Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Foreign Policy, Genocide, Guatemala, History, Human Rights, Latin America, Nicaragua.
Tags: cia, genocide, guatemala, guatemala civil war, guatemala coup, guatemala genocide, history, human rights, Latin America, nicaragua, nicaragua contras, Noam Chomsky, rios-montt, robert parry, roger hollander, ronald reagan
Roger’s note: although I recently posted on this subject when the court found Rios Montt guilty of genocide, given the appeal court reversal and the background Chomsky outlines of the historic US intervention of atrocity to destroy genuine social justice, it bears reiteration.
Thursday, 06 June 2013 09:31 By Noam Chomsky, Truthout | Op-Ed
(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)On Mother’s Day, May 12, The Boston Globe featured a photo of a young woman with her toddler son sleeping in her arms.
The woman, of Mayan Indian heritage, had crossed the U.S. border seven times while pregnant, only to be caught and shipped back across the border on six of those attempts. She braved many miles, enduring blisteringly hot days and freezing nights, with no water or shelter, amid roaming gunmen.
The last time she crossed, seven months pregnant, she was rescued by immigration solidarity activists who helped her to find her way to Boston.
Most of the border crossers are from Central America. Many say they would rather be home, if the possibility of decent survival hadn’t been destroyed. Mayans such as this young mother are still fleeing from the wreckage of the genocidal assault on the indigenous population of the Guatemalan highlands 30 years ago.
The main perpetrator, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, the former dictator who ruled Guatemala during two of the bloodiest years of the country’s decades-long civil war, was convicted in a Guatemalan court of genocide and crimes against humanity, on May 10.
Then, 10 days later, the case was overturned under suspicious circumstances. It is unclear whether the trial will continue.
Rios Montt’s forces killed tens of thousands of Guatemalans, mostly Mayans, in the year 1982 alone.
As that bloody year ended, President Reagan assured the nation that the killer was a “man of great personal integrity and commitment,” who was getting a “rap” from human-rights organizations and who “wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”
Therefore, the president continued, “My administration will do all it can to support his progressive efforts.”
Ample evidence of Rios Montt’s “progressive efforts” was available to Washington, not only from rights organizations, but also from U.S. intelligence.
But truth was unwelcome. It interfered with the objectives set by Reagan’s national security team in 1981. As reported by the journalist Robert Parry, working from a document he discovered in the Reagan Library, the team’s goal was to supply military aid to the right-wing regime in Guatemala in order to exterminate not only “Marxist guerrillas‚” but also their “civilian support mechanisms‚”which means, effectively, genocide.
The task was carried out with dedication. Reagan sent “nonlethal” equipment to the killers, including Bell helicopters that were immediately armed and sent on their missions of death and destruction.
But the most effective method was to enlist a network of client states to take over the task, including Taiwan and South Korea, still under U.S.-backed dictatorships, as well as apartheid South Africa and the Argentine and Chilean dictatorships.
At the forefront was Israel, which became the major arms supplier to Guatemala. It provided instructors for the killers and participated in counterinsurgency operations.
The background bears restating. In 1954, a CIA-run military coup ended a 10-year democratic interlude in Guatemala “the years of spring,” as they are known there and restored a savage elite to power.
In the 1990s, international organizations conducting inquiries into the fighting reported that since 1954 some 200,000 people had been killed in Guatemala, 80 percent of whom were indigenous. The killers were mostly from the Guatemalan security forces and closely linked paramilitaries.
The atrocities were carried out with vigorous U.S. support and participation. Among the standard Cold War pretexts was that Guatemala was a Russian “beachhead” in Latin America.
The real reasons, amply documented, were also standard: concern for the interests of U.S. investors and fear that a democratic experiment empowering the harshly repressed peasant majority ‚”might be a virus‚”that would “spread contagion,” in Henry Kissinger’s thoughtful phrase, referring to Salvador Allende’s democratic socialist Chile.
