Monthly Archives: May 2011

Middle East Heat

The following appeared in the Independent out of England, and it doesn’t bode well for American policy in the Middle East. It speaks to the slippery slope we walk when we support corrupt government in the name of “good business”:

Who cares in the Middle East what Obama says?
by Robert Fisk

President Obama has shown himself to be weak in his dealings with the Middle East, says Robert Fisk, and the Arab world is turning its back with contempt. Its future will be shaped without American influence

Monday, 30 May 2011

This month, in the Middle East, has seen the unmaking of the President of the United States. More than that, it has witnessed the lowest prestige of America in the region since Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz on the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake in 1945.

While Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu played out their farce in Washington – Obama grovelling as usual – the Arabs got on with the serious business of changing their world, demonstrating and fighting and dying for freedoms they have never possessed. Obama waffled on about change in the Middle East – and about America’s new role in the region. It was pathetic. “What is this ‘role’ thing?” an Egyptian friend asked me at the weekend. “Do they still believe we care about what they think?”

And it is true. Obama’s failure to support the Arab revolutions until they were all but over lost the US most of its surviving credit in the region. Obama was silent on the overthrow of Ben Ali, only joined in the chorus of contempt for Mubarak two days before his flight, condemned the Syrian regime – which has killed more of its people than any other dynasty in this Arab “spring”, save for the frightful Gaddafi – but makes it clear that he would be happy to see Assad survive, waves his puny fist at puny Bahrain’s cruelty and remains absolutely, stunningly silent over Saudi Arabia. And he goes on his knees before Israel. Is it any wonder, then, that Arabs are turning their backs on America, not out of fury or anger, nor with threats or violence, but with contempt? It is the Arabs and their fellow Muslims of the Middle East who are themselves now making the decisions.

Turkey is furious with Assad because he twice promised to speak of reform and democratic elections – and then failed to honour his word. The Turkish government has twice flown delegations to Damascus and, according to the Turks, Assad lied to the foreign minister on the second visit, baldly insisting that he would recall his brother Maher’s legions from the streets of Syrian cities. He failed to do so. The torturers continue their work.

Watching the hundreds of refugees pouring from Syria across the northern border of Lebanon, the Turkish government is now so fearful of a repeat of the great mass Iraqi Kurdish refugee tide that overwhelmed their border in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war that it has drawn up its own secret plans to prevent the Kurds of Syria moving in their thousands into the Kurdish areas of south-eastern Turkey. Turkish generals have thus prepared an operation that would send several battalions of Turkish troops into Syria itself to carve out a “safe area” for Syrian refugees inside Assad’s caliphate. The Turks are prepared to advance well beyond the Syrian border town of Al Qamishli – perhaps half way to Deir el-Zour (the old desert killing fields of the 1915 Armenian Holocaust, though speak it not) – to provide a “safe haven” for those fleeing the slaughter in Syria’s cities.

The Qataris are meanwhile trying to prevent Algeria from resupplying Gaddafi with tanks and armoured vehicles – this was one of the reasons why the Emir of Qatar, the wisest bird in the Arabian Gulf, visited the Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, last week. Qatar is committed to the Libyan rebels in Benghazi; its planes are flying over Libya from Crete and – undisclosed until now – it has Qatari officers advising the rebels inside the city of Misrata in western Libya; but if Algerian armour is indeed being handed over to Gaddafi to replace the material that has been destroyed in air strikes, it would account for the ridiculously slow progress which the Nato campaign is making against Gaddafi.

Of course, it all depends on whether Bouteflika really controls his army – or whether the Algerian “pouvoir”, which includes plenty of secretive and corrupt generals, are doing the deals. Algerian equipment is superior to Gaddafi’s and thus for every tank he loses, Ghaddafi might be getting an improved model to replace it. Below Tunisia, Algeria and Libya share a 750-mile desert frontier, an easy access route for weapons to pass across the border.

But the Qataris are also attracting Assad’s venom. Al Jazeera’s concentration on the Syrian uprising – its graphic images of the dead and wounded far more devastating than anything our soft western television news shows would dare broadcast – has Syrian state television nightly spitting at the Emir and at the state of Qatar. The Syrian government has now suspended up to £4 billion of Qatari investment projects, including one belonging to the Qatar Electricity and Water Company.

Amid all these vast and epic events – Yemen itself may yet prove to be the biggest bloodbath of all, while the number of Syria’s “martyrs” have now exceeded the victims of Mubarak’s death squads five months ago – is it any surprise that the frolics of Messrs Netanyahu and Obama appear so irrelevant? Indeed, Obama’s policy towards the Middle East – whatever it is – sometimes appears so muddled that it is scarcely worthy of study. He supports, of course, democracy – then admits that this may conflict with America’s interests. In that wonderful democracy called Saudi Arabia, the US is now pushing ahead with a £40 billion arms deal and helping the Saudis to develop a new “elite” force to protect the kingdom’s oil and future nuclear sites. Hence Obama’s fear of upsetting Saudi Arabia, two of whose three leading brothers are now so incapacitated that they can no longer make sane decisions – unfortunately, one of these two happens to be King Abdullah – and his willingness to allow the Assad family’s atrocity-prone regime to survive. Of course, the Israelis would far prefer the “stability” of the Syrian dictatorship to continue; better the dark caliphate you know than the hateful Islamists who might emerge from the ruins. But is this argument really good enough for Obama to support when the people of Syria are dying in the streets for the kind of democracy that the US president says he wants to see in the region?

One of the vainest elements of American foreign policy towards the Middle East is the foundational idea that the Arabs are somehow more stupid than the rest of us, certainly than the Israelis, more out of touch with reality than the West, that they don’t understand their own history. Thus they have to be preached at, lectured, and cajoled by La Clinton and her ilk – much as their dictators did and do, father figures guiding their children through life. But Arabs are far more literate than they were a generation ago; millions speak perfect English and can understand all too well the political weakness and irrelevance in the president’s words. Listening to Obama’s 45-minute speech this month – the “kick off’ to four whole days of weasel words and puffery by the man who tried to reach out to the Muslim world in Cairo two years ago, and then did nothing – one might have thought that the American President had initiated the Arab revolts, rather than sat on the sidelines in fear.

There was an interesting linguistic collapse in the president’s language over those critical four days. On Thursday 19 May, he referred to the continuation of Israeli “settlements”. A day later, Netanyahu was lecturing him on “certain demographic changes that have taken place on the ground”. Then when Obama addressed the American Aipac lobby group (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) on the Sunday, he had cravenly adopted Netanyahu’s own preposterous expression. Now he, too, spoke of “new demographic realities on the ground.” Who would believe that he was talking about internationally illegal Jewish colonies built on land stolen from Arabs in one of the biggest property heists in the history of “Palestine”? Delay in peace-making will undermine Israeli security, Obama announced – apparently unaware that Netanyahu’s project is to go on delaying and delaying and delaying until there is no land left for the “viable” Palestinian state which the United States and the European Union supposedly wish to see.

Then we had the endless waffle about the 1967 borders. Netanyahu called them “defenceless” (though they seemed to have been pretty defendable for the 18 years prior to the Six Day War) and Obama – oblivious to the fact that Israel must be the only country in the world to have an eastern land frontier but doesn’t know where it is – then says he was misunderstood when he talked about 1967. It doesn’t matter what he says. George W Bush caved in years ago when he gave Ariel Sharon a letter which stated America’s acceptance of “already existing major Israeli population centres” beyond the 1967 lines. To those Arabs prepared to listen to Obama’s spineless oration, this was a grovel too far. They simply could not understand the reaction of Netanyahu’s address to Congress. How could American politicians rise and applaud Netanyahu 55 times – 55 times – with more enthusiasm than one of the rubber parliaments of Assad, Saleh and the rest?

And what on earth did the Great Speechifier mean when he said that “every country has the right to self-defence” but that Palestine would be “demilitarised”? What he meant was that Israel could go on attacking the Palestinians (as in 2009, for example, when Obama was treacherously silent) while the Palestinians would have to take what was coming to them if they did not behave according to the rules – because they would have no weapons to defend themselves. As for Netanyahu, the Palestinians must choose between unity with Hamas or peace with Israel. All of which was very odd. When there was no unity, Netanyahu told us all that he had no Palestinian interlocutor because the Palestinians were disunited. Yet when they unite, they are disqualified from peace talks.

Of course, cynicism grows the longer you live in the Middle East. I recall, for example, travelling to Gaza in the early 1980s when Yasser Arafat was running his PLO statelet in Beirut. Anxious to destroy Arafat’s prestige in the occupied territories, the Israeli government decided to give its support to an Islamist group in Gaza called Hamas. In fact, I actually saw with my own eyes the head of the Israeli army’s Southern Command negotiating with bearded Hamas officials, giving them permission to build more mosques. It’s only fair to say, of course, that we were also busy at the time, encouraging a certain Osama bin Laden to fight the Soviet army in Afghanistan. But the Israelis did not give up on Hamas. They later held another meeting with the organisation in the West Bank; the story was on the front page of the Jerusalem Post the next day. But there wasn’t a whimper from the Americans.

Then another moment that I can recall over the long years. Hamas and Islamic Jihad members – all Palestinians – were, in the early 1990s, thrown across the Israeli border into southern Lebanon where they spent more than a year camping on a freezing mountainside. I would visit them from time to time and on one occasion mentioned that I would be travelling to Israel next day. Immediately, one of the Hamas men ran to his tent and returned with a notebook. He then proceeded to give me the home telephone numbers of three senior Israeli politicians – two of whom are still prominent today – and, when I reached Jerusalem and called the numbers, they all turned out to be correct. In other words, the Israeli government had been in personal and direct contact with Hamas.

But now the narrative has been twisted out of all recognition. Hamas are the super-terrorists, the “al-Qa’ida” representatives in the unified Palestinian leadership, the men of evil who will ensure that no peace ever takes place between Palestinians and Israeli. If only this were true, the real al-Qa’ida would be more than happy to take responsibility. But it is not true. In the same context, Obama stated that the Palestinians would have to answer questions about Hamas. But why should they? What Obama and Netanyahu think about Hamas is now irrelevant to them. Obama warns the Palestinians not to ask for statehood at the United Nations in September. But why on earth not? If the people of Egypt and Tunisia and Yemen and Libya and Syria – we are all waiting for the next revolution (Jordan? Bahrain again? Morocco?) – can fight for freedom and dignity, why shouldn’t the Palestinians? Lectured for decades on the need for non-violent protest, the Palestinians elect to go to the UN with their cry for legitimacy – only to be slapped down by Obama.

Having read all of the “Palestine Papers” which Al-Jazeera revealed, there is no doubt that “Palestine’s” official negotiators will go to any lengths to produce some kind of statelet. Mahmoud Abbas, who managed to write a 600-page book on the “peace process” without once mentioning the word “occupation”, could even cave in over the UN project, fearful of Obama’s warning that it would be an attempt to “isolate” Israel and thus de-legitimise the Israeli state – or “the Jewish state” as the US president now calls it. But Netanyahu is doing more than anyone to delegitimise his own state; indeed, he is looking more and more like the Arab buffoons who have hitherto littered the Middle East. Mubarak saw a “foreign hand” in the Egyptian revolution (Iran, of course). So did the Crown Prince of Bahrain (Iran again). So did Gaddafi (al-Qa’ida, western imperialism, you name it), So did Saleh of Yemen (al-Qa’ida, Mossad and America). So did Assad of Syria (Islamism, probably Mossad, etc). And so does Netanyahu (Iran, naturally enough, Syria, Lebanon, just about anyone you can think of except for Israel itself).

But as this nonsense continues, so the tectonic plates shudder. I doubt very much if the Palestinians will remain silent. If there’s an “intifada” in Syria, why not a Third Intifada in “Palestine”? Not a struggle of suicide bombers but of mass, million-strong protests. If the Israelis have to shoot down a mere few hundred demonstrators who tried – and in some cases succeeded – in crossing the Israeli border almost two weeks ago, what will they do if confronted by thousands or a million. Obama says no Palestinian state must be declared at the UN. But why not? Who cares in the Middle East what Obama says? Not even, it seems, the Israelis. The Arab spring will soon become a hot summer and there will be an Arab autumn, too. By then, the Middle East may have changed forever. What America says will matter nothing.

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Bartcop.com “List the Facts”

Bartcop carried the following in response to criticism of the “cash for clunkers” program:

The $3 billion Cash for Clunkers program will shut down on Monday, the government said Thursday. Officials decided to wind down the program, which Congress passed to spur flagging auto sales, after determining that it would soon run out of money.

The program proved wildly popular, running through its initial $1 billion in its first week and leading lawmakers to approve an additional $2 billion in funding on Aug. 7. So why are we ending it — is this another Democratic surrender?

The right-wing liars have been screaming about the cost of this program which may end up saving Detroit, but it also saved tens of thousands of jobs in the car industry as well as in glass plants, electronics, the tire and rubber industry, leather seats, plastics and steel, XM-Sirius Satellite Radio — the list goes on and on.

So it’s a little expensive, but we should ask, “Compared to what?”

Bush gave Colgate $300M and who did they hire? Nobody!

Bush gave his crooked Enron friends $772M and who did they hire? Nobody!

Bush gave Ford $5.5 billion and who did they hire? Nobody!

Bush gave GE $5.3 billion and who did they hire? Nobody!

Bush gave IBM $2.5 billion and who did they hire? Nobody!

Bush gave Microsteal $7.2 billion and who did they hire? Nobody!

Bush gave the crooks at WorldCom $4 billion and who did they hire? Nobody!

Bush gave those corporate robbers $25.5 billion and who did they hire? Nobody!

The “Liberal” Media on the Leash

AlterNet is one of the best sites for finding the alternatives to the mass media’s view of politics. In this post, writer Paul Rosenberg takes on the “liberal media” in an article entitled Vision: “How to Make Media Reflect the Popular Views of Americans, Not Those of Elites (We should demand that the media cover the views of the majority)”:

“Liar! Liar!” “He’s lying!” That’s how Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s constituents responded at a town hall meeting in Kenosha a week after House Republicans passed Ryan’s draconian budget plan to privatize Medicare and slash taxes for the wealthy.

Ryan seemed genuinely shocked, totally unprepared for the grassroots outrage and for good reason: the gap between Washington elites and the American people seems to have reached an all-time high. While Ryan’s plan was lauded as “brave” and “visionary” inside the Beltway, poll after poll showed that the American people wanted none of it.

62 percent believe the government should focus on creating jobs, even if it means increasing the deficit in the short-term, according to a Lake Research Partners poll in March, 2011.

76 percent believe cutting Medicare to help reduce the budget deficit is mostly or totally unacceptable, and 67 percent believe the same about Medicaid, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll in February, 2011.

68 percent believe that phasing out the Bush tax cuts for families earning $250,000 per year is mostly or totally acceptable to help reduce the budget deficit, according to the same poll.

65 percent oppose changes to Social Security as a way to reduce the budget deficit, according to a Pew Research poll in March, 2011.

Paul then describes a movement to force mainstream media to back off the assertions of the usual talking heads and “experts” who follow only the party line on what politicians should be concerning themselves with, quoting Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future (CAF), who announced a partnership with the Center for Economic Policy Research and the media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

“Washington is preoccupied with draconian spending cuts because the pundits, news shows and politicians engage in group-think. And billionaire financier Peter Peterson has taught them what to think – that America has a deficit crisis”….

“But outside the beltway, the polls show the American majority cares more about high unemployment and the slow economy than the deficit. And the American majority rejects most of the budget cuts being pushed by the Washington crowd. Strong majorities would rather reduce the deficit by growing the economy, raising taxes for the wealthy and corporations, and by cutting military spending.”

This piece from our companion website, Keeping the Public in Public Radio, drawn from the LUV Newsletter, notes that “liberal” NPR is every bit as culpable as the rest of the media in defining the argument in conservative terms. Lost in the “argument”:

“It’s important that Americans understand the [just-released] 2011 Trustees Report confirms that Social Security and Medicare continue to fulfill their mission, providing retirement and health security to millions still suffering during the worst economic crisis of a generation. Beyond the doom-and-gloom news headlines and calls to cut these programs in order to ‘save’ them, the fiscal facts in this annual report show that Social Security has a $2.6 trillion surplus which continues to grow. While healthcare reform has extended the solvency of the Medicare Trust Fund, the economic recession and high healthcare costs continue to take their toll. The bottom line is Social Security is not in crisis and further reforms to our healthcare system are necessary to bring down costs nationwide, not just in Medicare.”

There is little chance NPR will allow the facts to get to the masses, any more than other corporate media, because their corporate sponsors, including FOX, would cut off their funding for informing the masses.

LUV Newsletter

It’s the Military, Stupid!: Don’t Blame America’s Debt Crisis on Social Security and Medicare

by Dave Lindorff

Amid all the nonsense and gobbledegook that has been written about banking industry and about the economic slump during the last four years of the global financial crisis, New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson has stood out both for the clarity of her analysis, and for her willingness to go after the guilty parties in the political and especially the banking system, naming names and calling it as she sees it.

So it was kind of disappointing — even shocking — to read her latest article [1] reporting on a new “study” by Peterson Institute for International Economics Senior Fellow Joseph Gagnon, warning about the nation’s growing debt crisis.

The Peterson Institute, founded by Wall Street tycoon Peter Peterson, has long been gunning for the Social Security and Medicare systems, which he, and the rest of the Wall Street gang, see as unfairly competing with Wall Street for the assets of the public, and as destructive of the “free market.”

Peterson’s basic schtick is that the two critical support systems for the elderly and infirm are going to bankrupt the country as they pay out benefits that exceed what retirees paid into the system, and that the solution is to cut back on those benefits, increase the taxes collected, or better, to privatize both systems.

Given Peterson’s and his institute’s long-standing agenda to gut Social Security and Medicare, it’s not surprising that Gagnon, as a fellow there, would say the solution to the nation’s growing debt is to either raise taxes or cut those two hugely successful, critically important and broadly popular social programs.

Ms. Morgenson is too smart not to know better, and yet not once in her article did she look outside of Gagnon’s narrow definition of the problem at the real cause of the national debt: the country’s outlandish military budget and a decade of unfunded wars, which have been piling up debt at a rate of some $150 billion a year (and that’s just the principal!).

After all, the country has been piling up this debt for several decades, and especially over the last decade, but during all this time, Social Security and Medicare have been paying out their benefits from current dedicated payroll taxes and by drawing on the trust funds that had built up because of the years that more was being collected than paid out in benefits.

Get the point? Nobody, including Gagnon, Morgenson or the Social Security and Medicare-hating members of Congress like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), will acknowledge the fact that not one dollar of the huge US deficit has been caused by a benefit check paid by Social Security or Medicare.

It’s the wars, stupid!

If the US would just cut its military spending down to size, instead of spending as much as the rest of the world combined on war or planning for war — say by 75% — it would free up more than $450 billion a year that could go towards funding things like improved education, research into alternative energy, improving health care access, and paying down the deficit, too. Toss in cuts in the outsized $40+ billion annual secret intelligence budget, in the nation’s obsolete and dangerous nuclear weapons program and other ancillary military-related expenditures, and we’re talking about saving half a trillion dollars a year!

Morgenson should be ashamed at carrying water for Peterson and Gagnon.

