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16 January 2021   Leave a comment

One of the leading Human Rights organizations in Israel, B’Tselem, has characterized Israel as an apartheid regime in terms of its treatment of Palestinians. The term refers to the institutionalized system of racial segregation in South Africa from 1948 to the 1990s. The system was universally condemned by most states when it was in force. The use of the term to describe Israeli conduct is highly provocative, and Hagai El-Ad, the director of B’Tselem defended the use of the word in an interview with The Week:

“In a recent report, B’Tselem, one of Israel’s leading human rights organizations, says that while Palestinians live under different forms of Israeli control in the occupied West Bank, blockaded Gaza, annexed east Jerusalem and within Israel itself, they have fewer rights than Jews in the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

“’We have decided to use this word because it is the correct term to describe the reality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and the entire area that is under Israel’s control,’ said Hagai El-Ad, executive director of B’Tselem.

“’There are no two regimes between the river and the sea. The perception that Israel is somehow a democracy on one side of the green line to which a temporary occupation project is attached on the other side of the Green Line, that perception has become completely untethered from reality,’ El-Ad added.”

The B’Tselem report outlines specific areas which it believes justifies the use of the term: Immigration for Jews only; Taking over land for Jews while crowding Palestinians in enclaves; Restriction of Palestinians’ freedom of movement; and Denial of Palestinians’ right to political participation. The report also marks 2018 as the year in which the discrimination against Palestinians became institutionalized:

“Recent years have seen a rise in the motivation and willingness of Israeli officials and institutions to enshrine Jewish supremacy in law and openly state their intentions. The enactment of Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People and the declared plan to formally annex parts of the West Bank have shattered the façade Israel worked for years to maintain.

“The Nation State basic law, enacted in 2018, enshrines the Jewish people’s right to self-determination to the exclusion of all others. It establishes that distinguishing Jews in Israel (and throughout the world) from non-Jews is fundamental and legitimate. Based on this distinction, the law permits institutionalized discrimination in favor of Jews in settlement, housing, land development, citizenship, language and culture. It is true that the Israeli regime largely followed these principles before. Yet Jewish supremacy has now been enshrined in basic law, making it a binding constitutional principle – unlike ordinary law or practices by authorities, which can be challenged. This signals to all state institutions that they not only can, but must, promote Jewish supremacy in the entire area under Israeli control.

“Israel’s plan to formally annex parts of the West Bank also bridges the gap between the official status of the Occupied Territories, which is accompanied by empty rhetoric about negotiation of its future, and the fact that Israel actually annexed most of the West Bank long ago. Israel did not follow through on its declarations of formal annexation after July 2020, and various officials have released contradicting statements regarding the plan since. Regardless of how and when Israel advances formal annexation of one kind or another, its intention to achieve permanent control over the entire area has already been openly declared by the state’s highest officials.”

The practical effect of the different treatment of Palestinians is obvious when looking at the vaccinations against COVID-19. Israel far exceeds other countries in its successful vaccinations in Israel, but has not extended that system to the Occupied Territories. The Middle East Eye points out:

“However, the same responsibility of the State of Israel  does not appear to apply to Palestinians in areas it occupies.  Edelstein [Health Minister Yuli Edelstein] calls them instead ‘neighbours’ who should really learn to take care of themselves.

“Edelstein, told Sky News on Monday: ‘I think that we’ve been helping our Palestinian neighbours from the very early stages of this crisis, including medical equipment, including medicine, including advice, including supplies.

“‘I don’t think that there’s anyone in this country, whatever his or her views might be, that can imagine that I would be taking a vaccine from the Israeli citizen and, with all the goodwill, give it to our neighbours.’

“The use of the word “neighbour” to describe Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and in Jerusalem is a legal nonsense. To establish this, I turned to Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, one of the UK’s legal experts on human rights. Bindman has examined the international legal implications of Israel’s responsibility to provide Palestinians under its occupation with the Covid-19 vaccine.”

“He said they were obliged to do so under Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that Israel as an occupying power must ensure ‘the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics’.”

This abdication of responsibility is reprehensible. Either the Israelis control the lives of Palestinians or they do not. If not, then the Palestinians deserve their own state so that they can discharge the obligations of sovereignty to the people that live on their territory. If the Israelis do control the Palestinians, then they have to discharge those obligations to the people that live within their control.

Posted January 16, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

15 January 2021   2 comments

The British newspaper, The Guardian, has published a report on who was financing the members of Congress who sought to question the results of the 2020 national election. One wonders why US media has thus far not pursued this matter. The article is clear:

“An anti-tax group funded primarily by billionaires has emerged as one of the biggest backers of the Republican lawmakers who sought to overturn the US election results, according to an analysis by the Guardian.

“The Club for Growth has supported the campaigns of 42 of the rightwing Republicans senators and members of the House of Representatives who voted last week to challenge US election results, doling out an estimated $20m to directly and indirectly support their campaigns in 2018 and 2020, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

“About 30 of the Republican hardliners received more than $100,000 in indirect and direct support from the group.

“The Club for Growth’s biggest beneficiaries include Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, the two Republican senators who led the effort to invalidate Joe Biden’s electoral victory, and the newly elected far-right gun-rights activist Lauren Boebert, a QAnon conspiracy theorist. Boebert was criticised last week for tweeting about the House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s location during the attack on the Capitol, even after lawmakers were told not to do so by police.”

The article reminds us that thinking about the insurrection at the Capitol on 6 January solely in terms of President Trump is a serious mistake. Ever since the Citizens United decision by the US Supreme Court, the political landscape in the US has changed dramatically. Tim Lau wrote in 2019 about the significance of the decision:

“….a bare majority of the justices held that ‘independent political spending’ did not present a substantive threat of corruption, provided it was not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign. 

“As a result, corporations can now spend unlimited funds on campaign advertising if they are not formally ‘coordinating’ with a candidate or political party. “

As I have noted in many previous posts, the political economy of the US is decidedly skewed toward greater concentrations of income and wealth. Citizens United allows the beneficiaries of this political economy to influence the political system to ensure that the government has insufficient revenues to cover the needs of the citizenry and to create a tax system that inordinately falls on the poor and middle classes, creating an anti-government sentiment.

One hopes that the investigations into the insurrection asks some fundamental questions about the financing of the protest. Who paid for the bus and airplane tickets, the hotels, and meals? Who financed the pre-planning of the insurrection? These questions demand answers.

Posted January 15, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

13 January 2021   3 comments

Researchers from a aide variety of institutions have published an especially grim report on the state of the world’s environment entitled “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future“. The opening paragraph of the report reads as follows:

“We report three major and confronting environmental issues that have received little attention and require urgent action. First, we review the evidence that future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts. Second, we ask what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action. Third, this dire situation places an extraordinary responsibility on scientists to speak out candidly and accurately when engaging with government, business, and the public. We especially draw attention to the lack of appreciation of the enormous challenges to creating a sustainable future. The added stresses to human health, wealth, and well-being will perversely diminish our political capacity to mitigate the erosion of ecosystem services on which society depends. The science underlying these issues is strong, but awareness is weak. Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals.”

The significance of this report is that it makes the important connection between economic growth and the destruction of the environment. The connection deserves closer attention since many who believe that protecting the environment is an intolerable economic burden, identifying the loss of jobs that would accompany dramatic changes in economic activity. These people tend to be climate change deniers.

The report, however, identifies this perspective as one of the main reasons humanity is facing such a serious crisis. The truth is that the focus on economic growth is precisely the reason why the crisis has become so acute:

“Simultaneous with population growth, humanity’s consumption as a fraction of Earth’s regenerative capacity has grown from ~ 73% in 1960 to 170% in 2016 (Lin et al., 2018), with substantially greater per-person consumption in countries with highest income. With COVID-19, this overshoot dropped to 56% above Earth’s regenerative capacity, which means that between January and August 2020, humanity consumed as much as Earth can renew in the entire year (overshootday.org).”

The lesson seems to be clear: humanity needs to define the “good life” in terms that are more consistent with the carrying capacity of the planet. Instead of trying to preserve a standard of living that is clearly unsustainable, we need to define a standard of living as “good” that is more consistent with what the earth can provide without exhausting its resources.

Posted January 13, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

9 January 2021   Leave a comment

The Trump Administration continues to take actions designed to hamstring the incoming Biden Administration. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, issued a directive entitled “Lifting Self-Imposed Restrictions on the U.S.-Taiwan Relationship“. It reads:

“Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and reliable partner of the United States, and yet for several decades the State Department has created complex internal restrictions to regulate our diplomats, servicemembers, and other officials’ interactions with their Taiwanese counterparts. The United States government took these actions unilaterally, in an attempt to appease the Communist regime in Beijing. No more.

“Today I am announcing that I am lifting all of these self-imposed restrictions.  Executive branch agencies should consider all ‘contact guidelines’ regarding relations with Taiwan previously issued by the Department of State under authorities delegated to the Secretary of State to be null and void.

“Additionally, any and all sections of the Foreign Affairs Manual or Foreign Affairs Handbook that convey authorities or otherwise purport to regulate executive branch engagement with Taiwan via any entity other than the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) are also hereby voided. The executive branch‘s relations with Taiwan are to be handled by the non-profit AIT, as stipulated in the Taiwan Relations Act.”

“The United States government maintains relationships with unofficial partners around the world, and Taiwan is no exception. Our two democracies share common values of individual freedom, the rule of law, and a respect for human dignity. Today’s statement recognizes that the U.S.-Taiwan relationship need not, and should not, be shackled by self-imposed restrictions of our permanent bureaucracy.”

The American Institute in Taiwan was created in 1979 as an informal US embassy in Taiwan. Such a move was necessary after the US recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole representative of the Chinese people, ending US recognition of Taiwan as the sole representative of the Chinese state in 1949 after the Communist takeover of power. After the revolution in China, the Chinese government, led by the political party known as the Kuomintang. From 1949 to 1972, the US and other countries recognized Taiwan as a way of delegitimizing the Communist rule over China. That futile fiction ended with President Nixon’s visit to China and the issuance of the Shanghai Communique by which the US ended its recognition of Taiwan in return for a promise by Communist China that it would not pursue reunification with the island by military means.

The communique was designed to buy time for both sides and it did not resolve the underlying tension concerning US and Taiwanese interests in avoiding Communist rule in the island. The situation has always been ambiguous, leading to conflicts over what constituted US support for Taiwan and the nature of Taiwan’s ultimate relationship to Beijing. The Trump Administration has consistently moved toward treating Taiwan as more autonomous in ways that have angered the Chinese government, including a bricks and mortar building for the American Institute in Taiwan in 2018. For the Chinese, that building represented too much of an official embassy. Pompeo’s recent action angered Beijing and Xinhua reports:

“A Chinese government spokesperson on Thursday voiced firm opposition to any form of official ties between the United States and China’s Taiwan region.

“Zhu Fenglian, spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, made the statement when asked about U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations would visit Taiwan.

“Zhu voiced opposition to these ‘extremely wrong actions,’ saying they are violations of the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiques.

“The Democratic Progressive Party authority’s stubborn reliance on the United States to seek ‘Taiwan independence’ leads nowhere and will backfire, Zhu said”

Additionally, the Trump Administration is sending a high-ranking official to Taiwan: “The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, will visit Taiwan next week for meetings with senior Taiwanese leaders, Taiwan’s government and the U.S. mission to the U.N. said, prompting China to warn they were playing with fire.” The Chinese government has angrily responded to the decision:

“China on Thursday warned the United States would pay a ‘heavy price’ if its United Nations Ambassador Kelly Craft made good on plans to travel to Taiwan next week.

“Democratic and self-ruled Taiwan lives under the constant threat of invasion by authoritarian China, which views the island as its own territory and has vowed to seize it one day, by force if necessary.

“Beijing opposes any diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and has pushed to keep it isolated on the world stage.

“Outgoing US President Donald Trump has sent multiple senior officials to Taipei over the last year as he clashed with China on a host of issues such as trade, security and human rights.

“Craft’s January 13-15 visit will come just a week before the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden and creates a fresh diplomatic headache for the incoming administration.

“’The United States will pay a heavy price for its wrong action,’ a statement from the Chinese mission to the UN said in response to the planned trip next week by Craft.

“’China strongly urges the United States to stop its crazy provocation, stop creating new difficulties for China-US relations and the two countries’ cooperation in the United Nations, and stop going further on the wrong path.’”

I strongly suspect that the incoming Biden Administration is opening informal channels (he’s not President yet) to the Chinese indicating that the recent Trump decisions will be overturned. Such last-minute actions are quite typical of US administrations that are being succeeded by administrations from the opposing party. But overturning them is a burdensome bureaucratic task and the changes will be slow in coming. I suspect that the Chinese will be sympathetic to Biden, but their patience on Taiwan has been solely taxed since 1972. Let us hope that Mr. Trump does not attempt any further provocations such as naval actions in the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea which would box the Chinese into a very dangerous corner.

Posted January 9, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

8 January 2021   Leave a comment

Robin Wright has written an essay for the New Yorker on global reaction to the assault on the US Capitol. That the assault occurred because of doubts held by some that the national election on 2020 was corrupted, and it is not at all unusual that such doubts arise every four years. There were serious questions about the election of 1960 in which John F. Kennedy became President even though there were concerns about the vote tabulations in Illinois. Similarly, there was great controversy about the election in 2000 which saw George W. Bush defeat Al Gore on the basis of contested votes in Florida.

But the sturdiness of the US system of election over two centuries is distinctive in political history. Having a regular procedure that is regarded as legitimate solves one of the most serious problem in politics: getting people used to holding power to give it up without a struggle. Political succession is more often associated with violence and it is the central problem facing most authoritarian regimes. The US example has been one of the most important attributes of American power in world affairs. It has conducted regular elections during the civil war, World Wars I and II, and the Great Depression. The election cycles persisted even when Presidents died, either from natural causes or assassination.

The attack on the Capitol has done irreparable damage to that asset. It may be the case that the US will return to its historical pattern, and it may be the case that the inauguration of President Biden will seem to some that the pattern was not in fact broken. But the images of the mob in the Capitol building will never fit that narrative, and those images are likely indelible. And those images delighted authoritarian regimes all over the world who no longer have to deal with the US example as a possible threat to their hold on power. Wright writes:

“Authoritarian leaders were gleeful about the chaos in the world’s most powerful democracy. As armed insurrectionists, white supremacists, and rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, the Foreign Minister of Venezuela—a failing state with rival claims to the Presidency, and shortages of power, food, and medicine—tweeted a warning about political polarization in the United States. With more than a whiff of Schadenfreude, Jorge Arreaza wished Americans well in finding ‘a new path towards stability and social justice.’

“Officials in Turkey, which has witnessed a dramatic erosion of democracy amid arrests of dissidents and journalists, called on all parties in Washington ‘to maintain restraint and prudence’—and then warned its own citizens in the United States to avoid crowded places. Iranian state television ran live coverage of the chaos at the Capitol, with a running ticker underneath, as Hossein Dehghan, a former Revolutionary Guard and a Presidential candidate in the upcoming June election, tweeted, ‘The world is watching the American dream.’ The Russian deputy U.N. Ambassador compared the turmoil in Washington, D.C., to the 2014 protests in Kyiv that toppled the Ukrainian government. On social media platforms like Telegram, supporters of isis and Al Qaeda celebrated the turmoil in the United States. An isis publication predicted that America would be consumed with turmoil for the next four years….

“America’s rivals cited the chaos at the Capitol as a sign that America has forfeited its claim to be a political model or world leader. ‘The celebration of democracy is over,’ Konstantin Kosachyov, the chairman of the international-affairs committee in the Russian upper house, said. ‘I say this without a hint of gloating. America is no longer charting the course, and therefore has lost all its rights to set it. And especially to impose it on others.’ In a televised address, on Thursday, the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, said that the unrest in Washington ‘really showed that first how floppy and weak the Western democracy is, and how weak its foundations are.’ From Zimbabwe, which last year appeared on the verge of collapse as unemployment hit ninety per cent and inflation neared eight hundred per cent, President Emmerson Mnangagwa tweeted outrage on Thursday that Trump had once criticized the African nation. ‘Yesterday’s events showed that the U.S. has no moral right to punish another nation under the guise of upholding democracy,’ he wrote.”

It is always a mistake to consider the US as an “exceptional” country, but its strong commitment to the peaceful transfer of power placed it in a very select group of countries. With the loss of that important characteristic, the world has lost an important voice for restraints on authoritarian rule.

Posted January 8, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

7 January 2021   1 comment

One of the most disturbing aspects of the storming of the Capitol building in Washington, DC was the stark contrast between the treatment of the Black Lives Matter protesters in June 2020 and the terrorists that broke into the Capitol yesterday. In Lafayette Square the consensus of most observers was that the protest was overwhelmingly peaceful. But a very well armed contingent of police used chemicals and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. The situation at the Capitol yesterday was that there were very few officers save the Capitol police who were inadequately armed and staffed.

There is a clear explanation for the difference between the two events which stems from the composition of the two protesting groups (people of color vs. whites) as well as the issues pursued by both (issues not supported by Trump and issues favorable to Trump). For me, that explanation is both valid and compelling.

But there is another concern raised by the difference: the degree to which security officials were prepared for the possibility of violence. In Lafayette Square there was overwhelming and armed preparation and we can probably assume that, if violence had broken out, it would have been quickly snuffed out. But at the Capitol, there was seemingly no preparation at all.

The lack of preparation needs to be explained. There was no lack of evidence that violence was likely on 6 January 2021. Indeed, on 19 December, President Trump tweeted: “Statistically impossible to have lost the 2020 Election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!” There was a website (thedonald.win) posted on Reddit that allowed people to suggest that violence would occur on 6 January. The Washington Post quoted some excerpts from the site:

“The group said thedonald.win had more than 18 million visits in November, and the recent posts with calls for violence had more than 40,000 engagements. One particularly troubling post said protesters should travel in groups that should ‘not let [anyone] disarm someone without stacking bodies.’ It added that protesters should be ‘ARMED WITH RIFLE, HANDGUN, 2 KNIVES AND AS MUCH AMMO AS YOU CAN CARRY.’

“In one thread promoted by moderators Tuesday morning, titled ‘GOOD LUCK PATRIOTS, THE EYES OF THE WORLD LOOK UPON YOU NOW!!!,’ posters shared tactical guides on how to avoid police blockades and D.C. gun laws, including: ‘If you plan on carrying concealed, don’t tell anyone you have a gun.’ One commenter responded, ‘We The People, will not tolerate a Steal. No retreat, No Surrender. Restore to my President what you stole or reap the consequences!!!’”

A key question for the lack of preparation is why the National Guard was not called out earlier to provide security. The District of Columbia has its own National Guard, but, unlike the Guard for the 50 states, the DC Guard is governed by the US Defense Department. That Department has witnessed a very large turnover within its ranks since the election in November with many career officials being replaced by people clearly loyal to President Trump (and with very few appropriate credentials). The Washington Post notes the constraints imposed on the DC Guard just before the 6 January ceremony in Congress confirming the victory of Biden as President:

“In memos issued on Jan. 4 and 5, the Pentagon prohibited the District’s guardsmen from receiving ammunition or riot gear, interacting with protesters unless necessary for self-defense, sharing equipment with local law enforcement or using Guard surveillance and air assets without the defense secretary’s explicit sign-off, according to officials familiar with the orders.

“The D.C. Guard was also told it would be allowed to deploy a Quick Reaction Force only as a measure of last resort, the officials said.

“The need for higher-level approval appeared to have slowed the military response when the Capitol Police, the law enforcement force that reports to Congress and protects the House and the Senate, requested backup from 200 troops during a call with top Pentagon officials early Wednesday afternoon, according to officials familiar with the call.”

It appears to me that deliberate decisions were made to make the Capitol more vulnerable to violence and also to eschew an opportunity to demonstrate a willingness to repress violence that might have alienated the people who supported Trump. This possibility suggests that, for the next weeks and until the time that President Biden can replace some people in the Defense Department, there is a real possibility that decisions will be made that prioritize politics over security.

Posted January 7, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

5 January 2021   Leave a comment

The Trump Administration has been unpopular with many in the world. Dissatisfaction with US leadership in world affairs plummeted after Mr. Trump’s election in 2016. Gallup has been conducting polls on global opinion of the US for many years and its analysis of Trump’s effect on US popularity is stark:

“After tumbling to a record-low 30% during the first year of Trump’s presidency, the image of U.S. leadership was not much better in the third year of his term. The median global approval rating for U.S. leadership across 135 countries and areas edged up to 33% in 2019. This rating is slightly higher than the previous low under Trump, but it is still one percentage point lower than the previous low of 34% under former President George W. Bush in 2008.”

Opinions in Europe (except for Poland, Kosovo, and Albania) and in Asia (except for Israel, Mongolia, Turkmenistan, the Philippines, Nepal, and Myanmar) were quite negative. Opinions in Africa (except for the north African states) were stable although low but in Latin America opinions actually improved. Interestingly, global opinions of Russia and China were also quite low:

“China and Russia continue to cluster closely together in the lower 30s. Although China edged slightly ahead of the U.S. in 2018 with an approval rating of 34%, China’s 32% rating in 2019 places it on par with the rating for the U.S. Russia’s approval rating of 30% in 2019 was unchanged from the previous year and now stands slightly lower than that of the U.S.”

The only country securing high approval ratings and where global leadership was feasible was Germany: “Across the 29 countries and areas that Gallup has surveyed so far in 2020, a median 62% approves of Germany’s leadership, up slightly from a median of 59% for this same group in 2019. Approval ratings are at, or top, previous record highs in 18 of the 29 countries.” Chancellor Merkel’s leadership appears to be quite attractive to many in the world even though she is due to step down soon. It seems unlikely, however, that the Germans would actively seek to take a more active role in world affairs.

It remains to be seen whether President-elect Biden can regain the trust that the US enjoyed during the Obama Administration. I suspect that most Americans want Biden to focus on domestic affairs and there will probably be little money available to re-establish an active US role in world affairs. In many respects, that outcome is probably desirable. But the stability of the global system is not self-executing–the expansion of influence by China, Russia, and Turkey in recent years suggests that a world system without the support of a major power or a collective of major powers could unravel into conflict fairly easily. That was the clear lesson of the years following World War I where Great Britain lacked the ability to act as a stabilizing force (not necessarily a good force) and the US lacked the will to perform a similar role.

Posted January 5, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

4 January 2021   Leave a comment

Iran has announced that it will begin to restart its program of enriching Uranium to 20%. The number is significant because it is higher than the typical 4% enrichment necessary for peaceful nuclear reactors (but still far below the necessary enrichment of 95% necessary to build a nuclear bomb). Additionally, Iran has seized a South Korean oil tanker, accusing it of releasing pollution into the Persian Gulf. Both of these actions have heightened tensions between Iran and the US.

But the treatment of the enrichment issue has been handled poorly by the US media. For example, The Washington Post ran a story with the headline “Iran begins enriching uranium to 20 percent in new breach of nuclear deal”. The nuclear deal is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action which was signed in 2015 during the Obama Administration and included France, Great Britain, the US, China, Russia, and Germany. That deal included:

The JCPOA was carefully monitored, not only by the US, but also by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The consensus was that Iran had adhered to the terms of the agreement. President Trump, however, believed that the agreement was flawed because it did not include any terms over ballistic missile development nor over Iran’s support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah which continue to resist Israeli control over Palestine. The Arms Control Association was clear: “Despite Iran’s verified compliance with the deal, the United States unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA on May 8, 2018, and subsequently re-imposed all U.S. sanctions on Iran lifted by the accord.”

We should be clear: the US was the first state to violate the JCPOA. Iran held off on chipping away at many of the conditions of the agreement for a full year, and increased those violations marginally only in 2019. The decision to enrich Uranium to 20% represents the first major violation of the agreement and represents the first major departure from the agreement by Iran. On the other hand, the US not only refused to lift the sanctions promised in the JCPOA but substantially increased sanctions and forced other states to the agreement to follow those sanctions. There is no question that the sanctions have seriously damaged the Iranian economy and Iran has indicated that it would return to the terms of the JCPOA “within an hour” if the US decides to return to it as well. We do not know what President-elect Biden intends to do about the JCPOA, but The Guardian reports that “So far Biden has said he wants at first to focus on the narrow issue of lifting sanctions, and the US rejoining the deal in return for Iran fully complying with its obligations to restrain its nuclear programme.”

Given President Trump’s hostility toward Iran, buttressed by the Israeli conviction that Iran represents an “existential threat”, many are concerned that he might think that the US has only two weeks to assure the complete collapse of the agreement and, perhaps, to eliminate the threat perceived by Israel. Such actions would likely include a military strike on the nuclear facilities in Iran. I worry that such a strike would seem attractive to Mr. Trump as a way of distracting the US population from his other problems. The release of the tapes of Mr. Trump’s telephone conversation with Georgia’s Secretary of State only amplifies this fear. I have little doubts that Mr. Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu both believe that a military strike on Iran would completely ruin the possibility of a revived JCPOA.

There has been a lot of military moves recently. The US has sent B-52 bombers to the Middle East as a signal to Iran. The Hill reports:

“The U.S. military flew two B-52H bombers over the Persian Gulf on Wednesday in an effort to deter Iran amid ongoing tensions, according to U.S. Central Command.

“The two Air Force ‘Stratofortresses’ flew from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to deliver ‘a clear deterrent message to anyone who intends to do harm to Americans or American interests,’ the command said in a statement.

“The deployment marks the third such mission into the region in the last 45 days”

“‘The United States continues to deploy combat-ready capabilities into the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to deter any potential adversary, and make clear that we are ready and able to respond to any aggression directed at Americans or our interests,’ Centcom head Gen. Frank McKenzie, said in the statement. ‘We do not seek conflict, but no one should underestimate our ability to defend our forces or to act decisively in response to any attack.'”

There has also been some interesting developments concerning the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier that has been patrolling the Persian Gulf since last November. Last Friday, Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced that the Nimitz would return to its home base in Washington state. The move was described as a de-escalatory move. The New York Times reported: “Officials said on Friday that Mr. Miller ordered the redeployment of the Nimitz in part as a ‘de-escalatory’ signal to Tehran to avoid stumbling into a crisis at the end of Mr. Trump’s administration that would land in Mr. Biden’s lap as he took office.” But CNN reports that Mr. Trump ordered that the decision be reversed.

None of the explanations about the Nimitz make sense. Why de-escalate when the US is also sending B-52s to the Middle East? More likely is the fear that, if a war occurred, the Nimitz would be highly vulnerable in the constricted space of the Persian Gulf. The Iranian missile attack on the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq after the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani last January confirmed that Iranian missiles are formidable. They were not detected before they struck and they were remarkably precise. Parts of the base were destroyed, but no US troops were killed and it seems as if the Iranians carefully calibrated the attack in order to reduce the chances of retaliation. If the Iranian missile capabilities are so sophisticated, then the Nimitz might have been highly vulnerable.

There is, however, a more insidious explanation. Perhaps the Nimitz was ordered to stay in the Persian Gulf in order to be an attractive target for the Iranian. An attack on the Nimitz would be considered an act of war, justifying a massive retaliatory strike. Obviously I have no idea why the decision was made and I have learned that is a mistake to overthink any of Mr. Trump’s decisions. But all these military moves are deeply troubling. Mr. Trump has only two weeks to make good on his promise to scuttle the JCPOA permanently and I worry that given the deeply unsettling situation in the US, that anything is possible.

Posted January 4, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

31 December 2020   Leave a comment

Over the last ten years, researchers at the University of Vermont have measured key words in all Twitter users using the English language. Their primary concern has been to measure words that reflect “happiness” (like “love”) and distress (like “suicide”). Their results for 2020 are represented in the graph below. Not surprisingly, 2020 has not been a “happy” year, yielding results below the average of 2015-1019. If one wishes to check against previous years, one should check the “hedonometer” (such a ghastly name) at the University of Vermont site. Interestingly, one can make comparisons with other countries (France was less happy than Americans and South Koreans were cheerier).

Posted December 31, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

30 December 2020   Leave a comment

In September 2007, 14 Iraqi citizens were killed and 17 were injured in Nisour Square in Baghdad. Among the dead was a nine year old boy, Ali Kinani. They were killed by four military contractors employed by a security firm called Blackwater at the time (it was renamed as Xe Services in 2009 and known as Academi after it was purchased by private investors in 2911). In 2007 Blackwater was run by Erik Prince, the brother of the current US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

These four men were convicted in October 2014 in a US court. According to The Guardian:

“In October 2014, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard were found guilty of 13 charges of voluntary manslaughter and 17 charges of attempted manslaughter, while Nicholas Slatten, the team’s sniper who was the first to open fire, was convicted on a separate charge of first-degree murder.

“Slatten was sentenced to life; Slough, Liberty and Heard got 30 years each.

“’In killing and maiming unarmed civilians, these defendants acted unreasonably and without justification,’ the US attorney’s office said in a statement. ‘In combination, the sheer amount of unnecessary human loss and suffering attributable to the defendants’ criminal conduct on September 16, 2007, is staggering.’

“The massacre left 14 civilians dead and at least 17 wounded. ‘None of the victims was an insurgent, or posed any threat to the Raven 23 convoy,’ the government said, in a sentencing memorandum filed to the court on 8 April.

In international law, states have the obligation to try suspected war criminals. If states fail to prosecute, international law allows international tribunals, such as the International Criminal Court or the Hague Tribunals, to prosecute. The failure of a state to uphold the laws of war is considered a serious abdication of one of the most important attributes of sovereignty–the protection of civilians from war crimes. The US conviction of the four mercenaries was a clear manifestation of this responsibility.

US President Trump has pardoned these mercenaries and there is a serious question whether that act violates treaties that the US has signed, including the Geneva Conventions. The United Nations has a working Group on the use of mercenaries within its Human Rights Council. That group believes that Trump’s pardons are a violation of US legal obligations and issued the following statement:

“‘Pardoning the Blackwater contractors is an affront to justice and to the victims of the Nisour Square massacre and their families,’ said Jelena Aparac, Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on the use of mercenaries.

“’The Geneva Conventions oblige States to hold war criminals accountable for their crimes, even when they act as private security contractors. These pardons violate US obligations under international law and more broadly undermine humanitarian law and human rights at a global level.

“’Ensuring accountability for such crimes is fundamental to humanity and to the community of nations,’ she said. ‘Pardons, amnesties, or any other forms of exculpation for war crimes open doors to future abuses when States contract private military and security companies for inherent state functions.’

“The Working Group is extremely concerned that by permitting private security contractors to operate with impunity in armed conflicts, States will be encouraged to circumvent their obligations under humanitarian law by increasingly outsourcing core military operations to the private sector.”

Chris Walker writes in Truthout and raises an important question: do the pardons violate the Geneva Conventions and are therefore not legally legitimate? The Constitution gives the US President the right to issue pardons and places no restrictions on that right.

“Article II, Section 2, Clause 1:

“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

But the US Constitution also considers treaties to be the “supreme law of the land”. Article VI, paragraph 2 of the Constitution reads: “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”

The people who wrote the US Constitution never anticipated a time when international treaties would deal with war crimes but it seems to me that Trump’s pardons are a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions. Thus, a case could be made that the pardons of the war criminals is not legitimate or legal. It would be interesting to see how the Supreme Court would rule on this case although I have no doubt that it would find some way to rule that the Geneva Convention should not be considered “supreme law” in this case.

Ali Kinani, youngest victim of the Nisour Massacre

Posted December 30, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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