IPS Blog

The Lineup: Week of March 19-25, 2012

In this week’s OtherWords editorial package, Sanjeev Bery addresses the situation in Syria and Jim Hightower lauds the residents of Keene, New Hampshire who don’t want their town to get its own tank. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. The Humanity of Poetry / Sarah Browning
    The 500 poets participating in Split This Rock festival come from all walks of life and all levels of education and training.
  2. Consumers Need to Know about Those Newfangled Ingredients / Andrew Korfhage
    Between 70 and 80 percent of the processed foods Americans eat contain genetically modified ingredients.
  3. Syria’s Systematic Torture / Sanjeev Bery
    Concerted action by the international community appears to be the only recourse
  4. What’s Good for the CEO May Be Bad for Business / Kenneth Peres
    Today’s corporate elites should stop pushing for austerity for the many and prosperity for the few and embrace Henry Ford’s strategy of shared prosperity.
  5. I Don’t Like Ike’s Memorial / Donald Kaul
    If you’re going to do something that big, don’t put it on the National Mall.
  6. Standing Up For Common Sense / Jim Hightower
    Keene, New Hampshire has no crime that would warrant rolling out a tank.
  7. Our Health Care Racket / William A. Collins
    The purpose of America’s health care industry is to provide cozy income to the few at the top while abusing the poorly paid health aides at the bottom and consigning vast swaths of the population to inadequate care.
  8. Syria’s Butcher / Khalil Bendib
Syria's Butcher. an OtherWords op-ed by Khalil Bendib.

Syria’s Butcher. an OtherWords op-ed by Khalil Bendib.

Irish Try to Wriggle Free of Mother Merkel’s Hair Shirt of Debt

St. Lawrence O'TooleSomeone has pinched the heart of St. Lawrence O’Toole, and thereby hangs a typical Irish tale filled with metaphors, parallels, and some pretty serious weirdness.

Who done it? The suspects are many and varied.

Could the heist from Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral have been engineered by the infamous “troika” of the European Commission, the European Bank, and the International Monetary Fund? Seems like a stretch, but consider the following: O’Toole—patron saint of Dublin—was, according to the Catholic Church, famous for practicing “the greatest austerity.” Lawrence liked to wear a hair shirt underneath his Episcopal gowns and spent 40 days in a cave each year.

That is a point of view the troika can respect. They have overseen a massive austerity program in Ireland that has strangled the economy, cut wages 22 percent, slashed education, health care, and public transport, raised taxes and fees, and driven the jobless rate up to 15percent—30% if you are young. At this rate many Irish will soon be living in caves, and while hair shirts may be uncomfortable, they are warm.

There are other suspects as well. For instance, St. O’Toole was friendly with the Norman/English King Henry II, who conquered the island in 1171. The Irish are not enamored of Henry II, indeed most of them did their level best to drive the bastard into the sea. Not Lawrence. He welcomed Henry to Dublin and, according to the Church, “Paid him due deference.”

So “deference” establishes yet another suspect: the current Fine Gael/Labor ruling coalition. Fine Gael leader and Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Edna Kenny has already signed the new European Treaty, but was forced to put it up for a public referendum at home (no other EU county is being allowed to vote “yea” or “nay”). Kenny is pressing for a “yes” vote, and Labor’s Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore argues that a “yes” vote would be a “vote for economic stability and a vote for economic recovery.”

The Treaty will not only continue the austerity program, it will move decision-making to EU headquarters in Brussels. This will mean that governments will be powerless when it comes to the economy. Think “Model United Nations” and lots of earnest high school students.

Who will make these decisions? Good question. Well, it turns out that a committee of the German Bundestag debated the Irish austerity proposals before the Dublin government even got a chance to look at them. How did that happen? Again, good question, but no answer yet.

Maybe German Chancellor Andrea Merkel lifted O’Toole’s heart. She certainly has a motive: Merkel is leading the “austerity is good for you” charge, a stance that has battered economies from Spain to Greece. In any case, the Irish are already suspicious of the German chancellor. An anti-austerity demonstration outside the Dail, Ireland’s parliament, featured a poster calling government ministers “Angela’s Asses.”

Much of the economic crisis in Europe—and virtually all of it in Ireland— is due to the out-of-control speculation by German banks, along with the Dutch, Austrian, and French financial institutions. “Yet it is the working people of Ireland and Europe who are being asked to pay the price,” argues Des Dalton of Sinn Fein. It appears that the Germans have discovered that one does not need Panzer divisions to conquer Europe, just bankers and compliant governments.

“Compliant” however, has run into some difficulties in Ireland, a place where “difficulty” is a very common noun. On Mar. 2, Sinn Fein President Jerry Adams trekked out to Castlebar in the west of Ireland to resurrect the ghost of Michael Davitt, founder of the Land League and leader of the 1878 Land War (there was an earlier one from 1761 to 1784, but more on that later). Adams told the Mayo County crowd “The Irish people cannot afford this treaty.”

