Sunday, 23 February 2014

What the hell is Barack Obama's presidency for?

Gary Younge                                     Guardian/UK                            23 February 2014

A few days after John F Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson sat in his kitchen with his key advisers working his first speech to Congress. It was the evening of Kennedy's funeral – Johnson was now president. The nation was still in grief and Johnson, writes Robert Caro in The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, was not yet able to move into the White House because Kennedy's effects were still there.

There was plenty of business to attend to. Johnson's advisers were keen that he introduced himself to the nation as a president who could get things done.  For that reason, writes Caro, they implored him not to push for civil rights in this first speech, since it had no chance of passing. "The presidency has only a certain amount of coinage to expend, and you oughtn't to expend it on this," said "one of the wise, practical people around the table". Johnson, who sat in silence at the table as his aides debated, interjected: "Well, what the hell's the presidency for."

"First," he told Congress a few days later, "no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy's memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long." Over the next five years he would sign the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, launch the war on poverty and introduce Medicaid for low-income families and Medicare for seniors. That's what his presidency was for.

Barack Obama has now been in power for longer than Johnson was, and the question remains: "What the hell's his presidency for?" His second term has been characterised by a profound sense of drift in principle and policy.  If there was a plot, he's lost it. If there was a point, few can remember it. If he had a big idea, he shrank it. If there's a moral compass powerful enough to guide such contradictions to more consistent waters, it is in urgent need of being reset.  Given the barriers to democratic engagement and progressive change in America – gerrymandering, big money and Senate vetoes – we should always be wary of expecting too much from a system designed to deliver precious little to the poor. We should also challenge the illusion that any individual can single-handedly produce progressive change in the absence of a mass movement that can both drive and sustain it.

It was obvious what his election was for. First, preventing the alternative: presidential candidates in the grip of a deeply dysfunctional and reactionary party. His arrival marked a respite from eight years of international isolation, military excess and economic collapse. He stood against fear, exclusion and greed – and won. Second, it helped cohere and mobilise a new progressive coalition that is transforming the electoral landscape. Finally, it proved that despite the country's recent history Americans could elect a black man to its highest office.

So his ascent to power had meaning. It's his presence in power that lacks purpose. The gap between rich and poor and black and white has grown while he's been in the White House, the prospects for immigration reform remain remote, bankers made away with the loot, and Guantánamo's still open. It's true there's a limit to what a president can do about much of this and that Republican intransigence has not helped. But that makes the original question more salient not less: if he can't reunite a divided political culture, which was one of his key pledges, and his powers are that limited, then what is the point of his presidency?

All in all, there's precious little that Obama has done that any of his primary opponents would not have done.  Occasionally, he either gives a lead – like after the shootings at Newtown when he advocated for gun control – or follows one, as in his support for gay marriage or preventing the deportation of young undocumented immigrants, which helps to set a tone. But these interventions are too rare to constitute a narrative.

"If you're going to be president, then I guess you obviously want to be in the history books," said Susan Aylward, a frustrated Obama supporter in Akron, Ohio, shortly before the last election. "So what does he want to be in the history books for? I don't quite know the answer to that yet." Sadly, it seems, neither does he.        [Abridged]

Twitter: @garyyounge

Pluralism was once the hallmark of the Arab world

so the exodus of Christians from the Middle East is painful to one Islamic scholar.  “It is a tragedy and a blow to the basic pride of Arab Islamic civilisation"

Robert Fisk                         Independent/UK                    23 February 2014

