'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Washington Mutual Death Watch 

Busy, busy, busy. While awaiting my next entry, you might find this post about the slow motion collapse of West Coast savings and loan Washington Mutual, by the inestimable Mr. Mortgage to be of interest. Washington Mutual was notorious for its reliance upon subprime mortgages, Alt-A mortgages and home equity lines of credit, otherwise known as HELOCS, for its illusory profits and dividends. For some of the broader implications, you can read my comment, number 72 of 74, as well as those of others who frequently comment there. I'm sure that you also have the ability to draw your own compelling conclusions. Feel free to share them here.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

UPDATE: Free Fire Zone Iraq 

On July 9th, I related the horrible killings of Hafd Abood and his two female colleagues by US troops on the Baghdad airport road. Of course, the US troops involved claimed that they responded to enemy fire:

The U.S. military issued a press release the day of the shooting. It said troops from the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, were stopped on the roadside when "criminals" traveling the road fired on them. When the soldiers fired back, the statement said, the car crashed against a wall and "exploded." Two of the U.S. vehicles had bullet holes and a weapon was found in the burned car according to the military.

The statement provokes anger from Hafd Abood's friends and relatives and, at the very least, leaves many questions unanswered. Those killed were all longtime bank workers on their usual morning commute. The spot where the shooting occurred is supposed to be one of the safest in Iraq.

Even Newsweek considered this account dubious at the time of the incident, a skepticism that was apparently well founded:

In a statement issued late Sunday, the American military said that “a thorough investigation determined that the driver and passengers were law-abiding citizens of Iraq.” It added that the soldiers were not at fault for the killings because they had fired warning shots and exercised proper “escalation of force” measures before they opened fire on the people in the car.

But the findings called into question the way the military handled the aftermath of the shootings.

For example, a key assertion of the news release issued by the military on the day of the killings was that “a weapon was recovered from the wreckage.” But the military said Sunday that no one claimed to have found a weapon in the car or had seen a weapon taken from it.

Instead, one of the soldiers at the scene reported seeing an Iraqi police officer pull something from the burned car and then place it in the front seat of an ambulance, according to Lt. Col. Steve Stover, a spokesman for the Fourth Infantry Division, which patrols Baghdad.

The soldier never said the item pulled from the car was a weapon, he said. But the soldier’s account nevertheless formed the basis for a statement in an initial internal military assessment of the attack, which said that a weapon had been pulled from the car.

“We don’t believe there was any cover-up,” Colonel Stover said.

The investigation also revealed that the car had already passed through a major checkpoint leading into the airport, which required the occupants to submit to a thorough search for weapons and other dangerous objects. As they had many times before, the bank employees then drove down the main civilian road to the airport.

But this time they encountered a four-vehicle military convoy that was not supposed to be there. The convoy had taken the wrong road and failed to turn into a military checkpoint. Instead, the military vehicles had traveled down a road that serves as the main entry for thousands of Iraqis who drive to the Baghdad airport.

The convoy had stopped on the side of the road to try to fix a problem with a vehicle when the car with the bank employees approached. A soldier guarding the rear of the convoy fired several warning shots, according to Colonel Stover. When the car did not stop, 9 of the 18 soldiers in the platoon opened fire.

In its initial news release about the killings, the military said that the car then crashed and “exploded.” But that, too, was false, Colonel Stover said. After the shootings, the car’s engine compartment ignited, he said, and the fire then “spread throughout the car.”

Soldiers also fired warning shots near at least two other vehicles, causing them to stop and turn around. Some of the soldiers involved in the shooting had previously been involved in what the military calls “escalation of force” episodes involving civilians, he added.

The soldiers “thought they were in danger, they really did,” Colonel Stover said, adding that the soldiers said they had thought they saw gunfire. “We now know there were no weapons in the car, and there were not any shell casings.” The military’s investigating officer filed his report on the attack on July 7, and the soldiers involved returned to duty on July 15.

“This was an extremely unfortunate and tragic incident,” Col. Allen Batschelet, chief of staff for the Fourth Infantry Division, said in the statement issued Sunday night. He said the military would take “several corrective measures to amend and eliminate the possibility of such situations happening in the future.”

According to Colonel Stover, those measures include ensuring that troops do not accidentally travel down the civilian road to the airport as well as reviewing escalation of force procedures “to see if they are meeting needs of the current environment.”

And people wonder why the Iraqis want us out of the country. A convoy erroneously travels down a civilian roadway near the airport, experiences a vehicle breakdown and then proceeds to kill the Iraqi occupants of an approaching vehicle using the road lawfully as they had always done after passing through a high security checkpoint. Of course, it's just an extremely unfortunate and tragic accident. US military service in Iraq empowers people to do things that would normally be considered homicide in almost any other context.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Stiglitz on the Credit Crunch 

Having cited Joseph Stiglitz earlier in the week in relation to the release of the study establishing the positive correlation between receiving IMF loans and rates of tuberculosis, I now discover that he has published an article in the Financial Times on the credit crunch.

Stiglitz specifically addresses the emerging crisis in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Both are government sponsored entities that have historically stabilized the housing market by agreeing to purchase mortgages and securitize them in the form of bonds. Or, as wikipedia helpfully explains in regard to Fannie Mae:

It is the leading market-maker in the U.S. secondary mortgage market, which helps to replenish the supply money for mortgages and enables money to be available for housing purchases. As of 2008, Fannie Mae and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) own or guarantee about half of the U.S.'s $12 trillion mortgage market.

Freddie Mac fulfills a similar role:

The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation ("FHLMC") NYSE: FRE, commonly known as Freddie Mac, is a Government sponsored enterprise (GSE) of the United States federal government. It is a stockholder-owned corporation authorized to make loans and loan guarantees. The FHLMC was created in 1970 to expand the secondary market for mortgages in the US. Along with other GSEs, Freddie Mac buys mortgages on the secondary market, pools them, and sells them as mortgage-backed securities to investors on the open market. This secondary mortgage market increases the supply of money available for mortgages lending and increases the money available for new home purchases.

Both have made enormous sums of money for their investors by charging a guarantee fee on loans that it has securitized into mortgage-backed security bonds. In other words, they charge a fee to insure the purchasers of the bonds against default.

Stiglitz examines a proposed bailout of these entities with alarm:

Much has been made in recent years of private/public partnerships. The US government is about to embark on another example of such a partnership, in which the private sector takes the profits and the public sector bears the risk. The proposed bail-out of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac entails the socialisation of risk – with all the long-term adverse implications for moral hazard – from an administration supposedly committed to free-market principles.

Defenders of the bail-out argue that these institutions are too big to be allowed to fail. If that is the case, the government had a responsibility to regulate them so that they would not fail. No insurance company would provide fire insurance without demanding adequate sprinklers; none would leave it to “self-regulation”. But that is what we have done with the financial system.

Even if they are too big to fail, they are not too big to be reorganised. In effect, the administration is indeed proposing a form of financial reorganisation, but one that does not meet the basic tenets of what should constitute such a publicly sponsored scheme.

