Thursday, September 13. 2012
On September 10, a US airstrike in Yemen killed seven people, including Saeed al-Shihri, alleged to be "al-Qaida's No. 2 leader in Yemen." This follows numerous other US airstrikes in Yemen, including one that killed US-born Anwar al-Awlaki.
On September 11, a demonstration at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, turned violent, and the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed. Most likely the demonstration was incidental, providing cover for an independent attack force (see the Quilliam report, which describes a video released by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri with a call "to avenge the death of Abu Yaya al-Libi, al-Qaeda's second in command killed a few months ago"). The US responded by sending a small detachment of Marines to Libya -- not enough for an occupation, but quacks like one, and will be taken as such by those so inclined.
What this shows is that after eight years of Bush and nearly four of Obama virtually nothing has changed. The US still throws its weight around the Arab world, siding with tyrants it finds conveniently corrupt, helping them kill and imprison their own people, getting trapped in blood feuds, and blamed for the dearth of progress that keeps these nations poor. Sensible persons back away from tactics that don't work; US politicians stumble forward, convinced that losing credibility would be far worse than throwing away lives and treasure.
Oil gets blamed for this, and indeed there are lots of things one can pin on the oil companies, but they prefer to work quietly, and were doing nicely in places like Saudi Arabia until external politics got in their way. The rub there is Israel, ever more a warrior state, which has spent the last four years goading Obama into a pointless and potentially tragic showdown with Iran. That may seem nothing more than good sport for Israel, much like their dabblings in US domestic politics, like smacking down uppity presidents with congressional resolutions and radio flak.
For Israel, hostilities are a win-win proposition: either they kick ass, or they burnish up their victimhood cult, renewing their claim to the moral high ground. (And while they whine about their losses, they're never so severe they disturb the warrior ethos.) On the other hand, for the US war is lose-lose: like Todd Snider's bully, what kicking ass winds up meaning is you got to do it again tomorrow, and again and again and again, all the while exposing your inner wretchedness. Israel, behind its Iron Wall, can fancy that it's better to be feared than liked, but the US needs good will to do business, so with every misstep risks losing it all. That's why the two days both wind up in the loss column.
In the wake of the embassy incident, Obama promised to bring the killers "to justice": the first thing that flashed through my mind was Pershing chasing all over Mexico after Pancho Villa, nothing but a wild goose chase. But even nominal success most often rings hollow, as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden have proven. (Ultimately, both happened after killing more people than the evildoers had themselves, making one wonder what a higher power should do with Bush and Obama.)
Meanwhile, Romney accused Obama of "apologizing for America" when the State Department tried to disclaim and disown the video that triggered (or served as the pretext for) the demonstrations. Presumably, Romney thought that Obama should have stood up for gross slander of a religion with one trillion followers -- presuming that Romney was thinking, as he's likely to disavow the video himself by week's end. Still, even if he walks back the particulars, you've seen his basic instinct: to plunge headlong, chin up, into every conflict that comes his way, as if, like Israel, he's convinced that every fight is win-win.
That last point is the secret behind the Neocons' slavish idolatry of Israel: envy. They want to fight, and they want to win. They want to thumb their noses at the world, and have the world cower before them. They see that on a small scale with Israel, and even there they don't actually see very well, but they're convinced that if only our leaders had the vision and the guts we could scale Israel's formula up and leave the world awestruck. Romney, of course, is as committed to Neoconnery as McCain and Bush -- see John Judis: never apologize, never negotiate, never think, just act. After all, you're America: always right, invincible (except when led by cowards like Obama, Clinton, and Carter).
Update: Minor edit above, changing "Israeli movie" to "video." Initial reports were that the demonstrations were against a movie produced by a California-based Israeli named Sam Bacile. WarInContext has a post that suggests that it was in fact produced by an Egyptian Christian living in California. As I understand it, the title is Innocence of Muslims, and at present it is only distributed as a 14-minute excerpt on YouTube, so it is not clear to me whether words like "film" and "movie" are appropriate. These details don't have any real bearing on the argument above. The video may be a convenient pretext for a demonstration, but the real issue is US interference in the region, including support for regimes that do real violence to people, especially Israel's occupation.
Speaking of which, I see now that Obama has dispatched several Navy ships to the Libyan coast, and has started flying drones over Libyan air space "to search for the perpetrators of the attack" -- once again the instinct of US leaders is to make it all worse. Romney, clueless as ever, argued: "It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." What he means is that the government should stand up in solidarity with every bigot identified as American because failure to do so could be construed as "apologizing for America," and the World's Greatest Nation should never apologize for anything.
Further Update (Sept. 15): Two items from Washington Monthly's Lunch Buffet:
It's easy to see how such great minds can get confused. The nominal purpose of America's "Oil Wars" -- the long string of US operations in the Middle East (and Afghanistan) since Carter declared the oil in and around the Persian Gulf a "national interest" in 1979 -- has always been to help our good Muslims against those bad Muslims (the definitions sometimes changing, e.g., in Afghanistan), so the US has always had to be careful not to make offense against Islam. But it's always been easier to sell those wars to the American people with a dollop of racial and religious bigotry -- you could even call it "Crusader zeal" -- and as the wars have unfolded, most of what you actually see is Americans killing Muslims, the "good" inevitably mixed in with the "bad" -- and this results in a polarization that undermines the original premise. For someone like Bachmann, the enemy winds up being all of Islam. Romney is more of a neocon, so he has to keep the notion that we're helping "good Muslims" in play, even though he doesn't always remember that before he speaks.
Friday, March 30. 2012
I went to a presentation Rannfrid Thelle gave last night to the Wichita Peace Center about Syria. It was offered mostly as historical background ("From Aram to Assad"), PowerPoint bullets with archeological pictures from Rannfrid's 2006 visit to Syria. A couple dozen people were present, mostly the usual crowd, plus two ringers with Syrian connections pushing an anti-Assad, pro-revolution line (but, thankfully, well short of calling for armed intervention). They didn't quite hijack the presentation, but they reminded me how defenseless well-meaning people are when confronted with evidence of brutal repression. The urge to help is overwhelming, swamping the critical recognition that help is something we are unable to offer.
I know I find myself moved by reports of the Assad regime's violent suppression of demonstrations, but when I hear pleas for outsiders to step in and "protect the people," all I know for sure is that if the US were to intervene in any way, all we would do is kill more. It seems clear that the Assad regime has killed more people and done more damage than any of the other targets of Arab Spring -- with the possible, but not certain, exception of Libya, where the US did add to the body count. (And for that matter, Assad has killed more than Iran and Myanmar did in forcibly suppressing major demonstration movements over the last few years.)
No doubt the Assad regime has disgraced itself. However, it is far from the only government that has done such, so why focus on it? (One could, after all, cite the elephant-in-the-room, Israel, which has killed a comparable number of people under its sovereignty, albeit stretched out over a longer timeframe.) Syria moved to the forefront of the news partly because it flowed out of the "Arab Spring" revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, and partly because we in the US have long held a grudge against it. In particular, Bush's generals loudly threatened to invade Syria in 2003-04 if Syria in any way aided the resistance in Iraq: the goal then wouldn't have been to liberate the Syrian people from an oppressive regime, but to get rid of an inconvenient one and replace it with something more to our liking. Indeed, the US did just that in occupying Afghanistan and Iraq. The idea that we might selflessly liberate a country so that its people could run a free democracy was at best a propaganda afterthought.
Rannfrid did a generally good job in outlining Syria's history, but she missed one essential item: in 1948, Syria woke up on the wrong side of the bed and found itself locked into conflict with Israel. What happened was that the British quit their mandate in Palestine without having established any sort of agreement on the shape of its future independent government. In this void, the Zionist organization declared Israeli independence, and marshalled its army to secure as much territory as it could within Palestine, with no concern for the two-thirds of the mandate's population who were not Jewish, and who had agreed to no such division. As the Israeli militias advanced, the Palestinians appealed to the newly independent Arab states for help (like the Free Syrian Army currently begs for outside help). The Israelis like to describe this as all the Arab armies invading on Independence Day, another example of their accustomed blindness to the Palestinian presence.
Those Arab states had various agendas. Egypt, Transjordan, and Iraq were ruled by crony kings installed by Britain, and Transjordan was practically invited to invade by the Israelis in the hope that they would pick up the Arab West Bank and prevent an independent Palestinian state from being established. Israel's success, both in expanding its territory way beyond what the UN had offered -- without consent of the people actually living there -- and in driving over 700,000 Palestinians into exile proved to be deeply embarrassing to the junior officers caught up in the 1948-49 war. This, in turn, led to military coups in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria -- to a long series of such in Syria until Hafez Assad was finally able to stabilize control of the government.
