Thursday, April 30, 2009

The death of Salamo Arouch

The AP reports this morning the death of a remarkable man. During one late-night's decompressing about two months ago, I stumbled upon the movie about his life ("Triumph of the Spirit"), which focuses especially on his experiences (and those of his family, including his wife, father, and brother) in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. I highly recommend the movie, and am saddened by Mr. Arouch's passing.

Jewish death camp boxer dead at 86

The Associated Press
Thursday, April 30, 2009 10:11 AM

JERUSALEM -- Salamo Arouch, a Jewish boxer who survived the Auschwitz death camp by fighting exhibition bouts for Nazi officers and inspired a Hollywood movie about his life, has died in Israel, the Haaretz newspaper reported Thursday. He was 86.

Haaretz did not give the cause of death of the Greek-born fighter, but quoted his daughter Dalia Gonen as saying he had been unwell since suffering a stroke 15 years ago.

It said he died on Sunday but did not say where.

Born in the Greek town of Saloniki, Arouch became middleweight champion of the Balkans, but his professional career was cut short by World War II and the German invasion of his homeland.

Like thousands of other Saloniki Jews, he and his family and friends were deported to Auschwitz.

Arouch, ordered by the Nazis to fight other prisoners for their entertainment, survived the camp. At the end of the war he immigrated to British-ruled Palestine and saw the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.

His story was the basis for the 1989 movie "Triumph of the Spirit," starring Willem Dafoe.

Much of the film was made on location in Auschwitz, with Arouch on site as an adviser, Haaretz quoted his widow Martha as saying.

"He stayed there for three months, going through the process again with the actors," she told the paper." He was happy that something would remain of him after he passed on."

Funeral arrangements were not immediately known.

Is Iraq Coming Apart?

This is horrible to contemplate, but it looks as if Iraq may be starting to come apart again. Iraq's security forces are simply not up to the task of controlling various Sunni insurgent/resistance groups enough to make people feel really secure. The more that Baghdad is hammered, the less people will feel able to trust the forces of a still fragile central government, and the more incentive for Shiite groups like the long dormant Mahdi army to take up arms again, at least to protect the residents of Sadr City. Meanwhile, Mosul is still up for grabs, as is the situation in Kirkuk; there's been no real progress on Sunni-Shii reconciliation (and the Baath supporters of Saddam Hussein are still out there, still feeling very aggrieved and disenfranchised - and the Maliki government is adamantly opposed to letting them back into the affairs of state). And the more the Sunnis seem resurgent, the more ramped up become the fears of the Kurds in the north, who have indelible memories of suffering at the hands of Iraq's pre-2003 Sunni-dominated governments.

All of which confronts Mr. Obama with a huge problem.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The danger of an Israeli strike on Iran

Kudos to Walter Rodgers for this piece in the Christian Science Monitor. He makes the point well, and spells out very clearly the probable effccts of an Israeli bombing of Iran's nuclear facilties.

The danger of an Israeli strike on Iran

Oakton, Va. – The new Israeli prime minister recently appeared to give President Obama a blunt ultimatum: Stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons – or we will.

Benjamin Netanyahu's challenge (intimated in an interview he gave to The Atlantic magazine) smacks of unrealistic bravado and, worse, it appears to be a crude attempt to bully an American president into bombing Iran's nuclear installations.

The world should hope it's a hollow threat.

The consequences of a unilateral Israeli strike would be enormous if not disastrous. Mr. Obama cannot allow himself to be intimidated by Mr. Netanyahu, nor can he wink if the Israeli air force bombs Iran's nuclear facilities.

Israel has acted unilaterally to squash a perceived nuclear threat before. In 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin sent fighter jets to knock out Iraq's "Osirak" nuclear reactor. Israel claimed that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons and that it had no choice but to bomb it out of existence. In 2007, Israel bombed a facility in Syria it claimed was a nuclear reactor.

Any strike on Iranian reactors would be a different matter entirely. Osirak was a lone, poorly guarded, and inoperative nuclear plant that had a year earlier been damaged by an Iranian airstrike. The Iranians have taken considerable precautions to build their facilities on something more solid than desert sand. At present there is but one facility, Bushehr I, but Tehran is gearing up to build an entire network of nuclear plants. Israel would be bombing until the Shah comes home to merely delay what is an unstoppable Iranian nuclear program.

The fallout from Israel's strike on Osirak was serious but limited. But a preemptive strike on Iranian soil would border on catastrophic. Consider:

•Iran has signaled that if attacked, it would close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's oil flows. This would plunge the world into economic calamity.

Hezbollah, Iran's proxy army in Lebanon, is believed to have more than 42,000 missiles, according to Defense Minister Ehud Barak – enough to make Israeli cities such as Haifa and Tel Aviv burn like London did during the Nazis' Blitz. Hezbollah is believed to have terror cells in Europe and North America. It has struck in South America, and many terrorism experts believe it is potentially even more dangerous than Al Qaeda. Iran, using this proxy force, would probably unleash it on the world if Netanyahu were to bomb the Bushehr I reactor.

•It would trigger a tsunami of anti-Semitism that would inevitably translate into violence against Jews worldwide.

•Such a strike would be perceived as further evidence of a US-Israeli global war on Islam. Islamist fighters from Marrakesh, Marseille, London, Cairo, Karachi, and Tehran would enlist overnight by the thousands and march to Iraq and Afghanistan to wage jihad against the American troops there.

Netanyahu is no fool. He is keenly aware of these global implications. He knows that a unilateral Israeli strike would not only accelerate Iran's nuclear ambitions but also legitimize them. He also knows that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threat to wipe Israel off the map is bombast. It is the country's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who commands the armed forces and national security apparatus, not the populist president.

Domestic Israeli politics may have been a factor motivating Netanyahu's warnings. Talking tough soothes anxieties at home. Equally likely, Netanyahu was prodding the new Obama government. And in that sense he may feel the recent US-led invitation to Tehran to meet with Washington and five other major powers to discuss the disputed nuclear program was a result of his threat. Iran has agreed to "constructive dialogue," although it may be delusional for the Israeli prime minister – or any other Western leader – to believe that political or economic pressure can sway Iran's ruling clerics.

What's worrying is that Netanyahu had a record of bad judgment in his previous term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. Not without cause did The Economist run a cover photo of "Bibi" in October 1997 under the headline "Israel's Serial Bungler." It described his governance of the Jewish state as a "calamity" for the peace process.

Iran has no need to nuke Israel. Its ruling clerics, whom Netanyahu described as a "messianic apocalyptic cult," believe time, history, and Allah are on their side. They believe the Jewish state, starting across the border in Lebanon, can be nibbled to death over the next century just as the Arabs did to the Crusader kingdoms 600 years ago.

It should surprise no one that Iran's mullahs want nuclear weapons. They live in a nuclear neighborhood: Pakistan, India, Russia, China, and Israel, which is estimated to have 200 nuclear bombs ready to use if it were attacked. The ayatollahs also remember Mr. Hussein's 1991 folly of going to war with the US without nuclear weapons.

Obama needs to do Netanyahu a favor and tell the Israelis: "No first strike." Keep the F-15s and F-16s at home. A messianic vision such as Mr. Ahmadinejad's is rife in much of the Islamic world. Bellicose rhetoric most often serves as an excuse for inaction. It does not denote suicidal inclinations on the part of Iran's more pragmatic leaders.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly print edition.

"Hebrew Socialist Republic?"

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, saying "It is not my job to give a description of the state. Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic -- it is none of my business." Not surprising; to accept Netanyahu's demand on this score undercuts Palestinian standing on their right of return. Netanyahu, on the other hand, now says that he will not make this recognition of pre-condition of opening negotiations. Right. The idea then would be to sucker Abbas into negotiations, string him along as usual, then throw the demand back at him; when Abbas refuses again to accept it, then Netanyahu can fall back to the Sharon mantra: Israel has "no partner for peace." And the dance goes on, and the West Bank settlements keep going up, and the humiliation of a people continues.

I do wonder how all this is playing in the Obama White House.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Opinion | Guest Columnist | Heed voices calling for justice for Palestinians | Seattle Times Newspaper

Opinion | Guest Columnist | Heed voices calling for justice for Palestinians | Seattle Times Newspaper

Lieberman: Israel will not attack Iran

Here's hoping this is for real . . .

w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m

Last update - 10:47 26/04/2009

Lieberman: Israel will not attack Iran - even if sanctions fail

By Ofer Aderet

Israel will not attack Iran even if the international sanctions against Tehran fail to convince President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to give up his country's nuclear program, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the Austrian daily Kleine Zeitung.In an interview published this weekend, Lieberman was asked whether Israel planned to strike Iran as a last resort.