First, it should be fully transparent, with taxpayers knowing the risks they have assumed and how much has been given to the shareholders and bondholders being bailed out.

Second, there should be full accountability. Those who are responsible for the mistakes – management, shareholders and bondholders – should all bear the consequences. Taxpayers should not be asked to pony up a penny while shareholders are being protected.

Finally, taxpayers should be com­pensated for the risks they face. The greater the risks, the greater the compensation.

All of these principles were violated in the Bear Stearns bail-out. Shareholders walked away with more than $1bn (€635m, £500m), while taxpayers still do not know the size of the risks they bear. From what can be seen, taxpayers are not receiving a cent for all this risk-bearing. Hidden in the Federal Reserve-collateralised loans to ­JPMorgan that enabled it to take over Bear Stearns were almost surely interest rate and credit options worth billions of dollars. It would have been easy to design a restructuring that was more transparent and protected taxpayers’ interests better, giving some compensation for their risk-bearing.

There is great anxiety about the crisis enveloping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. A collapse of them could result in less money available for home purchases, as credit contracts in the absense of their market making function through guarantees, with higher interest rates as well. The collateral consequences for banks, savings and loans and homeowners would be disasterous, fewer home sales, lower home prices and even more defaults, creating a death spiral of foreclosures, bank failures and deflation throughout the economy.

Stiglitz provides what is an essentially reformist solution, one that is fundamentally optimistic about our ability to positively influence the future. If we just shared the risk fairly between public and private participants in transparent rescue transactions, the financial system will heal itself, and the crisis will slowly recede in the rear view mirror. The global economy will then proceed along a path of more sustainable growth, absent the speculative excesses generated by subsidized credit.

It is certainly an alluring prospect. But what if Stiglitz is mistaken? Has fraud and speculation within the global financial system become so pervasive that there is no way out other than the destruction of capital and asset values on a scale not seen since the 1930s, and possibly even since the 1870s? What if the Federal Reserve and the US Treasury lose the ability to preserve the viability of the giants at the center of the financial system? What happens then? Or is this just another one of those episodes where I am too predisposed to alarmist thoughts? Turmoil is, after all, one of the essential features of capitalism.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Israel of Latin America (Part 4) 

Apparently, changing the constitution to stay in office as President is acceptable if you are the President of Colombia, but unacceptable if you are the President of Venezuela:

Supporters of President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia are pushing for a referendum that would permit him to run for a third term to continue his fight against Marxist guerrillas. Polls indicate that if Mr. Uribe were to run for re-election in 2010, he would easily win. But he is limited to two terms.

Curiously, the article fails to mention that Uribe amended the constitution in 2006 so that he could serve his current term. But, I guess that there's no problem with it, as long as you are doing it to fight Marxist guerrillas. If you are fighting al-Qaeda, the US is willing to allow you to govern your country indefinitely. Conversely, if you criticize US foreign policy, such as the invasion of Afghanistan, then, removal through a coup, the suspension of the constitution and the imposition of martial law is considered appropriate. After all, you provoked your removal.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Borrow from The International Monetary Fund, Get Tuberculosis 

From a study published today in the Public Library of Science:

Our results show that IMF economic reform programs are strongly associated with rises in tuberculosis mortality rates in post-communist Eastern European and FSU [former Soviet Union] countries, even after correcting for potential selection bias, tuberculosis surveillance infrastructure, levels of economic development, urbanization, and HIV/AIDS. We estimated an increase in tuberculosis mortality rates when countries participate in an IMF program, which was much greater than the reduction that would have been expected had the countries not participated in an IMF program. On the other hand, we estimated a decrease in tuberculosis mortality rates associated with exiting an IMF program. Both the duration and amount of IMF lending have an estimated dose-response relationship with tuberculosis mortality rates: each additional year of participation in an IMF program was associated with increases in tuberculosis mortality rates by 4.1%, and each 1% increase in IMF lending was associated with increases in tuberculosis mortality rates by 0.9%. Debt to non-IMF lenders was found to have a slightly favorable association with tuberculosis mortality rates.

How could this happen? Well, consider this summary of the criticisms by former chief World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz from a 2002 New York Review of Books review of his famous book, Globalization and Its Discontents:

Most of the specific policies that Stiglitz criticizes will be familiar to anyone who has paid even modest attention to the recent economic turmoil in the developing world (which for this purpose includes the former Soviet Union and the former Soviet satellite countries that are now unwinding their decades of Communist misrule):

Fiscal austerity. The most traditional and perhaps best-known IMF policy recommendation is for a country to cut government spending or raise taxes, or both, to balance its budget and eliminate the need for government borrowing. The usual underlying presumption is that much government spending is wasteful anyway. Stiglitz charges that the IMF has reverted to Herbert Hoover's economics in imposing these policies on countries during deep recessions, when the deficit is mostly the result of an induced decline in revenues; he argues that cuts in spending or tax hikes only make the downturn worse. He also emphasizes the social cost of cutting back on various kinds of government programs—for example, eliminating food subsidies for the poor, which Indonesia did at the IMF's behest in 1998, only to be engulfed by food riots.

High interest rates. Many countries come to the IMF because they are having trouble maintaining the exchange value of their currencies. A standard IMF recommendation is high interest rates, which make deposits and other assets denominated in the currency more attractive to hold. Rapidly increasing prices—sometimes at the hyperinflation level—are also a familiar problem in the developing world, and tight monetary policy, implemented mostly through high interest rates, is again the standard corrective. Stiglitz argues that the high interest rates imposed on many countries by the IMF have worsened their economic downturns. They are intended to fight inflation that was not a serious problem to begin with; and they have forced the bankruptcy of countless otherwise productive companies that could not meet the suddenly increased cost of servicing their debts.

Trade liberalization. Everyone favors free trade—except many of the people who make things and sell them. Eliminating tariffs, quotas, subsidies, and other barriers to free trade usually has little to do directly with what has driven a country to seek an IMF loan; but the IMF usually recommends (in effect, requires) eliminating such barriers as a condition for receiving credit. The argument is the usual one, that in the long run free trade practiced by everyone benefits everyone: each country will arrive at the mixture of products that it can sell competitively by using its resources and skills efficiently. Stiglitz points out that today's industrialized countries did not practice free trade when they were first developing, and that even today they do so highly imperfectly. (Witness this year's increase in agricultural subsidies and new barriers to steel imports in the US.) He argues that forcing today's developing countries to liberalize their trade before they are ready mostly wipes out their domestic industry, which is not yet ready to compete.

Liberalizing Capital Markets. Many developing countries have weak banking systems and few opportunities for their citizens to save in other ways. As one of the conditions for extending a loan, the IMF often requires that the country's financial markets be open to participation by foreign-owned institutions. The rationale is that foreign banks are sounder, and that they and other foreign investment firms will do a better job of mobilizing and allocating the country's savings. Stiglitz argues that the larger and more efficient foreign banks drive the local banks out of business; that the foreign institutions are much less interested in lending to the country's domestically owned businesses (except to the very largest of them); and that mobilizing savings is not a problem because many developing countries have the highest savings rates in the world anyway.

