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By Phyllis Bennis.
There's the good, the bad and the ugly* to report from the world of wars and rumors of wars, uprisings and suppression of uprisings, media coverage and media collaboration.
But before we get to that world, let’s just take a moment to look at one of the photos the Mars Rover – that cute little VW-sized explorer looking to colonize the red planet – sent back from its first days on that other world:
Okay. Then back to the other world.
The decision this weekend by Egypt's elected President Mohamed Morsi to retire the top military officials, including his defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Tantawi had been in power alongside former military dictator Hosni Mubarak for decades, and had orchestrated the removal of Mubarak in a way that insured continued military control. Tantawi had also been Washington's key contact in Cairo, and the recipient of the $1.3 billion every year in U.S. tax dollars that still go directly to his military, not to the elected government.
The overthrow of Mubarak was the accomplishment of a powerful revolutionary process in Egypt. But it still left Tantawi and the military in control, particularly after a post-election power grab in June in which the SCAF announced plans to create its own constitutional drafting committee, dissolved the new parliament, and claimed the elected government would have no control over the military budget, international treaties, and more.
In the weeks since then, the power play between Morsi and Tantawi continued. This weekend’s move symbolically places the elected president in the top position, and that can only be positive in consolidating the legitimacy of civilian government. There are a couple of downsides, however, even if the president prevails.
One is in Morsi's role as a staunch representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. While the MB was clearly the electoral favorite, and no doubt remains very popular across Egypt, there is fear among many secular democratic activists about its consolidation of power, something the MB had pledged, during the campaign, to avoid. Another is in Morsi’s choice of a replacement for Tantawi – Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. The new defense minister and military commander was the head of military intelligence under Mubarak, and gained notoriety last year for defending the so-called "virginity tests" conducted on women protesters arrested in the uprising. Claiming they were to "protect" soldiers from accusations of rape, he has said since the shockingly humiliating "tests" would no longer be carried out, but has not repudiated his earlier support.
Overall, however, the shift in power away from the military and towards the elected government is still hopeful. It is encouraging that Tantawi and the others appear to have accepted, at least for now, their relative sidelining from the center of political governance. People have once again filled Cairo's Tahrir Square, celebrating the end of Tantawi's and the military's dominance. So Egypt's revolutionary process continues.
News from Syria is pretty much all bad these days. With outside governments calling the shots in a civil war, arming both sides, motivated less by concern for civilians than by their own narrow national interests, we’ve got serious trouble. I talked about the rising dangers to Syria and beyond on an RT interview last week. (That's the video – you can read the transcript here.) And right now unfortunately, that outside super-power game remains dominant. Syria has become the crucible for a number of separate wars, battles for power and influence, for regional resources and access, for strategic location and military expansion. These wars pit regional contenders of the Arab Gulf states and Turkey against Syria and Iran. They set the terms of the rising sectarian battle between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Qatar vs. Shi’a power in Syria, Iraq and Iran. They shape the Middle East competition between the U.S. and Russia for global military/strategic power. And crucially, of course, Syria is central to the U.S., Israeli and western campaign against Iran.
In my most recent Syria article, I focus on the impact of that expanding war, particularly on the civilians who are paying the biggest price. As former ABC News chief in the Middle East and long-time Syria hand Charlie Glass described it,
"the people who actually started this, people who had done time in prison over the years, who were prisoners of the Assad regime who wanted popular demonstrations, who wanted civil disobedience, who wanted negotiations with the regime, to have a transition — a peaceful transition — in which they would ultimately be freed elections by which the regime could would lose, those people’s voices are being drowned out in the cacophony of artillery and rifle fire all around Syria at this time. These people, I think they are disenchanted with the United States. …[T]hose people in the peaceful opposition do not want to become pawns in a super power game."
The piece also analyzes the consequences of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's resignation as special envoy in the Syria crisis, and the danger of more outside intervention.
With the only audible opposition voices in the mainstream U.S. being those of the FSA and the NSC, calling for more weapons and a "no-fly" zone, maybe it's not surprising that so many, including so many usually against U.S. military interventions, continue to call for more war.
