Archive for August, 2013


In Syria, Weapons of Mass Destruction Redux – A Brief Analysis (28 August 2013) by Lawrence Davidson


 Damascus Under Fire


If you ever doubted the erosion of popular democracy in the U.S., the next few weeks should set you straight. The simple fact is that the voting population is the main “constituency” of politicians only at election time. Right now it is reported that approximately 60% of that constituency does not want the U.S. to attack Syria. However, it is not election time. In the post-election period, the politician’s real constituency becomes special interests, some of which are rich enough and influential enough to substitute their own parochial interests for the interests of the nation. There are a bunch of them which are now anxious for an attack on Syria.  


The media is presently rife with reports that the U.S. government, along with other countries like the UK and France, operating with the blessing of the so-called Arab League (which has become little more than a front operation for the Gulf Arabs), are going to militarily strike Syria in just a matter of days. This will be done to supposedly punish that country for the alleged use of chemical weapons in its ongoing civil war. The U.S. government keeps saying they are sure the Assad government carried out this attack, but where are they getting their information?  Well, that is rather shady.  Washington won’t really say, but one can guess at the most likely sources. These might well be: (1) the rebels fighting against the Damascus regime (a great source of disinformation), (2) Israeli and Saudi “intelligence” (the Israelis have supplied Washington with supposedly genuine communication intercepts “proving” the Chemical attack was ordered by Damascus), and (3) “independent medical personnel” in the area who have allegedly blamed the government. Like the rest of the government’s sources these medical accusers have not been named, and as far as I can determine, the only reliable source of this kind, the organization Doctors without Borders (DWB), has said that they cannot pinpoint the source of the attack. 


Even though all of these sources (with the exception of DWB) are prejudiced against the Assad regime and would not hesitate to censor, alter and outright fake evidence, Washington is “sure enough” of the Syrian government’s guilt to position naval vessels with cruise missiles off the coast of Syria. The capacity of those missiles to kill civilians is as great or greater than any weapon in the field in Syria.


 If this all sounds familiar, it is because it is roughly the same scenario played out by the Bush administration in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. In that case, the “weapons of mass destruction” Mr. Bush and his cronies told us about for months on end turned out to be products of the administration’s overwrought imagination. This is not the kind of precedent that builds confidence in the D.C. policy makers.  


If this military intervention does take place (probably right after the UN weapons inspectors leave the country), it will confirm not only the strength of special interests (the usual suspect here is the Zionist lobby) but also the corruptive consequences of that influence on the entire foreign policy making process. That Obama can be brought to repeat the fatal stupidities of Bush so soon shows that all reference to peace and security as a goal for the nation are gone and the groundwork for future 9/11s is being laid with stubborn disregard for past mistakes. 


The average citizen is not going to know what is going on except through the mass media, and we know that most of these outlets will, de facto, follow a conventional government line. Journalistic investigation of policy formation, at least among the mass media, is in abeyance in this country. For that insight you have to go to such Web sources as Consortium News, Truthout, Media With a Conscience, Brave New World and Counterpunch, among others, and only a tiny percentage of the population does so. So public opinion is readily manipulated and managed. 


Is our situation in this regard as bad as some of the countries we scorn for having no free speech and no “independent” media? Maybe not. However, that is because our politicians and bureaucrats have found subtler, velvet-gloved ways of filling our brains with propaganda. Who knows, President Obama, like his predecessor, might be the biggest true believer of them all in this latest story involving “weapons of mass destruction.”  Of course, in this case, someone used them, but Washington probably doesn’t really know who, and, in the end, probably doesn’t care. 

