MERIP Blog

War Drums and Obama

by Chris Toensing | published March 2, 2012 - 3:09pm

For the last three weeks or so, liberal commentators have repeatedly insisted that the Obama administration bears little to no responsibility for the ever louder beating of the Iran war drums. Whatever such sounds the White House makes are just pre-election theater necessitated by Republican attacks, they say, or reflexive reassurance of the pro-Israel voting bloc as Israeli leaders deride the US stance as weak. The parallel assertion is that the Obama administration will never launch an attack on Iran and, in the meantime, is doing everything it can to quiet down the racket. This claim is then used to draw a contrast between the Iran war talk and the leadup to the 2003 Iraq war: The dastardly Bush administration ginned up the latter, while the Obama administration is resisting the former.

Sorry, but this line is nonsense -- or, to be more precise, it only makes sense in a world where the Iranian nuclear program magically ceases to be an issue after the 2012 presidential election.

The Obama-is-innocent argument has drawn considerable support from the statements of several officials, among them Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who said he doubts Iran has made the decision to construct a nuclear device, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has danced around the question of whether Israel will hit Iran soon, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, who said that Iran is a “rational actor” and not some band of mad mullahs who can’t be reasoned with.

The Republican presidential candidates are, of course, grossly irresponsible in their rhetoric. And the Israelis are clearly trying to goad the White House into noisier rattles of its own saber, if not an actual air strike.

But the game doesn’t stop after the election. Absent some diplomatic breakthrough, one that the war drums make less likely the louder they resound, Iran will still be enriching uranium. The US will still regard (unlimited) enrichment as “unacceptable” because it could give Iran the fissile material it needs for an atomic weapon. And a second Obama administration would not need to want war in order to accept the logic that it has no other choice. (In the improbable event of a Republican win in November, all bets are off.) Meanwhile, what the White House says and does (and does not say or do) matters a great deal in determining whether the escalating talk of war becomes actual escalation.

The president himself has now given an extensive interview to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in which he stresses that the US will “continue to apply pressure until Iran takes a different course” in its nuclear program. He clarifies that the oft-repeated phrase “all options are on the table” “includes a military component.” Obama says that if Israel were not clamoring on the sidelines, “It would still be a profound national security interest of the United States to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” due to non-proliferation concerns “in the most volatile region in the world, one that is rife with unstable governments and sectarian tensions.” That is why it is not possible to contain a nuclear-armed Iran and why the thrust of his policy is, at the very least, to compel Iran to accept restrictions on its indigenous nuclear capacities. (Under questioning from Goldberg, he also agrees that the predicament of the Asad regime in Syria is strategically important because that regime’s fall “will be a profound loss for Iran” -- another reason for his wait-and-see approach.)

Goldberg’s interview does not paint a picture of a president preparing to yield to Israeli-GOP pressure when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu comes to Washington. Obama carefully avoids being steered off his administration’s chosen path. But the interview is also not a picture of a president who is willing to “tolerate” a nuclear-armed Iran or unwilling to send in the bombers to forestall that outcome.

The White House believes that an attack now would be rash because its self-described tactic of “tightening the noose” via sanctions is working.

Colin Kahl, who served in Obama’s Pentagon, lays it out as follows: “Paradoxically, the most likely road to containment is the very course war proponents advocate: a near-term preventive strike on Iran’s nuclear program. There are two pathways to containment. The one administration critics emphasize -- that President Obama would somehow choose to ‘live with’ a nuclear-armed Iran -- is actually the least likely. Obama has made clear that an Iranian nuclear weapon is ‘unacceptable,’ his secretary of defense has described an Iranian nuclear weapon as a ‘red line,’ and the administration has put in place unprecedented sanctions to pressure the regime to accept a diplomatic solution…. In short, the least likely road to containment is the one being pursued by the administration.”

Kahl continues: “A second, and far more likely, path to containment is to rush into war before all other options have been exhausted. A near-term US or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program would knock it back, at most, a few years. Meanwhile it would motivate Iran’s hardliners to kick out International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, incentivize the regime to rapidly rebuild a clandestine nuclear program, and rally the Iranian people around that cause to deter future attacks.... The result would be the worst of all worlds: an Iran emboldened to go for a bomb and a requirement for post-war containment without the international cooperation required to actually implement such a policy.”

The obvious question is: What if “tightening the noose” does not work? What if Iran does not halt its uranium enrichment or accept extraordinary controls on same? What if, in fact, the sanctions and US-Israeli threats push Iran to step up its nuclear efforts, as Martin Indyk predicts? (Indyk, of course, is an author of the “dual containment” plan that he delineated in 1993 at his former place of employment, WINEP, and that helped to bring matters to this juncture.) From the arguments of Obama and Kahl, it appears that, in that case, it would be fine to contemplate war down the road because “international cooperation,” and hence the distinction from Bush that liberals crave, would be secured.

The Obama-is-innocent meme is, in fact, an index of how far the hawks have already bent the stick in their general direction (with an assist from the Iranian hardliners). Liberals once defended the idea of Obama reaching out to Iran; now their line is that his approach is tougher on Iran than the GOP or Israel.

