Wednesday, August 24, 2011

American Exceptionalism

By William Fisher

This is apparently the season when the American commentariat trots out its love of America. They express this deep emotion in many ways.

John Perry links the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s to the struggle of the Republic Party to absolve the wealthiest Americans from paying a fair share of their debt to their country. He also thinks it’s legitimate to secede from the USA. To the Perry version of American exceptionalism, add some others: Sarah Palen finds us exceptional because she can have her guns; Michelle Bachmann seems to define American exceptionalism as our ability to achieve just about anything we set our sights on, no matter how unlikely, as long as our oversized, over-regulating government only gets out of the way.

For Mr. Romney, American execptionalism seems to turn on the ability of entrepreneurs to innovate and make a ton of money, even if we’re selling
off bits and pieces of once-healthy companies. For TV Host Chris Matthews, (I’m paraphrasing) it’s exemplified by Obama being born of mixed race and yet making it to the presidency. Chris says this couldn’t happen in any other country in the world. “You can’t go to China or Japan and become Chinese or Japanese. Obama came to the US and became an American and is now in the White House (Chris leaves out the minor truth that Obama didn’t have to become American - he already was, having been born in Hawaii).

Virtually since the beginning of our Republic we have been spinning a variety of narratives to reassure ourselves that we are the greatest nation ever invented and that no other comes even close. That, presumably is one of the reasons we seem to have this irresistible urge to teach the rest of the world how to be exceptional too.

But one of the wisest men I know is injecting a dose of reality into the patriotic mishmash being cooked up by those seeking to get themselves elected to something.

That man is Doug Speth or more formally, James Gustave Speth. A Rhodes Scholar, he graduated from Yale Law School, after which he became a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Then in the White House, as a Member and subsequently for two years as Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, he served in the Executive Office of the President. Later, he was Professor of Law at Georgetown, teaching environmental and constitutional law.

In 1982, he founded the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental think tank; served as its president until January 1993. He was a senior adviser to President-elect Bill Clinton's transition team, heading the group that examined the U.S.'s role in natural resources, energy and the environment.

Still later, he served as Administrator of the United Nations Development Program; dean of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He retired from Yale in 2009 to assume a professorship at Vermont Law School.

Now, why I am going to such lengths to introduce you to some of the details of this outstanding career? Because those folks who believe in American exceptionalism – or think they’re simply good for the political aspirations – are wont to blame the messenger who brings actual proof that Americans may once have been exceptional, but today that achievement is crumbling and our favorites narratives with it.

Prof. Speth has produced an index that should embarrass the exceptionalists by shining a bit of light on those areas where we’re not so exceptional.

For example, among the 20 major advanced countries America now has:

the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
the greatest inequality of incomes;
the lowest government spending as a percentage of GDP on social programs for the disadvantaged;
the lowest number of paid holiday, annual, and maternity leaves;
the lowest score on the United Nations’ index of “material well-being of
the worst score on the United Nations’ gender inequality index;
the lowest social mobility;
the highest public and private expenditure on health care as a portion
of GDP, the highest infant mortality rate; prevalence of mental health problems; obesity rate; portion of people going without health care due to cost; low-birth-weight children per capita (except for Japan); consumption of antidepressants per capita;
the shortest life expectancy at birth (except for Denmark and Portugal);
the highest carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption per capita; the lowest score on the World Economic Forum’s environmental performance index (except for Belgium), and the largest ecological footprint per capita (except for Belgium and Denmark);
the highest rate of failing to ratify international agreements;
the lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of GDP;
the highest military spending as a portion of GDP;
the largest international arms sales;
the most negative balance of payments (except New Zealand, Spain, and
the lowest scores for student performance in math (except for Portugal
and Italy) (and far from the top in both science and reading);
the highest high school dropout rate (except for Spain);
the highest homicide rate;
and the largest prison population per capita.

Now this is a pretty sorry scoresheet for our country – which used to excel in many of these categories.

The reasons for our fall from positive exceptionalism are far too lengthy to explore here, but some of the major factors, in no particular order, are inadequate education; globalization; the voracious greed and dishonesty of banks, mortgage brokers, government institutions and rating agencies, their
actions creating a bubble which they knew was as unsustainable as were the the insurance guarantees they issued bogus.

Then, there’s the US Tax Code, which encourages foreign investment and demands local, not American, labor; a health care system that provides first-rate health to the very wealthy or the very old – but not to the poor, who have no health insurance; unemployment and under-employment, partly because of the Great Recession, but starting long before that catastrophe as a result of the increase in worker productivity caused by substituting machines for humans in the workplace; and the consequent widening income disparity between the very rich and the very poor.

But the picture is not all hopeless. Gus Speth says, “It took a generation or more for most of these challenges to mature, and it will take a generation or more to climb out of the depths into which we have let things slide. More realistically, given that the U.S. government today is nowhere near ready to launch such efforts, it will take longer.”

He says, “If this analysis is correct, the devastating conclusion is that most of America’s problems will get worse or, at best, will continue to fester more or less as they currently are for the foreseeable future. That is a difficult
conclusion to have to face. But face it we must. Of course, we have to fight to correct these problems with all the strength progressive communities can muster, but we must also prepare and pursue another path forward.”

In short, he says, “America must complement ongoing efforts at reform and working within the system with at least equal efforts aimed at transformative change leading to a new political economy—a new operating system that routinely delivers good results for people and planet at home and around the world. The current system is simply not delivering economically, socially, environmentally, or politically. We need a new one. This type of systemic change will require a great struggle, and it will not come quickly. The truth is we are still in the design stage of building a new operating system.”

He adds: “That system won’t be socialism, by the way, and it won’t be today’s American capitalism either.”

“The possibility of system change suggests there can be a very bright light at
the end of this gloomy tunnel. America is in the midst of a period of decline,
and it hasn’t hit bottom yet. The imperatives its citizens face are therefore

(1) to slow and then halt the descent, minimizing human suffering and planetary damage along the way;

(2) to prevent a collapse, the emergence of a fortress world, or any of the dark scenarios that have been plotted for us in science fiction and increasingly in serious analysis;

(3) to minimize the time at the bottom and to start the climb upward, building a new operating system; and

(4) to complete, inhabit, and flourish in the diversity of alternative social arrangements, each far superior to what we will have left behind.

“There is hope especially in three things. The decline now occurring will
progressively delegitimize the current order. Who wants an operating system that is capable of generating and perpetuating such suffering and destruction? The one good thing about the decline of today’s political economy is that it opens the door to something much better. Second, people will eventually rise up, raise a loud shout, and demand major changes. That is already happening with some people in some places. Eventually, the chorus will grow to become a national and global movement for transformation. And third, Americans are already busy with numerous, mostly local initiatives that point the way to the future.”

“Amid ongoing decline, Americans must now summon the hope and courage to dream up something new and better and to fight for it. It has been said that the genius of America is to turn crisis into opportunity. Let us now dream a new America, the country we want for our grandchildren.”

That’s a Herculean order. And the question is: Will our political leaders find the smarts and the courage and the humility to become truly exceptional Americans?

Secret Somali Prison Exposed

By William Fisher

The CIA is involved in rendering suspected terrorists from Kenya to Somalia and interrogating them in a secret prison just outside Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, according to Jeremy Scahill of The Nation magazine.

The operation is part of a growing CIA campaign in Somalia, which includes a counterterrorism training program for Somali intelligence agents and operatives. Scahill says this program is aimed at “building an indigenous strike force capable of snatch operations and targeted ‘combat’ operations against members of Al Shabab, the Islamic militant group with close ties to Al Qaeda.” This is the group that forced international NGOs to leave Somalia and cease providing food and medical aid to thousands of Somalis suffering the worst drought in more than a half century.

In a lengthy article in the August 1-8 edition of the magazine, Scahill reports that” while the US does not control the prison, the CIA controls access to it, pays the monthly salaries of Somali intelligence agents, and questions prisoners directly.”

The prison, he writes, is “buried in the basement of Somalia’s National
Security Agency (NSA) headquarters, where prisoners suspected of being Shabab members or of having links to the group are held. Some of the prisoners have been snatched off the streets of Kenya and rendered by plane to Mogadishu.

“While the underground prison is officially run by the Somali NSA, US intelligence personnel pay the salaries of intelligence agents and also directly interrogate prisoners,” Scahill writes.

The walled, gated and heavily guarded compound is located near Mogadishu’s airport, on the coast of the Indian Ocean. The compound includes eight large metal hangars; the CIA has its own aircraft at the airport.

Scahill says a US official confirmed the existence of both sites. The official is quoted as telling The Nation, “It makes complete sense to have a
strong counterterrorism partnership” with the Somali government.”

He writes, “The CIA presence in Mogadishu is part of Washington’s intensifying counterterrorism focus on Somalia, which includes targeted strikes by US Special Operations forces, drone attacks and expanded surveillance operations. The US agents “are here full time,” Scahill says he was told by a senior Somali intelligence official.

“At times, the official said, “there are as many as thirty of them in Mogadishu,” but he stressed that those working with the Somali NSA do not conduct operations; rather, they advise and train Somali agents.

Scahill quotes “Somali sources” as saying, “The CIA is reluctant to deal directly with Somali political leaders, who are regarded by US officials as corrupt and untrustworthy. Instead, the United States has Somali intelligence agents on its payroll. Somali sources with knowledge of the program described the agents as lining up to receive $200 monthly cash payments from Americans.”

“They support us in a big way financially,” the senior Somali intelligence official is quoted as telling Scahill. “They are the largest [funder] by far.”

Scahill writes: “According to former detainees, the underground prison, which is staffed by Somali guards, consists of a long corridor lined with filthy small cells infested with bedbugs and mosquitoes…The former prisoners described the cells as windowless and the air thick, moist and disgusting. Prisoners, they said, are not allowed outside. Many have developed rashes and scratch themselves incessantly. Some have been detained for a year or more.”

Some of the prisoners, he reports, told him “they were picked up in Nairobi and rendered on small aircraft to Mogadishu, where they were handed over to Somali intelligence agents. Once in custody, according to the senior Somali intelligence official and former prisoners, some detainees are
freely interrogated by US and French agents.”

“Our goal is to please our partners, so we get more [out] of them, like any relationship,” said the Somali intelligence official in describing the policy of allowing foreign agents, including from the CIA, to interrogate prisoners.

The Americans, according to the Somali official, operate unilaterally in the country, while the French agents are embedded within the African Union force known as AMISOM, Scahill reports.

According to Scahill, Human Rights Watch and Reprieve have documented that “Kenyan security and intelligence forces have facilitated scores of renditions for the US and other governments, including eighty-five people rendered to Somalia in 2007 alone.

But according to the senior Somali intelligence official, who works directly
with the US agents, “the CIA-led program in Mogadishu has brought few tangible gains, Scahill writes.

“So far what we have not seen is the results in terms of the capacity of the [Somali] agency,” says the official. Scahill reports that the official conceded that “neither US nor Somali forces have been able to conduct a single successful targeted mission in the Shabab’s areas in the capital.

Now, if Scahill’s information is accurate, we should all be puzzled. Here’s why:

In his first week in office, President Barack Obama banned “coercive interrogations” and ordered the C.I.A. secret prisons closed. The existence of the secret prisons was never revealed by the government; it was exposed in an article in The Washington Post by Dana Priest in 2005.

And, at his confirmation hearing in 2009, then CIA Director nominee Leon Panetta said that the Obama administration would end the practice of “extraordinary rendition” -- sending prisoners to countries for torture or other treatment that violates U.S. values. He contended that such renditions had occurred during the Bush presidency.

More recently, Panetta (who is now Defense Secretary) said the CIA had not detained any terrorism suspects since he took office in February 2009 and added that any suspects captured in the future would be quickly turned over to the American military or to a suspect’s home country.

Well, the prison in Somalia is not run or staffed by the CIA. So, technically, it is in keeping with the letter, if not the spirit, of President Obama’s executive order. Nor is the interrogation of prisoners there by CIA agents, assuming they are not using the “enhanced interrogation techniques” of the George W. Bush administration.

And, as for rendition, the CIA – in the unlikely event it has anything at all to say -- would likely maintain that renditions to Somalia were conducted by Kenya.

What we are left with is the US financing a secret prison where prisoners are snatched from other countries, held incommunicado with no due process and no access to their own government, lawyers or family members.

We have to wonder whether this is what President Obama had in mind when he signed his executive orders. What ever happened to transparency?

Jordan and the Arab Spring

By William Fisher

Did the Arab Spring ever come to Jordan?

Yes, but it would be hard to know that from America’s mainstream media.
With just a few notable exceptions, Jordan has been sacrificed to coverage of much sexier stories in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, even tiny Bahrain.

Yet the Arab Spring, now morphed into summer, is alive and well in Jordan.
It’s just not as noisy.

To be sure, there have been demonstrations and people have been killed by the security forces. But Jordan’s demonstrations haven’t been nearly as widespread or vocal as those in, for example, Tahrir Square. The Tahrir-type demonstrations have been kept to a minimum, a situation facilitated by a combination of police action and the efforts of King Abdullah II to stay ahead of the curve.

The King’s efforts began with a dismissal of his government and its replacement with officials he hoped the demonstrators would find more acceptable.

Another of the loudest demands from the demonstrators was for an amended constitution. Now the committee appointed by the King to amend the Constitution has unveiled its work, and it is being greeted by some as a huge leap toward democracy and by others as a useless piece of cosmetics that will not facilitate any major changes in the country’s political life.

Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, served as Jordan’s foreign minister (2002–2004), and deputy prime minister (2004–2005), and played a central role in developing the Arab Peace Initiative and the Middle East Road Map. He says about the new draft Constitutional amendments:

“To be sure, many of the amendments address demands long put forth by reform groups and the general public.”

He outlines a half dozen of the major amendments proposed:

· The establishment of a constitutional court to monitor the constitutionality of laws and regulations. The court replaces a high tribunal for the interpretation of such laws that was headed by the speaker of the Senate and widely considered less than totally independent.
· The establishment of an independent commission to oversee elections instead of the Ministry of Interior that has previously been in charge of the electoral process. All electoral contestations will be referred to the judiciary instead of parliament.
· The enhancement of civil liberties, including the criminalization of any infringement on rights and public freedoms or on the sanctity of Jordanians’ private life; prohibition of torture in any form; and a declaration that all forms of communication between citizens shall be treated as secret and not subject to censorship, suspension, or confiscation except by judicial order.
· The limitation of the government’s ability to issue temporary laws during the absence of parliament, a practice that governments exercised at will in the past.
· The limitation of the State Security Court’s jurisdiction to cases of high treason, espionage, and terrorism, with citizens being otherwise tried in civilian courts; this includes ministers, who were previously tried by a parliamentary high tribunal.
· The limitation of the government’s ability to dissolve parliament without having to resign itself.

Muasher writes, “The proper way to read the amendments and decipher their significance is to understand the wider context. Do they constitute a first step in a much larger roadmap toward total separation of the legislative, judicial, and executive powers? Will they redistribute these powers (strengthening the first two and diluting the third)? Or do they represent the end of the road for Jordan’s political reform process? A clear answer to the questions helps pass judgment on the measures in a more objective and less ideological manner.”

Muasher points out, however, that the amendments “stopped short of several other measures. Other than limiting the king’s ability to indefinitely postpone elections, his powers have been left intact.”

For example, he says, “even though it would be difficult to change the practice immediately without party-based parliaments, the king still appoints and dismisses the prime minister and the upper house of parliament.”

He adds: “The constitutional committee also debated adding gender to the list of categories of laws that are forbidden to discriminate against, but it opted to keep gender off of the list for religious and political reasons. Finally, the role of the security services in the political affairs of the country was limited through some amendments, but hardly curbed completely.”

He concludes that ”the amendments are an important first step and the fact that they will go through the constitutional process in only a few weeks is positive. This indicates that the constitution will witness its first major en masse overhaul since it was adopted in 1952.”

Another Middle East expert agrees that the amendments are an important first step. But Samer Shehata, professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University, points out that “there is no serious fundamental change to the electoral system. And the upper house is still thoroughly non-elected, appointed by the king. I don't know the specifics of the security sector reform (Muasher says it's minimal) but many will tell you the security forces are the ones really running the country.”

He concludes: “I'm still extremely skeptical. These reforms are not the major, structural, transformative reforms necessary to move Jordan from a authoritarian state (with a facade democratic process) to a constitutional monarchy.”

Whether the King intends to follow through to build on this encouraging first step is unclear. But he will have little choice if he seeks a Jordan that becomes a peaceful democracy-Middle-East-style, prepared to improve the lives of ordinary Jordanians and play a larger and more constructive role in the Israel-Palestine dispute.

Is Mubarak Really Gone? Slum-Dwellers Forcibly Evicted

By William Fisher

In post-Mubarak Egypt, an estimated 850,000 people are facing forced eviction from housing deemed “unsafe” by the transition military government, according to a new report from Amnesty International (AI).

The report condemns the treatment of the country's 12 million people who live in Egypt’s vast slums. It documents “how the Egyptian authorities have persistently failed to consult communities living in ‘unsafe areas’ on plans to address their inadequate housing conditions.”

The 123-page report -- ‘We are not dirt’: Forced evictions in Egypt’s informal settlements -- was prepared by Amnesty Egypt researcher Mohamed Lotfy and Amnesty UK Director Kate Allen.

The report describes cases of forced evictions affecting hundreds of families in the country’s so-called “unsafe areas” where residents' lives or health are said to be at risk.

Amnesty cites Abdel Nasser al-Sherif's story as an example of injustices currently being committed.

The lawyer and his extended family used to live in a four-storey building his father built in 1949 in Old Cairo's Establ Antar informal settlement. In 2009, the authorities announced that a cliff beside the settlement was “unsafe” and life-threatening.

Without issuing any warning or an eviction notice, the authorities decided to demolish al-Sherif's property. After he protested and refused to leave his house, riot police entered and dragged him away. Al-Sherif's possessions were dumped by a lorry in a resettlement area across the city. He has not been compensated for the destruction of his family's home of 60 years.

An acute shortage of affordable housing has driven Egypt's poor to live in slums and informal settlements. Around 40% of Egyptians live on or near the US$2 a day poverty line, while the vast majority of the victims killed or injured during the “25 January Revolution” were from underprivileged backgrounds. Some 18,300 housing units in Egypt are at risk of imminent collapse, Amnesty says..

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said, “People living in Egypt's slums must be given a say in finding solutions to their dire housing conditions, but the authorities are failing to respect their human rights. And when slum residents dare to object, they face unlawful forced eviction and arbitrary arrest under repressive laws.”

She added, “Government plans for 'unsafe areas' are essentially demolition plans that don't explore alternatives to evictions where possible. Not one person out of the hundreds we interviewed had ever been adequately notified before their eviction or consulted on alternative housing.”

“With elections approaching, Egyptian authorities have an opportunity to right that wrong,” she said.

Amnesty says it has found that many slum residents have been left homeless after the authorities demolished their homes against their wishes and failed to provide new housing. Research shows that authorities discriminate against women - especially if they are divorced, widowed or separated - in the allocation of alternative housing.

Amnesty also found evidence of communities that had apparently been abandoned under the threat of rock falls despite asking the authorities to resettle them, while other communities facing lesser risks have been demolished, such as the Al-Sahaby area in Aswan. This inconsistent approach has spread suspicion among slum-dwellers that some of them are being cleared out of their homes not to protect them, but so that the land can be developed for commercial gain.

Following a deadly rockslide in Cairo's Manshiyet Nasser slum in 2008, the Egyptian authorities identified 404 “unsafe areas” across the country. In Manshiyet Nasser, thousands of families living at risk of future rock falls were relocated into alternative housing, but most have been moved far from their sources of income and generally lack the necessary documentation for their new homes.

The authorities have routinely failed to give residents proper warning before security forces - including military police in recent months - arrive to force people out of their homes in breach of Egypt’s international obligations and its own laws, Amnesty charges.