Sunday, May 22, 2011

What Obama Should have told AIPAC

The Presidents Speech-Or What Obama Should have said to AIPAC
My fellow Americans, I could say it is an honor to speak again before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. I could also dish out the usual rhetoric you expect from American political leaders of both parties,-—an emotional, iron-clad guarantee to maintain America’s undying support for Israel, the embattled outpost of democracy, and so on and on and on, to great applause..  
But —as befits a conversation among long time friends - I’d rather be frank.  
As we all know, the reason I’m here is because you are the most powerful lobby in Washington—the mightiest senators and congressmen live in terror of your disapproval. Your decision on who to support will be a key factor in the coming Presidential elections.
That power has brought you innumerable victories.  Though Israel is one of the smallest nations, altogether since World War II it has received more foreign aid from the U.S. than any other country. Though we condemn Iran’s nuclear program, we still officially ignore the fact that Israel has had the bomb for more than 40 years.
Our leaders have gone along with the fiction that Israel is somehow a key strategic asset for the U.S. in the Middle East, when, in fact, the opposite is true. Our unwavering support of Israel has won us the hostility of the entire Arab and much of the Moslem world.
O.K. But that’s the past. Today the U.S. and Israel face huge new challenges in the Middle East.  And I have decided that provoking your disapproval is a risk I must take…for the sake of America—as well as Israel..
We can no longer afford to confuse supporting the State of Israel, with supporting the policies of the leaders who control the Israeli government at a particular time. The interests of the two are not necessarily the same. Particularly when, in my view—and the view of many Israelis as well—those policies undermine the long-term security of the Israel.
As President of the United States, I was elected to serve the interests of all 300 million Americans——not a tiny minority, numbering just 2.2% of our population.  Of course, we value your great contributions to all facets of our society and our culture, but that does translate into continuing to give AIPAC the right to call the shots on a key element of our Middle Eastern Policy.
Indeed, within the American Jewish community itself, there are new lobbying groups, such as JPAC, who are highly critical of Israel’s current leaders, and make it clear that AIPAC may not represent the consensus of American Jews.
As I have said, the government of Israel can no longer put off serious negotiations  with the Palestinians.  Population growth and the current uprisings sweeping the region are certain to work against Israel’s long-run security.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Netanyahu, has made it more than clear that his government has no real interest in taking the steps needed to convince the Palestinians that negotiations would be worth their while. This is not just me saying this. The Prime Minister’s political opponents and important Israeli commentators are saying it as well.
Therefore, as President of the United States—of all Americans —I am today announcing a change in policy towards the Middle East. I have decided that we will no longer stand in the way of the Palestinian drive for a United Nations resolution next September to recognize the existence of a Palestinian State. I realize that resolution will not actually create a state —but it may be the best way to start the process going.
I am also calling once again on the government of Israel to cease the construction of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. I made that same request a few years ago, but backed down when Prime Minister Netanyahu refused.  I was wrong to back down. It will not happen again.  
The Israeli government charges that Hamas is a terrorist organization. It is, and we have labeled it as such. I call upon Hamas to reconsider its aims if it truly wants to achieve a settlement with Israel.
On the other hand, many violent groups once labeled terrorist organizations—such as the IRA --changed their tactics with the lure of peace negotiations.  Indeed, at one time in their careers two of Israel’s most renowned leaders—Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir-- were condemned as terrorists themselves.
I realize this new policy may well subject me to a barrage of the most virulent political attacks--from right wing TV talk shows to lurid ads filling our media, to congressional resolutions. It will be charged that all along I—Barrack Hussein Obama-- have been secretly plotting with radical Islam to destroy Israel. And after Israel, the United States.  
They will say of course, that I am anti-Semitic—a charge that is leveled these days against any prominent individual who criticizes the current government of Israel. An irony, since—as I’ve said--some of the strongest attacks on Israeli’s current policies come from Israeli Jewish commentators and politicians themselves.
I understand the emotional storm that is roiling this audience right now—I can hear the boos and catcalls. I can feel your enormous upset. But I ask you members of AIPAC --before you and your allies unleash an attack against me in the media and in the Congress and local communities across the country--I ask you, by unleashing such a massive campaign—if in the end, isn’t there a danger that such a massive campaign may demonstrate to the American people –to all the American people—exactly the point I have been making in this speech? That is-- the extent to which your lobby has distorted the workings of our democratic system.
In short, in the end, your attempt to defeat my desire to pursue a policy that is in the interests of all Americans—as well as the State of Israel-- could lead to your own downfall.
Think about it. And thanks for letting me talk.

