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Ten Good Things About a (Not So) Bad Year


By medea - Posted on 01 January 2012

Ten Good Things About a (Not So) Bad Year

I had the privilege of starting out the year witnessing, firsthand, the unfolding of the Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square. I saw people who had been muzzled their entire lives, especially women, suddenly discovering their collective voice. Singing, chanting, demanding, creating. And that became the hallmark of entire year--people the world over becoming empowered and emboldened simply by watching each other. Courage, we learned in 2011, is contagious!

1. The Arab Spring protests were so astounding that even Time magazine recognized “The Protester” as Person of the Year. Sparked by Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi'sself-immolation to cry out against police corruption in December 2010, the protests swept across the Middle East and North Africa—including Egypt,Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, and Jordan. So far, uprisings have toppled Tunesian President Ben Ali, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Libyan leader  Muammar Gaddafi--with more shake-ups sure to come. And women have been on the front lines of these protests, highlighted recently by the incredibly brave, unprecedented demo of 10,000 Egyptian women protesting military abuse.

2. Wisconsin caught the Spring Fever, with Madison becoming home to some 100,000 protesters opposing Governor Walker’s threat to destroy collective bargaining and blame the state’s economic woes on public workers. Irate Wisconsinites took over the Capitol, turning it into a festival of democracy, while protests spread throughout the state. The workers managed to loosen the Republican stranglehold on Wisconsin state government and send a message to right-wing extremists across the country. This includes Ohio, where voters overwhelmingly rejected Governor Kasich’s SB 5, a measure designed to restrict collective bargaining rights for more than 360,000 public employees. A humbled Kasich held a press conference shortly after the vote, saying: "The people have spoken clearly. You don't ignore the public."

3. On September 17 Occupy Wall Street was born in the heart of Manhattan’s Financial District. Protesters railed against the banksters and corporate thieves responsible for the economic collapse. The movement against the greed of the richest 1% spread to over 1,400 cities in the United States and globally, with newly minted activists embracing--with gusto--people’s assemblies, consensus decision-making, the people’s mic, and upsparkles. Speaking in the name of the 99%, the occupiers changed the national debate from deficits to inequality and corporate abuse.  Even after facing heightened police brutality, tent city evictions, and extreme winter weather, protesters are undeterred and continue to create bold actions--from port shut-downs to moving money out of big banks.  As Occupy Wall Street said, "You can't evict an idea whose time has come.” Stay tuned for lots more occupation news in 2012.

4. After 8 long years, U.S. troops were finally withdrawn from Iraq. Credit the Iraqis with forcing Obama to stick to an agreement signed under President Bush, and the peace movement here at home for 8 years of opposition to a war our government should never have started. The US invasion and occupation left the country devastated, and Obama's administration is keeping many thousands of State Department staff, spies and military contractors in the world's biggest "embassy" in Baghdad. But the withdrawal marks the end of a long, tragic war and for that we should give thanks. Now let’s hold the war criminals accountable!

5. The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize was presented to three terrific women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia; Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist; and Yemeni pro-democracy campaigner Tawakkol Karman. A total of only 15 women have received the Nobel Peace Prize since it was first awarded in 1901.These three women were recognized for their non-violent struggle for women's safety and for women's rights to participate in peace-building work. Never before in history have three women been awarded the prize simultaneously. How inspiring!

6. The bloated Pentagon budget is no longer immune from budget cuts. The failure of the super-committee means the Pentagon budget could be cut by a total of $1 trillion over the next decade — which would amount to a 23 percent reduction in the defense budget. The hawks are trying to stop the cuts, but most people are more interested in rebuilding America than fattening the Pentagon. That’s why the U.S. Conference of Mayors, for the first time since the Vietnam war, passed a resolution calling for the end to the hostilities and instead investing at home to create jobs, rebuild infrastructure and develop sustainable energy. 2011 pried open the Pentagon’s lock box. Let’s make the cuts in 2012!

