Analysis of foreign affairs and policy that emphasizes global cooperation and grassroots participation.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
When the crisis of unaccompanied minors migrating to the United States burst onto the front pages last summer, it seemed that at last the US government would come to grips with its legacy of disaster amid the current havoc in Central America.
The United Nations documented that most of the children were fleeing violence—violence caused in part by the failure to restore constitutional order following the Honduran coup of 2009 and the unfinished peace processes after the dirty wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, where Washington propped up right-wing dictatorships for years.
The governments of those three countries—known as the Northern Triangle—certainly share some of the blame for the mass exodus, which is not as new or unprecedented as the press made out when it sounded the alarm.
But in the end, the problem isn’t one of assigning blame, but rather helping children in conditions of extreme vulnerability, right?
Less than a year later, Washington has come up with its policy response to the children’s plight. Unfortunately, while purporting to address the root causes of migration, it mirrors—and in many ways intensifies—the causes that forced so many to flee.
Tucked into the administration’s 2016 budget request, the plan has been christened “Biden’s Billion” for its major promoter and the amount he expects US taxpayers to put up to support it. It divides aid into three “lines of action”: security, economic development and governance.
Yet in every one of these areas, the response repeats errors of the past. Rather than focusing on a response to the humanitarian crisis of child refugees, it serves as a vehicle for deepening the drug war and “free trade” agendas that have contributed to the crisis.
Rewarding Human Rights Violators
The plan requests $300 million for security assistance, a considerable increase over previous regional collaborations like the Merida Initiative and the Central American Regional Security Initiative. The increase goes mainly to the region’s police forces.
This essentially rewards known human rights violators.
In an op-ed published in The Hill, Alex Main of the Center for Economic and Policy Research explains: “Funding for International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) aid to Central America would double from $100 million in fiscal year 2014 to $205 million in fiscal year 2016,” he writes. “This assistance, rooted primarily in the U.S. ‘war on drugs,’ includes extensive support for the region’s police and military forces despite abundant reports of their involvement in extrajudicial killings and other serious human rights violations.”
Although fighting drug traffickers is purposely underplayed in the proposal, INCLE nonetheless expands the failed drug war model of militarizing local security forces. Experience shows that placing weapons and training in the hands of abusive police ensures that they can be—and are—used against civilians not associated with cartels, or against suspected criminals denied a right to trial.
The foreign military funding—or FMF, in bureaucratese—included in the plan, while comparable to prior levels, has a particularly ominous note to it this time around. “FMF in the Western Hemisphere,” declares the budget request, “supports our partners’ efforts to control national territory, modernize defense forces, and secure the southern approaches to the United States.”
Given that the region has no invading armies, to “control territory” means to control undefined internal populations—presumably criminals, but potentially including opposition or indigenous communities fighting for land rights against state-supported designs. “Modernizing defense forces” in the absence of external threats, means a dangerous re-militarization of nations barely emerging from military dictatorships.
And “securing southern approaches to the United States” marks a clear imposition of US priorities to the detriment of the host nations. Even more outrageous is the implication that the southern US border has to be protected from child migrants by creating an allied buffer some 2,000 miles deep.
Proponents of the plan note that some funding goes to human rights training. The contradiction of funneling money to human rights abusers to compel them to cease their abuse is one that they no doubt relish. It sends a mixed message by supporting corrupt and violent police at the same time that it claims to be improving them.
The plan bolsters Honduran security forces even as human rights groups document uncontrolled abuses, to the extent that ninety-four members of the US Congress have called for a complete cut-off of aid to Honduran security forces. The plan apparently also funds the provision of training for Colombian security forces—the nation famous for the “false positives” scandal, a human bounty hunt in which soldiers dressed peasant farmers up as guerrillas, assassinated them and received a government bonus.
The US government has been shoveling out money to US agencies and private-sector firms for dubious police and judicial reform programs in Mexico and Central America for years. The result is horrors like Ayotzinapa and an increase rather than decrease in violations throughout the region. The police forces are being equipped and trained as they continue to victimize their own populations with impunity.
As the recent murders of unarmed youth in US cities have shown, the United States urgently needs to reform its own police before it spends millions purporting to teach others. As in all other areas of this plan, the money would be better spent at home.
The billion-dollar plan does highlight a few of the root causes of migration—namely physical and economic insecurity. But its emphasis on border security reveals its Janus-faced attitude toward migrants as threats as well as victims.
In part, this comes at the urging of immigration hawks in Congress.
Last December, John Lindsay-Poland explains, “Congress required the State Department to submit a strategy within three months that would ‘address the need for greater border security for the countries in Central America and for Mexico, particularly the southern border of Mexico.’ The strategy must also ‘support repatriation facilities for the processing of undocumented migrants returning from the United States’ as well as ‘combat human trafficking in Central America.’”
Mexico, once again, is responsible for doing the real dirty work here. Some 23,000 children have been deported at Washington’s urging from Mexico’s southern border over the past year.
The crackdown along Mexico’s southern boundary breaks with the country’s traditionally permissive attitude toward millennial migration patterns in the region. But it has not significantly decreased migration. Reports from that border describe a continued flow of migrants amid an increased presence of police, armed forces and immigration agents. The result is more extortion and abuse.
The economic development section of the plan would support the “Alliance for Prosperity,” an initiative developed with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Northern Triangle governments. The IDB has a history of supporting large infrastructure projects that too often displace populations from their places of origin rather than rooting them through sustainable livelihoods.
This “line of action” intensifies policies that have been imposed for the past twenty years in the region: international trade facilitation, market integration, transnational investment and export-oriented infrastructure and megaprojects.
Civil society organizations have long criticized this strategy. In a letter to heads of state in 2013, a coalition of 160 organizations stated, “Large-scale ‘development’ projects are imposed on the region’s most vulnerable populations with little or no regard for their lives or livelihoods. This results in forced displacement, especially of indigenous, peasant, and Afro-descendant communities; bloody conflicts over resources; environmental destruction and impoverishment.”
Here too, the details of the new Central America plan relate more to US goals than to Central American needs. For example, the Trade and Development Agency notes that its part of the funding “prioritizes activities where there is a high likelihood for the export of U.S. goods and services.” While there’s nothing inherently wrong with opening up business opportunities for US companies abroad, it’s a crass abuse of the goal of securing the safety of children in Central America.
Moreover, many of those investments include export promotion that puts local producers out of business (recall the 2 million Mexican farmers driven out under NAFTA) and infrastructure projects that serve the transnational movement of goods while destroying internal market linkages.
This creates a vicious but lucrative circle of investment-displacement-repression, as populations are forced from their lands and then criminalized as migrants, justifying enormous security contracts.
This combination of hardening borders for human mobility while opening them for goods and money is nothing new, as two decades of NAFTA have shown. We’ve seen the tragic results in Mexico.
Children and Youth at Risk
The United Nations concluded that 58 percent of the child refugees it interviewed had international protection needs, including a staggering 72 percent of Salvadoran children.
Yet for all its fanfare, the Biden plan makes no attempt to respond to this urgent need to keep children safe. In fact, through its border security measures and the likelihood of increased deportations from the United States and Mexico, it exacerbates their plight. The plan actually transfers millions of dollars out of child and maternal health to fund the new security measures.
The policies to deport migrants from Mexico are creating greater perils for them en route and back home. Father Alejandro Solalinde, who runs a migrant shelter in southern Mexico, worries that “They’re sending them right into the arms of the cartels.” That’s just what the plan does.
In a New York Times op-ed penned to promote it, Vice President Biden demonizes the migrants from the very first paragraph, where he calls the child migrant crisis a reminder that “the security and prosperity of Central America are inextricably linked with our own.” Later on, he laments a “dangerous surge in migration.”
What kind of nation have we become when we treat desperate children as a national security threat?
The good news is that the plan faces a rocky road in Congress. “We’ve spent billions of dollars there over two decades,” observed Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee. “And we’ve seen conditions get worse in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador.” Other members have also balked at the huge spike in security funding to governments where impunity and abuse is rampant.
There are undoubtedly some worthwhile projects within the proposed billion-dollar package, for example funding for domestic violence shelters. Washington promoters urge critics not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
But to avoid doing that, first you have to separate the two. This plan does precisely the opposite, by lumping together repressive measures that continue drug-war militarization and punitive measures against youth with educational and jobs programs. It criminalizes migrants at the borders even while attempting to address root causes of migration. So, for example, the mother who has the courage to flee an abusive husband and take her children to safety will be more likely to be stopped and returned to her tormenter.
It’s laudable to turn our attention to the root causes of the refugee crisis out of Central America. But if the aid package intensifies the same policies that contributed to the crisis—as Biden’s clearly does—then we’re moving in the wrong direction. American taxpayers have no reason to throw more hard-earned money at the Washington NGOs, corrupt foreign governments, abusive security forces and avaricious security industry that have perpetuated the failed drug war far beyond any justifiable error.
Despite the seriousness of the current situation, this is a classic case of where doing the wrong thing can be far worse than not doing anything.
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When some seventy members of the neo-Nazi organization Golden Dawn go on trial sometime this spring, there will be more than street thugs and fascist ideologues in the dock. A tangled web of influence is likely to engulf Greece’s police, national security agency, wealthy oligarchs and mainstream political parties. While Golden Dawn—with its Holocaust denial, its swastikas and its Hitler salutes—looks like it might inhabit the fringe, in fact the organization has roots deep in the heart of Greece’s political culture.
Which is precisely what makes it so dangerous.
Golden Dawn’s penchant for violence is what led to the charge that it is a criminal organization. It is accused of several murders, as well as attacks on immigrants, leftists and trade unionists. Raids have uncovered weapon caches. Investigators have also turned up information suggesting that the organization is closely tied to wealthy shipping owners, as well as the National Intelligence Service (EYP) and municipal police departments.
Several lawyers associated with two victims of violence by party members—a 27-year-old Pakistani immigrant stabbed to death last year and an Afghan immigrant stabbed in 2011—charge that a high-level EYP official responsible for surveillance of Golden Dawn has links to the organization. The revelations forced Dimos Kouzilos, director of EYP’s third counter-intelligence division, to resign last September.
There were several warning flags about Kouzilos when he was appointed to head the intelligence division by right-wing New Democracy Prime Minister Antonis Samaras. Kouzilos is a relative of a Golden Dawn Parliament member, who is the party’s connection to the shipping industry. Kouzilos is also close to a group of police officers in Nikea, who are currently under investigation for ties to Golden Dawn. Investigators charge that the Nikea police refused to take complaints from refugees and immigrants beaten by party members, and the police chief, Dimitris Giovandis, tipped off Golden Dawn about surveillance of the party.
In handing over the results of their investigation, the lawyers said, “We believe that this information provides an overview of the long-term penetration and activities of the Nazi criminal gang with the EYP and the police.” A report by the Office of Internal Investigation documents 130 cases in which Golden Dawn worked with police.
It should hardly come as a surprise that there are close ties between the extreme right and Greek security forces. The current left-right split goes back to 1944, when the British tried to drive out the Communist Party—the backbone of the Greek resistance movement against the Nazi occupation. The split eventually led to the 1946-49 civil war, when Communists and leftists fought royalists and former German collaborationists for power. However, the West saw the civil war through the eyes of the then-budding Cold War, and, at Britain’s request, the United States pitched in on the side of the right to defeat the left. In the process of that intervention—then called the Truman Doctrine—US intelligence services established close ties with the Greek military.
Those ties continued over the years that followed and were tightened once Greece joined NATO in 1952. The charge that the United States encouraged the 1967 fascist coup against the Greek government has never been proven, but many of the colonels who initiated the overthrow had close ties to the CIA and the US military.
Golden Dawn was founded by some of the key people who ruled during the 1967-74 junta, and Greek dictator Georgios Papadopoulos, the leader of the colonels who led the 1967 coup, groomed the party’s founder and current leader, Nikos Michaloliakos. Papadopoulos was a Nazi collaborator and served with the German “security battalions” that executed 130,000 Greek civilians during World War II. Papadopoulos was trained by the US Army and recruited by the CIA. Indeed, he was the first CIA asset to govern a European country.
Golden Dawn’s adherence to Hitler, the symbols of Nazism and the “Führer principle”—investing the party’s leader with absolute authority—is, in part, what has gotten the organization into trouble. According to an investigation by Greek Supreme Court Deputy Prosecutor Haralambos Vourliotis, Golden Dawn is split into two wings, a political wing responsible for the party’s legal face and an operational wing for “carrying out attacks on those deemed enemies of the party.” Michaloliakos oversees both wings.
Prosecutors will try to demonstrate that attacks and murders are not just the actions of individuals who happen to be members of Golden Dawn, because independent actions are a contradiction to the Führer principle. Many of the attacks have featured leading members of Golden Dawn and, on occasion, members of Parliament. Indeed, since the leadership and core of the party were jailed last September, attacks on non-Greeks and leftists have fallen off.
There is a cozy relationship between Golden Dawn and some business people as well, with the party serving as sort of a “Thugs-R-Us” organization. Investigators charge that shortly after two party MPs visited the shipyards at Piraeus, a Golden Dawn gang attacked Communists who were supporting union workers. Golden Dawn also tried to set up a company union that would have resulted in lower pay and fewer benefits for shipyard workers. In return, shipping owners donated 240,000 euros to Golden Dawn. Investigators charge that the party also raises funds through protection rackets, money laundering and blackmail.
Journalist Dimitris Psarras, who has researched and written about Golden Dawn for decades, argues that the party is successful not because it plays on the economic crisis, but because for years the government—both socialists and conservatives—mainstream parties and the justice system have turned a blind eye to Golden Dawn’s growing use of force after the economic crisis began. It was the murder of Greek anti-fascist rapper/poet Pavlos Fyssas that forced the authorities to finally move against the organization. Killing North Africans was one thing, killing a Greek quite another.
Instead of challenging Golden Dawn in the last election, the New Democracy Party railed against “Marxists,” “communists” and—pulling a page from the 1946-49 civil war—“bandits.” Even the center parties, like the Greek Socialist Party (PASOK) and the new Potami Party, condemned both “left and right,” as though the two were equivalent.
Golden Dawn did see its voter base shrink from the 426,025 it won in 2012 to 388,000 in the January election that brought left party Syriza to power. But then, Golden Dawn is less interested in numbers than it is in wielding violence. According to Psarras, the party’s agenda is “to create a climate of civil war, a divide where people have to choose between leftists and rightists.”
Some of the mainstream parties have eased Golden Dawn’s path by adopting the party’s attacks on Middle East and African immigrants and Muslims, albeit at a less incendiary level. But, as Psarras points out, “Research in political science has long since showed that wherever conservative European parties adopt elements of far-right rhetoric and policy during pre-election periods, the upshot is the strengthening of the extreme far-right parties.”
That certainly was the case in last year’s European parliamentary elections, when center and right parties in France and Great Britain refused to challenge the racism and Islamophobia of right-wing parties, only to see the latter make strong showings.
According to the Supreme Court’s Vourliotis, Golden Dawn believes that “those who do not belong to the popular community of the race are subhuman. In this category belong foreign immigrants, Roma, those who disagree with their ideas and even people with mental problems.” The party dismisses the Holocaust: “There were no crematoria, it’s a lie. Or gas chambers,” Michaloliakos said in a 2012 national TV interview. Some 60,000 members of Greece’s Jewish population were transported to and murdered in the death camps during World War II.
The trial is scheduled for April 20 but might delayed. Golden Dawn members, including Michaloliakos and many members of Parliament, were released March 18 because they can only be held for eighteen months in pre-trial detention. The party, with its ties in the business community and its “wink of the eye” relationship to New Democracy—that mainstream center-right party apparently printed Golden Dawn’s election brochures—has considerable resources to fight the charges. Golden Dawn has hired more than 100 attorneys.
If convicted, Golden Dawn members could face up to twenty years in prison, but there is not a great deal of faith among the anti-fascist forces in the justice system. The courts have remained mute in the face of Golden Dawn’s increased use of violence in recent years, and some magistrates have been accused of being sympathetic to the organization. The party is charged with being a criminal organization, with murder, assault and illegal weapons possession under Article 187.
Thanasis Kampagiannis of “Jail Golden Dawn” warns that the party will not vanish on its own. “Many are under the impression that if we stop talking about Golden Dawn the problem will somehow disappear. That is not the case. The economic crisis has burnished the organization, but there are other causes that have contributed to its existence and prominence, such as the intensification of state repression and the institutionalization of racism by the dominant parties.”
But courts are political entities and respond to popular movements. Anti-fascists are calling on the Greeks and the international community to stay in the streets and demand that Golden Dawn be brought to justice. Germans missed that opportunity with the Nazi Party and paid a terrible price for it.
Thanks to Kia Mistilis, journalist, photographer and editor, for providing material for this column.
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected from the original, which mischaracterized the law under which Golden Dawn is being prosecuted.
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The last days of the campaign sounded an awful lot like the Jim Crow South, when African-Americans had officially won the right to vote but still faced massive discrimination.
On election morning, a powerful white official running for re-election urged his followers to get out and vote, warning that minority voters were turning out in large numbers—and those trouble-making civil rights agitators, he complained, were busing them to the polls.
But this wasn’t Mississippi or Alabama circa 1965. It was Israel in 2015.
And the candidate wasn’t some protégé of Bull Connor or George Wallace shouting into a bullhorn. It was Israel’s prime minister writing on his Facebook page.
The leader of Washington’s closest Middle East ally—the storied “only democracy in the Middle East”—was pushing his right-wing supporters to get out and vote. “The right-wing government is in danger,” he warned, because—in his words—“Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.”
The naked racism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-minute electioneering was repellent. But more horrifying was the fact that it worked.
The language aimed to frighten right-wing Israeli Jewish voters with the specter of a large turnout among the Palestinians, who make up 20 percent of Israeli citizens. The gambit brought back to Netanyahu’s Likud Party the far-right voters who otherwise might have voted for one of the even more extreme right-wing parties.
It worked. Likud trumped its challengers from the right as well as the left, and Netanyahu swept to victory.
Of course, there were other ploys to reach extreme-right voters as well. Netanyahu’s last-minute promise that he would oppose the creation of a Palestinian state—seemingly reversing a position he’d laid out several years earlier—may have been shocking to many in the United States. But it was actually consistent with the prime minister’s longstanding behavior.
As far back as 2001, Netanyahu bragged that he “actually stopped the Oslo Accord,” the diplomatic framework that was supposed to give rise to a Palestinian state. For the past six years, with one brief and ineffectual freeze, Netanyahu has led successive Israeli governments in building new settlements in the West Bank, “Judaizing” occupied Arab East Jerusalem and attacking Gaza with brutal and illegal force—all with the intended effect of derailing any possibility of even a rump Palestinian state, let alone one that would be independent, viable and contiguous.
Netanyahu attempted to dial back his reversal after the election. But given the prime minister’s consistent opposition to ending the occupation, President Obama should reject that lie.
Rethinking Old Assumptions
Indeed, the challenge for the Obama administration now is not how to rebuild its frayed relationship with Netanyahu, or even its relationship with Israel writ large. That relationship has been way too special for far too long, and it needs to be brought down to normal size.
In the past few years, we’ve seen Israel continue to act in violation of human rights, in violation of international law and in direct contravention of the very values that it claims to share with the United States—unless those values happen to concern a continuing legacy of racism toward indigenous peoples and others outside the majority demographic.
Unfortunately, those violations were just ratified—again—by Israeli voters.
Obama’s challenge, then, is to craft an entirely new approach to dealing with Tel Aviv. It’s time to rethink the old assumptions, driven by pro-Israel lobbies and by outdated Cold War strategies, that called for providing Israel with uncritical support, diplomatic impunity, guaranteed military protection and billions of US taxpayer dollars in military aid.
Those have been the key features of the US-Israel relationship for at least forty-eight years, and they have failed.
They’ve failed to bring Israel’s nuclear arsenal under international inspection or to make Israel sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They’ve failed to bring about an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, its rejection of the Palestinian refugees' internationally guaranteed right of return or its discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. They’ve failed to encourage an Israel that respects human rights and accepts equality for all as an essential national goal.
As Obama considers the possibility—so long in coming—of reducing its diplomatic protection of Israel at the United Nations and elsewhere, his administration should keep in mind that litany of failures.
The US relationship with Israel has sustained and cosseted an over-armed, nuclearized state that not only expropriates and occupies other peoples’ lands and deprives 20 percent of its own citizens of crucial national rights, but has also worked deliberately to derail US and international negotiations with Iran. The United States can no longer welcome Israeli leaders who rely on openly racist provocations to win votes in support of apartheid policies or foolish wars.
A Normal Relationship
It’s time for an entirely new connection—one based not on a “special relationship,” but on the normal ties Washington shares with most other countries.
A normal relationship means reconsidering why US taxpayers send $3.1 billion to Israel every year—that’s 55 percent of all US military aid—when Israel, according to the IMF, is the twenty-fifth-wealthiest country in the world.
It means asking why we don’t enforce the Leahy Law, which prohibits sending arms to any military unit known to commit human rights violations, when even the State Department’s own annual reports document patterns of Israeli violations. It means replacing our current “we-will-protect-Israel-no-matter-what-it-does” strategy with a new commitment to reaching a solution between Israelis and Palestinians based on human rights, international law and equality for all.