Israel signed temporary armistice arrangements to end the war, but refused to sign peace treaties -- mostly because Israel was unwilling to readmit any refugees, but also because Israel was still unsatisfied with its borders. Up to 1967, Israel repeatedly provoked border incidents with Syria, then in June 1967 Israel used the closing of shipping to Eilat as a pretext to invading and snatching large chunks of territory from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Later that year, Israel formally annexed the Golan Heights that it had seized from Syria and depopulated. In 1979 Egypt was able to recover its lost territories by signing a unilateral peace treaty with Israel, which left Syria permanently maimed and powerless to cut its own deal. (Ehud Barak made a token effort at a deal in 2000, then backed away when it looked like Assad might agree.)
America's relationship with Syria has always been a reflection of its relationship with Israel. When Israel sought alliances in the west, Syria had no other defense option but to turn to the Soviet Union, which only hardened US antipathy to them. Syria's relationships with other Arab nations broke up over one issue or another. Syria occasionally made gesture to appease the US, like their enthusiastic endorsement of the 1990 Gulf War against Iraq, but they were easily forgotten -- in large part because for the US Israel always came first. The US at first welcomed Syria's intervention in Lebanon, then ultimately insisted that they leave. It's hard to think of any nation the US has had a more fickle and unprincipled relationship with, although Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan come close, for much the same reasons. That Bush decided not to invade in 2004 most likely had less to do with excuses than with lack of imagination about what to do with the carcass. That in turn may be because Israel seems to like the Assad regime: it's not only the devil they know, it's such a toothless wreck of a government they can bomb it on a whim and know there won't be any consequences.
One major reason the situation in Syria has become so grave is that the regime is so isolated from the rest of the world. It has only partly rebuilt its relationship with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it's unlikely that Russia has anywhere near the deep-seated relationship with Syria that the US was able to exploit in nudging Mubarak out of power in Egypt, even assuming Russia has any desire to do so. The only other countries with any links to Syria are China and Iran, and neither is very sensitive about the rights of pro-democracy demonstrators. One thing we've seen again and again is that the more isolated a nation is, the less its leaders have to lose in resorting to violent repression -- again, consider Iran, Myanmar, Libya. And in Syria's case, it's too late to fix that: now that the regime has so disgraced itself, the pressure is against anyone trying to build relationships.
Meanwhile, the anti-Assad opposition -- especially the exiles who are safe from retribution -- have only become emboldened, ever more militant. They plead for arms, for intervention, to fight not to depose the regime but to conquer it. We are, in effect, being asked to choose sides in a civil war we actually have no stake in and no comprehension of. Sure, we can grasp the brutality of the Assad regime, but not yet the brutality of an opposition that has already decided to resort to killing and maiming its opponents -- a process that the longer it persists the more dehumanizing it will become. Indeed, one theme that emerged in the meeting was the fear that a triumphant anti-Assad movement would take its revenge on the Allawite community that Assad came from and favors. Several people were reminded of Rwanda; my own thoughts gravitated to the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad by Shiite militias as the US decided that the only way to keep Iraqis from uniting against the occupation was to turn them against each other. On the other hand, we had to sort through wild stories about Assad importing Iranian snipers, mass incarcerations, torture, and ritualistic killings. It's impossible to know what's actually true because access is so limited and propaganda is so free.
The dehumanization of the other side is inevitably one of the first things that happens in war, and it's well under way in Syria. The longer and bloodier the struggle continues, the worse it will be for all sides. (The continuing turmoil in the so-called Libya success is an example of what happens when you militarize conflict.) It's dehumanization that leads to atrocities, which leads to more of the same. The sane way out is to back off from anything that implies violence, while maintaining a vigilant concern for any violation of basic human rights by any party. The most effective approach would be to shame the Assad regime into backing down, chilling out, and opening up. That involves engaging with the regime, no matter how distasteful that seems, and it involves rejecting any elements of the opposition who insist on fighting this out in the streets. The end result should be a democratic government where individuals can speak up and protest without fear, and the end result should have nothing to do with the ulterior motives of other countries.
Making this work will take some effort, and more carrots than sticks, but it has worked elsewhere, and the all-stick approach (so dear to John Bolton) has failed virtually everywhere. To take one example, Turkey had built up a pretty rotten human rights record, but over the last 10-20 years they've done much to turn that around. They still have a long ways to go, but the prospect of joining the European Union steered them toward reforms, and the odds of a military coup have gone way down. Latin America and the former Communist states provide more examples, and Myamnar, which only a few years ago brutally suppressed demonstrations, seems to be opening up to diplomatic efforts. The Middle East and North Africa remain in turmoil, but as more nations there become more legitimately democratic Syria will be more tempted to join them.
Aside from the short-sightedness of the Assad regime, the main obstacle to democratic reforms in Syria is Israel and its clumsy, incoherent puppet, the United States. The US has bases all over the region, which do little more than make it a target for local rage and offer opportunities for embarrassing adventures. Israel, meanwhile, has no desire for any form of peace that would entail concessions, like basic human rights, to its Palestinian subjects (let alone refugees). The whole Arab Spring movement makes Israel uneasy: Israel has long prided itself on being the region's "only democracy," but it is nothing of the sort, no longer "only" and hardly in any sense a democracy. What it is, however, is a rogue state -- with its targeted killings and nuclear blackmail -- the threat that generations of Arab dictators have used to rationalize their own corruptions. Solve the Palestinian problem, turn Israel into a normal nation, let the US pull back its tentacles, and the whole region will open up.
 Helena Cobban, citing Patrick Cockburn, makes this point effectively. Cobban goes on to counter the arguments for outside armed intervention: something you should bookmark and re-read every time you find yourself entertaining the thought that doing so just might work.
 The standard solution to the Israel-Syria conflict is for Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria, which was pretty much (if not necessarily seriously) what Barak offered in 2000. I wonder if a simpler solution might be for Israel to buy the territory. It might work like a mini-Marshall Plan: I don't know what the price might be, but say $20 billion, offered as credits over 50 years, which works out to $400 million per year. Syria would cash in those credits by buying goods (anything but arms) from Israel, so this would be a domestic stimulus that also provided genuinely useful aid (which is pretty much what the Marshall Plan did, unlike USAID's scams to dump agricultural surplus). Just an idea. They could do similar things with settlements on Palestinian land. I would prefer for Israel to hand over the settlements with the understanding that any Jews who wish to stay become Palestinian citizens (with full and equal rights), but for a lot of (I'd say bad) reasons that ain't gonna happen. It may not be justice to convert your problems into money, but at least it makes them negotiable.
Saturday, March 17. 2012
The Wichita Eagle front-page headline is "Soldier suspected in killings gets to Kansas," the piece attributed to Kansas City Star staff and wire reports. (I can't find the piece online, but it is apparently based on this piece.) It doesn't acclaim Staff Sgt. Robert Bales as a hero, but isn't everyone who signed up for the post-9/11 Global War on Terror a hero? They're automatically acclaimed when they die, as at least 6,398 have done, or when they're wounded (as Bales was, losing part of his foot), or when they receive medals (Bales is oft described as "much decorated"). So why not when they go berserk? The Army may prefer precise and unemotional control over its violence against Afghan villagers, but Bales' methodical killing of sixteen (mostly) children wasn't far out of the long line of atrocities other US "heroes" have committed. It just underscores how unfit the US military is for the difficult task of nation building, and therefore how hopeless what Obama can only describe as "the Mission" -- an abstract noun that has thus far proven impossible to define -- really is.
Some background on Bales is available here and here, and here. He is 38, was born in the Midwest, is married, has two children (3 and 4). He served three tours in Iraq, and was recently deployed to Afghanistan. He was trained as a sniper, which is to say someone who calmly and methodically picks out targets at distance, and kills them. The Pentagon describes his career as "unremarkable." A neighbor is quoted: "A good guy go tput in the wrong place at the wrong time." Happens all the time.
Problem is, if you're Afghan, this looks like stone cold murder. And if you're Afghan, you probably have a clear idea of what justice should look like -- and it's probably not that it would only be fair to ship the killer half-way around the world to a cozy cell in Kansas to let his shrinks and lawyers come up with arguments and excuses to try show that Bales is the victim here.
There is a case to be made that Bales was indeed a victim: of a president who decided to double down on the same military that had turned eight years of arrogance into abject failure, but Obama was stuck, like Rumsfeld complained earlier, with the army he inherited, and with a political culture that insists that America's heroes will prevail eventually (unless sabotaged by cowardly politicians). No one thought of the welfare of the troops before launching this war, but ever since politicians have been hiding behind their confused feelings, ignoring the fact that they were never fit for the purpose, that their deeply trained lethality ensures a string of atrocities. Anyone who seriously believes the popular counterinsurgency theories should start by building a new army; the real one doesn't work, even if some officers have learned to talk the talk.
Talking the talk, after all, has always been the easy part. What's hard is understanding you can't occupy a country you have no business in, no understanding of, and no awareness of your own alien nature. The US entered Afghanistan seeking revenge for 9/11, and never quite satisfied that itch. Overstaying its welcome, the US set up a puppet regime, then proceeded to delegitimize it by continued dominance -- Bush was too busy starting new wars to bother cleaning up after this one. Then came Obama, proving that America's best efforts were just as futile as America's worst efforts. Now he thinks he can tiptoe away without admitting fault or error, when the entire campaign has been nothing but wrong.