7. Elizabeth Warren is running for Senate and Rep. Barbara Lee continues to inspire. After the financial meltdown in 2008, Warren was appointed chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel to investigate the bank bailout and oversee TARP--and investigate she did. She dressed down the banks and set up a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to protect borrowers. Warren became so popular that tens of thousands of people urged her to run for the Senate in Massachusetts, which she is doing. And let’s give a shout out to Rep. Barbara Lee, who worked valiantly all year to push other issues with massive grassroots support: a bill to "only fund the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan" and a bill to repeal the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Force bill that continues to justify U.S. interventions anywhere in the world.

8. Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi  is running for Parliament! Released last year from nearly 15 years of house arrest, this year Suu Kyi held discussions with the Burmese junta. These talks led to a number of government concessions, including the release of many of Burma's political prisoners and the legalization of trade unions. In November 2011, Suu Kyi’s party, the NLD, announced its intention to re-register as a political party in order run candidates in 48 by-elections. This puts Suu Kyi in the running and marks a major democratic opening after decades of abuse by the military regime.

9. Opposition to Keystone pipeline inspired thousands of new activists, together with a rockin’ coalition of environment groups across the U.S. and Canada. They brought the issue of the climate-killing pipeline right to President Obama’s door, with over 1,200 arrested in front of the White House. The administration heard them and ordered a new review of the project, but the Republican global warming deniers are trying to force Obama’s hand. Whatever way this struggle ends, it has educated millions about the tar sands threat and trained a new generation of environmentalists in more effective, direct action tactics that will surely result in future “wins” for the planet.

10. Following the tragic meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, the growing appetite for nuclear energy has been reversed. Women in Japan are spearheading protests to shut down Japan’s remaining plants and focus on green energy. Braving a cold winter, they have set up tents in front of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and pledged to continue their demonstration for 10 months and 10 days, traditionally considered in Japan as a full term that covers a pregnancy. "Our protests are aimed at achieving a rebirth in Japanese society," said Chieko Shina, a grandmother from Fukushima. Meanwhile Germany, which has been getting almost one quarter of its electricity from nuclear power, has pledged to shut down all 17 nuclear power plants by 2022. Chancellor Angela Merkel said she hopes Germany’s transformation to more solar, wind and hydroelectric power will serve as a roadmap for other countries. Power (wind and solar, that is) to the people!

* * * * *

The common thread in the good news this year is the power of ordinary people to counter the abuse of privileged elites, whether corrupt politicians, banksters or greedy CEOs. People all over the globe are insisting that social inequality and environmental devastation are not inevitable features of our global landscape, but policy choices that can be--and must be--reversed. That certainly gives us a full plate for 2012!

 

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of the human rights group Global Exchange and the peace group CODEPINK.

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By Charles Davis and Medea Benjamin

In an age when U.S. power can be projected through private mercenary armies and unmanned Predator drones, the U.S. military need no longer rely on massive, conventional ground forces to pursue its imperial agenda, a fact President Barack Obama is now acknowledging. But make no mistake: while the tactics may be changing, the U.S. taxpayer – and poor foreigners abroad – will still be saddled with overblown military budgets and militaristic policies.

Speaking January 5 alongside his Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the president announced a shift in strategy for the American military, one that emphasizes aerial campaigns and proxy wars as opposed to “long-term nation-building with large military footprints.” This, to some pundits and politicians, is considered a tectonic shift.

Indeed, the way some on the left tell it, the strategy marks a radical departure from the imperial status quo. “Obama just repudiated the past decade of forever war policy,” gushed Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, calling the new strategy a “[s]lap in the face to the generals.”

Conservative hawks, meanwhile, predictably declared that the sky is falling. “This is a lead from behind strategy for a left-behind America,” cried hyperventilating California Republican Buck McKeon, chairman the House Armed Services Committee. “This strategy ensures American decline in exchange for more failed domestic programs.” In McKeon’s world, feeding the war machine is preferable to feeding poor people.

