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).
Monday, August 4. 2014
Running a day behind and coming up short as I try to sum up what's been happening around the world and how Israel/Gaza fits into it. The blog, by the way, has experienced intermittent failures, something the ISP (addr.com) has thus far been completely unhelpful at fixing. Sorry for the inconvenience. Music Week will also run a day late (assuming no further outages).
This week's links will once again focus mostly on Israel's continuing assault on Gaza. It is not the only significant war in the world at the moment -- the governments in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine are simultaneously engaged in brutal campaigns to bring their own people back under central state control -- but it is the one that most immediately concerns us in the US, partly because American partisanship in largely responsible for the conflict (i.e., the failure to resolve the conflict peacefully); partly because Israel's thinking and practice in power projection and counterterrorism is seen as an ideal model by many influential American foreign policy mandarins (the so-called "neocons," of course, but many of their precepts have infiltrated the brains of supposedly more liberal actors, notably the Clintons, Kerry, and Obama); and partly because Israel has managed to recapitulate the violence and racism of our own dimly remembered past, something they play on to elicit sympathy even though a more apt reaction would be horror.
I don't want to belittle the three other "civil wars": indeed, the US (almost entirely due to Obama) has actively sided with the governments of Iraq (the US has sent a small number of ground troops and large amounts of arms there) and Ukraine (the US has led the effort to sanction and vilify Russia). On the other hand, the US condemned and threatened to bomb Syria, and has sent (or at least promised) arms to "rebels" there, although they've also (at least threatened) to bomb the "rebels" too. But we also know relatively little about those conflicts, and probably understand less, not least because most of what has been reported has been selected for propaganda effect. For instance, when "separatists" in Ukraine tragically shot down a Malaysian airliner, that story led the nightly news for more than a week, but hardly anyone pointed out that Ukraine had been shelling and bombing separatist enclaves, and that anti-aircraft rockets had successfully shot down at least one Ukrainian military plane before the airliner. (The effective blackout of news of the conflict, including the use of anti-aircraft missiles in the region, should bear at least some measure of blame for the airliner tragedy.) Similarly, we hear much about extreme doctrines of the breakaway "Islamic State" in Iraq, but virtually nothing of the Maliki government practices that have managed to alienate nearly all of northwestern Iraq (as well as the Kurdish regions, which have all but declared their own breakaway state, one that the US is far more tolerant of -- perhaps since it doesn't serve to flame Islamophobic public opinion in the US).
Syria is a much messier problem, for the US anyhow. The state was taken over by the Ba'ath Party in 1963, and led by the Assad family since 1971. Syria fought against Israel in the 1948-49 war, and again in 1967, when Israel seized the Golan Heights, and again in 1973. At various times Syria made efforts to ally itself with the US (notably in the 1990 coalition against Iraq), but several factors prejudiced US opinion against the Assads: the border dispute with Israel and intermittent Syrian support for the PLO, Syria's resort to Russia (and later Iran) as its armaments supplier, the repressive police state and the brutality with which the Assads put down rebellions (e.g., they killed at least 10,000 people in the Hama massacre of 1982 -- a tactic much admired by Israeli military theoreticians like Martin Van Creveld). One might think that Syria's lack of democracy would be an issue, but the US has never objected to other tyrants that could be counted as more reliable allies, such as the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But when Assad fired on Arab Spring demonstrations, prejudice turned Obama against Assad, as the revolt became militarized he chipped in guns, as it became Islamicized he waffled. Obama set a "red line" at the use of chemical weapons, and when that appeared to have been violated, he felt it was his place to punish Syria with a round of gratuitous bombings, but Congress demurred, and Putin interceded with an offer by Syria to give up their chemical weapon stocks. Since then, Obama has promised more arms to Syrian "rebels" and also threatened to bomb those rebels connected with the revolt in Iraq, and he ruined his relationship with Putin -- the only real chance to mediate the conflict -- for recriminations over Ukraine. Meanwhile, Israel (always seen as a US ally even though usually acting independently) bombed Syria.
At this point there will be no easy resolution to Syria. One obvious problem is how many foreign countries have contributed to one side or the other (or in the case of the US to both, if not quite all). So the first step would be an international agreement to use whatever pressure they have to get to a ceasefire and some sort of power-sharing agreement, but obvious as that direction is, the other ongoing conflicts make it impossible. Just to take the most obvious example, the US (Obama) is by far more committed to marginalizing Russia in Ukraine than it is to peace anywhere in the Middle East, least of all Israel. Russia is likewise more focused on Ukraine than anywhere else, although it doesn't help that its main interest in Syria and Iraq appears to be selling arms (it supports both governments, making it a US ally in Iraq as well as an enemy in Syria, blowing the Manichaean minds in Washington). Saudi Arabia and Iran are far more invested against or for Syria and Iraq. One could go on and on, but absent any sort of enlightened world leader willing to step outside of the narrow confines of self-interest and link the solution to all of these conflicts, their asymmetries will continue to grind on, and leave bitter legacies in their paths. In Syria alone, over more than three years the estimated death toll is over 250,000. In Iraq estimated deaths since the US exit in 2011 are over 21,000, but much more if you go back to 2003 when the US invaded and stirred up much sectarian strife. (I couldn't say "started" there because US culpability goes back to 1991, when Bush urged Iraqi shiites to rise up against Saddam Hussein, then allowed the Iraqi army to crush them mercilessly, then instigated "no fly" zones with periodic bombings, along with sanctions lasting until the 2003 invasion.)
As for Israel's latest assault on Gaza, in three weeks Israel has killed over 1,800 Palestinians -- I won't bother trying to separate out "civilians" and "militants" since Gaza has no organized military (like the IDF). That may seem like a small number compared to Syria above, but if you adjust for the relative populations (22.5 million in Syria, 1.8 million in Gaza) and length of war (171 weeks for Syria, 3 for Gaza) the kill rate is about five times greater in Gaza (333 per million per week vs. 65 per million per week in Syria). Moreover, the distribution of deaths is extremely skewed in Gaza, whereas in Syria and Iraq (I have no idea about Ukraine) they are close to even (to the extent that "sides" make sense there). The distinction between IDF and "civilians" makes more sense in Israel, especially as nearly all IDF casualties occurred on Gazan soil after Israel invaded. The ratio there is greater than 600-to-one (1800+ to 3), a number we'll have to come back to later. (The first Israeli killed was a settler who was voluntarily delivering goodies to the troops -- i.e., someone who would certainly qualify as a "militant"; another was a Thai migrant-worker, and some tallies of Israeli losses don't even count him.) The number of Israeli soldiers killed currently stands at 64, some of which were killed by Israeli ("friendly") fire. (The first IDF soldier killed was so attributed, but I haven't seen any later breakdowns. There have been at least two instances where an Israeli soldier was possibly captured and subsequently killed by Israeli fire -- IDF forces operate under what's called the Hannibal Directive, meant to prevent situations where Israeli soldiers are captured and used as bargaining chips for prisoner exchanges, as was Gilad Shalit.) Even if you counted those IDF deaths, the overkill ratio would be huge. But without them, it should be abundantly clear how little Israel was threatened by Hamas and other groups in Gaza. In 2013, no one in Israel was hurt by a rocket attack from Gaza. This year, in response to Israel and Egypt tightening Gaza borders, to Israel arresting 500+ people more or less associated with Hamas (many released in the Shalit deal) in the West Bank, and to Israel's intense bombardment now lasting three weeks, more than a thousand rockets were launched from Gaza at Israel, and the result of all this escalation was . . . 3 dead, a couple dozen (currently 23) wounded. Just think about it: Israel gave Gazans all this reason to be as vindictive as possible, and all it cost them was 3 civilian casualties (one of which they don't even count). In turn, they inflicted incalculable damage upon 1.8 million people. The trade off boggles the mind. Above all else, it makes you wonder what kind of people would do such a thing.
A little history here: Zionist Jews began emigrating from Russia to the future Israel, then part of the Ottoman Empire, in the 1880s, following a breakout of pogroms (state-organized or -condoned attacks on Jews) following the assassination of Czar Alexander. Britain went to war against the Ottoman Empire in 1914, and made various promises to both Arabs and Jews of land they would seize from the Ottomans, including Palestine. In 1920 the British kept Palestine as a mandate. They took a census which showed the Jewish population at 10%. The British allowed Jewish immigration in fits and spurts, with the Jewish population ultimately rising to 30% in 1947. Britain's reign over Palestine was marked by sporadic violence, notably the Arab Revolt of 1937-39 which Britain brutally suppressed, using many techniques which Israel would ultimately adopt, notably collective punishment. Meanwhile, the British allowed the Zionist community to form a state-within-the-state, including its own militia, which aided the British in putting down the Arab Revolt. In 1947, Britain decided to wash its hands of Palestine and returned the mandate to the then-new United Nations. The leaders of the Jewish proto-state in Palestine lobbied the United Nations to partition Palestine into two parts -- one Jewish, the other Arab (Christian and Moslem) -- and the UN complied with a scheme that offered Jewish control of a slight majority of the land, Arab control of several remaining isolated pockets (West Bank, West Galilee, Gaza Strip, Jaffa), with Jerusalem a separate international zone. There were virtually no Jews living in the designated Arab areas, but Arabs were more than 40% of the population of the Jewish areas. The Arabs rejected the partition proposal, favoring a single unified state with a two-to-one Arab majority. The Zionist leadership accepted the partition they had lobbied for, but didn't content themselves with the UN-specified borders or with the international zone for Jerusalem. When the British abdicated, Israel declared independence and launched a war to expand its territory, swallowing West Galilee and Jaffa, capturing the west half of Jerusalem, and reducing the size of the Gaza Strip by half. Several neighboring Arab countries joined this war, notably Transjordan, which was able to secure east Jerusalem (including the Old City) and the West Bank (including the highly contested Latrun Salient), and Egypt, which wound up in control of the reduced Gaza Strip. During this war more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were uprooted and fled beyond Israeli control, to refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, and Syria, leaving the land occupied by Israel as 85% Jewish.