Privatization. Selling off government- owned enterprises—telephone companies, railroads, steel producers, and many more—has been a major initiative of the last two decades both in industrialized countries and in some parts of the developing world. One reason for doing so is the expectation that private management will do a better job of running these activities. Another is that many of these public companies should not be running at all, and only the government's desire to provide welfare disguised as jobs, or worse yet the opportunity for graft, keeps them going. Especially when countries that come to the IMF have a budget deficit, a standard recommendation nowadays is to sell public-sector companies to private investors.

Stiglitz argues that many of these countries do not yet have financial systems capable of handling such transactions, or regulatory systems capable of preventing harmful behavior once the firms are privatized, or systems of corporate governance capable of monitoring the new managements. Especially in Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, he says, the result of premature privatization has been to give away the nation's assets to what amounts to a new criminal class.

Fear of default. A top priority of IMF policy, from the very beginning, has been to maintain wherever possible the fiction that countries do not default on their debts. As a formal matter, the IMF always gets repaid. And when banks can't collect what they're owed, they typically accept a "voluntary" restructuring of the country's debt. The problem with all this, Stiglitz argues, is that the new credit that the IMF extends, in order to avoid the appearance of default, often serves only to take off the hook the banks and other private lenders that have accepted high risk in exchange for a high return for lending to these countries in the first place. They want, he writes, to be rescued from the consequences of their own reckless credit policies. Stiglitz also argues that the end result is to saddle a developing country's taxpayers with the permanent burden of paying interest and principal on the new debts that pay off yesterday's mistakes.

Or, to put it more simply, to get a IMF loan, countries are required to cut public services, like health care, that would reduce the incidence of serious diseases like tuberculosis, while, simultaneously, adopting trade, investment and privatization policies that reduce the income (and, in some instances, even the jobs) of many in the workforce. Can't get health care from the government any more, can't afford to pay for it from private sector providers. Given the collapse of our economy, with a spiralling, out of control rate of home foreclosures, increased unemployment, decreased consumption, a declining currency and an unaccountable financial system addicted to government subsidized speculation, are we about to experience something equally draconian here in the US?

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Monday, July 21, 2008

A Sad Story 

From today's San Francisco Chronicle:

The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency will leave the Western Addition in January, ending a 40-year "urban renewal" project that was touted as a move to wipe out blight but actually destroyed the city's most prominent African American neighborhood.

In total, 883 businesses were shuttered and 4,729 households were forced out, according to city officials. Roughly 2,500 Victorian homes were demolished.

There are mixed feelings about the agency's departure, with some happy to see it go and others wanting more of an effort to repair the damage.

Agency officials admit that mistakes were made during the project, but a state law requires that they leave at the end of the year.

"The agency's time there has not been a happy story," said Fred Blackwell, who recently took on the title of executive director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. "There have been thousands of units of affordable housing developed and a substantial investment made in the community, but those things are in no way envisioned as making up for the damage that was done in the early days.

"There is no way to make up for clearing large swaths of land and displacing thousands of people."

The redevelopment of the Western Addition, of which the Fillmore district is a part, was one of the largest urban renewal efforts in the West. The California Redevelopment Act of 1945 allowed cities and counties to create redevelopment areas to combat urban blight, which was defined by economics, dilapidation of housing and social conditions - including the size of the nonwhite population.

The Fillmore, where 60 percent of the residents were African American, was declared blight in 1948. The first demolition project began in 1956. The second phase, the brainchild of the redevelopment agency's then-head Justin Herman, began in 1964 and expanded the area to 60 square blocks. Eminent domain was used to purchase Victorian homes and buy out local businesses. The thriving black business community was destroyed as owners of nightclubs, barbershops, banks and retail stores were forced to close up shop.

"The agency would go to a house and give the head of household a certificate that said they would be given preference in housing built in the future," said Benjamin Ibarra, a spokesman for the agency. "But there wasn't a lot of housing built for a long time."

"People say black folks chose to sell their homes, but that's not true," said the Rev. Arnold Townsend, who has lived in the Western Addition for more than 40 years. "We couldn't get loans to fix up the houses, so we didn't have a choice but to sell or crumble. There was a mean-spiritedness that occurred during the entire process."

The destruction of the African American community in the Western Addition was just one example of how the process of urban renewal manipulated the concept of blight to destroy low income communities and communities of color. Right across Geary Street, Japantown suffered a similar fate, with the Japan Center, the Kabuki Cinemas, thte Miyako Hotel and an array of Japanese restaurants obscuring the fact that the Japanese American families who lived there are nearly all gone. They return one weekend a year for the Cherry Blossom festival.

Journalist Mary Bishop provided one of the more compelling and exhaustive case studies of the consequences of urban renewal back in 1991:

One of the few journalists to take an in-depth look at urban renewal was Mary Bishop, a former colleague of mine at The Roanoke Times. In 1991, she attended a reunion for an extinct neighborhood; all the homes had been knocked down to make way for an interstate, a civic center and other big, ugly projects. The routine newspaper assignment inspired Bishop to spend years unearthing the block-by-block story of urban renewal in Roanoke. Between 1955 and the 1980s, she found, Roanoke demolished 1,600 homes, 200 businesses and 24 churches. In the city's urban renewal zone, people watched in slow-motion horror as the government-nurtured cycle of decay progressed. People assumed--rightly or wrongly--that their homes would be condemned. So they stopped putting money into fixing them. This degraded property values and left houses vulnerable to wind, water and, especially, fire. One house burned, then another, and decline and despair accelerated, providing authorities a self-fulfilling justification for expanding their program of condemnation and clearing.

Eerie how similar it sounds to the experience of the residents of the Western Addition, isn't it? In regard to New York City, sociologists Deborah and Roderick Wallace assert that the urban renewal process in Harlem, with its inevitable destruction and deplacement, was pushed along by an intentional reduction in public services. In other words, gentrification in Harlem was not the outcome of the invisible hand of the market, but the social creation of the very visible hands of property owners, politicians, investors and urban planners. If so, to what extent was this true elsewhere? Given the outcomes in Roanoke and San Francisco, I think we know the answer.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

A Weekend Brain Teaser 

Glenn Greenwald published a post over at Salon on Monday that it got a lot of play in the liberal blogosphere. He catalogued the pathetic performance of the Democratic Congress elected in 2006 in regard to the war in Iraq, a possible war with Iran and civil liberties, and then proceeded to speculate how to pressure the Democrats to abandon their collaboration with the Republicans.

Needless to say, Greenwald's solution did not include urging people to support other, non-Democratic Party candidates who actually support his perspective. But you probably already knew that, and, anyway, that's not the reason that I'm highlighting his post. I have a different purpose in mind. First, let's look at his list of instances of Democratic facillitation of Bush policy:

Since that overwhelming Democratic victory, this is what the Democratic-led Congress has done:

Repeatedly funded -- at the White House's insistence -- the Iraq War without conditions;

Defeated -- at the White House's insistence -- Jim Webb's bill to increase the intervals between deployments for U.S. troops;

Defeated -- at the White House's insistence -- a bill to restore habeas corpus, which had been abolished by the Military Commissions Act, enacted before the 2006 election with substantial Democratic and virtually unanimous GOP support;

Enacted -- at the White House's insistence and with substantial Democratic and virtually unanimous Republican support-- the so-called Protect America Act, vesting the President with extreme new warrantless eavesdropping powers;

Overwhelmingly approved the Senate's Kyl-Lieberman Resolution, to declare parts of the Iranian Government a "terrorist organization," an extremely belligerent resolution modeled after those which made "regime change" the official U.S. Government position towards Iraq;

Deleted from a pending bill -- at the direction of the House Democratic leadership and at the insistence of the White House -- a provision merely to require Congressional approval before the Bush administration can attack Iran;

Overwhelmingly enacted -- at the White House's insistence, and with substantial Democratic and virtually unanimous GOP support -- the "FISA Amendments Act of 2008," to vest the President with broad new warrantless eavesdropping powers and to immunize lawbreaking telecoms, all but putting an end to any chance for a real investigation and judicial adjudication of the Bush administration's illegal NSA spying program;

Confirmed, with the indispensable support of two key Democratic Senators, Bush's nominee for Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, despite his support for radical Bush theories of executive power and his refusal to oppose torture;

Stood by passively and impotently while Bush officials flagrantly ignored their Subpoenas and refused to comply with their investigations.

Certainly, not a pretty picture, and it raises a more profound question that has been missed by the emphasis upon the difficulty of seeking change within our sclorotic two party system. Through these actions, the Democrats have been approving and financing neoconservative policies, thus raising the question, does the term neoconservative have any meaning, beyond its historic context? After all, if the President and the Congress are walking together on these issues, what use, if any, does it have for enhancing our understanding of the way by which this country is governed?

By way of background, wikipedia provides with a good introductory definition of the term:

Neoconservatism is a political philosophy that emerged in the United States from the rejection of the social liberalism, moral relativism, and New Left counterculture of the 1960s. It influenced the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, representing a realignment in American politics, and the defection of some liberals to the right of the political spectrum; hence the term, which refers to being 'new' conservatives. Neoconservatism emphasizes foreign policy as the paramount responsibility of government, maintaining that America's role as the world's sole superpower is indispensable to establishing and maintaining global order.

Most of you are probably aware that the foreign policy roots of neoconservatism stretch back to Scoop Jackson, and that their aggressive stance in relation to Russia during the Cold War was transferred to new enemies like Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Iran, and, more subtlely, even China and Russia (yes, hard for them to let the Russians go, isn't it?). They have aggregated themselves to push their borderline paranoid views in influential groups like the Project for a New American Century, which played an indispensable role in exploiting, and, indeed, even anticipating, 9/11 as a way of inducing the invasion of Iraq, and the Committee on the Present Danger.

Until around 2002 or 2003 and the impending invasion of Iraq, the term neoconservative was not in common circulation. It was significantly because of the efforts of the libertarians at antiwar.com, and Justin Raimondo in particular, that the term entered the popular consciousness after a failed attempt by neoconservatives to preserve their relative anonymity by making the absurd claim that such a designation constituted anti-semitism.

But this is, as they say, ancient history. As I said, if the President and the Congress are walking together in the passage and implementation of neoconservative policy (a current example being the fast movement of a resolution urging expanded sanctions and the interdiction of Iranian shipping in attempt to stop Iran's nuclear program), then what use is the term neoconservative in today's contemporary context? By continuing to use the term as a way of explaining US foreign policy, are we accidentally deceiving people into believing that our policies in Iraq, the Middle East and elsewhere are the consequences of the influence of a small, influential, entrenched group, when, in fact, there is general unanimity through the US social and political elite?

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Thursday, July 17, 2008


I caught the Guardian article and the one in the New York Times as well before going to sleep last night, but Yoshie over at Lenin's Tomb got there first with a post. So, why do I feel more alarmed than reassured? Could the unanimity of the responses of experienced leftists to Yoshie's belief that there has been a fundamental change in policy towards Iran be one of the sources of my discomfort? For some reason, I get scared when a group of independent minded, smart leftists see an issue very similarly. Maybe, I should just relax, go get a chocolate croissant and visit my son down the street in day care.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Conflicted Leftist on FISA 

Based upon my cursory observations, FISA has gotten significantly more attention on liberal blogs like DailyKos and firedoglake than the economic consequences of the housing bubble and the ensuing credit crunch. I've seen numerous posts calling people to the barricades to prevent Congress from granting telecommunications companies immunity from prosecution for facilitating illegal Bush wiretaps, but few exhorting people to pressure it to provide relief to homeowners. They recognize the issue, but can't seem to develop a coherent response, especially in the middle of a presidential campaign. After all, you don't want to get too far to the left of the candidate.

Apparently, it's a lot easier for liberals to defend civil liberties than to challenge the underlying neoliberal principles of the US economy. For me, it's the opposite. The late Steve Gilliard was an admirable exception to the rule. I've posted frequently on the housing bubble and the credit crunch, but very little about the FISA legislation that Bush signed the other day. Why? Well, first of all, high traffic sites like DailyKos and firedoglake, not to mention the dogged Glenn Greenwald and libertarians at antiwar.com, effectively politicized the issue. They deserve praise for their efforts, which are ongoing, even if they did not kill the bill in Congress. There's nothing for me to add to what they have done, and I generally use what I call this boutique blog to emphasize subjects that are otherwise deemphasized or ignored.

Second, I see the issue differently than the liberal/libertarian coalition that organized around defeating telecom immunity. They expressed dismay at the extent of the illegal surveillance of electronic communications, while I thought it was entirely predictable. A cursory examination of US history reveals numerous violations of civil liberties, such as the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the Palmer raids of 1919-1920, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and COINTELPRO during the 1960s and 1970s. They frequently invoked the sanctity of the Constitution and its prohibition against unlawful search and seizure without acknowledging the elite have ignored them whenever it has served their interests to do so.

Furthermore, I never encountered any recognition that the constitutional prohibition against unlawful search and seizure has already been nearly eradicated when it comes to activities of law enforcement in low income communities and communities of color. It's called the War on Drugs, and liberals have had less and less to say about it with the passage of time. Libertarians, to their credit, continue to advocate for the legalization of drugs through explicit reference to the authoritarian tactics required to enforce current drug laws. In other words, one got the quesy feeling that liberals felt that FISA was so important because it empowered the government to subject them to surveillance, not just those sleazebags across the tracks in the 'hood. Explain FISA to an African American from Oakland or a low income family in a housing project, and you'd probably get responses ranging from laughter to incomprehension.

Neither liberals nor libertarians understood that there were serious class and ideological issues associated with FISA. The problem was not so much the degradation of the values of the Constitution, one of those abstract notions that only really motivate people who are otherwise financially secure, but, rather, the fact that it legalizes a surveillance practice that the government utilizes without hesitation against threatening social movements. Examples are too numerous to fully summarize, but obvious ones include Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers and CISPES, a group known in the 1980s for its exposure of US support for death squads in Central America. Accordingly, the notion that we would protect our civil liberties by defeating telecom immunity was not very persuasive to me.

After all, the Bush administration briefed the bipartisan leadership of Congress about its illegal wiretap program in 2002 and 2003, and they did nothing. So, why would we expect them to do anything different in the future? I guess the response is that telecom immunity now forecloses judicial action, but how effective is it anyway? The courts had not taken any action to stop the practice prior to the passage of FISA in its current form with telecom immunity. The judiciary is a slow moving behemoth, just look at how long it has taken cases associated with the human rights violations of Guantanamo to work their way through the system, despite the obvious deprivations of liberty and physical abuse involved. The judiciary tends to ratify existing social norms after the fact, even the famous civil rights decisions of the 1950s and 1960s can be seen in this light, instead of pushing through immediate changes against the passivity of the political system.

Of course, there is also the obvious criticism that the existing FISA system, pre-immunity, was bad enough, anyway. It was reported that the FISA court was pretty much a rubber stamp, approving all but a few emergency wiretap requests. The emphasis upon the evils of telecom immunity was therefore a reformist approach that ensured that the overall system of surveillance will remain intact, enhanced through watered down requirements for the issuance of warrants, available for activation against any perceived political threat. Some newspaper will then tell us what happened several years later after receiving records through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In effect, we lost before the probability of telecom immunity emerged. Chris Hedges explained why the passage of the FISA bill is dangerous for reasons that go far beyond telecom immunity:

The new FISA Amendments Act nearly eviscerates oversight of government surveillance. It allows the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to review only general procedures for spying rather than individual warrants. The court will not be told specifics about who will be wiretapped, which means the law provides woefully inadequate safeguards to protect innocent people whose communications are caught up in the government's dragnet surveillance program.

The law, passed under the guise of national security, ostensibly targets people outside the country. There is no question, however, that it will ensnare many communications between Americans and those overseas. Those communications can be stored indefinitely and disseminated, not just to the U.S. government but to other governments.

This law will cripple the work of those of us who as reporters communicate regularly with people overseas, especially those in the Middle East. It will intimidate dissidents, human rights activists and courageous officials who seek to expose the lies of our government or governments allied with ours. It will hang like the sword of Damocles over all who dare to defy the official versions of events. It leaves open the possibility of retribution and invites the potential for abuse by those whose concern is not with national security but with the consolidation of their own power.

Hedges also cites an example as to how it has already impaired his ability to work as a journalist:

The reach of such surveillance has already hampered my work. I was once told about a showdown between a U.S. warship and the Iranian navy that had the potential to escalate into a military conflict. I contacted someone who was on the ship at the time of the alleged incident and who reportedly had photos. His first question was whether my phone and e-mails were being monitored.

What could I say? How could I know? I offered to travel to see him but, frightened of retribution, he refused. I do not know if the man's story is true. I only know that the fear of surveillance made it impossible for me to determine its veracity. Under this law, all those who hold information that could embarrass and expose the lies of those in power will have similar fears. Confidentiality, and the understanding that as a reporter I will honor this confidentiality, permits a free press to function. Take it away and a free press withers and dies.

This is what we should have emphasized in the FISA fight, and some no doubt did, but the message did not take hold. But, with all of that, the fight over telecom immunity was a crucial step in the right direction. If there is no judicial remedy for this illegal conduct, we will never know the extent of the Bush surveillance program. Liberals hammered this point home repeatedly, and it is valid. We will never know the extent of the surveillance, and even more worrisome, the extent to which the information received was inappropriately used. It may not have enabled us to stop these practices, but it did present the prospect of providing us with essential knowledge as to what actually happened. Such exposure could have created a political opportunity to challenge FISA across the board.

It is only a positive step, however, if liberals and libertarians continue to press these issues, and find a way to explain them to a broader public successfully. Liberals will have to demonstrate that they care about these issues as much when there is a Democratic president instead of a Republican one. Meanwhile, there are all those people being driven out of their homes and to the margins of subsistence, and, for them, FISA is merely an acronym that isn't going to feed them or keep a roof over their head. It looks like it is about to get bad enough that all of us can't avoid addressing it front and center.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

An Impertinent Rememberance of Tony Snow? 

Over the weekend, I heard that Tony Snow, Bush's former press secretary and FOX News commentator, had died from cancer. Is it such a terrible thing to note that his major achievement was propagandizing for the killing of Iraqis, and then, after we started doing it, perpetually justifying it? He maligned those who questioned the conflict as traitors and defeatists. He was a stereotypical example of a sort of perverse professionalism whereby anything that promotes your career, no matter its consequences for others, is considered smart, hardnosed and admirable. One would like to believe that his death induced some reflection about what it means to lose a loved one amongst his friends and family, a flash of recognition that the Iraqis that he so cynically exploited experience death as painfully as them. Perhaps, they even felt discomfort at the attention his death received while Iraqis, for the most part, have died anonymously. But I doubt it.

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Program Notes 

There's always one consistent thing about posting on a blog. You always fall behind. Behind the news, behind that stack of books you've read and want to read, behind that list of movies you've developed based upon the reported buzz at festivals. At least, that's what happens if you are not a full-time, professional blogger, and merely seek to periodically give expression to your political and cultural perspectives.

And, then, of course, there's the fact that I have a 15 month old son who's predictably impatient, intensely observant and gets into everything. I try to post 3 or 4 entries a week, a couple of them more substantive than the others, but sometimes I can't find the time to do it. Accordingly, I thought that I would briefly describe some of the subjects that I intend to post upon the immediate future:

---I haven't posted any book reviews lately, partially because they are more labor intensive than remarking upon current events, but I do hope to post one shortly about Victor Serge's engrossing novel, Unforgiving Years, written in 1946 just before his death, published in French years later in 1971 and finally translated into English and published by the New York Review of Books in 2007. A nightmarish look back at the futile resistance of the anti-Stalinist left to Hitler and Stalin, and the horrible consequences of their failure that they anticipated.

---I am long overdue on this one, but I still plan to post about the importance of the credit crunch and its calamitous consequences from a left perspective. The extensive provision of subsidized credit to the middle and lower middle classes has been an essential feature of the neoliberal project that first emerged in the mid to late 1970s. The loss of it provides a long awaited opportunity for the left to organize around income inequality and the urgency of creating communal alternatives to the now shattered expectation that people can fulfill all of their economic and social needs through the marketplace.

---I have a partial draft of a review of Jia Zhangke's Still Life, an understated cinematic epic about the impact of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam upon Chinese social life as revealed through the personal stories of his two protagonists. Jia tells this story through typically distanced imagery and an elliptical narrative that places the construction of the dam, and the adaptability of the people of the region to it within a broader context of change within Chinese society. Maybe, I'll finish it, maybe I won't, we'll see.

