Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Mean or green: Organic at Walmart

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Mean or Green?


[from the September 11, 2006 issue]

A laughing baby is covered in baby food. He's making a gushy mess, as babies do, but having a grand time. A magic word reassures us--before we've had a chance to worry--that the food itself is wholesome. That word, of course, is "organic." More surprising, to many viewers of this advertisement, will be the origin of this virtuous feast: Wal-Mart. This summer, the mega-retailer launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign with an irresistible promise: "Introducing Organics at the Wal-Mart price." The commercial, which cannily plays to mothers' worries about how pesticides and additives may affect their children's health, has run on network and cable TV; a print version will appear in Parenting, Real Simple, Self and Cooking Light. Already one of the nation's leading organics vendors, Wal-Mart announced this past spring its intention to enter the market far more aggressively, to double its inventory and eventually offer organics at only 10 percent above the price of conventional food.

Food bearing the government's organic label can be, for low- and middle-income shoppers, prohibitively expensive. That's why, to many observers, an "organic Wal-Mart" represents the democratization of healthier--and better-tasting--food. Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farming Research Foundation argues, too, that environmentalists should cheer Wal-Mart's move, which will "turn hundreds of thousands of acres" now being farmed conventionally to organic. "Think of the tonnage of toxins and carcinogens which will disappear from the earth," he says. Scowcroft also points to research by the Swiss government showing that organic farming can reduce global warming--actually drawing nitrogen and carbon from the atmosphere. Like the retailer's push for fuel-efficient trucking, Wal-Mart's entry into the organic sector could turn out to be another example of how one decision by this company--however market-driven--might do tremendous good, simply because of its scale.

But while there are potential upsides to Wal-Mart's move, it also offers plenty of reasons to worry. To advocates of local economies, like Judy Wicks, founder of Philadelphia's White Dog Cafe and co-chair of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, an organic Wal-Mart could do "more harm than good" because of the changes it will bring about in the organic food industry. For example, she cites Wal-Mart's likely impact on many small farmers. In other industries Wal-Mart's aggressive competition has proved devastating to small producers, from TV manufacturers to conventional pork farmers. Though Wal-Mart, like Whole Foods, has agreed to source some products locally, most family-scale organic farmers will not supply big-box retailers directly. But many farmers will nonetheless struggle to meet Wal-Mart's price, in order to supply competing retailers or simply hang on to customers. "Every farmer has to compete because Wal-Mart is in every market," explains Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, a progressive research group that advocates for small farmers. "From an economic justice standpoint," he adds, Wal-Mart's plan to go more aggressively organic is "a disaster" because it could prove ruinous for so many family farms.

Some of the concern over small farmers may be sentimental, a remnant of our national identity as a land of Jeffersonian citizen-yeomen. And some detect, in the progressive reaction to Wal-Mart's organic ambitions, a whiff of countercultural cliqueishness. Gary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farm, which supplies organic yogurt to Wal-Mart, is a former hippie who lived on an organic solar- and wind-powered farm in the 1960s and '70s. He dismisses Wal-Mart critics in the organic movement as "activists who don't want to think of organic as a segment. They think of it as a lifestyle." To Hirshberg, organic Wal-Mart is a sign of the movement's success, and those who don't like it are elitist purists, dedicated to their own marginality.

But there are unsentimental reasons to root for small farmers in this drama. They are important to a progressive vision, partly because they are more likely to be farming organic out of principle than a large corporation is and thus more inclined not to cut corners and compromise standards. People who live on their farms with their families also have a compelling incentive to treat the land better. Regina Beidler is a Mennonite who lives with her dairy-farmer husband, Brent, and 8-year-old daughter, Erin, on 145 acres with forty cows in Randolph Center, Vermont. Because the Beidlers farm organically--which as defined by the Department of Agriculture means no pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage-sludge-based fertilizers--Erin roams the farm freely (her job is to push the button on the grain elevator). "It's reassuring to know she isn't being exposed to those [toxic] substances," says her mother. "It's much more child-friendly."

Perhaps even more convincingly, as groups like the Organic Consumers Association point out, transporting food long distances is a staggering waste of energy and contributes to global warming. According to research by Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute, our food typically travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles to reach our plate, 25 percent farther than in 1980. By the time we sit down to eat it, a meal from a conventional grocery store has used four to seventeen times more petroleum than a meal made from local ingredients. While Wal-Mart officials have expressed concern about the "food miles" issue, industry observers predict that most of Wal-Mart's produce will travel significant distances--Chile, Kenya and China are some of the likeliest low-cost sources, according to Mary Hendrickson, director of the University of Missouri's Food Circles Networking Project--raising confusing questions about whether organic Wal-Mart will, on balance, hurt or help the planet. (Just to confuse the environmental issue still more, Bob Scowcroft points out that converting all those acres in China will clean up a lot of groundwater there, which is obviously good for the Chinese.)

Most small organic farmers interviewed for this article believed that in organics, as in many other sectors, Wal-Mart's low prices would, ultimately, mean lower standards. Stonyfield Farm's Hirshberg, who has had many discussions with Wal-Mart officials about the company's commitment to organics, says Wal-Mart does not plan to lower its price by lowering standards; rather, he says, Wal-Mart is committed to delivering the savings through efficiencies within its own system. But Wal-Mart's behavior as a major player in the organic dairy industry has already suggested otherwise. It has also provided a window on how the company will treat small organic farmers: just fine, until they can no longer provide the lowest possible price.

When Wal-Mart began selling organic milk, one of its first suppliers was Organic Valley, a cooperative of small farmers committed to organic principles. Organic Valley farmers, including Regina Beidler, were proud to be reaching Wal-Mart's customers, people like themselves who were struggling to make ends meet. But Organic Valley faced a milk shortage, so when the co-op found itself outpriced by a competitor, Horizon, which is owned by Dean Foods, the farmers decided not to engage in a price war to stay on the Wal-Mart shelf but to continue supplying the smaller food stores that had long formed the backbone of their customer base. "We didn't want to make compromises," says Organic Valley CEO and farmer George Siemon, meaning that the farmers needed to get a fair price while maintaining their product's integrity.

Horizon, which controls 55 percent of the organic dairy market, meets Wal-Mart's low price in part by providing appalling conditions for its cows. The Cornucopia Institute's Mark Kastel, first reached for this article as he was standing on Horizon's 4,000-cow Idaho feedlot, says the cows were "standing in 90-degree heat. No shade, no water. These animals are living very short lives." (To be considered "organic," animals--whether they are raised for meat, milk or eggs--must be given some access to the outdoors. It is an irony of the bureaucracy and inequity surrounding federal certification that by following the letter if not the spirit of such regulations--that is, for some of their lives Horizon's cows are outside, even if they have no room to move around--Horizon can call its milk organic, while many small farmers, whose cows roam freely and munch on grass, cannot; in many cases the farmers can't afford the expense of the certification process, or are put off by the paperwork.) The Organic Consumers Association has urged shoppers to boycott Horizon. As savvy consumers learn that sometimes the organic label tells an incomplete story, Organic Valley stands to benefit. "Organic Valley has long been built on the idea that family farming is a better way to give care to animals and the land," Siemon says diplomatically. "Consumers have a hard time believing that large factory farms are really organic."

To be sure, some family-scale organic farmers are benefiting from Wal-Mart's entry into the industry. Horizon buys at least half its milk from hundreds of small-scale farmers, as even a dogged critic like Kastel, author of a report called "Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk," acknowledges. And while Organic Valley isn't supplying Wal-Mart directly anymore, some Organic Valley milk does end up, much transformed, in the Wal-Mart customer's shopping cart: Stonyfield Farm buys milk from the cooperative to make organic yogurt. Says Stonyfield's Hirshberg: "If you're serious and sincere about family farms, then your ultimate goal is to be in Wal-Mart, to be where food is sold."

Still, the Horizon/Wal-Mart alliance is potentially ominous for family-scale dairy farmers, because, as Kastel points out, "there's a shortage today, but a year from now," as producers rush to meet the demands of big retailers like Wal-Mart, "you could have a surplus." A milk surplus could erode the organic premium and drive many small organic dairy farmers into bankruptcy, just as it has wiped out many of their conventional neighbors. Organic farmers, especially in the Northeast, are already in a precarious situation because of high fuel, grain and transportation costs. Travis Forgues, a second-generation farmer in Alburg, Vermont, the state's farthest-northwest town, milks eighty grass-fed cows. A 33-year-old father of three young children, he speaks for many small farmers when he says, "If we didn't have the organic market, my dad and I would have been out of here long ago." On the danger of a surplus fueled by demand from Wal-Mart and other big-box stores, Forgues says, "Anyone who's not worried about what's going to happen is crazy."

