Thursday, January 31, 2008

Luis Posada Carriles and the Cuban Five

Luis Posada Carriles, an admitted terrorist who is widely believed to have masterminded the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976 that killed 73 people, currently lives free in Miami, Florida. Meanwhile, the so-called "Cuban Five" -- five Cuban intelligence agents who were spying on Cuban-American exile groups in Florida that have been linked to acts of terror -- are serving prison terms ranging from 15 years to two consecutive life sentences in maximum security prison, despite never having passed any classified U.S. government secrets to the Cuba.

My latest piece for Inter Press Service contrasts the two cases, and is now available online here. You can also read it over at CommonDreams or at

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Crisis in Gaza

Unfortunately, Dennis Perrin's analysis of the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and the response from prominent U.S. liberals -- or, more precisely, the lack thereof -- is spot on:
The official narrative is that the peace-loving U.S. and its dovish Israeli ally don't want to strangle Palestinians trapped in a rotting cage, but Hamas forces their hand. What's happening is more of a rescue mission -- to rid the Palestinian people of their Islamic captors and return them to the responsible arms of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who knows his place in the regional plan. The only way to do this is to squeeze the blood out of Gaza, for sometimes love must take violent forms in order to achieve lasting results. In this case, rough love includes closing all border crossings, cutting off food, medicine and fuel to the entire area, while shutting down Gaza's only power plant. That this accelerated the death and disease rate is unfortunate, but necessary. Remember when you tried to housebreak your first dog? All those hours spent beating it, starving it, denying it water and clean shelter? What Israel is doing to Gaza is a bit like that, only to 1.5 million strays.

Read the rest here.

And over at Juan Cole's blog, check out this op/ed by Stanford University professor Joel Beinen for more context on the situation.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bill Richardson to Negotiate with the FARC?

This afternoon I spoke with Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-MA), who recently returned from a trip to Colombia where he was investigating allegations that some U.S. corporations may be providing support for right-wing paramilitary groups -- as Cincinnati-based Chiquita was found to be doing last year. Asked whether he found anything implicating other U.S. companies, he told me: "I really don’t want to disclose that at this point in time, but yes, it was very productive, it was significant."

Delahunt has also been involved in trying to mediate a solution to the FARC hostage situation in Colombia, something I covered back in December for IPS. The FARC are said to be holding upwards of 700 people hostage, including three U.S. military contractors. A number of people have suggested that former U.S. President Jimmy Carter or New Mexico Governor (and former U.N. ambassador) Bill Richardson could play a role negotiating with the FARC.

Asked about either as a possibility, Delahunt told me: "[Bill Richardson] gave a call to [Congressman] Jim McGovern (D-MA), [and] it’s my understanding that he wants to get involved."

Richardson's involvement has the potential to be a breakthrough, as the Uribe government in Colombia certainly isn't interested in having Hugo Chavez renew his role in negotiations (after being fired in November). The FARC would also like to have a high-profile American to negotiate with, and Richardson would likely have more freedom to do so as he wouldn't be as restricted as a member of the Bush administration or a sitting U.S. Congressman might be.

I'll have more on this story and the upcoming Colombian Free Trade Agreement next week.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Israeli blockade of Gaza

The Christian Science Monitor has an important piece by reporter Dan Murphy on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza. Israel, in response to a continual stream of rocket fire, has shut off all electricity and aid to the Gaza Strip, which has been under Hamas control since last June. As Murphy notes, Israel's collective punishment has predictably hurt the weakest and most vulnerable members of Palestinian society:

Almost all of Gaza's bakeries were shut on Monday, and the United Nations – which distributes the food relief that 90 percent of Gaza's 1.5 million residents rely on – says it may have to halt food distribution by Friday, because they're running out of plastic bags and fuel.

Mr. Yusuf, a welder who lost his job after the Hamas takeover because most construction in Gaza stopped after Israel cut off cement shipments, says the family has been close to getting [their sick daughter] Mara out on three occasions, only to be tripped up by the Kafka-esque procedures for leaving the territory.

"The Tel Aviv hospital told us they could take us Jan. 10, for instance. But then the security clearance only came through on the 11th. The hospital told us that they didn't have a space for us that day, and that we're not allowed to use the security clearance unless we have a guaranteed spot at the hospital."

Khaled Radi, the spokesman for the Hamas-run Gaza health authority, says the ministry has enough diesel to run "three, maybe four, days" without fresh shipments. "We've been told quite clearly by Israel: Stop the rockets, and then we'll send supplies. But I have no control over the rockets."

Ayman Sisa, the director of the dialysis department at Shifa Hospital, says he's had to cut back weekly treatments for patients from three times a week to two, because 10 of his machines have broken down and he hasn't been able to import spare parts. "A lot of these people would be dead in a week without their treatments," he argues. "But if more machines go down, we'll have to cut back further."

Last month I covered a congressional hearing on U.S. aid to Palestine (or, more accurately, U.S. aid to Fatah) for IPS, and was struck by the lawmakers' total lack of concern over the humanitarian situation in Gaza. In U.S. politics, aid to Palestine is talked about in terms of how it will affect Israel's security -- not how it will affect the lives of actual Palestinians.

Friday, January 18, 2008

U.S. Policy Toward Cuba

Earlier this week I attended a conference sponsored by the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, which is home to a number of former Bush administration officials such as Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton, that sought to examine a U.S. role in a post-Castro, "free Cuba". If you think the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have deterred the neo-cons' penchant for elaborate nation-building schemes, think again.

Click here to read my piece for Inter Press Service on the event, with additional reporting by Jim Lobe.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Trade Soars as Labor Rights Languish

On Thursday the Economic Policy Institute held a forum on the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). I covered the event for Inter Press Service, and my article is now available online. An excerpt:
Passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000, AGOA allows certain goods from Sub-Saharan African countries -- notably petroleum products and apparel -- to enter the United States duty-free and largely without any quota restrictions. It also encourages the growth of the textile industry in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) by extending duty-free market access to apparel made using foreign sources of fibre, largely from Asia.

The agreement currently affects trade relations with 39 countries and has led to a large increase in trade between the United States and Africa. According to the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, in 1999 U.S. imports from Africa amounted to roughly 13.7 billion dollars. In 2006, the last year for which data is available, that number rose to 59.2 billion dollars.

But labour rights activists say the increase in trade and jobs brought by AGOA has not led to a corresponding improvement in conditions for workers. They argue many labourers work up to 16 hours a day for nothing more than the bare minimum legal wage, which they say falls well short of covering the cost of food, shelter and transportation.

"Our goal shouldn't simply be to provide any job through our [U.S.] trade policy," Bama Athreya, executive director of the International Labour Rights Forum, told attendees at the forum, "but to provide really decent jobs that come with dignity, respect, and the possibility that these workers can prosper in the future and expect a better life for their children."

Click here to read the rest.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

It's a start...

Well it looks like the FARC made good on their promise to release two of the people they had been holding hostage in the Colombian jungle for the past several years, Consuelo González and Clara Rojas. Gonzales is a former Colombian congresswoman, while Rojas was an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt who, along with Betancourt, was kidnapped inside of FARC-controlled territory while campaigning in February 2002. While in captivity Rojas gave birth to a boy, named Emmanuel, who was supposed to be released along with her and Gonzales as a goodwill gesture to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for his efforts to negotiate a hostage-prisoner exchange between the FARC and the Colombian government. However, in a exceedingly bizarre twist, it turns out the boy, now three years old, somehow had escaped from the FARC years earlier -- apparently without the FARC realizing. That fact was revealed by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe just last month, and DNA testing shows he is indeed the son of Gonzales de Perdomo.

It'll be interesting to see if the release of the two hostages will restart the negotiations that were cut short by the Uribe government in November. The FARC are still thought to be holding around 750 more hostages, including three U.S. military contractors.

Last month I covered the FARC hostage situation for Inter Press and spoke with Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, who had been working with President Chavez to negotiate a hostage release.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Apparently the U.S. State Department maintains a blog entitled "DIPNOTE," a name that, shall we say, lends itself to some ridicule.

But that's not why I'm mentioning it. I just so happened to visit the site earlier today when I stumbled across the following "Question of Week":
Lots of polls show that foreign publics have a poor opinion of the U.S. Some people argue that this means the U.S. should change its policies to make them more popular outside the U.S. Others contend that foreign policy decisions need to reflect U.S. national interests, irrespective of their popularity.

Does the popularity of United States matter and should it affect policy decisions?

I could write a rather lengthy, pretentious post explaining, in detail, why foreign opinion of the United States matters ever so much. Instead, I'd like to just point out the picture that the U.S. State Department chose to represent the United State's unpopularity abroad:

Now, obviously the protesters in this picture are in front of the White House, which last time I checked was firmly entrenched in these here United States. A conspiracist might ask, is the State Department saying anti-war protesters aren't Americans?! But that's not the angle I want to take. Rather, I think the picture points out the ridiculousness of the question's premise. I mean, why should the opinion of foreigners have an impact on U.S. foreign policy when clearly the opinion of Americans doesn't matter? After all, Democrats took over Congress in 2006 due in large part to the American public's unhappiness with the war in Iraq. So what happened? President Bush sent more troops there -- and Congress continued to appropriate hundreds of billions of dollars for a war most of its members claim to oppose. But don't worry, the 2008 election is already shaping up to be the Most Important Ever. And this time things will really change.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The inanity of the New York Times

I don't usually comment on sports, and I can't say I very much care whether Roger Clemens has or has not used steroids, but this article by Katie Thomas in today's New York Time, "Nonverbal Actions Add to Clemens's Story", is really something special:
From his parched, pursed lips to the jut of his shoulders, Roger Clemens was holding something back, three body-language analysts who watched him over the past two days said Monday.

“There’s more to the story,” said Janine Driver, a body-language consultant who trains law enforcement officers in truth detection. “There are several probing points that lead me to believe that he’s not going to be completely truthful.”

Now first off, can you imagine the Times asking "body-language consultants" to analyze a speech by Dick Cheney or George W. Bush? Or to analyze Colin Powell's infamous presentation to the United Nations on the eve of the Iraq war? (As a side note, the White House website that hosts the transcript of Powell's speech -- which has since been thoroughly debunked-- has for a headline "Iraq: Denial and Deception". No comment necessary.)
The answer is, "of course not." An establishment newspaper like the Times, which itself was extremely influential in building public support for the war in Iraq, would never think to critique the body language of a member of the political establishment like they would a Major League Baseball player. Clemens, who certainly isn't the most sympathetic of characters, is a safe target for the Times' choice of analysis, while a respected figure like Colin Powell is not.

But there's also another reason why the "paper of record" would never apply the type of "analysis" they put Clemens through to a member of the political establishment, as the Times reveals later in the story:
In the “60 Minutes” interview, for example, the analysts noticed that Clemens swallowed hard, looked down, and licked and pursed his lips when answering questions — all signs, they said, that he might not have been telling the truth. “That’s indicative of deception, that’s indicative of stress,” said Joe Navarro, a retired F.B.I. agent who trains intelligence officers and employees for banks and insurance companies. Navarro has also written a book about how to tell whether someone is bluffing in poker.

Nevertheless, Navarro warned against concluding that Clemens was lying. Even the most skilled body-language experts are right in only about half of all cases, he said, and investigators often study body language to decide when to dig deeper. It is not evidence that someone has committed wrongdoing; Clemens might have been showing stress from defending against potentially career-killing allegations. “He clearly shows signs of distress, but we don’t know why he’s being distressed,” Navarro said. [emphasis mine]

In other words, body-language analysis is more or less a fraud. Any type of analysis that is only right in "about half of all cases" is no better than mere intuition (though the CIA may still be jealous of that success rate). Nevertheless, it's perfectly acceptable to apply said analysis to someone like Roger Clemens, who most people view as being "guilty" of having used steroids. Applying it to President Bush or Condoleeza Rice? Not so much.

Another look at "Charlie Wilson's War"

Chalmers Johnson, the author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, reacts to the Hollywood-version of U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen as portrayed in the film, "Charlie Wilson's War", and he's none too pleased:
What to make of the film (which I found rather boring and old-fashioned)? It makes the U.S. government look like it is populated by a bunch of whoring, drunken sleazebags, so in that sense it's accurate enough. But there are a number of things both the book and the film are suppressing. As I noted in 2003,

"For the CIA legally to carry out a covert action, the president must sign off on -- that is, authorize -- a document called a 'finding.' Crile repeatedly says that President Carter signed such a finding ordering the CIA to provide covert backing to the mujahideen after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. The truth of the matter is that Carter signed the finding on July 3, 1979, six months before the Soviet invasion, and he did so on the advice of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in order to try to provoke a Russian incursion. Brzezinski has confirmed this sequence of events in an interview with a French newspaper, and former CIA Director [today Secretary of Defense] Robert Gates says so explicitly in his 1996 memoirs. It may surprise Charlie Wilson to learn that his heroic mujahideen were manipulated by Washington like so much cannon fodder in order to give the USSR its own Vietnam. The mujahideen did the job but as subsequent events have made clear, they may not be all that grateful to the United States."
In the bound galleys of Crile's book, which his publisher sent to reviewers before publication, there was no mention of any qualifications to his portrait of Wilson as a hero and a patriot. Only in an "epilogue" added to the printed book did Crile quote Wilson as saying, "These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. And the people who deserved the credit are the ones who made the sacrifice. And then we fucked up the endgame." That's it. Full stop. Director Mike Nichols, too, ends his movie with Wilson's final sentence emblazoned across the screen. And then the credits roll.

