Thursday, January 29, 2009

Interview with Roberto Gonzales, author of "American Counterinsurgency" (Inside Higher Ed)

Interview with Roberto Gonzales, author of ‘American Counterinsurgency’

(University of Chicago Press, 2009)

Commentary by William O. Beeman: The Human Terrain System of the U.S. military, where social scientists are embedded with combat troops to give cultural and social advice has created controversy in Anthropology and other disciplines. The central issue is the potential for violation of professional codes of ethics that dictate that social scientists do nothing to harm the people among whom they live and learn from in the course of their research. Roberto Gonzales provides great insight about this problem in his new book and in the interview below

The Human Terrain System, a program which embeds social scientists with brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan, is billed as a mechanism for improving the U.S. military’s knowledge of culture and local populations — heretofore perceived as sorely lacking. “It’s a chance to change the military; it’s a chance to change the Army,” one HTS member said at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in November. The HTS Web site states that the program “does not collect intelligence or have a role in targeting.” However, AAA’s executive board has formally opposed the program, citing a number of ethical issues including the potential misuse of anthropological information for targeting purposes — which would violate the bedrock principle that those studied should not be harmed.

One of the leading critics of HTS has been Roberto J. González, an associate professor of anthropology at San Jose State University. In American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain, forthcoming February 1 from Prickly Paradigm Press, and distributed by University of Chicago Press, González strongly critiques the human terrain concept in its historical and contemporary contexts. He answered some questions for Inside Higher Ed.

Q. Would you summarize the magnitude and mission of the Human Terrain System, as you understand it, today?

A. The Human Terrain System (HTS) is a $200 million U.S. Army program that embeds anthropologists and other social scientists with combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program’s building blocks are five-person “human terrain teams” that include armed personnel. Approximately 25 teams have been deployed since the program began in 2006, mostly in Iraq. According to the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s budget justification, the goal of the program is “to collect data on human terrain, create, store, and disseminate information from this data, and use the resulting information as an element of combat power.” In other words, HTS is designed to help the military gather ethnographic information — intelligence data about Iraqis and Afghans — in order to improve its war fighting capabilities. Human terrain team members are employed by BAE Systems, a British firm awarded the contract to manage the program.

A revealing description of HTS was published in Military Review. In it, the authors state that the program is designed to “understand the people among whom our forces operate as well as the cultural characteristics and propensities of the enemies we now fight.” They also note that HTS is a “CORDS for the 21st Century” — a reference to a Vietnam-War era counterinsurgency initiative (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support). CORDS gave birth to the infamous Phoenix Program, a secret operation in which ethnographic data on Vietnamese civilians was collected and turned over to CIA-funded paramilitary troops. In the end, Phoenix operatives assassinated more than 26,000 suspected Viet Cong sympathizers. The possibility that HTS might be used for such purposes deeply concerns me, and it’s what inspired me to write American Counterinsurgency.

Q. You write, “The way in which HTS has been packaged — as a kinder, gentler counterinsurgency — is completely unsupported by evidence.” Instead, you argue that HTS was created “primarily as a tool for espionage and intelligence gathering.” Could you summarize the evidence you rely upon in making this argument?

A. To fully understand HTS, we should place it in the broader context of what might be called today’s “cult of counterinsurgency,” which centers around the personality of General David Petraeus. For several years, he and a loyal group of advisors — many with Ph.D.s in the social sciences — have been involved in an effort to whitewash counterinsurgency. In other words, they have tried to clean up the image of counterguerrilla warfare, which is always a dirty business. The U.S. military has more than a century of experience of this kind of warfare (going back to the bloody “Indian Wars” of the 1800s and the cruel campaign against Filipino revolutionaries in the early 1900s), yet Petraeus and others have portrayed it as a newer, gentler method of fighting — “the graduate level of war” in the words of one enthusiast. HTS was developed as a central component of this “new” old method.

Many sources indicate that HTS was designed primarily as an intelligence-gathering program. As I’ve mentioned, government budget documents and military journals describe the program as means of collecting ethnographic intelligence to boost “combat power.” In the Department of Defense’s 2008 Global War on Terror Amendment, human terrain teams are described as military intelligence assets which “have proven invaluable in identifying and tracking threats.” The statements of brigade commanders are also revealing. For example, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Gian Gentile recently wrote that “these human terrain teams, whether they want to acknowledge it or not ... contribute to the collective knowledge of a commander which allows him to target and kill the enemy.” This fits the military’s definition of human intelligence.

Q. In your book, you trace the term “human terrain,” prefacing the chapter on the term’s origins by writing, “When I first heard the term ‘human terrain,’ a nightmarish vision came to mind.” If Webster’s asked you to write a definition of the term, what would you write?

