IPS Blog

What Went Unmentioned in the Vice Presidential Debate

Biden and Ryan discuss Israel but ignore Palestine.

What remains missing on in the v-p debate is what Israel has gained from the debate — just the debate! — over Iran. That is, as long as Israel maintains its spurious claim that Iran represents an “existential threat” to Israel, no one — no one — especially in the United States, is willing to say a word, let alone exert real pressure, on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands and its apartheid policies towards Palestinian people. No one’s talking about that.

On the substance of Iran, we once again saw an actual disagreement on Iran policy. We’re still hearing about “red lines” for the use of force against Iran, but the red lines are in two different places. To his credit, Biden didn’t reference a military strike or red lines directly, although he did say the Obama administration would not allow Iran “to get” a nuclear weapon. He went on to say that war should always be the last resort.

Ryan was different. He reinforced Romney’s on-again-off-again red line, threatening force to prevent Iran from obtaining “nuclear capability” — which could mean today.

But once again — Israel’s occupation, apartheid, settlements expansion, the siege of Gaza, Palestinian prisoners, violations of international law and human rights — not a word. We heard from Biden that “the last thing America needs is to get into another ground war in the Middle East.” But he sticks to the Obama plan — endorsed by Ryan as well — for maintaining the war through at least the end of 2014, when a “transition” to Afghan security would take place, with training, special ops, and other forces remaining in Afghanistan. No evidence of what might be different after another year and a half of war, instead of ending it right now, but nonetheless both parties agree on continuing a failed and devastating war.

And once again the drone war, militarization of U.S. policy in Africa… and Palestine, all remain unmentioned. The unspoken, indiscernable, invisible questions. And Palestine at the center.

R2P Strikes a Chord: Sovereignty Alone Is Not Enough

Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy.

Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy.

While it is no consolation for beleaguered Syrians, the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) has moved to general acceptance much more rapidly than many of those who steered the 2005 World Summit declaration expected at the time. They saw it as a first, almost tentative, step on a Long March to global acceptance. In 2009, for example, only four manifestly expediently motivated states (Venezuela, Cuba, Sudan, and Nicaragua) expressed any wish to rescind the 2005 decision—despite the latter’s foreign minister pushing that view in his capacity as President of the General Assembly.

In the recent UN General Assembly debate on R2P, few delegates questioned the principle itself. Indeed, the Assembly, representing mostly the smaller states which are supposedly so concerned about their sovereignty, had already overwhelmingly supported action in Syria and were clearly as unhappy with the Russian and Chinese abuse of veto power as they often are with Washington’s. Countries like Brazil and other “middle powers” have been actively working out methods of ensuring that R2P can be implemented over expedient superpower objections – while making sure those powers do not abuse the principle as, for example, some of them tried in Iraq.

Former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, now President of the University of Winnipeg, comments, “In 10 years [R2P] has moved from a concept to a principle to a basis for some action. It has had a very fast track, going from being accepted as a concept, on to being enshrined in the 2005 resolution to being cited in the Libya Security Council resolution. If you think about the ways the world runs, the present nation states have been around for about 250 years, while R2P has only been around for ten—and it has made huge inroads. It clearly struck a response: people really understand that sovereignty is not enough.”

However, on Syria, Axworthy sees “A perfect storm of self interest. Putin coming back to the presidency in Russia, [President Obama] coming up for reelection reluctant for stronger action, the EU financial crisis where the Europeans got cold feet. My own country now has a very conservative government that does not recognize R2P. The major players needed to make R2P work have been absent.”

Axworthy also admits that the current form of R2P suffers from the compromises that were needed to pass the concept initially.

The concept of humanitarian intervention flew in the face of the founding principle of the United Nations. Despite the reference in the preamble of the Charter to “We the Peoples,” the UN has always stood for national sovereignty, as well as the somewhat idealistic notion of equality that gives China the same vote as Nauru in the General Assembly, even if the pragmatism of the veto for the larger powers tempered that metaphysical concept.

In that respect, the UN has been more successful than people give it credit. There might have been annexations, but with few exceptions those have yet to be accepted as legitimate by the world community—whether Kuwait or East Timor. Mired in exegesis about sovereignty, however, the organization failed in Rwanda and the Balkans, just as it had failed the Kurds and Shi’a in Iraq.

The two principles intersected with the second Iraq War in 2003, which, as Kofi Annan admitted, had no UN legitimacy whatsoever, and which terminally polluted the concept of humanitarian intervention when British PM Tony Blair expediently added it to the list of dodgy excuses for the war.

Just as “ethnic cleansing” became a near synonym for genocide, so “humanitarian intervention” was transformed to signify Western neocolonialism under camouflage of do-gooding. That made the achievement of Annan, Axworthy, and the others so much more creditable when they shepherded R2P through the GA. For those who scorn the weaselly language of diplomacy, the evolution of R2P is instructive not least for the way it neatly replaced the degraded phrase of humanitarian intervention.

