Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Rise of Drone Warfare

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

In an article published last July in the Los Angeles Times, veteran journalist Doyle McManus noted that, “The drone has become America’s counter-terrorism weapon of choice.”

Unmanned aerial vehicles, they are aircraft controlled by operators from the ground, thousands of miles away, at American bases in places like Djibouti or in the United States itself.

Carrying lethal missiles, they can hover for hours over potential targets, and kill suspected terrorists with relative precision. And of course they don’t endanger American lives.

First utilized in the 1990s in the Balkan wars, since 2001 their use has dramatically escalated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is an independent not-for-profit organization, established in April 2010 in Britain. Its team of researchers has calculated that under President Barack Obama over 3,000 people, including nearly 500 civilians, have been killed by drones.

Since 2004, drones controlled by the CIA’s Special Activities Division have attacked 401 targets in northwest Pakistan, especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where the Pakistani Taliban operates. Total deaths as of October 2014 number between 2,383 and 3,858, of which 416 to 951were civilians.

From 2007 to the end of October, Somalia’s al-Shabab has been targeted by nine drone strikes, resulting in upwards of 30 reported deaths, virtually all of them militants. An attack in September killed Ahmed Abdi Godane (also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr), the alleged mastermind of al-Shabab’s attack on an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2013.

Ansar al-Shari’a (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), formed in January 2009 from a merger of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches, has helped destabilize Yemen, with suicide bombings and armed attacks.

Confirmed U.S. drone strikes in that country since 2002 number between 67 to 79, but the figure may be as high as 100. The total number of people reported killed range between 347 and 503, among them 26 to 68 civilians – but again, these numbers may prove to be much higher.

The greatest number of drone strikes has taken place in Afghanistan, as part of the 13-year war against the Taliban – more than 1,000 since 2008 alone. Dozens of armed drones fly over Afghanistan every day.

A report released this past February by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), found that drone strikes accounted for at least a third of all civilian deaths in air strikes last year. UNAMA notes that it is sometimes difficult to establish which type of aircraft carried out a strike, so the true total could be higher.

While the House and Senate intelligence committees of the U.S. Congress are responsible for scrutinizing the highly classified CIA drone program, some have complained about being denied information. In any case, according to one source, “It’s a serious question as to how much any elected official could possibly understand about what’s going on inside” the intelligence agencies.

For example, Abu Yahya al-Libi, a high-ranking al-Qaeda official, was killed by a drone in June of 2012 in Mir Ali, in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan. But the missile that killed him was part of a sequence of attacks that killed between 14 and 18 people.

A story in the Washington Post reported that after an initial strike, drones returned to attack those carrying out rescue work. But apparently committee members were only shown video covering the final part of the incident, giving a misleading impression that concealed over a dozen deaths.

In October 2009 the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, called on the U.S. to demonstrate that it was not randomly killing people in violation of international law through its use of drones on the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Alston, a professor of international law at New York University, contended that “Intelligence agencies, which by definition are determined to remain unaccountable except to their own paymasters, have no place in running programs that kill people in other countries.”

A further question is the extent to which operators become trigger happy with remote controlled armaments, situated as they are in complete safety, distant from the conflict zone.

The morality of drone warfare is bound to remain a contentious issue for the foreseeable future.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Jerusalem Tensions Affect Relations Between Israel, Jordan, Palestinians


Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Two days ago four Israelis were murdered, and eight injured, in an attack on a Jerusalem synagogue.

The two Palestinian perpetrators were shot by police. It was the worst loss of life in a single day in the city since 2008.

The Gaza War between Hamas and Israel last summer may not have extended to the West Bank, but it has unleashed a wave of urban violence in Jerusalem, affecting its transportation system and dividing its Arab and Jewish segments even further apart.

Jerusalem has been on edge for months, with almost nightly clashes in the Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem since the summer murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists.

Prior to this latest incident, at least ten people have been killed in the city since July, and dozens injured. There have been running battles between Palestinian youths and Israeli police forces.

Israelis and Palestinians both claim the city as their capital. Of its 800,000 residents, a third are Palestinians who refuse to acknowledge the Israeli annexation of east Jerusalem after 1967 and resist becoming citizens of Israel.

Tension at the holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City known to Jews as the Temple Mount (Har Habayit) and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al Sharif), has inflamed passions.

On Oct. 30, Israel temporarily barred all access to the site to Muslims for the first time in many years.

This followed the Israeli killing of a Palestinian man suspected of trying to assassinate a right-wing Israeli rabbi, Yehuda Glick, who for years has advocated for Jews to gain more prayer rights on the Temple Mount.

