IPS Blog

Israeli Border Police Conduct Surveillance on Israeli Protesters and Journalists

Long story short: the Israeli Border Police’s Lebanese listeners have come to Tel Aviv to keep tabs on J14 (July 14 movement) marchers.

Or to paraphrase a paraphrase of Leon Trotsky, “you may not be interested in the Occupation, but the Occupation is interested you.”

As our domestic and international readers know, it is common for metropolitan police forces to videotape and photograph demonstrators, as well as journalists at the protests (and then, following standard post-9/11 counterterrorism procedures, match up faces or license plates with police records and other publicly available information in “data centers“). Anyone who had encountered an “Occupy” protest march since last September has surely seen police officers videotaping the march, and knows that the aforementioned data centers can and have been keeping tabs on Occupiers. Surveillance towers, aircraft and vans are deployed as well, most recently in Chicago, Illinois to surveil anti-NATO demonstrators.

And, it almost goes without saying, the Israeli security services do the same beyond the Green Line and on Israel’s borders day in and day out, monitoring the movements of demonstrators, militants, infiltrators, undocumented immigrants, even shepherds. “The Raccoon,” more widely known as the Israeli-built STALKER system, is merely one of their many tools. War is a mother to innovation, after all.

So what makes its deployment these past nights so unnerving for J14? Because it is clear now that in addition to the police, the Border Police are videotaping and photographing Israeli demonstrators, as well as Israeli journalists at the protests. Protests that are taking place inside the Green Line not at all focused on the Occupation. And yet Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino has reportedly told his subordinates to “to document every ‘involvement of the Arab community in the protests’.”

The already blurred line between the West Bank and Israel proper is getting ever more blurred, +972’s Noam Shezaif notes.

Considering Israel’s national service policies, I wonder if it would be fairly easy for the military to identify most people there based on file photos in their service records using face recognition software. Not a pleasant thought to have as a protestor in any country. Though certainly not one that will deter them.

Trading in Democracy: Why Rights Are Still For Real People

One of us had just landed in Vancouver, Canada, for a huge “Shout Out Against Mining Injustice” when we got the news: A tribunal in Washington, D.C. that nobody elected recently issued a verdict that will potentially constrain the democratic rights of millions of people.

The International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a tribunal located at the World Bank, ruled that Canadian mining company Pacific Rim may continue to sue El Salvador for not letting the company mine gold there. The impoverished Central American country could potentially be forced to pay the foreign company $77 million or more in damages. The anti-democratic ruling has ominous implications for all of us.

We visited El Salvador last year to learn more about this landmark case. A wide vein of gold lies alongside the northern portions of a large river that flows down the country’s middle, providing water for more than half the population. The gold remained relatively untouched until about a decade ago when foreign companies began to apply for mining permits.

Farmers and others told us that they were initially open to gold mining, thinking it would bring jobs to ease the area’s deep poverty. But, as they learned more about the toxic chemicals used to separate gold from the surrounding ore and about the massive amounts of water used in the process, they began to organize a movement that opposed mining. Their simple cry: “We can live without gold, but we can’t live without water.”

By 2007, polls showed close to two-thirds of Salvadorans opposed gold mining. In 2009, Salvadorans elected a president who promised he wouldn’t issue any new mining permits during his five-year term. He has kept this pledge.

But Pacific Rim didn’t sit idly by as democracy worked its way from El Salvador’s northern communities to its national government. The company sought a mining license. When the government rejected its environmental impact assessment, the Canadian company resorted to lobbying Salvadoran officials. And, when its lobbying failed, Pacific Rim lodged a complaint against El Salvador at ICSID in Washington under a U.S-initiated trade agreement and a little-known investment law in El Salvador.

Laws and trade pacts like these grant corporations the right to sue governments over actions—including health, safety, and environmental measures and regulations—that reduce the value of the corporation’s investment.

To the surprise of many observers, the tribunal ruled on June 1 that Pacific Rim can proceed with the lawsuit against El Salvador. Even if the cash-strapped Salvadoran government wins in the end, it will likely have to shell out millions on legal fees to defend an action taken after lengthy democratic deliberations. If it loses in the tribunal’s next ruling, it will cost even more.

Laws and trade agreements that allow corporations to sue governments should worry us all. No international tribunal should have the right to punish countries for laws or measures approved through a democratic process, be it in the United States, El Salvador, or anywhere else. President Barack Obama said this himself in 2008 when he promised, while campaigning, to limit the ability of corporations to use trade agreements to sue over public interest regulations.

Yet the Obama administration is currently negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership with several countries. And it’s pushing for provisions that would allow companies to sue governments under this trade pact.

But an expanding coalition of labor, environmental, religious, and other groups opposes giving Big Business this privilege. A similar coalition in Australia, another country negotiating this trade deal, has convinced its government to oppose such corporate “rights.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership may well prove an opportunity for this outrageous assault on democracy to be defeated.

Democracy belongs to the people. Those of us standing up to defend democracy and counter corporate abuse should strongly oppose any new “rights” for corporations being written into new trade pacts as we try to overturn the existing ones.

In Vancouver, we did not sit by idly when we heard the tribunal’s decision. The day after the decision was announced, 200 of us marched to the headquarters of Pacific Rim where Salvadoran anti-mining activist Vidalina Morales vowed that the broad-based National Roundtable on Metallic Mining would continue to fight to keep Pacific Rim out of El Salvador and asked for international solidarity.

For more information:

The European Financial Transactions Tax: Robin Hood or Sheriff of Nottingham?

The leaders of continental Europe’s four biggest countries agreed at last week’s euro zone summit on the principle that the European Union should move toward imposing a tax on financial transactions. Though it was hardly mentioned in the U.S. press, the agreement was big news in Europe. The leaders say they will raise funds equal to 1 percent of total euro zone gross domestic product through a financial transactions tax (FTT), though no details were forthcoming on just what would be taxed or at what rates.

Robin Hood Tax supporters create a pop-up casino opposite the Mansion House bankers banquet, 15th June 2011. Photo by Robin Hood Tax/ flickr

Robin Hood Tax supporters create a pop-up casino opposite the Mansion House bankers banquet, 15th June 2011. Photo by Robin Hood Tax/ flickr

That President François Hollande of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Mario Monte of Italy and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy should all take time out from acute crisis talks to agree on any long-term policy position is remarkable. That they should agree on a new tax is more remarkable still. Nonetheless, Chancellor Merkel stated flatly that she was “pleased that all four here have committed to a financial transactions tax.”

FFTs are nothing new. They used to be called “stamp duties” and all industrialized countries used to have them. Today, they survive mainly in real estate transfer taxes. Stamp duties on frequently traded financial instruments like stocks and bonds were eliminated in the twentieth century in most countries under pressure from the finance industry.

When the world went off the gold standard in 1971 and modern foreign currency markets came into existence, economist James Tobin recommended that a small transactions tax be applied to foreign exchange transactions as a way to prevent instability in these new markets. He argued that the hyper-efficiency of foreign exchange markets could lead to unwanted volatility that might harm countries’ real economies and that a transactions tax would reduce these tendencies.

If Tobin was right for the foreign currency markets, he was even more right for stock markets. He couldn’t anticipate in 1972 that by 2012 stocks would be traded electronically at such high speed that banks would move their computers physically closer to the exchanges so that their trading orders would be executed faster. Tobin taxes are probably more important today for damping down volatility in share markets than in currency markets.

The goal of a Tobin tax on financial transactions is not to take from the rich and give to the poor. It’s to prevent the rich from destroying the economy for the rest of us. Tobin taxes are meant to slow down runaway markets, to let a little air out of inflating bubbles and in general to give people and governments just a little more time to respond to economic problems before they get out of hand. Tobin taxes give the real economy just a miniscule edge over the speculative economy. Usually, that’s all that’s needed to prevent the speculators from running roughshod over the rest of us.

What turns a Tobin tax into a Robin Hood tax is what you do with the money you collect. President Hollande et compagnie have made no mention of taking from the rich to give to the poor. Their plan, to the extent that they have one, seems to be to use the proceeds of a FFT to fund the European Union budget. At best, the money collected might go to the poor of Europe. There’s certainly no talk of spending it on the poor of the world.

And, yet, the rich countries of the world – including the euro four and the United States – have all agreed to dedicate at least 0.7 percent of their national incomes to official development assistance (ODA) to poor countries. This foreign aid commitment has been in place in various forms since 1970, though it has been met by only a few (mainly Nordic) countries. Since the beginning of the global financial crisis, levels of ODA have actually declined for many countries.

United States ODA to poor countries is only 0.21 percent. The top three recipients are Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, which hardly suggests that our aid money is independent of our foreign policy goals. France, Germany, Italy and Spain give 0.50 percent, 0.39 percent, 0.15 percent and 0.43 percent, respectively (2010 figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

The numbers being mooted for the euro zone FTT are tantalizingly similar to the figures that developed countries have committed to spending on foreign aid. It is, however, highly unlikely that any money raised will be used for this purpose. A new tax imposed during an upturn might go to aid. A new tax imposed during a downturn will inevitably be spent at home.

The best solution might be a threshold split. The first 0.5 percent of gross domestic product raised by an FTT could be spent on national debt relief. Any remaining sum could then go to the aid budget. The advantage of such an arrangement would be to make the tax politically palatable now, but morally palatable later. It would also make the tax anti-cyclical: in a downturn the money raised would stay at home, while in an upturn it would go abroad. Wins all around.

But waiting in the wings is the sheriff of Nottingham. The UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, staunchly opposes a European FFT that might cover British-based companies. Of course, if it doesn’t include the UK, a European FTT would just drive business to London. The City of London is by far the world’s largest offshore financial center, dwarfing other even shadier British territories like Bermuda, the Channel Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Isle of Man and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

To have any hope of helping the ordinary citizens of Europe and the poor people of the rest of the world, a European FTT would have to be coupled with European legislation to prohibit the trading of European financial instruments outside Europe. This is technically feasible, but it would require a higher level of commitment than European leaders have shown to date.

To be morally and politically palatable, a FFT should have a built-in threshold beyond which any funds collected would go straight to official development assistance. On the one hand, it is politically unrealistic to expect a European FTT to be devoted entirely to foreign aid. On the other hand, a narrowly targeted FTT designed only to respond to the current euro crisis might simply be repealed once the crisis passes. A well-designed FTT should serve both purposes.

Throughout this debate it must be remembered that a well-designed FTT will pay for itself. The original Tobin tax idea wasn’t about feeding the poor. It was about improving economic performance by damping down the worst excesses of financial markets. Runaway markets can severely misallocate financial capital. We should all have learned that lesson in 2007, if not in 1929. If we can save the euro while improving the economy and at the same time divert part of the benefit to help the poorest people on Earth … why not?

The sheriff might just have to accept a happy ending after all.

Agreement on Syria Reached Without Syrians

Scene from Homs.

Scene from Homs.

Cross-posted from There Will Be War.

The June 30 round of United Nations–led chats about the Syrian conflict, once again starring envoy Kofi Annan—but not including Iran or Syria—has led to an “agreement” that would “support” a new “transitional body in Syria that would lead a United Nations-backed political transition…that could potentially strip the president of his executive authority” as the Wall Street Journal attempts to put it. The reason anyone should take this seriously is that Russia has pledged its support for this creation. However, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton still verbally jousted over whether this means President Bashar al-Assad actually has to give up power.

I doubt that those in villages besieged by mortar shells or militiamen, as well as those security forces routinely ambushed by the rebels, will be sleeping any more soundly in coming months. No doubt commentators will be skeptical of the agreement’s efficacy in stemming the almost 40-killings-a-day average in the near future.

In all fairness to those trying to stop the bloodshed, it’s hard to imagine a more frustrating situation than the Syrian conflict. For the world to bear YouTube and AlJazeera English witness to the mass murder of innocent men, women and children in the 21st century is both a human tragedy and a tragedy of the nation-state system. (On the bright side, at least the United States didn’t directly cause this one.) But it is clear from the year-plus of international hand-wringing, including this latest quarter-measure, that there is little will or call to stop it by military means.

It’s not only the U.N., whose observers are manipulated by both sides on the ground, that’s having little luck coming up with solutions. Op-ed writers and think-tankers are having a hard time coming up with new angles on this stalemate of death and destruction. Knowledgeable realists can no longer get away with advocating intervention as editors at The New Republic and John McCain once did. Even as recent events, such as the Houla massacre of women and children and the downing of a Turkish jet by Syrian guns, have exacerbated tension with the U.N. and NATO, the echo chamber of condemnation against the Syrian government continues to ring hollow. And debates over whether or not to call it a “civil war,” while ostensibly altering international legal actions, are exercises in semantics.

While speculation about the nature of the opposition and CIA involvement mounts, little has changed in Syria in the last six months aside from the rising death toll and heated rhetoric between Russia and the U.S. There are three main reasons intervention is currently untenable: the fragmented and Islamic nature of the opposition, the Syrian regime’s backers (Iran, Russia and to a lesser extent China), and the war-weary, insolvent West. Without intervention, there is little hope this bloody revolt will not end without at least another 10,000 slaughtered.

It never seems to fail that after the regime gains the upper hand by retaking a rebel stronghold, more high-level military officers defect to the Free Syria Army in Turkey and the insurgents are re-supplied by their regional Sunni benefactors, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The consistent back and forth portends an endlessly even match, piling high civilian atrocities and refugees.

But there is some good news: U.N. observers and Human Rights Council still can’t piece together whether government forces or rebel groups were behind the massacres in Houla and Mazraat al-Qubeir. Why is this good? When reports of the Houla massacre first surfaced, media outlets blamed the al-Assad government without question based on a very early report of some U.N. folks—remember all that “tipping point” talk? Eventually stories with eyewitness accounts trickled in from Europe that at least gave the Syrian regime spokesman’s denials some weight. When both the Syrian opposition and the powers-that-be in Damascus have every reason to belch propaganda, the media has a responsibility to admit to itself and its subscribers that the fog of war has descended and that it’s OK to say “We don’t know.”

A Brief Glimpse of Syria Six Months Ago

In mid-December 2011 James Harkin’s report from Homs, the foremost symbol of the decimation wrought by the regime against its own cities, was published in Newsweek.

Homs, where [Mohammed] lives, is home to just over a million people, right in the heartland of Syria. It’s where Syrians go to flee the bustle of Damascus and relax in its cafés and restaurants and to watch soccer (Homs boasts two popular soccer teams, Al-Karamah and Al-Wathba). Not anymore; since March, when its people rose up to complain against economic injustice and demand more political freedom, and its armed forces replied with guns and repression, the city has been under a fierce siege. Most of the city is under total military lockdown, Mohammed tells me. No one can go out; everyone stays at home. “There are tanks in the streets where I live. You can’t really walk around; it’s dangerous.”

Bombs started detonating on the streets of Damascus, which previously had not seen much violence, with increased frequency. On January 6, an explosion killed 26 just two weeks after a bomb targeting security installations killed 44, which had officials believing al-Qaeda had stepped in. The nonstop fighting persuaded Arab League monitors to flee Syria, saying their mission to forestall bloodshed was a failure.

Syrian opposition groups say the monitors, who deployed on December 26 to check whether Syria was respecting an Arab peace plan, have only bought Assad more time to crush protests.

On January 11, 2012, President Bashar al-Assad addressed the public for the first time in six months. Cheering thousands show that his support among the people can still be wielded as a countermeasure to the reams of negative press his regime has received worldwide. He said:

“We do not close the door for solutions or suggestions, and we do not close any door for any Arab initiative, as they respect Syrian sovereignty and the freedom of our decision and care about the unity of our nation.”

“There is no order at any level within the levels of our country to shoot at any civilian.”

The fact that al-Assad needed to come out and say that has its own inferences. In the January 6 Wall Street Journal, Fouad Ajami, author of a book that came out in June 2012, The Syrian Rebellion, gave a sharp critique of Bashar al-Assad’s regime—overstating his case by comparing Syria to a “North Korea on the Mediterranean”— and the do-nothing West. He bemoaned the fact that the Syrian people are on their own, as they very much are six months later.

The U.S. response has been similarly shameful. From the outset of the Syrian rebellion, the Obama administration has shown remarkable timidity. After all, the Assad dictatorship was a regime that President Obama had set out to “engage” (the theocracy in Tehran being the other). The American response to the struggle for Syria was glacial.

Another voice pushing forceful regime change, according to the Washington Times, is Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian National Council’s executive board.

Mr. Nashar noted why U.S. officials might be “very hesitant to pursue this particular policy,” citing the recent U.S. military exit from Iraq and upcoming elections. He also suggested they might be “waiting for a certain international coalition spearheaded, not by the U.S., but perhaps more so by Turkey.” “And it’s quite unfortunate because, after all, the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world,” he said, nonetheless adding that a Turkish-led NATO operation with “cover” from Arab states would enjoy the greatest support among Syrians. Mr. Nashar said the U.S. has a “historic opportunity” to improve its image in Syria. “The vast majority of the Syrians I know were completely supportive of what NATO did [in Libya],” he said.

The Syrian opposition and their divided institutions-in-exile were ambivalent about foreign intervention.

The National Coordination Committee had disagreed with the Syrian National Council’s calls for foreign intervention – one of several disputes that had prevented opposition groups agreeing on what a post-Assad Syria should look like.

Under their pact, the two sides “reject any military intervention that harms the sovereignty or stability of the country, though Arab intervention is not considered foreign.”

Paul Mutter at Salon.com summed up the myriad intervention considerations and comparisons to Libya at the time.

Other prominent voices in the insular but influential world of neoconservative thought include a team of defense specialists at the hawkish Washington Institute for Near East Policy who recently issued a report concluding, “Intervention in Syria would be a demanding mission carrying significant risks,” while also asserting that “intervention also presents policy opportunities.”

Michael Quiñones’ latest project, a fizzy look at foreign policy predictions, launched in July 2012 at There Will Be War.

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.

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