Archive | March 4th, 2015

Will Biden’s Billion Dollar Plan Help Central America?

NOVANEWS

Militarizing security, deregulating markets, and dismantling labor rights isn’t the solution.

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, left, meeting with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo in 2012. (Photo: AFP/Getty)

On January 29, the White House announced that $1 billion in assistance to Central America would be included in its budget request for fiscal year 2016. The goal of this aid, as Vice President Joe Biden described it in a New York Times op-ed, is to help the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras “change the climate of endemic violence and poverty” that has led to a “dangerous surge in migration,” as exemplified by last summer’s influx of unaccompanied child migrants. Explicitly modeled on Plan Colombia, the aid package would help make the region “overwhelmingly middle class, democratic and secure.”

Central Americans may well greet Biden’s assertions with skepticism. From the U.S.-backed dirty wars of the 1980s to the broken promises of economic development under the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the historical record shows that U.S. policies and assistance have often undermined prosperity, stability, and democracy in the region. More recently, human rights advocates have expressed deep concern regarding the marked increase in U.S. military and police assistance to Central America’s poor and crime-ridden Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) since the mid 2000s. Though the purported objectives of this assistance are to fight drug trafficking and enhance “citizen security,” Honduras is today the deadliest country in the world, while El Salvador and Guatemala have higher murder rates than during their respective civil wars. Meanwhile, the flow of cocaine through Central America’s drug-trafficking corridor has actually continued to rise, according to the State Department’s own figures.

At first glance, the White House’s new plan appears to herald a salutary shift away from the U.S. government’s failed regional security policy. A White House summary of the plan emphasizes U.S. economic and development assistance and support for improved governance, while indicating that less than one-third of the requested funds would go toward military and police programs.

However, a closer look at the numbers in the president’s FY16 budget request suggests that Central Americans will have to brace themselves for a good deal more of the same sort of security assistance. While a major increase in funding for economic and development aid may have some positive repercussions, the fact that it appears designed in part to bolster a neoliberal development plan for the Northern Triangle sets off alarm bells. In addition, plans for promoting governance and reform appear to rely largely on the political will of national authorities – a highly tenuous assumption in countries like Honduras and Guatemala.

Let’s start with sections of the Biden plan that deal with military and police assistance. While the proportion of funding earmarked for support to the armed forces and counter-narcotics is smaller in relation to other forms of aid, it increases significantly in absolute terms under the White House’s proposed budget. Proposed military assistance – e.g., Foreign Military Funding and International Military Education and Training – remain at roughly the same levels as in 2014. However, the funding for International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) assistance to Central America – much of which provides support to police forces – would jump from $100 million in FY2014 to $205 million under the Biden plan. It is troubling that these funds would be channeled through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), a multilateral cooperation mechanism that is notoriously opaque, leaving the public and members of Congress with little idea of where and how funds are used.

In recent years the majority of CARSI funds have gone to the Northern Triangle despite countless reports of abuses carried out by the police and army there—including frequent extrajudicial killings. The involvement of Honduran military and police forces in killings and attacks targeting civil society leaders, with near total impunity, prompted 94 members of the U.S. Congress to urge the Obama administration to cut off all security assistance to Honduras. The level of alarm is such that both parties in Congress have agreed to language in appropriations legislation that requires the State Department to certify that Honduran and Guatemalan authorities meet basic human rights conditions before significant portions of security assistance can be disbursed to either country.

More worrying still is the fact that law enforcement in these countries is growing increasingly militarized. All three countries have deployed army units to police the streets and, in Honduras, the ruling party has sought to enshrine a new “military police of public order” in the nation’s constitution. Members of this military police have allegedlykidnapped and gang-raped a woman and attacked a prominent human rights defender, among other crimes. Yet, as with the vast majority of criminal acts committed by the country’s security forces, no one has been prosecuted or even suspended from duty for these crimes.

Even though INCLE funding and U.S. military assistance are pouring into the Northern Triangle’s increasingly militarized law enforcement systems, the Obama administration has avoided voicing its support for the region’s militarization. However, it is now heavily promoting Plan Colombia – a militarized security plan if there ever was one – as a model for its Central American assistance scheme. State Department officials – particularly in the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement bureau – have sought to present Plan Colombia as an outstanding success story, but human rights defenders consider it an unmitigated disaster. Parts of Colombia are more secure today, but the human toll of the plan is appalling: millions of Colombians displaced and thousands of innocent civilians [PDF]murdered by military troops.

One other aspect of the administration’s Central American security plan is worth addressing: the funding for increased enforcement at the southern borders of both the U.S. and Mexico. In Biden’s New York Times op-ed, the sharp spike in the number of Central American migrants reaching the U.S. is framed as a “dangerous” security threat. Following this xenophobic logic, which closely matches the discourse of some Republicans, Biden’s billion includes an unspecified amount of funding to help Mexico and the Northern Triangle governments enforce their borders in order to prevent thousands of potential migrants from getting anywhere near the U.S. border.

Indeed, one of the main reasons why the number of Central American migrants reaching the U.S. fell off in late 2014 is because, at the urging of the Obama administration, Mexico began cracking down intensely on illegal migration at its southern border through the Plan Frontera Sur. As a result of this proxy enforcement by Mexico, those fleeing violence and dire economic conditions are further criminalized and expeditiously deported with little regard to whether they qualify for political asylum or face life-threatening conditions in their communities of origin. Under the Biden plan, U.S. funds will help Mexico continue these mass deportations in the hope that they will be sufficient to avoid another politically damaging humanitarian crisis along the U.S.’ southwestern border.

Turning to other forms of assistance in the Biden plan: Many have applauded the fact that the budget for development aid funds to Northern Triangle countries would increase enormously, from around $100 million in FY2014 to $480 million. If this major expansion of assistance makes it past the Republicans’ cutting board in Congress – and that’s an extremely big if – it could provide the region with much-needed economic support. However, some of the administration’s description of how these funds would be used raise red flags for those concerned about the erosion of worker protections and attacks on public sector services throughout the region.

The president’s budget request states that the White House’s Central America plan is designed to “support the priority objectives” identified in the Alliance for Prosperity Plan that the Inter-American Development Bank helped the governments of the Northern Triangle draft late last year. As my colleague Dan Beeton recently wrote, “the plan brings to mind various past cases of crises exploited for economic gain, as Naomi Klein detailed in her landmark book, The Shock Doctrine.” Northern Triangle countries that badly need any sort of economic help may well see that help conditioned on the implementation of neoliberal policies.

Among the objectives of the Alliance for Prosperity plan is the “creation of special economic zones,” bringing to mind the neoliberal “charter cities” that are currently being developed in Honduras, and “improving labor market conditions,” euphemistic language that generally refers to the deregulation of labor markets and the dismantling of workers’ rights protections. Some of the language in the “development assistance” section of the president’s budget request – e.g., “the entire Central America region suffers from severe anti-competitive disadvantages that will be addressed by the [Central America] Strategy” – also evokes a strident anti-regulatory and privatization agenda that might benefit big foreign businesses, but could end up making life much more difficult for the average worker.

