Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Cuba Wars

Inter Press Service has published my latest piece examining U.S. policy toward Cuba in the age of Obama as well as a recent book, The Cuba Wars, by Daniel Erikson, a fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, DC, detailing the bipartisan support for the long-running economic war against the island nation. An excerpt:
WASHINGTON, Sep 21 (IPS) - U.S. citizens of Cuban descent are once again free to travel to Cuba and send an unlimited amount of money to their relatives on the island, but for the most part U.S. policy toward the communist nation hasn't changed under President Barack Obama.

Since taking office, Obama - who called the nearly half-century U.S. embargo on Cuba a "miserable failure" as a candidate for Senate - has largely followed the lead of his predecessors, extending just this month a near total prohibition on trade and travel with Cuba for most U.S. citizens, declaring the embargo "in the national interest of the United States".
Read the rest.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Iran not building nukes, U.S. intelligence agencies tell Obama

Newsweek reports:
The U.S. intelligence community is reporting to the White House that Iran has not restarted its nuclear-weapons development program, two counterproliferation officials tell NEWSWEEK. U.S. agencies had previously said that Tehran halted the program in 2003.
The officials, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said that U.S. intelligence agencies have informed policymakers at the White House and other agencies that the status of Iranian work on development and production of a nuclear bomb has not changed since the formal National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's "Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities" in November 2007. Public portions of that report stated that U.S. intelligence agencies had "high confidence" that, as of early 2003, Iranian military units were pursuing development of a nuclear bomb, but that in the fall of that year Iran "halted its nuclear weapons program." The document said that while U.S. agencies believed the Iranian government "at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons," U.S. intelligence as of mid-2007 still had "moderate confidence" that it had not restarted weapons-development efforts.
Keep this in mind the next time White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs -- taking his cue from U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and President Obama himself -- insists Iran needs to "walk away from their . . . ballistic nuclear weapons program."

(h/t to reader Antonio)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The latest in lies on Iran

The Obama administration has agreed to engage Iran in six-party talks with Iran over a range of issues, which, insofar as it serves as a substitute for air strikes, is a good thing. But any hope these talks will promote serious change in U.S.-Iran relations is tempered by the Obama White House’s insistence that Iran’s IAEA-inspected nuclear activities are cover for an active weapons program, a stance taken right from the Bush-Cheney playbook that is even more indefensible in light of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran (pdf) -- which continues to be the official consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies -- that any weapons program Iran may have had ended more than five years ago.

That Dennis Ross, the administration’s “senior Iran policy maker”, according to The New York Times, who was recently promoted from this position at the State Department to serve on the National Security Council in the executive branch, has argued in the pages of Newsweek that the “more Washington shows it’s willing to engage Iran directly,” the greater the chance the Europeans and “other parties, will feel comfortable ratcheting up the pressure” -- a euphemism for another euphemism, “smart sanctions” -- providing yet another reason to doubt these upcoming talks will yield much progress.

Consider that just a day after the administration announced it would accept Iran’s offer of talks, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs declared that the “Iranians have responsibilities to the international community to walk away from their . . . ballistic nuclear weapons program”, adding, “That's what the focus from our side will be in these talks and that's our goal." This isn’t the first time Gibbs, who one presumes chooses his words carefully when it comes to sensitive foreign policy issues, has referred to an Iran “nuclear weapons program” either -- see here, here and here.

Meanwhile, on Friday State Department spokesman Philip Crowley asserted that Iran is “out of compliance with their obligations under the NPT, IAEA, Security Council resolutions," a curious claim given Iran's absolute right under the NPT, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to develop civilian nuclear technology. Additionally, over the past few months, top ranking U.S. officials -- including ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the president himself -- have all asserted Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

Now, this would all be very strange behavior if one believed the administration is sincere in is stated to desire to open a new chapter in U.S.-Iran relations. After all, the IAEA, which inspects Iran’s nuclear facilities, declares in its most recent report that there’s no sign Iran is diverting its nuclear fuel to a weapons program (pdf). And the incoming head of the agency has said he’s seen “no evidence” Iran is pursuing nukes. Further, Obama’s pick to be Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year when asked whether Iran was seeking to produce highly-enriched uranium for a bomb that “Iran has not yet made that decision” in the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community. In addition, despite Gibbs’ linkage between Iran’s missile and nuclear programs, Blair explicitly rejected the notion that Iran’s ballistic missiles were intended to someday be outfitted with nukes, noting that these “same missiles can launch vehicles into space”.

