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On April 11, 2002, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was ousted in an ill-fated coup attempt. On April 14 he returned in triumph to the presidential palace. What to call the interregnum?

Earthquake. Cataclysm. Electroshock. The 9/11 of French politics.
These were the recurring terms that established political leaders of
both left and right used to characterize the April 21 presidential
elections in France--in which nearly one in five voters cast
their lot with the two neofascist parties of the extreme right, and
racist National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen edged past Socialist
Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to become the sole candidate against
conservative President Jacques Chirac in the May 5 runoff. How did it
happen?

With opinion polls showing throughout the campaign that between
two-thirds and three-quarters of the electorate could find no difference
between the programs proposed by Chirac and Jospin, the elections
represented a stunning rejection of the French political establishment.
Roughly a third of the electorate (28.8 percent) abstained--a record in
France--or cast blank ballots. Only half of those who did vote supported
the governing parties of the traditional left and right. The rest voted
for one of the protest candidates in the field of sixteen, including
three Trotskyists; a candidate claiming to represent the interests of
rural France; an antihomosexual demagogue of the Catholic right; and the
two neofascists, Le Pen (who got 16.9 percent) and Bruno Megret (the
former Le Pen lieutenant whose tiny MNR Party got 2.35 percent). Thus,
two-thirds of the voters rejected the perceived stasis of politics as
usual.

It's important to remember that these elections took place against the
backdrop of the ongoing, hydra-headed political corruption scandals
making headlines for a decade, which have revealed that all the major
parties with the exception of the Greens--the Socialists and Communists
as well as the conservatives--were involved in highly organized systems
of bribes and kickbacks on the letting of government contracts, with
secret corporate contributions, laundered money and Swiss bank accounts.

In this context of massive voter alienation, it is the defeat of the
governing left that stands out. Only 195,000 votes separated Le Pen from
Jospin, but as Serge July editorialized in Libération,
"the left defeated the left." A bit of history: When the Socialist
Jospin--with the support of the Greens, the Communists and two tiny left
parties--lost the 1995 presidential runoff to Chirac, he obtained 44
percent of the vote, which represented the maximum strength of the
united left. After leading his "plural left" coalition to victory in the
1997 parliamentary elections, Jospin as prime minister dedicated himself
to finding the 6 percent of votes he needed to eventually win the
presidency by governing to the center-right on economic matters.

Jospin's austere, technocratic style of governance created legions of
the disaffected among "le peuple de gauche" (the left-identified
electorate), all the more so when he appeared impotent in the face of
industrial plant closings by multinationals with rich profit margins,
which threw tens of thousands of workers into the streets. Le Pen, who
blames the immigrants for unemployment and high taxes, got twice as many
working-class votes as Jospin did this time around, according to exit
polls. Jospin, who proclaimed early this year that his was "not a
Socialist program," was further undercut when the two most significant
Trotskyist candidates garnered a surprising 10 percent of the vote.

Chirac succeeded in making "insecurity"--the French code-word for crime,
blamed largely on immigrants--the central issue of the campaign, and
Jospin played into voters' fears on this issue by repeatedly claiming
that Chirac had "copied my program." Both Chirac and Jospin thus
legitimized the central discourse of Le Pen, whose law-and-order
immigrant-bashing has long been his staple stock in trade; and, as Le
Pen never stopped proclaiming, many voters "prefer the original to the
photocopy." September 11 only heightened fear of the immigrant Arab
population, as did the recent wave of violent anti-Semitic incidents by
French-Arab delinquents in the wake of the Israeli war in Palestine (303
in March alone). Le Pen's victory reflected the growing, Continent-wide
wave of racism that has led to startling breakthroughs by the xenophobic
extreme right, whose parties now participate in the governments of
Italy, Denmark, Portugal and Austria.

Although the parties of the French "plural left" lost 1.5 million votes
this time compared with their 1995 first round score, the traditional
right lost more: 3,846,000. France's president is relatively powerless,
and the real test of political strength will come in the two-stage
parliamentary elections on June 9 and 16. The left could well win these
elections if the National Front achieves the 12.5 percent
district-by-district threshold to stay on the ballot in the second round
of voting and divides the conservative vote. The Communists and the
Greens have already agreed to join the Socialists in supporting united
candidacies of the left in swing districts. Many of those who cast
protest votes for the Trotskyists to pressure the "plural left" back to
the left will return to the fold and support them. Meanwhile, Chirac has
just created a new formation, the Union for a Presidential Majority, to
run unified conservative candidates in June--but so far two smaller
parties in Chirac's coalition (they got 10 percent of the vote in the
presidential first round) are balking at joining. Whoever wins in June,
the incoming government will have to work creatively to heal the social
and racial fracture the presidential election revealed--and to stop the
racist virus from spreading even further.