Finally, the White House fact sheet describing the Biden plan states that “nearly $250 million” would be channeled toward “improved governance” with programs aimed at enhancing “public sector fiscal management” and strengthening “the efficiency, accountability, and independence of judicial institutions.” But funding for judicial reform is of dubious value at best in a country like Honduras, where, two years ago, the Congress illegally fired most of the judges on the Supreme Court and replaced them with allies. In hisNew York Times op-ed, Biden stressed the importance of “political will” for the billion-dollar plan to work, yet Honduras’ ruling party dissolved a respected and independent police reform commission and refused to enact any of the measures the commission had recommended for mending the country’s corrupt and broken public security apparatus. Similar backtracking has occurred in Guatemala, with the annulment of the former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt’s conviction for genocide and the constitutional court’s decision to prematurely cut short the tenure of the widely-praised independent attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz.

If the U.S. really wants to help Central America, it needs to begin by re-thinking its foreign assistance to the region. It’s time to start listening to local human rights defenders and stop channeling military and police assistance to governments that militarize law enforcement and fail to curtail the abuses perpetrated by state forces. To effectively address the problem of violent crime in the Northern Triangle, the U.S. government should develop alternatives to its failed drug interdiction policies and help countries create good jobs through equitable and sustainable growth. To achieve this, U.S. development assistance should go first and foremost to local organizations, rather than to contractors inside the Beltway, and shouldn’t be predicated on dismantling worker protections and regulatory frameworks. Institutional reform – particularly judicial and law enforcement reform – is necessary, but far too politically and culturally sensitive to be achieved through direct U.S. assistance. Instead, the U.S. government should support the expansion of multilateral cooperation schemes like the U.N. International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, which has a proven track record of strengthening the rule of law.

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How Climate Change Hastened Syria’s Civil War

NOVANEWS

Human-induced drying in many societies can push tensions over a threshold that provokes violent conflict

Syrian children in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan collect water from a project built by Oxfam International. (Photo: Oxfam/flickr/cc)

Climate change can make storms stronger, cold spells longer and water supplies drier. But can it cause war? A new study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says drought in Syria, exacerbated to record levels by global warming, pushed social unrest in that nation across a line into an open uprising in 2011. The conflict has since become a major civil war with international involvement.

Drying and drought in Syria from 2006 to 2011—the worst on record there—destroyed agriculture, causing many farm families to migrate to cities. The influx added to social stresses already created by refugees pouring in from the war in Iraq, explains Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who co-authored the study. The drought also pushed up food prices, aggravating poverty. “We’re not saying the drought caused the war,” Seager said. “We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.”

Seager added that the entire Middle East “faces a drier, hotter climate due to climate change. This will stress water resources and agriculture, and will likely further increase risk of conflict.” Global warming is desiccating the region in two ways: higher temperatures that increase evaporation in already parched soils, and weaker winds that bring less rain from the Mediterranean Sea during the wet season (November to April).

A number of research efforts in recent years have suggested that warmer temperatures and drought increase the risk of violent conflict around the world. A 2009 study found that over the past 30 years in sub-Saharan Africa, temperature rise correlated with an increase in the likelihood of civil war. A 2011 study implicated climate change in pushing up food prices in Egypt, fueling revolution there.

Trouble related to drought in the Middle East may get worse. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that human effects on climate change will make the area drier than it would have become without the manmade influences.

The U.S. Defense Department is taking the warning seriously. It issued a report last November declaring climate change a “threat multiplier” that will impact national security. When Scientific American asked Seager if his group’s research supports that point of view he said, “Yes. It does. Climate change is very much a cause of concern for national, regional and international security and this study makes clear how that can work. The Syrian war has now taken on a life of its own…however, a drought made worse by climate change was one important factor that initiated the social unraveling.”

Colin Kelley, a climatologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who led the work while finishing his doctorate at Lamont-Doherty, concurred, but was also careful to state that severe droughts can have a catalytic effect and contribute to, but not cause, civil unrest.

Although snowstorms and rising sea levels garner more of the headlines about extreme weather driven by climate change, drought is quickly rising as the most troublesome, near-term impact. Another paper in PNAS suggests links between global warming and the terrible, ongoing drought in California. Although civil unrest is far less likely there, tension is indeed growing between political leaders in northern and southern California over who gets the increasingly scarce water from rivers, underground aquifers and snow melt, all of which are declining.

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The Time Is Right for a Palace Revolution

NOVANEWS

A conversation with Tariq Ali

‘Neoliberalism has effectively destroyed solidarity and empathy…’ Or has it? (Photo: Dorret/flickr/cc)

PRINCETON, N.J.—Tariq Ali is part of the royalty of the left. His more than 20 books on politics and history, his seven novels, his screenplays and plays and his journalism in the Black Dwarf newspaper, the New Left Review and other publications have made him one of the most trenchant critics of corporate capitalism. He hurls rhetorical thunderbolts and searing critiques at the oily speculators and corporate oligarchs who manipulate global finance and the useful idiots in the press, the political system and the academy who support them. The history of the late part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century has proved Ali, an Oxford-educated intellectual and longtime gadfly who once stood as a Trotskyist candidate for Parliament in Britain, to be stunningly prophetic.

The Pakistani-born Ali, who holds Pakistani and British citizenships, was already an icon of the left during the convulsions of the 1960s. Mick Jagger is said to have written “Street Fighting Man” after he attended an anti-war rally in Grosvenor Square on March 17, 1968, led by Ali, Vanessa Redgrave and others outside the U.S. Embassy in London. Some 8,000 protesters hurled mud, stones and smoke bombs at riot police. Mounted police charged the crowd. Over 200 people were arrested.

Ali, when we met last week shortly before he delivered the Edward W. Said Memorial Lecture at Princeton University, praised the street clashes and open, sustained protests against the state that erupted during the Vietnam War. He lamented the loss of the radicalism that was nurtured by the 1960s counterculture, saying it was “unprecedented in imperial history” and produced the “most hopeful period” in the United States, “intellectually, culturally and politically.”

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“I cannot think of an example of any other imperial war in history, and not just in the history of the American empire but in the history of the British and French empires, where you had tens of thousands of former GIs and sometimes serving GIs marching outside the Pentagon and saying they wanted the Vietnamese to win,” he said. “That is a unique event in the annals of empire. That is what frightened and scared the living daylights out of them [those in power]. If the heart of our apparatus is becoming infected, [they asked] what the hell are we going to do?”

This defiance found expression even within the halls of the Establishment. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings about the Vietnam War openly challenged and defied those who were orchestrating the bloodshed. “The way that questioning was conducted educated a large segment of the population,” Ali said of the hearings, led by liberals such as J. William Fulbright. Ali then added sadly that “such hearings could never happen again.”