---Perhaps, there will be some other book reviews as well. Peter Linebaugh's recent book, The Magna Carta Manifesto, is quite wonderful, one of his typically creative explorations of resistance to capitalism, as manifested in this instance through an exposition of the enduring influence of the forgotten charters of the Magna Carta that presevered the commons by regulating access to it. If I don't review it, read it anyway. Chris Carlsson's book, Nowtopia, published by AK Press in the spring, can be construed as a response to the challenge put forward by Linebaugh: how do we break the pernicious control of wealth and private property over us and reestablish a commons and sense of community that has long been suppressed? Carlsson also evaluates the activities of his subjects as a way of overcoming the inability to bring about social change primarily through an emphasis upon a class consciousness that has already largely disappeared. Again, don't hesitate to get it and read it even if I never get around to reviewing it. With activist politics dormant, and policies increasingly dictated by an unaccountable elite without any significant opposition (outside of the Middle East and South America, anyway), I tend to think that this is a good time for reflection based upon our interaction with art, sociology and just plain everyday life.

---Finally, there is the ongoing global food crisis. I suspect that we are only witnessing the beginnning of it, and so, I unfortunately expect to post about more horrors to come.

So stay tuned. Same bat time, same bat channel.

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Friday, July 11, 2008


The Pentagon is opposed to a US attack upon Iran? Just let Israel do it. Apparently, the US plans to assist the operation as covertly as possible:

The activities and traffic of warplanes- especially at nights- has lately increased in the US airbases in Nasiriya southeast of Baghdad and Haditha a city in the western Iraq province of Al Anbar, the Iraqi residents and sources said.

They said the US fighters, cargo planes, helicopters and unmanned planes have intensified their flights in the last three weeks.

The US military officials have imposed severe security measures around the bases, they said.

They said some aircraft suspected to be Israeli warplanes coming from Jordan, have landed in the US controlled al-Assad airbase near Haditha.

It is believed that these activities are parts of a joint Israeli-US training, preparation and coordination to launch an air raid against Iran's nuclear plants.

Hopefully, the Iranians are prepared for whatever may be directed against them, and possess the capability to effectively retaliate.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Election Ennui 

Nothing is more enervating for people that actually care about the substance of political and social issues than a presidential campaign year. During the primaries, the candidates, like circus magicians, purvey the illusion that the campaign is really about issues of importance, that we face electoral decisions of grave importance, even as they creatively repackage predictable positions.

Once the nominees become apparent, however, the dialogue, such as it was, is even more circumscribed. Recognizing the power of the corporate media in regard to framing the issues and defining the candidates for a credulous public, any pretense of engaging the public about fundamental questions that affect our lives is abandoned. After all, a presidential campaign is primarily a media driven exercise in mythology. It is more important to present oneself to the media as innocuous, as yet another in a line of safe, conformist political figures, so that the media can, paradoxically, present the candidate as larger than life, capable of forging a profound emotional bound with the public so that he can comfortably assumes powers of near omnipotence.

This is what we observe transpiring on a daily basis with Barack Obama. He's getting tougher on Iran, he's signalling a willingness to be flexible about how he will withdraw US troops from Iraq, he's now for the death penalty even in instances without the loss of life and he wasn't willing to fight to prevent Congress from granting immunity to telecommunications companies that illegally wiretapped US citizens at the direction of the White House. It's all about showing how reasonable he is, you see. It's a long way from working as a community organizer in Chicago, but Obama probably draws upon similar skills to effectively disarm his media critics.

Obama closed the deal as they say when he willingly played the game of stigmatizing black men for social dysfunctionality found across the racial spectrum. Whites are allowed to have children out of wedlock without comment, but blacks are not, and Obama displayed his knowledge of this double standard, and the essential role that it plays in justifying racial bias towards African Americans. Tim Russert and his mentor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, would have been proud.

For a brief period, there was an opening that suggested that this stale politics could be shattered, but Obama's defeat in Texas and Ohio, primarily at the hand of working class whites, closed it. It did not deny him the nomination, as I thought it would, but it did force him to abandon any radical notions that he may have had about transforming the US political system. Since then, Obama has scrupulously followed the rules, as he will do when he enters the White House. Obama recognizes that he cannot pursue even a palled progressive agenda of demilitarization, an agenda that is an unavoidable precondition to confronting the declining standard of living for middle income, lower middle income and poor Americans, if it is opposed by the proletarian base of the Democratic Party.

As for the rest of us, it means millions of more American foreclosed out of their houses, driven to the unemployment lines and pushed to the margins of this credit dependent economy, with an increasing likelihood that Obama will be just as willing to attack Iran as McCain to divert attention from this catastrophe. Because, having left the forces within this country dictating these interrelated outcomes unexposed and untouched, Obama will soon discover that he is just as much a prisoner of them as you and I. Like Bush, he will govern symbolically instead of realistically, because the alternative is politically suicidal in the absence of a social movement to support it.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Free Fire Zone Iraq (Part 2) 

I believe that it is important that we not avert our eyes from the brutal realities of the occupation of Iraq:

Like most Iraqis, Mohammad Abood expects the highly secured roads at the Baghdad airport to be safe. So when someone told him his father's car had broken down on his way to a job in the terminal, the son calmly went to assist him. But a cordon of U.S. troops stopped him from reaching the car. Abood, 21, could only get close enough to see the two-door Opel engulfed in flames, incinerating 57-year-old Hafd Abood and two women colleagues from his office in an airport bank. Abood realized the breakdown story had been a friend's way of easing him toward the tragedy. "I couldn't bear it. My father was inside, burning," Abood recalled, describing how he beat himself and fell on the ground in anguish before the soldiers ordered him to stay away.

The next day, the family recovered the carbonized body of Hafd, a gentle man who used to come home and tutor his children, urging them to focus on schooling. His death has prompted outrage from co-workers and the country's political elite, who are in the middle of negotiating with Americans over the future of U.S. troops in Iraq. Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called for a special investigation into the June 25 shooting—though he's launched similar probes in other deaths with little result.

The U.S. military issued a press release the day of the shooting. It said troops from the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, were stopped on the roadside when "criminals" traveling the road fired on them. When the soldiers fired back, the statement said, the car crashed against a wall and "exploded." Two of the U.S. vehicles had bullet holes and a weapon was found in the burned car according to the military.

The statement provokes anger from Hafd Abood's friends and relatives and, at the very least, leaves many questions unanswered. Those killed were all longtime bank workers on their usual morning commute. The spot where the shooting occurred is supposed to be one of the safest in Iraq. By most accounts, including a police document shown to NEWSWEEK, it occurred inside the extensive campus of the Baghdad International Airport, a presumed secure zone. Travelers and airport workers get searched in a series of checkpoints as they enter from the notorious airport highway. Guards watch security contractors to ensure they unload their weapons for the last couple miles on the loop around to the commercial terminal. It's where the dangers melt away and you can finally relax.