The clock is probably not ticking as fast as Indyk posits. In the long view, though, what is happening is that liberals (and maybe Europeans as well) are being softened up for a future scenario in which their man, because he has “exhausted all other options,” emulates his detested predecessor in ordering a “preventive” military strike of dubious legality and tenuous relation to Americans’ security (as opposed to “national security”). This scenario is far from inevitable, but it would really help if liberals stopped deluding themselves about what is at stake. And it would help even more if the Obama administration, instead of just trying to thread the multiple needles of the ambient war talk, and thus “leading from behind” in threatening Iran, pursued a genuinely alternative Iran policy.

BDS in the News

by Joel Beinin | published February 23, 2012 - 11:11am

Unusually, on February 21 the New York Times carried an op-ed by a prominent Palestinian political figure, Mustafa Barghouthi.

Barghouthi is justly concerned that “Israeli settlement activity could soon lead us to the point of no return” for the two-state solution and concludes that “if we do not soon achieve a genuinely independent Palestinian state, we will be forced to press instead for a single democratic state with equal rights and responsibilities for both Palestinians and Israelis.” But he does not say that this point has been reached and therefore continues to support the two-state solution, as he has done for at least the three decades I have known him. Barghouthi also says that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign “is not intended to delegitimize Israel…. It is…a movement to delegitimize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.” I’m not sure why he omits mention of the Gaza Strip. But the two-state implication is clear.

Moreover, while the demand for an end to the Israeli occupation is one of the three points of unity for the Palestinian BDS campaign, Barghouthi neglects to mention the other two points: equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of Palestinian refugees to return.

Norman Finkelstein has been excoriated for expressing essentially the same views in an interview he gave to Frank Barat before a February 9 speaking engagement in London. Finkelstein denounced the demand for equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel and argued against the Palestinian refugees’ right to return on the incorrect grounds, in my opinion, that these demands have no standing in international law. Finkelstein deserves criticism for his crude and arrogant tone in that interview. Barghouthi would never deny the refugees right to return or the right of Palestinian citizens to equality. But neither does he insist on mechanically mentioning them when he gets a rare chance to write in the New York Times. Effectively, therefore the two positions are quite similar, though Barghouthi is infinitely more skillful in his mode of expression.

My point here is not to advocate for two states (I don’t) or one state (I don’t). Neither is on the agenda in the foreseeable future. Rather, it is to emphasize the importance of strategically informed and precise expression.

When I last saw Mustafa this past summer I asked him why he still spoke about two states even though we both knew that a viable and sovereign Palestinian state was very likely no longer a possibility. He said something like: The Palestinian people have fought for the right to self-determination and to have their own state. World opinion (except Israel) now agrees with us. We shouldn’t be the first to abandon this consensus. Let Israel be the first to say there is no longer enough land in the West Bank for a Palestinian state. Then we will have a response.

In other words, it isn’t always necessary or even useful to say everything you know and everything you believe is right.

Anthony Shadid, 1968-2012

by Chris Toensing | published February 17, 2012 - 9:13am

We at MERIP are shocked and deeply saddened by the loss of Anthony Shadid, an extraordinary reporter, wondrously talented writer, judicious analyst of Middle East affairs, warm, generous person and good friend.

In between sojourns in the Middle East, Anthony served on our editorial committee from 2000-2002. A fuller tribute will appear in the upcoming issue of Middle East Report. For now, we reproduce below the list of his writings for the magazine, including this dispatch from Iraq under UN sanctions, which demonstrates some of the reasons why his later work on that country would be nonpareil.

Our deep condolences to Anthony’s family and to his many friends and colleagues.

Daring Theater Offers Respite from Baghdad’s Misery

Anthony Shadid

Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999)

Soon after the tattered curtains part in Baghdad’s Sheherezad Theater, a boisterous Baghdad comes to the fore.

The frenzied strains of an Iraqi pop song herald the appearance of a cross-dressing belly dancer, seductively clad women and a wiggling and jiggling government official, and suggest the presence of drink and drugs in the office of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Animal Resources. On stage come a secretary who works as a pimp, an effeminate deputy minister who loves his wine and women, and his boss, who goes nowhere without an escort of prostitutes.

The plot? Tucked in with dancing, stand-up routines and a few tortured ballads is the story -- sort of -- of the Kuwaiti ministry’s plan to buy an American bull for the outrageous price of $115 million to improve the gene pool of Kuwait’s livestock.

“Bye Bye America” has played to full houses during a wild run that began in November in Baghdad. Its target, obviously enough, is the Kuwaiti government, with some barbed attacks on America’s sway over the Gulf’s monarchies and potentates. The laughs, however, don’t just come at the expense of Kuwait. In other plays on the Baghdad stage, the bribes and bureaucracy that torment Iraqis are the butt of jokes, and some criticism is bolder -- even shocking -- the kind of stuff that would earn an editor of any staid Iraqi newspaper a stint in jail -- or worse.

The plays have transformed Iraq’s once dormant theater scene into a thriving arena for artistic expression and creativity that is often daring and usually ribald. From just two playhouses a decade ago to 20 today, theater represents one of the few bright spots on Baghdad’s bleak cultural landscape. Lines from popular plays are frequently quoted in cafés, and tickets for some sold-out weekend shows can be scalped for five times the price of 1,000 Iraqi dinars (55 cents). Virtually all the productions are comedies, and therein lies their saving grace: They provide an officially sanctioned outlet for mounting frustrations. So official, in fact, that Saddam Hussein himself is said to be a patron, allocating 35 million dinars last year to help with their rather meager overhead.

