Month in Review, January 2011

By Alicia Garza
January, 2011


By Alicia Garza

Note: As we publish this Month in Review article, the situation in Egypt is changing with every hour. Here are some good places to find the latest news about uprisings in the Arab World:

Al-Jazeera English live stream

BBC World Service

Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog

Following the news this month reminded me of the first time I saw The Wizard of Oz. I rooted for Dorothy as she overcame every challenge to get to the Emerald City and see the Wizard himself. But Toto pulled the curtain back and Dorothy discovered he was just a little man standing on a milk crate with a microphone and a lot of special effects. The famous line, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” rang in my ears then - and it keeps coming back to me today. The rulers of the U.S. empire still have lots more in their arsenal than sound effects and smoke. But any wizardry they once had is going fast, as the limits and decline of U.S. power are evident this month from the Pacific to the Middle East.

Though Obama was the host at the state dinner for China’s President this month, all talk was of China’s economic and geo-political rise. U.S. appeals to China to help defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula highlighted the changing balance of power: Washington can no longer call the shots alone, it seems to need Beijing more than the other way around. And China is only the most muscular of a whole set of rising powers - Brazil, India, Russia, Turkey and more. U.S. policy-makers are visibly divided and torn. They haven’t yet reached consensus on whether to use their military advantage to try to regain sole superpower status, or find ways of adapting to the relative decline of U.S. clout that involve cooperation and coordination with rising powers gaining regional and global influence.

The most dramatic signs of U.S. wizardry going downhill came from the Middle East. The popular upsurge in Tunisia, defeat of U.S. allies in Lebanon, erosion of influence in Iraq and then the huge protests in Egypt yanked back an already-fraying curtain. A New York Times news analysis by Anthony Shadid under the (print-version) headline “Crisis in Lebanon Exemplifies Waning Influence of U.S. and its Allies in Mideast” Jan. 18 minced no words:

“It is yet another episode in which the U.S. has watched - seemingly helplessly - as events in places like Tunisia, Lebanon and even Iraq unfold unexpectedly and beyond its ability to control.”  

Meanwhile, behind the curtain domestically, we watched in horror as the spotlight once again turned to Arizona, where right-wing rhetoric set the context for the shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the deaths of several others. The country caught at least a glimpse of the violent rhetoric, vigilantism and terrorism that afflicts Latinos, migrants and other people of color day in and day out.   


All eyes were on Defense Secretary Robert Gates as he travelled to the Pacific Rim to meet with Chinese Defense Minister General Liang Guanglie to begin negotiations between the two countries amidst increasing tensions. 

The relationship between the U.S. and China has been tense for some time now. The U.S. pushes China to open up its economy and address Washington’s trade complaints, as well as on its human rights record, support of North Korea and relations with Iran. Meanwhile, China has pushed back at Washington about its support of India with nuclear energy, and tensions have increased around U.S. sales of arms to Taiwan.

China is growing its military and economic independence and is leaping ahead in technologies from renewable energy generation to stealth military airplanes. According the New York Times, this technology could keep the U.S. a long way from Chinese shores and from Taiwan, enabling China to operate hundreds of miles from its shores - a strength it had not previously enjoyed.

Underneath it all is China’s economic rise and new global reach. For example, according to BBC News (Jan. 18), two major banks in China lend more to developing countries and governments than the World Bank. Meanwhile the U.S.  has its energies and resources tied up in the hopeless war in Afghanistan. As China’s influence grows across the globe, Beijing is increasingly self-confident. China is openly critical of the dominance of the U.S. dollar - President Hu was quoted in BBC news saying, “the current international currency system is a product of the past.”  Venezuela and China are working more closely together; China will soon be primary consumer of Venezuelan petroleum.  And eroding the dollar’s role as the main means of international exchange, China has stipulated that at least part of its payment to Venezuela should be in yen.

The U.S. is responding to China’s rise by taking early steps in an “encirclement” strategy based on cultivating alliances with India, Japan and other states. But it won’t be easy for Washington, even if it decides on a course of mainly confrontation instead of mainly engagement with the world’s most populous country.


In Japan, Gates met with Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, where Gates de-escalated Washington’s earlier tone regarding the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.  The U.S. advocated the relocation of the base onto Okinawa, while Japan’s government, facing lots of popular opposition, had wavered.   

With China on the rise, Washington wants to protect its interests by fortifying key allies in the region, particularly Japan. Gates’ signal that Washington would follow Japan’s lead on relocating Futenma or not was in this context, trying to defuse an area of U.S.-Japan tensions. In another act of reconciliation, the U.S. upgraded joint projects with Japan, which include the development of new weapons technology. 


