Archives for December 2011

Progressives and the Ron Paul fallacies

Glenn Greenwald writes: The Ron Paul candidacy, for so many reasons, spawns pervasive political confusion — both unintended and deliberate. Yesterday, The Nation‘s long-time liberal publisher, Katrina vanden Heuvel, wrote this on Twitter:

That’s fairly remarkable: here’s the Publisher of The Nation praising Ron Paul not on ancillary political topics but central ones (“ending preemptive wars & challenging bipartisan elite consensus” on foreign policy), and going even further and expressing general happiness that he’s in the presidential race. Despite this observation, Katrina vanden Heuvel — needless to say — does not support and will never vote for Ron Paul (indeed, in subsequent tweets, she condemned his newsletters as “despicable”). But the point that she’s making is important, if not too subtle for the with-us-or-against-us ethos that dominates the protracted presidential campaign: even though I don’t support him for President, Ron Paul is the only major candidate from either party advocating crucial views on vital issues that need to be heard, and so his candidacy generates important benefits.

Whatever else one wants to say, it is indisputably true that Ron Paul is the only political figure with any sort of a national platform — certainly the only major presidential candidate in either party — who advocates policy views on issues that liberals and progressives have long flamboyantly claimed are both compelling and crucial. The converse is equally true: the candidate supported by liberals and progressives and for whom most will vote — Barack Obama — advocates views on these issues (indeed, has taken action on these issues) that liberals and progressives have long claimed to find repellent, even evil.

As Matt Stoller argued in a genuinely brilliant essay on the history of progressivism and the Democratic Party which I cannot recommend highly enough: “the anger [Paul] inspires comes not from his positions, but from the tensions that modern American liberals bear within their own worldview.” Ron Paul’s candidacy is a mirror held up in front of the face of America’s Democratic Party and its progressive wing, and the image that is reflected is an ugly one; more to the point, it’s one they do not want to see because it so violently conflicts with their desired self-perception.

The thing I loathe most about election season is reflected in the central fallacy that drives progressive discussion the minute “Ron Paul” is mentioned. As soon as his candidacy is discussed, progressives will reflexively point to a slew of positions he holds that are anathema to liberalism and odious in their own right and then say: how can you support someone who holds this awful, destructive position? The premise here — the game that’s being played — is that if you can identify some heinous views that a certain candidate holds, then it means they are beyond the pale, that no Decent Person should even consider praising any part of their candidacy.

The fallacy in this reasoning is glaring. The candidate supported by progressives — President Obama — himself holds heinous views on a slew of critical issues and himself has done heinous things with the power he has been vested. He has slaughtered civilians — Muslim children by the dozens — not once or twice, but continuously in numerous nations with drones, cluster bombs and other forms of attack. He has sought to overturn a global ban on cluster bombs. He has institutionalized the power of Presidents — in secret and with no checks — to target American citizens for assassination-by-CIA, far from any battlefield. He has waged an unprecedented war against whistleblowers, the protection of which was once a liberal shibboleth. He rendered permanently irrelevant the War Powers Resolution, a crown jewel in the list of post-Vietnam liberal accomplishments, and thus enshrined the power of Presidents to wage war even in the face of a Congressional vote against it. His obsession with secrecy is so extreme that it has become darkly laughable in its manifestations, and he even worked to amend the Freedom of Information Act (another crown jewel of liberal legislative successes) when compliance became inconvenient.

He has entrenched for a generation the once-reviled, once-radical Bush/Cheney Terrorism powers of indefinite detention, military commissions, and the state secret privilege as a weapon to immunize political leaders from the rule of law. He has shielded Bush era criminals from every last form of accountability. He has vigorously prosecuted the cruel and supremely racist War on Drugs, including those parts he vowed during the campaign to relinquish — a war which devastates minority communities and encages and converts into felons huge numbers of minority youth for no good reason. He has empowered thieving bankers through the Wall Street bailout, Fed secrecy, efforts to shield mortgage defrauders from prosecution, and the appointment of an endless roster of former Goldman, Sachs executives and lobbyists. He’s brought the nation to a full-on Cold War and a covert hot war with Iran, on the brink of far greater hostilities. He has made the U.S. as subservient as ever to the destructive agenda of the right-wing Israeli government. His support for some of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes is as strong as ever.

