IPS Blog

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.

Cronyism Poisons our Government

Note: This letter to the editor ran in the Keene, New Hampshire Sentinel on August 27, 2012.

Crony capitalists gather at the public trough, seeking tax dollars and guaranteed profits for privatizing government. Now they’re going after prison dollars.

There’s little evidence showing that for-profit prisons, education, health insurance or even the for-profit private contractors in our military make us a better country, but they certainly have made some people rich.

Privatization lobbyists spend big money on advocacy and political donations.

In 2008, the health industry spent $166.8 million protecting private insurance profits. For-profit education lobbyists spent about $20 million in the last two years. Defense industries spent about $287 million over two years pushing increases in our bloated military.

The Correction Corporation of America and GEO, two big prison for-profits, spent over $22 million lobbying, out of $3 billion annual revenues from our tax dollars. Here in New Hampshire they’ve lawyered up with major Concord firms.

Prison lobbyists advocate for privatization, stiffer punishments and automatic sentencing. The Pennsylvania “Kids for Cash” racket, where detention centers paid judges to give longer sentences, isn’t much different from paying legislators to increase correction business profits.

Voters are fed up with this corrupt crony capitalism.

Tim Butterworth is an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow.

Can We Abolish Nuclear Weapons Before We Abolish War?

Lawrence Wittner

Lawrence Wittner

In 2011, people across the planet reached out to Japan in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. Millions watched as one nation after another rose in mass revolutions across the Arab world. The Occupy movement blossomed, as citizens in cities around the globe expressed rage over the excesses of capitalism and corporate power. And Time magazine named “The Protester” its annual Person of the Year.

The world has never been smaller. Citizen movements increasingly demonstrate their limitless promise. So, think it sounds too dreamy to imagine that someday people power might transform our small world into one world — a federal republic of the Earth?

Then read Lawrence Wittner’s 2009 book, Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (excerpted at Foreign Policy in Focus). And think again.

Read Tad Daley’s piece in its entirety at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Tad Daley is the author of Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World (Rutgers University Press), just released in paperback. He is currently working on a new book about the history and future of the ancient dream that something like a world republic could serve as the solution to the problem of war.

Labor Day Special: Week of August 27-September 2, 2012

This OtherWords Labor Day Special features a wide range of commentaries addressing worker rights. Deborah Burger calls for better nurse-staffing ratios at the nation’s hospitals, Amy Dean makes the case for accountability when companies getting tax breaks for being “job creators” don’t create jobs, and Virginia Sole-Smith casts light on how Mary Kay exploits its own sales force.

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 Lipstick Profiteers / Virginia Sole-Smith
    Mary Kay’s biggest revenue source may be the dreams of its own pink-clad sales force.
  2. How to Safely Scale Down the Fiscal Cliff / Salvatore Babones
    A slow descent wouldn’t be disastrous.
  3. Rooting out Fake Job Creators / Amy Dean
    Without serious accountability, the rallying cry for more “job creation” is likely to amount to nothing more than empty rhetoric.
  4. Healing our Health Care System / Deborah Burger
    Unsafe nurse-to-patient staffing levels are a key cause of 98,000 preventable deaths each year.
  5. A Bold New Call for a ‘Maximum Wage’ / Sam Pizzigati
    A national labor leader aims to expand the economic fairness debate.
  6. Percolate-Up Economics / Jim Hightower
    Every dime of a minimum-wage hike is spent by its recipients — circulating upward in our local economies as they increase their purchases of such basics as food, kids’ clothing, and health care.
  7. The Race to the Bottom / William A. Collins
    The American middle class isn’t the envy of the world anymore.
  8. Hellish Working Conditions / Khalil Bendib (Cartoon)
Hellish Working Conditions, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Hellish Working Conditions, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Former Algerian Defense Minister’s Indictment for War Crimes in Switzerland (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Lampadusa had it right — things had to seem to change so that things could remain the same. There’d be elections; there’d be new faces and new promises, but all that would happen would be that different trotters would go into the trough, and new accounts would be opened in those discreet private banks … in Switzerland.
— Donna Leon, Death and Judgment

Two cheers for the Swiss!

