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JFP 3/25: Obama's Unconstitutional War; NATO kills two civilians
Submitted by Robert Naiman on 25 March 2011 - 7:07pm
Just Foreign Policy News
March 25, 2011
*Action: Pressure Congress to Debate Libya
Whatever one thinks of the ongoing U.S. military intervention in Libya, President Obama has set a dangerous precedent by embarking on a major military operation in Libya without Congressional authorization. Eight Members of the House have brought forward H. Con. Res. 31, a bi-partisan resolution affirming that the President must obtain specific statutory authorization for the use of U.S. armed forces in Libya. Ask your Representative to join them in affirming that U.S. military action in Libya must have Congressional authorization.
The Upcoming Congressional Debate on Libya Is Key
President Obama has dropped a bomb on the War Powers Resolution. It's essential for future efforts to constrain the war-making of Presidents that Congress push back. There are plenty of things Congress can do: explicitly prohibit the introduction of ground forces, prohibit the overflight of Libya by US planes, establish a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces, place a cap on what the Administration can spend. There are plenty of good historical precedents, including the efforts to limit the Clinton Administration's wars in Yugoslavia.
Francis Boyle: UN Resolution on Libya Allows Invasion
Professor of international law Francis Boyle stresses that while the UN Security Council resolution expressly forbids a "foreign occupation force," it does not prohibit an "invading force."
Yoweri Museveni Criticizes Western Military Intervention in Africa
The President of Uganda on why he opposes the Western military intervention in Libya and what he thinks should happen now.
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1) In taking the country into a war with Libya, the Obama administration is breaking new ground in its construction of an imperial presidency, writes law professor Bruce Ackerman for Foreign Policy. The U.N. Charter is not a substitute for the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress, not the president, the power "to declare war." After the Vietnam War, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, which granted the president the power to act unilaterally for 60 days in response to a "national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces." The law gave the chief executive an additional 30 days to disengage if he failed to gain congressional assent during the interim. But these provisions have little to do with the constitutionality of the Libyan intervention, since Libya did not attack our "armed forces."
This is particularly striking since, in the Libyan case, the president had plenty of time to get congressional support.
Obama can assert that his power as commander in chief allows him to wage war without Congress, despite the Constitution's insistence to the contrary. Many modern presidents have made such claims, and Harry Truman acted upon this assertion in Korea. But it's surprising to find Obama on the verge of ratifying such precedents. He is now moving onto ground that even Bush did not occupy. After a lot of talk about his inherent powers, Bush did get Congress to authorize his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Now that he claims inherent power, why can't he redefine U.S. objectives on his own? No less important, what is to stop some future president from using Obama's precedent to justify even more aggressively unilateral actions?
The buck stops on Capitol Hill. As always, presidential unilateralism puts Congress in a tough position. It cannot afford to cut off funds immediately and put the lives of Americans, and U.S. allies, in danger. But it can pass a bill denying future funding after three months. This would prevent the president from expanding the mission unless he can gain express congressional consent.
2) NATO announced Thursday that a NATO helicopter gunship killed two civilians while attacking suspected insurgents in the province of Khost, AP reports. Khost provincial police chief Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai said at least one of the civilians was a child. NATO's initial description of Wednesday's attack called it a "precision airstrike."
3) Palestinian rockets struck deep inside Israel Thursday near Tel Aviv, and Israel pounded targets in Gaza, Reuters reports. The upswing of violence has led to fears of a new war between Israel and Hamas, though officials from both sides have said they want to prevent a repeat of Israel's 2009 war on Gaza. "Calm will be met with calm," an Islamic Jihad leader said.
4) Congressional opposition to President Obama's unilateral decision to launch a war with Libya is coming from across the partisan and ideological spectrum, writes John Nichols in The Nation. Nichols cites Republicans Roscoe Bartlett, Ron Paul, Walter Jones, Candice Miller, John Cornyn, and Chris Gibson; and Democrats Dennis Kucinich, Barbara Lee, Jim Webb, and Charles Rangel.
