What’s Behind the Bin Laden Assassination?

The  big question about Bin Laden – and I’m surprised more people are not asking it – is, why kill him? It’s pretty clear by now that those were the orders (I heard it from a guy being interviewed on NPR with CIA ties, and there’s further documentation in The Atlantic. But why?

Let’s leave aside the morality and look at the practical issues. Wouldn’t you think that Osama Bin Laden was what they call a “high-value target” – i.e., someone with valuable information? Isn’t it possible that he actually knew something about what’s left of al-Qa’eda? If this was really about fighting terrorism, wouldn’t they want to question him?

Someone else on that NPR show (I was listening in the car, and didn’t get further specifics to cite the broadcast) said that one of Osama’s bodyguards who’d been captured had orders to kill Osama rather than let him be taken alive. So why have the Seals do the work for him? It doesn’t make sense to me.

Second, why wouldn’t we want to put him on trial? Surely there would be no better way to destroy any last trace of sympathy for the man and his network than be exposing their repugnant deeds in open court. The Israelis knew that when they captured Eichmann, and brought him back to be tried, at considerable difficulty to themselves. All we would have had to do would have been to bring him along in the helicopter, which we did with his body anyway.

Moreover, a trial would have shown the world that we are a country of laws and individual rights, rather than a country that kills without trial. Here I’m verging back to the moral argument, but this one does have a practical side: it would make people respect the US more.

Legally, bringing Bin Laden out alive would have been kidnapping, and Pakistan didn’t like it. But they liked the assassination even less.

So I’m just asking, why were the orders to kill him no matter what? Anybody have an explanation?

President Obama on Situation in Bahrain

I recently wrote to President Barack Obama to ask him to speak up against the death sentences for some of those protesting for democracy in Bahrain. (This was before the Bahrain monarchist government threatened to prosecute some doctors and nurses for the deaths of patients they treated, or I would have written about that, as well). I just got a response and wanted to share it with you, so here it is. I have to say, it’s pitiful:

The White House, Washington


May 4, 2011

Dear Friend:


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me.  I value your comments and inquiries.


I greatly appreciate the outpouring of messages from Americans across the country and around the world.  Some comments are supportive, others are critical, but all reflect the desire of Americans to participate in a dialogue about our common concerns and challenges.


To learn more about my Administration or to contact me in the future, please visit:  www.WhiteHouse.gov.  Thank you, again, for writing.



Barack Obama

Visit WhiteHouse.gov

Why the US Should Care about Democracy in Bahrain

If you follow me on Twitter (@jcberg) or read my Facebook page, you probably have noticed that I have been posting a lot of news stories about Bahrain, and maybe you wondered why. I want to explain my reasons for doing this.

When the massive pro-democracy protests in Bahrain broke out February 14, I knew very little about that country – just that it was small and located somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula. I didn’t even know that it was an island, or that it was the home to the US Fifth Fleet.

However, as I learned more, I came to think that we Americans have a special responsibility for what happens in Bahrain, for several reasons:

  • Because, as mentioned, it is the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet. That means that the overwhelming military presence on the island is the US; anything they do, they do with the tacit approval of our government.
  • Because both the king of Bahrain and his patron, the king of Saudi Arabia, are completely dependent on the US for survival. We sell them almost all their weapons; without those, as absolutist rulers of small states, they would be swept away in an instant.
  • Because successive US governments, including the current one, have endorsed brutal despotism in Bahrain (and in Saudi Arabia) so that the profits of the oil companies will not be threatened.

Most Americans are like me – knowing nothing about Bahrain – so I felt obligated to try to spread the information around. In particular, I try to reenforce a few points:

