Friday, September 24, 2010

Re Ahmadinejad's Speech at the General Assembly

As the estimable Laura Rozen reports, the Obama administration is cautiously reaching out to Iran for some denuclearization engagement.

Apparently, an effort this delicate requires a countervailing exercise in Ahmadinejad-bashing, to assure the world that the United States has not gone soft on the Iranian menace.

The occasion has been a public, orchestrated excoriation of Ahmadinejad's remarks before the U.N. General Assembly on September 23 on the issue of his alleged assertion that 9/11 was an inside job.

The United States led a walkout of all 27 EU countries during Ahmadinejad's speech.

President Obama made criticism of Ahmadinejad's UN speech the centerpiece of his interview beamed into Iran by BBC's Persian Service.

The EU's Baroness Ashton piled on.

Nicholas Clegg, the Liberal Democrat honcho who was given the opportunity to acquire some world leader face time by presenting the UK's address to the UN as Deputy Prime Minister, leaked the news that he planned to alter his speech (including an oopsie daisy/it can never happen again mea culpa for the Iraq imbroglio) to dump on Ahmadinejad.

All well and good.

What is interesting to me is the clumsiness and rhino-hided shamelessness with which the international press, the beacons of truth in the free world, as it were, help roll out the product.

President Ahmadinejad probably thinks the US government and the Zionists did it.

But in the speech he cites the inside job theory as only one of three possibilities, albeit the one that "majority of the American people as well as other nations and politicians agree".

In fact, not promoting one theory over another is central to the rhetorical points Ahmadinejad is trying to make.

His first point was that an independent UN investigation be carried out to try to determine whodunit. 

I take it that he wishes to make the assertion that questionable US handling of the 9/11 investigation disqualifies America as the infallible judge, jury, and executioner in other delicate international matters (like the Iran nuclear dossier).

His second point was that, after the U.S. conducted its own investigation, the U.S. government exploited the attacks in a calculated and disproportionate manner in order to advance a foreign policy agenda.

And Ahmadinejad pointed out that U.S. actions have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and, nine years after 9/11, the tragedy in Iraq and Afghanistan continues.

Point two is the one that should make all good liberals like President Obama, PM Clegg, and Baroness Ashton squirm in their seats.

And I guess that's as good a reason for a walkout as any.

But the US and EU, with the assistance of the press, clearly thought it best to seize on point one, at the cost of a rather substantive distortion of Ahmadinejad's remarks, to waive the bloody shirt of 9/11 and reclaim the moral high ground, while ignoring point two.

Here is a transcript of the offending passage in Ahmadinejad's remarks.

B) The Global Management and Ruling Structures

The League of Nations and, then, the United Nations were established with the promise to bring about peace, security and the realization of human rights, which in fact meant a global management.

One can analyze the current governance of the world by examining three events:

First, the event of the II September 2001 which has affected the whole world for almost a decade.

All of a sudden, the news of the attack on the twin towers was broadcast using numerous footages of the incident.

Almost all governments and known figures strongly condemned this incident.

But then a propaganda machine came into full force; it was implied that the whole world was exposed to a huge danger, namely terrorism, and that the only way to save the world would be to deploy forces into Afghanistan.

Eventually Afghanistan, and shortly thereafter Iraq were occupied.

Please take note:

It was said that some three thousands people were killed on the II September for which we are all very saddened. Yet, up until now, in Afghanistan and Iraq hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, millions wounded and displaced and the conflict is still going on and expanding.

In identifying those responsible for the attack, there were three viewpoints.

1- That a very powerful and complex terrorist group, able to successfully cross all layers of the American intelligence and security, carried out the attack.

This is the main viewpoint advocated by American statesmen.

2- That some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grips on the Middle East in order  also to save the Zionist regime.

The majority of the American people as well as other nations and politicians agree with this view.

3- It was carried out by a terrorist group but the American government supported and took advantage of the situation. Apparently, this viewpoint has fewer proponents.

The main evidence linking the incident was a few passports found in the huge volume of rubble and a video of an individual whose place of domicile was unknown but it was announced that he had been involved in oil deals with some American officials. It was also covered up and said that due to the explosion and fire no trace of the suicide attackers was found.

There remain, however, a few questions be answered:

1- Would it not have been sensible that first a thorough investigation should have been conducted by independent groups to conclusively identify the elements involved in the attack and then map out a rational plan to take measures against them?

2- Assuming the viewpoint of the American government, is it rational to launch a classic war through widespread deployment of troops that led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people to counter a terrorist group?

