Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Where am I?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The not-so-secret proxy war on Iran

Iran is accusing foreign powers -- Britain, Pakistan and the U.S. -- of being behind a recent bombing in its increasingly unstable Sistan-Baluchistan province that killed over 40 people, including at least five commanders of the Revolutionary Guard. Now, the Iranian regime -- like any other government -- has every reason to blame internal unrest on the meddling of some foreign enemies, but in this case their argument is at least plausible.

The New Yorker’s Sy Hersh reported last year that Jundullah, the Pakistan-based group that launched the attack on Iran, was receiving U.S. support -- with the knowledge of the Democratic Congress. According to Hersch, $400 million was dedicated to efforts “designed to destabilize the country’s religious leadership. The covert activities involve support of the minority Ahwazi Arab and Baluchi groups and other dissident organizations.”

Meanwhile, following earlier reports in 2007 from Hersh and others that the Bush administration was backing such militant groups to destabilize Iran -- and doing so in such a way as to avoid congressional oversight -- I asked then-Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), one of the richest and most powerful lawmakers in the supposedly co-equal branch of government known as the U.S. Senate (ha!), what he made of the news. While saying he'd “seen no intelligence that would verify" claims of covert U.S. support for anti-Iranian terrorist organizations, he conceded the Bush administration would "go to any lengths" to avoid the oversight of his committee, citing the White House's concealment of its illicit warrantless wiretapping program.

When I inquired what he was, you know, going to do about that, Rockefeller became condescending -- while revealing the extent of the executive branch’s control over the state and the Congress' inability (or rather, its unwillingness) to challenge the centralization of power (listen to an mp3 of the exchange):
ROCKEFELLER: Don't you understand the way Intelligence works? Do you think that because I'm Chairman of the Intelligence Committee that I just say 'I want it', and they give it to me? They control it. All of it. All of it. All the time. I only get, and my committee only gets, what they want to give me.
DAVIS: Is there any way someone, maybe not you, they can somehow press the administration to find something—if they're doing something that may be illegal—
ROCKEFELLER: I don't know that. I don't know that. I deal with Intelligence. That's it. They tend to avoid us.
DAVIS: Well, what do you think about these allegations?
ROCKEFELLER: I'm not—I don't comment on allegations. I can't. I can't afford to.
Though Rockefeller couldn't "afford" to comment on the allegations in 2007 -- and claimed he was powerless to investigate possible lawbreaking on the part of the Bush administration -- he nonetheless agreed to fund just the sort of covert activities we were talking about a year later, if Hersh's reporting is to be believed. And according to former National Security Council staffers Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, such activities continue to this day under the benevolent reign of Nobel laureate Barack Obama. In addition to support for Jundullah from Pakistan's intelligence service, they write that "President Obama inherited from his predecessor a number of overt programs for 'democracy promotion' in Iran, as well as covert initiatives directed against Iranian interests. Obama has done nothing to scale back or stop these programs - a posture that has not gone unnoticed in Tehran."

At the same time, members of both parties -- including the Congressional Progressive Caucus' Bob Filner (D-CA) -- publicly proclaim their support for the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a "cult-like" terrorist organization that sided with Saddam Hussein against their fellow Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, as I reported for In other words: while the Iranian regime may in general be no more trustworthy than any other government when it blames foreign meddling for its internal problems, in this case there is plenty of evidence to suggest the U.S. has supported -- and very well may be continuing to support -- groups like Jundullah.

To his credit, though, Obama has yet to label the Jundullah militants "freedom fighters", in keeping with the generally more subtle approach to empire management that characterizes liberal administrations. Who says there's no difference between the parties?

On the need for double standards on human rights

Robert Bernstein has a very silly Op-Ed in The New York Times this morning blasting Human Rights Watch, the organization he once headed for two decades, for the sin of “issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.” Now, one could argue that it is the Israeli government and its penchant for bombing densely populated urban centers that it is turning Israel into a pariah state, but Bernstein never gets around to actually examining the factual basis for Human Rights Watch's reports, instead arguing it improper to speak of the war crimes committed by the U.S. and its satellite Israel – nay, to even examine those crimes – in the same breath as those crimes committed by Official Enemies. We should “draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity on human rights,” Bernstein says, deploying the phrase “moral equivalence,” a favorite of neoconservatives and their liberal interventionist allies intended to demonstrate the absurdity of holding powerful Western countries to the same standards they seek to impose on others. Of course, at other times these very same folks bemoaning “moral equivalence” are busy bashing “moral relativism” – holding people to different standards because of their country or culture – so it's all very confusing.

