Monday, December 29, 2008

Bold, transformational leadership

Israel's war on the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated  and impoverished areas in the world, has now killed almost 350 Palestinians (and probably more by the time you read this):
Israel bombs Gaza in 'all-out war' on Hamas
GAZA CITY (AFP) — Warplanes pounded Gaza for a third day on Monday as tanks stood by to join the "all-out" war Israel vowed would wipe out Hamas, as the death toll rose to 345 and militants responded with deadly rocket fire.
Israel made it clear the offensive was just beginning, even as UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on world leaders to work urgently to end the "unacceptable" violence.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who has threatened to launch ground incursions alongside the aerial blitz, said Israel is in "an all-out war with Hamas and its proxies."
Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon said the goal of the Israeli offensive "is topple Hamas."
With Israeli tanks idling just metres (yards) away from Gaza, the army decreed the area along the border a closed military zone -- a move that in the past has often been followed by ground operations.
"After this operation there will not be a single Hamas building left standing in Gaza, and we plan to change the rules of the game," said armed forces deputy chief of staff Brigadier General Dan Harel, quoted by the YNet News website.
"We are hitting not only terrorists and launchers, but also the whole Hamas government and all its wings," Harel said.
Meanwhile, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, elected on a mantra of change, is signaling that there is little hope his administration will give serious thought to reconsidering the U.S. government's reflexive, unflinching support for whatever brutal, short-sighted and counterproductive policies the state of Israel pursues:
Obama Defers to Bush, for Now, on Gaza Crisis

WASHINGTON — When President-elect Barack Obama went to Israel in July — to the very town, in fact, whose repeated shelling culminated in this weekend’s new fighting in Gaza — he all but endorsed the punishing Israeli attacks now unfolding.

“If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that,” he told reporters in Sderot, a small city on the edge of Gaza that has been hit repeatedly by rocket fire. “And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”

Now, Mr. Obama’s presidency will begin facing the consequences of just such a counterattack, one of Israel’s deadliest against Palestinians in decades, presenting him with yet another foreign crisis to deal with the moment he steps into the White House on Jan. 20, even as he and his advisers have struggled mightily to focus on the country’s economic problems.

Since his election, Mr. Obama has said little specific about his foreign policy — in contrast to more expansive remarks about the economy. He and his advisers have deferred questions — critics could say, ducked them — by saying that until Jan. 20, only President Bush would speak for the nation as president and commander in chief. “The fact is that there is only one president at a time,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, reiterating a phrase that has become a mantra of the transition. “And that president now is George Bush.”

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Israel's war on Gaza (and international law)

On NBC/General Electric's "Meet the Press" this morning, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was asked by host David Gregory to explain why Israel chose this moment to launch a full-scale assault on the open-air prison known as the Gaza Strip  -- an assault that has (so far) killed more than 300 people in under two days, including a significant number of women and children, dwarfing by a factor of more than 10 the number of Israelis killed by Palestinian rocket fire in total. Her response?
MS. LIVNI: Oh, why now? Because after Israel decided to leave Gaza Strip a few years ago and we got Hamas in return. About a half a year ago, according to the Egyptian Initiative, we decided to enter a kind of a truce and not to attack Gaza Strip. Hamas violated, on a daily basis, this truce. They targeted Israel, and we didn't answer. But unfortunately, Hamas misunderstood the fact that Israel didn't retaliate, and only last week we had in a day 80 rockets, missiles, mortars on Israeli civilians. More than that, they used the field of truce in order to rearm themselves. They smuggled weapon, they built a small army in Gaza Strip, so the situation was unbearable.
The idea that Israel "didn't answer" and "didn't retaliate" to rocket fire from Gaza would be news to the Palestinians suffering under the Israeli-imposed blockade, which bars both fuel shipments and much-needed humanitarian aid to Gaza. 

As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay notes, the blockade has certainly made the situation in Gaza unbearable for those unfortunate enough to live there, having "forcibly deprived" 1.5 million Palestinian men, women and children "of their most basic human rights . . . in direct contravention of international human rights and humanitarian law." 

The UN has also documented numerous violations of the erstwhile cease-fire by Israel, including IDF soldiers firing at Palestinian farmers who had the temerity to farm their own land. That notoriously radical news service, the BBC, also reported that the cease-fire had been "violated repeatedly" by both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Naturally, being a well-prepared and unbiased journalist, Mr. Gregory cited this widely available information in his followup question, calling Ms. Livni on her blatant attempt to rewrite history:
MR. GREGORY: What is Israel's goal right now? Is it to re-establish the cease-fire, or is it to invade Gaza and remove Hamas from power?
Oh well. At least GE/NBC, being a respectable mainstream news outlet dedicated to balanced and objective journalism, brought on another guest as a counterpoint to the Israeli government who pointed out that the attack on Gaza is tantamount to even more collective punishment -- a war crime -- destined to fuel evermore violence and extremism:
MR. GREGORY: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, thank you very much for your time.

Ms. LIVNI: Thank you.

MR. GREGORY: And turning back home, we are now joined from Chicago by senior adviser to President-elect Obama, David Axelrod. Welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.
I guess no critics of Israeli actions, or persons familiar with recent history, could be found on such short notice. Funny how the same thing happened in 2006 when Israel attacked Lebanon, killing over 1,000 innocent civilians in response to the kidnappings of a couple soldiers. It's almost like there's a pattern . . .

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

John Warner: Great Senator, or Greatest Senator?

When a prominent U.S. politician either dies or retires, the press and his or her fellow lawmakers can be expected to fall over themselves to praise their dignity, their devotion to country over party, etc. (see: Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, et al.) no matter how corrupt or immoral they actually were.

The latest beneficiary of bipartisan hosannas is retiring Senator John Warner, a Republican from Virginia who did his best to gloss over the Bush administration's responsibility for the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq and helped shepherd the Military Commissions Act of 2006 through Congress -- the bill that abolished habeas corpus for those accused of acts of terrorism and retroactively legalized torture.  And when I last spoke to Warner in the summer of 2006, amid rampant bloodshed in Iraq, what issue was the respected senator focused on? Pushing a constitutional amendment to ban the national epidemic of flag burning, which he told me was necessary in order to honor our nation's veterans (which, via his support of the Iraq war, he was ensuring there would be many more of).

Of course, these details -- you know, actual facts about Warner's record -- seem not to matter to his colleagues in the U.S. Senate, including his fellow Virginia Senator, Democrat Jim Webb, who offers this howler:
"There is not a person who is wearing the military uniform today who has not benefited from the wisdom and judgment of John Warner."
Yeah . . . except maybe all those wearing military uniforms who are being bombed and shot at in the quagmires that are Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now, I'm not entirely naive -- I realize politicians spout b.s. about "my good friend" this and "my esteemed colleague" that all the time. Nonetheless, it's a bit disconcerting to see Webb -- an opponent of the Iraq war whose son is currently deployed in that country, and who certainly knows better -- gloss over Warner's outspoken support for a war of aggression that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, but so it goes.

More amusing, however, is what Warner believes is wrong with the Republican Party today (hint: it's not the Party's support for "preemptive" war and crony capitalism):
Warner thinks the Republican Party in Virginia, which he helped build, is substituting rigidity for independent thinking.

"I would have to say that I'm deeply concerned, indeed sad, about the Republican Party of Virginia," he said.

A year ago, when he knew he was not going to seek re-election, Warner said he donated $2,000 to the Republican Party of Virginia to help defray the costs of a luncheon and straw poll at the party's annual Advance in Arlington.

"Guess who they elected? Ron Paul. That was the worst investment of several thousand dollars I ever made."
If the problem with the Republican Party, as Warner posits, is that it is "substituting rigidity for independent thinking," why, prey tell, is he bemoaning the fact that the only Republican presidential candidate who dared to challenge his party on its support for endless war and corporatism -- and the only one to challenge the consensus during the primaries that the economy was fine and dandy -- won a local straw poll? Say what you will about Ron Paul (who I interviewed here and here), but he was clearly the only Republican candidate who had any semblance of "independent thinking", for which he was pilloried by the Party establishment. 