3- Was it not possible to act the way Iran countered the Riggi terrorist group who killed and wounded 400 innocent people in Iran. In the Iranian operation no innocent person was hurt.

It is proposed that the United Nations set up an independent fact-finding group for the event of the II September so that in the future expressing views about it is not forbidden.

I wish to announce here that next year the Islamic Republic of Iran will host a conference to study terrorism and the means to confront it. I invite officials, scholars, thinkers, researchers and research institutes of all countries to attend this conference.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sudan, Slavery, Oil, and Politics

I have a piece up at Asia Times entitled US, China Brace for Sudan Trainwreck.

Sudan is torn between two competing humanitarian constituencies.

Liberals tend to follow Darfur.

Conservatives, on the other hand, particularly of the Christian Right persuasion, have focused on the conflict between north Sudan (Arab/Muslim) vs. south Sudan (Christian/animist).

Not to say these two groups are  mutually exclusive. 

Anyway, Muslim persecution of Christians is a hot-button issue for American conservatives, particularly those who cherish a martyred crusader perspective on current affairs, and one of the places that button is pushed frequently is in Sudan.

Ethnic hostility and political rivalry seem to have informed the two decade struggle between north and south Sudan more than religious zeal.

However, over two bloody decades of civil war (1985-2005) Muslim-affiliated armies and militias killed and displaced millions of southern Christians (and animists) and provided ample cause for U.S. Christian concern.

Geopolitics entered the picture because a) virtually all of the oil that the government in Khartoum exports to China and other thirsty countries comes from the south and b) the leader of the southern forces was a charismatic, capable, English-speaking Christian, John Garang.  Indeed, Garang had studied infantry tactics at Fort Benning (while in the Sudanese army) and pursued graduate studies in Iowa.

The George W. Bush administration saw an opportunity to demonstrate its conservative Christian credentials, create a pro-American counterweight to a troublesome Islamic regime in Khartoum, and create an oil-rich ally by succoring the southern Sudanese.

Therefore, the Bush administration inserted itself into a stalled  peace process sponsored by Kenya and promoted the signature of the “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” or CPA between north and south. 

The CPA seems to have been a rush job that papered over the existential disputes and deep-seated hostility and mistrust between north and south.  The south signed on because the CPA stipulated that the south could vote on secession in January 2011.

The north signed on, apparently because President Bashir desired a rapprochement with the United States that would lift Sudan out of the pariah category.

The south is quite satisfied with the agreement.  It has muscled up over the last six years with the overt support of anti-Khartoum allies Kenya and Uganda (it now boasts an arsenal of over 100 T72 main battle tanks) and enjoys the tacit support of the United States.

The north, on the other hand, is expected to lose almost all of its oil and a third of its territory and population when the referendum goes through.

And it certainly hasn’t gained better relations with the United States.

The reason, of course, is the depredations of the janjaweed, the Sudan proxies fighting a savage campaign to stamp out the secessionist stirrings in Darfur.

Now, with the referendum only 100 or so days away, the north is desperate and the south is supremely confident. 

The United States and China would both like to see a peaceful referendum and aftermath, but neither can dictate to Khartoum on this existential issue.  The United States, in particular, is hamstrung by the need to ostracize Bashir because of his Darfur misdeeds.  China, which realizes that sooner or later the oil fields will fall under control of the south, is likewise unable to fill the bill of Khartoum’s BFF and its eagerness and influence suffer as a result.

The article gives me the opportunity to resurrect one of my favorite anecdotes from the Bush administration, courtesy of the website Debkafile in 2004.  Since the Debkafile link is dead, I feel that I’m all that stands between the story and the memory hole.

Here’s the meat of the item:

For the first time ever, American diplomacy will have succeeded in converting a country dominated by radical Muslims – in Sudan’s case since the 17th century - into a secular democracy – in a period, moreover, when fundamentalist Islam is at its most militant and only a few years after Khartoum played host to Osama bin Laden’s headquarters.

Bush also has a special occasion in mind with an eye on the African American vote where his support is relatively weak. He will step forward as the first US president to plunge deep and head-on into problems endemic to the African continent. … On the agenda too is a highly evocative ritual at the White House at which Sudan’s president will solemnly forswear his country’s dark past as recruiter of slaves for America and the Arab caravans carrying African slaves around the world.

As noted above, Sudan was a Christian preoccupation.  It also became something of an ideological battleground for proponents of a struggle of civilizations between the West and Islam as promoted by David Horowitz and Jihad Watch.