The beauty of Iraq’s theater, though, goes beyond the exhilaration it brings to a city whose streets, like al-Rashid and Abu Nuwas, with their now shuttered nightclubs, were once synonymous with a capital as cosmopolitan and secular as any in the Arab world. It also evokes that free-wheeling time a generation ago when Palestinian students received scholarships to study in Iraq and Arab writers and artists fled the anarchy of Lebanon’s civil war to bring their intellectual force to a flowering Baghdad, making 1970s Iraq, for those on the “correct” side of politics, a time as nostalgic as the romanticized city of Abbasid glory.

Baghdad’s tragedy today, it seems, is not what it is but what it has become under the United Nations’ seemingly permanent sanctions. Although the material conditions of Iraq have improved under exemptions that allow the government to buy food with oil exports, the sycophancy of much of the country’s sanctioned intellectual life and, more acutely, the desolation of its cultural landscape drearily remain, mocking the oft-quoted adage that “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads.”

Dar al-Ma’moun, one of Iraq’s main publishing houses, once issued 20 titles a year. Now it produces only two, maybe three. Its 96 translators of English, French, Spanish, German and Russian have decreased to ten today. The Iraqi film industry, once a pet project of the government, has all but shut down, Iraq’s cinemas closing with it.

In this grim setting, Baghdad’s theater brings subtlety, a finesse that seems reminiscent of al-Hallaj, whose ecstatic exclamation that “I am the Truth” got him executed -- actually, dismembered -- in tenth-century Baghdad for blasphemy. The sophistication is all the more welcome in a city that, with its victory arches, martyrs’ memorials, and paintings of Saddam in black beret, suit and tie or kaffiya, or in Norman Rockwell-like scenes with children, is anything but subtle.

One long-running play, “A Party for a Respectful Person,” skewers an Iraqi official for obstructing access to the permits Iraqis need to travel or to sell and buy a house. The official, a director-general, usually the highest position that will come in for criticism, defines his day-to-day work with a furious style of favoritism and nepotism. The play ran for a remarkable three years.

In “Mudhouse,” a play set during the Hashemite monarchy, Iraqis are taken to prison, questioned and tortured, some emerging beaten and bruised. For the audience, it takes little imagination to place the scenes squarely in modern-day Iraq.

“Playground of the Hypocrites” takes the idea a tantalizing step further. In this play, an Iraqi is detained and politely asked by his interrogator to sit down. He is then told to confess. But, he asks, where is the boiling oil, the whips and the ceiling fan he should be hanging from? When told there’s nothing of the sort, he warns his interrogator, “They’re going to fire you!”

The writers and actors know they are on a long leash and are typically reluctant to talk about their freedom for fear of endangering it. If they do, they put it in the context of current politics, namely sanctions, the one topic anyone in Iraq can discuss.

“Life used to be much easier, and now all that is cut off,” says Sabah ‘Atwan, who finished writing "Bye Bye America" in 1993. “Iraqis feel they are suffocating with the sanctions, and the theater gives them the lungs they can breathe with.”

He makes clear, though, that the government has made a conscious decision to give Baghdad’s liveliest plays a freer reign. Or, as he put it in an interview, “The Ministry of Culture and Information doesn’t place a police officer inside the theater.”

His play is not so much subtle criticism as fast and fierce comedy, an often salacious celebration of puns, innuendo, slapstick and base humor that plays on every Iraqi stereotype of Kuwait and creates a few along the way. The Kuwaiti government spends $115 million for the American bull. To ease its transition, it allots $10 million for his housing, $10 million for food and entertainment and another lump sum for his own airplane -- equipped with a swimming pool. A delegation meets him at the airport, and functionaries interview a personal Indian cook and a Chinese barber.

“We will bring cows from the Philippines, Thailand and Holland. We’ll bring them from all over to entertain the bull,” says Mr. Fouad, the minister’s secretary and pimp. Inside the office, the deputy minister drinks from a flask tucked behind his gown. He complains incessantly that Fouad will not deliver him the women he provides the minister. And he signs his papers with a thumb print because he cannot read or write. In any crisis, the minister shouts, “Call America! Call Texas! Call Washington!” At other times, he breaks into a dance.

And then there’s the fun that could implicate a government at home or abroad: One minister warns that if they do wrong, the interior minister will take them into a dark room and make them sit on a bottle. In another scene, an underling lambasts the minister behind his back, then flatters him with a kiss on the cheek.

On this evening, one of Baghdad’s frequent electricity outages cuts short the nightly performance. One of the lead actors, Muhammad Imam, soon comes on to a dark stage lit by a few candles to apologize to the audience and beg them to come another night. The audience, in turn, seems to take it in stride. There are worse things in Baghdad, they insist, than a power cut.

“It’s not their fault,” says Sattar Karim, a 37-year old Iraqi who brought his family. “It was about to end anyway.” He pauses, then adds casually: “We like to enjoy ourselves, even if it is for a short time. It’s always good to laugh.”


Also by Anthony Shadid in Middle East Report:


Lurking Insecurity: Squatters in Khartoum,” MER 216 (Fall 2000)

Nature Has No Culture: The Photographs of Abbas Kiarostami,” MER 219 (Summer 2001) (with Shiva Balaghi) (text only)

Victims of Circumstance,” MER 222 (Spring 2002)

The Shape of Afghanistan to Come,” MER 222 (Spring 2002)

Traditions of Tahrir

by Ted Swedenburg | published February 9, 2012 - 2:00pm

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a quite interesting program last Wednesday (as of now, it is still available for listening), in the run-up to the first anniversary of the Egyptian uprising that toppled Mubarak. It featured Reem Kelani, a noted Palestinian singer based in London.

