IPS Blog

Syria’s Stalin and His Gulag

By now Focal Points readers are no doubt aware of the report that Human Rights Watch issued titled Torture Archipelago: Arbitrary Arrests, Torture, and Enforced Disappearances in Syria’s Underground Prisons since March 2011. From the summary:

Since the beginning of anti-government protests in March 2011, Syrian authorities have subjected tens of thousands of people to arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment, and torture using an extensive network of detention facilities, an archipelago of torture centers, scattered throughout Syria.

Based on more than 200 interviews with former detainees, including women and children, and defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies, this report focuses on 27 of these detention facilities.

On the other hand, the reader may not be aware of Syria’s chemical weapons program and suspected biological weapons program. At the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Charles Blair wrote in March:

Syria likely has one of the largest and most sophisticated chemical weapon programs in the world. Moreover, Syria may also possess an offensive biological weapons capability that Libya did not.

To wit:

Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile is thought to be massive. One of only eight nations that is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention — an arms control agreement that outlaws the production, possession, and use of chemical weapons — Syria has a chemical arsenal that includes several hundred tons of blistering agents along with likely large stockpiles of deadly nerve agents, including VX, the most toxic of all chemical weapons

Between that and their gulag-like archipelago, one can’t help but suspect that Syria takes too much of its cue from the former Soviet Union, with President Bashar al-Assad serving as Syria’s Stalin.

U.S., Russia Continue to Jockey for Influence in Syria

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

The New York Times reports that the CIA has been on the ground in Turkey vetting armed opposition groups in Syria. The anonymous sources cited by the Times say that the US itself is not providing weapons to the rebels, in keeping with its earlier declarations to not directly arm them, but is apparently tracking weapons going into Syria and “advising” allies in the region as to which groups should get what weapons. Reports on alleged Western intelligence-gathering operations along Syria’s borders several months ago were denied then, but the Times asserts that the CIA presence has been on the ground “for several weeks” at least.

The promise of weapons sales to the rebels has been advanced as a cost-effective way for the US and its allies to direct the course of the Syrian uprising’s armed resistance to the Assad regime. With arms comes influence — or so Washington, Doha and Riyadh hope — and the armed opposition has been hard-pressed to provision itself.

Even with these promises, armed groups in Syria, who are frequently at odds with one another, have relied and continue to rely on materials produced by Syrian expatriates, captured battlefield detritus or purchased from black marketeers. With the exception of equipment seized from a battlefield or brought over by defecting soldiers, the regime can still bring much greater firepower to bear, which manifests itself in the form of besieging and shelling neighborhoods concealing (or thought to be concealing) insurgents fighting the Syrian Army. As such, some factions of the anti-Assad movement continue to call for direct foreign military intervention, notably from the Turkish Army.

Ankara, for its part, denies it is helping arm the rebels, and even the recent shootdown of a Turkish fighter jet in Syrian airspace is unlikely to result in directly military action by NATO. Indeed, Turkey’s reluctance to “get involved” more proactively remains a major stumbling block for interventionists. (Ed. note from the Arabist: is it Turkey that is holding back NATO, or the reverse?)

The Times report paints a picture of a more engaged American intelligence effort in Syria, one that critics of both intervention and non-intervention say has been lacking since 2011. The perception of expanded US handling has been buttressed by recent reports in the Wall Street Journal and Time that the US is assisting activists on the ground report on atrocities ascribed to the Syrian Army and pro-regime militias accused of committing civilian massacres in the conflict.1

As has been the case with reports on US efforts in Yemen, it is not clear whether the government sources speaking for these reports are engaging in unsanctioned leaks, or are going to the press with the White House’s acknowledgment. Despite years of talk about regime change in Syria and past US support for Syrian dissent groups in Istanbul and London, the Syrian uprising — like those in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain — clearly caught the Obama Administration (and Syria’s neighbors) by surprise. The White House has been scrambling to implement something like it’s “leading from behind” model for Libya in building an international consensus to take more decisive action, though denies Russian claims that through NATO, it intends to directly intervene in Syria.

Recently, there have been several spats between Washington and Moscow, which is Assad’s main arms supplier. The UK Foreign Office managed to fire a warning shot across Moscow’s bow over the Syrian crisis when the Standard Club withdrew insurance for the MV Alaed, a Russian freighter carrying repaired Syrian attack helicopters and “air defense systems” to Syria. This act of “lawfare” forced the Alaed to turn back to port. Shortly before this incident, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton raised Cain over the use of Russian-made helicopter gunships by the Syrian military. One of the outcomes of this diplomatic protest, though, has been some embarrassing revelations about US-Russia defense sector links.

