By Phyllis Bennis.
It’s been a pretty wild start to 2013. The new Congress stalled virtually the moment they were sworn into office, and the once-unthinkable sequestration process, requiring major cuts in both the military budget and important domestic spending programs, is now about to happen.
SEQUESTRATION — REALLY?
The issue left unspoken is WHY are we talking about austerity at all? As my IPS colleagues and I showed in our new “We’re Not Broke” report, there’s plenty of money to go around in this country — it’s just in the wrong hands. Much of the answer comes back to the military. Not just to the bloat of Pentagon spending, the $640 toilet seats and $436 hammers, but to the real war profiteering, the billions made from Pentagon spending. It comes back to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To the construction of new “drone bases” in Saudi Arabia, Niger, and who knows where else. To the nearly 1,000 military bases the Pentagon maintains around the world. To the continual building of multi-billion-dollar weapons systems that were already obsolete during the Cold War. To the maintenance of a dangerous nuclear arsenal that puts us at great risk of military, environmental, even accidental catastrophe.
On Sunday I joined Chris Hayes on MSNBC, on his show “UP” on Sunday morning — to talk about the sequester and the military budget. It was hard to get a word in edgewise about the real costs — in lives as well as money — of war and the military budget when so much of the focus seemed to be on the partisan divide. But it’s not really that complicated — when it costs $1 million to keep one young soldier in Afghanistan for a year, it’s not so difficult to figure out that you could bring home just that one soldier, and have enough money to hire her and 19 more former soldiers at good, solid, middle class $50,000/year jobs — enough to support a family. Think of the job creation if we brought home all 68,000 U.S. troops right now! What’s going to make us safer?
I’m no expert on the sequester process — but just one more point. The sequester is crazy. It should be about cutting the military budget and preventing, not causing austerity. That means protecting, not cutting, jobs and schools and health care. But — if the sequestration bill were overturned tomorrow, and Congress had to start all over with their intention of raising more than a trillion dollars without tax cuts, as the Republican majority insists, the result would absolutely be worse. The massive military cuts in the sequester would be politically impossible, and social spending would be cut anyway.
The sequester is terrible in terms of the cuts that will affect a lot of vulnerable people across our country (including long-term unemployment insurance) and desperately needs to be changed. But it protects the most important entitlements — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps. Of the cuts to come, 58% will be from the military budget, reflecting the percentage of federal discretionary spending that goes to the military — that’s really a good thing. Any new version would almost certainly cut the entitlements and exempt the military from any budget cuts.
And last, the military cuts will actually make us safer. The Pentagon decided not to send a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf because of budget considerations. That’s great, given the level of tension already there, with the looming threat of even an accidental confrontation between U.S. and Iranian ships in the crowded, narrow Strait of Hormuz, for instance. Keeping a second giant aircraft carrier with its dozens of huge escort ships home is a much safer option. Now we just have to figure out how to bring that first carrier group home too!
The good news is that more and more organizations are taking up the demand for massive cuts in Pentagon spending, from the Children’s Defense Fund and Friends of the Earth to US Action and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. More and more organizations are joining the Jobs Not War campaign. The sequester isn’t our choice — but in response, our job is to fight to cancel its social spending cuts, while demanding that the Pentagon be forced to impose every last budget cut sequestration calls for.
A NEW TERM, A NEW FOREIGN POLICY?
With the second inauguration, many hoped we would see an Obama Foreign Policy 2.0 — with an immediate end to the war in Afghanistan, a halt in the drone war, major cuts to the military budget, and a new foreign policy based on diplomacy rather than war. But that was a failed hope. Around the time of the State of the Union address I spoke on Al Jazeera’s “Inside Story” about the failures of the Obama administration’s foreign policy during the last four years and the significant ways it must change in this next term.
