IPS Blog

Honduras: Sovereignty for Sale

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo

It’s been nearly three years since Honduran president Manual Zelaya was forcefully removed from office by the military in the country’s first coup since 1972. Pushed from power with little more than the pajamas on his back, Zelaya was ferried to Costa Rica in an operation orchestrated by Roberto Micheletti before sneaking back into Honduras and holing up in the Brazilian embassy, sparking a standoff which lasted weeks. In the end, the United States—which had initially spoken forcefully against Zelaya’s ouster and demanded his return to power—lost interest in defending democracy when the going got tough, effectively ending the region’s efforts to send the golpistas packing.

While the rest of the world has since carried on as if nothing had ever happened, the Honduran economy still bears painful reminders of the coup and its consequences. The Economist sums things up succinctly. “It is the third-poorest country in mainland Latin America in terms of GDP per head, and is heavily reliant on foreign help. In the six months between the coup and the election of Porfirio Lobo…the aid tap was turned off. In 2009 the country lost out on $320m in grants and credit, says Humberto López of the World Bank. Its public debt rose from 19.8 percent of GDP in 2008 to 26.3 percent in 2010… Even after two voluntary bond conversions this year, extending maturities to between three and seven years, repaying the principal of the domestic debt alone will cost Honduras 1-2 percent of GDP each year until 2015.”

A suffocated economy, though, could be the least of the country’s concerns. Since taking office, the administration of Pepe Lobo has opened the door to expanded American military presence in Honduras and has quite literally auctioned off his country’s sovereignty and right to self-determination.

Last week, the New York Times reported that the United States has established three new military bases—“each in a crucial location to interdict smugglers moving cocaine”—as part of its increased efforts in a revamped “war on drugs” in Latin America. While the US mission has been ordered “to maintain a discreet footprint,” the six hundred American troops are now “responsible for the military’s efforts across all of Central America,” and offer Hondurans another reminder of Washington’s grim record of military involvement in the country. Even hard-right conservatives are spooked, though for reasons that have more to do with American security than they do Honduran interests. According to the Times, these efforts will “draw on hard lessons from a decade of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq,” a plan that leads Cato’s Ted Galen Carpenter to remark, “That anyone would regard the Iraq debacle as a template for future military operations is more than a little worrisome. The principal lesson of the Iraq war should be to avoid murky counterinsurgency/nation-building crusades, not to try to pursue such missions more effectively.”

As the US military sets up shop in remote jungle areas, the Lobo administration has been looking to radically refashion the country’s urban centers through a privatization scheme that would make Milton Friedman blush. Planet Money’s Adam Davidson reports that “in late 2010, [presidential aide Octavio Rubén] Sánchez met with [economist Paul] Romer, and the two hurriedly persuaded President Lobo to make Honduras the site of an economic experiment. The country quickly passed a constitutional amendment that allowed for the creation of a separately ruled Special Development Region.” The so-called “charter city” will reportedly “assure investors that they’ve created a secure place to do business…If a multinational company commits to building new factories, real estate developers will follow and build apartments, which then provide the capital for electricity, sewers, telecom, and a police force.” If this sounds like the colonial Mandate System on crack, that’s because in many respects it is, though potential nation-state partners are wary. “Romer hasn’t yet been able to persuade any nations to take on the role of custodian, so Honduras has named a board of overseers until there are enough people to form a democracy.” A democracy of whom, one might ask? It’s not clear, though in yet another twist of irony, the first of Romer’s Honduran charter cities is slated to be built around the harbor of Trujillo, site of Christopher Columbus’ first forays onto the American continent and the inspiration for O Henry’s “Cabbages and Kings”—from which famously comes the term “banana republic.”

Not surprisingly, supporters of each initiative highlight the potential positives. Davidson points out that “Even though he expects most initial opportunities will be fairly low-paying basic industrial jobs, the local government [of the charter city] will mandate policies that ensure retirement savings, health care and education. According to Romer’s plan, the immigrants who arrive will not get rich, but their children will eventually be ready to climb the economic-development ladder.” Meanwhile, containing the operations of drug traffickers is of direct important to US security because, according to Admiral Joseph Kernan, the number two man at US Southern Command, “There are ‘insidious’ parallels between regional criminal organization and terror networks.”

