IPS Blog

Truce Between Salvador’s Maras for Real — for Now

MarasThe most significant story in Central America right now is also the most underreported. El Salvador, the tiniest country in the land belt connecting North and South America, has long suffered socioeconomic violence—first in its civil war during the 1980s, then in the period of organized crime’s rising power in the 1990s, and most recently under the mano dura years of conservative authoritarianism—largely in answer to the growing influence of transnational criminal gangs in the 2000s. But since the start of May, El Salvador’s murder rate—by some estimates, the highest in the world in 2011has dropped by nearly 66 percent, the result of a truce between the country’s two leading gangs (or maras, as they are popularly known) that was brokered in March by religious and government representatives and deepened by gang leaders on May 2.

Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and its rival, MS-18, were formed on the streets of South Central Los Angeles by young refugees of the Central American wars of the 1980s and 90s. Largely comprising Honduran and Salvadoran youths, the gangs initially provided protection to Latinos excluded from Mexican gangs, and the largely African-American Bloods and Crips. The maras blossomed, growing in scope and capacity to carry out sophisticated operations. Before long, the maras appeared on the FBI’s radar and in 1996, changes in the immigration law allowed the FBI to deport tens of thousands of suspected mareros back to their native countries. Not surprisingly, back home and without ready access to formal market opportunity, they set up shop and continued their business as usual. Since then, the gangs have grown so strong that they are virtually uncontrollable in Central America, and have become worrisome threats to the security of the United States. The truce between the maras, then, comes as a welcome relief on all sides.

And the good news extends beyond declining rates of violence and symbolic “days without murder.” As the Economist reports, “The mobs have since made further concessions. On May 2nd they promised not to recruit in schools. Five days later inmates at La Esperanza, an overcrowded prison, vowed to stop extorting people using jail phones. ‘I want to ask forgiveness from society and those who gave us the chance to change,” said Dionisio Arístides, the Salvatrucha leader. “We’re human beings who aren’t just here to do evil.’”

This is not to say that the truce between rival gangs will hold up in the long term. Many, as the Economist coverage suggests, are suspicious that the maras will be peaceful long enough to allow El Salvador’s economy recover from the damage it has suffered as the gangs duke it out for monopoly control over territory, extortion rackets, and trafficking networks. But a bigger concern lies in the worry that the gangs have grown so big and unwieldy that even if the higher ups in MS-13 and MS-18, many of whom are directing traffic from prison, genuinely endorse the peace plan, they may not be able to effectively enforce it.

Nor is it to suggest that government security forces have given up their old ways. In some respects, the spirit of mano dura—the heavily militarized approach to combating maras under former president, Tony Saca—is alive and well. When leftist president Mauricio Funes announced earlier this year that his government intended to implement a nationwide curfew and beef up school security by calling in the military to stand guard, Insight Crime noted that these policies “appear to be part of Funes’ escalation of the war against street gangs…Funes is mimicking the…strategy of his predecessors, placing ex-military officials in top security posts, some of whom are intimating that they may begin mass incarcerations of suspected gang members. These policies have more than a few critics. El Salvador’s focus on incarcerating suspected gang members has placed more inmates in badly overcrowded prisons… These overcrowded prisons may have worsened crime and violence in the country.”

Nevertheless, things in El Salvador right now look markedly more hopeful than they have in decades. Any substantial reduction of violence is obviously to be embraced, as are efforts that the Funes administration has made to match iron-fist policies by extending an open hand to former criminals seeking social reintegration. Perhaps most encouragingly, gang members from opposing factions have begun to collaborate on music projects and other forms of cultural production which may have positive normative effects—both within the gangs and more broadly in Salvadoran society—and which seem like an awfully elaborate, and unlikely, PR ruse if the maras weren’t serious about giving peace a chance.

Still, any optimism on this count must be met with a heavy dose of caution.

Stateless and Fancy-Free

“As most people continue to batten down the financial hatches, an elite group of the world’s ‘stateless super-rich’ is blossoming, and transcending geographical boundaries to purchase properties in major cities across the globe,” reported Tanya Powley and Lucy Warwick-Ching in April at the Financial Times. They lead “nomadic, season-driven lives [with] no strong ties to specific countries.” [Emphasis added.]

At AlterNet, Sam Pizzigatti, who linked to the FT article, explains that this practice creates

… havoc in the hotspots where the stateless super rich most often gather. Their gathering, a veritable gentrification on steroids, tends to supersize prices for all sorts of local products and services — and price out local residents. The massive mansions and apartments of the stateless super rich also exacerbate local housing shortages — and constitute as assault on any healthy sense of urban community.

Equally troubling is their effect on their states of origin, such as the United States. Pizzigatti points out:

The number of Americans who’ve formally renounced their U.S. citizenship has jumped by over seven-fold, from 235 in 2008 to 1,780 last year. The spark for this surge in statelessness? Since 2008, U.S. tax officials have been endeavoring to clamp down more firmly on overseas tax evasion.

