Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fisk: Wikileaks and the Shaming of America

The shaming of America
Robert Fisk, The Independent, Sunday, 24 October 2010
Source

As usual, the Arabs knew. They knew all about the mass torture, the promiscuous shooting of civilians, the outrageous use of air power against family homes, the vicious American and British mercenaries, the cemeteries of the innocent dead. All of Iraq knew. Because they were the victims.

Only we could pretend we did not know. Only we in the West could counter every claim, every allegation against the Americans or British with some worthy general – the ghastly US military spokesman Mark Kimmitt and the awful chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Peter Pace, come to mind – to ring-fence us with lies. Find a man who'd been tortured and you'd be told it was terrorist propaganda; discover a house full of children killed by an American air strike and that, too, would be terrorist propaganda, or "collateral damage", or a simple phrase: "We have nothing on that."

Of course, we all knew they always did have something. And yesterday's ocean of military memos proves it yet again. Al-Jazeera has gone to extraordinary lengths to track down the actual Iraqi families whose men and women are recorded as being wasted at US checkpoints – I've identified one because I reported it in 2004, the bullet-smashed car, the two dead journalists, even the name of the local US captain – and it was The Independent on Sunday that first alerted the world to the hordes of indisciplined gunmen being flown to Baghdad to protect diplomats and generals. These mercenaries, who murdered their way around the cities of Iraq, abused me when I told them I was writing about them way back in 2003.



It's always tempting to avoid a story by saying "nothing new". The "old story" idea is used by governments to dampen journalistic interest as it can be used by us to cover journalistic idleness. And it's true that reporters have seen some of this stuff before. The "evidence" of Iranian involvement in bomb-making in southern Iraq was farmed out to The New York Times's Michael Gordon by the Pentagon in February 2007. The raw material, which we can now read, is far more doubtful than the Pentagon-peddled version. Iranian military material was still lying around all over Iraq from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and most of the attacks on Americans were at that stage carried out by Sunni insurgents. The reports suggesting that Syria allowed insurgents to pass through their territory, by the way, are correct. I have spoken to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers whose sons made their way to Iraq from Lebanon via the Lebanese village of Majdal Aanjar and then via the northern Syrian city of Aleppo to attack the Americans.

But, written in bleak militarese as it may be, here is the evidence of America's shame. This is material that can be used by lawyers in courts. If 66,081 – I loved the "81" bit – is the highest American figure available for dead civilians, then the real civilian mortality score is infinitely higher since this records only those civilians the Americans knew of. Some of them were brought to the Baghdad mortuary in my presence, and it was the senior official there who told me that the Iraqi ministry of health had banned doctors from performing any post-mortems on dead civilians brought in by American troops. Now why should that be? Because some had been tortured to death by Iraqis working for the Americans? Did this hook up with the 1,300 independent US reports of torture in Iraqi police stations?

The Americans scored no better last time round. In Kuwait, US troops could hear Palestinians being tortured by Kuwaitis in police stations after the liberation of the city from Saddam Hussein's legions in 1991. A member of the Kuwaiti royal family was involved in the torture. US forces did not intervene. They just complained to the royal family. Soldiers are always being told not to intervene. After all, what was Lieutenant Avi Grabovsky of the Israeli army told when he reported to his officer in September 1982 that Israel's Phalangist allies had just murdered some women and children? "We know, it's not to our liking, and don't interfere," Grabovsky was told by his battalion commander. This was during the Sabra and Chatila refugee camp massacre.

The quotation comes from Israel's 1983 Kahan commission report – heaven knows what we could read if WikiLeaks got its hands on the barrels of military files in the Israeli defence ministry (or the Syrian version, for that matter). But, of course, back in those days, we didn't know how to use a computer, let alone how to write on it. And that, of course, is one of the important lessons of the whole WikiLeaks phenomenon.