These moves were plainly aimed at signaling to Russia that it needs to exercise more influence on Assad in ways favorable to the West’s demands, or to back away from the dictator. A CNN report that the US military has revised/prepared contingency war plans for Syria is also part of this messaging — as is the Iranian media pushback in the form of announcing war games to be conducted in Syria by the Russians (these reports have been denied by Russia and do not seem credible).

More concretely, Russia has dispatched three amphibious landing craft to its naval base in the Port of Tartus, increasing their security presence there. Significantly, this force is thought to include heavy weapons and advanced anti-air systems. Russia’s mistrust of Washington’s efforts to address the conflict stems from fears that Syria will turn into Libya again, where the Russians and Chinese essentially allowed the UN Security Council and NATO to invoke a “responsibility to protect” that turned into a coordinated effort to oust the late Colonel Qadhafi from power. Russia’s stated principles are closely linked to its national interests. Arms, allies and naval basing rights matter too, analyst Dmitri Trenin notes, but “Moscow is concerned that allowing the United States to use force at will and without any external constraints might lead to foreign interventions close to Russian borders, or even within those borders.” So even absent the Libyan card, for Russia, there are few prices short of war the Kremlin will not pay to avoid the humiliation of “losing Syria,” its sole remaining Arab ally in the region.

So while the arming of rebel groups under US auspices is ostensibly aimed at redressing this imbalance of firepower, so far, no policy has been articulated in public as to whether this aid is supposed to help take down Assad with extreme prejudice, or compel him to broker a ceasefire and exeunt, even though members of the Syrian opposition have now repeatedly rejected a “Yemeni solution.” Assad, for his part, shows no signs of backing down despite combat fatigue, desertions and attacks within the heart of Damascus itself.

The US is still not willing to take that bet for Syria, though, at least not yet. Moscow shows no signs of backing down. Syrian activist Haytham Manna recently told the Guardian that “foreign influence and arms have split Syria’s civil movement.” The continued failure of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan, and the efforts of the Syrian Army or the rebels to maintain secure zones for civilians, show that this split may be irreconcilable, even if foreign powers press harder on Assad by all means short of open war.

1While media activists have specific agendas and incentive to spin events, such activists have been politicized from the start in this conflict, with or without US dollars or cameras. Another complication is that the conflict has seen the deaths of Syrian media activists who were not associated with one particular armed camp or another, such as Bassel Shehadeh, who was killed by the Syrian Army in Homs this May. Ideally, third party sourcing to evaluate competing claims would be easier to come by. But even when such reports appear, the coverage quickly turns into a debate over the credibility of each outlet’s narratives.

The Lineup: Week of July 2-8, 2012

In this week’s OtherWords editorial package, Hilary Matfess celebrates the Supreme Court’s Affordable Care Act ruling and Stacy Mitchell explains why no one should cheer Walmart’s 50th anniversary — aside from Sam Walton’s billionaire heirs. On our blog, don’t miss Karen Dolan’s poetic and brief tribute to the Court’s health care decision. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. Health Care Access Shouldn’t Require Good Luck / Hilary Matfess
    For me, the Affordable Care Act means that when I graduate from college, I won’t have to take a job that I hate to get the health care that I need.
  2. Arizona’s Immigration Bind / Raul A. Reyes
    Not only is SB 1070 mostly illegal, it is offensive, unjust, and truly un-American.
  3. Corporations Score another Supreme Court Victory / Margaret Flowers
    The Affordable Care Act ruling won’t heal our ailing health system.
  4. 50 Years of Gutting America’s Middle Class / Stacy Mitchell
    Walmart’s explosive growth has gutted two key pillars of the American middle class: small businesses and well-paid manufacturing jobs.
  5. Save Austerity Measures for the Next Boom / Donald Kaul
    Obama should reject the conservative mantra that equates government and family spending.
  6. The Best Little Chicken Sanctuary in Texas / Jim Hightower
    A flock of feral chickens has lived for years on (the appropriately named) Farm Street in the town of Bastrop.
  7. Our Nation’s Failing Prisons / William A. Collins
    Mere facts and logic can’t compete for influence with the money and clout of the Prison-Industrial complex.
  8. Papers, Please / Khalil Bendib
Papers, Please, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Papers, Please, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Depth of Republican Enthusiasm for Condi Rice Matched by Lack Thereof for Romney

Clearly Condoleezza Rice doesn’t waste time. When she appeared at a special behind-closed-doors luncheon at a Park City, Utah retreat for big money Republican Party donors it was for only 15 minutes. But apparently that was enough to bring down the house. One attendee later told the Washington Post she was the “the star of the show,” and another said that, if it was a vice presidential tryout, “she hit it out of the park.” An international banker from Boston was quoted as saying, “she rocked it.” Former ambassador to Iceland Charles Cobb said Rice was “spectacular” and described her as a “very bright, sophisticated, articulate lady.” According to CBS, “her remarks were widely praised by attendees. One called her brief address “electrifying,”

That might be considered an understatement. A couple from Los Angeles, attending the three-day gathering and “who did not want to be identified’ told the New York Times Rice’s message was one of “America needing to take charge.” “We can’t stand by and let things happen,” the wife said. “If we do, someone else will take that leadership role.”