The failings of the 2005 Declaration are part of the price it took to get the concept accepted. Axworthy points out that the delicate negotiations had to stroke susceptibilities about expedient use of the concept, so “every sentence in the crucial paragraph 139 of the Outcome Document repeats verbatim the formula that prescribes the only four events agreed to trigger rise to R2P’s application: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.”

That, he points out, narrows the scope. “Simply measure the elements of risk. … Disasters, environmental disasters, changes, refugees, desertification in Sahel or hurricanes in Caribbean,” and of course, shortly afterwards, we had governments refusing international aid for populations devastated by storms and floods. What does that mean for R2P, if your life is threatened? It doesn’t matter if it’s a new epidemic virus or environmental disaster or an AK47 transcending boundaries, if you can’t feed your kids.” Within three years in 2008, the world looked on horrified as the government of Burma decided its sovereignty was more important than rescuing typhoon victims.

Even so, he considers that “It’s very healthy that it is now a basis for discussion. But there has to be a better balance between those who lean to the Old Westphalian system, and establishing an international framework, ensuring that it is used positively for a practical function and not for fairly narrow purposes. Safeguards issues should be built on exit issues, early warning issues, some form of constabulary.”

He cites Libya, as “a case in which political will (largely inspired by strong regional calls for action) combined with R2P’s principles to produce effective action to stop a threatened atrocity. The Security Council’s steadily escalating responses included sanctions, referral to the ICC, an arms embargo and then the imposition of a ‘no fly zone.’ These culminated in the Council’s authorization of ‘whatever steps may be necessary’ to protect the Libyan population.”

It is sad but true that often in the court of world public opinion actions that are entirely justifiable in themselves can be damned as expedient because opponents can point to other cases that implied impunity. Why is it so insufferable to allow the Libyan or Syrian governments to murder—but not Bahrain? Why should the world unite to stop the shelling of Homs, but nod understandingly when Gaza comes under fire? So, although the Russians and Chinese did not directly veto the action, they used it to mitigate effective action.

They might not have been that attached to Gaddafi’s survival but they used the exigencies that the compromise resolutions forced on NATO and the Arab League first to hamper effective action and then to decry it as going too far. It gave them the traditional prerogatives of the harlot: power without responsibility. As a result, Axworthy points out, “Part of the problem is that the way the Libyan thing ended up, since it did end up looking like the white guys in suits running the world.” That perception obviously plays to the pro-Assad gallery at the UN — although his friends are noted more for their obduracy and power than the number. But one of the reasons the P5 still have a real veto is that they are among the few powers that could threaten a force projection that would be effective in R2P.”

The veto will stay for the foreseeable future, although, just like R2P itself, that should not stop the small and medium powers waging a campaign of attrition against it. Somewhat naively the original Axworthy Commission looked to the GA and “the Uniting for Peace Resolution” as a means of bypassing the veto if the P5 refused to accept limits. But the US, which had originated the bypass mechanism to bypass unreasonable Soviet vetoes has since denied it when the Palestinians brought into play to bypass what most of the world sees as equally unreasonable vetoes on behalf Israel.

“What we are missing is a voice around the issue that can contend with these things, that can raise issues,” concludes Axworthy—even as he points out that the Harper government in Ottawa has effectively abandoned the high moral ground Canada once had.

Although Susan Rice is a strong supporter of the concept, the US and even President Obama are hamstrung by domestic politics in relation to Israel and the veto. Looking around the world, there is a distinct shortage of the presence that could once have shamed Moscow and Beijing, let alone the financial clout to make them listen.

It is fortunate that SG Ban Ki Moon is a strong supporter of R2P, but his diplomatic work-style is built on strong talking in private but less ostentatious, albeit firm, statements in public. He lacks that concentration of global influence that Annan could call upon — and he has surely been trying.

R2P as a concept might have arrived sooner than expected — but who would have expected such an almost complete absence of ethics and charisma in world capitals. Almost, with Syria, the endgame might depend on the Ba’athist regime doing something silly to provoke Turkey to invoke the traditional right of self-defense, as did for example Vietnam, Tanzania and India to halt atrocities in neighboring countries. It would not be the best outcome for international law, the UN or R2P—or for that matter, the Syrians.

More realistically, those Middle Powers could put their efforts together with those of Ban Ki Moon and his new Deputy Jan Eliasson to press the recalcitrant superpowers to show them that there is a price, diplomatic or financial, for covering for mass murder.

Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world. He is currently writing a book on the Americans who blame the United Nations for all the ills of the United States. For more by Ian Williams visit Deadline Pundit.

Attacking Iran Is Like Setting Off Nuclear Bombs on the Ground

As you can tell by the title, this 61-page paper, The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble, is not Tehran-friendly. The report, released in September, is the product of Khosrow B. Semnani, an Iranian-American industrialist and philanthropist with, according to his bio, “extensive experience in the industrial management of nuclear waste and chemicals.” I’m in the midst of reading it in its entirety.