Most of all, America’s National Security State, its Surveillance State, and its posture of endless war is more robust than ever before. The nation suffers from what National Journal‘s Michael Hirsh just christened “Obama’s Romance with the CIA.” He has created what The Washington Post just dubbed a vast drone/killing operation,” all behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy and without a shred of oversight. Obama’s steadfast devotion to what Dana Priest and William Arkin called “Top Secret America” has severe domestic repercussions as well, building up vast debt and deficits in the name of militarism that create the pretext for the “austerity” measures which the Washington class (including Obama) is plotting to impose on America’s middle and lower classes.

The simple fact is that progressives are supporting a candidate for President who has done all of that — things liberalism has long held to be pernicious. I know it’s annoying and miserable to hear. Progressives like to think of themselves as the faction that stands for peace, opposes wars, believes in due process and civil liberties, distrusts the military-industrial complex, supports candidates who are devoted to individual rights, transparency and economic equality. All of these facts — like the history laid out by Stoller in that essay — negate that desired self-perception. These facts demonstrate that the leader progressives have empowered and will empower again has worked in direct opposition to those values and engaged in conduct that is nothing short of horrific. So there is an eagerness to avoid hearing about them, to pretend they don’t exist. And there’s a corresponding hostility toward those who point them out, who insist that they not be ignored.

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With reservations, Obama signs act to allow indefinite detention of U.S. citizens

ABC News reports: In his last official act of business in 2011, President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act from his vacation rental in Kailua, Hawaii. In a statement, the president said he did so with reservations about key provisions in the law — including a controversial component that would allow the military to indefinitely detain terror suspects, including American citizens arrested in the United States, without charge.

The legislation has drawn severe criticism from civil liberties groups, many Democrats, along with Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, who called it “a slip into tyranny.” Recently two retired four-star Marine generals called on the president to veto the bill in a New York Times op-ed, deeming it “misguided and unnecessary.”

“Due process would be a thing of the past,” wrote Gens Charles C. Krulak and Joseph P. Hoar. “Current law empowers the military to detain people caught on the battlefield, but this provision would expand the battlefield to include the United States – and hand Osama bin Laden an unearned victory long after his well-earned demise.”

The president defended his action, writing that he signed the act, “chiefly because it authorizes funding for the defense of the United States and its interests abroad, crucial services for service members and their families, and vital national security programs that must be renewed.”

Senior administration officials, who asked not to be named, told ABC News, “The president strongly believes that to detain American citizens in military custody infinitely without trial, would be a break with our traditions and values as a nation, and wants to make sure that any type of authorization coming from congress, complies with our Constitution, our rules of war and any applicable laws.”

The Associated Press adds: The administration also raised concerns about an amendment in the bill that goes after foreign financial institutions that do business with Iran’s central bank, barring them from opening or maintaining correspondent operations in the United States. It would apply to foreign central banks only for transactions that involve the sale or purchase of petroleum or petroleum products.

Officials worry that the penalties could lead to higher oil prices, damaging the U.S. economic recovery and hurting allies in Europe and Asia that purchase petroleum from Iran.

The penalties do not go into effect for six months. The president can waive them for national security reasons or if the country with jurisdiction over the foreign financial institution has significantly reduced its purchases of Iran oil.

The State Department has said the U.S. was looking at how to put them in place in a way that maximized the pressure on Iran, but meant minimal disruption to the U.S. and its allies.

In response to the threatened penalties, Iran warned this past week that it may disrupt traffic in the Strait of Hormuz, a vital Persian Gulf waterway. U.S. officials say that while they take all threats from Iran seriously, they view this latest warning as little more than saber rattling because disrupting the waterway would harm Iran’s economy.

The $662 billion bill authorizes money for military personnel, weapons systems, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and national security programs in the Energy Department for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

The measure also freezes some $700 million in assistance until Pakistan comes up with a strategy to deal with improvised explosive devices.