Rather than a breakthrough, it appears the Obama administration is angling to use talks with a Iran as a show of good faith intended as a pretext for the "crippling sanctions" Secretary Clinton and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are seeking to impose on Iran. In late 2007, based on an interview I conducted with House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (CT), I reported that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had reneged on her promise to hold a vote on a measure declaring it the sole right of Congress under the U.S. Constitution, not the executive, to authorize military action against Iran. Perhaps now would be a good time to bring that bill back up for consideration, if only so the Democratic leadership could soothe concerns its anti-war rhetoric during the Bush administration was motivated more by partisanship and a desire to win elections than principle or humanitarianism, while also reasserting Congress' role in guiding foreign policy.

Any bets on whether that will happen?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

WSJ: Iran & Venezuela fight U.S. imperialism . . . and Ecuador?

Rupert Murdoch has made noises about eventually charging for all of his news outlets’ online content. Perhaps he’s planning on using some of that hypothetical money on s fact-checker or two?

Writing in Murdoch's Wall Street Journal, the distinguished Robert Morgenthau, district attorney of New York City since 1974 (jurisdiction: the world), warns of an incipient Iran-Venezuela “axis of unity” -- the word “axis”, or “an imaginary line about which a body rotates”, being super scary -- in a column that fails, in often hilarious ways, to fulfill its overheated rhetoric.

To begin with, Morgenthau writes that signs of an “evolving partnership” between Venezuela and Iran “began to emerge in 2006” and that, a year later, “during a visit by Mr. Chávez to Tehran, the two nations declared an ‘axis of unity’ against the U.S. and Ecuador.”

It would be silly to expect absolute fidelity to the truth from a publication like the WSJ, but errors as glaring as these shouldn’t have gotten past the paper boy, much less the editors. That Morgenthau thinks Venezuela has declared itself in an axis against Ecuador -- whose president, Rafael Correa, was accused in a recent WSJ editorial of being an agent of both Hugo Chavez and the FARC -- is truly stunning in its ignorance. The rest of his piece isn’t much better.

We are all supposed to be very afraid, Morgenthau argues, because “a number of Iranian-owned and controlled factories have sprung up in remote and undeveloped parts of Iran”. We are told these factories are in “ideal locations for the illicit production of weapons,” though he concedes that actual evidence of such production “is limited.” I believe he means nonexistent, otherwise he probably would have led with it.

Moving on, Morgenthau claims that “[i]ntelligence gathered by my office” suggests “Hezbollah supporters in South America are engaged in the trafficking of narcotics.” Repeat: not Iranian agents, not members of Hezbollah (which, by the way, enjoys popular support in Lebanon, suggesting its not merely an Iranian proxy), but merely “Hezbollah supporters”. To propagandists like the New York DA, no doubt drunk off the power of throwing people in prison for more than 30 years, “Hezbollah supporter” = Hezbollah = Iranian government. Back in the real world, though, I can't help but wonder: this is really the best they've got?

A “GAO study also confirms allegations of Venezuelan support for FARC, the Colombian terrorist insurgency group,” Morgenthau continues. And indeed, a July 2009 GAO report (pdf) does state that “Venezuela has extended a lifeline to Colombian illegal armed groups, and their continued existence endangers Colombian security gains achieved with U.S. assistance”. This is, of course, “according to U.S. and Colombian government officials.” Moregenthau’s assertion that a government report citing government officials “confirms” the government’s claims is about as dishonest as Bush administration officials planting a story about Iraqi WMDs in The New York Times and then trotting out Dick Cheney to cite said story as proving the claims they planted.

But as Reuters reports, Morgenthau's apparent lack of evidence -- or a basic understanding of Latin American politics -- is proving to be no obstacle to his plan to investigate Venezuelan banks for allegedly allowing Iran to circumvent economic sanctions (heaven forbid). "The ostensible reason the Iranian-owned bank Banco Internacional de Desarrollo was opened in Caracas was to expand economic ties with Venezuela," Morgenthau said in a speech this week. "Our sources and experiences lead me to suspect an ulterior motive. A foothold into the Venezuelan banking system is a perfect 'sanctions-busting' method -- the main motivator for Iran in its banking relationship with Venezuela."

So again, while there appears to be no firm evidence, Morgenthau nonetheless leaps in one sentence from a suspicion there is “an ulterior motive” in the Iran-Venezuela financial relationship – to beat the sanctions regime – to an unqualified assertion that beating said sanctions is “the main motivator” behind Iran's dealings in Venezuela. Between the two statements is where one would expect to find the facts behind Morgenthau's argument; that they're not present is perhaps indicative of the strength of his case. Like the Obama and Bush administrations' fearmongering about an Iranian nuclear weapons program their own intelligence officials say doesn't exist, there isn't much to Morgenthau's claims beyond speculation and innuendo. But then scaring Americans about the purported threats posed by swarthy and troublesome foreigners has always been a fact-free endeavor.