In a recent piece in Foreign Policy in Focus, I challenge those calling for greater U.S. military involvement. The International Committee of the Red Cross has acknowledged what many already recognized: Syria is immersed in full-scale civil war. As is true in every civil war, civilian casualties are horrific and rising. Certainly the regime has committed war crimes in its brutal attacks against civilians. The armed opposition is also responsible for attacks leading to civilian deaths. Indications are growing of outside terrorist forces operating in Syria as well.
The article was part of a head-to-head debate over the question of U.S. intervention. I took on the argument that widespread suffering means we have to "do something military" even when there is virtually no likelihood that any outside military attacks would actually help the dire straits facing Syrian civilians. Despite defections, Syria’s military, especially its air force, remains one of the strongest in the Arab world, and direct outside military involvement, especially by the U.S., NATO or other longstanding opponents of Syria, would inevitably mean even greater carnage. U.S./NATO military intervention didn’t bring stability, democracy, or security to Libya, and it certainly is not going to in Syria.
The Obama administration remains reluctant to move from semi-covert support and provision of "non-lethal" equipment to the armed rebels, to direct military participation. But it has to do less with hesitation about who the rebels are, than with fear of the Syrian military’s capacity. In Libya, as formerSecretary of Defense Robert Gates said, "a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that's the way it starts."
It starts the same in Libya and in Syria. The difference is in how it stops. In Libya, when the U.S. and NATO decided they had had enough, they just turned the planes around and flew back to base, leaving behind only the devastation of bombing in Libya. Syria has a real anti-aircraft system. Planes would be shot down. Pilots would be killed or captured. That puts the U.S. in the middle of the war. A pilot is shot down, special forces go in to rescue her or him. That’s boots on the ground. The pull-out would not be easy. And suddenly Syria will look much more like Iraq than Libya.
(There are reports circulating that the Saudi king has invited the Iranian president to a meeting to discuss Syria. No confirmation yet, but if true, it could mean the beginning of a diplomatic stand-down between two of the major outside actors. Stay tuned.)
For a while it seemed that the danger of an Israeli (and potentially U.S.-backed) military attack on Iran was a diminishing threat. Not only was there no support, indeed lots of outright opposition, among elite circles in the U.S., but Israeli military and intelligence officials were uniformly opposed as well. That hasn't changed. Only the war team, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (stalwart of the ostensibly "leftist" Labor Party, now heading a small break-away faction) are still calling for war. That hasn't changed either.
What has changed is that the we-need-a-war-to-keep-us-safe rhetoric is back up again – despite the lack of any military/intelligence leaders signing on. I discussed the rising Israeli threat this morning on Democracy Now! Last Friday, every one of the main Israeli dailies, from the relatively leftist Ha’aretzto the far-right, Sheldon Adelson-financed, Netanyahu-backing rag Yisrael Hayom, headlined major articles reporting the Barak/Netanyahu war cries and/or supporting a military strike against Iran.
Yedioth Ahronoth: "Netanyahu and Barak determined to strike Iran in the fall"
Ha'aretz: "Senior Israeli Official - The Iranian sword across our neck is sharper than the run-up to the war in 1967"
Maariv: "37% of the public: If Iran gets the bomb it might result in a second Holocaust."
Yisrael Hayom: "Iran significantly speeds up its progression toward the bomb."
Some even reported Barak’s claim that the U.S. had issued a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) claiming Iran was even a greater threat than previously acknowledged. That would have reversed the 2007 U.S. assessment, reaffirmed in 2011, that Iran did not have a nuclear weapon, was not building a nuclear weapon, and had not even decided whether or not to build a nuclear weapon. But in fact, no evidence of a new 2012 NIE has emerged anywhere except in Israel, and U.S. officials agree the U.S. intelligence assessment is still that Iran "is undecided on whether to build a bomb and is years away from such capability."