Bales' massacre is deeply embarrassing for Obama because there's no way to scrub away the stain. Either it was policy or not, the latter proof that we cannot manage our policy: we can't control our own troops, nor the Afghans we've trained, even less the Taliban. Even the right is abandoning this war: the carnage doesn't bother them, but they'd rather hate Muslims from a distance than try to divide and conquer them far away. And I suspect more and more we'll see the military itself turn on the mission: as good as it's been for budgets and careers, incidents like this show that the troops are wearing out, that the strain is cracking them up. Maybe they even like the idea of leaving Obama holding the bag. His statements this past week have been the most tone-deaf of his tenure.
Some more relevant links:
Thursday, November 17. 2011
Saw this in the Eagle this morning, and it turned my stomach: Ben Feller: Countering China, Obama asserts US a Pacific power. AP article. Some quotes:
There's a tendency to treat this as business as usual, but at a time when the US occupation of Iraq has nearly wound down and the operating assumption is that US troop levels in Afghanistan will start to decline, when there's nearly universal agreement on the need to reduce military spending, this is an unnecessary and provocative new venture, intended to, well, do what? Prove that the world's most genocidal Anglo-settler nations are still joined at the hip? Show that the US is planning on entering yet another generation of Asian land wars? Prove that Obama is still under the thumb of the Joint Chiefs?
Over the last few years, we've seen a virulent outbreak of books fretting over the looming threat that China, with its huge population and burgeoning economic growth, might challenge the US for dominant superpower status. Reading such books involves a lot of navel gazing, since the essential premise is that China in the future will wind up acting exactly like the US has in the past. Perhaps the most disturbing prospect from today's news is that Obama may actually be reading such rubbish. True, one might argue that the US has lost leverage recently in its ability to influence politics in the bottom tier of "developing countries" but this has nothing to do with lack of military resources, and everything to do with their uselessness.
Meanwhile, Obama has utterly failed to confront the real Chinese threat: the way its currency manipulation preserves a crippling US trade deficit. The core reasons here is that Chinese businesses think in terms of national (which is to say popular) interests, where US government policymakers have chosen to support the world capitalist class with little or no regard for Americans who merely work for a living. Such policies started in the Cold War when the US gladly built up the economies of former powers like Germany and Japan as as well as borderlands like Korea and Taiwan as bullwarks against Communism. At first the US could afford such largesse. Later, as we started sinking billions into foreign oil, the ascendant right was happy to repatriate our losses by swelling the financial sector and selling off assets for inflated prices: in effect, our trade deficits became a pipeline redistributing wealth from the working class to the very rich.
No one but the neocons really thinks China's going to be impressed by the US caching arms in Australia. That Obama's bought into their phallic fantasies -- the whole "real men go to Tehran" thing -- is just sad. That he would defend the country from military threats that exist only in the fevered imaginations of discredited neocons but has no interest or desire to stop companies -- after forty consecutive years of trade deficits as likely to be foreign owned as not, and certain to have massive foreign investments -- from shutting down US jobs and moving them overseas is cowardly and indifferent. That he would mourn the loss of soldiers abroad 70 years ago but won't stand up to banks throwing people out of their homes, to business owners shutting down factories, to schools closing, here in America today, is just plain perverted.
As for Australia, the people there need to ask themselves how many more Koreas and Vietnams and Iraqs and Afghanistans will they let the US drag them into, not to mention the possible Gallipolis our alliance promises them.
Saturday, September 24. 2011
This from an AP piece by Matthew Brown which appeared (somewhat shorter) in the Wichita Eagle this morning, titled Victim in Mont. grizzly attack was shot by friend:
One could use this to question the sanity of encouraging every fool in the country to carry guns, but more than anything else this reminds me of George W. Bush's foreign policy, albeit on a much more intimate scale. There, too, doing things one shouldn't do in the first place led to reckless endangerment and death, often by "friendly fire." There, too, "no charges are expected."
Sunday, May 8. 2011
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week, plus a belated comment at the end on Bin Laden:
Killing Bin Laden
I held back from making any rash comments about the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and don't have much to say now. I never believed that the US should have taken military action against Afghanistan in 2001, either to pursue Bin Laden or to overthrow the Taliban (Bush's either-you-with-us-or-against-us theory). I never had a problem with the assertion that Bin Laden was a criminal or with conventional (non-military, non-CIA) efforts to bring him to justice. His culpability for the 9/11 attacks and for previous crimes like the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania is well established including by his own unforced (and boastful) admissions. Moreover, he has provided ideological cover for any number of similar criminal acts. And while he's not the only one responsible for the US -- one hesitates to blame this solely on Bush although he was, as he liked to proclaim, "the decider" -- response to his provocations, he claims to have acted aware of and actually hoping for the US to strike back at Afghanistan, launching a horrific war. Given all this, plus the failure of pre-2001 efforts to apprehend him, I could even see a case for taking extraordinary actions to capture or kill him. But I do draw the line well short of sending an army and air force to occupy another people's country, which is what the US did and for ten years continues to do.
For one thing, no system of justice is perfect, and ours breaks down especially when it comes to the most staggering crimes: politicians who commit acts of war, violently depriving people of human rights. The fact is that most such people have never had to face justice. As unfortunate as it was the Bin Laden to have escaped after 9/11, worse things have happened: one of which is that the US lost all sense of what justice means. Today we instinctively equate might with right, since the only sense in which we have been right over the last ten years is in our ability to get away with it. We have come to admire and emulate gangsters -- people who think that all they have to do to solve their problems is to kill those in the way.
It bothers me not at all that Bin Laden is dead. My position on capital punishment was never that the person doesn't deserve to die; it's that the government has no right to kill. Does the US have the right to send commandos into a foreign country to kill someone there? No. On the other hand, that Bin Laden was executed by a team of Navy SEALS does have a certain justice to it: it was, after all, his scheme to get the US to invade his adopted homeland and wage war against him and the people who adopted him. You can't say he didn't have it coming, and you can't say he hadn't asked for it.
I could also try to look at this pragmatically. Killing Bin Laden doesn't justify the US mission in Afghanistan (and Pakistan), but does it help end that mission? Killing Bin Laden was one of the main rationales for getting into Afghanistan in the first place. Now that he is dead, why not just say "mission accomplished" and get out? If indeed that happens the killing will be a blessing. There are lots of things I don't like about this, but anything that extricates us from occupying Afghanistan and meddling in Pakistan would be good news.
One aspect of this that is rather disturbing has been Obama's own elation over the killing -- not least his "victory lap" going to NYC and sucking up to the troops. Some of it is that he took a rather cynical political position when he reframed his opposition to the Iraq war as mistaken priorities -- he didn't want to be seen as an anti-war candidate, so he pushed Afghanistan as the right war, and Bin Laden as the true object of that war, so he gains on two counts by killing Bin Laden: he vindicates his policy vs. Bush, and he gets a tangible milestone which allows him to get out from under the millstone of an endless, fruitless war. But what's truly disturbing is how much he's getting into his role as killer-in-chief. He got his first taste of directly ordering death in a Somali piracy event shortly after he took office. However, this week he's really hitting his stride: killing one of Gaddafi's sons in Libya, missing his target in Yemen (but killing a couple people anyway), and the big kill of Bin Laden. Moreover, there's very little to stop him from doing this: the military and CIA are geared up to keep doing this (indeed, moving Petraeus from one to the other looks like a policy decision to shift targeted assassination programs into ever more secretive and informal frameworks), the Republicans and the media will just cheer him on, and the ICC can't touch him; that just leaves his conscience, such as it is.
I thought about ending this with several trivial observations, but will leave you with just one. I noticed several pieces trying to parse Obama's speech: specifically the phrase "captured and killed," reading the two verbs as serial. My theory is that the person on scene said something like "we have Bin Laden and he is dead." Being a much better writer than the average Navy SEAL, Obama's instinct was to punch up the line, eliminating passive voice and using action verbs. Still, as a lawyer, you'd think he would have thought better. But I guess he's been in politics too long for that.
Thursday, May 5. 2011
Paul Krugman: How Should We Think of the Civil War?: Not often I disagree with Krugman these days, but he's out of his depth here:
I don't have much beef with Coates here, even not understanding however it is that the Civil War's "so often portrayed": the real issue is what actually happened in those wars, and what happened is often far removed from anything we might be inclined to take pride in. But before you go around glorifying wars, I think you have to ask some hard questions: Did the war achieve the intentions you are attributing to it? Did the people who fought the war, especially at the command level, understand and act on those intentions? Did the prosecution of the war undermine them? Did the aftermath of the war implement them? Did the war cause unintended consequences that complicated or compromise or deprecated its intentions? Ask those questions and I think you'll find that both wars are highly problematical.