“That [spirit is what the ruling elite] had to roll back, and that they did quite successfully,” he said. “That rollback was completed by the implosion of the Soviet Union. They sat down and said, ‘Great, now we can do whatever we want. There is nothing abroad, and what we have at home—kids protesting about South America and Nicaragua and the contras—is peanuts. Gradually the dissent decreased.” By the start of the Iraq War, demonstrations, although large, were usually “one-day affairs.”

“It was an attempt to stop a war. Once they couldn’t stop it, that was the end,” he said about the marches opposing the Iraq War. “It was a spasm. They [authorities] made people feel there was nothing they could do; that whatever people did, those in power would do what they wanted. It was the first realization that democracy itself had been weakened and was under threat.”

The devolution of the political system through the infusion of corporate money, the rewriting of laws and regulations to remove checks on corporate power, the seizure of the press, especially the electronic press, by a handful of corporations to silence dissent, and the rise of the wholesale security and surveillance state have led to “the death of the party system” and the emergence of what Ali called “an extreme center.” Working people are being ruthlessly sacrificed on the altar of corporate profit—a scenario dramatically on display in Greece. And there is no mechanism or institution left within the structures of the capitalist system to halt or mitigate the reconfiguration of the global economy into merciless neofeudalism, a world of masters and serfs.

“This extreme center, it does not matter which party it is, effectively acts in collusion with the giant corporations, sorts out their interests and makes wars all over the world,” Ali said. “This extreme center extends throughout the Western world. This is why more and more young people are washing their hands of the democratic system as it exists. All this is a direct result of saying to people after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ‘There is no alternative.’ ”

The battle between popular will and the demands of corporate oligarchs, as they plunge greater and greater numbers of people around the globe into poverty and despair, is becoming increasingly volatile. Ali noted that even those leaders with an understanding of the destructive force of unfettered capitalism—such as the new, left-wing prime minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras—remain intimidated by the economic and military power at the disposal of the corporate elites. This is largely why Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, bowed to the demands of European banks for a four-month extension of the current $272 billion bailout for Greece. The Greek leaders were forced to promise to commit to more punishing economic reforms and to walk back from the pre-election promise of Tsipras’ ruling Syriza party to write off a large part of Greece’s sovereign debt. Greece’s debt is 175 percent of its GDP. This four-month deal, as Ali pointed out, is a delaying tactic, one that threatens to weaken widespread Greek support for Syriza. Greece cannot sustain its debt obligations. Greece and European authorities will have to collide. And this collision could trigger a financial meltdown in Greece, see it break free from the eurozone, and spawn popular upheavals in Spain, Portugal and Italy.

The cost of open defiance, which, Ali pointed out, is our only escape route from corporate tyranny, will at least at first be painful. Our corporate masters do not intend to release their death grip without a brutal fight.

Ali recalled that even his late friend Hugo Chavez, the firebrand socialist president of Venezuela, was not untouched by intimidation from Establishment forces. “I remember talking to Chavez many times and saying, ‘Comandante, why do you stop there?’ ” Ali said. “He said it is not realistic to do it at the present time. We can regulate them, make life difficult for capitalism, use oil money for the poor, but we can’t topple the system.”

Ali added, “The Greeks and the Spanish are saying the same.”

“I don’t know what Syriza thought,” he said. “If it thought we can divide the European elite, we can make a big propaganda campaign in Europe and they will be forced to make concessions, that was foolish. This European elite, led by the Germans, doesn’t crack easily. They have walked all over the Greeks. The Greek leaders should have said to their own people, ‘We are going to try and get the best possible conditions—if not we will report to you what has happened and what we need to do.’ Instead, they fell into the European trap. The Europeans made virtually no concessions that mattered.”

The clash between the Greeks and the corporate elites that dominate Europe, Ali said, is “not economic.”

The European Union is “prepared to pour billions into fighting Russians in the Ukraine,” he said. “It’s not a question of the money. They can throw away the bloody money, as they are preparing to do and are doing in the Ukraine. With the Greeks they pretend it is economic, but it’s political. They are fearful that if the Greeks pull it off, the disease will spread. There are elections in December in Spain. If Podemos [Spain’s left-wing party] wins with Greece already having won and proceeding, however modestly, on a different path, the Spanish will say the Greeks have done it. And then there is the Irish waiting patiently with their progressive parties, saying, ‘Why can’t we do what Syriza has done? Why can’t we unite and take on our extreme center?’ ”

Ali said he was “shocked and angry about all the hopes that were invested in Obama by the left.” He lambasted what he called the American “obsession with identity.” Barack Obama, he said, “is an imperial president and behaves like one, regardless of the color of his skin.” Ali despaired of the gender politics that are fueling a possible run for the White House by Hillary Clinton, who would be the first woman president.

“My reply is, ‘So bloody what?’ ” he said. “If she is going to bomb countries and put drones over whole continents, what difference does her gender make if her politics are the same? That is the key. The political has been devalued and debased under neoliberalism. People retreat into religion or identity. It’s disastrous. I wonder if it is even possible to create something on a national scale in the United States. I wonder if it would be better to concentrate on big cities and states to develop some movements where they can have an influence in Los Angeles, New York or in states such as Vermont. It may be wiser to concentrate on three or four things to show that it can be done. I can’t see the old way of reproducing a political party of the left, modeled on the Republican and Democratic structures, as working. These people only work with money. They do not even speak with very many ordinary people. It is credit-card democracy. The left cannot and should not emulate this. America is the hardest nut to crack, but unless it is cracked we are doomed.”

Ali said he fears that should Americans become politically conscious and resist, the corporate state will impose naked forms of militarized repression. Government’s reaction to the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon stunned him. Authorities “closed down an entire city with the support of the population.” He said that the virtual declaration of martial law in Boston was “a dress rehearsal.”

“If they can do it in Boston they can do it in other cities,” he said. “They needed to try it on in Boston to see if it would work. That frightened me.”

“The manufacturing of threats manufactures fear,” he said. “It creates sleepwalking citizens. They [officials] never tried to do this on this scale when they were fighting the Soviet Union and the communist enemy, which was supposed to be the worst, most dangerous threat ever. Now they do it over a handful of bloody terrorists.”

Groups such as Black Lives Matter, he said, offer some hope.

“Just as the traditional left parties have been wiped out all over the world, so has the radical segment of the African-American population and their organizations,” he said. “They were physically wiped out. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, some of the most gifted leaders, were assassinated. The Black Panthers were destroyed. Areas where blacks lived on the West Coast were flooded with drugs. It was a well-planned assault. But the young people who came out in Black Lives Matter have this older spirit. When Jesse Jackson went to Ferguson and engaged in demagogy he was heckled. They did the same on the East Coast with [Al] Sharpton. These black leaders, bought off, are being seen for what they are.”

Ali’s deep concern is that organizations such as Black Lives Matter too often react to events and “don’t totally grasp that dealing with this problem of continuous state violence against the citizenry requires political movements.” He worries that Americans lack an understanding of their own history and that very few are literate in basic revolutionary theory, from Karl Marx to Rosa Luxemburg. This illiteracy, he said, means that opposition movements are often unable to effectively analyze the structures and mechanisms of capitalist power and cannot formulate a sophisticated political response.

