When foreign fighters rally to the cause of a rebel army locked in a local conflict, this is bound to draw in competing agendas and identities even among putative allies. And these cleavages may persist long after the fighting ends.
“Upon arrival,” according to one account, “foreign mujahedin settled in various locations and did not form a homogeneous entity.” Eventually, “local Muslims started to join the foreign mujahedin,” coalescing into a unit known as the Foreign Fighters’ Battalion. Still, “notwithstanding instances of participation in combat alongside each other, it appears that [the different] groups were anxious to maintain their distinct identities. There were religious and ideological differences between [locals and foreigners], which resulted in occasional violent clashes.”
Despite their differences, according to this account, locals continued to be attracted to the Foreign Fighters’ Battalion for its “stricter regimental discipline, greater degree of organization, superior equipment and combat morale, religious dedication, and the material benefits” bestowed by “many organizations and individuals from the Islamic world.”
If you are thinking this is Syria, think again. This is Bosnia, 1993: different country, different war, same story. It is now common knowledge that Western intelligence agencies actively facilitated the flow of foreign fighters—who were being funded and trained, mother of all ironies, by Saudi Arabia and Iran—into Bosnia and Herzegovina (henceforth simply “Bosnia”).
One of those fighters was Imad al-Husein, aka Abu Hamza al-Suri, a Syrian national. When war broke out in Bosnia, Abu Hamza was a medical student in what was then the Socialist Republic of Croatia, Yugoslavia. He enlisted in the ranks of the mujahedin on the other side of the border with the help of a U.S.-registered but Saudi-funded non-profit called the Benevolence International Foundation, which covertly channeled funds and equipment to foreign fighters in Bosnia. Abu Hamza joined the jihad for a spell in 1992-1993 and again in 1994-1995, with a stint in between organizing papers and logistics for the fighters coming in and out of Bosnia under the cover of Benevolence International.
For any of today’s foreign fighters hoping to start anew in Syria after the war, however, Abu Hamza’s case offers a cautionary tale about the limits of solidarity.
After the war, a number of foreign fighters decided to begin a new life in Bosnia. Many married local women and started families. For his part, Abu Hamza married a Bosnian widow he had met while distributing aid at a refugee camp in Croatia and settled down in the northeastern Bosnian village of Donja Bočinja. Fluent in the local language, Abu Hamza often spoke to local media interested in the village’s new residents. Despite disputes with Serbian returnees over house ownership, the community seemed to be slowly making the transition to peaceful civilian life.
The September 11 attacks changed all that. In the new international environment of the “War on Terror,” Bosnia passed a series of new laws that resulted in the foreign fighters being deprived of their Bosnian citizenship. They faced two choices: either leave voluntarily or be deported. According to Abu Hamza’s daughter, his legal odyssey began shortly after September 11. First stripped of his Bosnian citizenship in 2001, Abu Hamza was finally arrested in October 2008 pending a possible deportation to his country of birth, Syria.
In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled against Abu Hamza’s deportation to Syria, given the country’s poor human rights record and the deterioration of the situation there. But he remains locked up at the immigration detention center in East Sarajevo under the supervision of the State Agency for Foreigners. Neither he nor his legal representatives have been allowed to access the specific charges brought against him. All Abu Hamza knows is that he has been declared a threat to national security. His life in legal limbo seems set to continue indefinitely.
I sat down with Abu Hamza in the visiting room of the immigration center to discuss his experience as a fighter during Bosnia’s civil war, his life in detention and the current war in Syria.
When did you join the fight on the side of the Muslim forces during the civil war in the 1990s?
At the time, I was a medical student at the University of Rijeka, in Croatia. I had wanted to join the jihad in Afghanistan, but logistics had come in my way. However, Bosnia was next door to Croatia. I had heard that several aid agencies were helping foreign fighters to enter Bosnia, so I start asking around. Many refused, until I found a Syrian man named Abu Mahmoud, who headed a Saudi agency based in Zagreb, Benevolence International. In June or July 1992, I can’t recall exactly, we met in Rijeka, where he had come to pick up a big shipment of seaborne humanitarian aid. Once I told him my desire to join the jihad in Bosnia, he promised he would send someone to help me enter the country. And so it happened that, on September 15, 1992, I set off on my way to Tešnja, close to Jablanica, where the foreign mujahedin had their training camp in and around an abandoned school compound.
At my arrival, there were about fifteen Arabs there for training, mostly Saudis, but also Kuwaitis, Algerians, Tunisians and another Syrian. As I knew the local language, I was assigned to translating for the Arab fighters and to liaising and coordinating with our allies: the Territorial Defence Force (Teritorijalna Odbrana, the precursor to the Bosnian Army) and the Croatian Defence Council (Hrvatsko vijeće obrane, the army of the self-proclaimed Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia). At the time, our main focus was to recruit Bosnians over 18 years of age and give them a forty-day training, before being sent to the front. We were not the only foreign mujahedin though. Others were based in Mehurići, under the leadership of a Saudi sheikh named Abdul Aziz, who had fought in Afghanistan and went by the nickname of Barbarossa, due to his long hennaed beard.
Did you stay in Bosnia until the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, which effectively ended the war?