Israeli authorities also added concrete barriers around the 24 stops along Jerusalem’s 14-kilometre light railway, two of which were the sites of deadly vehicular attacks the past few weeks, with Palestinian drivers crashing into Israeli pedestrians.

The sabotaging of the Jerusalem light rail system in the Arab parts of the city is occurring because the Palestinians see it as an attempt by Israel to connect all of Jerusalem in order to strengthen Israeli sovereignty over the entire city.

Palestinians are angered by settlement expansion in east Jerusalem, where Israel has just approved plans to build 200 homes in the Ramot neighbourhood.

The unrest has also strained Israel’s ties with neighboring Jordan, which ruled the Old City between 1948 and 1967. Jordan’s King Abdullah II is al-Aqsa’s official custodian, which includes paying the salaries of about 500 employees of the trust, the Islamic Waqf, which runs the shrine.

The Jordanian minister of Islamic Affairs, Hayel Daoud, called the closing “state terrorism by the Israeli authorities.”

Jordan recalled its ambassador, saying the move was to protest Israeli “violations” at the site. Jordan’s special role there is enshrined in the peace treaty signed with Israel in 1994.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reassured King Abdullah in a phone call that he was committed to maintaining the status quo at the contested holy site, and that Israel would make every effort to restore calm there.

 “If anything happens to al-Aqsa,” warned Oraib al-Rantawi, director of Al Quds Center for Political Studies, a Jordanian research institute, “then we will be entering a religious war between Muslims and Jews.”

To calm the situation, U.S. Secretary of State visited the Jordanian capital, Amman, and met with both King Abdullah and Netanyahu on Nov. 13. Nasser Judeh, Jordan’s foreign minister, said the king had impressed upon Kerry how important the issue was for Jordan.

As part of a deal reached at the meeting in Amman, Israel lifted restrictions on Muslims praying at the mosque.

Is all of this leading to a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising? President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority has denied it. But he did state, on Nov. 11, that “The Muslim and Christian worlds will never accept Israel’s claims that Jerusalem belongs to them.”

Meanwhile, Sheikh Raed Salah, the leader of the Islamic Movement’s radical northern Israel branch, on Nov. 7 gave a sermon in Nazareth about conquering Jerusalem and making it the capital of a Sunni Islamic caliphate.

Events in a pressure cooker and contested city like Jerusalem can quickly spin out of control.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Will Obama Allow Iran to Become a Nuclear Power?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

It’s clear that the post-1960s generation, a cohort that includes Barack Obama, is now in control of American foreign policy.

Obama is more than a left-wing multiculturalist – he is America’s first “Edward Said” president, a “Third Worldist” who believes western culture has oppressed people of colour throughout the centuries and must stop doing so. Said’s seminal 1978 work, “Orientalism,” the foundational text for the academic field of “post-colonialist studies,” is his guide.

Obama is now going to allow the world’s most dangerous state, run by theocrats, to develop nuclear weapons, even though Iran has been a major backer of terrorism for decades, and has American blood on its hands in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere, via the actions of proxies like Hezbollah.

In a letter last month to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Obama urged Iran’s supreme leader to seize the opportunity to negotiate a nuclear agreement with the West.

This comes as the Nov. 24 deadline in nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, as well as five other world powers, gets closer. An interim deal last year gave Iran some relief from sanctions in return for curbs on nuclear activity.

Obama noted that the United States and Iran had common interests in fighting the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, and reassured Iran’s leaders that, in the words of one administration official, “you should let us do it, because it will help you.”

The U.S. did not inform countries like Saudi Arabia or Israel, who will interpret this as proof Obama is acting with little regard for his allies as he pursues a deal with Iran.

Obama seems to feel that he needs Tehran to contain ISIS. But the latter are a ragtag Sunni Muslim group of fanatics that can be dispatched quickly with enough force, while Shia Iran is a powerful state of almost 80 million people, whose leaders wish to gain hegemony throughout the Muslim world (and maybe beyond).

Does Obama actually think that when Iranians shout “death to Israel” and call the “Zionist entity” a “cancer,” this is merely rhetoric? Does he believe the mullahs when they maintain that that they need nuclear energy for peaceful purposes only? Apparently.

Lee Smith, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and author of The Consequences of Syria, asserts that the White House wants a larger regional accommodation with Tehran. 

“As Obama has explained,” he writes, “Iran is a rational actor that pursues its interests. If you fight the Islamic Republic, it’ll just make it angrier and more dangerous, so it’s best to try to get on its good side. A world where the United States and Iran are friends and allies will be a safer, more peaceful place.”