The Castlebar symbolism was about as heavy as you can get. Davitt, along with the great Irish Parliamentarian Charles Stewart Parnell, launched the land war from that city, calling up the words of the great revolutionary, James Fintan Lalor: “I hold and maintain that the entire soil of a country belongs by right to the entire people of that country.”

These days that is not a popular sentiment in most European capitals, where governments are shedding public ownership in everything from airlines to energy production. The Irish government is trying to sell off several lucrative holdings, including Aer Lingus, Ireland’s natural gas company, and parts of its Electricity Supply Board. The state’s forestry will be sold as well. “It is the depth of treachery to sell billions of Euros worth of State assets to pay bad gambling debts,” Socialist Party member Joe Higgins said in the Dail.

The land wars were a reaction to efforts by the English to apply to Ireland the Enclosure Acts, a policy that sold “common land” to private landowners and forced the rural population of England, Scotland and Wales into the hellishness of industrial Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool.

As Laura Nader and Ugo Mattei maintain in their book “Plunder: When the rule of law is illegal,” what is currently happening in Ireland (and all over Europe) is a 21st century version of the Enclosure Acts. The last vestiges of public ownership are being systematically auctioned to the highest bidder, and the concept of “the common good” is fading like the ghost of providence.

But not without a fight.

While Adams was resurrecting the spirit of Michael Davitt, demonstrators were besieging Parliaments in Greece, Spain and Romania.

Ireland rejected two previous European treaties, only to pass them in a second round of voting. However, under the new rules, it no longer has veto power. If 12 out of the 17 Euro Zone countries endorse—pretty much considered a slam-dunk—then the new treaty goes into effect.

A number of commentators are saying that the 12-country threshold makes the Irish referendum irrelevant, but a “no” vote will be a blow to the Euro currency, and it might eventually encourage similar “no” votes in other countries. In that sense, the Irish tail could end up wagging the European dog.

Since Irish stories always include parallels, there is certainly one to be made between the first land war and the current debt crisis. The 1761 effort by English landlords to apply the Enclosure Acts to Ireland ignited resistance, first in Limerick, then spreading to Munster, Connacht and Leinster. Crowds of Irish tenants dressed in linen masks and coats—hence their generic name, the” Whiteboys”— burned hayricks, knocked down enclosure walls, and hamstrung cattle. On occasion they pitched land agents into the local bog.

The Irish resistance to the Enclosure Acts was not unique, but a very odd thing happened in Ireland: they won. A combination of population growth and war had driven up the price of food, so even the small-scale agriculture practiced by the Irish was profitable. Plus the rent capital skimmed off the Irish peasantry was playing an important role in helping to capitalize the English industrial revolution. Add to this the resistance, and the English decided that it was in their best interests to back off.

The average Irish tenant knew nothing about international finance or capital accumulation, but they got the idea that if you dug in your heels and went toe-to-toe with the buggers, you could beat them. It was a momentous experience, and a collective memory that would help fuel more than 150 years of rebellion.

Can the current Irish resistance movement turn the tide against the austerity madness that has gripped the European continent? Well, the Left is on the rise (in some places, so is the Right). Sinn Fein’s support in the most recent opinion polls shows a 25 percent approval rating, up 4 percent. In comparison, Fianna Fail—the party that ushered in the current crisis—has dropped from 20 percent to 16 percent. Labor has fallen to 10 percent, and Fine Gael is at 32 percent. Other Left parties are also doing well.

Indeed, the Left seems to be resurging in other countries as well. A center-left party in Slovakia ousted a right-wing government, and France seems posted to vote socialist. The Greek Left is fractious, but its various stripes now make up a majority.

Weirdness. Remember weirdness? For starters, an 832-year-old heart is pretty strange. And it wasn’t just the heart that was snatched. Someone also stole a splinter of the “true cross” (if one added up all the splinters in all the Cathedrals of Europe you end up with a fair size forest). And then there is the matter of the cheekbone of St. Brigid that just missed getting lifted from a church in North Dublin.

In the end, saints will not preserve Ireland from an invasion of the austerity snakes. The Irish people will have to do that. But they sport an impressive track record of overturning imperial designs, and they have long memories: put enough people into the streets of Castlebar (Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Galway, Limerick, etc.) and the bastards will back off.

As Adams said in Castlebar, “Stand together, stand united, and there is nothing we cannot achieve.”

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

Iran Errata: Parchin and the Common Ground of Afghanistan

At Foreign Policy, Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies writes about the dispute between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. If you’ll recall, the IAEA is trying to determine if Iran once conducted high-explosives tests as part of nuclear weapons R&D at its Parchin military complex. Back in November 2011, Gareth Porter, as well as anybody, showed how futile it was to follow that lead in a piece that began:

A former inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repudiated its major new claim that Iran built an explosives chamber to test components of a nuclear weapon and carry out a simulated nuclear explosion.