5) The coalition attacking Qaddafi's forces remains divided over the ultimate goal - and exit strategy - of what officials acknowledged would be a military campaign that could last for weeks, the New York Times reports. Only on Thursday did the allies reach agreement to give command of the "no-fly" operation to NATO after days of public quarreling that exposed the divisions among the alliance's members. But even that agreement frayed almost immediately over how far the military campaign should go in trying to erode the remaining pillars of Qaddafi's power by striking his forces on the ground and those devoted to protecting him. It was salvaged, one diplomat said, only by papering over the differences concerning the crucial question of who actually controls military strikes on Libya's ground forces. Officials said Thursday that most of the allies expected that the use of military force would lead to talks between the government and the rebels [it's not clear in the context who is left out by this "most," but the group that doesn't expect such talks seems to include at least France and possibly Britain; it's far from clear what the position of the US is on talks - JFP.]
No matter who is "in charge," US aircraft and warships will continue to support the campaigns for weeks or months, conducting surveillance, refueling and search and rescue operations, and in the event that the allied mission goes badly awry, there would be little doubt that US forces would return to the fight, the NYT says.
6) Most polls show Americans support the Libya operation, but they usually do in the initial phase after U.S. forces are put in harm's way, the Washington Post says. Pollsters and political scientists call this the "rally round the flag" effect. In this instance, that sentiment could be fragile. A Gallup poll shortly after the airstrikes began found support exceeded disapproval by 47 percent to 37 percent. But that was the lowest level of initial approval Gallup found for any other U.S. military campaign going at least as far back as the early 1980s.
7) An official from the African Union said representatives of rebels fighting forces loyal to Qaddafi failed to arrive at a meeting organized by the AU to discuss a cease-fire, Bloomberg reports. AU Commission Chair Jean Ping called for direct talks between the two sides to stop the fighting and agree on democratic changes.
8) Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators for and against President Saleh poured into the streets of Sana, the New York Times reports. Saleh said he was ready to yield power but only to "safe hands." One Yemeni official said the date of Saleh's departure appears to be the biggest obstacle in negotiations. "The general assumption is that his days are numbered," said a US official. "But he seems determined to decide the number himself."
9) Military troops opened fire on protesters in the southern part of Syria on Friday, according to news reports quoting witnesses, the New York Times reports. The new round of bloodshed came one day after the Syrian government tried to appease an a popular revolt with promises of restraint. Instead, it unleashed its forces, firing on peaceful demonstrators, according to AP and videos posted on YouTube. Some analysts suggest that it will be hard for the government to stand down, because of the minority character of the regime and minority fear of reprisals from the majority for past repression.
10) Thousands of protesters held marches and demonstrations against CAFTA while Obama was in town, writes Elizabeth DiNovella in The Progressive. The trade agreement is big news in El Salvador as corporations are suing the country under CAFTA for daring to have environmental laws. Tammy Baldwin and eighteen other Democrats have signed a congressional letter asking the President to amend "investor-state provisions of CAFTA." More than 140 religious, environmental, and human rights organizations signed a letter to the President asking him "to address the underlying policy issues in CAFTA that threaten the exercise of democracy in our hemisphere."
1) Obama's Unconstitutional War
By unilaterally going to war against Libya, Obama is bringing America closer to the imperial presidency than Bush ever did.
Bruce Ackerman, Foreign Policy, March 24, 2011
[Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale, is the author of The Decline and Fall of the American Republic.]
In taking the country into a war with Libya, Barack Obama's administration is breaking new ground in its construction of an imperial presidency - an executive who increasingly acts independently of Congress at home and abroad. Obtaining a U.N. Security Council resolution has legitimated U.S. bombing raids under international law. But the U.N. Charter is not a substitute for the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress, not the president, the power "to declare war."
After the Vietnam War, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution, which granted the president the power to act unilaterally for 60 days in response to a "national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces." The law gave the chief executive an additional 30 days to disengage if he failed to gain congressional assent during the interim.
But, again, these provisions have little to do with the constitutionality of the Libyan intervention, since Libya did not attack our "armed forces." The president failed to mention this fundamental point in giving Congress notice of his decision on Monday, in compliance with another provision of the resolution. Without an armed "attack," there is no compelling reason for the president to cut Congress out of a crucial decision on war and peace.
This is particularly striking since, in the Libyan case, the president had plenty of time to get congressional support. A broad coalition - from Senator John McCain to Senator John Kerry - could have been mobilized on behalf of a bipartisan resolution as the administration engaged in the necessary international diplomacy. But apparently Obama thought it more important to lobby the Arab League than the U.S. Congress.
In cutting out Congress, Obama has overstepped even the dubious precedent set when President Bill Clinton bombed Kosovo in 1999. Then, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel asserted that Congress had given its consent by appropriating funds for the Kosovo campaign. It was a big stretch, given the actual facts - but Obama can't even take advantage of this same desperate expedient, since Congress has appropriated no funds for the Libyan war. The president is simply using money appropriated to the Pentagon for general purposes to conduct the current air campaign.
The War Powers Resolution doesn't authorize a single day of Libyan bombing. But it does provide an escape hatch, stating that it is not "intended to alter the constitutional authority of the Congress or of the President." So it's open for Obama to assert that his power as commander in chief allows him to wage war without Congress, despite the Constitution's insistence to the contrary.
Many modern presidents have made such claims, and Harry Truman acted upon this assertion in Korea. But it's surprising to find Obama on the verge of ratifying such precedents. He was elected in reaction to the unilateralist assertions of John Yoo and other apologists for George W. Bush-era illegalities. Yet he is now moving onto ground that even Bush did not occupy. After a lot of talk about his inherent powers, Bush did get Congress to authorize his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, Obama is putting Bush-era talk into action in Libya - without congressional authorization.
The president's insistence that his Libyan campaign is limited in its purposes and duration is no excuse. These are precisely the issues that he should have defined in collaboration with Congress. Now that he claims inherent power, why can't he redefine U.S. objectives on his own? No less important, what is to stop some future president from using Obama's precedent to justify even more aggressively unilateral actions?
The buck stops on Capitol Hill. As always, presidential unilateralism puts Congress in a tough position. It cannot afford to cut off funds immediately and put the lives of Americans, and U.S. allies, in danger. But it can pass a bill denying future funding after three months. This would prevent the president from expanding the mission unless he can gain express congressional consent.
2) NATO helicopter airstrike inadvertently kills 2 civilians in Afghanistan
Associated Press, Thursday, March 24, 9:11 AM
Kabul, Afghanistan - A NATO helicopter gunship inadvertently killed two civilians while attacking suspected insurgents in the eastern province of Khost, NATO announced Thursday.
The attack killed a suspected Haqqani network leader and two other insurgents in Tere Zayi district on Wednesday, according to NATO.
"At the time of the strike, two civilians were walking near the moving targeted vehicle," NATO said. "They were previously unseen by coalition forces prior to the initiation of the airstrike. Unfortunately both were killed as an unintended result of the strike."
Khost provincial police chief Abdul Hakim Ishaqzai said at least one of the civilians was a child.
NATO's initial description of Wednesday's attack said a "precision airstrike" killed the Haqqani leader and two other insurgents while they were driving in a vehicle. That announcement also described how NATO troops nearly missed civilians near the site of the attack.
"Just prior to the weapon impact, an unassociated civilian vehicle and two pedestrians walking in a wadi appeared, next to the target vehicle," NATO said. A wadi is a dry riverbed.
Afghan forces determined that the occupants of the vehicle close to the targeted one were unharmed, NATO said.
Accidental deaths of civilians due to coalition military operations in Afghanistan are a major source of tensions between Afghans and NATO. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates personally apologized to Afghan President Hamid Karzai after NATO troops in a helicopter gunship misidentified nine children gathering firewood for insurgents and killed them. The killing sparked protests throughout the country and calls for the international force to cease airstrikes and night raids.
3) Gaza rockets strike deeper inside Israel
Nidal al-Mughrabi, Reuters, Thu Mar 24, 5:08 pm ET
Gaza - Palestinian rockets struck deep inside Israel Thursday close to the urban sprawl south of Tel Aviv, and Israel pounded targets in Gaza in a surging conflict that has raised fears of a new war.
Israel says the air strikes have been a response to rocket barrages. Hamas says its attacks in the past week have been in reaction to Israeli strikes. Five Palestinian militants and four civilians, three of them children, were killed by Israeli fire in Gaza Tuesday.
