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Spring Cleaning: Dusting off Democracy


Out with the old, in with the new. A simple spring-cleaning rule that people across the Arab world are taking to a whole new level, sweeping away longstanding oppressive regimes. It’s time for some spring-cleaning in Washington to match.

Time to emerge from the frozen mentality that negotiates with attack planes in trying to oust dictator/former ally Muhamar Qaddafi while winking and nodding at the Saudi invasion of Bahrain. Time to do something other than rearrange the lineup of warmakers like Petraeus and Panetta in top posts. Time to retire the mindset that responds to something like the groundbreaking Fatah-Hamas agreement by repeating the racist idea that democracy and national unity are fine for everyone but Palestinians. Time to step outside and not just admire the blossoming spring flowers, but smell them too.

The events of April – continuing movements for democratic reforms in the Middle East and North Africa; workers in Wisconsin and around the country mobilizing for their own democratic Spring; Wikileaks’ exposure of the ineptitude and brutal lawlessness which reigned at Guantanamo – are bringing a fresh season. But Washington seems frozen in time, on the wrong side of history. Better put, on the wrong side of the people. It’s time to grab our Springtime political brooms and start cleaning things up.

LIBYA: MODEL OF MAYHEM

Rather than welcome democratic movements in the Arab world, Washington dedicates itself to thwarting and – if that's not possible – manipulating them. Such is the case with Libya. More than a month after a dangerously open-ended Security Council resolution authorized a “no-fly zone” over Libya, the U.S., U.K., and France have done little "humanitarian" but a lot of "intervention." With many lives lost and entire towns displaced, the country, as had been feared and predicted by many, is now divided and descending into what looks to be a stalemated civil war.  

In response, France, the U.K., and Republican hawks like John McCain are demanding further military commitment. This April Washington sent two Predator drones to Libya, the same weapons that have claimed hundreds of lives in Pakistan. Berlusconi recently joined the fight against Qaddafi, committing the Italian air force, ignoring the fact that he and the Colonel were until recently quite chummy with one another, exchanging everything from women to weapons.

It is no small side note that just months before these Western powers unleashed their weaponry against Qaddafi, they had hopes of selling those same armaments to him. A report released this month by the UK’s Parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls documents that up until the end of last year the U.K. had been selling Libya weapons such as sniper and assault rifles, machine guns, and non-lethal crowd control weapons. Also this month both the Associated Press and Der Spiegel reported on Western arms trading to Libya in 2009: Italy for instance sold Libya $161 million worth of arms. As for the U.S., beyond the $46 million in sales to  Congress approved in 2008, an additional $77 million-dollar deal for armored troop carriers was proposed but (luckily) scuttled in the summer of 2010.

This friend-to-foe turnaround pulls back the curtain on Western humanitarian intervention. What it reveals is a scramble for influence in the face of regional popular movements that are endangering the longstanding pro-Western order. As Institute for Policy Studies analyst Phyllis Bennis puts it, “the U.S. is now looking, along with its allies, for new ways of making sure that they will still control how that region will be governed. Will it be governed by pro-Western, neoliberal, pro-oil-company kinds of governments? Or will it be governed by something else that represents a very different interpretation of what democracy looks like?”

PART OF A GLOBAL DECLINE

Instead of negotiating a ceasefire, Western powers are once again, bogged down in a drawn-out war in the region. It’s a result most likely expected by the powers that abstained on the Security Council Libya Resolution, in particular Brazil and Permanent Members Russia and China. Those governments have now said NATO has far exceeded the original U.N. mandate, and they will oppose any additional resolutions authorizing further involvement. Russia has explicitly stated it would veto any such escalation.

What’s more, the global terrain is changing. This month the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) met in China to discuss cooperation and alternatives to the dollarized global monetary system. They also admitted South Africa to their informal grouping, turning the BRIC into the BRICS. With economies growing much faster than those in the U.S. or Europe, the BRICS are a rising force unwed to Western interests. The empire that only a few years ago saw itself as the "world's sole superpower" is now strapped in debt and unable to even show results when deploying its trump card of military power. It’s high time Washington put down its guns to get with this new multi-polar reality.

SOMETHING'S GONNA GIVE: THE AF-PAK DEAD END

Washington’s disconnect from reality is epitomized in its failing effort in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, pressure has been high on the U.S. military to prove that the dead horse of a strategy to root out militants – drone strikes and millions of dollars in what amounts to bribery – can still take a few more beatings. But this month the tense alliance between the Pakistani and the U.S. armies and intelligence agencies – like something out of a Spy-vs.-Spy comic – came further and much more publicly undone.