"We are not talking about a military attack. Israel cannot resolve militarily the entire world's problem. I propose that the United States, as the largest power in the world, take responsibility for resolving the Iranian question," Lieberman told the paper.

"The best way to stop Iran's nuclear program is through severe sanctions, very severe sanctions," he said. "The resolutions of the UN Security Council are insufficient. Iran must be presented with harsher and more effective sanctions. It worked against Libya. We must isolate Iran; only this way will results be possible."

Lieberman reiterated his position that Iran is an international problem.

"It is unacceptable that a head of state, a member state of the UN, calls daily for Israel's destruction. Iran's cooperation with North Korea, [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez and Syria is evil incarnate, but this is not our problem," he said.

"It's a problem of the entire region and the whole international community. Representatives of the Arab world have discussed with us recently not the Palestinians, but Iran. The Arabs recognize that their existence is not threatened by Israel, but by Iran."

Lieberman, meanwhile, expressed doubts about a peace agreement with Syria. "We must recognize the reality," he said. "To date Syria has hosted the leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It supports Hezbollah and its arms smuggling into southern Lebanon. It supports Iran's nuclear program, and I see that it is only tightening its links with Tehran. For this reason I cannot see Syria as a genuine partner to any sort of agreement."

He said that before negotiations, the Syrians "must cease their support for terrorism and close the centers of the terrorist organizations. Only then will be able to begin discussing our future ties."

The paper also asked Lieberman if Israel would be willing to negotiate with Hamas. "This is impossible. How can the government of Israel talk with someone who says daily he wants to destroy Israel and kill all the Jews?"

He said that "Hamas continues to plan terrorist attacks and smuggle arms as it did before. Look at how many Fatah members Hamas has killed. These are unbelievable scenes."

Lieberman also said the "diplomatic process is not the most important thing for achieving a viable peace. First we need to achieve a number of things for both peoples, otherwise the diplomatic process will fail. The most important thing for us is security, because we do not want to live with terrorism and rockets on a daily basis. The most important thing for the Palestinians is the economic situation ... Beyond this, stability is needed."

Lieberman also said he rejects the formula of land for peace. "To date this idea did not have real results. What was the result of [Israel's] withdrawals? Hezbollah and missiles. This idea does not work."

Hillary Clinton, the West Bank, and Netanyahu

I cannot recommend highly enough Roger Cohen's latest (to appear tomorrow) on Hillary Clinton's visit to the West Bank, her evident disgust with the humiliation she saw there, and her evident transformation from an Israel-can-do-no-wrong perspective as US senator to a more balanced view as Sec of State. (And in re that humiliation of West Bank Palestinians, I heartily recommend the recent piece by Michael Hare in the New York Review of Books. It's beautifully and engagingly written, and enlists some important Israeli voices in the cause - most notably, David Grossman. And while you're there, check out the new piece by Avishai Margalit as well, on civilians vs. combatants.) She will not be bullied by Mr. Netanyahu - nor will Mr. Obama, I feel, although Netanyahu's upcoming May visit to DC will tell us a lot more about that. It will be very interesting to see how Netanyahu is received by any Congressional delegations, and the extent to which Democrats (and "former" Democrats - think Joe Lieberman) lean more toward his hard line rather than Obama's insistence on two states.

And it's also critical - as Cohen spells out - that Obama and Clinton not get sucked into the kind of Palestinian-state-for-attack-on-Iran deal that Netanyahu seems to be pushing. You can expect many of those Congressman - and bundles of AIPAC money - to be pushing Obama in that direction. But Cohen has it right. The need now is to bring Iran into the tent (which is indeed someplace where many Iranians want to be, regardless of the rhetoric of Mr. Ahmadinejad).

Hillary channels Dick Cheney

The NYT reports on Sec of State HIllary Clinton's unannounced visit to a very nervous Baghdad, where several recent bombings have people worried that the security situation may be falling apart. Naah, says she (and evidently General Odierno); these are simply unfortunate, isolated incidents. The message is, "Don't worry, be happy. Everything's A-OK."

But as the NYT notes,

At times, her analysis echoed that of former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Mr. Cheney spoke of the insurgency being in its “last throes” during a period of extreme violence; Mr. Rumsfeld talked of “dead-enders” who kept fighting a lost cause.

"We cannot ... let this go on any further"

So said Hillary Clinton (in an interview with Fox News) about the advance of the Taliban in nuclear--armed Pakistan. Pakistani government forces have apparently launched an offensive, and are claiming major death counts and a determination to root out the Taliban. But her words, if taken at face value, beg the question of what might the US do if the Pakistani military isn't up to the task (and it's by no means clear that they are. Their nuclear deterrent was developed because of their fear of India. It's of no use in a domestic insurgency, especially when enemy leaders are holed up in their big cities, like Karachi.).

And speaking of the efficacy of the military . . . the US military in Iraq has evidently stepped into a mess as well, with a raid that the locals say killed an innocent man and woman and also resulted in the detention of several others. The US says the raid - which targeted what the US calls "special forces" (= Shiite militias sponsored by Iran) was authorized by the Maliki government. The raid was conducted in the southern city of Kut. Coincidentally, Kut was the site of a major British defeat at the hands of Ottoman forces during the early years of World War I. More recently, many of its citizens have supported the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army (Jaish al-Mahdi, or JAM in US military acronymese) fought several pitched battles with US forces in Najaf early in the occupation of Iraq. The JAM has been mostly lying low in recent months, but many experts believe that they may be biding their time to rise up against the Maliki government, whose army is dominated by members of a rival Shiite militia, the Badr Brigade of the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq, with which the JAM has also had violent confrontations over the years. Lately, Maliki has reached out to Muqtada as a fellow nationalist. It will be interesting to see how this spins out.

And it will also be interesting to see whether the JAM will see this as a provocation and, like the recently resurgent Sunni insurgents, decides to become more active against US forces in southern Iraq (and Baghdad, where Muqtada still has tremendous support) as they continue their pull-out from Iraq's big cities.

And as a recent draft report from Anthony Cordesman at the CSIS suggests, the JAM (and other internal groups) remains a significant threat to the Iraqi security forces, which he says are hardly ready to stand against them on their own and will need continued support from the US. Rememberm according to the status-of-forces agreement with Iraq, US combat troops are supposed to be out of the country by end of 2011 (although some elements of the US military will remain, and the Iraqi government also has the prerogative to ask that combat forces stay longer). There's a big "game" (hardly the appropriate label, I know, given the stakes and lives involved) of beat-the-clock in progress.

UPDATE: Thomas Ricks at his Foreign Policy site posts an extremely informative and insightful comment from a source "in the know" about the internal politics of the Maliki government, especially the rivalries among different Shiite groups and politicians. The potential for open conflict among them remains high for many months to come. Also noted is the reintegration of a large number of Iraqi army officers from Saddam's army, which was dominated by a Sunni officer corps, most of them Baathists at least in name.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Juan Cole on the Jane Harman Affair

Juan Cole's take on the Jane Harman/AIPAC connection reported today . . .

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Harman Scandal: All about War on Iran

Jeff Stein of reported on Sunday evening that the National Security Agency had picked up a telephone conversation by Representative Jane Harman (D-CA) with a suspected spy for Israel. It is alleged that in the conversation, the spy urged Harman to intervene to stop the prosecution for espionage of Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, two career lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who headed up its Middle East bureau. The Israeli agent promised Harman the chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence committee, but appears to have gone too far in doing so.

You see, for someone to call Harman and ask her to weigh in with the Justice Department on behalf of Rosen and Weissman is not illegal. But once she was offered a position, the conversation was suddenly about a bribe. At that point she is said to have hung up after asserting "This conversation never happened."

Israel lobbies did fundraising for Nancy Pelosi in 2006 in hopes of getting Harman the chairmanship.

Two things here. It should be remembered that this whole affair has been about getting up a war on Iran. That was the point of Franklin leaking to Rosen and Weissman in the first place. Someone should go back through Harman's statements on Iran.

Second, the transcript should be released and if it is as alleged, Harman must resign. Congress declares wars or implicitly authorizes them. American soldiers have a right to know that the representatives who send them to war are doing so on behalf of US interests. And that congressional intelligence reports are not plants by a foreign intelligence service.

Let us just stop and review what is being alleged, and to underline what it means for US security and policy.

The US is spied on, and a classified Pentagon document is passed to the Israeli embassy by AIPAC officials. They are caught because the FBI had them under surveillance. Apparently the FBI is one of the few US government institutions that is not corrupt on the issue of foreign influence on US institutions and policy. Then when the two AIPAC spies are indicted, a Mossad agent attempts to derail the prosecution by suborning a member of Congress and promising her the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee.

Harman is denying it all, of course. But then so did Rosen and Weissman deny it all (or allege that the lack of a US official secrets act means that their passing of a classified Pentagon document to a Mossad agent was not in fact treason or illegal). Harman's denial is clever, since the NSA wiretap is presumably classified, and so she can't be contradicted.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Extremist Tide Rises in Pakistan

Excellent reporting from the WaPo's Pamela Constable. The Taliban are now essentially in charge in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Provinces, and a formerly jailed Islamist leader is now released and speaking out in the capital, Islamabad. Add to this that (1) elements of Pakistan's military intelligence (the ISI) have long supported the Taliban, (2) the Pakistani army has not been able to control them, (3) every US drone attack seems to recruit more angry young men to their cause, and (4) those drone attacks are also driving Taliban (and related groups') and al-Qaeda leadership into the more densely populated areas, including the city of Karachi - and you have the elements of an almost impossible situation. A real quandary.

And if the Pakistani government does fall, what about those nuclear weapons? How might relations with the Supreme Enemy - India - be affected?

Add to that as well, that US troops are fighting and dying in heavy engagements in Afghanistan, which will likely only get worse as the warmer season approaches.

Analogies with Vietnam - and the Cold War era in general - are starting to pop up. Constable's piece talks, for example, of the handing over of the Swat region to the Taliban as one more "domino" falling. Just as in the 1950s and 1960s, as the Vietnam war was heating up, we saw its potential loss as one more domino falling to what we saw then as worldwide Communism, observers will see Swat - and perhaps Pakistan as a whole - as dominoes falling to worldwide Islamism. We now know, of course, that Vietnam was more a civil war - a war of anti-colonialism - than anything else. The US suffered a major military defeat there, after years of backing the venal, corrupt Diem regime in South Vietnam; the Vietnamese suffered terribly during the war, at the hands of the US, the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese regular army; but today the US and Vietnam enjoy good relations.

If the Taliban do wind up taking over Pakistan - and Afghanistan - what then? In Afghanistan, the US is fighting on behalf of an admittedly corrupt Karzai government that, essentially, it installed, and that has been able to survive only on US-provided life-support. That in itself puts the US on the wrong side in the minds of many Afghans. Add to that the thousands of Afghans who have died as "collateral damage" after US raids and air strikes since 2001, and even more see the US as the enemy. Likewise, as the death tolls rise in Pakistan, many people there see the Zardari government as corrupt (don't forget that Zardari himself, as husband of the then prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was known commonly as "Mr. Ten-Percent" for the rake-offs he received while she was in power) and as doing the bidding of the US by sending its army against the Taliban. Do the urban middle class of Pakistan want to live under a Taliban regime? No. But to some extent what we're seeing is the product of decades of military dictatorship and foundering democracy that did little to alleviate rural poverty, and that preserved a social system dominated by a small, Westernizing landlord class that has lorded it over rural agricultural workers for centuries. To some extent, the Taliban are perhaps herding the chickens home to roost, offering a promise of social and economic justice rooted in what they preach as a "true" Islam.

Unfortunately, their "true" Islam entails amputations, floggings, and forced veilings, among many other practices that most of us find abhorrent. Historically, many - perhaps most - "revolutionary" regimes have employed violent, repressive tactics in the process of seizing power and then establishing themselves. Once in power, though, they have tended to moderate their behavior. Vietnam is a case in point. Iran is also, to some extent, a case in point - not that it has become a paragon of human rights or what many of us would regard as consistently "civilized" behavior (witness most recently the conviction of Roxana Saberi and the Holocaust denials by its president). But the Iranian revolution was led by a heavily ideologized element (both Islamist and leftist) against a brutal, corrupt, Westernizing regime; it went through a horribly bloody period initially, during which its leaders preached the oncoming universal Islamic revolution (people spoke then of the Green Tide as opposed to the Red Tide of global Communism); but over time, the Islamists' regime behavior has moderated significantly, and the US (after years of stupidly antagonistic behavior towards Iran) is now reaching out to Iran's leadership, elements of whom (as well as much of Iran's population) are eager to reach back.

Would a US military intervention into Iran in 1979 have stopped the revolution, or made things better? Doubtful. But if "Af-Pak" really starts to head down the tubes, we're likely to hear calls for a US intervention into Pakistan - and some of the right-wing whack-jobs may even call for destroying villages in order to save them (as indeed the Pakistani army has already done, according to a report broadcast on PBS last week). Will that solve anything?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Anti-Arab racism in Israeli society

Their Israel does not exist

Independent Australian Jewish Voices blogger Michael Brull beautifully skewers the parochialism and racism within the Australian Jewish News, a paper containing countless examples of paranoid, bigoted and clueless Jews. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. This is how Jews want to be viewed in the wider community? Some clearly do. Palestinians are all terrorists. The occupation doesn’t exist. And on it goes.

Perhaps this is the funniest. After the resounding success of the recent Jeff Halper tour, Jewish academic Dvir Abramovich writes the following:

When Prof Halper travels the world and describes Israel as an apartheid state, shooting his arrows into Israel’s heart, Jews are hurt. Not only because they may disagree with his assessment, but because the fibre of deep connection, loyalty and commitment to Israel means that any attack upon it resonates as if it were an attack on our sons, daughters and brothers.

Brull concludes:

That’s right, when Halper criticises his own government, Abramovich’s feelings are hurt. More than this, Abramovich seems to consider himself a more devoted Israeli than someone who actually lives there. Why is it that people who call themselves Zionists don’t feel at all inconsistent in not moving to Israel? And why is it that Abramovich feels more loyal to a foreign government than its own citizens, on the basis of their political views?

Perhaps Dvir would like to see the real Israel, rather than some imagined country that doesn’t exist. Reading the blog by Maariv journalist Noam Sheizaf would be a good start. His words are sobering and indicate the deep racism within Israeli society. Such as:

I have often claimed here that the public atmosphere in Israel is becoming more and more racist towards Arabs. A good example of this can be found in the comments (“talkbacks”) on all major internet sites…

This morning I decided to try and break Ynet’s laws. I found this short interview with MK Ahmed Tibi - taken from Yedioth Ahronoth’s magazine for men, “Blazer” - and I sent the following fascist comment (my Italic):

“Ahmed Tibi is a typical Arab. He might talk nicely, but that only makes him more dangerous. If he could, he would exterminate us all. The problem is that for now he can’t, so, with the help of the left, he uses Israeli Democracy to destroy us all. When will we understand that all the Arabs are a threat to the state of Israel and to the life of each and every one of us? This is a Jewish state – that means a state for Jews only. It is time we start to act to defend ourselves”.

By writing this, I’m not only breaking Ynet’s Terms of Use, but might also be in violation of the 1986 law against incitement to racism, according to which I might be liable to up to 5 years in jail.

Well guess what? My comment got published (no. 330, under the nick “Avner”), and I don’t think the police will be coming for me soon. If they do, they’ll need to locate the authors of most of the other 535 comments for this article (at the time of writing) – some of them make mine look extremely mild.

How can this be? It is clear that a similar comment against Jews, Blacks or Gays wouldn’t pass the monitor. Furthermore, I had my little experiment on Ynet not just because it is the most important news site in Israel, but also since it is known to have a very strict comments policy. Other sites will allow things which Ynet wouldn’t. And even on Ynet, one can describe all the Arabs as an existential threat to Jews, and to call for collective action against them – and pass for a legitimate side in a debate (and it wasn’t even a real debate, just a profile of an Arab MK in a men’s’ magazine). On other articles you can find worse examples – expressions of joy over the murder of civilians, specific calls for violence, etc.

Yes, we should worry about upsetting Jews and hurting their feelings.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Plan for Palestinian state is 'dead end,' Israel tells U.S.

Dion Nissenbaum of McClatchy has the story. Netanyahu/Lieberman seem unwilling to budge on this issue. As even Yossi Alpher (former Mossad agent and respected analyst) notes in the story, their demand that the Palestinian side first recognize Israel as a "Jewish state" is a non-starter, because it completely tosses out the long-standing Palestinian demand (backed up, by the way, by both UN resolutions and international law) for the "right of return" for those refugees driven out in 1947-1948. (And yes, even top Israeli historians - among them the likes of Benny Morris, who now demonizes the Palestinian Arabs - admit that they were indeed driven out, in contrast to the "they-all-left-willingly" version propounded by Israel for decades.) Most obervers agree that there's no way that Israel will ever agree to let these thousands of people (and their descendants, whose rights are also involved) back in, and many Palestinians have accepted that and are willing to agree to some accommodation that at least recognizes the injustices that were done to them and allows at least a token number of Palestinians to return. But in contrast to Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert more recently (both of whom were ready to negotiate on this issue), Netanyahu/Lieberman leave no room at all. A huge step backward. . . and more ammunition for extremist elements who'd abandon any pretense of diplomacy (and, let's be real here, the diplomacy during the Bush years was more pretense and dog-and-pony show than anything else) and take up arms - or suicide-bomb belts - again. And that, truly, would be another huge step backwards.