Methinks John Warner's opposition to "rigidity" and support for "independent thinking" just may be nothing more than meaningless claptrap self-styled mavericks like he and John McCain are expected to utter for the media's consumption. Admitting the Republican Party lost the '06 and '08 elections because of the policies he himself pushed -- imperialism abroad and corporatism at home -- would probably be too much for the senior senator from Virginia. 

It sure must be comforting for Warner to blame the Party's woes on poor old Ron Paul. Too bad it isn't true.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Doubling down

In addition to Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates' suggestion that the president-elect would be fine with maintaining  40,000-plus troops in Iraq "for decades" (to say nothing of the private contractors), military commanders are now declaring that the erstwhile peace candidate will double the U.S. presence in that other quagmire, Afghanistan:
Dec. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. seeks to send an additional 20,000 to 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in the first half of next year.

“Some 20,000 to 30,000 is the window of overall increase from where we are right now. I don’t have an exact number,” Mullen said at a press conference in Kabul today. “We’re looking to get them here in the spring, but certainly by the beginning of summer at the latest.”
With prominent gay marriage opponent -- and assassination proponent -- Rick Warren conducting the "invocation" at the president-elect's inauguration, one could be forgiven for thinking John McCain won last month's election. 

(The modern practice, beginning with FDR, of having religious leaders conduct an inaugural invocation is disturbing in of itself, at least to those who question the desirability of selling statism -- and the view of head-of-state as quasi-deity -- as the secular religion.)

Friday, December 19, 2008

"I bring from President-elect Obama a message of continuity"

Unlike hope or change, "continuity" is a term that doesn't lend itself to campaign stump speeches or glossy merchandise, so it's understandable that Barack Obama did not overly emphasize the concept in his race against John McCain, whose own dedication to continuity in foreign policy earned him the derogatory nickname "McSame."

But in laying out a national security team heavy on hawkish Iraq war supporters -- like "humanitarian interventionists" Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, and Bush's defense secretary, Robert Gates -- the notion that Obama would usher in a new era of peaceful U.S. relations with the world markedly different from the last eight years is becoming less tenable to maintain each day (not that a candidate who backed unilaterally invading Pakistan and "surging" in Afghanistan ever should have been viewed as an anti-war/peace candidate by his supporters or detractors).

And now that the heated denunciations of Obama as a neo-McGovernite bent on destroying Israel are subsiding, even The New York Times is noting how Obama's administration is likely to provide little more than an attractive veneer to the policies of George W. Bush, as suggested by Obama's future defense secretary during a recent trip overseas:
Mr. Gates's four-day trip was an indication that Mr. Obama would be continuing much of the Bush administration's latest policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least for now: reducing American troops slowly in Iraq but adding some 20,000 next year in Afghanistan.
Mr. Gates, who said he had had discussions with Mr. Obama about both wars, also signaled that Mr. Obama would take a forceful line against Iran.

"The president-elect and his team are under no illusions about Iran's behavior and what Iran has been doing in the region and apparently is doing with some weapons programs," Mr. Gates said Saturday at a regional security conference in Manama, Bahrain, where he stopped between visits to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mr. Gates is also a proponent of continuity in national security, a view he underscored to the leaders of the Persian Gulf nations assembled in Manama. "I bring from President-elect Obama a message of continuity and commitment to our friends in the region," he told them.
Though loyal Democratic enthusiasts such as Spencer Ackerman have portrayed Obama's decision to keep on Gates as evidence that the latter has "signed on to Obama's agenda" -- which, according to Ackerman, includes such allegedly "progressive goals for the Middle East like 'responsibly ending the war in Iraq,' 'preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to Iran… [and] seeking a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.'" -- it appears more likely that Obama's agenda is not, in fact, all that different from the second term of the Bush administration.

(I would also question whether "responsibly ending the war in Iraq" -- i.e., keeping tens of thousands of troops there indefinitely -- should qualify as a "progressive" goal. I'd also question whether mere rhetoric should qualify as an "agenda" . . .)

Meanwhile, Gates' comments concerning Iran's worrisome "weapons programs" signals Obama is likely to continue the Bush administration's policy of ignoring factual evidence in favor of politically convenient fear mongering about Tehran. Of course, it's worth noting that according to the International Atomic Energy Agency's November 19 report (pdf), IAEA inspectors have "been able to continue to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran."

The November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran (pdf), the consensus opinion of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, also declares that "Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005." Both reports do suggest questions remain about Iran's nuclear ambitions, though none suggest Tehran is "apparently" working on nuclear weapons as Gates implies.

But as for the larger question of continuity in foreign policy under Obama, conservative columnist George Will dispelled the hope of change in that realm in a piece he recently wrote based on an interview with Gates:
Regarding Iraq, Gates is parsimonious with his confidence, noting that "the multisectarian democracy has not sunk very deep roots yet." He stresses, however, that there is bipartisan congressional support for "a long-term residual presence" of perhaps 40,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and that the president-elect's recent statements have not precluded that. Such a presence "for decades" has, he says, followed major U.S. military operations since 1945, other than in Vietnam. And he says, "Look at how long Britain has had troops in Cyprus."

Regarding Afghanistan, Gates recalls with a flicker of a smile that two decades ago, when "we were the quartermaster for the mujaheddin" fighting the Soviet army, "I was pumping arms across the border to some of the same guys" America is dealing with today. He is encouraged by the "dramatic expansion" of Afghanistan's national army and police. But when asked if Afghanistan has ever had a national government whose writ ran nationwide, he says "no."
Obama's promise to withdraw "combat troops" within 16 months -- based on conditions on the ground, of course -- was always a rather sneaky way of not actually committing to end the war in Iraq. After all, keeping troops there to train Iraqi troops and fight terrorism is the ostensible reason the Bush administration has cited for continuing the occupation, so Obama's pledge never really signaled a substantive change in policy.

Meanwhile, the last part in Will's column concerning Afghanistan is particularly noteworthy for, as Gates readily admits, the American public is being asked to trust U.S. national security to very same people who thought funding Osama & Friends in their war against the Soviets was a good idea. Disturbingly, handing control of foreign policy back to these same old establishment types appears to be exactly what liberal reporters/commenters like Ackerman seem to desire, as liberal (and pro-Iraq war when it was still cool) blogger Matthew Yglesias wrote earlier this year:
My ideas really are basically the ideas that were at the core of the bipartisan, establishment consensus throughout the Cold War years. And they're ideas that could and should have been the key ideas of center-left think tanks in the post-9/11 world. But that's not what actually happened. Instead, a set of ideas that originally existed as a fringe right-wing position wound up being espoused not only by nearly the entire Republican Party but by a huge swathe of the broader establishment. The kind of institutions that you would expect to try to put the country back on an even keel -- The New York Times's foreign affairs columnist, The Washington Post's editorial page, the top foreign policy officials from the second Clinton administration, the Brookings Institution, etc. -- instead hopped aboard George W. Bush's madcap adventure.
While Yglesias may be perplexed as to why all his fellow respected, serious foreign policy thinkers were so quick to hop on the Iraq war bandwagon, the reason so many liberal establishment types supported it is actually rather simple: because they, contrary to the wishes of the Code Pink types, believe in war as an instrument of policy. "Regime change" in Iraq became official U.S. foreign policy under the aforementioned second Clinton administration, after all, and certainly none of the serious types at the Washington Post or Brookings Institution ever objected to the genocidal sanctions regime their fellow humanitarian interventionists imposed on that country.

Is it just me, or is naiveté -- either real or affected -- the only qualification one needs to become a sought-after Beltway commentator?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Negative interest rates or bust

The Federal Reserve has cut interest rates "to their lowest level on record," according to the Associated Press, with overnight loans to banks now as low as zero percent. That means the money is essentially being printed and then given away to major financial insititutions, as the money the Fed receives in return for the loans will not have kept pace with inflation (which can be expected to greatly increase). Though the move has been hailed by Wall Street, naturally, something about the Fed's latest gives me a strong case of deja vu:
"Not only does [the lowering of interest rates] help in reducing the actual borrowing costs — home equity loans, credit cards or your auto loan — but it improves the affordability, so more people are eligible for credit because their interest payments are lower," said Brian Bethune, chief financial economist for Global Insight, a Lexington, Mass.-based forecasting service.

He said that will help improve chances that borrowers with borderline eligibility will qualify for loans.
Now I know I'm not a highly respected economist regularly quoted in the Washington Post or anything, but isn't a policy of encouraging banks to give loans to people of questionable qualifications exactly what led the U.S. into its current economic malaise?