Airport police, who spoke to NEWSWEEK on the condition they not be named, said they believe that Hafd Abood was unarmed, having successfully passed through checkpoints that include a bomb-sniffing dog. Their theory is that he was about 30 yards from the parked soldiers when he swerved in their direction to avoid a large pothole. Another motorist, refusing to be identified because of the intense attention the case is receiving, told NEWSWEEK that the soldiers fired into his hood to keep him away from where they were positioned, apparently after they had already shot Hafd Abood's car.

Every day, Iraqis run the risk of being killed by US troops or US military contractors. They are accountable to no one. Much as distinctions of socioeconomic status among African Americans only marginally protect them from racial profiling and police brutality, even the most privileged Iraqis are vulnerable, as this episode demonstrates. No wonder there is such opposition to a pending status of forces agreement that would permit US troops to remain in Iraq indefinitely.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

100,000 Dead 

And to think that we partially justified the sanctions against Iraq and the subsequent 2003 invasion on similar killings perpetrated by the Baathists.

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Free Fire Zone Afghanistan (Part 3) 

US air strikes in Afghanistan continue to result in large numbers of civilian casualties, as has been described here and here:

Afghan officials are investigating reports from a remote area of eastern Afghanistan that US warplanes bombed a wedding party this morning, killing more than 20 civilians including women and children.

The incident in Deh Bala, a mountainous district of Nangahar Province very close to the Pakistan border, is the second alleged episode of “collateral damage” involving American aircraft in three days.

President Hamid Karzai ordered a formal investigation into another episode in the province of Nuristan on Friday in which 15 civilians were reported killed after US planes bombed two vehicles.

Both claims have been challenged by American army spokesmen who said that groups of Taleban insurgents were clearly identified in each of the bombings.

This war was lost a long time ago, but it will not end as long as the US and NATO can continue to angrily kill Afghans with munitions dropped from the sky. As I said in May 2007: One wonders if NATO is subjecting the Afghans to the kinds of indiscriminate, violent brutalities that occupation forces have inflicted upon people so often in the past when it is no longer possible to evade recognition of defeat.

Astoundingly, there is public sentiment in support of the notion that we must continue to fight in Afghanistan, a fine euphemism for the indiscriminate killings perpetrated by the US and NATO, while coming around to the belief that we should withdraw from Iraq. Perhaps, the basis for this attitude is nothing more than a feeling that we must win somewhere.

Such a perspective is deeply rooted in the Obama campaign, which has emphasized the need to withdraw from Iraq so as to intensify the conflict in Afghanistan. It is truly comical, as recognized by Ted Rall in March:

It has long been an article of faith among Democrats that Afghanistan is the "good war," a righteous campaign that could be won with more money and manpower. But the facts say otherwise. The U.S. Air Force rained more than a million pounds of bombs upon Afghanistan in 2007, mostly on innocent civilians. It's twice as much as was dropped in Iraq--and equally ineffective.

Six years after the U.S. invasion of 2001, according to Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, the U.S./NATO occupation force has surged from 8,000 to 50,000. But the Americans are having no more luck against the Afghans than had the Brits or the Soviet Union. The U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai controls a mere 30 percent of Afghanistan, admits McConnell. (Regional analysts say in truth it is closer to 15 percent.) Most of the country belongs to the charming guys who gave us babes in burqas and exploding Buddhas: the Taliban and likeminded warlords. "Afghanistan remains a failing state," says a report by General James Jones, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander. "The United States and the international community have tried to win the struggle in Afghanistan with too few military forces and insufficient economic aid."

If he becomes president, Obama says he'll "ask more from our European allies" to win in Afghanistan. But he won't get it. As The New York Times puts it: "Why help the United States in Afghanistan, the European logic goes, when America would be able to handle Afghanistan much more easily if its GIs weren't bogged down in Iraq?"

Obama says he would send two more American combat brigades--between 3,000 and 8,000 troops. If 158,000 troops can't subdue Iraq, how can 58,000 do the job in Afghanistan?

They can't.

Afghanistan's population is 19 percent larger than that of Iraq. Its area is 49 percent bigger, with infinitely rougher terrain. Obama's proposed "surgelet" would result in troop strength of less than one sixth of the 400,000 dictated by official U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine for a nation the size of Afghanistan.

Afghans say spring could mark the beginning of the end of the United States' first experiment in post-9/11 regime change. For more than a year, Taliban commanders have controlled the key Kabul-to-Kandahar highway. "On one convoy last year we were 40 vehicles and only 12 got through," Sadat Khan, a 25-year-old truck driver explained to the UK Telegraph as he pointed to "roughly patched bullet holes in the cab of his truck." Cops loyal to Karzai expect to be massacred. "Maybe we will lose 30 per cent of us this spring, maybe 60 per cent," police commander Mohammad Farid told the paper. He'd already been shot.

The Taliban say they'll retake Kabul this year and reestablish the Islamic fundamentalist government led by Mullah Omar. No one knows whether they'll succeed. But they've already begun to strangle the city of Kabul. They're destroying its nascent telecommunications infrastructure, driving out foreign NGOs and businesspeople with terrorist attacks, and cutting off access to the remaining highways. Talibs promise to continue to target NATO troops, betting that Canada and other members of the coalition will pull out under pressure from antiwar voters. Bogged down in Iraq, the U.S. won't be able to send more soldiers to Afghanistan. Karzai's puppet regime won't last long.

If Obama is so eager to keep fighting Bush's wars, he'd be smarter to focus on the more winnable of the two: Iraq.

In recent days, Obama has been hinting that he is willing to be flexible in regard to his timetable for withdrawing from Iraq. Does such flexibility suggest that he now understands that pulling troops from Iraq for Afghanistan is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire? Has he recognized that muddling along with two occupations, as Bush has done, is politically more defensible than trying to terminate one and creating unachieveable expectations of prevailing in the other?

Maybe, Bush and the people around him aren't so stupid after all. Empires rarely release their possessions non-violently, with the USSR being a rare exception in Eastern Europe, so we can anticipate that the violence associated with the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan will continue indefinitely regardless of the winner of the presidential campaign. It provokes a more disturbing question that I have asked before. How long can we inflict such violence upon the people of Iraq and Afghanistan before there is blowback that results in the deaths of Americans outside of these two countries?

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Reflections on July 4th 

I was thinking about the holiday a few days ago, and recalled my stereotypical response: a day meant to honor the values of a new nation state announced in 1776 has degenerated into yet another time to genuflect before the altar of US militarism. And, indeed it has, obscuring the fact that the creation of the social consciousness required to support a new country was a profoundly political achievement.

Given the way the holiday is currently celebrated, one is tempted to say that the Declaration of Independence starts with an invocation of Maoist intimidation, Power flows from the barrel of a gun, in place of an exaltation of enlightenment humanism, We hold these truths to be self evident. But the militaristic displays current in vogue are closer to the truth than we want to admit. One of the primary reasons that people in the colonies wanted to secede from Britain was the refusal of the British to permit colonists to cross through the Cumberland Gap into the Ohio River Valley. Colonists wanted to seize Native American lands for privatization and settlement, preferably through coercion but through violence if necessary.