A normal relationship, in short, means ending US complicity in Israel’s violations.
Our own progress against racism in the United States remains too recent, too fragile and too incomplete to allow our government to provide support to those relying on racist appeals to win elections abroad—especially when they include the leader of the US-armed, US-funded and US-protected “only democracy” in the Middle East.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus. An earlier version appeared in Telesur English, which graciously gave its permission to reprint it.
Early in the morning of January 25, commandos belonging to the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police crept into the southern town of Mamasapano—a stronghold of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The elite Seaborne Unit had come for Zulkifli Abdhir, a Malaysian bomb maker better known as “Marwan.”
By the end of the morning, dozens lay dead.
The episode has severely discredited the administration of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, jeopardized decades of progress on peace talks with Moro separatists and underlined the perils for developing-world governments that put themselves at the beck and call of Washington.
The commandos were able to kill Marwan, who’d sat high on the FBI’s list of “Most Wanted Terrorists.” But then all hell broke loose. The insurgents woke up and opened fire on the intruders, forcing the commandos to leave Marwan’s body behind. They had to content themselves with cutting off the corpse’s index finger to turn over to the FBI.
As they retreated, nine of the Seaborne commandos were killed. They radioed for help, but they were told that the “Quick Reaction Force” charged with covering their withdrawal was already pinned down in a flat cornfield with little cover. Over the next few hours, that separate unit of thirty-six men was picked off one by one by Moro snipers. Only one of the thirty-six survived, by running for his life and jumping into a nearby river.
All in all, forty-four policemen died in the bloody battle. Moro fighters estimated that eighteen of their combatants and about four civilians were killed.
A timely rescue effort was not even mounted, since an infantry battalion in the area wasn’t informed till late in the morning that the commandos were under fire. When ceasefire monitors finally reached the cornfield late in the afternoon, long after the battle ended, they found corpses that had been stripped of their weapons and other gear, some exhibiting wounds that indicated they had been shot at point-blank range.
Biggest Casualty: Moro Autonomy
The “Mamasapano Massacre,” as it has come to be called, upended Philippine politics.
The biggest casualty was the Bangsa Moro Basic Law that was in the last stages of being shepherded through the Philippine Congress. Known as the BBL, the bill was the product of nearly five years of intensive negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to put an end to almost fifty years of fighting in the southern Philippines. It would have created an autonomous region for the Muslim Moros, a fiercely independent people that have long resisted integration into the broader Filipino polity.
With emotions among the Christian majority running high, congressional approval of the BBL was thrown into doubt, threatening an eventual return to hostilities. Some politicians rode on the incident to stoke the latent anti-Muslim prejudices of the dominant culture—not just to derail prospects for Moro autonomy, but also to advance their own political ambitions.
Under congressional questioning, the facts of the raid were extracted piece by piece—on national television—from high-level administration officials. Their feelings seemed to run the gamut of guilt, grief, disbelief and resentment at not being “in the know” about the planned incursion.
The decisive element in the unraveling of the operation, it appears, was the deliberate withholding of information from key people at the top of the police and armed forces hierarchy. Only the president, the Special Action Force commander and the national police chief, Gen. Alan Purisima, knew about the mission. Though suspended from office on corruption charges, Purisima—a trusted aide of the president—was effectively in charge of the operation, bypassing the acting police chief and the secretary of the interior, who knew nothing of the mission until disaster overtook it.
Emerging in the hearings was the following portrait of the tragedy: The officials who conceived and implemented the operation to nab Marwan chose not to inform the top people in the police and military leadership. They also ignored and subverted the carefully negotiated procedures for territorial access worked out among the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the government and third-party monitors.
The Liberation Front fighters—along with fighters from a die-hard separatist group, the Bangsa Moro Islamic Freedom Fighters—responded that morning to what they perceived as a large invasion force. Once the battle began, it became very difficult for their leaders to realize the intent of the commando contingent and get their forces to disengage.
It seemed evident, too, that some wounded policemen were finished off execution-style, though it was not clear which group was responsible for these atrocities.
The big puzzle for many was why a government that was in the last stages of negotiating an autonomy agreement to end fifty years of warfare would endanger this goal—said to be a major legacy priority for President Aquino—with a large-scale commando intrusion into Moro territory without informing its negotiating partner.
To an increasing number of people, the answer must have something to do with Washington.
Indeed, Washington’s fingerprints were all over the operation: There was a $5 million bounty placed by the Americans on Marwan’s head. A US military helicopter appeared in the area after the long firefight, allegedly to help evacuate the wounded. Marwan’s finger disappeared after the battle and showed up at an FBI lab in the United States a few days later.
Filipino officials have remained tight-lipped on the question of US participation in the raid, invoking “national security” or choosing to make revelations only in secret executive sessions with the Senate. Thus it has fallen on the media to probe the US role.
Perhaps the most reliable of these probes was conducted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which found that US drones had pinpointed Marwan’s hiding place, guided the commandos to it and provided the capability for real-time management by the Philippine commanders away from the battlefield. American advisers, the paper claimed, were the ones who had vetoed informing top officials of the police, the armed forces and the Liberation Front of the planned raid on the grounds that news of the action would be leaked to Marwan.
Finally, the original plan was to have a fused team of Seaborne Unit commandos and the Quick Reaction Force. But that was reportedly rejected by the American advisers, who favored having the Seaborne Unit carry out the raid itself and the Quick Reaction Force provide cover—a plan that proved disastrous. The Seaborne Unit, it emerged, had been trained by “retired” Navy Seals and functioned as the Americans’ special unit within the special forces of the Philippine National Police.
The full extent of US involvement remains to be unearthed, but it’s now clear to many that taking out Marwan was a major priority for Washington—not Manila. As one congressman put it, the Mamasapano tragedy was a case of “the Americans fighting to the last Filipino.”
Into the Bunker
As the details of the American role emerge, the pressure is on President Aquino to admit complicity in a Washington-directed operation, which he has so far refused to do.
Aquino has come under intense fire from nationalist quarters that earlier criticized him for negotiating a military pact that allows the United States to use Philippine bases to implement President Obama’s so-called “Pivot to Asia” strategy to contain China.
Already under attack for putting a suspended police general in charge of the fatal mission and refusing to admit command responsibility for it, the charge of laying down Filipino lives for an American scheme appears to have forced the president further into his bunker, creating the widespread impression of a drift in leadership that, it was feared, coup plotters and other adventurers—of which there is no shortage in the Philippines—could take advantage of.
There is a personal postcript to this. As a sitting member of the Philippine House of Representatives, I withdrew my political support for President Aquino when he refused to accept command responsibility for the operation. Since my party, Akbayan, remains allied to the administration, I resigned as the congressional representative of the party.
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The story of the day on the Iran front is the publication of what its authors titled “An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
It was signed by forty-seven Republican senators led by freshman Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who, as reported by LobeLog, received nearly $1 million in advertising support from Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel in the closing days of last November’s campaign. The basic thrust of the letter is to warn the recipients that once President Barack Obama leaves office, any deal that he and his P5+1 partners may have reached with Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program could be revoked “with the stroke of a pen.”
There are already lots of arguments breaking out over whether the basis of the letter was an accurate statement of US law.
One prominent Harvard law professor who also served as a top Justice Department official under George W. Bush, Jack Goldsmith, called at least one of the letter’s assertions about the ratification process “embarrassing.” It was especially embarrassing not only because Cotton graduated from Harvard Law School, but also because Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who earned an MA and PhD in international law at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver—Condoleezza Rice’s alma mater—felt compelled to correct Cotton’s understanding of Washington’s international legal obligations.
There is also a dispute over whether the letter constitutes a violation of the Logan Act, which says:
Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
For those who might claim that the letter is protected by the First Amendment, it’s interesting to note that when he was serving in the US Army after law school in 2006, Cotton wrote another “open letter” published by the far-right website Power Line calling for the prosecution and imprisonment of three New York Times reporters for allegedly violating the Espionage Act by disclosing how the government was tracking terrorist financing.
I’ll leave the legal analysis to the specialists, but the political implications of this truly remarkable effort to undermine the duly elected president of the United States and sabotage an international negotiation in which our closest NATO allies are also deeply invested need to be digested and understood. This is a clarifying moment and one that Obama himself made abundantly clear when he said that “it’s somewhat ironic to see some members for Congress wanting to make common cause with the hard-liners in Iran. It’s an unusual coalition.”
For those who follow Iran policy closely, this observation comes as no surprise. The Republican senators who signed that letter are desperate to block any agreement with Iran, just as hard-liners in Iran have long opposed anything that could lead to détente with the “Great Satan.” It’s not that they want a “much better agreement” with Tehran, as Benjamin Netanyahu insisted in his address to Congress. They want no agreement.
Indeed, it was Cotton himself who made this, as I put it, “Kristol clear” in a speech to the Heritage Foundation in mid-January:
The United States must cease all appeasement, conciliation, and concessions towards Iran, starting with the sham nuclear negotiations. Certain voices call for congressional restraint, urging Congress not to act now lest Iran walk away from the negotiating table, undermining the fabled yet always absent moderates in Iran. But, the end of these negotiations isn’t an unintended consequence of Congressional action, it is very much an intended consequence. A feature, not a bug, so to speak.
And let’s please remember that veteran neoconservative activist Bill Kristol was up there in the same section of the House gallery where Netanyahu spoke as Bibi’s spouse, Sara Netanyahu, Alan Dershowitz, Elie Wiesel and, of course, multibillionaire casino magnate and staunch Bibi-backer, Sheldon Adelson, who spent at least $150 million for Republican candidates in the 2012 election cycle.
Given ECI’s support for Cotton in the 2014 Senate race, it’s hard to imagine that Netanyahu and his Republican ambassador here, Ron Dermer, would not have approved of this latest initiative to sabotage prospects for an Iran deal.
Democrats on Notice
So let’s be clear: All the commentary and Israeli spin in the Times and elsewhere suggesting that Bibi’s speech had subtly signaled an openness to an agreement with Iran that settles for less than the total dismantling of its nuclear program, including its enrichment capabilities, is—to put it bluntly—bullshit.
For Netanyahu, Kristol and Adelson, no deal is better than any deal because an agreement between Washington and Tehran could begin a process of rapprochement. And anyone—like Senator Bob Corker (who, to his credit, did not sign the Cotton letter) or Robert Menendez—who says otherwise is either lying or deluding themselves. Cotton’s letter, and the fact that he spearheaded this effort, makes that abundantly clear.
Hopefully wavering Democrats now understand that.
Certainly, the Democratic leadership is holding up Cotton’s initiative as evidence of bad faith. Calling the letter “juvenile,” minority leader Harry Reid accused the Republicans of “undermining our commander in chief while empowering the Ayatollahs.”
