenter to Hibbs’s post named Hass, who succeeds in putting the issue into its proper perspective. (“Sic” where applicable.)

So let me get this straight: we are seriously talking about an attack on facilities that are subject to IAEA monitoring, even “short term” surprise visits, which are not part of any weapons program, and which Iran has offered to allow even more inspection? Has the world gone mad? What would be the point of that? And seriously, is the lrgal question here about the fate of inspectors rather than the civilians working in a civilian nuclear facility, or even the question of whether such an attack would be legal to start with?

California State Assembly Seeks to Stifle Debate on Israel

The California State Assembly has just passed a bipartisan resolution (HR 35) by voice vote which constitutes a serious attack on academic freedom and the rights of students and faculty to raise awareness about human rights abuses by U.S.-backed governments. While purporting to put the legislature on record in opposition of anti-Semitism on state university campuses, it defines anti-Semitism so widely as to include legitimate political activities in opposition to Israeli government policies.

The resolution was opposed by a wide variety of groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Asian Law Center, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, yet the Republican-sponsored measure received wide bipartisan support in the Democratic-controlled legislature.

The non-binding resolution – which was sponsored by 66 of the 80 members of the lower house – demands that what it calls “anti-Semitic activity” should “not be tolerated in the classroom or on campus, and that no public resources be allowed to be used for anti-Semitic or intolerant agitation.”

The resolution lists a number of examples of genuine anti-Semitic activities, such as painting swastikas outside Hillel offices. However, much of the text is focused upon criticism of the state of Israel. Among the examples given of “anti-Semitic activities” included in the resolution are:

  • accusations that the Israeli government is guilty of “crimes against humanity”

This would mean that a speaker from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other reputable human rights groups which have documented such violations of international humanitarian law by the Israeli Defense Forces could not be provided space or honoraria to talk about their research.

  • accusations that Israel has engaged in “ethnic cleansing”

This would mean that Israeli scholars who have studied and published documents from Israeli archives pertaining to the 1947-49 conflict in Israel/Palestine which demonstrate that there was a calculated policy of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian population in some regions would similarly be barred.

  • “student and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns against Israel”

This would prohibit efforts to boycott goods made in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, support international sanctions on Israel over its ongoing violations of a series of UN Security Council resolutions, or have the university divest from its endowment stock in companies supporting the Israeli occupation.

The resolution also declares a number of other political activities that, while clearly objectionable – such as disrupting a speech by a supporter of the Israeli government – as “anti-Semitic,” based on the assumption that hostility toward such a speaker is not based on opposition to policies of Israel’s right-wing government, but because the country is Jewish.

Indeed, throughout the resolution, opposition to Israeli government policies is equated with bigotry towards Jews. There’s no question that some pro-Palestinian activists do sometimes cross the line into what could reasonably be called anti-Semitism, which should indeed be categorically condemned, as should all manifestations of prejudice. Unfortunately, this resolution makes no distinction between this tiny bigoted minority and the majority of activists who oppose the Israeli occupation and other policies of that country’s right-wing government on legitimate human rights grounds.

Not only does this constitute an attack on academic freedom, it compromises legitimate efforts against the scourge of anti-Semitism which – while not as widespread a phenomenon on California campuses as the resolution implies – is still very real.

College campuses, particularly those in California’s large public university systems, have long been a center of agitation for human rights and in opposition to U.S. policies which support violations of human rights, whether it be the war in Vietnam, investment in apartheid South Africa, intervention in Central America, or support for Israel’s wars and occupation.

This bipartisan effort appears to be an attempt to stifle this tradition. Indeed, if the California state legislature succeeds in shutting down debate regarding U.S. policy toward Israel and its neighbors, it will only be a matter of time before debate on other aspects of U.S. foreign policy will be suppressed as well.

IPS Salutes a Golf Win

A longstanding gender barrier recently cracked in the heart of the Old South. Augusta National Golf Club accepted two women — former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and businesswoman Darla Moore — as its first female members. This change comes years after Augusta’s policy of refusing to admit women as members became part of the national debate, thanks to the work of IPS associate fellow Martha Burk and the National Council of Women’s Organizations. Burk is also a frequent contributor to our OtherWords editorial service.