Between globe-trotting and globalization, U.S. super-rich and corporations see themselves as less and less grounded in the United States. Rank and file conservatives and Tea Partiers don’t get this. They believe that making a killing is not only our right as Americans — it’s in the Constitution somewhere, isn’t it? — but essential to what it means to be an American replete with the Protestant Ethic.

They don’t understand, nor did our founders anticipate, that the more flush individuals and corporations become, the less reliant they are on the United States for their continued wealth. Parking their funds offshore, their idea of patriotic duty is to leave no stone unturned in their quest to keep their money as tax-free as possible.

Much of whatever money the super-rich and corporations still spend in America is on lobbying toward that end. The well-being of a public with whom they have little interaction and the state of America’s infrastructure, services, and programs is of little concern to them. In the end, the super-rich and corporations are all too often the least patriotic of Americans.

Promoting Democracy in Iran Is Not Only Wishful Thinking, But Belligerent

Over at ForeignAffairs.com, Patrick Clawson has a brief essay that at once congratulates the Obama administration for its success in pressuring Iran back to the negotiating table, but bemoans the fact that sanctions take aim at the wrong goal. “To judge the effectiveness of Western sanctions against Iran,” writes Clawson, “it is important to first establish their purpose. U.S. officials and their European counterparts have set out a number of different goals for the sanctions regime, including deterring the proliferation of nuclear technology across the Middle East, as other countries imitate Iran, and persuading Iran to comply with the UN Security Council’s orders to suspend all nuclear enrichment. The sanctions have met some of those aims and failed to meet others. But for the Obama administration, they have succeeded in one crucial way — bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. The question, then, is not whether sanctions have worked but whether the strategy they serve is correct.”

For Clawson, the answer is clear. “Given Iran’s poor track record of honoring agreements,” he notes, “negotiations remain a gamble because they may never lead to an agreement, let alone one that can be sustained.” This may be quite right, as it happens. Leaving aside for the moment that Washington and its partners in Israel haven’t given Iran much latitude recently to act as anything other than a pariah state—surrounded by two American occupations, Russia to the north and arch-enemy Saudi Arabia immediately to the south—Iran hasn’t shown all that much good faith in its multilateral dealings.

You have to wonder, though, about Clawson’s proposed alternative. “Rather than focus on talks that may not produce a deal, then, the United States should place far more emphasis on supporting democracy and human rights in Iran. A democratic Iran would likely drop state support for terrorism and end its interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, improving stability in the Middle East. And although Iran’s strongly nationalist democrats are proud of the country’s nuclear progress, their priority is to rejoin the community of nations, so they will likely agree to peaceful nuclearization in exchange for an end to their country’s isolation.”

For someone who has such little faith in multilateral negotiations with Iran, Clawson sure places a ton of stock in wishful thinking. Even if everything he suggests is true about a democratic Iran, such a country is a) nowhere in sight; and b) would be the product of tremendous, and tremendously long, processes of investment and influence. And assuming for the moment that Iran wasn’t being threatened with preemptory attacks against its territory, the nuts and bolts of encouraging democracy there suggest a timeline that stretches into the medium- and long-terms. To hear Clawson tell it, “The United States could assist democratic forces in Iran by providing money and moral support. It could fund people-to-people exchanges and student scholarships; support civil society groups providing assistance to Iranian activists; work closely with technology companies such as Google on how to transmit information to the Iranian people; and overhaul Voice of America’s Persian News Network, where journalistic standards have suffered under uneven management.”

These all sound like perfectly good approaches, and, in fact, were employed to great effect by the United States during the Cold War with Russia. And indeed, US efforts at democracy promotion in Iran have been underway for quite some time, though not as extensively as Clawson recommends. Trouble is, time is of the essence; the drum beat of war grows stronger with each passing month. Negotiations, even if they do not offer a perfect negotiated settlement, at least have the effect of keeping the attack dogs on their leash, thereby purchasing time for sanctions to increase the pressure on a regime (and people) already buckling under their weight.

Interesting, too, is Clawson’s observation that “It could also raise human rights abuses in every official meeting with Iranian officials, such as the ongoing nuclear negotiations, and bring Iranian rights violations to the United Nations and the International Court of Justice.” Well sure, if they send representatives to talk in the first place—precisely the value-added of continued engagement with Iran.

Bin Laden Put Out to Pasture

It’s starting to look more and more like Osama bin Laden was not only in hiding at Abbottabad, he was in forced exile. It seems as al Qaeda may have seized the opportunity of his need to go into hiding to put him out to pasture. In a blockbuster piece on May 3 for Truthout titled The Truth Behind the Official Story of Finding Bin Laden, Gareth Porter provides evidence. When a senior U.S. intelligence official said that he “was active in operational planning and in driving tactical decisions,” Porter writes, he and CIA officials were:

… blatantly misrepresenting … bin Laden’s role in al-Qaeda when he was killed. … In fact, during his six years in Abbottabad, bin Laden was not the functioning head of al-Qaeda at all, but an isolated figurehead who had become irrelevant to the actual operations of the organization. The real story … is that bin Laden was in the compound in Abbottabad because he had been forced into exile by the al-Qaeda leadership.