Neither a reader of Crile, nor a viewer of the film based on his book would know that, in talking about the Afghan freedom fighters of the 1980s, we are also talking about the militants of al Qaeda and the Taliban of the 1990s and 2000s. Amid all the hoopla about Wilson's going out of channels to engineer secret appropriations of millions of dollars to the guerrillas, the reader or viewer would never suspect that, when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, President George H.W. Bush promptly lost interest in the place and simply walked away, leaving it to descend into one of the most horrific civil wars of modern times.

I can't say I disagree with Johnson's take on the film, which he calls "imperialist propganda", though I was a bit more forgiving in my own review last month. While the film was indeed superficial in its account of the history of U.S. involvement with the mujahideen -- and laughably jingoistic in its portrayal of Russian soldiers -- I wasn't expecting much to begin with, Hollywood being what it is. That said, I did find Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of a CIA agent to be pretty entertaining, if only for his obscenity-laced tirades against his higher-ups at the agency.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Iowa Fallout

Now that Barack Obama has won the Iowa caucus, one can be sure that the Clinton campaign is preparing a major push back to highlight the "contrast" between Hillary and the current messianic savior of the liberal blogosphere.

Of course, if the Clinton campaign's efforts at contrast are anything like their attempts over the past few months -- they've already insinuated that Obama had a cocaine problem (could he have been a dealer?), and that he may be a muslim (gasp!) -- then expect this to get pretty ugly.

Any bets on when the rumor that Obama fathered a white child out of wedlock comes out?

Iowa Caucus Reaction

Over at A Tiny Revolution, Jonathan Schwarz is somewhat encouraged by Barack Obama's victory in the Democratic caucus, but not necessarily because of Obama's positions, but for what he appears to represent:
It's... a very good thing to have a viable politician who's not just "black" (by American standards) but has used cocaine, has a weird name, has Muslim family members, and has dated white women -- just as it was a good thing to have a president like Clinton who everyone knew had smoked pot and cheated on his wife. The forces of reaction have always counted on using such things to destroy anyone who gets in their way. If American society is becoming less insane in these areas and that tool is no longer available to reactionaries, it's a small but real step forward.

Meanwhile, Ezra Klein at The American Prospect can barely contain his enthusiasm following Obama's win, gushing:
Obama's finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don't even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I've heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.

American liberals criticize the cult of personality surrounding Ronald Reagan, and to a lesser extent George W. Bush, but many seem to fall over themselves when a "great communicator" on their side (the Blue Team) regurgitates the same empty platitudes and "the American dream" claptrap they rightly criticize when it occurs on the other side (the Red Team).
As Dennis Perrin notes in response to Klein's piece:
There are few things more nauseating than American liberals giddy over politicians. Their worst features rise to the surface and emit an acrid stench, perfume to the faithful, noxious to the rest. Saint Obama's victory in Iowa has many online libs on their knees today, hands stretched upward to the light, dopey gleam on their faces, tongues wagging uncontrollably.

As for the Republican side, Texas Congressman Ron Paul pulled in 10% -- more than twice the number who voted for former "national frontrunner" Rudy Giuliani. I never thought I'd see the day when a politician who calls the United States an "empire" and refers to 19th century anarchist Lysander Spooner on national television would be able to gain even half that amount in a Republican primary, especially one held in Iowa. As you may recall, Paul got into a spat with Giuliani earlier this year in a debate hosted by Fox News over the root causes of 9/11. Paul, a principled non-interventionist, argued that the U.S. troop presence on the Arabian peninsula and the continual bombing of Iraq throughout the 1990s played a large part in motivating the 9/11 hijackers -- a point confirmed by the 9/11 Commission Report and backed up by people such as Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA unit in charge of tracking Osama bin Laden. Naturally, Giuliani claimed to have never heard the concept of "blowback," and in true demagogic fashion, "demanded" that Paul retract his statement -- which he of course refused to do. At the time television pundits called the exchange a clear win for Giuliani that made him look "tough" in the face of the "crackpot" Ron Paul. As is so often the case with the punditocracy, however, they were wrong. Paul enjoyed tremendous exposure thanks to the exchange, which led to record-breaking fundraising for a guy most of these same pundits dismissed as "fringe," while Giuliani's campaign has crashed and burned.