After the news broke, Martha published an op-ed on CNN.com in which she reflected on the 2003 protests that led to this moment, and the challenges ahead for the women’s movement:

Confined to a muddy field far from the gates, the protest we staged in 2003 was widely reported as a failure. But time and persistence have proved that version wrong.

Had the women’s groups backed down then, we wouldn’t be celebrating the admission of Rice and Moore now. Had we not changed the conversation about sex discrimination and kept it front and center every year at tournament time — while behind the scenes facilitating $80 million in legal settlements on behalf of women working at companies whose CEOs were club members — the issue would have quietly died away. Maybe for another century.

While no one save the club leadership is privy to the decision-making, it’s long past due, and the exact process doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the women’s movement once again succeeded. And of course after enduring taunts, insults, and even death threats, which have never stopped over the past 10 years, my personal feelings are tremendous relief and vindication. But that’s tempered with concern.

Burk’s victory shows that some campaigns take a long time to come to fruition. We might yet not be ready to claim victory over polluting gold-diggers in El Salvador or tax-dodging CEOs in the United States for many years, but we’re going to keep on fighting.

Anything But a Love Triangle: Yemen’s Ex-president, al-Qaeda, and Washington

A review of Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: al-Qaeda and America’s War in Yemen.

Cross-posted from There Will Be War.

Former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Former Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“After two months of fighting, Yemeni forces retook Ja’ar and the Abyan capital of Zinjibar from al-Qaeda in June.” Global Post, Sunday August 5, 2012

On Saturday August 4 2012, a suicide bomber killed at least 40 mourners at a funeral in Ja’ar near the Yemeni port of Aden. The target, a defector from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), managed to escape with minor injuries. On Tuesday August 7, U.S. drones killed10 al-Qaeda militants in separate strikes aimed at moving vehicles in Yemen. On Saturday August 18, al-Qaedaclaimed responsibility for the grenade-assault deaths of about 20 Yemeni intelligence and security personnel.

This tit-for-tat was not front page news, nor did it become a hot pundit topic at magazine sites like Foreign Policy. Even if the media weren’t in a 2012 presidential campaign frenzy, there would still be Egypt, Israel-Iran, Af/Pak and of course Syria. Yemen, a rather exciting place, has slipped through the cracks now that the hullabaloo over the drone assassination of American-born citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011 had its fifteen minutes. Awlaki preached death to Americans in videos on YouTube, and President Obama was keen on destroying the New Mexico native.

To his credit, author Gregory Johnsen doesn’t spend much time on Awlaki, by far the most media saturated aspect of U.S. relations with Yemen. Johnsen’s most important contribution is chronicling a tribal, desert nation’s quasi-government caught squarely in the 21st century crusade against religious extremism. Though its not meant to be analytical or biographical, the book is disappointingly superficial—yet its relevance and clear delivery override the quibble.

Flash Back to 1990

Johnsen relays the rise of Yemen’s Islamic militants since the 1980s, when the government of President Abdullah Ali al-Saleh encouraged its young men to go wage jihad in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and the true inspiration for al-Qaeda, Shayk Abdullah Azzam, were already there. Azzam had issued fatwas claiming it was the duty of all Muslims to defend their Afghan brethren and testified that he’d seen miracles in the battles against the evil Soviet machine. The day he was supposed to meet Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a Yemeni cleric on his way to becoming the religious rationalizer of al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQY), Azzam was assassinated by a mujahadeen faction in the Afghan Civil War. Like Azzam, Zindani manipulated the Quran in key ways—primarily saying it allowed war with infidels as well as violence against Muslim apostates, a concept known as taqfir. Though not a true member of al-Qaeda, Zindani is still a major CIA target.

Nineteen ninety was a big year. Like East and West Germany, Yemen looked to benefit by uniting after the Soviet Union broke down and the Cold War superpower payments ended. The North and South (a Soviet client) unified as al-Qaeda fighters from both halves came home from Afghanistan. Saleh, president of North Yemen since 1978, retained the presidency and the leader of the People’s Democratic Republic in South Yemen, Ali Salim al-Bid, got the vice slot. However, the rival rulers undermined one another from the get-go. Machiavellian Saleh joined up with jihadis and the embryotic AQY to launch guerilla attacks on the Marxist South through the early nineties, culminating in a short civil war in ’94.