Kelani was in Cairo in early 2011 to research the music of Sayyid Darwish, an early twentieth-century Egyptian composer who is credited both with modernizing the country’s music and with writing some of the country’s most beloved songs, which are closely associated with Egypt’s 1919 revolution. Kelani’s trip coincided with the uprising, so she spent time at Tahrir, and then returned again for a visit in November 2011.

Her account is an important corrective to all the hype in the Western media about the leading role of hip-hop in the Egyptian uprising, for it shows how important the music of Sayyid Darwish was for the demonstrators at Tahrir. Kelani, as well as several of the artists she interviews, assert that in Tahrir, the songs of Darwish “found their rightful place in the revolution.” The poet Zayn al-‘Abidin Fu’ad asserts that Darwish’s songs, in both 1919 and again in 2011, helped both to create a patriotic atmosphere and to assert the need for national unity. The key slogan of the January 25 movement, he states, was “Raise your head up high, you’re an Egyptian” (Irfa‘ ra’sak faw’, anta Masri), which was taken from Darwish’s famous song, “Oum ya Masri” (Rise Up, O Egyptian).

Khaled Abu Naga, director of Microphone, the celebrated 2010 documentary about the underground art scene in Alexandria, notes that the youth of that city, where Darwish was born and began his career, returned to Darwish during the uprising. In this context Reem notes that the revolutionaries embraced, for instance, Darwish’s famed anthem of the 1919 revolt, “Biladi, Biladi, Biladi” (My Country, My Country, My Country), which, she observes, Egypt’s President Sadat attempted to neutralize when, in the wake of Camp David, he made it the country’s national anthem in 1979, replacing a more militaristic anthem. Demonstrators sang this love song to the nation enthusiastically at Tahrir, attempting to reclaim it from the authoritarian regime.

We also hear the strains of “Salma Ya Salama” (Welcome Back to Safety), another renowned Darwish song, being sung in Tahrir. This tune celebrated the return of Egyptian laborers recruited (usually by coercion) to assist in the war effort in World War I. The workers numbered about 1 million. The song was an immediate hit and has remained popular ever since. It has been recorded by many artists, most famously in 1997 by Dalida, the Egyptian-born French music star.

Kelani in no way tries to marginalize the more “modern” features of the Tahrir music scene in favor of the traditional; she cites, for instance, the Egyptian rock singer Ramy Essam and his famous song of the uprising, “Irhal” (Go Away). Microphone, Abu Naga’s film, is all about rappers and skateboarders and graffiti artists in Alexandria. The point, rather, is how deeply rooted contemporary Egyptians and their art are in their national tradition, and about drawing connections between today’s music and that of the past. One of the artists Kelani interviews, Samia Jaheen, is a member of the Alexandrian music group Eskenderella, which performs its own compositions as well as contemporary renderings of works by artists like the revolutionary singer Sheikh Imam and Sayyid Darwish. And Darwish himself, it should be underscored, was thoroughly modern. One of the secrets of his success, as Ziad Fahmy notes in his book, Ordinary Egyptians, was that he composed in a style that was “catchy and short and perfectly suited the needs of the record companies.”

One wishes that Kelani’s piece had put more emphasis on the cosmopolitan atmosphere out of which Darwish emerged in Alexandria. Poet Zayn al-‘Abidin Fu’ad calls attention, correctly, to the fact that Darwish sang “Ana al-Masri, Karim al-Unsurayn,” or I am Egyptian, Noble in Origins. The "origins" are dual, Muslim and Copt, and so Darwish was calling for national unity between Copts and Muslims. The song "Oum Ya Masri," referred to above, however, called for national unity between Copts and Muslims and Jews. The original lyrics include these lines: “What’s the difference -- Christian, Muslim or Jew” (quoted in Fahmy). “Jew,” Fahmy informs us, has been deleted in a recent print edition of Darwish’s lyrics in favor of “soldiers.” (In Arabic, yahud was deleted for the rhyming gunud.) It is also rarely recalled, these days, that one of Darwish’s colleagues was the Jewish-Egyptian composer Da’ud Husni, who undertook to complete the operetta “Huda” after Darwish died. (And please note: For the most part, Darwish composed the music of the songs he is noted for; the lyrics were written by professional lyricists.)

Reem Kelani is no dogmatic “traditionalist” either. Her album, Sprinting Gazelle, is both deeply rooted in “folk” musics of various regions of Palestine and, at the same time, put to very contemporary arrangements. And check out her jazz vocal performance with jazz artist Guy Barker, on BBC’s World Café. Kelani promises to release a double CD dedicated to the music of Sayyid Darwish soon. If Western media, both mainstream and progressive, would devote just a fraction of the attention to Reem Kelani that they pay to Palestinian rap, both she, and Palestinian music, would be much better, and broadly, appreciated. (And ditto for Egyptian music.)

Note: this post was corrected on February 9, 2012.

