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Archive | Commentary

America and the World: Foreign Policy, Post Apogee

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U.S. Army soldiers air assault from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter into a village inside Jowlzak valley in Afghanistan's Parwan province on Feb. 3, 2011

U.S. Army soldiers air assault from a CH-47 Chinook helicopter into a village inside Jowlzak valley in Afghanistan’s Parwan province on Feb. 3, 2011

One of the more cliché observations currently circulating the international relations community is that while 20th century belonged to America, the 21st century belongs to China. This theory is wrong on a number of counts. For starters, the first half of the 20th century could hardly be considered American. Europe was still very much at the center of the world affairs until 1945. Nor did the last half of the century belong exclusively to the United States. World leadership was shared with the Soviet Union until 1990. At best, the US could claim the last decade of the 20th century. Furthermore, it is also incorrect to suggest that China will dominate the entirety of 21st century. There are several other rising powers in the world and neither the United States nor Europe is going anywhere.

Even so, historians will likely mark 2001 as the pinnacle of American power. The decade following the turn of the millennium will be recorded as a time of turbulence, after which, America began its long and gradual relative decline. Even though the US is coming down from the height of its influence, it will remain a force to be reckoned with for some time to come. In fact, at its peak, the United States was probably the single most powerful polity in human history. Coming down a few notches from these heights does not make the US weak. Nor will US supremacy necessarily end when the Chinese economy surpasses America’s in the next 15 years.

Economic power is not the sole measure of global influence. Indeed, the US economy surpassed Britain’s around 1880, but that did not prevent the UK from remaining the world’s preeminent power until World War II.

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The Food Piracy of Monsanto in India

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Mohen Singh and Raj Narayin Singh in their wheat field in Bihar, India. Photo: Petr Kosina

Mohen Singh and Raj Narayin Singh in their wheat field in Bihar, India. Photo: Petr Kosina

The Somali pirates terrorize the Gulf of Aden. In India, Monsanto terrorizes one of basic sources of human survival – food. But this may change. After years of cajoling with Monsanto, the Indian government finally threw in the towel. In 2010, it banned commercial approval of GM seeds “indefinitely” to prevent Monsanto from “frankencroping” basic crops like brinjal. Most importantly, the Indian government filed a “biopiracy” suit against Monsanto to curb its appetite for flooding the Indian market with “patented” artificial seeds.

At the center of this suit is brinjal or eggplant, a common crop that farmers across India grow. The Indian government alleged that Monsanto has developed its own lab-grown version of brinjal or known as Bt brinjal in an attempt to “re-engineer them into patented varieties.” There are about 2500 varieties of brinjals in India.  Indian farmers and proponents of organic food growers smelled blood. Natural News reported that, “Besides successfully overturning the attempted approval of Bt brinjal, these freedom fighters have also successfully destroyed several attempted Monsanto GM test fields.”

The Killer Seeds

For decades, the U.S. agri-business giant has been selling its genetically modified (GM) seeds to the Indian farmers through favorable government regulations and market monopoly. The irony is GM seeds have not been effective in India and the consequences are not as rosy as what Monsanto had promised to deliver. Scathing reports of mass suicides of the Indian farmers broke out as recently as three years ago when scores of farmers took their own lives in order to escape the burden of high price and failure of Monsanto’s GM seeds.

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Can Political Islam Co-exist with Modernity?

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Muslims praying

Muslims praying

Thanks in no small part to the Arab Spring, now commonly referred to as the Arab Winter – observers and politicians in the liberal leaning west and elsewhere are wary as parties with an Islamic ideological bent ascend to the political pulpits throughout the Middle East and North Africa. From an empirical perceptive, their suspicions are justified. Firstly, little is known of Islamists’ capacities as seasoned, mature, responsible, and effective leaders. Secondly, their discourse, at least in the last two or three decades, has been non-pluralistic in tenor and outlook at best, and inimical to liberalism and democracy at worst.