Back in the First World War or the Second World War or Vietnam, you wrote your military reports on paper. They may have been typed in triplicate but you could number your copies, trace any spy and prevent the leaks. The Pentagon Papers was actually written on paper. You needed to find a mole to get them. But paper could always be destroyed, weeded, trashed, all copies destroyed. At the end of the 1914-18 war, for example, a British second lieutenant shot a Chinese man after Chinese workers had looted a French military train. The Chinese man had pulled a knife on the soldier. But during the 1930s, the British soldier's file was "weeded" three times and so no trace of the incident survives. A faint ghost of it remains only in a regimental war diary which records Chinese involvement in the looting of "French provision trains". The only reason I know of the killing is that my father was the British lieutenant and told me the story before he died. No WikiLeaks then.

But I do suspect this massive hoard of material from the Iraq war has serious implications for journalists as well as armies. What is the future of the Seymour Hershes and the old-style investigative journalism that The Sunday Times used to practise? What is the point of sending teams of reporters to examine war crimes and meet military "deep throats", if almost half a million secret military documents are going to float up in front of you on a screen?

We still haven't got to the bottom of the WikiLeaks story, and I rather suspect that there are more than just a few US soldiers involved in this latest revelation. Who knows if it doesn't go close to the top? In its investigations, for example, al-Jazeera found an extract from a run-of-the-mill Pentagon press conference in November 2005. Peter Pace, the uninspiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is briefing journalists on how soldiers should react to the cruel treatment of prisoners, pointing out proudly that an American soldier's duty is to intervene if he sees evidence of torture. Then the camera moves to the far more sinister figure of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who suddenly interrupts – almost in a mutter, and to Pace's consternation – "I don't think you mean they (American soldiers) have an obligation to physically stop it. It's to report it."

The significance of this remark – cryptically sadistic in its way – was lost on the journos, of course. But the secret Frago 242 memo now makes much more sense of the press conference. Presumably sent by General Ricardo Sanchez, this is the instruction that tells soldiers: "Provided the initial report confirms US forces were not involved in the detainee abuse, no further investigation will be conducted unless directed by HHQ [Higher Headquarters]." Abu Ghraib happened under Sanchez's watch in Iraq. It was also Sanchez, by the way, who couldn't explain to me at a press conference why his troops had killed Saddam's sons in a gun battle in Mosul rather than capture them.

So Sanchez's message, it seems, must have had Rumsfeld's imprimatur. And so General David Petraeus – widely loved by the US press corps – was presumably responsible for the dramatic increase in US air strikes over two years; 229 bombing attacks in Iraq in 2006, but 1,447 in 2007. Interestingly enough, US air strikes in Afghanistan have risen by 172 per cent since Petraeus took over there. Which makes it all the more astonishing that the Pentagon is now bleating that WikiLeaks may have blood on its hands. The Pentagon has been covered in blood since the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, and for an institution that ordered the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 – wasn't that civilian death toll more than 66,000 by their own count, out of a total of 109,000 recorded? – to claim that WikiLeaks is culpable of homicide is preposterous.

The truth, of course, is that if this vast treasury of secret reports had proved that the body count was much lower than trumpeted by the press, that US soldiers never tolerated Iraqi police torture, rarely shot civilians at checkpoints and always brought killer mercenaries to account, US generals would be handing these files out to journalists free of charge on the steps of the Pentagon. They are furious not because secrecy has been breached, or because blood may be spilt, but because they have been caught out telling the lies we always knew they told.

US official documents detail extraordinary scale of wrongdoing

WikiLeaks yesterday released on its website some 391,832 US military messages documenting actions and reports in Iraq over the period 2004-2009. Here are the main points:

Prisoners abused, raped and murdered

Hundreds of incidents of abuse and torture of prisoners by Iraqi security services, up to and including rape and murder. Since these are itemised in US reports, American authorities now face accusations of failing to investigate them. UN leaders and campaigners are calling for an official investigation.

Civilian death toll cover-up

Coalition leaders have always said "we don't do death tolls", but the documents reveal many deaths were logged. Respected British group Iraq Body Count says that, after preliminary examination of a sample of the documents, there are an estimated 15,000 extra civilian deaths, raising their total to 122,000.