At the beginning of 1993, I returned to Croatia. At this point, I could cross the border easily, since I had acquired a counterfeited card, whereby I was passing as the aid coordinator of Abu Mahmoud’s agency. The agency workers in Rijeka were excellent at forging IDs, documents and passports: I even saw some of the mujahedin with UNHCR cards. In Croatia, I used the aid agency as a cover for logistics: we would do everything, from facilitating the crossing of fighters into Croatia and then on to Bosnia with fake documents; to the evacuation of injured mujahedin from Bosnia to get treatment in Croatia or in a third country; to organizing the shipment of food and weapons to the fighters in Bosnia.
The weapons business was the trickiest, as the Croats demanded the exact equivalent of everything we were taking into Bosnia: for each bullet reaching the mujahedin, one bullet had to be given to the Croatian border guards—and it became more expensive with time. The majority of the weaponry was bought from some Croatian generals, who were running a profitable business smuggling military hardware via Hungary and even selling the army’s own equipment. In Bosnia, we mostly dealt with Serb generals, in a perfect example of what is commonly called a war economy.
Then, in 1994, I returned to Bosnia and operated out of Zenica, where what was by now known as the Foreign Fighters’ Battalion (Katibat al-Mujahedin al-Ajanib) had its logistical base. In reality, the foreign fighters never represented more than 20 percent of the Battalion, with the rest being made up of Bosnian men, for a grand total of 1,500 fighters.
What was your role in the Battalion?
Our military leader was Abu al-Maali, an Algerian national who left Bosnia a few years after the end of the war. However, the top leader was Anwar Shaaban, who headed the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan. I kept my position as coordinator, plus I joined reconnaissance expeditions to spy on the Bosnian Serbs stationed at Vozuča. In this period, the Battalion engaged the Serbs around Zavidović and liberated a big area of territory, managing to reopen the road from Tuzla down to Zenica, through Vozuča, Zavidović and Žepće.
Why are you being detained now?
This is the question I always ask myself: what did I do to deserve to be here? You see, there have been no charges brought against me. This is due to the fact that, after 11 September 2001, new laws were introduced in the Bosnian legal system, whereby some proofs could be held secret for reasons of national security. I think one of those laws is the Aliens Act of 2008. My lawyer and several NGOs have tried to obtain the list of accusations, but to no avail. The result is obvious: I am here and I don’t know why. Probably, I am here because I am a Muslim and I am committed to Islam.
I read the decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) concerning your case. What do you make of it?
The Europeans are very smart. On the one hand, they saved my life, as the court order prevented my extradition to Syria. On the other, they didn’t solve my problem. This way, they did just enough to ensure my basic human rights, namely my right to life, but fell short of guaranteeing my right to freedom. Legally speaking, the ECHR ruled only on one of the allegations of violations that my lawyer submitted on my behalf to the court. This concerned article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which specifies that one cannot be tortured. Thus my deportation to Syria was blocked.
However, as for the other appeals on article 5 (legality of my detention) and article 8 (right of a family to live together), no decision was taken. In effect, the ECHR has handed over to the Bosnian authorities the right to detain me indefinitely. This is done for reasons unknown to me, my lawyer, or my family, as these laws allow for secret evidence to be held against you. And here I am in this legal limbo.
When I talked to one of your daughters, I seemed to understand that the only way to get you out of this situation would be for Bosnia to transfer you to a third country. Would that be a solution?
Look, if you had a sick dog, whose illness is infectious, would your neighbour take it as a present from you? Obviously not. By the same token, all countries that have been approached by the Bosnian authorities have refused to take me. I know for a fact that requests were sent to Holland, Lithuania, Cyprus, Croatia and Saudi Arabia: some refused right away; others asked for more information, and then refused. I was personally told this by the second in command at the State Agency for Foreigners.
So what next?
To me, it looks like a game of “nerve wrestling,” so to speak. Perhaps they expect me to do something stupid, so that they can confirm to the public their theory that I am a danger to national security. For now, I have appealed to the ECHR once again: after the court’s ruling, the state of Bosnia had twelve months maximum to resolve my situation. As you can see, I am still detained here. So, on July 9, 2013, the very day one year had elapsed since the sentence, we submitted a new appeal. In the meantime, I keep playing a game I have not chosen: every three months, I am brought in front of a court of law; I ask to be put under a milder supervision regime, so that I can stay with my family; the judge refuses; and I am brought back to the immigration center.
From where you stand, what would you like to say to the Bosnian authorities? After all, you have risked your life fighting for the state that is now detaining you, with no apparent charges.
In this regard, there is a big difference between Abu Hamza the man and Abu Hamza the Muslim. As a man, I cannot even start describing how angry and disappointed I am at the treatment I have been reserved. And I keep asking myself: why are they doing this to me? However, as a Muslim, who believes in Allah and that everything is in His hands, I can only thank God and abandon myself to His will.
Still, Bosnia is showing to the world that it has the appearance of a state, but lacks any essence of it. There seems to be very little respect for human rights or for the rule of law, which are the standards by which a country is judged. If I could, I would suggest that Bosnians think hard about their future. History shows that this country faces war and massacres every few decades. Who will come to the people’s help in the future, if this is the treatment that is reserved to them?
What do you think about the current situation in your country of birth, Syria?
First of all, when the so-called Arab Spring started at the end of 2010, many Arab brothers who shared my cell at the immigration center expressed their hopes that the revolution would spread to Syria. Even at the time, my answer was always the same: if this starts in Syria, it won’t calm down and be solved easily. My reasoning was based on history: I participated in demonstrations against Assad’s father in the 1980s. What was his response in Hama? He flattened the city. Assad the son will flatten the whole of Syria before relinquishing power.
Now, the Syrian people can only be ruled in one of two situations: either under the iron fist of a dictator, or under the beneficent hand of a just ruler. In concrete terms: either Assad or Umar bin Abdul Aziz, one of the Omayyad caliphs who was known for his even handedness. In Syria, it seems to me that the United States and Europe encouraged the Syrian people to rise against the dictator, promising to support them. When they did, the Western powers withdrew their support: I wouldn’t call it betrayal, as much as fooling a whole people.
Would you support Western military intervention in Syria to topple the government?
I don’t think that Western intervention would solve anything in Syria. Like in Iraq, the Syrian people would start fighting the occupier, making the situation even more explosive. The solution is easy: Assad understands only the language of force, like Gaddafi. And like Gaddafi he will have to go. Assad’s strength derives from his air force and ballistic missiles: if the West were sincere in its support to the Syrian revolution, it would have supplied fighters with weapons to counter that, such as anti-aircraft missiles. The reality is that the West doesn’t want Assad to go, as they haven’t found a substitute for him in Syria who would guarantee Western interests in the country.
You appear to suggest that Assad has been serving Western interests in Syria. But what seems to be stopping Western powers from supplying such weapons to the opposition is the fact that they may fall into the hands of radical groups, especially those linked to Al Qaeda.
I believe that the Western media has whipped up paranoia about Al Qaeda in order not to intervene in Syria. The proof of the pudding can be found in Mali: all this media frenzy about Al Qaeda in the country. The French send in a few thousand soldiers, and Al Qaeda evaporates. For instance, in the 1990s, Al Qaeda could count on between 300 and 500 fighters, never more than 1,000. Do not confuse Al Qaeda as a group with Al Qaeda as an idea: the first is very limited, the second is all over the world. Whether we want it or not, the idea of jihad has now taken root.
Concerning your first point, the only resistance Assad has put up in his life has been for the preservation of his chair: the fight to keep power. He is a worse sell-out than Gaddafi, who revealed all the secrets of his country’s nuclear weapons program to the Americans in exchange for his political survival. Assad has given UN inspectors even more information than they were asking for. The same can be said for Hezbollah. In the 1990s, I remember reading with my own eyes a report written by some advisers to Osama bin Laden who had been sent to Lebanon to explore the possibility of cooperation with Hezbollah. I quote from it: “Hezbollah is a group that defends Israel’s Southern border.” As [former CIA chief] William Casey said in regard to [former Panamanian dictator and erstwhile US ally] Manual Noriega: “he’s a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”
As a former mujahid yourself, what do you think of all those jihadists that have flocked to Syria to fight against the Assad regime?
I regret having to say this, but with all due respect to our mujahedin brothers, they have shown short-sightedness and lack of vision everywhere in the world, from Afghanistan to Syria, passing through Iraq. Our experience as foreign fighters in Bosnia, despite many mistakes, was different in that the majority of the Arabs fighting here were living in Europe, and brought with them a more open perspective. Thus, we integrated into Bosnian society rather than fighting against the Bosnian Muslims, whereas the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) fights against Syrian groups. We tried to be like the first muhajirin, the “immigrants” who left Mecca for Medina with the Prophet Mohammad (Peace be upon Him), and who lived in harmony with their host society.
In my view, this short-sightedness within Al Qaeda traces back to the second half of 1990s, when Osama bin Laden came under the influence of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who hailed from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) organisation. EIJ was a proponent of the takfiri trend [of accusing other Muslims of apostasy], which quickly became central to Al Qaeda ideology. Before that, the first Emir who had organised the transfer of mujahedin to Afghanistan, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam—who is the only one who has my allegiance; I never pledged it to Osama bin Laden—propounded instead a vision that we may describe as “understanding the factual evidence,” or understanding the environment you are in. Namely, foreign fighters should adapt to their host society, respect it and speak in a language and ideology that conform to it. Likewise, Sheikh Azzam would never even dream of declaring the House of Saud apostates, as Osama bin Laden did: you have to know your relative strength and, especially, your limits.
If you could, then, what would you say to the foreign mujahedin now in Syria?
Very simply, I would ask: why did you come to Syria? What are you doing here? Let me clarify. The idea of jihad in Syria was nourished and encouraged by the local mosques the same way it had been in the 1980s, well before foreign fighters came to the country. Afterwards, [Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad] al-Golani and his group joined in. But wasn’t there already a jihad in Syria? These people have come in and declared themselves Emirs, leaders. The question then arises: what is the difference between you and Assad? If you enforce your Islam with the power of the Kalashnikov, the people will acquiesce for fear of retaliation, as they did for forty years under the boot of the Baath party. However, this situation is obviously untenable—and the people will eventually rise up.
In Bosnia, we instead came in as aids, to help the fight on the side of the Muslims. We declared allegiance to [then Bosnian President] Alija Izetbegović and put ourselves at his service, despite the fact that the Afghan mujahedin had declared him an apostate. In other words, we came to aid a society and adapted our message and language to the local community, instead of imposing our views on it. If the mujahedin did the same in Syria, the Syrian people would welcome them with open arms. Ahrar al-Sham, for instance, has adopted a centrist model from the beginning, thus avoiding conflict with the people.