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Steven Pinker’s tilted measure of violence

Steven Pinker claims we are living in the most peaceable era of human existence. In a review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Timothy Snyder challenges Pinker’s thesis.

The central psychological virtue of modern civilization, Pinker claims, is “self-control.” Over the centuries, after people are pacified by the state, they learn to think ahead, to see the perspectives of others, and to pursue their ends without immediate violent action. Violence becomes not only impractical but also taboo. Nazi Germany, as Pinker seems to sense, represents a tremendous problem for this argument. Germany in the 1930s was probably the most functional state of its time, with low homicide rates and a highly literate population. Mastery of self was not the Nazis’ problem; self-control was in fact a major element of the SS ethos, as preached by Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Himmler. Even Adolf Hitler practiced his emotive speeches. Lack of self-control was also not the problem for Joseph Stalin’s executioners, or for Stalin and Stalinists generally. Individual Soviet NKVD men killed hundreds of people, one by one, in a single day; this can hardly be done without self-control of a very high order.

To rescue his argument from the problem posed by the mass killings of the mid-twentieth century, Pinker resorts to claiming that a single individual, in the German case Hitler, was “mostly responsible.” Here, he misrepresents the historians he cites. It is true that most historians would subscribe to some version of “no Hitler, no Holocaust.” But what they mean is that Hitler was a necessary condition for such a calamity, not that he was a sufficient one. There were many other necessary conditions for Nazi racial imperialism. Take, for example, worries about the food supply. In the 1930s, food was highly valued in both Berlin and Moscow. This fact did not dictate which ideologies would define the two states. But in practice, both Hitler and Stalin were obsessed with mastering and exploiting fertile soil, the former to transform Germany into a self-sufficient, racially pure empire, the latter to finance the industrialization of the Soviet Union.

Without recognizing the importance of scarce resources, it is impossible to understand the very different plans for agrarian colonization that the Nazi and Soviet ideologies sanctioned. But Pinker dismisses any claim that resources (rather than bad ideas) were related to the bloodiest conflicts in modern history as a “nutball conspiracy theory.” This is an odd position for him to take, since his own history begins in a premodern world of conflict over resources. By insisting that ideas alone were to blame, he oversimplifies the issue. A more rigorous explanation would explain how political ideas interacted with scarcity, rather than insist that either one or the other must have been the problem.

Modern ideologies were not, as in Pinker’s metaphors, “toxic” forces that “drove” people to do this or that. They provided narratives to explain why some groups and individuals had better access to resources, and appealing visions of the future after an aggressive reordering. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were ideological states, but they cannot be dismissed from history simply because they were organized around the wrong ideas. Each of them had plans for economic development that were meant to privilege one group at the expense of others — plans that were inextricably entangled with justifications for why some people deserved more, others less, and others nothing but death (the extreme and unprecedented case being the Holocaust). These ideologies were effective in part because they motivated, and they motivated in part because they delivered, if not plenty, then at least visions of plenty.

We are different from the Nazis and the Soviets not because we have more self-control — we don’t. We are different largely because postwar improvements in agricultural technology have provided the West with reliable supplies of food, our massive consumption of which says much about our limited self-control. But what if food were to become scarcer and more expensive, as seems now to be the trend? What if unfavorable climate change were to outrun our technical capacities? Or what if melting glaciers leave societies such as China without fresh water? Pinker claims, unpersuasively, that global warming poses little threat to modern ways of life. But it hardly matters whether he is right: states are already taking action to minimize its consequences. China, for example, is buying up land in Africa and Ukraine in order to compensate for its own shortage of arable soil. The fresh water of Siberia must beckon. If scientists continue to issue credible warnings about the consequences of climate change, it would be surprising if leaders did not conjure up new reasons for preemptive violent action, positioning their states for a new age of want.