Fitzpatrick writes (emphasis added):

But an IAEA visit now may not uncover much — and not just because Iran has had plenty of time to hide any incriminating evidence in the eight-plus years since the alleged activity took place. The testing experiments that were reportedly conducted there used surrogate material to simulate nuclear components. Unless nuclear material was present for some other reason, IAEA environmental sampling would not detect any telltale signs, giving Iran an excuse to trumpet its vindication.

Which, presumably is why Fitzpatrick entitled his article “The Parchin Trap.”

Meanwhile GQ is not only running Matthieu Aikins’s account of the September 11, 2011 Taliban attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, it also published another piece by him. In State of the Taliban 2012: The Secret Report, he excerpts and analyzes the classified NATO report leaked to certain media outlets in February. What’s that got to do with Iran? Funny you should ask.

Iran has long been alleged to be playing both sides of the conflict in Afghanistan, which the report makes clear:

“The Iranians have provided moderate support to what coalition forces refer to as the Herat Insurgent Faction, or “Mujahedin of Martyr Akbari”, which is a smaller insurgent group operating primarily in Herat and Badghis Provinces. However, Iran has offered far more support to Farsi-speaking groups, many of which currently support [the government of Afghanistan], rather than pro-Taliban elements.”

In a 2010 article about the “bags of cash” Iran regularly bestows on Iran, Christian Science Monitor, Ben Arnoldy wrote that

… Iran and the US ultimately share an ally in Karzai, since both nations are opposed to a Taliban resurgence.

When in power, the Taliban killed Iranian diplomats and oppressed the Shia minority in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s new Constitution, written after the NATO invasion, officially recognized the rights of the Shiites for the first time in Afghanistan’s history. Karzai’s government also includes members of the Northern Alliance whom Iran supported in previous decades.

Also, if you’ll recall, after 9/11, as the Asia Society reported:

… a remarkable period of U.S.-Iran cooperation began as Iran joined the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Iran then participated in the U.S.-sponsored Bonn Conference and helped to establish a new Afghan government that took office in December 2001. In Bonn, Iranian officials even approached their U.S. counterparts about engaging in dialogue on broader issues.

Afghanistan is pivotal to that shared regional security that states (such as North Korean, as well) that are viewed as hostile often seek with the United States — an opportunity of which, in recent years, the United States inevitably fails to take advantage.

What Do The New World Bank Statistics Really Tell Us?

Now here is what sounds like a New York Times headline to celebrate: “Dire Poverty Falls Despite Global Slump, Report Finds.” That report would be a 6-page World Bank briefing note, the press release for which is titled: “New Estimates Reveal Drop in Extreme Poverty 2005-2010.” Echoes The Economist: “For the first time ever, the number of poor people is declining everywhere.

If it were only that easy. Let us dig into what the World Bank’s new briefing note really tells us and ask two questions: Do the statistics really show a fall in extreme poverty across the world? And, what policies lie behind the changing poverty figures?

What the figures tell us and do not tell us:

  1. The figures do not tell us anything about the impact of the recession: The actual data cover 1981-2008; figures ending in 2008 cannot possibly tell us anything about the impact of a recession that started in the United States in late 2008. The briefing note alludes to “preliminary estimates” for 2010; based on these, the Bank makes the bold assertion that the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty (defined as $1.25/day) from its 1990 level was achieved in 2010. But, preliminary estimates are, well, just preliminary estimates. These are extrapolated from significantly smaller samples. Hence, the data cannot back up the Bank’s confident claim because, again, the real data end in 2008. We have been following World Bank projections and estimates for decades now and have found them highly unreliable – and typically over-optimistic.
  2. If one sticks to the 1981-2008 period, China is the key: Between 1981 and 2008, the entire drop in the number of people living in “extreme poverty,” that is those who live below $1.25 a day, is accounted for by China — where the number of extreme poor fell by 662 million. Over this period, the number of people living below $1.25 a day outside China actually rose by 13 million, and hovered around 1.1 billion people throughout this period. More people fell into poverty in South Asia over this period (interesting, given India’s rapid growth over the past decade) and in sub-Saharan Africa. Hence, a more accurate headline would have read: “Numbers in poverty plunge in China over past three decades from 1981-2008, while rising marginally in the rest of the world.”
  3. To extend this last point: As we have argued elsewhere (pdf), in countries such as South Africa, where government services are generous, $1.25 a day goes further than, say, in Haiti. Furthermore, as nations grow rapidly, as have China and India over the past decade and a half, the amount of money needed for people in the cash economy to maintain a decent standard of living also rises. As for those who subsist in rural areas on less than $1.25 a day, many consume much of what they produce. Many live in self-built homes and depend on traditional medicines. While their poverty may be “extreme” by the Bank’s monetary measure, their quality of life may be much better than that of their urban counterparts, even though their incomes are often smaller.