But when we consider that violence and foreign control have been at the heart of Honduras’ problems for the better part of a century, these latest developments are of great concern. And not only that, they’re also interconnected. Carpenter correctly notes that “Because of the black-market risk premium, profit margins are far wider than normal, filling the coffers of illicit traffickers and giving them ample financial resources to challenge competitors and either corrupt or neutralize government institutions…Unfortunately, the Obama administration stubbornly refuses to recognize that reality.” This has direct effects on the dismal levels of physical security countries like Honduras suffer, which in turn scares off potential investors from putting their money behind the country’s economic development. Jettisoning failed and flawed prohibition policies would likely reduce levels of violence as profits—and therefore market monopoly incentives—shrink, and return the economy to a semblance of stability. The result would leave both Romer and the United States military without reason to be in Honduras which, if they are both committed to the region’s future prosperity as they have led us to believe, should be not only a policy preference but a matter of highest priority.

Lip Service Is All the Bahraini Opposition Will Ever Get From Washington*

Cross-posted from Other Words.

The popular uprising in Bahrain shows no signs of going away.

The royal family tried crushing the revolt, importing shock troops from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. It tried jailing important figures in the opposition, such as human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who as of early May had been on hunger strike for 90 days. The island’s rulers tried quieting the opposition by promising to investigate the abuses and making minor cessions of power from the king to the parliament.

None of these strategies has worked. The opposition rejects them as cosmetic changes. The Bahraini majority is angry. It wants authoritarian rule to end, and many Bahrainis would like to see the monarchy disappear. The regime’s answers to this public outrage are birdshot and tear gas. They haven’t produced the terrible death tolls of Libya or Syria, but at least 32 people have died since February 2011.

The United States, which anchors its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, is right in the middle of this simmering crisis. For the most part, Washington is content to look the other way.

*Apologies to Elvis Costello.

To read this piece in its entirety, visit Other Words.

Mexican President Calderon: Kingpin of the Kingpin Strategy

Mexican President Felipe Calderón

Mexican President Felipe Calderón

Cross-posted from the Dissent blog Arguing the World.

With Mexico’s presidential elections just around the corner, questions about the country’s future—and its bloody war on drugs—hang heavy in the air. The new issue of Foreign Affairs features a brief argument from Robert Bonner addressing this uncertainty, and offers a spirited defense of Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s fight against the country’s narcotraffickers. Bonner, former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency and commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is hardly a stranger to the drug-fueled violence and corruption ravaging Mexico. The effects have been devastating: anywhere between 45,000 and 67,000 people have been murdered since Calderón’s efforts began; the country’s alphabet soup of local, state, and federal security and judicial organs have been largely crippled by graft; and the power of the so-called “Mexican cartels” seems to have metastasized within and beyond Mexico’s borders. Yet, “despite all the negative headlines,” Bonner argues, “the next president will find that the government has made huge gains in the last five years…By using force and launching large-scale reforms of Mexico’s law enforcement institutions, [Calderón] has already destroyed some of the cartels and weakened several others.”

Calderón has made security the central focus of his presidency. As Bonner writes, “Calderón set about reforming Mexico’s law enforcement institutions using a three-part strategy: creating a new, professional federal police force; rebuilding each of the thirty-two state forces and giving them the responsibilities of the discredited municipal police; and overhauling the judicial and penal systems.” These efforts have not been lost on the Mexican public. “As a result of Calderón’s determination and success against the cartels,” notes Bonner, “his approval rating now stands at 52 percent.”