Strategic Commodity 201

by Chris Toensing | published February 1, 2012 - 7:13pm

Goodness! Look at this marxisant rubbish:

American administrations have long sought stability in the Persian Gulf. In early 1980, President Carter declared, “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” While Carter was addressing an audience in the Kremlin, the Carter Doctrine is as relevant today as it was three decades ago. The United States has repeatedly, by its actions, made clear that domination of this crucial region by a local power is inimical to our vital national interests. The Persian Gulf’s oil production capacity as a proportion of global demand is roughly the same today -- about 28 percent -- as it was in 1980. The US Fifth Fleet and our other military assets in the region guarantee the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf.

Perhaps this passage appears in the latest issue of Monthly Review? No, it actually shows up in a February 1 paper from the Bipartisan Policy Center, “Stopping the Clock,” about Iran’s nuclear program. The paper sums up the findings of a working committee chaired by former Sen. Charles Robb (D-VA) and retired Gen. Charles Wald. And here is the last sentence of the paragraph:

But a nuclear-armed Iran would gain de facto immunity from conventional attack, significantly limiting the ability of US forces to ensure a secure supply of oil from the Persian Gulf.

Yes, the analysis above is advanced to buttress BPC’s case, as Reuters says, that Washington should “deploy ships, step up covert activities and sharpen its rhetoric to make more credible the threat of a US military strike to stop Iran’s nuclear program.” The paper concludes with a section titled, "Augment Credibility of Israeli Threat."

The paper will be chewed over extensively in the coming days, with many noting that the BPC last made a big splash in Iran news with a 2008 report calling for tougher sanctions on Iran and prepositioned military assets in anticipation that diplomacy would fail to halt Iran’s nuclear program and that “kinetic action” might therefore be necessary. An important figure behind that paper was Dennis Ross, who went on to head up Iran policy for the Obama administration (“Wherever you go at State, they tell you, ‘You’ve gotta go through Dennis,’” one insider told Bob Dreyfuss in 2009) and has subsequently left government service...but now sits in an office fitted with a “red phone” allowing the highest US and Israeli officials to speak to him on a top-security line. One might fairly surmise that Ross departed his government job after the 2008 BPC report had become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But the new paper is notable as well for its frank explication of the “vital interests” in the Persian Gulf that help to make Iran a hardily perennial subject of bipartisan concern. (Of course, the paper adduces other reasons for worrying about Iran, too.)

Disruption of oil supply, domestic economic downturn and disaster for global oil markets are frequently cited by opponents of the gathering Iran war talk as reasons why war is a terrible idea and by skeptics as proof that, in fact, there is no military option. Persuasive as these arguments may be to ordinary folks, they are not necessarily viewed as downsides to war by many in the US foreign policy establishment. In fact, right before the passage quoted above, the BPC paper reads:

The consequences detailed above would add greater risk to the secure supply of oil from the Persian Gulf, sparking a long-term rise in oil, gasoline and heating fuel prices that would have serious negative implications for the fragile US economy. Indeed, every $10 rise in annual oil prices equates to a nearly 0.5 percent decline in US Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The paper warns of this scenario not as a result of an air strike on Iran, but as the result of “inaction” as Iran enriches uranium to the high levels that can then constitute fissile material. In other words, the BPC is worried about oil in the event that Iran acquires the “turnkey capacity” to build a bomb, because that would allow “domination of this crucial region by a local power.”

This is not a simple instance of a hawkish think tank turning the anti-war logic on its head to score points. Rather, it reflects how many power centers -- not all -- in Washington regard the question of Persian Gulf oil and interruptions of the supply. The question is a strategic one; it matters over the long haul. A blinking red light indicating that war talk is getting serious would be people besides the usual proponents of “kinetic action” contending explicitly that short-term disruptions are something the world can live with.

In the meantime, the fact that Ross has signed off on such thinking and is still in such proximity to the innermost US (and Israeli) sanctums is reason not to dismiss the BPC paper as so much bluster.

Some Bad Ideas Can't Be Shot Down

by Darryl Li | published January 31, 2012 - 2:59pm

Some ideas are so absurd that they reveal interesting things about the times in which we live. Take, for example, an opinion piece by Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis in today’s New York Times suggesting that human rights organizations employ drone aircraft to monitor brutal regimes such as in Syria. “If human rights organizations can spy on evil, they should.”

As a practical matter, a very simple question remains unanswered: Why should any human rights organization invest “hundreds of thousands of dollars -- no longer many millions” (what a relief) in drones that a regime like Syria’s could easily shoot down? Indeed, by the end of the article the authors back away from this scenario and acknowledge that the idea may not make much sense in Syria after all. But no matter: Drones should nevertheless “assume their place in the arsenal of human rights advocates. It is a precedent worth setting, especially in situations where evidence of large-scale human rights violations is hard to come by.”

What is this precedent, exactly? The argument here essentially boils down to the following: If states can use drones, why can’t “we,” as human rights advocates? “Why not get drones to assist the good work?” As someone who once worked on an early use of satellite imagery for human rights advocacy, I am not entirely unsympathetic. But an obvious point lurks unaddressed: Human rights groups are not states.