Follow me on Twitter @barrylando

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Whose War on Terror?

At a time when the White House is spending hundreds of billions and has dispatched killer teams to liquidate Osama Bin Laden and lesser targets, imagine what the leaders of other countries might do if they were to declare their own War on Terror. Cuba, for instance. That question is provoked by a disturbing new documentary chronicling the past half century of Cuban-American relations and titled, “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand up.”
Written and Directed by radical, Emmy-award-winning filmmaker Saul Landau, the report shies away from revolutionary cant and vague rhetoric. Instead, Landau backs up his case with research and interviews that, taken together, represent a damning indictment of U.S. policy. Most of the facts he cites are not news to those who have closely followed relations between Cuba and the U.S. since February, 1959 when Castro came to power. But the great majority of Americans have not paid attention. And most of what they have been told has been filtered through a Cold War prism that continues to warp U.S. -Cuban relations to this day.  
Washington’s war against Castro began long before May 1961 when he declared himself a Marxist-Leninist. Indeed, almost from the time that Castro marched into Havana and made it clear his revolution was the real thing, American Presidents—Republican and Democrat--have attempted to combat and then overthrow his regime by every possible means, from an embargo that strangled the country’s economy, to allowing Cuban exiles operating from Florida to attack Cuba’s refineries, infrastructure, sugar cane fields, and assassinate government officials.  Of course, there were also notorious attempts by the CIA to kill Fidel himself. And then came the disastrous Bay of Pig’s Invasion in 1961.   
Incredibly, after Cuba charged—accurately—that the U.S. was behind the invasion, U.N. Ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, had the gall to “categorically” deny the allegation:  The United States has committed no offense against Cuba and no offensive action has been launched from Florida or any part of the United States”
As part of the agreement ending the Missile Crisis in the Fall of 1962, President Kennedy pledged that the U.S. would not invade Cuba, but the White House and the CIA continued to support the radical exile groups based in the U.S. intent on using terror and violence to topple Fidel.

According to Landau’s report, for instance, in October 1976, the CIA had information that one of the Cuban exiles linked to them was planning to plant a bomb on a Cuban airliner—but the U.S. never informed the Cuban government. All seventy-three passengers were killed. Altogether, the Cubans estimate that more than three thousand of their people have been died in such terrorist acts.

All this, of course, would have been immediately denounced and  massively  countered by the United States --if such a campaign had been waged against the U.S. or its allies by the likes of Iran, North Korea, Hamas--or Cuba.

On several occasions, Castro attempted to negotiate with the U.S. government. And there were Americans who argued for a change in policy. As John Burton, the former President of the California Senate put it,  “We do business with all sorts of bad quote undemocratic countries without free elections, but we pick on Cuba because we can, because they're small because they're political benefit to doing it in Florida.”
Even after the end of the Cold War, millions of voters in Florida still view the struggle to bring down Castro as a holy crusade, which is the reason no American President—including Obama--has had the guts to change course. In effect, Florida is the only state with its own foreign policy. One of the best comparisons is the lock that the powerful pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. has had on  America’s Mideast policy.

