Wednesday, May 28, 2008

McCain's Bargain: the handshakes are free

handshakes are free

John McCain got all indignant on Barack Obama the other day for his comments on the recent GI benefits bill. Obama challenged McCain's opposition to the bill and his reasoning that it was "too generous" to soldiers serving this country. He did so right there on the Senate floor.

The senator from Illinois said he "couldn't disagree more" with John McCain.

This was apparently way out of line in Senator McCain's book. He trotted out his most forceful indignance for a reply. "I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did," he said in his response to Obama's Senate remarks. Apparently the conductor of the Straight Talk Express doesn't take to back talk.

And apparently the idea of debate with regard to policy is new to the Arizona senator now in his fourth term.

Does he really mean to suggest that Obama isn't in his right, or more like it, actually meeting his responsibilities, by advocating for a bill he supports, a bill that provides—yes— "generous" GI benefits?

McCain does get that idea about civilian leadership for this country and about the Senate as a place for civil civic debate, right? That is where you state your support for a bill and challenge those who oppose it, as a senator —right?

Obama responded to McCain's umbrage in comments to reporters on his campaign plane this past weekend.
"I've said before I respect John McCain's service to our country. But I think the notion that somehow I can't speak out on the behalf of veterans because of the fact I haven't served makes no sense whatsoever.''

It might be troubling to consider what John McCain's opposition to the GI benefits bill says of his attitude towards our soldiers. In my view what is most unsettling is what it says of his attitude towards the country they come from.

Friday, May 23, 2008

There Are Too Many

This piece was originally published
in the MetroWest Daily News on Memorial Day, 2006
at which time 2,606 American soldiers had died in Iraq.

Since that day another 1,474 soldiers have fallen.

This past Monday morning I drove my son to school as I often do. At that hour our conversation is seldom much more than pleasantries: favorite gags from last night’s episode of the Simpsons, small talk about the coming day’s school work and activities, maybe a peptalk about Algebra.This past Monday morning even the lightest of conversation was a little harder to carry off. Each telephone pole between home and my son’s school was marked with a sign bearing the name of a soldier. This coming weekend is Memorial Day and every year in my home town of Holliston these very simple shrines are put up along the major streets in town.

The name, the state that a soldier called home, the age that soldier was on the day he died, the flag of his country stapled to the pole —these are put in place as a tribute, as a memorial, as a reminder.

There isn’t a particular political point of view to these displays. These memorials have gone up twice a year, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, ever since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. In the first year they stretched a few miles along the main route through town. By last year they had reached from one end of town to another and reached in several other directions along sidestreets and country roads. This year for the first time not every soldier will have his or her name displayed.

There are too many.

You read the ages and the names from these roadside signs and you imagine the faces and the families touched by tragedy. You think of the many parents, children, brothers, sisters, cousins, loved ones and best friends. You think of the waves of loss travelling out from each name. You try to imagine the pain you would feel as you count on one hand the difference in age between a dead young soldier from Texas and your own son riding in the seat beside you. You think of your mother’s own worry and prayer and your own brother’s brave pride as he readies himself for an overseas deployment with The National Guard. You think of every argument you’ve had against these on-going wars, of your rage at the way it seems some would prefer not to question or dwell upon the bloodshed. You think of the anger that has come to rise even from pleas for peace.

Your heart aches.

These memorial shrines are attached to telephone poles, generally, and as such they appear every thirty or forty feet along the side of the road. There is something solemn and fitting in this —even beautiful. There is something of the slow and persistent cadence of a procession brought to mind, even as you drive along on an empty errand or take your child to one appointment or another. That cadence enters your thoughts without your even knowing it. It enters your heart.

There is a slight incline along Hollis Street as you approach Holliston High School. And until you reach the crest of this slope you don’t see the school. Across from the front door of the building is an open pasture, only a couple of acres of grazing land. Along one side of the pasture there is a little side road where the kids who smoke all gather before school. This field is fenced off from the road by chickenwire strung between treated posts. These posts are spaced every six feet or so.

This past Monday morning every one of the posts along that pasture and across from the school was flying a flag in the wind. Every post bore a dead soldier’s name and age. As we came to the crest of the hill my son and I saw all those flags together.

That slow cadence of the other memorials changed to something more powerful and urgent and tragic.

We had been listening to a cd on the car stereo: Neil Young’s latest recording, a collection of protest music, some of it quite angry. There was a song playing just then that said something about “the flags of freedom flying.” That particular song was less angry. More simply it expressed a bewildered pain.

We turned into the parking lot and I dropped off my son like I’ve done a hundred times before. There was a part of me that was glad every kid showing up to school that day was going to see those flags, every teacher, and every parent dropping off their teenaged child. That part of me wanted to explain something to my son before he headed off to classes. It wanted to define what we saw and say what it meant. It wanted to have an answer to the question “what then are we to do?” But that part of me couldn’t come up with words just then. We hardly said a thing to each other as he climbed out of the car and walked away.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and that might be right. This Monday morning I sensed what an image can say once it has entered deep inside you, what the image of all those flags and all those names can say, something much more profound than a thousand words of argument or anger. Something like a simple prayer for peace.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Small steps on small arms

Business is business. That's the saying and that must have been the thinking as the ship with 77 tons of weapons and ammunition left port in China. Rocket launchers, automatic weapons and grenades, belts and belts of ammo —all bound for Zimbabwe. Business is business after all and Zimbabwe is simply a trusted trading partner for the People's Republic of China. The shipment of small arms and ammunition was both "prudent and responsible" as a transaction according to the Chinese government official asked to comment recently. You see there was some question, some concern as to how these arms would be used out there among the international community.

Not in China though.

So what if the massive shipment of weapons was being supplied to a nation that wasn't at war or confronting any real security threat from a neighboring country? So what if the the guns set sail even as the government of Robert Mugabe "prepared" for national elections —as it had a long history of "preparing"—with brutal crackdowns on opposition political parties?

Business is business.

The arms sale deal was concluded in January. The shipment left China in March, and at first, as the the guns and ammo arrived in South Africa, the government there seemed to agree —that business was indeed business. Defense Secretary January Masilela commented that there was nothing irregular about the "transaction between two sovereign nations." There was no basis in international law for South Africa to interfere.

Everything fitted into an elegant sequence. The Zimbabwe elections were "prepared" for and even as the results "remained pending" the weapons were on their way.

Then something strange happened. The guns were set to arrive in the port of Durban in South Africa and though the government found no basis for action to bar the shipment, the dock workers had. They found a moral basis for just such an action. Aware of the tensions surrounding the Zimbabwe elections, responding to the call of dissident clergy and political activists throughout the region, dock workers of SATAWU, The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union announced that they would not unload the shipment of weapons bound for Robert Mugabe and his repressive regime. The arms would have to enter the continent through some other port. The ship would simply have to turn around. Ultimately the South African government came round to share this stance. The government of Zambia followed suit and announced that the shipment would not enter the African continent through their ports either.

The result: If the People's Republic of China must conduct its business with the Republic of Zimbabwe, they're going to have to fly the weapons in. They might end up costing a little more this way.

Oh, well —business is business.

There is something heartening about this story. The way activists and dock workers were able to find a means to act in solidarity with democratic reformers in a neighboring country. The way they advanced a truly international vision of human rights even while their governments, at least at first, failed to do the same. That's the half full part of the story's cup.

There's also an empty half.

This month a 28 nation panel will reconvene to review a proposed international treaty to regulate the trade of small arms. This is an agreement that has been in the excruciating process of drafting and negotiation for years. The agreement as it was most recently shaped and voted upon in 2006 would have barred China from concluding such an arms sale to such a country as Zimbabwe with such an extensively documented record of human rights abuses. Their continued "business" with Sudan as it represses and abuses Darfur would be facing sanction as well. The responsibilities of third party nations acting as go betweens for transport or to circumvent U.N. embargo actions would have been addressed through the treaty. South Africa would have had not only a basis but an obligation to "interfere" in the transaction.

The treaty sought to advance a fairly simple principle, one that has informed the efforts to control nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction for quite some time, the notion that governments must take responsibility for all the weapons they sell.

In 2006 there was real momentum behind the effort to enact a meaningful international agreement. At a specially convened U.N. conference the International Action Network on Small Arms, Oxfam and Amnesty International joined in proposing the Global Principles for Small Arms Sales. The United Kingdom advanced proposals in keeping with the Global Principles and 11 different African nations signed on. Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian designer of the gun that bears his name, forwarded a statement to the U.N. conference expressing his concern at the widespread use of small weapons such as his AK rifle and voicing support for efforts at control.

But in the end the 2006 conference concluded with only a resolve to continue talking —another conference in January of this year, again this month and again in November, and perhaps a report to the U.N. sometime before the end of the year. There was one key player in the trade of international arms who managed to derail all talk of a binding treaty. Even the U.N. resolution, supported by more than 150 nations, that only called for more negotiation on a potential agreement was opposed by that one nation —the United States.

"We don't see any need for treaties or agreements coming out of this." —so said the U.S. Ambassador at the time, John Bolton.

$4 billion dollars a year is spent in the global trade of small arms. Estimates are that about $1 billion of that is comprised of the illegal trade that arms brutal and repressive paramilitaries around the globe, that arms the militias in Somalia and marauders in Darfur, that arms the Taliban, al-Qaeda and insurgency forces throughout Iraq, that arms Robert Mugabe's henchman army as it punishes democracy in Zimbabwe. Still the Bush administration informs the American public and the entire world community that there is "no need for treaties or agreements."

This action —or should I say "non-action"?— won John Bolton and the Bush administration some applause from groups like The National Rifle Association —“on principle.” There are those who don't want to see “treaties or agreements” that could give rise to restrictive policies that might curb private ownership rights anywhere around the world —there are those who argue that privately born small arms serve to protect human rights. This is how a private citizenry opposes a repressive regime after all.

That's the theory anyway.

The fact that just the opposite is the case in Robert Mugabe's Zimabawe, just the opposite in the deserts of Darfur, and in the shooting galleries of Baghdad —that might confound the theory with a sorry dose of reality, with the very plain connection between blood on the streets and the smoking barrel of a gun.

The two halves of the cup, one full, one empty. For those with their blind ideological theories and those who would see guns for a despot as mere commerce, there is the answer of those like the dock workers of Durban and those who have worked tirelessly for years to curb the flow of guns into troubled regions.

There's a quote that comes to mind. It was Dwight Eisenhower who said it.
"I like to believe that people in the long run are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it."

Maybe that’s the hopeful half of this story —a South African government that got out of the way and ultimately followed the lead of its people. With new meetings scheduled this month and again this November, with the task at hand once again of forging a meaningful small arms trade treaty, we just might have that chance here at home —to get our own government out of our way —there may be just that chance.