IPS Blog

Will Stuxnet Start Another Arms Race?

David Sanger of the New York Times is often rebuked for operating under the assumption that Iran is determined to developed nuclear weapons when the evidence suggests otherwise. But when he sticks to straight reporting, as with the excerpt from his new book in the Times on June 1 about the cyberattacks against Iran, we owe him a debt of thanks. He’s opened our eyes to the extent to which the United States and President Obama were involved with Stuxnet. Stanger also brings to light a critical reason that the United States worked with Israel.

The unusually tight collaboration with Israel was driven by two imperatives. Israel’s Unit 8200, a part of its military, had technical expertise that rivaled the N.S.A.’s, and the Israelis had deep intelligence about operations at Natanz that would be vital to making the cyberattack a success. But American officials had another interest…

Wait for it …

… to dissuade the Israelis from carrying out their own pre-emptive strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities. To do that, the Israelis would have to be convinced that the new line of attack was working. The only way to convince them, several officials said in interviews, was to have them deeply involved in every aspect of the program.

Inviting Israel to participate as a diversionary tactic to prevent it from attacking Iran may be clever. But one can’t help suspect it’s yet another attempt to placate Israel. Or — to turn the tables on those who accuse President Obama of this on various fronts — to appease them.

Meanwhile, at the New Yorker, Steve Coll strikes a precautionary note.

“Olympic Games” [Stuxnet] seems to be, so far as is known, the first formal offensive act of pure cyber sabotage by the United States against another country. … “Olympic Games” will invite imitation and retaliation in kind, and it has established new and disturbing norms for state aggression on the Internet and in its side-channels. American and Israeli official action now stands available as a justification for others. … [Richard] Clarke and Sanger both compare the chaotic, poorly considered state of cyber warfare today to the wild early days of nuclear arms. … During the nineteen-fifties, a shocking number of American generals believed that a nuclear war could be won. “Olympic Games” suggests a comparably self-aggrandizing strain among our new class of digital fighters.

In other words, like the subdivision of the arms race — proliferation — it’s meant to help derail, cyberwarfare could start a new arms race.

Mining Firm Doubles Up On Law Firms in Quest for Pot of Gold

A Canadian mining company has cleared a major legal hurdle in their quest to exploit gold in El Salvador. In a celebratory press release, the firm, Pacific Rim, quoted lawyers from two Washington, DC law firms that are representing it in the case.

A mural in El Salvador shows Pacific Rim as a river-killing monster.

A mural in El Salvador shows Pacific Rim as a river-killing monster.

I guess having one legal powerhouse behind you just isn’t enough when a major pot of gold is at stake. And so far, the investment appears to be paying off.

Pacific Rim is suing the government of El Salvador, demanding more than $77 million in compensation over the government’s denial of a permit for a gold mining project. The government acted in response to strong public concerns that the project could contaminate a river that is the drinking water source for more than half the country.

The World Bank tribunal hearing the case, in a classic cowardly maneuver, put the word out late Friday that they planned to advance the case past the jurisdictional phase and start hearing arguments about the merits.

The Pacific Rim release quotes one “extremely pleased” lawyer from Weil, Gotshal & Manges and another from Crowell & Moring who called the ruling a “great development.” The continuation of the case makes for more billable hours. According to the Wall Street Journal, lawyers at Weil, Gotshal & Manges make as much as $1,045 per hour. GDP per capita in El Salvador: $3,426.

What’s remarkable is that Pacific Rim was able to hire these two law firms despite having no current income stream. They are essentially a corporate shell whose main asset is a lawsuit on which investors are willing to gamble. So they might lose a few million. But if the legal blackmail works and El Salvador allows the mining project to go ahead, the skyrocketing price of gold will produce a handsome return. Pacific Rim’s release notes that “the Company has received encouraging feedback from potential sources of non-equity financing” to pay for the final phase of the lawsuit.

The response to the tribunal ruling in El Salvador is not so happy. A diverse coalition of faith, environmental, and community groups fought against Pacific Rim’s mining plans because they don’t want their children drinking the poisoned water that often gets left behind when foreign corporations come hunting for gold. Polls show the majority of the country is opposed to the project and two successive Presidents from different parties have been on their side.

So how did this domestic policy issue wind up before an international tribunal? Pacific Rim based its legal claim on alleged violations of two laws — the U.S. trade agreement with Central America and a national Salvadoran investment law adopted in 1999. Both of these allow private foreign investors to bypass domestic courts and bring claims for compensation to international tribunals, such as the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, housed at the World Bank.

The tribunal decided that the company did not have the right to sue under the trade agreement because they are a Canadian company and Canada is not a part of that treaty. But they will hear arguments about whether El Salvador breached its obligations under its domestic laws. It’s not uncommon for cases like this to drag on for years, costing both sides millions of dollars in legal fees.

At a rally in front of Pacific Rim’s Vancouver headquarters on June 2, Salvadoran activist Vidalina Morales asked for international solidarity in demanding that Pacific Rim drop the suit. She said the broad-based coalition that has come together around the issue, the National Roundtable on Metallic Mining, is now even more determined to obtain their ultimate goal, which is a ban on all mining in the country in the environmentally fragile country.

Unfortunately, the international regime for handling investment disputes doesn’t pay much heed to the will of the people.

The Court Politics of Russia’s New Shale Oil Drive

Oil shale, from which shale oil is derived.

Oil shale, from which shale oil is derived.

In a 2010 overview of the laws of Russia’s extractive sector, the Europe-Asia Studies journal argued that “the players tend to favour solutions that, in principle, are defective but advantage insiders (themselves) over outsiders (foreigners). … While enabling increased influence of the state and state-controlled companies over subsoil use,” the report concluded, it “does not add to the transparency of the investment regime in Russia’s mineral resources sectors.” Past experience suggests that the Bazhenov shale extraction development will see this pattern holding, but despite this, the prospects are just too good for Exxon (or Statoil) to pass up.

That’s the risk of doing business under Putin.