Reagan’s murderous assault on Central America was not limited to Guatemala, of course. In most of the region the agencies of terror were government security forces that had been armed and trained by Washington.
One country was different: Nicaragua. It had an army to defend its population. Reagan therefore had to organize right-wing guerilla forces to wage the fight.
In 1986, the World Court, in Nicaragua v. United States, condemned the U.S. for “unlawful use of force‚” in Nicaragua and ordered the payment of reparations. The United States’ response to the court’s decree was to escalate the proxy war.
The U.S. Southern Command ordered the guerillas to attack virtually defenseless civilian targets, not to “duke it out” with the Nicaraguan army, according to Southcom’s Gen. John Gavin testimony to Congress in 1987.
Rights organizations (the same ones that were giving a bad rap to genocidaire Rios Montt) had condemned the war in Nicaragua all along but vehemently protested Southcom’s “soft-target” tactics.
The American commentator Michael Kinsley reprimanded the rights organizations for departing from good form. He explained that a “sensible policy” must “meet the test of cost-benefit analysis,” evaluating
“the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, and the likelihood that democracy will emerge at the other end.”
Naturally, we Americans have the right to conduct the analysis, thanks, presumably, to our inherent nobility and stellar record ever since the days when the continent was cleared of the native scourge.
The nature of the “democracy that will emerge” was hardly obscure. It is accurately described by the leading scholar of “democracy promotion,” Thomas Carothers, who worked on such projects in the Reagan State Department.
Carothers concludes, regretfully, that U.S. influence was inversely proportional to democratic progress in Latin America, because Washington would only tolerate “limited, top-down forms of democratic change that did not risk upsetting the traditional structures of power with which the United States has long been allied (in) quite undemocratic societies.”
There has been no change since.
In 1999, President Clinton apologized for American crimes in Guatemala but no action was taken.
There are countries that rise to a higher level than idle apology without action. Guatemala, despite its continuing travails, has carried out the unprecedented act of bringing a former head of state to trial for his crimes, something we might remember on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Also perhaps unprecedented is an article in The New York Times by Elisabeth Malkin, headlined “Trial on Guatemalan Civil War Carnage Leaves Out U.S. Role.”Even acknowledgment of one’s own crimes is very rare.”
Rare to nonexistent are actions that could alleviate some of the crimes’ horrendous consequences – for example, for the United States to pay the reparations to Nicaragua ordered by the World Court.
The absence of such actions provides one measure of the chasm that separates us from where a civilized society ought to be.
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Posted by rogerhollander in 9/11, Art, Literature and Culture, Genocide, Racism, War.
Tags: 9/11, africans, apartheid, attica, cambodia, chiapas, Chile, Colombia, disappeared, El Salvador, EMMANUEL ORTIZ, fallen timbers, genocide, guatemala, hiroshima, indigenous, iraq embargo, laos, moment of slience, nagasaki, nicaragua, Palestinians, pine ridge, poem, Poetry, political poem, roger hollander, sand creek, slavery, somalia, steve biko, torture, trail of tears, Vietnam War, wounded knee
BEFORE I START THIS POEM
by Emmanuel Ortiz
Before I start this poem,
I’d like to ask you to join me in
a moment of silence
in honour of those who died
in the World Trade Centre
and the Pentagon
last September 11th.
I would also like to ask you
a moment of silence
for all of those who have been
harassed, imprisoned, disappeared,
tortured, raped, or killed
in retaliation for those strikes,
for the victims in both
Afghanistan and the U.S.
And if I could just add one more thing…
A full day of silence
for the tens of thousands of Palestinians
who have died at the hands of
U.S.-backed Israeli forces
over decades of occupation.
Six months of silence
for the million and-a-half Iraqi people,
mostly children, who have died of
malnourishment or starvation
as a result of an 11-year U.S. embargo
against the country.
