Washington's Wars and Occupations:
Month in Review #86/June 30, 2012
Michael Reagan begins with the catastrophe engulfing Syria amid a month of kill lists, judicial coups and heightened climate crisis.
What began as Syria's “Arab Spring” has spiraled into civil war and potential regional conflict. New massacres are reported every week, the Syrian people face daily terror, and Western intervention is making everything worse.
Even before the Syrian crisis reached this level of disaster this had been a deadly month. June began with a New York Times report that President Obama is personally overseeing U.S. assassination campaigns in weekly national security briefings that White House staff colloquially call “terror Tuesdays.” The phrase aptly captures the banality with which U.S. war crimes are now undertaken, even bragged about, in our mainstream national political discourse. Add the coup in Paraguay, setbacks to the process of change in Egypt, and the failure of the "international community" at the Rio Summit to adequately address global warming and the arctic meltdown, and we’re facing multiple kinds of “terror Tuesdays,” with state violence and humanitarian crises increasingly normalized.
“GUARDIANS OF THE LAND”
For the people of Syria terror is a daily concern. Peaceful demonstrations that began as part of the Arab Spring were brutally repressed by the government, and matters escalated to civil war. Regional and international powers back opposing sides and the conflict threatens to spread beyond Syria’s borders. The human cost is heartbreaking. Civilian massacres are frequent and reports indicate both the rebel and government forces have committed atrocities. De-escalation and an end to the bloodletting – either via a negotiated settlement or a victory for the democratic and anti-sectarian wing of the opposition – seem farther away than ever.
For decades the U.S. and Israel have had an ambiguous relationship with the Assad regime. Syria was in many ways an obstacle to their interests. Russia houses its only Mediterranean military post in Syria. Syria has allowed arms transfers from Iran to Hezbollah to pass through its territory. And, until the outbreak of the recent protests, Damascus was the headquarters of Hamas, and Syria expressed support for the Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.
On the other hand, the Assad regime has been good for regional stability and has not gone beyond verbal protests of the illegal Israeli occupation of the Golan, captured from Syria in 1967. Additionally, the regime often provides key aid for U.S. strategic objectives, as in 1991 when it supplied war planes for the US invasion of Iraq, or more recently torturing CIA rendered terror suspects, most notably Canadian citizen Maher Arar. At many points the Syrian army has also been deployed against Palestinian militants in Lebanon and elsewhere. For these reasons, the U.S. and Israel did not immediately leap to the idea of ousting Assad when this round of Syrian protest first began.
But the opportunity to remove from power Iran's one major ally in the Sunni Arab world rapidly proved irresistible. So the U.S. upped cooperation with regional proxies like Saudi Arabia in the bid to gain dominance in the opposition movement and replace Assad with a more compliant regime. Now the CIA is funneling weapons and support to selected rebels, although direct Western military intervention seems unlikely if only because Russia and China will veto any UN resolution authorizing it.
In a recent article, Phyllis Bennis argues that the greatest chance of success to end the crisis is through serious diplomatic engagement, like that proposed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Annan’s latest plan, calling for a “transitional national unity government” comprised of both regime elements and opposition forces is too recent to fully review here, but it seems likely that Assad will not give up his fight-to-the-death mentality, and will be seriously opposed to this compromise.
Nearby, the progress of the Egyptian revolution has been stalled. The results of parliamentary elections were annulled by the Egyptian Supreme Court in the days immediately prior to the final presidential election. The action was widely regarded by Egyptian activists as a power grab – a judicial coup – by the Egyptian military and the forces of the previous regime. The Egyptian parliament had a majority of Muslim Brotherhood members, and the oncoming presidential election pitted a Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, against Mubarak’s prime minister and establishment favorite Ahmed Shafiq. Morsi – far from the favorite candidate of the youthful democratic-minded activists who spearheaded the first occupations of Tahrir Square —won, but without a parliament, a constitution, or a framework for governance, his status and future are unclear.
As thousands of Egyptians planned to boycott or resist the election process in the wake of the actions by the military, many, including Democracy Now correspondent Sharif Abel Kouddous, said that the Court rulings represented a “final fatal blow” against the process of democratic transformation. However, as was known even at the height of revolutionary fervor in February of last year, the real battle for the future of Egypt would be played out in months and years after the upsurge, as popular forces, secularists, Islamists and regime allies struggle to gain control of Egyptian society. The Supreme Court ruling and the elections mark a setback, but the Egyptian population is still mobilized, turning out by the thousands following the “judicial coup.” What happens next depends on the Egyptian people’s capacity to resist and create new alternatives of social and political organization.
Across the globe in Paraguay, similar judicial maneuverings ousted President Fernando Lugo. Lugo, a former Catholic Bishop and liberation theologian, was never popular with the right. His opponents orchestrated a coup on technical grounds, the basis of which was a peasant struggle over land controlled by the dictatorial Colorado party, in which 17 people were killed in the weeks leading up to the coup. The U.S. has maintained a standoffish position in relation to the coup. In this way, its diplomatic stance is remarkably similar to that held by the Obama administration on the Honduran coup, staged almost three years ago to the day of the coup in Paraguay. Similar legalist means were used for ousting Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, and Washington's official standoffishness soon translated into support for the coup leaders. It appears that the neglect that Latin America received under Bush II – which allowed the “pink tide” more breathing room - is being reversed and Latin America is again subject to more careful attention from the U.S. under Obama.