The Russian government’s recent solicitation of ExxonMobil (US) and Statoil (Norway) to help state-owned firm Rosneft develop a huge field of oil shale in Siberia at a site called Bazhenov follows a plan — such as it is — laid down by Putin early on in his career. Putin wrote — or according to critics, plagiarized — his thesis on Russian energy policy with special emphasis on subsoil laws and returning concessions made by the Yeltsin government to foreign oil majors (BP) and private firms (Yukos) to the state. He regards Russia’s energy reserves as strategic instruments, just as his Soviet predecessors did, yet found his hand constrained by the fact that “around 92% of oil and 83% of gas” (according to the Europe-Asia Studies journal) were in private hands during the Yeltsin era.

Plagiarized or not, Putin’s thesis served as an ideological blueprint for him as he and his associates made halting progress to bring those energy reserves more firmly in the Kremlin’s orbit (since many of those privately owned concessions belonged to oligarchs close to Yeltsin’s family or former Soviet enterprise directors, they were not by any stretch of the imagination truly privately-owned).

While the nationalization efforts made by Putin during his first two terms as President may have worsened ratings of Russia’s investment climate and driven plans for Western-financed independent pipelines, they consolidated control of major reserves under state-owned enterprises such as Gazprom, where Kremlin insiders, including once-and-future President and PM Dmitri Medvedev, helped Putin consolidate state control, or, rather, control by men he felt he could trust, such as Dmitri but also a number of other top officials like Alexi Miller, one of his St. Petersburgers and current head of Gazprom, and former Yeltsin insider Vikotr Chernomyrdin, who founded Gazprom. Foreign investment in the firm Chernomyrdin founded — as of 2006, now Russia’s sole legal natural gas exporter — was permitted only after the state-owned firm Rosneft purchased enough of a stake in Gazprom to give the Kremlin majority ownership.

The approach to Gazprom — and the consolidation of firms like Rosneft and TNK, which had partnered (but ultimately broke) with BP, along with the assault on Yukos — mirrors Putin’s overall approach to the Russian political system. Mazen Labban has written:

Under Putin, however, foreign financial capital returned to consolidate the Russian oil industry under the control of the state. What in effect took place is a process of amalgamation of the Russian state, domestic productive capital and foreign financial capital into hybrid corporations.

Foreign investors entered the Russian oil industry through the state to help it close space further against transnational oil companies and protect the industry from the predation of the domestic oligarchs.

In other words, he has his favored men — former Yeltsin insiders he still needs to varying degrees and the extremely loyal security professionals who came to Moscow with him from St. Petersburg — who he plays off of each other and against those oligarchs whom he regards as political rivals. Yukos is the most infamous example of this, as it ended in the arrest of its CEO and the secretive manner in which its assets were auctioned off. More recently, the partnership BP has made with the Russian TNK firm, which has faced a rocky road under Putin, has been “profitable” for the British oil major, The Scotsman notes, and “accounts for 29 per cent of BP’s [total global] production.” Now, perhaps feeling BP’s usefulness has expired, the Kremlin may be looking to purchase BP’s stake through Rosneft — the same Rosneft working with Exxon (and headed by another of Putin’s favorites, Igor Sechin) — to the chagrin of a consortium of Russian banking oligarchs.

With this approach comes a willingness to overlook his own people’s possible skimming off of the top so long as they recognize their place in his court and adhere to his driving vision to enhance Russia’s international influence, even though Russia’s politicking with its gas suppliers in Central Asia, notably in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and European transit countries (Ukraine and Belarus) has harmed its image, according to the Pipeline & Gas Journal.

Of course, there are limits to how far Russia’s extractive emphasis can go. Not because there is only so much oil and gold and nickel to draw out from Siberia, but because for decades Russia has lagged behind other industrialized countries in being able to exploit its natural resources. For oil and natural gas, this is the legacy of mismanaged Soviet energy planning that split up exploration, technical development and investment — both in the energy sector and in the economy with energy sector revenues — among different agencies (Russia’s limited access to newer Western technologies and credit due to embargoes did not help either, but it became apparent by the 1980s than planning failures in the Brezhnev Era were causing massive waste and shortfalls). Putin was galled by the ways in which production-sharing agreements had been signed under Yeltsin’s rule, but despite his nationalist ardor recognized that Russia required foreign cooperation to maintain its extractive competitiveness and export revenue reliance (60% of Russia’s export revenues derive from extractive exports).

The Wall Street Journal has noted the technical problems involved — more so than several other business news outlets reporting on the Bazhenov field — but unsurprisingly, it and other outlets have said little of the potential environmental costs, since hydraulic fracking would be involved.

With Russia’s lax environmental laws and permissible public debate on the environment being what it is, the only thing really standing in the way of this development, besides potentially prohibitive costs, are the Kremlin’s own court politics.

Letter from the Editor: Kaul’s Colson Column

Donald Kaul’s column on the late Charles Colson generated many letters to the editor published by the Des Moines Register and other newspapers.

Some were irate. It “was one of the most despicable things I have ever read,” wrote Alan Hulling of Clive, Iowa in the Des Moines Register. He demanded that the Register stop running Kaul’s column.

Charles Colson (Faithmouse/Flickr)

Charles Colson (Faithmouse/Flickr)

Others were more calmly critical. “I’m disappointed Kaul felt it was a good decision to ‘kick the corpse,'” wrote Marlys W. Bixby of West Des Moines.

Kaul’s fans weighed in as well. “He was right to express skepticism about Charles Colson’s ‘transformation’ from a corrupt thug into a genuine Christian,” wrote Nancy Swartos of Iowa City. She began her letter by praising his “deep insight” and saying that she clips and saves all of his columns.

The comments about our columnist’s take on the Nixon aide who became a conservative Christian leader after serving time were mixed and lively on the OtherWords website too.

“You can forgive Colson but you can’t forgive me?” Kaul said in response to the angrier letters. “What kind of fair and balanced treatment is that? My position is that Colson paid for his sins but he didn’t pay enough.”