Mexico under Calderón has pursued a far more heavy-handed approach to destroying the cartel networks than the anemic administration of Vincente Fox. Calderón’s government has relied on the military as the primary tool to fight the cartels. To a degree this makes sense: trafficking networks have penetrated Mexico’s various law enforcement bodies so thoroughly that the government can’t depend on the police to keep basic order, much less to go after organized crime. The military, by contrast, has been largely buffered from organized crime’s corrupting influence. But the results have been grim: violence has spiraled out of control as the military takes control of state and local law enforcement bodies, assuming responsibilities for which it is not properly trained or funded. According to government statistics, the first nine months of 2011 left over 12,000 dead, and the violence shows no sign of abating. The first quarter of 2012 witnessed steady fighting between traffickers and the military, as well as attacks on the civilian population. In a particularly chilling incident, four teens in the northern city of Cuernavaca were abducted, cut to pieces, and dumped in the street with a warning note from a local gang. Just this week, nine people were found hanging from a bridge in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, while another fourteen heads without bodies were discovered near its town hall.

On top of the staggering body counts, many human rights protections have become casualties of Mexico’s militarization. As Alejandro Anaya Muñoz has shown, judicial reforms pursued by Calderón have reduced due-process guarantees in the name of fighting the war on drugs. The number of charges of human rights violations against the ministry of defense has risen precipitously during the Calderón era, especially in those areas of the country where military action has been focused. According to Human Rights Watch, “An important reason [military] abuses continue is that they go unpunished. And they go unpunished in significant part because most cases end up being investigated by the military itself.” International calls for reform on this front have been consistently rebuffed by the Calderón administration.

Worse still, there’s little evidence to suggest that Calderón’s “kingpin” strategy—modeled after the Colombian anti-cartel operations a decade earlier—will even succeed. Bonner, pointing to the alleged successes in Colombia, argues, “In the last three years alone, the Mexican government has captured or killed over forty major cartel members…dismantled the Tijuana cartel and severely weakened the Gulf, the Juarez and La Familia Michoacana cartels.” But there are several reasons to be wary of analogies to the Colombian case. There, the government’s victories over insurgent groups came at the cost of increasing authoritarianism, and through political pacts with conservative paramilitary groups—themselves responsible for a significant amount of Colombia’s drug trade—which have now consolidated considerable political power in northern Colombia. Moreover, it is hardly clear that killing kingpins leads to a reduction in violence, as Calderón has claimed. Indeed, it may be quite the reverse, as recent episodes in Tijuana and Cuernavaca suggest.

Bonner is certainly correct to point out that Mexico’s next president will meet with unrelenting, brutal opposition from the country’s drug traffickers. And whoever wins this summer’s electoral contest should continue to make security a priority, as Bonner argues. But to claim that Mexico faces a stark choice between acquiescence, on the one hand, and a continuation of Calderón’s mano dura (“tough hand”) militarism, on the other, is wrong.

The next president should make efforts to temper, if not outright reject, Calderón’s profligate use of the military, and should make protection of human rights a cornerstone of any policy aimed at rolling back the power of traffickers. Calderón’s successor ought, too, to push back harder against American pressure that privileges supply-side answers to the drug problem (which has the effect of flooding Mexico with weapons) while doing comparatively little to address demand for drugs in the United States. Doing so will demand tremendous creativity and the courage to weather possible public disapproval from citizens exhausted by fear and insecurity.

Still, there’s reason for hope, as the 2008 constitutional reform fight makes clear. Faced with a bill from the president, the Mexican congress—including members of the Calderón’s own party—forcefully argued that Calderón’s proposals violated human rights protections guaranteed by the constitution and forced the president to back off some of the more severe elements of his original proposal. Military brass would also certainly welcome relief from the rising casualties and overstretch that Calderón’s policies have engendered.

Any solution, finally, must revitalize and hold accountable Mexico’s institutions of criminal justice, however great the challenge. The alternative is more years of bloodshed and further backsliding into the legacy of authoritarianism the country has so desperately fought to escape.

The Lineup: Week of May 14-20, 2012

In this week’s OtherWords editorial package, Sam Pizzigati puts Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s discarded U.S. citizenship into context and Booth Gunter discusses the grim conditions young inmates endured at a for-profit prison in Mississippi. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. No Country for Rich Men / Sam Pizzigati
    From Manhattan to Monaco, the world’s wealthiest people are disconnecting into a class of stateless transients.
  2. Operation Lip Service / Chris Toensing
    A year after President Obama promised that Washington would stop buttressing autocratic regimes, Bahrain’s popular revolt is still being crushed.
  3. Bank of America’s Healthier Roots / Scott Klinger and Chuck Collins
    Founder Amadeo P. Giannini built a booming business while helping others improve their lot and their communities.
  4. Meting out Injustice in Mississippi / Booth Gunter
    Prisoners, some as young as 13, are being brutalized in facilities owned by private companies that exist solely to turn a profit.
  5. Our Ruinous Game / Donald Kaul
    Football fans have a high tolerance for pain — in others — and show little sympathy for the plight of the players who now are seeking redress for their injuries.
  6. Coddling the 10 Percent / Jim Hightower
    To reel in these mid-level richies, bankers are offering to pamper them lavishly.
  7. Abortion Politics / William A. Collins
    Although its opposition to abortion and family planning probably won’t foment a landslide away from the Catholic Church, the steady erosion of membership is increasing.
  8. USS Excess / Khalil Bendib
USS Excess, an OtherWords op-ed by Khalil Bendib.

USS Excess, an OtherWords op-ed by Khalil Bendib.

U.S. Sides With Israel’s Nukes Over Iran’s Lack Thereof

In the Hindu on May 8, we catch Hillary Clinton putting too fine a distinction on the Israel-Iran rivalry.

Drawing a distinction between Iran, which has violated provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and Israel, which hasn’t signed it, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said here on Monday that the latter has “made numerous overtures to try to have a peaceful resolution” to the situation in the Middle-East.

Of course, logic dictates that an overriding distinction be drawn between a state with an unacknowledged nuclear-weapons program that never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and one with not only no nukes, but no development program and that has signed the NPT, with no evidence of substantive violations. Secretary of State Clinton, however, attempts to suggest that Israel’s other virtues more than compensate for an illegal nuclear arms program (not that we believe, according to international law, that any nuclear program is exactly legal). First, she claims that Israel “‘has made numerous overtures to try to have a peaceful resolution’ to the situation in the Middle-East.”

It’s unclear about what Ms. Clinton is speaking: Iran or the Palestinian people? Conflating the two is shoddy thinking, especially for a top official. In any event, are Israel’s overtures more numerous — or genuine — than Iran’s or Palestine’s? We’ll leave it to Middle-East experts to divvy them up. But that’s not Ms. Clinton’s only defense for favoring Israel over Iran on the issue of nuclear weapons.

Responding to a question on the U.S. pressing for sanctions on Iran on account of its nuclear programme, while taking no action against Israel, which is in violation of several United Nations resolutions, apart from not being a signatory to the NPT, Ms. Clinton quipped: “Well, I don’t think we have convinced India to sign the NPT either.”

At the risk of being childish, we feel compelled to point out that two wrongs don’t make a right. Then, along with siding with more than one country in the nuclear wrong, she adds to her list of countries that, like Iran, she believe are deserving of blame.

“It isn’t the only country causing worry. We worry regarding nuclear weapons proliferating in some other countries,” Ms. Clinton said, adding that the biggest fear was that nuclear weapons may fall into the wrong hands.

Then Ms. Clinton pulls out the “state sponsor of terrorism” card.

At this moment in time, the “principal threat is a nuclear-armed Iran,” she said, alleging that the country was a “state sponsor of terrorism.” She cited the recent attack on Israeli diplomats in Delhi, and a plot to kill the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the U.S. — both allegedly planned by the Iranian government — as examples.

In the end, Ms. Clinton seems to be resorting to the unspoken rationality index that Washington uses to rate states. By that calculation, Iran not only scores low because it is a “state sponsor of terrorism,” but because its motivations may be apocalyptic. But this is the height of disingenuousness on the part of Washington, which knows very well that Iran’s policies are as realist, or more so, than other states.

Meanwhile, it’s as if, by refraining from using its illegal nuclear weapons, Israel has demonstrated its rationality to Washington … thus providing yet another reason for a state that aspires to nuclear weapons to act on its aspiration.

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).

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