Khaled Nezzar, Algeria’s former defense minister and regime strongman during much of that country’s civil war that raged throughout the 1990s, expressed ‘surprise’ as a Swiss court, the Swiss Federal Crime Court, refused to throw out a civil suit filed against him for alleged war crimes committed by the Algerian government against its citizens during that period. The case was brought by the Trial Watch Project at the behest of two Algerians residing in Switzerland.

Swiss refusal to dismiss the case has thrown the Algerian government into something approaching a panic. Algiers is scurrying to contain the damage, which, if made public would cast a dark shadow not only over Nezzar and the other Algerian junta that was in power at the time. It would also reflect poorly on the current leadership, inheritors of the junta’s ‘legacy’, one that makes Pinochet’s bloody rule in Chile look like something akin to child’s play.

Algiers is threatening to cut off economic relations with Switzerland and appealing to France, whose hands are far from clean in the affair, to pile on the pressure as well. Although official silence has been the rule, the government is now beginning to mount a ‘solidarity campaign’ for Nezzar through the media. The issue is suddenly being widely reported in the Algerian press, portraying General Nezzar, now retired, as the victim. This is, admittedly, a very hard sell.

The attempts to pressure Switzerland to drop the case might work. It is a small country with big powerful neighbors, but then again, a stubborn one that does take well to bullying by its larger and more politically influential neighbors. Nor does it appear that Algiers, whose influence in Paris is undeniable, enjoy similar access to those in power in Berne.

Nezzar could not have been completely surprised with the indictment. As Algeria’s 1990s Civil War unfolded, reports of excesses on all sides found their way into the media in Europe and beyond. The case against him has a long history in European courts. Eleven years prior to the Swiss indictment, Nezzar had filed a libel suit in a French court against the publication of Habib Souaïdia’s La Sale Guerre, a book (discussed below) with a damning indictment of the military junta that ruled Algeria during the civil war (and still does) and of Nezzar personally.

At the time, Nezzar’s complaint was rejected, his suit thrown out, a great embarrassment to the former defensive minister, suggesting that the allegations had, at least, legal credibility. Worse, the transcript of the trial – that included no small amount of damning testimony from expert witnesses – was published as a book by Habib Souaïdia, La Procès de la Sale Guerre by La Découverte in 2002, only discrediting the former Algerian junta leader that much more.

Of course, at that time, 2002, with the war fresh in the minds of many, it was admittedly hard to fathom the notion that the main source of terrorism in Algeria was important elements of the government itself. If, during the war years, Algeria’s Islamic rebels were targeting innocent civilians – wiping out whole villages in some instances – rumors and then reports of military sponsored massacres surfaced as well, as did a mounting number of victims of ‘collateral damage’ – government attacks on rebels, extensive reports of arbitrary arrest, torture and the disappearance of thousands of innocent people.

As if that wasn’t damaging enough, allegations of government collusion with Islamic terrorists, actual manipulation of their activities by the government security forces emerged. The military junta shook them off as cheap conspiracy theories, fabrications of the Islamic fundamentalists not to be taken seriously, claims a little too quickly accepted in Washington and Paris political circles, where ‘the war on terrorism’ had already become a standard pretext for military intervention.

But the allegations persisted and were taken seriously by human rights groups in Europe and North America, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The junta-shaped narrative, that the government was in a war against radical Islamic fundamentalism, began to lose its potency. Questions began to emerge, the main ones being “What’s the deal? What is the Algerian civil war about? Why is the French government essentially supporting the generals?”

Although virtually nothing had been resolved, the actual fighting and killing died down in the late 1990s, leaving the country exhausted, depressed and spiritually rudderless, the military junta still in power. At the turn of the millennium, Algeria’s economic and political model remained unchanged, with the same forces within the security apparatus and military still in power and controlling the country’s oil profits as before.

A country in tatters…

By 2000 the country was in tatters, its oil wealth hoarded and squandered, its ‘example’ as a ‘left model of Third World development’ forever discredited, the romanticism of its revolution morphed into an unending nightmare.

