Saturday, October 31, 2009

Once More unto the Breach, Dear Friends

Much remains for Obama to do – but what's remarkable is how much he has achieved in the face of financial crisis

o Ian Williams
o, Saturday 31 October 2009 13.00 GMT

There is little doubt that, if UN staff and ambassadors could vote, Barack Obama would have won by an even bigger landslide than he achieved. From his speeches they expect him to negotiate where possible, to build consensual international alliances. They may not get all that they want.
(Winning back hearts and minds, 6 November 2008)

After Obama's election I wrote here: "It may not be the second coming, but to use the eschatological phraseology of the Palins of this world, it is certainly the end of the reign of the Antichrist." I also recalled what I'd said during the campaign: "The world looked upon these elections as an IQ test for the American public. The electorate has aced the test. It has put centuries of racism behind it and elected a president who shows signs of knowing where the rest of the world is."

Frankly, while still far from euphoric, I feel vindicated. The coalition of not-so-covert racists, teabaggers, birthers and defenders of Medicare against the state should be a reminder to the purist Obama-detractors of the left just who could instead be staffing the US government now.

OK, Rush Limbaugh's "magic Negro" did not wave a wand and change everything immediately. But in many ways it is remarkable how much Obama has achieved in the face of financial crisis. And no one who saw how much money and support he got from Wall Street can be honestly be surprised at the shape of his response.

The current plans for healthcare reform leaves a lot to be desired, above all a public option. But it is happening, at least. One hopes that Obama is biding his time to come in and leash the Blue Dogs of Capitol Hill to get it through. But even then he has breached the wall of opposition, and another term and "once more into that breach" should bring in reform – if only because of the fiscal costs of not doing it.

Guantánamo is not closed, but it is closing, and with it the lawless domestic and international doctrines of the Bush-era justice department. US troops have been pulled from Iraqi cities, and we can be reasonably sure that if the Iraqi government asked them to leave the country, they would go. Yes there is talk of a build up in Afghanistan, but that is, after all, what Obama promised, even if he certainly should take a more active role in revising the tactics and strategy there. He has scrapped the son-of-Star Wars missile defence programme in Europe that was expensive, ineffective and needlessly provocative to the Russians.

The UN dues are paid up, and Obama has adopted a multilateral outlook. On the Middle East, he has quietly confronted Binyamin Netanyahu, held firm on Israel meeting its own promises on settlements and, relatively un-noticed, told Israel that it should do as Richard Goldstone says and hold an impartial inquiry into Gaza.

When he backslides, by all means let people shove. But let them remember how far up the slope he's pushed us in less than a year.

To read the rest of the Cif America series looking back on Obama's election victory, click here

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Goldstone Deserves Support

Ian Williams: Stand up and defend Richard Goldstone
October 24, 2009 11:59 pm Tribune

Under Tony Blair, Britain joined Palau and a few other Pacific quasi dependencies in voting along with the United States at the United Nations on Israeli issues, rather than abstaining as even Margaret Thatcher used to do. So it is not just a small mercy, more a medium sized one, that Britain (and France) refused to vote against the resolution on the Goldstone Report at the UN Human Rights Council last week,

Britain did not abstain in a formal way, but did not vote with the US and that is a big advance. However, in the annals of lame critiques, it would be difficult to beat the cackhanded attempt to be soft on Israel epitomized in the British ambassador’s desperate search for something critical to say. “Because Israel did not co-operate with the Mission, which we regret, the report lacks an authoritative Israeli perspective on the events in question, so crucial to determining the legality of actions.” That has to be up there with a child who has murdered his parents asking the court for mercy because he is an orphan.

Despite the ambassador’s revealing fatuity, this time Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly tried to persuade Benjamin Netanyahu that, in return for a “No” vote, Israel would agree to an impartial inquiry, end the blockade on Gaza and freeze settlements.

The big question is: what does Israel have to fear from mounting its own inquiry? For the answer, we can look to the Kahan commission into the Sabra and Chatila massacres back in 1982, which improbably somehow contrived to find Ariel Sharon culpable, but Israel not guilty. It was an unconvincing greywash that left most of the world convinced of complicity by the Israeli Defence Forces. Israel’s leaders know that their actions in Gaza cannot bear objective scrutiny.

Across much of the West, the 1982 massacres marked the point that Israel and its mostly Labour governments went into overdraft on the sympathy account. Under Tony Blair, once he had removed the recalcitrantly principled Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary, Britain returned to a reflexive support for Israel. The presumption of sympathy for the Israeli Labour Party has rarely been justified. It presided over the building and expansion of the settlements, annexed Jerusalem, demolished houses and imprisoned Palestinians in the same way as Likud. It was just that, unlike Likud, Labour made the right noises while doing so.

It was a Labour Prime Minister who scorched South Lebanon to get re-elected. Interestingly, Netanyahu told the Knesset after hearing the UNHRC vote: “We will not allow Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, who sent our sons to war, to arrive at the international court in The Hague.” One cannot help suspecting that this was the Likud leader’s reminder to the White House that, despite the Israeli Prime Minister’s vigorous defence of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, it was the “peace” Labour/Kadima coalition that had planned and initiated it.

For the record, in the flood of personal attacks on former international war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone, neither the US nor Britain and France seriously challenged the substance of his report or the integrity of his mission. They have been reduced to the inanities mentioned earlier, lamenting its failure to hear the case that the Israelis refused to make.