The ball's in Barack's court.

Interrogation Memos Detail Harsh Tactics by the C.I.A.

The NYT lays out some of the particulars, as well as where matters might go from here. I can understand on a purely legal-intellectual basis Obama's rationale for deciding to shield the CIA and private-contractor interrogators from prosecution - and it's surely going to save him from having to take extra flak in Congress and from the right, especially at a time when he's trying to keep more people inside the tent as he deals with the economy as well as Netanyahu's impending visit to DC and to the AIPAC meeting.

But I hope we all understand that the US - and Obama's touted policy of outreach and partnership vis-a-vis the rest of the world - are going to pay a major price, both in popular condemnation and in enhanced recruitment of both jihadists and local resistance fighters in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. In my opinion, the condemnation will be well deserved - and it will be difficult to counter the "recruiters."

I sincerely hope that Congressional Democrats will break with the president if he indeed is intent on turning the page on this entire matter. (Actually, what he's doing reminds me of something I read long ago - in Edmund Morris' book, I believe - about Theodore Roosevelt's reading habits: that when he read a magazine, he not only turned the page, but would rip it out and crumple it.) There needs to be a truth commission, a complete airing of what went on - and the option to prosecute the likes of Bybee, Yoo, and higher-ups needs to be kept open. We pride ourselves as a nation under the law (and, for that matter, under God), that respects international law (at least before Bush came to power) and human rights. To close down any further legal or investigatory options in the matter of government-sanctioned torture puts all of that to the lie. The US's standing to criticize the human-rights abuses of any other regime would be demolished. No more shining city on the hill.

UPDATE: check out Glenn Greenwald's take on all this at - with links to a number of other perspectives.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rahm Emanuel on the Two-state solution

Some of this is very good news indeed, but if Rahm Emanuel also said that ""Any treatment of the Iranian nuclear problem will be contingent upon progress in the negotiations and an Israeli withdrawal from West Bank territory," then we all need to take note. There seems to be some support growing for this quid pro quo, whereby in return for Netanyahu taking real steps to create a Palestinian state, the US will line up with the Israeli hard-line position on Iran's nuclear program - the implication being that Obama might stand aside for an IDF strike against the Bushehr reactor. Not acceptable.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The "Economist": US must reduce aid to Israel

(with a hat-tip to the "Mondoweiss" site, which I highly recommend for regular visitation). The Economist is no one's idea of a partisan lefty-liberal rag. Their view: that if the Netanyahu-Lieberman government won't sign on to work honestly toward a two-state solution, then the US needs to cut aid to Israel. And they also encourage the US (via George Mitchell's special ambassorship) to sit down with Hamas in hopes of some reconciliation with Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah.

I might also humbly add another recommendation: that if Netanyahu comes to Obama with a deal that he'll sign on for a Palestinian state in return for US support for an Israeli air-strike on Iran, President Obama say "absolutely, positively, unequivocally, no" - and make it plain that if Netanyahu proceeds along those lines, that US aid and diplomatic cover for Israel will cease immediately, and completely.

A setback for local democracy in Iraq

In most democratic systems, the presumption is that your party's victory in the polls entitles it to leadership. However, in Nineveh province in northern Iraq, the Kurdish parties who finished second are demanding that the newly ascendant Sunni Arab party al-Hadba cede to them two of the top three leadership positions in the new assembly. Perhaps this is some opening gambit in what the Kurds see as a negotiation process. But it's going to prevent the provincial assembly from getting down to any real business in the immediate future - and it's going to undermine whatever sense of promise the local population may have invested in their new democracy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

March of the Taliban

I've pasted below a startling essay from a top English-language daily in Pakistan. A huge sense of alarm oozes from this essay. We ought to take note. There seems to be a sense in the US that all we need to do is stay cool, and that somehow we can work with the Pakistanis to fix everything. I spent a lot of time last evening reading several media analyses and think-tank reports about how to fix "Af-Pak." I was astonished by the often cool, calculated approach of international-relations experts for whom this situation was more like a challenging puzzle, or game of chess, rather than a humanitarian disaster heading for catastrophe.

March of the Taliban

ON Saturday, March 11, a convoy of 10 double-cabin four-wheel drive pick-up trucks loaded with Taliban armed with every description of portable weapons – Kalashnikovs, rocket launchers, heavy machine guns – drove from Daggar the headquarters of Buner district to the villages of Sohawa and Dagai in Buner.

It entered Swabi district at Jhanda village, drove through the district headquarter (the town of Swabi), drove on to the motorway, exited at Mardan, drove through the cantonment of Mardan and, showing their weapons for all to see, went on towards Malakand.

In doing the above, the Taliban broke many laws of the state of Pakistan not least those that prohibit the possession of heavy weapons; showing weapons publicly and so on. They drove through a district HQ of a district they have not yet occupied (but are well on the way sooner rather than later, given the non-governance being exhibited by the ANP non-government of the Frontier); on the federally policed motorway; through an army cantonment – as a matter of fact right past the Punjab Regimental Centre’s shopping plaza containing the usual bakery and pastry-shop run by serving soldiers – and thence through the rest of the crowded city of Mardan which is also the home of the chief minister of the province.

Must have struck the fear of God into the populace of the villages/cities/ towns/cantonments they drove through, these ferocious men who so recently humbled the great Pakistan Army! So what am I going on about, talking of the laws of the state? What state? What laws? Much shame should adhere to the various actors, or shall we call them jokers, who are prancing about on the national stage striking nonsensical attitudes and mouthing pitiable platitudes.

Just as one example, the very same ‘leaders’ of the ANP who just eight days ago admitted on TV that the flogging of poor Chand Bibi had actually happened but that it happened before they signed the (craven) deal with the Taliban, are now saying the flogging never happened! Look at Muslim Khan, the fiery spokesman of the Taliban in Swat who said, again on TV, that the woman was lucky to have got away with a beating – that she should have been stoned to death. He now says there was no beating at all.

As another, the COAS, Gen Ashfaq Kayani says several weeks after the army handed Swat over to the Taliban that it was ready to face any threat, internal or external! Can you even believe any of this? What is happening to this country of ours; how long will we live in denial; when will we realise that if we don’t act now it will all be over; that the Taliban will simply take over the state using the shock and awe that comes from killing wantonly and cruelly.

Let’s go back to the most recent ‘flag march’ the Taliban carried out from Buner to Mardan via Swabi and see its effects already furthering the Taliban’s agenda. Please go to and see what mayhem they are creating there, recruiting jobless youths by encouraging them to ‘take-over’ their respective areas and neighbourhoods. What, pray, would the loquacious Mian Iftikhar, the Frontier’s information minister, say about this latest in a series of coming conquests for the Taliban?

Does he know that Mansehra and Haripur are next on the hit list and that once in Mansehra the Taliban are but a few hours’ drive from the Karakoram Highway? Does someone in the federal non-government know that once they tie up with the Sunni Chilasis who hate the Shia Gilgitis with a passion, there will be havoc of a very special kind in our Northern Areas?

Is Islamabad the Beautiful cognisant of the fact that our great and good friend, China, is already up to here with the Taliban and others of their ilk, who have forever interfered in their restive province of Xinjiang. This interference goes back to the early 1980s when the highway opened to public traffic and I found myself in the company of two American friends at the Chinese customs post which was then located just below the Khunjerab Pass on the Chinese side.

We noticed that our Pakistani companions, most of them bearded young men, were being searched most closely and out came copies of the Quran from their baggage which the Chinese confiscated saying there were enough copies in China. It is too well known to repeat again the charge the Chinese have oft laid at our door that Chinese citizens are trained in guerrilla training camps in the Frontier.

So, has our FO, ‘unaware’ that it usually is about matters that concern the country that it supposedly serves, taken stock of how the Chinese might react to the march of the Taliban? How will they do when they see that the Taliban are advancing, unchecked, to threaten the one land link China has with Pakistan, and through it with the rest of the world, not forgetting Gwadar? And that once there, given the fact that they face no real opposition from the great Pakistan Army, it is but a day’s drive to the Chinese border itself?

Have our Napoleons and Guderians and Rommels given any thought to any of the above? Where are they and our hopelessly inadequate government in Islamabad the Beautiful in all of this? Have they even begun to realise the gravity of the situation our country is faced with? That if they don’t act fast the Taliban will pick up enough recruits to seriously threaten them and their ill-led and poorly motivated troops? Whilst they might well think that they are safe in their palatial villas guarded night and day by weapons-toting guards and barricades and tens of servants, all it will take is one beheaded body per cantonment every second day for their guards to throw in the towel.