The Civil War ended the institution of chattel slavery in the US and influenced its elimination elsewhere (in Brazil at the time and in Cuba twenty-some years later). Had the Confederate States been able to secede and form a modern state based on the institution of slavery, the system would have continued for at least a generation, no telling how much longer. It is not impossible that slavery could have continued well over a century, into our lifetimes and possibly into the present, even though we cannot now conceive of such a world persisting. The Union's suppression of the secession changed history so profoundly that we might as well embrace it because we can't make sense out of the alternative. Nor is it just descendents of slaves who were affected and therefore owe their lives to the war.
However, while the Confederate States seceded to protect the legal institution of slavery and the economic system built upon it, the Union had other reasons for suppressing the rebellion: above all, it did so to preserve the integrity and power of the nation state, to protect and promote its economy, and to position the United States as a more significant imperial power. The secession profoundly tipped the balance of power, resulting in a tariff to protect industrial development and a Homestead Act to accelerate the absorption and integration of frontier territories. With the Union victory, the economic gains from the power shift continued, while the ideals of ending slavery atrophied: slaves were freed nominally but soon subjected to economic and political controls, including a reign of terror, that left them as destitute (if not as hopeless) as before. Moreover, in the decades following the Civil War "free labor" throughout the Union was more often than not reduced to conditions of near-slavery (what came to be called "wage slavery," most blatantly in company towns).
One has to wonder to what extent the extreme brutality of the Civil War -- it was at the time the deadliest war in human history -- contributed to undermining the anti-slavery ideals. It certainly became a point of honor in the South both to reduce and roll back the initial gains of the Freedmen and to restore the antebellum social and political order. The South was willing to suffer great poverty and economic backwardness for over a century to make a point of revenge -- something the North permitted because those in power in the North were little troubled by gross inequality or even by the use of terror (indeed, Northern plant owners were as likely to hire goons to bust strikes).
Whereas the Union was pretty clearly the aggressor in the Civil War -- and set an example for many other nations to suppress their breakaway regions, Congo-Katanga, Nigeria-Biafra, Russia-Chechnya, and Serbia-Bosnia are among the bloodiest recent examples; that each was a choice based on dubious principles is clearly shown by the exception, Czech-Slovakia -- one can make a good case that war was thrust upon the US (and many other countries) by the Axis. I can quibble with that. The war was fundamentally about how the world should be carved up into colonial empires, each a broad swath of the world dominated by a relatively small and autocratic home base convinced of its racial superiority over its dominions. As early as the 17th century, the model for such empires was set by England and France (outflanking earlier efforts by Portugal, Spain, and Holland). Only in the latter half of the 19th century did Germany and Italy (previously not unified states), the United States (revolutionized by the Union's Civil War victory), and Japan forcibly "opened" by the US) decide that they needed to enter the game and play catch up -- indeed, each of these nations often saw their own aggressions as necessarily defensive. (Two other empires come into play here, Russia and China, but they were constructed on more ancient lines, by subjugating their neighbors, much as the Romans and Ottomans had done. Whereas Italy and the US primarily intended to build their empires along Anglo-French lines, Germany and Japan combined both models.)
The progressive idea attributed to the Civil War was abolition of slavery and establishment of civil rights: the latter failed, in large part because so much of the Union was unwilling to work to make it happen, indeed because so much of the Union didn't believe in it. (One result was that the Civil War was refought in the 1960s, much less violently even if it seemed pretty nasty at the time.) The progressive idea attributed to WWII was the abandonment of the colonial empire system and the establishment of universal human rights. The problem here was that both sides were committed to their respective empires, and indeed the US-UK-France had been more successful at it than the Axis powers ever could be. Indeed, the western Allies entered into the war not because they had been directly threatened but because their dominions and international interests were at risk. When Chamberlain sacrificed a sliver of Czechoslovakia, he made a calculated cost-benefit analysis; when asked to do the same over half of Poland, the results changed (but even then he didn't begrudge Stalin for scooping up the leftovers, because the Soviet Union was not deemed anywhere near as serious a challenge to British interests as Germany was). While Roosevelt was admirably principled about not firing the first shot, he was far from neutral, arming and financing China and Britain while embargoing Japan and Germany, all but daring them to sink US ships (Wilson's entrée to WWI) or, as happened, to bomb US bases in the Pacific. The US had become the world's largest economy well before WWI, the largest trading country, a net exporter (safe behind high tariff walls), and as such a net invester and lender, so the people who thought about such things realized that the world couldn't be trusted to handle anything so important as a World War on its own: the US had to take part, because US interests were already involved. The big problem was selling this war to the people who didn't have any real money at stake, and that's where progressive ideas -- anti-imperialism and human rights, also fear of Fascism -- came in handy. It helped that New Deal progressives were in power, and it helped that the Soviet Union was already in the war. But progressive ideas had always served to sell war -- at least ever since selling became necessary, at least since the American and French Revolutions. (It may seem laughable now, but "white man's burden" passed for progressivism in its time; even more cynically, King Leopold vowed to rid the Congo of slavery.) About the only thing those trying to nudge the US into WWII didn't use as a reason was the need to prevent the Nazi extermination of Jews from all over Europe.
There's no doubt that WWII resulted in some progressive things: it conclusively ended German and Japanese imperialism and militarism; it wiped out all of the Fascist and/or ultraconservative states in Eastern Europe (replacing them with Soviet-dominated satellites, which you may not like but was still an improvement in most cases); it led to a communist revolution in China (which again you may not like, but it put an end to foreign depredations like Britain's Opium War and eventually led to the fastest growing economy of the last 20 years); it significantly weakened the victorious western imperial powers, speeding up the liquidation of their colonial states (Spain and Portugal, their Fascist regimes having skipped the war, held out the longest, except for the US which gave up the Philippines but still holds onto scattered outposts); it led to an international declaration of human rights and to the United Nations and other international organizations (which ultimately proved inadequate to fulfill their promises but on balance have been more progressive than not); it resulted in a recognition of the horrible injustice of genocide; perhaps most important to an economist like Krugman, the war solved the chronic demand shortage of the Great Depression and laid the basis for several decades of widespread affluence. Needless to say, only the first item was on Roosevelt's progressive agenda when he led the US into war, and even that wasn't conceived of progressively: US Treasury Secretary Morgenthau wanted to reduce Germany to nothing more than a 17th century agricultural economy. The rest was made up on the fly, or happened on its own, but so did much else.
On the other hand, much else happened during and after the war. Some seventy million people were killed, including some ten million people in German concentration camps -- mostly Jews in the Nazi's deliberate program to eradicate "the race," but also huge numbers of communists and other political opponents and Russian prisoners of war. Some 22-25 million of the dead could be considered combattants, including 410,000 Americans -- a number that is small only compared to 2 million Japanese, 3-4 million Chinese, 5.5 million Germans, and 8-10 million Soviets. But the overwhelming majority of those killed were non-combattants. One number I can't find is how many perished by the main new technology of the war: aerial bombardment. When the war started, the US was very high-minded about limiting bombing to strictly military targets, but the war ended with the US wiping out entire cities with nuclear weapons.
Beyond those dead were many more wounded, millions dislocated, many forced into slave labor. In the German-Russian borderlands from Latvia to Ukraine prewar populations were reduced by 15-25%. The war changed people, and while many (especially in Europe and Japan) resolved to live in peace, some developed a taste for war. The Chinese communists continued to fight the Kuomintang army. The Vietnamese fought against the return of the French. Indonesia, the Philippines, and India would have erupted but were quickly granted independence (the Indians turning on themselves when the British decided to partition the country, resulting in more than a million deaths). Both sides of divided Korea plotted to unify the country, resulting in a horrendous war from 1950-53, sucking in the US and China. The Zionist settlement in Palestine revolted against Britain and seized three-quarters of the land, fighting off several Arab armies and driving 700,000 Palestinians into an exile that has still not been resolved. Israel was initially backed by the US, the USSR, and France, partly out of sympathy for the Holocaust, possibly out of a desire to settle displaced Jews elsewhere, with an almost absent-minded disdain for the Palestinians signifying that the colonial mentality had not yet been broken. The result was the creation of the most belligerent nation of the postwar period, one which still denies basic human rights to several million people -- one of many not-so-progressive things that emerged from WWII.
Then there was the US, the nation which gained the most and suffered relatively little, with virtually no civilian casualties, the homeland never seriously threatened. The war rescued the US economy; fear of slipping back into recession made the idea of maintaining a permanent war economy attractive. Moreover, the war swelled the American ego to a humongous degree: we had, after all, saved the world from extraordinary evils; we led the world, were good enough to rebuild Europe; our ideals were the world's. Except, that is, for the communists, who soon turned out to be more useful as enemies. They gave us reason to keep the military economy in gear, and they gave the right an opportunity to purge the left -- which they proceeded to do with generous but suicidal support from the liberal establishment.