The president begins his second term with Iraq engulfed in rising sectarian violence, a direct legacy of what Obama famously called the “dumb war.” Afghanistan, despite plans to “draw down” the 68,000 or so U.S. troops occupying the country, remains at war, violent and riven with sectarian and social conflict. The U.S.-installed President Hamid Karzai is prohibiting Afghan military officers from calling in U.S. airstrikes and demanding that all U.S. special forces be withdrawn from the turbulent Wardak province because U.S.-trained soldiers are torturing civilians there. Occupied Palestine, despite recognition as a state by the United Nations, seethes as prisoner hunger strikers increase and another prisoner dies under Israeli interrogation while settlement expansion rises unchecked and the $30 billion commitment of U.S. military aid continues its inexorable payout. The consequences of the U.S.-NATO assault on Libya continue to roil the region, most notably in North Africa and West Africa, where a post-intervention flood of weapons across Libya’s newly-porous borders led to massive escalation of longstanding grievances and tensions in and around Mali. And the overall framework of foreign policy hasn’t changed — as the drone war expands across the Middle East and Central Asia to Africa, looking to emerge as President Obama’s signature war, and the Obama Justice Department seems to channel its predecessors’ efforts to create legal justifications for extra-judicial assassination.
During the State of the Union address President Obama talked about what he could do with executive orders, despite the Congressional gridlock. That was a pretty good idea, but I figured he needed some ideas about what he could do on his own, things he might not have thought about. So I wrote up a few ideas: bring home all the troops from Afghanistan and end the war — right now. Announce that ending the war in Afghanistan is not the prelude to a new drone war around the world. Revoke all authorization for killing people, U.S. citizens or not, without trial or judicial oversight, and cancel those Tuesday morning “kill list” meetings. Just for starters.
I had some other chances to discuss some of those issues on UP With Chris Hayes a few weeks ago, when we talked about the crisis in Mali, Hillary Clinton’s legacy, and why Obama has not closed Guantanamo Bay prison. And on al-Jazeera’s Inside Story: America we talked again about Clinton’s legacy and why four years of militarized diplomacy and failed foreign policies isn’t much of a basis to run for president.
The escalating clashes come as tensions skyrocket over the deteriorating condition of hunger strikers among the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, in violation of the Geneva Convention’s prohibition against transferring prisoners out of the occupied territory. Two of the three prisoners who remain on hunger strike, Tarek Qa’adan and Jafar Azzidine, now in their 91st day, are both being held without charge or trial. Qa’adan and Azzidine are both in serious and deteriorating health conditions. The third hunger striker, Samer al-Issawi, has been on a partial hunger strike for more than 210 days. Al-Issawi, a Jerusalem resident who was released in 2011 during the Israel-Hamas negotiated prisoner release and re-arrested in July 2012 on charges that he entered the West Bank in violation of his release terms, has now been sentenced on those new charges and faces another month in prison as well as the possibility of being re-sentenced on his original charges based on a secret file that his lawyer is not allowed to see, in clear violation of international human rights standards. After his arrest al-Issawi was detained for 28 days in Moscobiya Detention Center, interrogated for up to 22 hours each day. His lawyer was not able to see him for the first 23 days.
The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Professor Richard Falk, called for their immediate release, stating that “Israel must end the appalling and unlawful treatment of Palestinian detainees. The international community must react with a sense of urgency and use whatever leverage it possesses to end Israel’s abusive reliance on administrative detention.” Falk noted that Israel currently holds at least 178 Palestinians without charges in administrative detention.
In the meantime, escalating settlement expansion and increasing raids and arrests of Palestinians across the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem are continuing. The U.S. has said nothing, newly anointed Secretary of State John Kerry and later President Obama are heading for the region with a clear message: don’t expect any changes. Obama’s agenda includes four days of “listening” in Israel, during which time he will spend four hours meeting Palestinian officials in Ramallah in the West Bank. It is likely the main challenge for Obama’s handlers will be how to get him the nine miles from Jerusalem to Ramallah without the president actually seeing the Apartheid Wall that Israel has built illegally in the West Bank. Maybe a helicopter, with specially-designed blinders that prevent looking down? (The Wall is the second human-made object visible even from space — after the Great Wall of China.)