The rough summary of “the bloody decade” is chilling: 200,000 dead, 12,000 ‘disappeared’ (and presumed dead), dozens of government “torture centers” organized on something approaching an industrial scale, 13,000 imprisoned, 400,000 people forced into exile another million displaced from their homes within the country.

The war exacerbated what was an already serious economic crisis. When the fighting ended, a clear majority of the population had been thrown into utter poverty; the unemployment rate stood at 30% of the active population; according to United Nations NGO figures, 15 million Algerians were living below the poverty level (out of a population of 31 million at the time). Diseases, earlier eradicated, such as typhoid, tuberculosis, bubonic plague, re-emerged.1

Cynicism prevailed; faith in the state as a positive mechanism for economic progress and democracy was at an all-time low, all but shattered, as was any popular support for Islamic fundamentalism. So it remains a decade later. The root causes of Algeria’s crisis had been side-tracked. Too much bloodshed on all sides had been spilt.

Then in short order, two carefully written, well documented books appeared which put a considerable amount of meat on the bony contention of high level military and/or security apparatus complicity with the Islamic militant opposition. Together they were nothing short of a powerful intellectual one-two punch at the military junta’s mid-section.

Both were published by well-respected French publishing houses (Editions la Découvertes and Folio-Actuel – which is owned by Gallimard; Les Editions DeNoel), both written by former members of Algeria’s counter-intelligence unit. Habib Souaïdia’s La Sale Guerre (The Dirty War) first appeared in 2001 and was reprinted the next year. Mohammed Samraoui’s equally devastating Chronique des Années de Sang (Chronicle of the Years of Bloodshed) followed in 2003.

Habib Souaïdia

Habib Souaïdia

Originally from Tebessa in Eastern Algeria, some 40 miles from the Tunisian border, Habib Souaïdia is a former officer in the Algerian Army Special Forces unit who received his military training at Algeria’s exclusive Cherchell Military Academy, some 55 miles west of Algiers, the capitol. There he was trained to be a tank commander. Graduated as a second lieutenant, in 1992 he was recruited into the army’s anti-subversion unit. It was his participation in that unit that he came to have grave doubts about the army’s role.

As described in La Sale Guerre, soon after having joined the special forces anti-terrorism unit, Souaïdia concluded that the terrorist groups were thoroughly infiltrated and manipulated by the Algerian secret service itself – referred to as the DRS (Départment de Renseignement et de la Securité – The Inforamtion and Security Department). The special forces / secret services / anti-subversion unit, controlled by the Ministry of Interior, had, along with military intelligence, exclusive responsibility for anti-terrorist operations.

Souaïdia alleges that many of the crimes blamed on Islamic terrorists were in fact the work of the armed forces. Specifically he accused the military of having committed two massacres, at Bentalha and Rais, and trying to place the blame on Islamic militants. Refusing to take part in what he believed to be war crimes, Souaïdia fast became a threat to the powers that be; he was arrested on charges of having stolen car parts from a military warehouse and served four years in prison (1995-1999). He barely was able to escape alive to Europe shortly thereafter.

The 2001 publication of Souaïdia’s book was nothing short of a political bombshell exploding in the lap of Algeria’s ruling High Council of State. The portrait painted of Khaled Nezzar’s role was especially damning. But that was just the first blow. Strengthening the case, Souaidia’s hypothesis was defended by Ferdinando Imposinato, at the time the honorary vice president of Italy’s High Court of Appeal, in the introduction to the book.

In a Time Magazine interview the year that La Sale Guerre was published, Souaïdia summed up his case: “The generals were up to their necks in killing and their motive is to holding on to power, oil revenues and the business commissions that go with it…the real problem in Algeria is not Islamic fundamentalism, it’s injustice.”

If Souaïdia’s expose of security forces-Islamic fundamentalist cooperation is true, it raises a question. What was the goal of the dirty war? What is it that the junta hoped to accomplish through its actions? The answer to this is not difficult to discern. The Algerian elite would do anything necessary to hold onto political power and the economic benefits that accrue from it. Destroy the possible coalition of forces that could come together to overthrow the state before it coalesces into a political force.

One way to accomplish this a la Algerienne is to encourage or facilitate a civil war in which regime’s main opponents destroy or exhaust each other in conflict leaving the military-security elite as ‘the only ones left standing’ in the room so to speak. In the Algerian case, on the one hand there was the growing Islamist element, bitter about being shoved aside and marginalized after independence; on the other the more or less secular left.

Given the long-standing antagonism and distrust between the two streams of Algerian society, turning the one against the other was accomplished without much difficulty. What better way to maintain power than to have the two sides destroy each other in a civil war in which the anti-subversion unites of the security apparatus manipulate the players on both sides? Both Souaïdia and Samroui make clear this is precisely what the Algerian military junta did during the dirty war; they go even further, suggesting it was not the Islamic opposition that unleashed the violence that provoked the civil war, but the state, through its counter insurgency units.

During the Algerian Civil war, the secular opposition was wiped out in large measure by the Islamic radicals; the names of many of the victims were, according to Souaïdia and Samraoui, often supplied to the killers by the security forces! The Islamic radicals, in turn, were then largely crushed by the military. When it is over and all the dust has settled and the country exhausted by the orgy of violence unleashed, who is left standing with their hands still on the levers of economic and political power: the military-security cabal that was in power before the conflict began.

Mohammed Samraoui

The prologue of Mohammed Samraoui’s Chronicle of the Years of Bloodshed begins in a Bonn, Germany hotel room with Algerian General Smaïl Lamari, second in command of the Algerian Secret Service, the Sécurité militaire (SM) asking Samraoui to arrange the assassination of two Algerian Islamicists, political refugees in Germany, Rabah Kébir and Abdelkader Sahraoui. Samraoui describes the two as “well known public figures, certainly regime opponents, but nothing close to being dangerous terrorists.” His refusal to commit to the operation marks Samraoui’s departure from the Algeria’s counter-terrorism effort.

Like Souaïdia, Mohammed Samraoui appeared headed for an illustrious career in Algeria’s security apparatus when he quit and defected to Germany. Samraoui was a senior officer in the Algerian army who was committed, until he knew better, to helping rid the country of its Islamic terrorists. By 1996, when he defected, he had risen up the ranks, having achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Joining the military in 1974, early on, Samraoui received a degree in engineering and biochemistry. He taught at the Institute for Military Security at Béni-Messous, and then occupied a number of positions within the Sécurité militaire throughout the country. From the outset he was involved in Islamic anti-terrorism effort but by 1992, that is to say relatively early in the civil war, critical of the way that the war on terrorism was being fought, he asked to be relieved of his duties.

As he tells it, in order to silence him, he was offered the post with the Algerian embassy to Germany, which he accepted that year. As the civil war wore on, Samraoui became increasingly convinced that this was not a civil war between the state and Islamic radicalism, but instead a war conducted by the Algerian government against its own people.

In 1996 he returned to Algeria, where once again he was offered a promotion and a position on the senior staff of Mohamed Médiène, head of the SM. As he notes, “I understood what that meant. I would have been put in the position of having to order Algerians to kill one another.” Rather than do that, he defected, asked for political asylum in Germany. It was accepted and he’s lived there since.

Samraoui’s book lends legitimacy to and reinforces Souaïdia’s claims. Early on in the text the former comments2:

As an insider close to the pulse of events, and able to observe the plans and actions of both the Sécurité militaire in which he participated as well as those of its twin organization, the Départment du renseignement et de la sécurité (DRS) – the secret police run out of the Ministry of Interior, Samraoui was able to piece together ‘the system’ as it functioned in the war against terrorism. He details the organizational structure of the anti-terrorism effort in considerable detail.

There have been no serious challenges to the facts and hypotheses Samraoui presents. As John Adams put it long ago – in a quote also later ironically attributed to Stalin: “Facts are stubborn things.” For Khaled Nezzar, it appears, he’s caught…Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

Part three on the collusion between French and Algerian intelligence will appear soon.

1Mohammed Samraoui. Chronique des Années de Sang. DeNoel Impacts. Paris: 2003. p. 19-20

2Ibid. p. 19

The Ecstasy of the Baseball Business

Seated in the upper upper deck at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, during a Giants-Rockies game, one would not know millions of people around the nation faced foreclosure or had already lost their homes and jobs, or that the country was in the midst of a presidential election campaign. The large man seated next to me cupped his hand over his mouth to scream “Colorado, you suck” and other such sagacious slogans as the game crept on, and the sun set over San Francisco Bay. The Giants showed their inability to hit with their bats the tiny white ball with stitches holding it together. How agonizing! Why was I here?

Baseball is in the business of providing an escape from reality. Photo by dutchbaby/Flickr.

Baseball is in the business of providing an escape from reality. Photo by dutchbaby/Flickr.

Baseball, one form of escape whether playing or watching, once belonged to men, especially working class men, as their version of ballet. Now the stands include lots of women, some holding signs saying “Gamer Babes.”

One watches — or when younger performs – with only one area of focus, that small white ball, hit it, catch it or if, pitching or fielding, throw it to the right spot.

You don’t think about mortgage payment due, your job uncertain or over, no health insurance, kids tuition coming due, car needing major surgery, or you kid in Afghanistan and maybe soon in Syria – who knows? – if Obama decides to send him there.

You don’t think of the traffic jam you’ll face when you leave the ball park or the climbing price of gas itself. You discuss the performance of the ball players as the 40,000+ people fill the escalators and walk ramps, masses clumped tightly together to exit the stadium. Between innings, noise emerges from the stadium sound system, along with commercials and feel-good messages from the Giants’ management. We’re all one happy Giant tribe, and baseball unlike life itself, means happiness, getting away from troubles and into the cocoon of youth by watching grown men play a kids’ game.

I’m one of millions of baseball escapists, a Giants fan since I was four and lived within walking distance to the Polo Grounds where they played when they were the New York Giants.

The Giants, fiscally and on the field, played inconsistent ball in the decade preceding 1957. They won the Penant in 1951 and the World Series in 1954, but could not draw fans as did their Brooklyn rivals and hated Yankees across the Harlem River. Owner Horace Stoneman thought the relocation to San Francisco would revitalize the team. On their final day at the Polo Grounds in Coogan’s Bluff, after fans stormed the field, former baseball writer and the Giants PR man Garry Schumacher chided, “If all the people who will claim in the future that they were here today had actually turned out, we wouldn’t have to be moving in the first place.”

I watched my first San Francisco Giants game in 1961 at Candlestick Park, where wind ripped through the field and the stands as if in punishment for the team deserting New York.

Now, in the new A T&T park, tourists mingle with home town escapists to watch the game; the upper decks offer a great view of San Francisco Bay and the ships moving in and out.

This country provides its citizens with lots of patriotic escape routes (The National Anthem precedes every game), if you can afford them. It’s $23 for an upper upper deck seat. A ball park beer costs $9 and an ice cream $4.50. The greasy meals will run over $10. Parking runs $20 or more. A small price to pay for an evening outdoors watching younger, more athletic guys show – or not – their stuff. And identifying your deepest emotions with the performances of men wearing “Your” team’s uniform – guys you don’t even know.

The players, especially the stars, make high salaries, but the team owners reap the big profits from tickets, TV rights plus the food and booze sold at the games. It’s a big business, like all professional sports, that uses good old American values to lure buyers – come see the game and buy tee shirts and other parophinalia that says “Giants” on it (hats, jackets, sweatshirts, bats, autographed balls and anything as sales maven can think of) — anything to attract a young child or mentally undersupplied adult. Nielsen reports that “ad spending on sports jumped 33% between 1974 and 2011, to almost $11 billion annually.”

In case one wonders about the price of tickets, “team owners in Major League Baseball (MLB) set ticket prices as profit-maximizing monopolists” says Donald L. Alexander, in his article “Major League Baseball, Monopoly Pricing and Profit-Maximizing Behavior” in the Journal of Sports Economics.

So, when you take your family to the ball park to root for the Giants, Dodgers, Marlins whoever, and if you feed them at the ball park you’ll be over one hundred dollars poorer – albeit you’ll have spent the afternoon outdoors with the family who will then want to buy things they saw advertised on TV while watching a baseball game at home. Baseball might be a sport kids play, but professional baseball is solid business. Go Giants!

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