Even some Israeli officials are condemning the loud public threats. So why is this so dangerous? Netanyahu and Barak may be bluffing. Maybe they're just trying to keep the pressure on the Obama administration to escalate even tougher sanctions than the crippling U.S./European economic attacks already underway against Iran. But. The war duo have invested a huge amount of political capital in the claim that Iran is an existential danger to Israel, ratcheting up the threat of using force if Iran obtains nuclear capability. Arguably, Iran is technically at that point already – it has a legal nuclear power program, nuclear fuel, and scientists who know how to enrich uranium. (Thus the campaign, widely assumed to be Israeli, of assassination against Iranian nuclear scientists.)
That’s a way different red line than Washington’s already incredibly dangerous red line focus on preventing Iran from someday maybe obtaining a nuclear weapon. It’s a whole lot more dangerous. Iran getting a nuclear weapon is years away – nuclear capability could be next week. I wrote about Republican contender Mitt Romney embracing the Netanyahu/Barak red line, rejecting his own government’s position, when he visited Israel last month.
Oh yeah, that was the same trip when Romney’s foot-in-mouth disease went viral. Remember his analysis of why Israel’s economy is so much stronger than that of the Palestinians? It’s “your culture,” he said to Jewish donors, managing the difficult feat of simultaneously insulting Jews with an old anti-Semitic trope about Jews being money-grabbers, and massively insulting Palestinians with the claim that somehow their culture, rather than 64 years of dispossession and occupation, is responsible for their poverty. My somewhat snarky piece on that is here.
Debating a NATO general on al-Jazeera's 'Inside Story'
That would be Afghanistan. Where there are still more than 90,000 U.S. and 50,000 other NATO and coalition troops occupying the country. But which somehow no one in this over-heated election season wants to talk about. Especially right now, where the only news that makes the press seems to be the rising number of U.S. and a few other NATO and “coalition” troops being killed by the Afghan soldiers and Afghan police they are ostensibly training. Just last week, four separate attacks were carried out, leaving seven dead. So far this year, 37 NATO soldiers have been killed by their Afghan trainees, compared to 35 for the entire year in 2011 . I took on a NATO general on al-Jazeera’s “Inside Story” discussing these attacks. In a polite understatement, the Afghan journalist Fahim Dashti rebutted the NATO general on the show with us to say "unfortunately… NATO and ISAF have failed to win the hearts and minds of Afghans."
At a cost of $111 billion this year, just for the actual military costs in Afghanistan, not counting things like caring for wounded veterans or helping to rebuild Afghanistan, we can’t afford not to talk about it. Facing the reality that we’re paying $1 million for every young soldier stationed in Afghanistan, and thus bringing home just ONE soldier would provide enough money to hire that soldier and 19 more at good, middle-class jobs – we can’t afford to let the presidential campaigns ignore it either.
No, the news from Palestine remains bad. No serious (and not even the usual fake) negotiations, too little international pressure from governments to end Israel’s human rights and international law violations, Gaza still besieged, the West Bank settlements escalating, Arab East Jerusalem facing the massive ethnic cleansing known officially as “judaization.”
But there’s good news – as usual from global and U.S. civil society, where campaigns against U.S. military aid to Israel and the growing BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) efforts are thriving.
I wrote in my last newsletter about the extraordinary BDS work in mainstream Protestant churches. But right now there’s some good news at the government policy level too. Oh, not our own U.S. government…that’s still a ways off. This time, as so often in the last 18 years, it’s South Africa that’s setting an example for governments around the world.
Post-apartheid South Africa has always been supportive of Palestinian rights. But last week, Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim put the government on record in support of the decision of municipal officials in KwaZulu Natal province not to travel to Israel as guests of South Africa’s version of a pro-Israel lobby. “Because of the treatment and policies of Israel towards the Palestinian people, we strongly discourage South Africans from going there,” he said. “That is our general policy, but more so in regard to municipalities, since they are part of government.” He went on to say his government “strongly discouraged any South African company from having anything to do with strengthening the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.”
BDS goes global indeed. It’s a huge victory.
But we’ve still got a lot of work to do.