IPS Blog

Syria’s Atamans

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Atamanschina” is a Russian word that translates to “time of the atamans.” It refers to the period of the Russian Civil War when anti-Bolshevik Cossack bands — led by their “atamans” — dominated large swaths of Siberia with Japanese backing. These bands’ “anti—Bolshevik” campaigns were characterized mainly by pogroms against local populations and systematic extortion of refugees.

While Syria’s opposition — in larger part due to international (in)action — faces these pitfalls at present, it is Damascus’s forces that bear the greatest resemblance to these long-dead atamans. Despite the under-strength, under-armed and sometimes brutal actions of the anti-Assad armed opposition, the Assad regime already has its own Cossack hosts, in the form of its shabiha paramilitaries, and its most trusted atamans are the Syrian President’s relatives.

The dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh notes that this relationship is termed “al-salbata” in Syrian Arabic, and “is a uniquely Syrian term for the way in which state authority is exercised in Assad’s Syria: It is an amalgamation of salab (looting or plundering), labat (the act of knocking someone down) and tasallut (the unfettered exercise of power).” Alongside it is the phrase “al-taballi … roughly equivalent to ‘informing,’” which “means falsely accusing a person of doing something for which they will pay a heavy price.” Such statements often mean a one-way trip to the torture chambers run by a counter-intelligence-obsessed regime. The Syrian national security establishment is led by minority officers, and have long been dependent on brute force and extortion to maintain order. Their strongest supporters are those who’ve most benefitted from official largesse — from institutionalized discrimination and extraction, that is — and they must hope that those who haven’t benefitted remain cowed and distrustful of an armed opposition with Islamist and (other) foreign influences. It is, increasingly, a losing bet.

So far, it has worked within Syria. The Syrian Army, despite its setbacks and fear of defeat, continues to hold or contest the main population centers. Defections are reportedly limited, and the regime’s forces are (usually) better-armed and possess numerical superiority over their opponents. And the Ba’athist repressive machine still operates on a national scale. The fact that Syria has not collapsed entirely, according to Peter Harling and Sarah Birke, is because overall, the opposition’s “efforts are what have kept society together, despite a growing and worrying pattern of confessional, criminal and revenge-inspired violence” — that is, most activists’ refusal to play ataman themselves along the lines Yassin al-Haj Saleh has documented.

And most importantly, no single unified force exists domestically to organize resistance to Assad. Some of the severely divided opposition groups that exist, inside or outside of Syria, armed and not, have so far failed to secure support for direct foreign military intervention as occurred in Libya last year despite their lobbying for it.

Unlike Assad, who aside from Iranian largesse (and Russo-Chinese diplomacy) depends mainly on foreign inaction to stay in power, the armed opposition grows desperate for direct foreign assistance from NATO and the GCC. In the West, for some observers it is only a matter of time until the Iranian elephant in the CENTCOM situation room is cited to massively increase assistance to anti-regime militias, with all parties seeking out their favored agents of influence. Tokyo threw money, advisors and arms at its favored Siberian proxies — so too will the US and Saudi Arabia.

A political solution cannot occur without a military one, but a military solution alone — one that does nothing to address the constant disruptions of ordinary life, at the very least — does not guarantee stability or security, even in the short term.

While armed Sunni companies kitted out with the latest MILAN anti-tank missiles and liaising with officers from, hypothetically, SOCOM or the Saudi National Guard, may be able to fight better against Assad, the temptation for such groups to increasingly rely on their foreign support to supplant the state’s forces as the powers-that-be will be great. People could be effectively trading one national dictatorship for local ones when such armed bands roll into town.

However, for many Syrians this is a purely academic consideration. Support for the armed opposition, or direct intervention from, say, the Turkish Army, would be more than acceptable. It could mean an end to the shelling, torture and sniping carried out by Assad’s forces in their towns. It could mean the possibility of averting another Houla massacre — the recent murder of almost 100 Syrian civilians, reportedly by Alawite shabiha, in villages near Homs — that are regularly occurring throughout the country. Worrying over the SNC and Muslim Brotherhood’s bickering, Kurdish separatism and the machinations of Iraqi opportunists in Al Anbar, comes far behind the urgency of not being shot at while crossing the street, or finding ways to get local life return to some semblance of normalcy: food deliveries, electricity access, restoration of sanitation services.