Israel signed armistice agreements in 1949-50 with its neighbors. Jordan annexed its occupied Palestinian territories and gave their inhabitants Jordanian citizenship, not that that meant much in an monarchy with no democratic institutions. Egypt didn't annex Gaza; it styled itself as a caretaker for a fragment of a future independent Palestinian state, which left its inhabitants in limbo. Israel passed a series of laws which gave every Jew in the world the right to immigrate to Israel and enjoy citizenship there, and denied the right of every Palestinian who had fled the 1948-50 war to ever return, confiscating the lands of the refugees. Palestinians who stayed within Israel were granted nominal citizenship, but placed under military law. Gazan refugees who tried to return to Israel were shot, and Israel repeatedly punished border incidents by demolishing homes in Gaza and the West Bank. (Ariel Sharon first made his reputation by making sure that the homes he blew up in Qibya in 1953 were still occupied.) Israel was never happy with its 1950 armistice borders. After numerous border incidents, Israel launched a sneak attack on Egypt in 1967, seizing Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula up to the Suez Canal, then quickly expanded the war into Jordan (grabbing East Jerusalem and the West Bank) and Syria (the Golan Heights).
The UN resolution following the 1967 war called for Israel to return all the lands seized during the war in exchange for peace with all of Israel's neighbors. The Arabs nations were slow to respond to this "land-for-peace" proposal, although this was the basis of the 1979 agreement that returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, and would be the basis of subsequent peace proposals backed by every nation in the Arab League -- the sole difference is that Jordan has since renounced its claim to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, so those as well as Gaza might form the basis of an independent Palestinian state, as originally envisioned by the UN. The PLO has agreed to this solution, and Hamas has announced tacit approval (they have what you may call a funny way of putting things, one that unfortunately allowed for a large measure of distortion by Israeli "explainers" [hasbara-ists]). So if Israel ever wanted peace, both with its neighbors and with its current and former Palestinian subjects, that simple deal is on the table (as well as several subsequent ones which allow Israel additional concessions, although those are less universally accepted).
The rub is that Israel has never wanted peace, and nowadays the political consensus in Israel is further than ever from willing to even consider the notion. This is a hard point for most people to grasp -- who doesn't want peace? -- but nothing Israel does makes any sense until you realize this. We can trace this back over history, or you can just look at the current fracas. Israel, after all, could have decided to handle the June 12 kidnapping-murder as a normal police matter. Despite everything they've done since, they haven't caught their two prime suspects, so they couldn't have done less as to solving the crime, and they would have gotten a lot more credit and sympathy. But rather than react as any normal country would, they went out and arrested 500 people who had nothing to do with the crime, and in the process of doing that they killed another nine Palestinians. The rockets, which in any case did no real damage, were primarily a response to the arrests, and more basically to Israel's blockade of Gaza, which is itself a deeper manifestation of Israel's belligerency. Even then, Israel could have ignored the rockets. The decision to start shelling/bombing Gaza was completely their own, as was the decision to send troops into Gaza to destroy tunnels that hadn't caused any actual harm to Israel. In short, all that destruction is the direct result of Israel reacting the way Israel always reacts to provocations: by escalating the level of violence. And that's simply not the way a nation that wants to live in peace behaves.
I can think of several reasons why Israel has chosen to be a state of perpetual war:
Those four points are all true, self-reinforcing in various combinations at various times. They help explain why David Ben-Gurion, for instance, sabotaged his successor for fear that Moshe Sharrett might normalize relations with Israel's Arab neighbors, turning Israel into an ordinary country. They help explain why Abba Eban was so disingenuous following 1967, giving lip service to "land-for-peace" while never allowing any negotiations to take place. They help explain why a long series of Israeli politicians -- Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon are the two that stand out in my mind -- tied up so much land by encouraging illegal settlements, and why today's West Bank settlers retrace the steps both of the Yishuv's original settlers and of even earlier Americans encroaching on Indian lands. They help explain why Israelis habitually label anyone who crosses them a terrorist (something John Kerry was accused of last week), and why Israel habitually refuses to negotiate with those it sees as enemies. They help explain why Israel places so little value on the life of others. (One irony is that a nation which has no capital punishment for its own citizens, even when one kills a Prime Minister, yet has casually engaged in hundreds of extrajudicial assassinations.)
I've gone on at some length here about Israel's innate tendencies because there seems to be little else directing Netanyahu's process. It used to be the case that the Zionist movement depended on forming at least temporary alliances with foreign powers to advance their goals. For instance, they got the UK to issue the Balfour Declaration and commit to creating a "Jewish homeland" in Palestine. Later, when the UK quit, the nascent Israel depended first on the Soviet Union then on France for arms. Eventually, they found their preferred ally in the US, but for a long time US presidents could limit Israel's worst instincts, as when Eisenhower in 1956-57 pressured Israel into withdrawing from Egypt's Sinai, or when Carter in 1978 reversed an Israeli effort to enter Lebanon's Civil War. (Neither of those limits proved long-lasting: Israel retook Sinai when a more accommodating LBJ was president, and moved recklessly into Lebanon in 1982 under Reagan's indifference.) As late as 1992, voters were sensitive enough to Israel's US relationship to replace obdurate Yitzhak Shamir with the much friendlier Yitzhak Rabin (a former Israeli ambassador to the US and initiator of the Oslo Peace Process -- ultimately a sham, but one that broke the ice with the US, and got him killed by a right-wing fanatic). But since then Bush II turned out to be putty in Ariel Sharon's grubby hands, and Obama has proven to be even more spineless viz. Netanyahu. So whatever limits America might have posed to Israeli excesses have gone by the wayside: Israeli cabinet ministers can accuse Kerry of terrorism just for proposing a ceasefire, confident that such rudeness won't even tempt Congress to hold back on an extra $225M in military aid.
Still, you have to ask, "why Gaza?" Two times -- in 1993 when Israel ceded virtually all of Gaza to the newly formed Palestinian Authority, and in 2005 when Israel dismantled its last settlements in Gaza -- Israel signaled to the world that it had no substantive desire to administer or keep Gaza itself. (It is still possible that Israel could annex all of the West Bank and Jerusalem and extend citizenship to Palestinian inhabitants there -- there are Israelis who advocate such a "one-state solution" there as an alternative to trying to separate out a Palestinian state given the scattering of Israeli settlements in the territory, but there is no way that Israel would entertain the possibility of giving citizenship to Palestinians in Gaza.) However, Israel has continued to insist on controlling Gaza's borders and airspace, and limited its offshore reach to a measly three kilometers. Then in 2006 Palestinians voted for the wrong party -- a slate affiliated with Hamas, which was still listed by the US and Israel as a "terrorist entity" (as was the PLO before it was rehabilitated by signing the Oslo Accords). The US then attempted to organize a coup against Hamas, which backfired in Gaza, leaving the Strip under Hamas control. From that point, Israel, with US and Egyptian backing, shut down the border traffic between Gaza and the outside world -- a blockade which has severely hampered Gaza ever since.
Hamas has since weaved back and forth, appealing for international help in breaking the blockade, and failing that getting the world's attention by launching small rockets into Israel. The rockets themselves cause Israel little damage, but whenever Israel feels challenged it responds with overwhelming violence -- in 2006, 2008, 2012, and now in 2014 that violence has reached the level of war. In between there have been long periods with virtually no rocket fire, with resumption usually triggered by one of Israel's "targeted assassinations." Between 2008-12 the blockade was partially relieved by brisk use of smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. In 2013 Gaza benefited from relatively free above-ground trade with Egypt, but that came to an end with the US-backed military coup that ended Egypt's brief experiment with democracy (another case of the "wrong" people, as viewed by the US and Israel, getting elected). With Egypt as well as Israel tightening the blockade of Gaza, followed by the mass arrest of Hamas people in the West Bank, rocket fire resumed, only to be met by the recent widespread slaughter.
Hamas has thus far insisted that any ceasefire include an end to the blockade. As I've written before, that seems like a completely reasonable demand. Israel has mistreated Gaza ever since occupying it in 1967, and that treatment became even worse after 2005, becoming little short of sadistic. Hamas has even offered to turn its control of the Gaza administration back over to a "unified" PA, which would be backed but not controlled by Hamas. (In my view an even better solution would be to spin Gaza off as an independent West Palestine state, totally free of Israeli interference.) Israel's assertions regarding Gaza are inevitably confused: they claim they need to blockade Gaza for security against missiles that in fact are fired mostly to protest the blockade (the other cases are a weak response to Israel's far more powerful arsenal). On the other hand, Israeli control keeps Gaza from ever developing a normal economy, and Israel's tactics (like targeted assassinations) keep Gaza in a state of constant terror.
Throughout history, there have been two basic approaches to counterterrorism: one is to kill off all the terrorists one-by-one; the other is to negotiate with the terrorists and let them enter into responsible democratic political procedures. The former has worked on rare occasions, usually when the group was extremely small and short-lived (Che Guevara in Bolivia, Shining Path in Peru). The outer limit was probably the Algerian anti-Islamist war of 1991-94 where Algeria killed its way through more than ten generations of leaders before the movement self-destructed, but even there the conflict ended with negotiations and amnesty. Israel's practice of collective punishment pretty much guarantees an endless supply of future enemies. As long as you understand that Israel's intent and desire is to fight forever, such tactics make sense. And as long as Israel can maintain that 600-to-1 kill ratio, someone like Netanyahu's not going to lose any sleep.
Inside Israel military censorship keeps the gory details out of sight and out of mind, reinforcing the unity that makes this such a happy little war, but elsewhere it's all becoming increasingly clear: how flimsy Israel's excuses are, how much they destroy and how indifferent they are to the pain they inflict, indeed how callous and tone-deaf they have become. Moreover, this war shows what chumps the US (and Europe) have become in allying themselves with Israel. No matter how this war ends, more people than ever before are going to be shocked that we ever allowed it to happen. Even more so if they come to realize that there was never any good reason behind it.
Back in June, when all this crisis amounted to was three kidnapped Israeli settler teens and Israel's misdirected and hamfisted "Operation Brother's Keeper," I argued that someone with a good journalistic nose could write a whole book on the affair, one that would reveal everything distorted and rotten in Israel's occupation mindset, possibly delving even into the warped logic behind those kidnappings. Since then, I've been surprised by three things: the scale of human tragedy has become innumerable (at least in a mere book -- only dry statistics come close to measuring the destruction, and they still miss the terror, even for the few people who intuit what they measure); how virulent and unchecked the genocidal impulses of so many Israelis have become (the trend, of course, has been in that direction, and every recent war has seen some outbursts, but nothing like now); and how utterly incompetent and impotent the US and the international community has been (aside from Condoleezza Rice's "birthpangs of a new Middle East" speech during the 2006 Lebanon War, the US and UN have always urged a ceasefire, but this time they've been so in thrall to Netanyahu's talking points they've scarcely bothered to think much less developed any backbone to act). It's a tall order, but this may be Israel's most senseless and shameful war ever.