Related to this, our experience living with poor families in rural areas suggests that it has been the opening of their natural resources to global agribusiness, factory fishing fleets, and corporate interests that often leads to real poverty. Millions have been pushed off their land over the past few generations into urban slums where they live in squalor, although they may bring home a few dollars a day. In sum, the statistics upon which most poverty elimination strategies are based are extremely misleading, and often steer experts toward the wrong solutions.

This raises the other question of what policies are behind the figures:

  1. Neoliberalism and poverty: What is behind the data that shows those in poverty outside China increasing in most regions from 1981 to 2005? This period coincided with the heyday of corporate-friendly neoliberal policies in most countries. So the data could be read as a confirmation of what critics of neoliberalism have been saying: the wave of market fundamentalism contributed to increases in the numbers of people in poverty. That data also reveals that in one region, sub-Saharan Africa, the percent of people living below the poverty threshold also rose over this period. We hardly need to point out that in the one country where poverty plunged – China – leaders did not pursue blind neoliberalism, but instead combined state direction of much of the economy with market-openings in selected sectors.
  2. How about the subsequent period from 2005 to 2008, a time range during which the data reveal poverty numbers and rates falling in all regions of the world? As opposed to 1981-2005, this was a period of spreading cracks in the neoliberal Washington Consensus. It was also a period of rising of commodity prices and rising of balance of payments surpluses in many Southern countries. As a result, many Southern countries were able to repay the IMF and World Bank and wean themselves from World Bank and IMF loans and neoliberal conditionality.

Hence, the new World Bank poverty figures may tell a very different story from what has been suggested elsewhere: The numbers in poverty outside China rose during the heyday of neoliberal policies, and began to fall as the grip of those policies was loosened after 2005.

Robin Broad is Professor of International Development, School of International Service, American University. John Cavanagh is director of the Institute for Policy Studies. They are authors of Development Redefined: How the Market Met Its Match. This post originally appeared in the Triple Crisis blog.

Sanctifying the Killing of Muslims

First CrusadeMany of us in the West wonder how Islamist extremists can find virtue in killing. In the East and West, killing an enemy has long been glorified. But when Islamist extremists kill Muslims because, say, they’re Shi’ite not Sunni, or they justify the deaths of innocent bystanders on the principle that, if they’re righteous, their ascent into heaven is expedited, they stretch the definition of the noble warrior beyond the breaking point.

Of course, neither do elements of fundamentalist Christianity have a problem with killing Muslims, who are viewed as heathens standing in the way of history (holding up the apocalypse by failing to cede full ownership of Jerusalem to the Jews). What’s less known is that while Christianity certainly had no monopoly on slaughter — when you consider how much smaller the world’s population was in his day, Genghis Khan was like Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong combined — it once attached no virtue to killing in war.

In 2011, Basic Books published Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse, which I’m currently reading, to much acclaim. The author, American medieveal historian Jay Rubenstein, is a natural storyteller who is also wholly credible to other historians. Early in the book, he explains that “a crucial aspect” of the crusade and of the message of Pope Urban II, the driving force behind the crusade, was, ironically (emphasis added)…

… the need for peace. It was, by 1095, a long-standing plea and aspiration among churchmen. For a century they had been trying to impose on warriors a code of conduct, known variously as “the Peace” or “the Truce of God,” to compel them to limit their aggressive impulses. The unarmed — monks, clerics, and women — were to be kept safe from bloodshed at all times, and for four days out of the week, Thursday through Sunday, no one was to strike a blow against anyone at all.

… The creation of peace did not come easily. Simply stated, knights wanted to fight — with one another, with peasants, with all and sundry. … Urban II realized as much. That’s why the call to peace in 1095 came with a proviso: Knights could continue to fright and loot and plunder as long as they did so against a foreign, unbelieving enemy. … In previous wars, to kill an adversary was, at best, a morally neutral act, an unfortunate necessity created by political circumstance. To kill a Muslim, by contrast, increased a warrior’s store of virtue, giving him some security as he contemplated the fearsome stakes of Judgment Day.

In a sense, killing in war — heretofore a necessary evil that bordered on sin for Christians — was transformed into an act of nobility or even piety when the victims became Muslims.

Do Albright and ISIS Buy Parchin Clean-up Story or Don’t They?

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) refers to itself as a “non-partisan institution that focuses on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.” But it’s sometimes demonstrated a tendency to lean toward, if not the right, the alarmist about nuclear proliferation. As late as 2002, its “ubiquitous” president David Albright, oft quoted in print and on television, issued nuclear warnings about Iraq. In January of this year, Albright and the ISIS staff published a report titled Reality Check: Shorter and Shorter Timeframe if Iran Decides to Make Nuclear Weapons.

ISIS also endorsed the unconvincing story that Iran built an explosives chamber to test components of a nuclear weapon and carry out a simulated nuclear explosion (the Danilenko affair, if you will). Albright told Toby Warrick of the Washington Post in November of last year:

“It remains for Danilenko to explain his assistance to Iran. … At the very least, Danilenko should have known exactly why the Iranians were interested in his research and expertise. The IAEA information suggests he has provided more than he has admitted.”