She could make an attempt to restore her once sterling reputation as a financial journalist by taking on the Pentagon.

http://www.thiscantbehappening.net/node/639

LUV Newsletter

Why Is Obama Dragging His Heels on Appointing Elizabeth Warren to Head CFPB?

by William Greider

Elizabeth Warren’s problem is not with the Republicans—though they have worked hard to demonize her. Her real problem is with the “boys” at the Treasury Department and Timothy Geithner, the head “boy” in charge of the president’s banking policies. Maybe she also has a problem with the “boys” at the White House. We are soon to find out. In the next month or so, Barack Obama must decide whether or not he will appoint Warren to chair the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

This ought to be a slam-dunk for him. After all, Elizabeth Warren invented the idea of a new regulatory agency to protect hapless consumers from predatory bankers. Obama embraced the concept as his own and it is one of his few distinctively original accomplishments. Warren knows consumer fraud. For many years, as a savvy reform critic, she courageously called out the banking industry on its most notorious practices. Her dynamic and plainspoken advocacy was essential in getting Congress to include the proposal in the financial reform legislation enacted last summer.

Yet Obama hesitated. For nearly a year, he has played coy and held off naming her to the job. We presumed that was because Republicans vowed to block her nomination unless the law is altered to weaken the CFPB and appease angry bankers. But that explanation doesn’t add up. Obama could always put her in the office through a recess appointment that gets around Senate confirmation. Yet he didn’t do so. What’s up with that?

Put aside the usual partisan bombast. I asked a Very Reliable Source to provide the inside skinny and this is what he told me: “All this is really about is the boys don’t want to have an independent woman in their clubhouse.” When I recounted this remark to my wife, she said, “What else is new?”

Tim Geithner, said my Very Reliable Source, really, really doesn’t want Elizabeth Warren in the position where she is sure to be a tough-minded and independent voice on major financial-policy issues. As CFPB director, Warren would also sit on the new “systemic risk” council of regulators who decide very large questions like “too big to fail.” The other regulators can outvote her easily enough, but Warren has an alarming history of personal candor. She says what she thinks, out loud and in public. That naturally disturbs the club members, all of whom have a rank history of making life easier for the big boys of banking.

Warren made her integrity clear when she served as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel digging into the financial crisis and bailouts. Her investigations turned up alarming facts the bankers and bank regulators wished to avoid. Furthermore, Warren was often dissenting on legislative issues Geithner and team were pushing in the congressional debates on financial reform. Geithner doesn’t tolerate contrary thinkers in his midst; witness the galaxy of Wall Streeters he recruited to run the Treasury department. Geithner is a favorite of the president’s, perhaps because he is absolutely faithful to the financial establishment’s best interests.

So what does Obama really think about all this? Despite his eloquence, the president is adept at not revealing that. The VRS doesn’t know either, but thinks the rise of Elizabeth Warren created a dilemma for Obama. He genuinely admires her work and character. But he really, really doesn’t want go against his Treasury secretary and other close advisors he relies upon. Obama’s new chief of staff is the man from JP Morgan Chase. William Daly says he has recused himself on these matters. Does he leave the room when Warren’s name comes up in the Oval Office?

Obama repeatedly pushed the question off, hoping things might change and resolve it for him. He added Warren to Treasury as the principal organizer staffing the new consumer bureau. She has evidently done a good job — another reason Republicans keep attacking her. Being against Warren helps GOP fund-raising, but then Obama is also heavy into fund-raising himself. Maybe he postponed a decision on Warren so he could harvest more Wall Street money. The administration approached other notables about taking the job, but everyone turned it down. In Democratic circles, this job belongs to Elizabeth Warren and nobody dares to jump ahead of her. Lately, political operatives are suggesting she should run for senator in Massachusetts – another ploy by the big boys to show this girl the door.

Ultimately, Obama has to decide. The question is no longer about financial reform or even politics. The question is whether this president has the nerve to include a smart, tough woman who thinks for herself on his governing team. If the answer is no, he will pay dearly for the cowardice.

 

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