IPS Blog

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.

Honduras Coup Delivering a Bloody Return on Washington’s Military Investment

On the heels of learning that the United States has significantly scaled up its presence in Honduras in recent months, disturbing news emerged this week that suggests the country is suffering a bloody return on Washington’s military investment in the region. Last week, the New York Times reported that “A commando-style squad of Drug Enforcement Administration agents accompanied the Honduran counternarcotics police during two firefights with cocaine smugglers in the jungles of the Central American country this month, according to officials in both countries who were briefed on the matter. One of the fights, which occurred last week, left as many as four people dead and has set off a backlash against the American presence there.”

While it is still unclear just what went down and who was involved, initial reports that the US-Honduran team had killed members of a drug trafficking syndicate were almost immediately countered with claims by local politicians that those killed were all innocent bystanders. The details, if true, are horrifying: “Lucio Baquedano, the mayor of Ahuas, a small town near the incident, told El Tiempo, a Honduran newspaper, that a helicopter-borne unit consisting of both Honduran police officers and D.E.A. agents was pursuing a boatload of drug smugglers when it mistakenly opened fire on another boat carrying villagers. Four people died—including two pregnant women—and four others were wounded, he said.”

And then today, new accounts surfaced which suggests that the botched mission wasn’t the only ugly incident that day. A dispatch from the Associated Press reports that

After the shooting killed four passengers on a riverboat and wounded four more, the masked agents landed their helicopters in this community of wooden shacks on stilts near the river and began breaking down doors, hunting for a drug trafficker they called “El Renco,” villagers told The Associated Press on Monday. Witnesses referred to some of the agents as “gringos” and said they spoke English to each other and into their radios. Hilaria Zavala said six men kicked in her door about 3 a.m., threw her husband on the ground and put a gun to his head. “They kept him that way for two hours,” said Zavala, who owns a market near the main pier in Ahuas. “They asked if he was El Renco, if he worked for El Renco, if the stuff belonged to El Renco. My husband said he had nothing to do with it.”

American involvement in Honduras opens up a can of worms of questions and concerns that drive to the very heart of international relations, in theory and practice–sovereign power, authority and American hegemony, not to mention basic ethics and morality. Dana Frank has offered some good background that situated the current mess in its proper context, including the role of the 2009 Honduran coup that Washington would like to wipe clean from the imagination.

Only in the post-coup context, however, can we understand the very real crisis of drug trafficking in Honduras. A vicious drug culture already existed before the coup, along with gangs and corrupt officials. But the thoroughgoing criminality of the coup regime opened the door for it to flourish on an unprecedented scale. Drug trafficking is now embedded in the state itself—from the cop in the neighborhood all the way up to the very top of the government, according to high-level sources. Prominent critics and even government officials, including Marlon Pascua, the defense minister, talk of “narco-judges” who block prosecutions and “narco-congressmen” who run cartels. Alfredo Landaverde, a former congressman and police commissioner in charge of drug investigations, declared that one out of every ten members of Congress is a drug trafficker and that he had evidence proving “major national and political figures” were involved in drug trafficking. He was assassinated on December 7…

The coup, in turn, unleashed a wave of violence by state security forces that continues unabated. On October 22, an enormous scandal broke when the Tegucigalpa police killed the son of Julieta Castellanos, rector of the country’s largest university and a member of the government’s Truth Commission, along with a friend of his. Top law enforcement officials admitted that the police were responsible for the killings but allowed the suspects to disappear, precipitating an enormous crisis of legitimacy, as prominent figures such as Landaverde stepped forward throughout the autumn to denounce the massive police corruption. The police department, they charged, is riddled with death squads and drug traffickers up to the very highest levels…

The Honduran military is corrupt, too. On November 1, 2010, an airplane used in drug trafficking was “robbed” from a military base in San Pedro Sula. According to La Tribuna, a right-wing newspaper, at least nineteen members of the army were complicit, including top- and intermediate-ranked officers. In August 2011, 300 automatic rifles and 300,000 bullets disappeared from a warehouse of the army’s elite Cobras unit. Despite this record of corruption, a new decree permits the military to accept no-bid contracts—a green light for even more corruption…

This idea that the Honduran government needs US help to fix itself—which critics regard as naïve at best, given the Lobo administration’s manifest unwillingness to reform itself—is how US officials justify support for the Lobo regime. Vice President Joe Biden flew to Honduras on March 6, promising that “the United States is absolutely committed to continuing to work with Honduras to win this battle against the narcotraffickers.” Biden promised increased military and police funds under the Central American Regional Security Initiative, to the tune of $107 million. Obama’s proposed budget for 2013 more than doubles key police and military funds to Honduras…

The military coup made possible what Hondurans call the “second coup”: the deeper economic agenda of transnational investors and Honduran elites, now given almost free rein to use the state as they choose. At the top of their list is privatization of basic state functions. Laws are moving through Congress privatizing the country’s electrical systems, water systems and ports. In an overt attack on Honduras’s powerful and militant teachers unions, Congress in March 2011 passed a law opening the door to privatization of the entire country’s schools.