“Why didn’t the American working class produce a Labour Party or a proper Communist Party?” he asked. “Repression. If you look at … what happened in America in the early decades of the 20th century and the last decade of the 19th century you see that private mercenaries were hired to stop it [political organizing]. This is a history that is not emphasized. This wretched neoliberalism has downgraded the teaching of history. It is the one subject they really hate. Politics they can take up because they use anti-communism. But history is a huge problem. You can’t understand the emergence of Syriza without understanding the Second World War, the role of the partisans, the role of the Communist Party that organized the partisans and how at one point 75 percent of the country was controlled by these partisans. Then the West came and fought a new war, Churchill did it with Truman’s backing, to defeat these people.”

“I was sympathetic to the Occupy movement, but not to the business of not having any demands,” he said. “They should have had a charter demanding a free health service, an end to the pharmaceuticals and insurance companies’ control of the health service, a free education at every level for all Americans. The notion, promoted by anarchists such as John Holloway, that you can change the world without taking power is useless. I have a lot of respect for the anarchists that mobilize and fight for immigrant rights. But I am critical of those who theorize a politics that is not political. You have to have a political program. The anarchists of yore, in Spain, for example, had a real political program. This new type of anarchism achieves nothing. And probably half of these groups are infiltrated. We have the figures of how many FBI people were in the Communist Party and their Trotskyist offspring. There were huge numbers. FBI people were making key decisions.”

Ali said that the failure on the part of citizens to build mass movements to dismantle wholesale surveillance in the wake of the revelations by Edward Snowden was an example of our collective self-delusion and our complicity in our own oppression. The cult of the self, a product of neoliberal corporate propaganda, infects every aspect of society and culture and leads to paralysis.

“Hollywood gave an Oscar to “Citizenfour and that is as far as it goes,” he said. “As if that matters. That is what is frightening. No civil rights movement has sprung up uniting the citizens against mass surveillance. Neoliberalism has effectively destroyed solidarity and empathy, helped by new technology. It is a culture of narcissism.”

Ali predicted that the current global speculation would result in another catastrophic financial crash. This new crash will give birth to “movements and people who will say, ‘Enough.’ ” If these movements build radical political programs with an alternative socialist vision for society, our “authoritarian capitalism” can be battled, but if this vision is absent, if revolt is simply reactive, things will get worse. The epicenter of this struggle, he said, will be in the United States.

“If nothing happens in the United States, if nothing new is created to challenge systemic excesses and empire, it will be a bad situation for all of us,” he said. “One is doomed if nothing happens in the U.S.”

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My War on Terror: Letter to an Unknown American Patriot

NOVANEWS

The attacks of 9/11,’ writes Engelhardt, ‘created what might be thought of as a national version of PTSD from which we’ve never recovered.’ (Photo: Ty Muckler/flickr/cc)

Dear American Patriot,

I wish I knew your name. I’ve been thinking about you, about all of us actually and our country, and meaning to write for a while to explain myself.  Let me start this way: you should feel free to call me an American nationalist.  It may sound ugly as hell, but it’s one way I do think of myself. True, we Americans usually reserve the more kindly word “patriot” for ourselves and use “nationalist” to diss other people who exhibit special feeling for their country.  In the extreme, it’s “superpatriot” for us and “ultranationalist” for them.

In any case, here’s how my particular form of nationalism manifests itself. I feel a responsibility for the acts of this country that I don’t feel for those of other states or groups.  When, for instance, a wedding party blows up thanks to a Taliban roadside bomb, or the Islamic State cuts some poor captive’s head off, or Bashar al-Assad’s air force drops barrel bombs on civilians, or the Russians jail a political activist, or some other group or state commits some similar set of crimes, I’m not surprised.  Human barbarity, as well as the arbitrary cruelty of state power, are unending facts of history. They should be opposed, but am I shocked? No.

Still — and I accept the irrationality of this — when my country wipes out wedding parties in other lands or organizes torture regimes and offshore prison systems where anything goes, or tries to jail yet another whistleblower, when it acts cruelly, arbitrarily, or barbarically, I feel shock and wonder why more Americans don’t have the same reaction.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t blame myself for the commission of such acts, but as an American, I do feel a special responsibility to do something about them, or at least to speak out against them — as it should be the responsibility of others in their localities to deal with their particular sets of barbarians.

So think of my last 12 years running TomDispatch.com as my own modest war on terror — American terror.  We don’t, of course, like to think of ourselves as barbaric, and terror is, almost by definition, a set of un-American acts that others are eager to commit against us.  “They” want to take us out in our malls and backyards.  We would never commit such acts, not knowingly, not with malice aforethought.  It matters little here that, from wedding parties to funeralswomen to children, we have, in fact, continued to take “them” out in their backyards quite regularly.

Most Americans would admit that this country makes mistakes. Despite our best efforts, we do sometimes produce what we like to call “collateral damage” as we go after the evildoers, but a terror regime? Not us. Never.

 

And this is part of the reason I’m writing you. I keep wondering how, in these years, it’s been possible to hold onto such fictions so successfully. I wonder why, at least some of the time, you aren’t jumping out of your skin over what we do, rather than what they’ve done or might prospectively do to us.

Let’s start with an uncomfortable fact of our world that few here care to mention: in one way or another, Washington has been complicit in the creation or strengthening of just about every extreme terror outfit across the Greater Middle East. If we weren’t their parents, in crucial cases we were at least their midwives or foster parents.

Start in the 1980s with the urge of President Ronald Reagan and his fundamentalist Catholic spymaster, CIA Director William Casey, to make allies of fundamentalist Islamic movements at a time when their extreme (and extremist) piety seemed attractively anticommunist.  In that decade, in Afghanistan in particular, Reagan and Casey put money, arms, and training where their hearts and mouths were and promoted the most extreme Islamists who were ready to give the Soviet Union a bloody nose, a Vietnam in reverse.