In fact

… several months after the Abbottabad documents [taken by Special Operations forces from the scene] had been thoroughly analyzed and the results digested by senior administration officials, the administration was unable to cite a single piece of evidence that bin Laden had given orders for — or was even involved in discussing — a real, concrete plan for an al-Qaeda action, much less one that had actually been carried out. Far from depicting bin Laden as the day-to-day decisionmaker or even “master strategist” of al-Qaeda, the documents showed a man dreaming of glorious exploits that were unconnected with reality.

Porter explains that retired Pakistani Brig. Gen. Shaukat Qadir gathered information from “Pakistani tribal and ISI sources” about bin Laden’s exile and his discovery by the CIA.

“Nobody listened to his rantings anymore,” said one of the [former couriers for TTP, Pakistan's Taliban] in a conversation with Qadir. “He had become a physical liability and was going mad,” another told Qadir a couple of days earlier. “He had become an object of ridicule,” said the second courier. … That situation led Zawahiri to propose … that bin Laden be forced to retire from active involvement in the organization’s decisions.

Also on May 3, the Combating Terrorist Center (CTC) at West Point published/posted its analysis of the small sample of the documents released to it by the Director of National Intelligence. The report, of course, contains none of the inside information Porter gleaned about how other al Qaeda members felt about bin Laden. But as you can tell by the title — Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined? — it attests to his waning influence and at times suggests he was being indulged. Surprisingly, it may have been partly because, by this point, no longer a loose cannon, he had become al Qaeda’s force of restraint (if you can call anything it does restrained). (I wrote about this on May 8: Bin Laden Grows a Conscience.)

In particular, his concern was curbing the brutal excesses of al Qaeda affiliates. Today’s al Qaeda is characterized as decentralized. Viewed through the lens of complexity science — in particular, complex adaptive systems — it exhibits self-organization, adaptation in response to “perturbation,” and “emergent” leadership (different leaders rise to the top in different situations). But the inclination of affiliates to go their own may have partly been a symptom of their lack of respect for bin Laden.. As Patrick Cockburn wrote: “A striking feature of these letters is that there is no evidence that their recipients made any effort to carry out their leader’s instructions.” Other examples of bin Laden’s waning influence from the CTC report follow.

The documents show that some of the affiliates sought Bin Ladin’s blessing on symbolic matters, such as declaring an Islamic state, and wanted a formal union to acquire the al-Qa`ida brand. On the operational front, however, the affiliates either did not consult with Bin Ladin or were not prepared to follow his directives.

… Far from being in control of the operational side of regional jihadi groups, the tone in several letters authored by Bin Ladin makes it clear that he was struggling to exercise even a minimal influence over them.

… One of the letters … from a “loving brother” addressed to Bin Ladin. … alerted Bin Ladin that when one is distant from reality, as Bin Ladin was because of security measures he was forced to take, the soundness of one’s judgment was bound to be impaired.

… The documents make it clear that Bin Ladin was not informed of the TTP’s planned bombing of Times Square in New York City, a failed attack on U.S. soil attempted by Faisal Shahzad in May 2010.

… Bin Ladin had apparently sent `Atiyya [al Qaeda leader Atiyyatullah] some suggestions on how to improve the economy, but `Atiyya either ignored them or had not attended to them. … Not only does he seem to have acted as Bin Ladin’s conduit, but it is alos possible that he exercised more control than he was authorized. In one of the letters, for example, Bin Ladin appeared frustrated that the audio or visual recordings he was sending to`Atiyya were either being delayed or not being released at all.

… Bin Ladin’s decision not to grant al-Shabab a public union with al-Qa`ida [may have been] the subject of internal debate within al-Qa`ida and possibly behind his back.

[Al Qaeda's functioning leader Ayman] al-Zawahiri is conspicuously distant from people in bin Ladin’s immediate circle.

It’s ironic that bin Laden’s step back from the abyss of mass murder — if less out of compassion for the suffering of innocent Muslims than to advance the cause of jihad — left him out of touch with the al Qaeda affiliates. As he aged, he seems to have forgotten that jihad was just another name for exploding body parts on the parts of the disenfranchised young men who formed and joined the affiliates. Bin Laden, with his newfound focus on providing services, was taking the fun out of jihad.

Egypt’s Eternal Arab Spring

On Friday, May 4, thousands of demonstrators descended on the Cario neighborhood of Abbaseya to march on the Ministry of Defense to protest the Wednesday, May 2 killings of Salafist demonstrators conducting sit-ins outside the military compound there to protest the electoral ban on cleric Hazem Abou Ismail.

“No salafis or ikhwan, liberals or secularists kaman, we’re all one hand in the midan!” Chants at #tahrir march to #mod
— Liam Stack (@liamstack) May 4, 2012

Photos by @Mosaaberizing of the clashes at Ministry of Defence: bit.ly/IL6vAf #Egypt #MoD
— Sultan Al Qassemi (@SultanAlQassemi) May 5, 2012

Thousands of demonstrators, a large number of whom carried sheets of corrugated metal as shields from water cannons (and, presumably, birdshot or tear gas canisters)*, advanced on the MoD where they were met by a heavy army presence, reinforced by military police and armed residents of the district. ENN showed security forces’ reinforcements arriving via infantry-fighting vehicles.

*These metal sheets are also sometimes used as “mic checks” by demonstrators to rally the crowds.

Oh also, today is Hosni #Mubarak‘s 84th birthday
— Liam Stack (@liamstack) May 4, 2012

An unhappy coincidence, as the ancien regime was out in force at Abbasseya as protestors advanced on the Ministry.

Yes, there are Abassiya locals/thugs with revolvers & rocks but personally saw others host protesters and wave to them. Can’t stigmatize.
— Mosa’ab Elshamy (@mosaaberizing) May 4, 2012

One video reports seems to show the military trucking in armed civilians to beat back protestors.

Such men (often described as “paid thugs“) are believed to have carried out attacks against the Salafist demonstrators earlier in the week that left over a dozen dead. State media consistently describes the attackers as “unidentified assailants,” suggesting SCAF is clueless as to the attackers motives and identities.

This is a bit hard to swallow considering that the Interior Ministry has reportedly arrested armed men heading towards the demonstrations and both Abdel-Rahman Hussein and Sharif Kouddous observed the close liaising between security forces and area residents during the events of May 4.

I escaped from detention after several minutes they beating me, am safe now and thanks to God I have no injuries. Thanks for whoever called.
— Sabry ☭ Ø®aled (@sabrykhaled) May 4, 2012

Dr. Sabry Khaled reported that “Army forces attacked the protesters with the help of the military police ‘the red cap officers’, some plain clothed troops and thugs.” He also noted that “army forces raided into the hospitals and detained all the injured people.” Arrests were also made of some nearby mosque attendees.

Abdel-Rahman Hussein explained how the areas protesters entered proven inimical to their march: “it’s a perpetual death trap for protesters. There are no safe exits, and there are many people there that are generally annoyed by your presence, and are willing to let you know about it.”

Stuck at the hospital with military everywhere inside and outside. High risk of detention. #MOD
— CVirus (@CVirus) May 4, 2012

This was the last tweet sent out from Mohamed Hazem, alias “CVirus,” now believed to be in detention. Photographer Mostafa Sheshtawya wrote on Facebook that Hazem, a GUC student, “was arrested earlier this evening from the ministry of defense clashes. Hazem was injured in his leg and was taken into custody by military police from Ain Shams Hospital”.

Individuals have been noted on social media, both male and female activists, as having been placed under arrest (the National Council on Women notably declined to defend the actions of the women who were arrested, though the government says it will release them).

At least 18 journalists assaulted or arrested in #Egypt is the last 4 days is.gd/eEJ887 via @pressfreedom
— Liam Stack (@liamstack) May 5, 2012

The security forces arrested and detained journalists all day. A partial list of all those detained and assaulted at Abbaseya is available here. Mohammed Raafat of Masrawy.com was severely injured by “armed thugs” who beat him while he was taking photographs.

There’s no problem to kill 1 milion rude egyptians to save a country that has 90 milion poeple.
— Dr. Okasha (@TawfikOkasha_en) May 4, 2012

“Egypt’s Glenn Beck” weighs in with his usual … flair … for controversy.

The minor Islamist party Wasat blames Salafist clerics for trying to incite “jihad” against SCAF. Field Marshal Tantawi made a show of touring military hospitals following his high-profile attendance at the funeral of the soldier killed on Friday; a military spokesperson told the AFP that the soldier’s “death at the hands of protesters represents a clear attack on the army.”

This is good information to have RT @RiverDryFilm: Map of the area under curfew tonight: bit.ly/J5hKPJ
— Liam Stack (@liamstack) May 4, 2012

According to other Twitter users, last night protestors were still trying to march on this area even though security forces cordon was expanded.

#MOD arrests: 176- Cairo, 7- Suez, 4- Alex. Casualties: 1 dead, 350 injured, 120 still in hospital. We find out today if curfew is renewed
— Adam Makary (@adamakary) May 5, 2012

As of this writing the curfew is still in effect. The Muslim Brotherhood (which, according to Al-Hayat, was unsupportive of the initial demonstrations, as were Al Nour and Gamaat Islamiya) has since expressed solidarity with the demonstrators. SCAF is reportedly refusing to back down over releasing protestors ahead of their mandatory 15-day detentions in response to the soldier’s death. Closed-door military courts are already convening to sentence detainees, and several presidential candidates have suspended their campaigns in protest against the violence (of both May 2 and May 4).