You have to understand these people’s doctrine. As I have already mentioned, the jihadist idea is now widespread, and someone may be ready to sell a kidney to get the money to travel to Syria. The way it happens is quite simple: if a young man wants to fight jihad, he asks someone in the community for money, or collects money within his group of friends. In reality, reaching Istanbul from Sarajevo won’t cost you more than 200 euros. With modern technology, it is very easy to agree beforehand with middlemen to be picked up at the airport and then transferred to Syria.
If you had one last wish, what would that be?
I would go to fight in Syria, perhaps with Ahrar al-Sham, because they are 100-percent Syrian. And I would not repeat the same mistakes we made in Bosnia: it must be said that some of the brothers looked down upon the local population. That should never happen again. As Sheikh Abdullah Azzam showed, the right way is to apply his “understanding of the factual evidence”: always know where and with whom you are, and behave accordingly, with respect.
Read Next: Bob Dreyfuss on drones in Yemen.
At one point early in our tenure at The Nation we received a letter from a dissatisfied solver comparing our efforts unfavorably to those of our predecessor, Frank Lewis. Lewis’s puzzles, he wrote, had been so clear that the solutions were self-explanatory, whereas ours required full documentation about how each clue worked.
Well, gee. Let’s leave aside the vexing question of whether our puzzles are harder or easier than Frank’s (hint: complaints that puzzles are “too hard” or “too easy” tend to be pretty evenly distributed no matter who the constructor is), because the change in the format of the solutions didn’t have anything to do with that. We just thought that explaining each clue would be a helpful addition to the solver’s experience.
Why? Because even an easy cryptic clue—or a cryptic clue the constructor thought was easy—will always be a stumper for someone. In fact, that’s true of any kind of puzzle. Every solver has had the experience at some point of looking at a solution and thinking, “OK, but why?” (In the National Puzzlers’ League, this has acquired the acronym IGIBIDGI, which is pronounced “idgy-bidgy” and stands for “I got it, but I don’t get it.”) That’s no fun, and so we wanted to be sure that the solution we published for each puzzle dispelled any lingering mysteries—and perhaps, in the process, even helped beginners learn the ropes.
That turned out to be a little trickier than it sounds. For one thing, there’s no commonly used system of abbreviations to indicate anagrams, reversals and all the other common tools of cryptic clue-writing. The blogger Braze, who dissects every clue in the Nation puzzle on his blog, uses one set of indicators; we used a different one for our published collection of cryptics from The Enigma; and we introduced yet a third one here. The goal in each case is to make the explanations terse (space is always at a premium) and yet clear.
Also, some of the more fanciful clues we occasionally run resist a crisp explanation. The designation “2 defs.,” for example, encompasses a broad range of possibilities, from simple double definitions to whimsical wordplay that takes in the entire clue. These clues aren’t exactly double definitions:
AUTOSUGGESTION “I should buy a hybrid, I should buy a hybrid”, for example? (14)
CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION Notable characteristic of Camille’s opulent lifestyle? (11,11)
PORT AUTHORITY Where you might find a bus—or a sommelier? (4,9)
YAMMERS Talks incessantly with people harvesting sweet potatoes? (7)
And parsing this one efficiently taxed our ingenuity:
THREE BLIND MICE Nursery rhyme about Mckey, Mnne and Mortmer? (5,5,4)
Yet the clues that are the hardest to explain in a standard format are often the ones we like the best.
Do you find the explanations a useful part of the puzzle solutions? Or just a waste of space? Please share your thoughts here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.
And here are three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.
Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has widened to include journalists, non-Islamist activists and students who have been detained and badly beaten., Sharif Abdel Kouddous explained in his latest piece for The Nation. This morning, he joined Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! to discuss former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s terrorism charges and how the crackdown has affected ordinary citizens.
It’s been a rough couple days for The Washington Post. Word emerged that hackers invaded its internal system—for a few days, no less—all of its staffers had to change their passwords as the company tried to figure out how much data had been compromised.
Meanwhile, a petition campaign was launched related to news that Amazon, under the Post’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, recently secured a $600 million contract from the CIA. That’s at least twice what Bezos paid for the Post this year. Bezos recently disclosed that the company’s Web-services business is building a “private cloud” for the CIA to use for its data needs.
Critics charge that, at a minimum, the Post needs to disclose its CIA link whenever it reports on the agency. Over 15,000 have signed the petition this week hosted by RootsAction.
In a statement released by the Institute for Public Accuracy, media writer/author Robert McChesney observes:
When the main shareholder in one of the very largest corporations in the world benefits from a massive contract with the CIA on the one hand, and that same billionaire owns the Washington Post on the other hand, there are serious problems. The Post is unquestionably the political paper of record in the United States, and how it covers governance sets the agenda for the balance of the news media. Citizens need to know about this conflict of interest in the columns of the Post itself.
If some official enemy of the United States had a comparable situation—say the owner of the dominant newspaper in Caracas was getting $600 million in secretive contracts from the Maduro government—the Post itself would lead the howling chorus impaling that newspaper and that government for making a mockery of a free press. It is time for the Post to take a dose of its own medicine.”
See article by Norman Solomon for a fuller accounting. He notes:
Bezos personally and publicly touts Amazon Web Services, and it’s evident that Amazon will be seeking more CIA contracts. Last month, Amazon issued a statement saying, “We look forward to a successful relationship with the CIA.”
Read next: Greg Mitchell’s post on CNN deleting a tweet claiming that Edward Snowden offered to spy on the US.
Voter fraud is quite uncommon. In fact, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of law, which has conducted an ongoing examination of voter fraud claims, refers to the supposed “problem” as a “myth.”
However, if we employ the standard of those who claim that there really is a voter fraud crisis in America, then there is a case that is worthy of note. And it involves Liz Cheney’s husband.
Liz Cheney is running for the US Senate in a 2014 Republican primary. But she is not running in her long-time home state, Virginia.
Rather, she is running in distant Wyoming—which her father, permanent Washington fixture Dick Cheney, used as a political redoubt for congressional service to the Reagan administration in the 1980s.
The Wyoming run has been an inconvenient one for Liz Cheney. She has been forced to uproot herself from a comfortable life in suburban Washington, and to buy an expensive new home in the one reliably Democratic county in Wyoming. She has struggled to figure out how to obtain a fishing license, after initially overstating her history in the state—and paying a fine for “[failing] to meet residency requirements as required.” And she has had to declare her opposition to her sister’s right to marry.
But it hasn’t just been tough on Liz Cheney.
Her husband, Philip Perry, who practices law with a major Washington firm, has had to claim that he, too, is a resident of Wyoming.
In March, he obtained a driver’s license. And he has gone so far as to register to vote there
Unfortunately, he is also registered to vote in McLean, Virginia, where he voted in 2012.
When Perry registered to vote in Wyoming’s Teton County, he did not indicate that he was on the voter roll elsewhere. Indeed, says Teton County Clerk Sherry Daigle, “He signed an oath saying he was not currently registered anywhere else.”
So we have a glaring case of double registration.
Sound the alarm!
Perry can fix the problem by asking Virginia to remove him from the rolls in the Old Dominion. Officials generally allow for such clarifications, recognizing that mistakes are made. Despite the headline in the local paper—“Cheney Husband in False Oath Kerfuffle”—it is unlikely that the double-registration mess will result in anything more than a slight case of embarrassment for a prominent lawyer.
So this does not appear to be a particularly big deal—just like most cases of supposed “voter fraud.”
Indeed, as the Brennan Center reminds us, “Voter fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is nearly non-existent and much of the problems associated with alleged fraud in elections relates to unintentional mistakes by voters or election administrators.”
Read Next: George Zornick on Senator Tom Harkin.
Anyone who opposes the draconian anti-gay laws in Russia, and supports the emerging movement of LGBT athletes in the sports world, should take serious note of the latest news out of Washington, DC. President Barack Obama’s White House has chosen their official delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. For the first time since 2000, this group will not include a current or former president or vice president. Instead, the faces representing of the United States will include out-and-proud tennis legend Billie Jean King and out-and-proud two-time Olympic hockey player Caitlin Cahow.
Both King and Cahow are far more than just people who happen to be “part of the LGBT community.” King has been a fearless activist over the course of decades on a host of issues from labor rights to women’s reproductive freedom. On the issue of making sure Sochi is a platform of LGBT resistance she is as unafraid as one would expect, saying that she is not only “deeply honored” to be part of the delegation but is also “equally proud to stand with the members of the LGBT community in support of all athletes who will be competing in Sochi.… I hope these Olympic games will indeed be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people.”
King was chosen even though she made an explicit plea for athletes to defy the International Olympic Committee’s decree against political statements in Sochi, saying in September, “Sometimes I think we need a John Carlos moment.” This was a reference to the great 1968 Olympian who along with Tommie Smith raised his fist for civil rights on the 200 meter medal stand.
Caitlin Cahow’s story is far less known than “the legend of Billie Jean” but she is also more than an athlete. Cahow is an activist who is part of what is known as the Principle 6 Campaign. This is a movement that aims to pressure the craven International Olympic Committee to actually enforce Principle 6 of its own charter, which states, “Sports does not discriminate on grounds of race, religion, gender, politics or otherwise.” Their work has already pushed the IOC to state that “otherwise” includes sexual orientation.
As Cahow has said, “The Olympics is a global celebration that belongs to all of us. Principle 6 is a way for everyone everywhere to celebrate the values that inspire the Olympic Games while showing their support for Russians suffering under Putin’s human rights crackdown.”
The appointing of King and Cahow is in so many respects a tribute to the movement over the past year of LGBT athletes to make sure the locker room no longer continues to be the last closet. It is also, let’s be clear, a diplomatic power play by the Obama administration. The White House just delivered a thumb to the eye of a country that has challenged US hegemony in Syria and East Asia, and provided safe haven to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. There is a strong element here of the administration using LGBT rights like a pawn on a chessboard against a country that is more adversary than ally. It is hard to see it as anything else considering the lack of commentary from the Obama administration on ally India’s recent anti-LGBT legislation. In addition, this White House’s own piss-poor record in pushing The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the attendant fact that it is still legal in twenty-nine US states to fire people on the basis of their sexuality, should be mentioned every time this administration speaks out for LGBT rights internationally.
The most important question however is whether this move by the Obama administration to send the “Billie Jean delegation” will serve to make the situation on the ground better for LGBT people in Russia or will it just serve to open the door for more repression? Will this provide a pretext for Putin to maliciously say that LGBT activists inside Russia are just tools of the United States? Does the intervention in a grass roots movement by the world’s number one superpower create more or less oxygen for the brave people fighting for their freedom inside Russia? After the smoke has cleared and all the delegations have gone home from Sochi, it is the only question that really matters.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel’s thoughts on boycotting the Sochi Olympics
There’s a certain buzz in Washington that correcting income inequality is back on the agenda—big speeches are made, think tanks launched, strenuously worded columns published. But in practice, this means exactly nothing (yet) for economically challenged Americans.