To accomplish this, Washington also allied itself with an extreme religious state, Saudi Arabia, as well as Pakistan’s less than savory intelligence service.  The result was major support for men — President Reagan hailed them as “freedom fighters” and said of a visiting group of them in 1985, “These gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers” — some of whom are now fighting us in Afghanistan, and indirectly for what came to be known as al-Qaeda, an organization which emerged from the American-Saudi hothouse of the Afghan War.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Similarly, American fingerprints are all over the new Islamic State (IS) or “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.  Its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, came into existence in the chaos and civil strife that followed the American invasion and occupation of that country, after Saddam Hussein’s military had been disbanded and hundreds of thousands of trained Sunni personnel tossed out onto the streets of Iraq’s cities.  Much of the leadership of the Islamic State met, grew close, and trained potential recruits at Camp Bucca, an American military prison in Iraq.  Without the acts of the Bush administration, IS would, in fact, have been inconceivable.  In the same fashion, the U.S. (and NATO) intervention in Libya in 2011, including a seven-month bombing campaign, helped create the conditions for the growth of extreme militias in parts of that country, as the U.S. drone assassination campaign in Yemen has visibly strengthened al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In other words, each of the terror organizations we categorize as the unimaginably barbaric Other has a curiously intimate, if generally unexplored, relationship with us.  In addition, in these years, it’s been clear (at least to those living in the Greater Middle East) that such groups had no monopoly on barbarity.  Washington’s extreme acts were legion in the region, ranging from its CIA torture chambers (although we called them “black sites”) toAbu Ghraib, from global kidnappings to images of a U.S. helicopter gunning down civilians in the streets of Baghdad.  There were also a range of well-publicized vengeful acts of war, including videos of U.S. troops laughing while urinating on enemy corpses, trophy photosof body parts taken by American soldiers as souvenirs, photos of a 12-member “kill team” that hunted Afghans “for sport,” and a striking “lone wolf” nighttime terror rampage by an American staff sergeant in Afghanistan who killed 16 villagers, mainly women and children. And that’s just for starters.

Then there’s one matter that TomDispatch has been alone here in focusing on. By my count, American airpower has blown away parts or all of at least eight wedding parties in three countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen), killing at least several hundred revelers over the years, without the slightest shock or upset in the U.S.

That’s one reason I’m writing you: the lack of reaction here. Can you imagine what would happen if the planes and drones from another country had wiped out eight weddings here in perhaps a dozen years?

On a larger scale, Washington’s invasions, occupations, interventions, bombings, and raids since 9/11 have resulted in a rising tide of civilian deaths and exiles in a fragmentingregion.  All of this, including those drone assassination campaigns in the backlands of the planet, adds up to a panorama of barbarism and terror that we seldom acknowledge as such.  Of course, the terror outfits we love to hate also love to hate us and have often leapt to embrace the extremity of our acts, including adopting both the orange jumpsuits of Guantánamo and the CIA’s waterboarding for their own symbolic purposes.

Perhaps above all, Americans don’t imagine drones, the sexiest high-tech weapons around, as purveyors of terror.  Yet our grimly named Predators and Reapers armed with “Hellfire” missiles, their pilots safe from harm thousands of miles away, buzz daily over the Pakistani tribal backlands and rural Yemen spreading terror below. That this is so should be indisputable, at least based on accounts from the ground.

In fact, Washington’s drone assassins might fit into a category we normally only apply to Them: “lone wolf” terrorists searching for targets to blow away.  In our case, it’s people who have what Washington identifies as behavioral “traits” associated with terror suspects. They are eliminated in “signature strikes.” So here’s my question to you: Why is it that Americans generally don’t grasp the impact of such a new form of warfare in the Islamic world, especially when, at the movies (as in the Terminator films), we usually root against the machines and for the humans scurrying underfoot?  The word American drone operators use to label their dead victims — “bugsplat” — reveals much.  The term goes backat least to the non-drone shock-and-awe air attacks that began the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and reflects a disturbing sense of God-like, all-seeing power over the “insects” below.

Of course, part of the reason so little of this sinks in here is that all such acts, no matter how extreme, have been folded into a single comforting framework.  You know the one I mean: the need for the national security state to keep Americans “safe” from terror. I think you’d agree that, by now, this is a sacrosanct principle of the post-9/11 era that’s helped expand the national security state to a size unimaginable even in the Cold War years when this country had another imperial enemy.

Safety and security are much abused terms in our American world.  The attacks of 9/11 created what might be thought of as a national version of PTSD from which we’ve never recovered, and yet the dangers of Islamic terrorism, while perfectly real, are relatively minor.  Leave aside the truly threatening things in American life and take instead an obscure example of what I mean.  Even the most modest research suggests that toddlerswho find guns may kill or wound more Americans in a typical year than terrorists do.  And yet the media deals with death-by-toddler as an oddity story, not a national crisis, whether the result is the death of a mother in a Wal-Mart in Idaho or the wounding of a father and mother in an Albuquerque motel.  Nor does the government regularly hype the dangers of “lone wolf” toddlers.  And despite such killings, the legality of “carrying” guns (for “safety” — of course! — from unspecified non-toddler bad guys) is barely questioned in this country as the practice spreads rapidly both in numbers and in the kinds of places to which such weapons can be brought.

And don’t even waste your time thinking about the more than 30,000 deaths by vehicle each year.  Americans coexist with such spectacular levels of carnage without significant complaint so that car culture can continue in the usual fashion.  Yet let some distant terror group issue an absurd threat by video — most recently, al-Shabab in Somalia warning of an attack on the Mall of America in Minnesota — and the media alarm bells go off; the government issues warnings; the head of the Department of Homeland Security (worrying about his budget tied up in Congress) takes to TV to warn shoppers to be “particularly careful”; and pundits debate just how serious this danger may be.  Forget that the only thing al-Shabab can hope for is that a disturbed doofus living somewhere in Minnesota might pick up one of the guns floating so freely around this society and head for that mall to do his damnedest.

And in the constant panic over our safety in situations where very little danger actually exists, our own barbarity, seen as a series of defensive acts to ensure our security, disappears in a sea of alarm.

So how to respond? I doubt you agree with me this far, so my response probably carries little weight with you. Nonetheless, let me offer it, with a caveat of sorts. Despite what you might imagine, I’m neither a pacifist, nor do I believe in a perfect world.  And no, I wouldn’t disband the U.S. military.  It’s clear enough that a strong, defensive-minded military is a necessity on this planet.

After 13 years, though, it should be obvious that this country’s military-first policies throughout the Greater Middle East and widening areas of Africa have been a disastrous bust. I have no doubt that a far less barbaric, less extreme, less militaristic foreign policy would, in purely pragmatic terms, also be a more effective one on every imaginable score — unless, of course, your value system happens to center on the continued building up of the national security state and the reinforcement of its “security” or of the military-industrial complex and its “security.” In that case, the necessity for our barbarity as well as theirs becomes clearer in a flash.

Otherwise, despite much that we’ve heard in this new century, my suspicion is that what’s right and moral is also what’s practical and realistic.  In that light, let me offer, with commentary, my version of the Ten Commandments for a better American world (and a better world generally). Admittedly, in this day and age, it could easily be the Twenty or Thirty Commandments, but being classically minded, let me just stick with 10.

1. Thou shalt not torture: Torture of every horrific sort in these years seems to have beenremarkably ineffective in producing useful information for the state.  Even if it were provedeffective in breaking up al-Qaeda plots, however, it would still have been both a desperately illegal (if unpunished) act and a foreign policy disaster of the first order.

2. Thou shalt not send drones to assassinate anyone, American or not: The ongoing U.S. drone assassination campaigns, while killing individual terrorists, have driven significant numbers of people in the backlands of the planet into the arms of terror outfits and so only increased their size and appeal. Without a doubt, such drone strikes represent a global war of, not on, terror. In the process, they have turned the president into ourassassin-in-chief and us into an assassin nation.