Monday, September 07, 2009

I fought the law, but . . .

Under the impression that the American justice system treats all who come before it equally? You haven't been paying attention:
JERICHO, Ark. – It was just too much, having to return to court twice on the same day to contest yet another traffic ticket, and Fire Chief Don Payne didn't hesitate to tell the judge what he thought of the police and their speed traps.

The response from cops? They shot him. Right there in court.
According to the Associated Press, Mr. Payne was unarmed when one of the seven cops -- 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 -- in the courtroom shot him in the back, grazing the finger of another officer. Since this is America, after all, surely there will be some repercussions for this loose cannon unworthy of calling himself one of Jericho's finest . . . right?
Prosecutor Lindsey Fairley said Thursday that he didn't plan to file any felony charges against the officer or Payne. Fairley, reached at his home, said Payne could face a misdemeanor charge stemming from the scuffle, but that would be up to the city's judge. He said he didn't remember the name of the officer who fired the shot.
To recap: The prosecutor has no plans to file charges against the police officer that shot an unarmed man in the back, claiming he doesn't even remember the cop's name, so inconsequential were his actions. The guy complaining about unfair tickets, though? He faces a possible "misdemeanor charge stemming from the scuffle."

America has long had a multi-tiered justice system, with agents of the state and the wealthy and politically connected generally afforded leniency (think of the establishment outcry whenever there's even talk of holding political elites accountable for their actions), while those not fortunate enough to have the right friends, attorneys or occupation fill America's prisons -- which along with missiles seem to be the only thing this country makes anymore. In the past, though, declaring that the state was stabbing -- or shooting -- its citizens in the back with its policies was always intended more as a metaphor than a literal reference.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Elite journalists stick up for their friends

David Broder, a columnist for the Washington Post, has been a faithful defender of the ruling elite -- pardon the redundancy -- and criminal immunity for the powerful for the past four decades. Indeed, he boasts of his support for Gerald Ford’s “courageous” pardoning of disgraced war criminal Richard Nixon in his most recent column, and openly sides with former Vice President Dick Cheney (also a disgraced war criminal . . . noticing a pattern?) and his belief that it is “a dangerous precedent when a change in power in Washington leads a successor government not just to change the policies of its predecessors but to invoke the criminal justice system against them.” Expressions of extreme sycophancy like this are why Broder maintains his tremendous access to power, and helps explains why he’s considered “the most respected and influential political journalist in the country” -- by the groups and corporations that pay him thousands of dollars to hear him share his banal observations live.

But even a soon-to-be octogenarian like Broder doesn't know everything about life and still needs to ask questions. Here he is perplexed by what might happen should CIA torturers and murderers -- over 100 people died in U.S. custody -- be prosecuted for their crimes:
If accountability is the standard, then it should apply to the policymakers and not just to the underlings. Ultimately, do we want to see Cheney, who backed these actions and still does, standing in the dock?
Um, yes? And get Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush while you’re at. Somehow I doubt locking up a few powerful people who committed and/or authorized violent crimes -- notice Broder doesn’t spend much time challenging that latter fact -- will adversely impact the lives of 300 million Americans. Not prosecuting powerful people who commit crimes (“the Broder rule”), however, seems like a fine way of ensuring future members of the ruling establishment flaunt the law with impunity. You certainly can’t argue that Ford’s courageous pardon of Nixon, for whom Cheney once worked, did anything to make future crimes by the executive branch less likely.

Perplexingly, Broder and his fellow media stars are consistently more incensed over the prospect of the rich and powerful going to prison than the scandalous fact that the U.S. is home to the largest prison population in the history of the world. One in 100 Americans are incarcerated, or 2.2 million people, many for the non-violent drug offenses. Yet the tangible harm inflicted by the state via the prison-industrial-complex on millions of families torn apart because of punitive (and profitable!) laws criminalizing peaceful behavior is of much less concern to the Washington establishment than the hypothetical harm that may befall lovely people like Dick Cheney. That's probably because all their friends are the powerful, who as we know don't go to prison as easily as the rest of us -- the very idea that they might is shocking to the Washington power structure.

Broder and his ilk's willingness to defend those who have everything from the specter of accountability -- and the prospect of facing the same justice system that regularly tears apart those who have nothing -- is merely another way of saying thanks for last weekend's dinner party.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story

Whether you agree with every one of his policy prescriptions or not, one thing is for sure: Michael Moore consistently manages to enrage both wings of the respectable Washington political establishment, so he must be doing something right. His new film on the bailout of Wall Street and the state capitalist system, a favorite topic of discussion 'round these parts, comes out October 2nd. I have reason to believe it will be quite good.

Here's a preview of what to expect: