Fatah al-Islam and Blowback

Fatah al-Islam, the terrorist group operating in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, which has become the target of Lebanese Army attacks, was, until very recently, supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the elements within the Lebanese government. These governments used the Fatah al-Islam group to conduct a proxy war against Hezbollah. Fatah al-Islam is a Sunni group, and, as you no doubt know, Hezbollah is Shi’ite. The US supports Sunni or Shi’ite depending on their particular goal in each country.

The US opposes Hezbollah for two reasons: (1) it’s a functioning political party in Lebanon, and therefore threatens US hegemony in the region, and (2) it successfully pushed Israel out of Lebanon, thus diminishing Jewish sway over Palestine. So, in this case, the US supports the Sunni extremists over Shi’ites.

Fatah al-Islam is an al Qaeda-like organization (al Qaeda is Sunni), created in a similar manner and for similar purposes as the United States and Saudi Arabia created al Qaeda. It is not Syria who is behind Fatah al-Islam, as the Christians in Lebanon and US propagandists claim, but our own country. In fact, it was Vice President Cheney, Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national security adviser, who personally organized the covert funding of Fatah al-Islam. Like the attack on the United States of September 11, 2001, Fatah al-Islam is another case of what the CIA calls “blowback.”

For context, the United States and Saudi Arabia (along with Pakistan) created al Qaeda to antagonize the Soviet Union, which originally moved troops into Afghanistan to honor a mutual defense pact with the progressive democratic government of Afghanistan, a government that the United States destabilized beginning with the Carter administration’s funding of the Mujahideen. When the US invaded the Middle East during the first Gulf War, bin Laden turned against the US. He could effectively score against US targets because the United States gave him the equipment and the training to do so. Now a US and Saudi-organized Sunni terrorist cell in Lebanon has, instead of antagonizing Hezbollah, turned its attention to the government of Lebanon.

Laos during its US Indochina Aggression

Laos gained “independence” from French imperialists in 1949. France remained in control of the country until 1954 and in control of the military until 1955, when the United States took over. The government of Laos, a constitutional monarchy led by King Savang Vatthana, served as a bulwark against the communist Pathet Lao. Laos thus played a role in US containment policy.

In the early 1960s, the North Vietnamese, in conjunction with the Pathet Loa, controlled the eastern half of Laos along its border, which included the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and used this control to spread communism and to supply the Viet Cong and Viet Minh fighters with food, medicine, and weapons.

In addition to logistical and material support to the government of Laos, the United States, under the direction of President Kennedy, through US military advisers and the CIA, organized the Hmong (or Miao) to fight the Pathet Lao. (General Vang Pao, a former general in the Royal Army of Laos, who led Hmong counterinsurgents, now lives in the United States and made the headlines today for conspiring with Hmong and US military figures to overthrow the current government of Laos.) Later, the US imported 8,000 Thai mercenaries to strengthen rural forces.

While guerrilla warfare raged on the ground, US warplanes bombed suspected Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese-controlled sites in 1964. US operations eliminated few communists, as they knew how to survive the attacks. However, large numbers of civilians were maimed and killed, and more than a million persons were driven from their homes. For eight years, Laos was the most bombed country in the world. And the killing and maiming didn’t end when the bombs stopped falling. Around 30 percent of all ordnance dropped on Laos failed to detonate on impact. Ordinance dropped on or left in Laos include anti-personnel devices (such as mines), artillery munitions, cluster bombs (which release bomblets or what the Laotian people call “bombies”), grenades, mortar shells, and rockets. Thousands have been injured and much land is unusable by this contamination. 

At the height of US involvement, the Department of Defense was spending tens times more money on military equipment and operations than the entire Laos national budget. The Hmong, ill-equipped for modern warfare, suffered heavy casualties. The ranks of Pathet Lao swelled, thanks in part to the effect US bombing had on radicalizing the rural population.

The Kennedy administration kept the operations secret. Most politicians and diplomats didn’t even know about it. When US reconnaissance and war planes were shot down over Laos, families were told that their loved ones were the victims of equipment malfunction or inclement weather.

In 1971, with the situation growing desperate for the pro-Western Laotian forces, the US government persuaded the South Vietnamese army to invade. Yet, every act of aggression by the United States was perceived – rightly, in my view – as an act aimed at the Laotian population. Every act of aggression by the United States and its puppet government only served to increase support for the communists.

After nearly a decade of civil war, a ceasefire was negotiated in 1973. Two years later Pathet Lao took over the government. King Savang Vatthana was the last king to rule over the Laotian people. Laos has been a socialist republic ever since.

The Six Day War

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 war, known also as the Six Day War, in which the Jewish state of Israeli finally seized control over all of Arab Palestine. Israeli settlers and soldiers have occupied the Palestinian homeland ever since, and under occupation Arabs have been subjected to daily oppressions, often violent, and humiliation of the sort endured by the indigenous population in South Africa under apartheid.

 Israeli army’s Southern Command General Ariel Sharon arrives by helicopter with Generals at an army base in the Negev Desert in southern Israel days before the start of the Six-Day War 

How did it come to this? I will leave to one side the story of Zionism and pick up the thread with WWI and the disintegration of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. After the war, Palestine was one of several Arab territories placed under mandate to France and Great Britain (see Article 22 of the League of Nations for details on administrative territories). The League of Nations gave Great Britain control over the Palestinian Arabs. All of the mandated territories have since become independent states with one exception: Palestine.