3. Thou shalt not invade another country: D’oh!

4. Thou shalt not occupy another country: By the way, how did that work out the last two times the U.S. tried it?

5. Thou shalt not upgrade thy nuclear arsenal: The U.S. has now committed itself to atrillion-dollar, decades-long upgrade of its vast arsenal.  If any significant portion of it were ever used, it would end human life as we know it on this planet and so should be considered a singular prospective crime against humanity. After years in which the only American nuclear focus was on a country — Iran — with no nuclear weapons, that this has happened without serious debate or discussion is in itself criminal.

6. Thou shalt not intercept the communications of thy citizens or others all over the world or pursue the elaboration of a global surveillance state based on criminal acts: There seems to be no place the NSA has been unwilling to break into in order to surveil the planet.  For unimaginable reams of information that have seemingly been of next to noactual use, the NSA and the national security state have essentially outlawed privacy and cracked open various amendments to the Constitution.  No information is worth such a price.

7. Thou shalt not be free of punishment for crimes of state: In these years of genuine criminality, official Washington has become a crime-free zone.  No matter the seriousness of the act, none — not one committed in the name of the state in the post-9/11 era, no matter how heinous — has been brought into a courtroom.

8. Thou shalt not use a massive system of secret classification to deprive Americans of all real knowledge of acts of state: In 2011, the U.S. classified 92 million documentsand the shroud of secrecy over the business of the “people’s” government has only grown worse in the years since.  Increasingly, for our own “safety” we are only supposed to know what the government prefers us to know.  This represents, of course, a crime against democracy.

9. Thou shalt not act punitively toward those who want to let Americans in on what the national security state is doing in their name: The fierce and draconian campaign the Obama administration has launched against leakers and whistleblowers is unprecedented in our history.  It is a growing challenge to freedom of the press and to the citizen’s right to know.

10. Thou shalt not infringe on the rights of the citizenry to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Need I even explain?

If you want to boil these commandments down to a single injunction, it might simply be: Don’t do it! Or in a moment when nothing Washington does isn’t, it seems, done again: Stop and think before acting!

Of course, there’s no way to know what a national security policy based on these 10 commandments might really be like, not when Washington is so thoroughly invested in repeating its failed acts.  It’s now deep into Iraq War 3.0, intent on further slowing the “withdrawal” from Afghanistan, and pursuing the usual drone assassination strategies, as from South Asia to Iraq, Yemen, and Libya things only worsen and jihadist organizationsgrow stronger.

Yet campaign 2016 is already shaping up as a contest among candidates who represent more of the same, much more of the same, and even more than that of the same. One of them has tellingly brought back as his advisers much of the cast of characters who planned the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Even if the above commandments weren’t to add up to a more practical, safer, and more secure foreign (and domestic) policy, I would still be convinced that this was a better, saner way to go. As Americans demonstrate regularly when it comes to just about anything but terrorism, life is a danger zone and living with some level of insecurity is the human condition.  Making our safety and security ultimate values is a grotesque mistake. It essentially ensures a future state that bears no relation whatsoever to a democratic polity or to the values this country has championed.  Much that Americans once professed to cherish, from liberties to privacy, has already been lost along the way.

In your heart, you must know much of this, however you process it. I hope, under the circumstances, you’ll give some thought to what that word “patriot” should really mean in this country right now.

Yours sincerely,

Tom Engelhardt
TomDispatch.com

P.S. In my own war on terror, I’ve recently been thinking that a few “thou shalts” are in order. To give you an example: Thou shalt honor the heroes of our American world — and no, I’m not talking about the U.S. military! I mean people like journalist James Risen, who barely avoided jail for doing his job as a reporter and has now dedicated his life to “fighting to undo damage done to press freedom in the United States by Barack Obama and Eric Holder,” or activist Kathy Kelly who is at present in a federal prison in Kentucky for havingprotested American drone strikes at an Air Force base in Missouri.

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To Naziyahu, Peace Is an Existential Threat

NOVANEWS
Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, points to a red line he drew on a graphic while addressing the United Nations General Assembly in 2012. (Photo: Mario Tama  / Getty Images)

To Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, peace between the US and Iran is an existential threat. By now, it should be clear to all: It’s not an Iranian nuclear bomb he fears, but a US-Iran deal.

In a tweet earlier this morning, the Prime Minister said as much: “We are strongly opposed to the agreement being formulated between the world powers and Iran that could endanger Israel’s very existence.”

So we have gone from Netanyahu declaring an Iranian bomb an existential threat to Israel, to a deal between the world powers and Iran an existential threat.

And it’s not the specifics of the deal that is the problem, but the very notion of a deal involving the US and Iran. In fact, his Minister of Defense declared that any deal would be a threat.

Netanyahu’s hypocrisy is astounding. As I describe in A Single Roll of the Dice — Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, Netanyahu has always opposed diplomacy with Iran. Not because he feared it would fail, but precisely because he feared it would work. When President Obama took office in 2009 and began his outreach to Tehran, Netanyahu launched a campaign to undermine Obama centered on four key areas.

First, he pressed Congress to impose new sanctions on Iran before talks began, presumably to ensure that the escalatory measure would ensure that diplomacy never took off at all. Second, he pressed Obama to adopt the Bush administration’s completely unrealistic goal to eliminate all Iranian uranium enrichment. Again, such a measure would ensure that diplomacy never took place — the breakthrough in diplomacy took place once the US dropped that demand.

Third, Netanyahu wanted Obama to continue Bush’s rhetoric of insisting that the military option remained on the table. Obama had famously stated that the conflict with Iran could not beresolved by issuing threats, and wanted to create an atmosphere conducive to diplomacy. Making war threats would achieve the opposite, which Netanyahu undoubtedly understood.

During their first joint press conference in the Oval office in May 2009, President Obama carefully avoided mentioning military options in regards to Iran, since he was hoping to begin talks with Tehran as soon as the Iranian Presidential elections in June would be over. But if Obama wasn’t going to mention the military option, Netanyahu would do it for him.

As soon as he got the word, the Israeli prime minister turned to Obama and thanked the American President for “your statement that you’re leaving all options on the table.” But Obama had made no such statement.

Netanyahu’s final measure to sabotage talks was to insist on a very tight timeline for negotiations. Talks should be concluded in 12 weeks, the Israelis insisted. Absent such a tight deadline, the Iranians would simply play for time, the Netanyahu government argued. How such a complex conflict, dating back three decades, could be resolved in three months was never explained. Tellingly, Netanyahu did not insist on a deadline for either sanctions or military action. Such measures should be open-ended, only diplomacy benefitted from an impossible deadline.

Having insisted on a 12-week deadline for the talks, accusing the Iranians of playing for time, declaring the interim nuclear agreement from November 2013 a “very bad deal” only to later admit to Obama administration officials that the deal has been very successful, the Israeli prime minister is now expected to seek congressional support to delay any agreement with Iran. Apparently, Obama has negotiated a deal too quickly.

Nobody in the Obama administration believes that Netanyahu is trying to advance the chances of a nuclear deal. Fewer and fewer people in the US media believe that Netanyahu is doing anything but trying to push the United States and Iran towards war. In fact, AIPAC was instructing its citizen lobbyists to tell US lawmakers that war with Iran is preferable to the unacceptability of the status quo, i.e. Obama’s nuclear deal.

To understand Netanyahu’s message this week in Washington, one must understand that to those who crave war, peace is an existential threat.

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Answers Demanded Following Fatal Shooting of Homeless Man by LAPD

NOVANEWS

Caught on tape by bystander, a graphic video shows several officers failing to subdue homeless man before opening fire

Investigators with LAPD stand at the scene after a homeless man was shot and killed on skid row by Los Angeles police on Sunday. (Christina House, For The Times)

The fatal shooting Sunday of a homeless man by Los Angeles Police Department officers that was caught on video is spurring outrage in California and around the country. Critics are questioning why deadly force was used, given the number of officers on the scene and reports indicating the man, who witnesses said suffered from mental illness, did not have a weapon, at least when the altercation began.

The graphic video—posted to Facebook and viewed several million times overnight—comes as just the latest example of a police shooting caught on camera and is sure to add to the national outrage surrounding excessive force used by law enforcement.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

…. LAPD Sgt. Barry Montgomery said there could be more video recordings of the incident, noting that he could see two surveillance cameras mounted on buildings at the scene.

The encounter was recorded by body cameras worn by at least one of the officers. It was unclear what that recording shows.

“It’s clear there was a struggle for the officer’s gun,” Los Angeles Police Department Cmdr. Andrew Smith said. No other gun was found at the scene.

Five shots can be heard on the video. Two officers and a sergeant fired their weapons, Smith said.

In addition to what can be seen on the video, firsthand witnesses to the shooting confirmed the man was acting violently and combatively but suggested he was not such a threat he deserved to be shot dead.

According to Yolanda Young, who spoke to local media, the man “was down but then he jumped up, like he was juiced up, and then he started swinging at the police and they were fighting him back,” before he was tackled to the ground.

“He didn’t have no weapon, they just shot him,” she continued. “They could have just wrestled him down and took him to jail, but they shot him five times.”

According to local CBS-affiliate KTLA, a man in the video, apparently an officer, is heard yelling during the scuffle: “Drop the gun. Drop the gun. He has a gun.” Police can then be seen opening fire.

And the Times adds:

An angry crowd gathered immediately after the gunfire, as police cordoned off the scene and ordered onlookers to back away.

One witness can be heard complaining that there had been at least six officers to handle the situation, and that the mortally wounded man had been unarmed.

“Ain’t nobody got no … gun!” he shouts.

“That man never was a threat,” said Lonnie Franklin, 53, who said he was across the street when the shooting occurred. “The amount of officers present at the time could have subdued him.”

Witnesses identified the dead man by his street name, “Africa,” and said he’d been living in a tent on skid row for a few months after spending a long stretch in a mental health facility.

The Times reports that civil rights advocates are demanding further answers from the LAPD and called for an immediate and impartial investigation into the shooting.

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Racist Policing in Ferguson Verified by DOJ Report

NOVANEWS

Results of federal probe to highlight culture of racial bias which led to shooting death of Michael Brown, officials say

Protesters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin rally in solidarity with the community of Ferguson, Missouri after news that officer Darren Wilson would not be charged for the killing of Michael Brown. (Photo: Light Brigading/cc/flickr)

The U.S. Justice Department has reportedly concluded that the Ferguson Police Department has for years practiced discriminatory policing tactics, creating a culture of “racial animosity” in the lead up to the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown last summer.

The findings, which are expected to be released as early as this week, are the conclusion of a months-long federal investigation into the department. Speaking under anonymity, law enforcement officials briefed on the report told the New York Times that the “highly critical” assessment charges the local police department with “disproportionately ticketing and arresting African-Americans and relying on the fines to balance the city’s budget.”

According to the most recent data (pdf) published by the Missouri attorney general, in 2013, Blacks accounted for 86 percent of traffic stops in Ferguson but compromise 63 percent of the population. Further, black drivers were twice as likely to be searched by the police department, which is 95 percent white.

Last month, reports indicated that the DOJ will not bring charges of civil rights violations against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Despite that, the federal probe is intended to examine the “broader practices” of the department in order to “give context for the shooting.”

Citizens of Ferguson and Jennings, Missouri have recently launched suits charging the cities with extortionary policing practices, arguing that by jailing residents who are unable to pay traffic tickets and other fines the local jails are being used as “debtors’ prisons.”

According to the unnamed officials, the DOJ says such practices have provided a “financial incentive to continue law enforcement policies that unfairly target African-Americans.”

The Times says that the damning report will likely force the city to “either negotiate a settlement with the Justice Department or face being sued by it on civil rights charges.”

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Iran: Let’s Make a Deal

NOVANEWS

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says that sanctions relief key, but that Iran is prepared to settle nuclear arrangement once and for all

Speaking from Geneva on Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said a deal on Iran’s nuclear program could be concluded this week if the United States and other Western countries have sufficient political will and agree to remove sanctions on Tehran. “Our negotiating partners, particularly the Western countries and particularly the United States, must once and for all come to the understanding that sanctions and agreement don’t go together.” (Photo: AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touched down in the United States for a contentious two-day visit specifically designed to derail a pending nuclear agreement between Iran, the United States and other world powers, the Iranian foreign minister on Monday made his nation’s position clear and said a deal is close so long as the Obama administration can muster the political will to see it through.

What is primary, said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif from Geneva—where he was attending a meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission—is that economic and trade sanctions aimed at Tehran come to an end.

“Our negotiating partners, particularly the Western countries and particularly the United States,” Zarif told Reuters, “must once and for all come to the understanding that sanctions and agreement don’t go together. If they want an agreement, sanctions must go… We believe all sanctions must be lifted.”

Zarif continued, “We have made some progress since last time and if there is the political will… we can have an agreement this time.”

On Sunday evening, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Switzerland for three days of talks between the P5+1 nations (the U.S., U.K., Russia, France, China and Germany) and Zarif and his Iranian delegation.  The talks themselves will take place in the lakeside town of Montreaux over three days beginning Monday.

Also on the sidelines of a meeting of the UNHRC in Geneva earlier in the day, Kerry was tight-lipped about his upcoming meeting with Zarif. “The clock is ticking,” Kerry reportedlysaid of the pending deal. He further indicated it was in neither party’s interest to discuss what issues still remain outstanding.

Back in Washington D.C., as the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) readies to receive Netanyahu on Monday, U.S. lawmakers are making last-minute  decisions on whether or not they will attend a speech the prime minister is scheduled to deliver to a joint-session of Congress on Tuesday.

So far, nearly forty Democrats have said they will not attend Netanyahu’s speech and the Obama administration has publicly criticized the prime minister for his interference in the debate regarding the talks in Switzerland and urging Congress to sabotage the deal by passing even more sanctions which all observers understand is the surest way to sabotage the prospects of a deal with Tehran.