In the meantime, an excerpt from the executive summary (also available to those non-executives just as time-pressed as executives!) provides a good indication of exactly where Omid for Iran, Semnani’s organization, which released the report along with the Hinckley Institute of Politics and the University of Utah, is coming from.

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

Semnani et al state that while (all emphases theirs)

… there has been considerable debate about the timing and targets of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program, the costs and consequences of such strikes have not received sufficient atten­tion. Military planners at the Pentagon do provide policymakers with estimates of civilian casualties; these estimates are typically for operational purposes and not made available to the general public. Virtually no one has presented a scientific assessment of the conse­quences of military strikes on operational nuclear facilities. What is certain is the gravity of the risk to civilians: The IAEA has verified an inventory of at least 371 metric tons of highly toxic uranium hexafluoride stored at Iran’s nuclear facilities. The release of this material at sites that are only a few miles from major population centers such as Isfahan warrants a thorough and comprehensive assessment of the potential risks to thousands of civilians living in the vicinity of Iran’s nuclear sites.

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

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

In regards to the Western and IAEA view that Iran is developing nuclear capacity, they write:

While no smoking gun has emerged to prove that Iran is pursuing a weapon. … Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, is making a deadly nuclear gamble.

Whether or not Iran is pursuing a weapon

… the political reality is this: Israel continues to threaten military strikes, should diplomacy fail. In a post-election United States, either a newly re-elected President Barack Obama or an incoming President Mitt Romney will face a ticking clock that will add an element of urgency to their decisions on Iran’s nuclear program. The risks to the Iranian people of military strikes have never been greater.

Holding all parties liable, they write:

By quantifying the costs of military strikes, we have sought to make the scale of the Ayatollah’s reckless gamble and the gamble of possible U.S. and/or Israeli strikes apparent not only to the Iranian people but also to the international community, including policymakers in the United States and Israel.

That the West isn’t contemplating nuclear strikes provides scant solace.

Conventional strikes involving the systematic bombing of nuclear installations can be far more devastating than nuclear and industrial accidents such as Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island or Bhopal. The damage from strategic aerial bombardment is planned to be total and irreversible. It leaves no time for intervention, no chance for evacuation and no possibility for containment.

Exactly what do Semnani et al see as the targets?

Beyond the sites, some military planners have suggested that any strike against Iran could extend to more than 400 targets, or “aim points.” The goal of the strikes would be to permanently cripple Iran’s ability to revive its nuclear program by targeting site personnel as well as the auxiliary and support infrastructure.

For the purposes of this study, we have assumed a conservative strike scenario and analyzed the impact of conventional military strike against four targets: Isfahan, Natanz, Arak and Bushehr. … We have not included the deeply buried Fordow site near Qom in our analysis due to the incomplete nature of information about this site. However, it is almost certain that Fordow would be targeted with powerful bunker busters. … We have restricted our estimates of casualties to those injured or killed as a direct result of strikes at the four nuclear facilities and the immediate vicinities only.

What kind of numbers are we talking about?

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

You get the idea. Beyond that, the attack and radiation will work its synergistic black magic in conjunction with Iran’s meager disaster management and emergency preparation capabilities. In other words, bombing Iranian nuclear facilities is like setting off nuclear weapons on the ground.

Semnani et al eloquently summarize (and remember this is just the executive summary):

Rather than dismiss them as collateral damage, it is time to factor the Iranian people into any equation involving military strikes. There is a strong moral, strategic, political and military argument for counting the Iranian people’s interests as a key factor in the nuclear dispute.

Compared to the interests of Jerusalem, Tehran, and Washington, those of the Iranian people come in a distant last.

This Week in OtherWords: A Genetically Engineered Food Special Edition

This week, OtherWords is running three commentaries and a cartoon regarding the growing number of genetically modified foods that land on our plate whether we realize it or not.

In her debut guest column, Jill Richardson challenges big food companies to boast about their penchant for these modified crops if they’re so wonderful. Wenonah Hauter introduces readers to the latest newfangled food making a stir: an apple that doesn’t brown when it’s sliced long before it’s eaten. Jim Hightower discusses the ruse maintained by General Mills, Kellogg, and other huge food companies that have bought out tiny organic outfits and tried to not let consumers know.

Any of these commentaries could accompany Khalil Bendib’s Snow White cartoon, which depicts a witch handing her a new kind of poisoned apple. And all three address California’s upcoming referendum on a new state rule that would require the labeling of genetically modified food. Known as Proposition 37, this requirement would have national ramifications for the industry because of California’s huge market.