Before I begin this poem:
two months of silence
for the Blacks under Apartheid
in South Africa,
where homeland security
made them aliens
in their own country.
Nine months of silence
for the dead in Hiroshima
and Nagasaki, where death rained
down and peeled back
every layer of concrete, steel, earth and skin
and the survivors went on as if alive.
A year of silence
for the millions of dead
in Vietnam–a people, not a war-
for those who know a thing or two
about the scent of burning fuel,
their relatives’ bones buried in it,
their babies born of it.
A year of silence
for the dead in Cambodia and Laos,
victims of a secret war … ssssshhhhh ….
Say nothing .. we don’t want them to
learn that they are dead.
Two months of silence
for the decades of dead
in Colombia, whose names,
like the corpses they once represented,
have piled up and slipped off
Before I begin this poem,
An hour of silence
for El Salvador …
An afternoon of silence
for Nicaragua …
Two days of silence
for the Guatemaltecos …
None of whom ever knew
a moment of peace
45 seconds of silence
for the 45 dead
at Acteal, Chiapas
25 years of silence
for the hundred million Africans
who found their graves
far deeper in the ocean
than any building could
poke into the sky.
There will be no DNA testing
or dental records
to identify their remains.
And for those who were
strung and swung
from the heights of
in the south, the north,
the east, and the west…
100 years of silence…
For the hundreds of millions of
from this half of right here,
Whose land and lives were stolen,
In postcard-perfect plots
like Pine Ridge,
Sand Creek, Fallen Timbers,
or the Trail of Tears.
Names now reduced
to innocuous magnetic poetry
on the refrigerator
of our consciousness …
So you want a moment of silence?
And we are all left speechless
Our tongues snatched from our mouths
Our eyes stapled shut
A moment of silence
And the poets have all been laid to rest
The drums disintegrating into dust
Before I begin this poem,
You want a moment of silence
You mourn now as if the world will never be
And the rest of us hope to hell it won’t be.
Not like it always has been
Because this is not a 9-1-1 poem
This is a 9/10 poem,
It is a 9/9 poem,
A 9/8 poem,
A 9/7 poem
This is a 1492 poem.
This is a poem about
what causes poems like this
to be written
And if this is a 9/11 poem, then
This is a September 11th poem
for Chile, 1971
This is a September 12th poem
for Steven Biko in South Africa, 1977
This is a September 13th poem
for the brothers at Attica Prison,
New York, 1971.
This is a September 14th poem
for Somalia, 1992.
This is a poem
for every date that falls
to the ground in ashes
This is a poem for the 110 stories
that were never told
The 110 stories that history
chose not to write in textbooks
The 110 stories that CNN, BBC,
The New York Times,
and Newsweek ignored
This is a poem
for interrupting this program.
And still you want
a moment of silence
for your dead?
We could give you
lifetimes of empty:
The unmarked graves
The lost languages
The uprooted trees and histories
The dead stares on the faces
of nameless children
Before I start this poem
We could be silent forever
Or just long enough to hunger,
For the dust to bury us
And you would still ask us
For more of our silence.
If you want a moment of silence
Then stop the oil pumps
Turn off the engines and the televisions
Sink the cruise ships
Crash the stock markets
Unplug the marquee lights,
Delete the instant messages,
Derail the trains, the light rail transit
If you want a moment of silence,
put a brick through
the window of Taco Bell,
And pay the workers for wages lost
Tear down the liquor stores,
The townhouses, the White Houses,
the jailhouses, the Penthouses and
If you want a moment of silence,
Then take it
On Super Bowl Sunday,
The Fourth of July
During Dayton’s 13 hour sale
Or the next time your white guilt
fills the room where my beautiful
people have gathered
You want a moment of silence
Then take it
Before this poem begins.
Here, in the echo of my voice,
In the pause between goosesteps of the
In the space
between bodies in embrace,
Here is your silence.
But take it all
Don’t cut in line.
Let your silence begin
at the beginning of crime.
Tonight we will keep right on singing
For our dead.
EMMANUEL ORTIZ, 11 Sep 2002
Emmanuel Ortiz (born 1974) is a Chicano/Puerto Rican/Irish-American activist and spoken-word poet. He has worked with the Minnesota Alliance for the Indigenous Zapatistas (MAIZ) and Estación Libre and as a staff member of the Resource Centre of the Americas. Ortiz has performed his poetry at numerous readings, political rallies, activist conferences, and benefits. His works appeared in The Roots of Terror a reader published by Project South, as well as others. His readings of his poems have appeared on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!.  His controversial poem, Moment of Silence, circulated the internet a year after September 11th, 2001. 
Posted by rogerhollander in Foreign Policy, Iraq and Afghanistan, Peace, War.
Tags: Afghanistan War, cia, Colin Powell, Dennis Blair, east timor, east timor massacre, foreign policy, foreign policy appointments, gaza, General Wiranto, george mitchell, hawks, hillary clinton, human rights, indonesian death squads, internatinal treaties, International law, Iran-Contra, Iraq invasion, israel, janet napolitano, jim jones, joe biden, leon panetta, Middle East, nicaragua, obama administration, obama commander-in-chief, pakistan, Palestine, Pentagon, Rahm Emanuel, reagan administation, richard holbrooke, Robert Gates, roger hollander, saddam hussein, sandinistas, scott ritter, self-determination, special envoy, stephen zunes, susan rice, u.s. hegemony, united nations charter, wmds
Most of Obama’s key foreign policy appointments seem more committed to military dominance than international law.
In disc golf, there’s a shot known as “an Obama” — it’s a drive that you expect to veer to the left but keeps hooking right.
In no other area has this metaphor been truer than Barack Obama’s foreign policy and national security appointments. For a man who was elected in part on the promise to not just end the war in Iraq but to “end the mindset that got us into war in the first place,” it’s profoundly disappointing that a majority of his key appointments — Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Dennis Blair, Janet Napolitano, Richard Holbrooke and Jim Jones, among others — have been among those who represent that very mindset.
As president, Obama is ultimately the one in charge, so judgment should not be based upon his appointments alone. Indeed, some of his early decisions regarding foreign policy and national security – such as ordering the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, initiating the necessary steps for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, and ending the “global gag rule” on funding for international family-planning programs – have been quite positive.
But it’s still significant that the majority of people appointed to key foreign policy positions, like those in comparable positions in the Bush administration, appear to be more committed to U.S. hegemony than the right of self-determination, human rights and international law.
Supporters of Wars of Conquest
Though far from the only issue of concern, it is the fact that the majority of Obama’s appointees to these key positions were supporters of the invasion of Iraq that is perhaps the most alarming.
Obama’s defenders claim that what is most important in these appointments is not their positions on a particular issue, but their overall competence. Unfortunately, this argument ignores the reality that anybody who actually believed that invading Iraq was a good idea amply demonstrated that they’re unqualified to hold any post dealing with foreign and military policy.
It was not simply a matter of misjudgment. Those who supported the war demonstrated a dismissive attitude toward fundamental principles of international law, and disdain for the United Nations Charter and international treaties which prohibit aggressive war. They demonstrated a willingness to either fabricate a non-existent threat or naively believe transparently false and manipulated intelligence claiming such a threat existed, ignoring a plethora of evidence from weapons inspectors and independent arms control analysts who said that Iraq had already achieved at least qualitative disarmament. Perhaps worst of all, they demonstrated an incredible level of hubris and stupidity in imagining that the United States could get away with an indefinite occupation of a heavily populated Arab country with a strong history of nationalism and resistance to foreign domination.
Nor does it appear that they were simply fooled by the Bush administration’s manufactured claims of an Iraqi threat. For example, Napolitano, after acknowledging that there were not really WMDs in Iraq as she had claimed prior to the invasion, argued that “In my view, there were lots of reasons for taking out Saddam Hussein.” Similarly, Clinton insisted months after the Bush administration acknowledged the absence of WMDs that her vote in favor of the resolution authorizing the invasion “was the right vote” and was one that, she said, “I stand by.”
Clearly, then, despite their much-touted “experience,” these nominees have demonstrated, through their support for the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, a profound ignorance of the reality of the Middle East and an arrogant assumption that peace, stability and democratic governance can be created through the application of U.S. military force.
Given that the majority of Democrats in Congress, a larger majority of registered Democrats nationally, and an even larger percentage of those who voted for Obama opposed the decision to invade Iraq, it is particularly disappointing that Obama would choose his vice-president, chief of staff, secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Homeland Security and special envoy to Afghanistan and Iraq from the right-wing minority who supported the war.
But the Iraq War isn’t the only foreign policy issue where these Obama nominees have demonstrated hawkish proclivities. In previous articles, I have raised concerns regarding the positions of Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Below is a list of some additional foreign policy appointees who are troubling …
A Friend of Death Squads Heading Intelligence
One of the most problematic Obama appointees is Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence. Blair served as the head of the U.S. Pacific Command from February 1999 to May 2002 as East Timor was finally freeing itself from a quarter century of brutal Indonesian occupation. As the highest ranking U.S. military official in the region, he worked to undermine the Clinton administration’s belated efforts to end the repression, promote human rights and support the territory’s right to self-determination. He also fought against Congressional efforts to condition support for the Indonesian military on improving their poor human rights record.
In April 1999, two days after a well-publicized massacre in which dozens of East Timorese civilians seeking refuge in a Catholic church in Liquica were hacked to death by Indonesian-backed death squads, Blair met in Jakarta with General Wiranto, the Indonesian Defense minister and military commander. Instead of pressuring Wiranto to end his support for the death squads, he pledged additional U.S. military assistance, which, according to The Nation magazine, the Indonesian military “took as a green light to proceed with the militia operation.” Two weeks later, and one day after another massacre, Blair phoned Wiranto and, rather than condemn the killings he “told the armed forces chief that he looks forward to the time when [the army will] resume its proper role as a leader in the region.”
Blair’s role in all this is well-known. The Washington Post, for example, reported several months later that “Blair and other U.S. military officials took a forgiving view of the violence surrounding the referendum in East Timor.” I was interviewed on NBC Nightly News at the time and spoke directly to Blair’s meetings earlier that year.
Combined with Obama’s selection of supporters of Morocco’s occupation and repression in Western Sahara and Israel’s occupation and repression in Palestine to other key foreign policy and national security posts, perhaps it is not surprising that he would pick someone who supported Indonesia’s occupation and repression in East Timor. That his pick for DNI would have acquiesced to massacres facilitated by U.S.-backed forces, however, is particularly disturbing.
A Super Hawk at the Pentagon
Obama’s decision to Bush appointee Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense was a shock and a betrayal to his supporters who believed that there would be a change in the Pentagon under an Obama administration.
Gates’ record of militarism and deceit includes his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, where he apparently took part in the cover-up of the Reagan administration’s crimes. Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh expressed frustration that Gates – well-known for his “eidetic memory” – curiously could not recall information his subordinates, under oath, had sworn they had told him. The special prosecutor’s final report noted, “The statements of Gates often seemed scripted and less than candid.” Indeed, the best the final report could say was that “a jury could find the evidence left a reasonable doubt that Gates either obstructed official inquiries or that his two demonstrably incorrect statements were deliberate lies.”
In addition, Howard Teicher, who served on the National Security Council staff during the Reagan administration, submitted a sworn affidavit that Gates engaged in secret arms transfers to Saddam Hussein’s regime during the 1980s in violation of the Arms Export Control Act. During this same period, according to former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, who served as Gates’ branch chief, Gates was personally involved in the apparent manipulation of intelligence regarding Iran and the Soviet Union in order to back up questionable policies of the Reagan administration.
The quintessential hawk, Gates advocated a U.S. bombing campaign against Nicaragua in 1984, according to the Los Angeles Times, in order to “bring down” that country’s leftist government, arguing that “the only way that we can prevent disaster in Central America” is for the United States to “do everything in its power short of invasion to put that regime out.” Given there are today a number of Latin American countries under leftist governments more strategically significant than the tiny impoverished Nicaragua with which Gates was once so obsessed, one wonders how, as Obama’s Secretary of Defense, he will advise the new president to deal with these countries.
As he has for most of his career, Gates has been far to the right not only of the American public, but even that of the foreign policy establishment, most of which recognized that Nicaragua under the Sandinistas was of no threat to U.S. national security and that a bombing campaign would be a blatant violation of international law.
Unable to convince his superiors to bomb Nicaragua, Gates became a major supporter of the illegal supplying of arms to the Nicaraguan Contras, a notorious terrorist group responsible for the deaths of thousands of Nicaraguan civilians. In choosing Gates to head the Defense Department, Obama appears to be giving a signal that his opposition to international terrorism is limited to those who target Americans and their allies, not to terrorism overall.
Another Super-Hawk at NSC
Recently-retired Marine General Jim Jones -– who, like Gates, is a Republican and was a supporter of Senator John McCain in the November election –– has been named as Obama’s National Security Advisor. A pragmatic leader who reportedly opposed the decision to invade Iraq and has questioned the unconditional U.S. support for some of Israel’s more aggressive policies, Jones’ appointment is nonetheless troubling.
As NATO commander earlier this decade, Jones pushed for an expanded NATO role in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Perhaps not coincidentally, he joined the board of directors of Chevron soon after his retirement from the military as well becoming president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, which has called on the U.S. government to engage NATO “on energy security challenges and encourage member countries to support the expansion of its mandate to address energy security.”
Jones opposed any deadline for a withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq, which sits on top of the second largest oil reserves in the world, declaring that “I think deadlines can work against us, And I think a deadline of this magnitude would be against our national interest.” A passionate supporter of the Vietnam War who apparently supported a U.S. invasion of Laos and Cambodia as well, Jones considered the war’s opponents to essentially be traitors. More recently, he has used rhetoric remarkably similar to that of defenders of that war to call for a dramatic escalation of the war in Afghanistan on the grounds that American “credibility” would be at stake if the United States withdrew.
The Nation’s contributing editor Robert Dreyfus, who refers to Jones as Obama’s “most hawkish advisor,” quotes a prominent Washington military analyst noting that “He’s not a strategic thinker,” but he will certainly join other Obama appointees in pushing the administration’s foreign policy to the right.
A Dangerous Pick for Special Envoy
Obama’s choice for special envoy to perhaps the most critical area of U.S. foreign policy – Afghanistan and Pakistan – has gone to a man with perhaps the most sordid history of any of the largely disappointing set of foreign policy and national security appointments.
Richard Holbrooke got his start in the Foreign Service during the 1960s in the notorious pacification programs in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. In the late 1970s, Holbrooke served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. In this position, he played a major role in formulating the Carter administration’s support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor and the bloody counter-insurgency campaign responsible for the deaths of up to a quarter million civilians. In a particularly notorious episode while heading the State Department’s East Asia division, Holbrooke convinced Carter to release South Korean troops under U.S. command in order to suppress a pro-democracy uprising in the city of Kwangju against the Chun dictatorship, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. He also convinced President Jimmy Carter to continue its military and economic support for the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.
