Friday, January 28, 2011

UN Again in the Crosshairs

UN Again in the Crosshairs

Foreign Policy in Focus

By Ian Williams, January 28, 2011
The UN’s mythical black helicopters are back. The triumphant, reality-challenged new Republican majority in the House of Representatives imagine that they are flying in formation up the Potomac in a bid to take over the United States.

Until recently, the people who used to get so upset about the UN’s alleged plans to use their helicopters to take over America had been hunting other snarks, like the president’s birth certificate or illegal immigrants taking our jobs and going on welfare, or they'd been dressing up in 18th-century costumes at Tea Party rallies. Obama’s other sins were so absorbing that they hardly noticed when he fulfilled his predecessor’s promise and paid the UN dues on time.

But with Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in charge of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a change is in the air. She has already declared her ambition to control the UN by cutting off its money supply. She said in her prepared remarks that she wants “reforms first, pay later” and plans to push legislation that “conditions our contributions - our strongest leverage - on real, sweeping reform, including moving the UN regular budget to a voluntary funding basis. That way, U.S. taxpayers can pay for the UN programs and activities that advance our interests and values, and if other countries want different things to be funded, they can pay for it themselves.” In reality, most of the $6 billion she cites goes to peacekeeping operations supported and indeed proposed by the United States, and only the tiniest proportion goes to any items that the United States has opposed.
Audience for UN-bashing

In addition to the Tea Party movement and the know-nothing movement, Ros-Lehtinen appeals to two vociferous and powerful constituencies. There’s the Cuban American lobby, which opposes the UN because Cuba is a member and because it allowed Fidel Castro, in healthier times, to come to New York to address it. Then there are the diehard Likudnik Israel supporters who think that the UN, after having partitioned Palestine and admitted Israel, is now anti-Israel. The Jerusalem Post, for example, explicitly linked payment of UN dues to the treatment of Israel.

Ros-Lehtinen actually takes positions that are often worse than those of the Israeli government. One of her donors is Irving Moskovitz, the gambling magnate who finances settlements in East Jerusalem, and she has called for the United States to defund the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency, which successive Israeli governments have appreciated because, in effect, it has shifted much of the financial burden in the Occupied Territories to the international community.

Ros-Lehtinen’s actions, in opposing multilateralism, will not likely result in a political disadvantage for the Republicans. The Obama administration pays lip service to the UN and multilateral obligations. But the failure of the Democrats after two years control of the White House and Capitol Hill to ratify crucial multilateral instruments on child soldiers, land mines, or the Law of the Sea suggests that the administration’s heart was not really in it. Certainly the chances of any of these treaties passing in the balance of this presidential term are somewhat minimal.
The Broader Attack

In the past, critics have rounded on the secretary general as the symbol of the UN. Much of the fury directed at Kofi Annan followed his admission, when backed into a corner by a BBC reporter, that the invasion of Iraq was illegal. Kofi Annan was African and radiated numinous trustworthiness, which is of course why UN opponents went to such efforts to go after him personally during the “Oil For Food” imbroglio. Significantly, Ros-Lehtinen called one of the attorneys involved in the commission investigating these allegations, Robert Appleton, as a “prosecution witness” this week in her hearing on the UN.

The latest attacks on the secretary general come from Inga Brit Ahlenius, the Swedish former head of the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). Last year, Ahlenius sent a scathing but disjointed attack on Ban Ki Moon that focused largely on his refusal to authorize the appointment of Appleton as head of investigations in her office. Ban’s official reason was that Ahlenius refused to abide by UN rules designed to ensure gender balance by submitting a shortlist that included any women. Appleton’s appearance for Ros-Lehtinen certainly lends Ban’s refusal additional retrospective legitimacy. Appleton was under suspicion of being a consistent source of leaks of half-digested and ill-substantiated inquiries of the type that OIOS was notorious for.

This week in Sweden, Ahlenius released her memoirs in what appears to be an attempt to capitalize on Capitol Hill’s revived anti-UN mood and the appearance of her would-be protégé there. However, in Sweden, where she had been previously fired from a similar job in the government, Ahlenius attracted little interest from the Swedish media, and her crusading image was almost simultaneously tarnished with a report that she had stifled whistleblowers herself.
Reform Redux

Given the new climate of UN-phobia on Capitol Hill, some of Ahlenius’s accusations will be recycled as part of Ros-Lehtinen’s repetition of the perennial call for UN “reform.” Such calls are usually accompanied by the mantra of alleged “waste, mismanagement, and corruption” at the UN.

U.S. critics of the organization seem to blithely ignore the beam in their own eye to concentrate on the mote in the UN’s. Certainly over the years, the UN has wasted millions of dollars. But the United States has wasted tens of billions of dollars. The United States, for instance, admits that it cannot account for $10 billion dollars in surpluses from the UN Oil For Food Program. Calls for UN “reform” are tendentious. There is little doubt that the organization needs modernization, but that would involve revision of the Charter and the consent of other members. The critics’ definition of waste is money spent on projects that they disagree with, even if, for example, they are peacekeeping missions that the U.S. delegation has suggested or supported.

As this campaign revs up, Ros-Lehtinen and her colleagues should be challenged from the beginning on their premises. They do not want to reform the organization: they want to control it or, barring that, starve it to death.

Ian Williams, senior analyst and long time contributor to FPIF, is a New York-based author and journalist. He is currently working on a new edition of his book, The UN For Beginners.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Deadline pundit punditing on Obama's SOTU on Press TV

To learn more about the issues that Obama addressed in his annual speech, Press TV conducted a phone interview with Ian Williams from Foreign Policy in Focus. Following is the transcript of the interview:

Press TV: Obama mentioned, indirectly, about the US economic decline but all the indications are that the US is currently on the decline as an economic powerhouse worldwide and that became very clear by [Chinese] President Hu Jintao's recent visit there. Do you think that he did good enough job in the speech of not only realizing this fact but relaying it to the American public?

Williams: That was a very carefully crafted speech because he was, on the one hand, playing to the old American gallery of exceptionalism: we are wonderful people, we can do it, we have potential, we can rise to the occasion and on the other hand, he was warning that decline is heading up so they have to turn around and do something about it because although the US obviously is in a far more powerless economic state that it was four or five years ago, it is still the biggest economy in the world and people still do use the dollar so it is not exactly broken yet even if it is breaking.

Otherwise, he was very careful on the issues that he missed out on. He didn't mention foreclosures; he certainly didn't mention the Israel/Palestine issue. I think a lot of what he was saying was really a careful case of entrapment for Republicans because he was taking them on the face value and very often when Americans say they want cuts in spending, they mean they want cuts in spending in things other than what I want. If cuts in spending means defense, then they are not going to like it, if cut means in their own district, they don't like they either. He was very careful in what he said and what he offered as well, he invoked the role of lobbyists and both parties are almost run by lobbyists but the Republicans far more so and has thrown the gauntlet down to them, let's simplify tax. You say you want to reduce cooperation tax, let's have a low rate of cooperation tax but make sure everybody pays it and stop exemptions into it.

So a lot of what he was saying was really a careful trap. He said let's reform Health care, but you'd better not take away people's coverage who have got cancer and all of this is a very nuance response to the slogans from the other side [Republicans].

Press TV: Moving on to the foreign policy front, he said that the Iraq war is coming to an end, but of course we have reports that say some American bases may remain in Iraq and many forces will remain in Iraq to train Iraqi forces. How accurate was what he said, especially on foreign policy front?

Williams: A lot of what he was saying was quite true, but let's say he told the truth but not the whole truth. He never said that he was against the war in Afghanistan; he said he would withdraw troops from Iraq and that he would make sure that the Taliban are beaten in Afghanistan. So, he is not breaking any promises there. The fact that it is taking so long is making it very unpopular with the American public and he has to do something about that. But there he was saying it to the Republicans because no Republican administration is going to turn around and say the war that President Bush started was wrong and you should pull out so he is on fairly safe ground. We have to remember everything, especially at this juncture, was addressing the domestic audience, it was not addressing the world at large.

Press TV: On the issue of Tunisia, he said that the US stands with the people of Tunisia. With protests being seen yesterday in Egypt as well, and we can only imagine that Mubarak's knees are now shaking in his palace, and these are all of course US allies, is it not a bit hypocritical then for him to say that the US stands with the people of Tunisia when the US for decades has stood not in fact with people of Tunisia but with the leaders of Tunisia?

Williams: Well, now it stands with the people of Tunisia. It is true as I said he was telling the truth but not the whole truth. The fact that until the day the dictator disappeared, the US was one of its most staunch supporters, he chose not to mention that and he chose not to mention Egypt and the democracy protests there. So it is usual for them mentioning items they look upon favorably and ignoring those that they don't.

In general, his foreign policy is not going to go well in the State of the Union. For example he talked about the cuts in defense budget, and I think if you examine that, he is not actually cutting the defense budget, what they are offering to do is to cut the rate of increase in the defense budget, which is a play with mathematics, which means the defense budget is still going to grow, is still far too large but they are going to trim some parts of it off, they plan for spending on useless dinosaurian defense systems that only benefit the lobbyists in the aerospace industry.

Everything he says has a different interpretation but by most standards what he has been doing is to challenge the Republicans to meet on their own grounds. You want to repeal the Healthcare bill, hey, come on then, take the insurance off those people who just got it under this bill, make sure you have the money to pay for all of the extra things that they are involved, the 130 trillion dollar extra costs. He is saying about the government, he said you are attacking the government, look at what the government has done for this country, do you really want the government to stop building roads and bridges; you really want to stop developing the science that made transistors, the Internet and all of the other things. In that sense, in the good social democratic way, he is challenging the basic neo-liberal instincts of the Republicans and the Tea party people, really showing them to be hypocrites. He says you want to be bipartisan, stop shouting silly slogans and come and work to solve these problems and this is the way to do it.

Press TV: On the issue of jobs that a lot of people say was the main focus of his speech, considering the fact it was the number one domestic issue within the US, he said that the US is at risk of losing out to rapidly developing economy in south Asia, specially China and India, etc. Do you think that he was able to say anything of significant in his speech concerning that issue?

Williams: This speech was broad and he didn't get into particulars. However, he is talking about improving American education system using federal money which Republicans...they want to reduce government spending, so there is the challenge. He is talking about developing infrastructure, he is talking about developing green technology, he has been talking about using government money for basic research and for grants for cutting-edge technologies in energy saving etc. And some of the things he said were, by his standards, pretty bold. He said he wants to end tax concessions to oil companies because they are making quite enough money as it is that is a direct challenge to Republicans who are bankrolled by the oil companies even if their Tea party demonstrators denounce them.

Interestingly he has restated that he wants to take back the tax cuts on the richest percentage, that is quite surprising. He didn't hedge there, that is what he wants to do and this is unconscionable that you give money to the richest people in the society.


Friday, January 21, 2011

The smouldering Hamlet on the White House battlements

Obama must call Israeli settlements illegal

US support for a UN resolution on the settlements would remind Netanyahu that there are consequences for breaking the law

o Ian Williams
o, Friday 21 January 2011 11.59 GMT

"To veto or not to veto?" That is the agonising question that has President Barack Obama pacing the battlements of the White House waiting to dodge the slings and arrows of outraged Aipac. Provoked by the latest demolition in East Jerusalem, no fewer than 120 countries have sponsored a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity. Hillary Clinton has also condemned it as "illegitimate", but the resolution introduces precision by terming the settlements as "illegal".

In a country where "all politics is local", and in the face of the economic crisis, Obama could almost be forgiven for dropping the ball in the Middle East game. But his response to the current resolution could well determine whether there is any wind left in the sails of the peace flotilla he launched with his speeches in Egypt and Turkey directed at the Muslim world.

Every other member of the UN security council agrees that settlements are illegal, including Britain and France. The international court of justice has affirmed their illegality. The US once called them illegal, then termed them unhelpful, and currently regards them as "unhelpful" and "illegitimate". Under the road map of 2003, Israel agreed to stop them, but it has ignored the rest of the world and its best friend, the US, and continued to build. Even President Bill Clinton officially reduced the amount of US loan guarantees by the sum spent on settlements.

In the face of Binyamin Netanyahu's defiance, so far the US response, engineered by Dennis Ross – who seems to have frozen out the official peace negotiator, George Mitchell – has been to attempt to bribe Israel with billions of dollars, free jet fighters and a free "get out of the security council" card in the form of a veto. The handsome offer was for a temporary moratorium.

Washington's line is to ignore UN decisions and international law and say that it is up to the parties to negotiate such "permanent-status issues". The state department itself is clearer on the issues. After years of congressional votes, it still balks at moving the US embassy to Jerusalem (which hosts not a single foreign embassy) because, regardless of eventual negotiations, Israel does not have internationally recognised title to the city.

It is as if you have caught someone stealing your car and the police decide to overlook technical issues like the law and ownership and instead tell you to negotiate with the thief to get occasional access to the back seat.

In this week's security council debate on the resolution, deputy US ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo used theological nicety to explain Washington's difficulty in supporting a resolution that, on the face of it, reflects US official policy. "We believe that continued settlement expansion is corrosive – not only to peace efforts and the two-state solution – but to Israel's future itself. The fate of existing settlements is an issue that must be dealt with by the parties, along with the other permanent-status issues – but, like every US administration for decades, we do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity."

However, she added: "Permanent-status issues can be resolved only through negotiations between the parties – and not by recourse to the security council. We therefore consistently oppose attempts to take these issues to this council and will continue to do so."

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, is usually tactfully absent during such debates, keeping her credibility by allowing deputies to intone the weaselly formulas that disguise the stark truth. Annexation and settlement building are illegal.

Of course, Obama has other problems, such as the economy and healthcare, and on the Middle East must face not only a rabidly pro-Israeli Republican party but also a majority of his own party that would sign up to a resolution declaring the moon to be made of blue cheese if the Israeli lobby demanded it.

Nonetheless, his credibility as president is at stake here. The Republicans do control the House of Representatives, and indeed the chair of the foreign affairs committee is now Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who outflanks the Israeli government on the right. (She has been trying to de-fund UNRWA, the UN's agency that provides basic services in the occupied territories, even though the Israeli government, which would have to pay if the UN didn't, opposes her.) But Congress cannot control the US delegation to the UN.

It is surely time for Obama "to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them". This week, a letter landed on the White House doormat from a phalanx of foreign policy and government professionals urging him to support the resolution. He should take their advice.

The public exasperation implied by support for the security council resolution sends a signal to Netanyahu that there are indeed consequences for ignoring the advice of your best friend, let alone breaking the law. It might make the Israeli prime minister more amenable, and it would certainly send a signal to the Israeli electorate that Netanyahu had terminally alienated the White House.

It would not alienate the American electorate, not even American Jews. Those who support Netanyahu tend to be those who think the president is a foreign-born crypto-Muslim anyway. It would bring cheer to the J-Street movement, whose peacenik views more closely reflect those of most American Jews than Likud does.

And it would do more than any other single act to demonstrate respect for international law and restore the credibility of American diplomacy.

Indeed, Obama could follow up and demand the IRS check on the tax deductibility of American "charities" and foundations that bankroll settlement building, including Irving Moskowitz, who recycles the proceeds of inner-city gambling in the US to buy and demolish property in East Jerusalem, such as the Shepherd Hotel, with the conscious aim of frustrating the declared policy of every US government since 1967. Some of the money, however, he sends as donations to politicians like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dregs of Empire!

Charles Tobias, the toast of all rumlovers, has just been made an MBE, Member of the order of the British Empire, in the New Year’s honour’s list.

Charles, who rescued Navy Rum from the bottom of the Admiralty’s Davey Jones filing cabinet to which it was consigned after Black Tot day in 1970, was honoured for his work for the Royal Navy, whose welfare fund gets dibs on each bottle of Pusser’s sold, and for his work for the BVI.

He should be honoured also, of course, for his work for rum – but it is somehow fitting that his residence on one of the last pocket handkerchief remnants of the empire that was in some measure built on Navy Rum should be recognised.

A toast to him and all who make and drink his product!

Rumpundit. (Deadlinepundit's Alter Ego)

Bullets Beat Ballots

Ian Williams

American democracy is caught in the crosshairs

by Ian Williams
Friday, January 14th, 2011

If his YouTube ramblings are anything to go by, the young man who shot United States Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona clearly had big issues with reality. But Jared Loughner’s thoughts were scarcely less coherent than many on the conservative right. He could have intoned his comments on the Congressional Record and it is unlikely that the media, let alone the Republicans, would have called him on it. On “big government”, he is almost in the mainstream. He was innovative in his use of grammar, although like those who put up misspelt roadside posters about English-only legislation, he was more advanced in theory than in practice.

Sadly less innovative was his pointing a gun at the congresswoman. For a few hours after the shooting, Sarah Palin’s website still featured the crosshairs of a gun site pointing at Giffords’ district with an invocation “Don’t retreat! Instead – RELOAD!” that her staff had posted during the election.

It is no surprise that Loughner should have picked up such ideas. Arizona is a state whose Republicans have tried to round-up suspected Mexicans before the courts over-ruled it as unconstitutional and whose gun control laws are so lax that is reputedly the source of most of the weaponry used in the cartel carnage south of the border.

Exercising his alleged rights under the second amendment, a palpably deranged guy was able buy the Glock he used to shoot the congresswoman, a judge, a nine-year-old girl and four others. But then the example of the Tea Party candidate who almost beat Giffords, in having a campaign event inviting supporters to fire machine guns, is hardly one to calm as fevered a brow as Loughner’s.

In his schizophrenic way, Loughner was channelling the zeitgeist of the era. Shades of paranoia, half-baked theories about the currency and mind control are common enough, along with the assumption that anything you disapprove of must be unconstitutional. That moves beyond eccentricity when combined with a presumed second amendment right to keep and bear arms and an implied right – even duty – to overturn laws and elections that allegedly violate the “constitution” and self-defined American-ness.

As common as detachment from reality is his apparent inability to respect the decision of the ballot box. One of the elementary tests of democracy is the concept of a “loyal opposition”, which is perhaps a more important British innovation than even the railway train. The idea that people can disagree and not be accused of treachery and subversion is essential to a functioning parliamentary system. It has never gained universal acceptance in the United States, as the House Un-American Activities Committee followed a two-centuries-old tradition of loyalty oaths and lynchings for dissidents. The past two decades have seen it eroded even further.

Since they disagree with Obama, therefore he must be foreign-born, alien, not really American, is a view still held by a frightening number of registered Republicans – quite apart from the many who are just looking for excuses to rail against a black President.

Giffords herself walked a political tightrope. She was a self-proclaimed “Blue Dog” Democrat, but wanted a public option in healthcare – unlike many of her colleagues in the group who tend to be old-fashioned conservative Southern Democrats. In order to be elected, this group assumes it has to pass itself off as not really Democrat, implicitly accepting the view that to hold liberal views is inherently unacceptable and un-American.

However, it is not just the Blue Dogs who think like this. For years, the leadership of the Democratic Party in Washington has been in the hands of the Democratic Leadership Council, whose “leadership” is based on the ability to marshal huge tranches of corporate cash. While it might have been permissible to accept that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher occasionally had a point, like New Labour, the DLC has accepted neo-liberalism in its entirety. The DLC accepted the stigmatisation of their own party as “tax and spend” liberals, never challenging the huge deficits run up by Reagan and George W Bush.

It is a sad mark of the ideological triumph of Reaganism that its axioms are still received wisdom, even though they have been conclusively rebutted by reality, most notably over the past two years. Senior Democrats have been so eager to appear pro-business and to keep the cheques rolling in that they do not challenge the economic orthodoxy. So it is outrageous that, with overtime, a city employee might make $100,000 a year, but it is anti-business and un-American to question a banker making the same amount in a day in bonuses. As local government across America teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, we are told it is municipal unions at fault – not the bankers, whose price for bringing the world to ruin has been a relatively unchallenged record payout.

Friends of Giffords have reported the strain on her of raising $4 million to fight the last election against a deranged opponent bankrolled by a few secretive billionaires and their foundations, who are prepared to encourage anti-plutocratic rhetoric as long as the reality is union-bashing and tax cuts.

Quite apart from the guns, it is a sad country where politics is reduced to mortal combat between greedy but sane rich people and ideologically motivated rich but insane people.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric a Rich American Tradition

This week’s Catskill Review of Books, 2:30 Saturday 15 Jan, on WJFF, broadcast on 90.5 and 94.5 and streaming at

Ian Williams talks to award-winning author Brian Leung about his novel “Take Me Home,” a gripping, inspiring, and informative tale of survival and affection set during the now-forgotten anti-Chinese pogroms in the coal mines of Wyoming Territory in 1885.

Friday, January 07, 2011

She's Back! Helen Thomas's New Gig.

An editor with courage and integrity! Well done Nicholas Benton.

Editorial: Welcome Back, Helen Thomas Print E-mail
Thursday, January 06 2011 08:00:00 AM

The following is a statement by Falls Church News-Press founder, owner and editor Nicholas F. Benton:

The Falls Church News-Press is proud and honored to announce that veteran American journalist and national treasure Helen Thomas is coming out of a seven month self-imposed retirement to resume her weekly column exclusively in the News-Press beginning with this edition, both in print and online.

Ms. Thomas, who turned age 90 in August, has been covering Washington politics since 1942, and has been a White House correspondent covering every U.S. president on a day-to-day basis since the administration of John F. Kennedy.

Since 2000, she has written a weekly column based on attending daily White House press briefings to ask the kind of penetrating, truth-seeking questions that had become her hallmark. The Falls Church News-Press carried that column in print on a weekly basis beginning January 2004 until early June 2010, when it abruptly ceased.

On June 8, Ms. Thomas declared herself retired following a torrent of angry criticism reacting to a spontaneous verbal comment she made that was taped the day before. Ms. Thomas' comments were intemperate and inappropriate, as she conceded afterward. They reflected her personal anger arising from the news that Israeli commandos had boarded a ship on a humanitarian mission to Gaza and had killed over a dozen volunteers.

Ms. Thomas' views on a variety of subjects often differ from prevailing White House or other policies and positions. One of nine children born to Lebanese-Syrian immigrant parents, she has held to opinions different from many on U.S. policy toward the Middle East since the 1940s.

But her personal views have not tainted her highly-professional work for 50 years as a White House correspondent, except perhaps to inform the kinds of questions that she's never shied away from asking.

I have known Ms. Thomas since the founding of the News-Press in 1991. She visited our offices twice to meet readers and admirers. We share an appreciation for Eleanor Roosevelt and her work on behalf of the International Declaration of the Rights of Man.

She is progressive, and following my more than eight hours of direct, one-on-one talks with her since the events of last June, I remain firmly convinced that she is neither bigoted, nor racist, nor anti-Semitic.

Her remarks in June were in response to a question about Israel, not Jews, and were intended to mean that in these times, Jewish people are free to live wherever they wish, because the era of anti-Jewish persecution is ended. That was not adequately expressed because of the impromptu nature of the incident.

As one who has championed the cause of inclusion in my newspaper for 20 years, who founded the Diversity Affirmation Education Fund for the Falls Church School System, I am proud that a journalist of the stature and professionalism of Helen Thomas is relaunching her career in my newspaper. She more than deserves, and I am honored to help provide her, the proverbial "second chance."

Words are important...

Think before you speak to newspapers. In today's Wall Street Journal, microbiologist Samantha Joye says of microbes that allegedly ate the methane from Deepwater Horizon, "It would take a Superhuman microbe to do what they are claiming." Does she believe in devolution, that advanced humans will ingest farts, or does she just not think before using words?

Caucasians in the Catskills

How many Americans think Caucasian is a fancy term for "white" on application forms, or that Georgia is where Jimmy Carter grew peanuts? This week's Catskill Review of Books on WJFF, 90.5 FM Saturday at 2:30, streaming at http:/ features Thomas de Waal, setting the record straight, talking to Ian Williams about his book "The Caucasus: an Introduction," about small, far away countries of which we know little. But should, since a year ago we almost risked World War III over Georgia and Ossetia, and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is smoldering dangerously. And they are just the big ones, in a region where every valley has its own language and an underlying principle "Why should I be a minority in your country when you can be a minority in mine?"