The shooting of men trying to surrender

In February 2007, an Apache helicopter killed two Iraqis, suspected of firing mortars, as they tried to surrender. A military lawyer is quoted as saying: "They cannot surrender to aircraft and are still valid targets."

Private security firm abuses

Britain's Bureau of Investigative Journalism says it found documents detailing new cases of alleged wrongful killings of civilians involving Blackwater, since renamed Xe Services. Despite this, Xe retains extensive US contracts in Afghanistan.

Al-Qa'ida's use of children and "mentally handicapped" for bombing

A teenage boy with Down's syndrome who killed six and injured 34 in a suicide attack in Diyala was said to be an example of an ongoing al-Qa'ida strategy to recruit those with learning difficulties. A doctor is alleged to have sold a list of female patients with learning difficulties to insurgents.

Hundreds of civilians killed at checkpoints

Out of the 832 deaths recorded at checkpoints in Iraq between 2004 and 2009, analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggests 681 were civilians. Fifty families were shot at and 30 children killed. Only 120 insurgents were killed in checkpoint incidents.

Iranian influence

Reports detail US concerns that Iranian agents had trained, armed and directed militants in Iraq. In one document, the US military warns a militia commander believed to be behind the deaths of US troops and kidnapping of Iraqi officials was trained by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Rannie Amiri: Hariri's House of Cards

Hariri's House of Cards
By Rannie Amiri, CounterPunch, Oct 1-3
Source

“Have a little mercy on the Lebanese. People were considerate with you at first because your father is a martyr, but today they have become bored with you. You are playing with the country, not with PlayStation.”

– Lebanese Unification (Tawhid) Movement leader Wiam Wahhab, in comments directed to Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, 27 September 2010

A war of words has erupted between Lebanon’s Hezbollah-led March 8 Coalition and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s ruling March 14 Coalition, posing the greatest challenge to Hariri’s leadership yet and threatening the viability of his “national unity” government.

As indictments loom following the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s (STL) investigation into the February 2005 assassination of the late premier Rafiq al-Hariri, his now-prime minister son finds himself trapped between diametrically opposed forces. Those in his parliamentary bloc and own Future Movement back the STL—and importantly, its funding—while the March 8 opposition has called for it to either seriously consider claims of alleged Israeli involvement in Hariri’s killing or be shut down.

The STL is still expected to implicate Hezbollah elements in the murder even after Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah presented intercepted video footage obtained from Israeli reconnaissance drones revealing the path of Hariri’s motorcade and exact location of the attack. He also said Ghassan al-Jedd, a known Israeli spy, was present at the crime scene that day (Jedd later fled to Israel).

Nasrallah’s disclosures came against the backdrop of an extensive crackdown on Israeli espionage rings operating in Lebanon’s security and telecommunications sectors, including the state-owned mobile service provider, Alfa. Having worked for the Mossad for more than a decade, one agent confessed to installing computer programs and planting chips in Alfa transmitters to be used by Israeli intelligence to monitor communications, and locate and target individuals for assassination.

This is significant since the STL is expected to rely heavily on phone records in drawing its conclusions: “A preliminary report by the U.N. investigating team said it had collected data from mobile phone calls made the day of Hariri's murder as evidence,” AFP reported.

The fallout from Rafiq al-Hariri’s killing dramatically reshaped Lebanon’s relationship with Syria. Both the slain leader’s allies and son quickly pointed an accusatory finger at Damascus. Events that subsequently transpired became known as the “Cedar Revolution” and ultimately led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence in March-April 2005.

This made Saad al-Hariri’s recent about-face all the more stunning.

In an early September interview with the Saudi-owned newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat, Hariri said he had mistakenly blamed Syria for his father’s assassination. He withdrew what he called a “political” accusation and apologized.

But some would not let Hariri off the hook so easily.

Brigadier General Jamil al-Sayyed was Lebanon’s former head of general security at the time the massive bomb detonated under Hariri’s motorcade. He along with three other pro-Syrian generals were arrested in August 2005 and jailed for nearly four years—without charge—on suspicion of involvement in the crime. They were ordered released by the Tribunal in 2009 due to fabricated, recanted witness testimony and lack of evidence.

Al-Sayyed said Saad al-Hariri had “sold his father’s blood” by way of false witnesses so he could frame Syria for the murder:

“You [Saad al-Hariri], those who are with you and [former Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora know that you have been exercising falsification since the beginning … Had the false witnesses managed to cheat the court and had you accepted that, would you be apologizing today or would you be dancing in Damascus with the new leader you installed?

“But one day, I will take what is rightfully mine with my own hands if you do not give it to me …”

State prosecutor Said Mirza summoned al-Sayyed from France for the implied threat to Hariri and his call for the Lebanese people to revolt against the government. When he arrived at Beirut’s international airport, Hezbollah representatives met him in force and escorted him home. March 14 supporters said that the action amounted to an airport takeover meant to protect al-Sayyed from arrest.

The fact that fabricated witness testimony once used to incriminate Syria may now be directed Hezbollah’s way is obviously not lost on the March 8 Coalition.

Hezbollah M.P. Hasan Fadlallah said, “When we talk about this issue, we don't only refer to four or five people who gave false testimonies during the investigations in the murder of (former) premier (Rafiq) Hariri. These are only one ring of the rings of false witnesses, and maybe the weakest and smallest ring in this dossier. We want this group dismantled, the heads of this group unveiled and the case followed up at the judicial, legal and political levels in Lebanon, so that it faces trial and accountability.”

Hariri has a number of fateful decisions on his hands: to proceed with or table the STL finance bill (Lebanon pays 49 percent of the Court’s cost and Hezbollah has already vowed to block it); to enforce the summons against Gen. al-Sayyed or prosecute the false witnesses; and most significantly, to decide whether to back the STL verdict likely blaming Hezbollah despite evidence of Israeli complicity. If so, March 8 ministers (holding one-third of cabinet seats) could pull out of his administration, plunging the country into an even deeper political crisis.

Hariri’s government is now more fragile than ever; a proverbial house of cards erected on fabricated witness testimonies and one likely to be brought down by the upcoming indictments of a discredited tribunal.

Rannie Amiri is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Rannie Amiri: Bahrain - Constitutional Monarchy or Police State?

A Blurred Line in Bahrain
By Rannie Amiri, CounterPunch, Sep 24-26
Source

The situation in Bahrain has deteriorated to such an extent that it can no longer be called a political crisis; it is now a human rights crisis. And the silence of those in the Middle East and West, particularly the United States, has been shameful.

The Persian Gulf state is currently in the throes of unrest. The ruling al-Khalifa family, led by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, is imposing increasingly draconian security measures in an effort to silence the outcry of the island’s Shia Muslim majority over sweeping arrests of opposition figures in the run-up to October parliamentary elections.

The crackdown began on Aug. 13 with the detention of Dr. Abdul Jalil al-Singace, spokesperson and head of the human rights bureau of the opposition Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, on charges of incitement, attempting to destabilize the country and “contacting foreign organizations and providing them with false and misleading information about the kingdom.” Al-Singace had just returned from London where he addressed the House of Lords on Bahrain’s poor human rights record. After landing in Manama, the handicapped al-Singace along with three companions were arrested and then tortured.

To better understand the root causes of Bahrain’s historically tense political climate, it is imperative to appreciate the country’s demographic makeup, the government’s endeavor to manipulate it and the disenfranchisement of Bahraini Shias. Please refer to my recent article “Bahrain Reaps the Ills of Sectarian Gerrymandering” where this pertinent background information is detailed.

Briefly, Bahrain is a tiny Gulf island kingdom with a population of 800,000. Of the 530,000 nationals, 70 percent are largely poor Shia Muslims. This is in stark contrast to the ruling, but minority, Sunni elite represented by the al-Khalifa dynasty. Although Bahraini Shias constitute more than 80 percent of the labor force, they are wholly excluded from the government, security services and public sector.