With Wal-Mart on the scene, the strength of alternative and local economic institutions will determine whether small farmers like Forgues survive. With 871 farmers and growing, Organic Valley, the largest organic farmers' cooperative in the country, is still going strong even without Wal-Mart's business, maintaining farmer control while still distributing on an impressive scale. (In the grocery store on my corner in New York City, which is not a natural-food store or a food co-op, Organic Valley milk is sold right next to Horizon, and that's the case in stores all over the country.) Farmers agree that the co-op model is critical, helping them maintain some power in an increasingly concentrated market. "The farmer has to be in the driver's seat," says Forgues. Because of the organic milk shortage and the Organic Valley cooperative, he continues to get a fair price and has survived a difficult season far more easily than most of his farmer neighbors. Of Wal-Mart, he says, "We're not going to cut our price so we can get onto that shelf. We have to make sure farmers don't get removed from the process, as happened in the conventional food market."

In a nod to the savvy consumer's growing interest in nearby food, Organic Valley is in the process of regionalizing many of its operations, so that even though farmers in twenty-three states belong to the co-op, customers in New England buying Organic Valley milk will be, increasingly, buying from New England farmers. Farmers' markets, which are growing in popularity, will also be critical institutions in the organic Wal-Mart era. Jim Goodman, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who tends 400 certified-organic acres with his brother, sells to a local cheesemaker (as well as directly to customers through mail order) but also relies on the weekly farmers' market in Madison, where he sells beef. He doesn't think Wal-Mart is going to affect his business. "People who come to the farmers' market are shopping there because they want to deal directly with the farmer," he says. "They want to meet the person who raised it, put it in their hand. When they get home they can say, 'This came from Mike, this came from Jim.' When you're sitting down to dinner that makes so much difference. I'd be surprised if they would go to Wal-Mart just because it's cheaper."

For local food to become more than a niche market and begin to transform our relationship to the environment, however, energy is going to have to be a lot more expensive. For the majority of Americans to have the incentive to buy local, the cost of food transport would have to reflect its true environmental costs. Many local food advocates speak--half with alarm, half wishfully--of "peak oil," the notion that we are running out of oil and will soon be forced to grow our own food and cooperate with our neighbors. That neo-primitivist scenario, if it ever comes to pass, is not going to arrive nearly quickly enough to substitute for the necessary work of persuading Americans to change our lifestyles, and advocating policies that conserve energy.

"Consumers have to be more educated," says Goodman. He thinks it's important to tell people why the prices are higher: Organic is not overpriced; rather, conventional food is cheap because its costs are passed along to the environment, small farmers and the health of those who eat it. "If people can't afford to buy organic," he says, "it's because they are not paid enough in their jobs, and don't have health insurance." That, Goodman insists, should be part of a broader economic justice agenda: A living wage should allow a person to buy responsibly grown, healthy food for her family. "With organic food," he explains, "there's no hidden cost." It's also true that at farmers' markets and roadside stands, organic food is often cheaper than in stores, because there's no profiteering middleman.

Taking their case to the shopper, Organic Valley farmers like Travis Forgues have been traveling the country on speaking tours. The Organic Consumers Association is working to create a domestic fair-trade group, whose label would assure the consumer that food was produced in a way that was environmentally and socially responsible--giving an edge to smaller, more conscientious producers over Dean Foods. With the goal, too, of making local organic produce affordable to the poorest Wal-Mart shoppers--those who will probably never be able to afford a meal at the White Dog Cafe, which runs around $50--the OCA is also working to broaden a program making it easier for farmers' markets to accept food stamps.

Many organic farmers are social activists and idealists who care about the environment, animal rights and economic justice. But many are also entrepreneurial--and that's how they will survive the new era of big-box organic. The challenge Wal-Mart poses, says Bob Scowcroft, is "to get consumers who discover organics at the Wal-Mart to get out of their car and to the farmers' market."

From the Nation: Hard work to be organic

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Hard Labor


[from the September 11, 2006 issue]

The Grimmway packing plant in Arvin, California, a drab farmworker town fifteen miles southeast of Bakersfield, is where carrots go to be reborn. After months of being coaxed and weeded in the nearby fields, the vegetables are yanked from the ground by a mechanical harvester. A convoy of open-bed trucks carries them to the plant, a cluster of tan, windowless buildings with mysterious-looking pipes and gadgets protruding from the sides. Here they are washed, sliced, sanded and emerge as "baby" carrots--the snackable treats in the cellophane bag familiar to health-conscious shoppers everywhere.

Once the carrots pass through an opening in the side of the main building, they enter a world that seems miles away from the fields and orchards outside. Dozens of machines fill the chilly air with a deafening noise. Employees wade through pools of water several inches deep on the plant's rubber floor. There are carrots everywhere--scattered on the floor, piled inside carts and vats, in heaps at the base of the metal equipment.

At the grading tables, the new arrivals float by teams of Latinas in masks and hairnets who separate the good ones from those with imperfections. Supervisors stand by to time bathroom breaks of no more than seven minutes and to scold the women if they speak or glance up from their work.

Here, surrounded by the rhythmic thwack-thwacking of the machines, Beatriz Gonzalez stands for eight hours a day and sorts. Wearing rubber gloves and down ski pants to keep her warm, she deftly reaches into the orange tide, plucking out defective specimens and tossing them into a center tub. Years of performing the repetitive motion have swollen her forearms and left her with arthritis in her knuckles. When she started working in the Arvin plant, she earned the state minimum of $6.75 an hour. Four years later, she makes $7.30.

A petite woman with fluffy bangs and rounded features, Gonzalez studied law in her native Mexico but left school for the United States in search of wealth. "Now," she says sadly, "I have neither money nor education."

Gonzalez's workplace looks like any number of packing sheds in California's fruit and vegetable industry, where the state that grows half the country's produce has for decades relied on a low-paid immigrant workforce to tend and harvest its crops. But this is no ordinary plant--Gonzalez's employer is a leader in the organic food business, an industry that prides itself on a gentler approach to the land and the people who work it. Her experience illustrates just how far the organic food movement has yet to go to fulfill its promise of a more socially just food system.

I visited Grimmway because I was curious about organic food and the people who grow it. I grew up eating vegetables from my mother's garden. Fresh-picked zucchini blossoms fried and stuffed with cheese, homemade bread soaked in the juice of heirloom tomatoes--these are some of my most vivid childhood memories. And when I go grocery shopping, I'm drawn to fruits and vegetables that look like the ones on which I was raised: real and imperfect, sometimes a little dirty, but looking and smelling like fruits and vegetables rather than waxy widgets that just fell off an assembly line. In other words, I buy organic, and I feel good about the decision, even if it means spending a little more.

I'm not alone. For many consumers, an organic apple tastes sweeter not only because it's healthier but because it conjures up a vision of a simpler, more pure world, where we produce our food without wreaking havoc on the environment and our relationship to it is unmediated by fear, guilt or the drive for excessive profits. This image of a food utopia has fueled the growth of the organic food industry, which is expanding by 20 percent each year.

But the farmworkers who bring in the organic harvest face a different reality, one largely invisible to food buyers. Whether they work in the fields or in processing plants, most workers on organic farms, like those on conventional farms, are immigrants from Mexico who earn minimum wage or slightly more and receive no benefits. Fieldwork on organic farms can be especially strenuous because farmers employ back-breaking methods like hand-weeding to avoid using pesticides.

California's more than 2,000 organic farms range from multimillion-dollar companies like Grimmway, where temporary agencies and labor contractors supervise the workers, to small family ranches where owners enjoy good relations with employees but pay them so little that they rely on public assistance and charity. Organic farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley, the state's largest agricultural region, often live in the same towns as conventional farmworkers, where poverty rates can reach one-third, pesticide drift is an ever-present problem and the food available for purchase is likely to be high in fat and low in nutrients. A 1999 study of 150 California organic farmers found that more than half paid their workers the minimum wage; less than 10 percent paid more than $7.50 per hour.

"Generally a consumer who goes to Whole Foods makes the assumption that if producers are growing in a way that's conscious of the environment, that's going to be better for workers," said Martha Guzmán, legislative advocate for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, a farmworker advocacy group. "And that assumption benefits the organic industry. But when you look at the labor practices that matter most--paying decent wages, treating workers with respect--none of that is really related to whether you use a certain type of pesticide."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The homesteaders and commune dwellers who pioneered sustainable agriculture in the 1960s saw their movement as a wholesale alternative to industrial agriculture, with its poisonous chemicals, soil-depleting techniques and exploitative labor practices. As culinary historian Warren Belasco explains in his book Appetite for Change, early farmers' "radical vision extended the organic farmer's cooperation with nature to a cooperative model in human relations."

Yet after spending several months visiting California organic farms and talking to consumers, workers, farmers and retailers, I heard a sharp debate about whether organic farmers should do better for their employees. The clamor has intensified in the past year, as farmers and worker advocates have clashed over state regulations intended to protect farmworkers. In the spring of last year, researchers at the University of California published a study showing that organic farmers widely oppose requirements that they pay benefits and allow farmhands to organize.