If all this sounds ripe for disaster, that’s because it is. American involvement in Honduras is unfortunately predicated on wrong lessons learned from the Colombian war on drugs and the insistence, also wrong, that governments can extinguish black markets through use of force. The vast majority of available evidence points to the contrary, and is currently being reinforced by the Mexican morass unfolding as we speak. And it looks as if Washington could be set to double down on its commitment. This past weekend, Honduran President Lobo paid a “secret” visit to the White House, where it is widely believed he asked the Obama administration for more money, and possibly an increased military presence, in his country. Were Washington to cede to Lobo’s request, stories like the one emerging this past week could become increasingly common.

Mexicans Romanticizing Drug Kingpins Reflects Lack of Confidence in the Rule of Law

"Narco Saint" Jesús Malverde.

“Narco Saint” Jesús Malverde.

The anniversary of Malcolm X’s birthday this past weekend found me revisiting some of his speeches and shorter works, and remembering the more noteworthy quotes taken from his writings and public pronouncements. One of the more plainly stated dangers Malcolm warned against, in a speech delivered at the Audubon Ballroom, shortly before he was killed, concerned the media. “If you’re not careful,” he said, “the newspapers will have you hating the people being oppressed, and loving the people doing the oppressing.”

As if on cue, CNN.com ran an unfortunate meditation on Friday by Ruben Navarette, on responsibility for drug violence in Mexico, that illustrates precisely this point. Despite tens of thousands of deaths, myriad human rights abuse claims and billions of dollars of dubious investment, Navarette concludes—not implausibly, it should be said—that on the question of whether the government is winning its war against the Mexican drug cartels, the jury is still out. But Navarrette isn’t interested in weighing the pros and cons Mexico’s iron fist approach to the country’s drug cartels. He’s looking to assign guilt.

“Many Mexicans wrongly put the blame for those deaths entirely on the shoulders of Mexcian President Felipe Calderon,” Navarrette argues. “Calderon is a convenient target because he has made it his personal mission to destroy Mexico’s drug syndicates…The cartel’s customers are mainly Americans, who consume more than their share of illegal drugs.” Given this last, oddly-wrought observation, you might expect Navarrette to turn his critical gaze northward, but no. “As for blame, Mexicans should at least dole it out correctly…the Mexican people also bear a responsibility—for empowering the drug lords.”

For Navarrette, the hearts and minds of ordinary people are decidedly in the wrong place.

For decades, Mexicans have romanticized the drug trafficking industry in film, music and other aspects of popular culture. There are many “corridos” (Mexican ballads) that tell the story of the rise-from-nothing fellow who becomes the head of a powerful syndicate relying on his wits and strength…. There are even so-called drug saints that some Mexicans pray to — inspired by Robin Hood-like figures who are seen as protectors of the poor against the government. Of course, the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize these saints, but this fact hasn’t made them any less popular. One of the most popular of the “narco saints” is Jesús Malverde, named after a bandit, who legend has it, was killed by authorities in the early 1900s. Known as the “generous bandit” or the “angel of the poor,” Malverde is a folk hero to some in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that glorification of bad guys is a universal phenomenon, and one particularly embraced in the United States, the fact that Navarette scolds ordinary Mexicans for not celebrating a government that has put them at a distinct disadvantage over the better part of a century—and that increasingly puts them at risk—reveals remarkable bad faith at best. At worst, it suggests an impoverished sense of a sovereign’s responsibility to its people.

In this, Navarrette has it exactly backwards. “Recently,” he bemoans, “Mexican actress Kate del Castillo…tweeted that she has more faith in Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman than she does in government.” Unfortunate, sure. But understandable? Absolutely. Del Castillo’s tweet represents not the actress’ failings, but Calderon’s and the country’s security services. Where the government has manifestly failed, illicit actors have filled the void. Cops are crooked because they’re paid less than minimum wage. Low-level drug runners turn to trafficking not because it’s a natural preference, but because it’s a viable job in an otherwise bleak employment landscape. The loyalty citizens profess to this violent syndicate or that have nothing to do with actual support, and everything to do with survival in an uncertain social terrain where law enforcement is often a perpetrator.

To his credit, Navarrette hints his understanding that “police in Mexico are thought to be corrupt or corruptible.” So it’s strange, then, that he slaps ordinary Mexicans on the wrist with the demand that they “stop writing poems and songs that honor drug traffickers and instead start praising the Mexican law enforcement officers bravely trying to bring these outlaws to justice.” And despite the fact that the military “is accused of being heavy-handed with civilians and violating the rights of Mexican citizens,” and that blame for it all “should go to Calderon,” these same citizens ought to, from Navarrette’s vantage point, “support their government and stand by their president in fighting a battle that needed to be fought.” Sound familiar?