There have been occasional references to the imbalance of his mandate. Yet Goldstone, a self-professed Zionist and Israel supporter, altered his mandate to include investigations of Hamas’ actions. Occasionally, in deference to the Israeli furore, references are made about the report being unbalanced – which could only come from people who have not read it. It calls on Hamas, as well as Israel, to investigate its actions.

Bearing mind the almost 100 to one Palestinian to Israeli death toll and the numerous mentions of one Israeli prisoner, Gilad Shalit, compared with the skimpy references to as many as 10,000 Palestinian prisoners, including many elected legislators, held by Israel, pro-Palestinian commentators have much more room to complain of bias about the report’s allocation of space.

The Israeli government is seriously worried that its charm of impunity is wearing off. It should be. Goldstone is a person of the highest integrity. From his work in South Africa, to the International Tribunal for the Balkans and even on the Volcker Commission on the Oil For Food programme in Iraq, he has shown his dedication to international law and accountability. He has even condemned the resolution adopting his report for not explicitly mentioning Hamas.

The question for the West is: who are you going to believe? Goldstone and his colleagues or the politicians who gave you Sabra and Chatila, who shelled refugees in Qana, who shelled UN compounds in Gaza, who continue building the “defence wall” in defiance of the World Court, who continue building settlements and evicting families from their homes in defiance of international law and their own promises?

Take away the reflexive pro-Israeli position and there is only one answer, which Gordon Brown seems to be arriving at – no matter how reluctantly.

Anyone who cares about international law and human rights should be standing up to defend Goldstone and attack his detractors. After all, his demands are most modest: investigate yourself, transparently – as even members of the Knesset are asking.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Goldstone, Touchstone for Obama ME Peace Plan

Goldstone as a touchstone for Obama
By Ian Williams

Asia Times 20 October 2009

NEW YORK - The heavy pressure put on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week by the United States and Israel to defer consideration of the Goldstone report, which was on Friday approved by the Human Rights Council, backfired. It not only made the US and Israel look like bullies, but also destroyed the credibility of Abbas and reinforced the image of Hamas among Palestinians. The attempt has also eroded US President Barack Obama's recently improved status among Arabs and Muslims, with the prospect of more damage to come.

International and domestic pressure was fierce enough for Abbas to ask for a reconvened meeting of the Human Rights Council last Thursday and Friday, but despite the outcome of the vote, this has done little to enhance his reputation. The 47-member Human Rights Council approved by 25-6 a resolution on Friday that endorsed the war crimes charges against Israel and Hamas as spelled out in the report.

Compiled by a four-member international fact-finding mission headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, the report covered war crimes during Operation Cast Lead, the 22-day Israeli military offensive on the Gaza Strip in December-January during which an estimated 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died. The report recommends that Israel and the Gaza authorities investigate alleged war crimes and, should that not happen within six months, that the UN Security Council should pursue prosecutions.

Israel and its allies have launched a tide of vituperation against Goldstone since the release of the report in September, but it risks splashing back in their faces. They have accused Goldstone, a Jewish pro-Israeli judge whose daughter made Aliyah to settle in Israel, of anti-Semitism. This charge stretches credulity almost as far as their accusation of bias against Goldstone, a judge who is the West's favorite legal maven at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Some of that embarrassment was evident in the statements made by American and other Western allies at the Security Council and at the Human Rights Council. For example, the US and UK's statements at the October 14 Security Council meeting, which considered the Middle East without voting on the report, were carefully worded to suggest that the mandate was biased - but without impugning Goldstone's integrity. Indeed, the mandate had been biased, but Goldstone only accepted the position on the condition, accepted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, that he would expand it and investigate all sides.

The statements from the Western allies were clearly thrown in as a sop to Israel and its supporters, but only an extraordinarily blinkered Likud politician would draw much comfort from the persistent calls from the US, the UK, France and others that Israel and Hamas should indeed investigate the allegations of war crimes in a transparent and impartial way. Even UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who came into office as a close friend of Israel, joined the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in calling for an impartial investigation - not to mention Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other respected non-governmental organizations.

Much of the strongest vilification comes from commentators who have clearly not read the report. The fact-finding mission found that there was a serious case to answer - not guilt - so even as they damned the report with faint praise, the US and its allies were implicitly endorsing its major conclusion - the need for a credible and independent investigation by both Israelis and Palestinians.

The report calls for a referral to the International Criminal Court only if after six months neither Israel nor Hamas have carried out the investigations. As with Sudan, the ICC does not have jurisdiction against a state such as Israel, unless the Security Council refers it. The ICC's convention actually provides that it only has jurisdiction where the states concerned have failed to investigate and initiate due process where warranted.

Well aware of the type of pressure that would be brought to bear, the Goldstone report also calls for referral to the United Nations General Assembly, which even if it does not have legal teeth, could continue to embroil Israel in unwelcome legal attention. Hot on the tails of the report's release, in early October, Israeli Vice Premier and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon cancelled a trip to Britain in November for fear of arrest on war crimes - the latest in a series of such cancellations. More can be expected.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset (parliament) in September, "We will not allow [former prime minister] Ehud Olmert, [opposition leader] Tzipi Livni and [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak, who sent our sons to war, to arrive at the international court in the Hague." One cannot help suspecting that this statement was a reminder to the White House that despite the Israeli prime minister's vigorous defense of Operation Cast Lead, that it was in fact the Labor/Kadima coalition that planned and initiated it.