In an attempt to assuage widespread discontent at the political and socioeconomic marginalization the policy of institutionalized sectarian discrimination had wrought, Sheikh Hamad implemented some basic political reforms after ascending to the throne in 1999. This helped to quell demonstrations, riots and uprisings known as the “Bahrain intifada” that rocked the country for the better part of the 1990s.

He then created the National Action Charter in 2001 in a bid to restore the 1975 constitution and transform the emirate into a constitutional monarchy. The Charter easily passed a national referendum, but the ultimately enacted 2002 constitution fell short of what the king had originally promised.

This was highlighted in the November 2006 parliamentary elections. Al-Wefaq, the country’s major Shia political party, captured 17 of 40 seats in the Council of Representatives, making it the largest bloc. They soon recognized their ability to affect social and political change was illusory, for real power lay with the upper house Shura Council, which can approve or rescind legislation passed by the lower chamber. Shura Council members are directly appointed by the king and operate in service of monarchy goals. King Hamad had pledged it would serve strictly as an advisory body, not a legislative one.

Since al-Singace’s arrest in mid-August, there has been no let-up in the government’s drive to suppress dissent:

Twenty-three activists tied to opposition or human rights groups have been charged with being members of “a terrorist network with international support” (re: Iran) and planning a campaign of “violence, intimidation and subversion” in a plot to overthrow the regime.

The old, tired strategy of promulgating the belief that Arab Shia Muslims are fifth columnists for Iran, as the al-Khalifas intimate, is simply a way to circumvent their calls for democracy, human rights and political enfranchisement. Framing the domestic strife as a matter of combating Iranian influence and ensuring regime preservation allows Bahrain to stay in the good graces of the U.S. and ensure Manama remains home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Last month saw the detention of at least 250 activists. They have had no access to lawyers and their locations are unknown. Due to a media blackout, how many have since been imprisoned is a mystery. Although many have demanded the amendment of Bahrain’s constitution, none have called for a coup d’├ętat.

The state has assumed control of all mosques.

As reported by AFP, Crown Prince Salman said in comments carried by the official Bahrain News Agency, “Regaining control of the pulpits so they are not hostage to incompetent politicians or clerics who have lost their way … is the staring point for developing a sound religious orientation.”

The government dismissed the board and took control of the country’s oldest human rights organization, the Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS).

The BHRS is the first non-governmental organization created after King Hamad’s political reforms. The Minister of Social Development alleged it had become too partisan in reporting abuses suffered by the Shia and not “all sections of Bahraini society.” The ministry appointed one of its own officials as acting head.

Shutting down the BHRS was in obvious retribution for the body’s criticism of the aforementioned arrests and detentions.

Malcolm Stewart, North African and Middle East director at Amnesty International said in a statement, “By suspending the board of the BHRS and putting its own representative in charge, the government has effectively taken control of the organization with the apparent intent of closing it down. This undermines the basic rights to freedom of expression and association, and the government should rescind its decision immediately.”

The prominent pro-democracy blogger Ali Abdulemam was arrested by intelligence services on Sept. 5 for “spreading false news” via the popular Web portal he founded, BahrainOnline.org.

Bloggers worldwide have taken up Abdulemam’s cause and demanded his release. He is regarded as a pioneer in the Arab world for advocating use of the internet as a means of political expression and social advocacy.

Ayatollah Hussein al-Najati—Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s representative in Bahrain and one of the nation’s leading scholars—was stripped of his citizenship.

It is one of the most deplorable acts yet taken by the government against the Shia clergy. The passports of al-Najati, his wife and three children were revoked on grounds their Bahraini nationality was not obtained “through legal and appropriate means.”

It is the epitome of hypocrisy. Bahrain’s notorious Citizenship Law permits non-Bahraini Sunnis throughout the Middle East and Muslim world to become expedited, naturalized citizens for the sole purpose of altering the island’s sectarian make-up. They are then given jobs by Bahrain’s largest employer—the security services.

Although al-Najati did undertake religious studies in Iraq and Iran, he was born in Bahrain. Stripping him and his family of their nationality sets the stage for their eventual expulsion from the island. Another scholar, Sheikh Abdul Jalil al-Miqdad, has been prohibited from delivering Friday prayer sermons for two weeks.