Palestine has not become an independent state for a very simple reason—Great Britain committed itself in 1917, in a document known as the “Balfour Declaration,” to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Of the 689,000 known inhabitants of Palestine as of 1914, 76 percent (or 532,000) were Muslim and 13 percent (or 94,000) were Christian. Just over 10 percent of Palestine’s population was Jews. To effect their commitment to Jewish leaders, Great Britain facilitated the colonization of Palestine by European Jewry during the years 1922 to 1947. By 1947, the Jewish population in Palestine had swelled to 630,000, or 32 percent of the total population of (1,970,000). (Source: Sergio Della Pergola)

Palestinians resisted Jewish colonization, but, with the help of the British, Jewish settlers brutally suppressed them. The Hashomar, and later the Haganah (the Jewish paramilitary that would become the Israeli Defense Force), with its strike force, the Palmach, carried out considerable violence against Arabs. However, the Haganah, in cooperation with the British, had established a defense charter that restricted Jewish military action. Rejecting the charter’s restraint policy, a group of officers broke from Haganah and formed an armed underground organization, Etzel (Irgun Zeva’i Le’umi), aligned with the nationalist Revisionist Movement lead by Vladimir Jabotinsky, who believed that Arabs would have to be pacified and expelled. Etzel carried out repeated terrorist attacks against Arab civilians, as well as against British forces. Another Jewish terrorist group of the day was the Stern Gang or Lehi, which focused on driving the British from Palestine. Indeed, Lehi opposed joining with the British to fight Nazis.

With the founding of the United Nations, Great Britain turned the mandate over to the international community. The United Nations proceeded to partition Palestine into what were supposed to become two independent states, one Palestinian, the other Jewish, with Jerusalem to be an internationalized city (see Resolution 181 of 1947). Arab leaders rejected the plan. Before buying into the line that, therefore, it’s the Arabs’ fault that the violence continued, ask yourself this obvious question: Why should Arabs agree to the colonization of their homelands by European Jews facilitated by Western imperialist? The plan gave 56 percent of Palestine to the Jews, land that included three fertile lowland plains (the Sharon, the Jezreel Valley, and the upper Jordan Valley) and sole access to the Red Sea and the Sea of Galilee. Moreover, the partition placed 36 percent of Arabs—mostly Muslim—inside a Jewish state.

Notwithstanding Arab opposition (their opinion didn’t much matter to the West anyway), the Jewish settlers declared the state of Israel in mid-May 1948. Troops from surrounding Arab countries (Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Transjordan) joined with Palestinian irregulars to challenge the establishment of the Jewish state. Through the ensuring warfare, known as the Arab-Israeli War, Israel came to occupy 77 percent of Palestine, as well as two-thirds of Jerusalem. More than half of the indigenous Palestinian population was dispossessed and driven from their homeland during the fighting (a catastrophe known to Arabs as al Nakba). Egypt and Jordan occupied the remainder of the territory assigned by the partition resolution (Gaza and the West Bank).

This brings us to the Six Day War. The 1967 war began in June, when Israel attacked Egypt. Israel claimed that the attack was an act of “pre-emption,” to prevent a pending attack against Israel by the Egyptian army. It certainly didn’t appear that there was a pending attack. The Arab armies, in disarray, decisively lost the conflict, and Israel came to occupy the remaining territory of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and annexed all of Jerusalem. In the process, Israel drove an estimated half million Palestinians from their homes, while placing thousands more under direct Israeli control. Moreover, Israel occupied territories in Egypt (the Sinai) and Syria (the Golan Heights).

In 1973, a coalition of Arab armies moved to recapture the Sinai and the Golan Heights. They score several early victories, but, assisted by the United States, the Israeli army gained the upper hand and pushed back the Arab armies. However, the losses sustained by Israel forced its leaders to the realization that they couldn’t continue antagonizing their Arab neighbors, and so Israel was forced to the negotiation table several times and made peace with surrounding countries. In all of this, however, Israel continued to occupy Palestine.

The international community is not on Israel’s side. United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967 calls on Israel to withdraw from territories it occupied in the 1967 conflict. Israel refuses to comply with the resolution. In 1973, UN Security Council Resolution 338 called on Israel to implement Resolution 242. It has refused to comply with this and several subsequent resolutions, as well.

Indeed, undeterred by international law and sentiment, Israel continued its brutality against the Palestinian people. In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, its stated goals the destruction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Unprotected by Palestinian forces, which were assured the safety of Palestinians, Israeli troops carried out large-scale massacres of civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. It is estimated that Israeli forces slaughtered more than 3,000 refugees.

In response to Israeli terrorism, the International Conference on the Question of Palestine adopted in September 1983 the Geneva Declaration (see A/AC.183/SR.90 of 28 September 1983 and A/RES/38/58(A-E) of 13 December 1983), which, among other things, condemned the establishment of Jewish settlements in occupied territories and demanded the attainment of the legitimate, inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. With no action on the declaration, Palestinians rose up in December 1987. Israel brutally repressed the uprising, or intifada, killing and maiming scores of civilians.

Again, the international community moved to stop Israeli tyranny, convening the Peace Conference on the Middle East in October 1991 (see A/RES/46/75. International Peace Conference on the Middle East). It based the plan on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, what has been called the “land for peace” formula. An interim government led by the PLO was established in September 1993 and it appeared that, at last, progress was being made. However, in talks held in 2000 and 2001, Israelis and Palestinians failed to achieve a final status agreement. Western observers blame the failure to reach an agreement on the Palestinians; however, the offer the Israelis made to Palestinian negotiators were completely unacceptable and were understandably rejected (see The Myth of the Generous Offer).

