Archive | August, 2011

New Axis of Evil? Iraq, Iran and Syria

Congratulations to President Bush, etc!  If there was any doubt about the wrongheaded strategic thinking that went into the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, this should be the item that solicits an ‘oops’ from all involved.  Iran had no love for Saddam Hussein who waged war against it throughout the 1980s.  But instead of trying to seek accommodation, if not help, from Iran against its hostile neighbor, Iran was declared one leg of the Bush Administration’s ‘axis of evil.’

Many warned the neoconservative theorists that crushing Iraq would only strengthen Iran.  And now, on this vital regional issue, Iraq is siding with Iran and against the US/Western strategy of wringing Syria dry with sanctions for Assad’s brutal repression of dissent.

According to Juan Cole:

It is not entirely clear. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki does not state motivations. But it appears that two things are going on. There is a domestic reason; Maliki is worried about Bashar al Assad being overthrown. Assad belongs to the minority Shiite sect of Alawites.  Many of Assad’s opponents are Sunnis- some of whom are Sunni fundamentalists. And some of those are the sort of people who were supporting the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Maliki does not want them to come to power in Damascus and become his neighbors.

Another consideration that has been suggested is that Maliki owes his position as prime minister in this round [of elections held in 2010] to the support of Iran for coalition building of the Iraq Shiites. So he may be paying back a debt.






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We’re Not Saudi Arabia but……

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about a Thai worker in Saudi Arabia beheaded for killing her abusive boss.  One article I’d read said most of the 100 people on death row in Saudi Arabia are domestic workers imported from Thailand.  Over the years, we’ve all read stories about abuse in foreign countries of workers imported from other foreign countries. The TV show Law and Order and movies such as Slumdog millionaire drew attention to human trafficking.  But it was only

But it was reading about the abuse of the J-1 student visa program by Hershey that made me do a bit of research on other US guest worker programs that bring a couple hundred thousand farm and other unskilled laborers into the US each year.  Some of the employers, maybe even most, who use these programs are open and above-board.  But even they may not know that the workers they hire have paid fees to recruiting agencies up to thousands of dollars or were promised coveted green cards after working a length of time.

The following articles  show how vulnerable foreign workers are to abuse in these legal programs operated by the Departments of Labor and State.  I shudder to think of what the crews of gardeners, construction workers and day laborers that are everyday features of American urban and suburban life, most of whom are can’t speak a word of English, come away with.

Mother Jonesextensive 2010 article looks at one case from the perspective of the worker and Blue Horizons, the contract staffing agency hired by several employers.

The New York Times reports on a suit filed by Indian workers hired by Allied Signal to work on oil rigs in the South, some of whom paid $10,000 for the ‘opportunity’ and then subjected to abusive working conditions

The Southern Poverty Law Center represented migrant workers imported to clean up in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

Finally, the Fresno Bee reports of the frustration of California farmers who feel their livelihoods are threatened by some of the restrictive immigration laws favored by conservatives.

All demonstrate that the problems are not just the result of some bad apples manipulating a good program.  The guest worker programs are structured to make abuse of employees easy and common.

1.  The guest workers are imported to work for specific companies who control how much they make, where they live and how long they stay.

2.  The government contracts out with private staffing firms who then contract with employers.  Often sub-contractors are used within the hiring chain.  Employers can plead ‘plausible deniability’, staffing agencies point the finger to subcontractors and they blame everything on a particular employee.

3.  Government agencies administering the programs have no effective ways or systems to monitor the programs’ projects.

4.   Mother Jones reports that one worker who escaped from his American indentured servitude whose family is still constantly threatened by the staffing agency recruiter in Thailand.  The US government doesn’t know and doesn’t seem to care about this extortion carried out in the name of J-1 and H-2 visas.


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Guest Worker Program Exposed as Fraud

In a stinging op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, Jennifer Gordon, professor of labor and immigration law, takes on Hershey and other US companies who substitute indentured servitude for a State Department ‘cultural exchange’ program aimed at high-level foreign students:

The J-1 visa, also known as the exchange visitor visa, has its roots in the cold war. In 1961, Congress created a program for international students and professionals to travel here, with the goal of building good will for the United States in the fight against Communism. The program, which became the J-1 visa, thrives today — but not as Congress intended.

Instead, it has become the country’s largest guest worker program. Its “summer work travel” component recruits well over 100,000 international students a year to do menial jobs at dairy farms, resorts and factories — a privilege for which the Hershey’s students shelled out between $3,000 and $6,000. They received $8 an hour, but after fees and deductions, including overpriced rent for crowded housing, they netted between $1 and $3.50 an hour. Hershey’s once had its own unionized workers packing its candy bars, starting at $18 to $30 an hour. Now the company outsources distribution to a non-union company that hires most of its workers from the J-1 program.

The Pennsylvania workers are not alone. Recent exposés by journalists and advocates have found similar abuse of J-1 visa holders at fast food restaurants, amusement parks and even strip clubs.

Though the number of J-1 visa holders admitted to the United States swelled from 28,000 in the program’s first year to more than 350,000 in 2010, and the government made minor changes to the program earlier this year, the State Department has never established a sufficient oversight system. Instead, it hands that responsibility to organizations it designates as sponsors, who profit from the arrangement and so have no incentive to report abuses.

How dare the State Department allow this to happen.  How did a limited cultural exchange program from the 60s grow into a labor exchange program now? It is a disgrace on every level.

And how did the Labor Department respond?  By initiating two investigations, on health and safety in the plant, the other on possible wage and hours violations.  Both miss the point entirely.

To add insult to injury, Hershey showed its 19th century mentality by offering the workers a week off with pay and setting up a one-day ‘educational forum’ to meet the ‘culture’ requirements of the program.  In an incredible press release, Hershey continued to show no understanding of what the strike and uproar are about:

Kirk Saville, a Hershey spokesman, said the company had also asked the contractor that operates the vast plant in nearby Palmyra, Pa., to give the foreign students a fully paid week off, so that they could travel to see some sights in the United States.

“We were disappointed to learn that some of the students were dissatisfied with the cultural exchange element of the program,” Mr. Saville said. “We want to ensure that all the students have a positive experience of this program and leave the United States with an understanding of the Hershey Company.”

The State Department needs to get those kids out of Hershey, PA, compensate them for the money they lost paying for transport, visas and sleeping accommodations and suspend or close this until a thorough of the costs, placements and results of this program come anywhere near the original intent.

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Quotes Worthy of Kafka

First, Maureen Dowd:

President Obama bashed Congress on his bus tour. But after delegating to Congress time and again with disastrous results, he continues to play the satellite to Congress.

He shouldn’t be driven by the Washington schedule. He should be setting it.

At long last, he promised a clear economic plan. Unfortunately, he had the fierce urgency of next month, when Congress gets back to town.

Second, Robert Frost as quoted by Maureen Dowd:

I’m liberal. You, you aristocrat,

Won’t know exactly what I mean by that.

I mean so altruistically moral

I never take my own side in a quarrel.

Thanks to reader Judith Neches DeLorca.



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Europe Couldn’t Have Done it without US?

The unraveling of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime is a milestone for the European armed forces providing the air support that turned the tide for Libyan rebels, who were on the verge of being overrun only five months ago.

Yet despite the scenes from Tripoli of rebel forces advancing with the help of European airstrikes, the first North Atlantic Treaty Organization campaign not led by the U.S. has shown the limitations of the Continent’s military power in an era of crushing national debt and slashed defense spending

“The fact is that Europe couldn’t have done this on its own,” said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in an interview last month, citing essential U.S. intelligence support. “The lack of defense investments in Europe will make it increasingly difficult for Europe to take on responsibility for international crisis management beyond Europe’s borders.”   – Wall Street Journal

I’m not sure what this article means.   Maybe it’s intended to bolster the argument against ‘leading from behind’.  Or to once again underscore that the world would fall apart without the US projection of power far and wide or its technological prowess in warfare.

(PS: I remember back in the Nixon and Reagan years: every time the Europeans wanted to beef up their military separate from the US, Washington nipped the prospect in the bud fearing competition or eventual separation from the US ‘security umbrella’.)

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Libyan Rebel Victory Reactions

Andrew Sullivan at Daily Beast rounds up reactions from right and left.  More responses below:

Qaddafi had lost popular support across the board and was in power only through main force. Once enough of his heavy weapons capability was disrupted, and his fuel and ammunition supplies blocked, the underlying hostility of the common people to the regime could again manifest itself, as it had in February. I was moreover convinced that the generality of Libyans were attracted by the revolution and by the idea of a political opening, and that there was no great danger to national unity here.  Juan Cole, Informed Comment

Libya is not Iraq. Most notably, this was a revolution by the Libyan people, not a foreign invasion. To be sure, this day would not have come nearly as quickly — if at all — without months of air strikes by the United States and its NATO allies against regime assets.  But the Libyan people appear to have almost universally wanted Qaddafi gone and did much of the heavy lifting to make it happen.   James Joyner, The Atlantic


The reactions yesterday once again show the potent and real demonstration effects which characterize today’s highly unified Arab political space.I don’t see how anybody watching al-Jazeera, following Arab social media networks, or talking to people in the region could fail to appreciate the interconnected nature of Arab struggles. It’s the same sense of shared fate and urgency that those who follow the Arab public sphere could feel in February and March. I supported the NATO intervention in Libya in large part because of that powerful Arab popular demand and the likely impact of the outcome in Libya across the region.

Now, as Syrians march chanting “Qaddafi is gone, now it’s your turn, Bashar!” and excited protestors in Yemen’s Change Square shout “our turn tomorrow!” there’s suddenly a chance to recapture some of that lost regional momentum. It has been a long time since there has been such a unified Arab public sphere, or such hope that the long summer’s stalemate might be broken and the momentum of January and February reclaimed. As one put it, “the fight isn’t over in Yemen & Syria; Libyan friends remind us when we think its over we’re closer to victory than we think.”  -Marc Lynch, Foreign Policy

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Like many non-interventionists, I have a difficult time accepting any Western meddling in other countries and am especially skeptical when it is sold to Americans on ‘humanitarian’ grounds .  I think there are, however, a couple of non-humanitarian features unique to the Libya situation that haven’t been widely discussed in the ongoing intervene/don’t intervene debate.

First, an organized, broadly popular, if not majority-supported, opposition was already in the field peacefully ‘liberating’ major cities before Qaddafi declared war against it.  In the Iraq invasion and other ‘interventions’ there was no opposition that could take power and unify the nation, one reason the invasion was so cynical.  Second, the Libyan resistance movement asked for Western fire-power openly and ruled out ground forces from the start.  The former preceded the latter.

Given these two conditions,  I think it’s a bit arrogant for Western non-interventionists (I include myself as one) to second-guess the strategic decisions of a popular Libyan opposition unless they don’t accept the Libyan opposition’s legitimacy.   The rebel themselves had one duty to their supporters and one duty only:  to use anything and everything  at their disposal to win victor.

There is little doubt the West will want pay-back.  Cameron and Sarkozy haven’t engaged their self-promotion campaign for nothing!  How a new government navigates a complex relationship with the West will determine the future of Libyan sovereignty, not the military victory itself.  No doubt the next few weeks will be a dicey time for all Libyans, and the Qaddafis may have enough rump support to stage a significant counter-revolution.

Model or Not

This doesn’t, however, mean the operations in Libya are a ‘new model’ of Western intervention as President Obama seems to believe they are.  (After all, President Ky of Vietnam supposedly asked for US help, too.)    One only has to look back at the history of the Nicaraguan ‘contras’ in which the Reagan Administration tried to pass off a CIA-organized and financed band of mercenaries as ‘popular resistance’ to see how the ‘Libya model’ can be misused and manipulated as just as any can.

The nationalist foundations of the Arab Spring speak for themselves. None of the other movements within the Arab Spring asked for Western support.  Even today, the Syrian opposition directly rules it out.  They consider it paramount to maintaining the independence and national credentials of the movements.  That doesn’t mean the Libyans were naive or opportunist in calling in Western air strikes as a tactical measure in their rapidly deteriorating situation.  Why shouldn’t they take advantage of the Western governments’ schizophrenic reactions to a series of uprisings that took them all by surprise?

Of course, Western powers will spend money and time trying to influence the newly forming political structures in states like Tunisian and Egypt where reform movements have succeeded with minimum bloodshed, as well as in Libya, where the West militarily aided the insurgents. What else is new?  Did anybody honestly expect the US would cut back the multi-billion weapons line of credit when Mubarak was ousted?  Of course not.

The Arab Spring 2011 is not China 1949.  These are reform movements uninterested in tearing down the institutions of state.  But their impact will be lasting, as the Spring revealed the Oz-like nature of regimes considered legitimate throughout most of the post-WW2 years.  Another form of repressive rule bites the dust.  There will be other attempts to grab power for the benefit of a few oligarchs or ‘families’ and ways to prettify repression, but give credit where it’s due.


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Securing the Free Libyan Victory

According to reports from Al Jazeera, the following events took place today:

1.  Libyan rebels converged on Tripoli today and took over the center of the city.

2.  Two of Qaddafi’s sons, including the notorious Seif Al-Islam were arrested. The International Criminal Court began discussions with the Libyan Transitional Council on transferring him to the Hague.

3.  “A senior rebel official said the military unit in charge of protecting Muammar Gaddafi and the capital Tripoli had surrendered.

Mahmoud Shamam, of the NTC, told the Associated Press news agency that the unit commander “has joined the revolution and ordered his soldiers to drop their weapons”.

4.  Other Qaddafi military units quit fighting or surrendered to revel forces who entered Tripoli  with little opposition.

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