He also rightly noted that the letter constituted a “hard slap in the face of not only United States but also our allies,” a point that, in my opinion, has not received nearly enough attention. I’m sure the leaders of Britain, France and Germany greatly appreciated the Republican warning that their own efforts to achieve a peaceful settlement to Iran’s nuclear program have been a waste of time because the president of the United States can’t really negotiate an agreement with them on behalf of his country.
The Democrats’ number two, Senator Dick Durbin, warned that Republicans “should think twice about whether their political stunt is worth the threat of another war in the Middle East,” while the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, was quite direct in her assessment of the letter:
I am appalled at the latest step of 47 Republicans to blow up a major effort by our country and the world powers to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear program. This is a highly inappropriate and unprecedented incursion into the president’s prerogative to conduct foreign affairs and is not befitting this chamber. This letter only serves one purpose—to destroy an ongoing negotiation to reach a diplomatic agreement in its closing days.
All of this should result in a major reality check by Democrats and the dwindling number of relatively reasonable Republicans who remain in Congress.
Indeed, seven Republicans apparently decided against adding their names to the letter: Mississippi’s Thad Cochran, Maine’s Susan Collins, Indiana’s Dan Coats (which surprises me because he’s been very hawkish on Iran), Arizona’s Jeff Flake, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and the two Tennessee senators, Lamar Alexander and Corker.
Perhaps this will prompt Corker to reassess the problematic provisions that he and Menendez (who will now be preoccupied with defending himself against anticipated federal corruption charges) have included in the legislation they crafted to ensure congressional review of any comprehensive deal with Iran. In any event, this really brazen and exclusively partisan effort to undermine presidential authority will almost certainly solidify Democratic support for a veto, if one is needed, of any legislation designed to sabotage the negotiation.
A Rift in the Israel Lobby
This episode is also likely to create even deeper divisions within the Israel lobby, particularly between mainstream groups like the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which are finding it ever more difficult to retain their bipartisan image and which were, apparently as a result, kept in the dark about House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Bibi—about which they were clearly unhappy.
Cotton’s initiative was an exclusively Republican affair, which, like Boehner’s invite, puts these groups in a very difficult position. This marks an intensification of the tensions generated by AIPAC’s decision a year ago to suspend its lobbying for the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill after it ran into a brick wall of Democratic opposition in the Senate.
That decision drew scorn from Kristol’s ECI, Adelson’s Republican Jewish Coalition and the far-right Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which receives substantial support from Adelson. As Kristol himself wrote at the time:
It would be nice if there were universal bipartisan support for acting now to stop a nuclear Iran. But there apparently is not. And it would be terrible if history’s judgment on the pro-Israel community was that it made a fetish of bipartisanship—and got a nuclear Iran.
As this latest maneuver shows, this coalition of right-wing groups, clearly backed by Netanyahu and Dermer and fueled by the largess of Adelson and other RJC billionaires, has essentially taken over the Republican Party’s leadership, at least as it pertains to US policy in the Middle East. Even Rand Paul signed the letter.
As a result, they’ve become by far the most aggressive force in “pro-Israel” activity in Washington, leaving to AIPAC, the ADL and the AJC the increasingly difficult task of reassuring increasingly alienated Democrats that supporting an Israel headed by the likes of Bibi Netanyahu is somehow consistent with their values and the national interest. This also means that long-faithful congressional champions of AIPAC who pride themselves on working “across the aisle”—notably Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk and New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez—have found themselves playing second or third fiddle to upstart and ultra-partisan extremists like Cotton and Ted Cruz.
As a result of changes in election laws, we don’t know which specific donors provided ECI with that $960,000 that was then passed along to a pro-Cotton ad campaign in the closing days of the election last November, but the choice of ECI—and the obviously tight relationship between ECI and the Republican Jewish Coalition—as the conduit suggests that it came from people who think very highly of Bibi Netanyahu.
We do know, however, the identity of one important source of direct financing for Cotton’s campaign. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website, the second-biggest donor to his campaign was Elliott Management, a hedge fund headed by billionaire Paul Singer. While the Club for Growth provided more than half a million dollars to Cotton’s campaign, Elliott supplied $143,100—about 50 percent more than the Senate Conservatives Fund and four times as much as Koch Industries.
Singer sits on the RJC board and has contributed to such hard-line neoconservative organizations as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the American Enterprise Institute—all of which, consistent with Netanyahu, have denounced negotiations, let alone any deal with Iran.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The Nigerian authorities recently postponed elections that had been scheduled for February, ostensibly to give them more time to fight Boko Haram, the militant Islamic extremist group with ties to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. The delay heightens the already intense levels of fear and instability in the country.
Of particular concern is the safety of Nigeria’s women and girls, who are increasingly becoming targets—and tools—of violence.
“I really fear for this country in the sense that I think that Boko Haram will escalate the violence—and women and girls are instruments in this battle,” says Udy Okon, executive director of the Youth Alive Foundation, a nonprofit focused on youth empowerment and advocacy, especially for girls and young women. “They’ve been used to set off bombs, they’ve been kidnapped, they’ve been raped. I think Boko Haram now knows that when they attack women and girls, they get attention. They get the world to notice.”
In recent months, Boko Haram has reportedly engaged in widespread rape and used girls as young as 10 years old as suicide bombers.
“What does a 10-year-old girl know about throwing a bomb somewhere? She doesn’t even know whose side she’s on,” says Christiana Okechukwu, president and CEO of the Inwelle Study and Resource Center in Enugu, Nigeria, a Global Fund for Women grantee focused on girls’ education and using access to technology to empower girls. Okechukwu calls it “scary” that girls are being manipulated in these ways and says that the increased violence in the country means that “girls’ vulnerability is heightened.”
A Growing Problem
Boko Haram has lately increased its attacks.
In a brutal and deadly massacre on January 12, terrorists invaded the town of Baga, launching grenades, pursuing residents on motorcycles before shooting them down, and burning people in their homes. Many of the estimated 2,000 victims in Baga were women, children and the elderly who “could not run fast enough” from the assailants. Some survivors report that Boko Haram fighters have raped the women who remain in Baga.
“Boko Haram has been deliberate and opportunistic in their attacks against women’s freedom. Women and girls have remained vulnerable and exposed,” says Saudatu Mahdi, secretary general of WRAPA, which empowers women and is mobilizing women to vote in this election. “They are either left behind by fleeing family heads or deliberately taken away as spoils of the attacks of the insurgents.”
In response to the uptick in attacks, authorities announced that the election, originally planned for February 14, would be postponed six weeks to March 28, in order to give the military time to make polls safer for voters. However, many Nigerians doubt that this was the real reason for the delay. Some speculate that the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan, wanted more time to campaign.
“People are not happy about it—they feel that the reasons given are not the real reasons,” says Okon. “If we’ve been trying to do something about Boko Haram for so long, what’s going to be different in six weeks?”
Boko Haram’s attacks will certainly affect Nigerians’ ability to vote. The violence has displaced about 1.5 million people, many of whom will not be able to vote. In large parts of the country’s northeast, violence by Boko Haram may impede polling.
Beyond Boko Haram, the election could bring additional acts of violence. The previous election, in 2011, resulted in unprecedented violence, with more than 800 people killed as longstanding ethnic and religious tensions came to a head.
“People have concerns that this postponement might actually increase violence—the tension is higher now,” Okon adds. “We’re trying to amplify the message [to young people] to abstain from violence. We really don’t want the country to descend into chaos.”
Bring Back Our Girls
Activists say that whatever the outcome of the election, the government must place a greater emphasis on the security of women and girls. Although last year’s #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign calling for the release of the 273 schoolgirls that militants kidnapped from the classroom briefly shone a spotlight on the issue, most of the schoolgirls are still being held in captivity. And many Nigerians feel the government has not done enough to rescue them.
“The abduction of the Chibok girls really put the matter of security of lives of women in very sharp focus for everyone in the country, so that the whole issue of security has become—whether explicitly acknowledged or not—an election issue,” says Oby Ezekwesili, who co-founded the Bring Back Our Girls movement in Nigeria to demand government action for the kidnapped schoolgirls. “The [newly elected officials] are going to have to hit the ground running trying to prove to Nigerians that the security of all citizens—especially women—matters to them.”
Some of the candidates have expressed similar concerns. “We believe that there is faulty intelligence and analysis,” the leading challenger for the Nigerian presidency, Muhammad Buhari, said about the government of President Goodluck Jonathan. “They ought to know [the location of] the Chibok girls, who have been abducted for more than ten months now.”
In Nigeria, as in many countries, women’s rights groups provide an early-warning system for systematic violations of women’s and girls’ human rights. “Women’s groups in Nigeria were reporting on increased kidnappings and the need to invest more in safety and security for women and girls more than a year before kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Chibok,” says Jane Sloane, Global Fund for Women’s vice president of programs.
Okechukwu emphasized the need to bridge ethnic divides once and for all in order to drive the country forward. “More people must forget about personal interests and come together for the sake of girls and women,” she says, adding that the elected leader must be ready to bring people together at this critical time. She concluded that Nigerian voters need to ask themselves, “Who is going to make Nigeria the great country it should be?”
Read Next: Putting Boko Haram in context
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The description of the death of Robert-Francois Damiens, the man who attempted to kill Louis XV, is not for the faint-hearted.
On March 2, 1757, in front of a crowd of spectators, Damiens was drawn and quartered, which means that his limbs were tied to four horses that were then urged to gallop toward the four points of the compass.
To discover why six horses were needed in the end and why various additional tortures were inflicted on the convict, you need to turn to the detailed description that opens French philosopher Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, perhaps the most blood-curdling beginning to an academic book ever.
In this 1975 masterpiece, Foucault argued that punishment, which was public and dramatic for much of recorded history, became progressively more hidden during the construction of the modern penal system. As part of this pivotal transformation, Foucault noted, “it is the certainty of being punished and not the horrifying spectacle of public punishment that must discourage crime.”
Institutions, in other words, replaced the theater of cruelty. What was once spectacle has become hidden from our eyes.
Is ISIS Medieval?
It’s hard not to view the very public atrocities committed by the Islamic State (ISIS) against the backdrop of this history.
ISIS too has staged horrifying spectacles. It has beheaded journalists and burned a Jordanian pilot alive. It has made films of these events to gather the largest possible audience of spectators. With more of a domestic audience in mind, it has also engaged in less visible but no less gruesome acts, such as crucifixions and mass executions reminiscent of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen.
To a certain extent, these acts are intended as punishment. The victims stand in for all the regional and international forces that are bombing ISIS, killing civilians with drones or imprisoning Muslims in places like Guantánamo. It is not conventional warfare, for ISIS commits many of its atrocities with no particular military objective in mind. Rather, the acts are meant to instill fear and make adversaries think twice about challenging ISIS on the battlefield.