There are some calmer voices in Israel, even among supporters of Cast Lead, who think that an investigation is a reasonable price to ward off increasing international isolation. After all, if no crimes were committed, why the noisy reluctance to look into them? In the minds of others, however, is the damning Israeli Kahan Commission report into the massacres at Sabra and Shatila during the 1982 Lebanon War, even though many believe it soft-pedaled on direct Israeli involvement and more particularly on former prime minister Ariel Sharon's role.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is how the report will play out in relation to Obama's Middle East peace plans. Will he earn that Nobel Prize? His credibility in the region is already suffering from the seeming impunity with which Netanyahu is scorning the US insistence on the settlement freeze that Israel was already committed to.

The US attempt to kill the Goldstone report at the Human Rights Council certainly makes Obama's job more difficult. It will become even more so if the report comes to the Security Council and the US ambassador vetoes a referral to the ICC if Israel did not institute an inquiry.

Indeed, the statements by the US, the UK and France calling for just such an inquiry could have added to the embarrassment of refusing to vote for a call for Israel to do what they all consider to be the right thing. Of course the Palestinians and their allies, one presumes, inadvertently, gave the US and others some excuses, since their resolution was not a straight yea or nay on the report. Even Goldstone himself complained that the actual resolution adopted by the council, while endorsing his report, did not mention Hamas and his call for it to also have an investigation. The resolution also included condemnations of Israeli behavior in East Jerusalem, which, even if justified, fogged the otherwise clear message of Goldstone's more balanced report on Gaza.

Despite heated discussions between Netanyahu and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Britain joined France in not voting at all, so they were not recorded as the abstentions which had been their original declared intent. With their close involvement in the Balkan wars and the subsequent tribunal, it would have been difficult to repudiate the former prosecutor of Balkan war criminals, quite apart from their expressed disquiet about Israeli actions in Gaza. The usual suspects, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Slovakia and Ukraine went along with the US in voting against, while the equally predictable non-aligned majority joined by China and Russia went with it.

The report now goes to the United Nations General Assembly and recommends a report back from Ban Ki-moon with his recommendations, which would then be referred back to the Human Rights Council. If Israel does not carry out the investigation mandated by the report, it will almost certainly be referred to the Security Council for action.

An American abstention there would be an act of courage. Indeed, the long process offers multiple opportunities for the White House to let Netanyahu's government know that there are limits to how many slights Obama can tolerate.

If the US cannot persuade its most favored aid beneficiary not to evict Palestinians in Jerusalem, how can it persuade Israel to investigate allegations against its armed forces? And can it trade diplomatic cover in Geneva and New York against Israeli cooperation in the peace process? Indeed the US could take hints from Brown, who reportedly was trying to extract concessions from Netanyahu on the Gaza blockade with the British and French vote in Geneva.

Used in that way, the White House's preferred strategy of procrastination could appear more pragmatic and less pusillanimous.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, (Nation Books, New York).

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

ENobeling Obama

Ian Williams: Change of course merits glittering prize
October 18, 2009 Tribune

A few hundred yards from where I write in upstate New York, an American Nobel Peace prizewinner was born. Not Barack Obama – after all, lots of Americans know he was born in Kenya and see the award as confirmation of his dangerous cosmopolitanism. No, it was the little-remembered John Raleigh Mott, born in the tiny Catskill town of Livingston Manor, who won the prize in 1946 for his work in establishing the YMCA internationally – for which the Village People surely owe him an anthem.

Mott’s prize was greeted as an honour for the whole country. He certainly deserved it more than Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres and Henry Kissinger – some of the sundry warmongers who have taken a bow in Oslo. Tom Lehrer gave up satire in the face of Kissinger’s medal, since he felt reality had overtaken his imagination at its fevered best.

All those Lutherans on the Nobel committee doubtless saw peace and Protestantism as the two sides of the same coin for Mott. Now their descendants see aspiration and achievement inextricably linked with their award to the President of the United States. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future”, said the Nobel Prize committee in giving the Peace Prize to the man who has been in the White House for less than a year.

I was glad they said “hope”, which is much more qualified than an “expectation”. In the US, those on the far right and the much smaller far left are united in their disparagement. The first can’t accept a “socialist” black President and so will attack whatever he does. The second are disappointed that the first black President did not wave a magic wand and instantaneously remake America and the world in the way they want.

The latter do have some points. Peace in Iraq and Afghanistan – two wars where a peace-committed American President has a direct hand on the trigger – seems some way off. Meanwhile, over the next year, it is the Middle East issue that is going to assay the gold content of Obama’s medal.

There is always room for nuance, of course. Even as it joined with Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in forcing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to destroy whatever was left of his domestic credibility by deferring the Goldstone report resolution, condemning Israel’s assault on Gaza, to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the US administration did suggest that an Israeli investigation might be a good idea.

The problem is that Obama is dealing with people who don’t do nuance. They do small print, evasion and outright mendacity. The government in Israel does not want peace in any form that the rest of the world would recognise. Its constant reinterpretation of its longstanding pledge to freeze settlement building has not cost it grants, loan guarantees, security back up or anything else tangible. If Obama’s intention is, as some of us hope, to give Netanyahu enough rope to hang himself, it is past time for the President to start ostentatiously tying a knot for the Israeli leader. A threat to let the report go to the UN Security Council and to vote for it, or even abstain, would have been the perfect way for Obama to regain the global credibility and the “hope” for which the committee awarded him the prize. And it would have been a warning to Netanyahu that giving the finger to the US President risks it being bitten off.

So should Obama have been awarded the prize? And should he have accepted it? If he had refused the award, it would not have appeased the vociferous minority of Americans who are palpably not quite four quarters to the dollar. Those die-hard ultra-leftists denouncing him as a sell-out should stop and think of his very genuine achievement. We have a US administration that is prepared to work multilaterally, to use diplomacy with alleged enemies, to consider joint action to combat global warming, multilateral action to protect the poor in the developing nations, to work with the UN.

The committee was quite right to make the award. The SS United States was steaming straight for the iceberg under the insouciant captaincy of George W Bush – who was pretty much following the same course set by Ronald Reagan. While he might not have shared their opinions, even Bill Clinton scarcely challenged the neo-conservatives and neo-liberals during his term of office, so what Obama has done is terminate the disastrous piratical cruise of three disastrous decades in which the policies of the world’s last superpower were a faith-based farrago of falsities.

Obama has changed course and, even if he has not yet steered the ship of state to a safe haven, the relief is worth recognition from the rest of the world. There is more than hope that the prize recognises. And, if he gets the message that the rest of the world is with him, Obama may yet do what is necessary. Sticking it to Netanyahu is just the place to start.

Friday, October 16, 2009

New Moon shining

Good Moon Rising?

Ian Williams | October 14, 2009
Foreign Policy In Focus

This year's General Assembly attracted more media attention than the United Nations usually attracts, at least since the feeding frenzy over the "oil for food" controversy. It was not just the recent stand-up routines of Libya's Qaddafi, Iran's Ahmadinejad, and Venezuela's Chavez that won the attention of the large press contingent. This time the organization really was dealing with substantive issues of global importance, and dealing with them rather than evading them with the traditional parade of orotundity. Disarmament and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, climate change, and a fair deal for the poor in the economic crisis were all on the agenda. It may not be coincidental that these issues are hardly calculated to warm a neocon heart.

So the usual suspects are sharpening their knives for Ban Ki Moon in a recent spate of conservative attacks on his lack of effectiveness. The UN general secretary had been relatively fortunate until recently. He does not have the reputation for charisma that his predecessor Kofi Annan enjoyed early on, but he also hasn't suffered the attacks that Boutros Boutros-Ghali experienced at the same point in his term. Even so, the attacks could presage the type of assault that cost Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan their chances of an additional term at the hands of respectively, Democratic and Republican administrations. As a nominee of John Bolton, Bush's UN representative, Ban might be expected to face an Obama administration veto of a second term. This is doubtful, however, since Ban's and Obama's agendas generally seem to be in close harmony. Above all, they subscribe to the Churchillian principle that jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

Yet, this U.S.-UN convergence has drawn neocon wrath down on Ban. His globalist multilateralism has not exactly endeared him to the far left either, although their concerns for the sacredness of sovereignty are unlikely to have as much effect in Washington.

No Puppet

Like almost any other secretary general, Ban stands guilty of thinking that he represents the UN rather than the right wing of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. This effrontery has generated a damning assessment in Rupert Murdoch's Times and Jacob Heilbrunn's blistering assault in Foreign Policy.

One of his detractors, a Norwegian diplomat denied the job she had wanted at the UN, described Ban in a retaliatory written-to-be-leaked memo as "charmless and spineless." In fact, he is remarkably affable and charming, and has shown strong attachment to principle — which may be one reason for the neoliberal disaffection.

Their calumny is precisely because Ban has not been just a cookie-cutter conservative puppet. If he were, he wouldn't have supported the International Criminal Court and the Responsibility to Protect while on the hustings for the UN's top job, nor would he have pushed so hard on climate change issues for two years of the Bush/Cheney duumvirate.

Ban Ki Moon has had less credit than he deserves for the prominence of the key issues at this General Assembly and the UN's relative success in tackling them, all overshadowed by the arrival of most foreigners' favorite president, Obama. Yet Ban has worked indefatigably to ensure that they were on the agenda and were supported in a practical way with commitments from world leaders. Of course, the change of administration in the White House boosted the event considerably. It is always good news when the world's only superpower decides to move in the same direction as the UN Charter, not least since it boosts the chances of successful practical outcomes. President Obama's speech pressed all the right buttons and promised a more constructive and less exploitive U.S. relationship with the organization than, for example, the Clinton administration had managed. Although Obama did warn that his administration would be looking after American interests, the decision to pay up U.S. arrears to the UN after decades of default had already sent a message.

These factual achievements have not yet succeeded in creating a positive image for Ban in the West, although the poll evidence suggests differently in the rest of the world. A recent global poll showed him to be the second most popular political figure in the world after Barack Obama. For a Korean to have high ratings in both China and Korea suggests that American audiences are missing something. U.S. misperceptions can have serious consequences, since it can detract from Ban's authority as a "secular Pope," one of the most useful tools of the office.

Learning Curve

Ban's uncollegial administrative style and, in some cases, inept appointments, have muffled his genuine achievements. All secretaries general have to be cliquish: the permanent five and major donors foist their nominees on them, and under the circumstances it is remarkable how independent of their sponsors many of them are.

But as a result, kitchen cabinets are the name of the game at the UN. In Ban's case however, it has been perceived as a very small Korean kitchen. He has appointed some very able senior officers who should really be encouraged to speak out more. Annan was no great orator and was in reality every bit as shy of controversy as Ban seems to be. But he also had a team to project his vision, who offered the benefits of controversy with deniability.