In fact, this year has seen Washington actively make the fortunes of many middle- and low-income Americans worse: federal pensions will get slashed, food stamps have been cut (and will be cut again) and vital long-term unemployment insurance will expire. And forget about anything proactive like raising the minimum wage.
Tuesday afternoon, Senator Tom Harkin took to the Senate floor and gave one of the more bracing speeches of the year, in which he called out the “benign neglect” of Congress towards Americans with “tough lives.”
I would encourage you to read or watch the entire speech (especially if you, say, work in the office of a Republican House member) but allow me to quote from it at length here first. It’s a message that essentially escaped notice this week, but if historians are looking back on this awful gilded period in American history, they would likely identify a voice of sanity amidst all the madness.
“We used to agree that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you should be able to earn enough to support your family and keep a roof over your head, put some money away for a rainy day, and have a secure retirement.
“We used to agree that if you lose your job through no fault of your own, especially at a time of chronic unemployment, you should have some support while you’re looking for new work. We used to agree—on both sides of the aisle—that no child in this country should go to bed hungry at night.
“But in recent years, it has been alarming to see how these fundamental principles and values are being attacked in our public discourse. For many, the new attitude is ‘you’re on your own.’ And if you struggle, even if you face insurmountable challenges, it’s probably your own fault.
“There is a harshness, born of a benign neglect, toward those Americans who have tough lives, are ill-educated, marginally employed, or just down on their luck.
“It used to be that we only heard such harsh rhetoric from talk radio partisans trying to attract ratings. Sadly, now it has become part of our everyday conversation here in the United States Congress. We hear how minimum wage workers don’t deserve a fair wage because they are not worth $10.10 an hour. We hear that unemployed workers should be cut off from unemployment insurance because they are becoming ‘dependent.’ But they are trying to support their families on $310 a week on average—and that ranges from $193 on average in Mississippi to $490 on average in Massachusetts.
“At a time when there are three job seekers for every job, we hear that it’s critical to take away food assistance from millions of individuals so that, supposedly, they will learn the redemptive power of work—as if young mothers working service jobs, laid off factory workers delivering newspapers, and unemployed families receiving SNAP benefits need to be lectured by members of the House of Representatives about work.
“What has happened to respect for the people who do the work and want to work in our country? What happened to our values—the basic moral truth—that people shouldn’t go hungry in the richest country in the world?
“And how did we get to the point where many of us value the work of day-traders pushing paper on Wall Street, but ignore the contributions of the people who work in day care centers, educate our children, and care for our elderly in the twilight of life? What about their value?
Harkin is right in this last bit—just looking at the record shows Congress clearly does value the work of the financial sector over most everyone else. For just one small example, consider the budget bill slated to pass only hours after Harkin spoke. While it cuts the pensions of federal workers and doesn’t include any extension of long-term unemployment benefits, it did manage to exclude a non-binding measure simply expressing a sense of Congress that maybe big banks shouldn’t be so big that their failure endangers the economy.
On this and so many other examples (think the airport waiting line carve-out from sequestration), the policy priorities of the wealthy tend to win out in Washington, as Marty Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton, has demonstrated convincingly:
But that wasn’t the thrust of Harkin’s speech. Time and again he went after the ideology that those relying on government benefits are in the wrong, and unworthy of help—at times targeting his colleagues by name.
“Senator Paul, for example, said last week that he didn’t support an extension of the federal unemployment program. He said: ‘When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed…group in our…economy, and…while it seems good, it actually does a disservice to the people you’re trying to help.’
“A ‘disservice?’ Frankly, I don’t understand at all this kind of myopia, this harshness.”
Almost to reinforce Harkin’s point, less than twenty-four hours later a Republican House member suggested that poor children should sweep the floor in exchange for their subsidized lunch.
It’s this attitude Harkin condemned, and ended with words from a woman in Colorado and a plea for compassion:
“Let me close with one more statement from a real worker whose life will be improved if we here in Congress will step up and support the people who do the work in our country. She has a lesson for us here in Washington. Jackie Perkins works at a restaurant in Denver, CO, and she says:
‘You’re talking about real people.… You can sit in your ivory tower in the legislature and talk about economics and numbers and…jobs, but what you don’t understand is…there are real jobs…and real workers who have families that they need to support, and raising the minimum wage helps me support myself and my family and to advance…and to achieve the American dream.’
I believe in Jackie’s dreams and those of all hard-working Americans. As we look ahead to Christmas and the New Year, I hope that all my colleagues here will take time over the holiday to think about all the blessings we have been given, all we should be thankful for. And I hope we put ourselves in the shoes of those working people, who just want to build a better life for themselves and their children. Think about the minimum-wage retail worker who works hard running the cash register, standing all day, but can’t afford to shop in her own store. Think of the unemployed worker who must go to the local food bank because he can’t find a job and can’t afford Christmas dinner.
We have a duty to make sure the people who do the work in this country get a fair chance to aspire to the American Dream. When we return from the holidays I urge all of my colleagues to support a strong food assistance program, a richly deserved and long-overdue increase in the minimum wage, and an extension of federal unemployment insurance. And let’s have a new year that’s filled with less harshness and a little bit more compassion and understanding for our fellow Americans.
Read next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the budget deal.
Here’s the bottom line on the American drone strike that slaughtered as many as seventeen people in a wedding party in Yemen last week: the CIA, which carried out the attack, had no comment. The State Department didn’t say anything. And the White House, ignoring outcries in Yemen, says merely, “We obviously cooperate closely with the government of Yemen on counterterrorism, have in the past and will continue in the future to do that.”
Way back in May 2013, President Obama delivered a major speech on counterterrorism policy and drones, in which he said that the use of drones “raises profound questions—about who is targeted, and why; about civilian casualties, and the risk of creating new enemies; about the legality of such strikes under U.S. and international law; about accountability and morality.”
But in that same speech, Obama essentially said “too bad” when it comes to civilian casualties caused by drone strikes. “I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives.” So I wonder, now, if Obama is weighing the heartbreaking tragedy that he ordered last week against the “alternative,” namely, putting an end to these assassinations by remote control.
What does it say about America’s $80 billion-plus intelligence system, including the all-powerful National Security Agency, if it can’t distinguish between a terrorist and a wedding party? Who, indeed, was the supposed target of this drone strike, and what exactly was he planning to do, that made it so important to try to assassinate him? Was he some kingpin plotting another 9/11, or just some mid-level bad guy like the dozens upon dozens of others that the United States has blown to pieces after the killing of Osama bin Laden made Al Qaeda a nearly destroyed entity? If US intelligence is so poor, it’s way past time to stop these attacks.
In his May speech, Obama said,
Yes, the conflict with al Qaeda, like all armed conflict, invites tragedy. But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.
And he said that each and every strike would involve extensive review, and that information would be provided to Congress. “Let me repeat that: Not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes. Every strike.” And this one?
Some of the people involved may have been members of tribes in Yemen linked to Al Qaeda, according to The New York Times. (According to the Los Angeles Times, which reported that seventeen died, “Five of those killed were suspected of involvement with Al Qaeda, but the remainder were unconnected with the militancy, Yemeni security officials said.”) But in Yemen’s chaotic, tumultuous tribal politics, there are countless violent actors and many who’ve identified with Al Qaeda simply because it’s the biggest, baddest gang in the area. (It’s not unlike the way many youth, in inner cities, become gang members for reasons of status, self-protection or self-respect.) But I don’t believe for one second that American intelligence is anywhere good enough to determine whether or not some people thousands of feet below a hovering drone are really worth targeting them for assassination—even leaving aside the constitutional, legal, moral and international-law aspects of the whole drone program.
More than a dozen dead, many more injured, and an unknown number of survivors whose lives have suddenly taken a nightmarish turn the likes of which we cannot imagine, and all for the sake of five people suspected of ties to al-Qaeda. How many actual al-Qaeda terrorists would we have to kill with drones in Yemen to make the benefits of our drone war there outweigh the costs of this single catastrophic strike? If U.S. drone strikes put American wedding parties similarly at risk would we tolerate our targeted-killing program for a single day more? Our policy persists because we put little value on the lives of foreign innocents. Even putting them through the most horrific scene imaginable on their wedding day is but a blip on our media radar, easily eclipsed by a new Beyonce album.
There’s new turmoil in Yemen, which has a fragile, barely functioning government. Yemen’s government defends the drone strikes and cooperation with the United States, but Yemen’s parliament is in an uproar, and voted to ban future drone attacks. But The Wall Street Journal reminds us that, for Yemen’s president and his circle, it’s all about the Benjamins:
Yemen’s parliament has stepped up pressure on the government to immediately end American drone strikes amid furor over an attack that officials said mistakenly killed 15 people in a wedding convoy.
However, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who has the final say, isn’t likely to tell the U.S. to shut down the drone program because his impoverished government needs the American funding attached to it. … Last year, the U.S. provided nearly $350 million to Yemen’s government, split between military and civilian aid, U.S. officials said. That was up from $28 million in 2008, before the U.S. drone program resumed after a six-year hiatus.
So the going price for a poor country to allow the United States to blow its citizens to smithereens is, apparently, $350 million.
Read Next: John Nichols on Willy Brandt.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of Willy Brandt’s birth.
Born December 18, 1913, on the cusp of World War I, Brandt lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall before his death in 1992. He left a legacy of seeking to steer his twentieth-century world away from war and division and that still has the potential—as was his ardent hope—to define the twenty-first century as a time of response to global poverty and injustice.
In Germany, Brandt continues to be celebrated as the Social Democratic battler against Nazi totalitarianism, the courageous mayor of a divided Berlin, the chancellor who began a process of East-West reconciliation that anticipated the day when “what belongs together will grow together” and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for dialing down the tensions of the Cold War.
But another lasting legacy of Willy Brandt that must never be forgotten—in Europe or internationally—is that of the Brandt Reports. The product of an Independent Commission on International Development initially chaired by Brandt in the late 1970s and early 1980s, those reports challenged world leaders to think anew about the underdevelopment and neglect of the Global South.
The Brandt Reports considered inequality on a global scale, and argued that it threatened the future stability of the planet. Radical in their analysis and vision, the pair of reports—North-South (1980) and Common Crisis (1983)—sought to address the long-term challenges of what Brandt described as “a world in which poverty and hunger still prevail in many huge regions; in which resources are squandered without consideration of their renewal; in which more armaments are made and sold than ever before; and where a destructive capacity has been accumulated to blow up our planet several times over.”