Nearly everything bad that has happened to America since 1945 can be traced back to the unsatisfied sense of winning WWII and the craving for more. Tom Carson was right when he said that the worst thing that ever happened to the US was winning WWII. That isn't to say that losing would have better, or that we shouldn't have entered at all. But it should be understood that war isn't something one wins; it's always a loss, the real dilemma being how you handle that loss. It should also be understood that war itself is never progressive. The whole idea behind progressivism is to deliberately arrange society and economy in ways that work more productively and more equitably for all. Going to war doesn't do that, not least because in going to war you throw your fate to the winds. Maybe you'll learn something from the experience and use that insight to do something progressive: for instance, racism became much less popular after watching what the Nazis did with it, and that lesson helped revive the US civil rights movement, and indeed helped fuel anticolonial movements around the world. But real progressives didn't need, let alone want, that example. Had progressives been more successful before WWII they'd be less likely to think WWII a progressive war because they would have had less ground to make up, and less to learn from really awful events. Indeed, had they been more successful there might not have been a WWII.
Pacifism is a philosophy to live by; not one to judge history by. The prevalence of wars throughout history shows two things: that war is a plague upon human society, and that through so much history we haven't had the good sense to prevent it. One might cold-heartedly look back on history and say some war made for a turning point after which we decided to become more progressive. Maybe Krugman's favored wars qualify, but taking pride in them strikes me as not just excessive and selective but foolish. For every progressive impulse or moment, we should recognize two things: that it could and should have been done less violently, and that the process of going through war damaged us in too many ways to fully comprehend. For example, what abolitionist who supported the Union in the Civil War could imagine the residual power of George Wallace and Jesse Helms more than a century later? What liberal democrat (or communist) who understood the urgency to defeat Hitler could imagine the bloodthirst of Dick Cheney and Ariel Sharon sixty years later?
The lesson is that war begets iniquity and further war, and that is nothing ever to take pride in.
Tuesday, March 29. 2011
Juan Cole: An Open Letter to the Left. Another chapter in the long saga of when peace-loving people let themselves get seduced by war. Happens most to people who think a lot, enough to want to differentiate themselves from people who simply believe that all war is bad -- pacifists, you know. Also happens to people who feel so close to the immediately visible victims that they lose track of the big picture. Susan Sontag was the classic example, whining endlessly about how the US, NATO, anyone should step up and intervene in Bosnia and put a stop to the killing. The logic escaped me; they I found out she had actually moved to Sarajevo to put herself into the middle of the experience, something I found brave and touching and batshit insane. Cole isn't that far gone, but he clearly identifies with and cares a lot about the rebels in Libya, so he's trying to pitch his concerns as a matter of solidarity. That's a classic leftist pitch, but it's also a fool's trap.
I don't want to take the time to explain that last point either. What I really want to complain about is buried way down in the last paragraph:
Cole's a historian so he should know better than this. (And it's no excuse that Cole's specialty isn't England; Churchill was a worldwide plague, a name that should be very familiar to any historian who's ever done work on Iraq, Iran, and/or Egypt.) At best, Churchill was a stuck clock, right once in his long life, on Nazi Germany, although it should be recalled that the roots of his hatred for Germany date back to the intraimperialist Great War of 1914-1918 -- a war that leftists at the time blamed on all sides. Otherwise, Churchill spent his entire career denying freedom to British colonies, expanding the empire into places like Palestine and Mesopotamia, fomenting sectarian hatreds that would lead to further wars after Britain gave up; innovating the use of air war, weapons of mass destruction, systematic blockades aimed at starving the enemy (or most successfully, his own colony in India); then, out of power, he conceived and campaigned for the Cold War, a legacy continuing long after his death. If the 20th century was the Century of World War, that's to no small extent because it was the Century of Churchill. It was sheer dumb luck that he managed to hate Hitler, and even that only happened because Hitler was willing to give him one more jolly good war. The only thing that kept Churchill out of the pantheon of the century's greatest monsters -- Hitler, Stalin, maybe Mao, or Hirohito -- was that he was stuck in a democracy which had the good sense to periodically strip him from power. Had he been able to run England like he tried to run India, Ireland, and Palestine, well, one shudders at the thought.
Personally, I have some real reservations about all the principal allies in WWII, but even if you chalk that up as one good intervention, pray tell me about another? Sudan? The Boer War? The Boxer Rebellion? Ireland? Gallipoli? Iraq in 1920? Pallestine in 1937? He came along too late to crush the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857, but he carried on from there. Iran (he was back in power to overthrow Mossadegh in Iran in 1953)? Malaya (the so-called success of the ink spot counterinsurgency theory)? Kenya? You don't need to dig into his private papers to find a racist and a warmonger. His whole career was built on the blood of others.
And even in death, Churchill lives on as an inspiration to others -- not just Cole here, but as I recall one of the first things George W. Bush did when he moved into the White House was to install a bust of Churchill. Everyone likes to argue with historical analogies. Most are bogus, but appealing to Churchill as a positive example is one of the worst. Pretty bad even to use him as an example at all: lots of characters from the 19th century seem hopelessly antiquated now, but few more clearly show how much the world has changed. When Cole cites Churchill favorably, he should remind us of the whole package, the self-glorifying conceit of "white man's burden," the machinery of massacre that so thrilled Churchill in the Sudan, the gift for twisting fancy words around 19th century racism. With allies like that, you are the enemy.
Cole's later piece on Obama's Monday night speech is a more reasonable piece, and has an easy time of rebutting various stupid things stupid Republicans say. One quote is worth expanding upon:
That sounds to me like a pretty good reason to oppose Obama on Libya. If you would oppose it if someone like Bush was president, then it would be consistent and more persuasive to oppose it as a general principle than to try to carve out some special exception for an exceptional and unreproducible president. (If indeed that's what Obama is; one could certainly argue otherwise.) In particular, if you had the choice of supporting Obama's intervention and keeping the US war machine in place through the end of his term(s) or dismantling the war machine so that neither Obama nor any future president could intervene in Libya or elsewhere, the latter would be preferable by far.
Sunday, March 27. 2011
Some scattered links I squirreled away during the previous week:
Aside from the "stupid things people say" critiques, I have yet to read anything on Libya I find in any way useful. I really can't get bent out of shape over anything Obama has done regarding Libya thus far. That should not be construed as an endorsement: I have very real worries that he (or "events") could turn out far worse. I also don't agree with the tactical steps along the way, but in the context of everything else that he has done (or not done) I don't feel compelled to nitpick on Libya. I've been very critical of Obama for his escalation in Afghanistan and for his recklessly imperial approach to Pakistan. I'm bothered by signs of US military involvement in Yemen. I really want to see the US pack up and get out of Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, all of CENTCOM. If we weren't in any of those places, I would be much more bothered about US entry into Libya than I am. But we are in all those places so I don't see how drawing the line at Libya makes any real difference.
To explain, it's worth starting with something the editors at The Nation wrote:
I'm not going to claim that the UN or the Arab League makes anything right. They are political organizations where wheeling and dealing occurs and they've made plenty of mistakes in the past. The UN resolution does place some significant restrictions on US intervention, but they seem to be there mostly because Obama wanted them -- his desire to minimize the US presence, to neutralize the threat of violence from both sides in what is now a Libyan civil war, and to lead to a negotiated solution appears to be genuine and uncommonly (at least by the standards of his predecessors) well reasoned. On the other hand, the UN and Arab League resolutions will prove to be toothless if (and some would argue it's only a matter of when) the US and its allies get impatient and more actively back anti-Gaddafi forces. It is pretty much unprecedented for a foreign power to intervene in any state's internal conflict without taking sides. (In Kosovo, for instance, pretense of neutrality was plainly a farce. The cards are even more stacked against Gaddafi in Libya.)
One thing we've already seen is that, like every other war in history, Libya has already turned into a cesspool of shameless propaganda. There is little reason to believe anything any side presents, and there is every reason to expect anyone with a stake in the conflict to mislead you in any way they can imagine. That is basically why so little that has been published is of any value at all. And, of course, I have my own peculiar take on it all, which may be suspect to, but please hear me out:
Two parts of this are hard to do, especially for the US foreign policy clique since they've made their careers out of ingoring them for the past sixty years. The hard one is to be neutral. As far as I know, the US has never intervened in a country without having a favored side. (Reportedly the reason the US didn't intervene in Rwanda was we "didn't have a dog in that fight.") But if the goal is a negotiated ceasefire leading to elections, the intervention should be willing to lean against either side if and when it looks like that side might win. The fact is that it is very easy for a propagandist to rile up the American people against Gaddafi, but allowing that to happen leads to a lot of bad outcomes, both for the Libyan people (whose sovereignty our taking sides sacrifices) and for the US (which once again will be seen as meddling in other countries for selfish reasons).