Investigative journalist Gareth Porter, among others, debunked that story. One can’t help but wonder if the direction ISIS takes has, at times, been determined by its funding, which runs the gamut from the Ploughshares Fund to the Rockefeller Foundation to the extremely conservative Smith Richardson Foundation. Still, ISIS is quick to admit mistakes, if not always learn from them.

In his latest piece for Inter Press Service Alleged Photos of “Clean-up” at Iran’s Parchin Site Lack Credibility, Gareth Porter provides an example of how a stance ISIS takes plays into hawks’ hands (er, talons).

ISIS Executive Director David Albright told interviewer Scott Horton of Antiwar Radio in July 2009 that he had “gotten a tip” in September 2004 that high explosives testing at Parchin “could be used for nuclear weapons”.

ISIS then published a series of satellite photographs that the organisation said were “consistent” with facilities for such nuclear testing.

The satellite images were then cited by Undersecretary of State John Bolton as alarming evidence of covert Iranian nuclear weapons work. … But Bolton and the IAEA had only vague suspicions rather than hard intelligence to go on.

Nevertheless:

The United States and its Western allies put strong pressure on the IAEA to get Iran to agree to a visit to Parchin.

More recently, writes Porter

News stories about satellite photographs suggesting efforts by Iran to “sanitise” [Parchin] … have added yet another layer to widely held suspicion that Iran must indeed be hiding a covert nuclear weapons programme.

But the story is suspect, in part because it is based on evidence that could only be ambiguous, at best. The claim does not reflect U.S. intelligence, and a prominent think tank that has published satellite photography related to past controversies surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme has not found any photographs supporting it.

That prominent think tank, this time demonstrating caution about drawing damning conclusions about Iran, is none other than ISIS. Porter again:

Paul Brannan, a specialist on interpretation of satellite photography for ISIS, told the New York Times that. … he could not find any photographs of sites at Parchin that suggested clean-up. He told the Times. … “There is no way to know whether or not the activity you see in a particular satellite image is cleansing or just regular work.” Brannan added, “There’s a lot of activity there – always.”

Perhaps ISIS is responding to increasing reluctance on the part of the Obama administration, and even many in Israel, to refrain from attacking Iran. If only we had confidence that ISIS — and the International Atomic Agency, as well — speak without first licking their fingers and testing the political winds.

Hold the presses — this just in (as they say), from Haaretz:

A U.S. non-proliferation expert said on Tuesday he has identified a building at the Parchin military site in Iran suspected of containing, currently or previously, a high-explosive test chamber the UN nuclear watchdog wants to visit.

David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, said he studied commercial satellite imagery and found a building located on a relatively small and isolated compound at Parchin that fit a description in the November 2011 International Atomic Energy Agency report.

“Please Do Not Pet the Islamists”

Shurat HaDinCross-posted from Mondoweiss.

Part of me very much wishes to believe this is all a viral marketing effort leading to a forthcoming episode of Portlandia where they go to Israel. It is almost that surreal, but in a somewhat entertaining manner.

Shurat HaDin — an Israeli “lawfare” group that set up legal roadblock after roadblock against “Gaza Freedom Flotilla II” last year — has for several years offered tours of Israel that take in the sort of sights a military fanboy would love, from Hezbollah watching on the Lebanese border to visiting the IAF units that carry out targeted killings and viewing military trials of alleged Hamas operatives (that was part of the 2011 trip). Also, there is a BBQ. The one-week trip costs around US$3,000 and is billed as “Taking it to a Whole New Level,” “The Ultimate Mission to Israel”.

No argument here.

As a sometimes-national security blogger, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was curious about this sort of combat voyeurism and how it might speak volumes about the further militarization of Israeli society, though a friend’s perhaps uncharitable assessment is that most of the people who do go on these trips are not Israelis, but IDF fanboys from the U.S. (the works of Tom Clancy were mentioned in passing in the discussion). In that case, these trips say more about the way the IDF is perceived in both countries than anything else.

Here’s this year’s agenda. As you can see from the screenshot, I mentioned the Gaza flotilla to start with not just because it’s Shurat HaDin’s claim to fame in the U.S. media (its charity work in Israel and lawsuits against terrorist financiers not being well-known outside of the country) but because, apparently, one of this year’s highlights is a trip to the undisclosed naval base where the Israeli navy is holding flotilla ships it’s impounded. It’s not clear which ships they’re referring to, but since only a single ship from the 2011 effort reached Gazan waters, I imagine they are also referring to ships from the 2010 effort.

I guess it’s really only fair that the lawfare group be allowed to tour these prizes — the navy might have actually boarded and impounded the ships in both cases, but Shurat HaDin made their job so much easier the second time through its pressure campaign against the organizers and the Greek government. With one exception, a French boat, none of the second flotilla’s ships made it further than Greek territorial waters.