Governments rarely if ever use drones in the way Sniderman and Hanis imagine, i.e., for peaceful purposes over territory of hostile states. Most often, they fly over areas whose rulers have (perhaps grudgingly) consented, such as in Pakistan and Iraq. Or drones are part of a war effort; they can be shot down, but they are also shooting or bombing back, as in Libya. The fantasy on offer -- of “humanitarian drones” “broadcast[ing] for a global audience, including diplomats at the United Nations” -- only makes sense against such a backdrop of state power. When Madeleine Albright famously exhibited images of mass graves from the Srebrenica massacre to the UN Security Council (itself a performative moment echoing Adlai Stevenson brandishing surveillance photos in the same room during the Cuban missile crisis), she was able to do so thanks to the US military.

Here, the obvious problems with Sniderman and Hanis’ proposal are less interesting than the imagination of politics at work that presumably made this article publishable in the first place. They posit the existence of an international community that, with the help of technology, can make incrementally more rational decisions about the collective endorsement of military force. There is an audience of bystanders (never perpetrators or accomplices, of course) who through the power of images can have their consciences activated. Political struggles, including the contestation of divergent collective interests, are replaced by stark moral dramas that, paradoxically, call for low-cost, low-risk responses. Hence Sniderman and Hanis casually reference drones helping to protect endangered whales, the perfect confluence of moral sentiment and technocratic management.

Working asymptotically toward such a flawed fantasy happens to be useful for defending the one precondition for this ideal world that has come closest to realization: a capacity for intervention made possible by a (fading) unipolar moment in which one hegemon can project violence with apparent impunity over much of the globe. It is no coincidence that debates over humanitarian intervention flourished in the years we now mark as both “post-Cold War” and “pre-9/11” -- in other words, those in which a clear justification for American military supremacy had yet to be identified.

In traversing the gap between the fantasy on offer and its twisted real-world counterpart, the logical fallback argument here is for human rights groups not to operate “humanitarian drones” themselves, but to demand that governments (or perhaps the UN, as suggested by former State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley) do so instead. And from there, how difficult is it to argue that any humanitarian drone witnessing a possible massacre in real time is morally obligated to carry and fire “humanitarian missiles”? The authors may or may not support armed humanitarian intervention, but it is difficult to see how any version of their proposal would be practical otherwise.

The idea that drones should be added to the “arsenal of human rights advocates” embodies a TEDTalk approach to politics: breezy and vapid, posing an apparently simple and low-cost idea for doing technocratic good in the world that may actually be none of those things.

Slouching Toward a Hot War

by Chris Toensing | published January 31, 2012 - 1:49pm

The odd, improbable Manssor Arbabsiar story is back, in prepared Congressional testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asserting that the alleged scheme “shows that some Iranian officials -- probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived US actions that threaten the regime.”

In attributing de facto sponsorship of Arbabsiar to Khamenei, Clapper puts a prominent name on the face of previously vaguer Obama administration statements about how high in the Islamic Republic the supposed plot went. His testimony is thus an escalation of the White House’s anti-Iran rhetoric -- which the administration seemed, as of mid-month, to be ratcheting down. The cold war, it appeared, was edging too close to a hot one.

These adjustments of animus may be election-driven, but they are not ephemeral. They have lasting consequences: They put the administration on the record ascribing ill intent to Iran, making it harder to climb down later, if nothing else because the GOP will not stop attacking Barack Obama as soft on Iran if the Republican candidate happens to lose in November. They harden the belief within the Islamic Republic that Washington is an implacable foe. And more broadly, as Trita Parsi and Shiva Balaghi have written, they facilitate the loose “war talk” that attends every iteration of the US-Iranian confrontation. War talk, Balaghi notes, “creates a highly volatile atmosphere in which logic and history are pushed aside.” It has a way of drowning out more rational, deep-breathing types of discourse. (And its volatility may be even greater inside the Islamic Republic, which is much more palpably threatened by the United States than the other way around.)

Some may seize upon the last clause in Clapper’s quotation above -- “in response to real or perceived US actions that threaten the regime” -- to make the case that the Obama administration is more sensible than it seems. This phrase would seem to indicate that the White House appreciates, as the working level of the US intelligence community surely does, that any direct Iranian use of force against the US would be deterrent or defensive in motivation. That might sound like an argument that Washington should simply avoid issuing provocations of its own or, at the very least, that there is no immediate reason to fear Iran.

But, as the White House surely knew it would be, the headline is the first part of Clapper’s judgment, as well as the explicit mention of Khamenei. What Clapper said will root itself in the media hothouse and stick in Americans’ minds as “Iran is a bigger threat than we thought.”

The US and/or Israel are probably not terribly close to ordering military action against Iran, at least not as close as Israeli controlled leakers would like Iran to think. But overall, as Peter Jenkins, the former British envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, illustrates, the West and Iran are slouching down the path to physical confrontation. Jenkins points one finger at Iran but four at Western bad faith: “It looks as though the real goal of sanctions is not to get Iran back to the negotiating table, but to get Iran to give way on the demands that it has spent the last six years declining to concede.” One main demand, the cessation of uranium enrichment, is Iran’s right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is thus resented across the Iranian political spectrum. Jenkins served in his IAEA post from 2001-2006, and was presumably quite involved in formulating the Western position; his piece is thus quite a stinging indictment.

In the case of both the stalemated nuclear talks and the surrounding war talk, the key dynamic to worry about is how, bit by bit, intransigence becomes an end in itself. It certainly does make one wonder if, to quote Jenkins again, “Western policy is driven not by non-proliferation goals, but by some ulterior purpose.”