Nor was it long before the American elite had developed an appetite for new acquisitions. As I observed in my November 12, 2006 review of Sidney Lens' book, The Forging of the American Empire, the revered Alexander Hamilton could be described as the first neoconservative, because he was already engaged in intrigues for the purpose of seizing Florida and potentially the rest of the Caribbean in the mid 1790s. In other words, the US had imperial aspirations since its inception, and acted promptly to realize them. Jefferson's decision in 1803 to purchase the enormous Louisiana Territory from France ensured that the US would eventually stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific. His decision to overthrow the ruler of the Barbary States, and the method by which he accomplished it, foreshadowed the interwoven exercise of soft and hard power in the Middle East in the 20th Century.

The question as to when the US aspired to become an empire with global influence is not one for academics, it has contemporary relevance as I noted in my book review:

First, and most importantly, Lens exposed the myth that the United States did not display imperial aspirations, and act upon the, until much later, say, 1898, with the Spanish American War. It is important, because there remains a belief to this day that the US was originally a republic devoid of territorial ambitions. It was, in other words, an idealized place where farmers, merchants and shippers sought commerce with much of the rest of the world despite the obstruction of foreign mercantilist powers. Echoes of it can be found among libertarians, Gore Vidal and even Chalmers Johnson. Lens emphasizes that many prominent political figures openly expressed, since the country's inception, the urgency of obtaining large territories to the north, south and west, by war, if necessary.

Based upon such an erroneous understanding, there is a tendency to believe that if we could just return to our republican roots, the US could take its place in the world without seeking to militarily and economically dominate others. Or, to put it differently, there is a positive alternative associated with the founding of the country that provides a way to escape the violent, militaristic cul-de-sac we find ourselves trapped within today. There's just one problem: it isn't true.

Economic values that we now call neoliberalism were also a prominent feature of the country upon its birth. Again, as I said in the book review:

Hamilton also simultaneously possessed neoliberal qualities as well. He funded the national debt as Secretary of the Treasury, and, here, we observe the beginnings of a system whereby debt interest serves the dual purpose of promoting the primitive accumulation of capital, by redistributing income from laborers to financiers through taxation required to make bond payments, contributing to the outbreak of the Fries Rebellion in 1796, and, quite predictably, rendering these same laborers more economically vulnerable and constricting the ability of the government to assist them. He also, according to Lens, extolled the virtues of child labor, much like transnationals traverse the globe today, looking for the most impoverished places to obtain a docile workforce, including children, to manufacture and assembly their products.

Regrettably, if we want to make the world a better place, a world wherein we overcome the brutalities of neoconservatism and neoliberalism, we are going to have be more creative in our search for the implements to do so than romanticizing an American past that never existed.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008


From ABC News:

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, who was in Israel over the weekend, issued a strong warning today about the dangers of a military attack on Iran.

At a Pentagon press conference, Mullen was asked, "How concerned are you ... that Israel may undertake a unilateral strike against Iran by the end of the year?"

"My strong preference, here, is to handle all of this diplomatically with the other powers of governments, ours and many others, as opposed to any kind of strike occurring," he answered. "This is a very unstable part of the world. And I don't need it to be more unstable."

Mullen refused to talk specifically about what was said in his talks with the Israelis, but he made it clear wants to avoid military confrontation.

"I've been pretty clear before that from the United States' perspective, the United States' military perspective in particular, that opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us," he said. "That doesn't mean we don't have capacity or reserve. But that would really be very challenging and also the consequences of that sometimes are very difficult to predict."

Mullen said there needs to be better "dialogue" on the Iranian nuclear issue. Asked what he meant, Mullen responded, "When I talk about dialogue -- actually, I would say very broadly across the entirety of our government and their government.

"But, specifically, that would be -- need to be led, obviously, politically and diplomatically," he said. "And if it then resulted in military-to-military dialogue, I think that part of it certainly could add to a better understanding of each other.

"We haven't had much of a dialogue with the Iranians for a long time," Mullen said. "It takes two people to want to have a dialogue, not just the desire on one part."

Where to begin? Mullen's remarks are jaw dropping because they expose the unwillingness of the Pentagon to support an attack upon Iran. It leads one to believe that there is currently a very live, very contentious debate about whether the US or Israel should launch an attack upon Iran before the end of the Bush presidency. It is possible that a decision may be made within weeks or even days.

Mullen, as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is publicly opposing neoconservative policymakers within the administration who have been aggressively advocating such an attack. Furthermore, he expressly calls for negotiations to resolve the dispute! And, if the excerpts of his quotes convey an accurate impression, he doesn't even blame the Iranians for the lack of communication, after all, he knows that the Iranians sought to negotiate with the US on a broad range of regional issues in 2003. His remarks suggest that the Pentagon perceives an institutional peril if it is associated with a catastrophic attack upon Iran.

The Joint Chiefs want to go on the record now in the hope that it can be stopped. If it can't be stopped, the Pentagon can say, it's not our fault, blame the civilians in the Defense Department and the White House. For those with a particularly dystopian turn of mind, you can even read his comments as a preemptive effort to preserve the credibility of the military in the event of possible domestic social unrest in the aftermath of an attack.

Mullen's remarks also implicitly dismiss claims of Iranian support of the Iraqi insurgency as propaganda, or, at the very least, a problem so marginal that it can easily be resolved through dialogue. As I said last week, the Pentagon is our last line of defense against another war in the Middle East. One gets the sense that Mullen either wants Obama to be President, or expects him to be the next one. It is hard to imagine John McCain being in agreement with what he said.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Reversion to the Mean 

The presidential election is becoming increasingly irrelevant when it comes to restraining the expansionist tendencies of the US and Israel. If the Israelis launch an attack on Iran before he enters the White House, Obama will be transformed into another war president. Isn't it remarkable that it is impermissible for anyone within the political elite to merely voice concerns about the consequences of an attack?

You have to be out of the government and out of the electoral process to do that, it seems. Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership in the House has been briefed about a presidential finding authorizing expanded covert operations within Iran. Naturally, they raised no objection, and approved increased funding for these activities. It appears that the war with Iran actually began quite some time ago.

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A Voice in the Wilderness 

From the Guardian:

Martin Van Creveld, Israel's leading military historian, said there were some in the Israeli government who were indeed serious about a military option. But he said the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would probably not be affected by Israel flexing its military muscles. 'I would be very surprised if the Iranians cave in. I think they are going to follow the same road as every nuclear country has followed since the 1960s [including Israel]; namely they are going to build nuclear weapons without admitting it,' he said. 'And I don't see this made the world into a worse place. I am convinced the outcome is going to be a balance of power and I personally think that a nuclear Iran may not be such a bad thing for the world... Iran is a third-world country. I don't see why people are so afraid of it.'

But the neoconservatives will be pushed into the dustbin if the Middle East moves away from US/Israeli hegemony into a balance of power relationship. Yet another reason why war is becoming more probable by the day.

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