The Real Lion of Zion: Netanyahu Consolidates Power

Kadima e Likud.

Kadima e Likud.

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

The opposition party Kadima, which has the largest number of Knesset seats of any single Israeli political party, will join in a national unity government with second-seated Likud and its main partner, third-seated Yisrael Beiteinu. This creates a majority since among themselves these 3 main parties will control 70 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, and including smaller Likud coalition partners, this bloc could be up to 94 votes strong — meaning they could easy institute new Basic Laws if they chose to do so.

Earlier Likud-driven plans to move up Israel’s 2013 elections to September 4, 2012 that had been opposed by Kadima have now been “frozen,” according to Haaretz, which had actually reported yesterday that a parliamentary committee voted 12-1 in favoring of dissolving this Knesset to hold elections in September. The decision to suspend the elections apparently came overnight during inter-party talks between Kadima and Likud after that particular bill was set to go on to a further vote.

It was Likud that called for the elections, and Likud is now apparently taking the initiative to undo them, though some members of Likud deny this and lay the initiative at Mofaz’s feet — such members, it seems, hoped to trounce Kadima this fall. Is it simple politicking (the settler parties, religious and non-religious, the latter including Foreign Minister Lieberman’s own Yisrael Beiteinu, that find themselves at odds with Bibi are now suddenly less important), a move to revoke special exemptions for Haredim, settlement expansion, insurance against Obama 2012, or a means of putting Israel further on a war footing with Iran?

All of the above all possible — and as such, Bibi wins in 2012.

With Likud, the immediate effort is all about taking advantage of a beaten opposition; now only Labor and the smaller parties — Palestinian citizens of Israel, far-left and ultra-religious — remain, a most fractious and heavily outnumbered coalition. Bibi may just be the most politically insulated Prime Minister in Israeli history at this moment: “king of Israeli politics,” Haaretz just called him, grudgingly that he is, after all, “Israel’s number one politician, no doubt — by a mile.”

And for Kadima, it is about surviving to the next election. The move represents a significant departure in Kadima’s rhetoric, to say the least. At the end of March, following Tzipi Livni’s loss to Shaul Mofaz, the new head of the party told Haaretz he’d never join a government with Likud (h/t Max Blumenthal):

Yossi Veter: Would you consider joining a government should that situation arise?

Shaul Mofaz: No, Kadima under my leadership will remain in the opposition. The current government represents all that is wrong with Israel, I believe. Why should we join it? We will be a responsible opposition. Anything Netanyahu does for the benefit of Israel’s future will find our support. I want to restore an ethic of nonpartisan patriotism to Israel. I want to represent something new, like we had in the past.

But Kadima, born out of a schism within Likud in 2005, has few options otherwise if it wants to hold onto the seats it won in 2009. Elizabeth Tsurkov, from +972, and Barak Ravid of Haaretz:

In any current poll, Kadima’s power is projected to diminish by almost 2/3. Kadima wants to keep this unrepresentative Knesset in power.
— Elizabeth Tsurkov (@Elizrael) May 8, 2012

Reason for agreement: Mofaz was panicked by the elections, Ehud Barak also panicked and Bibi wanted to kill Labor and Yair Lapid
— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) May 8, 2012

And Gregg Carlstrom at Al Jazeera:

Yet another Israel poll: Likud gets 31 seats in early elex, Labor 17, Yisrael Beiteinu 13, Atid 12, Kadima down to 10. bit.ly/JrS7r2
— Gregg Carlstrom (@glcarlstrom) May 3, 2012

Likud has found a way to have its cake — humbling Kadima — and eat it too with this deal because now, that cake is Kadima. One wonders what resurrected legislation from 2010 and 2011 on loyalty oaths, BDS, administrative detention, NGO funding, settlement subsidies or judicial appointments to the High Court will make a comeback. What foreign observers are most concerned about, of course, is not Kadima’s electoral woes, or how this all means the national service exemption “Tal Law” will be amended or annulled (a measure both Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu back), but what this unity government portends for a possible conflict with Iran. Barbara Slavin of Al-Monitor asks:

mofaz opposes #israel war on #iran; what did bibi promise him?
— Barbara Slavin (@barbaraslavin1) May 8, 2012

At the moment, we know Mofaz has been promised two explicit, and one implicit, bargains. Mofaz will become a deputy prime minister in the new government, but will be a “minister without portfolio” “in charge of the process with the Palestinians.” These offices are his explicit rewards. His implicit reward, as noted above, is getting to avoid a general election for at least one more year that his party was likely to suffer in.

Finally, for Likud there is a big immediate benefit regarding the settlements, suggests Noam Shezaif (though he notes this might only be a temporary victory for Bibi):

The final push for the new agreement was probably yesterday’s High Court ruling on the evacuation of the Ulpana neighborhood in the settlement of Beit El, built on private Palestinian land. With elections around the corner, this would have become for Netanyahu a public showdown with either the settlers or with the court – and possibly both. By postponing the elections, the prime minister has bought himself some time to deal with the crisis.