Like the execution that Foucault described, these atrocities also have considerable symbolic meaning. Many commentators and politicians have described ISIS as “medieval” in its outlook. Graeme Wood’s long analysis this month in The Atlantic focuses on the care with which ISIS ties its rhetoric and actions to the millenarian, prophetic traditions of early Islam (a point emphasized as well by Emile Nakleh in his critique of the White House confab on countering extremism).
Or as Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker recently put it, we are “engaged in a religious war at the behest of zealots whose bloodlust boils down to didactic theater. Herein lies a crucial point in our deliberations: To defeat an enemy clinging to the first millennium B.C., it may be necessary to huddle around a single candle and try to think as a Middle Ager.”
Don’t be fooled, in other words, by the thoroughly modern trappings of ISIS: its video editing skills, social media savvy or use of sophisticated weapons. The atrocities they commit are messages from another century using human bodies as the letters. And, according to Parker, we have to put ourselves into that mindset to both interpret the messages and craft the appropriate response.
One person who has adopted that mindset is Anders Breivik, the Norwegian serial murderer who killed more than seventy people in a rampage in Oslo in 2011.
What we saw of his atrocity seemed quite up-to-date. He used a car bomb to blow up government buildings in downtown Oslo, killing eight people. Then he used the latest weaponry to gun down sixty-nine participants at a Labor Party youth gathering on the nearby island of Utoya. Even the reasoning for the attack was modern in its logic, for he didn’t kill the Muslims he so disliked but the political representatives he blamed for the policies of multiculturalism and immigration that had facilitated the diversification of Norway.
But Breivik’s original plan, as revealed in 2012 court testimony, was somewhat different. He was hoping to take hostage top Norwegian Labor Party leaders, including former president Gro Harlem Brundtland, force them to listen to his indictment of their sins and then decapitate them with a bayonet—all filmed on his iPhone before uploading the images to the Internet.
“It is a strategy taken from al-Qaeda,” Breivik explained, though he also cited the importance of beheadings in early Christian Europe. He added, “It is a very potent psychological weapon.”
But thirteen centuries separate us from the psychology of the Middle Ages. We no longer have access to that world and therefore can’t help but project our modern sensibilities onto the past. However much ISIS or Breivik is committed to returning the world to the seventh century, their atrocities have a more complicated genealogy that stretches from the beheadings of the Middle Ages through the tortures of eighteenth-century France all the way up to the present day.
The Transformation of Atrocity
Both ISIS and Breivik stepped outside the law in their efforts to overturn the existing order—Breivik to return Europe to an imagined past of Christian homogeneity and ISIS to return Arabia to an imagined past of Salafist homogeneity.
It’s comforting to think of them as savages who aren’t part of modern civilization. Alas, atrocity is as much a part of our modern experience as it was for our precursors. Indeed, large-scale atrocities define the modern experience (the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the “killing fields” of Cambodia).
But as Foucault and others have pointed out, we’ve transformed our relationship to public displays of violence.
In the modern day, for instance, public atrocities take place outside the rule of law. The burning of heretics in the Middle Ages or the execution of regicides in the Enlightenment period were official acts, sanctioned by governments and institutions like the Catholic Church. They defined the law. But both Breivik and ISIS are considered outlaws—outside national and international law.
Consider the outbreak of lynching that took place in the United States from the second half of the nineteenth century to the Civil Rights era. They very much resembled the public executions of eighteenth-century France. They were gruesome. They were public. And they were meant to send a message. Here, for example, is a description of a lynching in Kirvin, Texas: “three black men, two of them almost certainly innocent, were accused of killing a white woman and, under the gaze of hundreds of soda-drinking spectators, were castrated, stabbed, beaten, tied to a plow, and set afire in the spring of 1922.”
The legal system during the Jim Crow era was heavily tilted against African-Americans, so the lynch mobs didn’t have justice on their minds when they took the law into their own hands. They perpetrated a ritualized atrocity that would burn into the minds of anyone who dared to challenge the rigid racial hierarchies of the time. For many people, this institutionalized racism was “the law.” Transgression required punishment precisely because the official legal system didn’t recognize that an African-American flirting with a white woman—the alleged reason for the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955—was a punishable offense.
Here, then, is the reason for the very public and very graphic violence of ISIS. The rule of law, to the extent that it exists in Iraq and as it is embodied in international norms, does not conform to the implicit standards of the extremist organization. Only through horrifying spectacle can ISIS proclaim and reinforce the rules it lives by.
This is not medieval. In fact, it’s what makes ISIS modern—as modern as a lynch mob, albeit one that’s taken on the trappings of a state.
Foucault on Drones
The theater of cruelty hasn’t been entirely privatized in the modern era. Some governments continue to put violence on display to convey the same messages that the French state promulgated with its execution of Damiens.
The North Korean authorities still hold public executions, for instance, as does Saudi Arabia (along with public floggings). Both countries also maintain prisons, where punishment takes place remotely. But the very public nature of certain punishments suggests that these governments are concerned that significant segments of the population are flouting the official laws and need to be reminded of the state’s awesome power.
If Saudi Arabia and North Korea still follow the example of the eighteenth-century French state, the US use of drones for targeted assassinations represents the new sensibility that Foucault associated with the development of the penal system.
Drone attacks are no less violent or disturbing than the murder of Damiens. But they’ve been placed in a different context that makes them palatable to a majority of Americans (though not to most of the world). They’re not public spectacles. They are the natural extension of an omnipresent surveillance system. And they’re embedded in the rule of law (or so their supporters claim).
This last quality is perhaps the most controversial The US government insists that the use of drones is consistent with both US and international law. Congress passed an authorization to use military force (AUMF) in the wake of the September 11 attacks, which the Bush and Obama administrations have used to justify the use of drone strikes against enemy combatants anywhere in the world. When faced with the legal conundrum of targeting American citizens—such as Anwar al-Awlaki—the Justice Department drafted a memo to justify such strikes as well. In a 2012 speech, Attorney General Eric Holder spelled out the conditions for such strikes: “if the individual poses an imminent threat, capture is not feasible, and the operation were executed in observance of the applicable laws of war.”
Drones are also an extension of the US panopticon, the extensive surveillance system that Washington maintains through satellites, cell phone and Internet monitoring, and other techniques. Foucault argued that the spectacle of punishment before an audience was transformed, under the penal system, into the surveillance of prisoners by the prison administration. We the people no longer needed to see the enactment of punishment. The public gaze had become institutionalized as the panoptical gaze of the prison authorities.
Drone attacks are similarly invisible to the US public but very much part of the panoptical gaze of the national security complex. We almost never see pictures of the victims. The US government does not put videos on the Internet as a warning to all those who might consider joining Al Qaeda or ISIS. The government further reassures us that the right people are being punished. And indeed, if the American public saw videos of innocent people killed in the “collateral damage” of drone attacks, their support for the program would likely decrease substantially.
It’s precisely because these are not public spectacles, at least for an American audience, that Washington can continue to argue that it is a mark of civilization to kill people in this manner.
And yet, drone attacks threaten to undermine the rule of law that the US government has so carefully attempted to employ to justify the program. According to Philip Alston, the former UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, “If other states were to claim the broad-based authority that the United States does, to kill people anywhere, anytime, the result would be chaos.” Just as the judicial system claims the only legal authority to kill people in the United States, the US government has adopted a similar authority internationally.
The Obama administration response to the military interventions of the Bush years was to gradually replace boots on the ground with drones in the air. But this drone campaign has not reinforced the rule of law, has not established fair principles of justice and has certainly not endeared people in the targeted regions to the United States.
What ISIS is doing is reprehensible. But our less visible, more modern and legally rationalized extrajudicial murders, with their inevitable collateral damage, should not make us sleep any better at night.
Read Next: John Feffer on whether the European Union is on the verge of collapse
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Myths are dangerous because they rely more on cultural memory and prejudice than facts.
And behind the current crisis between Greece and the European Union (EU) lies a fable that bears little relationship to why Athens and a number of other countries in the twenty-eight-member organization find themselves in deep distress.
The tale is a variation of Aesop’s allegory of the industrious ant and the lazy, fun-loving grasshopper. The “northern countries”—especially Germany, the Netherlands, Britain and Finland—play the role of the ant, and Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland the part of the grasshopper.
The ants are sober and virtuous, while the grasshoppers are spendthrift, corrupt lay-abouts who have spent themselves into trouble and now must pay the piper.
The problem is that this myth bears almost no relationship to the actual roots of the crisis or what the solutions might be. And it perpetuates a fable that the debt is the fault of individual countries rather than a serious crisis at the very heart of the EU.
First, a little myth busting.
The European debt crisis goes back to the end of the roaring ’90s, when the banks were flush with money and looking for ways to raise their bottom lines. One major strategy was to pour money into real estate, which had the effect of creating bubbles, particularly in Spain and Ireland.
From 1999 to 2007, bank loans for Irish real estate jumped 1,730 percent, from 5 million euros to 96.2 million—more than half the country’s GDP. Housing prices increased 500 percent. “It was not the public sector but the private sector that went haywire in Ireland,” concludes Financial Times analyst Martin Wolf.
Spain, which had a budget surplus and a low debt ratio, went through much the same process, and saw an identical jump in housing prices: 500 percent.
In both countries there was corruption, but it wasn’t the penny ante variety of tax evasion or profit skimming. Instead, politicians—eager for a piece of the action and generous “donations”—waived zoning rules, sidestepped environmental regulations and cut sweetheart tax deals. Hundreds of thousands of housing projects went up, many of them never to be occupied.
Then the American banking crisis hit in 2008, and the bottom fell out. Suddenly, the ants were in trouble.
But not really, because the ants have a trick: they gamble and the grasshoppers pay. As Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, Europe (like the United States) moved its gambling debts “from the private sector to the public sector—a well-established pattern over the past half-century.”
Fintan O’Toole, author of Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger, estimates that to save the Anglo Irish Bank, Irish taxpayers shelled out 30 billion euros, a sum that was the equivalent of the island’s entire tax revenues for 2009. To raise the money, the European Central Bank—which, along with the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission, makes up the Troika—strong-armed Ireland into adopting austerity measures that tanked the country’s economy, doubled the unemployment rate, increased consumer taxes and forced many of the country’s young people to emigrate. Almost half of Ireland’s income tax now goes just to service the interest on its debts.
And poor Portugal. It had a solid economy and a low debt ratio, but currency speculators drove up interest rates on borrowing beyond what the government could afford, and the European Central Bank refused to intervene. The result was that Lisbon was forced to swallow a “bailout” laden with austerity measures that in turn torpedoed its economy.
In Greece’s case, too, while the country has no shortage of wealthy tax evaders, the myth of profligacy falls flat. Germany, Sweden and many other European countries spend more of their GDP on services than does Athens. Greece spends 44.6 percent of its GDP on its citizens, which comes in just below Germany’s 46 percent and well beneath Sweden’s 55 percent.
And as for lazy: Greeks work 600 hours more a year than Germans.
According to economist Mark Blyth, author of Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, Greek public spending throughout the 2000s was “really on track and quite average in comparison to everyone else’s.” Its so-called flood of “public sector jobs” consisted of “14,000 over two years.” All the talk of the profligate Greek government is “a lot of nonsense” and just “political cover for the fact that what we’ve done is bail out some of the richest people in European society and put the cost on some of the poorest.”
There was a “score” in Greece. However, it had nothing to do with free spending. Rather, it was a scheme dreamed up by Greek politicians, bankers and the American finance corporation Goldman Sachs.
Greece’s application for EU membership in 1999 was rejected because its budget deficit in relation to its GDP was over 3 percent, the cutoff line for joining. That’s where Goldman Sachs came in. For a fee rumored to be $200 million (some say three times that), the multinational giant essentially cooked the books to make Greece look like it cleared the bar. Then Greece’s political and economic establishment hid the scheme until the 2008 crash shattered the illusion.
The Grasshoppers Strike Back
The Troika puts the blame for the debt crisis on the spendthrift ways of Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal, but it was the casino mentality of private investors—backed by the banks—that brought on the current catastrophe.
In short, it was the busy little ants, not the fiddling grasshoppers, that brought down the “distressed four.”
American, German, French and Dutch banks had to know that they were creating an unstable real estate bubble—a 500 percent jump in housing prices is the very definition of the beast—but kept right on lending because they were making out like bandits.
When the bubble popped and Europe went into recession, Greece was forced to apply for a “bailout” from the Troika. In exchange for 172 billion euros, the Greek government instituted an austerity program that saw economic activity decline 25 percent and unemployment rise to 27 percent—and to over 50 percent for young Greeks. The cutbacks slashed pensions, wages and social services, and drove 44 percent of the population into poverty.
Virtually all of the “bailout” funds—89 percent—went to the banks that gambled in the 1999 to 2007 real estate casino. What the Greeks—as well as the Spaniards, Portuguese and Irish—got was misery.
There are other EU countries, meanwhile—including Italy and France—that aren’t quite in the same boat as the “distressed four,” but are nonetheless under pressure to bring down their debt ratios.
But what are those debts?
This past summer, the Committee for a Citizen’s Audit on the Public Debt issued a report on France, a country that is currently instituting austerity measures to bring its debt in line with the magic “3 percent” ratio. The Committee—which refers to itself as a “collective”—was launched in January 2012 following a French petition drive that gathered almost 60,000 signatures. Associated with the Party of the European Left, it’s a polyglot organization with an international focus. “Collectives” are busy all over the world lobbying for debt audits.
What the committee concluded was that 60 percent of the French public debt was “illegitimate.”
More than eighteen other countries, including Brazil, Portugal, Ecuador, Greece and Spain, have done the same “audit.” And in each case, they found that increased public spending was not the cause of deficits. From 1978 to 2012, French public spending actually declined by 2 GDP points.
The main culprit in the debt crisis was a fall in revenues resulting from massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. According to Razmig Keucheyan, sociologist and author of The Left Hemisphere, this “neoliberal mantra” that was supposed to increase investment and employment did the opposite.
The second major reason, according to the debt audit study, was the increase in interest rates, which benefits creditors and speculators. Had interests rates remained stable during the 1990s, debt would be significantly lower.
Keucheyan argues that tax reductions and interest rates are “political decisions,” and that “public deficits do not grow naturally out of the normal course of social life. They are deliberately inflicted on society by the dominant classes to legitimize austerity policies that will allow the transfer of value from the working classes to the wealthy ones.”
The International Labor Organization recently found that wages have, indeed, stalled or declined throughout the EU over the past decade.
The audit movement calls for repudiating debt that results from “the service of private interests” as opposed to the “wellbeing of the people.” In 2008, Ecuador canceled 70 percent of its debt as “illegitimate.”
How this plays out in the current Greek-EU crisis is not clear. The Syriza government is not asking to cancel the debt—though it would certainly like a write-down—but only that it be given time to let the economy grow. The recent four-month deal may give Athens some breathing room, but the ants are still demanding austerity, and tensions are high.
What seems clear is that Germany and its allies are trying to force Syriza into accepting conditions that will undermine its support in Greece and demoralize anti-austerity movements in other countries.
Exploding the Myth
By itself, Washington can outvote Germany, the Netherlands and Finland combined, and could exert pressure on the two other Troika members to compromise. Will it? Hard to say, but the Americans are certainly a lot more nervous about Greece exiting the Eurozone than Germany is.
The key to a solution is exploding the myth.
That has already begun. Over the past few weeks, demonstrators in Greece, Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Great Britain, Belgium and Austria have poured into the streets to support Syriza’s stand against the Troika. “The left has to work together having as its common goal the elimination of predatory capitalism,” says Maite Mola, vice president of the European Left organization and Member of the European Parliament. “And the solution should be European.”
In the end, the grasshoppers might just turn Aesop’s fable upside down.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
As a secular Jew, I don’t do much praying. But this week, as the powerful pro-Israeli- government lobby AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) holds its annual policy meeting in Washington, I’m praying that this year marks the beginning of the end of the lobby’s grip on US foreign policy.
From March 1-3, over 10,000 AIPAC supporters will descend on the nation’s capital. The meeting comes at a time when the relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is at an all-time low. House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress right after he speaks at the AIPAC conference is seen by the White House as a direct attempt to undermine the president and his administration’s nuclear talks with Iran.
In an unprecedented move, over fifty brave members of Congress have decided to skip Netanyahu’s address.
AIPAC’s support of the Israeli prime minister over the US president is turning AIPAC into a Republican-biased lobby, which could prove fatal to its future influence in Washington. Here are ten reasons why this would be good for world peace:
1. AIPAC wants to sabotage nuclear talks with Iran.
AIPAC—like the Israeli government—has no faith in the complex negotiations under way between Iran and the United States (along with its five partners) to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. It pushes for greater sanctions on Iran knowing that—as Secretary of State John Kerry has said—additional sanctions would threaten the diplomatic path.
AIPAC, which has successfully lobbied the US government to adopt crippling economic sanctions on Iran in the past, is ignoring White House warnings. Its lobby day this year will push for the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, which the president has vowed to veto. If the nuclear talks fail, the violence that has engulfed the Middle East will only get worse and will put the United States on a dangerous path to more war.
2. AIPAC promotes Israeli settlements in direct opposition to international law.
As of this past year, approximately 350,000 Israelis are recorded as living in illegal settlements, a record high. Despite the fact that United Nations Human Rights Council requested the removal of all of the West Bank’s settlers and cessation of all settlement activities without conditions, settlement construction has increased by 40 percent under Netanyahu.
Israeli settlements violate the Geneva Conventions and can be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court as “gross violations of human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law.” No wonder AIPAC doesn’t want Palestine to become a member of the ICC.
3. AIPAC supports the horrific Israeli invasions and siege of Gaza.
Claiming Israel was forced to defend itself against Hamas, AIPAC supported the Israeli offensive during the summer of 2014 called “Operation Protective Edge.” The attack resulted in more than 2,000 deaths (including over 500 children), six UN schools and hospitals flattened, 18,000 housing units destroyed and 108,000 people displaced from their homes.
Robert Cohen, the president of AIPAC, justified the Israeli offensive in a meeting with Congress on July 23. AIPAC also supported the two prior invasions of Gaza and the siege that has left Gaza’s 1.8 million residents living lives of intense poverty and misery.
4. AIPAC’s call for unconditional support for the Israeli government threatens US national security.
Washington’s one-sided support of Israel, demanded by AIPAC, has significantly increased anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East, sowing the seeds of more possible terrorist attacks.
Even the since disgraced Gen. David Petraeus admitted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel.”
Iran, additionally, could be a vital ally for the United States in the Middle East in the fight to control the Islamic State. But because of Israel’s hatred toward Iran and its strong influence on our politicians, US foreign policy reflect Israel’s perceived interests more than ours.
5. AIPAC makes the United States a pariah at the UN.
AIPAC describes the United Nations as a body hostile to Israel and has pressured the US government to oppose resolutions calling Israel to account. Since 1972, the United States has vetoed at least forty-five UN Security Council resolutions condemning Israel’s actions against the Palestinians.
In 2011, AIPAC helped persuade 446 members of Congress to co-sponsor resolutions opposing Palestine’s petition to obtain statehood in the UN. Overriding Washington’s (and AIPAC’s) objections, in 2012 the UN General Assembly passed a motion granting Palestine non-member observer state status by a vote of 138 to 9.
More recently, in response to Palestine’s seeking membership at the International Criminal Court, AIPAC pushed the Obama administration to pull funding from the Palestinian Authority. Despite US opposition, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon affirmed that Palestine will become a member of the ICC on April 1, a highly controversial move that will allow Palestine to press charges against Israel for war crimes.
6. AIPAC feeds US government officials a distorted view of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
AIPAC takes US representatives on sugar-coated trips to Israel, which are considered almost obligatory for every new member of Congress. AIPAC hosts members of Congress—and many of their spouses—on a free junket to Israel to see precisely what the Israeli government wants them to see. It’s illegal for lobby groups to take members of Congress on trips, but AIPAC gets around the law by using a bogus educational group called the American Israel Education Foundation to “organize” the trips for them. AIEF has the same office address as AIPAC and the same staff. These trips help cement the ties between AIPAC and Congress, furthering AIPAC’s undue influence.
To prove most of Congress is in the pocket of AIPAC, look no further than what AIPAC boasts about its policy conference, which is that it will “be attended by more members of Congress than almost any other event, except for a joint session of Congress or a State of the Union address.”
7. AIPAC attacks politicians who question unconditional support of Israel.
AIPAC demands that Congress rubber-stamp legislation drafted by AIPAC staff. It keeps a record of how members of Congress vote, which is used by donors to make contributions to the politicians who score well.
Members of Congress who fail to support AIPAC legislation have been targeted for defeat in re-election bids. These include Senators Adlai Stevenson III and Charles Percy, and Representatives Paul Findley, Pete McCloskey, Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard.
More recently, many Democrats who have publicly refused to attend Netanyahu’s speech in March have been directly targeted by AIPAC’s largest supporters. A representative of billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson warned that “if these Democrats would rather put partisan politics ahead of principle and walk out on the prime minister of Israel, then we have an obligation to make that known.” Adelson and Netanyahu’s other powerful right-wing supporters have vowed to use their wealth and extensive resources to punish Democrats who skip the speech.
8. AIPAC attempts to silence all criticism of Israel by labeling critics as “anti-Semitic,” “de-legitimizers” or “self-hating Jews.”
Journalists, think tanks, students and professors have been accused of anti-Semitism for merely taking stands critical of Israeli government policies. These attacks stifle the critical discussions and debates that are at the heart of democratic policy-making.
9. AIPAC lobbies for billions of US tax dollars to go to Israel instead of rebuilding America.
With communities across the nation slashing budgets for teachers, firefighters and police, AIPAC pushes for over $3 billion a year in foreign aid to Israel. This money goes to the Israeli military to maintain, in high-tech fashion, the apartheid system of oppressing Palestinians.
10. Money to Israel takes funds from the world’s poor.
Israel has the twenty-fourth-largest economy in the world, but thanks to AIPAC, it gets more US tax dollars than any other country. At a time when the foreign aid budget is being slashed, reserving the lion’s share of foreign assistance for Israel means taking funds from critical programs to feed, provide shelter and offer emergency assistance to the world’s poorest people.
The bottom line is that AIPAC, which is a de facto agent of a foreign government, has influence on US policy out of all proportion to the number of Americans who support its policies. When a small group like this has disproportionate power, it hurts everyone—including Israelis and American Jews.
From stopping a catastrophic war with Iran to finally solving the Israel-Palestine conflict, an essential starting point is breaking AIPAC’s grip on US policy. That’s why I’m praying that this time, by snubbing President Obama and offending Democratic members of Congress, AIPAC is careening toward its own demise.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The expanding US-led war on the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, has largely fallen off the radar of US social movements.
Many (but not all) who were active in anti-war organizing over the past decade have turned away from this conflict. The dearth of public debate is conspicuous, even as the US government sinks the country deeper into yet another open-ended and ill-defined military operation. The refrain “it will take years” has become such a common utterance by the Obama administration that it slips by barely noticed.
There are many reasons for the relative silence in the face of this latest military escalation. I would venture that one of them is the sheer complexity of the situation in Iraq and Syria—as well as the real humanitarian crisis posed by the rise of ISIS, the many-layered power struggles across the wider Middle East and the difficulty of building connections with grassroots movements in countries bearing the brunt of the violence.
But the answer to complexity is not to do nothing. In fact, great crimes and historic blunders—from Palestine to South Africa to Afghanistan—have been tacitly enabled by people who chose not to take action, perhaps because the situation seemed too complex to engage. When millions of lives are on the line, inaction is unacceptable.
The task is to figure out what to do.
The most important question to ask is this: Do we really think that the US military operation against ISIS will bring about a good outcome for the people of Iraq and Syria, or for US society? Is there any evidence from the more than thirteen years of the so-called “War on Terror” that US military intervention in the Middle East brings anything but death, displacement, destabilization and poverty to the people whose homes have been transformed into battlefields?
The answer to these questions must be a resounding “No.”
But there are also many things to say “Yes” to. A better path forward can only be forged by peoples’ movements in Iraq and Syria—movements that still exist, still matter and continue to organize for workers’ rights, gender justice, war reparations and people power, even amid the death and displacement that has swallowed up all the headlines.
Now is a critical time to seek to understand and build solidarity with Iraqi and Syrian civil societies. Heeding their call, we should strengthen awareness here at home of the tremendous political and ethical debt the United States owes all people harmed by the now-discredited war on Iraq and the crises it set in motion.
“U.S. Military Action Leads to Chaos”
“A rational observer of United States intervention in the swath of land that runs from Libya to Afghanistan would come to a simple conclusion: U.S. military action leads to chaos,” wrote scholar and activist Vijay Prashad a month after the bombings began.
More than thirteen years on, there is no evidence that the “War on Terror” has accomplished its stated, if amorphous, goal: to weed out terrorism (defined to exclude atrocities committed by the United States and allied countries, of course). According to the Global Terrorism Index released by the Institute for Economics and Peace, global terrorist incidents have climbed dramatically since the onset of the War on Terror. In 2000, there were 1,500 terrorist incidents. By 2013, this number had climbed to 10,000. People in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria suffer the most, the index notes.
The so-called “good war” in Afghanistan, which is now entering its fourteenth year and has not ended, illustrates this failed policy (President Obama’s recent claim that the combat mission is “over” notwithstanding).
In contradiction of the Obama administration’s “mission accomplished” spin, Afghanistan is suffering a spike in civilian deaths, displacement, poverty and starvation, with 2014 proving an especially deadly year for Afghan noncombatants. The Taliban, furthermore, appears to be growing in strength, as the United States forces Afghanistan into long-term political and military dependency with the Bilateral Security Agreement signed last September by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
The Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan is one of numerous civil society groups in Afghanistan that have no illusions about the US track record so far. “In the past thirteen years, the U.S. and its allies have wasted tens of billions of [dollars], and turned this country into the center of global surveillance and mafia gangs; and left it poor, corrupt, insecure, hungry, and crippled with tribal, linguistic, and sectarian divisions,” the organization declared in a statement released last October.
The current crisis in Iraq and Syria is another piece of this puzzle. It is now well-documented that the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 played a critical role in fueling Al Qaeda in Iraq, which would eventually become ISIS. Emerging as part of the insurgency against the United States—and now thriving off opposition to the sectarian Shiite government propped up by Washington—ISIS did not even exist before the United States invaded Iraq. Its ranks were initially filled with Sunnis who were spat out by the brutal, US-imposed de-Baathification process, and later by those disaffected by a decade of negligence and repression from Shiite authorities in Baghdad.
In neighboring Syria, the United States and Saudi Arabia backed anti-Assad fighters that were, as journalist Patrick Cockburn put it, “ideologically close to al-Qaeda” yet “relabeled as moderate.” It was in Syria that ISIS developed the power to push back into Iraq after being driven out in 2007.
Ordinary people across the region are paying a staggering price for these policies.
Last year was the deadliest for civilians in Iraq since the height of the US war in 2006 and 2007, according to Iraq Body Count. The watchdog found that 17,049 civilians were recorded killed in Iraq in 2014 alone—approximately double the number recorded killed in 2013, which in turn was roughly double the tally from 2012. And more than 76,000 people—over 3,500 of them children—died last year in Syria, according to figures from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, recently warned, “The Syria and Iraq mega-crises, the multiplication of new crises, and the old crises that seem never to die have created the worst displacement situation in the world since World War II,” with at least 13.6 million people displaced from both countries.
But instead of reckoning with these legacies, the US government has taken a giant leap backward—toward another open-ended, ill-defined military operation in Iraq and Syria.
President Obama vowed in his recent State of the Union address to double down in the fight against ISIS, declaring yet again, “This effort will take time.” His remarks came just days after the United States and Britain announced a renewed joint military effort, and the Pentagon deployed 1,000 troops to Middle Eastern states to train “moderate” Syrian fighters. That comes in addition to the 3,000 soldiers ordered to deploy to Iraq, with more likely to follow. Meanwhile, the rise of Islamophobia in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks is feeding war fervor abroad and at home.
And so the Obama administration—which falls into the political realist camp and has, at times, pressed for a moderate retrenchment of US war in the Middle East (in part to enable a disastrous pivot to Asia)—is now leading a military response to a crisis that the president himself has acknowledged cannot be solved by the US military. To do so, Obama has repeatedly sidestepped congressional debate by claiming authority from the post-9/11 war authorization against the perpetrators of those attacks—the same legislation he once denounced for “keeping America on a perpetual wartime footing.” (He vowed in his State of the Union address to seek explicit authorization from Congress for the war on ISIS, but has claimed in the past not to need it.)
“As if Further Militarization Ever Brought Peace to Iraq”
As the US government makes unverified claims that American lives are under threat from ISIS, it is Muslims, Arabs, Kurds, Yazidis and Christians in the Middle East who are being killed, raped and displaced. “The occupation of the city of Mosul started a new chapter of women’s suffering in Iraq,” wrote the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq in a statement published last December. “Daesh [ISIS] reawakened the ancient tribal habits of claiming women as spoils of war.”
Meanwhile, Kurds are fighting and dying to beat back ISIS in both Iraq and Syria but are not even offered a seat at the international table. This was highlighted in the recent exclusion of Kurdish groups from an anti-ISIS conference in London of representatives from twenty-one nations.
At this conference, US Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that the coalition had “halted the momentum” of ISIS fighters, while other US officials insisted that half of the “top command” of ISIS had been killed. While global media outlets ran with this “news,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel publicly expressed serious doubt about such claims, describing the body count as “unverified.”
Furthermore, the ability of the US military—the most powerful in the world—to blow up and kill is not in question. But in a complex geopolitical arena, that’s simply not a valid measure of success. The histories of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars are tragic examples of the vast difference between killing a lot of people and winning a war.
Over five months in, US military operations in Iraq and Syria are neither alleviating the humanitarian crisis nor meeting any of the shifting goals of US officials (containing ISIS, destroying it, etc.). The perception that ISIS is primarily at war with the United States is, in fact, critical to its growth. The CIA estimated in September—just a month after US-led bombing began—that ISIS had tripled its ranks, from 10,000 to over 30,000. As Patrick Cockburn reported in early January, “The territories [ISIS] conquered in a series of lightning campaigns last summer remain almost entirely under its control, even though it has lost some towns to the Kurds and Shia militias in recent weeks.”
So while the expansion of ISIS’s frontiers may have slowed, the intervention has failed to prevent the group from consolidating its control in Iraq and Syria. “Extremism thrives during foreign interventions and military actions,” said Raed Jarrar of the American Friends Service Committee in an interview for this article. “Bombing different groups who live in the same areas as ISIS has helped unite ISIS with more moderate groups, more reasonable groups, who could have been persuaded to rejoin the political process. In Syria, bombing ISIS and other extremist groups, including Al Qaeda, has helped them unite, although they have been killing each other for the past two years.”
In addition to the crimes perpetrated by ISIS, US-backed and -armed Iraqi forces, sectarian Iraqi militias and “moderate rebels” in Syria are also committing brutal war crimes.
In July, for example, Human Rights Watch condemned the Iraqi government for repeatedly bombing densely populated residential neighborhoods, including numerous strikes on Fallujah’s main hospital with mortars and other munitions. And in October, Amnesty International warned that Iraqi Shiite militias, many of them funded and armed by the Iraqi government, are committing war crimes that include abductions, executions and disappearances of Sunni civilians. In Iraq, Cockburn writes, “The war has become a sectarian bloodbath. Where Iraqi army, Shia militia, or Kurdish peshmerga have driven ISIS fighters out of Sunni villages and towns from which civilians have not already fled, any remaining Sunni have been expelled, killed, or detained.”
In other words, US military intervention is not advancing the side with a clear moral high ground, but militarizing what Raed Jarrar calls a “bloody civil conflict with criminal forces on all sides.”
And now, of course, Iraqis must contend with the return of a far more powerful fighting force guilty of numerous atrocities and war crimes across the globe, including torture, massacres, use of chemical weapons and cluster bombing of civilians in Iraq: the US military.
In a recent statement, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq slammed the US-led military campaign for, in the midst of this humanitarian crisis, “providing further military arms and bombing only, as if further militarization ever brought peace to Iraq.” Neither the international coalition nor the Iraqi government, the statement continues, is concerned “with the enslavement of more than five thousand women who are being bought and sold in broad daylight in Mosul, Raqqa, and other ‘Islamic State’ cities.”
None of this is to overstate the coherence of the US strategy in Iraq and Syria, nor even to confirm the existence of one.
Since the bombings began in August, the United States has waffled and balked, going from support for “moderate rebels” in Syria to the announcement that it would create its own proxy force. The United States initially hesitated to militarily back Kurdish forces holding out against ISIS in the Syrian town of Kobani, and many people bearing the brunt of ISIS’s repression on the ground seem to doubt that the United States is seriously trying to stem the group’s advance. The US government has trumpeted its broad military coalition, yet seemingly turns a blind eye as its allies go on directly and indirectly supporting ISIS.
In truth, the US and global publics are kept in the dark about what the US-led military coalition is doing, how long this war will last, where its boundaries lie and what “victory” means. Obama and Kerry have both indicated that the war on ISIS will take years, but Pentagon officials repeatedly refuse to reveal basic information, like what specific duties troops on the ground in Iraq are tasked with and who is dying under US bombs in Iraq and Syria. Just last December, a US coalition bomb struck an ISIS-operated jail in the town of al-Bab, Syria, killing at least fifty civilians detained inside, according to multiple witnesses. Yet while the Pentagon has demurred that civilians “may have died” during its operations, it has refused to actually acknowledge a single civilian death under its bombs.
Alternatives to US-Led War
Some people in the United States have thrown their support behind the military operations, or at least not opposed them, out of a genuine concern for the well-being of people in Iraq and Syria. However good these intentions, though, all evidence available suggests that military intervention won’t make anyone safer.
“The first level is stopping the US from causing more harm,” Jarrar told me. “That is really essential.” According to Jarrar, a US push to stop the bombing is solidaristic in itself. In fact, he said, we can’t talk about solidarity, reparations or redress for all the harm the United States has done in the now-discredited 2003 war “while we are bombing Iraq and Syria. It doesn’t make any sense to reach out to people, ask them to attend conferences for reconciliation, while we are bombing their neighborhood.”
However, stopping the United States from further harming Iraq and Syria requires far more than simply halting the bombing and troop deployment. Washington must demilitarize its failed war on terror, not only by pulling its forces from the Middle East but by putting out the fires it started with proxy battles and hypocritical foreign policies—including its alliances with governments that directly and indirectly support ISIS, from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.
In a recent article in Jacobin about the courageous struggle of the people of Kobani against ISIS, Errol Babacan and Murat Çakır argue that the United States, and the West more broadly, should start with Turkey. “Western governments must be pressured to force their NATO partner Turkey to end both its proxy war in Syria as well as its repression of political protest,” they write. “Western leftists could also work for goals such as the removal of foreign soldiers (as well as Patriot missiles) stationed in Turkey and demand sanctions against Turkey if it continues to support” the Islamic State.
Phyllis Bennis, senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, argues that US power to pressure allies to stop supporting ISIS extends beyond Turkey. “A real coalition is needed not for military strikes but for powerful diplomacy,” she writes. “That means pressuring US ally Saudi Arabia to stop arming and financing ISIS and other extremist fighters; pressuring US ally Turkey to stop allowing ISIS and other fighters to cross into Syria over the Turkish border; pressuring US allies Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others to stop financing and arming everyone and anyone in Syria who says they’re against Assad.”
Meanwhile, it’s critical for the US left to step up its opposition to further escalation of the military intervention, including the upcoming White House bid to win bipartisan authorization. It will also be important to fight back against congressional efforts to sabotage diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran, which could embolden hard-line forces in both countries and open the door to further escalation in Iraq, Syria and beyond.
Toward a Politics of Solidarity
A long-term alternative to war, ultimately, can only be built by popular movements in Iraq and Syria. While we in the United States are inundated with images of death and victimization, surviving grassroots efforts in both countries tell a different story. These countries are not mere geopolitical battlefields—they are hotbeds of human agency and resistance.
Iraq saw a blossoming of nonviolent, Sunni-led movements against repression and discrimination by the US-backed government of Iraq in 2013. But the Iraqi military brutally crushed their protest encampments. This included the Hawija massacre in April 2013, discussed by scholar Zaineb Saleh in an interview last summer, in which at least fifty protesters were killed and over 100 were wounded. In a climate of repression and escalating violence, civil society organizations from across Iraq held the country’s first social forum in September 2013, under the banner “Another Iraq is Possible with Peace, Human Rights, and Social Justice.”
Amid siege from ISIS, repression from the Iraqi government and bombing from the United States and its allies, popular movements survive on the ground in Iraq. Groups like the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq are organizing emergency aid for women and families fleeing ISIS—while at the same time demanding US withdrawal, an end to Iraqi government oppression and reparations for the US-led war.
The Federation of Workers Councils and Trade Unions in Iraq, meanwhile, continues to organize workers against Saddam Hussein–era anti-labor laws that were carried over into the new government and backed by the United States. Right now, the Federation, alongside OWFI, is mobilizing within the country’s state-owned industries, which are undergoing rapid privatization and imposing lay-offs, firings and forced retirement on hundreds of thousands of workers.
Falah Alwan, president of the Federation, explained in a recent statement that the gutting of the public sector is the result of austerity measures driven, in part, by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. “We are in daily confrontations with the government, by demonstrations, sit-ins, seminars, [and] agitating the other sectors to take part,” Alwan told me over e-mail. “At the same time, we are preparing for a wide conference next March, for all the companies across Iraq, that will need support from our comrades in the U.S. and worldwide.”
Both of these organizations are collaborating with US groups—including the War Resisters League, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Madre—under the banner of the Right to Heal Initiative to press for reparations for the harm from US policies in Iraq dating back to 1991. Along with damages from the last war and the sanctions regime that preceded it, their grievances include environmental poisoning in Iraq from the US military’s use of depleted uranium, white phosphorous, burn pits and more.
Likewise, “There are still people and groups in [Syria] who are working through nonviolent means,” said Mohja Kahf, a Damascus-born author and poet, in a recent interview. “And they matter. They are quietly working for the kind of Syria they want to see, whether the regime falls now or in years.” As Kahf argued in a 2013 article, it is critical for the US peace movement to connect with movements on the ground in Syria, not only when they are threatened by bombings, and not only when they are used to win arguments against US-led military intervention.
We in the US left must take a critical—if painful—look at the harm US policies have done to the Middle East, press for a long-term shift in course and seek to understand and build links with progressive forces in Iraq and Syria. The United States has a moral obligation to provide reparations to Iraq for its invasion and occupation. But these things must be demanded now, before Washington spends one more day waging a new armed conflict based on the same failed policies.
Grassroots movements did offer an alternative to endless war following the 2003 invasion, and that needs to happen again. This dark time is all the proof we need that the United States must get out of the Middle East once and for all, and the pressure to do so is only going to come from the grassroots.
Building international solidarity takes time, but you can get started today. Here are a few suggestions for productive next steps anyone can take.
Direct Support. Donate to relief efforts on the ground in Iraq and Syria that are orchestrated by grassroots organizations seeking to help their communities survive in the face of ISIS. The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq has been working to provide food and winter survival gear to people fleeing ISIS and maintains shelters in Baghdad and Karbala. Furthermore, they have created a “Women’s Peace Farm” outside of Karbala, which provides “a safe and peaceful community” for refugees, according to a recent OWFI statement. Direct donations to this work can be made at OWFI’s PayPal account.
Learn. Now is a critical time for US-based movements to educate ourselves about both the histories and current realities of struggle and resistance in Iraq and Syria, as well as Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and beyond. A forthcoming book by Ali Issa, field organizer for the War Resisters League, will be important reading for anyone interested in learning more about Iraqi social movements. Titled Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq, the book is based on interviews and reports highlighting environmental, feminist, labor and protest movement organizers in Iraq.
In the process of learning about civil societies in Iraq and Syria, it is important to avoid simplistic equations that reduce all opponents of Assad to agents of the US government, and likewise regarding opponents of ISIS. As Kahf emphasized in her interview, “It is racist to think that Syrians do not have agency to resist an oppressive regime unless a clever white man whispers in their ear.… Syrians can hold two critiques in their minds at the same time: a critique of US imperialism and a critique of their brutal regime.”
There is also a great deal to learn from US civil society, including the powerful movement for black liberation that continues to grow nationwide. From Oakland to Ferguson to New York, people are showing by example that justice and accountability for racism and police killings will not be handed from above, but rather must be forced from the grassroots. This moment is full of potential to build strong and intersectional movements with racial justice at their core—a principle that is vital for challenging US militarism.
Make this live. Talk to your families, friends and loved ones about the war on ISIS. Encourage conversations in your organizations, union halls and community centers. Raise questions like, “How does US policy in the Middle East relate to our struggles for social, racial and economic justice here at home?”
The Stop Urban Shield coalition—comprising groups including Critical Resistance, the Arab Organizing and Resource Center, the War Resisters League and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement—powerfully demonstrated the connection between domestic and international militarization when it kicked a global SWAT team, police force and mercenary expo out of Oakland last September.
Ultimately, solidarity with Iraqi and Syrian people will require more than a push to end the US bombings, but long-term pressure to end US policies of endless war and militarism, in the Middle East and beyond. Building consciousness across US movements is critical to this goal.
Pressure the US government. Grassroots mobilization can play a vital role in preventing lawmakers from charging into war. This was recently demonstrated when people power—including overwhelming calls to congressional representatives and local protests—had a hand in stopping US strikes on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2013. Mass call-ins, as well as scattered street protests, also had a hand in preventing war hawks from passing new sanctions in the midst of talks with Iran last year. It will be important to closely track any Obama administration attempt to pass explicit authorization for the war on ISIS, as well as congressional efforts to sabotage diplomacy with Iran.
OWFI wrote in a December 11 post, “With the help of the freedom-lovers around the world, we continue to survive the ongoing attacks on our society, and we will strive to be the model of a humane and egalitarian future.”
We must strive alongside them.
Members of War Times/Tiempos de Guerras contributed to this report.
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