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service. OtherWords.org

The Brownshirts of the Arab Spring: Tunisia’s Salafists (Part 2)

Street sign in old Jewish neighborhood in the Tunis medina.

Street sign in old Jewish neighborhood in the Tunis medina.

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Read part 1.

Ennahda’s Non-response to the Salafist Offensive

How has the transition Tunisian government responded to this wave of attacks? Virtually not at all. While calling for ‘dialogue’ between Salafists and more moderate Islamic elements and secularists, Ennahda, the key political force in the ruling coalition, has let the Salafists run amok, attacking cultural events, political rallies calling for democracy and protection of women’s rights. To make matters worse, despite the fact that religious-based political parties are illegal by Tunisian law, a Salafist party has been certified.

On March 29 of this year, an openly Salafist political party was granted legal status by the Ministry of Interior. ‘Insah’ — as it is called in Arabic, ‘The Reform Front’ openly pushes for the establishment of an Islamic state, the imposition of sharia law and a return to the ‘purified’ Islam of the time of the prophet Mohammed (630 A.D).

Salafists did not play any role in the mass movement that overthrew Zine Ben Ali’s government in January, 2011; a Salafist ran in Tunisia’s October 2011 elections for a constituent assembly as an independent list but came up empty, not winning any seats — an indication of how isolated and irrelevant Salafist themes are to the Tunisian body politic. That election did result in the Ennahda Party — an openly Islamic based political party — pulling down some 42% of the vote. Insah will be eligible to field candidates in the parliamentary elections scheduled to take place next year. The legalization of Insah would not have been possible without the firm support of Ennahda and particularly its leadership, Rachid Ghannouchi and Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali.

In public statements Insah spokesman and founder Mohamed Khouja was careful to emphasize that “the party’s platform does not impose anything, such as dress or other personal conduct concerning Tunisian daily life.” Khouja insists that Insah is committed to “the civil values of the State” and that it respects the particulars of the democratic experiment in a peaceful framework removed from all forms of violence and hatred across the political spectrum”1 At the same time, as if his movement represents the whole of Islam, rather than a minor splinter group, Khouja pompously comments: “We will not accept any assault on our religious sacraments and we will seek to express the demands of the Muslim people.” But then who is this representative of a splinter group to be speaking for ‘the Muslim people’?

Islamophobia at Home, Alliances With Islamic Fundamentalists Abroad

While a wave of Islamophobia poisons the political atmosphere here in the United States, in the Middle East, the Obama Administration finds itself lining up with and making alliances with, to one degree or another, the same forces it criticizes so vociferously at home. It has been going on for more than a century. Funny thing that the ‘enemy at home’ turns out to be an ally abroad and a consistent and tried and true one at that! On the surface it certainly appears that different U.S. administrations oppose Islamic fundamentalism — isn’t that what the war on terrorism is all about? Opposing — nay — wiping out Al Qaeda and like groups? No question that anti-Islamic hysteria — Islamophobia — has been whipped up since 9/11 (and even before).

But appearances can be deceptive. First the British and later the U.S. have had longstanding histories of cooperation with Islamic fundamentalist elements whom they use as a foil against more secular Arab nationalism. These continue and remain important today. Bizarre as it might seem to American audiences, Salafists are playing key roles in support of U.S. Middle East policy.

1. They represent nothing short of the counter-revolution on the ground — meant to defuse the democratic upsurge and turn back the Arab Spring from resulting any new political developments that might challenge U.S. economic priorities (neo-liberal access to the region) or strategic concerns.

2. Their actions in Tunisia and Egypt accomplish something else, rarely discussed these days: in tandem with Israel’s campaign against Iran — takes the focus off of the Israeli occupation. Thus they will be tolerated and encouraged — albeit from a distance and through Saudi and Qatari proxies.

While claiming to oppose Salafist brownshirt tactics, once again, the U.S. is playing what appears to be Salafist card and not just in Tunisia. Supporting Salafists throughout the region are two key U.S. allies — Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who work in tandem with the United States to secure U.S. strategic interests and neoliberal economic policies throughout the region, policies more and more being closely coordinated with NATO. Arms shipments from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to Salafist elements in the Syrian opposition have been intercepted in Lebanon recently. There are reports of Iraqi jihadists also working with the Syrian opposition, their activities coordinated by the Saudis and Qataris, in some form of coordination with the U.S. as was done in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Several weeks ago, reinforcing Syrian government claims, a Tunisian human rights group exposed the open recruiting of Tunisian Salafist elements to also fight in Syria, calling for an investigation, suggesting that the Tunisian Ennahda-led government is coordinating its Middle East policies rather closely with Saudi and Qatari religious conservatives.

U.S. Playing the Salafist Card Throughout the Middle East

The British and the U.S. prefer the more placid and ‘west-oriented’ face of ‘moderate Islamic parties’ like Tunisia’s Ennahda which claims to respect democratic processes. But when necessary, London and Washington have not hesitated to cooperate with more fanatical elements — be they Saudi Wahhabists or now Syrian jihadists. Besides the anti-Arab secular nationalist bond that unites U.S. foreign policy with Islamists, there is a bond of another kind: they see eye to eye economically. The Moslem Brotherhoods in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, and Salafists throughout the region are all comfortable with and support the kind of neoliberal economic policies the United States and Europe pursue. They have opposed trade union rights, strong state-directed economic policies. When it comes to neoliberal economics, openness to foreign corporate and financial penetration, the Islamists and U.S. policymakers are in complete harmony.

As Ennahda in Tunisia cozies up to its Salafist brethren to neutralize the Tunisian Arab Spring from turning into anything that might substantially shift the country’s neoliberal economy policies and its strategic alliance with the United States, Washington calmly looks on with virtually no critical comments from the State Department, no sense of criticism — to say outrage — from the country’s media as the Islamic fundamentalist wave takes hold in the country. Most of the dirty work, the political support and financial flows are in the hands of the Saudis and Qataris, neither of which can even go to the bathroom without U.S. approval. The idea that the Obama Administration is not aware of the Tunisian developments is not credible.