The upswing of violence in the past few days has led to fears of a new war between Israel and Hamas Islamists, who have ruled the small Mediterranean coastal territory since 2007, after months of relative quiet.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned militant groups in the Gaza Strip Wednesday that the Jewish state would act decisively to defend itself.
He threatened a lengthy "exchange of blows" with Palestinian militants, though officials from both sides have said they want to prevent a repeat of Israel's 2009 three-week war on the mainly desert enclave.
"Calm will be met with calm," an Islamic Jihad leader said.
4) Ten Calls From Congress for a Debate About War
John Nichols, The Nation, March 23, 2011
Congressional opposition to President Obama's unilateral decision to launch an undeclared war with Libya is coming from across the partisan and ideological spectrum.
The opposition takes many forms, but at its core is a recognition, by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, progressives and libertarians, senior members and freshmen, that presidents are required to seek a Congressional declaration of war-as outlined in the Constitution-before sending US military forces to attack another country.
What is striking about the statements coming from House and Senate members is the consistency of that constitutional commitment.
Here's what Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, the Maryland Republican who serves as chairman of the Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces of the House Armed Services Committee, says: "The United States does not have a King's army. President Obama's unilateral choice to use U.S. military force in Libya is an affront to our Constitution."
Congressman Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who has been a consistent critic of undeclared wars, says: "The Obama administration's decision to attack Libya was made without any Congressional approval. It's outside the Constitution of the United States. Whether you like President Obama or not is not the question. The question is if you like the Constitution more."
Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican who like Kucinich has often been at odds with US military adventuring abroad, says: "Congress sits by, as usual, pretending that Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution does not exist."
North Carolina Republican Walter Jones Jr., a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, complains that: "We're neutered as a Congress. It's like we don't exist.… I wish the president had not gone into Libya without first coming to Congress. We have for too long, as a Congress, been too passive when it comes to sending our young men and women to war."
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, says:
"The decision for the United States to accelerate our military engagement in Libya is one that should have been debated and approved by Congress. We are still paying the price entering for entering two ill-advised wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have grave concerns about the many unanswered questions that remain in Libya. Do we now own this military operation? When will this dramatic acceleration of military intervention end? What is our responsibility and commitment there? And where do we draw the line for military intervention considering unrest and violence in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d'Ivoire and Yemen? Entering into a significant military engagement with Libya has the potential to become a quagmire that will cost lives, money and America's standing around the world. The United States must immediately shift to end the bombing in Libya, and I am committed to ensuring that the United States does not become embroiled in another war."
Michigan Congresswoman Candice Miller, a key Republican who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, says:
"I find it very troubling and unacceptable that President Obama has committed American forces to the conflict in Libya without any consultation or consent from Congress and without clearly stating to the American people the compelling U.S. national interest, our ultimate goal, the scope of our involvement, the potential cost and how we will achieve success."
US Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrats who served as secretary of the Navy, says: "A concern that I have is that we have been sort of on autopilot for almost ten years from now in terms of presidential authority in conducting these type of military operations absent the meaningful participation of the Congress. We have not had a debate and I know that there was some justification put into place because of concern for civilian casualties. But this isn't the way that our system is supposed to work."
New York Democrat Charles Rangel, a Korean War veteran who is one of the longest-serving members of the House, says: "Congress should be called into session immediately. This could be the beginning of another Korea or Iraq. We went into these conflicts without knowing how long they would last. War in Korea still has not ended and we have just entered the ninth year in Iraq. This has to stop sometime. It is up to the U.S. Congress to fulfill its constitutional authority."
"On Libya, is Congress going to assert its constitutional role or be a potted plant?" asks Senator John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who serves on the Armed Services Committee, as well as the Constitution Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee.
"Our country is currently facing a myriad of challenges, including working to complete our objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan, protecting our cherished way of life from extremist terrorist networks and struggling here at home to address a skyrocketing deficit that poses a tremendous threat to our national security," says New York Republican Congressman Chris Gibson, an influential member of the large caucus of GOP freshmen elected last fall. "Now is not the time to take on new missions. The Libyans must decide their own fate, and we should stop our military operations immediately."
5) Allies Are Split on Goal and Exit Strategy of Libya Mission
Steven Lee Myers and David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times, March 24, 2011
Washington - Having largely succeeded in stopping a rout of Libya's rebels, the inchoate coalition attacking Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's forces remains divided over the ultimate goal - and exit strategy - of what officials acknowledged Thursday would be a military campaign that could last for weeks.
The United States has all but called for Colonel Qaddafi's overthrow from within - with American commanders on Thursday openly calling on the Libyan military to stop following orders - even as administration officials insist that is not the explicit objective of the bombing, and that their immediate goal is more narrowly defined.
France has gone further, recognizing the Libyan rebels as the country's legitimate representatives, but other allies, even those opposed to Colonel Qaddafi's erratic and authoritarian rule, have balked. That has complicated the planning and execution of the military campaign and left its objective ill defined for now.
Only on Thursday, the sixth day of air and missile strikes, did the allies reach an agreement to give command of the "no-fly" operation to NATO after days of public quarreling that exposed the divisions among the alliance's members.
But even that agreement - brokered by Mrs. Clinton and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Turkey - frayed almost immediately over how far the military campaign should go in trying to erode the remaining pillars of Colonel Qaddafi's power by striking his forces on the ground and those devoted to protecting him. It was salvaged, one diplomat said, only by papering over the differences concerning the crucial question of who actually controls military strikes on Libya's ground forces.
"There were differences in the scope of what NATO would do and what would remain with the national militaries," a senior administration official said, expressing hope that the agreement on NATO command would be a step toward resolving them.
The questions swirling around the operation's command mirrored the larger strategic divisions over how exactly the coalition will bring it to an end - or even what the end might look like, and whether it might even conceivably include a Libya with Colonel Qaddafi remaining in some capacity. While few countries have openly sided with the Libyan leader, officials said on Thursday that most of the allies expected that the use of military force would lead to talks between the government and the rebels.
"I don't think anyone is ruling out some kind of negotiated settlement," the official said.
In fact, Mr. Obama has not made clear what will happen if the international coalition succeeds in establishing control of the skies over Libya, but Colonel Qaddafi's loyalists and rebels continue to attack and counterattack each other in a bloody, protracted stalemate.
"We should never begin an operation without knowing how we stand down," said Joseph W. Ralston, a retired general who served as NATO commander and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We did a no-fly zone over Iraq for 12 years and it did nothing to get rid of Saddam. So why do we think it will get rid of Qaddafi?"
From the start, the administration insisted that it was acting to avert the imminent slaughter of civilians in Benghazi and other rebel-held cities, and that the goal of the military operations was clearly spelled out in the United Nations Security Council resolution.
Mr. Obama's administration, however, has clearly tried to avoid the debate over a strategy beyond that by shifting the burden of enforcing the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing force on to France, Britain and other allies, including Arab nations like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which on Thursday said that it would contribute warplanes to the effort. In other words, the American exit strategy is not necessarily the coalition's exit strategy.
"We didn't want to get sucked into an operation with uncertainty at the end," the senior administration official said. "In some ways, how it turns out is not on our shoulders."
Even so, no matter who is in charge American aircraft and warships will continue to support the campaigns for weeks or months, conducting surveillance, refueling and search and rescue operations that the United States is better able to do. And in the event that the allied mission goes badly awry, there would be little doubt that the American forces would return to the fight.
6) Pressure building on Obama to clarify mission in Libya
Karen Tumulty, Washington Post, Thursday, March 24, 9:21 PM
Most polls show Americans support the operation, but they usually do in the initial phase after U.S. forces are put in harm's way. Pollsters and political scientists have a name for it: the "rally round the flag" effect.
In this instance, that sentiment could be fragile. A Gallup poll conducted shortly after the airstrikes began found that support exceeded disapproval by 47 percent to 37 percent. But that was the lowest level of initial approval Gallup found for any other U.S. military campaign going at least as far back as the early 1980s.
Another potentially telling indicator in the Gallup poll: Republicans (who are generally more supportive of military action) approved of this one by 57 percent to 31 percent and Democrats (who are generally more supportive of Obama) supported it by 51 percent to 34 percent. But among independents, whose assessments presumably are less affected by partisan identification, support for the military action in Libya was significantly lower - 38 percent.
7) Libyan Rebels Fail to Attend African Union-Brokered Talks About Ceasefire
Sarah McGregor and Franz Wild, Bloomberg, Mar 25, 2011
Representatives of rebels fighting forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi failed to arrive at a meeting organized by the African Union to discuss a cease-fire, an official from the group said.
