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Here comes Charlie Black, John McCain’s campaign adviser, who recently remarked to Fortune magazine that another terrorist attack on U.S. soil would be a "big advantage" for the Republican presidential candidate. The comments drew a strong rebuke from the Obama campaign and embarrassed McCain while on the campaign trail. Questioned about Black’s comments during a news conference, the Arizona Senator said, "I cannot imagine why he would say it. It’s not true. I’ve worked tirelessly since 9/11 to prevent another attack on the United States of America. My record is very clear."
Speaking to reporters, Black read from handwritten notes. "I deeply regret the comments. They were inappropriate,” he said. “I recognize that John McCain has devoted his entire adult life to protecting his country and placing its security before every other consideration.”
Such pro forma expressions of penitence notwithstanding, Black has repeatedly argued that McCain benefits any time national security matters are the news of the day. A veteran political operator, Black knows that the GOP wins elections by painting the Democrats as weak on terrorism and defense. It’s a truth that’s long been evident to Black, who has carved out a political career by taking advantage of war hysteria and the public’s fear of a terrorist strike.
Black, a 60-year-old successful Washington lobbyist, is a notorious figure within the GOP. Over the course of his career he has gained a reputation as a ruthless operator possessed of a merciless instinct for exposing an opponent’s flaws. A native of North Carolina, Black is the son of Southern Democrats who switched party affiliation in 1964 to vote for Barry Goldwater.
In 1972, he helped run the Senate campaign of Jesse Helms. Black was one of the designers of a strategy that labeled Helms’ Democratic opponent as too liberal for North Carolina, driving the point home with a slogan that declared Helms to be "One of Us." Helms went on to victory, becoming the first North Carolina Republican to be elected to the Senate during the twentieth century.
Three years later Black founded the National Conservative Political Action Committee, an organization which set a new standard for negative advertising. The group campaigned against six liberal senators in 1980, portraying them as soft on national defense amongst other charges. Black’s first hire at the 1980 Reagan campaign was the infamous Lee Atwater, an operative who later became well known for his slashing brand of politics. Black himself proudly hangs a personally signed photo of the Great Communicator on his office wall. On the photo, Reagan wrote that Black was "a man of ideas."
Black’s brain child was Black, Manafort and Stone, a lobbying firm which the GOP operator founded in 1980. The company, which soon expanded to include the slash and burn Lee Atwater, soon became one of the most aggressive and well-connected Republican lobbying shops in Washington. In 1996 the firm merged with Gold & Liebengood to form BKSH & Associates Worldwide.
Black, who enjoyed stints as campaign operator for George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, got to know John McCain in the late 1970s when McCain worked as the Navy’s liaison to the Senate. In 1996, the pair became close while working on Senator Phil Gramm’s failed presidential bid. One of five senior advisers to McCain, Black is a frequent campaign surrogate on television. On the trail, he sits in a big swivel chair at the front of the Straight Talk Express, joining in McCain’s rolling news conferences.
McCain and BKSH: Boosters for Invasion
In a sense, it is not too surprising that Black and McCain would wind up working together in the 2008 presidential race: both have been huge boosters of the Iraq War.
McCain was a longtime friend of Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi exile who drummed up claims that Saddam Hussein had WMD. An international con artist found guilty in absentia in Jordan for bank scams, Chalabi is most widely known for being one of the key pre-Iraq war intelligence propagandists who provided skewed information to support the Pentagon’s ultra-secretive Office of Special Plans. He was also a source for the now-discredited pre-war reporting of New York Times journalist Judith Miller. After the 2003 attack, Chalabi’s star dimmed when he was accused of leaking sensitive material to Teheran. He is still an influential figure in Baghdad.
According to a 2006 article appearing in the New Republic, McCain welcomed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), to Washington. On Capitol Hill, McCain pressured the Clinton administration to provide the Iraqi exile with money. The Arizona Senator even went so far as to call Chalabi “a patriot who has the best interests of his country at heart.” In 1997, McCain successfully pressured the White House into setting up an Iraqi government in exile. Despite opposition from the Pentagon and the State Department, McCain co-sponsored the Iraq Liberation Act, committing the United States to overthrowing Saddam and funding opposition groups. When General Anthony Zinni expressed some doubt about the effectiveness of the Iraqi opposition, McCain rebuked the military man at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Even as McCain was busy on Capitol Hill drumming up support for Chalabi, Black was doing his part at BKSH to hasten the onset of war in Iraq. The lobbying firm in fact had developed ties to Chalabi as early as 1999 and soon provided its political expertise to the INC. In an interview, Black remarked that his firm received $200,000 to $300,000 per year from the U.S. government to promote the INC. BKSH helped sell the disastrous Iraq war to the American public by promoting the supposed danger posed by Saddam’s regime and WMD.