There is a statement attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Dr. Mohamed Badie that was featured in many Egyptian newspapers on January 2, 2012, in which he stated: “The imposition of the Caliphate was and still remains the benchmark of the union since inception. The time has come to formulate and set up a Muslim state that lives and breaths through Islamic Sharia law; the Arab Spring has paved the way for the actualization of such a lofty goal.” The statement, if it indicates anything, is that Islamists remain tethered to their old paradigms—namely the ultraconservative view which negates modern ideals in favor of “inerrancy” of Scriptural text.

In this sense, unless Islamists’ undertake overarching paradigm shifts, the tumultuous bustles in the Middle East may disrupt current global alignments. From the time Islamist groups appeared in Muslim countries, anti-modernity interspersed with scriptural text have been the bread and the butter of their rhetoric. Of course, there are several mechanisms, theoretical and practical, responsible for Islamists’ modern repudiation sentiments, however, in this analysis, I confine myself to relating a few theoretical ones which I deem chiefly relevant to the phenomena at hand.

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Women’s Rights in Israel, Is Iran Closer than we Think?

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Rabbi Yoel Schwartz greets Religious Jewish soldiers attend a swearing in ceremony as they enter the orthodox Jewish IDF “Nahal Haredi” unit. Source: Flash90

Rabbi Yoel Schwartz greets Religious Jewish soldiers attend a swearing in ceremony as they enter the orthodox Jewish IDF “Nahal Haredi” unit. Source: Flash90

It would probably not be an exaggeration to say that on the international news stage Israel is known predominantly for the Palestinian conflict. The level of violence rarely drops enough for global reports to take interest in other issues in Israeli society. Considering the duration and the complexity of the struggle, the preference ensues almost naturally.

The subject of human rights reveals a similar skewing: Palestinians fight for their cause, engage public opinion, and generally bring attention to their plight. When the words “Israel” and “human rights” appear in the same sentence, chances are very high that the unresolved disputes about occupied territories and blockades will dictate the headlines.  All this is usually true for socio-political currents within Israel itself. Usually – but not always.

From time to time the defining national conflict recedes into the background, and others seize the front stage. The most recent one painfully underscored a long-standing antagonism between two communities in Israeli society: the secular and the ultra-orthodox.

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The Somali Famine, Despair and Resilience

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A man arrives at the Badbado camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Famine has been declared in two regions of southern Somalia – southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle.  Stuart Price/UN

A man arrives at the Badbado camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Famine has been declared in two regions of southern Somalia – southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle. Stuart Price/UN

Viewing through computer and television screens the grim images of women, children, and elderly suffering from the agony of protracted civil-war and the worst famine in Somalia does not prepare the human mind for the reality that awaits on the ground. I was confronted with that reality upon arriving in what many consider the land of misery - my homeland, Somalia. It goes without saying that this human tragedy did not develop overnight; it has been in the making for several years. The prolonged drought, unrelenting instability and the ever-present external interferences have created the right condition for the current famine.

In December 2007, in an article entitled, “The War on Terror and the Worst Humanitarian Crisis in Africa,” this author, among others, cited 40 international NGOs who released a joint statement “ominously warning against a gathering cloud of humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia and urging the international community to respond to this man-made calamity…”  Yet, the international community continued to ignore all the warning signs until July 2011 when the UN finally declared certain regions famine-stricken. The irony is that agricultural regions, that were the bread basket of the nation, are now suffering the worst impact of the famine, thus causing food prices to skyrocket in certain markets across the South. Of course, there are a number of factors that caused this, but the one that defies all reasons is the one that implicated the World Food Program (WFP).

According to independent journalist Thomas C. Mountain, “Back in 2006 just as Somali farmers brought their grain harvest to market, the WFP began the distribution of its entire year’s grain aid for Somalia. With thousands of tons of free grain available, Somali farmers found it almost impossible to sell their harvest and faced disaster.”  This seemingly reckless stunt was allegedly repeated the next year. As the plane started to loose altitude and the images on the ground began to form into shape, I was stirred with nostalgic feeling triggered by the familiar soil and landscape. There were an overwhelming number of aqalo or makeshift homes built by the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the makeshift camps they call home.

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A New Cold War

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Last U.S. service members flying out of Iraq

Last U.S. service members flying out of Iraq

There was something odd about the “final pullout” of United States troops from Iraq as the last military convoy crossed the border into Kuwait. Addressing a group of returning soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a few days before, President Obama hailed it as an “historic” moment after nine years of conflict, proclaiming it a “success.” Obama said, “We are leaving a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” Obama’s claim is questionable in every respect. Let us not forget he once called it a “dumb war.”  In Fallujah, once an insurgent stronghold and a target of major American offensives in 2004, where the anti-American sentiment still runs deep, people burned U.S. flags. In Baghdad, a trader expressed his fear of terrorists coming back.

The American military involvement in Iraq has wound down after nine years. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has reaffirmed America’s determination to maintain its military presence in the region. As the West and its regional allies increase the pressure on Syria, close to civil war, and the brinkmanship with Iran continues, Russia announced that it was sending warships to its naval base in Syria, in a demonstration of support for Damascus. Russia and China look determined not to allow NATO to launch a Libya-style intervention in another country under the United Nations Security Council’s mandate. On matters of war and peace, the Security Council has become deadlocked, such is the loss of trust.

What does all this mean? A little more than twenty years after U.S.-Soviet hostilities ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are in the midst of a new cold war. The term is not used widely yet, for many twenty-first century conflicts in South and West Asia, and Africa, are being fought in the name of the “war on terror” or “humanitarian intervention.” However, the true characteristics of these interventions are becoming clear. The current hostilities involving the West and its allies––and the rest––in many of the same arenas where the last cold war was fought amount to a new cold war.

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Iran, the Revolution and the Language of War

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Crowds gathered in Tehran shortly after the revolution

Crowds gathered in Tehran shortly after the revolution

A few days ago, I revisited a lecture given by Fred Halliday, FBA (Fellow of the British Academy), an intellectual giant among scholars of Middle East and Cold War history, at the London School of Economics in 2009. His topic was “The Islamic Republic of Iran After 30 Years.” For nearly a quarter century, Halliday was professor of International Relations at the LSE and recognized worldwide as a leading expert in the study of Islam, the Middle East and great power relations in the region.

He died just over a year ago, but for more than three decades before that he was also in great demand in media outlets, including the BBC World Service at Bush House, my professional base next door to the LSE. He often came to take part in World Service programs and I came to regard Fred as a friend. Watching him interpret the Iranian Revolution thirty years after was an enlightening experience once again. An important lesson I have learned in my life is to engage the best when in doubt. For me, going back to Fred Halliday was prompted by a recent experience during an exchange about an article I had written on Iran. My exchange was with an editor. Young, bright and overbearing on this occasion, he thought I was giving Iran a mild treatment, otherwise widely denounced these days as a “dictatorship” representing dark ages and which threatens the world.

Needless to say, I am one of those who do not subscribe to this version of history, past or present. The world is much more complex. It is tempting and easy to grab a news agency copy and throw it at someone to prove our own view of events, based on a narrow interpretation of recent knowledge and conventional wisdom of the present time that is temporary by its nature. It is worse when the agency report thrown at the person contains claims made on a website by one side about casualties at the hands of the other, with no way of checking independently. Anyway, I moved on without rancor on my part. To recognize, indeed to reflect with caveats, the significance of a propaganda war is one thing. It is quite different to be blown away by a current political storm when the objective is to attempt a serious historical analysis.

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Iran and the West

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility

Perils of brinkmanship with Iran are now on open display. As Libyans struggle after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, and the conflict at least partly fuelled by Western powers continues in Syria, the campaign of sanctions against Iran has triggered events which echo the 1980s crisis between post-revolution Iran and the West. The recent International Atomic Energy Agency report, a controversial document that censured Iran, caused Britain to severe links with Iranian banks. Further straining relations between the West and Iran were sanctions imposed by France, Canada and the United States.