Bernstein, meanwhile, rather than engage in the laborious process of actually fact-checking the credible claims of Israeli war crimes made by Human Rights Watch and others, or address the fact that hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza (about a dozen Israelis died, mostly soldiers), instead chooses to trot off a list of tired talking points about Israel as a shining beacon of liberal democracy – did you know that Israel has “probably more journalists per capita than any other country”? Bernstein doesn't present actual data, but it's “probably” true! – beset on all sides by brutal, despotic Arab regimes. And Iran, one mustn't forget about Iran, which according to Bernstein “has openly declared its intention not just to destroy Israel but to murder Jews everywhere. This incitement to genocide is a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

It's at this point one must conclude either Bernstein is either 1) an ignorant hack or 2) just plain stupid. For one, the Iranian regime – despite the often harsh rhetoric from its leadership and the ugly Holocaust denial of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – has never threatened to destroy Israel (intentional mistranslations aside), while the Israeli government and its allies like former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton publicly fantasize about obliterating Iran almost daily, ostensibly over its nuclear program.

But above all, Iran is home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel, with Tehran home to more than a dozen synagogues and roughly 25,000 Jews. “In fact I feel deep tolerance here toward Jews,” says Morris Motamed, a Jewish member of Iran's parliament. This suggests that if Iran's leadership really intends “to murder Jews everywhere”, as Bernstein asserts, they're not doing all that good of a job. Bernstein might have known this had he read the paper that published his essay.

It's a bit ironic that an essay implying Human Rights Watch's reports critical of Israeli actions in Gaza and Lebanon are inaccurate is itself based upon nothing but the author's own biases and pro-Israel talking points, but that's kind of the point. Nasty things said about those who refuse to accept U.S. hegemony need not be sourced, that they feel true is reason enough to repeat them. Claims of war crimes made against Israel or Western governments, on the other hand, most be proven beyond all doubt – every civilian casualty personally confirmed by a team of writers for The Weekly Standard – and, even if confirmed, are only allowed to be discussed in the context of Arab or Persian crimes. But covering up, downplaying or -- as is usually the case -- simply ignoring human rights abuses committed by Western democracies is the price of providing “clarity on human rights.”

Friday, October 16, 2009

Uncle Sam wants your kids

The AP puts it best: “The U.S. Army wants middle school students.” And indeed they do. According to the article, “The Army is collaborating with the National Association of School Boards to develop a so-called JROTC-plus program that would use the high school JROTC curriculum as a basis for a middle school program.” But the latest effort to instill the value of militarism in today’s youth is more subtle than in the past; rather than training kids to kill “gooks”, for instance, children are taught to kill “our brothers and sisters of the Orient.” Progress.

Still, some parents -- damned Naderites, most likely -- caught in the feverish grip of commonsense are likely to question whether the military’s interest in expanding its Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps to 6th and 7th graders might have some ulterior purpose, some raison d'être other than the stated goal of instilling the “values” of “citizenship, service to the United States, and personal responsibility and a sense of accomplishment.”

That’s why the military keeps folks like Colonel John Vanderbleek around. The director of the Army’s JROTC program, Vanderbleek allays parents’ fears, explaining that the program aims solely at inculcating American values in “students at that age before they make decisions that put them at risk.” Like joining the military, presumably.

Also, “If you get into the leadership program and see what it is, you lose suspicion that they are recruiting,” says Vanderbleek, the reason Congress authorized the military to start ROTC/JROTC programs in the 1916 National Defense Act of course being not to recruit officers for the U.S.'s impending involvement in World War I -- heavens no -- but to teach young men basket weaving and how to walk little old ladies across the street.

And the military recruiters that hung around my high school chatting up 14 year olds about the supreme awesomeness that is the U.S. armed forces were there because they just really liked Taco Tuesdays.

Today's mystery

Why is my orange from South Africa? And does this mean somebody out there in Johannesburg is enjoying a sweet, succulent Florida orange right now?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

I'll repeal 'don't ask', just don't tell

In remarks aimed at reassuring the gay community that the lack of progress under his administration on issues they care about shouldn't be interpreted as a sign he doesn't want their votes, President Barack Obama told an audience at the Human Rights Campaign's Washington headquarters that "my commitment to you is unwavering", promising -- while offering no timeframe for doing -- to repeal the so-called "don't ask, don't tell policy" forbidding gays from serving openly in the military. An as the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons points out, the White House communications office did not hand out embargoed copies of the president's remarks beforehand to the press, breaking with normal procedure, and has yet to post either the video or transcript of the speech online.