This week's scattered links:
Sunday, July 20. 2014
This week's scattered links, but for one reason or another most still focus on Israel (for one thing, this weekend has been much bloodier than the previous week). Having recently read Stephen F Cohen's Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War (2011), I expected to have more to say about the civil war in Ukraine and the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines airliner, but in my short time I didn't run across much that improved upon speculation (one of the worst pieces was Bob Dreyfuss: Vladimir Putin Should Take Responsibility for the MH17 Shootdown.) As someone who is inclined to suspect that Putin was responsible for the Moscow apartment bombings that he used as a pretext to re-open the Chechen War, there's not much I would put past him, but neither evidence nor logic is yet compelling, and the unfounded charge is actively being used to further estrange relations with Russia, which quite frankly Obama needs to mend even if that means giving up ground in Ukraine. As I wrote below, Obama has made a colossal error in re-entering Iraq, on top of making an almost utter hash of Syria, and the only way out of the latter is some sort of understanding with Russia. Cohen's book, by the way, is very prophetic about Ukraine -- not necessarily about the country itself but about the massive level of cold war hangover America's foreign policy nabobs suffer from and their utter mindlessness in facing anything having to do with Russia. I've long said that the whole neocon vision was for America to behave all around the world with the same reckless dominance fetish that Israel exhibits in the Middle East. In the last two months that's pretty much what we've been seeing. The only real surprise here is how pathetic it makes the leaders look: Netanyahu, for instance, is wailing about how Hamas is forcing Israel to kill Palestinians, as if he, himself, has no control over his government. Nor does Obama seem to be any more in control of his policies. It's really quite shameful.
Nor am I the only one saying these things. Just looking at my recent twitter feed:
[Actually, the third since Obama was elected president, but Operation Cast Lead occurred before Obama took office. I like to refer to it as Israel's pre-emptive strike against the Obama administration.]
Also as Michael Poage noted, today's Kansans for Peace in Palestine demo today in Wichita drew about 500 people. It led on the KWCH News, ahead of a fairly even-handed report on Gaza that put more emphasis on dead Palestinians than on live Israelis whining about rockets.
Also, a few links for further study:
Saturday, July 19. 2014
Up-to-date information on Israel's latest major siege of Gaza -- dubbed Operation Protective Edge, at least in English (the Hebrew is closer to Solid Rock) -- is scarce and hard to sort out, especially since Israel sent ground troops into Gaza. The latest totals I have are that since July 8 Israeli forces have killed 303 Palestinians, while 1 Israeli soldier and 1 Israeli civilian have died. (The latter, by the way, would easily have met Israel's criterion for declaring a Palestinian a "militant" in the propaganda battles over who killed whom. The former was killed by an Israeli tank shell, "friendly fire." It's worth recalling that a third of the Israeli soldiers killed in 2008's Operation Cast Lead were killed by fellow Israelis.) [A later report now says 341 Palestinians have been killed, with 40,000 people "internally displaced" -- i.e., bombed out of their homes.] One of the more pointed stories I've read recently was reported here by Richard Silverstein:
Stories like that are going to be harder to come by since NBC pulled its correspondent from Gaza (who broke that story), Ayman Mohyeldin. CNN also pulled one of its reporters, Diana Magnay, after she reported on how Israelis camp out on hills near the Gaza border to watch and cheer the bombardment. That kind of damage control helps Israel avoid embarrassment, but only temporarily. [The uproar over Mohyeldin has since convinced NBC to send him back to Gaza.]
Past Israeli incursions (2006, 2008, 2012 -- the frequency is reflected in that choice Israeli phrase, "mowing the lawn") have always been met with appeals and pressure for ceasefire, but the Obama administration has been shockingly cavalier about the slaughter and destruction this time. Part of this may be the full court press of the Israel lobby, not least that Obama has been serially beat up by Israel for nearly six years now, but part may also be due to Obama's desire to escalate US involvement in the wars in Iraq and Syria, plus all the reckless hawkishness on Ukraine, plus the 15 people just killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan. They say, "let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Evidently, Obama is way too busy making war to spare a few moments to plead for peace. And if the US doesn't step up to restrain Israel, who else can?
It's wholly predictable how Israel's current operation will end. Like all of its predecessors going back to 2006, it will end in a ceasefire with Hamas as firmly in charge of Gaza as ever, with Israel in possession of the keys to a ghetto containing 1.8 million trapped, terrorized people. Many buildings will be destroyed, including critical infrastructure -- electric power, sewage treatment, water treatment, hospitals, roads, food resources. A few hundred Palestinians will have been killed, and a few thousand injured -- some intended targets but most just unfortunately in the way, and some like the children on the beach just capriciously targeted by bored soldiers who know that no matter what they do they'll never be punished.
Israel will have destroyed a few tunnels, and the rocket stockpiles will have been more or less depleted -- not that they were ever a threat anyway. (Both sides seem to tacitly agree that the symbolism of Gazans defying Israel and shooting rockets over the walls matters much more than the scant damage they cause.) But in the end the cumulative weight of atrocities will embarrass Israel, as should the increasingly genocidal emotions the war is stirring up among Israelis. Israel is on the verge of losing whatever sympathy and support they had built up -- especially in Europe, but even in the US (with the exception of Congress) they are losing their grip. So they'll wind up about where they started. At least that's Israel's best-case scenario. They could hit some world opinion tipping point -- like they did with Turkey in 2008. Or they could give in to their hawks and crank the war machine up, moving from hundreds to thousands or tens or hundreds of thousands of Palestinian deaths. Or they could ignite a sympathetic intifada in the West Bank, which could link up with ISIS. You can't predict what will happen once you go to war.
One thing that's lost in all the chatter about rockets and atrocities is that there is a very simple solution to the Gaza problem (and hence to all those rockets and atrocities): just cut Gaza loose from Israel and let the people there fend for themselves. For many years, debate over how to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been divided between a "1-state solution" and a "2-state solution." In the latter there are separate Israeli and Palestinian states alongside each other, dividing up the land of the former British mandate of Palestine. Most scenarios call for Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders, and a Palestinian state to be created in the remaining 22% of the land: the small Gaza Strip on the west and the larger West Bank (including East Jerusalem) in the east. Other variations are possible, including "mutual land swaps" (which the "Clinton parameters" and the "Geneva Accords" specified) or Israel just keeping more (the de facto result of Israel's "illegal settlements").
In the "1-state solution" Israel keeps all the land, but also has to grant full and equal rights to all the people living on that land. This has the great advantage of avoiding dismantling the settlements or transferring any additional people, but means that Israel, which prides itself as "the Jewish state," would wind up with a rather large percentage of non-Jews, perhaps even a majority. Most Israelis -- at least most Israeli politicians -- don't like either "solution": as Levi Eshkol described the conquests of the 1967 war, "we received a very nice dowry [the land], but we don't really like the bride [the people]." Since then, Israel has devised a sophisticated system for taking the land while excluding the people, denying the latter even basic human rights, corralling them into ever tighter ghettos, and hoping they'll just go away. The cost of this system is that the conflict grinds on forever: for Israel, this means paying for a huge military and police state, engaging in a propaganda war that eventually turns self-deluding, and suffering the corrosive morality of militarism and racism; for Palestinians it means living under a system of extreme regimentation and regulation, one that degrades their humanity and denies them opportunities all people expect as a human right.
Most Israelis, in short, want no solution. They accept their lot as a people that has been oppressed for millennia because they believe that their state (and only their state) can defend them, and must do so now and forever more. Anyone well acquainted with Jewish history can appreciate that position, but most of us recognizes that we are not doomed to endlessly replicate the past: that conflicts can be resolved fairly and equitably, and that when they are they disappear into the depths of the past. The prerequisite for any solution is to see it as possible. Unfortunately, that's been the undoing of both "1-state" and "2-state" solutions: many Israelis reject the former because they can't stand the idea of sharing their state with so many Palestinians, and they reject the latter because they feel that would mean the end of the Zionist project of reclaiming their "promised land."
For some time, Palestinians have indicated they would be happy with any solution. Political elites may tend toward "2-state" because that would carve out a state they could control, while the less ambitious may just welcome the opportunity to participate in Israel's prosperous economy without the present discrimination and conflict. But either way they have been at the mercy of Israel's rejection of any sort of solution, at best hoping that some higher power (like the US) will weigh in to support their aspirations. They problem there is that at the US becomes ever more inequitable internally, it becomes ever less sensitive to the human rights of people elsewhere, and that leads to this current hideous stalemate.
On the other hand, there is no reason for stalemate on Gaza. In 2005, Israel (under Ariel Sharon) withdrew from and dismantled every one of its settlements in the Gaza Strip, and since then there has been no effort on Israel's part to recolonize Gaza. It should be clear to everyone that Israel has no interest in Gaza -- at least, other than the "security threat" an independent Gaza might create. The West Bank and Jerusalem are complicated places where it is hard (if not impossible) to resolve the conflict, but Gaza is simple: Israel doesn't want it, and any interest Gazans have in uniting with a Palestinian state in the West Bank is something that can be dealt with if/when such a state is created. Why not solve the one piece that can be solved now, and cut Gaza free of Israel?
This seems to obvious to me that I'm astonished that no one is pushing the idea. The closest I've seen to a discussion along these lines is the Hamas ceasefire proposal, which promises a 10-year truce in exchange for the following ten provisions:
Most of these points are completely reasonable, things that Israel should agree to in any case. They highlight that the basic problem that Gaza has faced since 2005 has been the stranglehold that Israel (and to some extent Egypt) have had over Gaza, and how that's been used to keep Gaza from developing a normal economy and everyday life. In exchange for a more normal life, Hamas is offering a truce -- which is to say, no rockets or mortar shells launched over the wall, and no tunneling under the wall. The demands fall short of sovereignty for Gaza, but they do try to substitute UN for Israeli supervision, and as such they offer some hints as to where Hamas would be willing to limit Gazan sovereignty. One can easily build an independence proposal on top of this ceasefire proposal, and reasonably expect that it would be agreeable to Hamas, the current de facto governor of Gaza.