They both described her address as an “impassioned plea” for the country to “stand up and take charge.”

There is something mysterious about all of this. It’s a little hard to imagine what one could say in 15 minutes that would evoke that kind of reaction described. Perhaps we will never know. If there is a transcript it has not been made public

Rice herself said later, “I talked about the need for American leadership, I talked about the importance of the United States to a more peaceful world, a world that has been quite turbulent in recent years, and needs a strong American anchor,” she said.

“I also talked about the essence of America, and I think perhaps that is what people resonated with, that this is a country in which people really believe that it doesn’t matter where you came from, it matters where you’re going and that we really need to concentrate on rebuilding our strengths as a country of immigrants, a country where it doesn’t really matter your zip code so that you can get a good education, and the need to really pay attention to those strengths so that we can lead from an internal strength at home,” she added.

Two standing ovations for that?

Rice’s “reappearance on the scene, however fleeting, is unhelpful to Mitt Romney,” Carter Eskew wrote in the Washington Post last week. “The Bush administration is a reminder of one of the two main pillars of the Obama campaign: ‘We tried that; it didn’t work.’ Ms. Rice and I do agree on one thing: she said that she is not a very good politician.”

However, she did tout her own ability in the field of policy. But that’s not much of a plus either. She was, after all, an original and leading member of “The Vulcans,” a group that served as a foreign policy advisory team for George W. Bush when he was running for the Presidency. It included Richard Armitage, Robert Blackwill, Stephen Hadley, Richard Perle, Dov S. Zakheim, Robert Zoellick and Paul Wolfowitz, and Scooter Libby, all of whom secured top positions in the new administration, Rice as National Security advisor and later Secretary of State. All of them played key roles in launching the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

(Zakheim recently wrote a book: A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan.)

While we don’t know exactly what Rice said in the two private sessions that appeared to light the lights of the Republican honchos, what reports we have from the fleeting public appearances are consistent with the unilateralism and belittling of world public opinion that marked the Vulcans’ rise and characterized Rice’s stay at the White House and later at the State Department.

“The United States has to have a view, it has to gather people around that view, and frankly, I think we need to do more of that, and the last several years I think we’ve been lacking on that front,” Rice told CBS. She said the U.S. should “make alliance” with those who want to see the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad, evoking memory of the “coalition of the willing” she helped lead into Iraq.

“President Bush was willing, against a lot of criticism, to assert American leadership,” she said, adding: “I’m pretty certain I don’t see that same level of willingness to assert this: That the United States is indeed exceptional, the United States isn’t just the lowest common denominator of what the [United Nations] Security Council can deliver.”

“The international system is a system,” she explained. “It has certain rules, power relationships, and people respond to those,” Rice told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren. “If the United States is not setting that agenda, then someone else will, and that might be a country that doesn’t believe in free markets and free peoples.”

A few days after reportedly bringing down the house in Park City, wrote Chris Moody of Yahoo News, Rice flew to Washington to headline a fundraiser at the Capitol Hill Club, “a private hangout for Republicans” for ShePAC, a new super PAC that supports conservative female candidates. The appearance included “a private foreign policy briefing with sitting female lawmakers and Republican House and Senate candidates from across the country.” “While Rice spoke to the candidates on the third floor of the club, about 150 ShePAC supporters waited in a reception room downstairs, noshing on a spread of roast beef, glazed ham, sweet potato puffs and watermelon soup while bartenders poured glasses of whiskey, vodka and wine in the back,” wrote Moody.

The backdrop and the drama must have been slightly surreal. Moody wrote: “Introduced as the ‘smartest woman in the world,’ Rice emerged from a side kitchen to address the group.”

We have no idea what she said in the upstairs meeting while the activist downstairs steeled themselves for her appearance which when it occurred lasted only 10 minutes. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Rice encouraged the mostly female crowd to keep fighting for America.” “It just has to be that the freest and most compassionate and most generous country on the face of the earth has to continue to be the most powerful,” she said.

“When she finished, Rice promptly exited through a side door without talking to reporters waiting nearby,” Moody reported. “As she walked toward a vehicle waiting in an alley, an aide said she would not be answering questions because she had a scheduled appearance on Fox News later that night and wanted any new comments to be exclusive to the network.”