It's almost as if Obama wants to reassure an important Democratic constituency -- in terms of financial and electoral support -- that he is on their side, but he doesn't want his potentially polarizing (rhetorical) support for them to be well known amongst the general public. I wonder why?

UPDATE: via Steve Clemons on Twitter: "pleased that White House finally gets out Obama's gay policy speech from HRC dinner - but darn, just in time to miss Sunday news show cycle!"

What an unfortunate coincidence. They really ought to get some professionals over there at the White House to avoid these kinds of . . . mistakes.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The speech Obama ought to give

"I am extremely flattered by the Nobel Committee's decision, but at the same time I can't help but wonder: what have I actually done to deserve it? For far too long these awards have been given to heads of state - people like me - who have more often been obstacles to peace than proponents of it, ignoring the contributions to peaceful cooperation millions of people make in their daily lives; mothers and fathers who teach their children that no, violence is not the answer; the activists fighting alongside the downtrodden for justice; the clergy who commit their lives to helping those less fortunate. These are the people we should be honoring. So while I am flattered by the committee's decision, I must also humbly reject it, asking only that the prize be given to someone more deserving."

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Beware the Islamic Republic of Candyland!

"Fafblog!" -- by far my favorite largely dormant blog -- has a timely rundown of what we know about Iran's covert, super-secret, hidden nuclear Islamo-fascist weapons program, helpfully broken down into a question-and-answer format. A selection:
Q: Is Iran a threat?
A: Oh yes. Even as we speak Iran is potentially starting the beginnings of a very possibly quite almost-real hypothetically nuclear weapons program!
Q: Oh no! How many nuclear weapons does Iran already have?
A: Counting warheads, ICBMs, mid- and long-range missiles, ABMs, tactical nukes, bunker-busters and submarine-based weaponry, the full nuclear arsenal of Iran at this moment is very rapidly just beginning to quite possibly approach a number just short of one!
Q: That makes them almost as deadly as the rogue nation of Whoville or the Islamic Republic of Candyland!
A: And they could be just months away from an actual bomb!
Q: But they've been just months away from a bomb for years now.
A: I know! Which means in terror years, Iran already has a bomb... in your child's precious brain!
Q: But that's where she keeps her sugarplum dreams!
A: That's why it's up to us to already have being stopped them!
Q: What will Iran do with nuclear weapons?
A: Terrible things. For a start, it will have them.
Q: Oh no!
A: And once it has them, it can threaten to use them, if anyone else tries to use them on them.
Q: There would be no defense against their self-defense.
A: They pose an existential threat to our ability to existentially threaten them.
And a question for those of you who have ever spent any time reading the pseudo-scholars at hate sites like Little Green Fascists over the years: "If we say Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's name three times, will the Hidden Imam pop out of our warblog and kill us with his hook hand?"

Ahmadinejad! Ahmadinejad! Ahmadin--

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Breaking: The Washington Post publishes an inaccuracy!

Michael Gerson is not a smart man. A former speech writer for President George W. Bush, his columns for The Washington Post reflect the unthinking acceptance of establishment conventional wisdom that typifies the paper, remarkable only for their consistent, sheer banality -- qualities that make one long for the intellectual ferocity and originality of a Tom Friedman essay. But enough about his qualifications.

In his latest column, a piece that argues President Obama, by "picking public fights on issues such as settlements and adopting a tone of neutrality in other controversies," may be inadvertently encouraging an Israeli attack on Iran. That's right: while his administration hasn't actually pressured Israel to stop it's settlement building on Palestinian lands -- an unambiguous violation of international law -- beyond occasionally noting that the settlements aren't helpful to the peace process (which even the Bush administration asserted from time to time), that Obama's "tone" sometimes implies a greater neutrality on Israel-Palestine issues than his actions would suggest is apparently reason enough for the Israelis to launch a preemptive strike on . . . Iran. That this says more about the aggressiveness and irrationally of the Israeli government is an idea Gerson does not entertain.

In addition to his limited capacity for original thought, Gerson has an extremely limited -- though politically convenient -- knowledge of history. While indicating he believes an Israeli attack on Iran would not be desirable at this moment, he nonetheless repeats a wonderful, fantastically imaginative fairy tale about the 1981 Israeli raid on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, claiming that Israeli "Prime Minister Menachem Begin had no idea whether the raid would stop the Iraqi nuclear program or merely slow it. But slowing it was reason enough." And in case you didn't get the message, later in the column he writes that "high-ranking Israeli officials have been telling American visitors that buying time may be worth it. The Osirak raid, after all, turned out to be an unexpectedly decisive blow."

When dealing with the Post, particularly its editorial page, it's best to assume whatever you're reading is bullshit. Such is this case here.

Far from "slowing" the Iraqi nuclear weapons program -- much less dealing it "an unexpectedly decisive blow" -- the Israeli attack on the Osirak reactor precipitated that weapons program, according to Iraqi scientists. As the BBC notes, "Dr Imad Khadduri, an Iraqi nuclear scientist who witnessed the Israeli bombing, says a full weapons programme began only after the Osirak attack." Before the attack, "he recalls, there was some 'dabbling but nothing sophisticated and focused'."

Further, as the Council on Foreign Relations' Richard Betts wrote in a 2006 article titled, "The Osirak fallacy," contrary to "prevalent mythology, there is no evidence that Israel's destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq's nuclear weapons program. The attack may actually have accelerated it." Obliterating the reactor "did not put the brakes on Saddam's nuclear weapons program because the reactor that was destroyed could not have produced a bomb on its own and was not even necessary for producing a bomb", and "the destruction of the reactor probably increased Saddam's incentive to rush the [weapons] program".

Gerson also cites the example of North Korea to claim "meticulous, multilateral cooperation [resulted] in spectacular counterproliferation failure", a fact that may encourage an Israeli attack on Iran. Of course, the alleged failure of diplomacy with North Korea over its nuclear program that Gerson bemoans was in fact brought about by his former boss; North Korea's nukes, after all, were produced after the Bush administration withdrew from bilateral talks and declared the country a member of the "axis of evil". Whoops.

In fairness, for all the mountain of bullshit his column is based on, Gerson does get around to getting a few things right, observing that, "On Iran, the Obama administration, while differing in some diplomatic methods, has adopted the same basic approach as the Bush administration": dangling a few carrots while seeking to build support for crippling sanctions, all the while fearmongering about a nuclear weapons program that the White House has yet to provide evidence even exists.

Gerson also gets this (almost) right: "A virtual blockade of the Iranian economy -- aggressively cutting off shipping, banking and refined petroleum -- would not be a half-measure. It would be an act close to war." Indeed, except it wouldn't be an act "close" to war, it would be a declaration of one. Here's hoping the Obama administration realizes that -- and that it's aware fomenting another military confrontation in the Middle East would be A Very Bad Thing for all involved, but especially for the innocent civilians who always bear the brunt of the consequences for their governments' actions.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Obama the radical?

Much of the American right is convinced, at least rhetorically, that Barack Obama is something of a radical -- a Marxist, a commie -- intent on fundamentally changing American society in keeping with his far-left vision for the country. Despite all evidence suggesting the opposite is true, that he is a centrist conciliator more interested in aligning himself with the establishment consensus than overthrowing it, a similar phenomenon can be found on the left, with Daily Kos diarists, single-payer advocates and others having convinced themselves that the same guy responsible for ramping up U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, fearmongering about a non-existent Iranian nuclear weapons program and regularly proclaiming his admiration for Ronald Reagan, is secretly -- deep down inside -- One Of Them: a liberal, a progressive, the second coming of FDR.

The reason for this isn't so hard to understand: Democratic and Republican partisans, respectively, want -- need -- to believe that their votes matter, that there truly are meaningful differences between the parties, that they aren't merely useful idiots for those in power. That Obama is extending the Bush administration's record rather than breaking with it is no matter; those on the left can take solace in small but supposedly signal victories -- that their guy speaks in complete sentences, favors stem cell research, doesn't seem to enjoy bashing The Gays so much (even as he maintains nearly all the modes of state-enforced discrimination) -- while those on the right can point to supposed "radicals" like former green jobs czar Van Jones and Obama's preferences in leafy green vegetables (no, seriously) to convince themselves the president is one of them liberal ivory-tower types bent on destroying the nuclear family and America's defenses. Such is politics.

But as Reason's Jesse Walker writes, "Radicals tear down centers of power." Obama, on the other hand, when "faced with a crumbling institution, his first instinct is to prop it up":
That was most obviously true with the bailouts, a series of corporate preservation programs that began before he took office and have only increased since then. Candidate Obama voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the 2008 bailout for failing financial institutions, and he personally intervened to urge skeptical liberals to support it. After Congress refused to authorize a bailout of the car companies, Obama followed George W. Bush in ignoring the plain language of the law and funneling funds to them anyway. Like Bush before him, Obama took advantage of such moments to adjust the institutional relationship between these nominally private businesses and the state: firing the head of General Motors, urging the company to consolidate brands, pushing for new controls on Wall Street pay. But the institutions themselves were preserved, in some cases enriched. The radical thing to do would have been to let them collapse.
Read the rest.