Thursday, June 6. 2013
Back in 2005, I wrote a modest proposal for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. I mailed it out to a bunch of people -- an example of "running it up the flagpole to see who salutes it" -- and it was uniformly ignored. The distinct feature of my piece was a mechanism that would allow Israel to keep all of the East Jerusalem environs they annexed in 1967. My argument was that if a majority of the Palestinians in the new territory voted to approve joining Israel, and annexation could be separated from the UN's 1967 assertion of the "inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war."
Jerusalem was one of the major sticking points in the "final status" negotiations under Barak in 2000. Even though there was at the time substantial support within Israel for a "two-state solution" that would give up settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, every opinion poll of Israelis that I was aware of showed more than 90% refusing to return East Jerusalem. The equation on annexation for Israel has always been the trade-off between land, which Israel coveted, and people, which Israel feared and loathed. The alternative to the "two-state solution" would be for Israel to extend citizenship and equal rights to all of the people in the Occupied Territories -- a scheme that has become increasingly attractive as expanding Israeli settlements (those "facts on the ground") have made it ever harder, both politically and practically, to disentangle two states. However, Israel has always rejected such a "one-state solution" out of hand, for fear that its demography would tip against a Jewish majority.
However, I figured that the relatively small number of non-Jews in Greater Jerusalem, balanced against Israel's intense desire to keep the land, would be a trade-off that Israel might accept. I also figured that requiring approval of that non-Jewish population would do two things: it would justify annexation under self-determination, grounds that no one could reasonably object to; and it would urge Israel to campaign for the allegiance of a block of Palestinians. Given Israel's past treatment, one would initially expect the latter to reject such an offer, but Israel could offer much in the way of inducements to win the vote, including reforms that would help make Palestinians more welcome as Israeli citizens -- reforms that in general would help to lessen the conflict.
Like I said, my proposal went nowhere. By that time, the Arab League was floating a proposal that called for a full return to the 1967 borders (per UN SCR 242 and 338), albeit with no serious repatriation of pre-1948 refugees. The US was pushing a non-plan called "The Road Map for Peace," which was rejected by Israel, as was every other initiative. There have been proposals by ad hoc groups of Israelis (e.g., the Geneva Accords, the Israeli Peace Initiative of 2011), the coalitions running Israel, both under Kadima and Likud prime ministers, appear to have no interest whatsoever in ever solving anything. The problem isn't even that they have a proposal that Palestinians can never accept. It's that they prefer the status quo, where they face just enough danger to keep their security state sharp, where the settlement project continues to fire their pioneer spirit, and where their low standing in world opinion reinforces the Zionist conceit that the whole world is out to get them -- a unifying narrative with little downside risk, least of all to their standard of living.
I bring this up because I see now that John Kerry is trying to restart some sort of "peace process." Stephen M. Walt writes:
Walt is unsure why Kerry is even bothering, but the US has long had interests in the Middle East beyond Israel, and they demand a certain facade of balance. On the other hand, the Saudis (in particular) don't seem to be very demanding of results, much like they buy sophisticated American aircraft then never really learn to use it. Rashid Khalidi's Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East details how the US initiated three major attempts at "peace process" in Israel-Palestine, then bowed to Israeli pressure (or in some cases just anticipated it) to get nothing accomplished. Kerry is most likely to just add another chapter of failure.
Khalidi has a good description of how this works (pp. 119-120):
Israel has not only worked tirelessly to create "facts on the ground" that dim the prospects of peace. Israelis have also created a mental clutter of catch phrases and jargon that make peace impossible to talk about.
I'll break this post here, and put a first draft of my thinking about how to resolve the conflict after the break . . .
Continue reading "Thinking Around the Israeli-American Impasse"
Saturday, May 11. 2013
A little over two years ago the "Arab Spring" pro-democracy movement broke out in Syria, a nation that nearly everyone agreed could benefit from more political freedom, seeing as how it's been ruled by the Assad family since the 1960s and by one military clique or another even further back. Similar dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt fell quickly; struggles against the dictators of Yemen and Bahrein dragged out inconclusively; but in Libya and Syria demonstrators were met with violence and some fraction of the military establishment broke against the regime, plunging those nations into civil war. Demonstrations in Jordan faded quickly with a few token reforms. And nothing much happened in Saudi Arabia, probably the one nation in the region most in need of a democratic overhaul.
One prism into understanding how these movements played out is to map them against US influence in the region. US interests and actions in the Middle East have been schizophrenic since the late 1940s when US administrations found themselves not just allied but in love with two conflicting suitors: Israel, and Saudi-Arabian oil (although any oil would do, especially Iran's from 1953-79). One problem was that those paramours came with a lot of baggage: Israel was constantly at war with its Arab neighbors and its own [Palestinian] people, forging an elite militarist culture that thrives on conflict, foments hatred against everything Arab, and has turned most of world opinion against them -- the major exception America's own fundamentalist Christians and militarists. The Saudi ruling family, on the other hand, is joined at the hip to the most extremely reactionary Salafist Muslim clergy, and has spent billions of dollars attempting to export their religious orthodoxy throughout the Middle East and into Afghanistan and Pakistan, where it turned virulently anti-American. But America's true obsession was the Cold War, in service of which no tyrant or ideologue could be found too unsavory. The Israelis and Saudis became expert at camouflaging their own obsessions as anti-communist fervor, so the US could embrace them both.
But another facet of America's Cold War obsession was promotion of democracy, not so much for allies as for countries on the other (or no) side, but as a contrast to the "unfree" Soviet-style regimes. So when masses of people demand democracy, our natural tendency is to applaud. In the cases of Tunisia and Egypt -- secure military allies with tired and unsavory leaders -- Obama had little reason to resist, so the US subtly nudged their power structure to go with the flow. In Yemen, one of Obama's favorite drone-shooting ranges, and Bahrein, with its Shiite majority possibly tilting toward Iran, the US was more reserved. But Libya and Syria were rarely US allies, and most of the "brains" behind US policy in the region -- especially the "neocons" -- have spent most of their careers bashing their leaders, so the US had no interests in maintaining them, but also no influence or leverage that could be used to democratize them. Consequently, the more the US leaned against them, the less then had to lose by suppressing their revolts violently. In hindsight, the best way the US could have helped to democratize those nations would have been to develop normal relations with them. (It is worth noting that the only Soviet bloc states that didn't democratize are the ones the US fought wars against, followed by long, grudge-filled periods of isolation: China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba.)
As soon as Libya and Syria broke into civil war, the neocons -- most vociferously, Senators McCain and Graham, who never miss an opportunity to plunge us deeper into hell -- and their "liberal hawk" cronies started crying for the US to intervene. How anyone could think that inserting the US military into a conflict would save lives is beyond me. (The historical basis for that idea was probably the NATO intervention in Bosnia. After just two weeks of bombing, the Serbs accepted a ceasefire and signed the Dayton Accords ending a war between Serbia and Bosnia that had dragged on for more than two years. That intervention surely did save lives, at least if you don't factor in the subsequent Kosovo War, which was made all the more likely by the expectation that NATO would again intervene against Serbia -- as it did.) But you can't judge interventions by simply balancing deaths on one side versus the other. US intervention means that people who wouldn't have been killed otherwise are now being killed by the US -- a fact that won't be easily rationalized by the people the US attacked.
Obama did finally agree to intervene in Libya, but only after France and the UK had committed to do so. US firepower quickly degraded Libya's military power, and the civil war turned against Gaddafi, ending after about three months. Obama was careful not to land US troops, or to put the US into a position where the US would have any responsibility for postwar administration and reconstruction. Nonetheless, last September a group of Islamic jihadists attacked the US consulate in Benghazi -- the center of the anti-Gaddafi resistance, presumably the most grateful city for the US intervention -- killing four Americans, the sort of blowback that should always be expected. The Benghazi attack has since become a cause celebre for the Republicans, who have gone so far as to argue that Obama should be impeached for his "cover up" of the attack. (As far as I can tell, that "cover up" consisted of nothing more than Susan Rice making some erroneous statements the day after, confusing the violent attack in Benghazi with non-violent anti-American protests elsewhere. I would write more about this if I could make any sense out of it, but I can't. The one thing I can say is that attacking Obama for something bad happening after he intervened in Libya isn't likely to be the most effective way to convince him to intervene in Syria, where the number of bad things that can happen is much greater.)
Dexter Filkins has a long article, The Thin Red Line, on Syria, the pressures put on Obama to intervene there, and some of the risks. Filkins is one of those reporters for whom war is just business -- booming, as his book, The Forever War, shows. He recounts much of what I wrote above on Yugoslavia and Libya, while only glancingly mentioning less "successful" US interventions like Iraq and Afghanistan. The title refers to Obama's casual warning to Assad that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" leading to US intervention. ("Red lines" have been much in the news lately, especially regarding Iran's "nuclear program" -- what degree of offense would "justify" Israel and/or the US to preemptively attack Iran.) Consequently, advocates of going to war with Syria are scouring the data for any evidence of poison gas use, under the theory that having drawn a red line there, Obama will have no choice but to intervene -- the entire credibility of the US is put at stake by Obama's careless use of jargon.
The Syrian Civil War has resulted in, to pick two recent estimates, between 70 and 120 thousand deaths, with more than a million refugees, and many more internally displaced. Those are substantial numbers, even if they are still less than the death-and-refugee toll of the Civil War in Iraq that was triggered and abetted by the US invasion and occupation. (At least no one was so stupid as to urge anyone to intervene to "save lives" in Iraq. Of course, enforcing a "no fly" zone against the US would have been difficult, but we are talking about genocide here, something the world has committed to tolerate "never again.")
Filkins reports on three options for US intervention: establishing a "no fly" zone; arming the rebels; and somehow securing Syria's chemical weapon sites. The "no fly" zone is regarded as more difficult than it was in Libya because Syria has more sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses, although they don't seem to cause Israel much trouble. The bigger problem is that in itself it's unlikely to have much effect -- e.g., on artillery and missiles. One suggestion is to use the "Patriot anti-missile system" to intercept Syrian SCUD missiles. (Is this the source of the adage that "Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels"?) So it's very likely that a "no fly" zone will be a stepping stone to deeper involvement, as indeed it was in Libya.
Arming the rebels is relatively easy to do, and is already being done by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and possibly others. However, this gets real tricky real fast. There are multiple groups of rebels, and some of them are friendlier to the US than others, and the last thing you want is to send arms to Al-Qaeda-types in Syria -- which are a formidable part of the resistance -- who might wind up using the arms against American targets, so you want to pick and choose who gets what, but in doing so you're not only arming the rebels against Syria, you're arming them against each other. And while you might argue that a "no fly" zone is a neutral way to level the battlefield, arming select groups of the rebels ends any pretense at neutrality or disinterest. You now have a "dog in the fight": which is not only bad news for Assad, it's a challenge for anyone who is wary of American power in the region -- a short list which includes Iran and Russia, even before this revolt provided Syria with arms. The result is surely an arms race, escalating even further the level of violence.
Arming the rebels also means forgoing the alternative, which is to negotiate an arms embargo with Syria's suppliers, and enforce comparable limits on the rebels' suppliers. The desired effect would be to let the conflict degrade into a stalemate, which would give both sides reason to negotiate a power-sharing agreement and move toward a democratic scheme which protects interests allied with both sides. If the US goes in and arms the rebels, that option disappears. The rebels become more convinced in their eventual triumph, cementing their resolve to fight on. From that point the only way to long-term suffering is to shorten the war by increasing the rebels' firepower and leverage, which not only helps them defeat Assad, it also allows them to more completely dominate the social, ethnic, and tribal groups that had favored Assad. And it also makes more likely an internecine war between rebel groups -- as happened when the Russians finally quit Afghanistan.
Even Filkins admits that the third option -- securing Syria's chemical weapons -- is a fool's errand. Nobody knows how many sites there are, how many munitions there are, where they all are, or much of anything else about them. What you really need is a UN disarmament team to set up camp in Syria and track them all down, but for that to happen you have to stop the shooting, in which case you might as well solve the conflict. As for the US doing it directly, Filkins reports an estimate that it would take 75,000 troops: the basic scheme there is to conquer the country, then look for the illicit weapons -- for lessons on how this "works," see Iraq. Even if you could magically wipe the country clean of chemical weapons, it's unlikely that the conflit would be less deadly. They wind up being nothing more than a side-thought: a problem people should have thought of before starting a war that makes their use much more likely.
Obama has managed to frustrate virtually every side in the conflict. He never offered any pretense of neutrality, and has gone out of his way to offend Assad backers from Iran to Hezbollah. He's had better relations with Russia, but not much. Saudi and Qatari arms shipments inevitably smell of US approval, as does Israel's recent bombings of Syria -- one thing the latter does is to test Syria's air defenses, useful research for that "no fly" zone. The CIA is reportedly on the ground in Syria, feeding intelligence info to the rebels. On the other hand, it's hard to tell who's "winning" the war, and nothing Obama has done is likely to tilt the balance, so he's not winning points with the neocon crowd -- nor should he, given the way they've lashed out at him over Libya, which he finessed about as elegantly as any American president could.
As far as I'm concerned, Assad's extremely violent counterrevolt is inexcusable, ensuring his future as an international pariah. However, the more I read of the rebels, the less sympathetic I am to them, and the more I fear their possible triumph. Andrew Bacevich makes an interesting point:
If Assad falls, either democratically or by arms, the successor state will very probably be more conservative, more devoutly Islamist, and very likely more aggressively anti-American and anti-Israel -- in other words, it will be a state that most Americans who reflexively clamored for Assad's ouster will find disappointing. And as such it will ratchet America's frustration with the region even deeper. It will also be a war-torn wreck, with few prospects of reconstruction any time soon. Barring US occupation, it is unlikely to become as corrupt as Iraq or Afghanistan, but like those two disaster areas, its people has already fragmented into many conflicting identities, which will continue to tear at the social fabric even after the war ends. Moreover, as far as the US is concerned, Syria will always be on the wrong side of Israel, and for that matter the wrong side of Lebanon, and if those features fade it will revert to no meaning at all. The only reason McCain and Graham and their ilk care at all about Syria is that they smell war there, and they see in every war an opportunity for the US to assert its omnipotence.
I too see war in Syria as a test for the US, and especially as a test for Obama: the test is whether we can finally see clear to stay out of a conflict where in the long run we can only hurt ourselves. The US is so infatuated with itself that it is a sucker for the likes of McCain and Graham, and Obama has repeatedly allowed himself to be seduced by American power -- partly, no doubt, because the Republicans so delight in trash talking to him, taunting him as an apologist, impugning him for every irresolute doubt. Obama once said that he wants to change how America thinks about war, but he seems unable to even change how he himself thinks. Syria is a test of his ability to pit sanity against jargon, for rarely has a course of action -- intervention -- loomed so temptingly yet been so clearly fraught with folly.
Sunday, April 7. 2013
Occasionally I look at No More Mister Nice Blog, and a couple posts on practical politics caught my interest. One asks, Why Gay Marriage and Not Other Issues? Indeed, we're suddenly seeing an astonishing amount of progress on gay marriage at the same time far right Republicans, at least where they've seized power, are passing draconian anti-abortion laws, are restructuring tax bases to even more favor the rich, are underming public employee unions and bankrupting school systems -- all things that are vastly unpopular according to every known poll, but they seem to be able to run roughshod anyway. So, why gay marriage?
One can think of a few other reasons: that at least some politically connected big donors are gay or otherwise deeply engaged in this issue, so there's actually money behind this issue; that gay people are often well-regarded, and well-publicized, celebrities; that nearly everyone knows actual gay people and increasingly respects them; that marriage reinforces the conservative "family values" meme; that anti-gays almost always are recognized now (mostly for the reasons above) as ignorant louts. The latter is perhaps the biggest change: perhaps as recently as ten years ago homosexuals were the last group it was respectable to hate. And bigotry is one of those traits that thrives in crowds: it is a chit to join the crowd, and thereby the crowd validates your own base instincts. But as the mob thins out, people become more reluctant to join in. A decade ago right-wing preachers led the assault, but more and more they stand alone, losing their cloak of community leadership and turning into dead-end cranks.
Of course, one other reason is that gay marriage doesn't change anything else that really matters. It does nothing to reverse the slide toward economic inequality. It has nothing to do with the financialization of the economy. It offers virtually no support for job security or social security. It doesn't touch the culture of corruption that pervades politics and the media. It won't stop us from going to war. And the list could go on and on. One reason lack of a marriage option discriminates against gays is that it makes it harder to get health insurance. Gay marriage helps that problem, but only very marginally -- the real solution there is universal health insurance.
But I think the author is right, that the main reason is that there has been an organized political movement to advance equal rights for gays. That also is the case for marijuana legalization, which also in the last decade has gone from something no politician would dare talk about to something that has begun to poll favorably -- one recent poll gives it majority support. Yet other issues (abortion and guns most obviously) trend the opposite way, even against popular opinion, largely because they have intense pressure groups that can be effective given the general corruptness of the political system.
Here's another quote from No More Mister Nice Blog (I guess we'll have to call him NMMN), starting with the observation that there's something like 90% support for background checks for gun sales, but nobody's going to make that happen, because a small number of gun nuts are much more organized than the masses who'd like to keep guns away from the crazy and malicious:
I could go into a screed here about how corrupt the political system is, and how we need to get the money out of it, but that still wouldn't account for the intensity advantage that single-issue obsessives have over general interests, or the advantage that private interests have over public concerns. What's needed there is some kind of organization drive to counter all the other organized interests. One can look to a few examples in history. We tend to view unions as a special interest group now, but that wasn't always the case: during their peak period (in the US), they tended to take a broader view. The civil rights movement, and the new left movements of the late-1960s and early-1970s -- anti-war, women's rights, environmental concerns, consumer interests -- each served to unify broad swathes of the populace, and had significant effects at least at the time (not that they've stuck around the defend our gains).
I don't have a full proposal ready to go here, but for me the key issue of our time is reversing inequality and building public goods to increase the general wealth. Back around 1935, Huey Long set up a national network of political clubs to support his run for president, and he came up with a slogan that fits the times today as well as it did then: Share the Wealth. Long's own thinking on this wasn't very well developed -- he mostly came up with redistribution schemes, not that there's no need for that -- but the sentiment is right, plus he hitched the slogan to the organizational drive needed to promote it. This is only the germ of an idea, but it's the right combination.
Thursday, March 21. 2013
Ten years ago this week George W. Bush launched his war against Iraq. He was almost solely responsible for the act, at least in the sense that had he decided not to go to war he would have met virtually no resistance. Yet he also had little real choice: he was a mental slave to the logic that had led his father to attack Iraq in 1991, and that had prevented either Bush or Clinton from making any serious effort to normalize Iraq. Moreover, he was still smitten by the political euphoria his father had briefly enjoyed when the 1991 war had initially seemed so successful, and he was convinced that his own "tougher resolve" would lock in the same political euphoria, allowing him to build up "political capital" for ever greater feats, like war with Iran, or wrecking social security.
Invading Iraq turned out to be a surprisingly difficult political play, especially compared to the utter ease with which Bush was able to sink the US military into a hopeless quagmire in Afghanistan -- one that, needless to say, still saps US forces while remaining as far as ever from resolution. Many figures came forth declaring Iraq "a war of choice," "the wrong war" (as compared to Afghanistan), but for me the real wrong choice was Afghanistan, especially following Bush's wholehearted support of Ariel Sharon's destruction of the Oslo Peace Process in Israel/Palestine. In an unguarded moment, Bush himself referred to his efforts to bend the Middle East to his will as a new "crusade": his "born again" certainty reinforcing the hubris of America's anti-communist triumphalism.
This was all clear at the time. And while I wrote little about Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11 -- my website barely existed then, I spent the month following 9/11 away from home, and I had yet to grasp the event's political importance -- by 2003 I was writing regularly. When I grep "Iraq" in my notebook file, I fish up more than 4000 lines. I thought I'd quote a few of them, mostly from March-April 2003, a few earlier (including one from Sept. 11, 2001), ending with a couple from August 2003. Reading through them, I see that I'm missing a lot of detail, especially the whole WMD controversy (a bogus argument if ever I've heard one).
Of course, much more happened after August 2003, and at least some of that shows up in subsequent posts. Then there are the books: I've read at least thirty specifically on Afghanistan and Iraq, another twenty on the Bush administration and the more general War on Terror. Of those, the Bremer administration is pretty well documented, except for the decision to put an idiot like Bremer in charge in the first place -- that's one thing I've never even seen a plausible denial on. After that, from mid-2004 to 2007, the history gets much harder to come by -- the US, especially with Khalilzad, becomes very secretive, and the whole country becomes dangerously inhospitable to reporters. From 2007 on, you get a lot of pro-military hype, especially from the platoon of Petraeus sycophants -- one of the few exceptions here is Nir Rosen's Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World (2011).
Many of the books are commented on (and some extensively quoted) in the books section, but it will take another post to properly index and annotate them.
More (much more) after the break . . .
Continue reading "Ten Years of Infamy"
Sunday, November 18. 2012
In 1947, when the UN attempted to partition Palestine, it allocated the Gaza Strip and adjacent land extending up the Mediterranean coast more than half way to Tel Aviv to the Arab part, simply because none of the people living in that section were Jewish. In 1948, the Zionist leadership in Palestine declared independence and founded the state of Israel, but even though they had lobbied heavily for passage of the UN partition plan, they did not accept its borders. Among their expansion campaigns, they pushed down the coast, compressing the Gaza Strip to half of its original size, and more than doubling its population with refugees.
When the 1949 armistice agreement was signed, the compressed Gaza was ceded to Egypt, but unlike Jordan (which claimed the West Bank and East Jerusalem) Egypt made no effort to annex Gaza. It was kept as a trust, preserving its makeshift refugee camps as a continuing marker of the injustice of Israel's refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their native country. Israel invaded Egypt in 1967, seizing Gaza and Sinai up to the Suez Canal. In 1979, Egypt signed a treaty with Israel which Sinai to Egypt, making it whole again, but Israel kept Gaza, placing it under military occupation. In 1993, under the Oslo Accords, Israel subcontracted its occupation to Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Authority while keeping Gaza sealed off from the rest of the world. In 2005, Ariel Sharon dismantled the few settlements that Israelis had established in Gaza, reducing its on-ground presence to zero, while still controlling the air space, the sea, and borders, with the entire land border surrounded by high security fences. The net effect was to turn Gaza into a 365 square mile open air prison, holding 1.7 million people.
Conditions in Gaza have been dire since 1948, but they deteriorated markedly after 2007. In 2006, the Palestinian Authority held parliamentary elections, which were won by Hamas. Israel, supported strongly by the US, attempted to overturn the elections, most dramatically by staging a coup to seize power in Gaza. That coup failed, resulting in Hamas seizing control in Gaza. Israel responded by tightening its economic stranglehold. Gazans sought relief by digging tunnels to smuggle goods in from Egypt -- under Mubarak, Egypt was tightly complicit with Israel in isolating Gaza (a relationship that is changing as Egypt becomes more democratic). Outsiders have attempted to deliver supplies by boat into Gaza -- Israel continues to prevent them, sometimes violently.
The Palestinian in Gaza are not part of a monolithic mindset, any more than Israelis or Americans are, but they all start out with the shared experience of Israeli containment. (Occupation may no longer be the right word as it implies boots on the ground and on your neck, but Israel controls the flow of goods and people, and always threatens death from the sky, a situation that often amounts to a siege.) Faced with Israeli oppression, some people will inevitably try to fight back, some will resist non-violently, some will capitulate, some will attempt to profit, some will be confused, and many will vacillate between these strategies, especially since none have been proven to work. (Israel, as a government, has its own options and policies, but mostly they act from strength which they underscore by frequent violence -- a lesson that no Palestinian is unaware of.)
Israel's current "Operation Pillar of Defense" started on Nov. 14 with an Israeli airstrike that assassinated Ahmed Jaabari, reportedly the head of the military wing of Hamas, also killing his son and others. The stated reason for the operation was to clamp down on rockets fired by Gazan "militants" into southern Israel, so the assassination was followed up by Israel bombing hundreds of sites in Gaza. The response, of course, was that those "militants" shot off more rockets in three days than they had in the past six months. (Here is a list; I haven't found a corresponding list of Israeli bombings and shellings of Gaza, but a timeline should show that they match up, with Israeli attacks most often provoking the rocket barrages.)
I don't in any way approve of shooting rockets from Gaza into Israel, but it is easy to understand the attraction. For starters, there is Israel's blockade meant to damage, demean, control, and sometimes just punish 1.7 million people, and the most visible symbol of that blockade is the wall that makes Israel impenetrable from Gaza. The main thing a rocket can do is what no Gazan can do: leap over the wall. The tiny, primitive Qassam rockets can't do much more than that: they have no guidance system, they rarely hit anyone or anything, and they don't do much damage when they do, but Israel likes to play the victim and the rocket attacks make for good publicity, so they play them up, harp on the fear they stoke, constantly reminding anyone who'll listen about the Palestinian commitment to killing Jews. (Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, recently described the rockets as "more than a crude attempt to kill and terrorize civilians -- they were expressions of a genocidal intent.") Of course, good publicity for Israel is bad for the Palestinians, but those who shoot off the rockets at least can take some satisfaction in how much they are getting under their enemies' thin skins. For your basic Gazan "militant," shooting off a rocket is a way to get noticed, to stand up to the oppressor, and make them recognize you.
Gaza has been under Israel's control since 1967, but this week's level of hostilities is unusual -- much greater than a similar clash in March, probably more deadly than any time since January 2009, when Israel's Operation Cast Lead actually invaded Gaza, killing 1,417 Palestinians (IDF figures: 1,166; Israel lost 13, 10 of those soldiers, 4 of those due to "friendly fire"; the operation actually started Dec. 27, 2008, and ended Jan. 18, 2009). It seems far from coincidental that both operations started soon after US presidential elections and shortly before Israeli elections. In 2008 it seemed likely that Israel wanted to get her kicks in before Obama took office in case he was inclined to caution -- the net effect was that Bush let Israel go on long enough to embarrass themselves with their brutality while Obama was held speechless, the first of many humiliations America's dearest ally inflicted on him. This time the US election probably didn't matter. (What may matter is that the "militants" were able to fire some new, larger Iranian rockets at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, previously well out of range -- not much of a threat, but it does play into Netanyahu's desire for starting a war between the US and Iran.)
Israel's prime ministers changed between the two operations, but the Defense Minister remained the same: Ehud Barak, the former PM who was elected in 1998 to finish up the Oslo Accords and who wound up destroying the last (at least the latest) good chance we had of resolving the conflict. When Barak was defeated in 2001, George Bush's view was that, "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things," and Ariel Sharon indulged him, plunging the conflict into the murk of endless reprisals and posturing, where it remains today. In 1967 it seemed quite simple to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict: Israel would give up its newly conquered territories in exchange for peace treaties, a solution that was codified in two UN resolutions, backed by the US and even (with some weasel wording) Israel. Eventually all of the Arab nations, including the Palestinians, came around to that view, but by then Israel and the US (Sharon and Bush) had moved on, thinking they could solve all their problems with a resolute show of force.
That commitment to force is why Israel is fighting its third Gaza War since 2006 (not counting hundreds of skirmishes in a neverending war of attrition). One popular definition of insanity is the belief that repeating a strategy will somehow produce a different result. By that criteria, Netanyahu and Barak clearly are insane -- their sole out is to realize that they are in fact getting the result they want: that by periodically shaking the hornet's nest they get to keep the conflict's definition tied to relative strength, and away from basic human rights.
There is a simple solution here, one so simple it's amazing that no one talks about it. Due to Israel's settlement activities in the West Bank and Jerusalem, it's become very difficult for Israel and the Palestinians to sort out a fair and equitable division of lands there, and indeed they may never be able to clean up the mess that Israel's illegal settlement program has made. But relative interests in Gaza are totally clear: Israel has no settlements within Gaza, and no desire to ever extent Israeli citizenship to Gaza's residents. Therefore, why not hand Gaza over to the UN to organize elections and secure its status as an independent nation?
I don't want to have to rehash all of Israel's security issues about an independent Gaza (or Palestinian) state: they are easily dismissed on many grounds. And other than security, what is there? Water, I suppose. A very trivial bit of economic advantage Israel enjoys. And it would involve "agreeing to disagree" on unresolved issues, like the "right of return" and the relationship between Gaza and Palestinian enclaves in the Occupied Territories, but independence would eliminate more than 90% of the reason Gazans have to be "militant" -- some may still bear grudges over not being able to return to their ancestors' homes and land, but that is fading, and will fade faster without the constant reminder of Israel's military dominance.
I've been trying to think of "out of the box" solutions to the broader conflict here. Some basic ideas: do what you can when you can, and don't let it prejudice the future; try to convert issues into things that can be solved with money, and apply lots of money to them; forget about who was at fault in the past; kick the stuff you can't agree on far down the road; but keep your eye on the one fundamental goal, which is that in the end everyone should wind up with full and equal rights in a secure state. Gaza, which Israel has no real interest in, is the simplest case: break it loose, open it up, rebuild, legitimize its government, and expect it to live in peace, minding its own business. The other problems are messier, and will take time and fresh thinking. But Gaza is easy.
Conversely, Israel's habitual practice of attempting to beat the Gazans into submission only leads to more war, more ill feeling, more injustice. Israel's militarist elite have deluded themselves into believing that disproportionate force works (see this useful "fact sheet" on their Dahiya Doctrine, which only goes back to 1987, but bear in mind that Ariel Sharon first became a popular public figure in Israel by leading the 1951 Qibya attack, a classic case of overkill excused as retribution). Israelis view their carpet bombing of the Dahiya neighborhood in Beirut as the key victory in their 2006 war against Hezbollah -- the explanation as to why Hezbollah hasn't attacked Israel in the years since. The 2006 war was at the time regarded as a huge fiasco: Hezbollah's rockets (far more numerous and powerful than anything Gaza possesses) were ineffective, but Hezbollah was very successful at repelling Israeli efforts to invade southern Lebanon, and Hezbollah was more effective than the government at providing relief for those neighborhoods leveled by Israel's air barrage, so the consensus opinion at the time was that Hezbollah came out of the war stronger. The more likely reason why the Israel-Lebanon border has remained quiet is that Israel hasn't provoked another war there.
It is true that Hezbollah hasn't provoked Israel into another war either. But the reason isn't fear of Israel so much as the fact that Lebanon is an independent country, with a democratic political system that Hezbollah participates in but doesn't dominate, and a functioning economy connected to the rest of the world. Hezbollah doesn't have to fire rockets to remind the world that Israel has locked them up in a cage, because Israel hasn't. (That Israel has cast a pallor of terror over the nation is another story, but lately in remission. It may still inspire some "militants," but they are kept in check by an organization that has a stake in the system, and in keeping the peace.)
Gaza could be peaceful too, but only if Israel leaves it alone (or works with it constructively). What Israel should be worried about is that it's going to happen anyway. Egyptian complicity in sealing off and strangling Gaza is no longer automatic: that border has started to open up, and will become more so -- among other things, that makes it easier to smuggle more deadly weapons in (something Iran has little motivation not to indulge). Foreign investment money has started to trickle into Gaza. Before long, the Strip will be a de facto independent state, recognized by many countries, perhaps even by the UN. By then this Operation will look like a last, futile attempt to stem the path to freedom. And unless they stop real soon, this will be another chapter in Israel's senseless brutality toward its neighbors and, indeed, toward its own people. The problem with violence is not just what it does to its victims, but the monsters it makes of its perpetrators.
 Quoted by Paul Woodward. He also quotes Phan Nguyen calculating how many rockets it would take, given their general ineffectiveness, to kill off the Jewish population of Israel: nearly 4.5 billion rockets. Woodward's statistic is that Gaza rockets have killed an average of 2 Israelis per year over the last 12 years. The latest figure I have for the current operation is that 3 Israelis have been killed by more than 740 rockets and mortar shells. During the same time, 46 Palestinians were killed (including 22 "militants").
By the way, the Phan Nguyen piece, Dissecting IDF Propaganda: The Numbers Behind the Rocket Attacks, goes way beyond the calculations cited above, providing a list of Israelis killed by rockets and mortar fire from Gaza, looking into the timing of the launches, and picking over IDF propaganda on the attacks.
 Quoted in Ron Suskind, The One Percent Doctrine.
I used Saturday's Wikipedia figures on Operation Pillar of Defense. Finishing this up on Sunday, so the current tragic numbers keep climbing.
On Nov. 16, Paul Woodward noted that:
Stephen Walt quotes larger figures from B'tselem: "Israel has killed 319 Palestinians since Cast Lead in 2009, while Palestinians have killed 20 Israelis."
For whatever it's worth, the "stone age" experiment has already been tried, in Afghanistan, and guess what? You can destroy every shred of civilization, wipe out the economy, put people into the dark, keep them ignorant and unaware, and the only things they'll still be able to do are shoot rockets and improvise bombs.
However, the other thing about the "stone age" is that at that level of technology and social organization it is impossible to keep 1.7 million people alive in 365 square miles: reducing Gaza to a "stone age" place would either directly or indirectly amount to genocide. Is that what Israelis really want? Rabbi Yaakov Yosef would rather get it done with faster. Follow the links there for more, including Eli Yishal, Israel's Interior Minister -- inside the government, presumably someone in the know -- saying, "The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages."
A few more links consulted:
Quote from the Levy article, cited above:
Quote from the Walt article, cited above:
Saturday, November 10. 2012
If I find time, I'll do more post-election links tomorrow, but I thought I'd preface them with one from Kevin Drum, We Should Probably All Calm Down a Bit, since I want to quote virtually all of it. He addresses two bullet items, one to liberals and one to conservatives, and he basically gets them right, although I have a few more points to add. First:
First part is true. Political power is still pretty evenly divided, with the Republican House, a Democratic majority in the Senate hung up for abuse by its own rules (the filibuster, of course, but also the evident right of Richard Shelby and Tom Coburn to block any appointment they take exception to, which is pretty much all of them), and Obama in the White House, at least until recently thinking he has the touch to compromise meaningfully with terrorists. Republicans also control most of the governorships and state houses, most of the judiciary, and they have a working majority on the Supreme Court. Right-wingers also have a huge preponderance in the media, and they continue to draw on their think tanks and propaganda arms, on industry lobbyists, and above all on lots of money.
In most respects, the Democrats didn't win so much as dodge a bullet. This was the billionaires' election, and didn't prevail, although the fact that it was so close when the interest breakdown had never been more clearly drawn between the 1% and the 99% is telling. Similarly, Republicans spent much of the last four years erecting roadblocks on the path to the polls. Given that Obama won, you might be tempted to say that they failed, even that there was a backlash against the right's assault on democracy, but the fact is that the number of people who voted this time dropped by over 9 million (122,146,119 vs. 131,393,990 in 2012). How much of that can be attributed to voter suppression as opposed to general cynicism and indifference -- both of which are conservative goals -- isn't clear, but it can't be dismissed.
It should also be noted that while the Republicans enjoy a 49 seat margin in the House, the actual vote for Representatives gave a plurality to the Democrats (54,301,095 to 53,822,442). Nate Silver has estimated that the Democrats have to get 3% more votes than the Republicans to break even in the House -- some of this is due to gerrymandering following the Republicans' 2010 state house wins, and some of it is due to the concentration of Democrats in compact urban districts (i.e., cities). What I think all of this means is that the Democrats could have done significantly better than they did with a more level playing field: with more people voting, with less money distorting the races, with a Democratic Party that was better organized (especially at the House and state levels).
The great thing about election day is that it's the one day in the year where the people count. Leading up to it politicians of all stripes try to appeal the the people, and afterwards they slide back into the real corridors of power, which is mostly the province of money but also of institutional interests. I think it would be a mistake to read Drum's line that a "lot of them are still pretty nervous about a big part of our agenda" as meaning that the people (Democrats anyway) are nervous about their leaders taking them far to the left. Nervousness may be called for, but it's more likely that they (well, we) fear that Democrats we elected to represent us will wind up compromising our interests to the moneyed powers, the corporations, the warmongers, and so forth. I wouldn't go so far as to argue that the median voter is well to the left of the politicians, but you get a whiff of that in, e.g., the referenda legalizing recreational marijuana use.
Still, the left has lots of work to do to overcome myriad obstacles -- the right, the middling center, the professional ranks of Democratic politics -- and much of that is done by correcting bad ideas. Drum gives us an example in his assertion, "long-term deficit reduction and entitlement reform really are pretty important." In theory, I could go either way on deficit reduction, but it's worth noting that throughout US history the only way it's ever actually worked is through growth and/or inflation -- neither party actually has the political will to soak the people with taxes to pay down the debts, especially in a protracted slump. (Clinton at least had a huge tech boom for cover, and all his "success" netted was irresponsibility from his successor.) I'd like to see some more progressive taxes not so much to balance the budget as to start to nudge incomes, society, and democracy toward more equality. But it also turns out that taxing the rich results in less drag on the economy -- forget all that "job creator" garbage and all their "uncertainty" and "confidence" confabulations -- than taxing anyone else, and I'd combine that with more spending, especially on public works that help reduce inequality and boost opportunity -- education, infrastructure, small business support, and, yes, income transfers. The "fiscal cliff" moment, despite such misleading terminology, is a teachable moment, something we should take advantage of.
As for "entitlement reform," any so-called progressive who utters such a term should be pummeled with a whiffle bat. The truth is that retirement incomes are earned, and that welfare for those unable to provide adequately for themselves is a sign of civilization, one that we should take pride in, not demean. And the only way those sums should be "reformed" is upward, not least because we've let our selfishness (or rather the greed of the rich and powerful) and a false sense of impoverishment cut too deep already. That people live longer may mean that working people will have to pay more to support those who cannot work, and therefore overall taxes will have to rise. But to cheap out and deny your fellow citizens the right to live in decency and out of poverty would morally bankrupt us.
Drum's second point:
This is all straightforward and true, but then why did Republicans not do the smart and gracious thing and accept Obamacare, "cap and trade," Obama's "middle class" tax deal, and so forth as concessions to the power of their ideology? It's certainly not because they have any sort of enlightened comprehension of the long-term interests of the superrich. (They're not even that sharp on short-term interests: the rich plunged furthest in the recession, although they've bounced back healthily, the stock market more than doubling during Obama's term even though unemployment persisted and we're still a long ways from regaining the lost output.) Anyone rational will tell you that health care costs are eroding the entire economy, handicapping every business that doesn't directly profit from them. Same thing is true with the banks. And global warming is ultimately a much greater threat to property owners than it is to migrant workers. And you can keep going down the list: starving education may mean more people will be dumb enough to vote Republican, but it doesn't help American businesses needing competent and innovative workers to compete in the global market. And wars, pollution, the dumbest approach imaginable to crime.
I think what's happened is that the Republicans have fallen victim to their rank and file, a group that basically has nothing going for it other than their rage against everyone else. It must have seemed like a clever idea: getting the whites against the blacks (and everyone else), getting men (and the Catholic church) against liberated women, getting the hawks against the doves, getting the born against against the humanists, getting the gun nuts against their own paranoia, wrapping it all up in paeans about family values and responsibility, God and flags, prayer and the pledge of allegiance, success and prosperity, with a bunch of guys who inherited many millions to bankroll it all. Moreover, the ideology was sold on the simplest level possible: no more taxes, shrink the government so it can be drowned in a bathtub, but carte blanche for the military, and no amnesty (put more people in jail than any other country) and make no excuses (plunge the nation into debilitating foreign wars at the slightest provocation).
It worked for a while, not least because rather than fight it Democrats fell all over themselves to burnish their patriotic and militarist and religious and free enterprise credentials, all the while chasing the same moneyed interests, sometimes even outbidding the Republicans to service them. But the spell is fading, and not just because other demographics are outpacing angry white males (as Lindsey Graham recently lamented). Part of the problem is that more and more people are being pushed outside the Republican tent. But it's also because while thirty years of conservative ascendancy has done much to make the rich richer, it has treated everyone else so shabbily. Believers still have little clue, but the proof is how desperately they hold on to nostrums that no longer work.
Sure, in theory the Republican establishment can seek out a more moderate and more defensible ground, but how can they sell ideas that violate the moral certainties of their rank and file. A good example of this was how a series of Republicans, starting with VP candidate Paul Ryan, decided they were more profoundly against abortion than rape, so wound up in effect arguing that the law should enforce a rapist's right to force his victim to bear his child. Conservatives always insist that their truth is timeless, eternal, unchangeable, so indeed how can they change? Indeed, throughout history they don't. They can only be resisted, stopped, defeated: often, as in America's Revolution and Civil War through violence; sometimes, if we're lucky, democratically, as in the 1930s New Deal and the 1960s civil rights movement. Of course, conservatism keeps bouncing back -- as long as there is a privileged order to defend -- but at least in defeat they drop some of their worst habits.
One lesson we should take away from the 2012 election is that they've been set back, but they haven't been defeated soundly enough yet.
Wednesday, November 7. 2012
Generally pleased with the election results, especially the Senate, which includes several genuinely promising Democrats (Baldwin, Warren) as well as more of the ordinary variety, and the defeat of some (but not all) of the most odious Republicans. Also pleased to see some of the ballot issues, especially the breakthroughs on marijuana -- the whole drug war needs to be rethought and mostly ended, but it's been nearly impossible to find working politicians to stand up despite the fact that it's long been significantly unpopular.
Much less pleased with the House, which I expected to be more competitive despite the lack of polls or other indications that it would be. Even now, I haven't been able to find much in the way of useful information as to what happened, let alone why. One thing I would like to see is the total vote by party: I suspect it is much closer to even than the division of seats -- redistricting after the 2010 census and elections, when the Republicans grabbed a lot of state houses, has a lot to do with this, but so does the expense of challenging an entrenched incumbent. (I know that my congressman has been building up a war chest he mostly didn't need to tap into this cycle, making him all the more unassailable in the future. He won a second term with about 62% of the vote against a virtually invisible challenger, which suggests that on a level playing field he might be vulnerable to a stronger, better heeled candidate.) For more on the House problems, see Nate Silver's June 23 piece.
With the House locked down under Republican control, and their leadership in thrall to the unbroken radical fringe, Obama will find it impossible to implement anything progressive for at least the next two years. Whether it's as bad as the last two years is hard to project, but the Tea Party momentum from 2010 has ended -- whether the arrogance and sense of entitlement has remains to be seen. Also unclear is whether Obama has fully learned the obvious lessons of the election, which is that he has to be more aggressive in facing up to Republican intransigence. Nothing would help him more than to start putting together a ground organization to take back the House in 2014: find strong candidates, support them, feed them issues. The Democrats did make gains this year where they had strong candidates, but ignoring the House they missed an important opportunity.
As for the presidential race, I've managed to crunch some numbers. Obama lost about 5% of margin from 2008 to 2012. Turnout currently looks to be down about 8%: this number will go down a bit as the last of the ballots are counted, but right now it looks like about 120 million votes this year vs. 131 million in 2008 (but also there should be more voters this year, so the percentage voting may wind up down even more). That probably explains most of the drop, but I ran state-by-state comparisons, and the granularity varies quite a bit from state to state.
An across-the-board 5% drop should have cost Obama four states: Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio (won by 4.59% in 2008; Virginia was next closest at 6.30%) -- the resulting electoral margin would have been Obama 285, Romney 253, which isn't unreasonable given Obama's 2.7% raw vote margin. But the drop wasn't even everywhere. For the most part, Obama dropped less than 5% in the states he had won in 2008, and Romney gained more than 5% in the states McCain had won in 2008. From Obama's side, most of that came down to money and where he spent it. I don't know how the money split this year, but Romney had a lot more to work with than McCain, who was outspent by more than two-to-one, did.
The first big difference I noticed was Romney's gains in Indiana (+11.09%) and Missouri (+9.46%), the two most closely contested states in 2008 (Obama won Indiana by 1.04% and lost Missouri by 0.14%). But this year, with less money and facing a tighter race, Obama didn't seriously contest either state. Same thing with Montana, -2.27% in 2008, a 10.63% improvement for Romney this year. (Interesting that Democrats won Senate seats in all three states, despite big Obama losses.) Other big Romney gains include North Dakota (+11.17%) and South Dakota (+9.59%) -- both were won by McCain but by less than 10% -- and traditionally Democratic West Virginia (+13.38%) -- two more Democratic Senate wins there, although Joe Manchin spent more time running against Obama than against his Republican opponent.
Elsewhere, in uncontested Republican states, Romney gained 19.73% in Utah, 9.06% in Wyoming; slightly above average in Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee (5.43%); and below average across the South (where McCain had pretty much locked up the white vote) -- Texas (4.03%), Arkansas (3.74%), Georgia (2.79%), Oklahoma (2.30%), South Carolina (1.93%), Alabama (0.72%), with small losses in Louisiana (-1.43%) and Mississippi (-1.48%). Romney did 3.08% better than McCain in Arizona (all sorts of factors at work there), and 8.03% worse in Alaska (no idea about that).
Obama's change figures are more scattered, but the main thing that matters was that he kept the loss tight in the key battleground states: Florida (-2.21%), North Carolina (-2.53%), Ohio (-2.69%), Virginia (-3.30%), New Hampshire (-3.91%), Iowa (3.94%), Colorado (-4.25%), New Mexico (-4.25%). It's tempting to argue that such intense focus distorts the results, but despite his incumbency I feel that Obama had an extra-hard time getting his message out -- the Republican media machine, of course, but also the nature of Romney's lies and Obama's early reticence to tackle them left an awful lot of people sadly misinformed about the issues -- so the battleground states had the clearest picture of the case for Obama. The corollary here is that had Obama the means to contest more states, the results there would have shifted toward him.
Obama had more trouble in Nevada (-5.90%), Oregon (-7.05%), Wisconsin (-7.21%), Michigan (-7.97%), and Illinois (-8.94%) -- states he may have taken for granted. Elsewhere, he kept most of his support, especially in the northeast, such as New Jersey (+1.43% -- along with Alaska, the only states he gained in, but voting is still incomplete there), Rhode Island (-0.02%), New York (-0.05%), Maryland (-1.15%), Vermont (-1.20%), Maine (-1.21%), District of Columbia (-1.63%), Massachusetts (-2.61%), Pennsylvania (-5.25%), Connecticut (-5.37%), Delaware (-6.39%). Other states: Hawaii (-2.47%), Minnesota (-2.64%), California (-4.01%), Washington (-4.77%).
Doing better than average on your home turf is a tendency that has become increasingly prevalent in recent years -- in Obama's two elections, in Bush's two before that, and to a lesser extent in Clinton's (who, you may recall, did a bit better in the South, and a lot better in West Virginia). There are many reasons for this, ranging from habit to the feedback effect of Republicans reducing people's interest and expectations in government by running it so corruptly. But one net effect is to spread states out into "red" and "blue" camps, which in a national election leaves little to contest. That's the main reason Nate Silver has been able to project state odds that are both overly dramatic -- Florida was a toss up at 50.3% odds for Obama, but his next closest states were North Carolina (74.4% for Romney), Virginia (79.4% for Obama), and Colorado (79.7% for Obama). If Florida holds up (which looks right, with a 47,028 Obama edge with 100% reporting), he managed to get them all right -- a result which would might be less impressive but for a couple weeks of right wing sniping against him.
Checking against Silver's final polls, I found that Obama topped his final projections in every competitive state except Ohio (-1.7%), Pennsylvania (-0.8%), Oregon (-0.2%), and Minnesota (-1.0%). Those first two suggest that vote suppression (or fraud) may have had some small effect. Silver was most criticized for giving Obama a 90.6% chance of winning Ohio (based on a poll average of +3.6%); the actual difference was a much closer +1.9%. Romney trailed his polls in South Carolina (-2.0%), Georgia (-0.7%), Alaska (-7.6%), and Kansas (-1.2%). He also had the biggest gain over the polls, +10.3% in West Virginia. Obama did +9.0% in Hawaii.