On the ‘bloody civilian’ side, Shah Mehmood Qureshi has been talking down to the Indians most recently in words that are a lot of hot air and bluster. On Swat: ‘The whole of Swat is neither under Taliban control nor is being attacked by them’! On the ISI: ‘Without ISI’s help you (India?!) could not have apprehended the 700 or so Al Qaeda operatives’. As to his first statement the minister obviously needs to read the papers/see TV. For the second I can only say that he is mightily ignorant if he means the 700 as part of those that Musharraf sold to the Americans for $5000 each. Of whom at least 90 per cent have been proved to be innocent by none other than their jailors in Guantanamo. So have a heart, minister.

There is a great furore going on in our self-righteous media about how Pakistan will not accept aid under any conditionality. In the first place it will starve, which isn’t a bad idea at all considering that our brass hats will come crashing down to reality; in the second, let’s see if we have a country by then!

In the meantime, could the non-government of the ANP please resign for its acts of omission and commission re: Swat and Buner.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

1, 2, 3 . . . What are we fighting for . . ?"

Iraqi security forces raided an exhibit displaying a cartoon critical of PM al-Maliki, seized the cartoon, and searched the artist's home.

And another American soldier was killed today.

The Squeeze Play against the Sunni Awakening

The NYT's Alissa Rubin has a very insightful report today on the tremendous pressure the Sunni Awakening Councils are under in Iraq. In short, they're caught in the middle of a sectarian squeeze play. On one side, the central government is sending its (mostly Shiite) forces to round up and detain Awakening leaders, whom the Maliki government doesn't trust to begin with and hasn't paid very punctually, which puts the Awakening leaders and their men in an economic bind. On the other side, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), though Sunni themselves, are jihadists who are angry with the Awakening for turning against them during the "Surge" and siding with the US, whose forces, once upon a time allies of the Awakening, have lately been backing up the Iraqi military when they go out to arrest the Awakening leaders. AQI people are evidently going to the Iraqi officials to "snitch" on Awakening people, or are suing Awakening people for having killed relatives of AQI people (which indeed they may have done during the bad days of 2007 and 2008, when they believed themselves to be fighting in defense of the Iraqi state).

So, again, the Awakening guys don't know which way to turn. One of their big leaders, Sheikh Abu Risha, is loudly proclaiming his allegiance to Maliki's government, supposedly in the interests of the Iraqi nation. He will expect, of course, some kind of reciprocity here, in terms of how Maliki's forces treat him and his people in the Anbar region, and a lot may hinge on how all that works out.

But for the time being, we can expect more violence against members of the Awakening, both at the hands of AQI and at the hands of the Iraqi security forces. At some point, will members of the Awakening lash out? And against whom? A couple of weeks ago, in Baghdad, they fought street battles with Iraq troops, who were backed by US soldiers and air cover.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"These People Fear Prosecution"

Piece features an interview with Jane Mayer, the prize-winning journalist for The New Yorker whose book The Dark Side, as well as several incisive articles in the magazine, did so much to expose the Bush-era CIA's rendition and torture abuses.

As you may have read recently, a court in Spain is proceeding with the legal case against members of the Bush administration for their role in torture and abuse. While personally I still have high hopes and best wishes for the Obama administration, I am increasingly discouraged by its failure (which to me suggests their unwillingness) to institute serious proceedings against these guys. (The Spanish case lists Alberto Gonzalez, David Addington, Doug Feith, and John Yoo, among others.) I understand that center-staging this issue would undercut Obama's efforts in other arenas. But in the big picture and long run, how does it look for the US government to opt, for reasons of political and domestic expediency, not to get to the very bottom of all this and, in so doing, adhere to treaties (about torture and such) that historically it did so much to champion. Bush made it clear that, in his view, the US lived up to treaties only as it suited his pursuit of the "war on terror." The longer he waits, the more Obama sets himself up as Bush-lite in the eyes of the world - and the longer this sore on the US's worldwide reputation festers.

These People Fear Prosecution': Why Bush's CIA Team Should Worry About Its Dark Embrace of Torture

By Liliana Segura, AlterNet
Posted on April 11, 2009, Printed on April 11, 2009

On the night of April 6, a long-secret document was published -- in its entirety for the first time -- that provided a clear, stark look at the CIA torture program carried out by the Bush administration.

Dated Feb. 14, 2007, the 41-page report describes in harrowing detail the "ill treatment" of 14 "high-value" detainees in U.S. custody, as recounted by the prisoners in interviews with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Besides listing the various kinds of harsh interrogation tactics undertaken by the CIA -- among them "suffocation by water," "prolonged stress standing," "beatings by use of a collar," "confinement in a box," "prolonged nudity," "threats," "forced shaving" and other methods -- the report reveals the disturbing role of medical professionals in the torture of suspects, which included using doctors' equipment to monitor their health, even as torture was carried out.

Just as Americans have known about Bush-era torture for years, lawyers and human rights activists have long known about the ICRC report and its contents. Both are due in large part to the work of journalists and their sources, who have brought to light the many post-9/11 abuses committed in the name of counterterrorism.

In February 2005, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker magazine published a story called "Outsourcing Torture: The Secret History of America's 'Extraordinary Rendition' Program," which reported in intricate detail the sordid mechanisms of the Bush administration's kidnap-and-torture program -- a practice so violent and dramatic that it inspired a major Hollywood film a few years later.

As Mayer wrote at the time, however, "Rendition is just one element of the administration's new paradigm."

The CIA itself is holding dozens of 'high value' terrorist suspects outside of the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S., in addition to the estimated 550 detainees in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The administration confirmed the identities of at least 10 of these suspects to the 9/11 Commission -- including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a top al-Qaida operative … -- but refused to allow commission members to interview the men, and would not say where they were being held. Reports have suggested that CIA prisons are being operated in Thailand, Qatar and Afghanistan, among other countries. At the request of the CIA, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld personally ordered that a prisoner in Iraq be hidden from Red Cross officials for several months, and Army Gen. Paul Kern told Congress that the CIA may have hidden up to a hundred detainees."

Among the revelations of the ICRC report is that the CIA did indeed hide prisoners from the Red Cross.

Mayer has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1995. In the years after 9/11, her investigative articles have been critical to piecing together the story of how the United States became a country that tortures in the name of the so-called "war on terror."

Mayer was recently awarded the Ron Ridenhour Prize for her book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals (Doubleday). Co-sponsored by The Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation, the Ridenhour prize honors journalists and whistle-blowers whose work has helped to "protect the public interest, promote social justice or illuminate a more just vision of society." Mayer will be honored alongside other winners of the Ridenhour prize on April 16 at the National Press Club in Washington.

AlterNet's Rights & Liberties Editor Liliana Segura spoke to Mayer over the phone from New York, the morning after the release of the ICRC report.


Liliana Segura: Last night, the full ICRC report was posted online, detailing the torture at the CIA black sites. Of course, you've been writing for a long time about this; how did you first come to know about the report, and what's the significance of it coming out now, especially with everything it reveals about medical professionals being involved in torture?

Jane Mayer: Well, there are certain confidential source issues that cover how I first came to know about it, but I can say that when I did finally talk to people who were familiar with what was in it -- which was more than a year ago at this point -- what I was hearing was so startling that it just completely stopped me dead in my tracks.

Basically, what I was hearing was that there was a report that was by this independent authority -- the ICRC, which is not a political entity in any way. It's a very cautious group and has tremendous credibility -- saying that there was an actual program of torture that was implemented by the U.S. government, and that the government had been warned that what it was doing was breaking the law.

And what seemed to really catch the eye of the people I was interviewing who were familiar with what was in the report was just the horribleness and the power of the United States government focusing everything that had been learned over the past couple decades on how to break a person down psychologically as well as physically. All that focused on just a couple dozen people who were just basically being tormented in a way that was just kind of unimaginable.

So, people who I interviewed who knew about what was in the report were really upset about it -- really, really upset -- and it certainly caught my eye as a reporter. So I then started to try very hard to see if I could get the report. And I never succeeded. I got close enough to be able to piece together what was in it. And that's what's in The Dark Side. And I'm gratified to see that my sources -- who I consider to have been very brave to tell me what they were able to -- were completely accurate.

So you'll see there are whole scenes from the report that are in The Dark Side and many, many details, including the news that [the treatment of detainees] was considered torture by the ICRC -- not "tantamount to torture," but actual torture.

But, you know, reading the report itself, finally -- there's just no comparison to seeing the actual document.

LS: Is there anything in the report in particular that has struck you that you didn't know before?

JM: One of the things that caught my eye last night was that it's clear that the CIA -- and I think you'd have to guess the Department of Defense -- lied to the Red Cross. They told the Red Cross when it visited Guantanamo [in 2002] that it had seen all of the detainees. But what the report says is that some of the detainees -- some of the high-value detainees -- realized when they were finally sent to Guantanamo in 2006 that they'd been there before. They were there. And yet the Red Cross was not allowed to see them. The Red Cross was told they'd seen everybody.