It appears now that failing to reach a final status agreement was part of a larger plan. Nationalist politician Ariel Sharon visited the Al-Haram Al-Sharif thereby provoking the second intifada. Israel used the uprising as a pretext for reoccupying those areas under Palestinian self rule. It also began constructing a separation wall, which is located inside the occupied territory. The International Court of Justice ruled the wall illegal in 2004 (see The Court finds that the construction by Israel of a wall in the …). But this ruling hasn’t stopped the Israelis.

This is where it stands today. Palestine, the homeland of the Palestinian Arabs, has become de facto Israel.

Washington DC is safer than Baghdad

Have you seen this bit of nonsense circulating through the web?

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of the U.S. involvement in Iraq, here’s a sobering statistic:

There has been a monthly average of 160,000 troops in the Iraq theatre of operations during the last 22 months, and a total of 2,112 deaths. That gives a firearm death rate of 60 per 100,000 soldiers.

The firearm death rate in Washington D.C. is 80.6 per 100,000 persons for the same period. That means that you are about 25% more likely to be shot and killed in the U.S. Capital than you are in Iraq.

Looking at 2005 statistics, the annual homicide rate in Washington DC is 35.4 per 100,000. Even if we double it we don’t get to 80.6. And that is all violent death – beatings, stabbings, etc. Moreover, violent deaths in Washington DC involves civilians. The Iraq statistic is death by guns among only United States soldiers. Apples and oranges. What is the violent death rate among Iraqi civilians? Given the likelihood that more 600,000 (and maybe as many as one million) Iraqis have died since the start of the occupation, it must be extremely high.

Here’s a more realistic comparison: Find out how many police officers – who, along with the Guard, represent the domestic military establishment of the United States – have been killed in Washington DC over the 22 months in question. Do you think it’s 2,112? Well, in 2006, 48 law enforcement officers were killed in the line-of-duty for the entire country. Only seven of them were killed in the entire Northeast!

What’s the murder rate in Baghdad? It’s 195.4 per 100,000 residents. Washington DC? 35.4 per 100,000. How many times more dangerous is Baghdad than Washington DC? Divide the former by the latter to get the result.

Washington DC is safer than Baghdad.

Hidden in Plain Sight

The paragraphs included below come from the introduction of the Trilateral Commissions Task Force Report no. 8, titled The Crisis of Democracy, published in 1975 by the Trilateral Commission and New York University Press. According to the Trilateral Commission web page, where I obtained the text, the report is out of print.

The authors of report are Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki, each from a domain in the theory of trilateralism, which holds that Europe, the US, and Japan are each the centers of spheres of capitalism. At the time, Michel Crozier was found and director of the Centre de Sociologie des Organisations, Paris and senior research director of the Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique; Samuel P. Huntington was Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government, Harvard University and associate director for the Center for International Affairs, Harvard University; and Joji Watanuki, was a sociology professor at Sophia University, Tokyo.

Three paragraphs are quite important as they identify what the Trilateral Commission, a organization of global elites dedicated to shaping world evolution to their advantage (privilege and wealth needs), believed represented the three greatest threats to democracy. I will summarize the three threats here and then leave you to read the excerpt.

The first threat to democracy were those intellecuals who existed outside the circle of power, as they were critical of that charmed circle and the structural basis for it – in other words, those intellectuals who were advancing another vision of democracy, one not based on state monopoly capitalism and bourgeois democracy (limited republicanism), but one based on popular democracy, which required a different type of economic organization, one in which the workers and their organizations and representatives ran things instead of the capitalists and their managers. In other words, a framework in which the economy was subject to democratic control, not the other way around.

The second threat to democracy were those young Americans who were, because of lives lived largely deviant of and even in rebellion to the goals of the capitalist state, were dangerously less than optimally patriotic. Here the authors were identifying the countercultural movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.

The third threat was democracy itself. Democracy cannot be the framework in which life happens, according to the point of view of elites, because it leads to people believing that they actually control their own lives. Democracy has to be ultimately controlled by an outside force – the economic and military sectors of advanced civilization – in order to avoid self-destruction, i.e., socialism. To clarify, trialterialists see order as a tripartite structure, a balance of military, economic, and government forces. The economy and military are not controlled democratically, but rather keep democracy in check. This is a fundamentally authoritarian construction, which is, of course, why the democratic movement of the 1960s was so threatening to the power elite.

As you read through these carefully constructed paragraphs, crafted mainly by Huntington (a judgment based on familiarity with these author’s respective work), pay close attention to the actual meaning of the argument. The authors are arguing that the greatest threat to bourgeois democracy are those democrats, both intellectuals and workers, who believe that democracy ought to actually fulfill its promise along the lines of C. Wright Mills’ definition of democracy offered in the Sociological Imagination: “Democracy means the power and the freedom of those controlled by the law to change the law, according to agreed-upon rules — and even to change those rules; but more than that, it means some kind of collective self-control over the structural mechanics of history itself.” He summed his views up later in this fashion: “In essence, democracy implies that those vitally affected by any decision men make have an effective voice in that decision.”

Now, without further ado, I give you the Trilaterialists….