This is a quick first draft, but this is what I'm thinking of:
I think this covers six or seven of Hamas' ten points. It allows Gaza to develop a normal economy and civil society. There should be no cases where Israelis continue to hold power over residents of Gaza. Israel's security concerns are satisfied in several ways: by limiting the military power of the West Palestinian state; by outlawing a wide range of military hardware; and by imposing a substantial cost to the state for any acts by Gaza residents which actually harm Israeli life and/or property. On the other hand, Israel is similarly penalized for any hostilities against Gazan life and/or property. If these schemes prove insufficient, it's always possible that Israel could withdraw from the treaty and declare war on West Palestine -- the agreement does not in any way limit Israel's warmaking capability, nor for that matter does it reduce whatever deterrence Israel enjoys from its overwhelming firepower advantage. I didn't include anything about Hamas' demand that Israel back its tanks away from the border because I thought that level of regulation unnecessary -- all that is really necessary is that Israel not fire tank shells, or any kind of ordnance, into Gaza. As long as they are not used, where Israel parks its tanks is of little practical concern.
The imposed constitution is something Gazans may not appreciate, but it greatly expedites the transition to self-rule, and it provides reassurance in many ways that the resulting government will remain democratic and will respect individual rights of all its citizens. The constitution should be broadly open to a mix of capitalist and socialist approaches, to be determined by the legislature. (I suspect this will actually prove to be a bigger sticking point with American ideologists than the lack of a sharia foundation will be with Muslims, although the latter will likely get more print.) The constitution should eventually be amendable, although perhaps not for 10-20 years (subject to UN approval) to give it a chance to work.
The matter of donor money is also critically important, both because it is urgently needed and because it provides an elegant insurance system to reinforce the peace. Personally, I think a lot of that should come from Israel, which I regard as solely responsible for the destruction and degradation of life in Gaza especially in the last decade (although really going back to 1948), but fat chance of that, so the world needs to step up. Eventually, of course, the money will run out and West Palestine will need to stand on its own economy. It is important, therefore, that the government build an efficient tax system. I haven't said anything about currency, figuring that's a detail other people are more competent in. The other especially important thing I've left out is water. I wanted to minimize the burdens imposed on Israel, but some fair allocation of the miniscule Gaza watershed is essential.
There will no doubt be other technical issues to work out. Some may be best worked out bilaterally between Israel and West Palestine. Questions like permits to pray at Al-Aqsa certainly fall in that category. While that may be something Gazans care deeply about, it doesn't strike me as a war-or-peace issue. To gain any agreement, the international community (not least the US) is going to have to put pressure on a very recalcitrant Israeli government, and that's easier to do if the demands are minimal and separable. Israel's security policy regarding Gaza is both malicious and demonstrably ineffective, so that has to change. But while it would be a nice thing to allow more personal travel between countries, that isn't a necessary condition for peace. The only necessary conditions for peace are to stop the bombing, the shooting, the blockade, and to allow all people on all sides to live a normal life. That's what this proposal does.
The decision to disband Hamas in Gaza is largely cosmetic: it will simply make everyone more comfortable to bury past terrorism with the agreement. It also allows Hamas to go on in the West Bank, doing whatever it is they are doing. I thought about adding more strictures separating West Palestine groups from any sort of work in the West Bank. The fact is that after agreement the conditions will be very different and incomparable. The question of refugees is one that may need more thought, as it is one thing that remains a common problem for a free Gaza and an occupied West Bank, but it is a thorny problem, here at least best swept under the rug.
One reason no one talks about a Gaza-only solution is that at least some people on both sides have been seduced by the notion that it is possible to come up with a "final status" resolution. Arguing against this is the fact that no one has come close, but also the more general point that nothing is ever really final. So I think one of the basic principles of resolving this conflict is that we should always do what we can when we can do it, then take stock and consider problems remain and what else can be done about them. I have no doubt that a Gaza-only solution will help move all sides closer to an eventual West Bank solution.
Wednesday, July 16. 2014
In 2010 Norman Finkelstein wrote a book about Israel's 2008 war on Gaza. His title was "This Time We Went Too Far": Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion. Like Israel's 2006 war on Lebanon, their so-called Operation Cast Lead ended having accomplished nothing so much as the revelation of Israel as a serial committer of atrocities, of crimes against humanity -- acts they tried to cover up with a thin propaganda at once asserting their victimhood and threatening ever graver results should anyone defy or deny their omnipotence. The problem was not just that Israel far exceeded the provocation. The problem was that it was hard to discern any reason for Israel's actions other than to further poison the well. The only thing Israel's leaders fear is peace, so they stir up the pot every few years, hoping to reinforce the "no partner for peace" canard.
They're at it again, and again they've gone way too far -- at least for anyone paying the least attention. Their current operation's pretext dates to June 12, when three Israeli teenaged settlers of the West Bank were kidnapped and killed -- a crime certain to arouse sympathy for Israel even though that involves overlooking the much greater violence committed by Israel in 1967 when they invaded the Jordanian-held West Bank and the 57 subsequent years of military occupation. The best you can say for the "boys" is that they were unwitting pawns in Israel's effort to permanently secure the lands of the West Bank by settling their "chosen" people and privileging them over the people who lived and worked there before they were overrun by war and overwhelmed by police force. That does not mean they deserved to be kidnapped and killed, but neither have thousands of Palestinians who have met similar fates since 1967.
On July 6, I wrote a piece that reviewed what turned out to be the first of two stages (so far) in the current escalation: A Case of Kidnapping and Murder. In short, Israel's response to the crime was not to focus on the killers -- they identified as suspects two members of a Hebron clan that is well known for acting on its own to sabotage relatively peaceful periods in the conflict -- but to use the crime as a pretext for a systematic attack on nearly everyone affiliated with Hamas in the West Bank. Moreover, it should be obvious that Hamas' real offense was that they had agreed to form a unity government with Fatah. That should have been good news for anyone with the least desire for peace, as it meant that for the first time since the failed 2006 coup to overthrow Hamas in Gaza there would be a unified, broadly popular Palestinian representation. But since Israel (above all Netanyahu) hates peace, it became imperative to break the unity government up by showing that Hamas is still committed to terrorism, something which pinning the murders on Hamas would aid. So Israel proceded to arrest hundreds of Hamas members -- the distinction between arrest and kidnapping here is no more than a thin legal veneer -- and soon had killed more than a dozen Palestinians, and soon enough Israeli racism was riled up so much that a group of Israeli settlers bent on revenge kidnapped and burned to death a Palestinian teenager.
That's about where my previous post ended. Most of this had been limited to the West Bank (although the revenge kidnapping took place in Jerusalem), but Israel was also making menacing gestures toward Gaza, which is still nominally controlled by Hamas. Since then, Israel has repeatedly attacked Gaza, and as a result have faced some measure of rocket fire from groups in Gaza (evidently including Hamas). While I've been on the road, this situation has continued to deteriorate. The following links are my attempt to catch up.
Finally, I want to cite one more piece: John Feffer: Mowing the Lawn in Gaza, which goes back to 2006, to the specific wrong turn that lead to today's seemingly intractable conflict. (Of course, it doesn't explain the entire conflict, which goes back much further, most critically to 1948, but the die was cast even earlier.):
Israel's political leadership -- the PM at the time was Ariel Sharon -- took this position because it wants to sustain a state of military occupation and it dreads any resolution to the conflict. The US political leadership -- that was G.W. Bush -- acceded to Israel because it was stupid (and because the Israel desk was run by foreign agents like Elliott Abrams). Hamas offered a fresh opportunity to work on resolving the conflict, especially if we had been willing to negotiate short-term accommodations (like truces for economic freedom) instead of focusing on "final status" issues, which had proved so difficult for both sides. Moreover, Hamas had credibility from not having been involved in the Arafat deals and decisions, and they offered the prospect of bringing a far greater degree of Palestinian unity to the table than Abbas could ever achieve on his own. However, by rejecting Hamas, the US allowed Sharon and his successors to ignore every US-backed peace proposal.
We should be clear here: while Israel has no desire for peace, the US has no future in the Middle East without it. In its efforts to form a unity government with Fatah, Hamas has offered the US a present, but in order to use it the US now has to stand up to Israel in favor of the sort of ceasefire that Hamas has offered. That's a tall order for Obama and Kerry, one that requires them to rise above their basic political cowardice.
Sunday, July 6. 2014
On June 12 this year three Israeli teenagers -- Naftali Frenkel (16), Gilad Shaer (16), and Eyal Yifrah (19), residents and yeshiva students in Israel's occupied territories -- were kidnapped while hitchhiking from Gush Etzion, an illegal settlement in Area C, the section still under full Israeli military control. One of the three was eventually reported to have been able to call authorities to alert them of the kidnapping, but that was initially treated as a prank call. The three dead bodies were found on June 30, in a field northwest of Hebron. Details are sketchy: I gather that then were shot and killed shortly after their abduction. Piecing information together from news sources is very difficult, but there is a good overview at Wikipedia.
If this was an isolated, atomic event, it would be treated as it should be, as a heinous crime, with the public waiting passively -- aside from the usual media sensationalism -- while authorities sifted through evidence, tracked down, apprehended, and tried and punished the perpetrators. But the crime could not be isolated from its context, and it set off a series of subsequent events -- many of them criminal as well -- that continue to this day and into the future. Someone with a clear vantage and access to all the data could write a book showing the myriad ways the crimes and the conflicts reflect and refract each other, creating a cage which traps anyone and everyone committed to the conflict. The only way out of this cage is to see each crime in its own light, and never justify a new crime on the basis of an old one.
Of course, everyone behaved predictably. In Israel there are two kinds of kidnapping. One is very common, on the order of 1,000 or more instances per year: this is when any of Israel's various security outfits "arrests" Palestinian "suspects." They can be held without charge or legal cause pretty much indefinitely, although in practice they tend to be held a few months then released. As such, the total number of Israeli-held "prisoners" is limited -- in 2008, Adallah put the number at 11,000 -- but many more Palestinian men have been cycled through the system. In the weeks immediately following the kidnappings, Israelis "arrested" another 400 Palestinians, as if they were stocking up for an eventual exchange to ransom the three Israeli teens.
Much rarer are Palestinian kidnappings of Israelis: by far the most famous the kidnapping of an IDF soldier on the Gaza border in 2006, Gilad Shalit. He was held for five years by Hamas operatives and eventually repatriated in a deal that that involved release by Israel of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. With many thousands of more Palestinians locked away in Israeli prisons, there was some sentiment among Palestinians in favor of kidnapping more Israelis, but in fact there have been very few such cases, especially leading to successful hostage exchanges. Still, given the costs of getting Shalit back, it's easy to understand why Israel would overreact to a new kidnapping.
And overreact is precisely what Israel did. Aside from snatching up more than 400 prisoners, Israelis have thus far killed at least 10 Palestinians. Much of this was initially done by the IDF in what they called Operation Brother's Keeper, as they went through various Palestinian villages and refugee camps, searching and damaging over 1,000 buildings. Early on, the Netanyahu government decided to blame Hamas for the kidnappings. They quickly identified two Hebron residents as suspects, and claimed that they had been Hamas operatives. While there is no doubt that Hamas was responsible for the Shalit abduction, Hamas has recently agreed with Fatah to form a "unity government" in the Palestinian Authority, something the Netanyahu government rejects and is very keen on breaking up.
It's very important to understand that Netanyahu in particular (and for that matter nearly all prominent Israeli politicians today and in the past going back to Ben Gurion) has absolutely no desire to negotiate any sort of conflict resolution with the Palestinians. They have at present pretty much what they want: all of Jerusalem and the ancient land of Samaria and Judea, the Golan Heights, a system which keeps Palestinian and Arab violence to a low level despite subjecting the Palestinians to grossly unequal treatment, an absence of credible threats from regional powers, a generous subsidy of their military by the US, friendly alliances with the US and most nations in Europe, and a high standard of living. They may on occasion give lip service to negotiations, but in fact they give up nothing as they continue building on Palestinian land and tightening up their matrix of control. They see negotiation as a losing proposition: to resolve the conflict, they'd have to give up land and money, they'd have to give equitable rights, and for little improvement in security they'd obsolete a military system that defines so much of what Israelis live for -- that is in fact the main path to personal success, in business as well as politics.
Of course, that's a rather myopic view of Israeli success, but one they work very hard at propagandizing. They try to push two contradictory messages simultaneously: to the Palestinians, they emphasize their overwhelming power, trying to drive home the futility of resistance; to Israeli Jews, they reinforce a culture of victimhood, where their only protection is the state; and to the world, they play up every act of violence against them while playing down the much greater violence they perpetrate.
So Israel's security forces react to the kidnapping in several ways: they use the incident to reinforce their propaganda messages, and they use it as an excuse to pursue their political goals. The biggest threat to Israel's propaganda line is Hamas seeking to gain international legitimacy as a representative of the Palestinians, so Israel has used this incident to track down and pick up everyone they know of with Hamas connections. But the IDF also used this as an excuse to raid Mustafa Barghouti's Palestinial National Initiative (BDS) organization and confiscate its computers. And they subjected hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to curfews, and shut down various checkpoints.
By June 20 Israel's operations generated more resistance, which they answered with more violence. Wikipedia:
Until June 26, when the bodies were found, Israeli censorship had prevented publication of suspicions that the three teenagers had been killed. Among other things, this gave a cover of urgency for Israel's widespread military operations. After the bodies were found, Israeli politicians started talking more about collective punishment. On July 1, Israeli jets and helicopters struck 34 locations in Gaza. These were answered by small rockets launched from Gaza, so Israel bombed Gaza again, and again. Collective punishment is nothing new to Israel. The British practiced it to suppress the Arab Revolt in 1937-39, and Israel has made an art of it, from Ariel Sharon's Qibya massacre in 1953 to the sonic boom flyovers of Gaza after Israel dismantled their settlements there in 2005. Israel is reportedly massing troops along the Gaza border again, for a possible attack on Hamas like they did in 2006 after Shalit was abducted, and again in 2008's Operation Cast Lead.
One thing the Wikipedia article doesn't go into much is the widespread eruption of hatred against Palestinians within Israeli civil society, at least occasionally turning to violence. (One 16-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohamed Abu Khdai, was killed by being burning alive.) For a sense of this, see this Haaretz piece by Chemi Shalev:
For an example, Allison Deger (The Aftermath: Home demolitions and dead Palestinian teen follow Netanyahu call for revenge) interviews an 18-year-old Israeli settler, Mier Sh'aribi, at the same hitchhiking spot where the three teens were abducted, then continues:
Anyone who's read Max Blumenthal's Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel will not be surprised by these reactions. The roots of this loathing run deep: the most striking thing about Tom Segev's 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East is the extreme contrast between Israel's supremely confident military leaders and its intentionally terrified citizenry. That the military was proven justified in the Six-Day War gave them a free hand for subsequent adventurism, always be bolstered by panicking a public that grew up on holocaust stories. More often than not, those ventures -- Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008 are prime examples -- had to be ended early because they had turned into public embarrassments.
Israel's heavy-handed response to the kidnapping and murder of the three teens will also eventually be seen as a public embarrassment, but thus far the hasbara machine has milked the deaths for maximum sympathy while keeping most of everything else under wraps -- most reports of hostilities along the Gaza border focus on toy rockets (invariably attributed to Hamas) as if they are equivalent to F-16 sorties. (Of course, in some moral sense they are, but as a practical matter they are as far apart as any other measurement of relative violence in the conflict: e.g., abductions, house demolitions.) Similarly, the media routinely accepts the legitimacy of Israel's security forces, even when they operate in occupied territories, where they are allowed to invent laws on whim, selectively enforce them, all in support of illegal settlements. No one wants to point out that the three teens were illegal settlers, pawns in a political drama that's meant to dispossess and degrade the Palestinians who have lived on the land for many centuries. That's because no one wants to besmirch the innocence of the victims, but you don't need to deny facts -- that the occupation is illegal and immoral, and that the teens are, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not, are part of that occupation -- to see the killings as despicable. All one needs to understand is that no crime in the series justifies the next.
Where the story threatens to get out of hand is with the hate mobs and their revenge killings -- as opposed to the casual deaths that inevitably follow IDF operations in Palestinian villages. Israel did finally manage to arrest six Israelis for kidnapping and torturing (burning) Mohamed Abu Khdai to death -- here "arrest" is the right word: they are charged with specific crimes and entitled to the legal rights including a fair trial (although "fair" for whom is open to debate, as the Israeli legal system has been notoriously lax when it comes to crimes committed by Jews against Arabs. One of the first things I noted in reading about the kidnappings was that the two 16-year-olds (and for that matter the bloodthirsty 17-year-old quoted above) are considered to be juveniles under Israeli law, but 16-year-old Palestinians are tried (when they are tried at all) as adults.
A system is racist when it divides the population into two (or more) groups and makes legal distinctions among them, such as the law that treats Palestinian teens as adults while at the same time treating Jewish teens as juveniles. That's just one of dozens or hundreds of cases of legal discrimination practiced by Israel. Another is that Israel has no death penalty for its citizens, but Israeli security forces have assassinated hundreds of Palestinians with no judicial review whatsoever -- some with F-16s resulting in dozens of collateral deaths. One might still debate whether Zionism is intrinsically racist -- certainly some Zionists are not -- but the actual State of Israel clearly is, as is a substantial portion of its citizens (especially concentrated in the settlements in the occupied territories -- for the history of which, see Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar: Lords of the Land: The War for Israel's Settleements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007, with Blumenthal, op. cit., a useful update).
There is much more one can mention here. (One of the suspects Israel named belongs to the Kawasmeh clan in Hebron, which has some Hamas connections but also has a long history of freelance operations counter to Hamas truces. The guilt of the suspects is presumed because they recently disappeared. Israel went ahead and demolished the suspects' houses rather than stake them out.) As I said, someone should write a book, because the whole conflict is woven into this story, provided you look at it comprehensively enough.
Thursday, June 19. 2014
I was thinking about doing a roundup of Iraq/Syria war posts, but despite finding some useful links -- cf. Juan Cole: Who are Iraq's Sunni Arabs and What Did We Do to Them?; Bob Dreyfuss: How Iraq's Crisis Got Started, and How It Didn't -- they seemed to be coming in rather scattershot. Then I ran across the following Obama quote in a comment and it pretty well sums up the essential incoherence of the American position(s). Obama's quote was from November 2010 on occasion of "The Erbil Agreement" which secured a second term as Prime Minister for Nouri al-Maliki:
Maliki got his first term in 2006 when the Bush administration conspicuously meddled in Iraq's political process to get rid of then-Prime Minister Ibrahimi al-Jaafari, an intellectual who was considered too socialist and too timid when it came to controlling the Sadr Movement militia (the Mahdi Army), perceived by the US as a major threat to its occupation. Maliki proved to be an effective strong man, but that was partly because the US could offer Sunni Awakening groups protection against Shiite assassination squads. With the departure of US troops, the protection and bribes that the US had provided vanished behind a thin cloud of rhetoric such as Obama spouts above.
Obama's speech is doubly dangerous. The obvious problem is that what he's describing is pure fantasy: Maliki is a sectarian, and the entire basis for his government, indeed the very structure of that government, was a set of tradeoffs designed to cultivate and reward sectarian parties. It may be obvious to Obama that what the Iraqi government needs to do is to is to become more inclusive and fair, but there was no reason to think that any politician in Iraq would put the public interest above his own pocketbook (and that of his own family, clan, etc.). That just wasn't in the cards, and that wasn't an accident: the US built Iraq that way.
Beyond the obvious problem of its fantasy lies a deeper problem in Obama's speech: he's trying to use Iraq's progress toward stability and prosperity as something vindicating Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq. For someone who gained a large chunk of his credibility for his early opposition to the Iraq War, his stance is stupid and insane. It's stupid because it wasn't true and it's falsity would become clear as soon as Iraq's government faltered -- which is what just happened. It's also stupid because it shifts the blame for Iraq's failure from Bush (who was solely responsible for the war) to Obama (casting away the credibility he gained from his antiwar stance). What Obama should have done is to remind people that this was Bush's war each and every time the subject came up, that it was a disaster, and what the real costs have been. Instead, Obama's legacy is littered with speeches like the one above, where he not only lies to us, he lies to himself. That's insane.
Many commentators (e.g., see Dreyfuss above) have pointed out that the Sunni Islamist insurgencies in Syria and Iraq are joined together. That is, after all, embedded in the name ISIS. They've also pointed out that while Iran and Qatar are consistent in supporting their co-religionists, the US is confused, backing Maliki while opposing Assad. It's certainly hard to see either government as worthy of support, nor is there any reason to think that either insurgency would solve anything. Indeed, the only sensible lesson that one can derive from either war is that all those who resort to violence should be condemned. But Obama isn't drawing that lesson, and you have to wonder why. The simplest explanation is that Maliki is "our" guy while Assad isn't, but that assumes continuity between the Bush administration (which was responsible for empowering Maliki) and Obama. Then there's the notion that the US can't help but choose sides and back one with military power -- there's simply no one in power who can think differently.
Still, that's hardly reassuring for the guy who campaigned on how he wanted to change the way we think about war.
Sunday, June 15. 2014
Rather than spending the day chasing down odds and ends, I want to focus on one key piece: Tom Engelhardt: A Record of Unparalleled Failure. This came out nearly a week ago (June 10), well before the Iraqi government -- the legacy of six year of US occupation -- lost control of the nation's second or third largest city (Mosul). Now that large parts of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and large swaths of north Africa are under (sunni salafist) Islamist control, often identified with Al-Qaeda, it should be clear that the Global War on Terror G.W. Bush launched in 2001 has not only failed; it has blown back spectacularly.
Of course, the people who brought you all that war have a solution: more war. They blame the stalemate in Syria on Obama's reluctance to arm the so-called "moderate Syrian rebels" -- allowing the Islamist rebels to take over. And they see the chaos in Iraq as a consequence of the US pulling its troops out: firepower that both limited the Sunni insurgency and restrained the Shiite-dominated government. And they have more or less similar fixes for everything else, like the drone warfare over Yemen and the recent insertion of US Special Forces into Chad. They blame Obama for his week-kneed, wobbly responses. He, in turn, without any success on the Israel-Palestine diplomatic front, has been unable to resist the hawks' browbeating, repeatedly putting himself into lose-lose positions, where the hawks get to characterize the failures of American force as the results of "too little" rather than "too much."
There is an alternative view that virtually no one in Washington in any way invested in US foreign policy would dare bring up. Engelhardt makes this view succinctly:
Engelhardt's memory of America's wars goes back past the GWOT, all the way to Korea and Vietnam in the anti-communist era (the so-called "Cold War"), and he doesn't find any exceptions there either (nor in the so-called "little wars" that Max Boot is so fond of). The essay continues with him going back over all five points, adding details to reiterate the case. But he doesn't go after deeper answers. He doesn't, for instance, wonder how the American fetish for individualism and obsession with profit warp a military culture which has traditionally depended on selfless sacrifice. He doesn't go into the changes brought about as the Army abandoned the draft in favor of career soldiers (something Andrew Bacevich goes overboard on in his latest book, Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country). He doesn't even note that all of "America's wars" have been fought on foreign ground for political reasons that have had nothing to do with "the American way of life." He doesn't note the fickle tendency of American leaders to pick sides in fights they hardly understand, and how this almost invariably leads to the US allied with corrupt and ineffective leaders. He doesn't delve into how the desire to impose American-like systems of government always wind up reproducing the most unjust aspects of American society -- a problem that only became worse as conservatives gained power. (This is, of course, why Peter Beinart argued that only liberals could win the War on Terror, ignoring the fact that liberals had tried and failed to win the anti-communist wars in Korea and Vietnam.) Nor does he go into factors extrinsic to the US, such as the analysis that Jonathan Schell summed up perfectly in his book title, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People: could it be the case that one reason the US has always failed was that time and again it attempted the impossible?
When you think about it, not only is what Engelhardt says true, it's pretty obviously true for lots of easily identifiable reasons. Yet hardly anyone with a stake in power realizes that. Engelhardt reminds us: "keep in mind that we are inside an enormous propaganda machine of militarism, even if we barely acknowledge the space in our lives that it fills. Inside it, only certain opinions, certain thoughts, are acceptable, or even in some sense possible." There are lots of components to this propaganda machine, but I think the blinders that most elites have that prevents them from doubting the efficacy of "the military option" are rooted in two great myths.
The first is that the US always fights for right, and therefore our motives and goals are beyond question. For this, one can cite our major wars: the War for Independence, which established our democracy free from foreign rule; the Civil War, which ended the odious "peculiar institution" of slavery; and the World Wars, when Germany and Japan threatened to subdue whole continents and subject them to racist and colonialist exploitation. Of course, this ignores the 1848 Mexican-American War and 1898 Spanish-American War, which were blatant imperialist land grabs, and slights the many Indian wars, which were land grabs with a whiff of genocide thrown in. But after WWII, the anti-communist wars aligned the US with capital (and its cronies) against labor, ultimately leading to grave damage to America's own working class -- which is to say to the detriment of most Americans, as well as most people in the countries we fought or subverted. Moreover, where the US failed to impose its will, it turned out to be remarkably petty and vindictive, as we see even today in US efforts to blockade Cuba and North Korea.
The problem here is not just that our motives are impure -- if you look close enough you'll find that they never were, although it certainly suited the people who led those wars to get us to think so -- but that this sense of self-righteousness results in a huge blind spot around the terrible costs of war. Indeed, how blind one can be is amply demonstrated by WWII, which saw the US carpet-bombing Europe, creating horrific firestorms in Japan, and ultimately using nuclear weapons that obliterated whole cities. The notion that that was "the good war" is frankly obscene. What was "good" about it was that it was run by the most fair-minded and equitable administration the US ever enjoyed, one that worked hard to instill in all Americans an unprecedented sense of joint purpose and solidarity, and that was what felt good. But on the war fronts, which few Americans actually experienced, the usual atrocities of war prevailed.
And ever since then, that sense of solidarity is remembered in unthinking ritual, in waving the flag and commemorating veterans and cheering the troops, as if what they do now has anything to do with our declining standard of living.
The second myth has to do with the ever-increasing efficiency of killing that the US military wields. The problem here isn't that the efficiency is mythical (although it takes on mythical airs in some respects, like the doctrine of "shock and awe"), but that it gives our political elites a false sense of superiority and, indeed, invulnerability which makes them excessively confident and therefore more likely to use "the military option." On the other hand, the military's measures of killing efficiency turn out to be of very little value in the real world. No enemy since the Chinese in Korea have fought anything resembling a conventional war against the US, yet that never stopped them from finding effective ways to fight -- especially as the US is always fighting on foreign territory, ostensibly in support of local allies which necessarily provide cover for their enemies.
We also need to consider the touchy subject of defense. The US military has become increasingly reluctant to risk the lives of its soldiers: eliminating the draft has much to do with this, but one should also factor in the decreasing stakes of the wars the US has entered into -- maybe Iraq matters to Exxon, but is it worth your while to risk your life for slightly cheaper gasoline back home? The worst case scenario for Iraq might embarrass some politicians and generals but won't change a single thing in everyday life back home -- except, of course, for the ex-soldiers wounded and traumatized, and recognizing that helps push survival to the top of nearly every soldier's priority, changing the risks they're willing to take, and reducing their effectiveness at everything but killing.
The bottom line here is that the first time anyone in power says anything about "hearts and minds" you know that the US has lost the war, because American soldiers don't do "hearts and minds": they kill people, they blow shit up, they act menacing and invincible, but that's it. They may be the most efficient killers in the world, but for anything else they're useless, in large part because they're scared shitless any time they're not on the offensive.
While I was contemplating writing about Engelhardt's post, I ran across another piece that says the exact same things (working in a few of the extra points that I chided Engelhardt for not digging up): Gordon Adams: Blame America ("The United States tried to build a stable state in Iraq. We should've known better."):
Back during Bush's runup to the Iraq War, it suddenly became very popular to talk about the US occupation of Germany and Japan as huge success stories. Anyone familiar with the details should have objected, as indeed John W. Dower (author of War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War and Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II) did, explaining both that Iraq had next to nothing in common with Japan, and that the United States in 2003 was nearly as far removed from the US in 1945. Some of the big differences:
Iraq and Afghanistan had their own experiences with colonial and quisling rulers. As Muslims, they had grown up with the historical remembrance of the Crusades and the knowledge that their ancestors had beaten back the infidel invaders. (Afghanistan, of course, was responsible for the utter rout of British colonial forces in the 19th century, as well as the more recent destruction of the Soviet Union.) So the idea of fighting back was deeply embedded in both places, and the pathetic performance of the Saddamist and Taliban armies smelled more like desertion than defeat, and happened to haphazardly that the people wound up with large stockpiles of arms.
The Bush administration, on the other hand, was utterly cynical about government, seeing it as little more than a vast store of pilferage and patronage -- they invested more in Iraq for the bare reason that there was more to steal there. Moreover, they were absolutely shameless in their manipulation of constitutions and elections, seeing them as games to be scammed to make sure that the resulting institutions were dependent on and submissive to the US, as opposed to representative of their constituencies. (In other words, pretty much the same attitude Republicans have toward elections in the US.) And when things went wrong, they talked a lot about "hearts and minds" and sent the military out to do the only thing it does at all well: kill. And when that didn't work, they whipped multiple sides up and aimed them at killing each other, a divide strategy that didn't conquer so much as protract the embarrassment of defeat. Obama finally pulled out not so much because he knew better as because the entire war machine was so wore out that they preferred to move on to greener pastures -- drone warfare, Libya, north Africa, places where they can do their damage without getting their boots dusty (or bloody).
Still, Engelhardt and Adams are very exceptional in pointing out the obvious about US military power. It's very hard for politicians to do the same, not because they can't see failure all around them so much as that hawk patriotism is so entertwined with self-flattery of Americans, and politicians understand that flattery works. Give us a prospective crisis like, say, preventing the destruction of the Shiite shrine in Karbala and no self-revering American will concede that there's nothing we can do to save it, and that if we even tried the most likely outcome would be that we blow it up ourselves.
Ultimately we need to understand: there is no answer to war but no war. Until we take that to heart, we'll be stuck in this endless cycle of futility.
Wednesday, May 28. 2014
It's often noted these days that Kansas hasn't elected a Democrat to the Senate since George McGill in 1932, serving until 1939. (For the record, John Martin was elected to a short term 1893-95, and William H. Thompson served a full term 1913-19. The only other non-Republicans were populists William A. Peffer, 1891-97, and William A. Harris, 1897-1903.) But people forget that the closest a Democrat has come since 1932 was 1974, when Bill Roy came within a few thousand votes of defeating incumbent Bob Dole.
It was one of the most memorable, and fateful, political campaigns in my memory. Many people nowadays regard Dole as a relatively moderate senior statesman, as one of the few Republicans who could work constructively with Democrats, but that ultimately says more about later generations of Republicans than it does about Dole -- whose last significant act in Congress was to force a government shutdown attempting to cower Bill Clinton. I'll return to Dole before I'm through here, but back in 1974 no one was thinking of Dole as anything other than as a far-right dogmatist (or a money-grubbing hack). Dole won his first Senate term in 1968 after what was then one of the dirtiest campaigns in memory, defeating popular Republican governor Bill Avery. And his reelection campaign in 1974 was even shadier, not least because it was the first time that abortion was used as a political issue in Kansas.
William R. Roy died on Monday, aged 88. He was a two-term Democratic congressman from Topeka, and ran twice for the Senate, losing by narrow margins to two Republicans who easily topped 60% running against anyone else. He was uncommonly qualified -- a medical doctor (OBGYN) from 1949-70, when he picked up a law degree and ran for congress. He was one of the smartest people to run for office in my lifetime, and one of the most fundamentally decent too -- a rare counterexample to the rule that American politics has descended from the "founding fathers" (many of the most broadly talented individuals in the nation) to the sort of "empty suit" hacks that populate Washington today.
Since leaving politics, Roy wrote regular columns for The Topeka Capital-Journal, some of which were picked up by The Wichita Eagle -- by far the best pieces to have appeared in the paper since I moved back to Kansas. (Oddly, the Eagle didn't run a piece on his death -- only a brief quote from their blog.) Kansas was lucky to have had him, even if ultimately we didn't deserve him.
A couple postscripts on Dole. Roy's Wikipedia page quotes him on running against Dole: "I was far from an admirer of Bob Dole, I'll tell you that. He'd been around and he had been pretty much a hatchet man, both in Kansas, and as far as President Nixon was concerned. And so I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to take him out of politics, which I thought was very important at that time." A lot of people fell for Dole's act later on, mostly I suspect out of a misguided sense of nostalgia, so I think it's important to remind us of what a miserable being Dole was in his prime. (The worst example I can think of in trying to present Dole as a folksy small-town lawyer appears in Tom Carson's otherwise brilliant novel Gilligan's Wake, drawn heavily on some journalism Carson wrote about visiting Russell, Kansas, and interviewing Dole's hometown folk.)
Nonetheless, there are significant differences between Dole and his Republican heirs. (Both Kansas Senators, Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, came out of Dole's "big first" congressional district, now represented by Tea Party fanatic Tim Huelskamp, so you can chalk them up as literal heirs, but also consider today's hyperpartisan Republican congressional leadership, which have only become more dysfunctional since Dole and Newt Gingrich tried to shut down the government.) For one thing, Dole was old enough that even during his 1996 presidential campaign he quipped about the Democrats being the "war party" -- a commonplace among Republican isolationists (blaming Wilson and Roosevelt for US entry into the two world wars, and sometimes associating Truman and Johnson with Korea and Vietnam) -- a stake no modern Republican would concede. For another, when Dole wanted to establish his legacy stamp on American politics, he did so by pushing the Disabilities act, an expansion (and in fact a rather expensive one) of individual rights in the tradition of the New Deal and Great Society -- a horrifying thought for any Republican these days (although Bush's corrupt drug insurance expansion was another nod in that direction). In these two respects, Dole implicitly recognized two key principles deeply set in American history: the need to avoid foreign entanglements and wars, and the fact that the general welfare is marked by the progressive expansion of personal rights.
Of course, most likely Dole was being cynical on both counts. He never saw a foreign war he couldn't support, and he did everything he could to make this country more corrupt and inequal. And cynicism was often at the root of his famed sense of humor. (Although I'll always treasure one quip: seeing a picture of presidents Carter, Ford, and Nixon together, he said: "see-no-evil, hear-no evil, and evil.") Still, the world would have been a better place had Bill Roy driven Dole from politics in 1974. And we would be much better off if this was a state and nation where outstanding human beings like Bill Roy could be elected to high office.
Saturday, March 8. 2014
I rarely pay any attention to news when I travel, and my recent trip to Florida was no exception. When I left I was vaguely aware of violently repressed anti-Russian (aka "pro-West") protesters in Ukraine, but when I got back to Wichita the table had flipped with Ukraine's Prime Minister (democratically elected, as best I recall) ousted and exiled to Russia, while a new "caretaker" government had taken over and was, in turn, violently repressing pro-Russian (aka "anti-West") protesters. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in turn, had become very upset, and intervened militarily taking control of the Crimean peninsula -- with an invite from the regional government there, and aided by the fact that Russia already had a substantial military presence in Crimea.
As usual, outsiders see events like this through their pre-existing lenses, which in the US mostly means the relics of the "Cold War" -- the anti-Communist ideology that drove America's security state to seek worldwide hegemony. The issue is no longer economic: Russia adopted a particularly brutal form of privatized capitalism following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but remained more/less isolated from the neoliberal international system, and after Putin came to power resumed thinking of itself as an autonomous regional (if not world) power. Meanwhile, neocons in the US shifted their focus from economic to military hegemony, seeking to contain and marginalize any nation that had not aligned itself under US military command.
As such, they were more focused in extending NATO -- which with the end of the Cold War seemed to have no reason for continued existence -- through eastern Europe to the former SSRs than they were interested in pushing economic integration. Russia, quite reasonably, regarded such efforts to expand NATO as a challenge to its own autonomy. The Ukraine has turned out to be a focal point in this US-Russia struggle because popular opinion there is closely divided between pro- and anti-Russian factions, with each able to draw in foreign alliances by catering to the prejudices of Moscow and Washington. That, in turn, results in overreactions by all parties.
I was thinking about doing a piece collecting various links, but one article stands out: Anatol Lieven: Why Obama Shouldn't Fall for Putin's Ukrainian Folly [March 2]:
Many Americans are so fond of zero-sum games that they assume any "serious geopolitical defeat for Russia" is a net gain for the US -- a sense reinforced by sixty years of unrelenting Cold War propaganda. That's very foolish: a crippled Russia is more desperate and dangerous, more estranged from international norms, and more likely to provoke worse behavior from the US -- a superpower with a notoriously weak sense of international law, scant appreciation that such law holds the key to a stable future, and none that Americans might actually benefit from some constraints.
The neocon notion that a superpower can impose its vision of how political economies should work on foreign peoples has proven to be a disaster, most obviously in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US spent so many billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of soldiers. That lesson hasn't sunk in, least of all for morons like John McCain, who was so eager to send troops to defend Georgia in 2008, but at least those currently in control recognize that American power is limited -- in particular, an army that can't manage a few thousand Taliban has no itch to take on nuclear-armed Russia or China.
Still, the Obama administration hasn't done much to reassure us of its sanity. They've moved token armed forces into position close to Russia. Secretary of State Kerry has pushed for economic sanctions against Russia -- "war by other means" but still hostile with an aim toward crippling -- while his predecessor, probable future president Hillary Clinton, has absent-mindedly likened Putin to Adolph Hitler. (The problem isn't just historical. The US waged total war against Hitler, insisting on nothing short of unconditional surrender. When Bush I painted Saddam Hussein as "just like Hitler" he set up an expectation for victory that his 1991 Gulf War couldn't deliver, a shortsightedness that Bush II felt the need to remedy in 2003.)
One more point: intervention, and its ill effects, didn't start with Putin seizing Crimea. It goes back to when the Ukraine became independent, split off from the Soviet Union, with NATO expansion a particularly aggressive move by the US. Moreover, apprehension and bad blood wasn't inevitable after the collapse of the Soviet Union. One of the main ways the US irritated Putin was the program to install a US-controlled anti-missile defense network in Poland during the Bush II years. This should remind us all once again: conflicts don't begin with war; rather, war is the shameful and disastrous failure of parties to solve conflicts before they get out of hand.
Sunday, January 26. 2014
At some point during the past decade I came to the conclusion that the single most important economic, political, and social problem we face is growing inequality. The problem it supplanted, preeminent in the 2000s, was war: in particular, the use of armed force to impose a "world order" that was short-sighted and injust. Needless to say, that problem is still with us, but it's faded a bit as all those wars have turned into futile quagmires. Before that, in the relative normalcy of the 1990s, we had the luxury of worrying about more chronic problems, like the long-term effects of anthropogenic climate change and future limits on natural resources -- problems we still face, of course. One could even make a case that all three of these big problems are related: on all three politicians, at least in the US, tend to split the same ways, even though one can construct sound arguments why conservatives should be wary of war and environmental disaster.
On the other hand, the very definition of conservatism -- the political ideology devoted to the preservation of the social order as dominated by whoever is richest at any given time (at various times: the landed aristocracy, slaveholders, merchants, industrialists, financiers) -- both assumes and promotes inequality.
Most conservative arguments reduce to a simple pattern: if we let X happen, we'll start down the slippery slope to communism, socialism, or some such terminal condition -- most of which actually define their goal as a fairer and more equitable society. Which is to say: once you get past the scare words you wind up debating the real question. David Brooks, of course, has no desire to argue that vast inequality is the just order of society and the masses should just buckle under and get used to their lot. As someone practiced in the art of arguing against people's better interests and nobler desires he seeks to obfuscate and confuse the issue, then blame it on someone else, then propose fixes that wouldn't work in the very unlikely event that they were ever tried.
I'm going to do something I haven't done before and quote Brooks' column, The Inequality Problem, in its entirety, stopping every paragraph or so to make some observations.
What Brooks means is that "suddenly" people like the US President and the elites at Davos are talking about inequality -- people Brooks takes seriously, people of his world. Needless to say, those people, like Brooks, have been a little slow on the uptake. Income inequality has been around forever, but it was considered less of a problem up to about 1980 because incomes from the 1930s into the 1970s, at least in the US, had been trending toward less inequality, and the purchasing power of most incomes had been increasing. Poverty among the elderly, for instance, was largely eliminated by Social Security, introduced in the late 1930s, and the socalled "war on poverty" programs started in the late 1960s at least initially -- until conservatives like Donald Rumsfeld started running those programs -- reduced residual poverty.
From 1980 on, coincident with the rise of conservatives with the Reagan administration, income inequality grew, and by the end of the 1980s the trends were clearly documented. The most obvious case, much commented on at the time, was a shocking increase in CEO compensation relative to average wages. This was accompanied by a wave of leveraged buyouts, the result of lax regulation of financial institutions and the more general "greed is good" culture that the Reagan administration encouraged at every opportunity. Reagan's marginal tax cuts were one such signal. Another was his crushing of the air-traffic controllers union.
Brooks specifies income inequality rather than wealth inequality, which is much more extreme. Ferdinand Lundberg wrote a classic study of the accumulation of wealth in 1937, America's Sixty Families, then updated it, finding little changed, in 1968 as The Rich and the Super-Rich: A Study in the Power of Money Today. The list of billionaires Forbes celebrates each year has become a bit more volatile with new money made from high tech and financial scams, but the concentration of wealth has if anything become more extreme. And the division has become so extreme that in 2008 Occupy Wall Street popularized the notion that a line separates the top 1% from everyone else: that the underclass today is 99% of the population.