So the CIA and DOD lied to the Red Cross. There were some hidden prisoners in Guantanamo. That's an overt act; lying to the Red Cross, hiding prisoners from them. So, that's interesting to me.

There are also some specific details [about the torture] I didn't know. I didn't realize they used hospital beds to waterboard people, with motorized reclining backs, which is hideous.

I knew there were doctors there -- I mean, people will tell you that there were doctors there, and it's in the book -- but there's still something so specifically terrible about reading that they would attach some kind of modern monitor that could monitor oxygen to the finger of a prisoner while they were busy depriving him of oxygen.

They told him -- Khalid Sheik Mohammed (and this was in the New Yorker stories I did and it was in the book) -- that they would take him to the brink of death and back but they wouldn't kill him. So, they used sort of the most modern medicine to make sure they did exactly that. Its kind of a horrible combination of modernism and the Dark Ages all in one.

LS: Do we have any idea who these doctors are?

JM: Well, I'm glad people are asking that question, because, really, since the beginning, one of the things that has obsessed me is: Who were the doctors? What kind of doctors would do this? Some of them are described as literally working in ski masks to cover their faces so that people wouldn't know their identity.

LS: Like executioners.

JM: Yeah. So people have to find out, there just absolutely has to be some more accountability about this. Who were the doctors -- and what does the profession say about this? I mean, there's been a tremendous debate about this within the psychiatric profession and within the psychology profession, but there really has not been a similar debate within the medical profession.

I've already heard from one friend who's a doctor this morning, saying "God -- something's got to happen with this." Things will happen, I think.

LS: I wanted to ask you about accountability. It seems like every other day we're hearing about how Obama's Department of Justice is standing up in court and defending some Bush administration practice, or else the administration is making a statement that suggests that there's not going to be any move for accountability. Yet House Judiciary Chairman Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., just released a 540-page report reiterating the allegations against the Bush administration and calling for a special prosecutor appointed by Attorney General Eric Holder. What would it take for that to happen?

JM: What would it take for that to happen? It would take Obama. It would take Obama weighing in on this. And, you know, it seems that his general style is to try to find consensus rather than to isolate people and confront them. I think that an early tip-off to his thinking was when he described possible accountability as "witch hunts" and said we're not going to have witch hunts.

And yet I think that they're going to find it impossible to be where they are. Right now, they're trying to assert some kind of neutral position about the Bush years. They've come out critical, they've said "we're fixing this, it was wrong," and they have started to fix it -- I give them credit for doing a lot of the right things.

But what they're trying to do is not have to open up the past, as they keep saying, and I don't think that's going to work because they're going to have a choice here. They're at a fork in the road, where either they're going to open things up, or they're going to have to cover things up. There's not a real neutral position to be there. And that's what I think they're beginning to realize.

LS: A lot of people have been surprised by the positions Obama has taken -- for instance, saying that prisoners at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan don't have the right to habeas corpus (although a court recently contradicted that). Are there any Bush-era tactics that are now an inextricable part of Obama's counterterrorism policies?

JM: The progress so far is: there's no longer torture -- there's no program of torture that's being practiced by the United States anymore. And there are no more secret prison sites. And they are trying to do something to bring all of the prisoners whose rights were violated in the Bush years back inside the rule of law. They're trying to sort out the people in Guantanamo and charge some. … I think it's also progress that they charged [Ali Saleh Kahlah] al Marri, who was being held forever as an enemy combatant without any rights. So, I see this as progress.

LS: Does this mean that the CIA black sites have been dismantled? Also, what about renditions? Isn't Obama keeping open the possibility of keeping Clinton-era style rendition in place?

JM: Obama's executive orders issued in his first week, direct the government to abide by the Geneva Conventions standards as they are internationally understood, and to allow the ICRC to have access to all detainees. This means the U.S. can no longer treat anyone in its custody cruelly, let alone torture them, and it means that the Red Cross can meet with all prisoners, which ends the Bush practice of hidden, black-site prisons and disappearances.

The Obama administration is claiming that it will undertake renditions without torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. They say they will only snatch suspects against whom there are legitimate charges and only deliver them to stand trial in legitimate justice systems where there is no threat of torture. Essentially, they claim it's a return to the pre-9/11 Clinton program, which was ostensibly "rendition to justice." But some sources who were involved in the Clinton years have told me it was a very rough business. The CIA has fought very hard to keep the program going in a modified form. We'll see if they can do it in the transparent, legal and humane way the executive orders require. I have my doubts.

I think that there's a ton still to do here. And some of the early positions they've taken -- defending state secrets and denying, as you say, habeas corpus rights to prisoners held in Bagram -- you know, they're worrisome. I think there's more going on here, though, which people haven't really focused on, which is: there's a real tug-of-war going on about the confirmation process. A number of top appointees who Obama wants to put in to handle some of these issues have not been confirmed. The Republicans in the Senate are really holding up people that Obama needs to make changes for the better.

You've got Harold Koh, who's been nominated to be the top lawyer for the State Department. He's a great defender of human rights. His nomination confirmation is in trouble because the Republicans are talking about trying to block him.

And the same thing is true of Dawn Johnsen, who has been nominated for the head of the Office of Legal Council. And there are a number of other top positions that are open that are really important. The Obama administration doesn't have enough staff to handle what it needs to do.

Meanwhile, it's being hit by wave after wave of litigation, because the human rights community's approach in the Bush years was "we're gonna litigate." So there is case after case breaking and requiring action from the Obama administration, which doesn't have its people in place yet. And I think that's part of the problem. So, I'm cutting them more slack then some critics, because I don't think we're seeing everything they want to do yet.

LS: So is what you're saying that they are buying themselves time, adopting these Bush positions or defending them for the moment?

JM: Well they're definitely buying themselves time on Guantanamo, but they haven't bought themselves very much time. They gave themselves 180 days; they've got three task forces, which took a long time to get up and running. I hear from people who are involved in this that it's a really complicated process.

And on the state-secrets cases -- you know, I don't know whose really making these decisions. But again, on accountability, I think it comes back to Obama himself. And he is spread so thin and so distracted by so many other emergencies right now, I'm not sure that he's really giving it the attention that some of us think it needs.

So that's what I think is going on. I'm not sure that I would impute terrible motives to them at this point. I think it's more disorganization and delay.

LS: I wanted to ask you about "preventive detention" (of terrorism suspects, including the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo Bay), since you wrote about it a few months back. Do you have any recent information on Obama's plans to use it, or is that something that they're still sorting out?

JM: I think it's going to be a big fight in the administration. We're kind of waiting to see.

I mean, some of Obama's Justice Department appointees think that there might need to be some kind of national security court that would allow for some sort of preventive detention. There have been experiments with this elsewhere in the world, and most of them have become real human-rights problems.

And there are other people who think this is anathema and tell me that there's just no way that Obama is going to back this sort of thing. I mean, he's being faced with a lot of very tough choices here and, meanwhile, I think that the intelligence community is bombarding him with threats, saying "if you become more transparent, you're going to endanger the country" -- they're sounding too much like Dick Cheney, [saying] that if they let out information, it's going to really hurt the country, it's going to really hurt our relations with other liaison intelligence agencies. … So, he's stuck in the middle of a big fight.

LS: I'm glad you brought up Dick Cheney. I wanted to ask you about him since he plays such an important role in your book, and also because there's this bizarre way in which he seems to be more in the public eye now than he ever was as vice president. What do you think that's about?

Also, you've noted that interesting quote by Cheney referring to Guantanamo prisoners, "People will want to know where they've been and what we've been doing with them." Do you think he fears prosecution at all? Do you think that's part of why he's out there talking and defending … ?

JN: Listen, all of these people fear prosecution. And it seems unthinkable to prosecute them to most people. But face it: The ICRC report; from some standpoints, it can be seen as a crime scene. And its a crime scene that was authorized by the top of our government. They all have some legal liability here. Cheney coming out -- you know, I can't really -- it's hard to get inside Cheney's mind, but I can say politically what it has the effect of doing is putting a marker down, so that if there's another attack, the Republicans can say, "You see, the Democrats weakened America. We warned them, and we told you so." So, I think in some ways it's a political gambit. And it's also a play for his legacy. He's trying to say "I'm not a war criminal."

Can I say one thing about the Ridenhour Prize? One thing I wanted to say was that Ron Ridenhour -- who was the whistle-blower about My Lai [in the Vietnam War] -- one of his contentions was always that there was authorized slaughter there. It was not just Lt. William Calley who was going on a berserk spree on his own. And so I think that it's kind of fitting that the ICRC report comes out which shows, again, the point that I was trying to make in The Dark Side, which is: This was not just an isolated episode of bad behavior, it was not just the people at the bottom of the barrel, as Donald Rumsfeld called them.

This was an authorized program of abuse from the top of the U.S. government. So there are a lot of parallels there. In both cases, what makes the headlines is the abuse, but the larger point that people have to grapple with is going up the chain of command, how it was authorized.

LS: The importance of whiste-blowers and journalists in the Bush era was, for many people, undisputed. What do you consider to be the role of journalists now?

JM: Abuse is bipartisan. Abuse of power is bipartisan. So I don't think the role of the press ever disappears. As you're pointing out, there's a lot still to do and a lot still to write about. So we're all struggling to keep at it.

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of AlterNet's Rights & Liberties Special Coverage.

© 2009 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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Violence in Baghdad was "a last gasp" of Islamic extremists?

Thus said Sec Def Robert Gates Tuesday evening on the PBS News Hour, and evidently some Obama administration people were quick to say that he made a mistake. As this McClatchy report notes, some see him as channeling Dick Cheney's unfortunate, extremely unprophetic remark in 2005 that the Sunni insurgency was in its "last throes."

My own small voice has over the last months been but one of many (including much bigger voices, happy to say) to suggest that the pronouncements of "victory" in Iraq (by the Kagans and others in the wake of the Surge) were way too premature. The McClatchy piece delineates very well the major fault lines in Iraq: Sunni Arab vs. Kurds in the north, with the mostly Shiite security forces willing to lie back and let the Kurds pound the Sunnis; and those same security forces in the south vs. what remains of a Sunni resistance. That group would include al-Qaeda in Iraq remnants - whose ranks may swell as US forces leave the cities in accordance with the SOFA agreement with the al-Maliki government - as well as Awakening Council militias, members of which the Maliki-government's security forces have been rounding up and harrassing for months now, with the backing of US troops - which may make US troops targets again as well. Indeed, 5 US troops were killed by a car bomb in Mosul yesterday (and factor in as well that AQI groups are not often well disposed toward the Sunni Awakening. Today, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, several Awakening members were killed by a suicide bomber, likely AQI). The consensus seems to be that the Iraqi forces are a long way from being ready to take on the forces that are already arrayed against them.

And let's not forget that thousands of members of the Mahdi Army may be lying low and waiting to act against any perceived provocation. As the MSM tout the success of the Surge, they tend to forget that (a) part of that success was due to Muqtada al-Sadr's instruction to his followers to stand down in their resistance to Maliki's army, and (b) parts of Sadr City, the mostly Shiite impoverished slum in Baghdad, were walled off (with those humongous concrete blast walls) by the US forces, which then expended considerable effort in keeping those walls guarded and pretty well plugged. What happens when the US forces withdraw from Baghdad over the next few months? And if the Iraqi forces are able to keep those walls up and that part of Baghdad therefore segregated, how long will it take to complete a reconciliation process that would make it possible for those walls to come down? And that simply has to happen at some point. No country can be called stable or a success when one portion of its capital has to be walled off from another.

I'll say it again . . . prepare to see in the weeks ahead a lot of neocons and US military honchos demanding that Obama in effect discard the withdrawal timetable agreed upon in the SOFA agreement, in order to "preserve the gains" made in Iraq and ensure that the sacrifices of the US military over the past 6 years will not have been "in vain." The impact of a wihdrawal slowdown in Iraq on Obama's plans for Afghanistan will be significant, of course. What remains to be seen is the impact such a slowdown will have in Iraq itself. But at the least, it will strengthen the impression of the US as a long-term occupier of Iraq, it will weaken Obama's diplomatic outreach to Iran (whose leaders do not want to see the US military presence next door extended - but the Netanyahu government in Israel might welcome this), and it may fatally undercut the Maliki government by labeling it as nothing more than a US puppet/proxy regime.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Reports of Hezbollah ring plotting against Egypt

Some interesting reports coming out of Israel and Egypt about alleged Iran/Hezbollah terror plans vs. Egypt. On the other hand, a noted Egyptian expert on Islamist groups (Diaa Rashwaan) says that these allegations are politically motivated, and says that Hezbollah has been confining its activities to Lebanon.

I'm inclined to heed the Egyptian expert's warnings. The established Arab regimes (dictatorships, really) in the region have set up the Iranians as a bogeyman for several years now (I think, for example, of King Abdullah of Jordan's fulminations about the impending doom to be caused by the "Shiite Crescent" led by Iran). Innocents? No. But intent on launching terror attacks against Egypt? But if Egypt wants to accuse Iran of such dirty work, you can be sure that the Israeli press will be happy to provide a bullhorn to get that news to the West.

I'll be curious to see how much play this gets in the US MSM.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A paid political announcement by the Likud party

The following is a paid political announcement by the Likud party and the government of Israel.

No, not really, but it might as well be. Remember, this is by Elliot Abrams, the "rehabilitated" Iran-Contra criminal who held the Middle East brief on Bush's National Security Council. He argues here that, what the hell, the Jewish settlements are up, so leave them alone - and let 'em keep building! They're not hurting the Palestinians, says he.

And this clown has a seat in the Council on Foreign Relations?!

And, on a related note - with some shameless self-promotion - for those of you who read Spanish, you'll find yours truly quoted (along with Mr. Abrams - and Patrick Seale; much better company, he) in an article in this week's edition of Semana, Colombia's top weekly news magazine.

The Settlement Freeze Fallacy

By Elliott Abrams
Wednesday, April 8, 2009; A17

Will Israel's new government face American demands for a settlement freeze? If so, we are headed for a needless confrontation with the Netanyahu cabinet.

There is wide consensus that the main obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is settlement activity -- new construction in the communities beyond the "Green Line," as the border of Israel from the 1949 armistice until the 1967 war is known. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called settlement activity "the greatest obstacle" to peace, former president George W. Bush called it an "impediment" to peace, and the international "quartet" -- the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations -- has criticized settlement activity in virtually all of its joint statements.

There is also wide agreement on the antidote: a "settlement freeze," imposed to make peace possible. Consider: In a speech in Washington last February, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad said that "what is most desperately required is a cessation of all settlement activity in order to preserve the very possibility of a negotiated two-state solution." The 2001 Mitchell Report said Israel should "freeze all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements," a conclusion that gained more importance when George Mitchell, the former senator who wrote the report, was named President Obama's Middle East negotiator.

Certainly the establishment of Israeli settlements in the West Bank after 1967 (by Labor and Likud governments) created conditions that complicate negotiations. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis now live beyond the Green Line, and the intense debate in Israel over then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's removal of fewer than 9,000 settlers from Gaza suggests that removing settlements from the West Bank will be even more controversial and difficult.

But those settlements exist, and there is no point in debating whether it was right to build them. President Bush largely resolved the issue of the major settlement blocs in a 2004 letter to Sharon. He stated a truth that Palestinians have come to recognize: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities."

So the real issue is not past settlement activity but the demand for a settlement freeze. Is current and recent settlement construction creating insurmountable barriers to peace? A simple test shows that it is not. Ten years ago, in the Camp David talks, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat approximately 94 percent of the West Bank, with a land swap to make up half of the 6 percent Israel would keep. According to news reports, just three months ago, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered 93 percent, with a one-to-one land swap. In the end, under the January 2009 offer, Palestinians would have received an area equal to 98 to 98.5 percent of the West Bank (depending on which press report you read), while 10 years ago they were offered 97 percent. Ten years of settlement activity would have resulted in a larger area for the Palestinian state.

How is this possible? For one thing, most settlement activity is in those major blocs that it is widely understood Israel will keep. For another, those settlements are becoming more populated, not geographically larger. Most settlement expansion occurs in ways that do not much affect Palestinian life. While the physical expansion of settlements may take land that Palestinians own or use, and may interfere with Palestinian mobility or agricultural activity, population growth inside settlements does not have that effect. For the past five years, Israel's government has largely adhered to guidelines that were discussed with the United States but never formally adopted: that there would be no new settlements, no financial incentives for Israelis to move to settlements and no new construction except in already built-up areas. The clear purpose of the guidelines? To allow for settlement growth in ways that minimized the impact on Palestinians.

Israel has largely, but not fully, kept to those rules; there has been physical expansion in some places, and the Palestinian Authority is right to object to it. Israeli settlement expansion beyond the security fence, in areas Israel will ultimately evacuate, is a mistake: It wastes Israeli resources and needlessly antagonizes the Palestinians who live nearby. But the overall impact of such recent activity -- as Olmert's proposal to Abbas showed -- has not undermined Israel's ability to negotiate peace and offer a territorial compromise.