I heard Romney's concession speech. It was short and decent -- Chris Matthews proclaimed it the best thing he'd done all campaign -- giving credence to the rumor that he had only written one speech ahead of time, presuming a victory. Of course, that's something that can easily happen when you live in the bubble of your own propaganda.
I also listened to Obama's victory speech, one that he clearly had put some time and thought into. Some good stuff in it, but about every third or fourth clause rubbed me some wrong way -- by emphasizing the unimportant, by grasping some clichť, mostly by waxing eloquent on the limitless virtue of the American people. But if he had even an ounce of insincerity, he did an amazing job of covering it up. I don't see how anyone can doubt that he is deeply in love with the country that has now elected him president twice. Nor do I see how anyone can doubt his deep personal conservatism. I understand that the American people -- most of them, anyhow -- demand this sort of flattery as a condition for holding public office, but it doesn't bode well for his intellectual honesty and critical perspicacity. What promises more is that his sense of American mythology is fairer, more inclusive, and more just than that of his democracy-phobic right-wing opponents. I date my own politics to an idealized (and no doubt ahistorical) view of the American Revolution and the various populist and progressive veins that refer back to it, so I see hope in trying to build something tangible out of those myths.
So I'm glad he won. I wish, in fact, he had won more overwhelmingly, enough so to permanently discredit the counter-myths the right insists on spreading. More personally, I'm glad I'll be able to buy reasonable health insurance when my current COBRA policy runs out. I hope I live long enough to enjoy socialism in America, but until then, "Obamacare" is a plus -- not a word I like to use, but thanks to the Republicans for reminding us of something tangible Obama has done to better our lives.
Tuesday, October 30. 2012
Woke up this morning thinking of the folly of drowning the federal government in a bathtub. For starters, like without the US National Hurricane Center would be much more precarious. Otherwise, who would have suspected that when Hurricane Sandy crossed Jamaica on Oct. 22 a week later it would drop 24 inches of snow on West Virginia? More important, of course, were the storm surge warnings and evacuations. For a recounting of death before such warnings see Erik Larson's book on the 1900 Galveston hurricane, Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, although recognize that even then Isaac Cline was a federal employee, working for the U.S. Weather Bureau. The Norquist mob would have had him in their sights as well, and may well relish how close he literally came to drowning.
Forecasting helps. For the past week responsible authorities have been preparing to repair the inevitable breaks and disruptions that the storm was expected to leave. The cleanup may look messy, but it would be far worse without the preparation and the concern, and that happens because of and through government -- which is right, because only the government represents the interest and will of the people. Private businesses may look out for themselves, and charities may help patch some of the cracks, but only government moves deliberately enough to make a big difference. (That is, of course, when it does try -- something Bush's patronage cronies had trouble understanding.) Ronald Reagan once joked that the most fearsome words in the English language were, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help." Funny line, except in the midst of a disaster. In such times, no one sits around contemplating how the free market is going to come to their rescue. No matter what their political stripes, they demand action from their government: lots of it, and now.
I suppose the good thing about a disaster is that it helps focus the mind. Otherwise, some people can get pretty confused. Take, please, Mitt Romney. Ed Kilgore quotes Ryan Grim, quoting Romney (for video, follow the Grim link):
Decentralizing government is fine and dandy in principle, but it doesn't necessarily work, and is certain to fail for disaster relief. The obvious problem is that the states have much tighter budgets -- they have to pay as they go, which means they'd have to save ahead of disasters (most likely through buying private market insurance), whereas the feds not only have deeper pockets, they can refill them as needed. You might try arguing that you can have the feds fund (or at least insure) the states, but you'd still get a whole series of inefficiencies and inequities: redundant or missing expertise, coordination problems (many disasters, like Sandy, cross borders), inconsistent policies and red tape. Even now, with the feds doing most of the work, you have vast differences from state to state -- Florida, which has a lot of practice, is relatively effective in doling out federal money, while Mississippi and Louisiana don't seem to be able to do anything competently (or without the taints of corruption and racism).
Romney compounds his ideological delusions about disaster relief with further idiocy about the federal debt. The core fact is that the federal debt, unlike your mortgage or car payment, does not have to be paid off -- not in your lifetime, or in your children's, or in their children's. Sure, that doesn't mean that you can expand it infinitely, but it means there's no clock-running-out scenario. (Also, things get tougher for debts that are denominated in other currencies, as you can see from Greece, Spain, etc. But US debt is exclusively denominated in dollars, and within some limits can be floated in inflated dollars.) Such harping on the debt only works if you assume government have to live like you do -- an assumption that defies our every experience. (Another telling joke: if you owe a bank a thousand dollars, that's your problem, but if you owe the bank a billion, that's the bank's problem.)
The point Romney and other deficit hawks are trying to drive home is the idea that we're broke, and when we're broke we can't afford things no matter how much we need them. (So suck it up, and plod along until you can. Better yet, get rich like Romney -- ignoring that he did it all with borrowed money, the debts for which he was able to pass on to the companies he ruined.) But when disaster hits, debt is often the only way out: e.g., you need to clean up the muck and broken windows in order for your your business to earn the cash to pay for repairs. And disaster shakes loose your illusions about individualism, so it's not just about you: if you repair your business but your neighbors do not, your location is soon worthless. Likewise, you depend on access roads being repaired, the power grid; you depend on public sanitation and health; you depend on police and firemen and courts and a solvent government, and those are all things that federal disaster relief make possible. And you depend on the economy bouncing back so people will buy from your business. The Republican dream of drowning the government will make all of that impossible. "Starving the beast" just withers the hand you may someday depend on to rescue you.
John Nichols has another piece that quotes the same Romney transcript. Alex Seitz-Wald has another; also later a piece not on what Romney was thinking but on what he's doing in face of the actual disaster: collecting canned goods, the ultimate hack charity drive:
Today, we got a look at Romney's charity in action, when he held an event that he swears was not a campaign rally in Ohio aimed at "storm relief" (the choice of a song with the lyrics "Knee deep in the water somewhere" was perhaps ill advised). The Romney campaign encouraged attendees to bring canned goods, clothes and other items to be sent to hurricane victims. "We have a lot of goods here . . . that these people will need," Romney said in his brief remarks. "We're going to box them up, then send them into New Jersey."
Most likely he just wanted a photo op to look like he was doing something at a time when the actual president was -- a structural problem which, I think, is one of the reasons why we shouldn't let sitting presidents run for reŽlection. Looks like Romney also flipped on getting rid of FEMA, although from what little sense I can make of his new position the least I can say is he didn't make a very clean landing.
While we're at it, Republicans are often confused about who actually benefits from that government largesse they incessantly moan about. Like the old canard about how everyone overestimates how much federal money goes to foreign aid, they also have (and prey upon) a truly irrational fear of supporting the needy (and unworthy). In fact, an awful lot of what government does is to support businesses and their owners, and disaster aid is one of many chunks that fit. Indeed, you have to wonder when the rich are going to wise up and realize that they need the government much more than the poor do, and that the wholesale destruction of public goods and values is going to come back to hurt them. Robert H. Frank has a piece that starts to make this case, although he could go a lot further. The piece is called "Higher Taxes Help the Richest, Too." More on that, later.
Sunday, October 28. 2012
The good news in this election is that loathsome Democrat Vern Miller isn't running for sheriff or anything else this time. I voted against him in my first election (1972), and voted against him four years ago. In fact, I've never found him running against a Republican so vile as to drive me into his column. On the other hand, the Republicans running for my state senate and representative seats have taken a drastic turn for the worse this year. They have a lot of money and they are serious threats to win, although at least they will have to overcome estimable Democratic candidates. Other than that, and a ballot question about fluoridating the city's water supply (something I'm ambivalent about), Kansas is a political wasteland this year. The statewide offices have been reserved for the off-years when turnout is down (and more to the Republicans' taste). The Senate cycle is fallow this year. And our Koch-owned congressman appears to be a lock -- at least I haven't seen any evidence of the Democrat allegedly running against him. And, oh, the state's presidential electors have already been conceded: I haven't even seen any statewide polls on Romney vs. Obama -- just some speculation that the margin will rival Reagan's 1980 trouncing of Carter. I expect it will be much closer, but I'm basing that on nothing whatsoever -- other than that Gore surprised me in 2000 by getting 37% of the vote (to 58% for Bush) on so little campaigning that I entertained the fantasy of Nader (3.4%) outpolling him. Turns out that even though Kansas Democrats are remarkably quiet they do exist -- and thanks to the right-wing Republican purge are likely to increase in number, if not in spirit.
In 2004 I wrote a relatively impassioned editorials for Kerry (or more pointedly against Bush) and in 2008 I must have done the same for Obama (certainly against the warmonger McCain). Against Romney, Obama is as clear a choice, even though there isn't much reason to cheerful or enthusiastic about the prospect. Obama has proven himself to be a cautious conservative with only the barest commitment to the general welfare of the majority of the people who voted for him in 2008. He is unimaginative and unresourceful, unwilling to put forth progressive proposals, uneager to stand up to the increasingly destructive program of the far right, or even to point out how much damage thirty years of conservative ascent has already done. And even within his own limited confines, more often than not he has proved inept: obvious examples include the 2010 electoral debacle, and the fact that his own reŽlection is in peril despite running against running against a candidate as clueless as Romney and a party as malevolent as the Republicans, despite his evident tactic of sacrificing his party for his own personal gain -- one of many traits he's adopted from Clinton, who proved every bit as ineffective (or uninterested) at halting the nation's unpopular drift to the right.
I say "unpopular" because there's no reason to think that the vast majority of the American people actually approve of what the right has done, let alone intends to do. You can check this many ways, starting with the polling, although that's often muddied by the right's ubiquitous propaganda machine (often helped out by the mainstream media). Or you can look at the ways the right tries to obscure and confuse issues, by their savvy catch phrases, their constant repetition, etc. Or you can look at the right's more and more blatant efforts at disenfranchising and intimidating voters. Or you can take notice of such recent gaffes as Lindsey Graham's concession that the Republicans are losing "the demographic race" or Romney's blatant dismissal of the "47%" of the public who pay no income taxes, people he wrote off as "takers," people "unwilling to take responsibility for their lives": given all the other people Romney is writing off, it should be clear that the only way he can win an election is to keep most of that 47% from voting.
So that's one thing this election is about: whether this nation will remain a democracy. And oddly enough, because the Republican Party has operated in lock step over the last four years in its single-minded agenda to annul the 2008 election, to prevent the sort of change that that election mandated, to sabotage government and prevent it from being used to ameliorate the suffering and to improve the welfare of the vast majority of the people, and above all to make Obama look weak and ineffective, the only way to save democracy is to purge Congress of virtually all Republicans. (A simple thought experiment: how many views would an all-Democratic Congress have on most issues? All of them. All-Republican? One, maybe plus Ron Paul.)
Since Democrats are all over the map, voting a straight ticket might not seem like much of a solution, but Republican groupthink and discipline have created a unique problem: one that is severe enough it should be massively rejected. Otherwise, their obsession with seizing and holding power at all costs will prove ever more corrupting. We saw much of this during the Bush-Cheney years, when the anti-deficit arguments used to hem in Clinton and Obama were suspended, when government oversight was parceled out to lobbyists, when functions were privatized to create patronage. More recently, no matter how much the Republicans decried bank bailouts, they flocked to fight regulation needed to keep future disasters from happening, in a blatant attempt to coddle the big bankers. But more disturbing than hypocrisy and opportunism is how they've converted their power base into a form of extortion: give them the presidency and they'll mismanage government, plunge the nation into endless wars, wreck the economy, but deny them and they'll shut down the government, hold up your social security checks, and drag their feet on everything from unemployment comp to food stamps. They've even argued that the current slow recovery is Obama's fault for "creating uncertainty," causing "job creators" to hold back their magic and let the economy flounder -- when in fact Republican-demanded austerity measures have destroyed public sector jobs as fast as the private sector can generate them.
Moreover, the Republican mindset has turned even more greedy and nasty in the years since Obama was elected. The key abortion issue now seems to be the rights of rapists to force their victims to bear their children. Public education is being gutted, torn between textbook idiocies and prohibitive costs, and likely to suffer worse now that pious Republicans like Rick Santorum have decided that learning inclines students toward liberalism. Such notions, and the Republicans are full of them, are more extreme than we've ever witnessed in major party politics, and they're backed with more money and more pervasive media than ever. From the beginning, Americans have adopted the notion of countervailing powers as a means of checking tyranny: first in the government's separation of powers, and later in the development of a universal democracy that has repeatedly shifted, and moderated, between progressive and conservative tides. Arguably, the Reagan ascent in 1980 was a reasonable reaction to the successes of progressive movements in the 1960s and 1970s. (I wouldn't argue that, but I can see how corporate interests may have gotten spooked.) Early on, conservative measures seemed to do little damage, but over time they have accumulated into serious problems; meanwhile, the right has no sense of enough: they keep insisting on more, to the point of complete domination. (For example, in Kansas now, business owners are exempt from paying state income tax, joining Romney's freeloading 47%.)
The Republican juggernaut stalled in 2008 when it became obvious to nearly everyone that the Bush bubble had burst and took much of the world's economy with it. Then a remarkable thing happened: a handful of talk radio blowhards and behind-the-scenes schemers like Grover Norquist took over the GOP and gave it a fresh life in its own fantasy world. Much of what followed was stark raving nuts, and even now all Romney and Ryan represent are the sanest faces their sponsoring billionaires can put on such an unhinged movement. Even so, Romney's background is from the most predatory and destructive form of finance capitalism, and Ryan's solo claim to fame is his ability to fake a budget that promises to turn the nation into a third world oligarchy. And behind the front men, the advisers -- the people who would make up and run their administration -- are the same con men Bush used (Glenn Hubbard is the most obvious tip of the iceberg here).
These are people, a whole party of them, that must be stopped. For better or worse, all we have to stop them with are Democrats, so that's how I intend to vote, and so should you. Woe to us if we fail, but even if we succeed we'll still have much work to do. We can, at least, take solace in seeing the last four years of propaganda and obstruction fail to defeat Obama. And we can look forward to having somewhat more reasonable people to talk to, to argue with, and possibly on occasion to convince.
By the way, I see now that the Democratic candidate for sheriff, while not Vern Miller, is a guy whose sole comment on why he ran for office is that God told him to. Doesn't sound like much of a candidate to me, and I don't have anything in particular against the Republican, but I'll vote for him anyway. This is a year when anyone should be embarrassed to run as a Republican -- especially in Kansas.
Moreover, I recall how back in the early days of the conservative counterrevolution Reagan used to talk about the "11th Commandment": never speak ill of a fellow Republican. That allowed the Republicans to make gains in unlikely places, including electing mayors of New York and Los Angeles, as well as senators like the recently purged Richard Lugar. Of course, I won't stop speaking out when Democrats like Obama do bad things, but I may hold off until the season's over (now that it practically is).
Sunday, October 14. 2012
I haven't thought about Barry Commoner, who died Sept. 30 at age 95, in quite a while. I'm not even sure I finished his 1971 bestseller, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology, but he had a major impact on new left thought in the early 1970s, not just adding ecology to the list of concerns but showing how they all fit together. When I finally went to college, I spent my first year at Wichita State garnering credits and shopping for a better school. I was most impressed by the sociology department roster at Washington University, but after I applied, got in, and moved there, I found that their three biggest names had vanished: anthropologist Jules Henry (author of Culture Against Man, another book I spent lots of time thumbing through) died. Alvin Gouldner (author of The Coming Crisis in Western Sociology -- the definitive slam down of the Talcott Parsons school) and Commoner took leave, and as far as I know never came back.
But Commoner, at least, had recruited Paul Piccone, who was my main mentor for my two years at Wash. U. Piccone edited the quarterly Telos, and managed to wangle a Compugraphic typesetting machine from Commoner's budget. Aside from his synthesis of phenomenology and Marxian critical theory, I learned translation, editing, and typesetting from Piccone -- the latter giving me the profession that supported me for five years after my academic burn out. Commoner and Gouldner may have had an inkling that Danforth intended to crush Wash. U.'s sociology department. One critical blow was denying Piccone tenure in 1977. As far as I know, he never taught again, although he did continue to edit Telos until his death in 2004. (Looks like they're still chugging along: they've published a collection of Piccone's writings, and even have a nice website.)
Peter Dreier does a good job of summing up why Commoner was, and is, important. I'm quoting from the print version of The Nation, which appears to be edited down from his longer piece here.
The New Left isn't held in high regard these days. I especially cringe when I read people like Tony Judt, with his Old Left roots and later anti-Communist fixation, try to belittle the movement, but that's partly because he should know better. What's had far greater effect has been a 30-year propaganda assault by the right against what for lack of a better term they call "the sixties." What I think of as New Left was sort of the intellectual crust on top of a much broader-based push for social and political reforms -- a movement that itself never coalesced under a common brand name, like the early-20th-century Progressives: rather, you had movements for civil rights, antiwar, women's liberation, the environment.
It's worth noting that as the 1970s unfolded all of those key New Left movements were remarkably successful, both in terms of political effects and in shifting deep-seated cultural norms. Even after thirty years of well-funded counterrevolution, the right's attack on those four cornerstones is limited to fringe issues that more often than not have to be disguised. By some measures, the military has bounced back strongest, but no one entertains the prospect of restoring the draft, and for most people the endless grind of foreign wars has no sensible impact on their lives.
In retrospect, the main shortcoming of the New Left revolution was the failure to establish sustainable political institutions. This was in large part because the New Left was deeply distrustful of power in any form. It was also because natural allies nominally on the left side of the political spectrum, like the unions and the Democratic Party, were often viewed as enemies -- after all, it was LBJ who tragically escalated the Vietnam War, and Chicago mayor Daley who organized the police riot against demonstrators in 1968. Meanwhile, the unions had essentially given up on trying to organize the poor after Taft-Hartley became law, and by 1972 many were supporting Nixon (and later Reagan in 1980, including the air traffic controllers Reagan soon locked out).
The New Left grew out of an idealized self-image of America as an egalitarian middle class society -- something very different from previous left movements, which grew out of the inequity of economic relations, with the underclass organizing to fight for their own interests. For the most part, New Leftists were satisfied with their own station, but were sharply critical of the hypocrisy of their prosperous egalitarian society for allowing poverty and injustice to persist. The brilliance of the movement was in its relentless uncovering of that hypocrisy, starting with obvious ideologies like racism and sexism and militarism and imperialism and extending ad infinitum: for example, R.D. Laing wrote a piece picking apart the whole concept of obviousness. Eventually, all that analysis hit home -- in the 1970s I worked on a publication called Notes on Everyday Life -- but early on politics was all about helping other people, be they the poor in Appalachia, the segregated in the South, the peasants in Vietnam. Some even got worked up to the point of self-destruction (Weatherman is a case in point) but for most students it became a phase, giving way as personal life (families and mortgages and such) grew ever more complicated.
Ecology was a perfect concept for a time when we were coming to suspect that everything is related to and affected by everything else, and also that capitalism's gospel of infinite growth would sooner or later crash into the finiteness of the world. Commoner both introduced the concept and drew the key political conclusions. The environmental movement was quickly defanged by success, as the path from Earth Day to major legislation on air and water pollution and endangered species was almost immediate. But the next step toward facing the limits of capitalism never came close to making the public agenda, even less than the notion that civil rights should advance the economic profile of Afro-Americans.
When Commoner ran for president in 1980, he got crushed, as the nation decided to turn a blind eye to reality. I blame the Cold War, and for that I mostly blame the blind and cowardly acquiescence of liberals, including many labor union officials, in signing up for the anti-communist crusade. After the Russian Revolution, the new Soviet leader styled themselves as the leaders of world revolution, but they did very little -- other than to make affiliated communists look foolish -- until after WWII, when their armies occupied most of Eastern Europe and North Korea, and anti-fascist partisans from Albania and Yugoslavia to China and Vietnam had gained power bases.
Still, it wasn't inevitable that the US would choose to become the leader of the capitalist world, and would further decide to fight the Marx-inspired underclasses all around the world for the indefinite future. The US was itself formed by the world's first anti-imperialist revolution, and had traditionally avoided standing armies, international alliances, and -- except around its favorite "lakes": the Caribbean and, to a lesser extent, the Pacific -- foreign interventions. Even if the US wished to promote business interests abroad, it could have positively promoted the principles of independence, democracy, labor rights, and equal opportunities as an alternative to repressive systems both on the right and on the left, and it could have attempted to find common ground and interests with the Soviet Union and its bloc with the hope of ameliorating its repression and backwardness.
But a bipartisan succession of liberal presidents -- Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon -- chose instead to wage an international class war, supporting any friend (no matter how brutal or corrupt), opposing any foe (no matter how principled and progressive). What happened then was often astonishing. Just a few highlights: the US backed decolonization for Indonesia but not for Vietnam, leading to a 30-year war in Vietnam that killed millions of people (including 50,000 Americans), one that could largely have been avoided by elections, cancelled by the US on grounds that our guy would lose; meanwhile, when Indonesia veered too far to the left, the US staged a coup followed by the murder of several hundred thousand people the CIA suspected of bad politics; in Iran, a CIA coup ended democratic rule and installed a megalomaniacal shah, who 25 years later provoked a revolution creating the first militantly Islamic regime in the Middle East -- to this day, the US is trying to break Iran with economic sanctions and cyberwarfare, and threatening to bomb it; in the Congo, the CIA had its first leader killed, installing Mobutu instead, who siphoned billions of dollars out of one of the poorest countries in the world, leading to a series of wars which have killed millions more; in Chile when a non-communist socialist was elected president, the US staged a coup and had him and thousands of his supporters killed; the US urged Saudi Arabia to export its Salafist Islam, especially to Afghanistan, where the US sponsored the birth of modern Jihadism, starting a series of wars in 1979 that tie down US troops to this day.
But the anti-communist crusade wasn't solely directed against the underclasses of the world. It was also focused on the working class inside the United States, and once conservatives like Reagan came to power, that became its primary focus. If you look at the rhetoric they use to smash unions, to rip up the economic safety net, to strip regulation of business, to cut taxes on the rich, it invariably recycles the jargon of Cold War propaganda. Moreover, the same tactics and dubious ethics apply: government is no longer of, by, and for the people; it is something that a handful of self-designated rich guys insist they have to "take back." Broad middle class prosperity is a thing of the past, while poverty is way up, and we're running the largest penal system in the world. Worldwide war is a permanent feature: the only thing government can be trusted to do (maybe because it deposits the incompetence elsewhere). But religion is back -- initially another piece of Cold War propaganda to needle the atheist communists. And science, and for that matter education, is out, or at least being priced out of reach -- the right suspects it makes people more liberal.
The effect of the Cold War on our welfare is actually easy to calculate: following WWII the US and Europe had pretty much the same labor rules and welfare policies, the main difference being that the US was flush with cash and Europe was in ruins. Since then the US has fought its Cold War and beat down its working class, while Europe has at most gone through the motions, and so has preserved a middle class egalitarianism that Americans only have a distant memory of. Europe has some problems now, mostly too many politicians beholden to the same money interests that dominate the US, but they are many miles behind their American counterparts, in large part because they don't have that Cold War legacy to beat up their citizens with.
The right is so wrong on so many counts now that it's hard to know where to attack first. So it might be time to return to Commoner's essential conclusion, that unbridled capitalism will wind up ruining the environment, which is to say the world we live and work in. To keep the environment livable, we need to understand better how it all links together, but we also need to rein in capitalism, and the right. Survival depends on it.
Thursday, October 4. 2012
Update: linked in, then removed, New Yorker cover. Clever, too big, not really the point I wanted to make.
I didn't watch the Obama-Romney debate last night. I've reached the point where I find both candidates hopelessly irritating, and I've never had much stomach for political cant. Also, from past experiences, I can't say that I've ever learned much from debates -- except not to trust impressions based on personal style or quirks. Judging from reports, had I watched I would have come away even more irritated, especially at Obama. Ever since his election in 2008, what's bothered me about Obama hasn't been his policies or programs -- inadequate, unimaginative, and often misguided as they are -- but his inability or unwillingness to speak up for anything better, or indeed even to articulate why his own programs matter. The debate just provides more examples of his failing.
The front page article itself, from McClatchy, was formally neutral, the headline: "Candidates Cordial, but Pull No Punches." Below I'll argue that Obama did little but pull his punches. (Krugman called him Capillary Man: "his instinct, as people said, was apparently to go for the capillaries.") Consider the four quotes that the Wichita Eagle spotlighted on the front page today, the first sense readers in these parts got of the substance of the debates:
Romney's two statements were direct, mostly true (albeit cynical and at least partly nonsensical). Obama's were evasive and incomplete, offering little reason to trust or even understand him. Romney was shameless, while Obama would prefer that we overlook what he has to be ashamed of. Whether you believe one or the other depends on how much you know about the matter. If you know nothing, you might be taken in by Romney's confidence, faux concern, and pat answers. If you know anything, you already know that Romney is a fraud, and in his debate answers and points you'll find nothing but more evidence. You will also know that Obama has struggled with huge problems in a political climate that has confused and confounded him. Part of his problem is that he is too invested in that climate. Part is that he's unclear on who voted for him and why, and all of that came through in his lackluster performance. No doubt we would be happier to have a smarter, more earnest, more dedicated, more trustworthy candidate, but we have no such option.
What we've gotten instead is another embarrassing moment in our democracy. Unfortunately, there will be more before this election is settled. In particular, next debate is supposed to be about "foreign policy" -- basically a contest to see which candidate can most convincingly project himself as a killer. There, at least, Obama will have the advantage of four years of practice. Expect to hear a lot about Bin Laden, but he's only one of thousands of people the US has killed on his watch, under his direction, and sometimes in direct response to his orders. In contrast, the worst Romney can claim is torturing his dog, but rest assured that he will do his best to convince us that he's badder than Obama could ever be. He's committed to more military, more war. He's committed to letting Netanyahu dictate US policy in the middle east. Most of all, he's committed to never backing down, never apologizing, never second guessing his own brilliance. That sounds to me like a perfect recipe for disaster.
And no doubt there will be more embarrassments down the road. Hard to pick a debate winner when everyone involved is such a loser.
Some post-debate links:
Bonus link: Matt Taibbi: This Presidential Race Should Never Have Been This Close: Written well before the debate, but more true than ever:
Of course, the reason the election is close is because so few understand Taibbi's points. Part of that is that the mainstream (and far right) media keep drubbing you with their "conventional wisdom." Part is that the Democratic Party leadership doesn't lead, or inform, or enlighten, or even campaign very much. The real key to the 2012 elections will be how many people vote -- if the turnout is close to 2008 Obama and the Democrats will win handily, and if it falls off to 2010 levels the Republicans will prevail. And the other is how effective unlimited spending by billionaires turns out to be. The fate of the nation hangs in the balance. Either we get four more years of the same mediocre melange we've enjoyed for the last four years, or the country collapses under the hubris of the superrich and falls off the deep end. The debates will be forgotten, unless you let yourself be suckered by them.
Wednesday, September 19. 2012
I understand that Jeffrey Goldberg and others have attacked an op-ed by Maureen Dowd for being anti-semitic. The offending line seems to have been the title, Neocons Slither Back. To understand how anti-semitic this title is, you first have to realize, as Goldberg put it, that in using "slither" "she is peddling an old stereotype, that gentile leaders are dolts unable to resist the machinations and manipulations of clever and snake-like Jews." You also have to assume that neocons are Jewish, a mental process that involves blotting out such infamous figures as Dick Cheney, John Bolton, and Fouad Ajami, although I suppose she (or Goldberg) could be arguing that those neocon gentiles (as well as their followers, like G.W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney) are really manipulated dolts.
I picked up the Goldberg quote from Dylan Byers at Politico, who provides many more uselessly out-of-context quotes, like Daniel Halper calling "it" (whatever it is) "outrageous," and Jonathan Tobin describing something as "particularly creepy." Byers quotes Max Fisher as saying, "[The] weirdest part of the anti-semitic tropes on the Dowd column is how lazy they are," without explaining what tropes those were, or why they were "on" the column and not "in" it -- I'd parse this as meaning Goldberg et al. were the lazy ones.
Parsing itself is fairly critical here. As someone who's had his titles mangled by everyone from editors to typesetters, I try to say what I mean at least once in the article. Dowd uses the word "slither" only once in the article, when she quotes Paul Wolfowitz, "slimily asserting that President Obama should not be allowed to 'slither through' without a clear position on Libya." But here the imputed serpent isn't Jewish (or neocon, or Republican); rather, it sounds at least vaguely racist, but then that's easy to do when the object of one's scorn happens to be black (or for that matter Jewish). In many cases the writer is just trying to spritz up a bit of language, and it's best not to read too much in it.
That's certainly the case with Dowd, whose piece often appears to be written in a private language. For instance, her first line threw me: "Paul Ryan has not sautťed in foreign policy in his years on Capitol Hill." It took some delving into Wiktionary to come up with any plausible deciphering of this line, but it turns out that the French verb sauter has a slang usage "to bang, jump, have sex with." Still, if what you wanted to say was that Ryan was a virgin in foreign policy, wouldn't it have been much clearer to say, "Ryan was a foreign policy virgin"? (Personally, I'd rather say, "Ryan has never fucked with foreign policy, and therefore has never fucked it up.")
And Dowd does more spritzing to even more dumbfounding effect: Romney foreign policy adviser (or, as Dowd puts it, "neocon puppet master") Dan Senor was "secunded to manage the running mate [Ryan]" -- presumably she means "seconded" (temporarily assigned). She refers to Romney and Ryan as "both jejeune about the world"; most likely "jejune" (naive, simplistic, lacking matter, devoid of substance). She also refers to Romney as "Mittens," but not consistently enough to make a style or attitude out of it; more like a brain fart.
I don't normally read Dowd, so this column mostly served as a reminder why. Still, she did come up with one remarkable quote from Ryan:
As I recall, "moral clarity" was a favorite G.W. Bush term, which is to say the guy who's response toward peacemaking in Israel-Palestine was, "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things." The decade prior to that was the only period where the US took a role in attempting to bridge the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and and Bush squandered that by endorsing Sharon's show of force. After Bush, Obama made a pathetic gesture at returning to America's pre-Bush role as an "honest broker" in favor of peace, an effort Ryan decries as "indifference bordering on contempt" because it presumes that Israel would benefit from peace, even though Netanyahu wants no such thing.
But in terms of moral clarity, the bit about Syria and Libya is even more confused. Many of those "dissidents" in Syria Ryan wants to help are Islamists, as were the "dissidents" the US helped in Libya (who in turn attacked the Benghazi consulate there). Indeed, the US has a long history (at least back to the Afghan mujahideen in 1979) of supporting Islamists who ultimately turn on us, a track record that would give anyone knowledgable and sane pause. Obviously, that excludes Ryan and Romney (who may well not know better), and their neocon advisers like Senor (who probably does but doesn't care, so committed are they to perpetuating US conflicts in the region).
MJ Rosenberg, on Dan Senor:
Some relevant links in Dowd's defense (along with Rosenberg above):
Thursday, September 13. 2012
On September 10, a US airstrike in Yemen killed seven people, including Saeed al-Shihri, alleged to be "al-Qaida's No. 2 leader in Yemen." This follows numerous other US airstrikes in Yemen, including one that killed US-born Anwar al-Awlaki.
On September 11, a demonstration at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, turned violent, and the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed. Most likely the demonstration was incidental, providing cover for an independent attack force (see the Quilliam report, which describes a video released by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri with a call "to avenge the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi, al-Qaeda's second in command killed a few months ago"). The US responded by sending a small detachment of Marines to Libya -- not enough for an occupation, but quacks like one, and will be taken as such by those so inclined.
What this shows is that after eight years of Bush and nearly four of Obama virtually nothing has changed. The US still throws its weight around the Arab world, siding with tyrants it finds conveniently corrupt, helping them kill and imprison their own people, getting trapped in blood feuds, and blamed for the dearth of progress that keeps these nations poor. Sensible persons back away from tactics that don't work; US politicians stumble forward, convinced that losing credibility would be far worse than throwing away lives and treasure.
Oil gets blamed for this, and indeed there are lots of things one can pin on the oil companies, but they prefer to work quietly, and were doing nicely in places like Saudi Arabia until external politics got in their way. The rub there is Israel, ever more a warrior state, which has spent the last four years goading Obama into a pointless and potentially tragic showdown with Iran. That may seem nothing more than good sport for Israel, much like their dabblings in US domestic politics, like smacking down uppity presidents with congressional resolutions and radio flak.
For Israel, hostilities are a win-win proposition: either they kick ass, or they burnish up their victimhood cult, renewing their claim to the moral high ground. (And while they whine about their losses, they're never so severe they disturb the warrior ethos.) On the other hand, for the US war is lose-lose: like Todd Snider's bully, what kicking ass winds up meaning is you got to do it again tomorrow, and again and again and again, all the while exposing your inner wretchedness. Israel, behind its Iron Wall, can fancy that it's better to be feared than liked, but the US needs good will to do business, so with every misstep risks losing it all. That's why the two days both wind up in the loss column.
In the wake of the embassy incident, Obama promised to bring the killers "to justice": the first thing that flashed through my mind was Pershing chasing all over Mexico after Pancho Villa, nothing but a wild goose chase. But even nominal success most often rings hollow, as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden have proven. (Ultimately, both happened after killing more people than the evildoers had themselves, making one wonder what a higher power should do with Bush and Obama.)
Meanwhile, Romney accused Obama of "apologizing for America" when the State Department tried to disclaim and disown the video that triggered (or served as the pretext for) the demonstrations. Presumably, Romney thought that Obama should have stood up for gross slander of a religion with one trillion followers -- presuming that Romney was thinking, as he's likely to disavow the video himself by week's end. Still, even if he walks back the particulars, you've seen his basic instinct: to plunge headlong, chin up, into every conflict that comes his way, as if, like Israel, he's convinced that every fight is win-win.
That last point is the secret behind the Neocons' slavish idolatry of Israel: envy. They want to fight, and they want to win. They want to thumb their noses at the world, and have the world cower before them. They see that on a small scale with Israel, and even there they don't actually see very well, but they're convinced that if only our leaders had the vision and the guts we could scale Israel's formula up and leave the world awestruck. Romney, of course, is as committed to Neoconnery as McCain and Bush -- see John Judis: never apologize, never negotiate, never think, just act. After all, you're America: always right, invincible (except when led by cowards like Obama, Clinton, and Carter).
Update: Minor edit above, changing "Israeli movie" to "video." Initial reports were that the demonstrations were against a movie produced by a California-based Israeli named Sam Bacile. WarInContext has a post that suggests that it was in fact produced by an Egyptian Christian living in California. As I understand it, the title is Innocence of Muslims, and at present it is only distributed as a 14-minute excerpt on YouTube, so it is not clear to me whether words like "film" and "movie" are appropriate. These details don't have any real bearing on the argument above. The video may be a convenient pretext for a demonstration, but the real issue is US interference in the region, including support for regimes that do real violence to people, especially Israel's occupation.
Speaking of which, I see now that Obama has dispatched several Navy ships to the Libyan coast, and has started flying drones over Libyan air space "to search for the perpetrators of the attack" -- once again the instinct of US leaders is to make it all worse. Romney, clueless as ever, argued: "It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." What he means is that the government should stand up in solidarity with every bigot identified as American because failure to do so could be construed as "apologizing for America," and the World's Greatest Nation should never apologize for anything.
Further Update (Sept. 15): Two items from Washington Monthly's Lunch Buffet:
It's easy to see how such great minds can get confused. The nominal purpose of America's "Oil Wars" -- the long string of US operations in the Middle East (and Afghanistan) since Carter declared the oil in and around the Persian Gulf a "national interest" in 1979 -- has always been to help our good Muslims against those bad Muslims (the definitions sometimes changing, e.g., in Afghanistan), so the US has always had to be careful not to make offense against Islam. But it's always been easier to sell those wars to the American people with a dollop of racial and religious bigotry -- you could even call it "Crusader zeal" -- and as the wars have unfolded, most of what you actually see is Americans killing Muslims, the "good" inevitably mixed in with the "bad" -- and this results in a polarization that undermines the original premise. For someone like Bachmann, the enemy winds up being all of Islam. Romney is more of a neocon, so he has to keep the notion that we're helping "good Muslims" in play, even though he doesn't always remember that before he speaks.
Tuesday, July 10. 2012
It's rather interesting, given how much lip service we give to business, how few notable businessmen have been elected president. (You do find more Senators, especially on the chronically underfinanced Democratic side where self-financed candidates are appreciated.) The most successful businessman of any president in the last 150 years was Herbert Hoover, who presided over the nation's greatest depression. About the only others to come remotely close are Jimmy Carter and the two Bushes, which add up to three more recessions plus the current depression. Three of those were one-termers, and the fourth wasn't exactly elected in the first place. The Bushes, of course, came from a political dynasty where their businesses were largely subsidized by their political friends -- all the more reason to discount them.
So the evidence suggests that successful businessmen haven't been at all successful as presidents: that the skill sets are different, as is the measure of success. Krugman barely scratches at the surface as to why this is. The second Bush, more with his Harvard MBA than due to his failed businesses, indicates how deep the downside of electing a businessman can be. After all, by his own lights Bush was a fabulously successful president -- albeit only for his class, but then that's all a CEO is expected to do. He cut taxes on the rich, while propping the economy up through massive fiscal stimulus, which is to say debt; he all but stopped antitrust enforcement, allowing the economy to become ever more cartellized; he planted lobbyists in every federal department, drastically curtailing regulation; he tipped the scales of justice, making it harder for people to sue corporations, making bankruptcy more difficult, and packing the courts with cronies; he outsourced federal jobs, weakening the civil service and creating whole new classes of patronage. He did a lot more bad stuff, like starting two major wars and sticking his successor with them, but that's beyond his business training. During his watch the very rich -- the kind of people who sponsor politicians like himself -- did quite well, while everyone else got screwed.
Romney worked in a different field of business -- private equity capital -- and made a lot more money on the way, but he bears a lot of resemblance to Bush, starting with a political-pedigree name that opened doors in business and offered the promise that some day he would repay those favors in politics. How much he actually contributed to Bain Capital's bottom line isn't clear, but there is no reason to think he broke any new ground in the business. The basic scheme of private equity is straightforward: you look for businesses, preferably undervalued but with a reliable cash flow, with owners who want to cash out; you cash them out by putting up a small amount of your own money and getting the company to borrow the rest; you squeeze the company, selling off assets, cutting costs including wages and jobs, and paying yourself huge management (often paid for with more debt); then you restructure and cash out, or if you were too efficient at squeezing, go bankrupt. Bain was one of dozens of outfits following this formula, and having a telegenic figurehead with a recognizable name must have aided the con. (Indeed, the elder Bush went to work for Carlyle Group after losing the 1992 election, doing the same sort of thing with more emphasis on military contracts and Saudi cash, the sort of graft he was most expert in.)
Krugman is right that private equity is an unsavory business: one that makes nothing but profits stripped from company assets, most notably the company's credit rating. One might expect Romney to ruin the federal government the same way Bain Capital ruined its acquisition companies, a frightful thought. But that's pretty much exactly the way Bush ran the government: I wouldn't want to go on record denying that Romney could add anything worse, but the test of his style of business management has already been made, and we are living with the results.
Aside from Hoover, the examples of businessman-presidents are all recent, suggesting that we've become more benign in our view of businessmen only recently -- since, I would say, the Cold War invested so much effort in lionizing capitalism and in burying the working class. Most recent is the popularity of the term "job creator" as a synonym for businessman, even though every private sector pink slip in history was originated by business management: "job destructor" would be just as accurate, although really the employment rate is determined more by the government's macroeconomic policy than by anything businessmen do. All businesses do is seek to maximize profits under the prevailing circumstances, boom or bust.
What's been forgotten is that throughout American history most people were conscious that businesses profited at their expense. Krugman looks back on Andrew Carnegie as the principal builder of the US steel industry, but more accurately he was the architect of the trust that monopolized that industry, and during his lifetime he was better known for a strikebreaking massacre than for his libraries. Henry Ford, even more so, was a guy who built things, but he was clearly not the sort you would want to place the public trust with -- he was another infamous strikebreaker, and perhaps America's most notorious anti-semite. "Robber baron" wasn't exactly a term of endearment.
We haven't completely lost that sense of the villainy at the heart of so many businesses, and it is making a comeback. One person who's paving the way is Mitt Romney, who's become emblematic of one of the worst strains of capitalism in the world today.
By the way, a big story here in Wichita is that what used to be Beech Aircraft is being sold to the Chinese. Beech was founded in Wichita, and run locally until 1994 when the Beech family sold out to Raytheon, a big defense contracting firm based near Boston. In 2006, Raytheon cashed out, selling Beech and Hawker to a group of private equity investers led by Goldman Sachs and Onex, to form an independent company saddled with a ton of debt. Hawker Beechcraft filed for bankruptcy in May of this year, and now has an offer to buy what's left by a Chinese company, Superior Aviation Beijing. There's no reason to think the company wouldn't be viable without all the debt the private equity companies piled on (and paid themselves with). This doesn't look good for the workers, who have already paid time and again for each change of ownership. Even if the Chinese keep the plants open here in Wichita, they will transfer technology and know-how back home, undercutting our local industry.
Elsewhere Krugman points to this TPM article on Romney fundraisers (in the mansions of Ronald O. Perelman, Clifford Sobel, and David Koch), which in turn points to a Los Angeles Times article, including this quote:
Interesting how Romney manages to tie together so many strands of the ruling class in this country, dragging them out in public so all can see.
Sunday, June 3. 2012
Note: updated below.
Jonathan Alter is one of those names that blurs in my mind with clusters of others (most obviously Eric Alterman), so when he got one of his op-eds reprinted in the Wichita Eagle, I didn't automatically peg his Romney vs. Obama spiel as particularly partisan. I read a bit:
Mostly stupid, but my mind seized on the last line and spelled out a clear distinction between "venture capitalists and vulture capitalists." Never mind that the etymology of "vulture capitalist" was as a twist to venture capitalist, meant to disparage those who got too greedy. Indeed, that's all too common among venture capital firms, but for the most part venture capitalists have a positive reputation: their greed puts money up to build new companies based on developing new technologies, and their greed is at least tempered by the recognition that they need to offer equity positions to at least some key technical employees and often to the whole team. And I can see an argument for aligning Obama with the venture capital folk, what with his "green jobs" projects and his general stance that growth solves all economic problems.
But the real vulture capitalists are the private-equity firms, where greed is untempered with any desire to build anything. They work out deals where the target company borrows a lot of money to pay off the old owners; the vultures, having put up a small share of their own money, then swoop in, recouping their investment by paying themselves huge management fees (usually by borrowing even more money), stripping off assets, and squeezing out costs, mostly from the workers. The resulting company may be crushed under its debt load, or may fail more slowly by neglecting r&d and other longer-term investment, or it may limp along and be repackaged for another round of profit-taking, fed to other vultures, or dumped onto the market through an IPO.
Mitt Romney's connection to vulture capitalism is direct -- that's exactly how he made his fortune -- whereas Obama has little more than an affinity for venture capital, but the contrast is straightforward: Obama's approach promises growth and technological progress (and maybe a slightly broader distribution of profits), whereas all Romney is interested in is extracting advantage for himself and his ilk. This contrast may flatter Obama excessively, for it could hardly be more accurate in characterizing Romney.
Problem is, Alter didn't write it like that. He conceded the totally unearned moral high ground of venture capitalism to Romney, while muddying the waters with his supposed alternative, Obama's contrasting position: "human capitalists." Now what the fuck is that supposed to mean? I could speculate, but quite frankly I have no problem seeing Romney et al. as human -- just a little warped by their narrow-minded misanthropic greed, but that's a pretty common human trait. But Alter, clearly, has no idea what he means. The closest he comes to a contrast is here, discussing tax policy:
In other words, both intend to lavish tax breaks on businesses, one across-the-board, the other slightly more targeted to keep the vultures from becoming too self-destructive, but Alter doesn't offer any reasoning why the latter should be better. He accepts blindly that both candidates' blind faith in capitalism -- indeed, he seems so pleased to have rescued Obama from the vile charge of socialism that it never occurs to him that there may be a problem with either being "capitalist tools."
I need to interject a disclaimer here: in what follows I'm not saying that we should in any way abandon capitalism (although I could make that argument elsewhere, and certainly think that some reforms and restructuring is in order). Capitalism is a reasonably productive and efficient way to run much of the economy. (Health care is a glaring exception, and there are a few others.) But that doesn't mean that politics should be in thrall to business. Indeed, one thing we should have learned from two-hundred years of American history is that when capitalists have too much power they will soon abuse and wreck the economy -- not just their own, but everyone's, and we've seen that happen time and again.
In the midst of the previous great depression, the New Dealers came up with a useful principle they called "countervailing power." The idea was to create a system of checks and balances that would keep any segment from getting too powerful. One example of this was how the New Deal encouraged workers to join unions. Another was the progressive income tax, and its use to provide popular services (like education and transportation), limiting inequality and opening up broader opportunities. Another was the regulation of banks, which ensured stability for many years until it was dismantled by Reagan and Clinton (resulting directly in the S&L debacle of the late 1980s, and the panic of 2008).
What's happened in the past thirty years is that capitalism has become so hegemonic in American politics that it's become almost impossible even for Democratic Party hacks like Alter to conceive of any form of countervailing power. So, when faced with the threat of a ravaging vulture capitalist like Romney, all Alter can do is propose a hypothetically "human capitalist" alternative, no more distant from Romney than the elder Bush's "kinder, gentler conservatism" was from Reagan's orthodoxy.
Sadly, Obama doesn't seem to have any more understanding, or imagination, than Alter. The closest he came to having a concept of countervailing power was when he threw the 2010 elections to the Republicans so he could act more bipartisan -- the result, of course, was that he has been ineffectual ever since, arguably blameless (although it remains to be seen how well he can sell that).
Alter is, of course, right in his intuition that Obama is every bit as committed to preserving the current order as Romney -- maybe even more so, as Romney is more likely to fall back on the pet MBA rationalization of "creative destruction," and Romney's party is set on destroying every part of the public sphere except those dedicated to war and security -- the part most useful for wrecking the rest of the world. So one could argue that Obama is the only true conservative in the race, but I don't take any comfort in that. For one thing it is a stance that leaves him in the wrong on nearly everything. Maybe not as wrong as Romney, but if we have to make such distinctions, make them by showing how wrong Romney is, because that at least is something one can learn from. On the other hand, touting Obama as the "human capitalist" just makes us dumber.
My fondest hope for Obama's election was that it would lead to Bush and Cheney being tried in the Hague. Now, clearly, Obama belongs in the docket alongside them.
Update: For a reminder that the distinction I made above between venture and vulture capitalists isn't so clear cut, see Andrew Leonard: Private Equity's Evil Twin:
Of course, IPO time is when the avarice underlying venture capital comes to the top, often abetted by the big sharks always cruising for a killing. The moral case for venture vs. vulture capitalists that the former plays a non-zero-sum game where, in principle at least, everyone who gets in on the ground floor can come out ahead. In contrast, the big bank trading desks, the hedge funds, etc., mostly play a zero-sum game where their gains are at the expense of other traders. Sometimes these bets fail spectacularly, as recently happened at JPMorgan Chase, but the fact that the banks and hedge funds usually come out ahead suggests that they are taking their clients for a ride. It's worth noting that the prevalence of zero-sum profiteering tends to create a norm where larceny is the rule, and that's where we're at now.