I imagine anyone who might be linked to the IAEA is not allowed to go any further than the gift shop when the group makes a stop at the Research Center for Atomic Energy (do you think one can buy plausible-deniability Jericho missile keychains there?). I’d have to say that this year’s most questionable whistlestop for Shurat HaDin is the opportunity for ticket holders to visit a Druze village that has apparently become home to a number of refugees fleeing Syria’s nascent civil war. With several Syria events planned for the trip, apparently, I guess there is not much concern over that conflict escalating in the Golan Heights area.

You all probably think I’m appalled with many aspects of this itinerary — no, not the BBQ, obviously, the gawking at refugees, yes — yet I must look for the silver lining, and to me that silver lining is the timing of the summer’s venue, July 9-16.

Why is this cause for cautious optimism? Because some informed comment has determined that if Israel is going to attack Iran this year, it will almost certainly be before the end of this summer. Surely this indicates that war with Iran is unlikely in the tour organizers’ minds who, based on where they’re getting to go, must have their fingers on the pulse of the security forces (who are generally not as sanguine about the prospect of war with Iran as Ehud Barak appears to be).

And while Netanyahu might be an overly rude guest — just ask Obama — he does not seem to be an overly rude host (he hasn’t expelled Gideon Levy or the Arab minority yet). Surely, he would not risk waging war with Iran and inconveniencing Israel’s most gung-ho tourists?

Happy Days Here Again, 21st Century-Style

We can wait all we want, but sometimes history never gets around to repeating.

The equalizing that began in the 1930s didn't just happen. Average Americans made it happen.

The equalizing that began in the 1930s didn’t just happen. Average Americans made it happen.

History — more specifically, the history of the Great Depression in the 1930s — has been a constant presence in America’s political discourse ever since the Great Recession started slamming us in 2008.

Analysts have drawn all sorts of useful and entirely appropriate parallels between the run-up to the Great Depression and the years before the Great Recession. And inequality — the gap between America’s rich and everyone else — has figured prominently in those parallels.

In 1928, the year before the stock market crash, America’s richest 1 percent were taking in just shy of 24 percent of the nation’s income, a modern-day high.

In 2007, the year before our Great Recession’s Wall Street meltdown, America’s top 1 percenters were pulling in 23.5 percent of the nation’s income, the top’s highest share since 1928.

But the parallels go even deeper.

The early years of both the Great Depression and the Great Recession hammered incomes at America’s economic summit. In 1928, the nation’s top 1 percent were averaging just over $400,000, in today’s dollars. Two years later, that top 1 percent average income had dropped by half, to just over $256,000.

The early years of the Great Recession had much the same impact. America’s top 1 percent averaged $1.44 million in 2007, the year before Wall Street’s epic meltdown. In 2009 top 1 percenters averaged over $520,000 less, more than a 36 percent dropoff.

Back in the Great Depression, after the initial income shock for the super rich, the shocking would continue. Top incomes kept dipping as the Great Depression wore on. Average top 1 percent income didn’t reach the $256,000 level of 1930 again until 1936 and didn’t regain 1928’s $400,000 level — the inflation-adjusted pre-Great Depression high-water mark — until decades later, in 1965.

By that time, the incomes of America’s bottom 90 percent had jumped from just over $9,400 — their 1928 level — to nearly $28,000.

In other words, in the three decades after the onset of the Great Depression, the incomes of America’s top 1 percent — after you take inflation into account — essentially didn’t rise at all. Over those same years, Americans in the bottom 90 percent saw their average incomes triple.

No gains for America’s rich. Big gains for average Americans. By the 1960s, those average Americans were sharing in the wealth their labor created. The United States had become a fundamentally more equal and prosperous place.

A history worth repeating? Absolutely. But this history, new data released earlier this month indicate, isn’t repeating. Not at all. Our contemporary rich have already resumed their rocket ride to ever grander fortune.

The rich back in the 1930s were still reeling three years after the Great Depression hit. The rich today, we now know from the newly released data, are reeling no longer.

The new data comes from University of California at Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez, the scholar who has revolutionized our understanding of America’s highest incomes with his work over the last decade.

Saez has spent this last decade parsing IRS statistical records to tease out the incomes of America’s richest, over time, and compare the incomes of these rich — in the top 1, top 0.1, and top 0.01 percent — to the incomes of much more average Americans.

Earlier this month, using newly available IRS data, Saez updated his numbers, to take the U.S. income story through 2010. The Great Recession, Saez found, is most definitely no longer following the Great Depression script.

Back in the early 1930s, incomes for America’s top 1 percent were still dipping two, three, four, and more years into the Great Depression. In our Great Recession, the dipping of high incomes hasn’t even lasted two years.

In 2010, the incomes of America’s top 1 percent did not decline. These incomes rose sharply — by an average $105,638, or 11.6 percent, over 2009 levels.

Incomes for America’s bottom 90 percent? These incomes did continue to dip in 2010 — by $127, to $29,840. Some perspective: In 1973, after adjusting for inflation, America’s bottom 90 percent took home an average $33,795.

So where do all these numbers leave us? Back in 1929 Coca-Cola filled the airwaves with what would prove to be an all-time classic advertising slogan, “the pause that refreshes.” Our Great Recession, if current income trends continue, may prove to be the pause that refreshes . . . inequality.

The Great Depression began a hammering of incomes at the top that left the United States more equal. The Great Recession, the new Emmanuel Saez data suggest, will have nowhere near that impact. Our rich appear about to regain most all the ground they lost in the Great Recession’s early stages.

But we need some caveats here.

The equalizing that began in the 1930s didn't just happen. Average Americans made it happen.

The equalizing that began in the 1930s didn’t just happen. Average Americans made it happen.

They marched and rallied and staged walkouts and sitdowns. They elected candidates who fought to level up America’s least fortunate and level down our most fortunate and powerful few.

All this mobilizing would take years to make a significant equalizing impact. We today can make a significant equalizing impact, too. We just need to get going. History will only repeat if we make it.

Israel Has Its Own Doomsday Clock

“An attack on Iran could take place within a matter of months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a series of television interviews on Thursday,” reported Haaretz on Friday (March 9).

“We’re not standing with a stopwatch in hand,” he said. “It’s not a matter of days or weeks, but also not of years. The result must be removal of the threat of nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands.”

It’s not unlike the famous Doomsday Clock, which the publication Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists maintains — now at five minutes to midnight. For its part, Iran can be forgiven if the difference between an ultimatum and a dire threat is lost on it.

Speaking of speaking frankly, no one is doing a better job of it better than T.J. Hammes of the National Defense University, who recently wrote (emphasis added):

The current debate on whether or not to bomb Iran is being framed as a false choice. Proponents state we must bomb Iran to keep it from developing a nuclear weapon. Yet in the same statement they often admit that even an effective bombing campaign will delay the program only a few years. Thus, the real choice being offered is not to bomb Iran or face an Iran with nuclear weapons. The real choice is facing an Iran with nuclear weapons or facing an Iran with nuclear weapons after you have bombed it.

Futility — thy name is bombing Iran.

Alignment of Views on the Middle East a Little Too Serendipitous

Of course it was a coincidence. Of course. Even if it did sound to me like talking points.

A number of pundits and reporters came to the same conclusion at about the same time. To wit (as one of them put it), “the Palestinian leadership has found itself orphaned. Politically divided, its peace talks with Israel collapsed and its foreign support waning, the Palestinian Authority is sidelined, confused and worried that its people may return to violence.”

Those are the words of soon-to-be-ex New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner. They appeared March 7 on the paper’s web site in advance of his story – “Mideast Din Drowns out Palestinians” – that showed up above the fold in the print edition the following day.

Coincidently, on March 8, Reuters carried a report by correspondent Noah Browning titled “Amid Iran war of words, Palestinians are forgotten,” which contained this colorful bit of analysis: “A monumental wooden chair erected in Ramallah to symbolize the Palestinians’ sought-after United Nations seat collapsed this week after months of wind and rain. Bulldozers quietly took away the shattered remains by night.

“It’s (sic) collapse and stealthy removal could well serve as an emblem of Palestinian hopes for statehood.”

Palestinian officials are said to be drafting a statement setting forth guidelines for the resumption of peace talks with Tel Aviv. In Browning’s view, “The Israelis will certainly reject the demands, if they ever arrive, and will face no international pressure to back down, with world attention fixed firmly on the Iranian nuclear row.”

Browning’s obituary for Palestinian hopes for a settlement appeared the day after Bronner’s. The same day, Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary magazine, a neo-conservative monthly, wrote:

“For decades, the chattering classes have been working hard to teach us that the central issue of the region was not the Shia-Sunni conflict or the struggle for freedom by Arabs longing to rid themselves of autocratic monarchs or dictators. The belief in the centrality of the Palestinian issue was so strong that every other consideration had to be subordinated to the cause of trying to assuage the anger of the Muslim world at their plight. But in the past year, the main subjects of discussion have been the Arab Spring revolts and the debate over how best to stop the Iranian nuclear threat. The result is that the world is getting on with its business these days without obsessing about the Palestinians. Even President Obama, who had picked an annual fight with Israel, chose this year to abandon his usual attempt to pressure Israel into concessions to the Palestinians.”

Tobin’s piece (“Who Marginalized the Palestinians?”) cited Bronner’s, “the “substance” of which was, he wrote, that “The Palestinian answer to their dilemma is much like that of a child who threatens to hold his breath until he turns blue.”

Those words were not in the version of the article he wrote the night before that dealt with the pending unity agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. It said, “The lack of alarm, or even much worry, about the impact of Hamas on the peace process makes it clear that not only is there no more peace process to worry about, but that the Palestinians have made themselves irrelevant.”