Blandly unrepentant, Black has remarked that his firm did "standard kinds of public relations and public affairs, setting up seminars, helping them get speeches covered by the press, press conferences." Black proved highly useful to Chalabi, providing the Iraqi exile with access to high-powered officials in Washington. Chalabi even scored a seat at First Lady Laura Bush’s VIP box at the 2004 State of the Union address.
McCain: Working to Ensure the Occupation Lasts a Million Years
If you thought Bush and Rove was a Machiavellian pair, consider the relationship between McCain and Black. Both figures are at the nexus of the military-industrial complex and would like the occupation of Iraq to continue indefinitely. Already the Arizona Senator has declared his intention to stay in Iraq “for a thousand years or a million years” if necessary and there’s little reason to doubt the Senator’s word.
Though McCain seldom talks about it, he has gotten much of his foreign policy experience working with a cloak and dagger operation called the International Republican Institute (IRI). Since 1993, he has served as chair of the outfit, which is funded by the U.S. government and private money. The group, which receives tens of millions of taxpayer dollars each year, claims to promote democracy world-wide. The hottest country in which IRI currently operates is Iraq. According to the IRI’s own web site, since the summer of 2003 the organization “has conducted a multi-faceted program aimed at promoting the development of democracy in Iraq. Toward this end, IRI works with political parties, indigenous civil society groups, and elected and other government officials. In support of these efforts, IRI also conducts numerous public opinion research projects and assists its Iraqi partners in the production of radio and television ads and programs.”
A who’s who of corporate America chips in to IRI including Blackwater Training Center, part of Blackwater USA. In 2005-6 the mercenary security company which operates in Iraq donated $30,000 to IRI. Though Blackwater has fallen under scrutiny as a result of the company’s shooting of 17 Iraqis including women and children, the State Department recently decided to renew the firm’s contract. As if these corporate ties were not enough, IRI has also accepted money from Lockheed Martin, the world’s #1 military contractor. The firm has been a big McCain donor, giving more than $13,000 through its PAC to the Arizona Senator in 2006. Early on, Lockheed Martin worked to promote the war in Iraq. The company’s former vice president, Bruce Jackson, even chaired the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. There, Jackson made common cause with McCain, the group’s “honorary co-chair.” During the start of the Iraq invasion, Lockheed Martin’s F-117 stealth attack fighters were used to “shock and awe” the population. Jackson is now working on McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, serving on the Senator’s foreign policy advisory team.
Like McCain, Black has a lot of connections to the Iraq occupation. In 2003 he remarked that his political ties to Chalabi helped BKSH acquire valuable work in Iraq. “Due to our past representation of the INC,” he said, “we know and have worked with a lot of people who will be in the provisional government. We have a number of clients who are interested in doing business in Iraq.” Two years after the invasion Black cashed in on his insider influence when the Lincoln Group, a Washington, D.C.-based intelligence company assigned by the Pentagon with the task of providing pro-U.S. stories to the Iraqi media, subcontracted its work to BKSH. Lincoln’s job was to publish stories written by American troops so as to improve the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq. At the time, Black’s lobbying firm was well positioned to get the contract: BKSH was already representing the government of Iraq as its U.S. lobbyist.
Like McCain, BKSH also has ties to Lockheed Martin. Indeed, Black’s firm has lobbied on behalf of the defense contractor. What’s more, like the Arizona Senator BKSH has dealings with Blackwater and represents the mercenary outfit on Capitol Hill. Black’s firm even reportedly coached Blackwater CEO Eric Prince prior to a Congressional hearing. Aside from his historic ties to Lockheed Martin and Blackwater, Black also developed a tight-knit relationship with Civitas Group, a homeland security-focused consulting firm. Black serves as a member of the company’s managing board.
Having supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq through BKSH, Charlie Black may now hope that his candidate, John McCain, will benefit in the event of another terrorist incident. With the Arizona Senator safely in the White House, Black’s old pals at BKSH will be free to reap maximum benefit from McCain’s future wars.
According to a recent poll conducted by the American Research Group, a startling 54% of the U.S. public now favors impeachment of Vice President Cheney. Apparently, Americans have had enough of Cheney's misleading the public on Iraqi WMD, his fabrications seeking to tie al-Qaeda to Saddam Hussein's regime, and his repeated threats against Iran.
Recently, Congressman Dennis Kunicich (D-OH), introduced H. Res. 333 calling for Cheney's impeachment under these very grounds. Because of the blackout in the corporate media, however, few Americans are aware of Kucinich's resolution which has now attracted 14 likely co-sponsors. Recently, the House Judiciary Committee took a big step by sending HR 333 to the Constitution Subcommittee led by Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY).