Are we heading for a reprise of Neville Chamberlain returning to Britain from Munich in September 1938 waving a piece of paper signed by Hitler and Mussolini, and declaring that the Munich Agreement meant “peace for our time?”

Obama never has to face an electorate again. Even though the Republicans now control Congress, as head of state he has wide latitude when it comes to foreign policy. Stay tuned.


Friday, November 14, 2014

The Cold War Trial that Epitomized McCarthyism

Henry Srebrnik, Calgary Jewish Free Press

Although they were tried and executed more than half a century ago, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s names remain familiar to most Americans.

Put to death on June 19, 1953, after their conviction for conspiracy to pass atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union during and after World War II, the Rosenbergs were at the centre of one of the most famous and controversial espionage cases of the twentieth century.

Their trial drew world-wide attention, and since that time, literally thousands of articles and books have been written about the case and its ramifications for the United States, the Cold War, and the American Jewish community.

The celebrated case has again been in the news, following the death of Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, this past July1, at age 92.

Greenglass, who had also been arrested as part of the espionage ring that included the Rosenbergs, pleaded guilty in exchange for testifying against them – testimony that he would in later years admit had been false.

He served 10 years of a 15-year sentence and was released from federal prison in 1960. Another defendant, Morton Sobell, was convicted and served 18 years of a 30-year term.

Greenglass had been drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and was assigned as a machinist to the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., where scientists were developing the atomic bomb.

When Julius Rosenberg learned of this, he recruited his brother-in-law to gather information to pass on to Soviet agents. Greenglass complied, delivering notes from conversations with fellow workers about aspects of atomic research and a sketch of what he said was an implosion-type nuclear device.

The materials were all turned over to Harry Gold, a courier for the spy ring, who then passed it on to Anatoly A. Yakovlev, the Soviet Union’s vice-consul in New York City.

Following the arrest of a German-born physicist, Klaus Fuchs, who had also worked on the Manhattan Project, a series of revelations led, in June 1950, to the arrest of Julius Rosenberg as an atomic spy.

Ethel’s arrest followed in July. Evidence suggests that Ethel was held mainly in an effort to force her husband to reveal further names and information. This never happened.

On March 29, 1951, the Rosenbergs were convicted of treason. Following failed pleas for clemency to President Dwight Eisenhower, they were executed two years later.

The constitutionality and applicability of the Espionage Act of 1917, under which the Rosenbergs were tried, as well as the impartiality of the trial judge, Irving R. Kaufman, were key issues during the appeals process.

Because the defendants were Jewish, as was Emanuel Bloch, their defence attorney, many American Jews feared the case would incite a wave of anti-Semitism -- though both Judge Kaufman and the chief prosecutor, Irving Saypol, also were Jewish, as was Roy Cohn, who was part of the government’s legal team. (After the Rosenberg trial, Cohn was appointed as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief legal counsel.)

So, although a number of leftist Jewish organizations protested the verdict, most were conspicuously silent. Both Rosenbergs, as well as the other defendants, were Communists. Public condemnation of them, a general identification of Jews with left-wing causes, and McCarthyism made many Jews fear that their own loyalty was under scrutiny. Some Jewish leaders, including those of the American Jewish Committee, publicly endorsed the guilty verdict.

The global political context was also a clear factor. The United States was involved in the Korean War, and engaged in a worldwide ideological struggle with the Soviet Union. In pronouncing their death sentence, Judge Kaufman described the Rosenbergs’ crime as “worse than murder.”  During the trial Saypol stated that, by typing up the description of the atomic secrets, Ethel Rosenberg “struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets.”

Kaufman, who died in 1992, later complained that he continued to be harassed for having imposed the sentences. “I'm sure the decision plagued him to his last days,” Professor Yale Kamisar of the University of Michigan Law School told the New York Times on Feb. 3, 1992.

In the years after the Rosenbergs’ executions, there was significant debate about their guilt. But the release in the 1990s of the Soviet intelligence information known as the Venona transcripts confirmed the Rosenbergs’ involvement in a spy ring.

Still, although Julius Rosenberg was guilty, Ethel’s role in any conspiracy was tiny at most. Morton Sobell told the New York Times on Sept. 11, 2008 that she was aware of her husband’s activity but did not directly participate in it.

As well, the importance of Greenglass’ stolen material would later be contested. Both Soviet and American experts have ascertained that it was of little value.

So, while Julius Rosenberg did break the Espionage Act of 1917 by passing intelligence on to the Russians, by far the greater crime was to kill him and his wife. They were the first, and only, American civilians ever executed for espionage in peacetime.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Afterlife of Soviet Zion

Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

Will wonders never cease? The attempt to create a viable Jewish Autonomous Region (JAR) in the far east of the Soviet Union between 1928 and the 1950s is now little more than a memory, yet articles and books about it continue to appear.

