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.)
Sunday, March 22. 2015
The top story of last week's news cycle was Israel's elections for a new parliament (Knesset). Many people hoped that the voters would finally dispose of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but in the last minutes "Bibi" swung hard to the racist right and wound up with a six-seat plurality, mostly at the expense of small parties nominally to the right of Likud. That still leaves Netanyahu only half way to forming a new Knesset majority coalition, but few observers see that as a problem, although it probably means further concessions to the "religious" parties -- Shas, United Torah, etc. Best place to start reading about this is Richard Silverstein: Israeli Election Post-Mortem: Rearranging the Deck Chairs:
Some other links on Israel:
Weiss also quotes the Zionist Camp activist Yaniv as saying "We need a Mandela." The problem is more like Israel can't even come up with a De Clerk. (Arguably Yitzhak Rabin auditioned for the part, but he couldn't deliver, partly because he didn't face the demographics and worldwide ostracism white South Africa faced, and partly because he got killed before he could rise to the situation -- if indeed he could.) Still, nobody remembers De Clerk as a great man, partly because his hands were plenty dirty before he relinquished power, partly because Mandela took the glory when he showed such grace and dignity in assuming power.
Still, Israel's situation isn't exactly analogous to De Clerk's. It's not that the Apartheid metaphor isn't applicable. If anything, Israel's treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is more rigorous, terrifying, and dehumanizing than anything South Africa did. And it's only a matter of time until most of the world sees Israel's Occupation as a gross affront to human rights, peace, and justice, and takes action to isolate and ostracize Israel. But the demographics will never be equivalent: whites in South Africa amounted to no more than 15% of the population, whereas Jews are a majority within Greater Israel, and that majority could be grown by lopping off territory with large concentrations of Palestinians (most easily, Gaza). Sure, free return of Palestinian refugees from 1947-49 might tip the scales, but realistically that's not going to happen.
This demographic position gives Israel's leaders options, but time and again they've chosen to maintain the status quo, at the cost of continued strife and insecurity. They've done this partly because they've psyched themselves into both into believing they'll always live in peril -- that the world will never accept them as peaceable neighbors -- and into thinking they will always win. (This mentality was amply illustrated in Tom Segev's 1967, which showed how terrified Israeli civilians were of impending war and how utterly confident Israel's generals were of their victory.)
History also gives Israel's leaders options. The Zionist movement is now 135 years old, more than a century has passed since Britain's Balfour Declaration opened up Jewish immigration, and the state of Israel has existed for 67 years, under its current borders for 48 years (aside from returning Sinai to Egypt in a deal that established that Israel could coexist with a neighboring Arab state). Fifty years ago one could imagine Israel meeting the fate of Algeria, but no one believes that now. By 2001, all Arab states were willing to recognize Israel in exchange for a deal which would create a Palestinian state from the territory Israel seized in 1967. The PLO had already agreed to that, and Hamas has since come to that position. Only Israeli greed and intransigence has prevented a peace deal from happening. Well, that and the gullibility of American political leaders, who for one reason of another have been spineless when they needed to stand up to Israel.
Netanyahu's great value to Israel has always been his ability to manipulate US opinion -- something he's been known to brag about, unseemly as that may be -- but lately he bound his fate to the Republican Party. In doing so he has started to alienate Democratic supporters of Israel, but more than that he has opened up a mental association between Israeli and Republican policies -- militarism, racism, harsh justice, targeted assassinations, an omnipotent security state, increasing economic inequality, and much more.
I'll try to write more later about what should be done, but for now I just want to leave you with a warning. Unless something is done to correct the trends we're seeing in Israel, the situation there will continue to grow more desperate and unjust, and unless the US can break its tail-wags-dog subservience to Israel we will wind up in the same dystopia.
Wednesday, November 5. 2014
Got up this morning. The sky was clear, the air crisp, a really lovely day. People went to work. Some drove by. Others walked their dogs. The mail came. It all seems like a normal day. The ramifications of yesterday's elections will take some time to manifest themselves. It occurs to me that maybe I shouldn't fret so much. I'm 64. By the time the Republicans destroy Obamacare I'll be 65 and eligible for Medicare. By the time they kill off Medicare, I'll be dead. And otherwise I'm relatively immune to the scourges of Republican rule: I don't need decent or affordable schools, I'm unlikely to be harrassed by police or criminals (and the odds of a self-righteous gun nut striking me aren't much higher than the odds of being struck by lightning or mowed down by a tornado). I'm out of the job market, but (for now at least) don't need welfare either. And I don't have children, so while I wish good things for generations to come I don't have much skin in that game. If other Americans don't care what happens to them, why should I?
What happened? Nate Silver's postmortem claims The Polls Were Skewed Toward Democrats. I wish he had phrased this differently: the takeaway is likely to be that the pollsters were biased, something Republicans are always whining about (although Democrats usually suspect the opposite). Other reasons are possible: late shifts, volatile voter turnout levels. Pollsters try to limit their samples to "likely voters" but that can be hard to guess ahead of the fact. I don't have much data on turnout so far, but accepting the premise that people who don't vote are generally more liberal than people who do -- there's quite a bit of evidence for that -- a Democratic vote shortfall suggests a lower-than-expected turnout. One turnout figure I have is Sedgwick County in KS (Wichita), where turnout was 51.5% -- actually a bit less than in 2010, despite much more competitive races this year. I suspect a variation on the so-called Bradley Effect (where people tell pollsters something that sounds better than the truth): I suspect more people told pollsters they would vote than actually did.
Silver's data shows that Republican Senate candidates did better than their weighted poll averages in 26 (of 34) races (he leaves KS off the list; Orman ran as an independent, but everyone treated him as a Democrat, especially since the Democratic nominee dropped out and wasn't on the ballot); Republican Gubernatorial candidates did better in 28 (of 35) races. Had the polls been right, the Democrats would have won two Senate seats (North Carolina, Alaska) and four governorships (Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland) they lost, but they would have lost Connecticut. Had the Democrats run two points better than their polls, they would have saved or picked up three Senate seats (Colorado, Georgia, Iowa) and three governships (Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin). That would have turned into a decent night.
Still, polling wasn't the reason Republicans won. I hadn't taken it that seriously, but the main reason's been staring me in the face every time I visited Talking Points Memo: in their "PollTracker" Obama has had a steady job approval rating of 42.9%, ten points below is 52.9% disapproval. That number hasn't budged in months, and it's hard to imagine what Obama could do to move it. He can't legislate anything without help from Congress, and that's something the Republicans won't permit. He could, like Harry Truman when faced a Republian-controlled Congress in 1948, go out on the campaign trail and attack his "do-nothing Congress," but that's not his style (and anyway, he's not up for election). Nor does he really have much to talk about: the economy is recovering but it's not doing most people much good (nor did he do it much good); he has positive stories on issues ranging from domestic oil surpluses to reducing the national debt, but who cares?; he's managed to get back into Iraq and involved in Syria without having a clue where that's going; then there's the panic on Ebola, where the message is a boring we're doing what needs to be done. The quiet competency and subtle nudges he's always aimed for don't move anyone.
The rest of TPM's widget doesn't look so bad for Democrats: their unfavorable rating is 8 point higher than their favorable (46-38), but the Republicans are 20 points unfavorable (50-30). One troubling point is that even though Republicans are less liked and more loathed voters still give them a +2.4% (45.7% to 43.3%) edge in the generic congressional ballot (plus, in the House, they have more incumbents due mostly to gerrymandering). One reason I dismissed the top line is that some people, like me, disapprove of Obama but wouldn't think of defecting to the Republicans over it. (My main gripe is Obama's handling of what I call the Four Wars of 2014 -- Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and Ukraine.) But evidently there aren't many of us. On the other hand, in race after race Republicans figure all they have to do is to identify the Democrat (or in Kansas, independent Greg Orman) with Obama and voters will snap. I expected most people to see through something that transparent, but for various reasons (including but not limited to racism) lots of people are ready to blame Obama for whatever bugs them, no matter what. And a big chunk of the $3.6 billion spent on the campaign went into driving that one point home.
Matt Yglesias explained what's been happening in a post on Mitch McConnell's reëlection:
Anyone who's paid much attention is aware of Republican obstruction and hostage taking -- some approving and some aghast -- but many don't notice until it's too late, and it's easy for them to blame Obama, especially with the right-wing media attacking Obama for pretty much everything they can imagine. The one exception that reflects back on Republicans seems to be shutting down the government, but folks rarely notice when the safety net is shredded until they fall through and go splat. Similarly, who notices when jobs (e.g., judges and ambassadors) go unfilled as long as they don't affect you personally. But the idea isn't just to obstruct Obama, it's to make life so difficult that the Democrats don't even try to do new things -- and that has the effect of making Obama and the Democrats look ineffective, like they aren't even trying.