Up with Friction

by Chris Toensing | published January 25, 2012 - 11:21am

On the first anniversary of the January 25 revolution in Egypt, it is right and meet to shine light upon a figure who is shadowy and obscure in mainstream retrospectives: the striking worker.

The revolution was not born of strikes, and organized labor was one face in the crowd during the triumphal 18 days of Tahrir Square’s mass occupation. By the same token, the revolution cannot be separated from the preceding decade of upsurge in street-level activism of all kinds, particularly the 13-year strike wave -- as Joel Beinin wrote already in 2007, “the longest and strongest since World War II” -- that began in 1998 and continues to this day. Starting in classically blue-collar locales like the mill town of Mahalla al-Kubra, the work stoppages spread throughout the country and across job classifications, expanding the usual definition of “worker” and helping to forge, in mindset and motility, the unified people that demanded the fall of the regime.

Labor militancy has also been a wellspring of international solidarity with the Egyptian uprising, with state employees in Wisconsin, for example, comparing their union-busting governor to Husni Mubarak and clearly drawing inspiration from Tahrir Square. Kamal ‘Abbas, one of two labor activists who had accepted the AFL-CIO’s 2009 Meany-Kirkland Human Rights Award on behalf of Egyptian workers, famously responded with a video tribute: “Today is the day of the American worker, as yesterday was the day of the Egyptian worker.”

One year on, Wisconsin’s struggle continues, though it is not the prominent national story it should be. The Occupy movement has supplanted it as the left-populist effort in the wavering media spotlight. Meanwhile, even as the evening news relays bird-doggers’ heckling of Mitt Romney for being a 1 percenter, the corporate media seems to have somewhat succeeded in portraying the Occupiers in the same old culture war terms: as entitled middle-class kids bedazzled by alternative this-and-that and fatally out of place in the heartland (not to mention home for the winter). There is a stratum of Occupy that facilitates this libel with faux radical anti-union thinking that, in some places, has led to debilitating bickering.

Whence the apathy toward (or even antipathy for) organized workers? In his terrific essay in the new issue of Jacobin, Seth Ackerman notes: “In the public mind, union ‘activism’ in recent years has been associated with images of defeat.” And no wonder: The print version of Ackerman’s piece contains a nifty, though sobering graphic depiction of the precipitous decline in strikes from the early twentieth century to the present. There are peaks and valleys on the chart until the early 1970s, at which point the bottom falls out. The timing is no accident, of course: The end of the long post-war boom saw the job market grow tighter, real wages stagnate and manufacturing begin to move overseas. Capital also felt freer to use the harshest union-busting tactics permitted by the skewed New Deal labor legislation. Under sustained assault, and defended less and less by the Democratic Party, union leaders had meanwhile internalized a great deal of the industrial peace model whereby the interests of management and labor were conceived as fundamentally in concert, especially vis-a-vis the specter of foreign competition, and also the management view that labor is a commodity.

Egypt’s tale is very different and, at least at this historical moment, seems a bit more encouraging.

In the 1950s, private firms like Shell Oil tried to import the industrial peace model to Egypt, sending their Egyptian managers to the US and publishing paeans to frictionless American production in the company magazine. But, with Nasser’s nationalizations, the great majority of Egyptian workers were employed in the public sector. There, as per Nasser’s corporatist model, workers were cast as builders of the nation, a key role in Egypt’s all-consuming collective project they occupied alongside peasants, white-collar employees and other social groups. The state, it was understood, owed these people something for their service to the nation. The big downside was that unions were absorbed by the state, with strikes essentially outlawed; the modest upside was that workers could mobilize the state’s rhetoric against it, via what Marsha Pripstein Posusney called the “moral economy,” in order to achieve material gains. And workers never abandoned the wildcat strike when suasion failed them.

The corporatist model has been justly lambasted as a means of coopting workers, criminalizing dissent and strangling democratic aspirations in Egypt. In light of the 2011 uprising, however, it seems clear that elements of it helped bring the state to its knees. First, and despite the marked erosion of the “moral economy” through neoliberal reforms, its residual effects helped workers to win major victories in Mahalla al-Kubra and elsewhere. There have been numerous defeats, but the overall image is not one of defeat. Second, and more important, generations of Egyptians have been educated to believe that workers are builders of the nation owed a debt by the state. If so many workers were dissatisfied to the point of risking jail or worse through wildcat strikes, as from 1998 onward, then something was grievously wrong in Egypt -- and, crucially, with the Egyptian state.

The drumbeat of counterattacks on striking workers in Egypt, identified by Hesham Sallam and others as the fi’awi discourse, draws upon the nationalist themes of the corporatist model. Strikers are labeled as troublemakers placing their own evanescent wants above the urgent needs of the nation. Yet, in the neoliberal era, the fi’awi discourse also evokes the globalization of the sensibility whereby labor is a commodity and everyone must be flexible so as not to ossify. Middle-class Americans not only expect to hold multiple jobs and even pursue multiple careers in their working lives, but increasingly regard these dislocating post-Fordist realities through the lens of personal empowerment. (In Jacobin, Ackerman explains how radicals can wind up advancing a version of the same outlook.)

One hopes that Egypt can stay Egypt in this respect (while dispensing with the nationalist claptrap, of course). Meanwhile, strikes are ongoing, as is the formation of independent unions. On the first anniversary of the January 25 revolution comes news that water and sanitation workers in Asyout concluded their sit-in, having faced down threats of violence and scored hikes in incentive pay and more benefits -- plus a pledge from the governor to remove the general who runs their company.