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

  1. Consumer Choice: As American as Apple Pie / Wenonah Hauter
    The creation of a new genetically modified apple highlights once again the need for clear labeling of this kind of food.
  2. Iran in the Campaign’s Crosshairs / Chris Toensing
    Mitt Romney is playing the same cynical game as Benjamin Netanyahu.
  3. The Problem with Craig Romney and his Padre / Jason Salzman
    Mitt’s Latino “ambassador” may speak Spanish, but he can’t talk about real policies.
  4. The Corporate Court’s War on Women / Martha Burk
    So far, not so good.
  5. Apparently, Suite Crime Does Pay / Sam Pizzigati
    The executives responsible for the financial industry’s pervasive fraud are paying no personal price.
  6. Big Food Fight / Jill Richardson
    If the products they sell us are as great as they say, what are General Mills, Kraft, and other processed food behemoths hiding?
  7. Big Food Behemoths Embarrass their Organic Offshoots / Jim Hightower
    Big Food’s mobilization against California’s right-to-know law is making more green-minded consumers aware of the companies that own their favorite brands.
  8. Just Don’t Let the Other Side Vote / William A. Collins
    Texas won’t accept your student ID for voting, but your gun permit will do just fine.
  9. Poisoned Apple, 2012 / Khalil Bendib (Cartoon)
Poisoned Apple, 2012, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Poisoned Apple, 2012, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Civil Society to World Bank President Dr. Jim Kim: Add Your Voice to the Choir of Support for a Financial Transactions Tax

Civil society to World Bank president Dr. Jim Kim, “add your voice to the choir of support for an FTT”

Today, the Institute for Policy Studies sent the newly appointed World Bank president Dr. Jim Kim a letter signed by 58 organizations from around the world urging him to champion financial transaction taxes (FTT) – a tiny tax on stocks, bonds, currency and other derivatives trades – as an innovative way to raise much-needed money to address climate change, health and other development priorities in poorer countries. The groups – including WWF, Greenpeace, Oxfam, AFL-CIO, World AIDS Campaign, United Methodist Church, and the Main Street Alliance – come from a broad cross-section of civil society and show a growing consensus that it’s time for developed countries to get serious about meeting their promises on climate and development finance.

The letter was sent in anticipation of the World Bank’s annual meeting in Tokyo later this week, where high-level finance ministry officials from developed and developing countries will assemble to discuss poverty eradication, sustainable development and the world economic outlook.

In the letter, groups urged Dr. Kim to “[p]romote FTT as a source of innovative finance for developing countries’ efforts to address climate change. Such revenues are needed for the Green Climate Fund and … it would be helpful to promote FTT as a source of climate finance in the context of studies and reports mandated by international bodies such as the G20 and the UN.”

In conjunction with the Bank meetings the Leading Group on Innovative Financing for Development will hold a symposium highlighting the role of FTT on meeting the funding gap for climate and development left by the global economic crisis. Two of the countries featured in the event – France and Germany – are part of an eleven-country ‘coalition of the willing’ that announced their commitment to implement an FTT today at the European Union Finance Ministers Meeting (ECOFIN). The letter to Kim emphasized that “[a]t this key moment in their decision-making, it is particularly important to urge European leaders to allocate part of FTT revenue to development and climate.”

Now that countries have taken this leap forward, the World Bank’s leader should make his own bold move and support an FTT.

Note: Besides the four biggest economies in the Eurozone – France, Germany, Italy and Spain – Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Greece, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia have pledged to implement a financial transaction tax at ECOFIN. This “coalition of the willing” approach will still need to be given the green light by EU heads of state, but the political momentum is clearly strong.


Dr. Jim Yong Kim
The World Bank
1818 H Street, NW
Washington, DC 20433

October 9, 2012

Re: Financial transaction taxes as a source of innovative finance

Dear Dr. Kim:

We, the undersigned 58 organizations, congratulate you on your position as World Bank President. We are hopeful that with your impressive track record, you will bring fresh thinking to this important financial institution.

We are writing now to encourage you to use your prominent position of influence to become a vocal champion of innovative ways to ensure sufficient resources are available to tackle the most pressing problems faced by the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

Given the budget constraints facing many of the largest donor countries, it is widely accepted that new sources of financing are needed. Our organizations are part of a growing international campaign to promote one of the most promising forms of innovative finance – small taxes on trades of stock, derivatives, currencies, and other financial instruments.

We have long advocated that such financial transaction taxes (FTTs) are a practical way to generate revenue to fill domestic and international financing gaps, discourage the type of short- term financial speculation that has little social value but poses high risks to the economy, and serve as a predictable and sustainable source financing for health, climate, development, education, and job creation. In a recent paper, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs concluded that “financial and currency transaction taxes are technically feasible and economically sensible. They could readily provide the means of meeting global development financing needs.”

Over the past two years, we have been encouraged by significant shifts in the debate, with influential leaders such as Bill Gates, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, and Pope Benedict XVI coming out in support. Now is a critical time to add your voice to the call.