And now there’s even a musical!

A new piece of theater which premiered in London in late October, Soviet Zion captures this fascinating era of Russian Jewish history.

Written by British lyricist Giles Howe, with music by Katy Lipson, it tells the story of two Jewish families, one American, the other Ukrainian, who move to Birobidzhan, as the JAR was known, in 1939 and participate in the creation of this Yiddish socialist experiment.

But the reality they face is not what they had been led to believe, and for most of them, it ends badly, thanks to Stalin’s purges.

For many years Howe and Lipson had wanted to write a piece that would give them the opportunity to explore their Yiddish heritage, hence this play about an “alternative Zion.”

The cast, appropriately like the settlers themselves, come from all over the world, including Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Hungary, and Russia itself.

I’ve written two books on American and Canadian pro-Soviet groups that supported the Birobidzhan project – Jerusalem on the Amur (2008) for Canada, and Dreams of Nationhood (2010) for the United States – so I’m familiar with the story.

The JAR was founded in 1928, the result of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin=s nationality policy, which stated that each of the national groups that formed the Soviet Union would receive a territory in which to pursue cultural autonomy in a socialist framework.

As the Jewish population grew, so did the impact of Yiddish culture on the region. A Yiddish newspaper, the Birobidzhaner Shtern, was established; a theater troupe was created; and streets in the new capital city were named after prominent Yiddish authors such as Sholem Aleichem and Y. L. Peretz.

The propaganda impact was so effective that several thousand Jews immigrated to Birobidzhan from outside of the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

But with the 1948 establishment of Israel as a Jewish state, the idea of an autonomous Jewish region in the Soviet Union would all be but forgotten.

When the USSR collapsed in 1991, Jews made up just two per cent of the total population of about 190,000. The rest were ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Koreans, Chinese and various indigenous peoples.

But there has been a revival of Jewish life in the post Communist JAR. Yiddish is once again taught in the schools, the Birobidzhaner Shtern is again published, and there is Yiddish radio and television. A new Jewish community centre and synagogue have been built and a new Sholem Aleichem monument recently unveiled.

Today the Jewish population of the JAR is about 5,000, according to Jewish community figures. So though it never became the agrarian, socialist-Jewish utopia that some founders envisioned, Birobidzhan remains in some ways a Jewish place.

Never Try to Predict the Future

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

By the early 1960s, both the space race with the Soviet Union and the New Left had become major news in the United States.

America’s Cold War rival astonished the world on Oct. 4, 1957 by launching Sputnik 1, the first satellite to orbit the earth. I can remember as a boy seeing the story -- it took up the entire front page – in the Montreal Herald (which, as it happened, ceased publication two weeks later).

On April 12, 1961, the USSR launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the Earth on Vostok 1.

In response, President John F. Kennedy vowed to beat the Soviets to the Moon. Astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, on Feb. 20, 1962. His mission completed three orbits in the Friendship 7 spacecraft.

The early Project Mercury and Project Gemini programs would give way to Project Apollo. The Apollo 11 mission culminated with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

Meanwhile, the American New Left, concentrated on college and university campuses, was rapidly changing the country’s political culture. It was motivated by social injustices, the opposition to the war in Vietnam, and the civil rights movement in the segregationist South.

Starting with the April 1960 founding of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which supported the new Cuban revolution against attacks by the U.S. government, by the end of the decade the movement, much of it Marxist, was a major force in American life.

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was also created in 1960. Two years later its members met in Port Huron, Michigan and drafted the Port Huron Statement.

In it, SDS criticized American society and described how universities should be at the centre of activities to establish a “participatory democracy.” With the escalation of the Vietnam War, SDS grew rapidly and organized massive marches and “teach-ins” across the country.

There was also a much wider “counter-cultural” movement. On Aug. 15-18, 1969 about 400,000 people gathered in upstate New York for the Woodstock concert. Bob Dylan didn’t participate, but the lyrics to his 1964 song “The Times They Are a-Changing” summed up the spirit of the event.  It indeed seemed that the “winds of change” were unstoppable.

No doubt, had people that year been asked what the world would look like 45 years later, many would have assumed, given the momentum unleashed in the decade, that by 2014 there would be human colonies on Mars (and maybe even farther in space), and that America would be governed by progressives who had introduced some form of socialist egalitarianism.

In fact the reverse happened.

Apollo 17 and was the sixth and last landing of humans on the Moon, in December 1972. There have been no humans there for 42 years now, let alone elsewhere in the solar system.