A. I’ve always felt uneasy about the Orwellian juxtaposition of the words “human” and “terrain.” Linguistic anthropology tells us that in military contexts, such a term will tend to objectify and dehumanize people, because it implies that they are geographic space to be conquered. Personally I wouldn’t want to give “human terrain” the legitimacy that goes along with a spot in Webster’s Dictionary! But if I had to provide a definition of the term, it would probably be something like: “a euphemism referring to civilians living in a war zone, or under military occupation.” (Last year, the American Dialect Society declared “human terrain team” the most euphemistic term of 2007!)

In conducting research for my book, I learned that human terrain appeared more than 40 years ago in a report by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee — the same committee responsible for whipping up anti-communist hysteria in the 1950s. The report (Guerrilla Warfare Advocates in the United States) evoked images of a country threatened from within. It warned that militants like the Black Panther Party might possess “superior control of the human terrain.” From these beginnings, human terrain was linked to domestic counterinsurgency campaigns at a dark moment in U.S. history, when the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) — which brutally repressed political dissent within our country — was in full gear.

Q. The Human Terrain teams themselves have been in the headlines. But you write of human terrain as a much broader phenomenon, one that’s being embraced by the military, industries, and research universities. How so?

A. HTS has indeed been in the news, especially since three of its social scientists have been tragically killed in action over the past nine months. In American Counterinsurgency, I wanted to go beyond the headlines, to examine the development of the human terrain concept and how it has been transformed over the years. I discovered that the concept was reborn in the early 21st century, when influential people like retired Lieutenant Colonel (and neoconservative pundit) Ralph Peters, Major General Robert Scales, and Senator John McCain embraced the concept. It diffused quickly across the armed forces and into the private sphere and university research labs. After Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary, there was a boom in funding for projects focused on human terrain research and “culture-centric” warfare, and this attracted dozens of companies from what Dwight Eisenhower once called the “military-industrial complex” — BAE Systems, Aptima Corporation, MITRE, RAND Corporation, Wexford Group, MTC Technologies, NEK Advanced Securities Group, and Alpha Ten to name a few. Today contract funds connected to human terrain dwarf funds allocated by the National Science Foundation for basic anthropology research.

Modeling and simulation programs and dynamic social network analysis are the latest fads in human terrain research. Engineers, computer programmers, and social scientists seek to integrate ethnographic data into predictive computer programs. Each year the Pentagon spends tens of millions of dollars in a quest to find a technological holy grail that forecasts political hot spots — organized protest marches, riots, or full-blown terror attacks. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Purdue, and other universities are competing with private corporations for these funds. It’s become a real growth industry.

Q. You write of parallels between HTS and anthropology’s historical role in helping colonial powers retain control of their empires. In your opinion, are there any ways that social scientists can productively engage with the U.S. military, without binding themselves in that colonial legacy?

A. Many people have written about anthropology’s support of colonial governments in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Oceania — not to mention its role in the subjugation of Native American peoples — but it’s a much more complex picture. History tells us that anthropology has occasionally played an essential role in resisting imperialism. For example, in the 1930s a young Kikuyu man named Jomo Kenyatta from British East Africa (today Kenya) arrived in London and attended seminars led by the renowned anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. In 1938 Kenyatta published a stirring ethnography of Kikuyu life, Facing Mount Kenya, which inspired many people by examining the painful consequences of British colonialism from an insider’s perspective. He used anthropology as a tool for challenging — not supporting — colonial rule. Kenyatta became a revolutionary leader and eventually the first Prime Minister and President of independent Kenya in the 1960s. His experience illustrates how students of the human sciences are as capable of challenging imperialism as they are of serving it.

With respect to working with the U.S. military, I think that there are many anthropologists who have consulted for the armed forces ethically — that is, without violating professional codes of ethics established over the past 60 years. For example, medical anthropologists such as Genevieve Ames have conducted research on the way that U.S. “military culture” might contribute to excessive drinking and tobacco use. Others, like William Beeman, have addressed officers at the Naval Postgraduate School to explain why many Iraqis are revolting against the U.S. in a way similar to the revolts against Great Britain in the 1920s. These social scientists are doing fine work that bears no resemblance to neo-colonial counterinsurgency projects such as HTS.

Q. Is there a way for HTS to fix itself — and if so, where would you start — or is it, in your opinion, fundamentally flawed?