The Iranian parliament retaliated by downgrading relations with Britain and ordering the new British ambassador to leave. Following that action, angry protesters stormed two British embassy compounds in Tehran. Property was damaged and documents were reported to have been taken away. What secrets they may contain is a matter of speculation. If revealed, they are likely to fuel Iranian anger and embarrass the British government.

Aware of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Iranian foreign ministry expressed regret and promised to protect the British diplomatic staff. But Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran’s parliament, said that the student protesters’ action reflected anti-British sentiment in Iran. Other Iranian MPs expressed similar views. Within 48 hours, the British government had little choice but to withdraw its staff and order the closure of the Iranian embassy in London. Britain’s announcement falls short of a complete break, but relations between the two countries have surely sunk to the lowest point in more than three decades. The British Foreign Secretary William Hague says that he wants to remain engaged with Tehran on the nuclear issue and on human rights, an astonishingly hypocritical position to take.

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India’s Courage Deficit

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President George W. Bush smiles as he stands with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a press availability in New Delhi Thursday, March 2, 2006. Paul Morse/White House

President George W. Bush smiles as he stands with India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a press availability in New Delhi Thursday, March 2, 2006. Paul Morse/White House

Many in the West may not realize it, but India is in the middle of what is shaping up to be a severe economic crisis. The rupee hit an all time low of more than 52 to the U.S. dollar this past week, is down 17 percent this year, and declined more than 7 percent just this month. That is even lower than during the financial crisis of 2009.  India’s stock exchange, the Sensex, has lost more than a third of its value in dollar terms this year and now has the dubious distinction of being Asia’s worst performing stock exchange. Profit margins among Sensex companies are at a seven-year low and foreign institutional investors are bailing, taking Indian risk off the table, and looking to invest their funds elsewhere.

What accounts for this dramatic fall from grace for the world’s second most populous country, and arguably the country with the most potential to become a regional economic powerhouse and challenge China’s de facto dominance in the region? A slowing economy, soaring inflation, policy paralysis on the part of the Indian government, and growing pessimism about what the future may bring have converged to create what is becoming a downward spiral. The worst may unfortunately be yet to come, with some economic pundits anticipating the rupee devaluing to perhaps 55 in the coming months, as economic fundamentals remain weak.

During a visit to Delhi and Mumbai last week, I noted palpable concern on the part of a variety of business executives who suggested that the government is unlikely to have the ability to pass much needed reforms and policies that will spur economic growth and send the right message to foreign investors. If the government is unable to do so now, when it has room to maneuver — given that the next election more than two years away — it seems highly unlikely that it will be incentivized do so closer to the election. Moreover, India needs such change right now, and even if the government did succeed in passing the required legislation, does it actually have the ability to implement change swiftly enough to reverse India’s rapidly increasing descent?

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Ruthlessly Pursuing Middle East Grand Strategy

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Free Syrian Army fighter in central Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Free Syrian Army fighter in central Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Popular uprisings that began with peaceful protests in Tunisia and Algeria nearly a year ago, and spread across the Arab world, have created a new reality, not only in countries to experience political awakening, but far beyond. More worryingly for Washington, the Arab Spring created fresh uncertainties and pressures for United States policy. With the first anniversary of those momentous events approaching, there is growing resentment among many Arabs who feel that their revolutions have been hijacked by forces not originally anticipated. Demonstrations in Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait in the last few days are acute symptoms of the prevailing mood in the region.

Two opposing trends are at work. The pressure from below succeeded in overthrowing the regimes in Algeria and Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak, though not the ruling military order, in Egypt. But the pressure from above has been decisive in the overthrow and lynching of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi after NATO’s intervention. It also continues to sustain Bahrain’s minority Sunni ruling class, thanks to the entry of Saudi troops and Western military assistance.

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad is much more resilient, despite every conceivable attempt by the United States and its Arab and European allies. I say “every conceivable attempt” because the prospect of the United Nations Security Council approving a Libya-type full-scale Western-led intervention in Syria is much less likely. The Russians and the Chinese would not play ball with America, Britain and France.

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Continuing Uncertainties in the Arab World

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Tahrir Square in February of 2011.  Photo: Ramy Raoof

Tahrir Square in February of 2011. Photo: Ramy Raoof

The powerful wave in favour of democracy has not only uprooted many well-entrenched dictatorial regimes in the Arab world but it has also paved the way for the emergence of new power-equations among member-states of the region and in their relations with several of the polar powers. The popular upsurge, the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia against strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, also known as Jasmine revolution, spreading over the Arab world has, perhaps, taken the most appropriate toll on the late Col. Gaddafi.

Earlier, it progressed through Egypt, ensuring the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, engulfed Yemen in flames, sparked a bloody strife in Syria and eventually wound its way to the armed clashes in Libya, finally culminated in the decisive victory for anti-Gaddafi protestors.  Perhaps the deceased dictator of Libya had never even dreamt of such a violent and vicious death by the hands of the rebels in his hometown of Sirte. All through his 42 years of rule, he eliminated most of his opponents in the most heinous and macabre manner.

Although the shaken regimes in Syria and Yemen do survive at present, the crisis is not yet over because the political topography of the Arab world has already undergone a radical change.  In fact, the uprooted regimes of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya represented the legacy of the Cold War, although each is and was unique.  The emerging Cold War schism between the two superpowers at the end of the second World War had ensured a relative sense of security, stability and certainty in the region because almost all countries, for variety of reasons, practiced alliance behavior with either of the superpowers who had vested interests in the oil wealth of the region.

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Bangladesh’s RTI Act

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Market in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  Source: IFPRI

Market in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Source: IFPRI

Right to information along with access to information is one of the most fundamental rights enjoyed by a citizenry. The Right to Information (RTI) Act has its origins in 2008, when the RTI Ordinance was drafted and subsequently passed into law by Sheikh Hasina’s government. Not surprisingly certain elements in the political establishment want to reduce the scope of the act. This has its roots in the fact that this is the only law which is solely enacted for citizens to protect their rights.

Although Bangladesh has an ocean of laws, only the RTI Act creates an opportunity for average citizens to investigate the day-to-day policies of public organs. This legislation is believed to have increased transparency and accountability and importantly, reduced corruption. At present, more than 90 countries have RTI laws, among them Nepal and India.  Firstly, the press in Bangladesh began to demand passage of a law that would protect their rights as early as 1983. After the late 1990s, NGOs began to demand access to information, which the RTI Act eventually afforded. As a result, a commission proposed a draft law in 2002.  Subsequently, the army backed caretaker government created a presidential ordinance called “Right to Information Ordinance, 2008”. The newly elected parliament legitimized this ordinance on March 29th, 2009 at its opening session.

Finally, the RTI Act became law on April 5 of that year. Right to information is guaranteed as a fundamental human right under Article 19 of UDHR (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).  Correspondingly, the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh also recognizes rights under Articles 7, 11 and 39. A number of existing laws i.e. The Official Secrets Act, 1923, The Special Powers Act, 1974, Rules of Business, 1996 have a provision regarding non-discloser of information.  However, Section 3 of said Act provides that the present law will prevail over all existing laws. But the law itself contains a list over 20 public bodies from which people cannot claim information as of right (S. 7 & 32).

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U.S. Helps Uganda, Does What’s Right

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A U.S. Marine training a group of Ugandan soldiers. The Pentagon sent a small team of Marines into Uganda to train Ugandan forces to hunt for Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army

The tentacles of the United States of America’s military extend to all corners of the world. On 14 October, United States President Barack Obama informed Congress that he dispatched about 100 US military advisers — mostly special operations forces — to Uganda to assist in the fight against a local militant group.  The questions being asked are what America wants in return and whether Africa needs the assistance in the first place, and why militarize Africa when it is this very action that is perceived to be holding democracy on the continent back? Many perceive this as a new development, but it is not. America has provided nearly US$33 million dollars in support to regional efforts to battle the LRA Army since 2008.

The help cannot be labeled successful or unsuccessful at the present moment, as it just too soon to tell. But now perhaps we will see whether the additional Special Forces ‘advisers’ who carry weapons for self-defense purposes will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Many around the world, and even most Africans hope this will be the case.

Although Uganda doesn’t want foreign militaries fighting their battles for them, it and the world’s newest nation-state South Sudan, for now, are welcoming the American assistance. This is despite the African outcry in 2007 over America’s military in Africa and its Africa Military Command, AFRICOM.  The South Africans were scared that the Americans were going to invade South Africa to gain access to strategic minerals following the Iraq War, while others saw AFRICOM as an arm to thwart the growing Chinese influence in Africa. Whatever the concerns, what many people don’t know is that two years prior, in 2005, South Africa became the 13th African nation to participate in America’s Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance program (ACOTA).

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The Killing of Muammar Gaddafi

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President Barack Obama discussing Qaddafi’s death from the White House

Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. This verse from the Bible speaks aloud of the manner of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, as well as his brutal killing. It is also a lesson for those who fought Gaddafi. The end of him has left a disturbing trail of savagery, from which the victors have not emerged unscathed. Where Western governments have been complicit and the mainstream media sadly restrained and unchallenging, NGOs have strained their conscience and luck to speak out about reprisals by both sides.

Muammar Gaddafi is the second Arab ruler to meet his end as a result of Western intervention in this, so far brief, new century. Unlike Iraq, the Western powers are not in Libya as occupiers in a formal sense. That there are no “boots on the ground” is President Barack Obama’s escape route. However, we know all too well that air power, especially drones, has changed the nature of warfare, making it possible to control territory from the sky. Boots not being there on the ground is irrelevant. Like the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in October 2001, the Western powers have National Transitional Council fighters on the ground in Libya. In 1979, they had Mujahideen in Afghanistan and the consequences are all clear before us.

The United States, Britain and France, flying NATO’s flag, embarked on a “humanitarian” bombing mission. Their remit, under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, was to protect civilians in Benghazi, initially by enforcing a no-fly zone. How different does that mission look eight months later? Only a few days ago, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, visiting Libya, had said, “We hope he [Gaddafi] can be captured or killed soon.” How many times have we heard the foreign minister of one country proclaiming that the leader of another be eliminated?

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Assange and the Anti-War Mass Assembly in Trafalgar Square

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Stop the War Coalition Rally in London's Trafalgar Square. Haydn/Flickr

October 8, 2011 marked the tenth anniversary of the founding of Stop the War Coalition in London, the most active group in Britain campaigning against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Stop the War Coalition Rally in London's Trafalgar Square. Haydn/Flickr

Stop the War Coalition Rally in London’s Trafalgar Square. Haydn/Flickr

Amidst the bustle of Trafalgar Square, a site which has seen many political and anti-war rallies over the years, and which now prominently displays the official clock to count down London’s unprecedented third Olympic Games in 2012, a rather sundry group of individuals poured in at noon with flags and signs calling attention to various issues under the umbrella of the anti-war movement ranging from Afghanistan to Palestine to Syria. The Anti-War Mass Assembly featured such notable speakers as the infamous WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, former MP George Galloway, human rights campaigner, journalist, and socialite Jemima Khan, and Australian journalist John Pilger. Notwithstanding the heavy police presence, the anti-war demonstration was by most accounts orderly, especially considering some of this past weekend’s global Occupy Wall Street events such as the one in Rome.

Standing in the shadow of Nelson’s Column, a decidedly anti-American tenor that permeated the demonstration became increasingly apparent not only with each successive speaker but with members of the crowd speaking out against an American foreign policy agenda that they believe espouses imperialism in the name of democracy. One demonstrator was seen wearing a large sign depicting an imperialistic death figure taking off a flesh mask of George W. Bush while assuming President Obama’s identity. Another demonstrator defiantly held a sign emphasizing America’s use of nuclear weapons.

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