Such successful job actions are little replicas of Tahrir Square that, one year on, help allow the tantalizing thought that the glass is half-full.

Ask Katy Perry

by Sheila Carapico | published January 20, 2012 - 1:10pm

Will he stay or will he go?

Yemenis and Yemen watchers have been wondering for nearly a year, since the mass uprising against President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih began, whether he would entrench or decamp.

An unknown Yemeni captured the dilemma perfectly last May, posting on YouTube a photo-and-video montage of the president set to Katy Perry’s breakup song “Hot ‘n’ Cold.” The montage opens with two clips, subtitled in English, in which Salih declares that if the majority of the people want him to resign he will gladly do so, “No problem.” It then ends with tape wherein he asks, “Who wants the regime to go? This is bully talk (kalam baltaga)!” In between, Perry’s deep-throated soundtrack croons: “You change your mind like a girl changes clothes / Do you really want to stay? No. Do you really want to go? No.” “I should know that you’re not gonna change.” “You’re in when you’re out, you’re up then you’re down.”

It was funny and apposite in May 2011; in January 2012 it makes me both laugh and cry.

In May Yemen’s erstwhile benefactors in the Gulf Cooperation Council offered Salih a sweet deal whereby he would transfer presidential authority to his deputy, Vice President ‘Abid Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, in return for immunity from prosecution for the crimes of his administration including the murder in March of over 50 protesters outside Sanaa University. Three times he promised to take the deal and reneged.

In June a bomb inside a mosque in the vast presidential compound left Salih so seriously burned and injured that he traveled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Some imagined he was out of the picture. He returned to Sanaa in September, again promising to accept the GCC pact and then contradicting himself.

Finally in November, at a ceremony in Riyadh, Salih accepted a pen from a member of the Saudi ruling family who seems to have cracked a joke under his breath and chuckled as he put his signature to four leather-bound copies of a document. The following day he was back in the presidential palace declaring that the amnesty would apply to all his family and friends but not to the bullies and criminals trying to overthrow them. Next he announced he would travel to the US for medical treatment, or perhaps just an extended vacation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demurred; Salih stayed put. He vowed to remain active in politics.

Purely ceremonial elections pre-decided to install al-Hadi were scheduled for February 23. This week, after al-Qaeda militants stormed a provincial town, Rada‘a, Yemen’s government announced that elections might be delayed, and then reversed that declaration a day later. Meanwhile, the newly installed cabinet agreed to a sweeping immunity declaration for all regime members and then amended it slightly in preparation for sending it to a parliament still dominated by Salih’s General People’s Congress party.

Will he stay or will he go? Ask Katy Perry.

Chosen People Ideology

by Chris Toensing | published January 20, 2012 - 12:30pm

Mitchell Plitnick got a Republican National Committee spokeswoman to confirm that the body passed a resolution “recognizing that Israel is neither an attacking force nor an occupier of the lands of others; and that peace can be afforded the region only through a united Israel governed under one law for all people.” Whatever else one might say about this language, Plitnick persuasively demonstrates that it is de facto endorsement of a one-state solution (Greater Israel variety) in Israel-Palestine.

For anyone following the rise of the evangelical Christian right in the GOP over the last three decades, and the steady convergence of American blood-and-soil nationalism and its Israeli counterpart in the worldview of the American right, this news falls in the shocking, but not surprising category.

RNC resolutions are not presidential candidate platforms are not White House policy predilections are not actual US policy shifts. But all the same...yikes.

And ponder this intriguing clause:

WHEREAS, the roots of Israel and the roots of the United States of America are so intertwined that it is difficult to separate one from the other under the word and protection of almighty God

What comes to mind here is the influence of the Christian right, naturally, but also the “chosen people ideology” that historian Peter Gran identifies as central to the political cultures of bourgeois democracies, in which category he includes the US, Great Britain and (though it receives only light treatment) Israel. Gran’s schema is a quirky, but thought-provoking way of cutting through the tangled, never-ending polemics about whether Israel is a democracy. His answer: Yes, it is, and democracy is rule by race.

In Gran’s Gramscian-Foucauldian approach, race is the tool the elites rely upon to divert attention from class inequality and “chosen people ideology” is the hegemonic set of ideas that justifies the system. His analysis is not that simple; his book Beyond Eurocentrism is a bit old now, but worth perusing in its entirety.

It follows from Gran’s logic, though he does not say much about international relations, that countries that have settled (ha ha) upon the historical road of democracy to navigate capitalism would feel a mutual affinity. The bond is “chosen people ideology,” an intellectual-emotional apparatus that infuses a political culture with a strong belief in its own superiority, most importantly (for the country’s initial survival) over the native population whose dispossession might otherwise constitute a problem for a regime nominally based on notions of rights and popular sovereignty. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and apartheid-era South Africa (though Gran does not dwell on these countries’ histories, either) would also seem to fit the bill to one degree or another. Is it just the English language that explains why these countries so often wind up in “coalitions” to fight foreign wars?

The RNC resolution is a data point in favor of Gran’s thesis, which also suggests that the roots of backing for Israel in American political culture sink deeper than either evangelical Christianity or the machinations of various lobbies. See also: McAlister, Melani.