Also in 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Saleh made a principled yet disastrous decision to stick by the Iraqis against a broad multinational coalition, including key Yemeni financial backers. Secretary of State James Baker told Yemen’s ambassaor at a United Nations vote on whether to go to war with Iraq: “This will be the most expensive no vote you ever cast.” Saudi Arabia struck back at its southern neighbor by suspending all aid and sending a million Yemeni migrants back down to the poorest Arab country in the Middle East and North Africa.

Osama bin Laden had concerns of his own stemming from the Gulf War and the U.S. coalition’s Operation Desert Shield. The Islamic purist got busy trashing the Saudi Royal family for allowing Americans (women soliders even!) to set up shop on the peninsula. So he went to Yemen, the birthplace of his larger-than-life father and a country where jihadi renegades could easily integrate—its inhospitable deserts and mountain caves make it the Afghanistan of Arabia. Bin Laden set up training camps and cells, plotting to drive out all infidels from the holy land. The Yemeni cell’s first mission—to bomb U.S. Marines staying at a hotel in the southern port city of Aden—failed to kill any Marines but succeeded in driving away Western naval vessels. That would end up as the highlight of AQY’s political agenda until the 2000 USS Cole attack.

9/11

Johnsen cites Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower often and that is the book to read if you want to know about al-Qaeda from its official inception in 1987 to its escape from Tora Bora in 2001. Thankfully The Last Refuge breaks new ground after 9/11. AQY was not involved in the coordinated jetliner strikes that killed 2,819 people in and above Virgina, Pennsylvania and New York City. But the resulting War on Terror was the dawn of a new era for them as much as anyone else. President Saleh became an official U.S. client (and form of mercenary), hunting down fighters from a CIA list for cash. At the top of the list was Abu Ali al-Harithi, dubbed the godfather of AQY, and the tale of his assassination shows Saleh’s limits and America’s advancing role. Harithi escaped Saleh’s soldiers when his tribal hosts in the eastern desert used rocket propelled grenades to fend off the government and its tanks. It seemed al-Qaeda might be able to hold its own against Saleh in the fractious pseudo-nation. But post-9/11, the U.S. began flying predator drones over Yemen. Harithi was the highest profile remote kill from 2002 to 2009 (when the CIA hit Baitullah Mehsud in Pakistan).

Soon Saleh and his Political Service Organization (PSO) proved a capable arm of American justice and, aside from the destruction of a French oil tanker in 2002, AQY bungled, floundered and flailed for most of the new century. Just like Guantanamo Bay, the PSO prisons quickly filled up with all manner of “suspects.” Johnsen doesn’t dwell on the Saleh government’s morally questionable tactics, rampant nepotism or shady dealings—much like in Afghanistan, Western concepts of corruption are simply the way things get done. But Saleh’s behavior during the 2005 elections is telling: the twenty-seven year ruler claimed he wouldn’t run for president then had the media and/or thugs intimidate anyone who announced his candidacy. Guess who got elected. Another unintentionally amusing scene involves the frequent scolding of Saleh by U.S. officials: “Ill prepared for the meeting, the Yemeni president could only sputter in frustration as [Condoleezza] Rice ‘rapped him over the knuckles’ on corruption and lack of reform.” Saleh is the most interesting character in the most dramatic position—his famous “dancing on the heads of snakes” analogy proves well-suited—among the Yemeni people, AQAP and Washington. Yet, we get no insight into his personal or family life or friendships. And there are no comparisons of Saleh to America’s classic or modern client strongmen; no examination of why al-Qaeda in Yemen never tried to assassinate him. Johnsen has to cover a unique stretch of 21st century war and, again, can be forgiven for presenting mostly raw material.

The Last Refuge effectively points out the cyclical trend of prisoner radicalization that comes back to haunt the governments in Sanaa and Washington. After his massive roundups, President Saleh greenlighted a program to let the men out if they swore to renounce violent jihad. In a form of faith rehab, Judge Hamud al-Hitar set about reinterpreting the Quran for the incarcerated. The biggest obstacle was trying to convince these hardened jihadis that serving President Saleh, a man who dealt directly with the Great Satan, represented legitimate Islam or Sharia. (The failure of the program is noticed by the Bush II administration.) If that weren’t bad enough for Saleh and the PSO, the AQY gang escaped prison in 2006 in another comical anecdote.