For the past few years, I have felt largely powerless to stop the Bush White House from carrying out its nefarious foreign policy agenda. But Nadler, a pivotal figure in the unfolding impeachment drama, is a liberal legislator whose office is located on Varick Street in Lower Manhattan. Though I currently reside in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I grew up a scant few blocks from Nadler's office.
A couple of days ago, I received an e-mail from my cousin, a tireless and dedicated activist working with World Can't Wait, which has been pressing hard for town hall impeachment meetings across the country. The group, my cousin said, was organizing a trip to Nadler's office to get him to support HR 333.
Yesterday morning, I caught the #1 train to the Houston Street station. Gathered outside a Latin music club was a group of some twenty, mostly elderly New York activists. Some had come to Lower Manhattan with the intention of conducting a sit-in at Nadler's office. The city has been in the midst of an uncomfortable heat wave, and while activists conferred I quickly ducked into a store to get some iced tea.
My cousin explained that the purpose of the visit was to get Nadler to sign on to the bill, press for a hearing on the bill in subcommittee, and hold a vote to pass the resolution. In addition, she wanted Nadler to press for adoption of the bill in the Judiciary Committee and to move the bill out to the House of Representatives. Lastly, my cousin sought to press Nadler to encourage his colleagues to sign on to the bill, and bring it to the attention of the Democratic Caucus for support.
Unfortunately, Nadler had hardly been responsive to activists' on the issue of Cheney impeachment and put folks through a go-around. World Can't Wait tried to make an appointment with the Congressman through his Varick Street office, but was told that he had already met with constituents on the issue.
When the group was told that it might get Nadler's position by phoning his Washington, D.C. office, activists called but were unable to get through because of the July 4th vacation week. At long last, World Can't Wait left phone and e-mail messages alerting Nadler's Manhattan office that activists would stop by on Monday since it was an urgent matter.
As the heat burnt through the pavement, my cousin described our strategy: rather than go into Nadler's office on the sixth floor in a group, we would go up in twos and threes. Such elaborate tomfoolery had become necessary, she said, because the authorities were unlikely to let the entire delegation proceed together. At long last, my turn arrived. Together with another gentleman, I walked into the Federal Building across the street from the Latin music club.
Inside the lobby were two big portraits of George Bush and Dick Cheney. I did not see some of the earlier members of our party, leading me to think that indeed some activists had succeeded in getting up to Nadler's office. But when I arrived at the security check, my hopes plummeted.
"Are you going to Nadler's office?" asked a guard, suspiciously.
"No officer," we replied innocently, "We're just headed to the Peace Corps office."
Judging from the security guards' expressions, they were unconvinced by our alibi. After we passed our spare change, keys and cell phones through the detector one of the guards escorted us up in the elevator, just to make sure we went to the tenth floor and not to the sixth floor.
"For Christ's sake, this is ridiculous," I remarked hotly to my colleague. "I understand that the White House and certain government offices are very difficult to get access to. But this is our local Congressman!"
While we picked up an application to join the Peace Corps inside, our guardian waited outside for us to exit the office.
"What can we do?" I asked my colleague, feeling frustrated and trapped.
"Not much," he replied. "It looks like we're just going to have to return to the lobby."
Right on cue our guardian rejoined us in the hallway and rode down with us in the elevator, just to make sure that we would not visit the Congressman's office. I wondered what would happen if we simply opted to get off at the sixth floor.
I put the question to our group's legal advisor outside.
"Under what law could he have stopped us?" I asked. "Going to a Congressman's office in a public building?"
He chuckled and remarked, "They are the law. They have the guns."
As I stood outside on Varick Street, I spoke with several other activists who were similarly outraged by the Orwellian treatment they had received at the hands of the guards. Some had been turned back at the security check and told they could not proceed at all.
In aggravation, I rode back to Brooklyn on the subway. Later, I got an e-mail from my cousin. Some activists had indeed managed to get into Nadler's office, to the "chagrin" of his staff. An unhappy Robert Gottheim, Nadler's District Director, was called in to deal with the activists. When my cousin and others requested to speak with Nadler either in person or by speaker phone or conference call, Gottheim said no: Nadler was unavailable.
When activists asked Gottheim to tell Security to allow the rest of the delegation to come upstairs the Nadler handler refused. Hardly a hospitable host, Gottheim similarly refused to invite the activists into the office. Activists were told they could sit down in one of four seats in the entranceway.
The activists then eloquently presented their case. Gottheim, aptly demonstrating his stonewalling abilities and penchant to be a party hack, repeatedly stated that impeachment was a distraction from other things the Democrats sought to accomplish. Trotting out familiar Inside the Beltway group think, Gottheim claimed impeachment was not practical because the Democrats could not muster two thirds of Congress to vote for such a measure.