A group of at least 11 European governments appears on track to forge an EU agreement to implement a FTT by the end of 2012. However, with the exception of France, they have made no clear commitment yet on how the resources would be allocated. Your support could help ensure that a substantial portion of the revenue goes to meet the needs of the world’s poorest people, rather than simply paying down deficits.


1. Raise FTT in the context of your work to publicize the new World Development Report focusing on jobs. As governments look for sources of financing for job-creation strategies, FTT should be promoted as one potential source.

2. Promote the FTT as part of a plan to achieve internationally agreed global health, education and other development goals. For example, with the prospect of ending AIDS closer than ever, FTT revenues could help achieve Millennium Development Goal #6, aimed at reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS and ensuring universal access to treatment and help fully fund implementation of the 2011 Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS.

3. Promote FTT as a source of innovative finance for developing countries’ efforts to address climate change. Such revenues are needed for the Green Climate Fund and other funds of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, including the Adaptation Fund, Least Developed Countries Fund, and the Special Climate Change Fund. Further, it would be helpful to promote FTT as a source of climate finance in the context of studies and reports mandated by international bodies such as the G20 and the UN.

4. Bring these messages to the general public and world leaders. At this key moment in their decision-making, it is particularly important to urge European leaders to allocate part of FTT revenue to development and climate. We also recommend that you publish an open letter on this theme in major newspapers.

5. Meet with civil society and independent experts on this timely issue. We would be very pleased to organize a briefing that would include participation by leading experts in the field. Over the past several years, many of our organizations have been involved in similar briefings with the International Monetary Fund, the Gates Foundation, the European Commission, and national governments. We would appreciate the opportunity to share research and analysis of the feasibility and potential benefits of this means of generating additional finance.

We look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely,

Alliance for a Just Society,
Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU)
Balance Promoción para el Desarrollo y Juventud,
Campaign for the Welfare State,
Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
Center for Economic and Social Rights,
Chicago Political Economy Group,
Coalition 15%,
Comisiones Obreras (CCOO),
Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro
(Ialian Geneneral Confederation on Labour)
CPATH (Center for Policy Analysis on Trade and Health),
Ecologistas en Acción,
Education International
Europeans for Financial Reform
Friends of the Earth U.S. Gender Action,
Global Health Advocates France
Global South Initiative, Nepal
Halifax Initiative,
Health GAP,
IG Bauen-Agrar-Umwelt (Trade Union for Building, Forestry, Agriculture and the Environment),
INPUD (International Network of People who Use Drugs),
United Kingdom
Institute for Policy Studies, Global Economy Project,
Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development (ICAD),
International Civil Society Support International HIV/AIDS Alliance
International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID)
International Trade Union Confederation
Kampagne: Steuer gegen Armut (Tax Against Poverty Campaign),
KOO-Koordinierungsstelle der Österreichischen Bischofskonferenz f.internationale Entwicklung und Mission,
Main Street Alliance,
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns,
National Union of Public and General Employees,
NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association
, Australia
Oxfam International
Public Services International
Réseau Accès aux Médicaments Essentiels (RAME),
Burkina Faso
Robin Hood Tax Campaign,
United Kingdom
Salamander Trust
Stamp Out Poverty,
United Kingdom
Trades Union Congress,
Great Britain
Treatment Action Group,
UBUNTU – World Forum of Civil Society Networks
Unión Sindical Obrera
(USO), Spain
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society,
Wealth for the Common Good,
Women in Europe and Central Asia Regions plus (WECARe+),
World AIDS Campaign International,
South Africa and Kenya
World Democratic Governance project Association
World Federalist Movement Japan
WWF International

Thanks Due Netanyahu for Forcing Obama’s Hand on Iran

“The rest of the world can stop worrying about Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s supposed threat to bomb Iran,” writes Gareth Porter at AlJazeera. “Netanyahu’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly last week appears to mark the end of his long campaign to convince the world that he might launch a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear programme.

“The reason for Netanyahu’s retreat is the demonstration of unexpectedly strong pushback against Netanyahu’s antics by President Barack Obama. And that could be the best news on the Iran nuclear issue in many years.”

I suppose we owe Netanyahu a debt of gratitude for his unrelenting pressure on the Obama administration to back him up in his threats to attack Iran. Were it not for that, as Porter reports, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey might not have said: “I don’t want to be complicit if they [the Israelis] choose to do it.” [and] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton [might not have] declared, “We’re not setting deadlines” [and Leon Panetta might not have said] “Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to put people in a corner.”

Balkan Blues

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

The Bulgarian rock band Tangra.

The Bulgarian rock band Tangra.

In my last road trip in the Balkans several years ago, I drove from Bosnia to Albania because the other methods of transportation either took too long or cost too much. I didn’t relish the idea of driving in Albania. Still, I managed to survive the reckless traffic of Tirana — only to have someone in a small town in Montenegro take a sharp right from the far left lane directly in front of my car. A Kafkaesque ordeal followed – which involved an unwanted weekend layover, a bout of food poisoning, a lengthy interview with a judge, a long argument in Russian about traffic rules in Montenegro, a late-arriving interpreter who was the son of the person who ran into me, and finally a minor fine that I would have been happy to pay at the point of impact just so that I could have avoided this two-day Montenegrin interlude. As it was, to catch my flight home from Sarajevo, I had to drive at near-reckless speed through the mountains straddling Montenegro and Bosnia, during a major storm and with my stomach still roiling from my run-in with, I think, a bad squid the night before.

Despite this experience, I decided to take another Balkan road trip this last weekend. The editor of a Bulgarian opposition newspaper from 1990 was now living in Varna, a Bulgarian city on the Black Sea. I rented a car in Sofia and set off across Bulgaria. I planned to stop over in Veliko Tarnovo, to see where the first Bulgarian parliament met in 1878 (and again in 1990 to celebrate the return of democracy). After a day in Varna, I would make my way back to Plovdiv, the country’s second largest city, and then on to Sofia for a final meeting on Sunday evening.

It’s not a road trip without music. I didn’t have any CDs, so I went back and forth across the radio spectrum in search of something palatable. It was not initially auspicious. The stations were full of bad U.S. rock and the Bulgarian version of turbofolk called chalga. Finally, I happened on a station playing choir music. A Roma choir from Plovdiv was particularly good, with the characteristic yipping sounds that anyone familiar with Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares would instantly recognize.

I arrived in Veliko Tarnovo on a musical high. The city too was a revelation – a gorgeous medieval hillside town that would have made a more picturesque and centrally located capital than Sofia. I was told that the 19th-century Bulgarian leadership revealed their nationalist aspirations with the choice of Sofia. Although not as historically interesting as Veliko Tarnovo, Sofia was located closer to the lands to the west and south that the leaders coveted as part of their dreams of a Greater Bulgaria.

The next day, outside of Varna, I stopped for gas and bought a few CDs – a three-CD set of the music of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, some more Bulgarian choir music, and a compilation of Bulgarian rock music. It was on this last CD that I finally listened to a cut by Tangra, the legendary group that started out as a heavy metal band in the late 1970s and became a New Wave group in the 1980s.

A friend of a high school friend ended up marrying the lead singer of Tangra and moving to Bulgaria in 1990. So I was very fortunate to have a chance to interview Konstantin Markov. Rock and roll in the 1980s in Bulgaria meant freedom, he told me. So Tangra was constantly at risk of arrest – for transmitting Western influences to Bulgarian youth. Informers attended the concerts to make sure that the band didn’t depart from their officially approved lyrics. Still, they were able to write ambiguous lyrics that promoted freedom of thought in allegorical ways. Eventually frustrated by the worsening repression of the mid-1980s, the band left the country for Scandinavia. Once I’ve transcribed the interview – and I will go over all the transcripts with the interviewees to correct any errors – I’ll post the whole conversation.

In Varna, I was the guest of Vihar Krastev and Yassena Yurekchieva, who were the souls of hospitality. In 1990, I interviewed Vihar when he was the editor of an opposition newspaper called Vek 21. For two hours, with classical music playing in the background, he recounted his remarkable career. Kicked out of journalism in the 1980s because of his political views, he could only find a job as a bus driver. After the changes of 1989, he made his way back into journalism only. After a stint with Radio Free Europe, he did what many Bulgarians did in the 1980s: emigrate. A million people – out of a population of roughly 9 million – left the country. Many experienced what Vihar did. In Canada, the barriers to access to journalism were simply too high. So, he ended up doing something he’d learned how to do under communism: drive a bus. He eventually rose through the ranks to manage the Toronto transportation system, but it was a stressful job. He has now retired to Varna.

I left Varna in the early evening, with fruit and delicious homemade muffins courtesy of Yassena and Vihar. The drive from Varna to Yambol – about halfway to Plovdiv – was a harrowing experience that brought back memories of my Montenegrin odyssey. Navigating the mountains near the Black Sea coast at night was quite a challenge. There are few streetlights on the two-lane highway, of course. If you’re stuck behind a truck, you either creep along or muster the courage to pass. Meanwhile, drivers going up to the 140 km-per-hour speed limit are whizzing by you, sometimes around blind curves. At one point, an otherwise straight stretch suddenly banked to the left, and my headlights picked up the arrows only at the last minute. I simultaneously turned the wheel and braked, nearly spinning out of control and overturning the car. If there had been a car coming in the other direction, I would have had a head-on collision. Even without a collision, stuck with an upside-down car and a non-functioning cell phone would have made my Montenegrin experience seem like a holiday on the sea.

Once I turned away from the coastal highway and toward the interior, the road became much straighter, and the traffic thinned considerably. But one peculiar feature of the first section of this highway, before it became a brand-new expressway outside of Yambol, was the speed bumps. These are located in the small towns that the highway passes through. Perhaps during the day, these are easily anticipated. But at night, I’d be cruising along at 60 km per hour, having slowed down to pass through the town, and suddenly I’d be practically airborne as I flew over the hump in the road. It’s hard not to think of these speed bumps as a metaphor for Bulgaria’s development.

I had hoped to turn south from this road and venture into the Rhodope Mountains to track down an elusive Bulgarian poet and activist. Boris Hristev’s political career began in 1968 when he called up a Bulgarian radio station and asked why there were no reports about the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The producers at the station asked who he was: he gave his name. The next day the police came to his house and thus began twenty years of arrests and harassment.

While we were talking, Boris suddenly interrupted himself and asked me if I knew about the Balkan blues. I asked him what he meant. The color blue, he said, could be glimpsed in the architecture of Hungary, but as you travelled further south into the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, the blues became more and more significant. And it wasn’t just architecture, he said. It was also the music. He insisted that I couldn’t understand Bulgaria until I’d listened to the Balkan blues.

Later, I ran into Boris on the street. He pushed a cassette tape into my hands. “The Balkan blues,” he whispered into my ear.

“Whether or not listening to the music truly provides me with additional insights into Bulgarian culture, the music is certainly excellent,” I wrote at the time. There was panpipe music from Romania’s Gheorghe Zamfir, the flute playing of Bulgaria’s Theodosii Spassov, blues music from Albania and Greece, and much more crammed onto the cassette. I made copies for all my friends as a holiday present. It was one of my favorite stories from my travels in 1990.

Then, shortly before leaving for Bulgaria this time around, I was reading the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic’s collection of essays, The Culture of Lies. In one section, she writes of meeting a Bulgarian poet, Boris H. In the middle of their conversation, he suddenly mentions the Balkan blues and then…

Oh no, I thought. My wonderful story, which I always thought of as uniquely my own, was not unique at all. Boris Hristev was promiscuous with his musical affections! The mix tape, immortalized in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity as a supreme expression of idiosyncrasy and affection, turned out in this case to be a more general means of communication. Next year, I will try to interview Dubravka Ugresic to dig out more details about her own Balkan blues experience.

The mysterious Boris H., meanwhile, is holed up like a hermit in a mountain village and isn’t scheduling interviews at the moment. I’ll continue my entreaties. I’ll continue to listen to the Balkan blues. And I’ll keep hoping for another road trip, this time to the Rhodope Mountains to discover what the Bulgarian poet is listening to these days. Next time, though, maybe I’ll take the bus…

Human Rights and Humanitarian Imperialism In Syria

As the corporate media beat the drums of war with Syria, led this time by CNN and the New York Times with support from the rear coming from the confused white left/liberal likes of Democracy Now, a now familiar line is conjured up to rationalize intervention – humanitarian intervention as a basis to exercise the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P). David Gergen, the ‘soft neocon’ advisor to both republican and democratic presidents, made the claim on CNN recently that human rights groups would love to see the US intervene in Syria. A claim that is probably accurate for the US-based white, middle-class human rights mainstream.

But this position certainly does not represent the positions of the growing, but largely ignored, ‘new human rights movement’ of grassroots organizations of people of color, informed by an African American radical human rights tradition, who are reclaiming and redefining human rights as an anti-oppression, anti-imperialist ‘people-centered’ movement.

Read the rest of Ajamu Baraka‘s Pambazuka straight-no-chaser analysis by clicking here.

Cuban Five: 14 Years of Injustice

Five Cubans fighting terrorism in South Florida have served 14 years of prison, more than enough time for the U.S. public to learn from its media about the horrific injustice done by the U.S. government to these Cuban men. But the media has barely touched the grotesque frame-up of Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez, Ramon Labanino and Rene Gonzalez, the Cuban Five as they are called.

These Cuban intelligence agents volunteered in the 1990s to infiltrate violent groups of Miami-based Cuban exiles who had orchestrated bombings in Cuba of tourist spots – hotels, restaurants, clubs and bars, and even the Havana airport where vacationers from Canada and Europe arrive. By scaring foreigners with violence they hoped to intimidate tourists from visiting Cuba, and thus hurt the island’s economy.

Cuban intelligence chiefs sent agents into South Florida because the FBI had done nothing to stop the bombing plots or indeed discourage the exile plotters from continuing their terrorist war against Cuba. The agents’ job was to discover the plots, and alert Havana so the local police could thwart the violence.