Tarif Khalidi is a big, bearded bear of a man, the kind you would always choose to play Father Christmas. But Tarif is an Islamic scholar, the most recent translator of the Koran and author of a wonderful book of Muslim stories about Jesus. I am thus surprised to hear how well this Palestinian from Jerusalem got on with the Imam Musa Sadr, the Shia leader in southern Lebanon who did more to lift his people from squalor than any I can think of – until Colonel Gaddafi had him murdered in Libya in 1978.
“He took on the Christians of Lebanon in an extraordinary manner,” Tarif says. “He revived Islamic interest in Jesus and Mary. He was an extraordinary performer. He almost embraced Christian theology. He would lecture in churches with the cross right behind him!” But as we weave our way between religions, I realise what is grieving this most burly of professors – he teaches at the American University of Beirut – as he speaks slowly and eloquently of the almost biblical exodus of Christians from the Middle East.
“It is a tragedy and a blow to the pride of Arab Islamic civilisation. It is one of the most horrific developments of recent years. If Islamic civilisation has anything to show for itself, it is its record of pluralism and coexistence. I said the other day that if the Nobel Peace Prize had existed hundreds of years ago, it would be awarded to Islamic civilisation. But now the barbarians are at the gates, Christians are killed, nuns are kidnapped” – Tarif is referring to the nuns taken from the Christian Syrian town of Maaloula – “and bishops disappear. This strikes at the very heart of what we stood for.”
I ask him an obvious question. What did it feel like to translate the Koran? The answer comes straight from the shoulder. “I feel a big difference in rhetoric and eloquence. Some parts of it are very moving, very poetical. Other parts are humdrum, prosaic, repetitive. It’s an uneven text.”  He pauses, and then says that “there has not yet been a higher criticism of the Koran. It may happen, but it hasn’t.  Christians indulged in this higher criticism of the Bible at the end of the 19th century. We need, for example, very seriously to re-examine things between men and women. The implication of these things have not been fully explored. Veiling, for instance. You need to re-think basic human rights issues. And what does ‘revelation’ really mean?”
Tarif is not criticising the Koran. Islamic scholars have endured much harassment in the past for suggesting that it is time for Muslims to re-interpret their holy book. I suggest – with some hesitation – that I find Shia Muslims readier to discuss the meaning of the Koran than Sunni Muslims, and Tarif Khalidi agrees at once.  “Shiite clerics get a far more rigorous education than Sunni clerics. They have a solid education in the theological sciences. I think theology is much more alive in the Shia community. Shiites are more theological, Sunnis are legalistic. And the Shiites have their ‘passion story’ about Hussein and Ali. It is an invitation to reflect on the need for justice.”
It is almost a relief to turn to the Middle East today, although Tarif’s response is unexpected. “I think the Middle East is part of a more general epidemic – it’s happening in the Ukraine, in north Africa. It could be a kind of contamination that runs through unstable societies. It’s extremely difficult to differentiate what in each case is going to happen. It’s very sad, the cost is very high in human life. And do you notice how these leaders haven’t said a single word about the casualties among their own people? They talk about reform, elections, a new constitution, but not a word about their own people’s suffering.
Of Egypt, Tarif is a little unkind, especially towards Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president, who could be “described as a clown”. Morsi “was like a man who felt himself parachuted into a job he had only dreamed about. He had been in opposition so long, he didn’t know what to do when he got to power.” Every Egyptian, Tarif suspects, wishes to be a Nasser. I can certainly think of one army officer who would like to try on Nasser’s clothes.
Tarif, I should add, doesn’t buy my line about Christianity dying out in the West. He talks about Americans in the Mid-West and churches filling up because of Pope Francis. Asked by another journalist whether he has taken heat from extremists, Tarif replied that “nobody has challenged me, because most of these fundamentalists are illiterate – so that’s a mercy”.       [Abridged]

Monday, 17 February 2014

Cultural Concerns

by Ian Harris   Otago Daily Times      Jan. 24, 2014

What is this column all about? Doesn’t it undermine Christianity rather than present it as worthy of serious consideration?  Questions such as these keep coming. I am accused of being bent on accommodating Christianity to this secular age rather than have Christianity challenge it, which some feel would be more to the point.

So a priest writes: “It would seem that one of the reasons that Christianity has survived all the ages is that it has not let itself be defined by the age. Instead it has challenged every age without giving in to it.” He questions whether the secular ethos is as widespread as the column implies (“it wouldn’t evoke much sympathy in Maori, Polynesian and Melanesian circles”). Some contemporary attitudes to truth also concern him: “Once we reject the possibility of objective truth, it seems we get into all sorts of difficulties, especially with regard to moral truth.”  Behind the comments lies a clear view of what Christianity, the secular ethos and truth really comprise.

There are problems, however, in regarding Christianity as a package of fixed beliefs and practices. One is that certain beliefs and practices which one church says are indispensable, such as the baptism of adults only or what exactly happens in the Catholic mass, are rejected as wrong-headed or mystical nonsense by another. Appeals to the Bible, divine authority or a church’s tradition will convince only those for whom they are already persuasive.