The other problem, of course, is how to intervene without causing additional harm. One can certainly argue that even relatively mild acts like blockades and sanctions harm innocent people more than they undermine regimes. As for bombing, there's no escaping the fact that bombs inevitably kill innocent people. That's why interventionists are so eager to invent hypothetical people "saved" by bombing to balance off against the real people killed by it. (That's also why those same interventionists are so keen on calling themselves and their acts "humanitarian"; one thing you must understand is that there is no such thing as a humanitarian military intervention -- that's a simple impossibility, and the very use of the word should clue you in to the deceit it's meant to shroud.)
So is there a calculation which can justify the US/UN going in and bombing Libya? It can't be humanitarian concern for the Libyan people -- for one thing the US/UN has no right to speak for the Libyan people, especially not for the unknown individuals killed by the bombing. The only calculation I can imagine is this: that Gaddafi's forces are already killing people, so if you pointedly attack their wherewithal to project violence, you might degrade and deter their ability and will to do further violence. Or you might not -- there are cases, and they are far from rare, where attacks, especially by foreign forces, increase one's resolve to fight on. There is some evidence over the last few days that this calculation is working, but there is no guarantee that it will hold out. The best evidence would be for a ceasefire to stabilize current positions, then lead to negotiations and resolution.
On the other hand, the intervention has meant a reversal of fortune: welcome in that it halted Gaddafi's forces, disturbing in that it let the insurgents regain the offensive. There will be a lot of propaganda coming on how the US/UN should deviate from neutrality and actively back the insurgents, both to shorten an expensive conflict and because deep down we just plain hate Gaddafi. The fact is we have no idea who the Libyan people might prefer in charge of the government, and because we are not Libyan we have no right to an opinion. The only thing we can maintain is that Libyans should be given the opportunity to express their preferences in free and fair democratic elections, and that the best way to do that is to get all parties to agree to participate. Letting the insurgents storm Gaddafi's strongholds won't achieve this goal. In fact, it will taint the insurgents by associating them with foreign invaders and outside interests. So while I'm not too worried right now seeing the insurgents move bit by bit closer to Tripoli -- Gaddafi's people should be more willing to negotiate if they feel more at risk -- it would be a dangerous policy change to bomb the way for them to close in.
There are several threads of antiwar opposition to Obama's Libya policy, and I'm not here to argue against them. I don't support or approve of Obama's policy for far more basic reasons: I don't believe that war is a proper or acceptable means of resolving disputes, and I don't believe that my country or any other should have a warmaking capability and especially that they should not position it abroad. Obviously, if the US had no such capability, Obama would not be able to implement this policy, and I would be opposed to him developing any such capability. Obviously, if the US was committed to pacifism, we wouldn't be having this discussion. (Indeed, we wouldn't have had the air force base in Libya, we wouldn't have broken relations, we wouldn't have bombed Libya in 1986, Gaddafi wouldn't have had the pretext to blow up that airliner, and so on.) I'm not "bent out of shape" here because Libya is a relatively minor and thus far relatively benign offense; I'd rather argue both the general principles and more egregious cases, like Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are legitimate worries that if Obama's Libya policy can be painted as successful -- and judging from past adventures like Bosnia and Kosovo, such interpretations can be pretty loosey-goosey -- it will lead to further and most likely more reckless interventions (as, e.g., Afghanistan led to Iraq; in computers we call this "second system complex"). If there's an answer to that objection it's not to be found in history. Nor is it terribly satisfactory to point out how unlikely any real form of success is. Gaddafi has already declared his intent to die a martyr, so the fairy tale solution of him panicking and suing for peace real soon now doesn't seem to be in the cards. As with all wars, the longer this drags on, the more people we kill, the more we blow up, the worse it all gets -- and the more likely the relatively cautious and balanced terms of the UN resolution are swept aside in favor of a full-blown invasion.
Obama has also been castigated for bypassing Congress -- Kucinich has gone so far as to argue that Obama should be impeached. Normally I'm in favor of anything that makes it harder to go to war, and I wouldn't mind Congress rising to the occasion to force that principle, but I shudder to think of this Congress getting wrapped up in that debate (let alone actually trying to figure out Libya). Besides, as I recall Kucinich blew his big chance back in 1998: when Clinton was impeached, I urged voting against him not because of the specific charges but because his recklessly insane pummelling of Iraq would eventually lead to war there, but Kucinich gave him a pass.
There are more isolationist antiwar positions that I can't fault, and more realist antiwar positions -- why do we care what happens in Libya? -- that I don't quite understand. (Isn't it in America's, as well as civilization's, interest for all nations to give up war and to refrain from attacking their own people?) One thing that I haven't seen any commentary on is the probability that Libya is primarily a European concern and that Obama got dragged into the conflict in order to keep his primary NATO relations from falling apart. (France and England are the bulldogs of Europe here, since they have the most firepower and they have all of that imperialist legacy and culture to draw on, but they are most likely assuming a generalized European concern.) The US doesn't need Libyan oil, but Europe does. Libya has a history of terrorist attacks against Europe, but only indirectly against the US. The US would be just as happy to shit can Libya for the next thirty years, as it did in 1981, but Europe can ill afford doing so, and certainly doesn't want to have to fend off a bitchy US when they're trying to work out basis business with Libya. On the other hand, the US still needs NATO in Afghanistan, and that deal only works if there is some two-way value exchanged.
I suppose that if all that's true (and I think it is, although I haven't read anything to corraborate it), opposing US intervention in Libya might be seen as a positive step toward breaking up NATO, but NATO's always struck me as the tail, not the dog. There are plenty of reasons to shut it down, so why not deal with them more directly?
There are also lots of theories about how the various Arab revolts will turn out: whether intervening in Libya will make other countries more or less likely to revolt, other governments more or less likely to try to forcibly repress revolts, whether the revolutionaries will be more or less pro-American, and whether that's a good or bad thing. I find it real hard to know, let alone to generalize.
The US has already taken a wide range of hypocritical positions, encouraging revolt in some countries, welcoming violent repression in others (chiefly Bahrain and Saudi Arabia). No matter how violent the Saudis get I don't expect the US will have anything to do with a no-fly zone there. And as for the one place that most desperately needs a no-fly zone, Gaza, about all you can do is work that into a stand-up routine. The country most analogous to Libya right now is Syria. It is an effective dictatorship controlled by a minority clique which can be presumed to be fairly unpopular -- again, it's hard to say, and harder to believe whoever's saying -- and they have at least one past incident where they suppressed a revolt with massive firepower (in Hama, in 1982, killing upwards of 10,000; Israeli military theorist Martin van Creveld was quite impressed). The US has large adjacent air bases in Iraq, as well as a fleet in the Mediterranean, and Israel would be more than happy to chip in, so a no-fly zone is pretty doable. So maybe Libya changes the odds in Syria, but it's hard to say how.
Whether these revolts turn violent is virtually always decided by the government. I've seen arguments that we shouldn't intervene in Libya because the protesters themselves turned violent so readily, but I find that hard to credit. Alternatively, I've heard is said that the revolution in Libya was premature -- that the protesters weren't ready to take over the government. It looks to me like in every case the protesters pushed, the government responded rather violently, the protesters consolidated and pushed back harder. In Tunisia and Egypt the military held together and shifted power, sending the existing regimes into exile. In Libya the military itself cracked, immediately militarizing the protests, but that's mostly a function (or dysfunction) of the government, nothing that the protesters could have prepared for.
No one can know how this will play out. At this point we don't even have the promised new governments in Tunisia and Egypt, which once they exist will become models for the region. So my advice, if anyone cares, is to slow down and chill out on Libya; get a ceasefire, figure out a process to unify the country democratically, and get it functioning again as a normal state interacting with the rest of the world. Obama's done a lot of things that seem no better than what Bush did, but thus far he hasn't screwed Libya up much worse that it already was. If he's lucky, he might get out of it without too much embarrassment, but for that to happen he's going to have to ignore a lot of stupid advice he's certain to get.
Friday, February 25. 2011
I feel like I should write something about Boeing being awarded a $35 billion Air Force contract to convert obsolete 767 airliners into tankers. The tankers would replace the existing fleet of KC-135 tankers, based on vintage Boeing 707 airliners, in service since the late 1950s -- seems like a long time, but they've periodically been retrofitted with new wings, engines, electronics, and so forth. In fact, keeping them flying has been a boon to the Wichita economy -- their replacement will cost jobs in Wichita that could well be moved elsewhere, a downside no one has bothered to mention in the perpetual hype over how many new jobs new tankers will provide.
Some Wichita Eagle links:
The Eagle also ran a useful timeline on the history of the scam, but I haven't found a link on their website. A slightly better article on the lobbying efforts is at OpenSecrets: Eric Chiu: Boeing Wins Refueling Tanker Contract After Massive Sustained Political Influence Effort. This points out that EADS, the military spinoff of Airbus, spent $3 million on lobbying last year. Boeing spent more than $17.5 million.