At that, Gottheim ended the discussion. When activists said they wanted to wait to speak to Nadler, Gottheim got hot under the collar. Putting on his suit jacket, he declared that the activists were in a Federal Building and should leave. Organizers stayed for about another hour or so, but finally opted to leave when it became clear Nadler was a clear No Show.
What is the significance of yesterday's events? In a report on the action, World Can't Wait expressed mild surprise at Gottheim's surly treatment "since the Congressman has always been gracious to anti-war and peace proponents."
Indeed, the liberal Nadler seems to be gearing up for a rather uncharacteristic fight with his constituents over the impeachment issue. No doubt he is feeling the heat from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has stated that impeachment should be "off the table."
What will Nadler do, continue to shrug off his constituents by having guards shadow activists up and down the Federal Building? With the public infuriated over Cheney's conduct, such a position would appear to be politically untenable. The Congressman, however, seems determined to declare "case closed" on the impeachment issue and to insulate himself from contrary views.
It's time for New Yorkers to gird up for an intense struggle with Nadler over the coming weeks. If the Congressman can't bring himself to exercise his duties as Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties of the House Judiciary Committee, then we ought to provide him with a civics lesson concerning the proper functioning of the Legislative Branch.
Here in New York, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been causing a sensation. With a recent speech at the United Nations during which he called George Bush "the devil," Chavez turned up his rhetorical bombast on the White House. "I can still smell sulfur in the room," Chavez added, referring to Bush's earlier address at the United Nations. Yesterday, while touring Harlem, Chavez went even further, calling Bush a "sick man" and an alcoholic.
It's not the first time that Chavez has relied on such mud slinging.
Personally, I preferred Chavez's prior characterization of Bush as "Mr. Danger," a more droll term than the devil.
But beyond the mere rhetoric, what does Chavez hope to achieve through this verbal assault? By bashing the White House, Chavez surely shores up his domestic constituency, the Venezuelan poor. And he may enhance his stature world wide as a combative, hemispheric leader.
However, the long term impact of Chavez's remarks upon the domestic U.S. political scene is unclear. While many on the liberal left in New York will not disagree with Chavez's opposition to Bush (U.S. interference in Venezuelan affairs, documented in meticulous detail in my recent book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S., has been a longstanding concern of political activists here), the rest of the country is another matter.
They're watching the likes of CNN, which yesterday spent much of the afternoon deriding Chavez. On one segment, anchor Wolf Blitzer interviewed Republican William Bennett and Democrat Donna Brazzille about Chavez's visit. Both lambasted Chavez for his imprudence. From there it was on to pundit Jack Cafferty who suggested that we immediately deport Chavez back to Venezuela.
With the media getting whipped up into a frenzy over Chavez's effrontery, what is worrying is that the Venezuelan president might actually have a political impact on the upcoming Congressional elections in November and tip the scale towards the Republicans. While the GOP looks vulnerable, Bush has recently been surging in the polls by stoking the public's fear of terrorism. He's also been doing a fair amount of saber rattling towards Iran, a nation that Chavez has warmly embraced.
Will Chavez play into Bush and Republican hands? The Democrats have been momentarily cast off balance by Chavez's visit. Even liberal Congressman Charlie Rangel of Harlem criticized Chavez for his rhetorical excesses. House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi went even farther, calling Chavez "a thug." The Democrats, it seems, fear that close identification with Chavez could cost them politically.
In a very cutthroat sense, they might be right.
During the recent presidential election in Peru, the more nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala embraced Chavez. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan leader made no secret of his antipathy towards Humala's challenger, Alan Garcia.
Chavez taunted Garcia in much the same way that he is doing now with Bush.
The tactic backfired: Garcia exploited the issue, charging that Chavez was blatantly interfering in Peru's domestic politics. Garcia went on to beat Humala in the general election and Chavez was discredited.
Does Chavez know what he is doing? The Venezuelan leader likes the limelight, but his actions may have unforseen consequences.
As recent events have clearly shown, nature can have a devastating political impact for political leaders. According to a Wall Street Journal poll, just prior to Hurricane Katrina Bush's disapproval rating stood at 55%, with 40% approving of the president and 5% unsure. In the aftermath however, his numbers, according to CBS, slipped yet further: only 38% approved of his overall job performance. While it's unclear what the long term political impact of Hurricane Katrina may be, Americans lost confidence in their political leadership. According to CBS polling data taken after Hurricane Katrina, 34% said they didn't have much confidence in government to respond to natural disasters, and a full 15% said they had no confidence at all. Only 19% said they had a great deal of confidence in the authorities, a truly staggering statistic.