Unfortunately, though, rather than renouncing empire and endless war, Obama's stated strategy for the military going forward just reaffirms the U.S. commitment to both. Rather than renouncing the last decade of war, it states that the bloody and disastrous occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan – gently termed “extended operations” – were pursued “to bring stability to those countries.”

And Leon Panetta assured the American public that even with the changes, the U.S. would still be able to fight two major wars at the same time—and win. And Obama assured America's military contractors and coffin makers that their lifeline – U.S. taxpayers' money – would still be funneled their way in obscene bucket loads.

“Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defense budget will slow,” the president told reporters, “but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow.” In fact, he added with a touch of pride, it “will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush administration,” totaling more than $700 billion a year and accounting for about half of the average American's income tax. So much for the Pentagon's budget being slashed – like we were promised– the way lawmakers are trying to cut those “failed domestic programs.”

The U.S. could cut its military spending in half tomorrow and still spend more than three times as much as its next nearest rival, China. That’s because China, instead of waging wars of choice around the world, prefers projecting its might by investing in its own country. On the other hand, the U.S. under the leadership of Obama is beefing up its military presence in China's backyard, more interested in projecting its dwindling power than rebuilding its economy.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower once noted that every dollar going to the military is a dollar that can't be used to provide food and shelter for those in need. Today’s obscene amount of military spending isn't necessary if the administration wished to pursue the quaint goal of simply defending the country from invasion. Maintaining “the best-trained, best-equipped military in history,” as Obama says is his goal? That's a different story – for a different purpose. Indeed, as Madeline Albright observed, possessing that kind of military might is no fun if you don't get to use it, as Obama has with gusto in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Uganda.

The truth is that the Obama administration's “new” strategy is more of the same—a reaffirmation of the U.S. government's commitment to militarism for the all the usual reasons: to promote American hegemony and, by extension, the interests of politically connected capital. And U.S. officials aren't shy about that.

Indeed, throughout the strategy document the ostensible purpose for having a military -- to provide national security -- repeatedly takes a backseat to promoting the economic interests of the U.S. elite that profits from empire. Repositioning U.S. forces “toward the Asia-Pacific region,” for instance – including the stationing of American soldiers in that hotbed of violent extremism, Australia – is cast not just as a means of ensuring peace and stability, but guaranteeing “the free flow of commerce.” Maintaining a global empire of bases from Europe to Okinawa isn't necessary for self-defense, but according to Obama, ensuring – with guns – “the prosperity that flows from an open and free international economic system.”

Of course, that economic considerations shape U.S. foreign policy is nothing new. More than 25 years ago, President Jimmy Carter – that Jimmy Carter – declared in a State of the Union address that U.S. military force would be employed in the Persian Gulf, not for the cause of peace, freedom and apple pie, but to ensure “the free movement of Middle East oil.” And so it goes.

Far from affecting change, Obama is ensuring continuity. “U.S. policy will emphasize Gulf security,” states his new military strategy, in order to “prevent Iran's development of a nuclear weapon capability and counter its destabilizing policies” — as if it's Iran that has been destabilizing the region. And as Obama publicly proclaims his support for “political and economic reform” in the Middle East, just like every other U.S. president he not-so-privately backs their oppressors from Bahrain to Yemen and signs off on the biggest weapons deal in history to that bastion of democracy, Saudi Arabia.

Obama can talk all he wants about turning the page on a decade of war and occupation, but so long as he continues to fight wars and military occupy countries on the other side of the globe, talk is all it is. The facts, sadly, are this: since taking office Obama doubled the number of troops in Afghanistan; he fought to extend the U.S. occupation in Iraq– and partially succeeded; he dramatically expanded the use of killer drones from Pakistan to Somalia; and he requested military budgets that would make George W. Bush blush. If you want to see what his military strategy really is, forget what's said at press conferences and in turgidly written Pentagon press releases. Just look at the record.

 

Charles Davishas covered Capitol Hill for public radio and the international news wire Inter Press Service. More of his work may be found on his website.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK: Women for Peace and Global Exchange.

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