Even NASA’s space shuttle program ended in 2011, and so – irony of ironies – because America lost its own capacity to send people into space, the only way for its astronauts to get to and from the International Space Station is by way of the Russian Soyuz capsule and Russian rockets.

Meanwhile, the gap between the rich “one per cent” and everyone else is now at its widest in many decades. The wealthiest 10 per cent of Americans control more than three-quarters of all U.S. wealth and 80 per cent of all financial assets.

At the same time, median household income in 2013 was US$51,939, a full $4,497 less than before the recession.

The financial crisis led to millions of people being unable to pay their mortgages. There have now been approximately 5.2 million completed foreclosures by lending institutions across the U.S.

Not only is America not socialist, it has become a plutocracy, where money is now the mother’s milk of electoral politics.

The Center for Responsive Politics projected that $3.76 billion will have been spent on this year’s just-concluded midterm elections. Who provides these vast sums? Mostly, the very rich – and lawmakers are then beholden to them. Not exactly “participatory democracy!”

Communists used to brag that they were “on the right side of history.” Barack Obama has lately begun using the same phrase, when speaking about U.S. attempts to implement democracy in places like the Middle East.

But in fact, no one is either on the “right” or “wrong” side of “history,” as the Communists, who now barely exist, discovered. All we can be sure of is that “history” has its own trajectory, and we can’t predict its direction.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Our Global Nomenklatura

Henry Srebrnik, [Sumerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

The nomenklatura in the old Soviet Union referred to a select list or class of people from which appointees for top-level positions were drawn. They were the political elite of the society.

The Soviet state is long gone, but western countries, too, have an equivalent pool from which plum jobs, domestic and foreign, are awarded. These people initially may have been elected to office, but when their terms are over – either through defeat or retirement – they often flit from one well-paying stint to another.

They may use the contacts made while in office to establish foundations for various causes, keeping themselves part of the informal governance of their country, or even the world.

The best example is the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, whose stated mission is to “strengthen the capacity of people throughout the world to meet the challenges of global interdependence.”

It has raised hundreds of millions of dollars, but more important, has enabled Bill Clinton, though out of office since 2000, to remain one of the most influential people on the planet.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who left office in 2007, has also been cashing in on his former position.

He has a commercial consultancy, Tony Blair Associates, which allows him to provide strategic advice on political and economic trends and governmental reform.

The profits from the firm go towards supporting Blair’s “work on faith, Africa and climate change.” To this end, he has set up two major international charities, the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

Of course fostering good governance in Africa, designed to combat corruption, may also establish excellent contacts with local leaders with the power to award contracts.

In Canada, Kim Campbell and Joe Clark have been dining out for decades on their very brief periods as Progressive Conservative prime ministers of Canada. (Readers will recall she was here recently as part of the “Bold Vision” conference.)

In 1996, Campbell was appointed consul general to Los Angeles by the Liberal Jean Chretien government. She has also chaired the Council of Women World Leaders, and served as President of the International Women’s Forum.

Since 2008 Campbell has been Chair of the Steering Committee of the Washington-based World Movement for Democracy, a global network of people “who have come together to cooperate in the promotion of democracy.”

She is also a member of the board of numerous other international non-governmental “civil society” groups, including the Arab Democracy Foundation, the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, and the Naissance Capital’s Women’s Leadership Fund.

Joe Clark is vice chair of the Global Leadership Foundation, which works to support democratic leadership, prevent and resolve conflict through mediation and promote good governance in the form of democratic institutions, open markets, human rights and the rule of law.

Clark serves with the Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, which is “guided by a fundamental commitment to human rights and the alleviation of human suffering.” Clark routinely travels overseas as part of the centre’s international observing activities.

Stephen Lewis led the Ontario New Democratic Party for much of the 1970s, though he never won an election. Nonetheless, in 1984 he was appointed Canada’s United Nations ambassador, by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

From 1995 to 1999, Lewis was Deputy Director of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and from 2001 until 2006, he worked as United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

He is now the board chair of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, an organization that helps people affected and infected by HIV/AIDS in Africa. Lewis is also an immediate past member of the Board of Directors of the Clinton Health Access Initiative.

The recent Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Malala Yousafzai, who survived an assassination attempt by the Pakistani Taliban in 2012, has, at the young age of 17, already joined this club, without even serving in an elected position. She has now created the Malala Fund, which she uses to advocate for girls’ rights to an equal education.

I assume these various foundations and organizations are doing good work. Nonetheless, none of these people has to answer to any electorate or public body for their activities, but only to their rich sponsors and donors.

As the Australian journalist James Rose wrote recently, the international system has become “a gravy train” for the global elite, “as they traverse the planet in pampered isolation.” Nice work if you can get it!