Navarrette, in an op-ed piece days earlier describing his participation in a debate on the issue, “drew a parallel between the drug war and the war on terror. Nobody wants to fight these battles, but they have to be fought.” Navarrette noted that “If the United States lets its guard down, Islamic radicals will strike again and kill more Americans. Likewise, if Mexican President Felipe Calderon surrenders to the drug cartels, there will only be more bloodshed.” This last sentence is key. By continuing to perpetrate the false choice facing governments of either killing everyone involved in the drug trade or surrendering to them, Navarrette and others shunt aside a third way of solving the trafficking crisis—one that depressurizes the market and increases state capacity for the provision of public goods, the combination of which would surely undermine the social and economic foundations upon which the cartels thrive. It certainly wouldn’t be a solution without its problems. But then again, it sure beats what we have now—one that leaves tens of thousands dead, tens of thousands more without rights, millions addicted to narcotics without any hope for treatment, a government hobbled by its own lack of legitimate authority, and a crew of cartel bosses so rich they regularly make Forbes Magazine’s annual list of the world’s most wealthy people.

Fukushima Team Under Constant Pressure to Protect Interests of Nuclear Power

Japanese Parliamentarian Kuniko Tanioka.

Japanese Parliamentarian Kuniko Tanioka.

Japanese Parliamentarian Kuniko Tanioka is not a rebel. Her assessment of Japanese policy after the Fukushima nuclear accident may not be popular with the Japanese government or nuclear industry, but she is a representative of a team formed within the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to deal with the countless issues that have arisen since 3/11. The DPJ, the current ruling party, and the only party other than the Liberal Democratic Party to hold the Diet in more than 50 years, is part of a coalition government. It is subject to great pressure from the United States, Tanioka explained in a recent presentation at Institute for Policy Studies, and in charge of a system woefully unprepared to handle crises like the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

According to Tanioka, there is no legislative structure in place to deal with the long-term effects of a nuclear disaster of this scale, and Tanioka’s team works to provide reports and information, and draft bills into the Diet in order to cope with all of the lingering problems and human security issues stemming from last March. This is the first time the Diet has had a probing commission for this type of disaster, and the DPJ team is under constant internal and external pressure to downplay the situation and protect the interests of nuclear power.

The last of the operational reactors in Japan closed earlier this month, but some government officials are already pushing to restart several reactors in northern Japan, claiming that without them there will be electricity shortages. Of course, asserts Tanioka, the industry is pressuring the government because it doesn’t want Japan to prove that it can make it without reactors. This is not the main consideration, however, says Tanioka. The safety of the people and the environment should be first, and the conditions to restart must be stringent, including new standards that go beyond the engineering of the reactors, that include filtered vents, safe buildings for plant workers in case of accidents, and detailed evacuation plans for surrounding areas.

Tanioka’s talk comes on the heels of a Japanese delegation to the UN asking for international assistance with the radiation that continues to emanate from Fukushima. In reactors 1 through 3, the radiation is still too high for anyone to enter, and if there were further malfunctions, there is little hope for stabilization. She cited the need for more U.S. support, and noted that the only voices speaking to the Obama administration are industry representatives.

The U.S. and Japanese nuclear industries are inseparable, as many U.S. providers are owned by Japanese firms. Until the shutdown of Tomari on May 5, Japan was one of the largest consumers of nuclear energy in the world. If Japan were to become totally nuclear-free, this would be a massive hit to the global nuclear industry.

Tanioka wants Americans to understand several issues. First, there is a need for greater transparency and a wider scope for medical research into the effects of radiation. Even with all of the time since Chernobyl, this data is not forthcoming – blocked by a handful of experts who hold all the cards. A wider exchange of data within the academic world would support the expansion of preventative treatments for radiation exposure, and more effective supplements and procedures for those who have already been exposed.

More importantly, both the Japanese national government in Tokyo and the Fukushima prefectural government, along with TEPCO and a host of industry scientists, insist that radiation levels near the Fukushima Daiichi plant are safe for humans. Tanioka disagrees, and spoke of the devastating effects of nuclear accidents on citizens. Life in the affected areas has entirely lost any sense of normalcy. There have been more than 200,000 evacuees, and for them, and for those who have stayed, their lives are disrupted on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. Even simple joys, such as gardening in their now radioactive soil, are gone – the result of shoddy regulation in an industry focused only on profits, and an unhealthy dependence on this dangerous energy source.

Erin Chandler is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Democracy Now! Debate: Should NATO Exist?

“When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you’re a military alliance, every problem looks like it requires a military solution,” argued Phyllis Bennis, an author and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies on Tuesday’s edition of Democracy Now!. She debated Stan Sloan, a former CIA Europe security expert. Here’s the video:

Phyllis Bennis on Democracy Now! screenshot

While the big news coming out of Chicago’s NATO summit was the agreement to hand over control to Afghan forces in 2013, Phyllis made sure to point out opposition to NATO is expressed in larger numbers around the word.

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