At the present time, a significant challenge comes from the intellectuals and related groups who assert their disgust with the corruption, materialism, and inefficiency of democracy and with the subservience of democratic government to “monopoly capitalism.” The development of an “adversary culture” among intellectuals has affected students, scholars, and the media. Intellectuals are, as Schumpeter put it, “people who wield the power of the spoken and the written word, and one of the touches that distinguish them from other people who do the same is the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs,”3 In some measure, the advanced industrial societies have spawned a stratum of value-oriented intellectuals who often devote themselves to the derogation of leadership, the challenging of authority, and the unmasking and delegitimation of established institutions, their behavior contrasting with that of the also increasing numbers of technocratic and policy-oriented intellectuals. In an age of widespread secondary school and university education, the pervasiveness of the mass media, and the displacement of manual labor by clerical and professional employees, this development constitutes a challenge to democratic government which is, potentially at least, as serious as those posed in the past by the aristocratic cliques, fascist movements, and communist parties.

In addition to the emergence of the adversary intellectuals and their culture, a parallel and possibly related trend affecting the viability of democracy concerns broader changes in social values. In all three Trilateral regions, a shift in values is taking place away from the materialistic work-oriented, public-spirited values toward those which stress private satisfaction, leisure, and the need for “belonging and intellectual and esthetic self-fulfillment.”4 These values are, of course, most notable in the younger generation. They often coexist with greater skepticism towards political leaders and institutions and with greater alienation from the political processes. They tend to be privatistic in their impact and import. The rise of this syndrome of values, is presumably related to the relative affluence in which most groups in the Trilateral societies came to share during the economic expansion of the 1960s. The new values may not survive recession and resource shortages. But if they do, they pose an additional new problem for democratic government in terms of its ability to mobilize its citizens for the achievement of social and political goals and to impose discipline and sacrifice upon its citizens in order to achieve those goals.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, there are the intrinsic challenges to the viability of democratic government which grow directly out of the functioning of democracy. Democratic government does not necessarily function in a self-sustaining or self-correcting equilibrium fashion. It may instead function so as to give rise to forces and tendencies which, if unchecked by some outside agency, will eventually lead to the undermining of democracy.

Judging the Religious

Christ mosaic Clyde Monastery Chapel

I will criticize any candidate for public office who believes in the supernatural. What is more, because some religions are worse than others, I may actually prefer the candidate whose religious views I judge to be less harmful to society. History records JFK’s candidacy as a great trump of civil rights because the nation looked past his Catholicism. But voting against JFK for his Catholicism is not analogous to voting against a presidential candidate because he is black or because she is a woman. Unlike skin color, religion has a substance. If one day the Supreme Court is dominated by Catholics, we will be justified in worrying about reproductive freedom in America. 

Marriage, Equal Protection, and the Separation of Church and State

On Monday, the state supreme court of Connecticut (one of four states that observes civil unions for homosexual couples) became the first in the United States to hear arguments concerning the charge that the establishment of civil unions creates an inferior status for gays and lesbians. The argument moved quickly to the question of whether the doctrine of equal protection covers discrimination against homosexuality. Jane Rosenberg, assistant attorney general for the state, said no. It’s a policy question to be determined by legislators and not court fiat, she argued. Bennett Klein, an attorney representing eight homosexual couples, disagreed. He contends that the question goes to the heart of equal protection doctrine.

The core of the dispute turns on the question of whether homosexuals deserve special legal protections on the basis that they are a suspect class, a categorization requiring evidence of a history of discrimination and political powerlessness. If it were determined by the court that homosexuals constitute a suspect class, then the state would have to present a rational basis or some compelling interest for distinguishing between homosexual and heterosexual couples.

But there is a more important issue here. Should the state be conferring upon anybody, homosexual or otherwise, the status of marriage at all? In arguing his case, Klein noted that “marriage is not just a bunch of legal rights.” Indeed. Marriage is more than this—it’s a religious status. In a country founded on the separation of church and state, what in God’s name is the state doing? To be consistent with the principles of the country, the state should only recognize civil unions—a legal contractual arrangement between two consenting adults. In other words, the problem goes well beyond the state denying couples religious status. The core problem is the state awarding religious status to citizens of any sort.

It’s really quite simple. If a couple wants to get married, then all they need to do is find a church that will marry them and perform the ritual. If they want the state to recognize them as domestic partners, then they need to apply for a civil union and have a justice of the peace join them together. Keep the state out of religious ritual.

Sanitizing an Authoritarian Situation

According to a just released Army study of 1,767 troops, almost half of US soldiers surveyed said that they should be able to use torture to gather information about insurgents and to save the lives of fellow soldiers. More than half said that they would not report a team member for mistreating civilians or for destroying property unnecessarily. “Less than half of Soldiers and Marines believed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect,” the authors of the study report. Around ten percent of soldiers said they had mistreated civilians. These attitudes are contrary to Army rules, not to mention international law, which forbid torture and require the humane treatment of civilians and prisoners.

The capitalist propaganda machine is focusing on the question of training in battlefield ethics, as if further instruction in the value of basic moral conduct can change the mind and behavior of men involved in the nasty business of war and occupation, men who sought a job where the primary task is to kill and maim people and destroy property. In learning how to carry out this task, military training and the battlefield experience stirs and reinforces authoritarian attitudes in men who were, in many cases, drawn to the job by their already-existing sadistic leanings, attitudes learned by living in a capitalist-patriarchal-racist society, a society in which the weak and different are despised and abused, the aggressive and dispassionate are glorified, and violence is taught as a legitimate means for resolving conflict. The problems of brutalization, torture, and vandalism are inherent in the fascist state of mind that inegalitarian and militarist society and organizations amplify and produce. Indeed, the United States is a country in which even leading liberal intellectuals, such as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, can contend that torture is acceptable and still enjoy their status as authorities in moral matters and civil liberties discourse.