Treating Nazi Germany as a historical aberration also allows Pinker to sidestep the question of how Germans and central and western Europeans became such peaceful people after the demise of Nazism. This is a strange oversight, since European pacifism and low European homicide rates are where he begins the book. Today’s Europe is Pinker’s gold standard, but he does not ask why its levels of violence are the lowest in all of his charts. If, as he contends, the “pleasures of bourgeois life” prevent people from fighting, Pinker should also consider the place where these are most fully developed, and how they became so. Pinker persuasively relates how postwar economic cooperation among European states led to a pacifying interdependence, but he fails to stress that the postwar rebirth of European economies was a state-led enterprise funded by a massive U.S. subsidy known as the Marshall Plan. And he says very little about the concurrent development of redistributive social policy within those states. State power goes missing in the very places where states became preoccupied with welfare rather than warfare.

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Occupy protests ‘could intensify’

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Slavoj Zizek talks to Al Jazeera

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Listening Post — Arab revolutions and the media

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Orthodox Judaism treats women like filthy little things

Yossi Sarid explains that when ultra-Orthodox men in Israel push women to the back of the bus because they are not fit to be seen or spit on little girls because they disapprove of their dress, these misogynistic forms of behavior are not an aberration — they are the application of Jewish law.

If you would like to know the source from which your brothers derive their brazen behavior, go over to the study hall and open a page of Talmud. It’s true that the Torah has 70 faces, but the trend of these faces is clear: The source of the pollution is in halakha (Jewish law ) itself. What is happening in Beit Shemesh and its satellites is not “contrary to halakha,” it is mandated by halakha. And the rest will be told to the grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters.

Anyone ignoramus knows that the Torah’s “ways are ways of pleasantness,” that “the honor of a king’s daughter is within,” and that “proper behavior comes before the Torah,” but it’s worth knowing more. It’s worth knowing that a woman is unfit to be a judge, and is also unfit to give testimony. She is unfit for any public position with authority. “Thou shalt appoint a king over thee” – a king and not a queen.

A daughter, commanded the sages, must not be taught Torah, because “the mind of woman is not suited to be taught, but [only] to words of nonsense.” Women are light-minded and have little knowledge.

And if a man and a woman are drowning in a river, first they’ll save the man, “who is obligated to perform more commandments,” whereas a woman’s “wisdom is only in the spindle.” In fact, “words of Torah should be burned rather than being given to women.”

A man must say three blessings every day during morning prayers: He thanks God “that He didn’t make me a gentile, that He didn’t make me a woman, that He didn’t make me an ignoramus.” And it’s not proper to speak to a woman too much, since “all her conversation is nothing but words of adultery,” and whoever talks to her too much “causes evil to himself and will end up inheriting hell.” And let’s not even talk about the fate of someone “who looks even at a woman’s little finger.”

The extremists who spit at women, who call themselves Sikarikim, learned their lesson 101 times and learned it well: A husband would do well not to let his wife go outside, into the street, and should restrict her outings “to once or twice a month, as necessary, since a woman has no beauty except by sitting in the corner of her house.”

Because inside the house – very deep inside – her glorious honor awaits her: “Every woman washes her husband’s face and feet and pours him a cup and prepares his bed and stands and serves her husband. And any woman who refrains from doing any of these tasks that she is obligated to perform – is forced to do them.” Some recommend forcing her with a whip or by starvation “until she gives in.”

And needless to say, she is at her husband’s disposal whenever he is overcome by a desire “to satisfy his urges with her.” And if she continues to rebel, he always has the right “to divorce her without her consent.”

And there are many similar halakhot, only a few of which we have collected here. Nor have we cited everything in the name of the ones who said them, for lack of space. The readers are invited to find the references on Shabbat – and to browse around – on their own; this is a good opportunity for study. We will direct your attention to Tractate Shabbat, which does a good job of summing up halakha’s attitude toward women: “a sack full of excrement” with a bleeding hole.

Some people will seek to console themselves: It’s true that this is the halakha both m’doraita (from the Torah ) and m’drabanan (from the rabbis ), but that is not what is taught nowadays. But it suffices to listen to the sermon the sage Rabbi Ovadia Yosef delivered five years ago, based on the well-known halakhic work “Kitzur Shulchan Aruch”: “A man must take care not to walk between two women or between two dogs or two pigs, and men should also not allow a woman or a dog or a pig to walk between them.”

Treating women as impure and filthy begins with halakha and continues with actions. As long as the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties – Shas, United Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and National Union, none of which have any women in the Knesset – are not disqualified, their nakedness will continue to sing out and the nakedness of the land will be revealed.

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High Court says Israel can exploit West Bank resources

Haaretz reports: The High Court of Justice has authorized Israel to exploit the West Bank’s natural resources for its own economic needs by rejecting a petition against the operation of Israeli-owned quarries in the territory.

In its ruling, issued on Monday, the court adopted the state’s position: that no new Israeli-owned quarries should be established in the West Bank, but existing ones should be allowed to continue operating.

The petition was filed two years ago by the Yesh Din organization. It argued that the 10 Israeli-owned quarries in the West Bank violate international law, which states that an occupier may not exploit an occupied territory’s natural resources for its own economic benefit; it may use such resources only for the benefit of the occupied people or for military purposes.

The Israeli quarries sell 94 percent of their yield to Israel and supply almost 25 percent of Israel’s total consumption of the raw materials in question. But until the petition was filed, the state had never seen any problem with this.

Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, who wrote the ruling, began by accepting the state’s view that the Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement permits the quarries to operate in their present manner until a final-status agreement is signed.

She then moved on to discuss what international law has to say, and particularly Article 55 of the Fourth Hague Convention, on which the petition was based. That article requires the occupying power to “safeguard the capital” of the occupied party’s natural resources and “administer them in accordance with the rules of usufruct,” meaning the rules governing fair usage.

But Beinisch accepted the state’s position that Israel’s use of the quarries is limited and does not amount to destroying their “capital,” and hence does not violate international law. This position is bolstered, she said, by the state’s decision not to permit any new quarries to open.

Moreover, she said, it is necessary to take account of the fact that the West Bank has been under a prolonged and continuing occupation, so the territory’s economic development cannot be put on ice until the occupation ends. The quarries, she noted, supply jobs and training to a non-negligible number of Palestinians; some of their yield is sold to the Palestinians; and the royalties the quarry owners pay the state – almost NIS 30 million a year – are used by the Civil Administration in the territories to fund projects that benefit the Palestinian population.

“In this situation, it’s hard to accept the petitioner’s unequivocal assertion that the quarries’ operation does nothing to advance the [Palestinian] region, especially in light of the Israeli and Palestinian sides’ mutual economic interests and the prolonged duration” of Israel’s presence in the West Bank, she concluded.

The petition was not a total loss for Yesh Din: Both the decision not to open new quarries and the decision to allocate all the royalties to the Civil Administration were made only after it was filed.

Nevertheless, attorney Michael Sfard, who represented Yesh Din, was disappointed.

“Mining natural resources in occupied territory for the economic needs of the occupying state is looting,” he said. “The High Court’s argument, that one should relate differently to a long-term occupation, cannot legitimate economic activity like this, which harms the local residents.”

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How many U.S. soldiers were wounded in Iraq? Guess again

Dan Froomkin writes: Reports about the end of the war in Iraq routinely describe the toll on the U.S. military the way the Pentagon does [PDF]: 4,487 dead, and 32,226 wounded.

The death count is accurate. But the wounded figure wildly understates the number of American servicemembers who have come back from Iraq less than whole.

The true number of military personnel injured over the course of our nine-year-long fiasco in Iraq is in the hundreds of thousands — maybe even more than half a million — if you take into account all the men and women who returned from their deployments with traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress, depression, hearing loss, breathing disorders, diseases, and other long-term health problems.

We don’t have anything close to an exact number, however, because nobody’s been keeping track.

The much-cited Defense Department figure comes from its tally of “wounded in action” [PDF] — a narrowly-tailored category that only includes casualties during combat operations who have “incurred an injury due to an external agent or cause.” That generally means they needed immediate medical treatment after having been shot or blown up. Explicitly excluded from that category are “injuries or death due to the elements, self-inflicted wounds, combat fatigue” — along with cumulative psychological and physiological strain or many of the other wounds, maladies and losses that are most common among Iraq veterans.

The “wounded in action” category is relatively consistent, historically, so it’s still useful as a point of comparison to previous wars. But there is no central repository of data regarding these other, sometimes grievous, harms. We just have a few data points here and there that indicate the magnitude. [Continue reading…]

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Largest Syrian opposition groups sign unity agreement

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Pakistani death squads go after informants to U.S. drone program

The Los Angeles Times reports: The death squad shows up in uniform: black masks and tunics with the name of the group, Khorasan Mujahedin, scrawled across the back in Urdu.

Pulling up in caravans of Toyota Corolla hatchbacks, dozens of them seal off mud-hut villages near the Afghan border, and then scour markets and homes in search of tribesmen they suspect of helping to identify targets for the armed U.S. drones that routinely buzz overhead.

Once they’ve snatched their suspect, they don’t speed off, villagers say. Instead, the caravan leaves slowly, a trademark gesture meant to convey that they expect no retaliation.

Militant groups lack the ability to bring down the drones, which have killed senior Al Qaeda and Taliban commanders as well as many foot soldiers. Instead, a collection of them have banded together to form Khorasan Mujahedin in the North Waziristan tribal region to hunt for those who sell information about the location of militants and their safe houses.

Pakistani officials and tribal elders maintain that most of those who are abducted this way are innocent, but after being beaten, burned with irons or scalded with boiling water, almost all eventually “confess.” And few ever come back.

One who did was a shop owner in the town of Mir Ali, a well-known hub of militant activity.

A band of Khorasan gunmen strode up to the shop owner one afternoon last fall, threw him into one of their cars and drove away, said a relative who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. They took him to a safe house being used as a lockup for others the group suspected of spying for the drone program.

For the next eight weeks, they bludgeoned him with sticks, trying to get him to confess that he was a drone spy. He wasn’t, said the relative. Unable to determine whether he was guilty, his captors released him to another militant group, which set him free 10 days later.

“In the sky there are drones, and on the ground there’s Khorasan Mujahedin,” said the relative. “Villagers are extremely terrorized. Whenever there’s a drone strike, within 24 hours Khorasan Mujahedin comes in and takes people away.”

Most of them are killed. The group, named after an early Islamic empire that covered a large part of Central Asia, dumps the bodies on roadsides, usually with scraps of paper attached to their bloodied tunics that warn others of the consequences of spying for the U.S. Executions are often videotaped and distributed to DVD kiosks in Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan’s largest city, to hammer home the message.

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The Cafe – Libya: When the impossible became possible

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In his first interview, Saif al-Islam says he has not been given access to a lawyer

Human Rights Watch’s Fred Abrahams writes: The guards in the remote Libyan town of Zintan called their prisoner, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, “our black box.” The second-oldest son of Muammar Gaddafi knew the secrets of Libya’s past, they said: Gaddafi’s deals with foreign governments and companies, the whereabouts of still-missing prisoners, the details of crimes committed during the regime’s failed attempt to crush this year’s popular revolt. Saif al-Islam, 39, had to be protected so Libyans and the world could learn what had really taken place. And for the guards in Zintan, a town of 50,000 atop a desert mountain, keeping Libya’s most-wanted man safe from the sort of frenzied opposition fighters who had apparently executed Saif’s father and brother Mutassim also offered a chance to patch up the country’s reputation for justice after the Oct. 20 killing of Muammar Gaddafi.

As a special adviser for Human Rights Watch, I had arranged with the new Libyan government to interview Saif about the conditions of his detention after his arrest on Nov. 19 in the far south of his country. The International Committee of the Red Cross had visited four days into his detention, issuing a typically terse statement, and the public had not seen or heard from him since.

Saif entered the room draped in a large brown woolen cape with an embroidered fringe. He extended his left hand, keeping his right hand hidden beneath the cape. “Welcome to Zintan,” he said with an ironic smile, eliciting a chuckle from his captors and from me. The smile was bright. But Saif had lost the flair that I’d seen on television and heard about from those who had met him before. He had a scraggly beard and his once clean-shaven head was ringed by a horseshoe of graying hair. The setting was not what Libya’s heir-apparent would have been used to: a dimly lit room with a faded carpet and cushions along the edge. Two years ago he threw a lavish party for his 37th birthday on the coast of Montenegro; guests, reportedly, included Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska and Prince Albert of Monaco.

Saif joked casually with the guards. “Ohhh, very good,” he said when they gave him his rimless glasses, which had been taken to Tripoli for repair. I thought his nonchalance suggested that he failed to grasp the gravity of his situation. Or maybe that’s how a person acts when born into a dictator’s family and is accustomed to solving all problems with orders or money.

Dan Ephron reports: Aisha Gaddafi, the daughter of the late Libyan dictator, is asking the International Criminal Court to investigate the killing of her father and her brother Mutassim by Libyan opposition forces in October, suggesting that the rebels, together with NATO forces, may be guilty of war crimes.

The petition raises legal questions about the nine-month insurgency that toppled Muammar Gaddafi and, indirectly at least, about the role American troops played as part of NATO.

But it has garnered attention for another reason as well: Aisha’s lawyer is from Israel, a country Muammar Gaddafi refused to recognize and often described as illegitimate.

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The decline of the American empire

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Activists hold mass rallies across Syria

The New York Times reports: Tens, and possibly hundreds, of thousands of people defied a continuing government crackdown to fill the streets of several Syrian cities on Friday, intent on showing visiting monitors from the Arab League the extent of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

As thousands marched in Idlib, Homs, Hama and in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, violence flared at several of the rallies. By day’s end, activist groups said that more than two dozen people had been killed by security forces. The large crowds, while not unprecedented, underscored the resilience of the protest movement despite United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have died since opposition to the government galvanized in March.

A protester in Dara’a, who reported huge demonstrations, said: “We want to show the Arabs and the world that we are peaceful protesters, not criminals or armed gangs. The coming days and weeks will prove our statements, not the regime’s story.”

The government’s supporters also held rallies, according to witnesses and the Syrian state news agency, SANA, which posted photographs of large gatherings in Aleppo and Damascus. The news agency said the protesters were “demanding the Arab League observer mission to be credible and professional in conveying the facts of what the terrorist groups are perpetrating.”

The arrival of the observers has been one of the most closely watched developments in the nine-month-old Syrian conflict. For days this week, their role was heavily criticized by opposition activists, who complained about the paltry number of observers and about the mission’s leader, a former Sudanese general. The military intelligence branch he oversaw has been accused of crimes by human rights groups.

Many feared the mission was another stalling tactic by the government. Even so, everyone seemed to want a minute of the observers’ time.

By week’s end, after four hectic days of visits, the observers seemed to have ushered in a new phase of the conflict, or at the very least, altered its dynamic.

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The excommunication of Ron Paul

Steve Kornacki writes: When you’re running near the top of the polls, it’s inevitable that your opponents will gang up on you. But there’s something different about the nature of the attacks Ron Paul is now facing – and, potentially, about their implications.

In the past few days, three of Paul’s rivals – Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann – have publicly declared that the Texas congressman will not under any circumstances win the GOP nomination. Bachmann called him “dangerous,” while Gingrich said he wasn’t even sure he’d vote for Paul over Barack Obama. Another candidate, Rick Santorum, said there’s no difference between Paul and Obama on foreign policy and that he’d need “a lot of antacid” to stomach voting for Paul. And Jon Huntsman launched a scathing anti-Paul ad in New Hampshire with a simple title: “Unelectable.”

This is not a run of the mill pile-on. Paul’s foes aren’t simply telling Republicans that he’s not the best choice to be their nominee; they’re telling Republicans that he’s unfit to call himself one of them – that he’s an imposter who isn’t due even the most basic courtesy (“Oh sure, if he ends up being the nominee I’ll be with him…”) that major candidates for the nomination are typically afforded.

It’s an attitude that’s also being encouraged by some of the GOP’s most powerful opinion-shaping forces. Rush Limbaugh has been disdainful of Paul throughout the campaign, with his guest host this week – Mark Steyn – keeping up the campaign. Fox News, whose primetime hosts have alternated between ignoring and savaging Paul, has been treating him like a pariah since the last campaign, when Paul was denied a seat at a critical pre-New Hampshire debate. And the New Hampshire Union Leader, which boasts one of the country’s most influential conservative editorial pages, branded Paul “truly dangerous” on Thursday.

The roots of this anti-Paul alarmism go deeper than the racist newsletters that were sent out under Paul’s name in the early 1990s and that have attracted new attention in the past week. Sure, the newsletters (and Paul’s shifting explanations for them over the years) would help make him an unelectable GOP nominee, but rest assured the same intraparty voices would be railing against him with the same adamance even if they’d never emerged.

The reason has to do with Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy and his unapologetic mockery of the “clash of civilizations” ethos that has defined the post-Cold War GOP. Today’s Republican Party is dominated by Christian conservatives (44 percent of participants in the 2008 primaries identified themselves as evangelicals) and neoconservatives, who are united in their commitment to an unwavering alliance between the United States and Israel, confrontation with Iran, and a significant American presence in the Middle East. Paul’s warnings about “blowback” directly threaten this consensus.

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Why Ron Paul challenges liberals

Matt Stoller writes: The most perplexing character in Congress, ideologically speaking, is Ron Paul. This is a guy who exists in the Republican Party as a staunch opponent of American empire and big finance. His ideas on the Federal Reserve have taken some hold recently, and he has taken powerful runs at the Presidency on the obscure topic of monetary policy. He doesn’t play by standard political rules, so while old newsletters bearing his name showcase obvious white supremacy, he is also the only prominent politician, let alone Presidential candidate, saying that the drug war has racist origins. You cannot honestly look at this figure without acknowledging both elements, as well as his opposition to war, the Federal government, and the Federal Reserve. And as I’ve drilled into Paul’s ideas, his ideas forced me to acknowledge some deep contradictions in American liberalism (pointed out years ago by Christopher Laesch) and what is a long-standing, disturbing, and unacknowledged affinity liberals have with centralized war financing. So while I have my views of Ron Paul, I believe that the anger he inspires comes not from his positions, but from the tensions that modern American liberals bear within their own worldview.

My perspective of Paul comes from working with his staff in 2009-2010 on issues of war and the Federal Reserve. Paul was one of my then-boss Alan Grayson’s key allies in Congress on these issues, though on most issues of course he and Paul were diametrically opposed. How Paul operated his office was different than most Republicans, and Democrats. An old Congressional hand once told me, and then drilled into my head, that every Congressional office is motivated by three overlapping forces – policy, politics, and procedure. And this is true as far as it goes. An obscure redistricting of two Democrats into one district that will take place in three years could be the motivating horse-trade in a decision about whether an important amendment makes it to the floor, or a possible opening of a highly coveted committee slot on Appropriations due to a retirement might cause a policy breach among leadership. Depending on committee rules, a Sub-Committee chairman might have to get permission from a ranking member or Committee Chairman to issue a subpoena, sometimes he might not, and sometimes he doesn’t even have to tell his political opposition about it. Congress is endlessly complex, because complexity can be a useful tool in wielding power without scrutiny. And every office has a different informal matrix, so you have to approach each of them differently.

Paul’s office was dedicated, first and foremost, to his political principles, and his work with his grassroots base reflects that. Politics and procedure simply didn’t matter to him. My main contact in Paul’s office even had his voicemail set up with special instructions for those calling about HR 1207, which was the number of the House bill to audit the Federal Reserve. But it wasn’t just the Fed audit – any competent liberal Democratic staffer in Congress can tell you that Paul will work with anyone who seeks his ends of rolling back American Empire and its reach into foreign countries, auditing the Federal Reserve, and stopping the drug war. [Continue reading…]

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Richard Wilkinson: How economic inequality harms societies

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