The Christian Right resented what it considered racial guiltmongering over the slave trade, particularly directed at the unambiguously racist origins of the Southern Baptists, who split from the northern Baptists before the Civil War over the issues of slavery and abolition.

Judging from the Debkafile report, I  would think that a slave-trading mea culpa by Omar Bashir would have achieved a few conservative/religious goals beyond promoting the image of the Bush administration to the African-American electorate:

It would have challenged the popularity of Islam among African-Americans by demonstrating that Muslims were also implicated in the U.S. slave trade;

By highlighting Muslim involvement, the Southern Baptist Congress’s racist origins would be more easily dismissed as a historical lacuna, and not its defining characteristic;

Muslim/slave-trader branding would have been reinforced (reports of ongoing Muslim enslavement of Christians in Sudan and Mauritania is an emotional and, for organizers of evangelical redemption campaigns, perhaps profitable issue);

Maybe some right-wing economist was going to come up with a supply-push explanation of American slavery by which Muslim entrepreneurs cultivated and supplied a slave sale business to otherwise indifferent American plantation-owners; I don’t know.

However, the White House ceremony was not to be; Bashir’s Darfur difficulties and the death of John Garang in a helicopter crash combined to place celebration of the north-south peace agreement on the back burner…

…until today, when the whole deal looks like it might unravel into a civil war and the U.S. is scrambling to try to keep a lid on things.

Below the break, I reproduce my piece The Twisted Triangle from 2006, with a wealth of detail on the Bush administration’s forgotten courtship of Omar Bashir and American and Chinese involvement in Sudan.  Go to the original post if you wish to identify and follow links.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Remember the Cheonan!...Or Not

In recent days I've had two articles up at Asia Times that touch on efforts by the United States and the ROK to turn the Cheonan outrage into a tipping point in the affairs of the Korean peninsula, framing the issue as continued ostracization of Pyongyang by the international community as a prelude to reunification under Seoul's aegis, instead of reintegration of the DPRK into the world system through the good offices of China and the Six-Party Talks.

I wonder how serious the US and ROK are about this strategy.  For Lee Myung-bak and his conservative, anti-Sunshine Policy Grand National Party, there seems to be some electioneering and political flummery involved. 

For President Obama, there is a certain geopolitical logic in embarrassing China in front of the nations of East Asia by pushing it into the role of protector of Kim Jung Il's pariah regime.  Also, the chance to expand North Korea-related sanctions comes at a very opportune time--in the US campaign to roll back Iran's nuclear program.

The first article, Timing key as US stir-fries sanctions, makes the case that the Obama administration--which had apparently promised not to punish China for refusing to follow U.S. national sanctions against Iran's energy and financial sector in return for China's yes vote on UN sanctions--might threaten sanctions against Chinese banks over North Korea instead in order to gain leverage over China on the Iran issue.

The second, China makes its North Korea move, covers what might be characterized as China calling South Korea and America's bluff: China's decision to use the occasion of a visit to Northeast China by Kim Jung Il to announce its continued support for the DPRK--a most significant declaration as the impoverished dictatorship tries to navigate dangerous political waters toward the elevation of Kim Jung Il's untested third son, Jung Un to the role of dear-leader-in-waiting.

In return, Kim, who has yearned to negotiate directly with the United States, announced his desire--greeted with hearty Chinese approval--to return to the Six Party Talks.

Faced with this display of China's virtually unequivocal support for the DPRK, Lee Myung-bak folded rather quickly.

Instead of insisting on a North Korean apology over the Cheonan affair as a precondition for recommencing the Six Party Talks, the ROK announced it would be satisfied to pursue the case in parallel with the talks.

On balance, it seems plausible that North Korea did sink the Cheonan (despite the considerable risks and difficulties involved) in order to foment a crisis on the peninsula and compel China to support it (not only diplomatically but financially) against the Seoul-Washington axis, whose malign indifference (and unwillingness to countenance bailing out the staggering DPRK food and energy sectors) was probably more of a threat to the regime's existence than international sanctions or military action.

At least for now, Kim Jung Il's risky bet seems to have paid off handsomely, and appreciation for his wiliness and boldness within the DPRK elite will probably smooth the transfer of the Kim family business to Kim Jong Un.

South Korea, on the other hand, seems to have blotted its copybook rather badly.

Lee Myung-bak nakedly desired to be the George Bush to a Cheonan 9/11, but large chunks of the suspicious South Korean electorate failed to rally around him.