Furthermore, what the state defines as inappropriate behavior legitimates much of the horror of war that state actors assert is appropriate. Condemning the intentional brutalization of civilians and prisoners of war at the hands of individual soldiers whitewashes the intentional brutalization of human beings that occurs under the direction of military commanders and their civilian counterparts. If the US military bombs an apartment building in which civilians are living because there is an “insurgent” or “terrorist” present, an act the state considers appropriate, it is still perpetrating a deeply immoral act. Deft at doublespeak, the military propagandists rationalize the killing and maiming of innocent bystanders, along with the destruction of property and the environment, as “collateral damage,” necessary because there was a “target of opportunity” to be “neutralized” in a “surgical strike” using “smart munitions.” (When off camera, collateral damage is “bug splat.”) As terrible as it is that soldiers use morally-neutralizing language when justifying their own indecent acts, the government uses such language to redefine its immoral actions as morally-upright conduct.

It should shock you that your government labels civilians defending their homeland from invasion and occupation as “irregulars” and “terrorists”; hides the deportation and transfer of prisoners to countries not burdened by international law for the purpose of torturing them under the legalism of “rendition”; puts prisoners of war outside international conventions by labeling them “illegal combatants”; soft sells torture as “interrogation techniques and methods”; permits the bombing of civilians and shooting of journalists, women and children in “free fire zones”; describes the killing of human beings as “neutralizing,” “taking down,” and “taking out” the enemy, as “servicing the target” and “shaping the battlefield,” sometimes requiring “softening the target” to allow for easy “insertion” of military personnel; characterizes unprovoked war — that is, war of aggression — as “pre-emptive action”; describes mercenaries as “security contractors”; and redefines the means by which “collateral damage” is produced — bombs and missiles — as “ordnance.”

All this is the doublespeak of the authoritarian. Accepting and adopting this language — euphemisms designed to clean up the messiness of mass murder and the destruction of land and infrastructure — will change your cognitive stance towards the crimes of war and occupation. Internalizing the doublespeak will make you cold and callus. 

Michel Foucault once wrote, “Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.” This particular society we live in — the United States of America — is fascist in certain of its elements. The complex strategical situation of fascism is one that depends fundamentally on an authoritarian state of mind. Fascism is the “strategic adversary,” Foucault argues; “the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

We must struggle against the authoritarianism all around us. But we must also struggle against the authoritarianism inside each of us. We cannot stand for the cleansing of the language of war and occupation. We must refuse to allow corporate propagandists to separate out bad soldiers from the bad venture that employs them.

Buying the War and What I Knew Long Before Then

Bill Moyer’s excellent PBS report Buying the War scrutinizes the media coverage in the run-up to the Iraq war. The five-chapter program is available for viewing on-line. It’s must-see TV. Follow this link:


On March 4, 2003, I gave a talk, “Bush’s Dream of a Democratic Middle-East,” at the Plea for Peace Teach-in, held on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay. I told a large audience of students and professors that what the Bush administration was telling the world about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and Saddam’s ties to al Qaeda was more than error – it was a pack of lies.

In 2004, I published the study “War Hawks and the Ugly American: The Origins of Bush’s Central Asia and Middle East Policy,” in a German-language book edited by Bernd Hamm. The book has been translated into English as Devastating Society: The Neo-conservative Assault on Democracy and Justice, published by Pluto Press in 2005. My study has also been translated into Arabic and Indonesian.

I had no special access to classified materials. I had worked neither with government organizations nor with media operations. All my information was gathered from reports and news stories, and my conclusions were the result of putting my training as a social scientist to work analyzing facts, studying history, and checking logic.

I am saying this to make the point that nobody who was in a position to know then can now legitimately claim to have been ignorant of the facts in the run-up to the war. So when people who should have known tell you that they didn’t know, you know what to tell them.

Journey to Jordan, April 2007

I participated as faculty in at the United Nations University International Leadership Institute (UNU-ILI) in Amman, Jordan, April 15-18, 2007. The course was titled Democracy and Human Rights in Transition: Challenges of the Globalizing World. Murad Tangiev, a Chechnyan, organized the course, which was funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF). The FNF is a German NGO committed to promoting liberal policy and politics founded by the liberal Free Democratic Party (The FDP is currently the third-largest party in the Bundestag).

Presenting at the United Nations University program Democracy and Human Rights in Transition: Challenges of the Globalizing World, Amman, Jordan, 2007

FNF literature describes the organization’s purpose: “To create an open society FNF is guided by the principles of Liberalism and its message of tolerance and acceptance of diversity. Its core concepts such as the protection of human rights, the application of the rule of law, liberal democracy and free market economy have proven throughout the centuries that Liberalism offers appropriate solutions for the present and the future in public and personal life.” Most of the participants in the UNU-ILI course embraced FNF’s liberal orientation, which caused a few moments of tension, as I challenged their standpoint, namely the downplaying of social rights. More on this later.

This was my second time teaching at the UNU-ILI. I served as faculty in November 2006 in a course organized by Jordanian political sociologist Ibtesam Al-Atiyat titled Youth Leadership, the Politicization of Religion, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East. The Konrad Adenauer Foundation, an NGO founded by the Christian Democratic movement (and named after the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic in 1964), sponsored Ibtesam’s course. In that course, I lectured on the subject of Christian neo-fundamentalism and US foreign policy, chaired a panel on resistance and terrorism, and worked with young people from around the world to develop declarations regarding the hopes of democratization and the problems of politicization of religion.