In two April meetings – one between about-to-be-Secretary-of-Defense Leon Panetta and head of Pakistan’s spy agency (the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI) Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, and the other between chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen and Pakistani military chief General Kayani –Pakistan expressed concern that U.S. drone strikes have had an opposite effect of fueling popular support for militants. They urged the U.S. to halt them immediately. The U.S. has carried out 20 drone attacks in 2011 alone, mostly concentrated along the Afghan border, killing hundreds of innocent civilians and a minority of militants. 

Following these meetings, Mullen openly accused the ISI of supporting the militant Haqqani Network with ties to Al-Qaeda, publicly revealing what had previously been a privately known fact within the military. Then on April 22, a drone strike in Northern Waziristan killed 25 people, including five women and four children.

No surprise then that the Pakistani people are fed up. Many are mobilizing to create a nonviolent, democratic pole between the militaries and insurgencies.  From April 23-25, in the first major public mobilization against the U.S., an array of political parties and organizations led by former cricket star Imran Khan and the Movement for Justice Party held a sit-in blocking NATO supply routes in Peshawar. Speaking to the thousands of Pakistanis who joined the sit-in, Khan denounced the drone strikes, the Pakistani government’s complicity in them, and signaled that the protest was only the beginning of a longer campaign. These are the voices and the kinds of movements that must be amplified and supported, the kinds that could end the charade of counter-terrorism.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the Taliban are conducting daring prison breaks and Pakistani leaders meet with President Karzai and suggest he switch allegiance from the West to China per the shifts in global power noted above. And though it is all falling apart for Washington, the Obama administration still presses negotiations for a Strategic Partnership Declaration that would give the U.S. permanent bases in Afghanistan. 

But pressure here at home is mounting. A few Democrats and even some Republicans are starting to fall out of line. California Senator Barbara Boxer has reintroduced former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold’s bill requiring both a timeline and an actual withdrawal date. This builds on a resolution approved the Democratic National Committee that advocates a “swift withdrawal of U.S. armed forces and military contractors in Afghanistan” by July of this year. Veteran antiwar activist Tom Hayden has been hammering away at the importance of the antiwar movement exploiting these divisions within the Democratic Party, his latest is here.

ARAB SPRING YIELDS FATAH-HAMAS AGREEMENT

Spring has come to Palestine this month too – and again – not at all in the way Washington wanted. The Fatah-Hamas agreement for a unity government announced just two days ago underscores the failure of administration policy while sending shock waves through the Israeli establishment and, in a far different way, the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Squeezed between an intransigent, land-grabbing right-wing government in Israel, the grip of pro-Israel dogma on U.S. domestic politics, and the need to maintain influence with so-called "moderate" Arab regimes, the White House's Israel-Palestine policy was in deep trouble even before the Arab Spring. Attempts to get Israel to agree to even the minimal steps acceptable to a relatively docile Palestine Authority were doomed to failure, short of (gasp!) Washington actually using its muscle by cutting its huge annual support-Israel aid package. Unwilling to do that, Washington was left with nothing but rhetoric to bring to the table.

And then the Arab Spring squeezed everyone further. The Israeli establishment reacted with horror to the outbreak of democracy in the Arab world and dug in its heels. An Egyptian government less willing to play enforcer for the U.S. and Israel or treat Hamas as an enemy came to power. Revolts in other Arab countries inspired greater expectations and hopes among Palestinians for democracy, unity and an end to occupation. The Palestine Authority, with nothing to show for its strategy of reliance on Washington to stop Israeli settlement building, had turned to an effort to get U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood. A government of national unity would boost the likelihood of gaining such recognition. So with the intense direct involvement of Egypt's new Foreign Minister, a deal was struck.

Even the New York Times recognized the new dynamic at work: The agreement "was the first tangible sign that the upheaval across the Arab world, especially the Egyptian revolution, was having an impact on the Palestinians, who have been losing faith in American-sponsored peace negotiations with Israel and seem now to be turning more to fellow Arabs…. The deal also highlighted Egypt’s evolving foreign policy, its increasing regional influence and the challenges that posed for Israel. The new Egyptian government pursued Palestinian negotiations aggressively; has recognized the Muslim Brotherhood, which has deep ties to Hamas; and is reconsidering a natural gas deal with Israel."

Predictably Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu denounced the agreement, declaring that the Palestine Authority must choose between peace with (read: surrender to) Israel or cooperation with Hamas. Initial statements from the administration and congressional leaders from both parties echoed the Israeli line, repeating the U.S. claim that Hamas is simply a (democratically elected) terrorist organization. It is also likely that some U.S. liberal voices – Jewish and otherwise – who have recently stepped up criticism of Israeli policies will now backpedal, causing problems in the short term for Palestine solidarity activism here in the U.S.