The ROK military muddled the evidentiary waters around the sinking with sufficient secrecy, incompetence, and cover-up to allow enough doubt to creep into its Cheonan findings that the Chinese government--despite the indignant fulminations of the Obama administration--was able to block censure of the DPRK at the UN with little difficulty and limited geopolitical embarrassment.

The Cheonan incident offers interesting parallels with a famous outrage in American history:  the mysterious destruction of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898.

The Maine was in Havana showing the flag to overawe the Spanish colonial masters of Cuba.

A massive explosion destroyed the ship and killed 252 sailors and officers on board outright; another 14 died later of their wounds.

It appeared unlikely that Spain--acutely aware of its military weakness vis a vis the United States--would mine its own harbor and endanger its own ships for the sake of pulling off a catastrophic provocation against the U.S.

Nevertheless, a U.S. court of enquiry conducted in Havana shortly after the disaster drew on the findings of Navy divers who examined the wreck to conclude that an external mine had destroyed the ship. 

As in the Cheonan case, there was a lot of back and forth about the presence or absence of stunned and dead fish and erupting water columns in order to determine whether or not an external explosion had been involved.  Also, conspiracy theories emerged, including notions that the sinking was a false-flag operation by Cuban revolutionaries intent on luring the U.S. into a war with Spain, or even sabotage by the Maine's own crew.

War with Spain--under the slogan Remember the Maine!  To Hell with Spain! was the outcome.  The rapid U.S. victory led to the acquisition of an attractive portolio of imperial interests in Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam for the young republic.

The hulk of the Maine remained a grim monument in Havana harbor for the next 14 years, until it was circled by a cofferdam, repaired enough to float, raised and towed out to sea for a ceremonial sinking in 600 fathoms of water just outside the Cuban three-mile limit.

A second investigation based on examination of the wreck inside the cofferdam largely affirmed the original finding of an external mine.

However, Admiral Hyman Rickover revisited the issue in a private investigation in 1974.  His team came to the conclusion that the Maine had "without a doubt" been sunk by an internal explosion.

The most likely cause in this case would have been spontaneous combustion of wet bituminous coal in a bunker adjacent to one of the ship's magazines.  The heat of combustion could have been conducted through the bulkhead between the bunker and the magazine and detonated the ship's own munitions.  Apparently, spontaneous combustion was a not uncommon problem during the Maine era, having occurred, according to one study, 13 times between 1895 and 1898. 

Then National Geographic muddied the waters somewhat with a computer model supporting the possibility that a perfectly-placed 100 lb. keg of powder could have destroyed the Maine. 

However, consensus opinion today appears to support an internal explosion.

The various arguments are summarized in a 2009 report by the Law Library of Congress entitled The Destruction of the Maine (1898).

The coal issue was an interesting piece of imperial management forgotten in these days of diesels, gas turbines, and nuclear-powered vessels.  Any nation with global military aspirations had to solve the equation of commerce, conquest, and alliance that would assure that its navy would never be more than two weeks from a big pile of coal.  Coaling the ship was an all-day affair for the entire crew, shoveling hundreds of tons of the black stuff into bunkers of various shapes and sizes.  Stokers made up more than half of the ship's company, extracting coal from the bunkers and feeding it into the maw of the boilers. 

The Spanish-American War was also the golden era of American yellow journalism, typified by William Hearst's instruction to Frederic Remington, who wanted to come home from Cuba in March 1898: "Please remain.  You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."

New York Herald correspondent J.L. Stickney reported the destruction of the Spanish fleet in Manila from the deck of Admiral Dewey's flagship Olympia (now on display in Philadelphia):  "a hoarse cry 'Remember the Maine'...arose from 500 men at the guns."

In 1928, a Marine Lieutenant present at Manila noted dryly:

"When we left Hong Kong the date of our latest mail was March 27.  At that time the slogan, 'Remember the Maine,' had not yet been invented...So, although it contradicts every account of the battle I have seen, in the interest of truth it should be recorded that 'Remember the Maine' was never shouted 'in a hoarse chorus by officers and men.'"
(Taken from The Fate of the Maine, by John Edward Weems.  For this interesting book, published by Henry Holt in 1958, Weems was able to interview four survivors of the Maine disaster.)

For the Cheonan, as well as the Maine, the human toll is immense and indisputable but the truth remains an uncertain quantity.

After the break, more on the Maine, Kipling, 19th century military technology, and trends in journalistic prevarication.