People like to talk about jobs here, as indeed they do with every serving of military pork. Even Republicans who've waged a holy war recently against John Maynard Keynes and the very suggestion that any government spending program could create jobs -- there's a very musty classical economics theory by David Ricardo that says as much, and has been miraculously resurrected recently long after Nixon insisted that "we are all Keynesians now" -- get all misty-eyed over defense contracts. And Democrats like Dicks, or former Boeing favorite Richard Gephardt, go positively ga-ga. Still, if you buy the estimates at face value, those 50,000 jobs will wind up costing $700,000 apiece. You don't have to be Harry Hopkins to come up with a more efficient jobs program than that.
Then there's the question of why the hell do we need these things anyway? The main purpose of a tanker is to act as an airborne filling station for fighters and bombers, to help them go further without having to find a landing strip. The main reason for doing that is to start wars in faraway countries. Now that we've spent the last decade blundering around the far side of the globe blowing up wedding parties and generally making ourselves a public menace, what everyone should be asking is why do we want to spend a lot more money to do even more of that?
Then there is the political corruption angle. The initial idea for a new tanker fleet wasn't thought up by the Air Force -- they were much more obsessed with future generations of stealth attack aircraft. The idea came from Boeing, and the main thing that spurred it on was that Boeing had this whole manufacturing line tooled up for the 767, which would soon be rendered obsolete by a new generation of advanced technology airliners -- the so-called Dreamliner, which Boeing has yet to deliver after more than ten years of mismanagement. So Boeing figured that there would be easy profits if they could get the Air Force to buy up their obsolete technology. The problem was that the Air Force didn't have any money to do so, so Boeing came up with a crackpot scheme to finance the planes privately and lease them to the government, so they would only appear as an operating expense on the Air Force books -- a real fat one, to be sure. That scheme blew up, and ended with several Boeing officials going to jail, but eventually the lobbying produced a new round of bidding. EADS got involved in the second round. They figured that if the US wanted Europeans to fight and die in Afghanistan, they should get a shot at the Pentagon booty, and they wound up winning the contract -- only to have Boeing go bezerk pulling in political favors to rebid the whole deal. Indeed, Boeing has such a huge home-field advantage, in political clout, lobbying dollars, flag waving, etc., that it's surprising that this was even close. But Boeing also has a horrible record of producing the things they sell -- indeed, their core competency has moved from airframes to crony capitalism, which seems to be the only thing they're at all competent in these days.
I've written about this several times in the past. My father, my brother, a couple of uncles, and numerous friends and acquaintances worked for Boeing. It is a company that has at times accomplished remarkable things, but lately has become a prime example of everything wrong in American business, and America more generally, today. You'll find many of the same points made over and over here:
Also found pre-blog notebook entries dealing with Boeing and most often the tanker scam. Dates: 2003-04-03, 2003-05-24, 2004-01-28, 2004-07-19, 2005-02-23, 2005-03-09, 2005-03-20, 2005-06-10, 2005-06-20. I used to have a website where a lot of this older stuff was archived, but it's down for now.
The key points are: that we already have way more tanker capacity than we need; we certainly don't need any more, and over the long run should radically cut back; the lobbying process is intensely corrupting, both of our elected officials, of the so-called public servants working in the Pentagon, and ultimately of Boeing itself; Boeing has lost its corporate soul.
Of course, the tanker contract award won't be the last that is heard of this whole thing. EADS will protest, and Europe and Alabama will feel shafted -- has their ever been a politician more in the pockets of foreign capitalists than Sen. Richard Shelby? The ridiculous price tag will look like a ripe target for anyone looking for government waste -- both by Tea Partiers and possibly by a Pentagon that never really wanted the thing in the first place. And Boeing's become so inept at manufacturing that we'll see innumerable delays and cost overruns before any plane appears. Maybe the whole thing will be scuttled by a labor dispute over at Boeing's subcontractors in China. I bet I've read over a thousand pieces on this over the last decade-plus. I'm sick of it, and amazed that other critics of US military-industrial policy haven't taken it up. (Robert Scheer does write about it a bit in his The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America.)
But right now Boeing is happy, thinking that crime really does pay. We'll see.
Thursday, February 24. 2011
Update: Added a paragraph toward the end.
I don't feel like I'm getting very good information on whatever's happening in Libya these days, so haven't had much to say. One thing that I do think is that the longstanding antagonism the US has shown toward Libya ever since Gaddafi seized power and forced the US to give up its military presence in Libya -- Wheelus Air Force Base, founded in 1943 to bomb Italy and Germany, but kept as a major cold war installation -- in 1970. Gaddafi rightly saw the US presence as a remnant of the Euro-American colonial past and as an affront to Libyan independence and sovereignty, but the US never forgave the impudence. The US withdrew its ambassador in 1972 -- an act Gaddafi rightly called "childish" -- starting off a long series of affronts and acts of spurious revenge. A useful historical timeline is here -- a couple years old, and could use more detail, especially on dealings with US oil companies which are a nontrivial part of US foreign policy in the region.
It should be clear that Gaddafi's support for terrorism came more often than not in response to US (and Israeli) policies and acts. Also that the various instances of US and Israel shooting down Libyan aircraft and Reagan's 1986 bombings of Tripoli and Benghazi were themselves heinous acts of terrorism. I don't mean to make excuses for Gaddafi, but it is significant that the site he chose for his speech where he vowed to die a martyr was the ruins of the 1986 bombing. That little bit of stage decoration was one of many ways the US has inadvertently kept Gaddafi in power.
I don't know much about Gaddafi's rule of Libya: whether he has been a progressive force, or a kleptocrat, or what, or how repressive he has been, or what his day-to-day role has been since he gave up any official position in the government -- he seems to be a rare example of what you might call "dictator emeritus" (Fidel Castro may be another). I know a little more about Gaddafi's interference with neighboring African states, where his incursions into Chad and his involvement in Darfur appear to have been disastrous -- that all by itself provides plenty of reason to wish for his demise.
Despite Bush's 2006 efforts to restore normal relations between the US and Libya, the US has little actual influence in Libya, and as such is ineffective in trying to restrain Gaddafi from using brute force to put down the rebellion. (Compare with Egypt, where Mubarak was practically on the US dole. Syria is another country where the US has no constructive influence.) Moreover, Gaddafi is so readily and universally despised in the US that policy makers are fervently looking for ways to meddle, oblivious to the fact that we've already messed up Libya quite enough, thank you. At this point it's hard for me to see how any outside pressure the US can apply can do much good. One can, of course, reiterate how much we disapprove of violent repression, and we can promise that all past differences will be forgotten once Libya is a democracy. Maybe there are funds that should be frozen, but sanctions in the midst of chaos seem like a pointlessly self-gratifying gesture, and a "no fly zone" seems like the perfect way to remind Libyans of our past crimes.
Besides, I expect that on their own Libya's elites will split against Gaddafi. When the Iron Wall fell, each nation in eastern Europe broke its own way -- most violently in Romania, the nation with the most charismatic leader and the greatest personality cult, not that either saved Ceausescu. Rather, they clarified the choice.
By the way, as all Marines know, US military involvement in Libya predates WWII. It goes all the way back to 1804 under Thomas Jefferson, the first time US forces were used overseas. At the time, Tripoli was a poorly managed outpost of the Ottoman Empire, much engaged in piracy, much like Somalia today. It's not clear that the intervention actually accomplished anything, other than to be remembered in song. But with piracy in the news again today, we should reflect on how badly we fucked up Somalia in the past before we rush in to fuck them over again.
Thursday, February 3. 2011
Time to post something on Egypt. Even if you like Mubarak's version of stability, which clearly a very large number of Egyptians don't, you should realize that there's no way he can credibly put his legitimacy back together. Also that the longer he stretches this out, the more damage he causes, and the greater the risks for all involved.
Kai Bird: Obama's "Shah Problem": Subtitle: "President Obama is doing what Jimmy Carter did with Iran in 1978. Uh-oh." Right now the differences strike me as more significant than the similarities, but if the US backs Mubarak to the bitter end, as was the case with the Shah, the end is very likely to be bitter. The US didn't install Mubarak in a democracy-wrecking coup, like the CIA did the Shah. The US has been taking pointers from Egypt on how to torture prisoners, whereas the US taught Iran's Savak. Still, protesters in Cairo have already noted that most of the tear gas cannisters Mubarak's goons have used on them were made in USA. And clearly the US has a lot of influence in Egypt, and that's the sort of thing that could easily blow back.
Bird as much as assumes that free elections in Egypt will bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power. That isn't anywhere near obvious to me, but it is generally the case that the harder the struggle the more it will push people to follow the pious. Iran is an example of that, but it is also an outlier given the exceptionally hierarchical organization of the Shiite clergy. Still, the easier the revolution, the less hard feelings, the less the urge for revenge and recriminations. The US has turned on unpopular clients in the past -- Marcos, Suharto, Musharraf are among the big names. The only thing Mubarak has going for him that they didn't is Israel, which is just the sort of issue most likely to blow back in America's face. I don't expect Obama to realize that a less supplicant Egypt would actually help move Israel toward the peace table, but he once wanted that feather in his diplomatic cap, and few things he could do would help more than to send Mubarak packing. Bird understands just that point, although he takes it further than I would:
Juan Cole: Why Egypt 2011 Is Not Iran 1979: This adds a lot of depth to my argument above, especially on differences in the economic forces underlying revolution and the relative strengths and resolve of the clergy.