“Where once the international chattering classes doted upon every aspect of Palestinian politics in a way that confirmed the prevalent myth that Israel’s antagonists were truly at the heart of all the problems of the Middle East, it is no longer possible for even their cheerleaders and apologists to pretend this is so. In the 18+ years since the signing of the Oslo Accords,” wrote Tobin. “The Palestinians have talked and bombed their way not only out of peace and the independent state they claimed they wanted but also off the front pages. While supporters of Israel still keep their eyes on the goings-on in Ramallah and Gaza, the rest of the world is gradually moving on.”

All of U.S. President Barack Obama’s initiatives “to push the Israelis to give in on Jerusalem, settlements, and the 1967 borders have been rendered moot by the Palestinian refusal to negotiate” wrote Tobin. “At this point, and with his campaign staff worried about shoring up his popularity in an election year, any further attention paid to the Palestinians is not only bad policy but also a waste of time. Though the Palestinians’ erstwhile European friends have no such worries, even they have figured out there are other more pressing issues.”

In the same haughty, arrogant spirit, Tobin went on to declare, “there is little the world can do” for the Palestinians “unless they decide to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Until they do so — and that seems unlikely for the foreseeable future — they are going to have to reconcile themselves to being marginal players on the world stage rather than the focus of the world’s sympathy.”

The coincidence of this theme of Palestinian defeat and isolation by Bonner, Browning and Tobin, all appearing within a 24-hour period coinciding with the gathering in Washington of the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appearance there, and his meeting with President Obama is as fascinating as it is troubling. An effort to get that message out was, however, foreseen.

“Peace talks with the Palestinians dominated President Barack Obama’s meeting last year with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but will barely warrant a mention at their White House session Monday or in speeches to a powerful pro-Israeli lobby,” Associated Press reporters Bradley Klapper and Matthew Lee wrote March 3. “Iran is now the issue commanding urgent attention.”

The Palestinians “probably will not get much more than a passing reference by the U.S. and Israeli officials, lawmakers, GOP presidential hopefuls and others” at the AIPAC conference “nor in the Obama –Netanyahu meeting in the Oval Office,” the AP story read. “Shifting focus from the seemingly intractable Mideast conflict has political advantages for both Obama and Netanyahu, even if they also don’t see eye to eye on the preferred tactics to prevent Iran from being a nuclear-armed state.”

As the country’s “pro-Israel advocates gather again, the call for peace with the Palestinians has succumbed to fever-pitched talk of military action against Iran,” Klapper and Lee wrote.

“Putting the peace process on the back burner has not solved any of the underlying tension and mistrust between the Obama administration and Netanyahu government,” Haim Malka, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told AP. “If anything, tension over the Palestinian issue has been eclipsed by bilateral tension over how to address Iran’s nuclear program.”

“Relegating the peace process to the background is a coup for Netanyahu. His government has brushed aside American criticism of Jewish settlement expansion in lands the Palestinians want for their future state, and has insisted on Palestinian concessions, notably their endorsement of Israel’s Jewish character, before any talk of granting Palestinian independence,” concluded Klapper and Lee.

The issue of Palestine and the occupation is not going away – even if Netanyahu and perhaps Obama wish it to. The Palestinian leadership is hardly likely to remain holed up in Ramallah ruing their alleged impotence until next year. Tobin’s notion that they “are going to have to reconcile themselves to being marginal players on the world stage rather than the focus of the world’s sympathy” is a pipe dream.

Gershom Gorenberg wrote on the American Prospect site March 7 that a count of the words devoted to each subject in his AIPAC speech “shows that Netanyahu has succeeded in defining the agenda in U.S.-Israel relations as being all Iran, all the time. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, truly the key to Israel’s future, has been demoted to less than a distraction.”

“Compare this year’s speeches to last year’s,” wrote Gorenberg. Addressing AIPAC in 2011, Obama devoted about 200 words of a 3,000-word speech to Iran. The concluding section, nearly half the speech, portrayed the urgent need for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, ‘based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.’ This year, the proportions were reversed: Obama spent less than 200 words defending the very fact that he’d ever engaged in peace efforts. His long crescendo dealt with Iran. Last year, Netanyahu had to declare, ‘Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a vital interest for us,’ even while putting all blame for the failure to achieve it on the other side. This year he felt free to leave the word ‘Palestinian’ out completely.

“That doesn’t mean the issue has disappeared. There’s nothing static about the status quo. Two weeks ago, an Israeli planning authority approved nearly 700 new homes in settlements in an area north of Ramallah that Israel would have to give up in any two-state accord. Palestinian frustration with the diplomatic stalemate is growing; the only question is whether it will explode in violent or non-violent protest. Even conservative European leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel are tired of Netanyahu’s policies. Without a two-state agreement, international pressure to declare a single state between the Mediterranean and Jordan will grow—a ‘solution’ almost certain to be disastrous.”

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.

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