But it would appear Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has decided to more or less repeate the Greenspan policy of providing easy money to banks (also tried during the 1920s before another calamitous economic period) that will then try to make a quick buck by lending it to people they probably shouldn't, all in an attempt to inflate the economy back to its previous unrealistic heights. In the short-term, this may indeed spur another artificial boom and the appearance of prosperity -- maybe. But when the inevitable bust comes, it won't be pretty, especially for those on fixed incomes who will have to deal with the likely prospect of significant inflation.

Yet this is the serious monetary policy backed by everyone from George W. Bush to Paul Krugman, which means whenever the blowback of the Fed's actions finally hits nobody will be to blame, except those Americans not patriotic enough to go out and buy a new high-definition television they can't afford.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

President Bush greeted as liberator

President George W. Bush, on a final victory tour of the world before he leaves office, participated in a press conference in Baghdad that no interview with a member of the American press could have prepared him for:

While it may appear harsh and a tad unnerving, in Iraq throwing one's shoes at someone is actually seen as a gesture of the utmost humility. "Here. Take the shoes off my very feet, for I am not worthy to walk in your presence."

Or it's a gesture of extreme disrespect and loathing, indicative of the widespread hatred of Bush present throughout the Middle East and much of the world. One of the two.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Will Barack Obama nuke Iran?

Despite the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found no evidence that Iran has diverted any uranium to a covert nuclear weapons program, and that all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies have declared that Iran does not have an active weapons program, American politicians haven't come to grips with that reality -- Barack Obama included. How else can one explain his offer, as reported by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike against Iran should it ever use nuclear weapons (which the aforementioned intelligence agencies say they don't have) against Israel (which the whole world knows has nukes)?
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's administration will offer Israel a "nuclear umbrella" against the threat of a nuclear attack by Iran, a well-placed American source said earlier this week. The source, who is close to the new administration, said the U.S. will declare that an attack on Israel by Tehran would result in a devastating U.S. nuclear response against Iran.
Assuming this story is true (which is not confirmed), Obama would seem to be doing this either because he actually believes Iran may soon get a nuclear weapon -- and, presumably, that Iran's leadership would be suicidal enough to use them against the very well-armed Israel -- or he is trying to alleviate fears that he is actually some sort of closeted Marxist-who-wants-to-surrender-to-the-terrorists, and not the conventional liberal interventionist that he actually is.

Alternatively, the story could also be read as signaling that Obama may see a nuclear-armed Iran as something which the world can live with, and that Iran's leadership could be deterred from using nukes based on the same doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" that was maintained with respect to the Soviet Union.

But would Barack Obama actually nuke Iran? Well, no. Iran does not have nuclear weapons, according the IAEA, and it would have to kick out the inspectors monitoring its nuclear facilities in order to enrich uranium to the level necessary to make a nuke. In other words, Iran can't make a nuclear weapon without the whole world knowing, and even if Iran should develop one, there's no evidence that its leadership would be so irrational as to actually launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel knowing they would be annihilated in return (fears in some segments of the right that Iran's government wants to start the apocalypse to the contrary). Iran's government had no qualms buying weapons from Israel and the "Great Satan" during its war with Iraq in the 1980s, after all, so one shouldn't confuse nasty rhetoric with a desire to end life as we know it.

Now for those who still inexplicably believe Obama will significantly change the course of U.S. foreign policy, cherish the fact that his (alleged) proposal to extend the U.S. "nuclear umbrella" to Israel makes the Bush administration sound reasonable:

A senior Bush administration source said that the proposal for an American nuclear umbrella for Israel was ridiculous and lacked credibility. "Who will convince the citizen in Kansas that the U.S. needs to get mixed up in a nuclear war because Haifa was bombed? And what is the point of an American response, after Israel's cities are destroyed in an Iranian nuclear strike?"
The National Review's Jim Geraghty points out that when Hillary Clinton proposed this very idea during the Democratic primaries, it was criticized as laughably hawkish posturing by Obama's liberal supporters. Now that it's their guy, of course, the story receives a "so what?" response from the committed partisans commenting at Daily Kos.

More disturbing than the reflexive, preemptive support for whatever Obama decides from the Kossacks, however, is that the idea of promising a retaliatory nuclear attack on Iran was first proposed by one of the Washington Post's many resident neoconservatives, columnist Charles Krauthammer. The fact that it was too out there for the Bush administration, but seemingly not Obama, should certainly give his anti-war supporters pause -- one would think.

Indeed, as Geraghty writes:
Hear that, netroots? From Krauthammer's column to Obama administration policy. Glad you put all that effort into beating McCain, huh?
That Obama's foreign policy views are not actually all that different than the hawkish foreign policy establishment many of his supporters criticize has been readily apparent for quite awhile -- but you wouldn't know it from reading most liberal blogs, which no doubt are already gearing up for the next Most. Important. Election. Ever.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Chris Hedges on terror

Chris Hedges, a former Pulitzer prize-winning correspondent for the New York Times and author of the highly recommend War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, recently wrote an excellent piece for on the differences between terrorism (as defined by the 9/11 attacks and the recent events in Mumbai), and state-sponsored terrorism (i.e. the U.S. wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, or Israel's 2006 war on Lebanon), that is worth reading in its entirety. In short, the biggest difference is whether one uses an F-22 or a box cutter:
The Hindu-Muslim communal violence that led to the attacks in Mumbai, as well as the warnings that the New York City transit system may have been targeted by al-Qaida, are one form of terrorism. There are other forms.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when viewed from the receiving end, are state-sponsored acts of terrorism. These wars defy every ethical and legal code that seek to determine when a nation can wage war, from Just War Theory to the statutes of international law largely put into place by the United States after World War II. These wars are criminal wars of aggression. They have left hundreds of thousands of people, who never took up arms against us, dead and seen millions driven from their homes. We have no right as a nation to debate the terms of these occupations. And an Afghan villager, burying members of his family’s wedding party after an American airstrike, understands in a way we often do not that terrorist attacks can also be unleashed from the arsenals of an imperial power.

Barack Obama’s decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan and leave behind tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines in Iraq—he promises only to withdraw combat brigades—is a failure to rescue us from the status of a rogue nation. It codifies Bush’s “war on terror.” And the continuation of these wars will corrupt and degrade our nation just as the long and brutal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank has corrupted and degraded Israel. George W. Bush has handed Barack Obama a poisoned apple. Obama has bitten it.
Antiwar Radio's Scott Horton conducted a engrossing interview with Hedges the other day regarding this article, which you can listen to here. Also, for what it's worth, one of the first pieces I ever had published was on an address at a Hedges dared to deliver at a college graduation in 2003 on the morally corrupting nature of war, which resulted in a predictably fascistic response from the campus and talk radio brownshirts. 

As I wrote at the time:
[Hedges] dared -- dared! -- to warn of the soul-destroying effects that can be wrought by war and empire. “For the instrument of empire is war and war is a poison,” said Hedges, “a poison which at times we must ingest just as a cancer patient must ingest a poison to survive. But if we do not understand the poison of war -- if we do not understand how deadly that poison is – it can kill us just as surely as the disease.” In these United States, it has become that pointing out the horrors of war and the pain and suffering which accompany it is now tantamount to “hating America” in the popular eye.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Echoes of post-9/11 America

Via blogger almostinfamous, one finds anecdotal evidence that something akin to the mass pro-war hysteria that erupted in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks seems to be appearing in India following the Mumbai attacks, with some Indian bloggers professing to be "very disappointed" that India seems unlikely to attack Pakistan in retaliation, and expressing anger that India has "been too soft, too long."

It goes without saying that one shouldn't be "very disappointed" that two powerful states armed with nuclear weapons aren't going to war against each other. But alas, irrational militaristic sentiments are the strongest following attacks like the ones experienced on 9/11 or last week in Mumbai.

The recurrent myth that seems to accompany these attacks is of particular note, as in both India and the U.S. many people -- stoked by nationalistic politicians eager to increase their own power -- came to believe following the respective terrorist attacks that the events had been brought on not by ill-considered state interventionist policies, or that they were merely unexplainable fluke acts of evil, but specifically brought on by the country appearing to be "weak" or "soft."