Tensions remained high between North and South Korea this month after the exchange of artillery fire in the fall. South Korea, under a government much more hawkish than the previous one, has been performing military exercises and warning North Korea to back down or face certain retaliation.

The U.S., with little leverage of its own, has called on China restrain North Korea. China does want to de-escalate tensions, but regards Washington’s longstanding unwillingness to take “regime change” off the table as at least as responsible for the crisis as North Korean belligerence. China likewise regards U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises near China’s own territory as both hostile and illegitimate.  

The differences between China and the U.S. regarding Korean tensions did not get settled during Hu’s visit to Washington. Obama warned China that if it didn’t take a stronger position against North Korea, the U.S. would amp up its military presence in the region, claiming that North Korea would soon be capable of developing ballistic missiles able to launch a military attack against the U.S. homeland itself. Washington refuses to take the step that could actually ease tensions: normalize relations with North Korea and sign a 50-year-delayed peace treaty in return for the North accepting international inspections and limits on its nuclear development.


Dissent and disappointment is also brewing on the Pacific island of Guam, as popular forces, including We Are Guahan, continue to fight the U.S. military buildup there.

There were setbacks on the island as the Republican mid-term victory brought changes in the House rules governing symbolic votes from U.S. territories.  Congresswoman Madeleine Z. Bordallo was sworn in by the new Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, and was later joined by representatives from the District of Columbia, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in opposing a rules package crafted by Republicans that would eliminate the right of delegates from these areas to cast symbolic votes on the House floor.  These rights were previously afforded under Democratic leadership.  Bordallo said, “…men and women from the territories and the District of Columbia serve and have died for our country in the Armed Forces to protect our way of life.  Yet, despite all the rhetoric of restoring democracy to the House of Representatives, the Republicans’ first act is to deny us a basic function of democracy - the right to represent our constituents and vote."

Meanwhile, as part of its Pacific build-up/China encirclement effort, the U.S. military is ramping up its campaign to move its Guam expansion forward.  The Department of Defense and the Department of Navy are pressuring newly elected Governor Eddie Calvo to sign a Programmatic Agreement that would green-light build up plans, including a firing range on Pagat, a culturally sacred site, and Mt. Lam Lam, another culturally significant site and the tallest mountain in the world below sea level. According to the grassroots opposition, there won’t be much pressure needed to move Calvo to sign since he is from the richest family on the island, owns the majority of the local businesses and real estate.

Yet popular forces are multiplying.  More organizations are sprouting all over the island, including the Guam Coalition for Peace and Justice and the Guam Environmental Alliance. We Are Guahan is growing in membership, and has filed a lawsuit in federal court for immediate injunctive relief against the military buildup on grounds of non-compliance with Environmental Protection laws. ,


The reduction in Washington’s capacity to shape events was especially striking in Arab world. Ironically, this has been the main part of the globe in U.S. gun-sights for the last decade. George Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq was intended to be the first of many “regime changes” that would bring the entire region firmly under U.S. control. It didn’t work out that way. Washington’s military over-reach (complete with torture and lies) instead led to resistance and a steady shift of strength away from the U.S. Combined with U.S. economic decline and growing antiwar sentiment at home (and heightened anger at Washington’s special ally, Israel) the U.S. is now less able to control events than it was before Bush’s “war on terror” began.  

In Lebanon, the fact that Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the government immediately produced a crisis indicates that its strength is far greater than it was in 2001. This was underscored when Hezbollah assembled enough votes in the Lebanese Parliament to nominate the next Prime Minister. Washington and Israel are trying to undermine Hezbollah via the politically manipulated “international tribunal” set to charge Hezbollah members with the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a billionaire former prime minister. But as the Timespointed out, Washington no longer has the final say: “American diplomacy has become the butt of jokes here. Once a decisive player here, Saudi Arabia has all but given up. In their stead is Turkey…” 


(Thousands demonstrate in Liberation Square (Maydan al-Tahrir), downtown Cairo. Photo by Alasmari via Twitter, borrowed from Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog.)

Even more dramatic is the overthrow of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali via a wave of mass protests, with labor and left activists strongly in the mix. Ben Ali was a long-time U.S. ally, praised by one administration after another for being a “firm pillar” against “Islamic radicalism.” As the uprising unfolded, France’s foreign minister suggested that French troops could be sent to Tunis to help quell the protests. But events moved too quickly for Paris and Washington. While events are still unfolding rapidly and it remains unclear precisely what kind of government will emerge from the “Jasmine Revolution,” Laila Lalami already noted that “the three biggest lessons of the uprising have already been delivered far and wide. To the Arab dictators: you are not invincible. To the West: you are not needed. And to the Arab people: you are not powerless.”

Later in the month, more than 20,000 attended Tunisia inspired anti-regime demonstrations in Cairo, with more protests across the country in various locations. Demonstrators, waving Egyptian and Tunisian flags, took to the streets demanding an end to poverty, corruption, unemployment and police abuses - and some called for the end of the Mubarak regime’s 30-year reign.  At least three people were reported killed as police met demonstrators with tear gas and force.  According to BBC, a Cairo resident was reported as saying, “The atmosphere is very tense, it feels like a revolution. I see people who are determined, people who have nothing to lose, people who want a better future.”


Meanwhile in Iraq, despite 50,000 U.S. troops still occupying the country, developments are increasingly out of Washington’s control. Radical anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr returned to the country and his followers play a key role in a new Iraqi government in which Iran has more influence than the U.S. U.S. generals and Neocons keep looking for one excuse or another to extend the end-of-2011 deadline for all U.S. troops to leave the country, but so far get nothing but blunt “nos” from Iraqi leaders including Prime minister Nouri Al Maliki. And at least on this front the Obama administration seems to have accepted the fact that trying to impose a longer large-scale occupation by force will cost the U.S. far more than it can gain. 

Even in Afghanistan and Pakistan - where the U.S. military commitment is greatest right now - the month showed the limits of U.S. strength. With General David Petraeus in the lead the military brass keeps pushing for even more expansion of U.S. military operations within Pakistan. But for the moment the administration has said no, fearing that an overly-provoked Pakistan will shift from the ambivalent role it is now playing (supporting both the U.S. and sections of the Afghan Taliban fighting against the U.S.) to a more anti-U.S. posture. Obama’s team recognizes, even if the generals do not, that such a development would not only spell disaster for its already problematic Afghan war but for the entire U.S. posture in the Middle East and West Asia.

The underlying problem for Washington is that these changes do not reflect one-off events. They represent an underlying trend toward reduction of Western influence and the rise of Arab and Muslim peoples. Afflicted by decades of war, imperial maneuvering, police state regimes and anti-imperialist but socially reactionary theocratic forces, the political character of what will come next in the Middle East/West Asian region is far from clear. But change is coming. Tunisia and Egypt especially put popular democracy on the agenda in a new way. This worries Washington immensely. And - no surprise here - it causes even more open anxiety in the Israeli leadership. In an interview on Israeli radio, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom spoke more frankly than U.S. leaders ever do about what they think about democracy in the Arab world:

“I fear that we now stand before a new and very critical phase in the Arab world… if regimes neighboring the Israeli state were replaced by democratic systems, Israeli national security might significantly be threatened. The new systems would defend or adopt agendas that are inherently opposed to Israeli national security.’”

Israeli leaders have even less respect for Palestinian rights. The recent Al Jazeera revelations about what Palestine Authority (PA) negotiators were apparently willing to concede to Israel (surrender of major parts of East Jerusalem, of the right of return, and more) has not only discredited the PA among ever-wider layers of Palestinians and Arabs. It has shown that even in face of huge Palestinian concessions Israel - with the U.S. nodding approval - was uninterested in anything but total capitulation.


On the home front, the country mourned those killed by Jared Loughner in Tucson. The shootings brought attention to the heated rhetoric from the far right that all but openly calls for vigilante violence. The racism is overt: these extremists are obsessed with the shifting demographics of the country.  After the shooting, political commentary pointed towards Sarah Palin’s website which included crosshairs over key districts that she encouraged her party to “take back” from the Democrats.

Arizona has become the battleground state for hate, taking extreme stances on migration, even going as far as to ban Ethnic Studies last year. Copycat legislation from Arizona is cropping up all over the country. New legislation is being introduced restricting citizenship of so-called “anchor babies” or children born in the US to migrant families.  Reports out of Arizona describe migrants and their families as being afraid to access basic services for fear of being turned over to ICE and deported.  This month’s brazen shooting shows the threat of violence that immigrants in Arizona and other places face on a daily basis.

This was the latest demonstration of the reaction of one layer of the population to the decline of U.S. power abroad and the growing numbers of people of color at home. The U.S. is hurtling towards becoming a majority people of color country - and the far right, which now dominates one of the two major parties, is rallying its “White-America-Must-Be-Number-One-Forever” troops to “take the country back.”

They aren’t wizards (though many would-be Klan Imperial Wizards are indeed in their ranks). And they are much more dangerous than that kindly old fraud behind the curtain in Oz.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

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