But if NATO and the GCC members really did desire to give Syrians the space in which to advance their own self-determination, their civilian leaders would have prioritized far sooner offering international aid to the Syrian populace where and when they can. Factionalism within the Syrian political opposition is exacerbated by wartime exigencies — opposition councils in Syrian cities must manage much with very little while groping towards a cohesive national resistance. With clearer non-military logistical and diplomatic support, presented as fait accomplis to Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Yang Jiechi — Assad’s two greatest international assets right now — as the last stop before providing military support to anti-regime militias, the “Friends of Syria” would had a stronger hand to push the Assad regime’s supporters to choose among desertion, defection or defiance. Now, the US is trying to push a “Yemeni” outcome as the UN Supervision Mission looks even more irrelevant. It could be possible to avert “ten years” of festering civil war by pushing that choice. By making it so that it is not only a choice between a President Bashar al Assad or a General Mustafa al-Sheikh. But as the Dubai School of Government’s Fadi Salem noted, “‘The world’ does not exist. Individual powers have conflicting interests on Syria. The humanitarian lens doesn’t apply.”

The Independent’s Musa Okwonga likewise noted this weekend, despite “widespread knowledge of atrocities,” “vested interests keep the slaughter going.” That is the primary risk of escalating Syria’s proxy battles along existing ethno-sectarian fault lines. And should foreign support dry up and the anti-regime militias lose support among Syrians, then initiative may return to the Assads. When you eliminate all the alternatives, you are left with only one victorious force. In Russia, that was the Bolsheviks. And it was the Bolsheviks who, in the years after the victory over the atamans, unleashed industrial-scale pogroms and extortions that far dwarfed the puppet atamans’ own depredations. That is the price of arming the opposition — and then casting them aside once they’ve served the purpose their armorers had in mind: foils to Tehran, Salafist agents of influence, “humanitarian” success story — all of which fall well short of the stated goal of effecting a political transition in Syria. The final stretch of the 20th century has seen so many stillborn policies birthed from such interventions in Bosnia, in Afghanistan, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Iraq, in Somalia. Conflicts left to fester when attention moved on, or when the world grew tired of dashed expectations for “peace.” Syria would not be an exception, so once again, it is necessary for commentators to ask proponents of these policies where the “responsibility to protect” begins and ends. As Jillian C. York has noted, many of those in the Syrian Army are hardly serving there by choice or out of any sense of loyalty to the regime — any political solution must bear this in mind.

While foreign military intervention remains an extremely destabilizing choice, yet more and more Syrians may be willing to accept it, to accept anything that ends with Assad’s departure from Syria, one way or another. As a result, there are fewer and fewer avenues leading away from an incipient “Atamanischina,” actions that avert “Lebanonization”. But looking down what avenues are left, how much of a price can Syrians be expected to pay waiting for the “right” policy to appear on the horizon, and how long can all this go on as those “vested interests” move to arm their favored parties in order to secure “influence” in the country?

Quebec’s Student Revolt Goes Viral

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

Quick: name the Canadian Prime Minister.

If you got it, congratulations. Otherwise, don’t worry. Those of you who drew a blank, or who took an uncomfortably long time to come up with an answer, are within a safe majority in the United States.

It is a testament to American insularity that people in the United States feel no obligation to pay any attention to the country that shares thousands of miles of our northern border. About a decade ago, one of the more popular comedy bits on Canadian television was a segment called “Talking to Americans,” in which the host convinced ordinary people stateside to do things like congratulate Canada on completing its first 800 miles of paved road or to sign a petition protesting the government’s reinstatement of the “Toronto polar bear slaughter.” (It wasn’t just yokels off the street, either; prominent individuals also got punked. Then–presidential candidate George W. Bush, for one, famously showed that he was not in on the joke when asked what he thought of an endorsement by Canadian Prime Minister “Jean Poutine.”)

Given this long-standing neglect of Canada, maybe it’s no shock that it took some 100 days of massive, concerted protest before the student strike in Québec finally started getting traction in the U.S. media. Maybe the surprise is that it broke through at all—and that the strike may yet provide a resonant example for young people in this country suffering an epidemic of student debt.

It’s always interesting to watch a social movement become a mass media phenomenon, as the Québec student strikes have started to become in the last week. It is rarely remembered that Occupy Wall Street was a virtual non-story through its first week, even in most of the alternative press. Many of the stories that did run sentenced that movement to irrelevance. It was only around day nine or ten of the occupation in New York City, after some startling video of police abuse started circulating online, that journalists decided that this was something they should be paying attention to. The movement snowballed from there.

I think we are now witnessing the same sense of escalating momentum with regard to the Québec students. The details of the protests against rising tuition fees and mounting student debt, which began in February, have long been available. Yet, as of late April, one of the few stories on the subject in the United States accurately dubbed the protests “The Biggest Student Uprising You’ve Never Heard Of.”