A 2002 report from the Brandt 21 Forum noted, “The Brandt Commission made a set of bold recommendations to change all that. In a sweeping series of measures addressed to the global public, governments, and international agencies, the Brandt Reports called for a full-scale restructuring of the global economy, along with a new approach to the problems of development, including an emergency program to end poverty in developing nations.”
The grand vision, celebrated and embraced by some but certainly not all countries, remains unrealized.
The grip of poverty and hunger has not been released. The chasm of inequality is still exceptionally wide. Economic and environmental injustice continue to create crises.
Yet, the understandings that Brandt and his colleagues helped to develop remain influential.
And a new generation of leaders seeks to open a serious discussion about global poverty—and the possible responses to it.
Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, has for many years urged the United States to embrace the concept of a “Global Marshall Plan”—based on the principles of post–World War II international development programs. Earlier this month, Ellison asked Congress to resolve that
1. The elimination of poverty and hunger should remain key foreign and domestic policy goals for the United States;
2. A Global Marshall Plan holds the potential to transform development assistance in a manner that would significantly reduce poverty; and
3. The President should implement a Global Marshall Plan to increase United States assistance towards the elimination of poverty.
That’s a proposal that is equal in its ambition and optimism—especially in a time of divided government that has tended towards austerity economics.
A new century nears, and with it the prospects of a new civilization.
Could we not begin to lay the basis for that new community with reasonable relations among all people and nations, and to build a world in which sharing, justice, freedom and peace might prevail?
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on Santa Claus and white racial panic.
The most important election that the voters don’t get to vote on—the selection of New York’s next City Council Speaker—is the consuming buzz in New York’s political world on Wednesday.
Politicker reported yesterday that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has been making calls to returning and incoming councilmembers lobbying for Manhattan-Bronx Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has the support of the Progressive Caucus—which, according to the same report, claimed to have the 26 votes necessary to elect her head of the fifty-one-member council.
Politicker also quoted unnamed insiders saying that de Blasio’s overt advocacy for Mark-Viverito had infuriated some of the county Democratic chairmen, who have traditionally held sway over the picks for Council leadership.
City & State reported today that those county chairman have coalesced around Manhattan Councilmember Daniel Garodnick to be the next speaker—and that they claim to have enough votes.
To most members of my huge national audience, and even among some of my millions or dozens of readers in the city, all this gamesmanship over a legislative post may seem like a distraction (if a welcome one; how else are we to pass the time before we can get to Anchorman 2?).
But it’s vital to de Blasio’s agenda that he get a speaker he can work with. He saw evidence of this during his own time in the Council. In de Blasio’s first term, from 2002 to 2005, Speaker Gifford Miller often resisted Bloomberg, irritating the easily irritated billionaire. In de Blasio’s second Council stint, from 2006 to 2009, the more accommodating Quinn made life easier for the mayor—no more so than when Bloomberg asked to overturn the term limits law.
While New York has a strong mayor system, the Council has a huge role to play on the budget and decisions about zoning and other land-use policies. The speaker has the ability to tightly control that role, by naming committee chairs, deciding which bills get hearings and which can come up for votes and apportioning discretionary funding for the members to spend, with favored colleagues getting lots of dough and squeaky wheels getting little. In fact, one of the top items on the Progressive Caucus wish list is to reform the Council rules and reduce the power of the speaker—but that probably won’t happen unless one of their own gets the chair.
Because the speaker can dish out goodies and discipline and set the agenda, almost all Council measures pass unanimously. Even notable gadflies vote with the speaker 90 percent of the time, simply because the speaker rarely brings a bill to a vote if passage is not assured. What’s more, the last three speakers have run, albeit unsuccessfully, for mayor, so whoever gets the post is by default the person best positioned to succeed or even challenge de Blasio.
Everyone thought de Blasio’s big problem was going to be Albany, because the state legislature has to approve changes to the income tax like the one de Blasio wants to use to fund his signature initiative, which couples early childhood education and middle-school after-school programs. Republican control of the state Senate is an obstacle to that idea, and the cagey governor-who-might-run-for-president may not be an ally either.
All that gets much more complicated if the city’s own legislature hamstrings the new mayor. Plus, it kinda looks bad if de Blasio loses his first big fight. But be careful about overstating the scope of it.
Mark-Viverito, who represents a district including East Harlem and parts of the South Bronx, is generally well regarded by the left in the city, making headlines last year for clashing with Ray Kelly over aggressive police tactics. Her liberal credentials are such that some observers thought de Blasio would prefer someone more centrist as his partner across City Hall. When I recently asked a room of anti-poverty advocates what they thought of her front-runner status, they were all smiles and thumbs up.
Garodnick is no right-winger (those are hard to find on the City Council), though he is not a member of the Progressive Caucus. His district includes a long slab of the Upper East Side—the only large section of Manhattan that chose Republican Joe Lhota over de Blasio in November. According to Politicker, he’s passed more legislation than his rivals for the council.
Just because the mayor-elect doesn’t get his top pick doesn’t mean his mayoralty is over. There are battles and there are wars. Eight years ago Christine Quinn famously outmaneuvered Bill de Blasio for the City Council speakership. That seemed to work out alright for him.
Read next: Mychal Denzel Smith on Bill de Blasio’s unprogressive choice for police commissioner