Whereas organizers aimed the November course at young students, Democracy and Human Rights in Transition was, to quote the brochure, “designed for UN and NGO specialists and representatives, mid-level to senior policy makers, academicians, diplomats, post-graduate students, researchers, practitioners working in the field of democracy and human rights.” The course description reflected its target audience:

Democracy and human rights are considered to be fundamental prerequisites for a sustainable development and long-term peace. Nowadays, many societies of the world experience mass violations of human rights and conflicts which pose a considerable obstacle towards building liberal democratic states. Human rights violations are often particularly severe in the periods of transition during which societies are undergoing significant political, social, and economic transformations. Protection of human rights and improvement of their practices in transition is imperative and must be the central goal for political leadership. In fact, democracy is a system of an open political decision making and it is, in many ways, a system of conflict management that provides predictable procedures in which collective decisions can be taken without the risk that losing a political battle will mean grave misfortune, imprisonment, or even loss of life. Even those societies which have managed to build relatively sustainable democracy still need to make a substantial consolidating effort because new democracies are extremely vulnerable. Their inhabitants lack experience of democratic governance but are hoping for a rapid change and improvement in their living conditions. To lead societies safely to democracy it is vitally important to establish democratic institutions, foster democratic culture, ensure free and just elections as well as to build capacity of political leadership.

The syllabus, written by Murad, states course objectives thusly: “In the era of globalization, establishment of democratic institutions and inviolability of human rights have become an essential condition for political, social and economic development. However, the process of transformation or transition to democracy is extremely complex and poses a serious challenge for the societies in the transitional period. Hence, the main aim of the course is to expose and explore the key challenges on the way to democracy faced by polities and societies in transition in the context of globalization of world politics and economy.” The practical purpose of the course was “to create an international network of activists, scholars, researches, students and specialist who work in the field of human rights and committed to promotion of liberal democracy.” The syllabus explains: “The network will basically provide information exchange on relevant courses, forums, conferences, events, campaigns and etc. on democracy and human rights. It will also provide an opportunity for human rights activists, scholars and researches to share their findings and experience with wider communities. Thus, the network should serve as an efficient think-tank or a rich information resource for all who strive for equality, freedom and development.” (I do not know the success of the course in achieving its goal.)

My task was to introduce the conceptual-theoretical foundations and the history of democracy and human rights. I left it to others to present examples of successful transitions to democracy (as well as failures during transition). The discussion over the course of the several days covered the role of civil society organizations and movements in establishment of democracy and protection of human rights, cultural and religious factors encouraging democratic political culture; challenges of democratization in the context of religious extremism and nationalism, and the role of mass media, women and youth movements.

I spoke on day one. I titled my lecture “Democracy and Human Rights: Development and Historical Perspectives.” Rosemary Foot, of St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, chaired the session. Also speaking in the session were UNU-ILI director Jairam Reddy (“Concept of Leadership”) and Gurchathen S. Sanghera of the University of Bristol (“Democracy and Human Rights: Challenges of Globalization”). Reddy spoke about the problems of leadership, identifying two problems: the crisis of governance and ecological problems. He emphasized the importance of the moral capital of leaders, the excellence of character and the virtue of integrity. Characteristics of good leaders is vision, trust (accountable and predictable), empowerment, and values and principles. He defined charisma as “the power to connect to a different plane of reality.” Not my cup of tea.

I began my talk by noting that many speak of democracy as something they want, and many governments proclaim it. Indeed, democracy must be quite an elastic concept to fit so many different political systems and individual aspirations. I presented a slide that identified in blue those countries that declare themselves democracies in one form or another. Almost every country was blue. This drew a chuckle from the audience. Commenting that democracy cannot be so many things, I asked the rhetorical question “What is democracy?” I began answering this by establishing the core meaning of democracy, namely government by the people. I then divided democracy into two broad categories: (1) liberal democracy and (2) popular democracy.

To define liberal democracy, I presented material from Freedom House, an organization associated with the National Endowment for Democracy and the ongoing United States policy of global democracy promotion, and from The Economist, an influential British weekly newsmagazine covering world business, current affairs, and cultural trends. Both conceptualize liberal democracy as a competitive, multiparty political system, marked by universal adult suffrage, regularly contested elections with secret ballots and minor voter fraud, significant public access to major political parties through media and generally open campaigns. Both link liberal democracy to freedom, emphasizing political rights and civil liberties. While democracy is associated with freedom, they argue that not every democracy provides maximal freedom. Prominent in the literature of both entities is an emphasis on private property and free markets—indeed, if a country did not allow for substantial private ownership of property, then we could not call that country democratic. I presented several maps portraying the analysis of these entities.

To probe the liberal democratic model for problems, I provided the Republic of Cuba as a contrasting case. After discussing the electoral system in Cuba, I noted that, according to the definitions of Freedom House and The Economist, Cuba was not a democracy; it lacks a competitive, multiparty political system and, being a socialist country, it suppresses capitalist logic. But I pointed out that, historically, political parties and free markets have not been fundamental to democracy. I gave examples, ranging from the ancient Indian republics to the governments of the Native America. Moreover, I noted the considerable body of evidence that suggests that too much property in too few hands undermines democracy.

The point to all this was to demonstrate that the liberal argument is ideological. I cited the work of FA Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, influential voices who argue that inequality is a good thing and government intervention is a bad thing because it interferes with liberty which, if done right, creates inequality. Then I cited the work of those who disagree with the liberal viewpoint. For classical liberalism opponents, notions of democracy as political freedom and civil liberties without social rightsis an empty promise, democratic in form but not democratic in content. I further explained that liberal democracy is what Robert Dahl termed “polyarchy”—a system in which a small group of elites actually rules and mass participation in decision-making is confined to leadership choice in elections carefully managed by competing elites (this is a close paraphrase of William I Robinson’s definition of the term). Polyarchy is democracy of the elites. In a polyarchy, if its assumptions are accepted, there is no contradiction between “democratic” process and a social order punctuated by sharp social inequalities and minority monopolization of society’s material and cultural resources (again, a close paraphrase of Robinson).