In the face of unrelenting attacks from U.S. territory, Castro’s government did what any government would have done: it dispatched intelligence agents to the U.S. to infiltrate radical exile Cuban groups and thwart their plans.
One of the groups they targeted was “Brothers to the Rescue”, flying small planes out of Florida to buzz Cuban cities, dropping anti-Castro leaflets and propaganda.  According to Landau’s report, the group was also experimenting with weapons that could be fired from the air.
In 1996, Fidel Castro told visiting Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico:  “You’ve got to tell your government to get control of these people.” As Fidel declared, “What would the U.S. do to if the Cubans flew over Washington?  How long would that plane last?” Richardson relayed the message to Morton Halperin point man for Cuba on Clinton’s National Security Council staff. Halperin said he would raise the issue with the FAA. The flights continued.   
Again, a top Cuban official asked Saul Landau to alert Halperin that there would be drastic consequences if the U.S. didn’t stop the flights. According to Landau, Halperin indicated he would have the FAA cancel the licenses of the exile Cuban pilots. But the FAA didn’t. And on February 24,1996 Cuban Migs shot down two of three small Cessnas over international waters, killing their passengers. Clinton, who reportedly had been hoping to loosen American policy towards Cuba, instead was forced by political pressure to further tighten the embargo.
Radical Cuban exile groups also targeted Cuba’s vital tourist industry, warning potential visitors they would turn the island into a free-fire zone. They bombed several Havana hotels, injuring and killing the innocent.
According to Landau, in 1998 Fidel Castro gave a letter to Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez to transmit to President Clinton: to stop the violent exile groups, Cuba would be willing to cooperate with the FBI. An FBI team was dispatched to Havana and the Cubans supplied them with substantial information about exile terrorist activities.
Instead of dismantling those exile groups, the FBI used the information to discover the identities of the undercover agents in Florida working for the Cuban government. On September 12, 1998, five Cuban intelligence officers were arrested in Miami and charged with, among other things, conspiracy to commit espionage and murder. Among the allegations--they had giving the Cuban government the information needed to shoot down the “Brothers” illegal flights.
The Cubans denied that charge, but spent more than a year in solitary confinement and—most important—were denied a motion to move the trial from Dade County, an area seething with anti-Castro sentiment. They were found guilty and received maximum sentences; in the case of one of them, two life sentences without possibility of parole. Last October, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down their appeal to have the trial remanded for change of venue.
A couple of months later, on the other side of the world, a CIA contract operative, Raymond Davis, was arrested by Pakistani authorities after killing two men in Lahore, presumably part of America’s War on Terror. After a barrage of calls to Pakistani officials from the highest levels in the U.S. government and the payment of “blood money” to the murdered men’s relatives, Davis was quietly released to American authorities and spirited out of Pakistan.
 Meanwhile, in Florida the most prominent of the radical Cuban exiles—those proudly linked to the campaign of terrorism against Castro’s Cuba--remain free and the toast of many inside and outside the exile community. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama Bin Laden-Everyone's Missing the Point

A tale of two Arabs: Osama Bin Laden and Mohamed Bouaziziz

The jubilation of Americans and Western leaders at the death of Osama Bin Laden, though understandable, misses the point. In many ways, the figure gunned down in Pakistan was already irrelevant—more a symbol of past dangers than a real threat for the future.

Indeed, from the point of view of America and many of its allies, the most menacing symbol in the Arab World today is not Osama Bin Laden but another Arab who recently met a violent death--Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor who chose to set himself on fire after being harassed by corrupt local police.

His act, of course, ignited the storm that has spread across the Arab World and proven a much more serious threat to America’s allies in the region than Al Qaeda ever was. Ironically, his sacrifice probably also dealt a far more devastating blow to Al Qaeda’s fortunes than the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.  

The Arab world today bears no relationship to the situation a decade ago after 9/11. Obsessed by Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the U.S. has been sucked into a vast quagmire--a disaster for the Americans, their economy, and their standing in the Arab World.  

What particularly provoked Osama Bin Laden—a Saudi--was the decision of Saudi rulers to accept the presence of more than a hundred thousand “infidel” U.S. troops and their allies in Saudi Arabia following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. In general, |he and his followers were outraged by U.S. support for corrupt, repressive regimes from Saudi Arabia, to Egypt to Yemen, as well, of course, for America’s backing of Israel.

As Osama himself  told CNN in 1997, “the U.S. wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents on us to rule us and then wants us to agree to all this, If we refuse to do so, it says we are terrorists…Wherever we look, we find the U.S. as the leader of terrorism and crime in the world.
Bin Laden’s message reverberated throughout the Muslim world. But U.S. officials remained deaf to its meaning, and continued obsessed by Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies. The upshot--U.S. policy was the best recruiter Osama could have asked for. Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, CIA killer teams, mercenaries, predators and, and “diplomats” swarmed across the region from Iraq, to Afghanistan to Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia, supported by sprawling new bases and pharaonic embassies. 

The bill for all this—for an America crippling cutbacks in health, infra-structure. and education-- will be in the trillions of dollars. But despite this massive effort, none of those targeted Arab countries could by any stretch of the imagination be considered a success story. Hostility to the U.S. is high throughout the region. In polls, the majority of those Arabs queried consider the United States a greater threat than Al Qaeda.

In Pakistan, despite the U.S. lavishing tens of billions of dollars on that country’s  military, it turns out that, Osama Bin Laden, rather than groveling as an outlaw in the isolated tribal regions, has been living in a fortified villa near the country’s major military academy and a large army base, just a few miles away from the capital city.

America had also launched an ambitious civilian aid program: 7.5 billion dollar over five years, designed to win Pakistani hearts and minds and bolster the civilian government.  But, corruption is so rife throughout the Pakistani government, and its officials so incompetent, that the U.S. has been unable to disburse most of the aid. As the New York Times reports,

Instead of polishing the tarnished image of America with a suspicious, even hostile, Pakistani public and government, the plan has resulted in bitterness and a sense of broken promises…
The economy is failing. Education, health care and other services are almost nonexistent, while civilian leaders from the landed and industrialist classes pay hardly any taxes.
Pakistanis see the aid as a crude attempt to buy friendship and an effort to alleviate antipathy toward United States drone attacks against militants in the tribal areas.

The same reports come from Afghanistan. A decade after the U.S. invaded, tens of thousands of American troops are still fighting what seems to be, at best, a see–saw battle against the Taliban. There also, according to another report in the New York Times,  the U.S. is backing incompetent, corrupt, unpopular leaders. Millions of dollars of U.S. funds actually get diverted as payoffs to the Taliban and their allies—bribing them not to attack U.S. projects, such as $65 million highway that may never be completed in Eastern Afghanistan.
The vast expenses and unsavory alliances surrounding the highway have become a parable of the corruption and mismanagement that turns so many well-intended development efforts in Afghanistan into sinkholes for the money of American taxpayers, even nine years into the war.

Now back to Mohamed Bouazizi the Tunisian fruit vendor, whose death unleashed the Arab Spring that is still roiling the region,

Though Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda have yet to be credited with overthrowing an Arab regime, the spark provided by Bouazizi has already led to the downfall of  American-backed tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt, and continues to threaten other despots in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.

Ironically, most of the leaders overthrown or desperately trying to hang on to power, had declared themselves implacable enemies of Al Qaeda. Yet, again, it was not Bin Laden but Bouazizi that turned out to be a far greater menace.

Precisely for that reason, it is Mohamed Bouazizi’s Arab Spring, not sophisticated U.S. killer teams, that most threaten Al Qaeda and its allies. By demonstrating that secular uprisings can succeed in toppling the aged, crusty tyrannies, young Arabs across the region have—so far--undercut the appeal of the Islamic radicals.

So far, because despite the early successes in Tunisia and Egypt, the future of the Arab Spring is far from clear. The current process will take decades to play out. The political and economic establishments have been decapitated in Egypt and Tunisia, but not decimated. In the rest of the region, though seriously shaken, the old order still reign supreme. 

The same corrupt Saudi regime that fueled Bin Laden’s outrage is still in power, still backed by the United States. Indeed, they have been doing their utmost to tamp the spreading revolt, spending millions to bribe Yemen’s tribal leaders, dispatching their troops to Bahrain to help crush the uprising of the Shiite majority in that country.

Indeed, that brutal repression may radicalize thousands of young Shiites, generating hosts of new recruits for Al Qaeda or other extremists Islamic groups—even as the corpse of Osama Bin Laden lies somewhere at the bottom of the sea.