Hurricane Katrina may be just the tip of the iceberg, however. If a severe outbreak of Asian bird flu hits the U.S., Bush's presidency could be severely damaged or even ruined. What is the disease and how is it spread? Avian influenza, also known as bird flu, is caused by the H5N1 virus native to wild water birds. Migratory ducks, geese and herons carry the influenza, and as they migrate they may pass the virus on to domesticated birds such as chickens. H5N1 virus has already devastated bird flocks throughout Asia. What is more, in the last six years the virus has mutated and can now infect and kill humans; as of September 58 people have died. According to the PBS show Wide Angle, there is already some evidence that the virus has spread via human-to-human contact. The antiviral drug Tamiflu has been proven effective against H5N1 in lab testing. Tamiflu, and another drug, Relenza, could be effective against avian influenza if they are taken within two days of symptoms becoming apparent. But, no one really knows if they will work. Indeed, most people that have been hospitalized with bird fly have died. Some had already been treated with anti viral drugs. According to the World Health Organization, a pandemic is imminent but no one knows when it might occur.
A Dire Forecast
In the last major avian flu epidemic in 1918, 50 million people died around the world within 18 months. An outbreak of H5N1 could prove equally if not more devastating: worldwide, the World Health Organization is warning that the virus could result in between 50 and 100 million deaths. The Centers For Disease Control report that even a "medium-level epidemic" could result in the deaths of up to 207,000 Americans, hospitalize 734,000, and sicken approximately one third of the U.S. population. Writing in Foreign Affairs however, Laurie Garrett estimates that such a figure is quite conservative. She writes that in the worse case scenario, in which the authorities are unable to produce an effective vaccine fast enough and the virus withstands anti-flu drugs, avian flu could kill up to 16 million people. In the event of an outbreak, some countries might seek to impose ineffectual quarantines or close borders and airports. In that event, trade and travel would be disrupted; stock markets would be dealt a severe blow. With record high levels of worker absenteeism, economic productivity would be dealt a severe blow. What is more, direct medical costs could top $166 billion in the U.S, not including the costs of vaccination.
America's Lack of Preparedness
Given the potential magnitude of such a disaster, why haven't the authorities taken more precautions? The first Asian outbreak of the influenza occurred as far back as 1997, so it's not as if bird flu is some kind of new or unheard of threat. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader has warned that "The level of response and resources amount the world's nations is nowhere near the needs for prevention, early surveillance, testing, diagnosis, treatment and the application of modern epidemiological sciences." However, the mainstream media has shirked its responsibility, failing to follow up on Nader's call. Micah Fink, a producer on the recent PBS Wide Angle documentary, "H5N1: Killer Flu," complained that "terrorism and the war in Iraq have dominated much of our foreign coverage and the news hole, never large for international affairs." Though CNN and the likes of weepy reporter Anderson Cooper have devoted a full month of coverage to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the network failed to warn the public in advance of an imminent disaster.
As a result of this media blackout, high public officials have not felt much pressure to address the threat of Asian bird flu. Though Bush recognized the threat of a bio-terrorist attack after the anthrax scare of 2001, federal resources to deal with the threat have been meager. Following the anthrax scare, Congress approved $3.7 billion to strengthen America's public health infrastructure. Two years later, Bush increased funding to the Center For Disease Control's flu program by a whopping 242 percent. Even so, however, such an increase was miniscule: by 2004, the program only amounted to $41.6 million. Bush has also increased flu funding to the National Institute of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, but in total spending has amounted to just $67 million. Bush has spent $80 million stockpiling Tamiflu and other influenza drugs, but currently we only have about 2 million vaccine doses.
Public health officials are worried. In an interview on the PBS show Wide Angle, Anthony Fauci, director of the Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, warned, "what we in the federal government need to do, is we need to work with the pharmaceutical companies and help to incentivize them to turn their attention and their resources to being able to have the capability of what we call a surge capacity. Of being able to make 100 or more million doses if we need it within a period of a few months." Fauci admitted, however, that to produce hundreds of millions of doses this would cost a couple billion dollars. That might sound like a lot of money, but consider that the United States spends $5 billion per month on the war in Iraq and the Department of Homeland Security's budget in 2005 amounted to a full $29 billion. This is a pressing and important issue," says Fink, "and I think we should be doing much more than we are doing now." Fink adds,"most of the federal money in the US these days seems be getting spent on terrorism related issues — which may be very short sighted." Though Bush has taken some superficial measures such as ordering the mandatory quarantine of travelers infected with the virus, fundamentally Asian bird flu has not been a serious political priority for George W. Bush. As with Hurricane Katrina, the president seems to be dealing with the crisis on an ad hoc basis. Having failed to address the problem, he recently declared that the army should be deployed in case of an outbreak of Asian flu.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is an agency of the United Nations which is absolutely vital in combating global diseases like bird flu. Since 1947 the WHO has retained a worldwide network that monitors the spread of influenza. Based on the evaluation of WHO scientists, the organization tries to predict which flu strains are likely to spread globally. What is more, the WHO coordinates with pharmaceutical companies so as to speed up vaccine production; oversees laboratories at the global level and arbitrates negotiations over vaccine production. The WHO also plays an important role in that it pushes for greater transparency concerning human and avian flu cases. The WHO isn't the only important UN agency that would help coordinate efforts in the case of an outbreak. The Food and Agriculture Organization or FAO, which collaborates closely with the World Organization for Animal Health, keeps track of flu outbreaks in animals and gives advice to government about culling flocks and herds.
In the event of an actual outbreak, there would no doubt be a rush to point fingers and assign blame. In the high stakes game of Asian bird flu, the Republicans stand to lose. For years, the GOP has clashed with the WHO over such issues as the use of abortion in impoverished areas of the Third World. As the home to the world's larges tobacco company, Philip Morris, the United States has consistently stood in the way of the WHO on the fight against tobacco use. What is more, the U.S. has opposed the movement to make economic anti-HIV drugs available to Third World nations, and rejects findings by the WHO and FAO demonstrating the clear links between chronic disease and diets that are rich in fat and sugar.
More recently, the Republican controlled Congress has been involved in an acrimonious war with the United Nations. In June, the House voted 221 to 184 on H.R. 2745 to cut dues by half to that body if certain reforms are not undertaken. The bill states that the U.S. shall cut off the funds by 2008 unless the Secretary of State certifies that the UN is carrying out operational changes, including stringent budget controls, detailed financial disclosures and creation of an independent oversight office. Finally, the legislation seeks to create a new UN Chief Operating Office. A similar bill is now pending in the Senate. Currently, the United States supplies 22% of the United Nations' annual $2 billion budget. As such, a U.S. cut off could prove devastating. The legislation, coupled with President Bush's appointment of right wing hawk John Bolton as UN envoy seems to signal the Republican desire to kill off the world body.
In the event of an outbreak of Asian bird flu, however, the U.S. will have to coordinate with the United Nations and the WHO. One may easily imagine the calls of public indignation, excoriating the Republicans for their vendetta against the UN and previous unwillingness to collaborate with international bodies concerning important health issues. Certainly, Hurricane Katrina has given the Democrats an opening if they are willing to take shrewd advantage of it. They might claim that the Republicans have no better prepared us for an outbreak of Asian bird flu than the arrival of hurricanes in the Gulf. If there is enough noise on the Hill, perhaps the media too will see the urgency in drawing attention to this vital threat before it strikes.
For George Bush the news could not have been worse. Having failed, according to credible accounts, to dislodge firebrand Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez by force in an April 2002 coup d’etat, Bush now must come to terms with the fact that Venezuela has cultivated strong European ties. That point was underscored this week when Spanish prime minister Jorge Luis Rodriguez Zapatero agreed to sell ten C-295 military transport planes, two CN-235 naval patrol planes and eight coastal patrol vessels worth 1.3bn euros ($1.7bn) to Venezuela. Though both Zapatero and Chavez stated that the military equipment would be used to peacefully patrol land and sea borders and to prevent drug smuggling, and Zapatero also announced that he would donate three troop transport planes to Colombia, a close U.S. ally, the developments could not have pleased the Bush administration. The Spanish sale follows close on the heels of Venezuela’s plans to purchase 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles and 22 helicopters from Russia. The US state department has accused Venezuela of sparking an arms race. The rifles, claim U.S. diplomats, could wind up in the hands of the FARC, Colombia’s left-wing rebels. Now, the Spanish sale is adding fuel to the fire. The Spanish sale surely did not come as a surprise to the U.S. As early as January the Spanish minister of Defense, José Bono, made what Zapatero termed a “discreet” visit to Caracas where the Spanish official discussed the arms sales with Chavez. Currently, the U.S. is trying its best to deal with the diplomatic fall out from the sales. American diplomats in Spain stated the U.S. “was worried” but had not “complained” to the Spanish government about the arms transfers. When asked to clarify the U.S. position on Spanish arms sales to Venezuela, Robert Zimmerman of the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs commented delicately, “our concerns about arms sales to Venezuela are known to all the relevant parties.”
Chavez: a Thorn in The Side of the U.S.
Chavez has long been a thorn in the side of the Bush administration. A frequent critic of the White House, Chavez has lambasted U.S. led efforts for a free trade zone in the Americas. What is more he has criticized the U.S. war in Iraq and furthered ties to traditional U.S. enemies such as Cuba. For the United States, Venezuela is a nation of key geopolitical importance. The world’s fifth largest oil producer, Venezuela is also the fourth largest supplier of oil to the United States after Canada, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. Last year, Venezuela’s state owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (Pdvsa) accounted for 11.8% (1.52-million barrels a day) of U.S. imports. However, Chavez has used oil as a geopolitical weapon. In a provocative move he has shipped oil to the communist island nation of Cuba. In a further threat to U.S. interests, Chavez has sought to form a regional oil cartel with other left-leaning South American countries. For taking such unpopular positions, Chavez stated, the United States has sought to have him killed. If he were assassinated, Chavez remarked, the U.S. could “forget Venezuelan oil.”
Though the U.S. has tried to diplomatically isolate Chavez, with State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher accusing Venezuela of playing a “destabilizing role” in regional affairs, these efforts have not yielded tangible result. To the contrary U.S. efforts to pressure Venezuela through third parties such as Spain seem to have backfired. How did things go amiss for the Bush administration in Venezuela?
The Ties That Bind: Aznar and Bush
During Bush’s first term it seemed that the United States enjoyed a willing foreign partner in Spain. José María Aznar, who had reorganized Spanish conservatives into the People’s Party (Partido Popular or PP) had been Prime Minister of Spain since 1996. Aznar, whose grandfather served as Franco’s ambassador to Morocco and the United Nations and whose father was a pro-Franco journalist, was re-elected with an absolute majority in the 2000 general election. The Spanish prime minister, who had narrowly escaped a 1995 assassination attempt by the Basque terrorist group ETA, made fighting terrorism one of the hallmarks of his administration. Aznar’s emphasis on combating terrorism fit well with the Bush agenda after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. What is more, despite robust public opposition (with polls indicating 90% of the Spanish public opposed to the war) and street protests, Aznar supported Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. In August 2003 Aznar sent 1,300 Spanish peace keeping troops to Iraq as part of the government’s support for the U.S. invasion.
Bush and Aznar: Anti-Chavista Allies
Simultaneously Aznar was Washington’s willing ally in opposing Chavez. In 2002 the maverick Venezuelan president was looking increasingly vulnerable. Faced with a growing wave of protests supported by the United States, Chavez was briefly removed from power by the military in a coup d’etat. In his place, Pedro Carmona, previously the head of Venezuela’s largest business association, Fedecamaras, became interim president. However, after poor and marginalized residents of Caracas massed at the presidential palace Chavez was able to return to power and defeat the coup plotters.
Prior to the April 12 2002 coup Venezuelan businessman Carmona visited high level government officials in Madrid as well as prominent Spanish businessmen. Once the coup had been carried out Carmona called Aznar and met with the Spanish ambassador in Caracas, Manuel Viturro de la Torre. The Spanish ambassador was accompanied at the meeting by the U.S. Ambassador, Charles Shapiro. As Chavez languished in a military barracks, PP parliamentary spokesman Gustavo de Arístegui wrote an article in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo supporting the coup. According to anonymous diplomatic sources who spoke with Inter Press Service, the Spanish foreign ministry holds documents which reveal the Spanish role. The documents reportedly prove that de la Torre had written instructions from the Aznar government to recognize Carmona as the new president of Venezuela.
The diplomatic tit-for-tat continued. After the coup Chavez detained the president of Fedecámaras, Carlos Fernández, who was accused of helping to foment a lock out which reduced oil output in 2002-03. Fernández was charged with inciting unrest and sedition. In February 2003 Ana Palacio, the Spanish Minister of External Affairs, criticized the detention. During his Sunday radio and TV show, Chavez angrily shot back that Spain should not interfere in Venezuela’s internal affairs. “We must respect each other,” said Chavez. “Don’t get involved in our things and we won’t involve ourselves in your things. Is it necessary to remember that the Spanish ambassador was here applauding the April coup?” Chavez added, “Aznar, please, each one in his own place.” The diplomatic chill continued late into 2003 when Aznar criticized Chavez for adopting “failed models” like those of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Chavez retorted that Aznar’s statements were “unacceptable” and added that “perhaps Aznar thinks he is Fernando VII and we are still a colony. No, Carabobo [a battle of independence] already happened. Aznar, Ayacucho [another battle during the wars of independence] already occurred. The Spanish empire was already thrown out of here almost 200 years ago Aznar. Let those whostick their noses in Venezuela take note that we will not accept it.” In a further snub Chavez stated that Aznar should respond to the Spanish public which protested PP support for the invasion of Iraq. “He should definitely take responsibility for that,” Chavez concluded.
The Tide Starts To Turn
In March 2004 the tide turned. Despite the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, Jorge Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, or Spanish Socialists’ Workers Party) trailed in the polls. With general elections called Aznar’s hand picked successor in the PP, Mariano Rajoy, looked likely to win. In part the PP owed its popularity due to its tough stand on Basque terrorism and ETA. Then, three days prior to the election the Madrid commuter train bombings killed 201 people and injured 1,500. The PP hastily blamed ETA for the bombings but as suspicions grew of al Qaeda involvement Aznar’s party suffered. Some analysts argued that the PP held some responsibility for the Madrid bombings because it sent troops to Iraq and acquiesced in U.S. foreign policy. Thousands poured out on to the streets to protest the PP. Zapatero was thrust to an upset victory in the election. The socialists quickly shifted away from the strongly pro-U.S. focus of the PP, allying closer to the nations of “Old Europe” such as France and Germany. Zapatero described Spain’s participation in the Iraq war as “a total error.” In May, two months after his electoral victory, he withdrew Spain’s 1,430 troops.
Chavez Receives A “Rock Star” Welcome
Needless to say Chavez was ecstatic about the socialist win and made no effort to conceal his high spirits. Shortly after Zapatero’s victory Chavez praised the Spanish government for withdrawing its troops from Iraq. The firebrand Venezuelan politician was further emboldened after an August 2004 recall referendum failed to force him from office. The final result showed that 59.25% of voters approved of Chavez and opposed his recall. Having then survived a coup attempt, a lock out in 2002-3 and a recall effort Chavez looked increasingly secure [what is more, in the October 2004 regional elections governing coalition candidates garnered 90% of the state governments and more than 70% of city governments]. Despite U.S. political pressure Chavez was now becoming a hemispheric leader with real clout. With Zapatero now in power Chavez traveled to Spain in November 2004. Chavez expressed his satisfaction with the change of government in Spain, commenting “How happy the Spain of today, and how sad the Spain that was subordinate to Washington’s mandate.” According to Reuters, Chavez received a “rock star welcome” in Madrid. Once in the Spanish capitol Chavez paid homage to the victims of “M-11.” At the Atocha train station where scores of Spanish had perished in the attack, Chavez was mobbed by the media and hundreds of supporters. Many waved Venezuelan flags and chanted, “Chavez, friend, the people are with you.” The indefatigable Chavez buoyed his supporters by criticizing the war in Iraq, the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba and U.S. threats against Iran. During a joint news conference Chavez advocated “a new progressive, transforming and liberating way of thinking,” that should confront the negative effects of the free market neo-liberal economic model. That model, he maintained, “is only useful for a world at war.” During the press conference, Zapatero agreed with the Venezuelan’s comments.
The Moratinos Bombshell
Just as Chavez was touring the Spanish capitol, however, a scandal erupted which turned the government inside out. Miguel Angel Moratinos, the Spanish Foreign Minister, accused the previous PP administration of supporting the failed coup d’etat against Chavez in April 2002. Speaking on the Spanish TV program “59 segundos,” Moratinos remarked that Aznar’s policy in Venezuela “was something unheard of in Spanish diplomacy, the Spanish ambassador received instructions to support the coup.” Before the cameras Moratinos declared, “that won’t happen in the future, because we respect the popular will.” Adding fuel to the fire Chavez remarked “I have no doubt that it [the Spanish involvement] happened. It was a very serious error on the part of the former government.” Chavez declared that Venezuela had no problem with the PP nor with Spain, and that for a brief moment the two countries enjoyed good relations. But later Aznar’s political as well as personal views changed. “With Aznar,” Chavez stated, “there was neither chemistry, nor physics, nor math.”
Arms Only Tip of The Iceberg
With political upset in Spain the path was now clear for greater economic and political coordination. In fact, the recent Spanish arms sales were only the tip of the iceberg. Of key importance was the Spanish oil company Repsol. As of December, Repsol produced 100,000 barrels of oil per day in Venezuela. But under a recent deal that figure will go up to 160,000 barrels per day as Repsol expands its operations. Under the deal Repsol will double its reserves, raise production 60% and become a joint partner with Pdvsa in a gas liquefaction plant and an 80-megawatt electricity generating plant. Furthermore, under another deal Chavez will buy three ships from Spain including an oil tanker.
The Boomerang Effect
Arguably the United States itself has brought about this political realignment. Analysts have suggested that voters held Aznar responsible for the M-11 attacks, a result of Spain’s close alliance with the U.S. Now Zapatero has punished Bush, first by withdrawing Spain’s forces from Iraq and allying more closely with “Old Europe,” and secondly by pursuing a more independent policy in South America. In this sense Zapatero seems to agree with Chavez’s desire to create a more “multipolar” world in which smaller nations unite and deal with the U.S. on more equal terms. Now that Chavez has consolidated power and is extending economic and political ties not only with neighboring South American countries but also with Europe, the United States looks increasingly bereft.
What a difference three years can make.