In contrast to capitalism, democracy is founded on equity(or fairness) and equalityin that, in the ideal, everybody has an equal say in the decisions that affects them and thus reap some benefit from participation. This is populardemocracy, and, in this model, proponents explicitly join politics and economics in a positive manner. Popular democracy involves a dispersal of power throughout society and requires the participation of broad majorities in decision making and policy formulation. I noted that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in articles 22, 23, and 25, speak to the importance of social rights—work, leisure, health care, housing, and so forth. I projected onto the screen these three articles. I pointed out that many governments ignore these rights, including the United States. I demonstrated the point with the case of the hurricane Katrina disaster. The storm killed so many people, I argued, in part because the government failed to keep the nation’s infrastructure in working order and to respond in a timely manner. But it was even more fundamentally a problem of racism and social class that located and concentrated poor people in low-lying flood-prone areas. Katrina was a human-caused disaster, one long in the making. More than a year later, the city of New Orleans is still a disaster, I told them.

I argued that, while poverty is a moral catastrophe, one can also approach the problem of inequality from a practical standpoint, namely the importance of stability along the path of development. I again used the example of my own country. Compared to most European nations, the United States is extreme in its degree of income and wealth inequality. The primary cause of this dynamic is the overbearing character of business monopoly and oligopoly — a system of megacorporations that stands beyond democratic redress. Such conditions are the breeding grounds for extremism, evidenced by the dominance of fundamentalist and neofundamentalist Christianity in the United States, political forces that are decidedly authoritarian and anti-democratic. These forces, I argued, have sharply weakened the democratic culture of my country and have wreaked havoc around the world, a subject upon which I have written about (this was, in fact, the topic of my lecture in November).

I concluded by arguing that authoritarianism and extremism fill the vacuum left by weak democratic institutions. With observers in every country recognizing that extremism is one of the major problems facing stable development and peaceful governmental relations, understanding the role material inequality plays in undermining democracy’s promise is as important as understanding the ideological content of extremism. Since democracy, in its purest sense, treats common people as constituting the source of political authority, hereditary class or group distinctions and privileges, which give some people cumulative advantages, which translate into more political power, are generally considered antithetical to a functioning democracy. A society in which there are substantial inequities of wealth and power indicate that people are insufficiently free. They may have liberty in the narrow liberal sense, but they do not have the fuller conception of freedom.

Murad had wanted me to give this argument as a lecture ever since he witnessed what happened when I introduced the argument into discussion during the November 2006 course. Then, when I asked the students to consider opening up their conception of democracy to more than the limited rhetoric of liberal-pluralism by considering matters of industrial democracy and collective control over resources, a young woman accused me of advocating communism. I explained that my argument was about democracy and freedom. I pointed out that Capitalism is one of the causes of unemployment and poverty around the world, and that the more unfettered capitalism is the more brutal are its effects. I explained the logic of inequality among the nations, theories of world-systems, dependency, development-underdevelopment and so forth. She was impervious to the science of the matter. In her mind, democracy could only be about political rights and civil liberties. The argument made for highly interesting moment.

The question period following my April lecture was memorable. I had many questions asked of me, but the two that stuck out were these: An American woman, I believe her name is Allison Beth Hodgkins (she is the resident director of the Council on International Educational Exchange Study Center in Amman), argued that democracy was a political system and thus had nothing to do with economics and matters of substantive equality. Much like the student in the November course, Mrs. Hodgkins said that I was advocating socialism (she diplomatically avoided the “c” word). I told her, for one thing, the people of the world have not made up their minds about the definition of democracy and many, if not most, people disagreed with liberal limitations. Second, I explained that I had no practical opposition to markets as long as such arrangements serve social rights (I do, however, oppose capitalist markets at a moral level). A woman in the front row, a Danish woman whom I believe was named Heidi Nygaard (working with the National Center for Human Rights), expanded my point, saying that democracy was a way of life, a basic universal value, and that while the process could differ widely, there needed to be some fundamental things. A Dane would recognize this. A Palestinian woman asked the second question. She referred to maps I presented during the lecture and asked through choked tears, “Can you tell me please, professor, where is my country on your map?”

That afternoon, I chaired the session “Democracy and Human Rights in Transition: Case Study, Part I.” One of the speakers, Uri Dromi, who was to speak about democracy and human rights in Israel, did not show up. I don’t know why he didn’t appear, but it’s probably just as well that he didn’t, as Dromi was a colonel in the Israeli Defense Forces, and had participated in the Six Day War, the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, and the Lebanon War. He also served as the North American Director of Information for the World Zionist Organization and as Director of the Government Press Office in Israel. Several participants told me they wish he had appeared so that they could confront his war crimes. (Perhaps that’s why he didn’t show?)


His absence was our gain, as his replacements were three wonderful women activists, Tali Nir, an attorney for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Roni Rothler, director of the Disability Rights Clinic and on the faculty of law at Bar Iian University, and Fathiya Husein, administrative director of Adalah, a legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel (this is their web page in English: Adalah). We spent much time throughout the course and in our journey to Petra discussing Arab-Israeli issues. During their presentations, I learned that there are one million Arabs in Israel, twenty percent of which are Palestinians. Arabs are eight-one percent Muslim, ten percent Christian, and nine percent Jews. Thus, the reality of Israel is multicultural and bilingual. Yet the state is a Jewish state in which Arabs are treated as strangers in their own land. Several forms of discrimination were noted, for example immigration; while every Jew around the world is encouraged to come to Israel, displaced Arabs are not permitted to return to their homeland. In fact, families are not allowed to reunite, violating even the basic rules of human decency. Other problems cited were the separation barrier, building laws (even in Palestine Palestinians are not allowed to build), and the allocation of resources (seventy-seven percent of Arab children live in poverty, welfare services are lacking, and educational institutions are in a pitiful state). To address discrimination, Adalah is proposing constitutional framework for the state of Israel “based on the concept of a democratic, bilingual, multicultural state. This proposed constitution draws on universal principles and international conventions on human rights, the experiences of nations and the constitutions of various democratic states.”

Back in Petra

Speaking after them was Walid Salem, who lectured on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He argued that as long as the dispute over the occupied territories remained in the political framework it would be easy for Israel to fail to change course. Therefore, it is important to move the discussion into the framework of international law. The separation barrier was the symptomatic of the problem. Israel argues that the separation barrier is necessary in order to protect its citizens from violence. Thus, the wall is self-defense against terrorism. However, the wall runs through the occupied territory and thus represents a backdoor attempt to annex illegally obtained land (it is a crime under international law to annex territories obtain through war). Salem argued that Israel expands the anti-terrorist argument to their policy of pre-emptive and preventative warfare, even claiming the right to attack nonstate actors, which necessarily involves attacking “combatants” in civilian areas. But the international law is quite clear: either persons are combatants or citizens. If an occupied territory then the Geneva convention rules apply, yet Israel argues that human rights only apply in the context of a state. The settlements are clearly illegal. Finally, there is the matter of collective self-determination, namely the right to a state, a right that Rabin recognized (he was assassinated) and the UN says is obligatory. Israel violates this by arguing that self-determination does not require a state.

Joost Hilterman (“Civil War and Human Rights in Iraq”), Anya Wollenberg (“Concepts of Broadcasting in Iraq), and Patricia Gossman (“Transition to Democracy in the Post-Conflict setting in Afghanistan”) followed Salem. Hilterman gave a very detailed presentation of the problems in Iraq, but he made a serious conceptual error when he defined “Islamist” as “devoted Muslim.” As Ibtesam pointed out, “My mother is a devoted Muslim. Is she an Islamist?” Wollenberg’s presentation was interesting. I learned much from it. Gossman’s presentation was, frankly, horrible. One would think from her writings that she knew the history of the Afghanistan conflict, but her presentation was a whitewash of the West’s involvement. So consumed was she with blaming everything on the communists that she grossly distorted the historical record. To hear her tell it, the Evil Empire invaded Afghanistan because the Afghan communists weren’t slaughtering civilians fast enough.

At a cafe with sociologist Ibtesam Al-Atiyat t who made all this possible in the first place

Patricia Gossman identifies herself as an adjunct professor in Women’s Studies at Georgetown University and a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. She has worked for Human Rights Watch and evidently holds a Ph.D. in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. Here’s a sample of her writing (from Middle East Report): “The United Front might be new allies, but they are certainly no strangers to the US. Most of the factions currently allied in the coalition fought against the Soviet Union and Afghan communist forces in the 1980s. Some, but not all, benefited from the CIA pipeline that funneled funds and weapons to the Afghan mujahideen (resistance forces).” Note how she characterizes the mujahideen as “resistance forces.” This is a lie. The mujahideen were CIA-backed terrorists whose purpose was to destroy progressive entities and movements in Afghanistan. The mujahideen was organized and led by Middle Eastern practitioners of Salafism or Wahabbism, for example, Osama bin Laden, the son of a wealthy Saudi contractor. It was CIA activities in Afghanistan that led to the successful brutal regimes that ruled Afghanistan. One of these regimes was the Taliban.

Day two involved another long day of lectures. Among the several speakers during the session Democracy and Human Rights in Transition: Case Study, Part II, Rosemary Foote spoke about the changing approach to democracy and human rights in China and Murad spoke about the communist legacy and transitional democracy in the Russian Federation. The following session, “UN, Civil Society, Democracy and Human Rights,” had a very interesting presentation by Adnan Huskic on “Role of the Human Rights NGOs: Bosnia and Herzegovina.” But the highlight of the session was a lecture titled “Women Movements in Democratic Political Process,” delivered by Ibtesam Al-Atiyat. Rosemary Foote leaned over to me during the talk and said, “She is a brave woman.”

Day three involved a study visit to the Political Development Ministry and the National Centre for Human Rights in the morning. I learned that the Jordanian police are not distinct from the military and that there is no internal affairs division. After lunch, we pursued group work. I was in Group One, concepts and their relevance. There were several questions that can be summarized thusly: What kind of democracy best serves human rights and why? Is the concept of liberal democracy universal or a product of the West? Are there universal standards pertaining to democracy and human rights or should each country develop its own standards in accordance with cultural traditions and current political challenges? My group detected that a false dichotomy was afoot and devised an argument that bridged the gap between universal human rights and tolerance for cultural diversity.

This is getting long, so I will wrap it up. I visited Petra again, as well as an ancient theater and stables built by the Roman Empire when it included the land of Jordan, built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (169-177 AD). I also had a chance to break away from my handlers and tour the Palestinians neighborhoods with Ibtesam. On my way to the airport the cab driver lowered his voice and asked rhetorically, “You know the democracy they say we have? Not so much.”