Overturning Citizens United

From tractors, chemicals and seeds, to farmers and food workers, supermarkets and consumers, there’s not a part of food and agriculture that big, often multinational, corporations don’t dominate.

Much the same could be said about our democracy as campaign contributions, enormous lobbying budgets, and well-heeled legal teams advance a corporate and financial industry agenda every day in Washington. We need a more responsive and democratic government to build a more fair and democratic food and farm system.

That is why joining communities around the country on June 11 to support overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling is essential for all who care about food and farming.

The disastrous Citizens United ruling in 2010 opened the floodgates for virtually unlimited, unregulated, and often secret corporate contributions into political campaigns. We can’t pretend that this devastating ruling hasn’t dramatically changed the political landscape (the steady stream of vicious campaign ads is a constant reminder). It’s no coincidence that a disconnected Congress’ approval rating is at an all-time low.

Neither Congress nor President Barack Obama seems capable of solving the core issues the country is facing, whether it is the struggling economy, escalating student debt, regulating Wall Street, a failing trade policy, or addressing climate change. Corporate and financial industry political influence is overwhelming our public officials.

Big challenges specific to food and agriculture are no different. Market concentration has diminished the power of farmers and consumers in the marketplace. Farmers are increasingly vulnerable to volatile prices, changes in weather associated with climate, and global market forces. Farm and food workers experience some of the country’s most dangerous working conditions with little power to advocate for safer work environments. Smaller, locally oriented food businesses face predatory competition from giants like Wal-Mart. Healthier, locally produced food continues to be harder to find than well-advertised junk and fast food.

Despite these challenges, it’s hard to get to square one in Washington as agribusiness and food companies continue to flex their political muscles. The last Farm Bill included important provisions to address market manipulation by meatpackers, but Congress and the Obama administration caved to industry and gutted many of the toughest new regulations. The USDA and the Department of Justice held hearings on corporate concentration in agriculture. Despite strong evidence of abuse, they have taken no action.

Several proposals for a new Farm Bill shift payments away from farmers and directly to the crop insurance industry. Food industry lobbying recently blocked new voluntary rules to restrict junk food marketing. The FDA received over a million comments demanding the labeling of genetically engineered foods but showed no sign of action. In fact, the agency actually had to be sued to act on limiting the use of certain antibiotics in animal production, due to the risks to human health. Congress and the White House continue to advance a corporate-led free trade agenda by approving new agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.

This is all after Obama promised to rethink trade policy and NAFTA during the 2008 elections. The Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, written to limit excess speculation (including for agriculture and energy commodity markets), has been slowly eviscerated by an army of Wall Street lobbyists. Sadly, this list goes on and on.

Socially Responsible Agricultural Project/Flickr

Socially Responsible Agricultural Project/Flickr

Grassroots efforts around the country for a more just, healthy, and sustainable food and agriculture system continue to grow. To overcome the hurdles of big food and agribusiness, we need a responsive and accountable government on our side.

Please join the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the United for the People campaign in an effort to overturn Citizens United. During the June 11 week of action, people and organizations are pushing for 100 new local resolutions in support of a constitutional amendment to remove unregulated, unrestricted corporate money from elections. This fall, ask public officials and candidates whether they support an amendment to overturn Citizens United. A growing number of them already have. Our democracy, farms, and food demand it.

Ben Lilliston oversees the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s programs and strategy and is the co-author of the book Genetically Engineered Foods: A Self-Defense Guide for Consumers. www.iatp.org

The Brownshirts of the Arab Spring: Tunisia’s Salafists (Part 1)

The Greek Orthodox Church in Tunis, recently desecrated by Salafist mobs.

The Greek Orthodox Church in Tunis, recently desecrated by Salafist mobs.

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

All Is Not Well in Tunisia

Although it — the Arab Spring — began in Tunisia, much of the media attention here in the United States has moved on to Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and Syria, where in some ways the stakes are higher and the dangers multiplying. True enough Tunisia did have relatively peaceful, democratic elections in October of 2011 and a political process continues to unfold. Strangely, during the Ben Ali years, Tunisia was put forth as a poster child for IMF structural adjustment programs, programs which helped undermine the country’s economy and trigger the uprising. In the post Ben Ali period, Tunisia is again being held up as a model! — this time a model of transition (but from what to what?).

But all is not well in the country.

The socio-economic crisis continues to deepen by the day. Throughout the country there are daily strikes, demonstrations, protests. Virtually every sector of the economy has been on strike be it in the public or private sector, but unemployment continues to rise and is worse than during the Ben Ali period. Outside of the main cities social and government services remain crippled; infra-structural relief to the interior is virtually non-existent. While Ben Ali’s old ruling party, the Rassamblement Constitutionnel Democratique (RCD), was dissolved, many of its former cadre and players have found a home, or made their peace, with the main party in power, Ennahda, a moderate Islamic party that supports neo-liberal economic policies and U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East and Africa

The economic program of the new government is virtually no different from that of the deposed one; the ministry of interior– the source of repressions, if not crimes against humanity against the population in the Ben Ali years — has hardly been touched — nor has the police force, both of which are now being integrated and mobilized to serve Ennahda’s interests and to solidify its control of the Tunisian political space.

Tunisia’s Arab Spring is shaping up to be a case of ‘all the change necessary to maintain the status quo’ despite all the formal celebrations of ‘the revolution’. Now, to make matters worse, something novel and unfortunately insidious, at least in the Tunisian context, is taking place: the emergence and dramatic growth of the country’s Salafist (Islamic fundamentalist) movement, a movement that had virtually no popular base in this North African country known for its political and religious moderation.

The Salafist Shadow Over Tunisia

The Salafists are casting a larger and larger shadow over Tunisia. Some were victims of Ben Ali’s prisons whose righteous rage has been manipulated. Others have joined from the ranks of the large Tunisian lumpen proletariat — the permanently unemployed, whose numbers are growing. Although Salafists remain essentially a fringe group, mostly foreign to the Tunisian political experience, their numbers and influence are growing. Money to support their activities is streaming in from abroad.

It started before the October 24, 2011 national elections to determine Tunisia’s constituent assembly. Given Tunisian recent history and its generally mild, tolerant forms of Islam, an Islamic fundamentalist crusade, an overall offensive, appeared rather odd, out of character. Indeed most observers — myself included — wrote it off as a limited campaign of fringe zealots, heavily funded by outsiders, be they Saudi or Qatari, who should not be taken too seriously.

True enough, the Salafists had come to the fore in the months after Zine Ben Ali and family fled the country on January 14, 2011. Several hundred had protested in front of Tunis’ main synagogue with their twin themes of Shari’a and virulent anti-Jewish chants. The taunting of women began almost immediately as did the threatening phone calls and anonymous letters to leading journalists, cultural figures.

Then a few weeks before the October, 2011 elections, a Salafist campaign exploded in opposition to an Iranian animated cartoon ‘Persepolis’ which showed an image of God as a kindly old man. True the image of God in human form is considered taboo in Islam — something the filmmakers must have been cognizant of — but oddly enough several years prior the film had played in Tunisia with very little controversy. This time, what I would call a ‘pre-fabricated’ political storm erupted, and as it did, the pre-election discussion shifted away from the socio-economic crisis, which had triggered the Tunisian uprising in the first place and focused instead on the requirements for being a good Muslim rather than a good citizen.

From the elections until today (early June 2012), the situation has only deteriorated and at an alarming rate. Salafist mobs – little more than the brown shirts of the Tunisian Revolution – have attacked media outlets, burned down bars and liquor stores, intimidated women, physically attacked anyone with whom they disagree. The number of incidents has multiplied while the transitional government has done little to nothing to intervene, giving the Salafists a free hand nationwide.

Ennahda’s Approach: Face Left While Moving Right

While the current government consists of a coalition of three parties, two of which are secular, one of which considers itself politically moderate Islamic, it is the latter, Ennahda, that essentially runs the show and controls the government. With the powers of the president having been essentially eviscerated, it is the prime minister and the minister of the interior, both Ennahda men, who have considerable powers concentrated in their hands.

Ennahda’s approach is becoming clearer — make surface alliances with secular parties (Marzouki [CPR] and and Ettaktol) while making informal — or secret alliances with Salafists…together they share more and more key posts in the new Tunisian government and are consolidating their hold on power. The formal (and legal) alliance that Ennahdha has with the Congress Pour la Republique (CPR) and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberty (called Ettakotal) has been for little more than show, for foreign powers, to show a smiling and ‘liberal’ face to the West. Far more important to Ennahda to date has been its informal alliance with the Salafists who they have essentially let run wild and whose actions Ennahda either tolerates or excuses.

A division of labor between the two Islamic strands has been worked out. Ennahda concerns itself with the political and legal system while the Salafists have not so much through ‘dialogue’ but instead through thug tactics quickly strengthened its position in the country’s mosques, schools and media. That such a marginal group as the Tunisian Salafists could make such dramatic gains and in the process, polarize the country as never before, could not be possible without the tactic and oftentimes open support of Ennahda. Television stations have been attacked; the government did nothing’ bars and liquor stores burned down in many places as police and military stand by watching. Demonstrations of more secular elements have been attacked; the government blames the victims, not the attackers. A university dean was beat up, nothing done to stop the Salafists attackers, etc. etc.

And as often happens with cowards and brown shirts like the Tunisian Salafists, having been given the green light by the Tunisian government, these elements have only gotten increasingly emboldened, their tactics more and more aggressive and violent, so that now it becomes more difficulty to reign them in.

Ennahda’s cozying up to the Salafists might have more to do with its global and regional relations than with internal Tunisian dynamics. Although the United States — the Obama Administration in particular, but a number of European countries as well — celebrated the Tunisian political changes, this support did not materialize into a great deal of financial aid. The sums offered by the U.S. and U.K. are more symbolic than real. Ennahda has made it clear in its actions and statements that it preferred a closer relation with the U.S. and a somewhat more distant relationship with France. It had hoped such actions would translate into a major U.S. aid package. Didn’t happen.

While pleased with the Tunisian shift, the Obama Administration did not match its words with financial deeds. But Tunisia is in deep crisis — in real trouble and in need of a great deal of financial help. The aid that did not come from the U.S. and its European allies did come from Qatar and the Saudis…but with strings attached, the strings being an agreement that Ennahda — which is not an Islamic fundamentalist movement — permit Tunisia’s Salafists to operate far more openly and with more impunity than in the past. Caught between its own political vision and its dire need for financial support, Ennahda chose the ‘practical’ rather than the more principled path. If this hypothesis is correct — and I believe it is — the Obama Administration’s financial inactivity is at least in part responsible for Ennahda’s political shift to the right.

Under the Radar Screen the U.S. Supports Islamic Fundamentalism

Actually ‘under the radar screen’ most of the time — but where it really counts — both the British and the U.S. have had long and enduring political relationships — cooperation with Islamic fundamentalists — even the most retrograde among them — in order to protect their vested interested in the Middle East.

The Salafists in Tunisia are being used, as they often have been in the past throughout the Middle East, to ‘divide and conquer’. As in Egypt, first and foremost, their role is to act as a brake on the progressive economic and political momentum of the Arab Spring which forced Ben Ali from power. Although poorly publicized in the U.S. media, they are becoming increasingly brutal in their methods, attacking democratic, more genuinely moderate Moslem and secular elements almost at will. Encouraged and funded throughout the region by the Saudis and Qataris, despite their increasingly bullying and violent tactics, Tunisia’s Salafists seem to enjoy something close to immunity from prosecution. For some time now, they are being given a green light to attack progressive and secular institutions with something close to impunity; to amplify their role, now a Salafist party is being granted formal legal status.

Examples of Salafist tactics have been reported virtually every day for the past year in the Tunisian media, both in Arabic and French, as well as now in the English language press agency, Tunisia Live. To provide just a couple of the more recent examples:

• On this past May 19, in Sidi Bouzid, the town where Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself in December of 2010 triggering the Tunisian Arab Spring “a large group of Salafists burned down bars as well as the house of a bar owner in their violent campaign against the sale of alcohol” (Tunisia Live! May 20, 2012). The police responded by going back to their offices and locked themselves in.” Concerning the Salafists a resident commented, “I know [them]; some of them were drunkards a week ago and now they are pretending to be the voice of God in Sidibouzid”, which he referred to as “Bouzidistan”

• The day after the Sidibouzid bar burnings, thousands of hard-line Salafists held their second annual meeting, this time in Kairouan. Some dressed in Afghan military garb and waving swords, others wearing long beards, robes and caps, they unfurled their banner atop the minaret of the city’s mosque, the most ancient in Africa and the third holiest in Islam after Mecca and Jerusalem. Their chants includes lyrics such as “We are all children of Obama [bin Laden], and “Khaybar, Khaybar, Jews, Jews the army of Mohammed is back”. Khaybar is a reference to a place in Saudi Arabia where the Prophet Mohammed led his armies to massacre and expel Jews.

One of the Kairoan meeting’s organizers, Ridha Bel Haj, who leads the banned Hizb Ettahrir political party, in an effort to re-write the history of the Arab Spring commented “The revolution was made so that sharia cold be applied.” (Actually the Tunisian Revolution had little to do with either Islam or Sharia — it was a protest against socio-economic conditions, extreme political repression, and in the movement that overthrew Ben Ali, the likes of Bel Haj and his ilk were nowhere to be seen!).

These are only the latest in what has been a spree of Salafist confrontations, targeting the country’s women, educational system, media, cultural figures and religious minority communities. Although the elected government has repeatedly made official statements in support of the country’s 1,500 or so Jewish Community, the Salafists have engaged in shrill and virulent anti-semitic language. Their supporters have also attacked and desecrated the country’s only Greek Orthodox Church in Tunis.

If the NTC Can’t Control Tripoli’s Airport. . .

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Tripoli International Airport was seized by an National Transition Council-aligned militia from the city of Tarhouna on June 4th. The militia members were protesting the alleged kidnapping of their commander, one Abu-Ajilah Habshi, who reportedly disappeared on Sunday while traveling along the Tripoli Airport Road.

After holding the airport for several hours and forcing passengers to debark from planes on the runways, a deal was brokered to have the militia withdraw from the airport, and the troops and vehicles left on the same day.

The Tahroun militia organization advanced on the airport after a 24-hour notice demanding Habshi’s release apparently went unheeded (the militia stated it had reason to believe their leader was being held captive in the airport itself). Libya al-Ahrar reports that NTC Chairman Mustafa abd-al-Jalil, along with a delegation from Tahroun, reached an agreement with the militia to withdraw their troops and vehicles from the airport1. Earlier, Jalil had been told by the militia to “intervene to reveal the details surrounding the disappearance of chairman of the Tarhunah military council.”

No group has claimed responsibility for Habshi’s disappearance. The NTC blames Qadhafi loyalists for his disappearance, while the Tarhouna militia blames the Tripoli Security Committee.

The standoff, despite ending with the return of the airport to NTC control, is deeply embarrassing for the interim government. Earlier this year, NTC-aligned militiamen from the western town of Zintan had, after some delays, formally handed control of the Tripoli International Airport over to the NTC. The NTC had marked this changing of the guard — following several earlier handovers that broke down (or are still ongoing) — as a major success in asserting its rule over the country.

And this incident comes at a tense time as summer approaches. In an earlier move not related to the kidnapping, Libya’s national elections are reportedly going to be pushed back a month, into July, in order to allow the election authorities, who had just approved the inclusion of Islamist parties in the elections, to vet 4,000+ candidates’ eligibility. In the meantime, the NTC has reportedly tried to set up a political body to oversee the practice of journalism in the country — drawing protests from Libyan journalists — as well as pass a controversial law setting up government-mandated press standards:

Law 37 prohibits “damaging” the 17 February revolution and also criminalises any insults to Islam, or the “prestige of the state or its institutions or judiciary, and every person who publicly insults the Libyan people, slogan or flag”.

The NTC passed Law 37 last month. Its backers argues that the law is necessary going into the elections because it also bans “glorification” of Qadhafi and that it will be repealed upon their conclusion. Journalists have countered by noting that it represents a reversal of the interim government’s earlier declarations on press freedoms and that the vagaries of the charges would leave reporters open to politically-motivated criticism.

The broadness of the law, and opposition from reporters and some members of the NTC, has led to a court review. Given the broadness of Law 37, factually reporting on a Libyan’s ties to the former regime — e.g., the fact that the founder of a new Libyan political party, Al-Watan, was a “former Libyan military commander” — might even be “construed” as an attack on the NTC’s legitimacy. Allowing such security officials to return to public life has been a deeply contested issue after decades of patronage and suppression. “In July 2011, militiamen killed Maj. Gen. ‘Abd al-Fattah Younis, Qaddafi’s former interior minister, whom the NTC had appointed commander-in-chief of rebel forces,” Nicholas Pelham notes, while “32,000 of Qaddafi’s 88,000-strong police force have returned to work” as well. The trials of top Qadhafi loyalists, including his former intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Sennussi, are set to begin this month. Concurrently, and controversially, “national reconciliation” talks might be building up in Cairo with a group of Libyan émigrés in Egypt represented by Ahmad Qadhafi, who defected from his late uncle’s regime last February, have drawn criticism: “[the meeting] would increase the tyranny of Al-Qadhafi’s supporters and their persistence in pursuing their actions of old,” a petition to the NTC read, arguing that the interim government “should have put real pressure on the Egyptian authorities to hand over these figures” instead of negotiating their possible return to Libya and politics. Multiple NTC members denied that the interim government had as a whole approved these talks, placing responsibility (and blame) on Jalil.