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Legitimacy of Eastern Ukrainian Elections Denied by the West

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Elections have just been held in two pro-Russian regions in eastern Ukraine – but western countries, who provide uncritical support to the Kyiv government, insist they were illegitimate.

On Sept. 5, the Ukrainian authorities and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in the pro-Russian eastern areas of Ukraine signed the so-called Minsk Protocol stipulating the establishment of a ceasefire in Ukraine’s pro-Russian eastern regions.

In addition, Kyiv agreed to adopt a law giving the Donetsk and Luhansk regions special statuses for three years and ensuring early local elections there.

Both self-proclaimed republics therefore set elections for regional leaders and legislative bodies for Nov. 2. The elections were duly held -- but Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called them “a farce that is being conducted under the threat of tanks and guns.”

The European Union and the United States also do not acknowledge these elections. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Moscow’s recognition of the rebel vote would be “a clear violation of the commitments made by both Russia and the separatists” in the truce agreement signed in the Belarussian capital of Minsk on Sept. 5.

It called for local elections in the east to take place under Ukrainian law and Kyiv had scheduled them for Dec. 7.

But Russia is rejecting calls to distance itself from the rebel vote. “We will of course recognize their results,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said before the vote.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko, who was elected president of the Donetsk People’s Republic by a large margin on Nov. 2, said that he hoped the vote would bring peace to a region where 4,000 people have been killed in fighting.

Referring to the government in Kyiv, he added that “If they give us recognition and return the land we’ve lost without putting up a fight, then we will restore normal economic ties and we will live like equal economic partners.”

In Lugansk current leader Igor Plotnitsky, a former Soviet army officer, also won comfortably.

Were these elections legitimate? First of all, the turnout was at least 70 per cent, which is about 20 per cent higher than the percentage of people who voted in the main Ukrainian election on Oct. 26.

Legitimacy is in the eye of the beholder. The United States and the EU have recognized all kinds of elections around the world which were of dubious legality, and which were clearly less than free and fair. Recent presidential elections in Afghanistan and Egypt come to mind.

So a lot of this is not a matter of international norms but of power politics. Since Washington refuses to accept the fact that there was an unconstitutional regime change in Ukraine last February, it won’t accept any election result in eastern Ukraine, even if it reflects the wishes of the population there.

The people in those areas of eastern Ukraine remain suspicious of the Kyiv government, and for good reason. Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has noted that Poroshenko has called members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which collaborated with the Germans in World War II, heroes.

And the far-right Svoboda Party, which also glorifies Second World War partisans who fought against the Soviet Union, has four members serving as ministers in the current Ukrainian government.

In any case, Ukraine itself is no model of democracy. It is saddled with the same type of oligarchic system that afflicts other post-Communist states.

Poroshenko, known as the “chocolate king” for his confectionary business Roshen, is today a billionaire after he took advantage of the economic chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union to acquire numerous state-owned enterprises at bargain-basement prices in the 1990s.

There seems to be a total lack of sympathy for the concerns of the people in eastern Ukraine on the part of western nations, which are eager to bring the entire country into its political and economic sphere, regardless of any regional opposition.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Saudi Arabia is a Strange Kind of American Ally


Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer 

This is a place with no religious toleration for non-Muslims, an absolutist entity with no democratic institutions. And it beheads people.

It espouses an austere, puritanical and absolutist Islam, with incitements to jihad and conquest, and tries to export it to other countries.

Apostates from Islam, homosexuals, and blasphemers can face brutal persecution and death. Women are forbidden to drive or get jobs without permission from male relatives; all education is gender-specific. 

Are we talking about the so-called Islamic State that now occupies large swaths of Iraq and Syria? No. We are referring to an America ally – the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab arrived in the central Arabian state of Najd in 1744 preaching a return to a “pure” Islam. He sought protection from the local emir, Muhammad ibn Saud. 

In return for endorsing al-Wahhab’s form of Islam, now known as “Wahhabism,” ibn Saud would acquire political legitimacy. The religious-political alliance that they forged endures to this day in what is now Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s king is formally known as the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (in Mecca and Medina). The kingdom is governed by Islamic sharia law. No other law is deemed necessary and no contrary law is permissible.

The kingdom is patrolled by a religious police force that enforces the niqab for women. In the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the religious police beat women with sticks if their dress is considered immodest by Wahhabi standards.

Saudi Arabia forbids non-Muslim religious practice. For instance, on Sept. 5 Saudi police raided a house in Khafji, near the Kuwaiti border, and charged 27 Asian Christians with holding a church ceremony.