Another problem is the gulf that yawns both within and between churches on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality and war. Proclaiming the finality of one’s own moral convictions does not necessarily make them true and unchangeable for all time. Once, for example, it was a religious duty to stone adulterers and burn witches, but not any more.

So it seems to me more fruitful to think of Christianity as a broad religious and cultural stream. Christians are then truest to their religious and cultural heritage when they follow the age-old process of tracing the source of that stream, tapping deep into it, and finding ways of expressing it in terms of their culture and worldview – which for 21st-century westerners happens to be secular.  The alternative is to keep expressing their faith in terms of ancient Greek culture (the creeds), or Roman culture (authority), or medieval culture (the superstition and the magic of a spirit world). That looks less like keeping the faith than keeping fossils warm.

Instead, let’s accept that the past 400 years have happened, and interpret the core tradition accordingly. Then Christianity might have some hope of challenging – and enriching – the life of our secular age.  That may puzzle those who think of the secular as inherently hostile to religion. It simply is not – a better word for that stance is “secularist”.

In the original, neutral sense of the word, “secular” refers to this time or age, without invoking a supernatural or spirit world beyond them. It is in this world of space and time that people experience their religious reality and shape their religious practices. “Secular” is therefore not hostile to religion, but merely describes its setting. The secular then becomes the context for thinking and acting with religious integrity.

As for other cultures, they must also be free to tap deep into the Judaeo-Christian (or any other) tradition and find their own cultural ways of expressing it. There has been talk in New Zealand of a Maori response to the gospel. If a Maori response, why not a Pakeha response? And if, as in western society generally, our Pakeha culture has become predominantly secular, why not a secular response?

In a globalising world, signs are that Maori, Pacific Islanders, Melanesians and others will increasingly be exposed to the influences that have produced the secular outlook of the West. To the extent that they accept those secular understandings, they too will become aware of a dissonance between their old ways and the implications of the new.  That can be painful. It has certainly been painful for countless westerners brought up in traditional ways. Many find the old patterns no longer sustain them, yet see their churches more intent on building fences to protect past formulations than leading them into faith’s new age.

Some people, however, are adjusting, or at least they are willing to explore the possibilities which the secular terrain opens up. If they can do some worthwhile groundwork, people of other cultures may find some useful guideposts already in place when they come to the same religious crossroads.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The world cannot turn a blind eye to America’s drone attacks in Pakistan