On June 26, Rice went on “CBS This Morning” where she called for the U.S. to arm opposition fighters in Syria. There she took on the Obama over Syria, arguing that “regional players are already arming the Assad regime and the opposition in pursuit of their own agenda in the Middle Eastern nation.” She cited Iran and Russia as examples of countries arming the Assad regime but she might just as well been talking about Saudi Arabia and Turkey. She later said mysteriously the latter was beginning “to suffer from the instability.”

Rice has had fulsome praise for candidate Romney whom she says will bring “first and foremost an understanding” of “the role the U.S. in the world,” that he understands the “essence” of America, which she called “free markets and free people,” and would be a solid leader on the international stage.

“America has a way of making the impossible seem inevitable in retrospect, and we’re going to do it again,” she said. “We’re going to strengthen ourselves, our democracy at home, we’re going to strengthen our economy, we’re going to do it with great leadership like the people in this room and like Governor Mitt Romney, who will be a terrific president.”

On CBS, Rice contrasted the Obama Administration’s foreign policy with Romney’s “understanding of the role the United States has to play in the world.”

“We need a greater, more assertive America in the world,” Rice said. “The United States can’t lead from behind. The United States has to have a view, it has to gather people around that view, and frankly… the last several years I think we’ve been lacking on that front.”

“We really do need to have a view,” said Rice. “It cannot be the lowest common denominator view of the international community through the Security Council of the U.N., and secondly this really counts on rebuilding our strengths at home, and so the state of our economy, continuing to borrow money that we cannot afford, entitlements, if we don’t get a handle on who we are at home and fix our multiple problems at home then we will not lead.”

“This is a truly consequential election. This is perhaps a turning point for the country. I’m very often asked to speak about the foreign policy aspects and there are some key important foreign policy issues before us,” Rice said at one point. “There are many foreign policy issues on the agenda, but we are not going to address any of those international challenges unless we get it right at home. And it’s not right at home right now, and the American people know it.”

At each appearance Rice said emphatically that she is not a candidate for Romney’s running mate. “Not going to happen,” said, “I love policy, I don’t really love politics.”

“But there are many ways to put together an administration so that you represent all of the challenges that the President of the United States will face and it doesn’t all have to be in the presidency and in the vice presidency.” Rice told Fox News Host Greta Van Susteren. “I am quite certain because I know him and I admire him and I trust his judgment. Governor Romney is going to find the right person for the number two place on the ticket. The most important thing is going to be that it’s somebody who is ready to serve should something, God forbid, happen to the president. That’s the most important characteristic of the vice president and I know he’s going to make a good choice but I know it won’t be me.”

Sounds to me like she’s running for something – secretary of state? — or maybe national security advisor. In any case, it would be nice to know what she said in Utah to the GOP’s big money people that got them so excited.

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.

President Obama Takes Globalization to New Heights

Mark EnglerCross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

With recent revelations about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, it is now safe to say that President Obama has surpassed George W. Bush as a champion of the flawed and offensive ideology of corporate globalization.

This argument requires some explanation. Here’s the backstory: As the Bush administration commenced in the early 2000s, many argued that his foreign policy represented a continuation of the Clinton-era approach to promoting “free trade” neoliberalism overseas. However, I contended that, especially after the launch of the Iraq war in 2003, the unilateralist bullying of the neocons represented a split from past practice.

No doubt, big arms and big oil had their needs met by the Bush agenda. But his administration was wary of multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, which were central instruments of U.S. policy under Clinton. The Bush approach relied on our-way-or-the-highway, coalition-of-the-willing hard power. This made a significant portion of corporate America uncomfortable, especially businesses trying to navigate and expand in foreign markets. It also left the soft-power agenda of “free trade” in an uncertain state.

This was essentially the thesis of my 2008 book, How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy. Around the time the book came out, I wrote:

In October 2007…the Wall Street Journal reported that the [Republican] party could be facing a brand crisis as “[s]ome business leaders are drifting away from the party because of the war in Iraq, the growing federal debt and a conservative social agenda they don’t share.”

When it comes to corporate responses to [Bush’s] Global War on Terror, we mostly hear about the likes of Halliburton and Blackwater—companies directly implicated in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and with the mentality of looters. Such firms have done their best to score quick profits from the military machine. However, there was always a faction of realist, business-oriented Republicans who opposed the invasion from the start, in part because they believed it would negatively impact the U.S. economy. As the [Bush administration’s] adventure in Iraq has descended into the morass, the ranks of corporate complainers have only grown.