In the space of 18 days during August, the kingdom beheaded some 22 people, according to human rights advocates; it carried out a total of 79 executions in 2013. Many of those killed were convicted of relatively minor offences, such as smuggling hashish. There are also public whippings for various offenses.

Saudi Arabia has no civil penal code that sets out sentencing rules, and no system of judicial precedent that would make the outcome of cases predictable based on past practice.

“Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling or sorcery that result in no loss of life are particularly egregious,” remarked Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch.

Partly in reaction to the Shia resurgence in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon after 1979, Saudi Arabia, in order to assert its fundamentalist Wahhabi ethos, became stricter in its application of Islamic law, and increased its financial aid to ultraconservative Islamists and their schools throughout the world.

For decades now, Saudi Arabia has been the official sponsor of Sunni Salafi Islam (of which Wahhabism is one form) across the globe, funneling support to clerics, satellite networks, political factions and armed groups. Al-Qaeda, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and the Somali al-Shabab are all violent Sunni Salafi groupings.

The Saudi government has appointed emissaries to its embassies in Muslim countries who proselytize for Salafism. The kingdom also bankrolls ultraconservative Islamic organizations like the Muslim World League and World Assembly of Muslim Youth.

Textbooks in Saudi Arabia’s schools and universities teach this brand of Islam. The University of Medina recruits students from around the world and sends them to Muslim communities in the Balkans, Indonesia, Bangladesh and various African countries.

In several countries, the young have been brought up on a form of Islam in Saudi-funded schools that gives them a very narrow and restricted view of their own faith and a very limited view of all other faiths,” according to historian Karen Armstrong, author of the recently published Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.

Dissidents in Raqqa, the Syrian town that is the Islamic State’s capital, have said that all 12 of the judges who now run its court system, adjudicating everything from property disputes to capital crimes, are Saudis.

Yet Saudi Arabia is considered by Washington an important American ally. Western countries, who need Saudi Arabia’s oil and see it as a counterweight to Iran, have turned a blind eye to most of this. Such is the practice of realpolitik in a volatile Middle East.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Proxy Wars Effective Way to Destablize Adversaries

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

A proxy war is a conflict in which one party fights its adversary via another party rather than engaging that party in direct conflict.

In other words, one country tries to defeat another indirectly, by using non-state forces, typically terrorist or guerrilla movements, against the other country.

Herman Cohen, who served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1989 to 1993, has defined a proxy or surrogate war as “an internal conflict that has been orchestrated and supported almost entirely from the outside.”

Why collude with external forces rather than directly confront the enemy? Such states may want to avoid international condemnation, which could result in diplomatic and economic sanctions. As well, they may seek only to destabilize the other polity, rather than defeat it completely.

During the Cold War, when direct confrontation between the superpowers was unthinkable, proxy wars occurred in weak states such as Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and South Vietnam, as well as in many African countries.

In Afghanistan, the mujahedin fighting Mohammad Najibullah’s pro-Moscow government forced the Soviet Union to intervene in 1979. The Russians withdrew from the country in 1989 following a costly and humiliating defeat, partly due to American aid for the insurgents.

The reverse situation occurred in Vietnam in the 1960s-70s, where the American-backed regime, bolstered by a massive U.S. military presence, was defeated by the Communist Viet Cong, who had Chinese and Soviet support.

In Angola in the 1970s, Cuban troops were used by the governing side, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), while the rebels of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) were aided by South Africa and China, respectively.

In Mozambique, the main opposition group, the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), supplied by neighbouring South Africa, challenged he governing Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) in an insurgency lasting from 1975 to 1992, when support from Pretoria ended.

President Ronald Reagan backed the Contras against the Sandinista (FSNL) government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua during the 1980s. His administration authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to begin financing, arming and training the rebels, most of whom were the remnants of former dictator Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard.

In South Asia, Pakistan has backed Islamist groups operating against India in Muslim-majority Kashmir. The militants of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Lashkar-e-Taiba are provided with weapons, training, advice and planning assistance by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

For years, Syria and Iran used the Shi’ite militants of Hezbollah as their proxy in destabilizing multi-confessional Lebanon. The tables have now been turned, and a number of Sunni groups, especially the Islamic State, all financed by donors in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, are battling the Shi’ite regime of Bashar al-Assad. Tehran is also using various Shi’ite militias in Iraq to battle Sunni militants.

There are also cases where two states hostile to each other both use proxy forces against their adversaries, through cross-border rebel support.

Sudan’s Islamization program of the 1990s led the Christian-oriented government of President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda to conspire with the largely Christian Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) against the Khartoum regime in the north.

