What’s Left?

International Policy Digest

The public suicide of 77-year-old pharmacist Demitris Christoulas a short distance from the parliament building in Athens and the outpouring of grief and anger reveal the trauma and desperation in Greek society in the midst of an economic crisis. In a handwritten note before he shot himself in the head, Christoulas complained that the government had made it impossible for him to survive on the pension he had paid into for 35 years. The note on his body said, “I find no other solution than a dignified end before I start searching through the trash for food.”

To get a rescue package for its economy and to keep its place in the euro zone, the Greek government has slashed wages and retirement pensions by as much as 25 percent. With the unemployment rate exceeding 20 percent, Greece faces a national ordeal. Last year, the government admitted that suicides had risen by 40 percent over the previous two years.

A day before Christoulas ended his life, an Italian woman of 78 in Sicily had jumped from the balcony of her third-floor apartment. Her monthly pension had been cut from 800 to 600 euros and she could take no more. Her son said, “The government is making us all poor, apart from the wealthy, who they don’t touch, in contrast with us workers and small businessmen who are struggling with heavy debts.”

A week before, a businessman tried to commit suicide by setting himself alight outside a tax office. He had lost his appeal against a claim of unpaid tax. And a 27-year-old construction worker of Moroccan descent set himself on fire because he had not been paid wages for four months.

Thus an alarming trend, first seen among India’s debt-ridden farmers in the 1990s, has spread to the European Union, where citizens have begun to end their lives because of crushing poverty and utter hopelessness. There is a feeling that rich will become richer at the expense of poor, that governments will either side with the wealthy, or be impotent in the face of powerful institutions determined to force economic reengineering on nations that will bring the greatest pain to the greatest number of people.

The age-old social contract between the state and its citizens is in an unprecedented crisis. Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau implied in his eighteenth-century work A Discourse On Inequality that natural inequality, meaning disparity between human strength and weakness, is established by nature. But moral inequality is based on a kind of convention that is established, or at least authorized, by the consent of men. Today, the system of privileges, which some enjoy to the prejudice of others, is fighting for legitimacy. Those who are privileged are “more rich, more honored, more powerful and in a position to extract obedience.”

Human evolution has been an epic struggle against moral inequality, which inevitably leads to accumulation of wealth and power and abuse of both. That monumental struggle is at a crucial juncture. On one end are forces of unrestrained capitalism that have been in the ascendancy since the collapse of communism. On the other, expressions of mass opposition in the form of the Arab awakening and the occupy movements in the American and European continents.

People’s movements are usurped by the very forces they were supposed to fight. The prospect looks more bleak and bloody. To pessimists, the contest between the corporate interests, international institutions and ruling elites on one hand and the citizens on the other is increasingly one-sided.

The feeling of disenfranchisement has spread to the north. Modern capitalism has created conditions not unlike those found under communism, which allowed party bosses and bureaucrats to control the population. Democratic centralism, sanctified by Lenin as “freedom for discussion, unity of action” at the Tenth Party Congress in 1933 may look obsolete a quarter century after Soviet communism collapsed. But corporate businesses and international financial institutions, working in harmony with politicians and other members of the ruling elites using state instruments, have gained unprecedented control over vast numbers of citizens today.

The pyramid of power is intact. Social democrats once provided an alternative with a conscience to the extreme rightwing monetarism. But they have all but surrendered to the neo-capitalist theory based only on growth and the idea that the one and only social responsibility of business is to make profit. Political labels of Left and Right have become meaningless. And autocratic instincts of capitalism of today mirror those of communism of the days gone by.

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Iran Cutting Off Oil to Six European Union Countries – Press TV

Iran’s State TV (Press TV) says Iran is cutting off oil supplies to six European Union countries: France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece. It said Iran will only sell to those European countries that agree to strike long-term agreements and guarantee payment.”

The French and the Dutch governments had become among the most anti-Muslim, anti-Iran, ruling elites in recent years. Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece are the most vulnerable economies in the European Union. So after a long time of Western bashing, Iran has responded with a significant retaliation. Counter-sanctions against France will hit President Sarkozy’s reelection prospects while, at the same time, hitting the weakest European Union economies has implications for EU unity.

However, the Guardian newspaper later reported that Tehran had denied cutting off oil supplies. What is known for sure right now is that the ambassadors of the six countries were called in to the Foreign Ministry in Tehran today and held separate talks with a senior Iranian official.

Oil prices began to rise after the initial Press TV report. Whatever turns out to be the case (supplies cut off or not), it shows how jittery the oil markets are.

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On Exceptionalism and Deviance

The Wall Street Journal recently carried a speculative article by Ian Tally suggesting a link between the International Monetary Fund’s bailout loans to the European Union’s worst hit economies and sanctions against Iran. In essence, the article said that the Obama administration would likely support bailout loans to Greece, Italy and Spain in exchange for the EU agreeing to an embargo on Iran’s oil.

The source of the WSJ article was Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. Kirkegaard speculated that the timing of the European Union’s “newly-proposed ban on Iranian oil imports” was too fortuitous to be purely coincidental. Greece, Spain and Italy are all heavily dependent on Iranian oil and therefore most resistant to an embargo. According to the WSJ, they are no longer resisting a ban. Italy says that it would support the measure “in principle” while Greece and Spain have indicated that they would not veto the idea.

What has changed? First of all, both Italy and Greece have new prime ministers, installed as part of an understanding with external rescuers, notably Germany and the IMF. The new prime ministers are not politicians, but technocrats, who took office within a week of each other in November 2011. Mario Monti of Italy, a former EU commissioner, became the prime minister, as well as the minister for economy and finance, replacing the colorful and highly controversial Silvio Berlusconi. The new prime minister of Greece, Lucas Papademos, was formerly the vice president of the European Central Bank.

These events were the most obvious evidence of an extraordinary shift in power from elected politicians to supranational institutions. There was also a change of government in Spain last November, when the center-right Popular Party came to power, defeating the governing Socialist Party. These changes were a political earthquake in the midst of an economic crisis. It struck in defiance of the popular mood on the streets.

The disconnect between the rulers, including and backed by wealthy corporate interests, and the subjects has consequences for domestic as well as foreign policies of the countries concerned. The mood in the main street everywhere is anti-war. But such sentiment cannot control governments’ propensity to fight foreign wars while corporations are given freedom to operate in an environment with minimal regulation. While the state withdraws from policy making and essential service provision, private corporations are allowed practices which determine employment, wages, and consequently money circulation. The accumulation of wealth by one percent greatly reduces the purchasing power of the 99 percent. High unemployment and depressed economy result in lower interest rates. If banks are threatened with failure, the tax payer is there as the rescuer of last resort.

What does it have to do with sanctions and the current talk of military action against Iran in Western capitals? The economic crisis has made all but the wealthiest countries susceptible to supranational powers. It enables the IMF, and the United States, to exercise control over countries in need, in both domestic and foreign policies.

The Wall Street Journal referred to one issue, that of an embargo on Iranian oil sales. There are other examples where pressure tactics have been used against foreign governments to tow the American line. The increasingly aggressive U.S. campaign against Iran ranges from the European Union to countries in Asia, including India, China, Japan and South Korea to name a few.

The veto powers of China and Russia rule out further sanctions on Iran with the UN Security Council’s approval. So the Obama administration and Congress have adopted the tactic of forcing other countries to obey American law and go along with sanctions imposed by Washington. The temptation to look and act tough from Obama to Republican presidential aspirants, Congressmen and Senators is irresistible as the November 2012 elections approach. American policy of making the world obey U.S. domestic law is blatant and bizarre.

It makes a mockery of other nation-states’ independence and sovereignty and their right to formulate and pursue their own policies. The United Nations is rendered irrelevant while the United States goes Rambo on the international stage. That such behavior is causing widespread alienation among other countries, and ultimately threatens America’s own interests, is a message lost in Washington.

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Mission Creep in Libya

Palestine Chronicle (April 23, 2011)  

Some commentators and politicians are describing it as mission creep – a slide into deeper military involvement in Libya, going beyond the original goal, and inviting unpredictable consequences. In simple terms, it is the decision by Britain, France and Italy to send military officers to organize the flagging rebel campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. These “advisers” are being deployed mainly in the rebel stronghold, the eastern port city of Benghazi, to train and counsel the anti-Gaddafi forces, who have thus far failed to make much headway against the Libyan army and have been beaten back in several places. Defense experts acknowledge that there will be more military personnel to protect these “advisers.”

How does a humanitarian operation turn into “mission creep?” A brief look at events in little more than a month provides an answer. Resolution 1973 approved by the United Nations Security Council on March 17, 2011 authorized “all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas … while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.” But any process of employing “all necessary measures” should begin with peaceful attempts. Otherwise, only military force has been employed. Indeed, the African Union put forward a plan including these steps: an immediate ceasefire; unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid; the protection of foreign nationals; a dialogue between the government and rebels on a political settlement; and the suspension of NATO air raids. Furthermore, Turkey, a NATO member, had already begun to mediate between the two sides in Libya. But the West and the rebels insist that Gaddafi must go first.

Since the US-led bombing of Libya started immediately after Resolution 1973, critics would be forgiven for concluding that the Security Council and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have become tools of Prime Minister Cameron of Britain and President Sarkozy of France, with President Obama apparently dragging his feet. Ban Ki-moon, looking for another term as UN Secretary General, is culpable in what amounts to a Western attempt to invoke a seemingly justifiable humanitarian principle when, in reality, the intention and preparation for a military assault were already in place. Any hope of a peaceful outcome stood no chance. Had the Obama administration, particularly his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, acted a little more decisively in friendly countries, Bahrain and Yemen, when the rulers there brutally suppressed civilian protesters, the Western powers would have enjoyed the benefit of credibility. Gaddafi may well have seen a determined and consistent humanitarian policy on the part of the West.

Unfortunately, Britain and France have preferred military intervention all along. Cameron and Sarkozy are weak and unpopular men struggling with strong currents of domestic opposition to a range of economic and social policies of their governments. Every beleaguered leader knows that a crisis abroad helps to shore up support at home. What other reason could there be behind such zeal for another military adventure in Libya after the disastrous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the last decade?

In a boastful exclusive on April 20, 2011, the British newspaper Independent reported the deployment in Libya of “one of the most battle-hardened commanders in the British Army, with extensive experience in combat in Afghanistan.” The Defense Ministry’s message was “here comes Britain’s own Rambo, fresh from Helmand.” But those who have closely followed British military units in Basra in Iraq and Helmand in Afghanistan know that their achievements have been far from glorious. And the American military took over in both places. In the event of British, French or Italian casualties in the Libyan civil war, further escalation and deployment of troops is a real possibility.

Even members of Prime Minister Cameron’s own Conservative Party in Parliament are doubtful about the way the Libyan operation is evolving. The House of Commons backed Security Council Resolution 1973. But John Baron, a Conservative, is among a number of parliamentarians now strongly critical of the British Prime Minister, who wrote an article with President Obama and President Sarkozy, asserting that “Gaddafi must go, and go for good.” Recalling that Parliament had “only given its backing for a no-fly zone to protect civilians,” several MPs have accused the government of seeking “illegal” regime change in Libya.

Western claims that “Gaddafi is killing his own people” need an honest examination in a wider context. War is a crime whenever and wherever civilians are killed and wounded. When peaceful protesters are killed or suppressed, it is an offense against humanity. When Gaddafi’s troops kill civilians, it is a crime. Equally, when in Bahrain the ruling family’s foreign mercenaries, and Saudi forces who have recently moved in, kill peaceful protesters demanding their basic rights, those troops are committing a crime.

Violence against civilians in mosques and hospitals, denying treatment to the wounded and threatening doctors are among the worst of offenses. So is the violence against demonstrators by Yemeni government forces; killings by American drone attacks and death squads in Pakistan and Afghanistan; and the dreadful civilian casualties among the besieged Palestinian population in Israel’s war on Gaza. Above all, the United States kills people, including its own, based on flawed justice, hunch, suspicion or whim. Unleashing brutal and blind terror is as much in the nature of civilized governments as it is of outlaw regimes.

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