In the states, this manifests itself in claims that the U.S. government had pursued an "isolationist" foreign policy prior to 9/11 -- as supposedly evidenced by the sudden withdrawals from Lebanon in the 1980s and Somalia in the 1990s -- that convinced the likes of Osama bin Laden that the United States could dish it out, but it sure couldn't take it. While it's true that Americans as a whole certainly have much less stomach for dead Americans than dead foreigners, to claim the U.S. was "isolationist" during the 1990s would of course be overlooking such minor things as the sanctions against (and continual bombing of) Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Just because it didn't lead the evening news doesn't mean it didn't happen.

Writing on the pro-war hysteria seizing some in India, almostinfamous writes:
this is almost exactly the sort of thing i used to read on various right-wing sites(lgf, freeperville etc) almost exactly 7 years ago, except replace ‘pakistan’ with afghanistan. it disgusted me then with regard to the usa, and it disgusts me even more today with regard to india precisely because of the utter futility of the wars waged by the most powerful army in the world.:
But, being a mass hysteria, rationality and commonsense rarely enters into the equation -- the mindless pursuit of vengeance, combined with an ardent refusal to, as somehow-popular NY Times columnist Tom Friedman puts it, "justify or 'explain'" the events in question, being the mark of a good citizen. As a senior in high school during the 9/11 attacks, I particularly remember an otherwise intelligent friend who went on to an elite college demanding that the U.S. essentially kill every man, woman and child in the Middle East because "they" hadn't shown any mercy toward "us". Beyond exposing the evils of collectivism run amuck (Who is "us"? And more importantly, who are "they"?) the remark crystallized to me the danger inherent in the vulgar, violent nationalism that tends to spring up after a calamity -- an ugly "patriotism" that the state is all too willing to exploit, and which often ends in political power being further strengthened and centralized while innocent people in poor, far off lands die for the crimes of others.

With many Indians looking for some way to lash out for last week's crimes, the country's political leadership would do well not to repeat the mistakes of the Bush administration, as even former Nixon speechwriter and onetime belligerent Cold Warrior Pat Buchanan argues in his most recent column:
War would pit two nuclear powers against each other for the first time since the Sino-Soviet border clash of 1969. It would spawn bloodshed between Muslim and Hindu in India. It would see the collapse of Pakistan, its possible dissolution and a military dictator in a nation already divided against itself over whether to continue resisting al-Qaida and the Taliban, or cut ties to the unpopular Americans.
Wounded and enraged by the atrocities of 9-11, America lashed out, first at Afghanistan and the al-Qaida source of the conspiracy, then at Iraq, which had nothing to do with the attacks. Thus did the Bush administration disunite its nation and forfeit its mandate.
For India to lash out at a Pakistan that was not complicit in the Mumbai crimes against humanity, but harbors elements within that are guilty and are celebrating, would be as great a mistake.
India and Pakistan both have a vital interest in no new war.
But a new war is exactly what the terrorists killed for and died for.
Should it come, they win — and enter history as revolutionary terrorists alongside Princip and the perpetrators of 9-11.

Monday, December 01, 2008

India's 9/11?

Eating dinner the other day at a local Indian-Pakistani restaurant, I caught a few minutes of coverage from an Indian news network of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. This particular network -- and as I later found it, every other network and publication in the world -- repeatedly referred to the events as "India's 9/11", complete with a logo and everything.

Perhaps it was just the curry, but I found the phrase almost laughably vulgar and more than a little sad. With well over 150 people dead and guns continuing to fire, the media still couldn't stop itself from finding another terrorist attack to compare the tragedy to -- and as far as horrific acts of terrorism go, 9/11 is the gold standard from the perspective of a 24-hour news channel producer.

The comparison to September 11th, however, seems not only crass but unwittingly sad -- and I expect I would be more saddened by it if I were an Indian citizen. Why must a tragic event be branded, and the suffering it entails compared to an incident that occurred thousands of miles away? Can't the attacks be discussed in their own right without the comparisons to 9/11 looming over one's shoulder?

Also disturbed by the comparison is Vijay Prashad, a history professor at Trinity College, as he discussed on Democracy Now:
Anytime there is any attack they start to say this is our 9/11. You know whether it is the attack in London or the attack and Indonesia, everybody claims a terrorist attack now as their 9/11. There is something ominous about this. It means the state has to then follow the playbook laid out by the Bush Administration right after it experienced of course its 9/11. Which is to say you then go and start a war against an adversary that you claim did the attack and simultaneously, you begin to create a security apparatus inside your state to restrict the civil liberties of all people who live within that country.

So 9/11 or branding something as 9/11 has come to have these two aspects. One, go to war against somebody without any kind of full police investigation that is decisively shown us who has done the act. So one, a foreign war, secondly, what you might even consider to be a war against your own population. Where you start to restrict civil liberties far in excess of anything necessary. And of course, always fighting the last terrorist attack. So you build up this enormous apparatus of restrictions which is dealing with the previous attack against population and not trying to forecast the safety of the population into the near future. That is why the media started to talk about Mumbai’s 9/11.
The third reason is, the media had not really called any of the other attacks in Mumbai, and there have been many since 1992, 9/11, precisely because most of those attacks the have taken place in areas which afflicted the working poor, working-class, and middle-class people. This attack, for the first time, targeted places of the top elite. Very expensive hotels, leading restaurants, and this therefore, brought this kind of assault into the bedrooms, into the restaurant of the elite. And they found then that this is their 9/11. The other attacks were not called 9/11. There were the kind normal conditions of suffering borne by ordinary people in places like Bombay.
Others, however, like Indian opposition party member Arun Jaitley, inexplicably see the U.S. government's response to the 9/11 attacks (the response that has the U.S. army mired in two quagmires and, 7+ years later, Osama bin Laden still on the run) and think, let's emulate that:
We must follow the example of what United States did after 9/11. We are more vulnerable them and we must be a tough state and not a soft state. Out intelligence network, our security response, our legal framework all need an overhaul and all need a strengthening. When all of them see the political establishment is weak on terrorism, each one of them collapses. That’s where the basic change is required.
The constant, obsessive fear of being seen as "soft", "weak", or -- my personal favorite -- "impotent" in the face of terrorism or some adversary is commonly associated with U.S. neoconservatives (and males who feel the need to overcompensate for certain . . . deficiencies). Yet as we see with Mr. Jaitley, the need to assert one's masculinity by advocating militaristic policies is not one that the U.S. has any monopoly over, as evidenced by the bloody entirety of human history.

Contrary to his advice, though, if "India's 9/11" should teach one anything, it is that massive centralized security bureaucracies are incapable of defending against acts of terrorism, but are quite good at terrorizing civilian populations with their intrusive ineptitude and inevitable blowback. Each dollar that goes toward male enhancement -- er, toward the military and police -- is also one less dollar that can go to a more productive purpose. Too bad "increasing productivity" doesn't scream "manliness" as loud as cracking a few skulls or carpet bombing a country.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lesson for reporters: assume everything Bush/Paulson say is not true

In an interview with NPR's Robert Siegel earlier this month, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson boldly declared that he was well on his way to fixing the U.S. economy.

"The banking system has been stabilized," said Paulson, who raked in tens of millions of dollars in bonuses while helping to foment the current crisis as the head of bailed-out investment firm Goldman Sachs. "No one is asking themselves anymore, is there some major institution that might fail and that we would not be able to do anything about it. So I think that is a positive."

It hasn't taken long, however, for reality to catchup with Paulson's optimistic forecast -- which, as others have noted, is beginning to look a lot like President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" moment:
Citigroup Inc., facing the threat of a breakup or sale, received $306 billion of U.S. government guarantees for troubled mortgages and toxic assets to stabilize the bank after its stock fell 60 percent last week.

Citigroup also will get a $20 billion cash injection from the Treasury Department, adding to the $25 billion the company received last month under the Troubled Asset Relief Program. In return for the cash and guarantees, the government will get $27 billion of preferred shares paying an 8 percent dividend. Citigroup rose 53 percent to $5.75 at 8:37 a.m. in New York trading today.