And by the way, Israel’s elections last month didn’t result in the expected consolidation of Bibi Netanyahu’s right/far-right coalition, but the newly empowered “centrist” party in the Knesset won a campaign based virtually entirely on economic and social issues affecting the 80 percent Jewish population of Israel. The needs of the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinians were largely ignored. Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the besieged Gaza Strip were off the agenda, let alone its violations of international law and human rights. On the question of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the elections represented a clear victory for Israel’s status quo: the occupation will be left in place.
There is some good news, though, if you look beyond Israel’s elections. Here in the United States, the public and media discourse on U.S. aid to Israel and its role in the Middle East as a whole continues to shift. Hundreds of people turned out in Washington on a bitterly cold winter night, on the eve of the inauguration, to demand “No Blank Check for Israel!” I spoke that night, evoking the lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as we celebrated the anniversary of his birth, when he talked about the triple problems of racism, materialism and militarism — and pointed out how U.S. aid to Israeli occupation and apartheid helped support all three of those evils.
I wrote in YES! Magazine about the work of civil society activists in creating new types of popular resistance, most recently by building Palestinian communities on land demarcated for the development of more Israeli settlements — resistance that is so promising for the struggle against occupation and apartheid. Those creative non-violent Palestinian actions, along with the global BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) campaign, the work of organizations like the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, and international diplomatic efforts through institutions like the International Criminal Court, are the source of the greatest optimism for challenging Israeli occupation and apartheid, and working for U.S. policy based on international law, human rights, and equality for all.
REMEMBRANCES, ANNIVERSARIES, MEMORIES
Just in the last couple of weeks we commemorated the strength of mobilized social movements and global civil society with the tenth anniversary of February 15, 2003 — the day The World Said No to War in Iraq. Writing about that protest in al-Jazeera, I was powerfully reminded of what mass mobilization and organizing makes possible. February 15th was the largest protest in the history of humanity — and 14-15 million people poured into the streets in capital cities and tiny towns around the world, following the sun through one extraordinary day of mobilization and power. No, our movement was ultimately unable to stop the war or its terrible consequences, but February 15th, a moment in which millions spoke with one voice to challenge U.S. empire and power, we forced governments and a reluctant United Nations to do the same, becoming what the New York Times, two days later, called the “second super-power.”
Ten years ago I was privileged to be part of the organizing of that mobilization through the giant United for Peace and Justice coalition here in the United States. And this year I was delighted to travel to London to join with the Stop the War Coalition to commemorate this monumental day and their own ten-year anniversary. It was a huge privilege to speak to the more than 1,000 Londoners who came out to celebrate.
Our next anniversary will be that of another ten years — this one the March 16, 2003 killing of Rachel Corrie, a young American peace activist, by Israeli soldiers driving an armored Caterpillar bulldozer as Rachel and other Palestinians and internationals tried to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian family’s home in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip. Rachel’s legacy remains much broader than her own extraordinary, however shortened, life. Her legacy remains that of her family, who have taught the rest of us that this was never only about Rachel but about the Palestinian people whose rights she was killed defending, that of the foundation that bears her name, and that of the work of so many young and not-so-young Palestinians and Americans and other internationals who hold up her memory as a talisman of our work and our commitment. I’ll be out in Olympia, Washington, to join with Cindy and Craig Corrie and the rest of Rachel’s family and friends and community, for the celebration of her work and the commemoration of her death on March 16.
And Finally…PB On the Road
Coming up I’ll be keynoting this year’s “Expose AIPAC” teach-in and protest on March 2, focusing on whether a new U.S. policy in the Middle East is possible. Then I’ll be speaking April 2nd, at the Historians Against the War conference in Baltimore. After the March 16 Rachel Corrie events on the West Coast, I’ll be in and around Salt Lake City for some speaking events April 3rd and 4th, and then at Bellarmine College in Louisville, KY on April 16th. Details to follow — hope to see some of you there!