The gag order issued by the public prosecutor banning TV, radio, internet or print media from reporting on the crackdown continues as more news outlets and websites are shut down.

Press releases and statements issued by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Federation for Human Rights condemning the above actions can be read here.

Bahrain’s government has been touted as a beacon of democratic reform in the Persian Gulf. Its actions, however, reveal quite the opposite.

The reality is that Bahrain’s Shia are the ones holding the torch of change and reform in the face of an entrenched monarchy eager to retain its grip on absolute power.

Freedom of the press and religion, respect for human rights, ending torture, fair representation in all spheres of society, government accountability and transparency, an end to the malignant practice of sectarian discrimination; all are banners carried by Bahrain’s opposition.

The regime believes their repressive measures will temper voter turnout in the Oct.23 elections. Although many opposition groups have called for its boycott, authorities fear the Shia could still gain parliamentary seats and use this platform to more widely voice their grievances, irrespective of the inability to pass effective legislation.

What has taken place over the past month in Bahrain demands far greater media coverage. For those who have followed events, they recognize the distinction between constitutional monarchy and police state is now a blurry one.

Rannie Amiri is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri [at] yahoo [dot] com.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Global hunger linked to speculations in the international food market

See related piece from Julian Cribb, "The Coming Famine" published in NYTimes. Raj Patel's book "Stuffed and Starved" is also an excellent read on the topic.

The original report on which the below article is based.

How Goldman Sachs gambled on starving the world's poor - and won
Johann Hari, July 2, 2010
Source

Excerpt

"At the end of 2006, food prices across the world started to rise, suddenly and stratospherically. Within a year, the price of wheat had shot up by 80 percent, maize by 90 percent, and rice by 320 percent. In a global jolt of hunger, 200 million people - mostly children - couldn't afford to get food any more, and sank into malnutrition or starvation. There were riots in over 30 countries, and at least one government was violently overthrown. Then, in spring 2008, prices just as mysteriously fell back to their previous level. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, called it "a silent mass murder", entirely due to "man-made actions."

Earlier this year I was in Ethiopia, one of the worst-hit countries, and people there remember the food crisis like they were hit by a tsunami. "It was very painful," a woman my age called Abeba Getaneh, told me. "My children stopped growing. I felt like battery acid had been poured into my stomach as I starved. I took my two daughters out of school and got into debt. If it had gone on much longer, I think my baby would have died."

Most of the explanations we were given at the time have turned out to be false. It didn't happen because supply fell: the International Grain Council says global production of wheat actually increased during that period, for example. It isn't because demand grew either. We were told the swelling Chinese and Indian middle classes were pushing it up, but as Professor Jayati Ghosh of the Centre for Economic Studies in New Delhi has shown, demand from those countries for them actually fell by 3 percent over this period.

There are some smaller explanations that account for some of the price rise, but not all. It's true the growing demand for biofuels was gobbling up much-needed agricultural land - but that was a gradual process that wouldn't explain a violent spike. It's true that oil prices increased, driving up the cost of growing and distributing food - but the evidence increasingly shows that wasn't the biggest factor.

To understand the biggest cause, you have to plough through some concepts that will make your head ache - but not half as much as they made the poor world's stomachs ache.

For over a century, farmers in wealthy countries have been able to engage in a process where they protect themselves against risk. Farmer Giles can agree in January to sell his crop to a trader in August at a fixed price. If he has a great summer and the global price is high, he'll lose some cash, but if there's a lousy summer or the price collapses, he'll do well from the deal. When this process was tightly regulated and only companies with a direct interest in the field could get involved, it worked well.

Then, through the 1990s, Goldman Sachs and others lobbied hard and the regulations were abolished. Suddenly, these contracts were turned into 'derivatives' that could be bought and sold among traders who had nothing to do with agriculture. A market in "food speculation" was born.