Robert Fisk                 Independent/UK                         February 2014

Karim Khan is a lucky man. When you’re picked up by 20 armed thugs, some in police uniform – aka the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – you can be “disappeared” forever. A mass grave in Balochistan, in the south-west of the country, has just been found, filled with the “missing” from previous arrests. But eight days after he was lifted and, by his own testimony, that of his lawyer Shasad Akbar and the marks still visible on his body, tortured, Mr Khan is back at his Pakistani home. His crime: complaining about US drone attacks – American missiles fired by pilotless aircraft – on civilians inside Pakistan in President Obama’s Strangelove-style operation against al-Qa’ida.
There are, as the cops would say, several facts “pertaining” to Mr Khan’s kidnapping. Firstly, his son Hafiz, his brother Asif and another man – a stonemason called Khaliq– were killed by a drone attack on Mr Khan’s home in December 2009. Secondly, he had filed a legal case in Pakistan against the American drone strikes, arguing that they constituted murder under domestic law. And thirdly – perhaps Mr Khan’s most serious crime – he was about to leave for Brussels to address European Union parliamentarians on the dangers of American drone strikes in Pakistan.
Thanks to constant reports of his kidnapping in the courageous Pakistani media and to the Rawalpindi bench of the Lahore High Court who ordered the Pakistani government to produce Karim Khan by next Thursday, the anti-drone campaigner is safe. For the moment.
But this is going to set the world on fire. The “drone war”, as American journalists inevitably call it – after all, it’s not as if al-Qa’ida or the innocent victims are firing back with drones of their own – started under George W Bush, but most of the attacks, 384 of them since 2008, have been authorised by Mr Obama. The statistics of civilian deaths fluctuate wildly since most of the missiles are fired into the Pakistani frontier districts in which the government has little power. The minimum figure for civilian victims is almost 300 dead – some say almost 900 – out of a total of 2,500 killed. At least 50 people are believed to have been killed in follow-up strikes which slaughtered those going to the rescue of the wounded.
Of course, the drone syndrome has spread across the Middle East. The missiles rain down on al-Qa’ida and civilians alike in Yemen. The Israelis fired them into Lebanon in 2006; the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported 825 deaths from Israeli drones during the 2008-09 war, a large percentage of them civilians. Pakistani witnesses have told me that the missiles don’t just appear suddenly in the sky. The drones arrive in clusters – 10 or 12 at a time, circling villages for an hour or two – a looking for targets on behalf of their “pilots” in the United States. Until at least 2009, the Americans flew drones – the most impressive was called the Reaper – from air bases inside Pakistan. Hence the sensitivities of the boys from the ISI and their irritation with Karim Khan.
The ethical disgrace of the drone syndrome is not that Mr Obama – or some US officer near Las Vegas – decides on the basis of satellite pictures, mobile phone calls, numbers dialled and the speed of vehicles, who should live or die. The really shameful aspect is that the drone war has become normal, boring, banal, matter-of-fact.
It was just the same in the 1990s.  In the eight months up to August 1999, US and British pilots had fired more than 1,100 missiles against 359 Iraqi targets. As well as anti-aircraft batteries, oil pipelines were blown up, storage depots destroyed and dozens of civilians killed. But each air raid was merely “nibbed” in our newspapers – a nib is a single paragraph in an inside-page News in Brief column – so that an entire air campaign was effectively carried out behind the backs of the US and British public in the years before the 2003 invasion.
In southern Lebanon, the Israelis controlled for 28 years a torture prison at Khiam for insurgents and their families. Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the International Red Cross complained. But I will always remember the words of a Swiss Red Cross official when I asked him, within sight of Khiam, why the world did not condemn this dreadful place. “It has become normal,” he replied.

And that’s it. Kill or torture often enough, over a long enough time – not too many massacres, just a dribble of deaths over months and years – and you’ll get away with it. If you kill the bad guys, it’s OK. Pity about the rest. Just make sure that the war is sufficiently prosaic, and don’t listen to Karim Khan.        [Abridged]

Every family has first world war memories. These are mine

Polly Toynbee                               Guardian/UK                            14 February, 2014

History is there to be mined or undermined, renewed or debunked, as each generation ferrets out illumination for their times. The first world war is this year's crucible for re-examining ourselves.
This week's revival of Joan Littlewood's Oh What a Lovely War at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, comes 50 years after I saw it at the age of 16, as part of a group from the National Youth Theatre. We were harrowed, bowled over, dazzled and shocked – and this brilliant reprise shows that age does not wither it. 

What keeps it electric is those songs from the trenches: tough, wry, pithy, cynical about the top brass, authentic soldiers' voices that are rude, unsentimental and Britishly stoical. Nor are these the same bleak voices of the intellectual war poets, though they tell the same story, as ticker-tape flashes up deaths by the hundreds of thousands and the few yards gained.

Back in 1963 that production opened the box on what seemed to us olden days. We of the post-second world war "baby bulge" heard our parents tell of blitz and rations, but this turned us to look at our grandparents anew. What did they do? Wars sweep up every family, private stories as part of great national events: peacetime offers no such galvanising markers. Every one of us has tales to tell. As the Guardian calls for family memories, these are mine.

One uncle, aged just 14, was turfed out of naval college straight off to Gallipoli, where his older brother died – but he survived. My two grandfathers were both left deeply scarred, in quite different ways. One, George Powell, was a professional soldier, a guards officer shipped out to France from the outset. In one battle he was shelled and buried alive for a day and a night, until dug out by the straggling remains of his unit. His wounds were slight, his shell-shock serious, but he was sent back to the front. In one battle the whistle blew but he failed to lead his men over the top in yet another push towards the barbed wire. Why? Was it revulsion at futile slaughter, was it cowardice – or just paralytic shock? Whichever, it was hushed up and he was honorably demobbed in 1919.