The Treasury, Federal Reserve and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said in a joint statement that the move aims to bolster financial-market stability and help restore economic growth. The decision came after New York-based Citigroup's tumbling share price sparked concern that depositors might pull their money and destabilize the company, which has $2 trillion of assets and operations in more than 100 countries.
Should one doubt that Paulson could have been so audacious as to discount the possibility of another major bank failure at a time when, as a high-level government official, he had to have been aware of Citigroup's tenuous financial situation, consider this exchange:
Siegel: But just to clarify, you're saying no one is saying now there could be a failure of a major institution that we wouldn't be able to deal with. There could be a failure of another major institution, though.

Paulson: I got to tell you, I think our major institutions have been stabilized. I believe that very strongly.
I also believe -- very strongly -- that based on nearly all economic indicators, Mr. Paulson's efforts to centrally plan the recovery of the U.S. economy by transferring wealth from the middle class to the politically connected rich have thus far failed (at improving the economy, that is).

Nonetheless, Mr. Paulson's supporters on Wall Street and in the business press will undoubtedly claim the Treasury Secretary has to present a somewhat rosy picture of the economy, lest the stock markets crash on an ill-considered word or phrase. But while there's certainly something to be said for not screaming about the sky falling during an economic downturn (as Bush and Paulson did to win congressional passage of the banker bailout), to an amateur economist like me, telling people that the major financial institutions have all been stabilized a little over a week before one of the largest banks in the world fails seems, well, a bit destabilizing.

Monday, November 24, 2008

See no evil

Buried in this story from the AP about President Bush's recent pardons is this little aside about prosecuting (and pardoning) executive transgressions of international law and the constitution:
One hot topic of discussion related to pardons is whether Bush might decide to issue pre-emptive pardons before he leaves office to government employees who authorized or engaged in harsh interrogations of suspected terrorists in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Some constitutional scholars and human rights groups want the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama to investigate possible war crimes.
If Bush were to pardon anyone involved, it would provide protection against criminal charges, particularly for people who were following orders or trying to protect the nation with their actions. But it would also be highly controversial.
At the same time, Obama advisers say there is little — if any — chance that his administration would bring criminal charges.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. Why, after all, would a politician assuming the most powerful position in the world want to do something that could possibly end up limiting his authority? Prosecuting a former president is "divisive" in today's post-partisan world, and why risk establishing a precedent that could someday be used against a President Obama?

Rhetoric vs. Reality

Last year conservative columnist William Safire, addressing the prospect of a Hillary Clinton/Rahm Emanuel presidential ticket on Meet the Press, remarked that the noted liberal interventionists' rallying cry could be "Invade and bomb with Hillary and Rahm." While a Clinton/Emanuel ticket was not be, the alleged opponent of the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party, Barack Obama, has ensured both will likely have significant sway over U.S. foreign policy for the next four years.

One of the constant refrains in my posts about Obama over the last six months has been that those expecting fundamental change from the president-elect, particularly with regard to U.S. foreign policy -- withdrawing from Iraq, engaging countries like Iran -- would be severely disappointed. For while a smart politician who deftly positioned himself to capitalize on voter discontent with those associated with the Iraq war during the primaries, Obama is far from a radical set on upturning the system. Rather, he has shown himself time and time again to be the very epitome of the cautious, consensus-seeking politician -- one more likely to placate the established interests than take them on. 

While Obama's penchant for conciliation and consensus has been welcomed by many in the wake of the Bush administration's unilateralist approach to governing, that approach is also likely to generate much more in the way of continuity than change, particularly in the realm of foreign policy -- as witnessed by the number of holdovers from the Clinton administration on the Obama team like Madeleine Albright and -- if media reports are right -- Hillary Clinton.

The appointment of Clinton to secretary of state, in particular, has upset liberal antiwar activists who (rightly) thought the former first lady a hawk for unrepentantly backing the Iraq war and the sanctions and official policy of "regime change" that preceded it -- and who (wrongly) believed Obama, who contrasted his 2002 speech against the war with Clinton's early and loud support as evidence of his superior judgment and the failure of the Washington establishment, would as president break from the Washington foreign policy establishment.

The last major party candidate who even talked of significantly altering U.S. foreign policy was George McGovern in 1972 -- every candidate since, Obama included, has embraced America's right to intervene militarily around the world to promote its interests. Jimmy Carter officially embraced the U.S.'s sole right and responsibility to intervene in the Middle East to protect its oil.

But the idea that Obama was a neo-McGovernite peacenik -- as claimed by Republicans, and wished by antiwar activists -- was always rooted in the campaign's rhetoric rather than the substance of Obama's views. Part of the reason for this misperception was willful, but part of it can also be traced to inaccurate media reports that conflated Obama's moderate deviations from Bush administration policy with radical departures.

Case in point: Obama's pledge, as reported in news story after news story, to "withdraw troops from Iraq." In reality, Obama has long supported merely withdrawing "combat" troops from Iraq -- based more recently on "conditions on the ground" --  and maintaining a "residual" force in the country to combat terrorists and train the Iraqi military; a platform that is arguably less "antiwar" than the status of forces agreement that the Bush administration just negotiated with the Iraqi government.

With that in mind, the hawkish Clinton as secretary of state makes perfect sense, especially when you realize, as the New York Times notes, that the differences between her and Obama during the Democratic primaries were for the most part merely rhetorical:
While Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama agree most of the time on foreign policy, during the campaign she made a point of highlighting their differences, seeking to paint him as unsophisticated. Now those differences will be brought into stark relief as she seeks to become into Mr. Obama’s emissary to the world.
On Iran, for instance, Mrs. Clinton staked a position during the primaries to the right of Mr. Obama. She voted in favor of a measure more hawkish than what even most of the Bush administration had been willing to venture, asking Mr. Bush to declare Iran’s 125,000-member Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization. Mr. Obama did not show up to vote that day but said that if he had, he would have opposed the bill.

Many Iran experts criticized the bill, saying it was similar to Iran’s declaring the United States military a terrorist organization because it carried out Mr. Bush’s orders. Even some members of the Clinton campaign’s foreign policy team at the time privately disagreed with the vote.

But the bigger fight between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama was over the issue of talking to Iran, which Mrs. Clinton could soon find at the top of her portfolio. When during a debate Mr. Obama termed “ridiculous” the notion of not talking to adversaries, Mrs. Clinton sharply criticized him, calling that position “irresponsible and frankly naïve.”

The difference between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama on the issue is more perception than reality, advisers to both now say. Mr. Obama has said he would have a lower-level envoy do preparatory work for a meeting with Iran’s leaders first, and Mrs. Clinton has said she favors vigorous diplomacy and lower-level contacts as well.
On Iran, it's worth noting that while Obama's campaign criticized Clinton as a reckless militarist for voting to label the Revolutionary Guard a "terrorist organization", Obama himself told AIPAC just this summer that the IRG, in his view, had been "rightly" labelled a terrorist group. Meanwhile, Obama's backtrack on meeting with foreign leaders of "enemy" nations -- such as Cuba's Raul Castro, as I noted in a piece during the campaign -- further reveals the would-be change candidate's efforts to more closely align with the same elite that brought the world the Iraq war.

To expect a candidate who during the campaign endorsed unilaterally attacking a nuclear-armed ally, Pakistan -- and pledged his support for Israel's disastrous and deadly war on Lebanon in 2006 -- to be a peacenik was always a fantasy. As Obama transitions from campaigning to governing, however, it will be a fantasy increasingly difficult to maintain:
Aside from Clinton and [Bush Defense Secretary Robert] Gates, the roster of possible Cabinet secretaries has included Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who both voted in 2002 for the resolution authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq, though Lugar has since said he regretted it.

"It's astonishing that not one of the 23 senators or 133 House members who voted against the war is in the mix," said Sam Husseini of the liberal group Institute for Public Accuracy.
It certainly is astonishing that no antiwar voice has been considered for any position higher than White House janitor, but not if one were paying attention during the campaign. No doubt, like during the campaign, Obama will continue to enjoy a good deal of support from professed liberal antiwar types, likely well into his first term -- the reality of his business-as-usual, militaristic foreign policy views (such as a "surge" of tens of thousands of U.S. troops into Ira-- excuse me, Afghanistan) be damned.

Friday, November 21, 2008

New links

Blogs you should already be reading, but that have just been added to my coveted links section:

Beat the Press by Dean Baker

Dissenting Justice by Darren Hutchinson

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Forget a bailout, how 'bout a war?

While researching a story last week, I came across a rather unusual press release from the RAND Corporation that I caught my attention for what I think are reasons that will be readily apparent:
Claims RAND Advocates War Against China are False

Contrary to various online accounts, RAND is not advocating war against China or any nation to advance recovery of the U.S. economy. The notion that RAND has generated such an analysis is simply a rumor, with no foundation in fact. We do not know how those who generated the rumor arrived at their conclusion.
Wondering why RAND would feel the need to issue such a release, I did some Googling and found a few rather poorly sourced articles from the tinfoil hat crowd claiming the Pentagon-founded think tank was advocating a hefty dose of military Keynesianism in order to boost the struggling U.S. economy. 

But as an article, "The RAND Corporation: America's University of Imperialism," by noted imperial critic Chalmers Johnson indicates, RAND would be just the type of place to coldly advocate war as a way to jump-start the economy -- after all, World War II supposedly ended the Great Depression, right?

Indeed,  the article notes that RAND researcher Herman Kahn was apparently the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick's Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove in his classic film of the same name. And, as Johnson writes, RAND hasn't suffered since from a lack of militaristic sociopaths:
The RAND Corporation is surely one of the world's most unusual, Cold War-bred private organizations in the field of international relations. While it has attracted and supported some of the most distinguished analysts of war and weaponry, it has not stood for the highest standards of intellectual inquiry and debate. While RAND has an unparalleled record of providing unbiased, unblinking analyses of technical and carefully limited problems involved in waging contemporary war, its record of advice on cardinal policies involving war and peace, the protection of civilians in wartime, arms races, and decisions to resort to armed force has been abysmal.

For example, Abella credits RAND with "creating the discipline of terrorist studies," but its analysts seem never to have noticed the phenomenon of state terrorism as it was practiced in the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America by American-backed military dictatorships. Similarly, admirers of Albert Wohlstetter's reformulations of nuclear war ignore the fact that that these led to a "constant escalation of the nuclear arms race." By 1967, the U.S. possessed a stockpile of 32,500 atomic and hydrogen bombs.

In Vietnam, RAND invented the theories that led two administrations to military escalation against North Vietnam -- and even after the think tank's strategy had obviously failed and the secretary of defense had disowned it, RAND never publicly acknowledged that it had been wrong. Abella comments, "RAND found itself bound by the power of the purse wielded by its patron, whether it be the Air Force or the Office of the Secretary of Defense." And it has always relied on classifying its research to protect itself, even when no military secrets were involved.
While I don't think war with China is in the offing anytime soon -- U.S. political leaders are notorious for their hubris and willful disregard for reality, but they surely can't be that insane, right? -- just to be safe, one might want to get in touch with those cousins in rural Idaho that you haven't talked to in a couple of years . . .

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The gift that keeps on giving

From choosing liberal hawk Joe Biden to be his running mate, to the selection of pro-war creep Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, Barack Obama -- despite his often repeated calls for some sort of vague "change" -- has sided with the Washington foreign policy establishment ever since he first arrived in the U.S. Senate, as evidenced by his repeated votes in favor of funding the occupation of Iraq. 

Yet, in a stubborn refusal to accept reality over rhetoric, liberal Democrats continue to feign disappointment at the alleged "peace" candidate's continual snubbing of his anti-war base -- and like other victims of abuse, many continue to hold out hope that Obama, deep down inside, really does oppose things like preemptive war and warrantless spying -- honest, he does -- but acts counter to his instincts because of "politics" or some other rationalizing nonsense. 

Now, as Politico reports, Obama appears set to offer the position of secretary of state to the same woman, Hillary Clinton, he once criticized (back in the primaries) as representing the tired, old Washington establishment -- to the dismay of those in "Obamaland":
Barack Obama's serious flirtation with his one-time rival, Hillary Clinton, over the post of secretary of State has been welcomed by everyone from Henry Kissinger to Bill Clinton as an effective, grand gesture by the president-elect.

It's not playing quite as well, however, in some precincts of Obamaland. From his supporters on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, to campaign aides of the soon-to-be commander-in-chief, there's a sense of ambivalence about giving a top political plum to a woman they spent 18 months hammering as the compromised standard-bearer of an era that deserves to be forgotten.
"The specific policy area at issue seems to be one in which the two of them aren't all that well-aligned," wrote the liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias.
Call me crazy, but perhaps -- just perhaps -- Obama and Clinton really are "well-aligned" on foreign policy, but that in order to win the primary, Obama positioned himself better to capitalize on the widespread anti-war sentiment of the Democratic base? Maybe?

For instance, consider the fact that during the primaries Obama's campaign lambasted Clinton for voting for the provocative Kyl-Lieberman resolution, which as I noted in a piece for Connecticut public radio station WSHU last year, called for Iran's Revolutionary Guard to be labelled a "terrorist organization" -- which many senators considered tantamount to calling for another war. However, as soon as Obama secured his party's nomination, he was quick to tell the crowd at the far-right American Israeli Public Affair Committee's (AIPAC) annual meeting that the Revolutionary Guard had "rightly been labeled a terrorist organization."

Writing last June regarding Obama's seeming about-face at AIPAC, in a piece entitled "Barack Obama: Change you probably shouldn't believe in...", I noted that the move:
. . . certainly highlights how little Obama in fact deviates from the mainstream, imperial consensus on foreign policy, despite the claims of Democratic partisans that he somehow represents some sort of fundamental "change". It also highlights the dishonesty of his campaign (surprise! politicians lie!) in playing up his (belated) opposition to the Kyl-Lieberman bill while conveniently downplaying the fact that, well, you know, he agreed with the main thrust of it.
Predictably -- as foreshadowed by their quick acceptance of the militaristic drug warrior Biden -- self-proclaimed progressives, such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (who, for all his claims to be an "independent," radical socialist, has endorsed every Democratic presidential candidate since at least 1992), appears more than willing to accept the business-as-usual nature of the coming Obama administration:
"Sen. Clinton is one of the brightest people in Congress and she would be an excellent choice," Vermont's independent senator, Bernie Sanders, told Politico through a spokesman.
I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton is, as far as politicians go, intelligent. It would be nice, though, if she weren't also a militaristic corporatist who wholeheartedly supported -- until it became politically inopportune -- the disastrous and murderous war crime that was the invasion (and current military occupation) of Iraq. 

Then again, I'm not a well-respected foreign policy figure like a Henry Kissinger or a Colin Powell, so what do I know?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The foreign policy consensus

Former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal -- seemingly channeling this blog -- throws water on the idea that Barack Obama's presidency will mark a significant change in how the United States deals with the rest of the world:
Because of its “soft power”, the US presidential election gets such extensive coverage internationally that its import gets exaggerated. This election decides the fate of two competing candidates, not that of the world. As in elections elsewhere, the central issues are domestic ones, not those of foreign policy. In the American case, the contest is not between two radically different visions of US foreign policy; it is about advancing US interests best. The difference is in tactics, not strategy. On basic assumptions, such as US global pre-eminence, preventing the emergence of any other power that can challenge Washington’s dominance, the goodness of US intentions and actions, superiority of American values, the responsibility to maintain international peace and stability, its exceptionalism providing the right to act unfettered by multilateral constraints if required and keeping America safe against non-proliferation, there is internal consensus in the US.
(Via the American Conservative's Daniel Larison)

The endorsement that speaks for itself

As an outspoken supporter of the Iraq war -- and of the earlier policy of starving hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children to death -- Hillary Clinton is of course a widely respected figure in Washington when it comes to foreign policy. No doubt Clinton's illustrious track record of advocating a belligerent though "humanitarian" militarism (once criticized by President-elect Obama in an earlier, forgotten time) was a key factor in her winning a glowing endorsement to be the next secretary of state from a fellow war criminal who once occupied the office:
Nov. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Henry Kissinger said Hillary Clinton, frontrunner to be the next U.S. Secretary of State, would be an "outstanding'' appointment to the post.

New York Senator Clinton appears to be President-elect Barack Obama's leading choice for secretary of state, according to a Democrat familiar with the matter.

"She is a lady of great intelligence, demonstrated enormous determination and would be an outstanding appointment,'' Kissinger, who served as secretary of state from 1973 to 1977 under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, told the World Economic Forum's India Economic Summit in New Delhi today.
Having overseen the deaths of millions of innocent civilians in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Kissinger -- in a just world -- would be considered, at best, a pariah whose endorsement would be more toxic than Al Qaeda's. But in the United States, those who advocate and facilitate disastrous, illegal wars of aggression are considered well-respected statesmen, with critics of American exceptionalism excluded from respectable mainstream discourse.

Kissinger's endorsement of Clinton should at least provide a clue to those self-described anti-war progressives expecting great things from the next president that -- rather than great change -- the incoming Obama administration will more often than not represent continuity, particularly with regard to foreign affairs.

As I like to point out to my Obama-adoring friends: any man who can win the endorsement of both Colin Powell and Code Pink is bound to disappoint one or the other. I'm guessing it won't be Powell.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Pigs at the trough

"You can't hold a board accountable if it's not transparent about what it's doing."
So said former Federal Reserve governor Larry Meyer at a conference in Washington, DC, that I attended this past March. Now consider that remark as you read this:
Nov. 10 (Bloomberg) -- The Federal Reserve is refusing to identify the recipients of almost $2 trillion of emergency loans from American taxpayers or the troubled assets the central bank is accepting as collateral.

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said in September they would comply with congressional demands for transparency in a $700 billion bailout of the banking system. Two months later, as the Fed lends far more than that in separate rescue programs that didn't require approval by Congress, Americans have no idea where their money is going or what securities the banks are pledging in return.
Writing in his blog for the American Prospect, economist Dean Baker asks the obvious question: "Are Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson Crony Capitalists?"
"After all, they are trying to hide which banks are in trouble and refusing to give out information about who is borrowing from the Fed. This is exactly the behavior that the IMF and widely cited economists denounced when it was done by the East Asian countries during their financial crisis in the late 90s. Are these practices now good economics because our government is doing them?"
Meanwhile, more and more corporate executives are lining up to beg for federal tax dollars -- or in the case of American Express, openly positioning themselves to do so in the near future:
Nov. 11 (Bloomberg) -- American Express Co. won U.S. Federal Reserve approval to become a commercial bank, gaining access to government funds as credit-card defaults climb with economies slowing around the world.
"Given the continued volatility in the financial markets, we want to be best positioned to take advantage of the various programs the federal government has introduced,'' American Express Chief Executive Officer Kenneth I. Chenault said in a statement yesterday.
When Congress debated the Wall Street bailout, those who objected to using tax dollars to line the pockets of the executives who bankrupted their companies -- and who argued that taking money from the lower and middle class to prop up unsustainable, behemoth corporations might not be the best way to fix a fundamentally flawed U.S. economy -- were dismissed as cranks by all respectable pundits and politicians. Two months later, however, critics of the bailout look more and more prescient as the bailout devolves into an open grab for money by the incompetent corporate elite, while the economy shows no signs of a recovery in the near future.

It kind of makes one think that, instead of disgraced financial pundits and CEOs who just a year ago were predicting perpetual economic bliss, politicians and the mainstream press should start looking for guidance from those who haven't been wrong about everything over the last decade.

The chances of that happening? Not so good. People who rightly predict negative outcomes based on evidence that was readily available before the fateful decision was made tend to annoy those in power, as well as the large segment of the media that grovels before those in charge. 

People who were wrong, but for all the "right" reasons, according to the establishment consensus? Nothing less than sainthood -- as witnessed by Colin Powell's name being favorably (and inexplicably, based on actual performance) mentioned as a possible Obama cabinet official. Hell, I won't be the least bit surprised if, after leaving office, Dick Cheney gets a column for the New York Times. 

Monday, November 10, 2008

Corn: It's what's for dinner

While the U.S. government flexes its ability to centrally plan the economy by essentially outlawing financial losses for major corporations, a new study provides another illustrative example of corporatism in action -- in this case highlighting the harmful impact of political economic planning on pretty much everyone that happens to eat food:
Chemical analysis from restaurants across the United States shows that nearly every cow or chicken used in fast food is raised on a diet of corn, prompting fresh criticism of the government's role in subsidizing poor eating habits.
Corn is central to agriculture in the United States, where it is grown in greater volumes and receives more government subsidies than any other crop. Between 1995 and 2006 corn growers received $56 billion in federal subsidies, and the annual figure may soon hit $10 billion.
But in recent years, environmentalists have branded corn as an icon of unsustainable agriculture. It requires large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, both of which require large amounts of fossil fuel to manufacture.
Most of the resulting corn is fed to livestock who didn't evolve to subsist entirely on corn. In cattle, eating corn increases flatulence emissions of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — and creates an intestinal environment rich in e. coli, a common cause of food poisoning. That necessitates mixing cow feed with antibiotics, in turn producing antibiotic-resistant disease strains.
Many of those livestock end up in high-calorie, low-nutrition franchised fast foods, which have been repeatedly linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Fast food's biggest selling point is its low price — and that, say industry critics, is largely possible because of corn's ubiquitous cheapness.
Too bad there are no clear lessons to draw from this example for those advocating government subsidies for banks, insurance companies, automakers . . .

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Just as American liberals convinced themselves to love Joe Biden -- the pro-war career politician whose chief legislative achievement appears to have been the imprisoning of hundreds of thousands of Americans through his pet project, the war on drugs -- I have no doubt the giddy partisans at Daily Kos and elsewhere will find much to love about Barack Obama's newly announced chief of staff, the pro-war corporatist Rahm Emanuel. Indeed, self-proclaimed progressives like Matthew Yglesias are already gliding past Emanuel's support for the Iraq war (which Yglesias, like most respectable Democratic pundits at the time, also supported) to fawn over the alleged grit and toughness he will bring to the Obama White House.

While I won't claim to have had all that much interaction with Emanuel, at the press conferences I have spoken to him, he has, frankly, always come across as the archetypal sleaze-bag politician convinced of his own slickness and drunk off his political power. That he's corrupt is also fairly well established -- notice that he was on the board of directors of Freddie Mac, the government corporation at the center of the housing bubble and subsequent economic collapse, at a time when it was cooking its books to deceive investors. No wonder he and his fellow progressive Democrats were so loathe to provide more oversight for Fannie and Freddie as they dove into the sub-prime mortgage market.

In the summer of '07, I also distinctly remember Emanuel openly ridiculing Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) right off the floor of the House of Representatives for -- horror of horrors -- passing out fliers to his fellow lawmakers detailing how the oil "revenue sharing" law Congress was trying to force down the Iraqi parliament's throat was, in fact, merely an attempt to "privatize" (i.e. forcibly expropriate) Iraq's oil fields for the benefit of U.S. corporations.

"Yeah, it's all about the oil," Emanuel chortled to a like-minded congressman.

Needless to say -- in addition to unrepentantly backing an Iraq war he claims was merely mismanaged -- Emanuel also happens to be extremely ignorant of issues concerning Iraq and the Middle East in general (these tend to be qualifications for government service, however), as he revealed on an episode of "Real Time" with Bill Maher last year:
The Iranians are a Persian culture and the House of Saud is a Shiite government, a total different culture and a different people and etc. The question about Saudi Arabia is there is a clear, they have been funding radical schools throughout the Mideast and it is a big problem for us.
Close Rahm. Except Saudi Arabia is very much a Sunni country, while Iran is, in fact, Shiite. After five years of a war in Iraq, when the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite should be abundantly clear, Obama's new, widely respected chief of staff went on national television and showed he knows less about the Middle East than a Bush administration foreign policy adviser. It should also be pointed out that congressional Democrats were some of the loudest supporters of the U.S. support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan and Pakistan in their war against the Soviet Union -- the same backing that was contingent on Saudi Arabia providing matching funds that largely went to building and operating the madrassas Emanuel now rightly decries, but I digress.

But Emanuel's ignorance aside, the decision to pick him as his chief of staff -- like the pick of Biden for vice president, and Susan Rice, Madeleine Albright, Dennis Ross, et al as foreign police advisers -- more importantly signals that a President Obama fully embraces the concept of liberal, "humanitarian" intervention (his pledge to escalate the U.S.'s failing military occupation in Afghanistan certainly isn't an example of the neo-McGovernite foreign policy that foaming-at-the-mouth neoconservative types were warning about prior to his election).

Emanuel is the also same guy, it should be noted, who engaged in this exchange with Tim Russert back in the summer of 2005:
MR. RUSSERT: So even knowing there are no weapons of mass destruction, you would still vote to go into Iraq?

REP. EMANUEL: You can make--you could have made a case that Saddam Hussein was a threat, and what you could have done also, Tim, is worked with other countries, go through the U.N., take the time to do it. Again, the problems with our troops and the country today faces in Iraq isn't about whether we should or should not have gone to war, whether we should or should not have removed Saddam Hussein, it's how they have pursued this war, the lack of planning, the lack of processing, thinking about there was no plan, as you know, for after we removed Saddam Hussein, what would you do. There was no plan for--as you know, before war, you had to have an exit strategy. One has not even been annunciated. There's been a presumption that we were going to be greeted as liberators. There was a presumption this would be quick and easy, and then we can turn the country over. None of that has been laid out, and that has to do with the competency and the planning that goes in, and they did not have a plan for the day after "hostilities ended."
So Emanuel's main objection to the Iraq war is not that it has resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians (silly hippy), but that it was mismanaged. This, of course, was the same argument that Obama supposedly opposed during the Democratic primaries when he sought to highlight the only real difference between him and the aged pro-war senators he was running against -- that he opposed the Iraq war before it began (by giving one speech in 2002 in which he belabored the point that he wasn't opposed to all wars, just "dumb" ones).

Funny how the progressive, anti-war candidate, Barack Obama, has no problem employing the same people who supported the United States illegally invading and occupying Iraq, while fighting all attempts to bring it to an end once it was clear it was an unmitigated disaster. Then again, as the newly launched official website for President-elect Obama -- the I-kid-you-not "" -- makes clear, an Obama-Biden administration has absolutely no intention of ending the Iraq occupation:
Under the Obama-Biden plan, a residual force will remain in Iraq and in the region to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against al Qaeda in Iraq and to protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel. They will not build permanent bases in Iraq, but will continue efforts to train and support the Iraqi security forces as long as Iraqi leaders move toward political reconciliation and away from sectarianism.
In other words, look for a President Obama to essentially continue the same policy as the Bush administration -- except U.S. liberals will fall over themselves to praise his intelligence and vision for the region.

With so little prospect for real change, Democratic partisans might want to consider Chris Floyd's recommended test for considering actions taken by an Obama administration:
"WIBDI: What If Bush Did It?"
This user-friendly analytical tool provides a quick and easy way of determining the value of any given policy while correcting one's perception for partisan bias. Simply take a particular action or proposal and submit it to the WIBDI test: If Bush did this, would you think it was OK? Or would you condemn it as the act of a warmonger, or a tyrant, or a corrupt corporate tool, etc.?
Sadly, I fully expect most Democrats to embrace the warfare state under an Obama administration just as much as they claimed to oppose it under George Bush -- and reveling in denouncing those opposed as "anti-American". As William Safire might put it, we can probably look forward to at least four years of "Invade and Bomb with Obama and Rahm."

But at least now the prime time speeches announcing new bombing campaigns will be uplifting and eloquent, right?

Initial thoughts on the election

After eight years of President George W. Bush, it sure will be nice to have an intelligent, articulate liberal running America's military empire, bombing impoverished nations at his discretion, prosecuting the war on drugs from Colombia to the streets of LA, and overseeing the largest prison population in world history (2.3 million and counting!).

It's morning in America, baby!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

First, the good news

As millions of Americans head to the polls today to elect the next president of the United States, take heed of this comforting thought: by the end of the day, one of the men pictured below will very likely not be the next president.
Now the bad news: barring a last minute surge in support for Ralph Nader or Bob Barr, one of the men pictured above will be the next president (or "commander-in-chief" for the military fetishists of both parties), where he will assume control of the most powerful state in world history. That means, come January 2009, one of these men will gain the power to unilaterally declare war on impoverished nations on the other side of the globe, without so much as a congressional authorization. That means, come next year, one of these men will be able to -- again, unilaterally -- declare someone an "enemy combatant" and hold them indefinitely in a U.S. military prison (with a little torture at a CIA black site thrown in for good measure).

And unfortunately, as we know from their numerous public statements, the next U.S. president is on record as supporting all of the following policies: expanding the military by more than 90,000 troops; sending tens of thousands of soldiers to further a failing military occupation in Afghanistan; furthering the so-called "war on drugs", particularly in Latin America (where the U.S.-backed government in Colombia has been busy murdering innocent civilians with the support of U.S. anti-drug funding); at the very least, increasing economic sanctions against Iran while leaving "all options are on the table" in dealing with the country's nuclear program; extending NATO membership to countries such as Georgia, thus committing the United States to a war with Russia in the event of another conflict over South Ossetia; launching attacks against "terrorist" targets in Pakistan (though McCain's muddled position seems to be to attack, but just don't brag about it); striking "terrorist" targets inside Syria; maintaining the death penalty; continuing taxpayer funding for abstinence education; perpetuating the embargo against Cuba, and icy relations with Venezuela; continuing to bailout failing corporations with taxpayer money; keeping tens of thousands of troops in Iraq (and tens of thousands of private contractors like Halliburton and Blackwater); ramming U.S. "intellectual property" laws down the throats of poor nations through the signing of ill-named "free trade" agreements; spying on the communications of Americans and foreigners alike, sans warrant; and so on, and so on.

Whether it's "country first" or "change you can believe in," one thing's certain after today's election: the maintenance of the status quo.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

In case you missed it

With all the news channeled dominated by coverage of Sarah Palin's fancy clothes and the revelation that Barack Obama was indeed born to a human -- and not via immaculate conception, as previously thought -- and has a grandmother who he apparently loves (shocking!), one could be forgiven for missing this revealing story from earlier this month on how the U.S. "defense" budget manages to increase every year, even when politicians from both major parties campaign on promises of cutting wasteful federal spending:
Pentagon officials have prepared a new estimate for defense spending that is $450 billion more over the next five years than previously announced figures.
The new estimate, which the Pentagon plans to release shortly before President Bush leaves office, would serve as a marker for the new president and is meant to place pressure on him to either drastically increase the size of the defense budget or defend any reluctance to do so, according to several former senior budget officials who are close to the discussions.
"This is a political document," said one former senior budget official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It sets up the new administration immediately to have to make a decision of how to deal with the perception that they are either cutting defense or adding to it."
Dov Zakheim, the Pentagon's top budget official from 2001 to 2004, who is not involved in the current discussions, agreed.
"The thinking behind it is pretty straightforward," Zakheim said. "They are setting a baseline for a new administration that then will have to defend cutting it."
As Tennessee Congressman Jimmy Duncan -- one of the few genuinely anti-war Republicans left in Congress, even if he does inexplicably rationalize supporting John McCain for president (here's an interview I did with Duncan that was published by last year) -- once remarked to me, the U.S. Defense Department is the biggest bureaucracy in the history of the world. And like any other bureaucracy (or politician for that matter), its primary institutional priority is not to, say, present a rational and realistic view of the threats to the United States, but to increase its own power and influence.

Put simply, the military-industrial complex benefits not from peace and tranquility, but from war and an endless parade of villains and threats -- real, or as is usually the case, imagined -- with which it can cajole the American public into unquestioningly supporting whatever hawkish (and need I say expensive?) policies they put forward. 

Not being stupid people, those who profit from war (the so-called "merchants of death") are also well aware of the political difficulties posed for a politician in being cast as "weak on defense" -- as defined by the very same war profiteers and their congressional/media comrades --  and are willing to use the establishment's fetishization of military-spending-as-barometer-of-safety-and-preparedness 

Consider that the United States is now building a missile defense system in Poland, allegedly to defend against an attack from Iran (which hasn't attacked another country since the 18th century), and you can pretty well gauge how effective they have been in this endeavor. Combine the institutional pressures in favor of an ever-expanding military budget with the fact that both John McCain and Barack Obama support expanding the size and budget of the armed forces -- as well as a doomed-to-fail military "surge" in Afghanistan -- and you have a recipe for the defense/war budget to grow faster than the stock market at the height of the Federal Reserve-induced dot-com bubble, no matter who wins on November 4th.