Taking Sides In Egypt – An Analysis (25 August 2013) by Lawrence Davidson  


Abdel Fattah el Sisi announcing the overthrow of the elected government


Part I – Historical Precedents


There are a series of historical precedents that can give us insight into the problems now seen in Egypt. These precedents are from both the West and the Middle East. Both are relevant because the conflict in Egypt has modern structural qualities that are transcultural. Among others, these qualities are: a traditional military caste allied to a reactionary police force, to a reactionary judiciary and to “big business” elements; a middle class most of whose members have a stated aspiration for both stability and a democratic society; and a bete noire (dark beast) factor – a fear shared by the first two groups of a third group. In the European/U.S. context this bete noire group is usually identified as a politically organized left designated as Communist. In the context of the Middle East this role is usually played by politically active Islamist organizations. In both cases the bete noire element may represent a significant portion of the population.


Here are two examples, one from the West and one from the Middle East, of how precedents involving these transcultural structural elements played themselves out. In both cases the consequences were horrific. After setting these out we will see how these precedents shed light on the current Egyptian situation. 


Part II – The Weimar Republic 1919


The Weimar Republic came into being in Germany at the end of World War I, when Germany had fallen into chaos. Due to pressure from the victorious Allies the monarchical government collapsed and a new republican government, the Weimar Republic, came into being. However, while the German monarch (the Kaiser) went into exile in the Netherlands, the old government’s authoritarian bureaucracies stayed behind. These included a reactionary military officer corps as well as an entrenched reactionary police and court system. On the left of the political spectrum was a strong Communist movement. In the middle were a number of parties of moderate democratic temperament which soon formed the majority in the Weimar Republic’s Reichstag, or parliament.   


In the chaotic conditions that prevailed, the Weimar leaders mistakenly assumed the loyalty of the bureaucracies of the monarchical era would transfer to the new democratic government. Thus they made no attempt to purge their reactionary elements. This turned out to be a fatal error.


It was also the case that the democratic government and most of its supporters (there were but few exceptions) feared the left more than the right. The reactionary bureaucracies hated the left but also had no love for the democrats. Ultimately, the democratic parties acquiesced in the often extralegal and violent actions the reactionary right took to destroy the left. Once the Communists had been destroyed the democratic forces, including the government itself, had no leverage against the armed and ascendant right. Within a short time democracy was dead in Germany.


For our purposes, the important points to remember about the Weimar Republic are: Most of the German democrats, when confronted by a choice between a reactionary right and the politically active left chose a de facto alliance with the right. Also, in the case of Weimar, the rightist reactionary mentality was already institutionalized in the army, police, and courts. 


Some would say that this is the way things had to be to save Germany from Communism which would have established its own harsh authoritarian system. However, this was never a necessary outcome and Germany’s democratic forces could have made other alliances than the one with the reactionary right. Of course, that did not happen, so we will never know where such an alternative path would have led.      


Part III – Algeria 1991


In December of 1991 free multiparty elections were held in Algeria for the first time since the country had gained independence from France. The election was to be held in two rounds, but was never completed. The first round was won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), and this same Islamist party was seen as the certain winner of the second round. Because of that expectation, the Algerian military led by a rightist officer corps with no respect for democracy stepped in, canceled the election, and appointed its own “government.” The military also began arresting thousands of Islamists; so many that the jails could not hold them all, and internment camps were set up in the Sahara Desert. This strategy of mass arrests effectively eliminated the moderate wing of the FIS and left the more violent and often brutal Islamists to fight an equally brutal and violent secular regime. Many who backed the military were known as les eradicateurs (the eradicators), those who refused all compromise with the Islamists and simply sought their eradication. What followed was a horrendous civil war and the deaths of tens of thousands of Algerians. 


The Algerian military coup against the democratic process was supported by many of the Algerian middle class who saw themselves as Francophiles (that is, more culturally French than Algerian Arab). In principle they would have preferred a democracy, but not one that brought Islamists to power. If they had to choose between an Islamist democracy and a reactionary right-wing dictatorship, they would, with but few exceptions, opt for the latter.  


At the time some claimed that a free election won by moderate Islamists would not really result in democratic government. They claimed that the FIS would change the country’s constitution and then cancel all future elections – the “one election, one time” phenomenon. However, while those who supported the coup asserted this, they did not know it would be so. And, because of the military dictatorship that resulted from the coup, new elections would not be held for twenty years.


Part IV – Egypt 2013


Most Egyptians, religious and secular (the exceptions were the military officer corps, elements of the police and judiciary, and some of the business class), wanted the thirty-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak replaced by democracy. Using the tactic of mass demonstrations, both secular and Islamist organizations managed to get rid of the dictator in February 2011 and scare the military into allowing a process that led to free and fair elections. 


Those elections were won by Muhammad Morsi, who was a follower of the Muslim Brotherhood, and an array of Islamist legislative delegates. Morsi and his government began the process of creating a new constitution for the country that reflected the Islamic nature of their victory. This was a work in progress and there may ultimately have been room for compromise, particularly as Morsi became aware of the strength of the secular opposition. It is estimated that some 54% of Egyptians would like to see democracy on the present Turkish model, “a secular republic currently being successfully ruled by moderate Islamists.”  


We will never know if such an evolutionary direction was possible under Morsi. What many of the secular democrats of Egypt (transformed into the “Egyptian mainstream” by many media outlets) saw in his victory was not the potential of an evolutionary democratic process leading to the Turkish model, but rather the prelude to a quick emulation of Iran.  


Almost immediately upon election, the Morsi government met resistance and sabotage. As had happened with the Weimar Republic, The new government inherited a court system, police establishment and military that were the creatures of the old authoritarian regime. These bureaucracies had no loyalty to the Egypt’s elected government, as can be seen by the fact that the economic and internal security situation within the country immediately deteriorated. Artificial shortages of important goods, such as gasoline, appeared. The crime rate started to climb as the police presence on the streets became sparse. The legitimacy of the new government was repeatedly challenged and always through a court system full of judges appointed by the prior dictatorship.   


Most importantly, the secular organizations (such as Tamaroud and the June 30 Movement) which had helped dislodge Mubarak now decided that they were unwilling to accept the results of a free election in which the wrong party had won. They convinced themselves, as had happened in Algeria, that an Islamist government would never allow another free and fair election. They did not know this to be the case, but fear made the assumption seem an inevitable truth.  


A host of rationalizations followed: the entire Muslim Brotherhood has been characterized as a terrorist organization because some protestors attacked Christian churches and police stations, and the responsibility for hundreds of dead unarmed protestors has been laid at the feet of “armed Islamists” who first attacked soldiers who were just trying to keep order, and all those deaths are really the demonstrators’ fault because they did not disperse even though they knew the military would come and attack them, and the Morsi government, by definition theocratic in nature, had to be the death knell of democracy in Egypt. 


Thus the secular democrat organizations of Egypt decided to support the brutal actions taken by reactionary military and police establishments to destroy not only the government, but also the bete noire of political Islam. With but too few exceptions, their followers cheered as the election was overturned, and they naively believed the assurances of the military leader, Abdel Fattah el Sisi’s, that after Morsi was done away with, the military would bring them “real” democracy (an idealistic 33-point liberal constitution was produced but never implemented). In this way the secular democratic groups who helped bring down one dictatorship provided cover for the return of the same sort of dictatorship with different faces.   


In doing so the Egyptian democrats helped open Pandora’s box. Following the Algerian model, the army swept in and arrested almost all the moderate leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. This only opened space for more violent Islamist elements and began an erosion of the Brotherhood’s chain of command. Thus we saw the attacks on the Coptic churches, police stations, government buildings, and soldiers and police in the Sinai area. Despite this, the wonder is that the vast majority of Egyptian Islamists have stayed nonviolent even now. We do not know if this restraint will last. 


Part V – Conclusion


Why would the democratic elements of society ally themselves with the reactionary right? Why wouldn’t they see a dictatorship of the right as their bete noire? The reason may have to do with a long period of cultural conditioning. In the modern history of both the West and Egypt, the largely middle-class democratic elements we are considering have embraced much the same values and lifestyle. They have both also been culturally conditioned to see the greatest danger to their idealized society as coming from somewhere other than the reactionary right. 


In the West the democrats have been conditioned by a capitalist culture to believe that the bete noire comes from the specter of Communism. The Egyptian democratic middle-class, which is largely a secular group that has taken on Western values, hasn’t got the same historical fear of Communism as those in the West. However, they have long considered Islam and its Sharia law as an archaic and potentially totalitarian force that could destroy their political and cultural ideals.  


Of course, there are real dangers to democratic values and practices coming from both these sources. Yet, in having become so sensitized to Communism and political Islam, the democrats of both the West and Egypt have failed to develop sufficient sensitivity to the threat from the right. So much so that many of them willingly ally with reactionary forces at the first sign of political success of that other third force, their respective bete noire. 


Facing a feared maybe of a theocratic state, the secular democratic forces of Egypt rushed headlong into the certainty of a renewed military dictatorship operating behind civilian front men. They have also brought on the possibility of years of civil strife. If only these democrats had looked for the precedents, they would have known that the probability of this outcome was high. Yet apparently they did not stop to consider this. “Ignorantia est semper periculosum principium.”  Ignorance is always a dangerous starting point.

Bad Precedent and Bad Faith – An Analysis (15 August 2013) by Lawrence Davidson



Part I – Hedges v. Obama


Back in January of 2012 a lawsuit, organized by activist Tangerine Bolen (who also did the fundraising that made the legal effort possible) involving multiple plaintiffs including former war correspondent Christopher Hedges was filed in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Specifically, the suit called into question the Act’s Section 1021(b)(2), which allows for indefinite detention by the U.S. military of people “who are part of or substantially support Al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces engaged in hostilities against the United States.” This detention denies those held of the ability to “contest the allegations against them because they have no right to be notified of the specific charges against them.” In this suit filed by Hedges et al., the issue in question was the vagueness of the terms “substantially support” and “associated forces.” For instance, could this vagueness lead to apprehension and detention of journalists who publish interviews with members of Al Qaeda or the Taliban? Could it lead to the same treatment against political activists protesting U.S. policies against these or “associated” groups?


The case, now designated Hedges v. Obama, was initially heard in New York District Court by Judge Katherine Forrest. The plaintiffs claimed that the NDAA violated the 1st (free speech), 5th (due process as well as the stipulation that people must be able to understand what actions break the law) and 14th (equal protection) Amendments to the Constitution. To address the question Judge Forrest asked the government lawyers if they could assure the court that the activities of the plaintiffs would not result in indefinite detention under the act. If they could give such assurances it would, as far as the judge was concerned, eliminate the plaintiff’s “standing” to challenge the law. 


The government lawyers refused to give those assurances, and as a result, the judge concluded, “The definitions of ‘substantially supported’ and ‘associated forces’ were so vague that a reporter or activist could not be sure they would not be covered under the provision.” This, in turn, would result in what the plaintiffs considered a “chilling effect on free speech and freedom of the press.” Therefore, in September 2012, the Judge granted a permanent injunction against the practice of indefinite detention as put forth in NDAA.


There is no evidence that the U.S. government ever complied with this injunction, and its lawyers immediately appealed the ruling to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. When the case was heard in this court, the U.S. Justice Department suddenly came up with the assurances it refused to give only weeks before. In part it was because of these assurances that the appeals court decided to overturn Forrest’s ruling and grant a permanent stay of her injunction. In one of its interim rulings, the appeals court observed, “Since the U.S. government has promised that citizens, journalists, and activists were not in danger of being detained as a result of NDAA, it was unnecessary to block the enforcement of 102 (b)(2) of the NDAA.” However, as Carl Mayer, the lawyer for Christopher Hedges, had noted earlier, “The government has not put in any evidence. They just keep making these broad assurances. It’s all a ‘trust us’ proceeding.” And trust them is exactly what the appellate judges did. The appeals court’s final ruling in favor of the government was given on 17 July 2013.


Part II – Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project


One can seriously ask, is any government that trustworthy? Particularly those governments that see themselves at endless war with shadowy enemies and which claim the need for “broad executive war powers” to wage the struggle. One of the reasons that the rule of law is so important is just because there must be limits to behavior for everyone, including the rule makers. Usually the rules that hold governments in check are set forth in constitutions. Laws formulated by branches of U.S. government should explicitly comply with the U.S. Constitution, not just promise to do so. 


Despite the naive faith of the Second Circuit judges in the verbal assurances of government lawyers that the NDAA will be enforced in a constitutional manner, there is evidence that such assurances cannot be trusted. Government personnel seem not to have enough objectivity and simple common sense for trust to be placed in them. For example, consider the 2010 case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project


This case was argued before the Supreme Court in January 2010 and challenged that part of the USA Patriot Act, which prohibits “material support” to groups designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. Just as “substantially support” and “associated forces” are too vague for Hedges and his fellow plaintiffs, so was “material support” too vague for the Humanitarian Law Project. The HLP was seeking to interact with alleged terrorist groups such as the Kurdistan Workers Party of Turkey so as to “help the group enter into peace negotiations and United Nations processes.” In other words, the HLP wanted to help lead such organizations away from violence and toward nonviolent strategies. Could this be construed as giving “material support” to terrorists? The Obama Justice Department, in striking disregard of common sense, argued that it was indeed material support and thus a criminal venture. And, as it turned out, in its June 2010 decision, the Supreme Court agreed.  


This was not just an intellectual exercise in front of the highest court of the land. The resulting Supreme Court decision quickly assumed real life significance. Within three months of its decision, the FBI was raiding homes in Chicago and Minneapolis, confiscating computers and files, because they suspected some undefined connection between the residents and various alleged Colombian and Palestinian terrorist groups. The FBI cited Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project as legal justification for their actions. 


In addition, enforcement of this law turned out to be blatantly selective. In January 2011 civil rights lawyer David Cole, who represented the HLP before the Supreme Court, noted that well-known political figures, such as former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former head of homeland security Tom Ridge, had committed felonies when they publicly spoke in support of the Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian designated terrorist group that happened also to be in opposition to the current Islamic government of Iran. The FBI has not, nor will it, raid their homes.  


Part III – Conclusion


Under these circumstances, anyone who accepts at face value the assurance of government lawyers that laws such as the Patriot Act and NDAA will conform to the Constitution and not walk all over one’s civil rights should, as the old saying goes, have their head examined.   


What we have in the Hedges v. Obama case is yet another very bad precedent. As Judge Forrest had pointed out, “Courts must safeguard core constitutional rights.” The 2nd Circuit Appeals Court, clearly not applying the principle of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) to this situation, has sold out that obligation for a handful of dubious promises. Recent history provides no confidence that such promises are given in good faith. No, it is bad faith we are witnessing here. The government lawyers should hang their heads in shame for obviously undermining the Constitution they are sworn to uphold. It just goes to show there are always those, be they soldiers, police, or lawyers who will simply follow orders no matter what the consequences.  


Toward the end of this whole unseemly process someone pointed out that President Obama has consistently asserted that he is against the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens even though his Justice Department has always supported keeping the detention clause of NDAA in place and operative. Maybe the president is simply playing a double game and lying to the voters. Lying is certainly part of the politician’s toolbox. On the other hand, maybe Obama is conflicted but dwells in an environment where it is politically “necessary” to be seen as a tough guy, lest the Republican warmongers gain an edge. How much difference does it really make? As it stands now, in terms of civil liberties there is not much “daylight” between Obama’s practice and the past behavior of neoconservative vulgarians such as George W. Bush. “If it swims like a duck, then it probably is a duck.”