But nothing can hide the essential fact that this agreement is a huge blow to Israeli and U.S. policies. Initial reactions from Gaza to the West Bank to the Palestinian diaspora show it is already a morale boost to the Palestinian struggle, and it likewise makes it harder for Washington and Tel Aviv to maneuver with an Arab world in unprecedented motion. Actual implementation of the agreement will undoubtedly be bumpy; neither the Palestinian faction has shed its weaknesses overnight and the Israeli/Neocon propaganda machine will be swinging into overdrive in the days and weeks ahead. But another milestone in the Arab Spring has been reached and new possibilities opened up for an end to occupation. 

NORTH AMERICAN SPRING?

Another Spring outbreak of democracy that has politicians shaking their heads has been right here at home. Inspired by the three months of action by working-class Wisconsinites, unions and community organizations have come out of the woodwork to fight budget cuts attacking education, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social programs. Responding to a call put out by the AFL-CIO, more than 1,200 actions were held across the country on April 4 under the slogan We Are One. These events were followed up by creative Tax Day actions held in cities around the country and led by groups such as US Uncut and the Right to the City Alliance.

These efforts are gaining steam despite a media-narrowed budget debate that has ignored popular polls (45% prefer to cut military spending over Social Security or Medicare according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll) and the true drains on the country’s finances (i.e. corporate bailouts, imperial wars). The Obama administration has failed to offer leadership around the budget, capitulating to right-wing playground tactics and perpetuating the myth that the deficit is the main problem. The federal budget that was eventually passed April 15 includes a staggering $6.2 trillion cut in federal spending over the next ten years but mandated no cuts on the defense budget! Obama did request a modest cut of $400 million over the next 12 years on defense, a proposal that will be debated when the House Armed Services Committee meets early this May. Perhaps a date antiwar and economic justice activists won’t want to miss.

The connections between corporate bailout, wars abroad, unemployment and the slashing of social services are plainer than ever. Leadership in connecting these dots and asserting proposals for how to truly build and balance the economy is sorely needed. Which is why when the Congressional Progressive Caucus' People’s Budget introduced in Congress this month was a breath of fresh air. Citing the fraud and futility of so much military spending, the People’s Budget ends emergency and discretionary Defense funding and effectively ends the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This in addition to a jobs program, corporate tax reform, and public health care option have earned the People’s Budget a coverage black-out in the corporate media that progressive activists – with the welcome support of mainstream liberal economists like Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Krugman – will be trying to break through.

TIME TO UNITE, TIME TO ACT

What is it going to take to get a People’s Budget not just into the center of nationwide debate but actually passed? Action, action, action. Specifically multi-sector and multi-issue action that reflects the many sectors and many issues fighting the same right-wing-corporate-military offensive. Examples can be found in grassroots efforts like the New Priorities Network, whose local affiliates have gotten city council resolutions passed that call for a redirection of funds from war to jobs, and are lobbying state Congressional delegations to do the same.

But building these bridges across sectors and issues is much easier said than done. While labor-led initiatives like We Are One have the potential to be an antidote to the Tea Party, labor as a whole has yet to embrace a strategy that sees an end to war as part and parcel of workers' rights and economic justice. Reflecting on the April 4 actions, Michael Eisenscher of US Labor Against the War notes that despite the date being the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, “no reference was made to the fact that April 4 was also the anniversary of King's historic Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam War, or to King's role as a peacemaker and antiwar activist.

Eisenscher, who is also active in the New Priorities Network, adds that the purpose of campaigns that target the “war economy” is to promote relationships “among groups that may differ on some things but share a common interest in changing the economic order.” These relationships, which haven’t always succeeded, won’t emerge overnight. But as Eisenscher says they “will require a long-term commitment to influencing not only political decisions but to changing the political culture.”

This Spring is full of hope and opportunity. It is a season of ferment where an overall progressive agenda such as the one proposed in The Peoples Budget can gain mass traction. If popular sentiment can be turned from passive to active, we have a chance to reshape the political landscape. This kind of outside pressure on Washington can, among other things, change the electoral battlefield and reverse the pattern of the last many cycles where the progressive agenda was subordinated to a Democratic candidate's electoral campaign calculations.

This spring we have an opportunity to show that the strands of racial and economic justice, labor, immigrant rights, anti-globalization, and antiwar struggles have not disappeared, they have simply been waiting for a change of season to blossom. That season is upon us. 

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