A. Some argue that HTS is suffering from poor management and lack of oversight, and that if these problems could be corrected then it would be successful. I disagree. Conceptually, the entire program is flawed because human terrain team members are thrust into an impossible situation in which they are torn between conflicting interests. I’ve interviewed current and former HTS employees who have expressed serious concerns about this. On the one hand, they must be loyal to combat brigades — in fact, the Human Terrain Team Handbook stipulates that the teams “belong to the [brigade] Commander.” On the other hand, the teams’ social scientists are expected to respect and trust Iraqis and Afghans who they are interviewing. One can imagine all sorts of situations in which team members might confront grave ethical dilemmas: What should team members do if a commander requests field notes or targeting information in preparation for an attack? Are human terrain teams obliged to identify Iraqis or Afghans suspected of having ties to insurgents? How is it possible for embedded social scientists to obtain informed consent if they are attached to armed units conducting door-to-door searches? Each of these situations demonstrates basic flaws with the HTS concept. Like all counterinsurgency projects, it is designed to control or suppress popular movements. This runs completely counter to normal anthropological approaches which seek to bridge societies by promoting cross-cultural understanding. You can be a counterinsurgent, or you can be an anthropologist, but you can’t be both.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Iranian Veto on Mideast Peace (The Terror Journal)

The Iranian Veto on Mideast Peace

Commentary by William O. Beeman: Neoconservatives in the United States from organizations such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and many supporters of the Israeli incursion in Gaza have tried to claim that Israel is "really" fighting Iran, not Hamas. These groups call Hamas a "proxy" of Iran. In fact, the claims of Iranian support of Gaza are hugely exaggerated, and show the poverty of Israel's argument for its disproportionate response to Hamas' pitiful offensive to Israel's isolation of Gaza, an isolation that has left thousands starving and without medical supplies. The "blame Iran" strategy is a desperate red herring that masks the recalcitrance of Israeli leaders to find a serious negotiated peace with the Palestinian community. It also masks the somewhat venal political posturing by political parties in Israel in advance of an upcoming general election, in which each party tries to show itself to be tougher than the other parties. Targeting Iran is a safe political stance, as it always garners public support, even when this posture is based on lies. Readers should interpret Robert Kaplan and others cited below as reflecting this neoconservative ideology.

In the political calculus driving Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza, Iranian ambition has emerged as a critical–if not always clearly defined–variable. In Washington, President Bush has supported Israel’s strike as necessary self-defense, though some analysts believe an Israeli defeat by Iran-supported Hamas would embolden Tehran and weaken prospects for U.S. diplomacy in the region. And while Israel publicly stresses the need to tackle Hamas rocket fire, analysts, including CFR’s Steven A. Cook, note Israel’s desire to reassert its dominance following the disastrous 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Launching its attack in the final hours of the reliably pro-Israeli Bush administration, writes CFR Senior Fellow Michael Gerson in the Washington Post, is no coincidence, either.

Iran’s mullahs, meanwhile, have followed up the rearmament of Hezbollah by demonstrating an interest in influencing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. Hours after Israel launched “Operation Cast Lead” on Hamas targets, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, blasted the “horrific atrocity of the Zionist regime,” lashed out at the Bush administration for “complicity in the large crime,” brushed aside European governments for “their indifference,” and chastised the “silence” of Arab regimes–Egypt and Jordan chief among them. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also weighed in (IRNA), and an Iranian general has called for an oil embargo against the West (Straits Times) to protest Israeli action. As the Wall Street Journal observes, attention on Gaza “could become a convenient distraction” for Iranian leaders besieged by worsening economic news at home.

Yet parsing Iran’s broader goals–and discerning its ability to implement them–remain points of departure in foreign policy circles. Some analysts see a clear connection between Israel and Iran in Gaza. As Robert D. Kaplan writes in the Atlantic, Israel’s attack on Iranian-backed Hamas–considered a Foreign Terror Organization (FTO) by the U.S. government with a stated aim of destroying Israel–”is, in effect, an attack on Iran’s empire.” Israeli intelligence sources from 2003 estimate that Iran contributes $3 million to Hamas annually (PDF). But other observers say ties between Iran and Hamas are less substantive than Israel claims. William O. Beeman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, argues that isolation of Gaza in recent years has effectively limited Iranian material support, a belief shared by Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in a new interview with According to a November 2008 Congressional Research Service report (PDF), Hamas reportedly received about 10 percent of its funding from Iran in the early 1990s but has since turned to “wealthy Persian Gulf donors and supporters in Europe and elsewhere.”

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Crisis Guide: The Israeli-PalestinianThere is more agreement on how the various outcomes in Gaza will ripple across the region. For Israel, defeat is not an option, though analysts differ on how victory might be defined. Surrounded by forces hostile to the Jewish state, some believe Israel must reassert the military dominance it lost in Lebanon in 2006. Haaretz columnist David Grossman suggests a cease-fire would better suit Israel’s strategic aims. For the United States and the incoming Obama administration, a victory is also seen as essential. As former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk suggests, a convincing defeat of Hamas could lead Iran to reevaluate its support (NYT) for terrorists and even prompt a change of course on its nuclear program. An Israeli defeat and a Hamas victory, on the other hand, could bolster Iranian influence and ambitions in the Arab world, some analysts argue.