The meeting, which includes representatives of Qaddafi and the 22-member Arab League, began at 11:30 a.m. local time in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, said the official, who declined to be identified because he isn't a spokesman.
African Union Commission Chairman Jean Ping called for direct talks between the two sides to stop the fighting and agree on democratic changes, according to an e-mailed copy of his opening address to the meeting.
Today's talks will focus on how to end hostilities, provide humanitarian assistance, create an "inclusive transition" and reorganize Libya's constitution and electoral system, according to a separate e-mailed statement from the African Union. Participants at the meeting will also hold consultations about the impact of the Libyan unrest on neighboring nations, it said.
8) Yemeni Leader Ready to Leave, With Conditions
Laura Kasinof, New York Times, March 25, 2011
Sana, Yemen - As hundreds of thousands of demonstrators for and against President Ali Abdullah Saleh poured into the streets of the capital for a new round of competing rallies, the Yemeni leader said Friday he was ready to yield power but only if he could hand it over to "safe hands."
Mr. Saleh addressed a rally of about 100,000 supporters in the center of Sana, while about 100,000 antigovernment protesters were demanding his immediate departure at another rally across town. While repeating his now frequent offers to relinquish power conditionally, Mr. Saleh also made clear that he would remain "steadfast" in challenging what he depicted as violent attempts to oust him. "I will transfer the power to safe hands, and not to malicious forces who conspire against the homeland," he said, renewing an offer to open dialogue with young people leading protests against him.
While his statements appeared conciliatory, they were unlikely to satisfy the antigovernment demonstrators, who have rejected such offers in the past. Mr. Saleh offered weeks ago to leave office by 2013, and this week agreed to leave by the end of the year, but neither proposal stanched the protests.
The rallies, which were peaceful, came as Mr. Saleh was engaged in serious negotiations over the timing and conditions for the end of his 32-year-rule rule. Yemeni and American officials said Thursday that no deal had been reached.
One Yemeni official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the date of Mr. Saleh's departure appears to be the biggest obstacle. Mr. Saleh's speech on Friday may have been intended to signal his thinking after almost two months of protests.
Mr. Saleh spoke Wednesday night with General Ahmar, the country's most powerful military leader, in what officials described as negotiations for Mr. Saleh's resignation. Some reports suggested that both men might step down in a matter of days or weeks to make way for a transitional government and the writing of a new constitution. But one senior American official who was following events in Yemen closely said the immense complexity of Yemen's tribal society, and Mr. Saleh's history of brinkmanship, argued for caution.
"The general assumption is that his days are numbered," said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "But he seems determined to decide the number himself." The official cautioned that the discussions about Mr. Saleh's exit are "not just talks in a room" but negotiations involving representatives of 20 or more Yemeni factions and interest groups, often through intermediaries.
9) Syrian Troops Open Fire on Protesters in Several Cities
Michael Slackman, New York Times, March 25, 2011
Cairo - Military troops opened fire on protesters in the southern part of Syria on Friday, according to news reports quoting witnesses, hurtling the strategically important nation along the same trajectory that has altered the landscape of power across the Arab world.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators in the southern city of Dara'a, on the border with Jordan, and in some other cities and towns around the nation took to the streets in protest, defying a state that has once again demonstrated its willingness to use lethal force. It was the most serious challenge to 40 years of repressive rule by the Assad family since 1982, when the president at the time, Hafez al-Assad, massacred at least 10,000 protesters in the northern Syrian city of Hama.
Human rights groups said that since protests began seven days ago in the south, 38 people had been killed by government forces - and it appeared that many more were killed on Friday. Precise details were difficult to obtain Friday because the government sealed off the area to reporters and denied access to the country to foreign news media.
"Syria's security forces are showing the same cruel disregard for protesters' lives as their counterparts in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
The new round of protests and bloodshed came one day after the Syrian government tried to appease an increasingly angry popular revolt with talk of improved political freedoms and promises of restraint. Instead, it unleashed its forces, firing on peaceful demonstrators trying to march into Dara'a, according to The Associated Press and videos posted on YouTube. There were reports of security forces firing on civilians in cities around the country, as well.
Syria has a liability not found in the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt - it is a majority Sunni nation that is ruled by a religious minority. The ruling Assads and their circle are Alawite, a sect of Shiite Islam. The former president, Hafez al-Assad, forged his power base through fear, co-optation and sect loyalty. He built an alliance with an elite Sunni business community, and created multiple security services staffed primarily by Alawites. Those security forces have a great deal to lose if the government falls, experts said, because they are part of a widely despised minority, and so have the incentive of self-preservation.
The killings in Hama, when the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative Sunni organization, moved against the government, resonate to this day - both for a resentful populace and for a government that fears revenge for its past actions.
"These minority regimes are galvanized against defections and splitting," said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They believe if the regime comes down, they fear being slaughtered by the Sunni majority after what happened in the past. It makes it likely if these protests get bigger, it will be very bloody."
Sectarian tensions did not motivate this conflict, not initially. But they have begun to emerge. Mr. Tabler and Joshua M. Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the demonstrators had started chanting: "No to Iran, to Hezbollah. We want a leader who fears God."
That, they said, is a direct reference to the Alawite faith of the leadership.
"In the minds of the religious minorities, this evokes the specter of sectarian battle," Mr. Landis said.
10) Obama Didn't Get the Memo on CAFTA
President Obama and Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes discussed immigration, drug trafficking, and the economy during Obama's trip to El Salvador. But missing was mention of the controversial Central America Free Trade Act (CAFTA).
Elizabeth DiNovella, The Progressive, March 24, 2011
Thousands of protesters held marches and demonstrations against CAFTA while Obama was in town. The free trade agreement is big news in El Salvador as corporations are suing the country for daring to have environmental laws.
The Milwaukee-based Commerce Group sued the Salvadoran government for $100 million in "foreign investor protections" under CAFTA. The government of El Salvador revoked the Commerce Group's environmental permits for its gold mining after the company failed its environmental audit. Commerce Group filed a lawsuit for alleged lost profits before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, the private tribunal of the World Bank.
Last week, the tribunal threw out the case on a technicality. But its ruling states that Commerce Group's case was not "frivolous," and that the company had the right to sue under CAFTA. The government of El Salvador still needs to pay $800,000 in legal fees.
"The fact that a corporate attack on a sovereign country's domestic environmental policy before a foreign tribunal would even be possible-much less cost a country almost a million dollars when they win the case-highlights what is wrong with our current trade agreement model," says Public Citizen's Lori Wallach.
Commerce Group isn't the only company suing the government of El Salvador for investor protections rights. Pacific Rim, a Canadian company, also filed a lawsuit for lost profits before the World Bank tribunal. The next phase of the Pacific Rim case starts in May.
Investor rights have been a controversial component of CAFTA from the start.
As a candidate, Obama said, "I will ensure that foreign investor rights are strictly limited and will fully exempt any law or regulation written to protect public safety or promote the public interest."
But as a President, Obama has inherited Bush era free trade agreements with Panama, Colombia, and Korea that await Congressional approval. Obama hasn't struck out investor rights from any of these.
Representative Tammy Baldwin, Democrat from Wisconsin, along with eighteen other Democrats, has co-sponsored a congressional letter asking the President to amend "investor-state provisions of CAFTA."
The Congressional letter asks the President to "commit to removing the investor-state private resolution mechanisms from the pending free trade agreements with Korea, Panama, and Colombia."
More than 140 religious, environmental, and human rights organizations just signed a different letter to the President asking him "to address the underlying policy issues in CAFTA that threaten the exercise of democracy in our hemisphere."
"CAFTA violates the security and sovereignty of our people, as it generates legal conditions under which transnational corporations can sue in an unjust manner," said Héctor Berríos, with the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining, a Salvadoran group. "We are asking President Obama to modify the clauses that relate to investment, among others, for all the damage they have caused our population."
Before President Obama even arrived in El Salvador, a few thousand people marched to the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador to deliver a letter to him.
In the letter, a coalition of social movement groups noted that special attention should be paid to the economic crisis, climate change, immigration, and CAFTA.
Movement leader Pedro Juan Hernández told Diario Colatino, "it is necessary to establish a new economic model that benefits the majorities, not CAFTA."
But Obama didn't get the memo.
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