ERA OF THE U.S. PRESIDENT AS “ASSASSIN IN CHIEF”
Bashir al-Asad isn’t the only world leader doling out weekly terror. According to an article published by the New York Times, the White House keeps a “kill list” of terror suspects that it updates in “terror Tuesday” weekly meetings. What’s remarkable about the revelations is the emphasis on Obama’s personal responsibility for selecting and approving the targets, including American citizens and their children. According to the Times, the President personally approves each assassination. Thomas Donilon, U.S. National Security Advisor, said Obama is “determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go." In the article Obama’s Chief of Staff, William Daley, called the decision to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. born cleric living in Yemen “an easy one.” Not mentioned is whether the decision to kill al-Awlaki’s teenage son in a separate strike was equally easy.
The kill list and the drone policy also represent a transformation of U.S military policy, away from traditional military intervention with fleets and foot soldiers, toward a new policy of world-wide engagement through special ops and silent drones. Well known are the drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. These strikes are part of a global network of surveillance and weaponized drones with the capability to strike any nation or individual at any time. The most recent expansion of the drone campaign came to the Philippines in February, when drones targeted suspected leaders of Abu Sayyaf and JemaahIslamiyah in the Muslim controlled south. Recently, U.S. military drones have fallen out the sky and crashed into the swamps of Maryland, the Baloch territories of Pakistan, and Iran. All big no-no’s for international diplomacy and domestic law. The revelations are remarkable for the shift they represent in the attitudes and strategies of U.S. ruling interests. Whether the leaks were intentionally given to the press by Obama staff as part of an election posturing to appear tough, or not (the Senate has promised to investigate), structuring the meetings to give the President direct oversight in criminal activity, is remarkable. It marks an historic shift from Nixon and Reagan era "plausible deniability" to Bush and Obama era “decider in chief” braggadocio.
Major international bodies are beginning to protest. This month, Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, indicated that the prolific use of strikes amounted to “war crimes” and threatened a UN investigation. Longstanding opposition to the strikes by the government of Afghanistan has finally forced the U.S. to revise its drone policy there. But not in Pakistan, where the Pakistani government and people have long been furious at the murderous campaigns, leading to the worst-ever state of relations between the two nations. The ACLU estimates that 4,000 people have been killed in U.S. drone strikes since 2002 in just three countries, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Further bolstering the claims that these strikes constitute war crimes is the U.S. definition of “militant” as any adult man in the vicinity of a strike, also revealed in the Times article.
At bottom, expansion of the drone policy in fact represents a defeat of traditional U.S. military strategies. The use of drones stems from the US inability to invade and occupy places of its choosing due to public opposition, resource constraints and failure on the ground. Stepping up domestic opposition to at least match the international outcry is crucial if an era of permanent drone wars is to be prevented.
CLIMATE CHANGE: TERROR OF A DIFFERENT SORT
Global climate change represents terror of different sort, an ominous and dreadful future of rising tides, species extinction and major social and political displacement. And the news for this month doesn’t bode well. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration informs us that the first six months of 2012 have been the hottest in recorded history – the average temperature in the continental U.S. a whopping five degrees higher than the twentieth century norm. Additionally, the journal Nature published a research paper saying that the world faces an irreversible “tipping point” of environmental damage within the next century. In the Arctic, temperatures are rising at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the globe, with the Northwest Passage over Canada and Alaska now regularly ice free for the first time in memory.
The political solution sought by Washington and other world powers is to seek new opportunities to access and consume fossil fuels, and to delay any international political agreements to limit greenhouse emissions. Hilary Clinton visited the Alaskan arctic this month, not to highlight the dire consequences of global warming, but to indicate the U.S. diplomatic and military commitment to securing the resources of the arctic - vast quantities of oil, gas and minerals newly accessible because of global warming. She and other world leaders are attempting to ratify a “Law of the Sea” treaty that would grant the U.S., and other arctic powers like Russia, Canada and Norway mineral rights and military use of sea lanes 600 miles into the Arctic Circle.
Meanwhile, amid popular protests, the UN sponsored Rio+20 climate change conference foundered on nations’ commitments to continually exploit their depletable resources. The Rio failure, following the COP failure in 2009, are leading major mainstream environmental activists to reject UN devised multilateral processes. Jim Leape of the World Wildlife Foundation said following the summit that “the multilateral process today is not delivering the urgent action we need.
HOPE IN A TIME OF TERROR
The use of terror, and the terror of unknown futures, seems to be all around us. But popular movements are fighting back across the globe - from the largest and longest student strike ever in Montreal to the protest surges in Europe to the militants who are now digging in for the long haul in Egypt. And even in the face of difficult odds partial victories are won along the way, like the "small d" Dream Act order Obama was forced to issue in face of the smart, dedicated activism of young immigrant rights organizers. It is to such examples we look to for hope and for lessons as we work to end the era of "Terror Tuesdays."
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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