In the former Yugoslavia, he epitomized the failed U.S. policy toward autocratic rulers that swings between the extremes of appeasement and war. He brokered a peace agreement in Bosnia which allowed the Serbs to hold on to virtually all of the land they had seized and ethnically cleansed in the course of that bloody conflict and imposed a political system based upon sectarian divisions over secular national citizenship. During the 1996 pro-democracy uprising in Serbia, Holbrooke successfully argued that the Clinton administration should back the Milosevic regime in suppressing the movement so to not risk the instability that might result from a victory by Serb democrats. In response to increased Serbian oppression in Kosovo just a couple years later, however, Holbrooke became a vociferous advocate of the 1999 U.S.-led bombing campaign, creating a nationalist reaction that set back the reconstituted pro-democracy movement once again. The young leaders of the pro-democracy movement, which finally succeeded in the nonviolent overthrow of the regime, remain bitterly angry at Holbrooke to this day.
Scott Ritter, the former chief UNSCOM inspector who correctly predicted the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and a disastrous outcome for the U.S. invasion, observes that “not only has he demonstrated a lack of comprehension when it comes to the complex reality of Afghanistan (not to mention Pakistan), Holbrooke has a history of choosing the military solution over the finesse of diplomacy.” Noting how the Dayton Accords were built on the assumption of a major and indefinite NATO military presence, which would obviously be far more problematic in Afghanistan and Pakistan than in Europe, Ritter adds, “This does not bode well for the Obama administration.”
The Mixed Record of Susan Rice
The post of U.S. representative to the United Nations, which is being treated as a cabinet-level post in the Obama administration, is now held by Susan Rice, a protégé of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Perhaps the most impressive intellectual on Obama’s foreign policy team, she was a Rhodes Scholar who studied under Oxford professors Adam Roberts and Benedict Kingsbury at Oxford, strong supporters of international law and the United Nations.
Serving under President Clinton in the National Security Council and later as assistant Secretary of State for Africa, she helped reverse the decades-old policy of support for Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, she received praise from civil society groups in Africa for her support for human rights but also criticism for her strident support for economic liberalization and free trade initiatives.
Though seen by many as one of the most moderate of Obama’s foreign policy team, she – like some of the more hawkish Obama appointees – is also handicapped by her tendency to allow her ideological preconceptions to interfere with her analysis.
Though, unlike most of Obama’s other top foreign policy appointees, she has serious reservations about invading Iraq, she naively bought into many of the myths used to justify it. For example, back in 2002 – years after Iraq had disarmed itself of its chemical and biological weapons and eliminated its nuclear program – she declared, “It’s clear that Iraq poses a major threat” and, despite the success of the UN’s disarmament program, she insisted “It’s clear that its weapons of mass destruction need to be dealt with forcefully, and that’s the path we’re on.”
In February 2003, Colin Powell testified before the United Nations that Iraq had somehow reconstituted its biological and chemical weapons arsenal and its nuclear weapons program and had somehow hidden all this from the hundreds of United Nations inspectors then in Iraq engaged in unfettered inspections. None of this was true and his transparently false claims were immediately challenged by UN officials, arms control specialists, and much of the press and political leadership in Europe and elsewhere. (See my article written in response to his testimony: Mr. Powell, You’re No Adlai Stevenson.)
Rice, however, insisted that Powell had “proved that Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them and I don’t think many informed people doubted that.” In light of such widespread and public skepticism from knowledgeable sources, Rice’s dismissal of all the well-founded criticism was positively Orwellian: those who blindly accepted Powell’s transparently false claims were “well-informed,” while the UN officials, arms control specialists, and others knowledgeable of the reality of the situation were presumably otherwise.
What this means is that Rice will have a serious credibility problem at the United Nations, whose remarkable success at disarming Iraq she summarily dismissed. When Rice speaks out in important debates about international peace and security in the UN Security Council, including possible genuine threats, there will inevitably be some questions as to whether she should be believed. This raises the questions as to why Obama would choose someone with a potentially serious credibility in such a sensitive position just as the United States is trying to restore its influence in the world body.
Some Bright Spots?
There have been some somewhat hopeful appointments as well. One is that of Leon Panetta, former Congressman and the first chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, to direct the CIA. He has been praised for his principled opposition to the abuse of detainees under the Bush administration and his forced resignation from the Nixon Justice Department for opposing the administration’s opposition to school desegregation.
The major concern is that Panetta – a former Republican known as a centrist who tends to seek compromise more than he is one to shake things up – will likely find himself as simply another part of the center-right national team Obama is putting together, especially since he will be serving under DNI director Blair. As The Nation‘s Dreyfus put it, “He’s no match for the hardheaded spooks who run the place, and he’s no match for the military brass who are elbowing their way to more and more control of intelligence spending and priorities.”
On the one hand, when the best that can be said of a nominee for an important national security position is that he opposes school segregation and believes that the U.S. government should not be engaging in torture, it is indicative of just how for down the bar has been lowered. At the same time, Panetta’s appointment is a clear signal that the Obama administration will not tolerate the kind of abuses that occurred under its predecessor.
Another potentially positive appointment is that of George Mitchell as special Middle East envoy. Though a hawkish supporter of right-wing Israeli governments during his days in the Senate, the report of his 2000-2001 commission on Israeli-Palestinian violence was surprisingly balanced and reasonable. Its failures rested in the limitations imposed upon it by the Clinton Administration and the failure of the Bush administration to follow through on its recommendations. The question now is whether Mitchell and President Obama will be willing to effectively challenge Israel’s refusal to withdraw the bulk of its illegal settlements from the occupied West Bank to make a viable Palestinian state possible. (See my article: Is Mitchell Up to the Task?)
Obama as Commander-in-Chief
Even though many of Obama’s key foreign policy appointments are not that different than previous administration, it is important to remember that Barack Obama will be a very different commander-in-chief than George W. Bush.
For one thing, unlike the outgoing president, Obama is non-ideological, very knowledgeable and highly-intelligent. He was quite prescient about the irrationality of invading Iraq, even speaking at an anti-war rally at a time when most Americans supported going to war and – prior to becoming a national figure – he espoused a number of progressive positions ranging on issues ranging from human rights to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In other words, even if Gates does call for bombing Venezuela, Obama is not going to do that. Even if Napolitano comes to him claiming that invading Iran is necessary to defend the homeland, Obama will recognize the folly of such a recommendation. Even if Clinton renews her attacks on the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court, Obama is unlikely to go along with them. Even if Jones argues for sending in the Marines to capture Saudi oil fields, Obama will not take such a recommendation seriously.
It is also quite possible that all this is a shrewd political move on Obama’s part of placing center-right appointees is visible positions to better enable him to pursue a more progressive foreign policy, not unlike Bush using the moderate Colin Powell to sell the Iraq war. Had George McGovern won the 1972 presidential election, he would have likely appointed a number of prominent figures from the hawkish Democratic foreign policy establishment to key positions to assuage skeptics as well, but that does not mean he would have abandoned the core principles which had been the basis of his campaign and his entire political career.
Another reason that an Obama administration will not likely be as far to the right as these appointments may imply is that his electoral base – energized by popular opposition to the Iraq War – is perhaps the most progressive in history when it comes to foreign policy. It is also the most engaged and organized base the party has ever seen. Once the relief of Bush’s departure and the glow of Obama’s inauguration has worn off, he will have to face the millions of people responsible for his election who will expect him to keep his word regarding “change you can believe in.”
Indeed, with a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic officials have rarely led in terms of a more progressive foreign policy. They have generally abandoned hawkish policies only after being forced to do so by popular mobilizations. From Vietnam to Central America to the nuclear arms race to South Africa to Iraq, Democratic leaders initially allied with the Republicans until they recognized their political futures were at stake unless they listened to the rank-and-file Democrats for whom they were dependent for their re-election. Then, and only then, were they willing to change course.
As a result, what may be most important will not be the people that Obama appoints, but the choices we give them.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco and serves as a senior policy analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus.