Sunday, May 1. 2016
If all Democrats had the same beliefs and agenda, the only real question for the primaries would be who could best represent those values in the general election. Likewise, there would be no reason for candidates who weren't successful to continue, and when they withdrew they could be counted on to fall in behind the winner. But there are vast differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, so even though at this point it will be impossible for Sanders to overcome Clinton's lead, Sanders' supporters still have reason to get out and vote, and Sanders has an obligation to stay in the race and represent them -- at least as long as the campaign has sufficient funds, which doesn't appear to be a problem.
Sanders' people pretty much all understand this. They can give you a list of substantive platform differences between Sanders and Clinton. Moreover, they can point out that Sanders has a long and impressive record of sticking to his positions, whereas the Clintons have a history of playing up populist themes while they're campaigning then turning around and working for special interests once elections are over. Many voters, having been lied to and screwed over repeatedly, are looking not just for policies that help them but for politicians who will defend them tenaciously.
On the other hand, Clinton's people don't quite get this, although not always for the same reasons. Under her husband, the Democratic Party was refashioned from the party of labor to the party of highly educated socially-liberal professionals and businesses. Some people made a lot of money off the Clintons (and with a clear conscience), and they see nothing untoward in their triangulations -- indeed, they form the core of her donor class. Add to that those with some form of patronage attachment to the party: for them she represents success, and a meal ticket. Then there are the settlers: the people who accept the party line that significant changes are impossible given hard realities ranging from globalization to Republicans obstructionism. That, of course, is easier to accept if those realities haven't hit you personally that hard, but the age skew between Sanders and Clinton supporters suggests that they're getting harder to ignore. Indeed, Clinton's most favorable demographic got their start in more benign economic times -- before the Clintons came to power.
Less partisan observers may have noticed that the Clintons actually had something to do with the rise of the superrich and the hollowing out of the middle class, the creation of an economy that is stagnant for all but the rich, and the cult of austerity that thrown such a wet blanket on the very possibility that "the government of the people" might actually work to the benefit of the vast majority. Indeed, Thomas Frank has argued that only a Democrat could have blunted rank-and-file opposition to allow things like NAFTA, "welfare reform," deregulating banks and financial markets, declaring "the era of big government is over," and balancing the budget to pass -- all "highlights" of Bill Clinton's presidency. Frank even argues that Democrats like Clinton may turn out to be much worse than the "lesser evil" they're often viewed on the left as.
Both political parties are necessarily coalitions of imperfectly aligned interests, some attracted positively, others negatively. Both have always crossed class lines, because money has always mattered in American politics, and increasingly so lately. As the middle class withered, both have had to find voters where they could. The GOP went for the white backlash vote, playing up religion and patriotism (war) and the "fear of falling" (as Barbara Ehrenreich put it), while using whatever power they gained to feather the coffers of the rich. That cost the Democrats large chunks of their New Deal coalition -- Baptists in the South, Catholics in the North -- while the unions declined and shifted from manufacturing to services (mostly government), which they eventually replaced with educated professionals, high-tech businesses, and anyone sufficiently terrified by the rightward march of Republicans.
Still, if we've learned anything from this year's primaries, it's that the masses who picked their party negatively have started to turn on the party leaders. We've seen this in Democratic Party with the widespread rejection of Hillary Clinton -- has any Democrat other than an incumbent president ever started with such complete control of the party, then gone on to perform so poorly? Bernie Sanders nearly upset her, running on a platform the party rulers couldn't even conceive of. And something similar happened among the Republicans, where the masses preferred Donald Trump to every proper establishment candidate (even the loathsome Ted Cruz).
I started writing this to introduce some comments on recent posts by Paul Krugman, who has been so relentless in his recent attempts to discredit Bernie Sanders that he's risking becoming an incoherent crank. For instance, see Why I Haven't Felt the Bern and Sarandonizing Economics, as well as minor digs like A Note on the Soda Tax Controversy (really? I wouldn't mind a VAT if other taxes were sufficiently progressive, but a sin tax on soda is just the sort of moral snub that makes liberals seem so overbearing, so intent on imposing their values on everyone else). The "Sarandonizing" post only mentions the actress/activist once:
So Sarandon is "evil and useless" because made a joke about Hillary -- one that is built on numerous kernels of truth, from her past as a "Goldwater girl" to other traits we associate more with Republicans, like her coziness with Walmart (she's a former board member) and Goldman Sachs (that $650k speech) to her notorious hawkishness. What makes the joke effective (maybe even insidious) is the suspicion that Hillary's not really on our side -- that when push comes to shove she'll always wind up siding with the people who got the money and the power. That's certainly her track record. Why should we think that now will be any different?
For some reason, Krugman can't stand the idea that anyone on the left should have the temerity to question Clinton's leadership. She is, after all, the only person standing between civilization as we know it and the Republican Dark Ages. Still, it's not just Clinton he's getting so defensive about. It's also the authority of all those Very Serious People in the economic profession that he hasn't already lampooned himself: you know, the ones like Christy Romer and Larry Summers (and himself) who properly understand the true gospel of IS/LM. He's upset that Sanders is proposing a very serious expansion in the level of investment in infrastructure, not so much because he's against such investments as because some pro-Sanders economists have argued that the expansion will result in a level of economic growth (like 4.5%) that his own faction of economists have decided is impossible -- therefore he's repeatedly panned such analyses as equivalent to the "supply side" snake oil that right-wing ideologues like Arthur Laffer have been peddling.
When Krugman tries to explain his position, he gets slippery:
What's he trying to say here? That the left only has pie-in-the-sky visions, but can't come up with any stepwise programs to get there? (That the only "reforms" possible are cynical schemes that right-wing think tanks used to kick out, the sort of things Clinton/Obama have dusted off and presented as bipartisan?) And that the left cannot even defend their pie-in-the-sky on its merits without sinking into "ad hominem" attacks against their supposed enemies, because they're fundamentally irrational and vindictive even when they see themselves as idealistic? Or is he just talking about Sanders, who by simplifying leftist ideas into sound bites has brought out his followers latent anti-intellectualism? Or is he just saying that only professional mandarins like himself are competent to weigh in on economic matters?
There can be no doubt that social scientists have a bad history of doing "research" that winds up doing little more than advancing their prejudices. For starters, we can point to the history of race studies, since virtually every "scientific" claim to find differences has been thoroughly debunked. Economics is rife with political scams, and Krugman has slayed more than a few of them. Back when I majored in sociology, it seems like I spent most of my time identifying untoward presumptions in studies -- indeed, a common textbook at the time was How to Lie With Statistics. David Hackett Fischer wrote a whole book cataloguing Historian's Fallacies. So Krugman's warning against something real, but rejecting Sanders' programs out of hand is every bit as arbitrary. If he didn't start out with a political bone to pick, he might put some effort into refining the proposals. For instance, he's probably right that breaking up "too big to fail" banks doesn't solve the problems with "shadow banking," and he may even be right that the latter is more crucial than the former. So why not show Sanders that it's possible to come up with a plan that better achieves his goals? One reason might be he's opposed to those goals. Another is that he just doesn't like Sanders or his followers. Another is that he's committed to Hillary regardless of the issues.
I don't know which it is, but Krugman certainly fits Frank's concept of "the liberal class" -- that may be pigeonholing him a bit, but for the most part the shoe fits. His reluctance to back Sanders, much like the reluctance of similarly aged, educated, and well-heeled feminists like Gloria Steinem, smacks of class consciousness. Even if they can understand and empathize with the profound damage caused by inequality and war, they still feel that class bond with Hillary, not least because in large part they've personally never felt the costs of her mistakes.
Sure, I snuck war into that line belatedly, but that's a perilous issue to ignore with Hillary. And much like economists like Krugman are very good at rationalizing liberal compromises -- indeed, it was mostly Krugman who convince me that ACA was a pretty significant improvement even though it was far from what I wanted -- there exists a comparable body of foreign policy and security mandarins that can be counted on to rationalize all sorts of American military interventions, regardless of the track record of previous wars. I'd even say that the latter are far worse than the economists -- the latter are blinkered to alternative approaches, but the former are nothing less than obsessed with their own hegemony.
I'm reminded here of something McGeorge Bundy said, about the difference between how Kennedy and Johnson approached the challenges of war: Kennedy wanted to be smart, but Johnson wanted to be seen as tough. Both faced pressures to escalate the wars in Southeast Asia, and while Kennedy did some things there that turned out to be not so smart, Johnson made the really disastrous decisions. One might say the same things about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton: he wants to be smart (but isn't always), and she wants to be seen as tough (even if that puts her in the "do stupid shit" faction). That's an analogy that doesn't bode well.
I also wanted to mention David Frum: How to Save the Republican Party, aside from begging the question of "why bother" -- we now seem to be generations removed from any form of Republican Party that that might make any sort of constructive contribution to the political system. Still, Frum's vantage point on the far right occasionally yields insights, like his observation that where the Republicans fear their base, the Democrats loathe theirs. Consider this:
When I first read this I reasoned that he was generalizing about both parties -- that "the center" rose up to nominate Clinton as well as Trump -- but he's really only concerned with the Republicans. Still, although Sanders is well to the left of Clinton, Sanders' supporters may well be closer to the center, certainly to the "underrepresented" masses that flocked to Trump. That the Democratic Party end of the "duopoly" was able to prevail over the uprising was mostly due to the party elites' unity behind a single candidate. The Republican elites had no such unity, partly because all of the candidates recited from the same party talking points -- or so it seemed at first.
The only issue Republicans were much divided on was immigration, where elites liked the idea of using guest workers to weaken labor markets, but a great many Republican-leaners were fantic not just in opposition to "amnesty" but to anything that would dilute white America. And that was the issue Trump captured, not by taking the most uncompromising stand possible but by expressing his stand with the most unforgivable rhetoric -- folks knew he meant it when he wouldn't take it back. Trump later proved shameless, refusing to walk back one gaffe after another, everything from quoting Mussolini to getting endorsed by David Duke. His willingness to go off message started to trouble the party nabobs, but all they seemed to be able to charge Trump with was not being a true conservative. As Frum shows, that turned out to be a toothless complaint, as nothing the GOP has been peddling has resonated less with the base than laissez-faire economics. One suspects that the real problem party bigwigs have with Trump is that he risks unselling their scams to help the rich. Indeed, one thing that makes him suspect is that he isn't under the thumb of a trusted billionaire. He is his own billionaire, which makes him less controllable -- even if he ultimately reverts to pursuing his own self-interest (like his doppelganger Berlusconi).
Frum is properly alarmed by Trump, and blames "the failings and self-seeking of Republican leaders":
Frum thinks it's possible to save the party by articulating a program which actually serves the base, that returns some tangible reward for their support. I have no idea what that might look like, because I don't see anything Republicans support or believe in that offers any actual hope to anyone but the already rich.
On the other hand, one can imagine the Democratic Party flipping from Clinton to Sanders, much as they previously flipped from Grover Cleveland to William Jennings Bryan, or from Al Smith to Franklin Roosevelt. Such changes occur when conservative elites no longer have answers for real world problems. But Republicans have no answers: just homilies to "family values," and a media that stokes seething rage against their supposed enemies (pretty much everyone but the rich, and even there they manage to find enemies).
Some miscellaneous links (since this is Sunday):
Friday, April 15. 2016
I started writing this up as a Weekend Roundup bullet item, but decided to let it stand [almost] on its own.
Tom Hayden: I Used to Support Bernie, but Then I Changed My Mind: The famed 1960s New Left radical, a founder of SDS, defendant at the Chicago 8/7 trial, and moderately successful California politician, explains:
I'm surprised to see Sanders depicted as having "all the money in the world," but checking Open Secrets I was even more surprised to see that he has managed to collect $139 million so far -- more than Ted Cruz ($119 million, including $52 million PAC money), still less than Hillary Clinton ($222 million, including $62 million PAC; Sanders has made a big point about not having a dark money PAC). Most of Sanders' money came in February ($42M) and March ($44M), well into the primary season. Until that happened, he was mostly dependent on volunteer efforts. I know, for instance, that he's had an active supporter group here in Wichita for over a year, and they would be pretty surprised to find he's rolling in all that money. They did, however, organize Sanders' second-largest victory margin to date -- although he's since won bigger elsewhere. As primary season unfolded, the money understandably went to critically competitive states. And Clinton, who started with (and still has) much more money, had somehow locked up the Deep South where most Democrats are black -- maybe she had made the investments Hayden charges Sanders with neglecting. (Still, isn't it interesting that a seasoned politician like Hayden sees money as the essential element in securing the loyalties of black and Latino votes? The implication is that those votes are tied to group elites in a way that approximates the old political machines.) And even more than cash, the big advantage that the Clintons brought into this election was a well-oiled patronage machine. The clearest evidence that established patronage matters is Clinton's 469-31 superdelegate lead. (Sanders' contributions have averaged $27-30, which works out to five million-plus donations though there are repeaters -- I know that my wife has donated $27 several times, probably putting her over $100 by now. Beyond her PAC money, Clinton has also gone after small donations, and claims more than one million donors. Sanders has more, "nearly two million donors" (Hillary Clinton Touts One Million Donors, While Bernie Sanders Approaches Two).
I've been somewhat mystified why Clinton enjoys such a large lead over Sanders among black voters. It's certainly not based on a sober examination of positions and issues, and I doubt if it has much to do with personal style. The best I've been able to come up with is that even with growing economic inequality and the decimation of the middle class all across America, most blacks have improved their lot, and see their solidarity with the Democratic Party as having helped them out. This isn't an unreasonable stance, and no doubt if/when Clinton wins she'll owe blacks and Latinos big time -- but she'll also owe bankers and the war industry, and in the end I suspect their investments will pay off better.
If Hayden was just a cog in the Democratic Party machine, I could see his choice: indeed, it would be as unremarkable as it's been for hundreds or thousands of Party hacks all across America. But Hayden was one of the most prominent figures in the New Left in the 1960s. One might argue that choosing Clinton over Sanders shows that he's not really much of a leftist, but more likely, I suspect, he's just proving one of the major critiques of the New Left: that it was run by people who came from privileged backgrounds and saw their role as to advocate for other people who had been denied their good fortune. That's not bad per se, but in practice shifted much of the left's focus from class to minority and identity issues like race (and sex and sexual orientation). They've done good work on all those fronts, but while they were off helping others the right smashed the unions that propped up the middle class and created vast inequality -- so much so that young people in America today have less reason to expect to live out their lives in comfort and freedom (e.g., free of debt) than any past generation for at least a century.
The upshot is that we have a guy who's spent more than fifty years working towards radical political change yet can't recognize it when it's actually happening, just because it's not coming from where he's been expecting it. The irony is that the Old Left that Hayden rejected had made the same mistake, expecting the working classes to rise up even after labor unions had won them middle-class jobs and social security, enough to buy homes (and cars, etc.) and send their kids to college and retire comfortably -- enough luxury they could even afford to look down on the less fortunate. Hayden, like much of the New Left, rebelled against the white working class as much as against the Old Left. I suspect that's because he was never of it, whereas those of us who grew up there were better able to notice when things went sour.
A few other quick links, limited to the elections. Next up is the New York primary, where 538's "projected results" favor Clinton 57.8-39.6%, although I only see one (of eight) April polls where she has that kind of margin -- 10-12% is typical. I don't expect Sanders to win, but wouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be much closer. (Friends who watched here -- I didn't, but baked them some cookies -- tell me Sanders had a very good debate last night.) On the Republican side it's Trump-Kasich-Cruz: 52.9-24.4-20.4%. You'd think that Trump's first majority win plus a third-place Cruz finish would turn the post-Wisconsin punditry around, but I doubt it. (Although I see that Josh Marshall is already out front there.) Trump, by the way, is polling well ahead in the April 27 primaries (Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania) -- as is Clinton (although Connecticut is closer, and a couple of Pennsylvania polls show her lead there down to +6 or +7).
By the way, while I was not listening to the debate, I somehow imagined Hillary saying:
Meanwhile, some brief links:
Saturday, April 9. 2016
I wanted to reply to this tweet by Tom Carson, but no way to unpack so much misunderstanding in 144 characters:
First, very obvious point: left and right are never symmetric, let alone mirror images of one another. Granted, the core issue can be viewed as a continuum: people on the left believe that all people are fundamentally decent, that everyone shares equal rights and deserves respect and fairness, while people on the right hold that for civilization to exist and survive society must be organized as a hierarchy, with those favored by great wealth lording over the hapless masses, using whatever force is needed to maintain order. Unpack this a bit and you'll see that left and right are inhabited by fundamentally different kinds of people. So when you say "X is the lefty Y" the main thing you're saying is that X is so profoundly different from Y that analogies can only be superficial.
Even so, the only linkage I can imagine Carson making between Goldwater and Sanders is that he thinks Sanders, if nominated, will lose as badly this year as Goldwater did in 1964. Leaving that for the moment, it's hard to see much similarity -- even in the funhouse mirror of centrist punditry. Most obviously, Goldwater was extremely rigid in his adherence to principles -- most scandalously in his opposition to using the federal government to secure civil rights systematically denied by a dozen-plus state governments -- whereas Sanders has always been flexible and pragmatic (e.g., in supporting Obamacare even though he knew it wasn't the best, or even a very good, solution). And Goldwater was so fanatic in his opposition to Communism he couldn't be trusted not to start a thermonuclear war. Sanders elicits no such fears -- which isn't to deny that neocon warmongers fear him.
As for the Nixon-Clinton mashup, I reckon that the association here is that both are unscrupulous opportunists willing to say and do anything that seems to work to their personal advantage. No doubt that both Clintons have been opportunistic at times, often siding with rich and powerful interests against the very people they depend on for votes. Nothing unusual about that, but you have to question how far left they really are on the left-right line I plotted above. I don't really consider them lefties at all.
Still, for all the times the Clintons have been slagged as liars -- Christopher Hitchens' book on them was titled No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family -- I'm hard pressed to recall specific deceits (aside from the Lewinsky blow jobs, and blaming Arafat for the Camp David failure, the latter a big one), as opposed to grandstanding (like the Sista Souljah slam) or plain old bad policy choices (like NAFTA, or repealing Glass-Steagall). I don't doubt that the Clintons are greedy, ambitious, and vain -- willing to use office to get rich, and to use their wealth to build a political machine to seek further office. Still, the scandals that have dogged their rise have been remarkably hollow.
On the other hand, Nixon holds a unique place in American history, not just for bad policy and malign intentions but for actual crimes against American democracy as well as egregious crimes against world peace -- sure, the later have since become routinized and Nixon didn't invent them all, but the scope of his crimes was breathtaking -- and for a while shocking, although his obsession with winning at all costs and his cynicism at manipulating people's fears has since become baked into the American pie. If Carson wanted to pose a true conundrum, he might have posed a choice between the real right-wingers Goldwater and Nixon. I have no more answer there than I would have had if asked who is the best (in the sense of least awful) of this election's crop of Republican presidential aspirants.
Carson at least is right to place Nixon on the right, avoiding the recent revisionism trying to rehabilitate him as some kind of closet liberal. I suppose the main impetus behind this has been to show how far the right has stooped since Nixon's time, but doing so forgets (and forgives) the fact that the rotten impulses that have permeated today's right owe more to Nixon's craven realpolitik than to Goldwater's so-called principles.
If you do have to make predecessor analogies, you might try casting Trump as Nixon and Cruz as Goldwater. With the latter pair you at least know what you're up against and start organizing against it, although the prospect of itchy trigger fingers is always a threat. But with the Nixon-Trump pair, you don't know shit -- just that it's likely to be pretty nauseating and the sickness they sow is likely to return again as precedent, possibly for even worse.
I suspect that what worries Carson about Sanders has less to do with Goldwater's 1964 loss than McGovern's in 1972, thanks in no small part to Nixon's dirty tricks. McGovern wasn't fundamentally more liberal (let alone lefty) many other Democratic candidates -- Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 -- but he lost bad, due I think to a combination of factors. One is that the media has always had it in for anyone who might rock the boat (Roosevelt was the exception, but he came along after the boat had already capsized, and Obama got something of a pass for the same reasons). McGovern also ran afoul of the Democratic Party's patronage-focused elites, especially their hawk faction, and also the rump Wallace voters -- all of whom chose Nixon's dirty tricks over the most decent and honest politician the Democrats ever nominated.
All those losses by self-avowed liberals -- a string that really starts with Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956 -- have left centrist pundits with the stunted thought that Americans refuse to lean left. If Sanders is further to the left than McGovern (or anyone else on that loser-laden list) what's to stop the entire establishment banding together to stop him? (Billionaire self-promoter Michael Bloomberg has already vowed to run a spoiler third-party campaign if Sanders is nominated.) That seems like a fair question, but I'm not sure the coincidences it is based on really supports the conclusion. Several things have changed since, say, McGovern won and lost:
These point don't guarantee that Sanders can defeat a full bore Republican assault, but they offer some reasons to think that he might do much better than McGovern did. The similarity to McGovern that I worry more about is Sanders' exceptional integrity and public spirit, which at least in McGovern's case was overwhelmed by Nixon's dark money and dirty tricks. The one thing we can be sure of is that in this year's election the Republicans and their dark money sponsors won't hesitate to go places Nixon only dreamed of. The voters could very well reject such tactics, but the Republicans have had no small measure of success thus far at manipulating people to vote against their own interests and desires.
Hillary Clinton has relied heavily on arguments that she's much more electable than Sanders is. The most common argument here is that she can attract a broader slice of the left-right spectrum, allowing her to pick up moderate/centrist voters Sanders can't reach while keeping the left captive, if only as the lesser evil. There are several problems with this formulation: most people don't fit comfortably, let alone mechanically, on a left-right axis, but bring other factors into play, including several where Clinton may compare poorly against Sanders -- for instance, integrity and credibility. Sanders has stood firm with his principles much more consistently than Clinton, and a good part of the reason for that is that he's much less tainted by association with private interests -- e.g., he's never spoken to Goldman-Sachs, much less for $650K. One thing that's clear from primary results so far is that Sanders has done much better among (presumably centrist) independents than Clinton has.
Indeed, in head-to-head polls Sanders regularly outperforms Clinton against virtually any Republican candidate, suggesting that for whatever reason Sanders is the more electable Democrat. Yet some Clinton supporters, even ones who admit to being closer to Sanders on the issues, persist in their belief that Clinton is more electable. Aside from ideology, the other reason they commonly give is the claim that Clinton has already had to face so many attacks from right-wingers that she has been thoroughly vetted, whereas Sanders has yet to feel the full fury of the Republican hate machine. That may be true but glosses over several things, including that Clinton has more points on which she is compromised, and that she's not exactly unscathed by all those attacks -- her unfavorability polls are exceptionally high.
On the other hand, I think there is one area where Clinton does have a substantial advantage over Sanders, and that is her ability to raise dark money and use it to underwrite the same sort of vicious mudslinging right-wingers can be counted on doing. So when the campaign gets dirty, as it's sure to do, she's arguably in a much better position to fight that kind of fight. Whether that's an argument in her favor is hard to say, but it's certainly a reasonable position -- the counter is that if Sanders could win without PACs and dark money that might help break the grip big money has on the political system, and our democracy would be much better for it.
Still, Clinton wooing big money donors and playing the dark money game won't be enough to make her Nixon, even a hypothetical lefty version. Nor will it make her a right-winger, even though it would indebt her to people who are on right of center, at least in terms of equality. And having done all of that, I wonder how much energy or will she is going to be able to muster to start to reverse the nation's long slide into oligarchy. At some point things get so bad that lesser evils don't cut it. If Sanders' popularity shows anything it's that many Democrats believe we've passed the point where yesterday's palliatives are all it takes.
It's normal for people to reach for historical analogies when trying to understand today's issues, but it can also lock you into illusions and blind you to opportunities. And sometimes produce outright absurdities. My original response to Carson's tweet just touched on one small aspect of this post, which is that real people don't necessarily gravitate toward the middle when faced with real choices:
Wednesday, March 2. 2016
The mainstream news media was all hepped up yesterday to declare Super Tuesday as the event that cinched the nominations of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, a bias they confirmed by rapidly calling the most obvious states for their heroes: Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas (Trump over Cruz 32.7-30.5%), Tennessee, Virginia (Trump over Rubio 34.7-31.9%), and Massachusetts (Clinton over Sanders -%). Then not much else broke as they expected. Everyone expected Cruz to take Texas (over Trump 43.8-26.7%), but he also won Oklahoma and Alaska. Finally, Marco Rubio won in Minnesota (over Cruz 36.5-29.0%, with Trump at 21.3%, how lowest share of the night).
Sanders was a shoe-in for Vermont (86.1-13.6%; Trump prevailed over Kasich there 32.7-30.4%), but he also won impressively in Minnesota (61.6-38.4%) and Colorado (58.9-40.4%), and surprisingly in Oklahoma (51.9-41.5% -- 538's polls and models favored Sanders there, but I didn't really believe them). Clinton won blowouts across the south, sweeping Virginia (64.3-35.2%) and Arkansas (66.3-29.7%) and four states she has no prayer of winning in the fall (she got 65.2% in Texas, 66.1% in Tennessee, 71.3% in Georgia, and 77.6% in Alabama). The only close contest was in Massachusetts, which she won 50.1-48.7%. That seems like a state Sanders should have won (and needed to win to have a shot at the nomination), but having lived there, one thing I recall is that the state harbors some of the most reactionary Democrats in the north, if not the whole country. I don't know how significant that was, but it's something you wouldn't be aware of unless you lived there.
It seems pretty clear that Clinton will win the nomination: she's running a little ahead of 538's targets, accumulating a majority of popularly elected delegates, plus she has that huge superdelegate advantage. She also appears to be headed toward some big wins in March primaries: 538's polling averages show her winning handsomely in Michigan (60.7-36.3%), Florida (66.8-29.8%), Illinois (65.5-30.4%), North Carolina (59.7-36.8%), and Ohio (60.1-37.6%). Sanders' next best chance is April 5 in Wisconsin, where polling is close to tied. I'm not seeing any polling for the March 5 caucuses in Louisiana, Kansas, and Nebraska, or March 6 for Maine. I expect Kansas and Nebraska to be close, and Maine to tilt to Sanders, so he may get some good news before the bad. At some point I think Sanders needs to pivot his campaign toward retaking Congress -- say thanks for supporting him by campaigning for his supporters, which would allow him to stay on the campaign trail until November, and build up a party which would pull Clinton to the left.
Trump didn't top 50% anywhere (he came close in Massachusetts with 49.3%, followed by 43.4% in Alabama, 38.9% in Tennessee, 38.8% in Georgia, but took less than 35% in his owner wins, bottoming out in Minnesota). And Trump wound up with less than half of the delegates (319 vs. 369 for the not-so-united opposition). He's still the frontrunner and may still be on track to the nomination, but he's not exactly blowing everyone else away. The best you can say for his chances is that no one else looks to have a chance. Kasich finished second in Vermont (close) and Massachusetts (distant, Trump winning 49.3-18.0%). Presumably he'll hang around for Ohio, where he's polling a few points behind Trump. A win there might give him a shot at a broken/brokered convention, as establishment favorite Rubio continues to falter: he won Minnesota, and came in second in Virginia (close) and Georgia (distant), but he specializes in thirds -- eight of them, everywhere else. Carson's best state was Alabama (10.2%), which netted him 0 delegates. Today he conceded that he sees no 'path forward' for his campaign, but rather than suspending it he'll just fade into occlusion (like the last Shiite Imam). Presumably his voters will gravitate toward Trump (if they don't follow their leader into occlusion).
That leaves Cruz, who'd like establishment conservatives to realize that he's their last chance to stop Trump -- something that it's safe to say isn't going to happen, if only because many of them despise Cruz even more viscerally than they do Trump. They may, after all, worry that Trump isn't a true conservative, but Cruz is so true he makes their carefully worded rationalizations look like a cruel joke. And while they may not wish to admit it, Trump at least is thoroughly corruptible, with a substantial personal stake in his fortune. Cruz, on the other hand, has the air of a true believer, the sort of fanatic who in his extremism could bring them all down. (Hence Rubio: never in history has a candidate so completely looked the part of a tool of his donors' interests. No wonder he's their favorite.)
Friday, February 12. 2016
I didn't really want to let myself get sucked into another post-election commentary like last week's Post-Iowa, but enough links have popped up to be worth a brief post.
On the Democratic side, it's worth noting that Bernie Sanders thus far is running ahead of Barack Obama in 2008 against Hillary Clinton: sure, Obama won Iowa handily where Sanders only tied, but Clinton beat Obama soundly in New Hampshire, and this year lost that same state by even more. Geography tilts Iowa toward Obama and New Hampshire toward Sanders -- a little bad luck for Clinton there, but doesn't Clinton also have the advantage of having done all this before? In both states Sanders gained 20-30 points over the last six months. That's momentum.
Both states are atypical in various ways, and despite all the effort candidates put into winning them, their idiosyncrasies make them poor guides for subsequent primaries, where campaigning is necessarily less personal. The main thing Iowa and New Hampshire seem to do is to winnow down the field. The sixteen Republicans we started with are now down to six: Trump, Kasich, Cruz, Bush, Rubio, and Carson. Not sure if Gilmore still thinks he's running: he got 133 votes, or 0.052%, a figure that trailed three no-longer-running candidates (Paul, Huckabee, Santorum) but at least topped ex-candidates Pataki, Graham, and Jindal; see results here; all 30 names listed were on the Republican ballot, but the list doesn't break out the 1750 write-ins.)
Gilmore (and for that matter Santorum) were also beat by Andy Martin, who Wikipedia describes as "an American perennial candidate who has pursued numerous litigations" and "the primary source of false rumors that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim during the 2008 U.S. Presidential election." Just behind Gilmore (and ahead of Pataki) was Richard Witz, a retired school custodian from Spencer, Massachusetts. The low vote getters on the ballot were Matt Drozd, Robert L. Mann, and Peter Messina, with five votes each (Messina is the only one of those three with as much as a website).
Chris Christie (6th place, 7%) and Carly Fiorina (7th place, 4%) dropped out after New Hampshire. With most of next month's primaries taking place in the South, they didn't really have anything to look forward to. Further down, Ben Carson (8th place, 2%) and Jim Gilmore (13th place, 0%) seem to still be running (as opposed to "in the running").
[PS: On Friday, after I had written the above, Gilmore gave up the ghost. NBC noted that the Republican field had narrowed to six, then gave a rundown that only mentioned five of them. Ben Carson seems to be turning into the invisible man.]
Here are some links to chew on:
Friday, February 5. 2016
Postscript added [Feb. 6].
No Weekend Roundup last Sunday, as I was trying to tie up the loose ends on a Rhapsody Streamnotes column. Since then the ridiculous spectacle of the Iowa Caucuses happened. With all the money being spent on political corruption these days, some small states have spied an economic opportunity in being the first to weigh in on who's going to be the next president, and that's settled out into the convention that New Hampshire runs the first primary -- they've made it clear that if any other state tries to usurp them, they'll just move their primary further up -- with Iowa sneaking ahead with its caucus scam. As you know, everyone who's anyone (plus some who don't seem to be anyone at all) has been campaigning for president for a full year now, so this is the first real opportunity the voters have had to thin the field. That's the main takeaway from the caucuses.
Martin O'Malley was the first one to suspend his campaign after a pitiful showing in Iowa. He was running as the Democrats' insurance policy, figuring that if the voters couldn't stand presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton he'd make himself available as the fallback candidate. So basically he was running against Bernie Sanders as the alternative to Clinton only, you know, without having any policy differences from Clinton and, well, the laws of physics prevailed: substance defeated vacuum. On the other hand, Sanders and Clinton are likely to continue all the way to the convention: the former because he's somehow managed to inspire and organize a sizable chunk of the Democratic base -- with issues, of course, but also integrity -- and the latter because, as 2008 demonstrated, she has a remarkable ability to "take a licking and keep on ticking." More on this later.
As for the Republicans, I think it's fair to say that Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum should hang it up. They won Iowa the last two times out, and they basically have no better prospects ahead. (Huckabee, as a Southern preacher, might want to hang on for South Carolina and maybe even Super Tuesday but if he was going to win he would have placed 1st in Iowa, not 9th.) As I understand it, Kasich and Christie didn't make much of an effort in Iowa -- still Kasich edged Huckabee for 8th, and Christie beat Santorum for 10th -- but see New Hampshire as their big opportunity. If they do as poorly there they'll be laughed out of the race too.
Hard to spin any upside for Jeb Bush either (6th place, 2.8%), not that he ever looked very likely. For starters, I suspect that it's hard to find any Republicans who didn't wind up hating either his brother or his father -- the latter for not being a true conservative, the former for making conservatives look so hideous (not that there aren't some conservatives so purist, or blinkered, as to hate both). But the final blow is probably the coalescence of the anti-Trump, anti-Cruz camp in favor of fellow Floridian Marco Rubio. Bush's only hope is that the romance will prove fleeting: Rubio ran so far ahead of his polls that I suspect that many of his supporters preferred less popular candidates but switched at the last minute trying to stop Trump and Cruz. I doubt you'd see that in a primary, although Rubio's 3rd place (23.1%) finish gives him a chance to carry the banner forward. Also Rubio does appear to have a hard core of supporters: he's emerged as the neocon favorite, even though pretty much every Republican candidate has pledged to start World War III.
Ted Cruz (1st place, 27.6%) seems to have captured most the Christian nationalist bloc which dominated Iowa's GOP caucuses in 2008/2012 -- I can't say as I see the appeal, but that's what people say. (Ben Carson's 4th place, 9.3% share is probably even more evangelical.) It's tempting to say that Cruz beat Trump (2nd place, 24.3%) once Republicans learned that he's the even bigger asshole, but it could just be Trump's excuse about not having a "ground game." That seems like something Trump could fix, or at least neutralize when we start getting into the real primaries. Whether he can repair his tarnished image as a winner is another story. As for who in the long run will reign as the chief asshole, I wouldn't count him out, but on the other hand it wouldn't be a stupid move to let Cruz enjoy his claim.
I have nothing much to say about Carson, Rand Paul (5th, 4.5%), or Carly Fiorina (7th, 1.9%), except that they are unique enough they can probably sustain their irrelevant campaigns longer than most. Still, it's worth noting that Paul, despite all his compromises, isn't doing nearly as well as his father did four (or even eight) years ago. I also see someone named Gilmore on the returns list, trailing even Santorum with 0%. As I understand it, he did so poorly his reported percentage wasn't even rounded down. [PS: After I wrote this, Paul and Santorum suspended their campaigns.]
Still, hard to even care about the Republican results. For starters, on any reality-based scale there's no practical difference between any of the candidates, and the distance between any of them and the worst possible Democratic candidate is so vast the election will most likely split the same regardless of who is nominated. In fact, there's probably a wider ideological split between the two Democrats than between Clinton and the Republicans, but the Democrats appear more cohesive because both camps recognize the very real danger the Republicans, and will tolerate the other rather than risk civilization and the republic. Sanders people are likely to bend your ear on how bad Clinton has been and could be, but unlike Nader people in 2000 they're not going to tell you there's no difference between Bore and Gush. That's one lesson that's been learned to our horror.
That lesson has been the signal accomplishment of Clintonism. When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, his real hope was to establish that the Democrats would be better for business than the Republicans had been under Reagan and Bush. The signature accomplishment of his first term was NAFTA, which was not only a giant gift to business; it split the Democratic Party, hitting the unions especially hard. He tried to follow that up with his (well, Hillary's) health care plan, which was intended as a second big giveaway to business, but got squashed when the Republicans decided to go feral on him (the one thing they couldn't allow was for Clinton to appear more pro-business than they were). That turned out to be a blessing for both: Republicans gained control of Congress, freeing Clinton from any need to satify any of his party's desired reforms, and positioning himself as the last defensive rampart against the barbarians at the gate. Clinton was re-elected in 1996 and presided over the strongest economic boom in the US since the 1960s -- partly the good luck of coinciding with a real tech boom, partly opening the economy up to ever greater levels of financial fraud.
But the key thing was how he usurped and monopolized the Democratic Party. He built a personal political machine, a network of rich donors -- he had, after all, made them a lot of money while he was president -- and he kept that going after he left office in 2001, mostly to support Hillary's ambitions. When she ran in 2008 she was both the heir to his machine and, once again, the designated defender of civilization against Republican ruin. As she is now -- the interesting sidelight is how Obama followed Clinton's pattern, spending his initial victory catering to business before provoking a Republican revolt which only he has saved us from. The pattern has become so regular it's hard to imagine a Hillary administration doing anything else: providing huge dividends to business while blaming the Republicans for kneecapping any popular reforms.
Clinton's hegemony over the Democratic Party proved so complete that no mainstream Democrat (unless you count O'Malley) dare run against her. This has less to do with a shortfall of up-and-coming politicians -- it shouldn't be hard to come up with a list of Senators and Governors as qualified as Cruz-Paul-Rubio and Bush-Christie-Jindal-Kasich-Walker -- as the fact that the Clintons had cornered the donor class, strangling the chances anyone else might have had for sponsorship. Sanders escaped their tentacles because he wasn't even a Democrat: he's been elected repeatedly to Congress as an Independent, yet it turns out he's the one able to appeal to the party's hardcore constituency. And the reason is quite simple: he hasn't sold them out like the Clintons have, time and time again.
I've long thought that the left wing, both inside and beyond the Democratic Party, was substantially larger than the paltry vote totals garnered by Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich, so I find Sanders' polling gratifying. Surprising too, as 50% in Iowa and 61% (latest poll I've seen) in New Hampshire is even more than I imagined. Part of this is Sanders' personal charisma, which is off the scale compared to Nader and Kucinich. Part of this is that conditions for working people, especially the young, have gotten objectively worse, in the last eight (or 16 or 24 or 36, take your pick) years. Part of this is that the cold war red-baiting which mad anyone even remotely tolerant of socialism anathema has lost much of its sting -- chalk this up to indiscriminate use, but also to how obnoxious those who traffic in such charges have become. But part of it is also residual disgust with the Clintons, who missed (and messed up) their opportunity to roll back the damages of the Reagan-Bush era, and whose minions at least contributed to Obama's post-Bush shortcomings (Larry Summers, for instance, not to mention Obama's Secretary of State).
Still, odds are Clinton will prevail. I know some decent leftists who are already supporting her, mostly on the theory that she's been tested and proven she's tough enough to stand up to the inevitable Republican slander campaign, and that matters because the alternative of a Trump-Cruz-Rubio-whoever becoming president is too horrible to even contemplate. Those people are mostly old enough to remember how the center and a loud slice of the Democratic Party abandoned George McGovern to re-elect the Crook (and War Criminal) Nixon in 1972. (If they know their history, they may even recall how many Democrats turned against the populist campaigns of William Jennings Bryan in 1896-1904 -- if not, they can read Karl Rove's recent book on his hero, William McKinley.) Paul Krugman cites an article on this: David Roberts: Give a little thought to what a GOP campaign against Bernie Sanders might look like. If anything, I think Roberts undersells his case (he admits "I'm not sure I have the requisite killer instinct to fully imagine how the GOP will play a Sanders campaign"). I think we'd be hearing a lot more about how Sanders' programs will kill jobs -- the same tack they took against the ACA, even though there's no evidence of it (but then there's no evidence that anything Republicans say about macroeconomics is true). What's unclear is whether those slanders will have any resonance beyond the right wing's echo chamber. Surely one effect of so many years of such outrageous and brazenly self-serving propaganda has worn thin on many people.
There's a famous David Frum quote where he argues that Republican politicians have learned to fear their base; by contrast, Democratic politicians loathe their base. The latter sentiment seems to fit the Clintons' cynical pandering to and rejection of their voters. Maybe if Sanders keeps rising in the polls, they'll learn to show their base some measure of respect. More likely it will come too late: given the quality of his opponents, it's harder for me to see how Sanders can fail to win the nomination and the election. What I worry about more is that he will have gotten too far out ahead of the party. But there is at least one precedent: Franklin Roosevelt became president before forging a grass roots New Deal coalition to support him. Roosevelt, an aristocrat who was turned into a radical by his times, only gradually realized the need, but as a life-long radical Sanders should know better. I'm still dismayed that he keeps talking about "a political revolution," but what else could that phrase mean?
Milo Miles tweeted a reply to this piece. Not feeling I could write an adequate reply in 144 characters, I thought I'd add a postscript here. Milo's tweet:
No less an authority than Frances Perkins, who knew and worked with FDR before he was struck with polio, felt that his crippling made him much more emphathetic with people, especially the downtrodden, than he had been when he was young and healthy. He was a Democrat, and a very rich and privileged one, by birth, which back then didn't predispose him toward any populist or progressive impulses. The only Democrat to win the presidency in the 19th century after the Civl War was Grover Cleveland, who was quite possibly the most conservative president we ever had. Woodrow Wilson did some progressive things early on, but he seemed to treat them like cough syrup, medicine to be swallowed fast and discarded as soon as possible. More influential was FDR's distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, so clearly the model for FDR's own career that some of the rhetoric had to rub off. Still, when FDR was elected president in 1932, I don't think it was obvious that he would wind up far to the left of Herbert Hoover. The voters simply wanted change, and in FDR they got a president who vowed to do something, to try all sorts of things to stem the Great Depression.
In his early days -- what turned into the legendary 100 days -- he indeed tried all sorts of things, all over the political spectrum. He was especially concerned about failing banks, falling farm prices, and deflation in general -- not exactly leftist causes -- but his empathy didn't exclude anyone (even though New Deal programs often excluded agricultural and domestic workers, i.e., blacks). And he was famously fond of balanced budgets, but he went with whatever worked, and what worked moved him far to the left. He finally acted on that in 1938, when he tried to move the Democratic Party to the left by challenging a number of reactionaries within the party, specifically its Southern wing. By and large, his "purge" of the party failed, even backfired, as conservative Democrats increasingly allied with Republicans to fight and in some cases undo New Deal reforms (most famously passing Taft-Hartley over Truman's veto in 1947). Over the longer term, the Democratic Party did evolve toward FDR's political stance -- even posting a few tangible legislative achievements under LBJ -- but in many respects they came up short.
I should make more explicit the point I was leaning to, which is that Sanders' "political revolution" (no matter how innocuously he means that) would be unprecedented in American history. Every major political challenge from the left so far has been voted down rather decisively -- the populist Bryan in 1896 (and 1900 and 1908), the Progressive parties of Roosevelt in 1912 and LaFollette in 1924, McGovern's anti-war candidacy in 1972. The only exception I could think of was FDR in 1932, but as I said, that case was relatively ambiguous, and his subsequent turns to the left were mostly checked. You might wish to nominate Obama in 2008, who was promptly pilloried by right-wing propaganda and the phony Tea Party movement -- not that he was much of a progressive, or any sort of leftist, in the first place.
That doesn't mean that Sanders' campaign is impossible, let alone undesirable. For one thing, historical conditions are every bit as unprecedented. The right-wing threat has never appeared more ominous. And the inadequacy of Clinton/Obama compromises has never been more obvious. In particular, they seem incapable of reversing major shifts of the last few decades: increasing inequality, severe climate change, the hollowing out of America's industrial base, persistent and often thoughtless war, the degeneration of democracy into an auction for the superrich.
Not sure that I answered one point about Milo's tweet: his line, "He was a despised cripple." Some people indeed despised Roosevelt, especially as "a traitor to his class," but my impression is that few people realized that he was so severely crippled, and I'm not aware of it ever becoming a "talking point" against him. I don't doubt that Roosevelt feared that being seen as a cripple would eat at the faith that he could lead the nation, and there's no doubt that he worked very hard to conceal his disability from the public. Hence I focused on the empathy question, which I thought more to the point.
PPS: Somehow I missed the report that Mike Huckabee ended his campaign, evidently on the night of his disastrous Iowa finish, buried in the Martin O'Malley news.
Sunday, January 3. 2016
I've missed doing this the last couple of weeks. I've had other things to focus on, and figured I'd wind up writing pretty much the same things about the same outrages when I returned as I would have written before. So Saudi Arabia's mass execution of 47 mostly political prisoners came as a bit of a shock. Not a complete shock, mind you. Since King Abdullah's death last year, the Saudi monarchy has been increasingly aggressive about throwing its power around, most obviously in its entry and escalation of Yemen's civil war: one of the most blatant war crimes of the last decade, one that practically every day generates reports of atrocities. But Saudi Arabia has been meddling in the affairs of other countries since 1980 -- partly in response to the twin shocks of the Iranian Revolution and the siege at Mecca's Grand Mosque, both in 1979, but largely because the Reagan administration, following Kissinger's 1970s strategy of promoting regional powers as proxies for American mischief, encouraged the Saudis to help finance the Holy War in Afghanistan against the infidel Russians. The Saudis not only ponied up the money, they understood that to recruit Mujahideen they needed to promote their state-linked Salafist doctrine throughout the Islamic world. In doing so, the Saudis (and their fellow aristocrats among the former British cronies of the Persian Gulf states) built the financial and human infrastructure that promotes reactionary terror throughout the Middle East -- one that has taken on a life and logic of its own, turning on its former masters as surely as the Terror devoured the Jacobins.
America's role in all of this can has resulted in one blunder after another, the root cause two beliefs we picked up from the British who got there (and got out) first. One is the conviction that all those who (however temporarily) stand with us are advancing civilization (basically a mental framework we have for admiring ourselves). The second is blind faith that any problem can be solved by force, so long as it is so swift and brutal that no one will dare repeat the offense. The first is little more than a invitation for sycophancy and corruption, one that attracts the worst possible allies, but which wears thin on anyone with integrity or principles. While the latter is so blatantly unjust that that it only breeds resentment and subversion, including those asymmetric acts of sudden violence we dub "terror" -- terminology oblivious to what real machines of war, like B-1 bombers and C-5 gunships, routinely wreak.
Of course, the British only made matters worse, except for a few oil company owners, but they trained the Israelis in their methods -- in some cases personally, as with Ronald Wingate and Moshe Dayan; often by example, as with their suppression of the 1937-39 Arab Revolt; and ultimately well enough that the Israelis preserved the whole of British colonial law for selective application to the Palestinians. With such methods, the Israelis have managed to destabilize their dominance and extend their conflict for many generations. America followed in those footsteps not because the approach seemed to work as out of arrogance, figuring that the self-appointed rulers of the free world were destined to succeed.
Of course, they haven't. Nearly fifteen years of active US military intervention in the region has cycled tragedy and farce in an ever more irresistible whorl -- among the casualties we find the brains of all current presidential candidates (even Rand Paul; even Bernie Sanders). Isn't one of those textbook definitions of insanity the belief that repeating the same act will produce a different result? The most immediate threat we face comes from the neocons, refreshed by a brief respite from an Iraq fiasco that they're now convinced they had won (until the lily-livered Obama sold them out), anxious to send American troops back into the fray. To accomplish this, they not only peddle flattering self-delucions, they never waste a chance to paint ISIS as the gravest threat to civilization, like, ever. And they've been so successful that hardly any "very serious" political pundit dispute the urgent need to "smash ISIS" (that seems to be the favored phrase, as if several million people living on their land are mere cockroaches).
Their propaganda campaign has worked is largely because we seem to have this primordial fear of an Islamic State -- presumably dating to the downfall of Constantinople in 1454 if not the Battle of Tours in 732, although who knows about either? (More likely this is some sort of mirror reflection where we fear that others should do to us as we did to them; e.g., in the Crusades from 1092 and the Inquisition from 1492. Islam was almost never spread by the sword after the 8th century -- the exceptions were converts with a history of raiding, like the Turks and Mughals, and most people under the early Caliphs retained their pre-Islamic religions and legal systems without compulsion.) But while we're geing goaded into war with an "Islamic State" centered in Raqaa, we hear nothing about the more/less equally brutal Islamic State in Riyadh -- Saudi Arabia -- which represses Shi'a, bans all non-Muslims, punishes people they consider criminals with beheadings, which even practices the ancient art of crucifixion. Last week's mass executions, on top of the bombing and invasion of Yemen, should offer us a wake up call. Saudi Arabia gets a free pass from the neocons because they are rich, both selling the West oil and reinvesting their profits in Western banks. The only reason the Raqaa IS seems more brutal is that they are engaged in a life-and-death struggle, whereas the Riyadh IS is sitting high, directing most of its brutality abroad -- but not all, as we should see clearly now.
I shouldn't need to say this, but I am not advocating US military intervention to right the wrongs of Saudi Arabia. I don't think the US can or should do that, but we should stop helping the Saudis commit those wrongs -- every bomb they drop in Yemen is, after all, made in America -- and we should realize our limits in Syria and Iraq (among other things, that we can't really distinguish friend from foe, that we don't really have anything to offer the people there other than death and destruction, and that we have no business doing that).
Maybe you think I'm one of those awful isolationists? I have two answers to that. One is that if you have to choose between being a serial murderer and a hermit, I'd much prefer that you opt for the latter. The other is that it is possible to interact with the Middle East (or anyplace else) without becoming one or the other. You can, for instance, trade, invest, exchange students and tourists -- all you need for that is stability and security and mutual respect, which pacts, meddling, an arms race, and intervention obliterates. In fact, aside from a tempest over piracy (the Barbary Wars, 1801-05) the US pretty much did just that, all the way up through 1945: after that Israel, the Cold War, and oil greed and fear distorted things, but also the US forgot its founding principles, starting with appreciation of freedom from foreign dominance and entanglements, an aversion to maintaining a standing army, and at least a nominal belief that "all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights" -- you know, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Ironically, the same time Americans were losing their principles the UN was adopting them as basic human rights. One could have built a foreign policy around those ideals, but Truman and Eisenhower didn't, and later presidents -- especially Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes, but also fatefully the Democrats as well -- only got worse.
Here are some links on the Saudi mass executions:
Ran out of time to comment on anything more, but here are some single-line links I had opened up:
Saturday, October 31. 2015
My patience for political debates gave out long ago. I think the clincher was a 1984 encounter which somehow favored Ronald Reagan despite the clear fact that Walter Mondale out-hustled him on every single question. (I was rather annoyed with Mondale because so many of those tussles revealed him to be the more aggressive and tenacious cold warrior.) It was almost a replay of my first debate experience, Kennedy-Nixon, except where Kennedy appealed to a hopeful future, that future had passed by 1984 and America was ready to be led into senility -- at least they sure picked the guy to do it.
However, some bloggers I follow still take these things seriously, so I figured I'd cite a few of their comments. After all, watching ten right-wing jerks fumble their way through a set of questions and spinning them into their fantasies does offer some opportunity to examine the psychosis that afflicts so-called conservatives today. Whereas Reagan had a knack for amalgamating an imagined past with a fantasy future, at least he was pretty sure it would be a positive future. But today's Republican standard-bearers are united in their conviction that the nation stands on the brink of a catastrophe that only their kind of determined leadership can stave off, even though the scenarios most likely to push the country off the deep end are the very ones that adopt their policy proposals.
Wednesday, October 21. 2015
I don't really understand what's been going on there over the last few weeks, other than that it this episode of escalating violence isn't all that different from every other one -- in that it's mostly explained by the exhaustion of hope for change by any means other than yet another mass uprising. In 1989, as 22 years of military rule over the Occupied Territories turned increasingly rote and rigid, numb and dumb, with the Palestinian political leadership broken and scattered, the popular revolt that broke out was called the intifada -- an Arabic word denoting a tremor, shivering, shuddering, derived from nafada meaning to shake, to shake off, to get rid of. It was an almost involuntary response to the daily grind of oppression, and it took the PLO as much by surprise as it shocked Israel's security czars. Their kneejerk reaction then was summed up in Yitzhak Rabin's vow to "break the bones" of those who would dare protest against Israeli power. Nearly all of the violence was the work of Israelis, who killed hundreds of Palestinians, injured and/or detained thousands, and looked foolish. The worst the Palestinians did was to throw rocks at the armed gendarmes, not exactly textbook nonviolence but for two peoples who grew up on the stories of David and Goliath, more an act of symbolic than physical resistance.
Rabin eventually saw the the way out of the embarrassment of the Intifada was to insert a buffer layer of Palestinian "leaders" between the Israeli masters and most of the Palestinian masses: a role that Yassir Arafat all too readily agreed to, as long as it was sugar-coated with vague promises of future Palestinian independence. This was the Oslo "peace process" -- by design it spurred a redoubling of Israeli efforts to "create facts on the ground" (Israel's jargon for building illegal settlements and outposts on occupied Palestinian land) while forces on both sides -- and not just the "extremists" like Kach-ist settlers and Hamas -- worked to poison the agreement. We can only speculate on what might have happened had Rabin not been assassinated; had his successor, Shimon Peres, not recklessly provoked a wave of Hamas terrorism which got him voted out; had Benjamin Netanyahu not come to power and used that power to subvert the "process"; had Ehud Barak, elected with a mandate to deliver the "final status" negotiations, not gotten cold feet, reneged on his promises, tore up the Oslo agreement, initiated the so-called "Second Intifada" while ushering Ariel Sharon into power to nail the coffin shut. But what we know now is that the growing power of Israel's settler movement, its militarist security state, and its right-wing political parties, has buried, as far into the future as we can see, any prospect for equal rights, for justice and peace, under Israel's yoke.
It's unfair to blame the Second Intifada for killing Oslo, but the resort to violence by Hamas and factions of the PLO, especially the practice of "suicide bombing," helped to harden right-wing Israeli attitudes and determination. I always thought the two Intifadas were completely different phenomena: the former a spontaneous mass revolt in the face of Israel's overwhelming potential violence; the latter a calculated attempt by small cadres of militants to show Israel's powers that their subversion of the "peace process" must have adverse consequences for the Israeli people. The former exposed the rotten truth about Israel's "enlightened occupation"; the latter revealed that in a naked test of violence with Israel the Palestinians never stood a chance.
The great failure of Arafat's political leadership was that he was never able to move beyond his famous UN speech where he offered Israel the choice of peace or war, symbolized by an olive branch and an AK-47. When he failed to negotiate a "final status" deal with Barak in 2000 -- which as we now know was almost totally Barak's fault -- his natural instinct was to pick up the gun. It's not clear to me that's what he did: he always held out the hope for further negotiations, but he couldn't distance himself from the militants without admitting that he had no control over them, and as such no leverage against Israel (or for that matter use to Israel). The notion that Arafat launched the "Al-Aqsa Intifada" -- the term widely abused to associate the Second Intifada with the Moslem holy site, hence with Jihad -- is as ridiculous as the notion that Arafat rejected "unprecedentedly generous offers" at Camp David. Besides, we now know the Intifada was something the Palestinians were goaded into: by Barak's self-serving spin after Camp David, by Sharon's massive armed "visit" to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and most of all by Chief of Staff Shaul Moffaz's decision to open fire on Palestinian demonstrators against Sharon's provocations. It's never seemed quite right to view the violence of 2000-05 as an intifada when it was originally set up as an ambush.
It's hard to change long-established terminology, but it would make more sense to refer to the 2000-05 ("Second Intifada") period as the Counter-Intifada. The original Intifada led to the Oslo Agreements and the "peace process" which the Counter-Intifada destroyed: that much should by now be perfectly clear. One can debate whether the Counter-Intifada ever ended: Arafat died in November 2004, depriving the Intifada of its most prominent boogeyman (his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, was so firmly opposed to the Intifada that he was useless as an enemy face, a role that was quickly shifted to Hamas); Sharon withdrew Israeli settlements from Gaza in September 2005; in 2006 Hamas called a truce, and entered the Palestinian Authority's electoral system, winning a landslide before being cut off by a US-sponsored coup attempt. And while Israel's military actions against Palestinians never really subsided, including massive shellings against Gaza in 2006 (and 2008-09 and 2012 and 2014), the violence was at least temporarily eclipsed by Israel's brutal 2006 bombardment of Lebanon (Condoleezza Rice's notorious "birth pangs of a new Middle East").
Levels of eruptive violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have waxed and waned, but Israel has always threatened and exercised much more violence in its efforts to control Palestinians. In most years since 1967, the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces is ten times as many as the number of Israelis killed by Palestinian "terrorists." Ironically, the ratio drops to about four-to-one in 2001-03, the one (and only) period where there was significant armed Palestinian resistance. (By the way, the distinction between "eruptive" and "potential" violence is a key concept in the book The One State Condition: Occupation and Democracy in Israel/Palestine, by Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir. Eruptive violence is something that Israelis and Palestinians can compete at, but potential violence totally favors Israel: it is, for instance, what allows Israel to require permits, to impose checkpoints, to pick up and hold prisoners. Comparing the ratios of killed or injured, even when we're talking ten-to-one, doesn't even hint at balancing the power scales.)
Most eruptive violence is, at least as rationalized by those who perpetrate it, retaliatory, which means as a first approximation is perpetual, a self-sustaining cycle. However, the actual incidence is far from regular. Palestinians, who suffer disproportionately, are more likely to declare unilateral truces and less likely to break them. And while Palestinians will sometimes inflict violence just to remind Israel that Israel's own violence will not go unanswered, Israelis put much more stock in the deterrence value of violence. Moreover, Israelis are much more likely to see violence as a path to personal advancement. For starters, a majority of Israel's Prime Ministers built their careers on their military records -- more if you count paramilitary terrorists like Begin and Shamir. And as Israel continues its drift toward the extreme right, even mainstream politicians take on genocidal airs.
But while Israel's eruptive violence never seems to go away -- the one exception was the year-and-a-half from when Barak won with his peace mandate in 1998 until he squandered it at Camp David and let Sharon run amok at Al-Aqsa in 2000 -- the eagerness of Palestinian militants to match Israel's violence with their own seems to roughly correlate with a generational (12-15 year) cycle -- making this year's uptick in stabbings seem like a harbinger of a third Intifada. I think three things are going on here: (1) people confuse intifada -- a significant increase in activism meant to "throw off" the occupier -- with violence, a tactic that cannot conceivably stand up against the military and police power of Israel; (2) much of the talk of Intifada comes from militant groups seeking to exploit widespread discontent for their own sectarian purposes (or, conversely, from Israelis who see the militants as their ticket to more devastating repression; (3) while at the same time a rigorously non-violent intifada, aimed at soliciting international support especially for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign, has been the predominant political expression of Palestinians for the last decade -- Israelis hope that by provoking more violence they can draw attention away from non-violent and increasingly international organization.
The uptick in violence that's been getting the most attention (at least in the US press) concerns stabbing attacks, notably in Jerusalem. The location is significant because Netanyahu's administration has been especially active in building Jewish-only settlements and in isolating Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. One thing that can drive people to desperate acts of violence is hopelessness, and life for Palestinians in East Jerusalem has never been grimmer. I've yet to see a comprehensive report on such events (maybe one will show up in the links below), but my initial impression is that the stabbings are ineffective even on their own terms: hardly any of the people stabbed die, few are injured seriously, while nearly all of the stabbers are quickly apprehended and/or killed on the spot. Rather, this seems like some form of suicide ritual. Some years back one of Israel's security gurus said that the goal of the occupation was to convince Palestinians that they are "an utterly defeated people." When I read that I didn't know what it might look like, but here it is.
Of course, what I just said only applies to Palestinians attempting to stab Jews. There have been a similar number of Israeli Jews stabbing Palestinians (plus at least one case of an Israeli Jew stabbing a Mizrahi Jew mistaken as Arab). In those cases the assailant is much less likely to be apprehended, let alone gunned down immediately. And if arrested, the Israeli Jew is less likely to be convicted, and far less likely to serve any significant time behind bars. Israel has different courts for Jews and Palestinians, different laws, different rights of appeal, and different punishments -- there is, for instance, no death penalty for Israeli citizens, but Palestinians are routinely targeted extrajudicially. Again, I haven't seen a clear statistical analysis, but a casual review of news items (Kate's compendia at Mondoweiss is a good source) suggests that Israeli settlers have become much more violent in the last couple of years, and that officials are doing little to curb their enthusiasm.
Israel's elections last year brought the most extreme right government to power in the nation's history, with Netanyahu finally making explicit his opposition to any form of peace settlement. His cabinet includes members who have called for the forcible expulsion of all Palestinians, in some cases Israeli citizens as well as the unfortunate inhabitants of the Occupied Territories. Last year Israel stepped up harassment of the West Bank, then turned to a 51-day bombardment of Gaza where its kill rate rivals that of Syria's Assad regime. (For some reason you never hear about Israel "killing its own people" like Saddam and the Kurds or Assad and the Sunnis although the ethnic differences are comparable.) Lately various Israeli religious leaders have issued ruling that aim to legitimize indiscriminate killing of Palestinians, while the Netanyahu government has adopted the policy of shooting stone throwers.
If you know one thing about Israel it should be the utter unwillingness of its right-wing political class to do anything to mitigate a conflict that goes back 50 or 70 or 100 years. (Amy Dockser Marcus' Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israel Conflict sees the origin in 1913 resolutions that committed Zionists to seeking exclusive power over Eretz Israel.) They grew up on that conflict, thrived even, advancing to the most prestigious positions in an increasingly militarized society. And quite frankly, they wouldn't know what to do without the conflict -- so they fight on, inventing new existential threats to replace vanquished ones. (Egypt might have been a real one had they focused on Israel but Nasser had other preoccupations. Syria was never a threat without Egypt as an ally. Iraq had actually fought Israel in 1948, but Saddam Hussein was much more interested in the Lebensraum to his east. And Iran, even under the Ayatollahs, had never been less than friendly toward Israel, but Netanyahu sold them to the Americans as a monstrous threat -- which worked because deep down Americans realized that Iran had good reason to hate the United States.) They even find threats hiding in the closets, like the so-called demographic problem. And they've so conditioned the Israeli public, long steeped in the legacy of Jewish victimhood from the razing of the ancient temples to the Holocaust, that every act against them, regardless of how trivial -- like the rockets from Gaza that never hit anything, or a vote from an American church group to divest from companies that profit from the occupation, or an agreement between Iran and the world ensuring that Iran won't develop nuclear weapons -- is received by ordinary Israelis as nothing less than bone-chilling terror.
The main thing you'll learn if you read Tom Segev's 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East is how split Israelis were over the coming war: on the one hand, the military leaders were utterly confident of victory; on the other hand, the Israeli public was completely terrified. Of course, overconfidence is endemic in the military (cf. Germany and Japan in WWII, everyone in WWI, Bush in Iraq), but has rarely been rewarded so quickly as when Israel attacked Egypt in 1967. Victory inflated the egos of all Israelis, especially the quaking masses who concluded they were protected not just by the IDF but by God. Israel's leaders were still cognizant enough of world (and especially American) opinion to treat lightly, but almost immediately a dynamic developed where civilians (notably the energized Gush Emunim) and politicians competed to see who could most aggressively expand the Yishuv onto Palestinian land, over the Palestinian people.
For many years, politicians like Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon exploited the settler movement for their own (mostly militarist) purposes, but under Netanyahu it's hard to tell who's pushing whom, in large part because the settler movement and the political powers have largely become one. Netanyahu's own contribution to this comes not just from his pedigree as right-wing royalty -- his father was Vladimir Jabotinsky's secretary in exile in New York -- as from his conceit that he is a master not just of Israeli but of American politics. Moshe Dayan famously said that "America gives us money, arms, and advise; we take the money and arms, and ignore the advice." Even as powerful a politician as Sharon had to humor George Bush when he came calling. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has repeatedly flaunted his contempt for Obama, confident that no matter what the President feels the US is stuck in its carte blanche support of all things Israeli.
Whether Netanyahu is right about America remains to be seen, but for how his position has freed Israel from any pretense of civility -- the last barrier against all sorts of ghastly policies. One could write a whole book about what right-wing Israelis are up to, both as officials and as vigilantes -- indeed, Max Blumenthal wrote one such, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, but his 2013 book already seems quaintly dated. The upshot is that a growing number of Israelis have decided that they can't abide the presence of non-Jews anywhere in Eretz Israel, even completely submissive ones. That's probably not a majority view yet, but one should recall that in 1937, when the British offered to "transfer" all the Arabs out of the proposed Jewish partition of Palestine, the notoriously pragmatic David Ben-Gurion was little short of ecstatic. (A decade later, Ben-Gurion engineered the nakba -- the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from territory seized by Israel. Ben-Gurion argued against seizing more land in the 1967 war on grounds that this time the Arabs wouldn't flee, but like everyone else got caught up in the glory of Israel's "victory.") The fact is that as far back as 1913 "transfer" has been a fundamental (albeit sometimes tactically unspoken) plank of the Zionist platform. The question isn't whether a majority of Zionist-identified Israelis approve of "transfer" -- it's only whether it can be done cleanly, and even that matters less as Israel proves they can get away with ugly.
As it happens, Netanyahu is running two pilot projects to show the feasibility of "transfer" ("ethnic cleansing" is the more accurate term, even if it, too, is merely a euphemism -- the Serbs coined it at Srebrenica). One involves the Bedouin who have for ages lived in the Negev Desert in the southern quarter of Israel. The plan there is to force them off the land and move them into newly constructed Arab-only villages (synonyms are ghettos and concentration camps). This would allow Israel to build new Jewish-only settlements pushing ever further into the Desert. The other is in East Jerusalem, which Israel took from Jordan in the 1967 war and "annexed" days later. Israelis have been building Jewish-only neighborhoods ever since, but as "security tensions" increase they've become more aggressive at isolating and separating Palestinian neighborhoods. The latest round of closures, house demolitions, and exiles are clearly meant to push Palestinians out of Jerusalem, eventually aiming at a city where only Jews can live. And when that happens, demands to raze the Al-Aqsa Mosque and build a Third Temple -- something we already hear -- will be deafening.
For many years now critics have pointed out the similarities between Israel and other colonial settler states -- notably South Africa, with its Apartheid policies. The links if anything go deeper: Israelis call their foundation, in emulation of the United States, their War for Independence, but in fact Israel preserved nearly all of Britain's intrinsically racist colonial laws -- they merely reshuffled who was privileged and who was not. Ever since 1948, Palestinians under Israeli control have lived under unequal laws and an often brutal administration, impoverished by both formal and informal descrimination. But while growing inequality is a grave political and economic, indeed moral, problem in the US (and very likely within the Jewish segment of Israel), non-Jews under Israeli control are locked by birth into a life of perpetual crisis, one that is currently worsening, one which ultimately, at least on the individual level, is a matter of life or death.
Whether Israel arrives at the final solution that is the logical outcome of Zionist ideology and unchecked power ultimately depends on whether they can stop themselves. There are, for instance, some number of dissenters within Israel: some are explicitly anti-Zionist, some style themselves as post-Zionist; more are repulsed by the growing violence of the settler movement, or by the chokehold of established orthodox Judaism. The BDS movement is also likely to become more of a burden to Israel, especially if the atrocities the current regime seems to produce like clockwork mount and the credibility of Israeli hasbara wanes. Given how modest the BDS movement's goals are -- equal rights for all, the one thing we should all be able to compromise on -- one can't call BDS a threat to Israel, except inasmuch as Israelis insist that their privileges and prerogatives should be maintained to the exclusion of everyone else.
Some recent links:
Sunday, August 30. 2015
I want to start with the text of a short speech that Laura Tillem gave at a demonstration at the office of Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Koch). It does a nice job of summarizing the basic points in favor of the Iran Deal, which Pompeo, in typically kneejerk fashion, opposes.
Of course, this is tailored a bit for the Wichita, Kansas audience. The appeal to "open-minded" and "independent" Republicans is partly because the Republicans have such a stranglehold on elective office in Kansas, but such people have been scarce since the Great 2010 Purge. Still, but Sens. Roberts and Moran embraced Obama's normalization efforts with Cuba (as well as his TPP nonsense), and both opposed Obama's request for authorization to use force against Syria (although they didn't object when Obama didn't ask, as in Libya or later in Syria once ISIS clouded the issue). On the other hand, Pompeo, like Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, never saw a war he didn't want to jump into (he's a West Point grad, has run aerospace and oil businesses, rushed to the head of the NSA fan club, and did yeoman service as one of the Republicans' Benghazi! clowns -- he's so intransigent he made Bill Kristol's dream list of "October Surprise" presidential candidates).
The case for supporting the Iran Deal is so overwhelming you have to question the sanity (and/or ethics) of anyone opposing it. Netanyahu opposes it, as far as I can discern, for three reasons: (1) because he is in principle opposed to anything that reduces the usefulness of a marketable enemy (Iran is the prime example, because Americans remain prejudiced against the people who overthrew their beloved Shah, and because Israeli leaders need foreign distractions to avoid talking about the Palestinians); (2) because the internal political dynamics of Israel favors right-wing leader who prove their toughness by never compromising with anyone (even though Israelis negotiated in private with the PLO pre-Oslo, when they refused to agree on a shape of a table for public meetings, and are reportedly negotiating in secret with Hamas now -- if/when such negotiations bear fruit, you can be sure that right-wing leaders like Netanyahu will condemn and undermine them); and (3) Netanyahu has made a personal ploy to bind his party to the Republicans in some sort of grand anti-Obama coalition, which thus far the Republicans are playing along with (among other things, this makes Netanyahu look to his homies like a big player in American politics, and encourages Americans to view Likud as the unified face of Israel). None of these reasons have to do with the effectiveness of the Deal at curbing the Iranian nuclear weapons threat, suggesting Netanyahu never took the threat seriously in the first place. (Gareth Porter wrote a whole book to that effect: Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare . Trita Parsi wrote an earlier  book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, on the relationship of Iran and Israel over time, pointing out that Israel discovered an existential threat in Iran not when the Ayatollahs came to power but when a new enemy was required after Iraq was disarmed in 1991.)
Obama, on the other hand, seems to have taken the Iranian threat seriously, inasmuch as he bothered to build a coalition with Russia and China that put serious teeth into sanctions, then used that leverage to negotiate a strictly verifiable Deal that ensures that Iranian nuclear technology cannot for many years, if indeed ever, be used to build nuclear weapons. Anyone who took the Iranian threat seriously should be delighted by the Deal, and anyone who isn't -- that is, anyone who claims the previous regime of harsh sanctions, clandestine warfare, and periodic threats of Israel and/or the US bombing select targets would be more effective than inspections based on official agreements -- cannot be taken seriously.
That means Netanyahu and his AIPAC cronies, and it also means the Republicans. The latter's rejection of the Deal is little more than an effort to tarnish one of Obama's signature accomplishments, built on the casual prejudice that Obama and the Democrats are intrinsically weak on security, and the even more casual assumption that Republicans, by snarling more, are tougher. (I won't bother demolishing this, in large part because I think Obama is already way too belligerent for the nation's good.) So most Republicans see this as a game, one they've been playing without much evident downside (forgetting Bush-Cheney), so they don't expect anyone to call them on their warmongering. On the other hand, it's interesting that they agreed to a process they cannot possibly win -- Obama only needs to sustain a veto, which can be done by the Democratic minorities in either house -- so no matter how much they rant and rave the deal will go through. And if, say, Ronald Reagan's demagogic attacks on Jimmy Carter's Panama Canal Deal in 1980 are any indication, they'll never act on what they're threatening now. (Indeed, even when Reagan's VP became president and invaded Panama, he didn't make any effort to renege on ceding the Canal to Panama.)
Still, the Republicans' hot air campaign isn't harmless. Nor should it be painless for them. Every Republican who votes against the Deal should have to account for their stance in the next elections. They should be painted as warmongers: a party that so loathes the idea of diplomacy that they'd rather shoot first, and a party that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, believes that a quick show of force is the answer to all of America's problems in the world. In particular, their opposition to the Iran Deal shows the hollowness of their now common regrets over the Iraq War -- one that was started by Bush in 2003 over the same "WMD" charges, where Bush not only refused to negotiate but insisted that UN inspectors, which had not shown any evidence that Iraq had the alleged WMD, stop their work. What Obama has done is diametrically opposite to what Bush did with Iraq. It very predictably ensures that: (1) Iran will not be able to develop nuclear weapons for the duration of the deal, well beyond 10 years; (2) Iran will continue to be ruled by a stable government, and will not collapse into chaos as Iraq has done; (3) America will not earn new legions of enemies due to attacking another country. In doing this deal, it's hard to see any real cost to the US. Maybe some US defense contractors might lose some Persian Gulf business if Iran seems to be less of a threat. And oil prices may dip as Iran's oil enters the world market. But is that the platform Republicans want to run on in 2016: more arms jobs and higher gas prices? You can see the attraction for someone like Pompeo, but how many Americans actually live in the pockets of the defense and oil industries? -- as compared to, say, how many only pay the bills?
(Lest you object that letting Iranian oil out into the world market would accelerate global warming, that's attacking the problem at the wrong end, with the wrong solution. Right now the main cause of cheap oil is conservation, and the main effect is to make particularly nasty oil, such as the Alberta Tar Sands, uneconomical.)
On the other hand, the cost of a war to topple and replace Iran's regime would run into trillions of dollars (first approximation: Iraq + Afghanistan + another 50%) -- given the GOP's tax lock that adds to a national debt they already deem insupportable (although they won't say that if there's a Republican deficit -- most of the run up came under Reagan and "deficits don't matter" Cheney). The side-effects of such a war are incalculable, but one is that it will validate the argument that the only defense against American/Israeli aggression is to develop nuclear deterrence. Republicans might try to argue that harsher sanctions would suffice to contain Iran, but the only example of such they can point to is nuclear-armed North Korea, probably the most dangerously deranged state in the world today (unless you count Israel and the US -- i.e., the countries which actually do attack other countries with no thought to the consequences).
The biggest problem I see with the deal is that it shows Obama and the Democrats to be not only smart and shrewd but rigorous and tough. The latter trait allows them to sell the deal on the grounds that it will be effective at ending a threat, burying the fact that Iran has never actually threatened to develop, let alone use, nuclear weapons. It allows the Democrats to continue portraying Iran as an international scourge, when in fact the balance of wrongs between the US and Iran is tilted the other way. And by continuing to demonize Iran, we give up opportunities to align with Iran to help stabilize the Middle East. Not that Iran's interests naturally align with America's, but mutual engagement might help both countries move towards peace, stability, democracy with respect for minority rights, open trade -- the sort of things that are mutually agreeable precisely because they are universally aspired to.
Friday, August 21. 2015
Christian Appy: America's Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 Years Later: On Aug. 6, 1945, the US obliterated the Japanese city of Hiroshima with a single bomb. Three days later they repeated that feat with Nagasaki, demonstrating that the "total war" that had been fought for the past six years (actually, longer in China) would turn much more destructive in the future. Japan surrendered a couple weeks later, pretty much on terms they had (too discreetly) proposed in the weeks before Hiroshima: clearer messages could have spared us all the ordeal of nuclear warfare (but then mutual respect and understanding might have spared us so much more). I know people who every year mark the anniversary of Hiroshima with vigils, not because they remember the 100,000+ victims there any different than the other 60 million lives the war took. They mark Hiroshima because the weapon the US introduced there still looms over us with its threat to instantly devastate life as we know it. And they mark it because our own nation -- not the only one to possess such weapons but the only one to have actually used them on an "enemy" people -- has still not demonstrated the maturity and modesty necessary to put the age of nuclear terror behind us. Two pieces of evidence here: one is that the US, despite having negotiated a deal (the NPT) where the world's nuclear powers promise to dismantle their arsenals in exchange for the rest of the world pledging to never develop such weapons, continues to build new bombs and formulate war plans assuming their use; the other is that the US has engaged in conventional and guerrilla warfare almost continuously since WWII ended, using its nuclear weapons as an umbrella for an empire of bases that girdle the world, allowing the US to poke its nose into nearly every country around the world (and shun the few -- at least the little ones -- that deny its hegemony). Or maybe the second is just the reason and effect of the first. Another way to phrase the second is that the US has repeatedly failed to support international efforts to resolve conflicts (especially its own) without resorting to war. So where many thought the advent of nuclear weapons would make further wars unthinkable, American defense mandarins not only embraced the horror -- the classic is Herman Kahn's Thinking About the Unthinkable -- but have resuscitated the concept of limited war and applied it repeatedly (even though they've virtually never achieved their stated goals).
I understand and appreciate anti-nuclear protesters, especially in the 1960s (which led to the Test Ban Treaty and the NPT) and in the 1980s (which led to several arms reduction treaties between the US and USSR). I also fully appreciate that Japan would have surrendered in 1945 regardless of whether the US bombed Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Nonetheless, those bombings don't bother me more than the rest of the war. I feel that it was inevitable that the bombs would be used once developed, and the end of WWII was as appropriate as any time could be: they were the icing on the cake, as if the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo weren't enough, or the German death camps, or the Rape of Nanking, or the starvation of Bengals far from the fighting lines. They remind us, among other things, that by the end of the war the US had descended to the barbarity of its enemies -- that indeed the real enemy was war, and that it had morally crippled those it didn't kill outright. That realization gave rise to the UN as a forum for preventing future wars -- a failure nearly from the start, but at least the fear of another Hiroshima many times over, of what came to be called MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), forced powers with no good will whatsoever to pull back from brinksmanship. Arguably, nuclear deterrence also thwarted a fourth India-Pakistan war in 2002, and has kept Israel safe from attack since 1973 -- no Arab nation even thinks of such a thing, even though Israel continues to strike Syria whenever it feels like it. I think it's fair to say deterrence works, but also that its driving force is fear, the effect of which is to preserve and nurture hostility or worse: our so-called "limited wars."
Appy does a good job of reviewing Truman's "decision" to bomb Hiroshima:
Appy also writes about changing American attitudes to Hiroshima, which most recently appear to have hardened. For example, he writes about Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 bestseller, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption:
Also see Susan Southard: Entering the Nuclear Age, Body by Body, on the bombing of Nagasaki -- adapted from her new book, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. The second bomb has been much less documented than the first -- Southard seems to be aiming for a belated companion to John Hersey's first-on-the-scene reporting in Hiroshima. Lest you forget the immediate experience:
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were simple kiloton-range devices. The fusion-powered bombs first tested in the early 1950s were as much as a thousand times more powerful. J. Robert Oppenheimer famously argued against developing fusion bombs because the real-world targets were too small. Edward Teller was able to convince the US military not only to go ahead but to strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance, excluding him from future influence. With hawks like Teller clearing out all possible opposition, it shouldn't be surprising that virtually every proposal of a pre-emptive nuclear strike came from the US. Until the Soviet Union developed its own bomb, many hard-core anti-communists agitated for "preventive war." When American efforts in Korea stalled and Vietnam went from bad to worse, many hawks saw nukes as a way to snatch victory from defeat. Nixon's version of this was what he called his "Madman Strategy": the idea was to convince the Soviets that he was so crazed he'd risk destroying the world to avoid losing Vietnam. By the 1980s, Andropov was so unnerved by America's "first strike" threats that the Soviets almost started a nuclear war by accident. Even recently, the US was promoting the idea of nuclear bombs as "bunker busters" to "take out" deeply buried infrastructure in Iran and North Korea. In fact, every time an American politician makes a point about "not taking options off the table," the world hears a threat to use nuclear weapons. No wonder the US is so flustered by Iran: every time we look at them, we see a mirror image of the US. (Israel, of course, has the same problem.)
Wednesday, July 22. 2015
There is an old adage that goes: those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. But what happens when someone knows a little bit about history, but gets it all wrong? Take Wesley Clark, for example. Katherine Krueger reports:
Most likely Clark was thinking of the internment camps set up during WWII that held 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent. Those camps were set up during a racist panic on the West Coast after Pearl Harbor was bombed, and were soon regarded as a waste of resources and eventually as a national embarrassment. Nothing similar was done or even proposed for the millions of Americans of German descent: partly because a bout of anti-German hysteria had already occurred during the first world war and was properly remembered as pointless and stupid, partly because we were more likely to distinguish between Nazis and other Germans, and partly because German-Americans were white. Few of us today realize how deep and vicious American racism against Japanese and Chinese had been up through the 1940s. (See John W. Dower: War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War; there must be a more general book, but I haven't read one.)
As for Clark's assertion that during WWII "supporter[s] of Nazi Germany" were arrested and treated as "prisoners of war" there isn't much evidence. Jeffrey Rogers Hummel has written a thorough review of American prosecution of supposed enemies both before and after Pearl Harbor (see Not Just Japanese Americans: The Untold Story of U.S. Repression During 'The Good War') and he does cite cases where the US used the Alien Enemies Act (dating from 1798) to incarcerate Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants (3,846 of them within 72 hours of the Pearl Harbor attack). There were subsequent prosecutions for sedition, espionage, and even treason -- several Americans were charged in absentia with treason for making anti-American propaganda broadcasts (including poet Ezra Pound and one of the women known as "Tokyo Rose"). A few thousand conscientious objectors were rounded up and put into camps akin to jails, and the anti-sedition laws were used to repress various fringe groups, like Trotskyites and Jehovah's Witnesses. But aside from the Japanese-Americans, I don't see anything in Hummel's long list that suspended judicial processes or that treated American citizens as prisoners of war.
I should interject here that just because the US did something in WWII doesn't make it right or appropriate, either then or now. Every American war started with an effort to suppress dissent, ostensibly to form and demonstrate national unity but not incidentally to cover the warmongers' asses. In WWI dissenters as famous as Eugene V. Debs were chucked into jail for "crimes" that even Wesley Clark would now recognize as free speech. (Debs was jailed for giving an actualspeech.) If FDR's WWII government has a reputation as less repressive, it's most likely because the war was much less unpopular. Moreover, both wars were followed by notorious "red scare" periods: the latter, recalled as McCarthyism, peaked during the Korean War, and was most effective at cowering opposition to that war.
McCarthy himself flamed out shortly after the Korean War ended, but by then anti-communism had become deeply entrenched throughout the government, academia, and even labor unions, even while HUAC, the John Birchers, and Barry Goldwater seemed like fringe figures. The Vietnam War wasn't marketed (as the later Iraq Wars would be). It was just entered into reflexively, with as little thought as the "gunboat diplomacy" operations of the early 20th century, until it swelled to the point of becoming America's longest and least popular war. The FBI did what it could to suppress dissent, but opposition to the war grew too extensive to quell with prosecutions -- not that the government didn't try (e.g., the Chicago 7). If nothing else, opposition to the Vietnam War established that Americans have the right to assemble and speak out against the nation's wars.
Still, the war party doesn't like dissent, and they go to great lengths if not so much to suppress it then to crowd it out. The war drums so dominated the media after 9/11/2001 that it was impossible to raise even the most modest of doubts in public. I went to peace demonstrations in New York City in the following weeks, but how many of you even knew that they happened? None of New York's Congressfolk voted against the war authorization. Fourteen years later that war seems to be on autopilot, periodically refreshed by minor incidents like the shootings in Chattanooga Clark was responding to, because we cannot bring ourselves to reconsider how we got into this mess in the first place.
Returning to Clark's proposal, we have to ask: (1) what is it he's really asking for? (2) how does that reflect on us as a people and a nation? and (3) will it work anyway? Unfortunately, he hasn't made even the first question easy. Clarks speaks of "internment camps": the only real precedent for that is the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. Clark speaks of "prisoners of war" and "segregat[ing] them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict." In the context of WWII that can only mean captives who were wearing enemy uniforms, but that hardly applies to anything in "the global war on terror," which is not a war against an identifiable nation, nor is it a war that can be expected to terminate clearly in the near future. It is true that some of Bush's lawyers tried to apply parts of the law on "prisoners of war" to some aliens captured abroad, and argued that as the basis for keeping those prisoners at Guantanamo, but Clark is talking about "American muslims" -- a group estimated at anywhere from 5 to 12 million people. He isn't necessarily talking about rounding up all of them: he wants to grab those who are "radicalized," who may as a result of that try to "hurt us."
Even if you take the lower estimate, 5 million American muslims is twice as many people as are currently in jail in the US, so Clark is potentially talking about tripling the size of America's prison complex (already the largest in the world). Of course, most American muslims aren't radicalized (at least not yet), but how do you tell which is which? Clark's suggestion here is to look for young men recently jilted by girlfriends, or whose "family doesn't feel happy here." Criteria like that is rather hard to determine. At the very least, it would require the US to do a lot of spying on our own citizens -- something which is, uh, illegal. (But then any initial division of the population according to religion is also illegal -- a violation of civil rights law.) The points which violate specific laws could conceivably be fixed, but I can think of a bunch of places where such an internment program would bump up against the constitution. The idea that you should lock up people because they might be inclined to commit a future crime is totally alien to American jurisprudence (if not necessarily to American history). My second question above must be answered "no."
As to the third question ("will it work anyway?") it's hard to see any way to answer "yes." For starters, the scheme can fail in two ways: it can intern people who would never have committed crimes, and it can miss people who do. It may seem hard to "proove the negative" but you can get an idea of the former by counting the number of radicalized muslims who have actually committed crimes over the past few years -- the shooter in Chattanooga, the Tsarnaev brothers in Boston, the two guys who attacked Pamela Geller's Mohammad-bashing festival in Dallas, a few more here and there -- you can even add in the guys the FBI set up and "stung" and not drive the total up more than a few dozens. How many people would Clark sweep off the streets? If it's only a couple hundred or so the majority would have been jailed unnecessarily and falsely. If it's thousands or more the injustice is only magnified. On the other hand, if you hold the number of detainees down to, say, 5000, you're letting at least 999 of every 1000 muslims off the hook. That almost certainly means that some "terrorists" will blend into the pack and escape internment. Of course, the problem doesn't end there. The program itself, with its blatant discrimination and spying, will radicalize more muslims, while at the same time driving muslim radicals underground, making them harder to detect. Given the already low number of terror incidents due to radicalized muslims, it's quite possible that Clark's internment program would result in many more incidents than it was initially meant to stop. So worse than "not working," Clark's concentration camps are most likely to make the problem worse -- on top of all the other negatives.
It's safe to say that Clark's proposal won't be adopted, but it is interesting that he even bothered to blurt it out. I could come up with a long list of reasons why, but I'll just leave you with three: (1) he hugely overestimates the problem (the number of "terrorist incidents") and has no sense of proportionality versus the muslim population in America; some of this is simple innumeracy (John Allen Paulos' term for people who can't envision relationships between numbers), some is that fear of terrorism is promoted by certain interest groups that profit from it (e.g., the military and its suppliers), and some is common prejudice against islam; (2) he has insufficient respect for America's traditions regarding justice and democracy, favoring power instead; and (3) he refuses to consider the real alternative, which would have the United States withdrawing from its history of interfering with other countries by supporting and encouraging violence (either against those countries or in favor of elites against the people of those countries).
Wednesday, May 27. 2015
This reminds me of a lot of things, but let's start with Robert Fulghum's slim 1989 bestseller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Fulghum was a minister, so that may explain why he never needed to know anything about geometry or chemistry or, more generally, history and arts and sciences. Even so, I doubt he really meant to deprecate post-kindergarten learning. Rather, he wanted to make a point about the value of certain things that can be learned in kindergarten. A Wikipedia summary:
I never read the book, but got the gist from the blurb, and it always struck me as a clever idea with a kernel of wisdom. I thought of it because Huckabee is also a minister, so that got me wondering whether a kindergarten frame of mind is endemic to the profession. On the other hand, I don't recall Fulghum's list -- as I recall, 21 short items (the shortest: "Flush.") -- including anything on the importance of beating down bullies. Maybe that's a Baptist thing? (Fulghum's ministry was Unitarian Universalist.)
Still, there's more wrong with Huckabee's bully analogy than his infantilist mindset. I suppose it's possible that bullies are more of a problem today than they were when I went to grade school -- I knew a couple but I'd characterize them more as thugs than bullies. But while Huckabee is probably right that bullies tend to pick on kids weaker than themselves, what distinguishes them more is their isolation from social norms and their willingness to cross authority. As usual, the best defense was to keep the problem from appearing, which has more to do with good management than stern policing. But one thing I never saw was a "sheepdog" (to use Chris Kyle's term) who would defend the weak (the "sheep") by beating down the bullies (the "wolves"). But then, had one appeared, he would have gotten nabbed by the authorities: bullying is intimidation, so it makes sense that intimidating "bullies" is bullying too.
In Kyle's mind what distinguishes the sheepdog from the wolf is the purity of his intentions. One thing that means is that it is hard, perhaps impossible, for an independent observer to tell the difference. For the US Army, pure intentions are a given -- not something any American politician, least of all a simpleton like Huckabee, would dare examine. If the US Army whips your butt, you had it coming. Still, there are at least four problems with this assumption: one is that pure intentions are real hard to come to and maintain (especially in an individualist/capitalist society which puts so much motivational weight on self-interest); second, even if your intentions are pure, the information you act on is often faulty (which is the main reason we keep killing people we didn't intend to); third, power is seductive and addictive, so as you build it you'll be tempted to flaunt it (cf. Madeleine Albright's tease: "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" ); fourth, no one else can see (or trust) your intentions, so all they have to go on is your acts.
If the last paragraph seems theoretical, remember that what Huckabee is proposing isn't a hypothetical. The US has had the world's most dominant, most expensive, most far-reaching military in the world at least since 1945, so we have seventy years of history we can reflect upon. No one can doubt that the US had the power to destroy any nation that tried to bully it. As a first approximation, you might even think that strategy worked: no other nation has directly attacked US soil, nor the soil of any nation the US has a multilateral defense treaty with. On the other hand, that hasn't meant 70 years of secure peace. In fact, the US has engaged in dozens of overt and/or covert wars throughout the period. I'm not going to run down the list. The point is that being able to "whip butts" isn't a formula for peace. As practiced by the US for seventy years, it's a formula for perpetual war.
One reason is that lots of people have come to view the US as the bully. After all, what do bullies do? They use the threat of violence, demonstrated on occasion, to intimidate weaker folks, to take advantage of them, to limit their freedom. Arguably the US has done this many times. Bullying doesn't explain every US war -- US support for the Contras in Nicaragua and the Muhajedin in Afghanistan was more malicious, meant not to impose order but to tear down an order we didn't like -- but it is a pattern, and is more often than not never comes to war, the merest of threats sufficing. On the other hand, the bully pose is most explicit when faced with possible defeat: the Bush response to 9/11 was obsessed with reasserting American global domination, while the Nixon response to impending defeat in Vietnam was to raise the stakes, to show the world how much anyone who challenged us could be made to suffer.
On the other hand, the calculus of bullying is more complex, as Todd Snider points out in his song, Is This Thing On?, where he describes a kid who stands up to a bully, not by beating him down but by letting the bully disgrace himself:
You can see this dynamic most clearly with Israel and Palestine, where the former's periodic wars, no matter how overwhelming the result, only generate more sympathy for the latter. But even where the tide of public opinion never turns, overwhelming intimidation may be met not with submission but with greater resolve to find other, more asymmetric, forms of resistance. Guerrilla warfare and terrorism are two such forms, but the range of options is myriad. And while the US has weapons sufficient to kill virtually every living thing on earth, all that power has proven impossible to use with much precision. (The central problem of the "war on terror" is to distinguish friend from foe, but inability to exclusively target the latter has actually led to a multiplication of foes, a trend that portends failure.)
One more point: In the early post-WWII (post-New Deal) period, the US enjoyed a full range of options for dealing with the rest of the world, backed by an ideology which for the most part was democratic, progressive, and anti-colonial. In particular, the US supported international organizations, especially the UN, to provide a diplomatic framework for resolving conflicts, based on a broad and universal declaration of human rights, much as law provides a framework for resolving civil conflicts. The US also had the wherewithal to provide extensive economic aid to other countries. The military only became a significant factor with the Berlin Blockade (1948) and the Korean War (1950), and has become increasingly hegemonic in American thinking, with the CIA gaining ground in the 1950s. This shift in approaches was locked into an ideological sea change, as the US came to side with capitalism against labor, and as such with crony dictators against popular movements. This shift not only makes it harder to justify America's "pure intentions" -- it has led Americans to take an increasingly brutal view of the rest of the world, and indeed of ourselves. One tiny example is the hero worship accorded a stone cold killer like Chris Kyle (the SEAL hero of American Sniper), but you find it everywhere, not least in Huckabee's passion for whipping butt.
I have a little quote from Linda Robinson's review of Bill Russell Edmonds: God Is Not Here:
Edmonds was stationed in Mosul in 2005-06, and was working as an advisor to Iraqi intelligence officers, so was involved in interrogating Iraqi civilians (the key word in the subtitle is "Torture") He later suffered some sort of mental breakdown, something this book attempts to reckon with. Just one case, but this sheds some light on how the bully army breaks down at the individual level. Many other soldier reports don't show this because most soldiers are more isolated from the people they harrass and kill -- contained within their units, fearing the unknown.
Saturday, May 16. 2015
Googling "FLAME" (caps intended) I see the noun first defined as "the visible, gaseous part of a fire . . . caused by a highly exothermic reaction taking place in a thin zone." Next result is a rapper I'm not familiar with, then a piece of computer malware. Before we get to the group whose acronym stands for Facts and Logic About the Middle East, we're offered a steakhouse, a band, an online paint program, another restaurant, and an article about "cancer-linked flame retardants." I was aware of FLAME before, but was still taken aback by their full-page ad in the May 10, 2015 Nation. Title: "Can the U.S. -- Can the World -- Afford a Palestinian State?"
Now, The Nation is a famously (some might say "notoriously") left-liberal weekly, and they take great pride in appealing to readers who know more than a little about world affairs, and who have some level of commitment to peace, equality, and broadly shared prosperity. Hence, you can expect that most of those readers are aware of Israel's numerous wars, of the second or third class treatment it accords non-Jews who live on land it occupies. Admittedly, even some Nation writers, like Eric Alterman and Michelle Goldberg, have sizable blind spots re Israel, but wouldn't you expect someone who advertises in The Nation to at least make some effort to build on what readers there know rather than spout "facts" that are plainly false and "logic" that makes no sense? But FLAME's ad is nothing more than the discredited talking points that obsessive hasbarists have been telling one another for years. Whereas hasbarists once sought to explain Israel, increasingly they only speak to themselves, to keep convincing themselves that Israel is in the right even when it plainly isn't.
Consider, for instance, this little historical paragraph (my comments in brackets and italics):
The inescapable conclusion is that Israel never has wanted peace and normal relations, least of all with the people who lived in Palestine before the Zionists came. They won't allow any form of Palestinian state because they fear that might legitimize claims on the land they took, mostly by force. But they also won't allow it because practically speaking it would be the end of settlement building -- the unifying purpose of Zionism from its founding in the 1880s up through the latest hilltop outposts in the West Bank. That sense of mission is reinforced by the deep-seated fear that anti-semitism is so endemic around the world that Jews will always be endangered, and that only strong militarism stands between Jews and doom. Four books together give you a coherent picture:
But the main point of the ad wasn't to explain why the Palestinians didn't have a state. The main point is that we shouldn't entrust them with a state now or any time in the indefinite future. The reason has something to do with the assumption that anywhere Arabs (or Iranians -- still Israel's biggest bugaboo) get the chance they jihadist terrorists, thereby increasing the danger to "Israel, the Middle East's only democracy and bastion of Western freedoms." Their conclusion (originally italics):
As the books cited above show, Israel has never acted "in good faith" to allow the creation of a Palestinian state. (In 1948-50, Israel made sure that the sections of mandatory Palestine not under Israeli military control would be controlled by foreign powers -- Egypt and Transjordan -- and not recognized as Palestinian. In 1967 Aziz Shehadeh advanced a plan for an independent Palestine that would recognize Israel, but Israeli political leaders buried the idea. In Israel's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Menachem Begin promised to allow Palestinian "autonomy" but never did anything to implement it. The 1994 Oslo Accords did set up a framework for limited Palestinian self-government, but Israeli leaders -- especially Netanyahu and Sharon -- repeatedly reneged on promises and denied autonomy. Please forgive the Nazi analogy -- variations on occupation governments come from a limited palette -- the present Fatah government in Area A of the West Bank is about as autonomous as the Quisling and Vichy regimes in Norway and France, while Gaza is little more than an open-air prison, not unlike the Warsaw Ghetto.)
Most recently, in Netanyahu's latest campaign he made a big point of insisting that if elected he would never allow a Palestinian state to come about. Israeli politicians have rarely come out so explicitly -- indeed, Netanyahu started walking back his statements as soon as the votes were counted -- in large part because American politicians are so attached to the idea that Israel/Palestine can be partitioned into two independent states (the so-called "two state solution"). The good faith of those Americans is harder to judge: they seem to be less cynical but are so gullible to the Israeli's arguments that they not only invariably fail, they sometimes wreck their own professed plans. (See Rashid Khalidi: Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East for many examples.)
Most often this has to do with Israel's "requirements that would assure Israel's security and survival" -- most notably presented as planks in the 2001 and 2009 "offers" that were effectively "poison pills" (items inserted into a bill or proposal that are so unpalatable they lead to rejection of the whole deal). For example, Israel often insists its security depends on keeping control of the Jordan Valley, but that would not only impinge on Palestinian independence, it would isolate Palestine from Jordan and the world, effectively leaving the country under Israel's thumb. If the US were at all an "honest broker" Americans would flag such debilitating planks as unserious, yet you almost never see evidence of that.
Likewise, Israel's oft-repeated claim to be "the Middle East's only democracy" is worse than a cliché: nearly half of the people living within Israel's effective borders are not allowed to vote or accorded civil rights -- a minimal definition of a democracy -- and even when some "Palestinian citizens of Israel" are allowed to vote, an informal cartel of Zionist parties makes sure that they will never participate in an Israeli government.
Admittedly, evidence from Arab implementations of democracy isn't very inspiring. Lebanon has been democratic for a long time, but the French left a system of "confessionalism" there meant to enforce ethnic power-sharing but often conducive to civil war. The US imposed a less explicit but effectively equivalent system on Iraq, with comparably bad effects. The Palestinian Authority's elections up through 2006 were relatively competitive, but when the wrong side won in 2006 the US and Israel effectively scuttled the system. Similarly, Egypt's democratic experiment was prematurely squashed by a US-backed (Israel-friendly) military coup.
On the other hand, the Arab nations that the US counts as its allies are dictatorships -- Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf emirates, and Egypt (now that dictatorship has been restored): clearly we are more comfortable dealing with oligarchs, even fanatically Islamic ones (like Saudi Arabia) provided they (mostly) control their people and keep them from attacking Americans. FLAME's pitch, like most Israeli hasbara, is aimed at stoking American prejudices although it reveals more about Israeli ones. We are encouraged to take democracy as a common bond between civilized Israel and America, but also as something Arabs can't be trusted with: give them the vote and they'll just vote for someone who doesn't like us (like Hamas, or the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt, or ISIS in Syria/Iraq). Of course, you've heard that line before: from every colonial power in history, as well as the segregationists in South Africa and Dixie. In other words, the whole pitch reeks of racism.
Worse than that, it doesn't allow for any improvement. The old saw is that "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest" -- I recall this attributed to Churchill (who won when he seemed to be most useful, and lost when he proved to be most useless -- but at least democracy saved the British people from having to kill him off, and gave Churchill yet another chance). Democracy can certainly be perverted, but it is a resilient system that allows for non-violent change, adaptation, and evolution. Had democracy been allowed to continue in Egypt, it's likely that Morsi's abuse of power (if that's what it was) would have been curbed by various checks and balances. (Of course, they could have been better designed into the constitution, but virtually no one has gotten it all right out of the box.)
Aside from its intrinsic racism, FLAME's argument suffers from two fatal flaws. One is that with few exceptions the most violent strains of jihadism were directly created by war and/or repression. Zawahiri and his pre-Al-Qaeda group, for instance, were forged in Egypt's jails, and the same was true of Zarqawi in Jordan and many others. I figure Osama bin Laden to be an exception: a man of great wealth and standing, what turned him was his sense of the hypocrisy of the Saudi royals. The ability of Al-Qaeda and ISIS to generate independent cells all over the Sunni Muslim world is a result of Saudi-exported salafism on top of political systems that do not allow non-violent reform. Democracy is the antidote here: extremism isn't worth the trouble if a non-violent path to reform is possible.
Secondly, democracy is the great moderator of extremism. Israel should have been delighted when Hamas decided to participate in elections -- even if that decision did not coincide with one to forswear violence, the net effect was to move toward positions which would be more reconcilable, not least by gaining more of a stake in the status quo. Same with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel and the US have partially undone Hamas' move toward moderation by rejecting Hamas electoral wins and by continuing to demonize Hamas as a terrorist group. But the fact is that the only way to end a "war on terrorism" is to convince the "terrorists" to give up armed struggle and to participate in the political system.
Israel has its own reasons -- its own logic and, if you look at FLAME, evidently its own facts -- here. They don't want to end their "war on terrorism," so they'd rather keep Hamas as an enemy than work with them. (A policy which, by the way, may change if Israel can replace Hamas with a more villainous enemy. I read a recent piece where an Israeli general argues that Hamas may be the most effective means to fighting ISIS, which is starting to appear as a problem: the point being that Israel will still have enemies, even if they change -- as happened before when the PLO ceased to be Israel's main enemy and gave way to Hamas.) Militarism has become a way of life in Israel, and they're enjoying it way too much to let a few rockets and an occasional stabbing bother them.
Then there's the whole identity question for Israel. David Ben Gurion famously decreed that "only what the Jews do matters." Nearly every nation in the world includes a mix of peoples and has to figure out some way for them to coexist, but Israel is close to unique in how the political, economic, and military dominance of its Jewish population allows it to set up and maintain a closed caste system. Those privileged by this system see and feel no need to dismantle it -- at least unless they realize how out of step it is with the rest of the world, and how counterproductive and dehumanizing it is.
As you should be able to see from this ad, Israel has developed a powerful, systematic, and seductive (for some people, mostly white Americans and Europeans) ideology which only serves to perpetuate inequality, injustice, hatred and belligerence in the Middle East. For Israeli Jews such arguments are merely self-serving, like the stock line that "God gave us the land of Israel." American interests aren't so narrow, and Americans don't get sucked through a draft where the "chosen" are indoctrinated in their specialness and the belief that their survival depends on fighting forever. One thing we should have learned by now is that life under war is vastly more difficult than life under peace. Also that peace is achievable through mutual respect, economic fairness, and a willingness to participate in a just order. And that such a society is capable of benefiting far more people than one that lapses into war.
Unfortunately, the political people in the United States who are in policy positions seem to be incapable of thinking beyond the old games of factional division of power relationships. (Not coincidentally, many of those people are effectively on Israeli payrolls.) In doing so they've made the Middle East a much more dangerous and destructive place than it needs to be. They are, at present, responsible for a number of civil wars that should be resolved in democratic power sharing agreements. And they are also responsible for a number of dictatorships that are future civil wars in the making. Their wars and their economic inequities have produced millions of refugees and have depressed the entire region for the benefit of a few ridiculously rich individuals and corporations. And they've left millions of people with little or no hope -- including a tiny percent so disaffected they're willing to kill themselves to register an objection. While many of "us" are so insensitive (or desensitized) we'll never even notice, nor understand if really bad luck means we do.
Friday, March 27. 2015
I finally got around to seeing Clint Eastwood's American Sniper film yesterday. It took me so long mostly because my wife, who usually picks the films we see, wanted no part of it: I had to go alone, something I hadn't done since I caught the "last chance" showing of Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In in 2011. I didn't argue very hard. Everything I had read suggested that the movie has many problems and few virtues. More importantly, I read Nicholas Schmidle's profile of the sniper in question, Chris Kyle (In the Crosshairs), so I had a pretty good idea what the story was going to be. The only question was whether director Clint Eastwood might add some nuance and conflict that Kyle doesn't seem to have ever grasped. But after Eastwood's senior moment at the GOP convention, and given his occasional infatuation with American jingoism, that wasn't guaranteed.
It turns out that the movie is remarkably compressed (despite a 2:20 running time). It starts with what became the trailer, a scene with Kyle on a rooftop in Fallujah contemplating shooting a child and/or his mother as armored vehicles inch down a rubble-strewn street with US soldiers methodically going house-to-house, kicking doors in. He ultimately kills both, but before the shots are fired, the scene is interrupted for a little background.
We see a pre-teen Kyle hunting with his father, and fighting with schoolkids. At the family dinner table, his father explains that there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs, who protect the sheep from the wolves -- Kyle's worldview in a nut shell. Grown up, Kyle rides bulls and broncs in a rodeo. Then, after a news report of a terror attack he signs up for the Navy Seals. We then get many scenes of sadistic basic training, a bar break where he picks up a wife, intense sniper training, 9/11, and his first tour in Iraq, where his first kills were that child and mother.
The bulk of the film recounts his four tours in Iraq, each staged with an intense action sequence, separated by brief returns home as his family grows. Two of the action sequences involve talking to his wife on the phone, so she gets in on the war experience. As a sniper, Kyle lurks patiently on rooftops and in buildings, surveying the war calmly, methodically picking off "bad guys." But over time he seeks more action, so he joins in on clearing buildings, and is close by as two of his closest buddies get shot (one killed instantly, the other survived but was blinded and died in a later surgery).
The action intensifies, with the final battle ultimately won by Mother Nature as a sandstorm engulfed Sadr City. That was the one where he made an "impossibly long shot" to kill his nemesis, a notorious Syrian sniper, only to have his building surrounded by swarming enemies with AK-47s -- the intense action interrupted by a call to the wife to tell her he's "ready to come home now." Of course, the crowds ate it up. The postwar scenes were anticlimactic: at first he showed signs of PTSD, but they fade away as he dedicates his life to helping other veterans. He takes one multiple-amputee to the shooting range, and when the disabled vet hits the target, he announces that he feels like he got his balls back. Salvation through shooting becomes Kyle's cause. In the last scene, he gets into a truck with another PTSD-damaged vet. Then the movie cuts to black, revealing that the vet murdered Kyle that day. The movie ends with footage of Kyle's funeral, and indeed it is touching. Just not clear for what.
The film is based on Kyle's autobiography, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, written with two co-authors. The book came out in 2012 and was a bestseller before his death in 2013, and has sold many more copies (more than 1.2 million) since. The movie doesn't show anything about Kyle's post-Navy business or how the book and his self-promotion affected his life. The movie doesn't bring up Kyle's claim to have shot looters after Hurricane Katrina from atop the Superdome, or his story about "punching out Scruff Face" -- Jesse Ventura, who successfully sued Kyle's estate for libel (see Nicholas Schmidle: The Ventura Verdict).
This would be a good time to quote Wikipedia's paragraph on "Historical accuracy":
"The Butcher" is an "Al-Qaeda enforcer" who is shown attacking a child -- the son of a "sheik" who gave info to Americans after Kyle's team broke into his house -- with a drill. He is killed in the firefight after the scene with the weapons stash. Mustafa is an enemy sniper -- an Olympic-winning marksman from Syria who appears at least three times in the movie, becoming a personal obsession for Kyle. Kyle kills him with his 2100-yard long shot, as part of the climactic battle scene.
In other words, each and every significant encounter Kyle has with any Iraqi was invented for dramatic effect. (Presumably at least some of the anonymous, long-distance sniper kills come from the book. Kyle was credited with 160 kills. The movie shows maybe a dozen.) No doubt the fiction adds to the movie's drama. Perhaps it also whitewashes the US war effort, but Kyle was never more than a small cog in the military machine -- his rank after four tours was Chief Petty Officer, basically a sergeant -- and his approach to the war was so simplistic you hardly expect anything more: kill "bad guys"! Who are the "bad guys"? The ones who are trying to kill you.
One of Donald Rumsfeld's most indelible one-liners was that "you go to war with the army you have, not necessarily the one you want." The actual army that Kyle belonged to is defined simply: they are trained to be extraordinarily lethal, when deployed they are very focused on their own self-defense, and their primary defense strategy is to be as aggressive as possible. No one in Kyle's army questions why they are in Iraq. No one doubts their right to be where they are or go where they want. And everyone is deeply affronted any time they meet any form of resistance. No one recognizes that other points of view are possible. For Kyle, in particular, everyone he kills is evil; if not, he wouldn't have killed them. The whole movie, from the sheepdog story on, is testament to Kyle's moral certainty, and the tearful funeral excess just serves to elevate his moral certainty to the nation as a whole. And that's why the movie elicits such a solemn reaction from a certain kind of American: the one who believes that America is the greatest nation in the world, so great that the rest of the world can (or should) prostrate itself at our feet.
Nothing in the movie gives you a chance to question either the politics or the wisdom of Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq, let alone the wider trajectory of US involvement in the region. Even though most of the movie takes place in a foreign land, it never leaves an American mindset. For that reason it works as propaganda: even without explicit lies it reaffirms the war by not questioning it. What makes that worse is that the trajectory of understanding the Iraq war started to change with the Surge in 2007. The early period, 2003-04, was eventually viewed as an unmitigated disaster, but that boiled down to three things:
It's hard to remember that when Bush et al. conjured up this war, even though they led with the fear card, they tried to present the war like we'd be doing the Iraqis one big favor. That sentiment was one of the first casualties of the war. There's an old joke that goes: it's hard to remember that your mission was to drain the swamp when you're ass-deep in alligators. In the early days, Iraq was seen as an epic adventure in nation building. In the end, it's no more than alligator killing, which is probably why the SEALs are the last soldiers standing tall.
Moreover, the worldview has changed. Early in the War on Terror, the "bad guys" were few: the religious fanatics of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the Baathist elites of Iraq and Syria, a few others -- as much oppressors of their own people as enemies of the US. However, it turns out that the US was never "greeted as liberators" -- that everywhere the US bombed turned into enemy territory. That should have led us to question our entire approach, indeed who we are, but not being capable of introspection, we've changed out view of them instead. Looking at the US response to ISIS, even we can imagine no upside: just a long slog of killing a neverending supply of "bad guys," because once we enter a region, practically everyone turns into "bad guys."
Of course, if you're not entranced by this latest, most vicious twist on "the American religion," it's possible to view American Sniper differently. It is a celebration of a cold blooded killer, but it also details his descent into PTSD, as he turns into someone his wife at one point says she no longer recognizes. Kyle at least saves himself by doubling down on the militaristic pietism that made him rich and famous, but he is surrounded by other vets who can't make that work -- including the one who killed him. It takes an extraordinary amount of empathy to watch this movie and conclude that the war has been disastrous for Iraqi families, even though there are scenes that show just that. But it should be easier to see how expensive the toll on American lives has been, whether you do or do not accord any special value to the lives of soldiers. Kyle should be viewed as a tragic figure in American history. He sure is no hero.
 Some links from previous posts:
We can add a few more:
One more thought about the movie. One thing that is loosely implied is that Kyle got a perverse satisfaction out of sniping, at least for a while. Bradley Cooper plays Kyle as exceptionally modest -- lots of other characters dub him "The Legend" and offer other accolades, but Kyle mostly sloughs them off. Even though he's always teamed with a spotter, sniping is patient and methodical work, not something full of adrenaline rushes. But as he goes from tour to tour, he keeps getting drawn back for more and more -- although he never articulates it, there is something to sniping that he never experienced before and that once he experienced it would be missing from his life. It reminded me of a remarkable interview in the second season of The Fall, where serial killer Paul Prescott explains the intense sensation of living that he feels when he kills someone. Of course, Prescott killed far fewer people than Kyle, and did so furtively against the law whereas Kyle was on his government's payroll -- the difference was that Kyle never had to hide what he was doing -- but both were similar in the meticulous, artful way they set up and dispatched their victims. (You can find a summary of the episode here, although it skips the part I'm referring to.)