Settlement activity is not diminishing the territory of a future Palestinian entity. In fact, the emphasis on a "settlement freeze" draws attention from the progress that's needed to lay the foundation for full Palestinian self-rule -- building a thriving economy, fighting terrorism through reliable security forces and establishing the rule of law. A "settlement freeze" would not help Palestinians face today's problems or prepare for tomorrow's challenges. The demand for a freeze would have only one quick effect: to create immediate tension between the United States and Israel's new government. That may be precisely why some propose it, but it is also why the Obama administration should reject it.

The writer, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was the deputy national security adviser overseeing Near East and North African affairs in the George W. Bush administration.

Some encouraging signs about Obama, Israel, and Iran

Today's LA Times reports that V-P Joe Biden has warned Netanyahu off attacking Iran. Biden is known for making statements that he's sometimes had to back away from, but I have to believe that on an issue as important and contentious as this, he made this statement only with due consultation with, and approval from, his boss. If Netanyahu were to authorize a strike against Israel at this point, he'd be doing so without any green light from the US. Of course, in case he decided to go ahead and launch a strike anyway, he may be counting on the ability of the Israel Lobby [and yes, my friends, let's dispense with any more pretense on this score. It does exist, so let's call it what it is] to rally support in Congress and among the American public to come to Israel's rescue. That would amount to a humongous game of chicken, with the planet's stability the stakes.

And I'm just as encouraged by the news of the Iran experts that Messrs. Holbrooke and Ross are bringing on board: respectively, Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh, both of them respected analysts who have long advocated engaging Iran over attacking Iran.

Some big lines are being drawn in the sand, by the leaders of two countries who have professed themselves to be each other's strongest allies. Of course, it's right about now that we can expect Mr. Ahmadinejad to do or say something stupidly inflammatory. Here's hoping that the Ayatollah Khamenei has him on a short leash right now.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Netanyahu wants peace without a Palestinian state

A non-affirmation affirmation from Israel - along with more evidence of Tony Blair's irrelevance. Netanyahu will never agree to a Palestinian state. President Obama has a major problem here; one more for an already sky-high pile.

Might Pakistan come apart?

Interestingly, Juan Cole at Informed Comment has been trying to reassure his readers that Pakistan is actually in no real danger of coming apart. Analyses such as this onesurely call that into question. What I can certainly envision as a real possibility is an attempted military take-over - something to which Pakistan has become all too accustomed over the years since its creation in 1947. And when you have a character as corrupt and indecisive as Asif Ali Zardari (widower of Benazir Bhutto, who for all of the glorification of her after her assassination was not exactly a model of transparency in democracy) as president, all the more reason for the military to step in if the situation spirals downward even more. However, the pro-democracy feeling has burgeoned among Pakistan's middle class, who will likely not respond well to a military coup. The likely consequence would be urban demonstrations and rioting in Islamabad and elsewhere, as well as a dangerously discomfited India.

How all this might spill out beyond Pakistan would have, of course, a major impact on Mr. Obama's plans for Afghanistan and eliminating al-Qaeda.

A Saner Approach to Iran's nuclear enrichment

The Financial Times reports that the Obama administration may "cede to Iran's nuclear ambition" by more or less acceding to its pursuit of nuclear enrichment - which, let's face it, they've been doing for years, and to which they're entitled according to the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (to which Iran, but not Israel, is a signatory). That the Netanyahu government will go along with this is doubtful, to say the least. Netanyahu's upcoming visit to Washington in May looms ever more important,

Afghanistan = Vietnam?

The respected conservative commentator Georgie Anne Geyer thinks so, among others - and as I've noted earlier, I'd have to agree. Don't get me wrong. I am, all in all, a big fan of Mr. Obama, and hope that I can remain so. But I fear that he's biting off more than he - or we - can chew, in Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

There's a famous aphorism from the Vietnam war, about how the US would sometimes have to "destroy a hamlet so that we could save it." The more I read about the impact of US drone attacks in Pakistan, the more that aphorism haunts my thinking. I hope the "surge" now in process in Afghanistan will succeed, but let's all try to keep in mind that, despite the inferences published by Fred Kagan and the American Enterprise Institute, there's no evidence to prove that General Petraeus can indeed walk on water. Nor, despite the best efforts of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to make the case, could General Maxwell Taylor or General William Westmoreland.


WASHINGTON -- As President Obama and his advisers focus on Europe, Russia and the international economy at the G20 summit, a slowly bleeding wound on the body of American foreign policy is becoming increasingly infected -- and will, in the end, seriously poison his presidency.

The wound is Afghanistan. Its present situation reminds those of us who remember Vietnam of those days in the '60s when minds in Washington were elsewhere -- on the nuclear standoff with Russia in Cuba, on President Kennedy's death, on the civil rights fight -- as we quietly kept sending more and more troops to replace the French in Indo-China.

What we hear from those faraway Afghan mountains and villages, which have voraciously devoured every foreign conqueror for hundreds of years, is that the Taliban is growing in influence. (It is al-Qaida and the Taliban we blame for the 9/11 attack, of course.)

The Taliban is now right outside the capital of Kabul, and young correspondents and aid workers who have covered the war tell me unanimously that they no longer can move around the country without guards. (One of the best, a dark-haired, handsome young American, has now grown a beard and wears Afghan dress whenever he leaves his hotel.)

Moreover, this very week, Taliban fighters struck for the first time outside of their protective tribal areas into Pakistan proper -- into the country's most populous state of Punjab and into that elegant ancient city of Lahore, in an eight-hour attack on the police institute that was only confusedly defeated. A warning.

Yet, even while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking a week ago in The Hague, called the waste of aid money already spent in Afghanistan "heartbreaking," the administration is going to forge ahead, planning to send some 900 new civilian personnel to the country, among other changes. This, despite the fact that foreign civilian personnel have become "the" target of the Taliban and other indiscriminate killers, many of them in the fight only to fight foreigners!

Is this wise? I don't think so. There is the same feeling in Afghanistan today that there was in Saigon in 1968, '69 and '70, when I was there -- that despite all our outward manifestations of military and technological power, the Viet Cong were sneaking up on us from all sides. In fact, it was, just as the Taliban is today.

But to back up momentarily to the decision-making process: Bill Gertz, one of Washington's most astute journalistic voices and investigators, wrote recently in The Washington Times that the Obama administration was initially divided on what to do, after eight long and ambivalent years, on Afghanistan. Vice President Joseph Biden and others argued in closed-door meetings for a "minimal strategy of stabilizing Afghanistan," focusing on the main military objective of denying safe haven to the terrorists.

A second group, led by special regional envoy Richard Holbrooke and supported by Secretary Clinton, fought for "a major nation-building effort." The latter won, and we are now, Gertz wrote, embarked on a "major, long-term military and civilian program to reinvent Afghanistan from one of the most backward, least-developed nations to a relatively prosperous democratic state."

And so, they are most probably placing us firmly back into the pattern of America's unfortunate lost wars. As Bill Lind, one of our most impressive military historians (he wrote the Marine Corps' small-wars manual in earlier years), says: "The error, one that no tactical operational successes can overcome, is setting unattainable strategic objectives. Short of divine intervention, nothing can turn Afghanistan into a modern, prosperous, democratic state."

Then he adds, revealingly: "Here we see how little 'change' the Obama administration really represents. The differences between the neo-liberals (the Obama-ites) and the neocons (the conservatives who got the Bush administration into the Iraq and Afghan wars) are few. Both are militant believers in Brave New World, a Globalist future in which everyone on earth becomes modern. ... Meanwhile, the money is running out. The 'ancien regime' syndrome looms ever larger: We not only maintain, but increase, foolish foreign commitments."

Another extremely well-informed columnist on the region and veteran of the Congo and Vietnam and innumerable other conflicts, Arnaud de Borchgrave, writes in his United Press International column of how Pakistan's always-secretive and endlessly intrusive intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, has in part supported the Taliban, at the same time it was supposedly working with us. "Pakistan's geopolitical calculus," he writes, "shows NATO followed by the United States succumbing to the Vietnam syndrome -- and the Taliban prevailing."

What is now taking form, then, is an Afghanistan that could steadily be taken over by the Taliban. More Americans there, particularly unprotected civilians, mean more targets of opportunity. (The Americans who volunteer are most often our very best people -- that is not the question.) Meanwhile, Pakistan could become Talibanized, rendered essentially helpless or radicalized itself.

But these are details -- THEIR details. What about OURS? Our big question is an overarching historic one. Are we going to continue to bleed ourselves in countries we are trying to transform in our image? Our history of unnecessary lost wars and fruitless interventions -- from Vietnam, to Somalia, to Haiti and others -- may not show up immediately, but they are there, underlying and poisoning everything. In Afghanistan, we could have, from the beginning, dealt with al-Qaida and the Taliban as a police and intelligence action, realizing both their limits and our own. Instead, we are trying, nobly but ultimately foolishly, to build a "city on the hill" in sand. Again.


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