I just remember him, a red-faced blimp, blustering about military or political strategy. Years later my mother told of his secret scars. In the Guards Club he would play cards, but if ever he began to win, others at the table would whisper the name of the battle where he lost his nerve/saved his men, until he put down his cards and slipped away.
My other grandfather, the historian Arnold Toynbee, was deeply scarred too.  At 25 he ducked, not a conscientious objector but too afraid of army life to sign up. His biographer exposes the number of times he pretended to volunteer, but turned up with doctors' letters declaring him unfit. Employed in the Foreign Office, he wrote propaganda pamphlets such as The Terrible Tyranny of the Turk (later greatly repented), his job declared essential war work.

But he did show the white feather, seared for ever after by the death of his friends. Others have their family stories of heroism, misery, bravery medals earned – or, as with Siegfried Sassoon, a curious mix of both.

Views of the war shift with the times. Arnold was pro-war, from a liberal perspective: "The only way to convince Germany that war is not in her interest is to beat her badly and then treat her well" – a failed enterprise if ever there was. He was a delegate to the 1919 Versailles conference and advocate of the League of Nations. That was the era when the great war was The War to End Wars, an "end of history" moment when it could seem world-changingly worthwhile. But once it dwindled into a mere "first" of two world wars plus a cold war, causing the rise of Hitler and all that flowed from that, any simple reason why was lost in the mud.
Littlewood caught the mood for many teenagers in 1963. Those of us who marched with CND felt the imminence of a nuclear war to end all life. The Vietnam war had passed the point of no return, with 16,000 US "advisers" already there. Korea, Malaya, colonial repressions, the Falklands … no day since has lacked British troops at war.

In his war of attrition, Field Marshal Haig barked: "There must be no squeamishness over losses" – as every leader always must in any war. But have Afghanistan and Iraq been our wars to end all (British) warring? Unvanquished, unoccupied since 1066, what will our militaristic sabre-rattlers do with perpetual peace? Exaggerate the drama of rainstorms, aggrandise the tragic miners' strike and inflate small riots, as playwrights and novelists secretly yearn for epic generation-defining moments. Absence of war is a fine thing, if only we knew what to do with it. We will need grand unifying endeavours to replace those grand national sacrifices.          [Abridged]

Sadness and Anger at the 9/11 Memorial

Memory of victim and a visit to lower Manhattan prompts reflections on attacks
By Gary Olson                 Common Dreams                           February 10, 2014
The name of Noel John Foster, a Moravian College graduate and my former student, who was killed in the terrorist attack in New York City on 9/11, appears on the memorial at ground zero.  Noel worked on the 99th floor of 2 World Trade Center (the south tower), and when the occupants began rushing to exit the building, he remained behind to aid others, including a friend with a broken leg attempting to descend the stairs. Witnesses reported seeing Noel on the 65th floor and finally on the 40th floor, still attending to the injured man. When the building collapsed, Noel paid the price for his heroic humanity.

As I explored the memorial site. I was also prompted to wonder whether it's now possible for Americans to simultaneously grapple with two basic truths. The first, of course, is that the 9/11 attack was an unconscionable crime against humanity. The second, and more difficult, requires responding to the question posed by the ate historian Howard Zinn: "In what ways has American foreign policy inflamed and antagonized people all over the world to the point of creating terrorists?"  I suspect that Martin Luther King would not have been surprised by what occurred on Sept. 11. King solemnly warned of the virtually certain consequences, what's now termed "blowback," including the physical and mental toll on U.S. troops tasked with brutally maintaining an American empire.  In 2014, we know that young veterans' suicides spiked 44 percent from 2009 to 2011 and currently 22 vets commit suicide every day.

As I walked north from lower Manhattan, my lingering sadness was once again joined by another, competing emotion — intense anger at the complicity of Washington policymakers whose global behavior placed Noel in harm's way.
Have we learned that these policies continue unabated and cause festering resentment in the wake of official state violence emanating from terrorists in business suits?
Our government has absolutely no interest in informing the public about any of this critically important larger context. That self-education requires Americans to engage in some fearless, independent and scrupulous soul searching — and then act on that knowledge.
Accepting that responsibility is the most appropriate 9/11 tribute to Noel and all the others.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Gary Olson, Ph.D. Is chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA.

