Should NATO Be Handling World Security? Peace Action board member Larry Wittner on Huffington Post

May 26, 2012

So, I was planning to write a post-NATO Summit op-ed (and we may well have more reports, photos, etc. on our terrific work in Chicago soon) but hadn’t gotten around to it. Which is just as well, because Peace Action board member Larry Wittner published this very comprehensive yet concise piece about NATO on Huffington Post. Here it is:

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (better known as NATO) is in the news once again thanks to a NATO Summit meeting in Chicago over the weekend of May 19-20 and to large public demonstrations in Chicago against this military pact.

NATO’s website defines the alliance’s mission as “Peace and Security,” and shows two children lying in the grass, accompanied by a bird, a flower and the happy twittering of birds. There is no mention of the fact that NATO is the world’s most powerful military pact, or that NATO nations account for 70 percent of the world’s annual $1.74 trillion in military spending.

The organizers of the demonstrations, put together by peace and social justice groups, assailed NATO for bogging the world down in endless war and for diverting vast resources to militarism.According to a spokesperson for one of the protest groups, Peace Action: “It’s time to retire NATO and form a new alliance to address unemployment, hunger, and climate change.”

NATO was launched in April 1949, at a time when Western leaders feared that the Soviet Union, if left unchecked, would invade Western Europe. The U.S. government played a key role in organizing the alliance, which brought in not only West European nations, but the United States and Canada. Dominated by the United States, NATO had a purely defensive mission — to safeguard its members from military attack, presumably by the Soviet Union.

That attack never occurred, either because it was deterred by NATO’s existence or because the Soviet government had no intention of attacking in the first place. We shall probably never know.

In any case, with the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, it seemed that NATO had outlived its usefulness.

But vast military establishments, like other bureaucracies, rarely just fade away. If the original mission no longer exists, new missions can be found. And so NATO’s military might was subsequently employed to bomb Yugoslavia, to conduct counter-insurgency warfare in Afghanistan, and to bomb Libya. Meanwhile, NATO expanded its membership and military facilities to East European nations right along Russia’s border, thus creating renewed tension with that major military power and providing it with an incentive to organize a countervailing military pact, perhaps with China.

None of this seems likely to end soon. In the days preceding the Chicago meeting, NATO’s new, sweeping role was highlighted by Oana Lungescu, a NATO spokesperson, who announced that the Summit would “discuss the Alliance’s overall posture in deterring and defending against the full range of threats in the 21st century, and take stock of NATO’s mix of conventional, nuclear, and missile defense forces.”

In fairness to NATO planners, it should be noted that, when it comes to global matters, they are operating in a relative vacuum. There are real international security problems, and some entity should certainly be addressing them.

But is NATO the proper entity? After all, NATO is a military pact, dominated by the United States and composed of a relatively small group of self-selecting European and North American nations. The vast majority of the world’s countries do not belong to NATO and have no influence upon it. Who appointed NATO as the representative of the world’s people? Why should the public in India, in Brazil, in China, in South Africa, in Argentina, or most other nations identify with the decisions of NATO’s military commanders?

The organization that does represent the nations and people of the world is the United Nations. Designed to save the planet from “the scourge of war,” the United Nations has a Security Council (on which the United States has permanent membership) that is supposed to handle world security issues. Unlike NATO, whose decisions are often controversial and sometimes questionable, the United Nations almost invariably comes forward with decisions that have broad international support and, furthermore, show considerable wisdom and military restraint.

The problem with UN decisions is not that they are bad ones, but that they are difficult to enforce. And the major reason for the difficulty in enforcement is that the Security Council is hamstrung by a veto that can be exercised by any one nation. Thus, much like the filibuster in the U.S. Senate, which is making the United States less and less governable, the Security Council veto has seriously limited what the world organization is able to do in addressing global security issues.

Thus, if the leaders of NATO nations were really serious about providing children with a world in which they could play in peace among the birds and flowers, they would work to strengthen the United Nations and stop devoting vast resources to questionable wars.

Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is “Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual” (University of Tennessee Press).

Only a Month Away, Won’t You Please Come to Chicago…for Peace, Justice and a NATO-Free Future!

April 16, 2012

–Executive Director Kevin Martin

In just over a month, peace activists and allies from other social justice movements from around the country and around the world will gather in Chicago (where I lived and worked for ten terrific years) to call for peace, economic justice and the end of NATO when that alliance convenes for its annual meeting. Please plan to join us May 18-20 for what will be an illuminating, action oriented Counter-Summit conference, and a march of veterans of the Afghanistan war returning their medals to U.S. officials to call for an end to our country’s longest war and just treatment for returning veterans and the people of Afghanistan who have suffered immeasurably over the last several decades of nearly endless wars.

More information, including registration and speakers can be found on the NATO-Free Future website (Peace Action is a founding member of the national and international coalitions on this issue). I’ll be there and hope you will join us!

Also, WBEZ-FM, Chicago’s public radio station, hosted a thought-provoking live public town meeting on NATO and the upcoming summit, featuring Kathy Kelly, co-founder of Voices for Creative Non-Violence, a longtime friend and ally and a principle speaker at our conference in May. It’s long, and hour and a half, but worthwhile. Kathy, who has traveled many timed to Afghanistan in solidarity with the people of that war-weary country, is excellent as always on the show, and the audience Q and A session with host Jerome McDonnell (the last 30-45 minutes or so) is very interesting, great questions and comments from the attendees.

Peace Action on C-SPAN

August 17, 2011

Thanks to the hard work of national Peace Action board member (and University of Hawai’i Human Rights Law Center founder) Joshua Cooper, Peace Action got some serious airtime (an hour and a quarter) on C-SPAN. Joshua has organized Human Rights on the Hill conferences in DC for law students and the public for a decade now, and he and I were filmed at this year’s event at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke Law School.

Four More Years of War? Not On Our Watch!

June 24, 2011

I made notes on President Obama’s “war lite” speech the other night, intending to rebut many of his points, but it’s too easy, and also not really what I want to convey. However, here are a few points:

-The mainstream media frame that Obama is withdrawing more troops than the military wanted, so this will help his anti-war base, if way, well, off-base. While the 10,000 troops coming home this year and additional 23,000 by next September is too small, it’s larger than it would have been without our tireless grassroots and congressional organizing. So we recognize our power, and will re-double our efforts; we are not in the least appeased by the president’s half-measures, and neither is Congress. A bi-partisan letter to Obama is already in circulation calling for a bigger, faster troop withdrawal.

-The president said violence is declining, but that’s not at all true. This year has been the deadliest both for Afghan civilians and for our troops (and violence is on the rise in Baghdad, too, now one of our “other wars”).

-The president talked about devoting resources to rebuilding our country, but he has just committed us to another $300-400 billion of war over the next four years in Afghanistan.  The U.S. Conference of Mayors didn’t buy it; last weekend in Baltimore, they passed a strong anti-war resolution (their first since 1971 during the Vietnam War). 

-Nobody in the Administration will admit this, but these (too small) withdrawals do indeed change the strategy, at least looking past a year. As my colleague Bill Goodfellow from the Center for International Policy points out, 68,000 troops is too small a force to continue a counterinsurgency strategy, so our pressure has forced a strategic shift.

Peace Action got some good media hits after the president’s speech, here are a few of them:

John Nichols on The Nation, NPR and CBS websites (quotes our tireless Organizing and Policy Director Paul Kawika Martin)

Augusta Free Press


Long Island Newsday


Peace Action also got a “tip of the hat” in Tom Hayden’s article in The Nation

For some terrific analysis of the president’s speech and the way forward, try these:

Rebecca Griffin of Peace Action West

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies on AlterNet

Former Peace Action Executive Director (back in the day when we were Sane and Sane/Freeze) David Cortight on

And finally, my article which draws a bit of a broader frame, and will be in our next Action Report newsletter:

When I first heard a report of President Obama’s decision to remove only 5,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year (which turned out to be only half what he announced June 22, with another 23,000 troops to leave by September, 2012), my first thought was “did he forget a zero?” The decision was disappointing but not surprising. Remember, candidate Obama promised to escalate the Afghanistan war (which he did, twice), and as president, he has committed himself to “winning” it (whatever that means, I’m reminded of the pacifist Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin’s quote, “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake”).
Moreover, the military has consistently and effectively influenced the president’s decisions on the war, with former Secretary of War Robert Gates, Generals David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal and others constantly speaking in public and to the media “setting policy,” which the president has enabled (Truman or Eisenhower would doubtless have fired them for that).
The President’s decision to prolong the war despite escalating public and congressional pressure surely reflects the malign influence of the Military-Industrial Complex (though I don’t mean to give the president a pass here, he is accountable for his decisions). The MIC won’t be taken down quickly or easily, perhaps not in our lifetimes.
But it will be taken down. The U.S. Empire is on the decline. Let’s replace it with a flowering U.S. Republic (in the phrase of the philosopher Johan Galtung). Protesting the wars and scourges of the Empire is only half our job. Empowering people to envision and decide what comes after, or along with, that decline is even more important. Even some in the military realize the U.S. needs a new foreign policy, one based less on belligerence and military might and more on peaceful diplomacy and international cooperation, as the recent “Mr. Y” article showed.
At reception near the United Nations at which I was humbled to be honored by non-governmental organizations that work at the UN, I asked attendees to close their eyes and envision that more peaceful, just world we will help build as the Empire declines. I asked folks to shout out what they envisioned. “A peaceful future for our children,” “meaningful jobs for all,” “an environment restored, with green energy technology and good public transit,” “health care for everyone” and “the end of nuclear power” were just some of the inspiring visions shared that night. It was beautiful!
So this is not a time to despair. Yes, we at Peace Action are sick of all wars, whether a Republican or Democrat is in the White House. But signs of our successes at shaping that new world abound:
-Public opinion is now solidly against the Afghanistan war – that’s our doing!
-The House and Senate finally sent strong messages to Obama of their opposition to the war, mostly because of our hard work.
-Congress is pushing the administration on the illegality of the Libya war.
-(Now former) Secretary of War Gates on the defensive in his last Senate hearing, reduced to declaring about Afghanistan “it’s not a war without end.”
-The recent U.S. Conference of Mayors resolutions calling for redirecting war spending to human needs and advocating the global elimination of nuclear weapons.
– The military budget is still gargantuan, but the organizing and political climate for working on this issue is the best we’ve seen decades – our Move the Money campaign is growing every day!
-Next year’s Peace Voter 2012 campaign could be one of our most important yet, as citizen-activists take control of the debate over wars, military spending and nuclear weapons and force House, Senate and Presidential candidates to address our issues on our terms!
-The Peace Action affiliate and chapter network is growing, very impressively, into new states and regions (please see the “Affiliates in Action” article and photo of Nebraskans for Peace, our new affiliate, in this issue!)
Peace and justice work is hard, there’s no question about it. That’s why we call it “the struggle,” not “the picnic.” But we have momentum, and the power of the people, on our side, let’s never forget that, and most importantly, let’s organize that power!

Yesterday’s Terrorist

May 6, 2011

–Peter Deccy, Development Director

One thing the killing of Osama bin Laden accomplished is it put aside any shame that should rightfully be borne by NATO for the ghastly bombing of Saif al-Arab’s home this past weekend which killed al-Arab, the son of Moammar Gaddafi and three of Gaddafi’s grandchildren, ages 6 months to two years of age. Unable to win, unwilling to accept failure or pay a higher cost themselves, NATO tried to take Gaddafi out, missed and killed the innocent it insists it is there to protect.

By May 20, President Obama is required by the War Powers Act to seek Congressional approval for US participation in military operations against Libya. While the US has relinquished its lead role in the campaign, it remains a part of the coalition and US troops are still engaged in military operations. The War Powers Act allows the president to use military force for 60 days without congressional approval. The President must follow the law and if US forces remain involved, even peripherally after that date, the President needs Congressional approval.

The President has said Gaddafi has to go. Even though that is not the stated goal of the administration or its coalition partners, it’s hard to see how they will be satisfied with less. It already clear they underestimated Gaddafi’s support, the tribal allegiances at play in Libya and the ability of the opposition to sustain its cohesion and organized opposition.

NATO tried to end Gaddafi’s rule with one ‘precision’ missile attack and in my view, relinquished any claim to the moral high ground it may have been able to claim in the process.

The War Powers Act exists to prevent US involvement in open ended warfare where objectives are unclear and our interests and values are not served. Even though I suspect Congress would disregard this intent and extend US involvement in this sorry affair, I am even more concerned the precedent set by Congressional inaction sets the stage for future nightmares with even less legitimacy.

The so-called War on Terror has become our very own license to kill. Killing innocent people is the problem, not the solution.

Obama’s Prague Plus Two Years Agenda on Nuclear Disarmament

April 5, 2011

(And now for something completely different – a respite from the criticisms peace activists justifiably level at President Obama over Libya, Afghanistan, Iran, military spending, Israel-Palestine, Guantanamo, continued support for nuclear power even after the Fukushima disaster and many other issues, for a consideration of his steps in the last two years on nuclear weapons issues.)

On April 5, 2009, President Barack Obama delivered a well-received speech in Prague on his vision for nuclear disarmament. The speech maintained consistency with positions he had taken as a candidate for president, and was noteworthy for specific incremental steps toward a nuclear weapons-free world as well as the president’s advocacy of nuclear weapons abolition (though he disappointingly said it would perhaps not happen in his lifetime – the president is a relatively young man, only a year older than me, and I certainly intend to see the scourge of nuclear weapons eliminated in my lifetime!).

Today, the Associated Press published a concise report card on the state of play of the objectives Obama set out in the Prague speech. This list omits the very bad “nuclear modernization” funding issue (the promised $185 billion over the next decade for “modernizing” the nuclear weapons production complex and delivery systems, supposedly necessary to secure Senate ratification of New START). However, there are two potentially promising (unsourced) tidbits regarding possible further cuts in strategic nuclear weapons independent of Russia and a fissile material cut-off outside the stalled Conference on Disarmament process.

Our colleague Stephen Young at the Union of Concerned Scientists proposed concrete, achievable next steps regarding the doctrine or underlying purposes and policies for U.S. nuclear weapons in a blog post on All Things Nuclear.

My own view, held for some time now, is the president and his administration need to become more assertive on executive actions the president can take that don’t necessitate long, difficult treaty negotiations and then extortionist Senate ratification battles. If this doesn’t happen, and the administration stays wedded to an incremental process of checking off things Bill Clinton didn’t get done in the 90’s (such as Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ratification, which looks very unlikely given the make-up of the Senate), the Prague agenda may well stall with fairly little progress toward the laudable goals outlined in the speech.

In addition to the two possible steps mentioned in the AP article and others in Stephen’s blog post, President Obama could reverse course and state that “nuclear modernization” is not in our country’s interest, in security or financial terms; throw real political and diplomatic support behind next year’s planned conference on a Weapons of Mass Destrcution-Free Zone (the only real solution to concerns about Iran’s possible pursuit of nuclear weapons and Israel’s actual arsenal of over 200 nukes); and announce the initiation of international negotiations for a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons (under which subsidiary or incremental issues could be addressed).

Taking these bold initiatives would certainly invite howls of protest from the Right and from the nuclear priesthood, but it would put them on the defensive and force them to defend their indefensible “nuclear weapons forever” policies, and put the U.S. in the leadership role it should be playing, not just on non-proliferation or incremental nuclear arms cuts, but for abolishing nuclear weapons globally.


Memo to President Three Wars – New Tools Other Than Hammers Needed ASAP!

March 29, 2011

President Barack “Three Wars” Obama (Nixon, Reagan and even G.W. Bush could only dream of conducting three wars at once!) was unconvincing in making his case for war in Libya last night in his speech to the country. Of course, he side-stepped the constitutional war powers question – consulting with bipartisan Congressional leadership doesn’t cut the mustard, as even he knew before becoming president, as Bob Naiman of Just Foreign Policy recounted on Huffington Post.

And, as his predecessor loved to do, he mightily slew his own Straw Man, setting up and then knocking down the argument that because the U.S. can’t intervene militarily everywhere in the world where people are being brutally suppressed, we can’t intervene anywhere. I haven’t seen opponents or skeptics of the Libya intervention making that argument.

What I have seen is the hypocrisy and inconsistency of U.S. Middle East policy being challenged, most succinctly by The Daily Show’s devastating “America’s Freedom Packages” sketch last week. Without going into a huge laundry list of inconsistencies, how about this one – protesters are being killed in Bahrain and Yemen by U.S.-allied regimes, and I’ve heard of no calls for no-fly zones or even cutting off weapons to those regimes.

Some Libya war opponents claim the humanitarian justification for the intervention are bogus, that oil or some other U.S./Western imperial interest must really be behind this. That may well be true, but I don’t know that for certain. Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies thinks access to or domination of Libya’s oil is not the main reason for U.S./NATO intervention, as we have been buying oil from the Gaddafi government since 2003.

The problem is, because of a long history of imperial wars and military and foreign policies, the U.S., even under a president thought to be more peaceful and less unilateral than his predecessor, has little credibility left when it comes to waging war, especially when it selectively preaches nonviolence to some who seek democracy while arming others.

The awe-inspiring, mostly nonviolent, secular and entirely indigenous revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which captivated the world and inspired protest in other countries, were slow to receive support from President Three Wars and his Cabinet. As they embarrassingly fumbled for days (Vice-President Biden saying Egyptian President for Life Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opining that Mubarak really did have the interests of his people at heart) to get on the side of the people and the right side of history, I almost felt sorry for them (almost but not quite!).

What could they have said? The truth, that our foreign policy in the Middle East has been morally bankrupt and cynical for decades, and that we would gladly have kept supporting and arming Mubarak (as we had for thirty years) and his son (his chosen successor) ad infinitum had it not been for the heroic Tahrir Square protesters standing up and saying, “Enough!”? I’d love to have seen that speech!

At least the Administration is consistent, though in a bad way, in being slow to support nonviolent movements. It could have supported the initial nonviolent resistance campaign in Libya, as University of San Francisco Professor (and former Peace Action Education Fund board member) Stephen Zunes noted on truthout. It didn’t, choosing instead to support the armed rebels, perhaps missing a chance to intervene non-militarily before the armed conflict escalated.

But of course U.S. foreign policy is best summed up by Mark Twain’s adage, “When your only tools are hammers, all problems look like nails.”

In a rapidly changing world, one of whose dominant features is the decline of U.S. Empire, we need new tools. Offering rhetorical and material support to nonviolent democratic forces seeking emancipation from despots (especially ones the U.S. has supported) would be a great start. A serious commitment to emphasizing diplomacy and just economic development over military strategies, in Libya, Afghanistan, Palestine and Israel and many other countries, would do wonders to lessen armed conflict.

Shutting down the U.S. arms bazaar (we are the world’s number one weapons pusher, and weapons are the country’s number one manufactured export to the world) would do wonders for global peace and stability. While we’re at it, let’s take a look at our $1.2 trillion annual “national security” budget and 900 foreign military bases and consider how that is crippling our domestic economy by hoarding resources needed for human and environmental needs programs and job creation. Creating a standing United Nations peacekeeping force, under the aegis of the Secretary-General and not subject to the Security Council veto, is long overdue, and would have much more credibility than U.S./NATO or other “great power” militaries claiming to intervene for humanitarian purposes.

As long as the U.S. thwarts those and other needed changes in policy, we appear to be doomed to more wars, many to be justified as “humanitarian” in nature. My children, ages 17 and 13, think the U.S. is always at war, and of course they would, that has been true since they were old enough to be aware of such things, and it’s been true the overwhelming majority of the time since 1776. Isn’t it well past time for new tools?


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