So Farmer Giles still agrees to sell his crop in advance to a trader for £10,000. But now, that contract can be sold on to financial speculators, who treat the contract itself as an object of potential wealth. Goldman Sachs can buy it and sell it on for £20,000 to Deutschebank, who sell it on for £30,000 to Merryl Lynch - and on, and on, provided they think the price can be jacked up, until it seems to bear almost no relationship to Farmer Giles' crop at all.

If this seems mystifying, it is. John Lanchester, in his superb guide to the world of finance, 'Whoops! Why Everybody Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay', explains: "Finance, like other forms of human behaviour, underwent a change in the twentieth century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts - a break with common sense, a turn towards self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn't be explained in workaday English."

Poetry found its break broke with straightforward representation of reality when T.S. Eliot wrote 'The Wasteland.' Finance found its Wasteland moment in the 1970s, when it began to be dominated by complex financial instruments that even the people selling them didn't fully understand. As Lanchester puts it: "With derivatives... there is a profound break between the language of finance and that of common sense."

So what has this got to do with the bread on Abiba's plate? How could this parallel universe of speculation affect her? Until deregulation, the price for food was set by the forces of supply and demand for food itself. (This was itself deeply imperfect: it left a billion people hungry.) But after deregulation, it was no longer just a market in food. It became, at the same time, a market in contracts that were speculating on theoretical food that would be grown in the future - and the speculators drove the price through the roof.

Here's how it happened. In 2006, financial speculators like Goldman's pulled out of the collapsing US real estate market, and they were looking for somewhere else to make their stash of cash swell. They started to buy massive amounts of derivatives based on food: they reckoned that food prices would stay steady or rise while the rest of the economy tanked. Suddenly, the world's frightened investors stampeded onto this ground and decided to buy, buy, buy.

So while the supply and demand of food stayed pretty much the same, the supply and demand for contracts based on food massively rose - which meant the all-rolled-into-one price for food on people's plates massively rose. The starvation began.

The food price was now being set by speculation, rather than by real food. The hedge fund manager Michael Masters estimated that even on the regulated exchanges in the US - which take up a small part of the business - 64 percent of all wheat contracts were held by speculators with no interest whatever in real wheat. They owned it solely to inflate the price and sell it on. Even George Soros said this was "just like secretly hoarding food during a hunger crisis in order to make profits from increasing prices." The bubble only burst in March 2008 when the situation got so bad in the US that the speculators had to slash their spending to cover their losses back home."

...

"How do we know this is wrong? As Professor Ghosh points out, some vital crops are not traded on the futures markets, including millet, cassava, and potatoes. Their price rose a little during this period - but only a fraction as much as the ones affected by speculation. Her research shows this speculation was "the main cause" of the rise.

So it has come to this. The world's wealthiest speculators set up a casino where the chips were the stomachs of hundreds of millions of innocent people. They gambled on increasing starvation, and won. This is what happens when you follow the claim that unregulated markets know best to the end of the line. The finance sector's Wasteland moment created a real wasteland. What does it say about our political and economic system that we can so casually inflict such misery, and barely even notice?"

Friday, October 1, 2010

Milne: US rebranding the occupation in Iraq

The US isn't leaving Iraq, it's rebranding the occupation

Obama says withdrawal is on schedule, but renaming or outsourcing combat troops won't give Iraqis back their country

By Seumas Milne, Guardian.co.uk, August 4, 2010
Source

For most people in Britain and the US, Iraq is already history. Afghanistan has long since taken the lion's share of media attention, as the death toll of Nato troops rises inexorably. Controversy about Iraq is now almost entirely focused on the original decision to invade: what's happening there in 2010 barely registers.

That will have been reinforced by Barack Obama's declaration this week that US combat troops are to be withdrawn from Iraq at the end of the month "as promised and on schedule". For much of the British and American press, this was the real thing: headlines hailed the "end" of the war and reported "US troops to leave Iraq".

Nothing could be further from the truth. The US isn't withdrawing from Iraq at all – it's rebranding the occupation. Just as George Bush's war on terror was retitled "overseas contingency operations" when Obama became president, US "combat operations" will be rebadged from next month as "stability operations".

