Monthly Archives: February 2011

Pakistan, China, and the CIA

The CIA, Pakistan & Tangled Webs

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 27, 2011

Was American CIA agent Raymond Davis secretly working with the Taliban and al-Qaeda to destabilize Pakistan and lay the groundwork for a U.S. seizure of that country’s nuclear weapons? Was he photographing sensitive military installations and marking them with a global positioning device? Did he gun down two men in cold blood to prevent them from revealing what he was up to? These are just a few of the rumors ricocheting around Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar in the aftermath of Davis’s arrest Jan. 27, and sorting through them is a little like stepping through Alice’s looking glass.

But one thing is certain: the U.S. has hundreds of intelligence agents working in Pakistan, most of them private contractors, and many of them so deep in the shadows that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), doesn’t know who they are or what they are up to. “How many more Raymond Davises are out there?” one ISI official asked Associated Press.

Lots, it would appear. Five months ago, the Pakistani government directed its embassies in the U.S. to issue visas without letting the ISI or Pakistan’s Interior Ministry vet them. According to the Associated Press, this opened a “floodgate” that saw 3,555 visas for diplomats, military officials and employees issued in 2010.

Many of those visas were for non-governmental organizations and the staff for the huge, $1 billion fortress embassy Washington is building in Islamabad, but thousands of others covered consular agents and workers in Lahore (where Davis was arrested), Karachi and other cities. Some of those with visas work for Xe Services (formally Blackwater), others for low-profile agencies like Blackbird Technologies, Glevum Associates, and K2 Solutions. Many of the “employees” of these groups are former U.S. military personnel—Davis was in the Special Forces for 10 years—and former CIA agents. And the fact that these are private companies allows them to fly under the radar of congressional oversight, as frail a reed as that may be.

How one views the incident that touched off the current diplomatic crisis is an example of how deep the differences between Pakistan and the U.S. have become.

The Americans claim Davis was carrying out surveillance on radical insurgent groups, and was simply defending himself from two armed robbers.  But Davis’s story has problems. It does appear that the two men on the motorbike were armed, but neither fired their weapon and, according to the police report, one did not even have a shell in his pistol’s firing chamber. Davis apparently fired through the window of his armored SUV, then stepped out of the car and shot the two men in the back, one while attempting to flee. He then calmly took photos, called for backup, climbed into his car, and drove off. He was arrested shortly afterwards at an intersection.

The Pakistanis have a different view of the incident. According to Pakistani press reports, the two men were working for the ISI and were trailing Davis because the intelligence agency suspected that the CIA agent was in contact with the Tehrik-e-Taliban, a Pakistani group based in North Waziristan that is currently warring with Islamabad. As an illustration of how bizarre things are these days in Pakistan, one widespread rumor is that the U.S. is behind the Tehtik-e-Taliban bombings as part of a strategy to destabilize Pakistan and lay the groundwork for an American seizure of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal.

The ISI maintains close ties with the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, as well as its allies, the Hizb-e-Islami and the Haqqani Group. All three groups are careful to keep a distance from Pakistan’s Taliban

Yet another rumor claims that Davis was spying on Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group with close ties to the ISI that is accused of organizing the 2008 massacre in Mumbai, India. The Americans claim the organization is working with al-Qaeda, a charge the Pakistanis reject.

When Davis’s car was searched, police turned up not only the Glock semi-automatic he used to shoot the men, but four loaded clips, a GPS device, and a camera. The latter, according to the police report, had photos of “sensitive” border sites. “This is not the work of a diplomat,” Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah told the Guardian (UK), “he was doing espionage and surveillance activities.”

The shooting also had the feel of an execution. One of the men was shot twice in the back and his body was more than 30 feet from the motorbike, an indication he was attempting to flee. “It went way beyond what we define as self-defense, “ a senior police official told the Guardian (UK), “It was not commensurate with the threat.” The Lahore Chief of Police called it a “cold-blooded murder.”

The U.S. claims that Davis is protected by diplomatic immunity, but the matter might not be as open and shut as the U.S. is making it. According to the Pakistani Express Tribune, Davis’s name was not on a list of diplomats submitted to Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry on Jan. 25. The day after the shooting the embassy submitted a revised list that listed Davis as a diplomat.

Washington clearly considered Davis to be important. When he asked for backup on the day of the shooting, another SUV was dispatched to support him, apparently manned by agents living at the same safe house as Davis. The rescue mission went wrong when it ran over a motorcyclist while going the wrong direction down a one-way street. When the Pakistani authorities wanted to question the agents, they found that both had been whisked out of the country.

Almost immediately the Obama administration sent Sen. John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to Islamabad to apologize and pressure Pakistan to release Davis. But the incident has stirred up a hornet’s nest in Pakistan, where the CIA’s drone war has deeply alienated most Pakistanis. Opposition parties are demanding that the CIA agent be tried for murder. A hearing on the issue of whether Davis has diplomatic immunity will be heard Mar. 14.

In the meantime, Davis is being held under rather extraordinary security because of rumors that the Americans will try to spring him, or even poison him. Davis is being shielded from any direct contact with U.S. officials, and a box of chocolates sent to Davis by the Embassy was confiscated.

The backdrop for the crisis is a growing estrangement between the two countries over their respective strategies in Afghanistan.

The U.S. has stepped up its attacks on the Afghan insurgents, launched a drone war in Pakistan, and is demanding that Islamabad take a much more aggressive stance toward the Taliban’s allies based in the Afghan border region. While Washington still talks about a “diplomatic resolution” to the Afghan war, it is busy blowing up the very people it will eventually need to negotiate with.

This approach makes no sense to Pakistan. From Islamabad’s point of view, increasing attacks on the Taliban and their allies will only further destabilize Pakistan, and substitutes military victory for a diplomatic settlement. Since virtually every single independent observer think the former is impossible, the current U.S. strategy is, as terror expert Anatol Lieven puts it, “lunatic reasoning.”

Pakistan wants to insure that any Afghan government that emerges from the war is not a close ally of India, a country with which it has already fought three wars. A pro-Indian government in Kabul would essentially surround Pakistan with hostile forces. Yet the Americans have pointedly refused to address the issue of Indian-Pakistan tension over Kashmir, in large part because Washington very much wants an alliance with India.

In short, the U.S. and Pakistan don’t see eye to eye on Afghanistan, and Islamabad is suspicious that Americans like Davis are undermining Pakistan’s interests in what Islamabad views as an area central to its national security. “They [the U.S.] need to come clean and tell us who they [agents] are, what they are doing,” one ISI official told the Guardian (UK). “They need to stop doing things behind our back.”

There are a lot of unanswered questions about the matter. Was the ISI onto Davis, and was he really in contact with groups the Pakistani army didn’t want him talking to? What did Washington know about Davis’ mission, and when did it know it? Did Davis think he was being held up, or was it a cold-blooded execution of two troublesome tails?

Rumor has it that the CIA and the ISI are in direct negotiations to find an acceptable solution, but there are constraints on all sides. The Pakistani public is enraged with the U.S. and resents that it has been pulled into the Afghan quagmire. On the other hand, there are many in Washington—particularly in Congress—who are openly talking about cutting off the $1.5 billion of yearly U.S. aid to Pakistan.

What the incident has served to illuminate is the fact that U.S. intelligence operations are increasingly being contracted out to private companies with little apparent oversight from Congress. At last count, the U.S. Defense Department had almost 225,000 private contractors working for them.

The privatization of intelligence adds yet another layer of opacity to an endeavor that is already well hidden by a blanket of “national security,” and funded by black budgets most Americans never see. The result of all this is a major diplomatic crisis in what is unarguably the most dangerous piece of ground on the planet.



Filed under Afghanistan, Asia, Central Asia, China, India

China and the US: Things That Go Bang

China and the US :Things That Go Bang

Dispatches From the Edge

Feb. 24, 2011

Reading the headlines about U.S.-China relations might lead one to conclude that current tensions between the two have less to do with political differences than chemical imbalances: “The Chinese Tiger Shows Its Claws” vs. “China Helps Defuse Korea Crisis”; or “America is far too soft in its dealings with Beijing” vs. “Blaming China will not solve America’s problems.” What comes to mind is a dose of Thorazine, or maybe a Lithium regime?

In fact, there are both real differences and common ground, but sorting through them can be a taxing exercise in deep analysis.  Are the tensions over an increasingly aggressive Beijing beginning to assert itself in a world formerly dominated by the Americans? Or is Washington encircling China with allies and military bases aimed at blocking the rise of an up-and-coming international rival?

On the surface this antagonism resembles the imperial competition between Britain and Germany at end of the 19th century, but the world of 2011 is very different than in 1914, far more connected, far more interdependent, and yet still dangerous. What does seem clear is that every time either side brings in its military, tensions increase and solutions turn elusive.

The partnership between Beijing and Washington is built on money and trade. China currently holds almost a trillion dollars in U.S. Treasury Securities, and yearly trade between the two is over $400 billion.  In comparison, China’s trade with the entire European Union is about the same.  Both economies are interdependent, and trouble in one generally means trouble in the other.

But as the number one and number two economies in the world, China and the U.S. are also competitors for markets and raw materials.

China is currently the number two energy user in the world, and, to fuel its explosive industrialization, it will require 11.3 million barrels of oil a day (bpd) by 2015. Since it only produces 3.7 million bpd on its own, much of China’s foreign policy in aimed at insuring a steady flow of energy. How that energy gets to China, and who supplies it, is the rub.

China’s major suppliers are Saudi Arabia, Angola and Iran, which means about 80 percent of its energy supplies travel by sea through two choke points, the Straits of Hormuz and the Malacca Straits. Both are controlled by the U.S. Navy.

Beijing has adopted a two-pronged strategy to deal with its energy insecurity. First, it is increasingly moving its energy supplies via pipelines from Russia and Central Asia. The Turkmenistan-Xingjian pipeline is up and running, as is the huge Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline from Russia.

Secondly, it is beefing up its sea borne forces and establishing a “string of pearls”: a series of Chinese navy-friendly ports in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Gwadar, Pakistan. The Gwadar port could also serve as the jumping off point for an Iran-India-Pakistan-China pipeline. Iran and Pakistan have already signed on, and India and China have signaled their interest. If the U.S. successfully pressures India to keep out, China will step in with investment money.

But the naval buildup is only partly due to Chinese nervousness over its sea routes. A major impetus behind the increase came out of a 1996 incident, when the Clinton administration sent two aircraft carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Straits during a tense standoff between Formosa and the mainland. Since the Chinese did not have an aircraft carrier, or much in the way of weapons that could challenge them, Beijing was forced to back off. It was a humiliation in their home waters that the Chinese were not about to forget.

China’s navy, however, is a long way from presenting any serious challenge to the U.S. For instance, China’s lone aircraft carrier was originally constructed by the Russians in the 1980s, and is half the size of a Nimitz-class carrier, of which the U.S. has 10.

Much has been made of a new Chinese ballistic missile that U.S. Admiral Robert Willard recently claimed was a major threat to U.S. carriers. But the missile is not yet operational, and no one really knows what its capabilities are.

“China’s military rise is not to attack America, but to make sure that China is not attacked by America,” says Chinese military analyst Liu Mingfu.

However, China’s push to keep the U.S. out of areas it considers “core” has also put it in conflict with a number of south Asian nations that have equal claims on islands in the South China Sea. Some of that tension is the result of some serious high handedness by Beijing. In responding to protests over China’s claims, Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister, sounded almost imperial: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”

The spat gave Washington an opportunity to extend its support to countries in the region, including Vietnam, which as welcomed U.S. naval vessels back to Cam Ranh Bay and carried out joint military maneuvers with their old enemies.

Beijing views U.S. efforts to “mediate” disputes in its core areas as part of a campaign to encircle China with hostile bases and allies. The U.S. has more than 100 bases in Japan, 85 in South Korea, plus ones in the Philippines, Guam, and even a few in Central Asia.

“If you are a strategic thinker in China, you do not have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to think that the U.S. is trying to bandwagon Asia against China,” says Simon Tay, chair of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.

But, in the case of the1996 Taiwan incident and the recent South China Sea brouhaha, military threats ended up backfiring on both China and the U.S. The Clinton administration’s gunboat diplomacy ignited a naval building program by China that now presents a local challenge to the U.S. And China’s cavalier approach to its south Asian neighbors ended up giving Washington an opening and handing Beijing a diplomatic setback.

Likewise China’s prickliness with India over their mutual border has given the U.S. greater influence in New Delhi, and a recent dustup between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyus islands has pushed Tokyo closer to Washington.

In short, military threats, even veiled ones, generally end up blowing up on whoever makes them.

In part this is a reflection of the difference between the world of 1914 and today. Back then imperial adventures generally brought benefits. Today the terms “adventures” and “overreach” are almost synonymous.

The U.S. has the most powerful military in the world, but its sojourn in Iraq has been a strategic disaster, and it is bogged down in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. The U.S. could probably win any conventional battle on the planet, but it increasingly finds that it cannot win a war. It could flatten Iran, but does anyone believe the Iranians would then surrender? It would be far more likely that the consequent jump in oil prices would topple economies across the globe.

In contrast, the Chinese have recently cut a deal for Iraqi oil, and Afghan minerals, all without losing a single soldier.  They have also invested $120 billion in Iran’s energy and become Teheran’s number one trading partner. While the U.S. was building new military bases in Central America and firing up its Fifth Fleet to rattle sabers in Latin America, China was toppling the U.S. as the continent’s major trading partner.

The recent U.S.-China summit went smoothly, countering much of the rhetoric that the two giants were on a collision course. But while Washington and Beijing found much to agree on (and tip-toed past some of what they did not), the tension is still there.

What both sides must avoid is letting their respective general staffs have a say in what relations between the two nations should be. Irrespective of the language they speak, every admiral wants a new ship, and every general wants a new missile. The job of the military is to win wars and that requires lots of things that go bang.

But these days things that go bang are increasingly expensive and more likely to cause grief than win laurels.



Filed under Asia, China, India, Military, Pacific, Philippines

Israelis Divided On Whacking Iran

Israelis Divided on Whacking Iran

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 20. 2011

Behind the recent appointment of Israel’s new military chief of staff are several months of bitter infighting among Israeli generals and intelligence agencies over whether to attack Iran, and, in the event of such an attack, how to rope the U.S. into the war.

The replacement of Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi with Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz is the outcome of a seesaw battle between a wing of the Israeli army, allied with the intelligence services, that have cautioned against a war with Iran, pitted against Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and a coterie of more aggressive generals. The feud has become so intense that veteran military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai says, “The state of Israel is sinking into anarchy.”

According to the Asia Time’s Victor Kotsev, Ashkenazi, backed by Israel’s intelligence chiefs, and possibly with quiet support from Washington, maneuvered to block Barak’s choice for a new chief of staff by torpedoing the candidacy of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, and then blocking the Defense Minister’s attempt to appoint the hawkish Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh as acting chief of staff.

The civil war, according to Kotsev, reflects “a split in Israeli political and military circles on whether to attack Iran. According to [veteran Israeli journalist Aluf] Benn, the outgoing chiefs of the army and the intelligence …are firmly opposed to a unilateral military intervention, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak have stacked their political fortunes on a strike.”

The falling out between Ashkenazi and Barak began last year when the latter opposed the defense minister’s proposal to attack Iran, remarking, “Initiating such a war will only bring disaster on Israel.” Barak responded by shortening Ashkenazi’s tenure and replacing him with Galant, the controversial general who lead operation “Cast Lead,” the brutal assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians.

According to the Israeli Daily Haaretz, Galant was seen as “more aggressive on Iran and will not block Netanyahu and Barak, who are eager to go into battle against Iran.”

But Galant had to withdraw when it was revealed that he had appropriated public land that surrounded his villa in northern Israel, and Barak blamed Ashkenazi—almost certainly correctly—for leaking the scandal. Barak had already alienated the military by trying to shift the blame for last year’s disastrous interception of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara onto the army and intelligence agencies.

The whole brouhaha has weakened Barak, who lost whatever base he had when he recently pulled out of the Labor Party to start up a more centrist organization. “Barak suffered one of the toughest routs of his life, second only to his loss of the Prime Minister’s post in the 2001 elections,” says Israeli journalist Amir Oren.

Israeli analyst Benn suggests that Washington might have had a hand in the affair by encouraging resistance to Barak within the Israeli military. Gantz is seen as a general with close ties to his American counterparts, and word has it that the Pentagon was chilly toward Barak during his recent visit to Washington. With Barak badly wounded by the fight, there are a number of players on the sidelines, including rightwing Likudites Moshe Ya’alon and Dan Meridor, who are hankering after his job.

This fight is hardly a split between doves and hawks. According to columnist J.J. Goldberg of the Jewish weekly Forward, while the new Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, has “spoken scathingly” of the “short-sighted strategic vision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak,” he is hardly part of some peace faction. Rather the division seems to be between aggressive right-wingers supported by the settler movement and opposed to any agreement with the Arabs, and a more “cautious faction” that includes Ashkenazi.

Ashkenazi favors “covert action”—military-speak for targeted assassinations—and returning the Golan Heights to Syria as a strategy to divide Damascus and Teheran, “a view shared unanimously by the heads of Israel’s intelligence agencies” says Goldberg.

But the now-retired chief of staff is hardly some kind of peacenik. In his farewell address, Ashkenazi talked of “tectonic changes” in the Middle East and gave a generally gloomy view of an Israel surrounded by growing Islamic fundamentalism in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and possibly Egypt. His opposition to attacking Iran has less to do with the political fallout than the fear that Israel would do so “unilaterally.”

It is not clear where Gantz or the newly appointed intelligence heads stand on the matter of Iran, but Reuters reports that “the new crop of generals and spymasters could prove more cooperative to war orders” from the civilian administration.

There are powerful forces arguing for attacking Iran, many of them among the newly resurgent American neo-conservatives. U.S House Resolution 1533, introduced last year by 46 Republicans, supports Israel using “any means necessary” against Iran. While H-1533 languished in the Foreign Affairs Committee when Democrats controlled the House, the resolution is certain to re-emerge with Republicans in charge.

The charge to war, according to Gareth Porter of IPS, is led by neo-cons like Reuel Marc Gerecht, the former director of the New American Century, a think tank that can claim much of the credit for getting the Bush Administration to invade Iraq. “What is important to understand about this campaign,” says Porter, “is that the aim of Gerecht and the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is to support an attack by Israel so that the United States can be drawn into a direct, full-scale war with Iran.”

The neo-cons want more than surgical strikes aimed at Iran’s nuclear industry, they want a real war—“No cruise missiles at midnight to minimize the body count” says Gerecht—and regime change. As David Wurmster, former vice-president Dick Cheney’s key advisor on the Middle East, put it, “If we start shooting, we must be prepared to fire the last shot. Don’t shoot a bear if you are not going to kill it.”

The campaign is aimed at creating domestic pressure on the Obama administration to back Israel once it attacks. Israel has a powerful air force and navy, but unless it used some of its nuclear arsenal—an act that is hard to contemplate but by no means out of the question—it can’t do the job on its own.

Would most Americans back such an attack? Polls show that a majority of Americans don’t want a war with Iran, but that they also strongly support Israel. If the Iranians can be demonized enough—the current regime’s crackdown on dissent is already doing a pretty good job in that regard—might those numbers shift? Gerecht thinks they will: “If the Israelis bomb now, American public opinion will probably be with them, perhaps decisively so.”

In the meantime, the Netanyahu administration is doing its best to whip up anti-Iranian sentiment. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the recent transit of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal a “provocation,” even though the canal is an international waterway and recently saw several Israeli warships pass through it on their way into the Persian Gulf. “Unfortunately, the international community is not showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations,” Lieberman said. “The international community must understand that Israel cannot ignore these provocations forever.”

Bombast? Certainly the Israeli Foreign Minister is renowned for that, but in this case he has strong support in the Tel Aviv government, among the powerful settler movement, and with at least some of the military. As the Israeli daily Haaretz notes, “2010 went by without a war with Iran. In the winter no one goes to war because the clouds limit air force operations. But in 2011, a conflict is brewing.”

It is a conflict that could escalate from a regional calamity to an international disaster if the U.S. joins in.


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Filed under Iran, Israel, Middle East

The Irish Elections and the Ghost of Padraic Pearse

The Irish Elections & the Ghost of Padraic Pearse

Dispatches From The Edge


“I say to the masters of my people, beware. Beware of the thing that is coming, Beware of the risen people who shall take what yea would not give.”

Padraic Pearse, Irish poet and revolutionary, executed May 16, 1916 for his part in the Easter Rebellion.


It is almost a hundred years since Pearse and his comrades were executed in the aftermath of the failed rising of 1916, but the people who run the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union (EU) might take a moment to read his poem—originally read over the grave of the great Fenian leader, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa—and take notice: an election is scheduled for Feb. 25, and Irish eyes are not smiling.


At stake is whether Ireland will lock itself into decades of high unemployment, burdensome taxes, and eviscerated social services in order to bail banks and real estate speculators out of trouble, or rise up and say “enough.”


The current economic crisis that turned the once formidable “Celtic Tiger” into a throw rug is the direct result of massive speculation by banks—both domestic and foreign—in Ireland’s real estate bubble. From 1994 to 2008, house prices in Dublin rose 500 percent, and speculators went on a massive construction spree that filled up the landscape with “ghost” projects: houses that were never finished or would never be lived in. Unemployment is 14 percent, and personal income has declined 20 percent. Projections are that more than 100,000 people will emigrate in the coming two years.


The banks and politicians were the major culprits in the speculation madness, with the former handing out cash they didn’t have, and the latter making sure that fees, taxes and regulations were waived. Ireland has the lowest corporate tax rate in Europe. Michael Lewis, writing for Vanity Fair, has calculated the following: the Anglo-Irish Bank lost 34 billion Euros, which if  measured by its percentage of the national economy, would be the equivalent of 3.4 trillion dollars in the U.S..  Using the same formula, the losses for all Irish banks—106 billion Euros—would translate into 10 trillion dollars. Do keep in mind that Ireland is half the size of Alabama and one tenth the size of Texas.


The ruling coalition of Fianna Fail and the Green Party pushed through a $114 billion EU/IMF bailout, one that required Ireland to go back to the Iron Age, or maybe the Stone Age, when all is said and done. Taxes on the income of working people were raised to 41 percent, the minimum wage was slashed, tuition raised, and social services disemboweled. And Ireland was locked into paying back the EU at the usurious rate of 6 percent, even though the EU is borrowing the money it is lending to Ireland at 2.8 percent.


The bailout has tanked what was left of the Irish economy—the pre-bailout estimate of a 2.3 percent growth rate has been downgraded to 1 percent—and enraged the populace. One of Ireland’s current heroes is Gary Keogh, who took two rotten eggs—he prepared them by leaving them in his garage for six weeks—into a shareholders meeting of the Anglo-Irish Bank and egged the bank’s chairman.


The Feb. 25 vote will see six parties vying for votes in the 26-county elections. The current ruling party Fianna Fail, and Fine Gael, the Labor Party, the Green Party, Sinn Fein, and the brand new United Left Alliance (ULA).


A brief scorecard.


Fianna Fail (“Soldiers of Ireland”) has dominated the politics of the Irish Republic for 60 out of the last 88 years. Its economic philosophy is free market, and its social policies are conservative and closely aligned with the Catholic Church. Its traditional base is small farmers and businesses, but in recent years it has been able to draw on the enormous wealth of property speculators and financiers. If there is any one party responsible for the current meltdown, it is Fianna Fail, and it may drop from its current 71 seats in the 166-member Dial to as few as 30.


Fine Gael (“Family of the Irish”) is center-right, and the second largest party, but it hasn’t won a general election since 1982. Its economic politics are not much different than Fianna Fail’s, and the party voted—with minor reservations—for the EU-IMF bailout. Its base is large farmers, rural businesses, and Dublin professionals, and it tends to be socially liberal.


The Labor Party is center-left and an offspring of several earlier parties, including the Democratic Left, the Irish Workers Party, and the Official Sinn Fein Labor. Its base is trade unionists, civil servants and teachers, and it also voted for the bailout. Its leader, Eamon Gilmore, is demanding that bank bondholders absorb some of the pain from the bailout.  If it does well, it will probably go into a coalition with Fine Gael, although there will be friction over Fine Gael’s program to privatize public services.


The Green Party has only six seats, and it is almost certain to feel the wrath voters will level at Fianna Fail, its coalition partner. It is a mostly urban party whose only real accomplishment was to ban stag hunting. It may cease to exist after Feb. 25.


Sinn Fein (“Ourselves Alone”) is a left party, and the only one to vote against the bailout.  While it currently holds only five seats in the Dial, it recently took a seat away from Fianna Fail in a Donegal by-election. Its unrelenting opposition to the bailout is earning it points with trade unionists and civil servants, and the party may be on the verge of a major breakthrough, possibly even outpolling Fianna Fail.


The United Left Party (ULP) is a newcomer, formed in November 2010 from the Socialist Party, the People Before Profits Alliance, the Workers & Unemployed Action Group, plus former Labor Party members and independents. It also opposed the bailout and says it will not go into a coalition with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.


Sinn Fein contends that the bailout’s austerity program will destroy whatever is left of the Irish economy, an argument that recently got strong support from the British Office for National Statistics. The Office found that the United Kingdom’s economy had fallen by 0.5 percent because of a falloff in services and consumption. While the new Conservative-Liberal alliance tried to blame the bad news on the early December snowstorms, economists generally agreed that Britain’s draconian austerity budget was largely to blame.


“Now we are seeing the first signs of what the Conservative-led government’s decisions are having on the economy,” British Labor Party economic spokesman told the New York Times. Even the Confederation of British Industry chimed in. The new government has “been careless of the damage they might do to business and to job creation,” said Confederation Director Richard Lambert. “It is not enough just to slam on the brakes.”


Fianna Fail says it wants to renegotiate the 6 percent interest rate, and the Labor Party wants bondholders to take some of the pain, but so far, only Sinn Fein is demanding that the agreement be dumped. Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams says his party would reject the bailout, reverse the cuts, and submit a new budget that would ensure that those that can afford to pay will pay more. “We reject the EU/IMF deal, which is a digout for greedy bankers and speculators, not a bailout for the Irish citizens.”


Odds are the Fianna Fail will get shellacked, Fine Gael will win big, and go into a coalition with Labor. But the latter alliance will be an uncomfortable one, and there are rumors of a deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. The idea would be for Fine Gael to rule as a minority government with an agreement by Fianna Fail to support it. That would allow Fianna Fail to slip into government through a side door.


The key to all this will be how well Sinn Fein and the ULA do, and whether either party gets enough votes to torpedo a Fianna Fail-Fine Gael gentleman’s agreement. What Labor will do in this case, is unclear. There is no love lost between Labor and Sinn Fein, but Labor is deeply worried that if it highlights its centrist credentials, Sinn Fein and the ULA will draw off large numbers of angry trade unionists.


One thing is clear: The Irish are angry, and they aren’t being quiet about it. “All deputies receive calls to their Dial offices from members of the public,” says Sinn Fein Dial leader Caoimhghin O Caolain. “Often they are the old, the sick and the vulnerable. Yesterday my office received one such call from an elderly man whose blind pension was cut in the budget. He had one simple message: ‘Give us a voice.’ We must all listen to him and to countless others like him.”


Any attempt to renegotiate the terms of the bailout will meet stiff resistance. Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, a member of the European Central Bank executive board, says that the EU would not allow any “reneging” on the agreement. On the other hand, the Germans seem to be edging away from the EU’s hard-nosed posture of enforcing punitive interest rates.


Whatever party does a better job of taping into Ireland’s anger will likely do well Feb. 25. But the outcome of this election is not just a concern for the Irish. Greece—another victim of EU/IMF austerity will certainly be watching what happens and whether Ireland will be the first country since Argentina declared bankruptcy in 2002 to say “Enough.” Waiting in the wings are Spain and Portugal.


Ireland is just a little island, with not many people and a lot of rain. But on occasion it engages the attention of the world. It did so in 1798. It did so during the Great Famine of 1845-48, and again on Easter Sunday, 1916. It may do so again on Feb. 25, 2011 when Pearse’s risen people will have their say.






Filed under Europe