Admittedly, attacks on the secretary general go with the territory. If Ban didn't meet with the junta in Myanmar, for example, he would have been accused of doing nothing. But by making the trip, he risks accusations of countenancing tyranny — as well as the possibility of public failure. In the end, he did the right thing and went to Myanmar, where he spoke very forthrightly to the leadership. He secured the release of some political prisoners and is still pressing for the release of others. In late September, he moved from strong words in private to a public dressing down when he revealed that he'd told the Burmese prime minister "that the onus was on the Government to create the necessary conditions for credible and inclusive elections, including the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all political prisoners."

That shift indicates a learning process. Part of the problem has been cultural. By temperament and culture Ban avoided public, and thus newsworthy, confrontations even though in closed rooms with leaders he can be very forthright. Although "kick and tell" is not a desirable trait in the world's arch-diplomat, the Western press disagrees. Despite his affability and accessibility to the media, Ban's refusal to deliver controversy or sound bites appears like evasiveness to the Western media. On some issues, he is in fact evasive. But his stance on Myanmar suggests that he is learning to use the bully pulpit of his office to reinforce his private messages.

Where he has shown the most rapid learning curve has been on the Middle East. As South Korean foreign minister, given the focus on Northeast Asia, the Middle East is understandably not on the top of his agenda. His initial impulse was to take the Israeli point of view. At U.S. and Israeli bidding, he purged "Arabists" at UN headquarters who upheld UN resolutions.

Exposure to Benjamin Netanyahu and the reality on the ground seem to have brought him a long way toward the common global view reflected in UN Resolution 242 on the principles for Middle East peace and other resolutions. His burying of the recent report he had commissioned on Israeli actions in Gaza is part of a long secretariat tradition of protecting Israel and suggests that he still has some way to go. Nonetheless he has gone much further than the Obama administration in characterizing Israel's settlements as illegal.

Bridging the Charisma Divide

The job of the secretary general is, by its nature, frustrating. Ban persuaded Sudan to accept peacekeepers in Darfur, but failed to secure essential Western logistics such as air support in particular. As always, subsequent scapegoating of "UN failure" obscured his initial success (not to mention Western culpability).

Recently, his staff has tried to remedy his perceived charisma deficit. They have pointed out that he has appointed more women to senior positions in the organization than ever before. There is also his work in persuading some countries and companies to set aside differences and donate flu vaccines for developing countries. These are fine achievements, but the world expects him to deliver more of the ethical dimension of a UN secretary general, even as he dips his arms in the sordid sink of realpolitik.

With the Obama administration, Ban has the best chance of any of his recent predecessors of speaking truth to power and emerging unscathed. Consider, for instance, his labeling the United States a "deadbeat" over its dues arrears this March. The recent firing of Clinton/Holbrooke protégé Peter Galbraith from the Afghan mission, whether wise or not, at least indicates a willingness to stand up to the United States.

Ban's independence is actually a boon for Washington. The secretary general, with his penchant for multilateral diplomacy, often says and does what President Obama believes but can't say publically. More straight-talking from Ban could actually help the declared foreign policy objectives of the White House.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Obama, International Law, Morocco & Israel

Obama Allowing Netanyahu Government To Be Hoist by Its Own Petard

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Pages 18-19

United Nations Report

Obama Allowing Netanyahu Government To Be Hoist by Its Own Petard

By Ian Williams

EU Foreign Minister Javier Solana arrives to meet with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 11, 2009. That day Solana also urged Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to commit to the concept of a Palestinian state. (AFP photo/Abbas Momani)

European Union Foreign Minister Javier Solana recently upset the Israelis by declaring: “After a fixed deadline, a U.N. Security Council resolution should proclaim the adoption of the two-state solution. This should include all the parameters of borders, refugees, and Jerusalem and security arrangements. It would accept the Palestinian state as a full member of the U.N., and set a calendar for implementation. It would mandate the resolution of other remaining territorial disputes and legitimize the end of claims.”

One wonders whether he would have said so without a wink and a nod from Washington. It is, after all, a highly plausible end game to the current Obama strategy—and, indeed, all the more so since the latter is completely, and one presumes deliberately, silent about the United Nations.

For years, the beginning, middle and end of Israeli strategy was to keep the U.N. out of it. Israel was not interested in the implementation of U.N. Resolutions, whether on the right to return or 242 and the other resolutions on the occupied territories.

Then came the Quartet, which brought in the U.S., Russia, the EU and the U.N. However, this was not so much about bringing in the United Nations as about cocooning all its inconvenient resolutions in a cordon sanitaire of diplomacy. The U.N. found itself not only subscribed, by proxy, to American positions—such as the boycott of Hamas—which had no mandate whatsoever from its membership or previous resolutions, but hamstrung from reaffirming its own membership-mandated positions, even as successive Israeli prime ministers twisted the road map into an origami Möbius strip, going round infinitely without ever reaching an end.

Even under President Bill Clinton, the formula was to let the Palestinians and the Israelis negotiate “freely” in the full expectation that the Palestinians would negotiate away most of their impeccably legal positions based upon U.N. resolutions. As I said at the time, it was like putting a Sumo wrestler in the ring together with a toddler and calling for a fair fight.

Fortunately the PLO representatives in New York had a clearer vision. They constantly reaffirmed the U.N. resolutions, convening emergency General Assemblies, a meeting of the signatories to the Geneva Conventions and, of course, the successful referral of Israel’s separation wall to the International Court of Justice.

Arab opponents have attacked Obama for being soft on Israel, despite this administration being tougher than any since Bush-Baker turned the thumbscrews on Likud almost two decades ago. They are missing the point. Most notably, Obama and his team have had little or no domestic opposition to their policy—precisely because it has not invoked international law and the United Nations. Looking at the contempt with which Congress (and Israel) has treated the U.N. and international law on the issue, any evocation of it by Obama’s team would have been more likely to help create a focus of resistance to his policies than induce support for them.

Had the administration made grandiloquent statements of principles that were not accepted in Washington and in the U.S., those statements would have remained empty ones, thwarted by the Lobby in a Congress which has never accepted that U.N. resolutions apply to either the U.S. or Israel.

Instead, everything the Obama team has asked of Netanyahu—acceptance of a two-state solution and a freeze on settlements—is based on a prior commitment by Israel to the Quartet. Those commitments were supported by AIPAC and by most pro-Israel legislators, who so far have wisely chosen not to eat their own words.

It is an achievement all the more remarkable given Obama’s tussles with Capitol Hill over the economy, defense spending, climate change and healthcare, and suggests the Achilles heel of single-issue foreign interest lobbies. Their legislators could try to hold the White House hostage over pressing issues to get a more pro-Likud stance—but they would be committing electoral suicide if they were revealed as thwarting economic recovery on behalf of a foreign power.

The last thing the Lobby in its various manifestations wants is to highlight that the U.S. is sending $3 billion a year of hard-pressed taxpayers’ money to an ungrateful foreign government that is giving the bird to American policy.

More importantly, there has been a shift in view among American Jews and their organizations. Likudnik American Jews who vociferously oppose the road map and Obama are more likely to be found in West Bank settlements waving Uzis, or raving on about Obama’s birth certificate, than having the ear of Democratic Party leaders.

And like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, they are crying before they have been pricked. The White House has been very measured, restating its position firmly and frequently, but it has not yet had to make any threats. Simply holding firm on settlements has been enough to cause bewilderment and panic in the Israeli government, whose politicians are accustomed to enthusiastic acquiescence for whatever circumlocutions they use to disguise their contempt for restrictions on their land theft.

In that sense, Netanyahu’s coalition, not least with the odious Avigdor Lieberman, has been a godsend to Obama. In times past, Labor knew how to sound sincere even as it continued the bipartisan policy of settlement expansion. The open breach of Israeli road map commitments, the humanitarian and political disaster of Operation Cast Lead, and the inhumanity of the evictions in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood have even further reduced international and American domestic support for the Likud-led coalition.

Israel’s ruling coalition is ideological and theological in its make-up—faith-based, in fact. That gives some confidence that it will star in its own downfall. While its members see it as self-evident that Jews should be allowed to settle anywhere in the West Bank, seizing other people’s land to so, they take it as axiomatic that Palestinians should not be allowed to return to their ancestral homes. It is not an axiom that the rest of the world shares.

The Israeli electorate has been accustomed to taking U.S. support for granted regardless of what its elected governments do. There has been some realization that things have changed, as demonstrated by the huge contrast between the tepid support for Obama in Israel and his overwhelming support among American Jews. However, it seems as if the news that they have little or no American support at any level has not percolated down to the Israeli voters. Fortunately, Obama can count upon Lieberman, Netanyahu and company to extend their provocation to the point where the White House will have overwhelming support for getting tougher.

So far, the Obama administration has carefully refrained from doing anything that could in any way be construed as coercive or would in any way allow Netanyahu to rally the pro-Israel American faithful.

A good point to send a signal would be the “charitable” tax exemptions for deranged Zionist organizations funding the settlements (see p. 10). In Britain, many years ago, the Charity Commissioners refused to accept the Jewish National Fund as a tax-exempt entity—settling Jews was not a charitable objective. It appears to be one such organization that masterminded the “purchase” of the houses in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem from which 50 Palestinians, whose families were originally driven from West Jerusalem, were expelled to make way for settlers. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quite rightly condemned this provocative and inhumane act. The European Union denounced it as being against international law.

Surely, forbearance notwithstanding, it’s time for a little more activity. The White House should have words with the IRS, which runs 501(c)(3) “charitable” organizations, to scrutinize the philanthropic status of bodies that thwart international law. After all, it is a perilous business to send funds to finance terrorist organizations, so why should those who fund such unsavory and illegal practices in the occupied territories be exempt from taxes?

We can leave the three billion until later, but this would surely send a message of serious intent.

Western Sahara: Another Intractable Problem

While there has been some talk of the U.S. proposing, and implicitly imposing, a solution on the Middle East, there is of course another intractable problem on which the U.N. and international law has an unequivocal position defied by one state. Yes, Morocco still occupies Western Sahara, and Christopher Cox, the former American diplomat who was belatedly appointed U.N. special representative, is supposed to be presenting a peace plan drawn up by the Obama administration. Recent estimates are that Morocco has been spending $12 million a day on its occupation—between 3-5 percent of its GDP and up to 20 percent of the state budget.

Most peace plans presented recently have been designed to abrogate the Sahrawis legal rights, clearly laid down by the International Court of Justice and successive U.N. resolutions, to an “act of self-determination”: a referendum. For more than three decades Morocco has thwarted this, precisely because it knows it would lose. The Polisario is more optimistic this time. Morocco resisted Cox’s appointment for many months since it suspected him of not being biddable enough—and it could in the past invoke discreet Israeli support for its stand. The latter factor may have lost its importance at the moment. Having Bibi Netanyahu as a character witness may not be the advantage it once was.

In a recent article before the Vienna talks between Morocco and Polisario, Polisario representative Mohammed Khadad said, “the people of Western Sahara have been clear that we are willing to work with the Moroccan monarchy and will act without recrimination in relation to Moroccans now living in Western Sahara.” The second part is eminently good political sense, but the first part is intriguing. It could be a response to a suggestion made by this writer.

Morocco’s nebulous claim, dismissed by the World Court, was that the tribes of the former Spanish colony owed fealty to the Moroccan ruling family. The parties could take a tip from the British Queen, whose head appears on the stamps and coins of the several dozen Commonwealth countries of which she is still head of state, but over which the British government has no control whatsoever. Offering King Mohamed VI of Morocco the position of Mohamed Iof Western Sahara—i.e., a constitutional monarch—could salve the wounded dynastic pride of the Moroccan leader, while stanching the bleeding of the economy for poverty-stricken Moroccans who have to sustain the huge army of occupation in the South.

The result would have to be endorsed by the United Nations to take legal effect, but if the U.S. is serious about it, Western Sahara could join East Timor on the list of cleared-up items on the Security Council’s backed up agenda—paving the way, perhaps, for the implementation of 242.

Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations and has a blog at <>.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Happy Birthday Dear China.

Greater China
Oct 2, 2009 Asia Times

The night Zhou was drunk under the table
By Ian Williams
(the one with the long hair and beard)

As we approached the 60th anniversary on Thursday of Mao Zedong's declaration that the "Chinese people have stood up," I trawled through the memories of my time in China straddling 1970 and 1971, and found, with all the accuracy of retrospective prophesy, that there were more auguries of the current China than one might suspect.

Although my putative memoirs would be called "I was a Teenage Maoist", by the time I landed in Beijing I was a callow 21-year-old, a month older than the People's Republic. In fact, Zhou Enlai, the first premier, from 1949 until his death in 1976, repeated to us his dictum that it was too early to tell whether or not the French Revolution had been a success, let alone China's. Forty years later, I wonder what Zhou, one of the more sophisticated and cosmopolitan of the Chinese leaders, but nonetheless a devoted communist, would have made of present-day China.

I was part of a delegation from an obscure British party that enjoyed unprecedented access to the Chinese leadership, including a drinking competition with Zhou - and a very risky argument about literature with Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, who had, after all, instituted the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) by demonizing all but a tiny group of writers and artists. It was so long ago that even the Chinese used the old Wade-Giles Romanization system for the Mandarin language. We were in Peking (Beijing), and read the Peking Review every week. In fact, our visit featured in it.

Our sessions with the Chinese cadres were often like negotiations, conducted over innumerable cigarettes and a constant flow of tea. The idea was that whoever called for a bathroom break was conceding the field of battle. Sadly for Chinese pride, our side had been brought up on a diet of gallons of tea and bitter beer and had formidable resistance to such diuretics.

Even at the time, I had a sense of bewilderment at the relative isolation from the world outside, of the top leadership. They provided us with a daily English press summary of world affairs and the difficulties of a binary view of the world became apparent. For example, Pakistan was an ally of China, therefore it was socialist and progressive - which the Pakistanis themselves would hardly claim, while social-democratic governments, like the British Labour Party, were reactionary and capitalist to the core.

As for our visit: I suspect that Zhou had hoped that it would provide information and encouragement for his planned opening to the West. We were there before British premier Edward Heath, or former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and president Richard Nixon from the United States. Indeed, as almost the only gweilos (foreigners) in town, we could attract crowds just by peering in a shop window. In those far-off days, my hair was red, which was almost like having eyes on green stalks for some people. However, enlisting us as a resource for global realpolitik confirms the naivety of their approach.

We were a sectarian groupuscule with fewer members nationally than the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee. Our contact with the working political system in Britain was minimal and our knowledge of other countries tended to be based on contacts with equally out-of-touch groups. It would be nice to think that we changed the course of history, but there is absolutely no basis for thinking so. Our input probably pointed in the opposite direction to what they did. When we asked why they did not walk in and take Hong Kong, which was then ruled by Britain, Zhou suggested it was better to lessen the economic disparities between the two sides first.

Despite their own sectarian squabbles, despite the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese were at least dealing with some aspects of the real world. For example, they had built a state-of-the-art metro system in Beijing. Even though it was as yet unopened, Zhou took us for a ride on it, which tangentially introduced yet another paradox.

They told us, with almost schoolboyish glee at their boldness, that they were calling the metro station for Tiananmen Square "Zhuxi [Chairman] Station." It was a paradox even then, that in the midst of history's biggest-ever personality cult, no physical location was named after Mao, let alone any of the other revolutionary personalities. I can only presume that it was intended as a gesture of superiority to the Soviet proclivity for churning out city names in honor of top people.

This saved a lot of sign-painting during the various rectification campaigns, the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. Not many of the leadership stayed in power throughout.

Apart from Zhou, we met the full Gang of Four - Jiang Qing and her close associates, Zhang Chunqiao, Yao Wenyuan and Wang Hongwen - but we noticed the omissions. Lin Biao, the powerful military commander who rose to political prominence in the Cultural Revolution and whose picture and introduction was at the front of hundreds of millions of Little Red Books, was absent in name and person. In a seamen's club in Shanghai, I noticed a book on sale by Chen Boda, Mao's personal secretary. Our minders immediately took it out the case and said it was too old and faded to sell.

Our party chairman, Reg Birch, an old communist trade unionist, asked to meet his old chum, Kang Sheng. They brought along his wife instead, explaining that the head of the security and intelligence apparatus was indisposed. In fact, along with Chen Boda, it now seems as if he, and indeed Lin Biao, were at that time in the process of being purged.

Lin shortly afterwards died in a plane crash. Kang resurfaced long enough to ensure that the People's Republic put its weight behind Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. In retrospect, I am glad I never had to shake his hand. Kang was posthumously accused of sharing responsibility (with the Gang of Four) for the Cultural Revolution. The Gang of Four had effectively controlled the power organs of the Communist Party through the latter stages of the Cultural Revolution.

In contrast with all the mass campaigns and circus antics of the Cultural Revolution, which resulted in widespread social and political upheaval and and economic disarray, these purges were being conducted in secrecy with no word of them leaking out from the leadership.

A case in point was a bizarre Christmas feast with an elderly American couple, old-style communists who had moved to China and taken up citizenship and party membership. They were brought out because they knew several of the delegation, who had asked about them.

The turkey dinner was odd in several ways. The couple were Jewish for a start, and although our Chinese hosts were trying to be hospitable with the seasonal bird, they obviously found something alien about the idea of cooking an intact animal: it came as a sort of turkey construction kit, disassembled, cooked and then reassembled. As for the couple, it was only many years later that I heard that their goose had been well and truly cooked. They were languishing in prison, brought out and dusted off for us, and then returned afterwards. But nothing they said gave any of us any grounds for suspicion.

The full Gang of Four came along to join Zhou for talks and a banquet on New Year's Eve. Jiang Qing stood out in a sea of nondescript cotton Mao suits. The still striking woman, who had reduced the repertoire of a huge nation to a handful of revolutionary Beijing operas, one ballet, the Red Detachment of Women, and pretty much one classical sonata, flounced in, every inch the imperial consort. The former actress' cotton greatcoat was draped around her shoulders like a cape, and she carried herself like an imperial consort.

When she discovered that I had been studying English literature, she immediately pronounced that Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens' Hard Times were the only two English proletarian novels. Even as I blurted out a negative, I was thinking hard. I saw the rest of the senior leadership of the party withdraw a little in expectation of the thunderbolt to come. Jane Eyre was clearly a bit too close to home. A governess who marries the boss had too much resonance with the career of a Shanghai starlet who married the chairman. I concentrated on Hard Times, pointing out that its hero was in fact a strikebreaker - a traitor to his class in Marxist terms.

Through narrowed eyes, Jiang delivered her ultimate riposte, "You have long hair. It makes you look like a girl." There was a barely concealed sigh of relief around the table. At least it was not "Off with his head!" or "Counter-revolutionary scum".

The evening, after a banquet fit for an emperor, ended with drinks for us and Zhou and his entourage. The Gang of Four did not, as I remember, hang around. It became a drinking match, with shots of mao tai, the ferocious-smelling sorghum-based overproof liquor that had become the official drink of the party.

As the youngest there, but already with a reputation as a determined drinker, I was moved forward as the champion on going glass-for-glass with Zhou, a man with an iron constitution. But I saw how he stayed ahead. He only drank half his, while I was drinking the lot. Even so, he gave up first, as I remember - allowing for the fact that after large amounts of the stuff, memories can be unreliable.

Despite the Moscow-style purges going on behind the wainscoting, economically, China's development was more balanced than that of the Soviets. We could go on a pub crawl through the streets of Beijing, pijui - beer, being one of the early accessions to our Mandarin vocabulary and although, for example, cotton was rationed, consumer goods seemed in adequate supply. In the covered market, locals looked superior as Aeroflot pilots came rushing through stocking up on things from soap to razor blades to tomatoes that the Soviets' heavy industrial base couldn't provide.

The variety of cigarettes, from coffin nails to the crush-proof packs of the most expensive brands, has always made me wonder about the role of tobacco in industrialization - selling the peasants highly profitable cigarettes was a financially painless way of raising state funds compared with expropriation. The other aspect was the amount of collective entrepreneurial activity that was taking place, even after years of disruption from the Cultural Revolution, which had not officially finished by then.

For example, in the countryside, communes were making cement boats for sale, while in Shanghai we visited a back-street factory that was etching silicon chips - almost state-of-the-art at the time. Even then, I remember wondering about the flue that vented the hydrofluoric acid fumes from the process onto the street. In a microchip, it encapsulated the future environmental problems of reckless development, even as it demonstrated the entrepreneurial urges that Deng Xiaoping was later to unleash.

I returned to Britain puzzled. The Cultural Revolution had not visibly destroyed the economy, as was sometimes claimed. But it was difficult to know what it was all about. It was bad enough when party leaders were denounced for esoteric sins of culture and ideology during the Cultural Revolution, but these silent purges and behind-the-scenes disappearances reduced the struggles to personalities and power-plays. Mao himself seems to have been playing off the leaders against each other.

So perhaps that was the twin legacy of the first 20 years. It developed the ground for the upsurge of economic activity in which China seems not only to have stood up but appears to be racing ahead. But it also has left the Communist Party totally committed to clinging onto power, without much in the way of ideology, while its leadership changes behind closed doors, with only the faintest pretence of consulting the masses. And by all accounts, party leaders at every level are still fond of banquets and mao tai.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, Nation Books, New York.

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Quaddafi, Michael Jackson, Finnegans Wake

Here is the podcast of As It Happens, the CBC show from Canada with my take on the Qaddafi speech... in which I suggest he was channelling Michael Jackson reciting Finnegans Wake.