The “free trade” elite have become particularly upset about the administration’s focus on go-it-alone nationalism and its disregard for multilateral means of securing influence. This belligerent approach to foreign affairs, they believe, has thwarted the advance of corporate globalization. In an April 2006 column in the Washington Post, globalist cheerleader Sebastian Mallaby laid blame for “why globalization has stalled” at the feet of the Bush administration. The White House, Mallaby charged, was unwilling to invest any political capital in the IMF, the World Bank, or the WTO….Frustrated by Bush’s failures, many in the business elite want to return to the softer empire of corporate globalization and, increasingly, they are looking to the Democrats to navigate this return.

My concern back then was that a Democrat (either Obama or Hillary Clinton) would be elected to office and then abandon the overt militarism and “imperial globalization” of the Bush administration, but embrace a subtler, more multilateralist “free trade” neoliberalism—reclaiming the agenda of corporate globalization. I would have been pleased if this prediction had proved wrong. Sadly, Obama has provided irrefutable evidence that he has boarded the corporate globalist bandwagon.

At the end of the administration’s first year, I gave Obama a “B” for trade policy on a report card for Foreign Policy In Focus. While there was some rumbling about resurrecting stalled bilateral trade deals with Korea, Panama, and Colombia, the administration hadn’t done much to push things forward. Things were quiet. And given the kind of trade deals that Washington has brokered in the last couple decades, no news is good news in this arena.

Unfortunately, by 2011, the administration was pushing these so-called “free trade” deals hard. It succeeded in passing them through Congress and then signing them into law last fall.

Obama’s trade policy grade was plummeting, but new information shows things to be even worse. In the past month the president has officially failed out of “fair trade” class. On June 13, Public Citizen released a leaked document showing that the TPP—a trade agreement being negotiated between the United States and eight Pacific countries under considerable secrecy—is shaping up to be as bad as NAFTA or worse.

Public Citizen wrote in a press release:

Although the TPP has been branded a “trade” agreement, the leaked text of the pact’s Investment Chapter shows that the TPP would:

—Limit how U.S. federal and state officials could regulate foreign firms operating within U.S. boundaries, with requirements to provide them greater rights than domestic firms;

—Extend the incentives for U.S. firms to offshore investment and jobs to lower-wage countries;

—Establish a two-track legal system that gives foreign firms new rights to skirt U.S. courts and laws, directly sue the U.S. government before foreign tribunals and demand compensation for financial, health, environmental, land use and other laws they claim undermine their TPP privileges; and

—Allow foreign firms to demand compensation for the costs of complying with U.S. financial or environmental regulations that apply equally to domestic and foreign firms.

In the weeks since that leak, it has been reported that Mexico and Canada will both be joining TPP talks, setting the stage for the creation of a behemoth trading bloc. This bloc will operate based on rules backed (and often concocted) by corporate lobbyists.

It didn’t have to be this way. It was not preordained that President Obama would become Corporate-Globalizer-in-Chief. The base of the Democratic Party has aligned itself firmly against the “free trade” agenda—so much so that both Obama and Clinton campaigned in 2008 against the NAFTA model and in favor of a “fair trade” alternative. In fact, going into the 2012 elections, there’s evidence that Obama’s betrayal of earlier vows could be a significant liability among voters and a bitter pill for key constituencies the president needs if his campaign is going to overcome the enthusiasm gap between progressives and the Republican faithful.

Yet instead of taking the chance to redefine American interests in the world as something other than securing profits for U.S. businesses, Obama has allowed an ingrained pro-corporate obsequiousness to permeate the office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of State.

It’s not the unilaterist hubris of the Bush administration. But it’s still a detestable foreign policy—and a sorely missed opportunity for something better.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising. You can follow Mark at his Facebook page.

Corporate Accountability In Liberia Gets A Fresh Look

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s first woman president, has been praised internationally for her efforts to address war crimes from the country’s civil war and for negotiating significant debt relief, even winning the Noble Peace Prize as a result. However, a briefing held last Thursday by IPS’ Foreign Policy in Focus coinciding with Sirleaf’s recent visit to the United States drew attention to areas that Sirleaf has failed to adequately address. The event was well attended, with more people than could fit into our conference room.

Emira opening remarksDuring the briefing, two of Liberia’s most important civil society leaders discussed issues of land grabbing, corporate responsibility and worker rights in extractive industries. Alfred Brownell is an environmental justice lawyer with Green Advocates, a Liberian environmental justice advocacy organization. He noted that the level of foreign investment in Liberia is between 18 and 20 billion dollars, pointing out the dangers of relying so heavily on foreign investment when Liberia is still attempting to build its economic foundations in the wake of civil war. He also criticized continuing land grabs by foreign companies such as Sime Darby. While there has been some reimbursement for crops taken in these land grabs, the reimbursement is often far lower than the crops’ actual value. One difficulty that Liberians have faced is that often land claims are based on ancestral rights, and while the people know where their land’s boundaries are, they do not have deeds or leases to prove their ownership. When communities and environmental justice lawyer Brownell filed a complaint against Sime Darby on behalf of the local communities, Sirleaf told local communities and Brownell at a town hall meeting “When your government and the representatives sign any paper with a foreign country, the communities can’t change it. “You are trying to undermine your own government. You can’t do that. If you do so all the foreign investors coming to Liberia will close their businesses and leave, then Liberia will go back to the old days.”