As for the foreign front, I think that Bibi has decided to hedge his bets for now on Iran by offering the bruised Kadima a way forward to survive another year in a way that insulates him from American pressure and possible domestic confrontations over his focus on Iran. Yousef Munayyer put it succinctly:

@blakehounshell its more about obama than Iran, even when its about Iran, its about Obama
— Yousef Munayyer (@YousefMunayyer) May 8, 2012

Now Netanyahu won’t have to tone down his rhetoric on Iran, which he has used to successfully dodge the question on settlements as well as (reducing) sanctions and criticizing P5+1 diplomacy. Or, perhaps far, far more importantly for his fellow Likudniks’ purposes, concern himself with any further weak Western protests over West Bank settlement expansion. At the risk of beating a dead horse — this coalition formation shows we can also say goodbye to any foreseeable future negotiations with Ramallah.

On the Obama angle, Maariv’s Ben Caspit reported earlier this week, when elections were still on, that Netanyahu had based his call for early election off of an AIPAC consensus that Obama would win reelection in 2012 (and thus, feel capable of standing up to the Prime Minister). He hardly needed AIPAC to tell him the President’s ahead in the polls, but Caspit’s effort to portrait Bibi’s mindset is illuminating:

The surprising announcement of early primaries in Likud by the party leadership fell out of the blue, [and] came three days after a quiet meeting held with AIPAC officials, who after conducting a review of U.S. polling data, advised Netanyahu that Obama would be the next president. Bibi knows he cannot campaign for reelection himself with Obama in office for a second term. This is a dangerous gamble. [But] there is great mistrust between the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister, and Netanyahu may try to do to Obama what he did during Clinton’s first term, and Obama [may try to do] to Yitzhak Shamir what George H. W. Bush did in 1992.

When referring to Clinton, the author means Netanyahu’s efforts to handicap the Oslo Accords. With Shamir, he means to say that Bibi seeks to avoid any chance of there being repeat of the “one lonely little guy” speech Bush gave when he refused to cave in to Shamir on delinking loan guarantees from a halt to settlement expansion. Netanyahu would rather not fight that fight and give his opponents at home openings against him, even though he’s almost certain to win such a fight both at home and abroad. As such, it may be that these comparisons (severely) overestimates Obama’s will to criticize the Israeli government and (slightly) overdoes Bibi’s sense of insecurity since Congress will simply not allow such scenarios to come into being.

This said, the Prime Minister would rather not have to fight such a fight when the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” gives him so much room to maneuver in the region, no matter how much he dislikes Obama. So he is playing it safe; no elections to risk losing a seat in the Knesset or having to face an irate White House. If he’s concluded Obama will win, he intends to set the tone for the President’s final term by building his coalition ahead of the actual Romney-Obama faceoff. He puts himself above the fray, and greater unity at home will translate into greater assertiveness abroad. It keeps the rhetoric red hot.

So, then, here is the $64,000, deal-or-no deal question: where does this leave newcomer Mofaz in Bibi’s kitchen cabinet? Are the scales tipped in favor of war with Mofaz’s addition to the coalition?

Not for now, at least. Mofaz opposes an attack on Iran as of this writing. And it is not clear what Mofaz’s complicity, if it were to come, would achieve for the most gung-ho boosters of an attack. The most outspoken opponents have, in any case, mainly been former national security officials, and in a way, Bibi has even preempted them with this unity government (not that some kind of reaching across the aisle seemed to be in the cards; most who’ve worn the uniform have kept quiet) — though what this means in practice has yet to be tested with respect to Iran. Again, the kitchen cabinet — this “Octet” — is reportedly still divided over an attack. It’s tempting to see a possible reorganization of the “Octet” as a prelude to a 2012 war with Iran because it ensures Barak stays on as Defense Minister and, as Larry Derfner notes, Bibi has “cleared his calendar,” and Barak earlier said this month the government had to separate Iran from “the elections” and it has done just that. At the same time, further settlement building, the revival of undemocratic legislation, even Cast Lead II seem just as, if not more, likely worst-case outcomes for 2012-3 (unless, you know, I’m dead wrong, and Mofaz, the man who would beat Bibi and never, ever, ever join a coalition does an about-face on Iran and it’s bombs away).

But even if he does not defect over Iran to the hawk, one does wonder what Mofaz is going to look forward in 2013 when elections will take place — although since they’re apparently going to get to do some election law rewriting, that question may be answered by Kadima itself! But what was promised, indeed, for the man who swore upon his election this spring that he would “replace” Netanyahu? And was a compromise on Iran policy staked out in these arrangements?