It's also interesting to note that Paul spent less time than any other Republican candidate in Iowa -- even less than Giuliani, who has been trying to claim that he didn't try all that hard to do well there.

Of course, Paul's success hasn't stopped Fox News from excluding the antiwar Republican from a debate this weekend. Fox claims to only have room for five candidates -- Huckabee, Romney, Thompson, McCain, and Giuiliani -- and that they are only including those candidates who have registered double-digit support in national polls. Never mind that Paul is polling on par with Giuliani and beating Thompson in New Hampshire, and that the only actual verifiable poll -- the Iowa caucus -- showed Paul breaking into double-digits and beating one of the invited candidates; to Fox News, Paul's position on the war makes him unacceptable and "fringe," regardless of how the actual voters feel. [Insert quip regarding Fox News being "fair and balanced."]

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

A few weeks ago I went to a screening of the film "Charlie Wilson's War", which attempts to depict Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson's efforts to increase U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen in their war against the Soviets during the 1980s. While I found the film entertaining, I also found it predictably superficial when dealing with U.S. foreign policy. Though the creators of the film imply that U.S. support ultimately backfired, they never explain the how or why of it.

In one scene, Charlie Wilson meets with then Pakistani dictator General Zia, who demands that all U.S. support for the mujahideen -- hundreds of billions of dollars -- be distributed solely by the Pakistani intelligence services. It's never mentioned that the people the Pakistanis chose to fund were the religious zealots who became the Taliban. Rather, the filmmakers portray the blowback from U.S. support of the mujahideen as the result not of a policy that was poorly thought out and doomed from the beginning, but because Washington didn't "follow through" with money for schools and other nice things. It's telling that the screenplay is written by Aaron Sorkin as the film doesn't question the idea that the United States has any business funding rebel groups on the other side of the globe, but on the few reactionaries (in the film's case, congressmen other than Charlie Wilson) who lacked the vision to support aid for Afghan reconstruction (the film ends with a quote from Charlie Wilson: "we f----- up the endgame"). This portrayal follows Sorkin's "West Wing" which depicted a White House staffed largely by idealists trying to do good, if only to be thwarted by a few shortsighted lawmakers. However the view that things could have worked out in Afghanistan were it not for the lack of U.S. reconstruction dollars strikes me as woefully naive. The Afghan capital of Kabul has been inundated with NGO's and aid money following the U.S. invasion after 9/11, yet much of the country remains mired in official corruption and extreme poverty, with the looming threat of a resurgent Taliban. U.S. support for the mujahideen was bound to backfire, in my view, regardless of whether the United States funded reconstruction projects or not. You give a bunch of bad people guns and money and bad things are going to happen -- a fairly simple truism to me, but something U.S. policy makers have struggled to understand.

Also, as columnist Robert Scheer notes over at Truthdig, the film portrays the Soviets as soulless killers while the mujahideen are portrayed as nothing but a cruelly persecuted band of noble rebels:
The movie does not mention that the mujahedeen went to war against the Soviet-backed government then in power in Kabul after the government committed the unpardonable crime of allowing female students to attend rural schools. The film casually notes that Gen. Zia, the U.S. ally in this effort to bring “freedom” to Afghanistan, was, like so many of the movie’s heroes, a hard case full of contradictions, as exemplified by his having murdered Pakistan’s previous ruler, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Of course, I admit I could just be nitpicking. After all, not many people going to the movies are looking for a history lecture (unless, of course, it involves a secret treasure map written in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence -- but I digress). And at around 90 minutes, "Charlie Wilson's War" isn't nearly long enough to deal with the full history of U.S. aid for the mujahideen during the 1980s, at least not in a manner that could also be entertaining and funny. That said, I think it's important to note where the movie is wrong, as all too often it seems U.S. policy makers and the public at-large have bought into a Hollywood-inspired, fictionalized view of the U.S. role in the world (think "Saving Private Ryan") that frequently avoids or dismisses as mere aberrations the darker episodes in U.S. foreign policy history.

*As a side note, I've received a number of hits to this site from people searching for "Charlie Davis's War." I can only hope that this post will draw in even more unsuspecting moviegoers.