  1. Bahrain is not a “moderate” country; when people say that, they just mean that it is friendly to Israel (and Israel is not moderate at all!) It is an absolute monarchy (there is a parliament, but the king appoints most members and can dismiss it at any time), and rules by violence and brutality. The king hires foreign mercenaries from Pakistan and other countries, so the troops will have less compunction about shooting down Bahrainis.
  2. This is not a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia. The royal family and the elite are Sunni, while a big majority of the people are Shia, and Shia do face a lot of discrimination – but a persistent sign and chant in the protests has been “No Sunni, No Shia, Only Bahrainis.” Some Sunni have been taking part, as well. However, the press in Bahrain is very tightl controlled by the king, and they have convinced many Sunni that the protesters are Shia Islamist fanatics controlled from the outside (see next point).
  3. Iran and Hezbollah have nothing to do with it. The government of Iran has been making statements about Bahrain, but these statements are condemned by the protesters whenever they make them.
  4. The goal of the protesters is democracy, not a religious state. Most want a constitutional monarchy, though a few have been so angered by the king’s brutality that they now want a republic.
  5. The King and other monarchists are out of touch with reality. They like to play that they are real royalty (the king proclaimed himself a king about 30 years ago). Right now their main concern is to bring a Grand Prix auto race, canceled because of the protests, back to Bahrain. The king likes to socialize with the royalty of Europe, and is making big plans for the royal wedding in England, to which he has been invited. (British activists are demanding that the invitation to this butcher be revoked).

There has been a near-blackout of the repression in Bahrain, which is very severe right now. Bloggers and twitter-users are being arrested and tortured; doctors and nurses are arrested if they try to treat people wounded in protests; and everyone is living in fear. This may be starting to change. There was a front-page story in the New York Times today, and a strong op-ed by Amy Goodman in the Guardian. We need to keep this up! Obama’s policy on Bahrain has been pretty cynical; there’s even a rumor that he told the king of Saudi Arabia that he would accept their invasion of Bahrain (they now have over 1,000 troops there) in return for Saudi acceptance of the intervention in Libya.

But Americans do believe in democracy, and if the current situation in Bahrain gets enough public attention, Obama will have to change his position. He could probably end the repression with a phone call; let’s make him lift the phone.

Obama Fails To Lead on the Environment

My computer has been broken for two weeks now, so I’m a little late with this, writing on borrowed equipment. I hope to be back on schedule by next week.


President Obama’s record on environmental issues is mixed. He has done some good things: enforced fishing limits, committed money to building a national high-speed rail network, and moved to get arsenic out of our drinking water, for example.

On the other hand, he has sabotaged the UN climate change negotiations (see Bill McKibben’s article for the details). He promoted a carbon-trading scheme that lets polluters continue to pollute as long as they finance phony development schemes in the less developed countries (see Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Cap and Trade” for more on this). And he pretends that the phrase “clean coal” has something to do with limiting greenhouse gas emissions. (“Clean coal” meant coal with very low sulfur, so that its use would reduce acid rain. But carbon dioxide comes from burning carbon – and that’s what coal is! What Obama really means is carbon sequestration – burning the coal, getting the same carbon dioxide, but then somehow bottling it up and storing it away.)

That was all in his first two years, when he was supposedly exercising visionary leadership! Now, beginning with the lame-duck session of Congress in late 2010, and continuing through the State of the Union address in 2011, we are seeing the new, more moderate Obama. Aside from a dumb joke about how salmon protection is irrational, environmental issues were presented only in the guise of programs to create jobs, and as investments in competitiveness. Steven Cohen of the Earth Institute at Columbia University has argued in Huffington Post that this is a sound climate change policy, just not presented as such – steath environmentalism, you might say.

There are two fatal weaknesses with this approach. First, it is not enough to meet the need. Most climate experts think we need to get greenhouse gas to 350 parts per billion in the atmosphere to avoid catastrophic effects. It is now 392 parts per billion, and climbing. Second, the reason we don’t get more effective policies is that most people do not understand the problem. That’s why the industry can talk about “clean coal,” it’s why Obama can talk about developing oil shale as an environmental policy, it’s why biofuels (simply carbon from another source) are presented as “green,” and why the climate change deniers have not gone the way of the smoking and cancer deniers. Only straight talk and clear explanations by the President and other political leaders will get us where we need to be. Steath environmentalism won’t do it.

New START Is a False Start

     The New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) is going to be ratified today, unless something very surprising happens at the last minute. This is certainly a victory for President Obama. But is it a victory for those of us who want to eliminate nuclear weapons? I think not.

      The treaty does do one good thing. It requires both Russia and the US to reduce their number of strategic nuclear missiles (“strategic” means that they can go a long way, so that one of the two countries can hit the other one with a missile; “tactical” weapons are those that won’t go as far) and launchers to 1,500 missiles and 700 launchers. That’s fewer than were permitted under the previous, never-ratified START treaty, so it’s a good thing.

      That sounds great. Unfortunately, President Obama got the votes he needed to ratify the treaty by promising to expand the nuclear arms race in other ways. He commited himself to an $85 billion program of “modernization” (i.e., developing new, more powerful and active missiles to replace the ones the US has now), and he promised to proceed with a version of President Reagan’s “Star Wars” (aka “missile defense”) proposal.

     As Alice Slater of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation put it, “. . . if the U.S. persists in developing its nuclear infrastructure with new bomb factories while threatening Russia with proliferating missiles, it’s unlikely that this modest New START will help us down the path to peace.”

     From President Obama’s point of view, the important thing was to win the vote, even if winning required making commitments that actually hurt the cause of nuclear disarmament. What’s missing from this approach is a strategy that can really lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons. Instead, the emphasis of the US has been on nuclear nonproliferation, limiting the possession of nuclear weapons to states that have them already. This approach has failed. The number of nuclear states continues to grow. As I’ve said before, we cannot reasonably expect Iran, North Korea, or any other state to refrain from developing nuclear weapons unless the US is getting rid of its own.

     For further reading on abolishing nuclear weapons, see The Challenge of Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, edited by David Krieger.

Veterans Day vs. Armistice Day: What’s in a Name?

In 1954 the holiday formerly known as Armistice Day, which celebrated the Armistice that ended World War I, was renamed “Veterans Day” in the United States. This was ostensibly due to a belief that all veterans should be honored, not only those who fought in World War I. However, the change has greater significance.

Most importantly, Armistice Day glorified peace, while Veterans Day glorifies the sacrifices of war. Partly, this is because of the date: the end of the war, not the decisive battle or the turn of the tide (like D-Day, for example). Beyond that, Armistice Day kept alive at least some understanding of how the armistice came about: through the revolutionary uprising of the German people, which began with a naval mutiny in Kiel and Wilhelmshavn on October 29-30 and spread rapidly through the entire country, bringing the Socialist Party into power, electing revolutionary councils, forcing the abdication of the Kaiser, and proclaiming a republic in Germany on November 9. The military, which had been resisting Woodrow Wilson’s peace terms, now had no choice but to accept them, leading to the Armistice on November 11.

The revolution did not fare well. Socialists and Communists were unable to work together, leading to a left-wing insurrection in Berlin in January 1919 that was put down by the military, and the resulting murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the leaders of the Spartakusbund. The bad blood between these two left parties made it easier for Hitler to come to power, as they were unable to unite against him. All the same, November 11 marks the ending of a war by a popular revolution, and it is unfortunate to see this history forgotten behind the name of “Veterans Day.”

For more about the revolution, you can read Pierre Broue, The German Revolution, 1917-1923 or Paul Frohlich, Rosa Luxemburg.

The strikes in France

The press reaction to the strikes in France is sort of amazing. In the depression of the 1930s, people thought that strikes and protests were perfectly natural. In fact, most of the social benefits that governments provide — both in the US and in France date from that period: think of the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act, for example.

The press reaction has been along the lines of ‘Those silly French – why don’t they want to postpone retirement?’ Similarly, I heard one commentator on NPR mention that the last Socialist government in France had tried to move to a 35-hour work week, which the commentator thought that France ‘obviously’ couldn’t afford. (I know, I should give names and citations, but i was listening on a car radio while driving and didn’t get the details).

Just think about it — in a period of high unemployment, what would be the result of shortening the work week? More job! Less unemployment, as the amount of work available was spread over more people. That’s not unaffordable indulgence, it’s about solidarity.

The more basic issue is who should pay for the crisis. Investment bank executives continued to pay themselves huge bonuses after their banks went broke. Right now in the US, the right wing is arguing that we can’t afford to let the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire — in other words, that higher incomes for the rich help the economy.

In fact, it’s just the other way around. Higher incomes for the rich just fuel speculative investments, like the recent bubble in mortgage-backed securities that triggered the crisis when it burst. It can’t fuel productive, job-creating investment, because there is no demand for the additional products that such investment would produce.

On the other hand, higher income for working people would generate increased demand, since it would put more money into the pockets of people who are struggling to get by, and therefore spending everything they take in. That’s precisely what is needed now.

Earlier retirement spreads the existing jobs around, and it puts more money into the hands of working people — so it’s just what is needed in this crisis. The French strikers are right.

Reference: For a good analysis of the causes of the crisis, see Martijn Konings, ed., The Great Credit Crash (London: Verso, 2010).