Nonetheless, there is a small but growing campaign, backed by some of organic agriculture's staunchest supporters, for a new kind of food labeling, one that would guarantee that food is produced in ways that benefit workers as well as the environment.

As organic farming comes of age, with demand outpacing supply, many are asking the same questions I did after my tour of Grimmway: How did organic farmers come to emulate the labor practices of a system they fought so hard to escape? And when it comes to the way Americans treat the people who grow our food, is this as good as it gets?

"Farming is farming," says Fred Rappleye, a manager for Grimmway's organic division, when I tell him some criticize the company's low wages. "When you get into organic you are being more proactive with the environment, but [boosting] pay is a hard thing to do. Labor is always the highest cost, and it's one of the things we try to keep under control. All of organic is a business, too, and you have to make money."

And Grimmway does make money--$450 million in 2005, according to analysts. The firm sells more than 40 percent of the world's carrots, more than any other grower. Advocates for workers say the company skimps on labor costs using the time-honored practice of contracting out.

"The motivation for hiring contractors is to avoid direct responsibility for wages and benefits," says United Farm Workers (UFW) spokesperson Marc Grossman. "You have no job rights--when the harvest begins you have to come with your hat in your hand and beg for your job, even if you've worked for the same grower for twenty years."

Grimmway and contractor Esparza Enterprises currently face a lawsuit claiming contract workers were sexually harassed while working at the company. The state Department of Labor has also fined Esparza for failing to train employees to use dangerous equipment and for hiring children without work permits. The checkered record is typical of farm labor contractors. And indeed, nothing about Grimmway's business practices suggests that its workers fare worse than those on other large farms. The company's owners, conventional farmers with little connection to the organic movement, have simply chosen agribusiness-as-usual over the movement's social justice principles.

On a foggy day Rappleye, a tall twentysomething with startlingly clear blue eyes, drove me around the dirt roads of Arvin. Around us the company's fields seemed to stretch forever, some barren, others covered with fernlike carrot tops or a bright mix of collards and chards.

When Grimmway began farming organically in the mid-1990s, Rappleye explained, it found the new venture to be far more labor-intensive than conventional agriculture. In a conventional field, one worker can spray weeds with pesticides at a cost of $30 per acre, he said. Organic farming requires crews of laborers for weeding that can cost up to $1,000 per acre.

The physically demanding nature of organic farming sparked a recent battle that pitted organic farmers against farmworkers. The UFW had long drawn attention to musculoskeletal problems suffered by people who work stooped over in the fields. In the 1970s the union led a successful campaign to ban the short-handled hoe, arguing that the tool caused back injuries. When union founder Cesar Chavez died, friends at the funeral placed one of the hoes on his casket. But growers soon found a way around the ban by requiring workers to weed by hand. Moisés Olivera, a migrant worker who's hopped from job to job throughout the Central Valley, explained to me how it feels.

"You go along on your knees," he said. "There is a constant, numbing pain. By the end of a year people develop a lot of problems with their bones."

In 2004 farmworker groups lobbied the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration to restrict hand-weeding. Organic farmers led the backlash against the proposal. While they have devised many creative tactics for banishing weeds without pesticides--singeing them with torches, slicing them with disks, allowing them to flourish before planting and then mowing them down--every organic farmer I talked to insisted there's only one way to completely rid your crop of the pesky plants: sitting, kneeling or bending, plucking them out one by one.

It's tremendously costly. Yet farmers say there's little alternative; long-handled hoes, which would allow workers to stand upright, can destroy some of the delicate specialty crops, such as baby leaf lettuce, that many organic farmers cultivate. At a minimum they would force farmers to space their plants farther apart, cutting into profits by yielding a smaller harvest on the same area of land.

"You're talking about growing five times as many acres," said Rappleye. "Your costs go outta sight. There's not enough ground or enough manure in the valley to farm that way."

The farmers ultimately triumphed, and OSHA exempted organic farms from the new rules, which went into effect last year. For labor advocates like Martha Guzmán, who had sought to reach a compromise, it was a slap in the face. "I realized then that I could get my organization to support a conservation act or greater subsidies for transitional assistance [to organic farmers]," she said. "But none of that was being really reciprocated. It's just not part of their vision."

Of course, workers benefit most obviously from organic farming by not being exposed to pesticides. But Don Villarejo, an agricultural policy analyst who conducted the largest-ever clinical study of farmworker health in California, argues that while pesticide exposure is important, it's not the most crucial health issue on the farm. Villarejo pointed to data on reported workers' compensation claims between 1990 and 1999. Of the major claims, where insurance companies paid $5,000 or more, only 1.5 percent stemmed directly or indirectly from pesticides. Almost half were strain injuries, followed by fractures, sprains and lacerations.

"Yes, pesticides are a concern, and it's good farmers are trying to figure out how to grow without them," he said. "But if you really want to deal with the fact that workers are being killed and maimed all the time, you have to look elsewhere."

After three straight weeks of rainy weather on Riverdog Farm, owner Tim Mueller is looking harried. Dressed like a stereotypical hippie farmer with a ponytail, 1970s-style glasses, shorts and galoshes, he dashes back and forth from the packing shed to the cramped trailer that serves as the farm's office, fixing computer problems, helping an employee translate documents into Spanish and checking in on crates of vegetables that packers are readying for shipment.

This spring's heavy storms have destroyed thousands of dollars in crops here in the Capay Valley, a narrow slice of land near Sacramento where small farmers like Mueller grow specialty produce for chic restaurants. Mueller estimates that he has lost 10 percent of the gross income from his 250-acre ranch, half of which goes to labor costs. The tour he takes me on is a trail of horrors: the peas that were sickened by the rain, the broccoli field with a flood at one end, the stacks of seedling trays by the greenhouse, waiting to be planted.

When Mueller looks at this wreckage, he sees numbers. More specifically, he sees his workers' paychecks. "I'm looking at their year-to-date earnings and I'm going, Not only are we behind on earnings, but all of them are behind," he says. "That's what these greenhouses full of plants symbolize."

Smaller farms like Riverdog make up the majority of organic farms in California. But their share of the profits and acreage is shrinking as organic giants like Grimmway and Salinas Valley-based Earthbound Farms increasingly dominate the market. Most survive through some combination of farmers' markets, wholesale and restaurant sales, and home deliveries. It's not an easy living. In a bad year Mueller might gross 2 percent less than his expenses. A fantastic year means 4 percent profit.

So how are Riverdog's workers faring in that eco-economy? I meet several of them in a soggy field where they are cleaning leeks, sitting on overturned crates, their legs ankle-deep in mud. They get along well with Mueller, they say, and like their job--except in months like this, when the least senior employees go days without pay because there is nothing for them to do. Most earn California's minimum wage of $6.75 per hour, and some have worked fewer than twenty hours in the past week.

"We're all waiting for summer, when the tomatoes are ripe; we work ten hours a day and we can send a little to Mexico to save or to build a house," says Consuelo Romo, a crew leader with a toothy grin and a tan bandanna wrapped around her head. "But in the winter, we don't have enough even to cover our own expenses."

Romo is a single mother with two kids and one of a minority of workers whose salaries top the minimum. She makes $8.50 per hour, just below the poverty line for a family of three. She gets canned food and used clothing from local nonprofits, and struggles to pay $20 a day for childcare at an unlicensed center. I ask Romo if she ever buys organic food for her children. Usually when I've asked farmworkers this question, they've laughed at the idea of such luxury. Romo looks embarrassed. "It's an economic question," she says. "I buy food grown with chemicals so I can save to buy something else."

Like Romo, most organic farmworkers can't afford to eat the food they produce, says Gail Feenstra, food systems coordinator for the Sustainable Agriculture Program at the University of California, Davis. "They're in a community where they don't even have access to it," she told me. "What they do have access to is very processed food that is helping to create diseases like diabetes, and government food programs that give out lard and canned products high in sodium and fat."

In 2004 Feenstra and her colleagues surveyed close to 200 mostly small organic farmers on their labor practices; two-thirds supplied no benefits. Mueller has put together a health plan for workers but says it's a trade-off, leaving less money for wages. There are some success stories, like one man who got a free hernia operation he'd been putting off for years. But most Riverdog workers don't meet the plan's eligibility requirements of six straight months of full-time work.

As we sit in Mueller's truck, with the rain pattering on the roof, he tells me how he and his wife, Trini, started Riverdog fifteen years ago, with just five acres. "For most of us who got involved with organic farming then, it was about a social movement," he says. "It was about land reform, labor reform, bringing small farms back. That's all gone. It's been legislated away, economized away. There is no dollar for that. I think most small organic farmers know their workers and want to do right by them but have varying levels of feeling like they can afford to do it."

Mueller plants less lucrative crops like alfalfa in the winter so he can provide year-round employment, and is known to kick in a few hundred dollars as a no-interest loan to help a worker buy a car or a piece of furniture. Still, he rails against labor regulations that he sees as costly and inefficient, like a 2005 law requiring farmers to stop work in very high temperatures, passed after several farmworkers died from heat exhaustion.

"Farming is about common sense, which you can't really legislate," he says. "When people fuss about us watching the little numbers, we say, Look, we have to do that just to make sure we don't go under."

His comments capture the sentiments of many small organic farmers, who feel their financial situation leaves little room for idealism when it comes to working conditions. Farmers in the University of California study said they agreed in theory that labor standards were important but disagreed with adding them to the requirements for organic certification. Close to half said organic farmers should not have to allow farmworkers to organize--a right guaranteed under California law.

Small farmers' objections have derailed earlier attempts to set labor standards for organic farms. In 1990 Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, directing the Agriculture Department to establish a board of growers, consumers and retailers charged with developing the first national rules for the organic industry. Third-generation farmer Michael Sligh, founding chair of the board, brought a labor organizer to address one meeting. According to Fred Kirschenmann, a North Dakota grain farmer who served on the board, the group batted around some ideas and came close to agreeing that organic farmers should be required to provide employee health benefits.

"Then one of the farmers from California raised his hand and said, 'I really agree that we should do this, but my problem is I can't even provide health insurance for my family.' It became such a complex issue that nobody really knew how to deal with it, so it fell by the wayside."

There's little hint of these dilemmas in the shelf displays at Whole Foods Market in Berkeley, California. Posters hanging over the produce bins feature smiling white farmers posed against backdrops of lush fields, the sun glistening on their hair. More signs plastered to the bins helpfully spell out everything from the nutritional content of a coconut to the pros and cons of produce wax. None address working conditions.

A gaggle of shoppers fill the aisles, peering at lists and hefting and prodding vegetables. Public school teacher Carmen Carreras is picking out artichokes for dinner. They were grown conventionally, but she almost always buys organic. "I buy it because it's better for everybody," she tells me immediately. "Better for the environment, better for me and better for the workers."

Carreras says workers on organic farms must work hard, "but I imagine they don't get as many illnesses related to their work. I guess it's easier for them, and I hope they feel more connected to nature because all the processes are natural."

Carreras's comments are typical of what market researchers call the "hard core"--those customers who buy mostly organic, shop at farmers' markets and are more likely to rank social justice issues as a high priority. While they may know little about actual working conditions on organic farms, they believe that their purchases are helping to create a more egalitarian food system. For them the word "organic" evokes not simply a growing method but a political and lifestyle choice.

But not everyone thinks like Carreras, according to Laurie Demeritt, president of the Hartman Group, a market research firm specializing in the natural food industry. The mainstreaming of organic is creating a new kind of organic consumer, says Demeritt, one who's more concerned about the immediate health of her family than anything else. These shoppers tend to understand organic in terms of the narrow, technical definition put forward by the National Organic Standards Board: a growing method that does not involve the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

"Today's organic consumer looks like the average US consumer," says Demeritt. "They haven't put a lot of thought into what they're consuming until they have a child. Then they think, 'I want my child to be healthy, so I'm going to buy them organic milk.'"

Such consumers rank concerns about workers very low on their list, if at all. It's not that they're anti-worker, says Demeritt. They're just not as invested in their buying decisions as the hard-core group. "They don't really have a lot of information and they don't really want it--as long as they can think they're making a better choice, that's enough."

Consumers, of course, also care about price, and organic food's relatively high cost turns off many potential buyers. If higher wages equal higher prices, as any Wal-Mart spokesperson will tell you, wouldn't bettering working conditions on farms cement organic products' status as luxury items? Is agriculture a zero-sum game, where we must choose between access to affordable healthy food and decent living standards for the people who grow it?

Feenstra, the UC Davis researcher, doesn't think so. "I think it's a false choice," she says. "Most of the money in the food system, about 80 percent, is in the marketing, processing and distribution sector, compared with 20 percent for production. Organic food is not just fruits and vegetables; a lot of it is processed, and that shoots the price up. So when you're talking about labor costs, they're probably going to add 1 or 2 cents, compared with what you're paying for excess packaging, transport from here to there, all those layers of cellophane and bright-colored boxes."

Feenstra envisions a decentralized food network with people buying minimally processed food through direct markets, and schools and hospitals serving up organic meals made with ingredients from local farms.

"It's not just on the backs of organic growers to fix this thing," she continues. "It's going to take a long, slow shift to get us from a system that's hierarchical, with a few people controlling the resources, to one that's more disaggregated."

Strawberry farmer Jim Cochran seems to agree. The owner of Swanton Berry Farm was the first and only California organic farmer to negotiate a union contract with his workers, after hearing UFW president Arturo Rodriguez speak at a conference in 1998. Swanton's employees form a labor aristocracy of sorts, with wages of $8 to $12 an hour, medical and dental care, pensions and paid vacations. During the workday, ranchera music wafts over Swanton's fields, which lie on the coast near Santa Cruz and have a sweeping view of the Pacific. The men talk and joke as they move down the rows, which are elevated to ease the strain of weeding and picking.

Cochran balances his budget by following a strict philosophy: He plants an older variety of berries that customers prize for its full-bodied taste. He processes, packs and distributes the berries himself, and avoids extra debt by leasing his land from a nonprofit land trust. The brand draws a loyal following in farmers' markets and natural food stores, bringing in enough money to pay his hefty labor costs.

"Farmers need to see that it can be done," says Cochran. "They're afraid because they look at their returns and they think it's impossible. But we need to go from saying 'I'm doing the best I can' to realizing we should do more."

Across the country, small bands of eco-crusaders are developing ways to reward organic farmers who make commitments to their workers. The Organic Consumers Association, a grassroots group that organizes buyers over the Internet, is working to get "sweat-free food" ordinances on the books in major cities. The Oregon-based Food Alliance offers a "sustainable agriculture" certification to farmers who earn high scores in categories that include training their workers and establishing procedures to resolve conflicts.

Sligh, the founding chair of the National Organic Standards Board, helps lead a coalition that is developing a social justice label to be used alongside organic certification. Placed on a fruit or vegetable, the sticker would signal to customers that the food was grown under equitable conditions, on a farm that provides healthcare and respects workers' right to organize. Members of the New Jersey-based Farmworkers Support Committee played a key role in developing the program, which hits natural food stores next year. The goal is to educate consumers about labor issues while helping small farmers differentiate themselves in their competition with agribusiness.

"When consumers vote with their food dollars, they have tremendous power," says Sligh. "Every time we go to the grocery store we're choosing what kind of food system we want."

One challenge could be convincing retailers. Whole Foods has resisted advertising products as "fair trade," a similar labeling system that guarantees Third World farmers an adequate price for their goods. "We find labeling products 'fair trade' is unfair because it insinuates that other products sold in our stores are unfairly traded. And that's simply not true," Ashley Hawkins, a spokesperson for the chain, told me.

In the end, whether such a labeling system succeeds may depend on the willingness and ability of consumers and workers to connect across boundaries of race, class and geography. Since 2003, Americans concerned about animal welfare have been able to buy meat, poultry and eggs with a "Certified Humane" label guaranteeing that the livestock were raised with good shelter and a nutritious diet. Can organic food buyers be persuaded to show the same care for their fellow humans? If the labeling advocates have their way, we're about to find out.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Cluster bombs in S. Lebanon

August 25, 2006
Inquiry Opened Into Israeli Use of U.S. Bombs

WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 — The State Department is investigating whether Israel’s use of American-made cluster bombs in southern Lebanon violated secret agreements with the United States that restrict when it can employ such weapons, two officials said.

The investigation by the department’s Office of Defense Trade Controls began this week, after reports that three types of American cluster munitions, anti-personnel weapons that spray bomblets over a wide area, have been found in many areas of southern Lebanon and were responsible for civilian casualties.

Gonzalo Gallegos, a State Department spokesman, said, “We have heard the allegations that these munitions were used, and we are seeking more information.” He declined to comment further.

Several current and former officials said that they doubted the investigation would lead to sanctions against Israel but that the decision to proceed with it might be intended to help the Bush administration ease criticism from Arab governments and commentators over its support of Israel’s military operations. The investigation has not been publicly announced; the State Department confirmed it in response to questions.

In addition to investigating use of the weapons in southern Lebanon, the State Department has held up a shipment of M-26 artillery rockets, a cluster weapon, that Israel sought during the conflict, the officials said.

The inquiry is likely to focus on whether Israel properly informed the United States about its use of the weapons and whether targets were strictly military. So far, the State Department is relying on reports from United Nations personnel and nongovernmental organizations in southern Lebanon, the officials said.

David Siegel, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy, said, “We have not been informed about any such inquiry, and when we are we would be happy to respond.”

Officials were granted anonymity to discuss the investigation because it involves sensitive diplomatic issues and agreements that have been kept secret for years.

The agreements that govern Israel’s use of American cluster munitions go back to the 1970’s, when the first sales of the weapons occurred, but the details of them have never been publicly confirmed. The first one was signed in 1976 and later reaffirmed in 1978 after an Israeli incursion into Lebanon. News accounts over the years have said that they require that the munitions be used only against organized Arab armies and clearly defined military targets under conditions similar to the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973.

A Congressional investigation after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon found that Israel had used the weapons against civilian areas in violation of the agreements. In response, the Reagan administration imposed a six-year ban on further sales of cluster weapons to Israel.

Israeli officials acknowledged soon after their offensive began last month that they were using cluster munitions against rocket sites and other military targets. While Hezbollah positions were frequently hidden in civilian areas, Israeli officials said their intention was to use cluster bombs in open terrain.

Bush administration officials warned Israel to avoid civilian casualties, but they have lodged no public protests against its use of cluster weapons. American officials say it has not been not clear whether the weapons, which are also employed by the United States military, were being used against civilian areas and had been supplied by the United States. Israel also makes its own types of cluster weapons.

But a report released Wednesday by the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Center, which has personnel in Lebanon searching for unexploded ordnance, said it had found unexploded bomblets, including hundreds of American types, in 249 locations south of the Litani River.

The report said American munitions found included 559 M-42’s, an anti-personnel bomblet used in 105-millimeter artillery shells; 663 M-77’s, a submunition found in M-26 rockets; and 5 BLU-63’s, a bomblet found in the CBU-26 cluster bomb. Also found were 608 M-85’s, an Israeli-made submunition.

The unexploded submunitions being found in Lebanon are probably only a fraction of the total number dropped. Cluster munitions can contain dozens or even hundreds of submunitions designed to explode as they scatter around a wide area. They are very effective against rocket-launcher units or ground troops.

The Lebanese government has reported that the conflict killed 1,183 people and wounded 4,054, most of them civilians. The United Nations reported this week that the number of civilian casualties in Lebanon from cluster munitions, land mines and unexploded bombs stood at 30 injured and eight killed.

Dozen of Israelis were killed and hundreds wounded in attacks by Hezbollah rockets, some of which were loaded with ball bearings to maximize their lethality.

Officials say it is unlikely that Israel will be found to have violated a separate agreement, the Arms Export Control Act, which requires foreign governments that receive American weapons to use them for legitimate self-defense. Proving that Israel’s campaign against Hezbollah did not constitute self-defense would be difficult, especially in view of President Bush’s publicly announced support for Israel’s action after Hezbollah fighters attacked across the border, the officials said.

Even if Israel is found to have violated the classified agreement covering cluster bombs, it is not clear what actions the United States might take.

In 1982, delivery of cluster-bomb shells to Israel was suspended a month after Israel invaded Lebanon after the Reagan administration determined that Israel “may” have used them against civilian areas.

But the decision to impose what amounted to a indefinite moratorium was made under pressure from Congress, which conducted a long investigation of the issue. Israel and the United States reaffirmed restrictions on the use of cluster munitions in 1988, and the Reagan administration lifted the moratorium.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Tax Farmers, Mercenaries and Viceroys

August 21, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
Tax Farmers, Mercenaries and Viceroys

Yesterday The New York Times reported that the Internal Revenue Service would outsource collection of unpaid back taxes to private debt collectors, who would receive a share of the proceeds.

It’s an awful idea. Privatizing tax collection will cost far more than hiring additional I.R.S. agents, raise less revenue and pose obvious risks of abuse. But what’s really amazing is the extent to which this plan is a retreat from modern principles of government. I used to say that conservatives want to take us back to the 1920’s, but the Bush administration seemingly wants to go back to the 16th century.

And privatized tax collection is only part of the great march backward.

In the bad old days, government was a haphazard affair. There was no bureaucracy to collect taxes, so the king subcontracted the job to private “tax farmers,” who often engaged in extortion. There was no regular army, so the king hired mercenaries, who tended to wander off and pillage the nearest village. There was no regular system of administration, so the king assigned the task to favored courtiers, who tended to be corrupt, incompetent or both.

Modern governments solved these problems by creating a professional revenue department to collect taxes, a professional officer corps to enforce military discipline, and a professional civil service. But President Bush apparently doesn’t like these innovations, preferring to govern as if he were King Louis XII.

So the tax farmers are coming back, and the mercenaries already have. There are about 20,000 armed “security contractors” in Iraq, and they have been assigned critical tasks, from guarding top officials to training the Iraqi Army.

Like the mercenaries of old, today’s corporate mercenaries have discipline problems. “They shoot people, and someone else has to deal with the aftermath,” declared a U.S. officer last year.

And armed men operating outside the military chain of command have caused at least one catastrophe. Remember the four Americans hung from a bridge? They were security contractors from Blackwater USA who blundered into Falluja — bypassing a Marine checkpoint — while the Marines were trying to pursue a methodical strategy of pacifying the city. The killing of the four, and the knee-jerk reaction of the White House — which ordered an all-out assault, then called it off as casualties mounted — may have ended the last chance of containing the insurgency.

Yet Blackwater, whose chief executive is a major contributor to the Republican Party, continues to thrive. The Department of Homeland Security sent heavily armed Blackwater employees into New Orleans immediately after Katrina.

To whom are such contractors accountable? Last week a judge threw out a jury’s $10 million verdict against Custer Battles, a private contractor that was hired, among other things, to provide security at Baghdad’s airport. Custer Battles has become a symbol of the mix of cronyism, corruption and sheer amateurishness that doomed the Iraq adventure — and the judge didn’t challenge the jury’s finding that the company engaged in blatant fraud.

But he ruled that the civil fraud suit against the company lacked a legal basis, because as far as he could tell, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq’s government from April 2003 to June 2004, wasn’t “an instrumentality of the U.S. government.” It wasn’t created by an act of Congress; it wasn’t a branch of the State Department or any other established agency.

So what was it? Any premodern monarch would have recognized the arrangement: in effect, the authority was a personal fief run by a viceroy answering only to the ruler. And since the fief operated outside all the usual rules of government, the viceroy was free to hire a staff of political loyalists lacking any relevant qualifications for their jobs, and to hand out duffel bags filled with $100 bills to contractors with the right connections.

Tax farmers, mercenaries and viceroys: why does the Bush administration want to run a modern superpower as if it were a 16th-century monarchy? Maybe people who’ve spent their political careers denouncing government as the root of all evil can’t grasp the idea of governing well. Or maybe it’s cynical politics: privatization provides both an opportunity to evade accountability and a vast source of patronage.

But the price is enormous. This administration has thrown away centuries of lessons about how to make government work. No wonder it has failed at everything except fearmongering.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Seymour Hersh, in the New Yorker, on the Israel war

or this: shiver shiver

Washington’s interests in Israel’s war.
Issue of 2006-08-21
Posted 2006-08-14

In the days after Hezbollah crossed from Lebanon into Israel, on July 12th, to kidnap two soldiers, triggering an Israeli air attack on Lebanon and a full-scale war, the Bush Administration seemed strangely passive. “It’s a moment of clarification,” President George W. Bush said at the G-8 summit, in St. Petersburg, on July 16th. “It’s now become clear why we don’t have peace in the Middle East.” He described the relationship between Hezbollah and its supporters in Iran and Syria as one of the “root causes of instability,” and subsequently said that it was up to those countries to end the crisis. Two days later, despite calls from several governments for the United States to take the lead in negotiations to end the fighting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that a ceasefire should be put off until “the conditions are conducive.”
The Bush Administration, however, was closely involved in the planning of Israel’s retaliatory attacks. President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney were convinced, current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials told me, that a successful Israeli Air Force bombing campaign against Hezbollah’s heavily fortified underground-missile and command-and-control complexes in Lebanon could ease Israel’s security concerns and also serve as a prelude to a potential American preëmptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations, some of which are also buried deep underground.
Israeli military and intelligence experts I spoke to emphasized that the country’s immediate security issues were reason enough to confront Hezbollah, regardless of what the Bush Administration wanted. Shabtai Shavit, a national-security adviser to the Knesset who headed the Mossad, Israel’s foreign-intelligence service, from 1989 to 1996, told me, “We do what we think is best for us, and if it happens to meet America’s requirements, that’s just part of a relationship between two friends. Hezbollah is armed to the teeth and trained in the most advanced technology of guerrilla warfare. It was just a matter of time. We had to address it.”
Hezbollah is seen by Israelis as a profound threat—a terrorist organization, operating on their border, with a military arsenal that, with help from Iran and Syria, has grown stronger since the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon ended, in 2000. Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has said he does not believe that Israel is a “legal state.” Israeli intelligence estimated at the outset of the air war that Hezbollah had roughly five hundred medium-range Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets and a few dozen long-range Zelzal rockets; the Zelzals, with a range of about two hundred kilometres, could reach Tel Aviv. (One rocket hit Haifa the day after the kidnappings.) It also has more than twelve thousand shorter-range rockets. Since the conflict began, more than three thousand of these have been fired at Israel.
According to a Middle East expert with knowledge of the current thinking of both the Israeli and the U.S. governments, Israel had devised a plan for attacking Hezbollah—and shared it with Bush Administration officials—well before the July 12th kidnappings. “It’s not that the Israelis had a trap that Hezbollah walked into,” he said, “but there was a strong feeling in the White House that sooner or later the Israelis were going to do it.”
The Middle East expert said that the Administration had several reasons for supporting the Israeli bombing campaign. Within the State Department, it was seen as a way to strengthen the Lebanese government so that it could assert its authority over the south of the country, much of which is controlled by Hezbollah. He went on, “The White House was more focussed on stripping Hezbollah of its missiles, because, if there was to be a military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it had to get rid of the weapons that Hezbollah could use in a potential retaliation at Israel. Bush wanted both. Bush was going after Iran, as part of the Axis of Evil, and its nuclear sites, and he was interested in going after Hezbollah as part of his interest in democratization, with Lebanon as one of the crown jewels of Middle East democracy.”
Administration officials denied that they knew of Israel’s plan for the air war. The White House did not respond to a detailed list of questions. In response to a separate request, a National Security Council spokesman said, “Prior to Hezbollah’s attack on Israel, the Israeli government gave no official in Washington any reason to believe that Israel was planning to attack. Even after the July 12th attack, we did not know what the Israeli plans were.” A Pentagon spokesman said, “The United States government remains committed to a diplomatic solution to the problem of Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program,” and denied the story, as did a State Department spokesman.
The United States and Israel have shared intelligence and enjoyed close military coöperation for decades, but early this spring, according to a former senior intelligence official, high-level planners from the U.S. Air Force—under pressure from the White House to develop a war plan for a decisive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities—began consulting with their counterparts in the Israeli Air Force.
“The big question for our Air Force was how to hit a series of hard targets in Iran successfully,” the former senior intelligence official said. “Who is the closest ally of the U.S. Air Force in its planning? It’s not Congo—it’s Israel. Everybody knows that Iranian engineers have been advising Hezbollah on tunnels and underground gun emplacements. And so the Air Force went to the Israelis with some new tactics and said to them, ‘Let’s concentrate on the bombing and share what we have on Iran and what you have on Lebanon.’ ” The discussions reached the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, he said.
“The Israelis told us it would be a cheap war with many benefits,” a U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said. “Why oppose it? We’ll be able to hunt down and bomb missiles, tunnels, and bunkers from the air. It would be a demo for Iran.”
A Pentagon consultant said that the Bush White House “has been agitating for some time to find a reason for a preëmptive blow against Hezbollah.” He added, “It was our intent to have Hezbollah diminished, and now we have someone else doing it.” (As this article went to press, the United Nations Security Council passed a ceasefire resolution, although it was unclear if it would change the situation on the ground.)
According to Richard Armitage, who served as Deputy Secretary of State in Bush’s first term—and who, in 2002, said that Hezbollah “may be the A team of terrorists”—Israel’s campaign in Lebanon, which has faced unexpected difficulties and widespread criticism, may, in the end, serve as a warning to the White House about Iran. “If the most dominant military force in the region—the Israel Defense Forces—can’t pacify a country like Lebanon, with a population of four million, you should think carefully about taking that template to Iran, with strategic depth and a population of seventy million,” Armitage said. “The only thing that the bombing has achieved so far is to unite the population against the Israelis.”

Several current and former officials involved in the Middle East told me that Israel viewed the soldiers’ kidnapping as the opportune moment to begin its planned military campaign against Hezbollah. “Hezbollah, like clockwork, was instigating something small every month or two,” the U.S. government consultant with ties to Israel said. Two weeks earlier, in late June, members of Hamas, the Palestinian group, had tunnelled under the barrier separating southern Gaza from Israel and captured an Israeli soldier. Hamas also had lobbed a series of rockets at Israeli towns near the border with Gaza. In response, Israel had initiated an extensive bombing campaign and reoccupied parts of Gaza.
The Pentagon consultant noted that there had also been cross-border incidents involving Israel and Hezbollah, in both directions, for some time. “They’ve been sniping at each other,” he said. “Either side could have pointed to some incident and said ‘We have to go to war with these guys’—because they were already at war.”
David Siegel, the spokesman at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said that the Israeli Air Force had not been seeking a reason to attack Hezbollah. “We did not plan the campaign. That decision was forced on us.” There were ongoing alerts that Hezbollah “was pressing to go on the attack,” Siegel said. “Hezbollah attacks every two or three months,” but the kidnapping of the soldiers raised the stakes.
In interviews, several Israeli academics, journalists, and retired military and intelligence officers all made one point: they believed that the Israeli leadership, and not Washington, had decided that it would go to war with Hezbollah. Opinion polls showed that a broad spectrum of Israelis supported that choice. “The neocons in Washington may be happy, but Israel did not need to be pushed, because Israel has been wanting to get rid of Hezbollah,” Yossi Melman, a journalist for the newspaper Ha’aretz, who has written several books about the Israeli intelligence community, said. “By provoking Israel, Hezbollah provided that opportunity.”
“We were facing a dilemma,” an Israeli official said. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “had to decide whether to go for a local response, which we always do, or for a comprehensive response—to really take on Hezbollah once and for all.” Olmert made his decision, the official said, only after a series of Israeli rescue efforts failed.
The U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel told me, however, that, from Israel’s perspective, the decision to take strong action had become inevitable weeks earlier, after the Israeli Army’s signals intelligence group, known as Unit 8200, picked up bellicose intercepts in late spring and early summer, involving Hamas, Hezbollah, and Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader now living in Damascus.
One intercept was of a meeting in late May of the Hamas political and military leadership, with Meshal participating by telephone. “Hamas believed the call from Damascus was scrambled, but Israel had broken the code,” the consultant said. For almost a year before its victory in the Palestinian elections in January, Hamas had curtailed its terrorist activities. In the late May intercepted conversation, the consultant told me, the Hamas leadership said that “they got no benefit from it, and were losing standing among the Palestinian population.” The conclusion, he said, was “ ‘Let’s go back into the terror business and then try and wrestle concessions from the Israeli government.’ ” The consultant told me that the U.S. and Israel agreed that if the Hamas leadership did so, and if Nasrallah backed them up, there should be “a full-scale response.” In the next several weeks, when Hamas began digging the tunnel into Israel, the consultant said, Unit 8200 “picked up signals intelligence involving Hamas, Syria, and Hezbollah, saying, in essence, that they wanted Hezbollah to ‘warm up’ the north.” In one intercept, the consultant said, Nasrallah referred to Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz “as seeming to be weak,” in comparison with the former Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, who had extensive military experience, and said “he thought Israel would respond in a small-scale, local way, as they had in the past.”

Earlier this summer, before the Hezbollah kidnappings, the U.S. government consultant said, several Israeli officials visited Washington, separately, “to get a green light for the bombing operation and to find out how much the United States would bear.” The consultant added, “Israel began with Cheney. It wanted to be sure that it had his support and the support of his office and the Middle East desk of the National Security Council.” After that, “persuading Bush was never a problem, and Condi Rice was on board,” the consultant said.
The initial plan, as outlined by the Israelis, called for a major bombing campaign in response to the next Hezbollah provocation, according to the Middle East expert with knowledge of U.S. and Israeli thinking. Israel believed that, by targeting Lebanon’s infrastructure, including highways, fuel depots, and even the civilian runways at the main Beirut airport, it could persuade Lebanon’s large Christian and Sunni populations to turn against Hezbollah, according to the former senior intelligence official. The airport, highways, and bridges, among other things, have been hit in the bombing campaign. The Israeli Air Force had flown almost nine thousand missions as of last week. (David Siegel, the Israeli spokesman, said that Israel had targeted only sites connected to Hezbollah; the bombing of bridges and roads was meant to prevent the transport of weapons.)
The Israeli plan, according to the former senior intelligence official, was “the mirror image of what the United States has been planning for Iran.” (The initial U.S. Air Force proposals for an air attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity, which included the option of intense bombing of civilian infrastructure targets inside Iran, have been resisted by the top leadership of the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps, according to current and former officials. They argue that the Air Force plan will not work and will inevitably lead, as in the Israeli war with Hezbollah, to the insertion of troops on the ground.)
Uzi Arad, who served for more than two decades in the Mossad, told me that to the best of his knowledge the contacts between the Israeli and U.S. governments were routine, and that, “in all my meetings and conversations with government officials, never once did I hear anyone refer to prior coördination with the United States.” He was troubled by one issue—the speed with which the Olmert government went to war. “For the life of me, I’ve never seen a decision to go to war taken so speedily,” he said. “We usually go through long analyses.”
The key military planner was Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, the I.D.F. chief of staff, who, during a career in the Israeli Air Force, worked on contingency planning for an air war with Iran. Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, and Peretz, a former labor leader, could not match his experience and expertise.
In the early discussions with American officials, I was told by the Middle East expert and the government consultant, the Israelis repeatedly pointed to the war in Kosovo as an example of what Israel would try to achieve. The NATO forces commanded by U.S. Army General Wesley Clark methodically bombed and strafed not only military targets but tunnels, bridges, and roads, in Kosovo and elsewhere in Serbia, for seventy-eight days before forcing Serbian forces to withdraw from Kosovo. “Israel studied the Kosovo war as its role model,” the government consultant said. “The Israelis told Condi Rice, ‘You did it in about seventy days, but we need half of that—thirty-five days.’ ”
There are, of course, vast differences between Lebanon and Kosovo. Clark, who retired from the military in 2000 and unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat for the Presidency in 2004, took issue with the analogy: “If it’s true that the Israeli campaign is based on the American approach in Kosovo, then it missed the point. Ours was to use force to obtain a diplomatic objective—it was not about killing people.” Clark noted in a 2001 book, “Waging Modern War,” that it was the threat of a possible ground invasion as well as the bombing that forced the Serbs to end the war. He told me, “In my experience, air campaigns have to be backed, ultimately, by the will and capability to finish the job on the ground.”
Kosovo has been cited publicly by Israeli officials and journalists since the war began. On August 6th, Prime Minister Olmert, responding to European condemnation of the deaths of Lebanese civilians, said, “Where do they get the right to preach to Israel? European countries attacked Kosovo and killed ten thousand civilians. Ten thousand! And none of these countries had to suffer before that from a single rocket. I’m not saying it was wrong to intervene in Kosovo. But please: don’t preach to us about the treatment of civilians.” (Human Rights Watch estimated the number of civilians killed in the NATO bombing to be five hundred; the Yugoslav government put the number between twelve hundred and five thousand.)
Cheney’s office supported the Israeli plan, as did Elliott Abrams, a deputy national-security adviser, according to several former and current officials. (A spokesman for the N.S.C. denied that Abrams had done so.) They believed that Israel should move quickly in its air war against Hezbollah. A former intelligence officer said, “We told Israel, ‘Look, if you guys have to go, we’re behind you all the way. But we think it should be sooner rather than later—the longer you wait, the less time we have to evaluate and plan for Iran before Bush gets out of office.’ ”
Cheney’s point, the former senior intelligence official said, was “What if the Israelis execute their part of this first, and it’s really successful? It’d be great. We can learn what to do in Iran by watching what the Israelis do in Lebanon.”
The Pentagon consultant told me that intelligence about Hezbollah and Iran is being mishandled by the White House the same way intelligence had been when, in 2002 and early 2003, the Administration was making the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. “The big complaint now in the intelligence community is that all of the important stuff is being sent directly to the top—at the insistence of the White House—and not being analyzed at all, or scarcely,” he said. “It’s an awful policy and violates all of the N.S.A.’s strictures, and if you complain about it you’re out,” he said. “Cheney had a strong hand in this.”
The long-term Administration goal was to help set up a Sunni Arab coalition—including countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt—that would join the United States and Europe to pressure the ruling Shiite mullahs in Iran. “But the thought behind that plan was that Israel would defeat Hezbollah, not lose to it,” the consultant with close ties to Israel said. Some officials in Cheney’s office and at the N.S.C. had become convinced, on the basis of private talks, that those nations would moderate their public criticism of Israel and blame Hezbollah for creating the crisis that led to war. Although they did so at first, they shifted their position in the wake of public protests in their countries about the Israeli bombing. The White House was clearly disappointed when, late last month, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, came to Washington and, at a meeting with Bush, called for the President to intervene immediately to end the war. The Washington Post reported that Washington had hoped to enlist moderate Arab states “in an effort to pressure Syria and Iran to rein in Hezbollah, but the Saudi move . . . seemed to cloud that initiative.”

The surprising strength of Hezbollah’s resistance, and its continuing ability to fire rockets into northern Israel in the face of the constant Israeli bombing, the Middle East expert told me, “is a massive setback for those in the White House who want to use force in Iran. And those who argue that the bombing will create internal dissent and revolt in Iran are also set back.”
Nonetheless, some officers serving with the Joint Chiefs of Staff remain deeply concerned that the Administration will have a far more positive assessment of the air campaign than they should, the former senior intelligence official said. “There is no way that Rumsfeld and Cheney will draw the right conclusion about this,” he said. “When the smoke clears, they’ll say it was a success, and they’ll draw reinforcement for their plan to attack Iran.”
In the White House, especially in the Vice-President’s office, many officials believe that the military campaign against Hezbollah is working and should be carried forward. At the same time, the government consultant said, some policymakers in the Administration have concluded that the cost of the bombing to Lebanese society is too high. “They are telling Israel that it’s time to wind down the attacks on infrastructure.”
Similar divisions are emerging in Israel. David Siegel, the Israeli spokesman, said that his country’s leadership believed, as of early August, that the air war had been successful, and had destroyed more than seventy per cent of Hezbollah’s medium- and long-range-missile launching capacity. “The problem is short-range missiles, without launchers, that can be shot from civilian areas and homes,” Siegel told me. “The only way to resolve this is ground operations—which is why Israel would be forced to expand ground operations if the latest round of diplomacy doesn’t work.” Last week, however, there was evidence that the Israeli government was troubled by the progress of the war. In an unusual move, Major General Moshe Kaplinsky, Halutz’s deputy, was put in charge of the operation, supplanting Major General Udi Adam. The worry in Israel is that Nasrallah might escalate the crisis by firing missiles at Tel Aviv. “There is a big debate over how much damage Israel should inflict to prevent it,” the consultant said. “If Nasrallah hits Tel Aviv, what should Israel do? Its goal is to deter more attacks by telling Nasrallah that it will destroy his country if he doesn’t stop, and to remind the Arab world that Israel can set it back twenty years. We’re no longer playing by the same rules.”
A European intelligence officer told me, “The Israelis have been caught in a psychological trap. In earlier years, they had the belief that they could solve their problems with toughness. But now, with Islamic martyrdom, things have changed, and they need different answers. How do you scare people who love martyrdom?” The problem with trying to eliminate Hezbollah, the intelligence officer said, is the group’s ties to the Shiite population in southern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and Beirut’s southern suburbs, where it operates schools, hospitals, a radio station, and various charities.
A high-level American military planner told me, “We have a lot of vulnerability in the region, and we’ve talked about some of the effects of an Iranian or Hezbollah attack on the Saudi regime and on the oil infrastructure.” There is special concern inside the Pentagon, he added, about the oil-producing nations north of the Strait of Hormuz. “We have to anticipate the unintended consequences,” he told me. “Will we be able to absorb a barrel of oil at one hundred dollars? There is this almost comical thinking that you can do it all from the air, even when you’re up against an irregular enemy with a dug-in capability. You’re not going to be successful unless you have a ground presence, but the political leadership never considers the worst case. These guys only want to hear the best case.”
There is evidence that the Iranians were expecting the war against Hezbollah. Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite Muslims and Iran, who is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and also teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California, said, “Every negative American move against Hezbollah was seen by Iran as part of a larger campaign against it. And Iran began to prepare for the showdown by supplying more sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah—anti-ship and anti-tank missiles—and training its fighters in their use. And now Hezbollah is testing Iran’s new weapons. Iran sees the Bush Administration as trying to marginalize its regional role, so it fomented trouble.”
Nasr, an Iranian-American who recently published a study of the Sunni-Shiite divide, entitled “The Shia Revival,” also said that the Iranian leadership believes that Washington’s ultimate political goal is to get some international force to act as a buffer—to physically separate Syria and Lebanon in an effort to isolate and disarm Hezbollah, whose main supply route is through Syria. “Military action cannot bring about the desired political result,” Nasr said. The popularity of Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a virulent critic of Israel, is greatest in his own country. If the U.S. were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, Nasr said, “you may end up turning Ahmadinejad into another Nasrallah—the rock star of the Arab street.”

Donald Rumsfeld, who is one of the Bush Administration’s most outspoken, and powerful, officials, has said very little publicly about the crisis in Lebanon. His relative quiet, compared to his aggressive visibility in the run-up to the Iraq war, has prompted a debate in Washington about where he stands on the issue.
Some current and former intelligence officials who were interviewed for this article believe that Rumsfeld disagrees with Bush and Cheney about the American role in the war between Israel and Hezbollah. The U.S. government consultant with close ties to Israel said that “there was a feeling that Rumsfeld was jaded in his approach to the Israeli war.” He added, “Air power and the use of a few Special Forces had worked in Afghanistan, and he tried to do it again in Iraq. It was the same idea, but it didn’t work. He thought that Hezbollah was too dug in and the Israeli attack plan would not work, and the last thing he wanted was another war on his shift that would put the American forces in Iraq in greater jeopardy.”
A Western diplomat said that he understood that Rumsfeld did not know all the intricacies of the war plan. “He is angry and worried about his troops” in Iraq, the diplomat said. Rumsfeld served in the White House during the last year of the war in Vietnam, from which American troops withdrew in 1975, “and he did not want to see something like this having an impact in Iraq.” Rumsfeld’s concern, the diplomat added, was that an expansion of the war into Iran could put the American troops in Iraq at greater risk of attacks by pro-Iranian Shiite militias.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on August 3rd, Rumsfeld was less than enthusiastic about the war’s implications for the American troops in Iraq. Asked whether the Administration was mindful of the war’s impact on Iraq, he testified that, in his meetings with Bush and Condoleezza Rice, “there is a sensitivity to the desire to not have our country or our interests or our forces put at greater risk as a result of what’s taking place between Israel and Hezbollah. . . . There are a variety of risks that we face in that region, and it’s a difficult and delicate situation.”
The Pentagon consultant dismissed talk of a split at the top of the Administration, however, and said simply, “Rummy is on the team. He’d love to see Hezbollah degraded, but he also is a voice for less bombing and more innovative Israeli ground operations.” The former senior intelligence official similarly depicted Rumsfeld as being “delighted that Israel is our stalking horse.”
There are also questions about the status of Condoleezza Rice. Her initial support for the Israeli air war against Hezbollah has reportedly been tempered by dismay at the effects of the attacks on Lebanon. The Pentagon consultant said that in early August she began privately “agitating” inside the Administration for permission to begin direct diplomatic talks with Syria—so far, without much success. Last week, the Times reported that Rice had directed an Embassy official in Damascus to meet with the Syrian foreign minister, though the meeting apparently yielded no results. The Times also reported that Rice viewed herself as “trying to be not only a peacemaker abroad but also a mediator among contending parties” within the Administration. The article pointed to a divide between career diplomats in the State Department and “conservatives in the government,” including Cheney and Abrams, “who were pushing for strong American support for Israel.”
The Western diplomat told me his embassy believes that Abrams has emerged as a key policymaker on Iran, and on the current Hezbollah-Israeli crisis, and that Rice’s role has been relatively diminished. Rice did not want to make her most recent diplomatic trip to the Middle East, the diplomat said. “She only wanted to go if she thought there was a real chance to get a ceasefire.”
Bush’s strongest supporter in Europe continues to be British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but many in Blair’s own Foreign Office, as a former diplomat said, believe that he has “gone out on a particular limb on this”—especially by accepting Bush’s refusal to seek an immediate and total ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah. “Blair stands alone on this,” the former diplomat said. “He knows he’s a lame duck who’s on the way out, but he buys it”—the Bush policy. “He drinks the White House Kool-Aid as much as anybody in Washington.” The crisis will really start at the end of August, the diplomat added, “when the Iranians”—under a United Nations deadline to stop uranium enrichment—“will say no.”
Even those who continue to support Israel’s war against Hezbollah agree that it is failing to achieve one of its main goals—to rally the Lebanese against Hezbollah. “Strategic bombing has been a failed military concept for ninety years, and yet air forces all over the world keep on doing it,” John Arquilla, a defense analyst at the Naval Postgraduate School, told me. Arquilla has been campaigning for more than a decade, with growing success, to change the way America fights terrorism. “The warfare of today is not mass on mass,” he said. “You have to hunt like a network to defeat a network. Israel focussed on bombing against Hezbollah, and, when that did not work, it became more aggressive on the ground. The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result.”

There is no hope, but I may be wrong.
Reread Thucydides: "Hubris ends in Nemesis"

"The single greatest threat to our democracy is the insecurity of our voting system," warns Kennedy. "Whoever controls the voting machines can control who wins the votes."

Thilo Ullmann
Saratoga Springs, NY

If you have not recently visited my blog please do. I have posted a lot of new material. Please give me your comments.

On Aug 19, 2006, at 5:02 PM, PellKenn@aol.com wrote:


The WaShington PoSt
Another 'Mission Accomplished' Moment?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 15, 2006; 1:20 PM

President Bush's startling assertion yesterday -- that at the end of 33 days of warfare between Israel and the Hezbollah militia, Hezbollah had been defeated -- once again raises questions about his ability to acknowledge reality when things don't turn out the way he intended.
Here, from the transcript of his appearance at the State Department, are his exact words: "Hezbollah started the crisis, and Hezbollah suffered a defeat in this crisis. And the reason why is, is that first, there is a new -- there's going to be a new power in the south of Lebanon, and that's going to be a Lebanese force with a robust international force to help them seize control of the country, that part of the country."
My first question: Did he really mean to say that?
Bush clearly intended to blame every bit of the terrible carnage on Hezbollah, even though most of it was inflicted by Israel. That point, he made over and over again. And his central point -- also controversial, but not new -- was this: "The conflict in Lebanon is part of a broader struggle between freedom and terror that is unfolding across the region."
But the conclusion that Hezbollah had been defeated was a rare, possibly unscripted moment of news-making amid a public appearance heavy on timeworn talking points about the march to freedom.
Furthermore, the White House position on winners and losers as expressed by spokesman Tony Snow just hours earlier was noncommittal.
"Q As you look at this, the month-long war in the Mideast, who won?
"MR. SNOW: I'm not sure -- right now what's won is diplomacy has won."
My second question: If Bush did mean to say it, how will he and his aides defend it?
The defeat of Hezbollah was clearly Bush's goal in stalling the international drive for a humanitarian cease-fire for a month. White House hawks, led by Vice President Cheney, argued that Israel should be given time to score a major military victory in a proxy war against Iran.
But Bush's insistence that Hezbollah lost appears to be wishful thinking.
Hezbollah, by most accounts, suffered some military setbacks but has emerged in a stronger political position than ever before. Israel, by contrast, is generally considered to have lost its aura of military invincibility. American clout in the region has taken a big hit. Lebanon's fragile democracy has suffered a terrible blow. And the biggest losers, of course, were the people of Lebanon.

Friday, August 18, 2006

From Ha'aretz, Jerusalem

A far cry from Ben-Gurion

The war has united the Israeli public - in its distrust for leaders who act without thinking

Yoel Marcus
Saturday August 19, 2006
The Guardian

Never has a new government with a line-up of fresh faces and ambitious goals been entangled in so many foolish affairs within such a short span of time as that of Ehud Olmert: a president suspected of sexual harassment; an environmental affairs minister accused of election bribery; a justice minister facing charges of indecent behaviour; a chief of staff who liquidated his stock portfolio two hours before the war; a defence minister who wasn't aware of any missile threat; and a prime minister who raced into war without due consideration of its justness and consequences.
Much has been said and written about the wisdom of launching a full-scale war instead of making do with a retaliatory operation after the kidnapping of two soldiers; about the first Israeli government to allow its citizens to be bombarded by 4,000 missiles from a terrorist organisation; about a million Israeli refugees making a beeline from north to south; about the tremendous loss of life and property. Who would have imagined, with all our military might, that we would not be victorious in a war where Israel was Goliath and Hizbullah was David?

Blindly, without thinking, Israel volunteered to leap for the second time into the Lebanese bog. With an army of reserve soldiers sitting there until the multinational force arrives, it's only a matter of time before Hizbullah creeps out of its lair and batters us with roadside bombs and suicide bombers.

At the moment, it doesn't feel like things are under control. It is far from certain that the Olmert administration has an agenda that will allow it to survive another three-and-a-half years in office. What we do know, sizing up this war, is that the government operated backward. First it acted, and then it sat down to think.

David Ben-Gurion used to shut himself up for days before important decisions. Rather than look before you leap, the Olmert administration was guided by the opposite principle: leap before you look. The bombastic threats against the enemy, the promises of a new Middle East, the talk about disarming Hizbullah and ending the rocket fire - it was more a shot in the dark than a premeditated plan.

The outcome of the war has exposed our weak points. Apart from President Bush, who says we won, our overuse of air power and the huge damage we inflicted on Lebanon and Lebanese infrastructure have prompted the world to change its mind about the justification of our actions. Hizbullah survived with most of its arsenal intact, and can always count on its patrons to replenish it. That, and the fact that it stands a good chance of becoming part of the Lebanese establishment and winning the elections, has prompted Assad Jr to rattle his sabre.

Israel is still toying with the dangerous idea of bumping off Hassan Nasrallah. When his predecessor, Abbas Musawi, was assassinated, Hizbullah blew up a major Jewish centre in Argentina, and we were saddled with an heir who is wilier by far.

In the old days, when a Jewish mother wanted to brag about her son, she would say he had the head of a cabinet minister. Today, it might be grounds for libel. With a million refugees wandering the country, millions of dollars of economic damage and the trauma of thousands of missiles hitting our homes, there is no question that the public is going to rethink its trust in a government that indulges in such hasty decision-making. With so many questions in the air and a political tsunami on the way, it's time to get set for early elections.

· Yoel Marcus is a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, where a longer version of this article first appeared Haaretz.com