What McConnell and the Republicans have done isn't unprecedented -- indeed they did much the same thing to Clinton -- except in frequency and persistence: there's never been anything quite like that before. The Senate, in particular, has many arcane rules ripe for abuse, and only limited by conscience -- something rarely seen among a group who increasingly favor incompetent and unrepresentative government. Like most schemes, the only way around it is to cut through it, exposing the ill intent and holding all sides to a higher standard of public interest. One might expect the mainstream media to do just that, but their sense of even-handedness blinds them to asymmetric behavior. Nor does it help that the media are held by large corporations, not the public trust (an idea increasingly regarded as quaint).
I'm not interested in speculating on what Obama can or cannot, should or should not do during the last two years of his term. I will say that the Democratic Party needs a spokesman independent of the White House, and that they need to rebuild the party from the roots up, much like the Republicans did in the early 1990s. Obama blew his opportunity to get much done when he lost Congress in 2010, much as Clinton did in 1994. That plus eight much-worse-than-wasted years with GW Bush has left us with an increasing roll of problems, little wherewithal to solve them, and it seems even less imagination. Until the latter opens up, we're stuck in this hopeless game, where nothing is possible because nothing viable can be imagined. In this, I'd say the Democrats are as blind as the Republicans, albeit somewhat less cynical.
It's worth noting that nearly all of the actual issues on the various ballots were won by progressives, including a higher minimum wage in Arkansas, more thorough gun control checks in Washington, guaranteed sick leave in several states, and decriminalization of marijuana. (A medical marijuana initiative in Florida lost when it fell just short of a 60% supermajority requirement, after Sheldon Adelson spent millions against it.) Perhaps more Democrats should have run on issues, instead of shying away from them. It's been observed that the election results will most likely end medicare expansion in Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia, but that's due to Republican gains, not to referenda on the issue. Indeed, it's doubtful most voters in those states realize what they've done. All they think they've done is to have thwarted Obama and his nefarious plots.
 Indeed, the first turnout numbers show Preliminary Turnout Numbers Are Way Down From 2010 and 2012, the overall percentage voting dropping from 40.9% in 2010 to 36.6% in 2014. (The presidential elections Obama won in 2008 and 2012 drew 56.8% and 53.6% respectively.) Turnout varied from 59.3% in Maine to 28.5% in Texas; Kansas was 42.8%. Although the bottom of the barrel was solid red (Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma), some Democratic-leaning states had low turnouts (New York: 30.2%; California: 34.8%). I think there are at least two factors here: there is an underlying variation by state (e.g., Minnesota, which ranked 5th this year, is usually near the top, while Texas is almost always at the bottom), which are then tweaked somewhat by having competitive races.
There is also a map which compares 2014 to 2010. States with higher turnout in 2014 are: Nebraska (+7.6), Louisiana, Wisconsin, Maine, Arkansas, Alaska, New Hampshire (+3.1). Kansas was +1.1, a pretty small gain compared to campaign spending (through the roof). Colorado was +1.8, Kentucky +1.8, North Carolina +1.5, Florida +1.4.
Also, Ed Kilgore reports (What the Hell Happened to the Democratic Vote):
 By the way, here's a report on Kansas: How the Kansas Democratic Party Drove Itself to Near Extinction (Pt 1): I can't really vouch for this -- I know some people who are active in the party, but I'm not one of them -- but certainly the lack of organization, offices, and candidate support is a big problem here. The Democrat who ran for an empty Senate seat against Jerry Moran did so with a total budget of about $23,000 (vs. about $5 million, if memory serves). This makes me wonder whether the Democratic gubernatorial ticket this year would have been stronger with Jill Docking on top and Davis slotted for Lieutenant Governor. For one thing, Docking wouldn't have been characterized as a "Lawrence liberal" (she's from Wichita), nor would she have been subject to those lurid "strip club" ads. Women have a good track record in KS politics: the last two Democratic governors were women, and before that two previous Democratic governors were named Docking (Jill married into a rather famous family, as by the way did Kathleen Sebelius). Also see Pt. 2.
Wednesday, September 17. 2014
Every year dozens of books are published about a topic that only a handful of Americans care about: specifically, those with cushy "think tank" jobs, plus a few military officers and State department bureaucrats who aspire to those jobs. Most assume that the US has a rightful role running the World Order, with some fretting that China or some other nation is going to butt in and offering sage advice on how the US can secure its rightful role. Against these stalwart hegemonists, now and then someone will argue that a "multipolar" isn't such a calamity, but they are in the minority, and are still so obsessed with dominance they needn't fear about losing their status as Very Serious Thinkers.
The books, of course, are nonsense, predicated on unexamined ideas: that chaos and war are the natural state of the world, that order is so valuable you have to accept it from whoever can impose it, that inequality is the best we can do given man's venal nature. That is, of course, the way conservatives think about everything. Unfortunately, it is also the way liberals usually think about the foreign world, given how readily they have sucked up the prejudices of the West's imperial past. In 2003 Jonathan Schell published an antidote to that kind of thinking, a book called The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. It was published just as the neocon ideology had become fashionable and powerful enough to "create new reality" in Iraq, and predicted failure for such hubris. Ten years later the results should be clear, but still the foreign policy elite natters on, too absorbed in their own prejudiced thoughts to have noticed their failures.
Case in point: a new book called World Order by America's most venerable war criminal, Henry Kissinger. Fortunately, we don't have to actually read the book: we can skim through the New York Times' review by John Micklethwait -- editor-in-chief of The Economist, the kind of journalist who makes his living chronicling the rarefied world of conservative "think tanks." (Micklethwait's most famous book is The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, which every 4-5 pages reiterated the mantra that conservatives are America's "idea people." He also wrote A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization  and God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World , extolling the wonders of free capital flows and fundamentalism, respectively. His latest is The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, about how the future belongs to oligarchies that are able to usurp the powers of the state.) Rarely has reviewer and subject been so perfectly matched to bring out the worst in a book.
However, before we dive into the review, I should point out that there is an alternative approach to international relations that is wholly absent in the thinking of Kissinger and Micklethwait: the idea that order can be obtained through the consent of equal nations with a common commitment to basic, inalienable human rights and a just body of international law. In the wake of two horrific world wars, and the advent of even more destructive nuclear weapons, that idea got so far as the founding documents of the United Nations -- before that body got turned into a cartel of superpowers -- and the basic ideas have reappeared occasionally since. I could elaborate more, but for now just keep the idea in mind.
The first quarter of Micklethwait's review is sheer flattery:
It's not as if Kissinger didn't have the ear of the Bush Administration after 9/11. He was, after all, Bush's first pick to chair the commission that would report on the 9/11 attacks. (He turned the job down for fear of having to disclose who his consulting clients were.) If he had any reservations about Bush's approach to Iraq or anything, he was remarkably circumspect about voicing them. And since when has Churchill been an expert on anything? He always said he hadn't been elected to preside over the dismantling of the British Empire, but no one did more to wreck it, which he repeatedly did by insisting on substituting his prejudices for any understanding of or empathy for the empire's subjects. On the other hand, Kissinger's own record is nearly as bad. The suggestion that he would have handled Syria and Ukraine better than Obama has -- admittedly a low bar -- overlooks how much his own policies contributed to those conflicts today.
The Westphalia treaties ended the 30 Years War in 1648 with a set of agreements between nations/states/cities to respect each other's autonomy and work with each other in prescribed ways. This later led to an ever-adjusting set of alliances to maintain a balance of power -- which mostly worked to keep the peace in Europe (and to export war to the third world) until its colossal failure in 1914. Kissinger always thinks in the past, and far enough back as to ignore recent novelties like the European Union, so balance of power is the best he can do. Unlike the neocons, he recognizes that the US isn't the sole power in the world, one suspects this has less to do with realism than with the fact that it takes multiple powers to balance.
After all, while the neocons hate Kissinger, he has never really reciprocated. The reason, I think, is that both worship power. It's just that the neocons think they have so much power they can create their own reality, and Kissinger, well, he's never been to type to point out "the Emperor's new clothes" -- he's too much of a flatterer for that, too worshipful of power.
The review goes on and on iterating Kissinger's past examples, a litany of Richelieu, Metternich, Palmerston, Talleyrand -- curiously enough, courtiers like Kissinger and not the monarchs they served. Kissinger goes on to belittle the European Union:
For Kissinger, historical change not accomplished by force hardly counts. Then he explains Putin and Russia:
Again, nothing like a historical factoid to explain away current behavior or policy. This one is about as facile as trying to explain the Bush occupation of Iraq as the latest wrinkle on Manifest Destiny. It may indeed be that a nation capable of the former is predisposed to the latter, but that leaves a lot of intervening history unexamined in favor of a pat answer.
I suppose this is where you notice that Micklethwait is British: he can't quite fall for the poor, tiny, beleaguered Israel line that is political orthodoxy in the US. Kissinger has been around the block enough to know better too, but to say so would take principles, or courage, neither a Kissinger staple. Propounding ignorance about Islam, on the other hand, takes neither. It's right up his alley.
Another remarkable example of Kissinger's ability to look at al the complexities of history and only see power relationships, then to take the narrowest thread and explicate it through some totally unrelated event in European history. Sure, Britain united India politically -- more Bismarck than Napoleon, I'd say, until they also split it into two warring halves -- but they also destroyed India economically. (One thing I wonder is whether Kissinger would have been so successful had stayed in Europe, where his audiences and patrons might actually know much of the history he revels in.)
Middle Kingdom? Another example of forcing the present into the distant past so he can avoid having to understand what's happening there. I like the line -- "Good men do not become soldiers" -- but modern China does not lack for soldiers, or for nails. While modern China must in some sense continue to reflect and resonate ancient China, the nation's remarkable economic growth of the past 20-30 years is more due to forced modernization. This is a modern (perhaps even postmodern) phenomenon -- unexplainable through ancient history, but also non-analogous to the processes that created similar results in Europe and America. In particular, China (and most of East Asia, Japan a partial exception) achieved its wealth without building on imperialism, so is unlikely to look at the world the same way Europe and America do. Needless to say, that's a thought Kissinger is incapable of.
One of my favorite rock lyrics is from the band Camper van Beethoven, and goes like this: "If you weren't living here in America/you'd probably be somewhere else." There are several problems with being self-centered. One is that you can't see yourself as others see you, and as such you have no clue when you do something wrong. Back when the US army was smaller than Bulgaria's it still did things that were wrong -- 1890, the very year Micklethwait cites, was the date of the Wounded Knee Massacre -- but those wrong things were much smaller in scope and more isolated from the rest of the world than they are today. I don't know why Kissinger/Micklethwait complained about the size of the 1890 army. Back then, the US was already the most prosperous nation in the world, without getting into the trap of managing overseas colonies (although it often treated Central America like one). Nor was the US isolated: with the possible exception of the UK, no nation traded more all around the world. What more do they want?
The notion of America as an "indispensable nation" dates from WWII, when latent industrial might turned the tables against the Axis -- although we conveniently forget that most of the actual fighting was carried out by the Soviet Union and China. Unfortunately, Americans had too good a time in that war -- a massive Keynesian stimulus, strict profit controls, and a sense of common purpose pushed a previously depressed economy into overdrive, while all of the war's destruction took place elsewhere. By the time the war was over, over half of the world's industrial capacity resided in the US, and America alone had the financial power to jumpstart the world economy. After some early gestures to build a peaceful world community, Truman got distracted and decided that the US should side with capital in the international class war, so efforts like the Marshall Plan were turned into political weapons against not just the Soviet Union but the whole working class. The "Cold War" somehow managed not to destroy the world, but the US repeatedly supported desperate attempts by colonial powers to recapture their empires, and corrupt dictators and oligarchs when independence was inevitable, while isolating nations that had the gall to turn toward communism. Ultimately, the big loser of the Cold War wasn't the Soviet Union, which gave up the game, but America's own middle class democracy.
Micklethwait, possibly echoing but at least distilling Kissinger, described the Cold War thusly:
After the Soviet Union fell, America's foreign policy elites were beside themselves with triumphal glee -- proclaiming The End of History and looking forward to The Clash of Civilizations -- but their triumph was little more than a con. Had Reagan's rhetoric caused the Soviet Union to disintegrate, why did communist states the US confronted much more aggressively (like Cuba and North Korea) stay communist? If communism was a dead end, how was China able to post the world's strongest economic growth record over the last 25 years? Moreover, when you sift through the real rubble of the "Cold War" you find enormous chasms where the US took the wrong side of history and left enormous destruction in its wake: the "chaos in the Middle East" that Micklethwait bemoans is largely the result of America's Cold War embrace of Salafist jihadism -- a program, by the way, initiated in the 1970s when Henry Kissinger came up with the bright idea of propping the ultraconservative Saudi monarchy up as a US proxy in the Middle East (and soon thereafter Afghanistan). To say "America's moral order worked" is well beyond insane.
This isn't to say that the US should have no role in the world (although that would clearly be an improvement over the one the US has practiced for nearly seventy years now). Clearly there are useful and valuable things a large and rich nation can do in the world -- the $750 million Obama just proposed to fight the ebola epidemic is a nice gesture (although, as Nick Turse recently documented, the US has a terrible track record of running "humanitarian projects" in Africa). But what needs to be done is for the US to meet other countries in forums that give everyone a fair and equal shake, and for that to happen the US has to stop throwing its weight around, trying to bully everyone else into submission. More specifically, the US needs to develop a genuine commitment to peace and human rights, to equality and justice, to a sustainable stewardship of the earth. To do that, a good first step would be to stop listening to Henry Kissinger. In fact, a good step would be to extradite him to the Hague, to finally be tried as the war criminal he was (and is).