The Trillion Dollar Road to Armageddon

byIra Helfand and Robert Dodge        Published on February 8, 2014 by Common Dreams

In March of last year the Norwegian government convened a gathering of 129 nations in Oslo for a two-day Conference on the Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear War. This week there will be a follow up meeting in Mexico to further examine the scientific data now available documenting the devastating global impact of even a very limited use of these weapons.
The United States and the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, who together possess 98% of the world’s nuclear weapons, boycotted the Oslo meeting and have not yet indicated if they will attend the meeting in Mexico. In a joint statement issued before the Oslo meeting, the P5, as they are called, said that a conference that examined what will actually happen if nuclear weapons are used would somehow “distract” them from their efforts to reduce the nuclear danger.
The administration has expressed particular concern that these conferences will somehow endanger the 1968 Non Proliferation Treaty, which makes it illegal for states which do not possess nuclear weapons to build them. But Article VI of the NPT also requires the existing nuclear powers to engage in good faith negotiations to eliminate their own nuclear arsenals.
A recent statement by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sheds light on the real threat to the NPT. Speaking after a tour of nuclear weapons facilities in Albuquerque earlier this month, Hagel called for the US to 'upgrade' its nuclear warheads and the submarines, bombers and missiles that deliver them.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated in late December these plans would cost $355 billion over the next decade. The Center for Nonproliferation Studies predicts the new weapons will cost $1 trillion over 30 years.  Meanwhile, the Russians are in the middle of a similar major upgrade of their nuclear forces.
So while asking the non-nuclear weapons states to respect the NPT and refrain from building nuclear weapons, the two main nuclear powers are ignoring their responsibilities under the treaty and expending vast sums of money they cannot afford to make sure they have thousands of nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.
And this is the problem: the system of nuclear apartheid, where some nations possess nuclear weapons and others are forbidden to have them, is increasingly unacceptable to the non-nuclear weapons states. These nations do not want to build nuclear weapons of their own. They want the nuclear powers to stop holding them hostage and putting the safety of the whole world at risk with the weapons they already possess.
This concern has indeed been fueled by the growing understanding of the actual effects of nuclear weapons, particularly the recent reports that have shown that even a very limited, regional nuclear war would have catastrophic weather, contamination, crop loss, and famine consequences worldwide, likely killing billions of people. The weapons on a single US Trident submarine can produce this global catastrophe; we have 14 of them.

The US and Russia claim the world does not have to worry about their nuclear weapons — they will never be used. Around the world, it is an argument that persuades few. If there is no chance these weapons will ever be used, why would we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on them? Even if they are not used deliberately, there exists the very real threat of an accidental war. We know of at least five occasions in the last 35 years when either Moscow or Washington prepared to launch a nuclear war in the mistaken belief that it was itself under attack. And a terrorist cyber attack could lead to the unauthorized launch of these weapons.
We are at a fundamental decision point with respect to nuclear weapons. We can begin negotiations with the other nuclear powers to eliminate our nuclear arsenals and prevent the proliferation of these weapons across the planet. Or we can spend a trillion dollars to extend our nuclear arsenal and send a clear message to the rest of the world that they should build nuclear weapons, too.
The US should stop insisting that the non-nuclear nations trust us and do as we say and not do as we do. We need to lead by example and seek the security of a world without nuclear weapons. The US should attend the Mexico meeting and give leadership to the growing international movement to negotiate a treaty to eliminate these weapons once and for all.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Dr. Ira Helfand is an internist and co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and a past president of the organization’s U.S. affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility ( He is the author of the new report “Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk?”

Dr. Robert Dodge is a family practice physician in Ventura, California. He became active in the peace movement as a college student at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the 1970′s where he majored in molecular, cellular and developmental biology. He is a Board Member and Nuclear Ambassador of, Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles (,and Board Member of Beyond War (

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Diplomatic Channels

Dialogue taking place behind the scenes now will shape Syria’s civil war

Kim Sengupta                   Independent/UK                     3 February 2014

As Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, ranted at the start of the Geneva peace talks, repeatedly shouting down UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s protestations that he was way over the allocated time, another person on the panel could be seen tapping his wristwatch. The man with the expression of exasperation on his face was Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister of Russia, the power that has kept Bashar al-Assad’s regime from collapse.
A few days later Mr Lavrov was stating that a humanitarian aid convoy, blocked by the regime, should be allowed in for the people trapped in Homs. A few days after that came the news that the head of the Syrian opposition has been invited to Moscow for talks. Ahmad Jarba, in turn, was eager to assure Russia that the “historic” ties between the two countries will continue long after Mr Assad has gone.
As the talks in Geneva adjourned last week there are readjustments, small but important, in the international realpolitik behind the Syrian civil war. Calculations are being made as the conflict enters its third year about gains and losses, what can be salvaged by who after the bloodshed ends.  The UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi was entirely justified in saying the fact that the two sides turned up to talk was itself a huge achievement. That they did so sitting in the same room without trying to brain each other. Neither side stormed off.  There has not been, of course, a sudden outbreak of amity. They were there because of heavy pressure from their foreign backers.
American and British diplomats acknowledge that Geneva II would not have taken place, and President Assad would not have given up his chemical arsenal, had it not been for the Russians. The opposition, too, now recognises the advantage of cultivating the Kremlin. Mr Jarba holds: “our relations will be maintained with Russia.” This will include, he added, Moscow keeping its only Mediterranean port of Tartus.
The outside backers of the two sides are also talking to each other. Perhaps the most significant is the rapprochement with Turkey. As guests of the Indonesian government in the Bali Democracy Forum of international leaders, in November 2012, I watched as Mr Erdogan refused even to look at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he lashed the Assad regime and its backers over the conflict.

Last week Mr Erdogan, in his visit to Iran, spoke effusively about his hosts. Although the primary focus was economic, Syria was also under discussion. Afterwards, the Turkish Prime Minister stressed his foreign ministry will liaise with its Tehran counterparts; the Iranian government had expressed deep concern, he said, about extremists going into Syria through Turkey.  Security agencies have now begun to make arrests. The dialogues taking place behind the scenes now will shape the alliances being formed over Syria’s second civil war.            [Abridged]

Pete Seeger: Character and Personality

By Ralph Nader                  Common Dreams                   February 1, 2014

After 94 years, on January 27, 2014, the world lost Pete Seeger. The world is the lesser for that loss. The accolades for this giant of folk songs and herald of all causes just are pouring in from around the world. He is celebrated for regularly showing up at mass protests, for singing songs so transcendent (This Land is Your Land; We Shall Overcome; Where Have All the Flowers Gone) they are sung in many foreign languages all over the earth, and for his mentoring and motivating of millions of people and children.

No less than the Wall Street Journal, after reprinting an ugly commentary on Seeger’s earlier radicalism, wrote: “troubadour, rabble rouser, thorn in the side of the bloated and complacent, Seeger maintained what Mr. Springsteen called his ‘nasty optimism’ until late in life.”  He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience.”
The man’s character shone when he was subpoenaed before the powerful House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in August 1955, along with other outspoken entertainers and actors, he refused to take the easier way out and invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination. Instead, he made himself vulnerable to later prosecution by pleading the First Amendment and his right to free speech, petition and assembly.
After rejecting the Committee’s probe about whom he associated with politically and his beliefs, he suggested that they discuss the music that the committee members found so objectionable. He offered unsuccessfully to sing his songs, then and there, before the startled politicians.  “I think,” he told them, “these are very improper questions for any American to be asked especially under such compulsion as this.” In those days, that was an astounding act of courageous character.
He paid the price, when he was prosecuted and convicted before winning his appeal. In those years of “commie symps” witch-hunts by McCarthyite zealots, his career nearly collapsed. Television networks banned him for over a decade; record companies shunned him; concerts dwindled. So what did he do? He continued recording, touring among everyday people around the country, learning music from them and singing on street corners, at union halls, churches, schools and what he called “hobo jungles.”
His resilience in overcoming setbacks, ideological adversaries and smear specialists was legendary. That was because he never let his ego get in the way and wear him down and he recognized the big picture of social change and how he could use his stardom to amplify the people’s efforts for peace, justice, the environment and other necessities of the good life. It helped mightily that he was married to the stalwart Toshi for seventy years.
“The key to the future of the world,” he remarked in 1994, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.” In 2009, he said his task was “to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.” He placed his greatest hope in women wisely teaching their children. He won a Grammy for his album, “Tomorrow’s Children.”
Musselman quotes Seeger as saying, “Nelson Mandela went from prison to the presidency of his country without a shot being fired. The Berlin Wall came down without a shot being fired. And did anybody think there would be peace in Northern Ireland? There is always hope when it comes to unlikely social change.”