Our two panelistsBrownell was followed by Edwin Cisco, General Secretary of the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL). Firestone is Liberia’s largest producer of rubber, the country’s biggest export, and as such has significant economic and political power. Cisco commended Sirleaf for opening space for workers to advocate for their rights as equals with Firestone, which has led to positive changes including occupational health and safety advances such as establishing a safety department and a community relations committee. The company was pressured into building schools and the plantation is also officially rid of child labor — however, this does not extend all the way through Firestone’s supply chain. Despite progress, as it stands, Liberia’s labor law is centered around Firestone’s needs. Currently, a Decent Work bill is before the National Legislature and would improve working conditions and provide minimum wage standards and overtime regulations. Cisco highlighted the importance of pushing this bill forward and expanding protections to other industries.

Maybe the richest part of the event was the dynamic Q & A that followed. U.S. labor union representatives showed up to give support and learn a thing or two from Edwin Cisco and the Firestone Agricultural Worker’s Union of Liberia’s incredible successes. Liberian-Americans working for human rights and the environment added their voices and shared their visions of a peaceful, just, and representative Liberian leadership. There was tension in the room as the Packed House and PowerPointdialogue shifted from celebrating Sirleaf, particularly her support of workers rights, to keeping her accountable after her appointment of her third son and Senior Adviser as the chairman of the National Oil Company of Liberia. This tension reminded us that searching for black and white solutions to complex problems may feel easier and more satisfying, but that it is the if’s, and’s, but’s and also’s that really serve to provide solutions. Can we celebrate Africa’s first elected woman head of state and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate while raising concern at her appointment of her son to one of the most lucrative and influential positions in the country? Yes. Can we appreciate Sirleaf’s willingness to create space for trade unionists to advocate for their rights, leading to safer working conditions and better schools, while remembering that under her rule massive land grabs are taking place? Yes. Can we celebrate and gain energy from the successes along the way without forgetting all of the work yet to be done? We certainly hope so.

Sudan on Verge of Bankruptcy — Militarily, Economically and Politically

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Amnesty International reports that ahead of a new round of protests against the government in Khartoum, activist Magdi Aqasha, the head of Sharara (Youth for Change), was arrested on the pretext of causing a traffic accident. Sudanese security agents, who used the accident as a pretext to take him in before Friday’s demonstrations begun, were reportedly tailing Aqasha.

Additionally, internet users in Sudan reported that Zain Mobile, one of Sudan’s largest cell phone providers, went down for two hours early on Friday morning, though state-owned media and other private outlets were apparently not affected. Though Zain Sudan’s services are now functioning, the blackout — and the censure of the Arabic-language news outlet Hurriyat Sudan plus three independent dailies — unnerved Sudanese activists and reporters, who expect the next few days to see further crackdowns on demonstrators protesting government austerity measures. There are also rumors that classes at the University of Khartoum and other schools will again be suspended, as they were last winter, as a result of the protests.

The crackdowns have been going on since June 16th, when students from the University of Khartoum took to the streets, supported by opposition parliamentarians in the Sudanese legislature. Protests have now spread across the country. Any demonstrations held on June 30th are expected to draw a large security presence because it is the anniversary of the coup that overthrew the government of PM Sadiq al-Mahdi. Sudan’s leader, then-Brigadier General Omar al-Bashir, led the coup and then appointed himself President in 1993. He has threatened the protestors with draconian measures if they do not disperse, and the students who have led the protests have reportedly been attacked by pro-regime gangs as well.

Human Rights Watch estimates that around 100 demonstrators are still being held without charge after hundreds were arrested over the course of the week and released. Student leaders and journalists1 have been particularly suspect by the security forces. Sudanese journalist Moez Ali tweets that Ahmed Ibrahim Mohammed, Secretary-General of the UMST (University Of Medical Sciences and Technology) Graduates Union was recently arrested, as was “citizen journalist” Usamah Mohammed, who had been covering the demonstrations up until last Friday and compiling “a collection of tips and technical information about the best ways to demonstrate in Sudan and deal with the suppression of the police.”

Though a nationwide telecommunications shutdown has not occurred, the regime is still thought to be manipulating the Internet to quash protests. Lisa Goldman notes that activists have been using Facebook and other websites to organize protests, and Evgeny Morozov has written that in the past, the Sudanese government has “cleverly mixed provocation and intimidation, by publicizing fake protests online and then arresting those who show up.” Some activists fear that police informants are trying to incite people on Twitter.

But despite al-Bashir’s curt, dismissive remarks — he has called those chanting the Arab Spring slogan “the people want to overthrow the regime” pie-in-the-sky “elbow lickers” — his actions evidence a deep sense of unease over the protests (for their part, organizers have taken his words and are calling the planned marches “Elbow-Licking Friday”). The loss of three-quarters of the country’s oilfields to South Sudan in 2011 — and a stalemate in negotiations between Khartoum and Juba over affecting (among other issues) a possible pipeline agreement that could ameliorate the loss of oil revenue — has undercut government spending significantly as inflation, fuel prices and food costs have all risen dramatically. Around 40% of Khartoum’s revenue comes from its oil fields, and the recent clash between Sudan and South Sudan over disputed territory is thought to have cost Khartoum some US$741 million this year.

On top of this, an arm of the southern liberation movement now governing in Juba continues to fight in the Juma Mountains and Blue Nile Province of Sudan, as do other armed groups in Darfur and the southwestern border areas. Khartoum is on the verge of bankruptcy — militarily, economically and politically, opines Eric Reeves at Muftah.org:

… although the regime has vaguely promised to cushion the blow of inflation for food purchases, there are simply no means available to halt the effects of inflation, even for food. A typical food basket that today costs what is deemed an exorbitant 30 Sudanese pounds could very soon cost 60 pounds; and any stabilizing (i.e., subsidizing) of this price at previous price levels (in non-inflated pounds) will then be twice as expensive and will create an even greater budget gap—and more inflation.

The National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) are likely to remain loyal to the end, but the army is potentially another story, especially given the evident rift between the most senior generals now exercising greatest political power in the regime, and the mid-level officer corps. The NIF/NCP ruthlessly purged the army on coming to power in 1989, and effectively destroyed it as an institution in the Egyptian mold. The army has never regained a true esprit de corps, and disaffected officers up to the rank of colonel may soon refuse to obey orders to use violence against protesting civilians.

Sudan is not on the verge of state collapse, Reeves believes. But the economy shows little sign of improving absent an end to fuel subsidies (the governing party’s MPs already struck down attempts to do so) or a pipeline deal with South Sudan: Sudanese economist Yousif Elmahdi even goes to far as to call the country a failed state.

None of this month’s events bodes well for the government, especially if violence escalates and it finds itself confronting major demonstrations all over the country.

1Foreign reporters are also being made to feel unwelcome: Egyptian Bloomberg correspondent Salma El-Wardany was interrogated and then deported from the country this week as a result of her coverage of the demonstrations.

This Ruling Is Good for Your Health

The most conservative Supreme Court in history just upheld the Affordable Care Act as constitutional. This is a victory for American families. It means lower costs, more coverage, and that insurance companies can’t rip us off anymore. It’s the law.

Health care costs are a national crisis. The Court affirmed that our Constitution empowers our elected leaders to create national solutions.

The Court agreed that the rest of us shouldn’t keep paying for free riders. Before the Affordable Care Act, when uninsured people got sick, many of them went to the emergency room. The rest of us ended up paying for their care in the form of higher premiums.

Republican politicians and their corporate funders have wasted taxpayer time and hundreds of millions of dollars attacking the law — and they’ve vowed to keep doing so.

SEIU International / Flickr

SEIU International / Flickr

The Affordable Care Act isn’t perfect. But it’s much better than the old system. Before, more and more families were struggling with bankruptcy when their loved ones suffered serious illnesses. Health costs for small businesses were spiraling out of control. Children with pre-existing conditions were being denied health insurance coverage.

Despite years of polarized debate, a lot of people still don’t know what’s in this law. But this will soon change as senior citizens begin to receive a discount on prescription drugs, health insurance companies are required to provide free preventive care like check-ups and mammograms, and other important parts of the law start to kick in.

Here are three key things insurers won’t be able to do any more:

  • Impose lifetime limits on care,
  • Discriminate against people with preexisting conditions, or
  • Drop your coverage if you get sick.

The Affordable Care Act will improve health care across the nation by protecting us all against free riders and reining in insurance companies. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, virtually all parents will be able to take their kids to the doctor when they get sick.

Elizabeth Rose is the communications director of Campaign for America’s Future. www.ourfuture.org
Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)

What Have These Ultra-Orthodox Jews Got Against Honoring Holocaust Victims?

Neturei KartaHave you ever felt you knew less about a news item after you read an article about it? That’s the state in which an article at Haaretz by Oz Rosenberg and Chaim Levenson on June 26 left us. It was bedecked with a title that was puzzling as it was provocative: Three ultra-Orthodox men arrested for vandalizing Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

As if that wasn’t enough cognitive dissonance, the reporters explained that the three suspects (ages 18, 26, and 27) were not only accused of vandalizing the memorial as well as another in April (Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill memorial site), but their vandalism took the form of anti-Zionist slogans. It’s strange enough for ultra-Orthodox Jews to be vandalizing Holocaust memorials, but anti-Zionist, too?

Working backward, since when do ultra-Orthodox Jews (haredim) stand in opposition to the Jewish state? Since 1938, it turns out, if they’re part of Neturei Karta. Members of this sect walk like haredim and they talk like haredim, but, according to Neturei Karta International, their view of the Jewish state stands in stark contrast with most haredim.

Neturei Karta followers do not participate in “Israeli” elections nor do they accept any aid from “Bituach Le’Umi” (Social Security), and the educational institutions of the Neturei Karta reject any form of financial support from the [Department of Education].

In fact

Neturei Karta oppose the so-called “State of Israel” not because it operates secularly, but because the entire concept of a sovereign Jewish state is contrary to Jewish Law [and] in direct conflict with a number of Judaism’s fundamentals. … The Talmud … teaches that Jews shall not use human force to bring about the establishment of a Jewish state before the coming of the universally accepted Moshiach [Messiah].

Furthermore, they believe:

Jews are not allowed to dominate, kill, harm or demean another people and [they are] against dispossessing the Arabs of their land and homes. According to the Torah, the land should be returned to them.

Returning to the Haaretz piece:

At least 10 slogans were found on the walls outside the museum, with slogans such as: “Hitler, thank you for the Holocaust”, “If Hitler did not exist, the Zionists would have invented him”, and “Zionists! You declared war on Hitler in the name of the Jewish people, you brought upon the Holocaust.”

In fairness, presumably these young men were “rogue” Neturei Karta. Though Googling the phrases “Neturei Karta condemn Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial vandalism” and “Neturei Karta condemn Ammunition Hill memorial vandalism” returns nothing relevant. Why do they invoke Hitler?

After reading the quotes over a couple of times (okay, about ten), I finally began to appreciate their sense of irony. The first two quotes are meant to be read from the perspective of Zionists who are supposedly in debt to Hitler because the Holocaust helped them justify the creation of the Jewish state. The third is some variation on that which I was unable to grasp; we’ll return to it. Anyway they seem like the extreme end of those who — foremost among them Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry — charge Israel with using the Holocaust to win sympathy and justify its aggression and oppression.

A friend who’s a veteran Israel watcher agrees and notes that “it’s really interesting what they’ve done.”

In rightwing, Zionist discourse, “Hitler” lives, if only as a figure to use to justify negative treatment of the Palestinians.

But, he adds:

The Arab world, in [Zionist] worldview, is ideologically consistent with that of Hitlerian fascism, and its genocidal politics. Therefore Zionism continues to make war on Hitler and Nazism. [For the young men, it's] a sarcastic way of criticizing Bibi and his ilk, but irony is important to Jewish politics.

Regarding the third quote — “Zionists! You declared war on Hitler in the name of the Jewish people, you brought upon the Holocaust.” — he writes:

Aside from it being a possible criticism of how mired in the 20th century the present government and its supporters are, it’s also a potential double entendre, if you take Bibi’s sabre rattling against Iran seriously. Any attack by Israel on Iran will result in massive civilian casualties in Israel, as well.

Substitute President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khameini for Hitler. Thus war with Iran

…may not be another Holocaust, but Israel has never suffered any substantial civilian casualties as a consequence of its military engagements, of that kind. This government risks that with its positioning on Iran. Therefore you could read the “responsibility for the Holocaust” rhetoric as though it were a warning. It would not be out of place.

What’s ironic about it is that they’re attributing responsibility for the rise of a new fascism and a new holocaust to Bibi, by placing him in the past. [Emphasis added.]

On the surface, Neturei Karta bear a certain resemblance to Reverend Fred Phelps and his Westboro (Kansas) Baptist Church members protesting at the funerals of war veterans with signs bearing slogans such as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” But Neturei Karta deserves respect for its condemnation of Israeli oppression of Palestine.

Chief Justice Roberts Saves the Day

Chief Justice RobertsChief Justice Roberts saves the day
Angers the Right that he voted this way

The individual mandate won’t get the axe
The Court just affirmed that the key is the tax

Don’t want to comply? Well here are the facts:
Don’t buy the insurance, just pay the tax

So — sick people, kids, the poor and the wealthy
Can now pay through the nose
To profiteers to be healthy.

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