This doesn't cover the differences in the international context. The 1979 revolution in Iran was radicalized by protracted struggle against the Shah's forces (visibly backed by the US, although American public opinion was initially pretty critical of the Shah), by the US embassy takeover, and by the war against Iran started by Saddam Hussein's Iraq (bankrolled by US allies in the Persian Gulf, and later by the US). A more prudent US policy should be able to avoid those tragic mistakes, but Cole's next post, Mubarak's Basij, found Mubarak retracing the Shah's steps (err, the Ayatollah's, acting much like the Shah):
Juan Cole: Mubarak Defies a Humiliated America, Emulating Netanyahu: After Mubarak's basij bloodied the remarkably peaceful demonstrations, Cole gets a little snarky. Assuming Obama must be somewhat uncomfortable seeing how quickly his pleas for non-violence from all sides were ignored by the dictator he personally conversed with after his public speech, Cole points out that Obama should be used to such abusive indifference from his so-called allies. After all, Netanyahu has been humiliating Obama ever since he took office.
[*] Cole wrote a whole book on Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion and futile occupation of Egypt in 1797 (Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East). This was Europe's first attempt to run a Muslim country, and who better to do it than the enlightened liberals of the French Revolution? As with Bush in Iraq 206 years later, the invasion was easy and the exit was a slow, painful slog.
Rami G Khouri: The Middle East's Freedom Train Has Just Left the Station: One of the few true big picture statements:
Justin Elliott: Meet Mubarak's American Fan Club: While most Americans are intuitively sympathetic with the aspirations of people anywhere in the world for democracy, freedom of speech, the right to peaceably assemble and air grievances, etc., some Americans have risen above such noble sentiments to stand up for the dictator they know and love. Presented as a slide show:
They missed a few, including such obvious suspects as Ann Coulter, Tom Friedman, and Alan Dershowitz. More on a couple of these further down.
Robert Christgau, reviewing Todd Snider's fine new album, Live: The Storyteller, noted nervously:
Alex Pareene: Thomas Friedman Applies His Weird Analogies to Egypt: While such hard neocons as Max Boot and William Kristol are generally keeping to their cynical pro-democracy arguments, the soft neocons who don't seem to have any concerns other than what Israel wants are busy thinking up all sorts of creepy reasons why the US should shore up their guy in Cairo. Friedman, for instance, interrupted his sojourn to Davos to rush to his perceived center of crisis -- Tel Aviv -- and knock out an opinion column with all sorts of nonsense:
Alex Pareene: Richard Cohen: Egyptian Democracy Will Be "a Nightmare": You may recall that when Pareene was ranking journalism's worse hacks, he insisted that Cohen was even worse than Friedman. At he time I found that hard to believe, but his case here is pretty awesome:
One thing I don't have good links on is the status and composition of the Egyptian military. (The Hanna link above is one that I picked up after writing this paragraph.) Many observers keep reiterating that the revolt will be resolved by whatever side the military comes down on. This makes sense up to a point, for a lot of reasons I can't really spell out in short order. It also provides a degree of reassurance in Washington, which regards the Egyptian military as private property -- something we bought and paid for with that $1.5 billion/year in aid since 1980. But Egypt's military goes back further: they overthrew the British stooge King Farouk in 1952 and their influence from that point on was deep and pervasive -- so much so that Anouar Abdel-Malek's definitive book on Nasserite Egypt was called Egypt: Military Society (originally published in French in 1962; translated to English in 1968 and published by Random House; I read the book way back when, and much of what I know about Egypt comes from it, but it's also very old news).
Tuesday, January 25. 2011
In my semi-official role as currator of all things Christgau, I took a look at his NAJP blog last week and found two new-to-me posts, dated Dec. 17 and Dec. 31, attacking Julian Assange and Wikileaks:
The first referred to an article by Robert P. Baird, What Is Julian Assange Up To?, and the second reiterated the recommendation. I myself wrote about Baird's post back on Dec. 9 (Wikileaks), although what I got out of it was completely different than what Christgau got. I glossed over the section in the middle of Baird's piece about the "language poets of the 1970s" (whoever they be) thinking it irrelevant and possibly nonsensical, but it seems to mean something for Christgau. Still, I doubt that one needs a theory of poetic language here. The real issues are more basic than that.
Continue reading "A Muddle of Ideas"
Thursday, December 9. 2010
I haven't been following the Wikileaks revelations and controversy at all closely, but the following links help explain why the leaks should eventually make government more transparent and accountable and, well, more decent. That's all in the longer term, of course. In the short term, they're making this government more repressive and much more dangerous. The few precedents for this, such as Nixon's plumbers unit and the 1950s McCarthy hysteria, are things that until recently we regarded as national embarrassments. The most comparable efforts to suppress the Internet today are from China, efforts that have been uniformly condemned by Americans of all political stripes, not least by Secretary of State Clinton. It may be that any US president would react to embarrassment and powerlessness of the loss of control of so many secret cables the way Obama has, but once again Obama has a lot more campaign promises than most to eat: having made many speeches about the need for more transparency in government, he now finds himself the plumber-in-chief.
By the way, the illustration to the right is something I found on Facebook, in the sketchbook of Ram Lama Hull. Hope he doesn't mind me using it.
3 Quarks Daily: What Is Julian Assange Up To? This seems like a pretty good explanation of WikiLeaks and the thinking behind it:
I'm not particularly inclined to view the internal workings of government, corporations, and such as conspiratorial, but they do largely operate behind closed doors, and secrecy renders their motives and strategies opaque, giving us all the more reason to distrust them. A culture that ensures that anything significant that happens behind closed doors will become public goes a long ways toward revealing those motives and strategies, and ultimately helps build trust in those institutions. That won't happen right away. The initial reaction of those exposed is embarrassment and fury, and we're seeing plenty of that right now -- as I am writing this Assange has been arrested, WikiLeaks' finances are being systematically shut down, WikiLeaks' web access is being denied both by corporate pressure and by cyberwarfare. (There can be little doubt that there is indeed a conspiracy to get Assange and to terrorize anyone who might be tempted to aid him and to contribute to future leaks. One urgently awaits the leaking of the details of this conspiracy.) In the long run though what is most likely to happen is that successful "public servants" will learn to behave in private as if they were in public. The major scandal about the State Department cables is how undiplomatic these so-called diplomats are when they thought they were safe from public scrutiny. The fact is that they would be much better diplomats if they learned to practice in private what they preach in public.
One thing I'm reminded of here is Condoleezza Rice's refusal to testify before Congress and the 9/11 Commission about her advice given to Bush when she was his National Security Adviser. She argued that knowing that her advice would become public would have deprived Bush of her complete candor. You have to wonder how valuable candor really is under those circumstances. For one thing, we now know that in effect virtually all of her candid advice turned out to have been wrong, so it seems at least plausible that had she been less candid -- had she given more thought to her reputation once her advice became public -- she might have done a better job. Still, there is little reason to get optimistic over these leaks. We tend to assume that had Rice been less candid she would have been more circumspect, but that assumes what the choice of the word "candid" denies: that she actually knew better. The main thing that secrecy did in Rice's case was to obscure her incompetence. Leaks can potentially improve the workings of government less in the short term by encouraging people to think through their advice and arguments than in the long term by convincing liars and crooks to stay away from forums where they will inevitably be exposed.
Still, it's possible that this will all come to naught, and not even with the authorities successfully clamping down on leaks. The post ends:
So that pretty much explains what Assange is up to. Now what are Obama's minions up to?
David Samuels: The Shameful Attacks on Julian Assange: This is a few days old, so the note that Assange, relative to Pfc Bradley Manning, "enjoys a higher degree of freedom living as a hunted man in England under the close surveillance of domestic and foreign intelligence agencies" is no longer true.
Glenn Greenwald: Joe Lieberman Emulates Chinese Dictators: Greenwald has been on this story practially full time, especially once the focus shifted from revelations about the US State Department to the harrassment and suppression of Wikileaks and the arrest and punishment of Julian Assange. Comparisons of the Obama administration to the Chinese dictatorship is to be expected given that until now the Chinese were the ones most notorious for trying to censor and choke the Internet. The (presumably) independent role of Sen. Joe Lieberman is unprecedented, except perhaps for wild goose chases Sen. Joseph McCarthy led in the 1950s. One reason to check out this particular post is the 9-point list of major revelations that have come from Wikileaks.
Thursday, September 9. 2010
Laura Tillem has a letter in the Wichita Eagle today, titled "Tea and Guns":