But as Major General Stephen Lanza, the US military spokesman in Iraq, told the New York Times: "In practical terms, nothing will change". After this month's withdrawal, there will still be 50,000 US troops in 94 military bases, "advising" and training the Iraqi army, "providing security" and carrying out "counter-terrorism" missions. In US military speak, that covers pretty well everything they might want to do.

Granted, 50,000 is a major reduction on the numbers in Iraq a year ago. But what Obama once called "the dumb war" goes remorselessly on. In fact, violence has been increasing as the Iraqi political factions remain deadlocked for the fifth month in a row in the Green Zone. More civilians are being killed in Iraq than Afghanistan: 535 last month alone, according to the Iraqi government – the worst figure for two years.

And even though US troops are rarely seen on the streets, they are still dying at a rate of six a month, their bases regularly shelled by resistance groups, while Iraqi troops and US-backed militias are being killed in far greater numbers and al-Qaida – Bush's gift to Iraq – is back in business across swaths of the country. Although hardly noticed in Britain, there are still 150 British troops in Iraq supporting US forces.

Meanwhile, the US government isn't just rebranding the occupation, it's also privatising it. There are around 100,000 private contractors working for the occupying forces, of whom more than 11,000 are armed mercenaries, mostly "third country nationals", typically from the developing world. One Peruvian and two Ugandan security contractors were killed in a rocket attack on the Green Zone only a fortnight ago.

The US now wants to expand their numbers sharply in what Jeremy Scahill, who helped expose the role of the notorious US security firm Blackwater, calls the "coming surge" of contractors in Iraq. Hillary Clinton wants to increase the number of military contractors working for the state department alone from 2,700 to 7,000, to be based in five "enduring presence posts" across Iraq.

The advantage of an outsourced occupation is clearly that someone other than US soldiers can do the dying to maintain control of Iraq. It also helps get round the commitment, made just before Bush left office, to pull all American troops out by the end of 2011. The other getout, widely expected on all sides, is a new Iraqi request for US troops to stay on – just as soon as a suitable government can be stitched together to make it.

What is abundantly clear is that the US, whose embassy in Baghdad is now the size of Vatican City, has no intention of letting go of Iraq any time soon. One reason for that can be found in the dozen 20-year contracts to run Iraq's biggest oil fields that were handed out last year to foreign companies, including three of the Anglo-American oil majors that exploited Iraqi oil under British control before 1958.

The dubious legality of these deals has held back some US companies, but as Greg Muttitt, author of a forthcoming book on the subject, argues, the prize for the US is bigger than the contracts themselves, which put 60% of Iraq's reserves under long-term foreign corporate control. If output can be boosted as sharply as planned, the global oil price could be slashed and the grip of recalcitrant Opec states broken.

The horrific cost of the war to the Iraqi people, on the other hand, and the continuing fear and misery of daily life make a mockery of claims that the US surge of 2007 "worked" and that Iraq has come good after all.

It's not only the hundreds of thousands of dead and 4 million refugees. After seven years of US (and British) occupation, tens of thousands are still tortured and imprisoned without trial, health and education has dramatically deteriorated, the position of women has gone horrifically backwards, trade unions are effectively banned, Baghdad is divided by 1,500 checkpoints and blast walls, electricity supplies have all but broken down and people pay with their lives for speaking out.

Even without the farce of the March elections, the banning and killing of candidates and activists and subsequent political breakdown, to claim – as the Times did today – that "Iraq is a democracy" is grotesque. The Green Zone administration would collapse in short order without the protection of US troops and security contractors. No wonder the speculation among Iraqis and some US officials is of an eventual military takeover.

The Iraq war has been a historic political and strategic failure for the US. It was unable to impose a military solution, let alone turn the country into a beacon of western values or regional policeman. But by playing the sectarian and ethnic cards, it also prevented the emergence of a national resistance movement and a humiliating Vietnam-style pullout. The signs are it wants to create a new form of outsourced semi-colonial regime to maintain its grip on the country and region. The struggle to regain Iraq's independence has only just begun.