Outside of those who believe Egypt should be forced to take control of Gaza (FOX), most analysts agree the United States must broaden its regional strategy to help stem the violence. Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland suggests Washington should reach out to its moderate Arab allies in the region “put on the spot by Israel’s Gaza onslaught.” One possible avenue of cooperation, Hoagland suggests, is to begin selling civilian nuclear technology to the United Arab Emirates as a show of goodwill in the region. Mohammad Yaghi, a Palestinian political expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agrees that the only way out of the impasse is to encourage moderate Arab states to push Hamas into a peace deal. Yet as one Egyptian official tells the International Crisis Group, countering the influence of Iran and other actors will also be key. “The situation in Gaza has more to do with Hamas’s relations with the region than confrontation with Israel,” he said.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tehran Wanted to Deny Carter any Kind of Victory--Interview with William O. Beeman (Rooz Online)

Tehran Wanted to Deny Carter any Kind of Victory
Interview with William O. Beeman - 2009.01.21

Barack Obama’s views on the Middle East are not very different from the Bush Administration’s, said Professor William Beeman, Chair of Anthropology and specialist in Middle East Studies at the University of Minnesota, in an interview with Rooz.

However Barack Obama’s promise of change during the presidential election has led many to expect his Middle East foreign policy approach to differ from that of President Bush.

Almost thirty years ago Iran’s revolution, and the hostage taking tragedy, was tied to U.S. presidential elections and now, once again, Iran seems to be one of the major foreign policy issues that the new President will face in the White House. Iran’s increasing influence throughout the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Lebanon and Palestine, and Tehran’s nuclear program has been the major concerns of the U.S. towards Iran over the past years.

Beeman's most recent work, The “Great Satan vs. the Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other”, deals with the highly negative rhetoric and discourse between Iran and the United States over the three decades since the Iranian revolution, and its effects on national attitudes toward the Bush administration's policy towards Iran, as well as the possibility of military confrontation between the two nations.

In an interview with Rooz, Beeman explained how the delay in releasing American hostages in 1980, contributed to the fall of President Jimmy Carter. “I believe the Iranian government wanted to deny Carter any kind of victory, so yes, I believe the delay from the Iranian side was enacted on purpose,” said Beeman adding that, “The characterizations of Carter in Iran were very bitter, likening him to all kinds of mythological villains.”

At this time many Iranians are hoping that Obama’s election will bring a new approach by the new administration to start talking to the Iranian government, and an end to three decades of punishment of the Iranian people because of Iranian government’s international defiance, Beeman believes that picking Denis Ross, as the key person at the State Department to deal with Iran will be a mistake. “The neoconservatives do not want a different policy,” said Beeman adding that, “They want to continue to attack Iran, or have Israel do it, and the Obama administration is not able to do anything about it.”

Rooz: Do you believe that in 1980 there existed politicians in the United States who were interested in using the hostage issue in order to influence the results of the presidential elections?

William Beeman (WB): We will probably never know whether there was a real "October Surprise," though there has been much evidence in support of it. There is no question that ANY issue coming before an election is used by both parties to affect the outcome of the election--even the silliest and most trivial matters become important, largely because voters are very shallow in their opinions and in their research of candidates.

Rooz: Do you believe in the October Surprise Conspiracy theory in the 1980 elections? And that Ronald Reagan’s elections campaign had attempted to convince Iranian officials in its talks with them to postpone the release of the American hostages until after the elections in the US in return for providing American weapons to Iran?

WB: Personally, I don't believe in the conspiracy. Moreover, the hostage crisis had been settled by the time of the elections. It was only the actual release of the hostages that was delayed. I think that Carter's overall incompetence, particularly the abortive rescue mission, was the more important factor affecting the election.

R: Why did the congressional and the Senate investigations about the possibility of an October Surprise lead to no proof in this regard?

WB: I am assuming that there was no proof because there was no proof. As I said above, it almost doesn't matter. The hostage crisis had already doomed the Carter administration. I suppose that if the hostages had been released before the election, things might have been different, but Carter was already far down in the polls. Also, the U.S. economy was in terrible shape, and that usually is more important than any foreign policy issue in determining the election.

R: Was there a pre-determined desire to disprove the October Surprise possibility?

WB: Certainly, the Republicans wanted to disprove this. They wanted their candidate to be elected on his merits, not by default.

R: In the last meeting of the Iranian Parliament on the subject in October 1980, in which it had to decide on the release of the hostages, representatives who were opposed to the release of the hostages who constituted a minority prevented Parliament from reaching a decision through an obstruction thus postponing the release of the Americans to after the elections (specifically, 20 minutes after President Reagan was sworn in). Do you believe that this was an accidental event?

WB: Quite aside from whether Reagan made a "deal" with the Iranians, I believe the Iranian government wanted to deny Carter any kind of victory, so yes, I believe the delay from the Iranian side was enacted on purpose. The characterizations of Carter in Iran were very bitter--likening him to all kinds of mythological villains, like Zohak, the White Div, and Yazid.

R: To what extent did the hostage taking of American diplomats in Iran impact the outcome of US presidential election in 1980?

WB: It was important, because it showed Carter to be ineffective.

R: In addition to some American analysts supporting the October Surprise theory, the then-President of Iran and the Foreign Minister at the time (who was subsequently executed by the regime) have both stressed how Iranian officials from the ruling party met with officials from the US Republican party and agreed to postpone releasing the hostages to after the 1980 elections so that Carter would not use the opportunity for his re-election bid. The Russian intelligence apparatus in 1993 in response to a Congressional inquiry about the October Surprise, also confirmed the views of the Iranian officials. Were the above-mentioned Russians and Iranians points either wrong or they have been untruthful?

WB: There was definitely a confluence of interests between the Republicans and Iranian officials, all of whom wanted to deny Carter a victory. There is some indication that Iran and the U.S. were on somewhat better footing in the Reagan administration than, say, today. The Iran-Contra affair could not have taken place if there was not some kind of communication between the two parties. Also, accusations of support of terrorists, despite Iran's support of Hezbollah, did not occur during the Reagan administration. The U.S. was blaming Libya during this time for support of terrorism (under AIPAC guidance). Also, Iran was engaging in arms trafficking with Israel, so things were somewhat friendlier between Iran and the U.S. It certainly could stem from this communality of interest. It is also interesting that initially, Iranian officials expressed a preference for George W. Bush, saying that Iran had generally fared better under Republicans than Democrats. Of course the Bush administration broke that pattern.

R: Tuesday, the 20th, is the swearing in day of Barack Obama as the next President of the U.S. In your view, what role did issues in the Middle East, and particularly Iran, play in electing Obama to the presidency?

WB: Not very much. Obama's views on the Middle East are not very different from the current administration. He has called for negotiations in preference to force as a way of dealing with the problems of the region, and he called for American withdrawal from Iraq. The Republicans tried to use these two positions against him without success. Most Americans seem to agree with Obama on these points.

R: What has been the impact of issues regarding Iran on the US presidential election until now?

WB: Only Obama's opinion that talks should be undertaken with Iran was even used in debate. Obama has officially called for Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment and "stop supporting terrorism." The neo-cons are very cynical. They think that they can agree to let talks take place on the assumption that they will fail, and then the U.S. can go ahead with its former hostile posturing.

R: Do you have a personal anecdote that may be of interest to Iranian readers about the U.S. presidential election in 1980 and the impact of the timing of the release of the American hostages after the election?

WB: Yes, Professor Marvin Zonis and I were consulting with Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance. As soon as we left his office, he resigned his position. He showed us that he was disgusted with the ineffectiveness of the Carter administration and was furious at the rescue mission, which was undertaken without his knowledge while he was on vacation. The mission (which failed) was a total surprise to him. I later cited this incident in calling for Colin Powell to resign after his fatal speech to the United Nations, because he had been equally badly used by the Bush administration.

You should know that I was in Iran until February 1979, and witnessed the entire revolution, but not the hostage crisis. A number of my friends were hostages.

R: You mentioned that Obama's foreign policy would not be much different than George W. Bush. With Denis Ross, as the key person to deal with Iran at the State Department, and given his background in this field, how will Obama's premise of change be accomplished?

WB: Clearly, it won't. Ross is being pushed by the neocons (WINEP, AEI), and the Obama transition team is in the pocket of AIPAC. They want to plant their operatives in the Obama administration.

R: President Bush changed the Republican's pattern toward Iran. Is there any potential that Democrats break their pattern as well and initiate a more friendly relation with Iran?

WB: Obviously, I hope so, but both Democrats and Republicans have had more or less the same policy toward Iran since the Revolution. No politician ever lost a vote by attacking Iran.

R: Thomas Friedman once said, Iran and the United States are natural allies. How does the possible designation of Denis Ross contribute to this?

It won't. Picking Ross is a mistake, if the idea is to have a different policy toward Iran. The neocons do not want a different policy. They want to continue to attack Iran, or have Israel do it, and the Obama administration not able to do anything about it.

R: The United States is facing with a variety of difficulties in the Middle East and the possibility of going to war with Iran seems pretty slim. Can the Obama administration live with a nuclear Iran, in case both countries compromise on some of their positions and policies?

WB: Do you believe Iran has an active nuclear weapons program? I don't. We can definitely live with Iran having nuclear power. The US is selling nuclear power to the UAE for heaven's sake.

Regarding the wall of mistrust between the two countries, in what sort of scenario would negotiations with Iran succeed?

It all starts with opening formal relations. Right now the U.S. and Iran have no relations whatever. Until they do, nothing can proceed.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Obama pledges new tack on Iran (The National--Abu Dhabi, UAE)

Obama pledges new tack on Iran

Michael Theodoulou, Foreign Correspondent

* Last Updated: January 12. 2009 9:30AM UAE / January 12. 2009 5:30AM GMT

Commentary by William O. Beeman: President Elect Obama's transition team is notoriously weak on comprehensive Middle East expertise, and the persons who have been advising the Obama transition team are closely associated with neoconservatives who have dominated the Bush administration. Dennis Ross is on the roster of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) which has kept up the drumbeat for attacks on Iran, and has urged a hard military line against the Palestinian community. Another Obama advisor is Martin Indyk, the former deputy director of research at AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and co-founder of WINEP. These individuals will largely assure that Bush-era policies in the Middle East will continue during the Obama administration.

Yasser Arafat, right, the late Palestinian president, welcomes Dennis Ross, a US state department co-ordinator in the Middle East, on his arrival for a meeting in Gaza City in this Dec 1996 file photo. Mohammed Rawas / AP

Barack Obama, the US president-elect, has renewed a pledge to engage Iran swiftly in a new approach to curb Tehran’s nuclear quest that he portrayed as one of the “biggest challenges” facing his administration.

His remarks, made in an interview with a US television network yesterday, will offer some reassurance to those in Tehran and Washington hoping for an improved relationship between the superpower and the strategically important Islamic republic.

That scenario is unlikely to please Israel, which is striving to present its onslaught against a vastly outgunned Hamas in the Gaza Strip as a proxy war against Iran, which is supposedly committed to the destruction of the state.

Advocates of rapprochement between Washington and Tehran were dismayed by credible reports in recent days that Mr Obama is ready to make Dennis Ross his main point man on Iran. Although Mr Ross is a highly experienced diplomat, his critics say he is too close to Israel and hawkish on Iran, a bewilderingly complex country of which he has little experience. Similar misgivings apply to Rahm Emanuel, Mr Obama’s chief of staff, and to Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state.

Mr Obama acknowledged that “Iran is going to be one of our biggest challenges” and warned that a nuclear-armed Iran “could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East”.

He also expressed concern about Iran’s support for Hizbollah and Hamas. But he promised: “We are going to have to take a new approach. And I’ve outlined my belief that engagement is the place to start.” He would make clear “that we respect the aspirations of the Iranian people, but that we also have certain expectations in terms of how an international actor behaves”.

Mr Obama had raised hopes of better relations early during his election campaign by promising to break with George W Bush’s policy of not talking to Iran until it suspended uranium enrichment.

But following his presidential victory, Mr Obama served notice he would be no pushover, declaring: “Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable. We have to mount an international effort to prevent that happening.”

His words yesterday signal a different approach to that supported by Mr Ross, who apparently has been offered a new state department post designed to manage Washington’s relationship with Iran. But the suggestion that Mr Ross will be an exalted Middle East super-envoy with a defining say on Iran policy may be fanciful. That he had secured such a post came in a leaked internal memo between members of a pro-Israeli Washington think tank for which Mr Ross works.

Instead, it is likely Mr Ross will be one of a “team of [state department] equals” advising Mr Obama on Iran, according to a blog by Jim Lobe, a Washington-based expert on US foreign policy.

Mr Ross put his name to a bipartisan report in November that urged Mr Obama to beef up the US’s military presence in the Gulf to strengthen Washington’s negotiating hand immediately on taking office. If muscular diplomacy failed, the United States would then be primed for military action “as a last resort”, the report said.

“Ross is in lockstep with the Bush administration on Iran – including ritual recitation of neo-conservative talking points on Iran’s nuclear programme. He is not likely to be trusted or welcomed by Iranian officials,” said Professor William Beeman, an Iran expert at the University of Minnesota.

Mr Ross is a veteran of the Arab-Israeli conflict, having led US peace efforts in the Middle East peace efforts for both Presidents Bill Clinton and George HW Bush.

He played a leading role in an interim peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in 1995, worked on the failed effort to arrange peace between Israel and Syria and the ultimately unsuccessful Camp David talks between Israel and the Palestinians in 2000.

Palestinians regarded Mr Ross as pro-Israeli in peace talks – a reputation he shares among Iranian officials. Press TV, Iran’s English language satellite channel, has described him as a “notorious Israel-firster”.

Henry Precht, a retired US diplomat who headed the state department’s Iran desk during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, suspects that Mr Obama will be loath to upset Israel by pressing it simultaneously on two issues.

“If he wants to appear to be doing something un-Bush-like on the Arab-Israeli front and working seriously for land for peace, he will have to forgo any real and positive change on the Iran front,” he said in an interview.

“Dennis Ross will do nicely in holding that front stable.” Putting Iran “in the ice box” might also appeal to Washington because “progress in any conceivable event will come very slowly”.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

UNSC Votes for Ceasefire in Gaza

UNSC votes for ceasefire in Gaza

09 January 2009 Friday 22:14

Commentary by William O. Beeman: Coverage of the fighting in Gaza has been scant in the United States. Iran's PressTV is one of the only entities with broadcasts on the ground and running commentary. Their coverage is being picked up by the international press, including this story from Haber27 (Haber="news"), a major Turkish news site. Americans who want accurate information about the events in Gaza are advised to seek non-U.S. sources for their information.

The UN Security Council has voted for an immediate and durable ceasefire in the Gaza Strip leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces. However, the United States abstained from voting on the ceasefire resolution while all other fourteen members voted in favor of the binding resolution.

Resolution 1860 also called for 'unimpeded provision' and distribution of aid in the coastal enclave and the reopening of all border crossings to the region, which has been under Israeli siege during the past eight months.

Earlier Friday, Saudi Arabia and Britain said that a final text on the Gaza conflict was agreed on by Western and Arab nations.

And they were expecting a vote by the UN Security Council in New York, after diplomats spent three days forging the language.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, called the compromise 'a historic event,' speaking to reporters late Thursday following hours of negotiations between the two sides.

However, after showing up late for the meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice abstained from voting.

The US abstention dashed all the hopes that diplomats had previously fostered for a unanimous vote in favor of the resolution, Press TV's Mike Mazzocco reported from the UN headquarters on Thursday.

Now all delegations, especially those looking for a ceasefire, are looking to Israel to stop its military incursion into Gaza, he added.

"At this point no one is sure whether this resolution will be backed up by force or at all if Israel does not withdraw its forces from Gaza. Palestinian delegation says they expect two more days of the Israeli incursion into Gaza," said the correspondent.

Mazzocco pointed out that Israel's UN Ambassador Gabriela Shalev had walked out of the meeting in a huff, brushing off reporters and giving no indication that Tel Aviv planned to implement the resolution.

"Responsibility for the current hostilities lies squarely with Hamas… The international community must focus its attention on the cessation of Hamas's terrorist activity," Shalev told the Council.

Rice's comments during the meeting indicated that the US was unhappy with the fact that the resolution did not include an explicit condemnation of Hamas, Mazzocco reported.

Commenting on the resolution, Professor William Beeman of the University of Minnesota said that the call for ceasefire endangers the absolute victory that Israel seeks.

Despite US efforts to give Israel more time to destroy Hamas the regime has been battling in Gaza for two weeks without much success, said Beeman, referring to the three UN motions that the US has vetoed since the beginning of the conflict.

"Israel can not be successful in Gaza. Nevertheless they are reaching very hard for a victory that can not take place," he added.

Meanwhile, Arab League chief Amr Mussa welcomed the resolution and stressed that 'there was no American veto.'

"The important thing is for Israel to respect and implement the will of the international community," he added.

Other Arab officials also welcomed the motion as they are under heavy pressure from their people to prevent the continuation of Israel's 14-day onslaught against Gazans.

Following the adoption of the resolution, US Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that he was relieved to see the motion pass through and called on all sides to 'fully' respect its content.

"I am heartened and relieved at the adoption by the Council today of a resolution to bring an end to this tragic situation. Your decision signals the will of the international community. It must be fully respected by all parties to this conflict," he said.

Just hours after the council voted for the resolution Israeli fire hit at least thirty targets in the Gaza Strip, killing at least nine other Palestinians including four children.
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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

LA Times--William O. Beeman Response to Halevi and Oren "Defeat Iran to Defeat Hamas"

Re “Defeat Hamas to defeat Iran,” Opinion, Jan. 4

In maintaining that Israel is really fighting Iran in Gaza, not Hamas or the Palestinians, Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael B. Oren conveniently ignore the historical relations between Hamas and Iran. <,0,3919516.story

Hamas arose during the first Palestinian intifada with its own philosophy and beliefs. Iran's initial offers of aid were spurned by Hamas' leadership as pure opportunism.

Today, Iran provides little more than lip service to Hamas' cause for its own propaganda efforts.

Even now, the Israeli government seems to be exaggerating Iran's role in order to create an enemy proportionate to Israel's hammering of the people of Gaza. It is despicable to cruelly smash a small, inadequately armed group of virtual prisoners.

William O. Beeman


The writer is a professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Hamas is Not Iran's Puppet--William O. Beeman (New America Media)

Hamas is Not Iran's Puppet

New America Media, Commentary, William O. Beeman, Posted: Dec 31, 2008

Editor’s Note: The popular wisdom that Iran is pulling the strings behind
Hamas doesn’t take into account the geography of Gaza argues William O.
Beeman. Beeman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at
the University of Minnesota and past-president of the Middle East Section
of the American Anthropological Association. He is the author of “The
‘Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran
Demonize Each Other,” published by the University of Chicago Press


The conflict between Israel and Hamas is not a proxy war between Israel and
Iran. This is a myth that has grown up during the Bush administration, and
is now widely promulgated with little or no support.

Iran has, it is true, been sympathetic to the Hamas situation, particularly
since the U.S.-endorsed Palestinian elections of 2006, when Hamas won a
plurality of votes, allowing it to form a government. Subsequently, the new
Palestinian government was rejected by Israel and the United States, and an
economic embargo plunged the Palestinians into economic chaos. At that
point Iran provided substantial humanitarian aid.

In the present conflict, Iran is also sending two ships to provide
humanitarian assistance.

However, American and Israeli analysts would have the world believe that
Hamas could not carry out any actions against Israel if they were not
directed by Iran. As George Joffee of the Cambridge Centre of International
Studies maintained in 2006 in an interview with U.S.-based Radio Free
Europe and Radio Liberty, “The Israeli government has alleged that
indirectly through Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran is engaged in trying to
control the events inside the Occupied Territories and there have been
allegations with no proof at all, of involvement in some of the more
violent activities there. Those links I suspect are largely Israeli
propaganda and don't really carry water.”

The same is true today.

No one promulgating the theory that Hamas’s attacks on Israel are
directed by Iran bothers to think much about geography. Hamas has been
effectively sealed off from the world by Israel, and by Egypt. The Israelis
have essentially controlled the import of food and medical supplies. The
idea of Iran shipping arms to Hamas under these conditions is patently
absurd. The rockets launched against Israel that started the current
conflict were clearly homemade, low-level weapons, not sophisticated arms.

A parallel claim is that Iranians are providing training to Hamas. Given
the rhetoric, one would imagine that this is being done on a massive scale.
However, on March 9, 2008 the Times of London reported that 150 Hamas
fighters were being trained in Tehran. Hamas itself claims to have 15,000
fighters, and Israel has millions of potential fighters at its command.
Thus training for a team of 150, if the facts are correct, is hardly much
of a threat to Israel.

Hezbollah in Lebanon is sometimes cited as an Iranian cat’s-paw in the
region, but Hezbollah has no geographical access to Gaza. Therefore they
are limited to leading protests in Lebanon. Timur Goksel, former adviser to
U.N. Peacekeepers in Lebanon, told Reuters News Agency on Dec. 30, “With
all their rhetoric about Palestine, there is not much [Hezbollah] can do
about Gaza, short of getting Lebanon involved in another disaster. So they
are leading the popular reaction.”

Egypt is not a conduit for Iranian arms either. President Hosni Mubarak is
caught in a dilemma with regard to Gaza. He receives aid from the United
States, and has a long-standing peace treaty with Israel. Moreover, his
secular government is desperately afraid of Islamic extremism, which they
see as a threat. Because Hamas has a religious base, not a secular one like
Fatah, its rival for power in the Palestinian community, they are seen as
dangerous. For this reason, Egypt has kept the border crossing to Gaza
firmly closed except for humanitarian emergencies.

Why then does the myth of Iranian military support persist? One reason is
that it has been a long-standing American foreign policy belief that
resistance movements cannot exist without state support. Before Iran was
targeted as the source for support, Libya was the U.S. bogeyman. It is
instructive to look at rhetoric against Libya from the 1980s and see that
exactly the same accusations that were leveled at Libya then are being
hurled at Iran today.

Finally, Iran does not help matters. The rhetoric of the original Iranian
revolution is still alive and well in some segments of Iranian political
life. Iran ousted a Western-supported leader, the Shah, and tried in the
early days of the revolution to promulgate this action elsewhere in the
Middle East. Hezbollah and Hamas were sympathetic rhetorical partners. Iran
supported Hezbollah in its early days, but no longer controls its
operations. Iran had nothing to do with the founding of Hamas, but sees its
conflict with Israel as sympathetic with its revolutionary ideals. This
does not mean that Iran is controlling the action.

The more apoplectic visions of Iranian involvement see Iran developing
nuclear weapons and supplying them to both Hezbollah and Hamas. However,
not only is there no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program; the
simple logistics of transfer of such weapons to a place like Gaza are
virtually impossible.

For Israel, and the world, blaming Iran for its troubles with Hamas does
not advance the peace process. Nor would attacking Iran mitigate in any way
the tensions that exist between Israel and its neighbors.

(Note: Please consult the original article for links to references and footnotes to quoted sources)