Havana then recycled the agents’ information to the FBI. On some occasions, thanks to these men’s information, the Bureau did intercept caches of explosives and weapons destined to do harm inside Cuba. But the Bureau did not bother the terrorists. Instead in September 1998, FBI agents busted the Cuban agents, and the Justice Department charged them with conspiracy to commit espionage and one of them with murder. The last charge referred to a prosecution-concocted story that Gerardo Hernandez, the controller of the web of agents, had advised Havana of the date and time of Brothers to the Rescue’s planned flight time on February 24, 1996, and that he might possibly drop weapons into Cuba. Cuban aviation authorities warned the three small planes not to enter Cuban air space, but the pilots ignored the warning, and Cuban MIGs shot down two of the planes, killing both pilots and co-pilots. The craft carrying the Brothers’ leader, Jose Basulto, returned unscathed to Miami.

Read the rest of the story of the Cuban Five at Progreso Weekly

Romney’s Debate Zinger About China Provides Opening for Constructive Policy Debate

Cross-posted from the Peace Action Peace Blog.

So I have to admit that when I heard it last night during the presidential debate, I thought this was a clever zinger by Mitt Romney (or his speech writers more likely):

“What things will I cut from spending? Well, first of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don’t pass it: Is the program so critical that it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I’ll get rid of it.”

This needs a bit of unpacking (and my few points about this quote are far from comprehensive; I’m sure others have very different takes in it).

First, Romney’s “test” is somewhat appealing, purposely so I’m sure, to folks who are concerned about the U.S. debt, much of which is owned by China. However, one could have made the point in a generic way, leaving out the fact that China is our largest banker (“Is the program worth continuing to borrow money to pay for it?”). That would still be a good test, yes? In addition to judging government programs by that standard, people make that judgement in their personal lives all the time, determining whether to borrow money to buy a car or a house or to go to college is a smart move.

So was Romney’s mention of China just an off-hand remark? I don’t think so. “China” to many Americans can mean very different things, but many of them are, in my observation, unfortunately pejorative. So my guess is this was intentional, meant to raise unhelpful and maybe even racist stereotypes about China, and concerns about the U.S.-China economic relationship.

However, Romney gave us an opening, unwittingly I presume, for deeper analysis and conversation about the U.S.-China relationship, especially in the “security” realm (others could certainly go much deeper than I into the economic interdependency, not always healthy, between the world’s two largest economies).

Josh Rogin, blogging for Foreign Policy, captured this very nicely: “Is Romney saying it’s worth borrowing from China to build more ships to contain China?” This is so brilliant and succinct because this is exactly what the U.S. is doing now, and planning to increase in the future, under the military’s much-ballyhooed but little understood “Asia-Pacific pivot.” (For example, and speaking directly to Rogin’s point, the U.S. Navy has announced it plans to station 60% of the overall fleet in the Pacific.)

While Romney won’t publicly say this (and neither will Obama), the U.S. war machine needs an enemy to continue to justify its raison d’etre and its stranglehold on the lion’s share of our federal tax dollars. “International terrorism” just doesn’t cut the mustard. China is the only plausible “enemy” that might fit the bill.

Except China, which certainly has many economic, environmental, energy, human rights and democracy challenges, has no real interest in an arms race or global competition for military hegemony with the U.S. China certainly has regional interests that are of serious concerns to its neighbors, but it is simply not an expansionist power to anything like the degree the U.S. is. A few factoids on this are instructive:

• The U.S. has somewhere between 800 and 1,000 foreign military bases (there is no agreement on the number or even the definition of a “base,” which is why the number is so imprecise). China has one, a relatively new one at that, in Seychelles (which is telling, representing as it does a key Chinese concern, keeping open shipping lanes).

• At $711 billion per year, the U.S. spends about as much on the military as the rest of the world combined (and the full “national security” budget is over $1 trillion per year). China, with the number two military budget, spends about one-fifth of what the U.S. does, at $143 billion (figures from SIPRI, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute).

• The U.S. has a dozen aircraft carrier battle groups, able to project fearsome military might worldwide (to say nothing of our nuclear arsenal). China just recently inaugurated its first aircraft carrier, which experts say is at least several years away from minimal combat readiness, according to a recent Wall St. Journal article. At present it is fit only for training purposes, and China doesn’t have any jets that can land on it. So by U.S. standards, the number of Chinese aircraft carriers would be “none.”

• The U.S. military divides the entire planet into regional “commands,” with forces and power projection plans covering basically the whole planet. Neither China nor any other country has any such structure or capability.

So the wisdom and advisability of “pivoting” in order to economically, militarily and politically isolate your main banker is a head scratcher. Why would China want to underwrite that? Especially when its biggest economic interest will soon probably be to stimulate domestic consumer demand.

And why would this pivot, offering only a pointless, counter-productive military competition with China, be in the interests of the people of this country? It would certainly fail this test – should we spend our tax dollars on an idiotic, open-ended military buildup to “contain” China (when the best policy would be to rely on non-coercive diplomacy to balance the interests of all the peoples of the region), instead of on schools, sustainable energy and jobs, affordable housing, infrastructure and addressing climate change?

Kevin Martin is the Executive Director of Peace Action.