What Bibi intends to do with the time and the Knesset majority he has bought himself through 2013 remains to be seen. West Bank settlement expansion, “court packing,” sanctions on the PA, bombing Iran, perhaps even further punitive measures in Gaza? All are on firmer ground as of this week, “the putsch against war” notwithstanding.

Indeed, thanks to Kadima’s actions, “the putsch against war” may constitute the only serious challenge to Bibi’s politics right now, and that is cause for concern over the Iranian question (hopefully, the generals will not be swayed by Bibi’s efforts to influence the services with political appointees). The initiative on Iran, the settlements, the “peace process,” the national service debate and even the chance to pass new Basic Laws will stay with him for at least a year.

It’s good to be the king.

Bin Laden Grows a Conscience

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, the Director of National Intelligence released a tiny sample of the documents that U.S. Special Operations Forces captured at Osama Bin Laden’s compound to the Combating Terrorist Center (CTC) at West Point for it to analyze. Still reading Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Ladin Sidelined?, we’ll single out one Focal Point™.

In contrast to Bin Ladin’s public statements that focused on the injustice of those he believed to be the “enemies” (a`da’) of Muslims, namely corrupt “apostate” Muslim rulers and their Western “overseers,” the focus of his private letters is Muslims’ suffering at the hands of his jihadi “brothers” (ikhwa). He was at pains advising [the latter] to abort domestic attacks that cause Muslim civilian casualties and instead focus on the United States, “our desired goal.”

In fact …

… High on his list of concerns was their flexible understanding of tatarrus, which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of Muslim civilians. … Bin Ladin was concerned that regional jihadi groups had expanded the meaning of a classical legal concept meant to be applied in rare circumstances and turned it from an exception into the norm. … Tatarrus refers to special circumstances when it is permissible, from an Islamic law of war perspective, for a military commander to attack enemy territory, even if the attack may result in the deaths of non-combatants, including Muslim women and children [aka] collateral damage.

“Flexible,” “expanded”? Stretching the definition to the breaking point would be more like it. The CTC report continues:

As a result, the jihadis, he worried, have lost considerable sympathy from the Muslim public; this loss was compounded when “the mistakes of the jihadis were exploited by the enemy, [further] distorting the image of the jihadis in the eyes of the umma’s general public and separating them from their popular bases.”

But, even though

… Bin Ladin largely disapproved of their conduct, he did not consider publicly dissociating … himself and al-Qa`ida from the actions of regional groups, as Adam Gadahn strongly urged the senior leadership to do.

It’s obvious that whatever compassion Bin Laden had come to evince for Muslims — infidels, including civilians, were still fair game — he was more concerned that the Muslim public would sour on the al Qaeda brand, thus imperiling the success of jihad, than he was with their actual suffering at the hands of al Qaeda’s affiliates.

The One Percent Deports Itself

The number of people renouncing their U.S. citizenship is higher than ever.

Now that new provisions in the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act have gone into effect, the feds are reining in tax dodgers living abroad. But many of these super-wealthy people who would be forced to pony up more in tax payments are choosing to sever ties with their country of birth instead.

Many of these individuals lead nomadic, season-driven lives. Their choice of where to live at any one time is based on that location’s climate, their children’s education, tax constraints, or which of their friends they want to lunch with on any particular day. When one has such a global outlook, paying taxes to something as archaic as a nation-state can be easily ignored. Bloomberg was among the first to report on this story:

About 1,780 expatriates gave up their nationality at U.S. embassies last year, up from 235 in 2008, according to Andy Sundberg, secretary of Geneva’s Overseas American Academy, citing figures from the government’s Federal Register. The embassy in Bern, the Swiss capital, redeployed staff to clear a backlog as Americans queued to relinquish their passports.

Renouncing their citizenship does not cost much to these global elites, who can achieve statelessness rather quickly:

During a 10-minute renunciation ceremony in a booth with bullet-proof glass windows, embassy staff ask exiting Americans whether they are acting voluntarily and understand the implications of giving up their passports. They pay a fee of $450 to renounce and may incur an “exit tax” on unrealized capital gains if their assets exceed $2 million or their average annual U.S. tax bill is more than $151,000 during the past five years.

The Obama administration deserves some credit for putting a scare into the expatriate tax-dodging class. But it can certainly still do more for the taxpayers facing deportation.

The number of immigrants being deported from the United States is also at an all-time high. After last year’s much-celebrated announcement of a new discretion policy by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), advocates have seen dissappointing results. ICE has reviewed 219,554 pending cases, but only 16,544 (or 7.5 percent) were identified as amenable for prosecutorial discretion as of April 16, 2012. They have only closed 2,722 cases, according to figures released by ICE (pdf).

The status quo of post-recession America shows a government that’s slighted by some of the richest members of its citizenry, while wistfully ignoring the plight of millions yearning for the full opportunity to become Americans.

The Lineup: Week of May 7-13, 2012

In this week’s OtherWords editorial package, Sarah Anderson underscores the dangers posed by Wall Street’s lightning-speed computerized trading and Donald Kaul makes the case for eating more vegetables. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. Wall Street’s Speed Freaks / Sarah Anderson
    The high-frequency trading that dominates the stock market could trigger another global financial crisis.
  2. Grassroots Victory / Carl Gibson
    A coalition of big corporations has lost a battle to nab a huge tax break.
  3. A Watered-Down Education / Wenonah Hauter
    Project WET’s supposed mission is a slap in the face to any community that has had its water muscled away by Nestle.
  4. A More Meaningful Mother’s Day Gift / Leslie Kantor
    How about giving moms a little help with the birds and the bees?
  5. Vegan Confessions / Donald Kaul
    The vegetable is a quick cure for much if not most of our health problems.
  6. Food Stamp Foolishness / Jim Hightower
    Rep. Paul Ryan’s trying to justify his abuse of the poor with religious lip service.
  7. The Pipeline from the Black Lagoon / William A. Collins
    TransCanada’s Keystone XL project is rotten.
  8. Vegan on Board / Khalil Bendib

Vegan on Board, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

Vegan on Board, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

Missile Defense: Ever the Fly in the Ointment of U.S.-Russia Relations

Missile defense systems against nuclear strikes are often considered “destabilizing” to the strategic balance.” On May 3, Russia’s RIA Novosti demonstrated this principle in action.

Russia does not exclude preemptive use of weapons against [NATO] missile defense systems in Europe but only as a last resort, the Russian General Staff said on Thursday at a missile defense conference in Moscow.

“The placement of new strike weapons in the south and northwest of Russia against [NATO] missile defense components … is one possible way of incapacitating the European missile defense infrastructure,” Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov said.

Taking into account the “destabilizing nature of the missile defense system… the decision on the pre-emptive use of available weapons will be made during an aggravation of the situation,” he said.

Exactly why missile defense is destabilizing can be difficult to grasp (at least it was for me). After all, it only seems natural for a state to seek to protect itself against nuclear attack. Besides, how can a parry be considered as aggressive as a thrust? I once endeavored to explain in a post.

Here’s how it works. A state — Russia again — is considered vulnerable to a first, or initial, strike by the United States, during the course of which many of its surface (as opposed to those based in submarines, which are, of course, mobile) nuclear weapons would be wiped out. (This argument requires a suspension of belief that Russia would refrain from launching a counterattack on warning, that is, while the U.S. missiles were in the air, instead of waiting until they struck — still the only sure-fire method of verifying a nuclear attack.)

Russia’s retaliatory force would be further diminished if much of it was destroyed while in the air by U.S. missile defense. (This requires a suspension of belief that the day when missile defense is that effective will ever come). The crux of this theory is that since Russia knows that under this arrangement it’s going to lose missiles both on the ground and in the air it’s motivated to build more to compensate. (Why Russian missile defense isn’t considered destabilizing to America’s “deterrent” is a question seldom, if ever, raised.)

More from the RIA Novosti article:

“By 2018-2020 – that is the third and fourth phases of the deployment of the Euro-missile defense in Europe – the continent should have enough [NATO] anti-missile defense to be able to intercept part of Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine launched ballistic missiles,” Patrushev said at an international conference on Euro-missile defense in Moscow.

At the Christian Science Monitor, Yousaff Butt backed this up.

The problem with European missile defense is that while it’s designed to counter Iran, the faster interceptors due to come online in 2018 will also be able to engage Russian warheads, upsetting this all-important perception of parity.

Though what Butt probably meant by “designed to counter Iran” was in the highly unlikely event that Iran develops missiles that could reach Europe, not to mention the nuclear weapons that would be affixed to them as warheads. Meanwhile RIA Novosti reported that NATO’s Deputy General Secretary Alexander Vershbow said:

“In fact, we have no desire at all to disturb global strategic stability,” told the conference. “Quite the contrary: NATO missile defense will be capable of intercepting only a small number of relatively unsophisticated ballistic missiles. It does not have the capability to neutralize Russian deterrence.”

Ivan Oelrich explained in the January/February issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (behind a pay wall)

Almost all independent US analysts—that is, those outside the government and the defense industry—are deeply skeptical of the feasibility of missile defenses, especially against a technically sophisticated country like Russia. To these skeptics, therefore, Russia’s position seems frustratingly irrational: Russia is letting the potential for mutually beneficial arrangements be undermined by the USA’s politically motivated pursuit of a system that will never work.

But Patrushev said:

“Our experts say other targets, which could require serious missile defense against it, do not really exist.”

The United States and NATO may act like Russia is being a drama queen about missile defense, but it knows very well that the system will never be used against Iran. Even if that were its intention, it would be years before it’s necessary to defend Europe against Iran — years of NATO missile-defense deployment acting as a burr in Russia’s saddle as well as an ongoing obstacle to disarmament. Not only is missile defense destabilizing, it’s an endless fund of misinformation between the United States and Russia.

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