Books like The Looming Tower allow us to see the men of al-Qaeda develop into murderers for a cause. No matter how much we are disgusted by their actions, the details enable us to put ourselves in the shoes of terrorists. The personal biographies of bin Laden and cofounder Ayman al-Zawahiri, who both grew up privileged, help first-world folks understand them as rebels. Tower gets around looking like a terrorist-sympathizing tome both because it gives a mindnumbingly comprehensive account of terrorism and goes into detailed bios of American agents as well. The Last Refuge doesn’t provide enough character study to really feel for these bitter holy warriors, but the tale of the Saudi Asiri brothers is an example of Johnsen’s surface inspection of their motivations. The elder, Ibrahim, becomes an expert bombmaker who designs the underwear bomb for the failed Christmas Day 2009 airliner attempt. The device he makes for his younger brother, Abdullah, is to be self-detonated while concealed rectally. In his suicide mission to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s Prince Nayif, the security chief and archenemy of the Saudi AQ, Abdullah is the only one killed though he was standing only a yard from his target. The ill-conceived bomb caused his head to pop off and put a hole in the ceiling. A reader might get emotionally invested in if Johnsen could relate Ibrahim’s response—it’s not as if Nayif is a guiltless civilian.

The Last Refuge confirms that, whether its misguided acts of violence or spurring a government to overreact and punish the guiltless, al-Qaeda and similar groups unhinge the lives of innocent Muslims infinitely more than they terrorize the thoughts of Westerners. Often by accident, U.S. intelligence massacres civilians close to an al-Qaeda target. Then these genius jihadis retaliate by blowing up Muslim women and children at Arab amusement parks (e.g., Baghdad, August 16, 2012).

In January 2009, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a combo of cells from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, announced its birth via a 19-minute introduction video that included former inmates Guantanamo Bay. This upended newly inaugurated President Obama’s plans to the close the Cuba detention center the same week. Johnsen anchors his narrative with this stunningly timed intro exemplifying the complex issues that arise when governments, in effect, go vigilante. However, certain recent revolutions have quickly made Gitmo, black sites and rendition passé—and put Yemen on the historical backburner once again.

The Arab Awakening affected AQAP in two ways. First, the Islamic insurgents saw that popular movements were more effective at removing Western-backed dictators—such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, whom Zawahiri had tried to assassinate a dozen times—than their suicide bombers. The revolts also reinforced the take-away from al-Qaeda’s failures during the Iraq War: Murdering scores of the local Muslims causes them to side with the Great Satan against pure Islam. Second, directly related to the first, Saleh, a thirty-three year ruler, was forced to resign and flee. He didn’t learn from Mubarak or Bashar al-Assad in Syria: Murdering scores of your countrymen causes them to turn against you.

In August, the author told The Yemen Times, “in 2011 and 2012, AQAP started taking over towns in southern Yemen—reinventing itself in a matter of speaking by changing its name to Ansar Al-Sharia, or Supporters of Islamic Law. The new group had essentially exactly the same membership as AQAP, but the new name was meant to project a kinder, gentler image.” Al-Qaeda’s coordinated attacks across the globe (from Yemen and Iraq to Pakistan) at the end of Ramadan 2012 beg to differ. As noted above, AQAP has gone back to the goal of massive civilian casualties in the hopes of gaining an illusory political end.

The title, The Last Refuge, harks back to the seventh century in the Arabian Peninsula. “When disaster threatens, seek refuge in Yemen,” the Prophet Muhammad, knowing he might not make it back from his violent quest of conversion, told his followers. Now, hunted as outlaws throughout the world, this deluded group of Islamic fundamentalists has heeded the prophet’s timeless wisdom by settling. Is Johnsen saying al-Qaeda, with its belief in a violent worldwide conversion, the truly faithful? Is the jihadi aim to restore the caliphate and strict Sharia at all costs what the Quran really says? Thankfully, this story doesn’t bare that out. Indeed, if one otherworldly idea comes across, it is that any powerful god is not on al-Qaeda’s side.

Michael Quiñones studies at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School. He posts at There Will Be War.

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