At the same time alleged ties to the Qadhafis have been used to order the arrest Libyans accused of collaboration.

The airport march by the Tarhouna militia is taking place in the context of national reconciliation efforts. Tarhouna and the region it is, the Bani Walid District, have been bastions of Qadhafi rule for years; some of the fiercest opposition to the anti-Qadhafi militias came from the area. This has made critics of the former regime even more leery of former Qadhafi loyalists, who in the past haveclashed with local NTC-aligned fighters in Tarhoun itself. Additionally, members of the Tarhouna Military Council were apparently targeted in an assassination attempt by unknown parties this April.

1There were reports that another NTC-aligned militia, from Misrata, had been dispatched to the airport to compel the Tahroun militia to withdraw and, perhaps, to keep them from next marching on a key NTC compound by surrounding the airport. Smoke and gunshots were seen and heard from observers outside of the airport, though it is not clear who was firing on whom.

The Other Case for Intervention in Syria

Confession: supporting non-intervention in Syria requires considerable restraint on the part of this author. In Problem From Hell, Samantha Power had me at Rafael Lemkin.* To someone with a savior complex (okay, me), it seems like the most virtuous use of military resources: rescuing innocents, deposing tyrants.

Problem is, as we well know, in practice, it seldom works. Also in theory, military intervention is more likely to be successful when mandated by an international body. Unfortunately, it’s as difficult to get anything constructive done in the U.N. Security Council as it is in the U.S. Congress.

In a piece for the New York Times on May 30 titled For the White House, a Wary Wait as Syria Boils, Peter Baker wrote about precedents for U.S. intervention in recent years.

Every week or so, a cabinet or deputy cabinet-level meeting is convened on Syria and, much to the frustration of the participants, each time the choices on the table are more or less the same: more diplomacy, more sanctions. … Unlike in Libya, there is no defined rebel army holding territory that would be helped by airstrikes. Syria has a better trained, better equipped military, including Russian anti-aircraft defenses. And there is no United Nations or Arab League support for international force.

Meanwhile, James B. Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state under President Obama, not only said that “the difference was that Bosnia was in the heart of Europe and a test of NATO’s credibility after the cold war.” But, that “the Bosnians set up their own breakaway government so there was a clear entity to assist, unlike the inchoate Syrian opposition.”

In effect, he’s saying the opposition is too powerless to be helped. In other words, the more help it needs, the less likely it is to receive any.

Meanwhile at Focal Points and the United to End Genocide blog, Daniel P. Sullivan calls for intervention — the other kind, that is.

It’s time for an intervention. The brutal massacre of over 100 people, mostly women and children, in Houla, Syria last week shook the world’s conscience. Despite more than a year of atrocities, the murder of civilians in Houla has spurred the largest global outcry to date and rare unified condemnation by the United Nations Security Council. It also brought increased calls for military intervention with U.S. General Martin Dempsey warning that he had contingency plans ready and that atrocities like those in Houla made military intervention, although a last resort, all the more likely.

But the massacre in Houla should also raise the specter of another kind of intervention. The international community should have a diplomatic “intervention” with Syria’s strongest remaining ally, Russia. In the chorus of condemnation that resounded after the massacre, Russia’s voice stood out for its glaring ambiguity. Even as it joined others in condemning what happened in Houla, Russia provided Syria with political cover and quashed any hope for meaningful action.

Kind of like an intervention by members of an Al-Anon-like group for nations that enable tyrannies. Syria’s civil structure aside, a pressing, but overlooked, pretext for military intervention does exist. At the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Charles P. Blair explained in March.

Syria likely has one of the largest and most sophisticated chemical weapon programs in the world. Moreover, Syria may also possess an offensive biological weapons capability that Libya did not.

While it is uncertain whether the Syrian regime would consider using WMD against its domestic opponents, Syrian insurgents, unlike many of their Libyan counterparts, are increasingly sectarian and radicalized; indeed, many observers fear the uprising is being “hijacked” by jihadists. Terrorist groups active in the Syrian uprising have already demonstrated little compunction about the acquisition and use of WMD. In short, should Syria devolve into full-blown civil-war, the security of its WMD should be of profound concern, as sectarian insurgents and Islamist terrorist groups may stand poised to seize chemical and perhaps even biological weapons.

In other words, Syrians and the world are faced with two possibilities, both equally disturbing: either the current regime uses WMD to suppress the rebellion or those aiding it (ostensibly) seizes them and uses them against the state and, by extension, the Syrian people. Of course, foreign intervention might, in itself, prompt the regime to activate its WMD.

Meanwhile, by all rights, concerns about a nuclear program Iran might have been developing a decade ago and its current uranium enrichment should pale in comparison.

*The man who coined the term “genocide” and got the United Nations to pass a convention, however limited, against it.

Counterterrorism Calculus in Yemen Shortchanging Political Solutions

Diplomat, area expert and CT whizz-kid Mr. Pred Ator, Jr. seen here enjoying a lemonade on a sunny day. -- Paul Mutter

Diplomat, area expert and CT whizz-kid Mr. Pred Ator, Jr. seen here enjoying a lemonade on a sunny day. — Paul Mutter

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

The Washington Post, stating what ought to be obvious about the US “secret war” in Yemen, In Yemen, U.S. airstrikes breed anger, and sympathy for al-Qaeda:

Since January, as many as 21 missile attacks have targeted suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Yemen, reflecting a sharp shift in a secret war carried out by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command that had focused on Pakistan.

But as in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where U.S. drone strikes have significantly weakened al-Qaeda’s capabilities, an unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population.