Nothing is more to be despised, in a time of crisis, than the affectation of "evenhandedness." But there are two very nasty delusions and euphemisms gaining ground at present. The first of these is that suicide bombing is a response to despair, and the second is that Sharon's policy is a riposte to suicide bombing.

What is the fundamental difference between Slobodan Milosevic and Ariel Sharon? The former is on trial for war crimes, while the latter still leads an occupying army.

They give each other tit for tat.
The next tat may get Arafat.

The trial in The Hague of the first state president indicted for genocide was to be the ultimate showdown. In the culmination of a fifty-year struggle by the human rights community against impunity, the firm weight of evidence and international law would be brought to bear on one of the world's most brutal dictators, Slobodan Milosevic. But the set-piece confrontation that began on February 12--a combined case covering three wars over ten years, which is expected to last more than two years--soon ran into problems.

By refusing legal counsel because he rejects the legitimacy of the court, Milosevic did more than insure the image of himself sitting alone against the world. He also gave himself license to thunder, without risking cross-examination, about the Balkan wars as a Western "Nazi" conspiracy to destroy socialist Yugoslavia. "This is a political trial that has nothing to do with the law," he declared.

For procedural reasons, the judges had the case run backward, starting with Kosovo and later taking up the earlier wars in Croatia and Bosnia. This allowed Milosevic to focus initially on the NATO bombing campaign--spending many hours in his opening speech listing civilians and civilian institutions hit (and including many horribly graphic photographs) and stressing his argument that Albanians fled Western bombs, not Serbian forces.

Milosevic played to public opinion, and much of Belgrade was delighted, with a local poll giving his performance high marks and his proud wife, Mira, beaming. If the tribunal hoped to break through Serbia's deep rejection of any responsibility for the wars and atrocities, the proceedings appeared to be having the opposite effect. "He has decided to work for the Serbian people and not for himself. He has broken the media lies produced about us," boasted one parliamentarian from Milosevic's Socialist Party.

Nor has Milosevic been totally alone outside Serbia. The International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, comprising activists, lawyers and intellectuals (including Harold Pinter and Ramsey Clark) has asserted that the "kangaroo court" with its "victor's justice" is illegitimate because the UN Security Council does not have explicit authority under Chapter VII of its charter to establish tribunals. Critics of the court also focused on small errors and confused witnesses in a prosecution case that began weakly. Some Albanians who took the stand seemed lost, failing to nail down the points sought by the prosecution or appearing overwhelmed by Milosevic's aggressive questioning.

The presiding judge, who sparred so fiercely with the defendant in preliminary proceedings, settled into a routine allowing him fairly wide latitude to cross-examine witnesses, only occasionally scolding, "That is enough, Mr. Milosevic." The schedule of the prosecution's case is constantly revised, as the defendant draws out lengthy (sometimes surprisingly well-prepared) cross-examinations stressing the violence of NATO, the Kosovo Liberation Army and even Al Qaeda against innocent Serbs.

It was easy to imagine Milosevic's performance sending quivers down spines at the US State Department and European foreign ministries as he threatened to call world leaders to the stand, highlight contradictions in the West's Balkans policy as well as civilian deaths caused by its actions, and plot the judicial free-for-all Western governments most fear. Bush Administration officials, appearing before the House Foreign Relations Committee on February 28, criticized delay and mismanagement at the tribunal and called for curtailing some investigations. The comments were delivered by Pierre-Richard Prosper, ambassador at large for war crimes issues, in the very hours when NATO forces were attempting, and failing, to arrest former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in Bosnia. (The Administration sees the arrest of Karadzic as key to its exit strategy for the Balkans and as a prerequisite for closure of the Hague tribunal on the former Yugoslavia by 2008.) Wire reports spoke of "abandoning" the UN system of tribunals and gave the impression that Prosper's view of international tribunals was not far from that of Milosevic himself. Indeed, Washington has been adamant in its rejection of the permanent International Criminal Court, and its position on prisoners from Afghanistan has raised concern in Europe over its commitment to international humanitarian law. Prosper subsequently traveled to The Hague to make more emollient, if less publicized, remarks. Whether the episode was purposefully contradictory, or a storm brewed by selective reporting, a message had been sent.

But for Milosevic, none of this matters. Playing to the media, cross-examining witnesses on tangential issues, making accusations against others (Washington, Sarajevo, Saudi Arabia) instead of addressing charges in the indictment, indeed rejecting the authority of the tribunal (while fully participating)--these are all classic defense strategies. They may influence some opinion in Belgrade and even internationally, but the only relevant audience in the tribunal's hybrid legal system is the panel of three judges who will examine the evidence against him.

Milosevic himself, in court, has several times confirmed a clear chain of military command within the Yugoslav forces. In the coming months, the prosecution can be expected to present senior witnesses from the Belgrade establishment who should go further to confirm a direct conspiracy from the top to commit crimes in Kosovo, particularly mass deportation. The Croatian and Bosnian cases are far more complex, taking place outside the territory over which Milosevic was the chief authority. But the prosecution has laid out detailed diagrams of control in what it calls a joint criminal enterprise, and by all accounts the legal teams on these cases are stronger. The record of Milosevic's responsibility for the wars in the Balkans over the past decade will be aired.

It nonetheless remains a concern that critics, both pro-Milosevic and anti-international law, will exploit the impossibility of anyone but those obsessively following the whole case (available live online at www.domovina.net) to make highly selective critiques. In doing so, they may raise their own profiles but will impede the justice and reconciliation in the region that is the underlying goal of the war crimes tribunal.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, China has undergone a dramatic makeover: from the most outspoken adversary of the United States to a highly appreciated ally. The bitter spy-plane episode is all but forgotten. Relations between the two countries continue to warm, and George W. Bush is scheduled to arrive in China for his first official visit on February 21--the thirtieth anniversary of Nixon's breakthrough visit. Though short (it ends February 22), Bush's visit promises to be long on symbolism and good will. President Jiang Zemin could not have asked for anything more.

At home, however, he is enmeshed in a bitter power struggle leading up to next fall's passing of the baton from the current leadership to the next generation of China's Communist leaders, as mandated by the party's new service-limitation rule. Jiang Zemin is desperate to place his supporters in crucial posts, to insure his continued dominance as an insider, even when out of office. His maneuvering has led to open opposition. The radicals abhor his dictatorial style and lavish personal spending. There are rumors that the bugging of his $120 million Boeing 767, discovered in October, may have been carried out by his opponents in the military. Even the supporters of Zhu Rongji, his liberal ally, are accusing Jiang of arrogance and incompetence. The conservatives accuse him of being qin mei (a "US kisser").

It's true that his government seems suddenly eager to please. In preparation for the summit, it has released several imprisoned scholars with American ties. Foreign Minister Qian Qichen has welcomed members of Taiwan's governing Democratic Progressive Party to China and called for renewed dialogue, in a significant softening of policy undertaken with one eye toward Taiwan, the other toward Washington. Similarly calculated was the pledge of $150 million for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. And Chinese officials have made an effort to clear the United States of involvement in the bugging of Jiang's 767. No wonder a New York Times Op-Ed called Jiang "Our Man in Beijing."

On the other side, official Chinese media now fondly refer to W. as "Little Bush," in deference to his father. Little Bush has granted China permanent most-favored-nation trade status, calling it "a final step in normalizing US-China trade relations." Also, after years of resistance, US officials recently threw their support behind China's bid to host the Olympics in 2008.

So what's wrong with this picture? Hidden behind the new amiable facade are long-term problems--China's rapid economic growth and increasing political influence in Asia have placed it on a collision course with the United States, inspiring nationalistic posturing and encouraging military spending in both countries. Witness the US missile defense plan, aimed at limiting China's threat to Taiwan, and China's accelerated arms development program and massive purchase of Russian weapons in recent years. On the economic front, Chinese imports are creating a huge trade deficit for the United States--its largest with any trading partner, including Japan.

Meanwhile, things are far from well in China [see Jiang Xueqin, "Letter From China," page 23]. Its current leadership can hardly keep the lid on the boiling caldron of contradictions between the growing primitive capitalism and the rule of the Communist Party. An estimated 170 million people in China are currently unemployed or semi-employed, and millions more are expected to be added to the rolls as a result of China's joining the World Trade Organization, which will have a devastating impact on its agriculture. The corruption of the business and political elite has made the polarization between rich and poor more extreme than at any time since the establishment of the People's Republic. The malcontents are turning violent. Between November 25 and December 15, 2001, China was rocked by twenty-eight deliberate explosions and several assassinations of party officials, which prompted top national leaders to convene three consecutive meetings in Beijing. Targets of China's internal "terrorist" attacks include factories, housing facilities, train depots and police stations across the country.

Given these circumstances, it seems wise for Bush to steer clear of commitment to the troubled lame-duck Chinese leadership. He will be tempted to enjoy the photo-ops and allow Chinese leaders to get away with suppressing minority rights in China's border regions by invoking the goals of the new alliance against terrorism--especially in the Muslim province of Xinjiang. But if China is to become a stable and reliable long-term ally in the region, Americans will have to quit their cowboy swaggering, which has recently triggered strong anti-American sentiment among the Chinese, and use the lull in mutual antagonism to see to it that US corporate interests do not ignore labor and human rights abuses. Otherwise, there will be much more unrest to come.