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Iraqi Forces Mobilize for Largest Offensive Yet Against ISIS

NOVANEWS

Tikrit offensive seen as setting stage for future operation to recapture key city of Mosul

Tikrit, about 80 miles north of Baghdad, fell to ISIS last summer. (Photo: Adam Henning/flickr/cc)

The Iraqi military, backed by Shia militias, launched a large-scale offensive on Monday to reclaim Tikrit from Islamic State militants, who overtook the central city last June.

A force of up to 30,000 soldiers and fighters is reportedly attacking Tikrit from different directions, backed by artillery and airstrikes by Iraqi fighter jets.

The extent of U.S. involvement in Monday’s offensive was unclear. However, the Combined Joint Task Force reported Sunday that a U.S.-led coalition launched seven air strikes against Islamic State militants over the weekend in both Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, the coalition used warplanes and drones to strike near Al Asad, Al Qaim, Kirkuk, and Mosul, destroying Islamic State tactical units, boats, a storage facility, buildings, and other targets, according to the statement.

According to Reuters, Iraq’s air force carried out strikes in support of the advancing ground forces who were being reinforced by troops and militia, known as Hashid Shaabi or Popular Mobilization units, from the neighboring eastern province of Diyala. Iraqi officials have also claimed that an estimated 700 to 1,000 Sunni tribal fighters are involved in the Tikrit operation.

The New York Times described the attack as “the boldest effort yet to recapture Tikrit and, Iraqi officials said, the largest Iraqi offensive anywhere in the country since the Islamic State took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June.”

The Times added:

From a military perspective, capturing Tikrit is seen as an important precursor to an operation to retake Mosul, which lies farther north. Success in Tikrit could push up the timetable for a Mosul campaign, while failure would most likely mean more delays.

The American military, though, appears divided on the question of when the Iraqi military—which collapsed last summer in the face of the Islamic State onslaught—would be ready for a wide-scale offensive in Mosul, or in Anbar Province in the west of the country, which is also in the hands of militants.

But tensions on the ground could further complicate the high-stakes offensive.

The Guardian reports: “The government faces a challenge in overthrowing the militants—who are entrenched within both urban centres and villages—without alienating local Sunnis and enabling retributive attacks by the Shia militia against Sunnis suspected of collaboration with Isis.”

According to Reuters:

Shi’ite militia have been accused of mass executions and burning of homes in areas they have seized from Islamic State. Leaders of the paramilitary forces have denied the accusations.

In the hours before Monday’s operation began, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi “sought to ease the concerns of Tikrit’s overwhelmingly Sunni residents, saying many of the volunteer forces aiding in the fight for the city are Sunni locals supporting the military’s effort,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

“The US has made a big deal of courting Sunni tribes to fight against ISIS for the Shi’ite dominated government, and while there have been some indications of some tribes being open to that, the Shi’ite militias cracking down on locals in retaken territory have undercut that effort,” writes Jason Ditz at AntiWar.com. “Many Sunnis have ultimately decided life under ISIS is less objectionable than life under occupation by the Badr Brigade and other militias.”

Ditz also notes that al-Abadi called on fighters to “spare civilians” during the attack. But, Ditz adds, “Exactly how much influence he will have over his own military, let alone the militias, remains to be seen, however.”

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What Rift? When It Comes to Palestinians and Human Rights, US and I$raHell As Close As Ever

NOVANEWS

‘The unprecedented partisan rancor that Netanyahu’s speech engendered on Capitol Hill has not really affected the fundamentals of U.S. policy’

Image result for United Nations Human Rights Council LOGO

Amid a public spat between the White House officials and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, top Obama administration aides signaled Monday that the U.S./Israeli “special relationship” is as ironclad as ever—especially when it comes to accountability over war crimes against Palestinians.

In the midst of Netanyahu’s controversial visit to Washington, top Obama administration aides on Monday issued blistering condemnations of the United Nations Human Rights Council for launching an investigation into violations of international humanitarian law committed during Israel’s 50-day military assault on Gaza last summer.

Addressing the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, Kerry claimed that the global body holds an “unfair and unfounded bias” against Israel. “The Human Rights Council’s obsession with Israel risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization,” the Secretary of State continued.

Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, struck a similar chord in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual policy conference in Washington on Monday.

“It is bitterly unjust that the United Nations, an institution founded on the idea that all nations should be treated equally, is so often used cynically by member states to treat Israel unequally,” she said. “These attacks on Israel’s legitimacy are biased, they are ugly, and the United States of America will not rest until they stop.”

“We believe firmly that Israel’s security and the U.S.-Israel partnership transcends politics and always will,” Powers added, vocalizing a sentiment that was repeated by Netanyahu, who also presented at the AIPAC gathering.

“Our friendship will weather the current disagreement as well,” declared the Israeli Prime Minister.

The conciliatory comments come in the midst of an unprecedented rift over Netanyahu’s current visit, which was orchestrated by GOP House Speaker John Boehner and the Israeli ambassador without the blessing of the White House. Netanyahu has been clear that the primary purpose of his address to Congress, slated for Tuesday, is to sabotage talks between global powers and Iran, thereby undermining a key policy initiative of the Obama administration.

However, Josh Ruebner, policy director for the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, told Common Dreams that “Kerry and Power’s defense of Israel’s human rights abuses and war crimes is another indication that the unprecedented partisan rancor that Netanyahu’s speech engendered on Capitol Hill has not really affected the fundamentals of U.S. policy.”

“The Obama administration is still acting as Israel’s guarantor in the UN, and despite the fact that Netanyahu is coming to the U.S. to undermine the foreign policy objectives of the Obama administrations, there have been no repercussions from the Obama administration.”

In an article published last week, journalist and Palestinian rights advocate Ali Abunimah argued that “for suffering Palestinians, the Obama-Netanyahu ‘rift’ is a side show.”

“Just because Obama, Netanyahu and their partisan followers may be peeved at each other does not change the basic dynamic of full US support for Israel’s occupation of millions of Palestinians, the continuation of which guarantees ongoing suffering with regional repercussions,” wrote Abunimah.

Nonetheless, human rights and Palestine solidarity advocates argue that the schism over Netanyahu’s maneuver presents a political opening. This is an important moment to prevent potentially catastrophic military escalation towards Iran, they say, as well as an opening for real debate about atrocities against Palestinians.

Amid a grassroots push, 46 lawmakers have vowed to skip Netanyahu’s Tuesday speech, according to Ruebner’s count. Meanwhile, top White House officials—including the president—have announced that they will not be in attendance.

“Unfortunately, no members of Congress have come out and said that they are boycotting because of the horrific human rights conditions of Palestinians,” Ruebner added. “But we hope that, by so many members of Congress skipping this speech, it will open up room for more dialogue and debate about this issue.”

Posted in Palestine Affairs, USA, ZIO-NAZIComments Off on What Rift? When It Comes to Palestinians and Human Rights, US and I$raHell As Close As Ever

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