The evidence of radicalization emerged in more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists and officials from four provinces in southern Yemen where U.S. strikes have targeted suspected militants. They described a strong shift in sentiment toward militants affiliated with the transnational network’s most active wing, al-Qaeda in the ­Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

Presumably, the CIA would disagree that this sort of approach is undermining US counterterrorism efforts — even though it is said that it deeply disturbs the White House when “errors” like this occur:

On December 17 [2009], the Yemeni government announced that it had conducted a series of strikes against an Al Qaeda training camp in the village of al Majala in Yemen’s southern Abyan province, killing a number of Al Qaeda militants. As the story spread across the world, Shaye traveled to al Majala. What he discovered were the remnants of Tomahawk cruise missiles and cluster bombs, neither of which are in the Yemeni military’s arsenal. He photographed the missile parts, some of them bearing the label “Made in the USA,” and distributed the photos to international media outlets. He revealed that among the victims of the strike were women, children and the elderly. To be exact, fourteen women and twenty-one children were killed. Whether anyone actually active in Al Qaeda was killed remains hotly contested.

Or rather, we believe it deeply disturbs the White House, since as the Daily Kos diarist Jesselyn Radack notes, the White House “can neither confirm nor deny” the air war in Yemen and invokes a black ops non-disclosure rule to keep the books closed.

But the US is not “involved in some domestic conflict,” of course. Why? Because President Obama himself said so:

“We’re not in Yemen to get involved in some domestic conflict. We’re going to continue to stay focused on threats to the homeland—that’s where the real priority is.”

This distinction is patently absurd — and, as Esquire’s Charles Pierce noted, awfully like what JFK talked up in cabinet meetings about Vietnam. What is going in Yemen is first and foremost a domestic conflict, and by taking a side in that conflict — alongside the Saudi-backed government in Sana’a, against AQAP and the Ansar al-Shariah — we have involved ourselves in a domestic conflict — perhaps even deeper than the CIA will admit. I would be inclined to just dismiss this statement as a “he kept us out of war” promise in campaign mode, if it weren’t for the fact that so many reports out of Yemen — including leaked State Department cables — illustrate that the US really is so fixated on al Qaeda it seems to disregard any suggestions that its air war is destabilizing the country, and that all the “collateral damage” is helping anti-government Islamists in southern Yemen make greater inroads towards Sana’a, and more willing to cut deals with al Qaeda cells “in order to place themselves in a better bargaining position with the central government.” Some of those likely involved in the US war effort seem to understand this, but the present policy does not seem to reflect their qualifiers on the composition of the anti-government forces. These qualifiers are not unlike the distinction between the Taliban and the original al Qaeda organization — i.e., that the Taliban emerged independently in the 1990s from al Qaeda and Mullah Omar ran his own war effort while maintaining a special relationship with bin Laden’s lieutenants and, in particular, the “55th Arab Brigade” that fought against the Northern Alliance, which, while linked to al Qaeda, was a distinct entity.

Yemen watcher Gregory Johnsen notes that AQAP, formerly the refuge of several dozen hardline Saudi clerics and thugs, has greatly expanded to take in hundreds of members from neighboring Somalia, and more importantly, many Yemenis as well. The now Yemeni-heavy AQAP would therefore have several units composed of foreign fighters and sympathetic Yemenis — in effect, “international brigades”1— serving among (loosely) aligned anti-government tribal militias in Yemen like the Ansar al-Shariah. But even so, AQAP is not the same as Ansar al-Shariah, a view seemingly accepted even by members of the Beltway’s inner circle of counterterrorism:

“While AQAP has grown in strength over the last year, many of its supporters are tribal militants or part-time supporters who collaborate with AQAP for self-serving, personal interests rather than affinity with al-Qaeda’s global ideology,” [National Security Council spokesman Tommy] Vietor said. “The portion of hard-core, committed AQAP members is relatively small.”

The danger in this reading, therefore, is that the US’ actions, by generating sympathy for AQAP, will blur the line between mainly tribal actors (especially Ansar al-Shariah) and AQAP by popularizing the latter among Yemeni Islamists — which could help AQAP build up its networks and resources to the point where it actually does succeed in one of its plots against US targets… or, against “softer” Saudi ones. And then the chips would be down for whichever administration is sitting in the White House at the time.

But the main American diplomatic concern — one shared by the Yemeni military, whose air force does not have the capacity to carry out “signature strikes” — is apparently that the US not be too closely associated with the drone strikes. The secondary concern, that there are underlying ethnic and economic tensions in Yemen which require addressing to keep the country from turning into another Afghanistan, is simply secondary. In part, this is because the central Yemeni government, despite its dependence on US largesse, really has no desire to help US observers go around the country to better report back to Washington on the civil strife. All the practical issues — and there are many — of doing so aside, the central government really has no real desire to enable this because such a survey of the country would probably make it very clear just how divided society is and how many tribes are so resentful towards the government in Sana’a (the US’s limited historical interest in Yemen certainly helps keep things in the dark). Given the choice of adding more drones to the aerial armada or recruiting civil society monitors, the White House is, from its past record, certainly going to choose the tech over the people because identifying the larger problems does not immediately produce deliverables — i.e., the AQAP body count. That fixation, Johnsen believes, is helping to blur distinctions between AQAP and Ansar al-Shariah.

The head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center (CTC), one of the key behind-the-scenes players in all this (only those “in the loop” know his name) — embodies these discrepancies quite well, it seems: “We’re killing these sons of bitches2 faster than they can grow them,” he reportedly said in 2011 regarding the “signature strikes” program implemented in Pakistan and now practiced in Yemen (and possibly Somalia too) under the designation “terrorist-attack-disruption strikes” (TADS). And yet the “sons of bitches” quote comes from a man who has also reportedly conceded to his close associates that “this is not a war you’re going to be able to kill your way out of.”

Unfortunately, it appears to be precisely what the US is trying to do in Yemen.

Note: We’ll follow this post with a detailed breakdown of the forthcoming PBS Frontline documentary on Yemen from one of our contributors.

1To be clear, my analogy is based on seeing a similarity in an order of battle — foreign fighters in units fighting alongside a homeland “liberation” movement — not that the “original” al Qaeda is somehow running the show with AQAP, or Ansar al-Shariah.

2It’s not clear if he meant actual militants, or any male capable of bearing arms in the target zone, since the White House’s casualty assessments rely on the assumption that all males capable of bearing arms in the target zone are “militants” unless proven otherwise.

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