President Hosni Mubarak is quite happy that the United States has decided to try civilian terrorist suspects in military courts. For ten years, Egypt has been taking fire from the West for court-martialing civilians; the new US policy, plus Britain's enactment on December 14 of a package of antiterrorism legislation that includes the right to hold suspects indefinitely, vindicates him. The US and British measures "prove that we were right from the beginning in using all means, including military trials, [in response to] these great crimes that threaten the security of society," Mubarak told the state-owned Al Gomhuriya newspaper in a December 16 interview. "There is no doubt that the events of September 11 created a new concept of democracy that differs from the concept that Western states defended before these events, especially in regard to the freedom of the individual."

In 1992 Mubarak, his regime under attack from a radical Islamist insurgency, authorized the referral of civilians to military courts on the grounds that such courts dispensed swift justice. Since 1997 there has been virtually no reported militant Islamist activity inside Egypt, but the trials are still going strong. In late November eighty-seven members of the alleged terrorist group Al Wa'ad ("The Promise") went on trial at the desert barracks of Haikstep east of Cairo, with another seven tried in absentia.

Despite the potentially grim outcome of the case--as leaders of a conspiracy that allegedly planned to assassinate Mubarak, some of the defendants could be sentenced to death--on some days there's almost a carnival atmosphere in the courtroom. The prosecution drew snickers from the audience when it tried to enter into evidence the group's arsenal, consisting of a baseball bat and an air rifle. Even the judge couldn't help but wisecrack as a state security officer, citing "secret sources who can be trusted" but could not be named, outlined how the defendants were attempting to overthrow the regime by assassinating, in addition to President Mubarak, a movie director who specializes in producing the closest that Egypt's censor will allow to skin flicks.

When the Al Wa'ad suspects were originally rounded up in May 2001, the papers reported that they had been sending money to Palestine and Chechnya. But after September 11, the defense says, the government wanted to show the United States that it was an active participant in the war on terror, so it added assassination charges and downgraded fundraising charges. So far the prosecution case is mostly confessions delivered to state security officers, which the defendants claim were extracted under torture.

Compared with Egypt's civilian courts, the standards of evidence in military courts are a bit looser. Procedurally, however, the two are much the same. The big difference is the outcome. Military trials are "like a movie," says defense lawyer Negad Al Borei. "They look like reality, but you know what will happen from the beginning."

According to the US State Department's 2000 report on human rights in Egypt, "the use of military courts to try civilians continued to infringe on a defendant's right to a fair trial before an independent judiciary.... While military judges are lawyers, they are also military officers appointed by the Minister of Defense and subject to military discipline. They are neither as independent nor as qualified as civilian judges in applying the civilian Penal Code." It will be interesting to see what the State Department says next year, now that military trials for civilians have become US policy.

Critical human rights reports, of course, never stopped the United States from considering Egypt its "strategic partner" in the war on terror, as State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in November. Nor, according to reports in both the Arab and US press, did such reports discourage the CIA from assisting in the extradition of alleged jihad activist Ahmed Naggar from Albania to Egypt, where a military court tried and convicted him in 1999. He was hanged early the next year.

Nor have they deterred the tribunals from processing alleged Islamists at a fairly brisk rate: The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights counted a total of thirty-two trials involving 1,001 defendants in 1999, of whom 625 were sentenced to prison and ninety-four sentenced to execution (only sixty-seven were actually executed). Mubarak declared that military courts "would only be used to confront terrorism." In 2000, however, fifteen members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has renounced violence since the 1970s, were given prison sentences of up to five years for "conspiring" to run for office in local and parliamentary elections.

Certainly, a few of those convicted over the past decade in Egypt's military trials were murderous fanatics. However, even when the trials deal with genuine militant groups, rights activists say, you rarely know which of the defendants are truly dangerous and which were simply picked up from the local mosque to round out the numbers.

Early in the 1990s, when bombs were exploding in Cairo and every week brought fresh reports of officers killed in the Islamist strongholds of southern Egypt, it was easy enough to figure out why the regime might resort to military trials. Perhaps they've continued after the demise of the militant movement partly because security officers want to show their utility (there have also been proceedings against a gay "conspiracy," an allegedly treasonous academic and a sacrilegious author in the past year). Perhaps they've continued because the regime just wants to keep Islamic activists on edge or feels it necessary to show that it's keeping up with the war on terror. Whatever the reason, the regime has certainly taken the West's "new concept of democracy" as a sign that it's on the right track.

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