In turn, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir -- whose National Islamic Front saw Uganda as an obstacle to his desire to extend Islam further south -- provided aid to the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), founded in 1987 by Joseph Kony. Not until the Sudanese civil war ended in 2005 did the proxy war with Uganda stop.

The Sudan-Chad proxy war began in 2003 when the conflict in Darfur started. Chad’s president, Idriss D├ęby, began to support Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Khartoum soon retaliated with support to rebel groups in eastern Chad. Chadian and Darfuri rebels each used the respective neighboring country as a base and recruiting ground.

In April 2006 Chadian rebel leader Mahamat Nour Abdelkarim, having brought together several Chadian rebel movements of the United Front for Change, laid siege to Chad’s capital,  N’Djamena.

Two years later Chadian rebels under the banner of the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development, this time led by Mahamat Nouri, fought government forces in pitched street battles in N’Djamena.

A rapprochement agreement between Chad and Sudan, signed in 2010, marked the end of the five-year proxy war, though attacks on civilians in the area continue.

Proxy wars have proven difficult to end, and most attempts at implementing peace by outside parties have ended in failure. They only cease when it is no longer in the interest of the patron states to continue the destabilization of their neighbours.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Hungarian Politics Moves Further to the Right

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer

It’s been a quarter century since the fall of the Communist regimes in eastern Europe, and the emergence of post-Communist political cultures.

In Hungary, the post-1989 period has given rise to a multi-party system, with ideological parties on the left, centre, and right.

It is interesting to note, however, that very different types of conservative parties evolved, divided in part on the issues of national identity.

Gergely Egedy, an historian and political scientist who teaches at the National University of Public Service in Budapest, has observed that the issue of nationhood has become central to Hungarian politics.

As he puts it, “Which has priority over the other, the Hungarian state or the Hungarian nation?” This is no idle question, because some one-third of Hungarians live outside the country, in neighbouring Romania, Serbia and Slovakia.

After 1989, Egedy writes, two variants of Hungarian political conservatism emerged: the “patrician” and the “plebeian-populist” or “mobilizing” varieties. The former is very sceptical regarding mass democracy, while the latter distrusts cosmopolitan liberal elites. Both types were a response to the depredations of decades of Communism.

The patrician conservatives coalesced around the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). Its leader, Jozsef Antall, served as Hungary’s first post-Communist prime minister, from May 1990 until his death in December 1993.

The MDF formed a centre right coalition government with the Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKGP) and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) in 1990 to command a 60 per cent majority in parliament.

The government accepted the legal-civic concept of the nation and rejected the view that it is based solely on ethnic and cultural factors. “Membership in the Hungarian Democratic Forum is open only for those who are committed both to the nation and to the rule of law,” Antall stressed.

He made it clear that, while concerned with the fate of fellow Hungarians living beyond the borders, the MDF did not intend to follow an “irredentist” policy of trying to incorporate these areas, and that it had no territorial claims against its neighbours.

However, after the landslide victory of the Socialist Party in 1994 and the crushing defeat of the MDF, a new variant of political conservatism crystallised in Hungary. The Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz), under the leadership of Viktor Orban, gradually became the most powerful party on the right. (The MDF no longer even exists.)

In 1998 the party took over the government, but the Hungarian version of “plebeian conservatism” became fully formed only after its electoral defeat in 2002.

During the next eight years, spent in opposition, Fidesz consciously downplayed the significance of parliamentary politics and presented “the nation” as the alternative to the legitimacy residing in parliament.

As a consequence, Fidesz would be a more vocal advocate of minority rights for ethnic Hungarians abroad than previous governments.

Orban was returned to power in 2010, as Fidesz won 227 seats, an absolute majority, and, together with its ally the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), which won 36, two-thirds of the 386 seats in parliament.

In the April 6, 2014 election, Fidesz won 117 seats and its coalition partner KDNP 16, in a parliament which now consists of 199 members. An even more right-wing party, Jobbik, took 23.

As an ethnic nationalist, Orban’s policy toward the European Union has not been one of unconditional commitment, in contrast to the approach of patrician conservatives.

He is something of a “Euroskeptic” and dislikes the fact that his domestic opponents have been warning the EU about perceived threats to democracy, freedom of the press, the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary.

Orban admires Russian president Vladimir Putin and last August remarked that the sanctions policy pursued by the West “causes more harm to us than to Russia. In politics, this is called shooting oneself in the foot.”

In a speech this past Sept. 23, U.S. President Barack Obama included Hungary in a list of countries where “endless regulations overt intimidation increasingly target civil society.”

Hungary was for centuries a country that, as part rulers of the Habsburg Empire, lorded it over many subject peoples, and clearly some of that attitude remains part of its political DNA.