As for "confusing matters more than clarifying them," that, as you will see, is Brooks' mission, starting with the next line:
Brooks' first obfuscation is his expansion of the haves to the upper 5% of incomes from Occupy Wall Street's 1%. The threshold for the top 5% of incomes was $161,000 in 2012, versus $394,000 for the top 1%. Between 1% and 5% you get into well-paid professionals and small business owners -- well-to-do, for sure, but hardly filthy rich (unless they inherited it). But the real inequalities only grow in the top 1%, so much so that Paul Krugman has suggested we focus only on the top tenth, the 0.1%, where incomes start around $1.9 million and go way up from there. Emmanuel Saez has calculated that 95% of all the income growth since the "recovery" began in 2009 has been snapped up by the top 1%, and two-thirds of that by the top 0.1%.
The bottom 80-90% of Brooks' top 5% may indeed make their money the ways Brooks enumerates, but the very top have different means: with overvalued equity in corporations and/or through the financial transactions that overvalue that equity. (CEOs make most of their "compensation" through stock options, so they gain by this process both coming and going.) This results in a series of bubbles and busts, but as long as the political fundamentals remain strong -- as long as labor markets are too weak to claim a share of productivity gains, as long as antitrust enforcement is too weak to curtail monopoly, as long as regulation is weak and tax enforcement limited -- companies will prosper on paper, even if they wallow in debt, with the rich getting all that much richer.
Since 1980 incomes for the bottom 80% have remained stagnant, and since 2000 they have lost ground. Brooks, like all conservatives, wants to blame this on the "losers," as if, for instance, CEOs had nothing to do with "the disappearance of low-skill jobs." There is no doubt that getting more education and a stable marriage helps individuals to improve their lot, but it's pretty incredible to assert that an increase in dropouts and broken families since 1980 has reversed a trend toward greater income equality under liberal governments from 1933 to 1969 (or later if you're soft on Nixon -- something I can't quite stomach).
Nor is there any real shortage of unskilled jobs these days. They are less likely to be in manufacturing or agriculture, and more likely to be in services, but what distinguishes them isn't the skill level: it's the pay. And wage levels are down almost exclusively due to political pressures. Raising the minimum wage -- a purely political act -- would help, and bringing back unions strong enough to negotiate with management would help even more.
The economy is not necessarily a zero-sum game. Some businesses, for instance, actually make things that are worth more than the sum of their costs, and those businesses -- their workers, their skills and the technology they employ -- produce added wealth ultimately for the economy as a whole (although who benefits from that wealth depends on the relative power of workers and management, and that approximates a zero-sum game). Other businesses just redistribute goods, and this can also make them more valuable. But there are other businesses which just redistribute costs: they are zero-sum or worse, although they may pretend to add value by inflating assets, creating a bubble which appears profitable until it collapses. A typical example here is what private equity firms do: buy a company at an inflated price, paid for by burying the company in debt; sell off pieces, cut costs elsewhere, and pocket tax breaks; resell the company, preferably to a firm expecting to repeat the cycle. The real effect here isn't to build a productive company but to tear one down by stripping it of its value.
Many financial schemes wind up being cases of the rich screwing the rich -- the 2007 collapse exposed cases of banks knowingly selling worthless securities to supposedly cherished customers -- but there are ways ordinary folks get hit too: their "professionally managed" retirement funds are easy game; they put pressure on many companies to cut jobs and labor costs; they help form near-monopolies which help to drive up prices. And they support politicians who help them save on taxes and regulation, creating even more returns for their predatory practices.
There are two reasons for the minimum wage. One is that it sets a minimal social standard about the value of work within the context of human life. Basically, if a job isn't worth paying minimum wage for, it isn't something humans should have to do. Secondly, it puts a limit on the relative power of employers and employees. A nation which values its citizens will insist that they be paid decently. Conservatives hate the minimum wage because it limits the ability of employers to bully their employees, and because they generally regard employees as loser scum they feel entitled to abuse.
One can argue further that the minimum wage should be at least the minimum amount it takes for a single parent to support a family above the poverty level. There is no sense in which the current US minimum wage satisfies that requirement. One may fix that by raising the minimum wage, by raising a wage alternative like the earned income tax credit, by reducing the costs of living in other ways -- e.g., through subsidized housing, food, education, health care, etc. -- or by some combination of these. One should take note that subsidies for low-wage workers are effectively subsidies for low-wage employers, which may seem distasteful, but only through subsidies can one even out variable factors like number of dependents.
Like so many right-wing pundits, Brooks cheerfully cites studies with minimal attribution and qualification, with a high likelihood of having been churned out by conservative "think tanks" that are little more than ideological publicity firms. However, even if his data that most minimum wage workers are merely supplementing the incomes of non-poor families, that proves nothing more than that he doesn't understand my first paragraph here: that the minimum wage has to do with the dignity of work -- teenagers shouldn't have to work under abusive conditions even if their parents are adequately paid -- and that the minimum wage is a lower boundary condition: it should be set high enough so that no working person should be denied a decent standard of living (at least within a nation's means).
Also note that changing the minimum wage, even doubling or tripling it, would have virtually no effect on the broader question of equality. It is merely a lower boundary: it says a lot about a nation's sense of decency, but has virtually no power to change the median or balance the spread of the incomes above it.
It's hard to believe that even Brooks wrote that first line with a straight face. Recall that the current minimum wage is set well below what most families need to be self-sufficient and out of poverty. No doubt some suffer from not being able to get 40 hours of work a week, but some work considerable overtime (probably not paid as overtime, as it is scattered across multiple jobs) and are still not able to escape poverty. Brooks is trying to argue that the fix for their problem is to give them more hours of underpaid work. Clearly, by any standard of decency, they are not being paid enough for their work.
Sorry to interrupt Brooks before his big punch line, but there is a lot to slog through here. These correlations are all true to some not-very-important extent, but the net effect (and most likely the sole intent) of choosing them is to blame the poor for their poverty. To pick out a similar truism on the other side, there is a very strong correlation between inheriting a fortune and making lots of money. (I'd invite Brooks to re-run his examples on a sample of heirs, so we can get an idea of how pregnancy, divorce, dropping out, drug abuse, etc., have on people who start out with a thick cushion of money.)
And from a policy standpoint, I have to point out that a viable alternative to single motherhood is abortion, and that blocking that option both punishes women and adds a drag on the economy. That many people who drop out of high school aren't too dumb -- they just didn't fit in (I'm an example). De-industrialization may be a problem, but but it's hard to see it as a character flaw -- except perhaps of the MBA/CEO class. And I have to wonder whether "engaging in behaviors that damage their long-term earning prospects" isn't a cheap shot at the Army, which may have been a decent jobs program during times of peace but has been an unmitigated disaster the last 12 years.
Aside from his confusion about cause and effect, not to mention his inability to distinguish dependent from independent variables when running a correlation, Brooks' third and fourth sentences are truthy enough. But the uncomfortable part he's permitting himself to ignore is class. It's true that class and money aren't exactly the same thing, but they correlate quite well, especially if you start from the beginning. In every example Brooks has cited thus far, more money would make a world of difference -- that single mother could afford childcare, that dropout could find a more suitable education -- and even more so the nurturance of an upper class environment. So perhaps the policy argument should be more than just money.
So much here we have to first turn it inside out to make any sense of it. Brooks asserts that we can only implement policy on a bipartisan basis, which gives the Republicans dictatorial control over policy, since they won't agree to any policy but their own. But the Republicans are a minority in Washington now, and are likely to become even more so if voters ever manage to figure out how much they are personally hurt by the party's slovenly allegiance to the 1%. So the first thing Brooks is trying to do here is to steer Democrats away from talking about the issue -- even as "the income inequality frame" but most of all, heaven forbid, as class.
Secondly, he's claiming that Republicans would be happy to do something about "the human capital piece" -- an obnoxious term for working people, reduced to the most miniscule cogs in machinery controlled by money. However, I haven't seen the slightest evidence of any such interest among Republicans -- not since George W. Bush conned Teddy Kennedy into his Trojan horse "No Child Left Behind" law, which did more damage to the public education system it claimed to be saving than would have happened had nothing passed. And that's now regarded as one of Bush's "big government" heresies, something no one in the party defends any more. Rather, all the Republicans seem to care about is cutting taxes, completely undermining safety net spending -- cf. their recent moves on unemployment compensation and food stamps -- and letting businesses run amok with fraud.
Brooks reaches a bit in his reading of the Democrats, but at least he acknowledges the notion that low wages are indeed "a problem caused by unequal economic power." Still, he misses an important linkage. The "human capital" he's so fond of -- education, although there's really more to it than that -- is only a means for individuals to move up the class hierarchy. Equalizing economic power, on the other hand, is the way to move an entire class to a higher standard of living -- promoting unions is one way to do it, using the government is another. (And, for what it's worth, I'm very fond of the idea of worker-owned companies, which is a private sector solution that moves beyond the conflicts inherent in union-management negotiations.)
Brooks, like most pro-business Americans, likes the idea of equal opportunity and eased mobility, because they leave the class structure and its attendant inequality intact -- they just shuffle the players. Clinton and Obama are in fact good examples of poor boys who worked their way up through the system -- by being very smart, of course, and working very hard, but also because they had unique talents for sucking up to the rich and powerful. They are, or should be, prime examples of the fabled American dream, but rank-and-file Republicans simply loathe them, and their rise coincides with the most ambitious attempt ever to close the American system: to make higher education inaccessible and unaffordable except to the upper crust; to dumb down lower education; to exempt inherited wealth and proprietors and push the tax burden down on the working class, who take home ever less for their toils; to shut down the nation's borders; and to manage the losers through a complex system of jails, courts, and parole, making sure they can't vote.
Again, Brooks has no clue as to what causes what. Increasing inequality is the thread that runs through dozens of problems. It has multiple causes, some endemic to capitalism, but many of them are purely political. And even those that are endemic may be limited and rendered reasonably safe by political means, once we have the desire and clear thinking to do so. It's been difficult to mount a serious political movement around such a basic problem. I put a lot of the blame on the Cold War, with so much ideological and propaganda investment in demonizing communism and in whitewashing capitalism. Pace Brooks, before WWII large numbers of Americans intuitively responded to populist political campaigns, and if they failed to achieve power, it was usually because liberal reforms blunted the people's direst complaints -- the New Deal being a prime example.
I won't try to prove this here, but there must be much better ways to express the truths that surround the boring statistics documenting increasing inequality. When that happens you'll start to see some real movement on this issue. It is, after all, a profound issue, at the very heart of the left-right divide. Our lives, our survival, hang in the balance.
Even though the column only ran in Wichita today, turns out I'm late to the bonfire. Here are some more links on Brooks: