Thursday, June 02, 2011

Does Cable Television Have Anything to Do With National Security?

By William Fisher

The Memorial Day holiday in the US gave me a brief respite from my daily scribbling and an opportunity to watch a little cable television.

I don’t want to sound like one of the elite, but I didn’t actually expect to be enlightened or stimulated or challenged by the morning’s TV fare, which I usually avoid with the exception of C-Span.

But I admit that I really wasn’t prepared for the “five minutes for the police car chase and the 30-second sound bite for the uprisings in Syria” news formula. Nor was I fully aware of the extent to which cable news simply ignored a bunch of really important world developments in favor of domestic crime stories and feel-good program–enders about pandas or teddy bears.

I left an hour of cable news right up to date on Congressional sex scandals and particularly gruesome child murders, but hopelessly uninformed about movements and actions that truly have the potential to change lives in large numbers.

And, as for the rest of cable’s daily menu, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, these channels know their audiences. And, by and large, I’m told that the people who are watching non-news (entertainment) television in the morning are a pretty good cross-section of our most challenged demographics – people who can’t find jobs, the working poor, single moms struggling to care for their kids, housewives who abandoned the soaps for Oprah, et cetera.

These are not stupid people. But politically, cable news is feeding them a highly censored smorgasbord of meaningless sound-bites combined with the kinds of stories most likely to stimulate their most prurient interests.

Between newscasts, cable audiences are being enchanted by the seemingly endless supply of reality, game, courtroom, and pop-psyche guidance shows.

Now, lest I be misunderstood, there are some mighty smart and well-informed people working for cable channels. However, I find it an unfortunate turn-off that anchors like Chris Matthews of MSNBC, Bill O’Reilly of FOX, and even Wolf Blitzer of CNN, have had to build their audiences by making outrageous hyperbolic (and usually untrue) statements, and booking guests who seem programmed to scream at (and over) one another on virtually any subject.

So what, you might ask, has this to do with National Security?

Let me state what should be obvious: Our form of government depends on the consent of the governed. When we find that our citizens are about as well-informed as Sarah Palen, we should be afraid – very afraid. Because to the extent our brains are A.W.O.L. on critical national and international issues, to that extent we give license to every demagogic politician to sell us whatever narrative he wants.

And they do. And because we are unaware we have options, politicians more often than not have their way. In the end, they persuade us to vote against our own interests.

And that makes us, as a nation, very, very insecure.


By William Fisher

President Obama’s recent speech on the Middle East was intended, finally, to put the U.S. on “the right side of history.” After months of fence-sitting, the president was going to throw the full moral weight of the United States behind the Arab Spring.

How he did depends a lot on where you’re sitting. In the U.S., reception to his remarks appears to have been largely positive – even among some of the human rights groups that have been consistently critical of what they see as the double-standard applied to different nations based on U.S. strategic interests.

“I thought the speech did a good job of clearly aligning U.S. policy in support of democratic change in the region,” said Neil Hicks of Human Rights Watch.

But the view from the Middle East and North Africa was less enthusiastic – a lot less.

Pro-reform activists in a number of Arab Spring countries were quick to point out that Saudi Arabia was not mentioned a single time in the more than 5,000 words Obama spoke.

The Sacred Cow is still Sacred!

Anger over that particular omission was dramatically evident in Bahrain, where Saudi troops are supporting the royal family in one of the most viscous crackdowns ever seen in this tiny Gulf country. King Abdullah’s forces are in Bahrain, along with others from the UAE, at the instigation of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is unclear whether these foreign soldiers are participating directly in the beatings and murders and faux trials of protesters, but their presence casts a huge dark shadow over the country.

As The Guardian reported, “Arab analysts said Obama's words were impressive but came largely too late and reflected US fears of the consequences of uprisings without guidance from the West.”

Those Arab analysts haven’t forgotten that in 2009 Obama came to Cairo University to address the Muslim world promising support for democracy. Nothing happened.

Nor have they forgotten that in 2005 George W. Bush attempted to embarrass Mubarak into holding multi-party elections that would be free and fair. Condi Rice even cancelled a trip to the region in protest. But nothing happened and everything went back to the status quo ante.

Most recently, Egyptians are remembering that the U.S. stood at the side of the Mubarak Regime until they were sure which side was going to win before they put their full-throated endorsement behind the headless horsemen of Tahrir Square.

Hussein Ibish, a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, summed up Obama’s latest speech well. He said, “Perhaps the most important change in tone in this regard was on Bahrain, where Obama condemned the crackdown in much stronger terms than the United States has to date. He called for dialogue but noted ‘you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail’.”

Bahrainis appeared to be heartened that their tiny country was mentioned at all, but disappointed that listeners were spared the awful impact of what’s taking place there today.

The bloodbath in Bahrain has been almost universally neglected by major elements of the mainstream press, even though the spokesman for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights has been a consistent supplier of frequent and accurate news and updates. The Bahraini situation is not simple, though it would be easy to simplify it. At its root, it is a story of a Sunni Muslim king ruling over a Shia Muslim majority population. The tactics employed by the royal family are unspeakably barbaric. In many respects, they make Egypt’s security services look like the Keystone Cops.

Chip Pitts, a long-time human rights defender and former CEO of Amnesty USA, summed up Obama’s speech this way:

“The president's speech mainly gave the minimum acknowledgment of new Middle Eastern realities without really constituting anything new or that would represent true leadership that could transcend the classic status quo interests operating there. The last thing those in the region needed was more tired rhetoric; the first thing they need from the US is more genuine, principled, consistent, and results-oriented leadership aimed at producing transformative change.”

But then, the sixty-four thousand dollar question: Does it really matter anymore what the United States thinks or says?

There is a substantial segment of well educated, well informed Arabs that sees the influence of the United States in sad and steady decline. After all, the U.S. was for many years the country that supported and helped finance the enemies of self-government, anti-corruption, a fair legal system, extraordinary rendition, police torture chambers, free elections, and repeal of so-called emergency laws.

Maybe Chip Pitts had it about right: “The last thing those in the region needed was more tired rhetoric; the first thing they need from the US is more genuine, principled, consistent, and results-oriented leadership aimed at producing transformative change.”

Meantime, U.S. pronouncements are triggering a growing ho-hum. As
Jon Alterman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, put it, "There's not a huge amount of curiosity about what the president thinks. President Obama's speech…did nothing to change that social media site Twitter: ‘Obama gave a speech? Really? As if I care’.”

“We’ve Never Seen Such Horror” –HRW’s Chilling New Report on Syria

By William Fisher

Amid the anger that has erupted in Syria following the publication of images of the battered face of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a chilling new report detailing the brutality of Syrian security forces in the Syrian city of Daraa.

“For more than two months now, Syrian security forces have been killing and torturing their own people with complete impunity. They need to stop – and if they don’t, it is the (UN) Security Council’s responsibility to make sure that the people responsible face justice.”

These are the words of Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, introducing a chilling new 54-page report, "We've Never Seen Such Horror: Crimes against Humanity in Daraa."

The “systematic killings and torture” by Syrian security forces in the city of Daraa since protests began there on March 18, 2011, “strongly suggest that these qualify as crimes against humanity,” the Human Rights Watch report said.

Hamza -- a pudgy-cheeked 13-year-old -- was reportedly arrested, tortured and killed in custody and has become a symbol of the violent suppression of protesters by the Assad regime and a potential tipping point after 12 weeks of bloodshed, HRW said.

HRW‘s report is based on more than 50 interviews with victims and witnesses to abuses. It focuses on violations in Daraa governorate, where some of the worst violence took place after protests seeking greater freedoms began in various parts of the country. The specifics went largely unreported due to the information blockade imposed by the Syrian authorities. Victims and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described systematic killings, beatings, torture using electroshock devices, and detention of people seeking medical care.

HRW said the Syrian government “should take immediate steps to halt the excessive use of lethal force by security forces. The United Nations Security Council should impose sanctions and press Syria for accountability and, if it doesn't respond adequately, refer Syria to the International Criminal
Court (ICC).”

But getting the Security Council to act is not going to be easy. Russia and China have made it clear they are not inclined to participate in any overall condemnation of the Assad regime nor any call for referral to the ICC.

The US has already adopted unilateral sanctions against Assad and his top lieutenants, but they are not likely to have a major negative impact on the country.

China and Russia are likely to oppose UN-backed sanctions and are strongly opposed to a Libya-type action, even if such an operation were militarily possible in Syria.

The HRW reports says “the protests first broke out in Daraa in response to the detention and torture of 15 children accused of painting graffiti slogans calling for the government's downfall. In response and since then, security forces have repeatedly and systematically opened fire on overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators. The security forces have killed at least 418 people in the Daraa governorate alone, and more than 887 across Syria, according to local activists who have been maintaining a list of those killed. Exact numbers are impossible to verify.”

Witnesses from Daraa interviewed by Human Rights Watch provided consistent accounts of security forces using lethal force against protesters and bystanders, in most cases without advance warning or any effort to disperse the protesters by nonviolent means. Members of various branches of the mukhabarat (security services) and numerous snipers positioned on rooftops deliberately targeted the protesters, and many of the victims had lethal head, neck, and chest wounds. Human Rights Watch documented a number of cases in which security forces participating in the operations against protesters in Daraa and other cities had received "shoot-to-kill" orders from their commanders.

Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to halt immediately the use of excessive and lethal force by security forces against demonstrators and activists, release all arbitrarily arrested detainees, and provide human rights groups and journalists with immediate and unhindered access to Daraa.

It also called on the Security Council to adopt targeted financial and travel sanctions on officials responsible for continuing human rights violations, as well as to push for and support efforts to investigate and prosecute the grave, widespread and systemic human rights violations committed in Syria.

"Syrian authorities did everything they could to conceal their bloody repression in Daraa," Whitson said. "But horrendous crimes like these are impossible to hide, and sooner or later those responsible will have to answer for their actions."

Michelle Shephard, National Security reporter for the Toronto Star, wrote that young Hamza went missing after a protest in the southern Syrian village of Jiza on April 29, and “until his body was returned to his family Friday, his whereabouts were unknown. Activists said he was tortured and killed by Syria’s security services during a month in custody.”

Syrian state TV reported that Hamza was hit by three bullets outside the military complex where he was protesting. There was a delay in returning the body because his identity was unknown, the government-sponsored station stated.

But a video posted on YouTube showing his beaten corpse has sparked international condemnation and become a rallying cry for Syria’s protesters, who shouted this week: “We are all Hamza al-Khateeb.”

Hamza’s father, obviously under duress, appeared on Syrian State TV and praised Assad for his leadership. It was widely reported that the government has threatened his family.

HRW said. “It is difficult to look at his injuries and not think about what he endured — the boy’s face is purple and swollen; there are bullet and burn marks on his chest. A narrator states that his kneecaps were also shattered and his penis severed.”

“I have a child who is exactly that age and I just cannot comprehend the cruelty. It is so hitting home,” said Abdalla Rifai, of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. The Washington-based non-profit group was established to support the “democratic aspirations of Syrians” and is suing Assad’s regime in U.S. courts for human rights abuses.

Despite the courage of the protesters and the ferocity of their clashes with government forces, Syria experts remain doubtful that there are enough demonstrators to outnumber the security services. As long as they situation remains, Assad may be able to control the uprising.

Assad inherited power in July 2000, a month after his father Hafez al-Assad died. The senior Assad had ruled for three decades and his son inherited a government led by the Arab Socialist Baath party and dominated by Alawites - a minority Shia sect that makes up between five and 10 per cent of the population in a predominantly Sunni country (74 per cent). The Alawites are regarded as extraordinarily clever in holding on to their minority power.