The lack of attention wasn’t due to a lack of numbers. Hundreds of thousands in Québec had rallied on March 22. That’s more than either the Tea Party or Occupy ever turned out for their protests—and the Québécois were drawing from a much smaller population.

Nor was the neglect a product of insufficient confrontation. As the Chronicle of Higher Education had reported:

The strike has been supported by near-daily protest actions ranging from family-oriented rallies to building occupations and bridge blockades, and, more recently, by a campaign of political and economic disruption directed against government ministries, crown corporations, and private industry. Although generally peaceful, these actions have met with increasingly brutal acts of police violence: Student protesters are routinely beaten, pepper-sprayed, and tear-gassed by riot police, and one, Francis Grenier, lost an eye after being hit by a flashbang grenade at close range. Meanwhile, college and university administrators have deployed a spate of court injunctions and other legal measures in an unsuccessful attempt to break the strike, and Québec’s premier, Jean Charest, remains intransigent in spite of growing calls for his government to negotiate with student leaders.

In part, the protesters didn’t need the U.S. press. Students at French-speaking universities in Québec have a stronger history of activism than their Anglophone counterparts, and French-language media gave the story serious coverage in its early months. But that’s no excuse for the English-speaking media’s slow response.

What finally seemed to do the trick was an act of government overreach: the passage of an anti-protest bill called Law 78. As Salon’s Natasha Lennard reported:

In a move indicative of a leadership grasping for control, the provincial government passed Law 78 in mid-May. Attempting to end the strikes and force the reopening of the universities, the law in no uncertain terms makes protest illegal. Groups planning demonstrations with more than 50 expected participants, according to Law 78, must inform the police in writing at least eight hours in advance of the protest with details of time, location, size and duration. More perturbing still, expressing support for demonstrations and strikes deemed unpermitted under Law 78 renders one guilty of that offense and liable to face the same steep fines.

Last week, coinciding with the 100th day of the student strike, massive crowds took to the streets in defiance of Law 78. Organizers hailed the demonstrations of Tuesday, May 22, when as many as 500,000 people marched wearing red squares (the symbol of the protest), as the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Daily protests have continued, and total arrests from the strike now exceed 2,500.

In the wake of the strike’s hundredth day, I was pleased to see stories about the Québec students start popping up like spring tulips, with viral videos like this one sprouting widely through Facebook feeds.

Welcoming the newfound attention, one well-put “Open Letter to the Mainstream English Media” had this to say to reporters joining the fray:

Thank you; you are a little late to the party, and you are still missing the mark a lot of the time, but in the past few days, you have published some not entirely terrible articles and op-eds about what’s happening in Québec right now. Welcome to our movement.

Some of you have even started mentioning that when people are rounded up and arrested each night, they aren’t all criminals or rioters. Some of you have admitted that perhaps limiting our freedom of speech and assembly is going a little bit too far. Some of you are no longer publishing lies about the popular support that you seemed to think our government had. Not all of you, mind you, but some of you are waking up.

That said, here is what I have not seen you publish yet: stories about joy; about togetherness; about collaboration; about solidarity. You write about our anger, and yes, we are angry. We are angry at our government, at our police and at you. But none of you are succeeding in conveying what it feels like when you walk down the streets of Montreal right now, which is, for me at least, an overwhelming sense of joy and togetherness.

The author is right to call out the smug op-eds that have appeared. There are plenty to choose from. Social movements in Québec have long helped keep the cost of tuition low, and this is now being used against the students. Since they pay less than students in other Canadian provinces, the argument goes, young people in Québec must be insufferable whiners if they object to rising fees. This is the same logic with which all unionized U.S. workers with decent health care and pensions are told they should have to give up these benefits upon entering a contract fight, since so much of the workforce doesn’t get them. It is the local incarnation of neoliberalism’s famous race to the bottom.

Kudos to students in Ontario, who pay some of the highest tuition in Canada, for refusing to buy in. Instead of begrudging neighboring Québecers their lower fees, they’re ready to demand some for themselves. And given that the strike seems only to be gaining momentum, they might not be the only ones outside Québec to join in protest against crippling student debt.

Better late than never. I’m putting on my red square.

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.

Drone Strikes Magically Transform Dead Civilians Into Assassinated Militants

Though with decreased frequency, drone attacks continue in Pakistan The latest, reports the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, were in Waziristan, on May 28:

CIA drones returned to the attack in North Waziristan for the fourth time in six days, with a strike on the village of Khassokhel. … Up to seven people were killed in the bombing of a house. … A second missile attack destroyed a vehicle in datta Khel. … Up to four alleged militants died in the second strike of the day.

We all know that drone attacks create enemies and drive civilians into the arms of militants. But, with even more dark irony, civilians killed in drone strikes are liable to become militants posthumously, when they weren’t in life, due to fuzzy accounting.

Drones, with their promise of precision, are seductive to policy makers. As an article in the New York Times by Jo Becker and Scott Shane and a new book by Daniel Klaidman excerpted at Newsweek make clearer than ever before, President Obama succumbed to their siren call and he has fallen for it. Becker and Shane write:

It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die. … He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan — about a third of the total.

But, never fear:

A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions.

And not just President Obama, but his counterterrorism advisor.

“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

Gag reflex successfully suppressed, we’ll move on to Klaidman, who writes:

The president is not a robotic killing machine.

Thanks for clearing that up. In practice, though the definition of a terrorist was stretched. Becker and Shane again.

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. [But the] C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

What’s more, they write:

In Pakistan, Mr. Obama had approved not only “personality” strikes aimed at named, high-value terrorists, but “signature” strikes that targeted training camps and suspicious compounds in areas controlled by militants. [Men] loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.

As often happens, the protection of those who need it most — innocents in proximity to the enemy — is tossed by the wayside in the rush to kill the enemy.

Top Democrats Push Obama on Capital Controls

At a point in the election season when politicians of the same party tend to sweep their differences under the rug, two senior Democrats have sent a strong letter to the Obama administration on a subject unknown to most American voters.

Barney Frank and Sander Levin had strong words on capital controls for the Obama administration.

Barney Frank and Sander Levin had strong words on capital controls for the Obama administration.

This is the issue of capital controls — various measures governments use to control volatile flows of money across their borders. Iceland, for example, used them to prevent massive capital flight in the midst of their meltdown. Other countries have used them to prevent speculative bubbles. In fact, governments that used capital controls during the 2008 crisis were among the least hard-hit, according to International Monetary Fund research.

However, despite their proven effectiveness in many cases, these policy tools are prohibited by U.S. trade and investment policies. Particularly in the wake of the worst financial crisis in 80 years, it’s an embarrassingly outmoded position that only serves the narrow short-term interests of global financiers and corporations.

Thankfully, two top Democrats are not willing to just overlook the problem. In a letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Representatives Barney Frank and Sander Levin stated they could not support U.S. trade agreements unless the administration produces a “binding interpretation” of U.S. policy clarifying that governments would not be subject to investor lawsuits if they use this policy tool to manage financial volatility.

Frank is the ranking Member of the Financial Services Committee, while Levin is the leading Democrat on trade policy as the ranking Member of the Ways and Means Committee. They are part of a growing chorus calling for trade reforms to allow greater flexibility on capital controls. In fact, in their letter to Geithner, they cited a statement signed by more than 250 economists calling for such changes in U.S. policy.

The Frank-Levin letter comes at a key moment. In April, the Obama administration released a new model U.S. bilateral investment treaty. Despite strong calls for reform from public interest representatives on an official advisory body, the new model maintains the old language prohibiting capital controls, with no exceptions for times of financial crisis. Governments that violate such rules face the prospect of being sued by foreign investors in international tribunals.

The administration intends to use this new model as the template for bilateral investment treaties with China, India, and several other countries. It’s also a strong indication of what they’re seeking in ongoing negotiations over a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement involving at least eight other governments.

By stepping up pressure from Congress, Frank and Levin may help alter the outcome of these negotiations. By showing that the views of U.S. officials are not monolithic, they may embolden negotiators from other countries who are seeking a more reasonable approach. Two of the governments involved in the Trans-Pacific talks, Singapore and Chile, sought exemptions for the use of capital controls to prevent crises when they negotiated bilateral trade agreements with the United States about a decade ago. At that time, the Bush administration refused to concede, beyond putting some modest limits on how much investors could demand in compensation for certain types of controls.

Today, we have the opportunity to apply lessons from a financial crisis caused by poorly controlled financial activities. And it’s never been clearer that financial stability at home and abroad is essential for U.S. economic health. When our trading partners fall into financial crisis, we lose export markets and jobs. When hot money makes it impossible to control currency values, it hurts long-term investors and exporters and importers from the United States.

It’s in all of our interest to support a fresh, flexible approach to capital controls.

When Old Hawks Retract Their Talons

In recent years, the annals of national security are replete with retired generals expressing second thoughts about how militarized the United States has become. The latest is Gen. (Ret.) James Cartwright, who chairs the Global Zero movement’s U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission, which recently issued a report titled Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture. It’s a radical departure from what you’d expect from a former chief of STRATCOM (the United States Strategic Command), which includes the U.S. nuclear-weapons arsenal.

At Foreign Policy, J. Peter Scoblic writes that “Cartwright is challenging the nuclear status quo in a way that few Washington elites with such credibility on the subject have dared to do.” The report, Scoblic explains, argues that the United States could

… reduce the number of nuclear weapons it deploys by two-thirds and the number of warheads it keeps in reserve by nearly 90 percent. [This] would force the United States to step across a line that separates existing nuclear doctrine from one that it has done its damnedest to avoid for decades, shifting from “counterforce” [targeting the nuclear weapons of, for instance, Russia] toward “countervalue” [other targets, as Scoblic explains below].

By suggesting that the United States limit its deployable weapons to several hundred, he has explicitly chosen a number that would eliminate the U.S. ability to conduct a preemptive, decapitating strike against [Russia’s] nuclear weapons and eliminate its ability to retaliate. … Instead, [the wepons’] greatest utility would shift primarily to destroying larger, softer targets — economic hubs, military-industrial facilities, population centers, and the like — in retaliation for an enemy strike. As Cartwright told me, this would represent a “significant departure from our existing posture.” It’s much closer to a “countervalue” strategy.

As Scoblic concedes, “Calls for lower numbers are not new, certainly not from groups dedicated to nuclear disarmament like the one Cartwright worked with — and not even among former heads of Strategic Command.”

He’s referring to one of the most dramatic examples of a former general calling for the United States to reconsider arming itself to its teeth. In 1997, Gen. George Lee Butler created an impact when he delivered a speech and presented a disarmament manifesto signed by 60 retired generals and admirals from nuclear states. Among other things, he said:

“We need to think more boldly in terms of immediate initiatives. … We need to move beyond the sort of lock step, numbers-driven, phase-down, years-at-a-time, arms-control reductions of the cold war.”

One of the few American generals to request the use of nuclear weapons after World War II was Douglas MacArthur while he was chief of the U.N. Command during the Korean War. Part of his rationale? As I posted recently: “Sweeten up my B-29 force.”

It’s not commonly known, but even MacArthur mellowed. After the Bay of Pigs, President John F. Kennedy met with MacArthur in a courtesy call that extended to the whole afternoon because of Kennedy’s intrigue by what MacArthur had to say. Kenneth O’Donnell reported for Life Magazine in 1970:

MacArthur implored the president to avoid a U.S. military build-up in Vietnam, or any other part of the Asian mainland, because he felt that the domino theory was ridiculous in the nuclear age. MacArthur went on to point out that there were domestic problems — the urban crisis, the ghettos, the economy — that should have far more priority than Vietnam.

MacArthur regaled Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, with similar advice. In MacArthur: Volume III, Triumph and disaster, 1945-1964 by Doris Clayton James wrote:

President Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat) once visited the ailing Douglas MacArthur (a Republican) at his Waldorf Astoria Hotel Tower residence in New York. Johnson sought the advice of the old commander about the Vietnam War shortly before the general’s death in 1964. Specifically, the President asked MacArthur about the fast expanding Vietnam War and what the increasing US military presence should do.

MacArthur’s lecture was brief. He said the US should not get involved in any kind of war on the Asian mainland because it has no known boundaries. The old warrior specifically referred to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), and Thailand as countries without fixed boundaries, but separated only by deep ravines, rivers, and rain forests.

Most retired generals who share the perspective they’ve gained on how militarized the United States has become are marginalized. But when someone of the stature of MacArthur speaks, it seems to at least give presidents pause. The equivalent today would be if current CIA head and full-time celebrity-general James Petraeus issued cautionary words about our national-security policy. Unfortunately, he neither gives any indication of fading away nor of backing down from his hawkish stances.

Verizon Shortchanges the Facts

Verizon’s corporate communications director published a guest column a few weeks ago in the Meriden, Connecticut Record-Journal that recently came to our attention.

Bob Varettoni’s column responded to our Shortchanging America op-ed distributed via OtherWords, which the Record-Journal also published. In it, he invoked Sgt. Joe Friday, the Dragnet TV show character who always called for “just the facts.” But Varettoni skewed many of his own so-called facts to paint a picture that bears little resemblance to the concerns we raised.

Our op-ed raised three principal concerns about Verizon’s lack of corporate responsibility. First, we argued that Verizon is so successful at avoiding federal corporate income taxes that it claimed refunds of $758 million over the last four years, despite reporting pre-tax profits of nearly $20 billion. Second, we said that Verizon has been a major job destroyer over the last four years. Finally, we asserted that Verizon has a contentious relationship with its primary labor union.

Federal Corporate Income Taxes

Varettoni met our challenge concerning Verizon’s lack of federal income tax payment with broad and largely unsubstantiated claims that last year Verizon paid $4 billion in total taxes. That number appears to include all the taxes Verizon paid in 2011. That would mean all U.S. foreign, state, property taxes, payroll taxes, even perhaps sales taxes on merchandise purchased. We don’t know for sure, because he doesn’t say. This is a common shift-the-focus corporate strategy, particularly among the several dozen firms like Verizon that have turned avoiding federal corporate income taxes into an art form.

We are addressing the fact that Verizon has successfully dodged its federal corporate income taxes. In the tax footnotes of its annual reports, Verizon reports it “current federal income taxes” as follows:

  • 2011: $193 million
  • 2010: —$705 million
  • 2009: —$611 million
  • 2008: $365 million

Current income taxes represents the company’s best estimate of taxes due and payable in a given year. Companies also report “deferred taxes.” These are taxes which may or may not be payable in future years, due to various loopholes in the corporate tax code. We, and most other observers, use current taxes as the best representation of taxes actually paid. Like most companies, Verizon prepares its annual reports in the spring, but doesn’t file its federal tax forms until September. It’s therefore possible that there are slight differences between the estimates in the annual report and the actual numbers reported to the IRS, but these differences are generally small and not material.

In our op-ed, we cite more detailed analysis performed by the non-partisan, widely respected research organization, Citizens for Tax Justice. It’s frequently called to testify before Congress and is widely cited as a tax authority in mainstream media publications. This organization takes the current tax number presented by companies and performs additional adjustments to correct for the federal tax effect of state taxes paid and stock-based executive compensation. In its most recent analysis, Citizens for Tax Justice found that Verizon’s four-year federal effective tax rate was minus 3.8 percent.

Varettoni asserts that our calculation of $19.8 billion in profits is wildly overstated. Our $19.8 billion number is U.S. pre-tax profits as reported in the tax footnotes of Verizon’s Forms 10-K. Taxes are calculated off of this pre-tax number. Varettoni cites Verizon’s lower after-tax profits.

If Verizon had paid the full 35 percent federal tax rate on its $19.8 billion in reported U.S. pre-tax profits between 2008 and 2011, the Federal Treasury would have received a $6.93 billion check from Verizon, instead of returning $758 million to the company. This is a difference of nearly $7.7 billion. In his rebuttal, Varettoni points to Verizon’s 2011 charitable contribution of $66 million to local communities. Does he really believe that Sgt. Friday, having caught a pickpocket who had lifted wallets containing thousands of dollars, would release said suspect upon learning that he had dropped five bucks in the church collection plate?

Those interested in learning more about Verizon’s aggressive pursuit of taxpayer subsidies and avoidance of taxes at all level of government should read Unpaid Bills: How Verizon Shortchanges Government Through Tax Dodges and Subsidies. This report from Citizens for Tax Justice and Good Jobs First shows that Verizon is one of the country’s most aggressive tax dodgers and documents Verizon’s behavior, which goes so far as to challenge local property taxes imposed on telephone poles.

Job Destruction

Varettoni argued that our claim of 40,000 jobs destroyed since 2004 is overstated. He points out that 9,000 of those jobs were shed when Verizon sold a piece of its business to Frontier Communication in 2010. We’ll have to take his word for this, because the company makes no such disclosure in its 2010 annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (the very source that Mr. Varettoni suggests readers consult). Unlike many companies that include information about material transfers of employees involved in acquisitions or disposals in the “employee” section of their Form 10-K, Verizon makes no such mention. The company does include a five-paragraph description of its disposal of assets to Frontier (Note 3 of 2010 Form 10-K), which includes a sentence that mentions in passing some employees that were shifted from Verizon to Frontier, it doesn’t however quantify the number of employees affected, nor provide the reader any sense that a large number of employees were involved.

Varettoni also tried to defend Verizon by pointing out that 12,000 jobs were cut as a result of voluntary buyouts of union workers. A job lost whether through involuntary layoff or voluntary buyout, is nonetheless a job not available to an American worker. If we accept Varettoni’s assertion that 9,000 employees were transferred as a part of the Frontier deal, Verizon still destroyed 31,000 jobs globally between 2004 and 2011.

Union Relations

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the largest labor strike of 2011 involved 45,000 unionized Verizon employees. That work stoppage entailed 450,000 days of lost work.

The contentious relations between Verizon and its union can be seen at this Communications Workers of America union website which nicknames the corporation “Verigreedy.” This paints a very different picture than the one of two sides seeking to work things out Varettoni painted.

Varettoni asserts that 150 people were inside Verizon’s annual meeting, but makes no mention of the hundreds more who assembled outside and marched through the streets of Huntville, AL. Local media reports reveal the anger expressed within the meeting itself, noting that workers who protested their treatment by the company were escorted by police from the meeting hall. Photos of the outdoor protests can be viewed here.

Clarifications

Varettoni asserts that our report of Verizon’s $106 billion in sales last year was incorrect. On this point he’s correct. We used the Fortune 500 2011 listing which itself reported 2010 data. Verizon’s 2010 sales were $106 billion; its 2011 revenues were $111 billion, as he correctly states. Verizon currently ranks No. 15 on the Fortune 500 list.

The Lineup: Week of May 28-June 3, 2012

In this week’s OtherWords editorial package, Salvatore Babones calls for a flat tax on Social Security that would enable the government to make the payroll tax cut permanent. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. Social Security’s Dual-Income Trap / Salvatore Babones
    Families with two breadwinners can end up paying more than twice as much in Social Security taxes as families with just one income.
  2. Pentagon Spending Spree / Elizabeth Rose
    Throwing money at the military doesn’t buy us safety.
  3. The Changing Face of America / Marc Morial
    While the African-American and Latino communities are growing, our fight for civil rights and equality is far from over.
  4. Diplomacy Is the Only Way Forward with Iran / Laicie Olson
    The parties must come to a compromise through negotiations.
  5. Walmart’s Unsurprising Bribes / Donald Kaul
    Bribery is as American as apple pie.
  6. Lobby Responsibly / Jim Hightower
    Anheuser-Busch and other big brewers blocked a Nebraska bill that would have curbed sales targeted at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
  7. What Medical Mistakes? / William A. Collins
    Privilege rules at U.S. hospitals and patients are at the mercy of powerful players who operate with impunity.
  8. United States of Walmart / Khalil Bendib
The United States of Walmart, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

The United States of Walmart, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Is the Pope’s Butler the Vatican’s Bradley Manning?

The story that the personal butler of Pope Benedict VVI, the man who helped dress him and who rode in the front seat of the “popemobile,” was person who provided documents implicating papal figures in corruption to journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi is almost too good to be true. The media is jumping all over “the butler did it” angle.

But despite Paolo Gabriele’s arrest, Philip Pullella of Reuters reports:

A priest who knows Gabriele told the newspaper La Stampa on Saturday that he was “a man of simplicity” who would not have been able to organise a campaign of leaks.

Some commentators

… speculated that he may have been a pawn in a larger, internal power struggle, the words “scapegoat”, “plot” and “conspiracy” tripping off their tongues. … “This is a strategy of tension, an orgy of vendettas and pre-emptive vendettas that has now spun out of the control of those who thought they could orchestrate it,” … Church historian Alberto Melloni wrote in the Corriere della Sera newspaper, saying it was part of a power struggle among cardinals in the Curia, the Vatican’s central administration.

Pullella concludes:

It remains to be seen if the papal butler, if he is guilty, was a lone idealistic whistleblower, or a victim of that nest.

On other words, let’s not rush to judgment and make of Paolo Gabriele either a criminal or a hero. Only time will tell if he’s the Vatican’s Bradley Manning.

U.S. Thinks Road to Bahrain’s Heart Is Through Its Appetite for Weaponry

Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.

Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.

Pizza Hut’s Crown Crust Pizza is a good metaphor for up the US’s Bahrain policy: stuff ’em full of meats and cheeses in the hopes that such largesse predisposes them to better hear us out on human rights. This month the US lifted restrictions on a host of sales to the Bahraini military, going well beyond previous exemptions made since the 2011 freeze on a US$53 million arms deal, reportedly in the hopes of raising the profile of Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa at home following his visit to the US:

“The administration didn’t want the crown prince to go home empty-handed because they wanted to empower him,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who was arrested in Bahrain while documenting protests there last month. “They placed a lot of hope in him, but he can’t deliver unless the king lets him and right now the hard-liners in the ruling family seem to have the upper hand.”

The crown prince has been stripped of many of his official duties recently, but is still seen as the ruling family member who is most amenable to working constructively with the opposition and with the United States.

Problem is, several commentators have noted, is that often times after a big meal the last thing you want to do is talk. The Crown Prince is thought to be facing down a hardline clique helmed by the Defense Minister Khalifa bin Ahmad and his brother, Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad who have conspired to force the prince out of his perch in the Defense Ministry to buttress the Sunni factions that reject dialogue with the opposition.

Since the weapons in this sale are, as usual, clearly aimed across the Gulf at Iran1, the US also risks (or, perhaps, even intends?) to signal the royal family that it hears and takes to heart their dubious Iranian fifth columnist concerns. Which, of course, actually undermines the opposition, specifically, the Al Wefaq party, which Washington says it wants the Bahrain government to — and I’m sorry for the word choice — engage. Much of the protestor “black bloc” actions that regime supporters are criticizing seems to have started appearing more and more as Al Wefaq failed to secure significant concessions from the government. As blogger Mohammad Hasan ruefully opined, “the opposition has lost the initiative.”

And lest we forget, the Ahmad brothers have been blaming both the US and Iran for encouraging the protestors for some time. Our signal to them, Justin Gengler notes, is that the demonstrators are indeed a security issue to be resolved by force, rather than a political issue to be addressed by implementing the reforms promised in the post–2001 constitutional changes. And by not making it clearer that we do not see Iran’s Gulf aspirations and Bahrain’s reformists as being in bed with each other, we are almost certainly making thethe state media’s propagandizing easier — though if we were clearer, then they’d simply take the extra effort to demonize the US.

I know it’s a gross oversimplification, comparing US foreign policy in the Gulf to a pizza, but then, I’d wager that to many harassed, assaulted, tortured, disappeared and jailed activists (both Shia and Sunni) in Bahrain, our largesse might seem rather “gross” to them. And whatever influence the US has allegedly given the Crown Prince back home, the situation on the streets has not changed much in the past week, judging from reports of “mass arrests” and France 24’s Nazeeha Saeed’s latest rundown of police-protestor clashes in several predominantly Shia villages in the Northern Governorate of Bahrain.

Incidentally, the Crown Crust Pizza is marketed by Pizza Hut exclusively in the Middle East.

Subtle.

1Josh Rogin at FP: “six more harbor patrol boats, communications equipment for Bahrain’s air defense system, ground-based radars, AMRAAM air-to-air missile systems, Seahawk helicopters, Avenger air-defense systems, parts for F–16 fighter engines, refurbishment items for Cobra helicopters, and night-vision equipment. The United States also agreed to work on legislation to allow the transfer of a U.S. frigate …”. With the exception of the night-vision goggles, the U.S. refused to send over anything that could be put to use by the regime’s riot police, though an extra US$10 million in military aid payments for 2013 was promised as part of the deal.

The Award for Most Inventive Use of a Nuclear Weapon Goes To…

Today nuclear weapons are the cornerstone of the national-security policy of major powers, as defensive weapons under the guise of deterrence. In the past, nuclear weapons were used for offensive weapons, though “only” twice (Hiroshima and Nagasaki). But among the other uses for which they were contemplated was one that was unusually novel.

The Korean War, wrote Paul Cummings for the History News Network in 2005, is “assumed to have been a limited war, but its prosecution bore a strong resemblance to the air war against Imperial Japan in the second world war, and was often directed by the same US military leaders.” For instance

The air force dropped 625 tons of bombs over North Korea on 12 August, a tonnage that would have required a fleet of 250 B-17s in the second world war. By late August B-29 formations were dropping 800 tons a day on the North. Much of it was pure napalm. From June to late October 1950, B-29s unloaded 866,914 gallons of napalm.

Early in the war, General Douglas MacArthur, leader of the United Nations command, anticipated Chinese intervention.

“I see here a unique use for the atomic bomb — to strike a blocking blow — which would require a six months’ repair job. Sweeten up my B-29 force.”

Nuclear weapons: not just a force multiplier, but a force sweetener. In any event, at the time, MacArthur’s suggestion was shelved. But when Chinese troops later entered North Korea, President Truman threatened the use of nuclear weapons. Then

… MacArthur said he had a plan that would have won the war in 10 days: “I would have dropped 30 or so atomic bombs . . . strung across the neck of Manchuria.” Then he would have … “spread behind us — from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea — a belt of radioactive cobalt . . . it has an active life of between 60 and 120 years. For at least 60 years there could have been no land invasion of Korea from the North.” He was certain that the Russians would have done nothing about this extreme strategy: “My plan was a cinch.”

MacArthur, wrote Cumings, “sounds like a warmongering lunatic”

… but he was not alone. Before the Sino-Korean offensive, a committee of the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] had said that atomic bombs might be the decisive factor in cutting off a Chinese advance into Korea; initially they could be useful in “a cordon sanitaire.” … A few months later Congressman Albert Gore, Sr. … suggested “something cataclysmic” to end the war: a radiation belt dividing the Korean peninsula permanently into two.”

If readers are able to unearth another example of plans to use nuclear bombs to irradiate a strip of land to act as a defense or buffer, kindly inform us. For now, it stands as the silliest use devised for nuclear weapons. Except of course for nuclear deterrence: the idea that possession of nuclear weapons can prevent nuclear war even for the foreseeable future.

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