Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: History Today (subscription req.) (5-1-08)
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, African Americans’ and women’s campaigns for equality often unfolded simultaneously, often relied on one another for support, and often resulted in asking who would be first to earn political recognition. That the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee will either be a woman or an African American is rooted in a history that can be traced to the decades leading up to the Civil War, when the movements for African Americans’ and for women’s equality both emerged. ...
Since many Republicans viewed the rebuilding of the nation not as a time to reassess the Constitution’s commitment to equality for all people but rather as a unique moment to seize voting rights for black people, they ignored women’s calls for suffrage and began to view women’s agitation for equality as a burden and obstacle to black enfranchisement.
As President Lincoln put it, ‘One war at a time, so I say, one question at a time. This hour belongs to the Negro.’ Frederick Douglass, despite his friendship with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other leading women’s activists, abandoned their cause as he famously propagated the argument that the postwar period was, in fact, as Lincoln stated, ‘the Negro Hour’. Seeing women’s tenuous position within postwar politics derailed, Susan B. Anthony enquired of radical Republicans, ‘May I ask just one question based on the apparent opposition in which you place the Negro and the woman? Do you believe the African race is composed entirely of males?’
In an effort to circumvent a split between the two groups, women activists created the American Equal Rights Association to call for state governments to grant universal human suffrage. Initially, this seemed like a plausible panacea to prevent the widening gap between each movement but the Republican Party’s determination to establish a formidable presence in the Reconstruction South by granting African-Americans the right to vote only marginalized the women’s movement further.
Suffragists played into the ephemeral notion underlying the claim of the ‘Negro Hour’. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote ‘The whole question of time is so clear to me ... would it not be wiser ... when the constitutional door is open, [to] avail ourselves of the strong arm and blue uniform of the black soldier to walk in by his side?’ But despite Stanton’s strategic show of submissiveness in allowing herself to be escorted into equality with a man on her arm, Republicans continued to ignore women’s position and suggestions.
That the Republican Party could dismiss women’s arguments for equality because it was the ‘Negro hour’ exposes a subversive form of sexism that can be found in today’s battle for the Democratic nomination. A similar catchy slogan, ‘Don’t tell Mama, I am for Obama’, speaks to the fact that many younger voters recognize what a woman contender for the presidency represents to their mother’s generation but feel openly confident in deriding women’s position with a sing-songy verse. From the nineteenth century to the present, from Stanton to Clinton, women leaders have posited arguments that justify their calls for equality and recognition but have often been ignored because of sexism. Christine Stansell, a leading historian of gender and sexuality, has astutely noted that ‘sexism has become the permissible prejudice, the prejudice of sophisticated quips and hauteur, the nastiness that knows no name – except it does have a name.’...
Posted on: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 - 22:24
SOURCE: http://washingtonindependent.com (4-29-08)
The details of the proposed agreement are apparently still pending. But, last November, Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House “czar” for Iraq, discussed the administration’s intention to reach an agreement that would protect Iraq against internal and external threats, defend the Iraqi constitution, deter foreign aggression and support efforts to combat all terrorist groups. Lute stated that Iraqi national leaders wanted a long-term relationship with Washington as “a reliable, enduring partner.”
Legal scholars have testified that no known (they might be classified) status of forces agreements, or SOFA, contain provisions for combat commitments unless approved by Congress. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has pointed “over 200 years of practice” demonstrating that Congress has implemented such agreements. But, so far, this has been to little avail; the Bush administration remains determined to prevent any congressional meddling.
Voltaire had it right: history is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play on the dead. For much of the 20th century, Republicans railed against executive agreements like “Status-of-Forces Agreements” -- understandings between heads-of-state. But today’s Republicans support the president in his effort to conclude an agreement to commit untold numbers of U.S. troops to Iraq for untold numbers of years.
Executive power expanded enormously during World War II. After the war, old guard Republicans, still rooted in isolationism, proposed a constitutional amendment to give Congress authority to regulate all executive agreements with foreign powers. Introduced in the early 1950s by Sen. John W. Bricker (R-Ohio), it reflected Republican concerns that first President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Yalta and then President Harry S. Truman at Potsdam had bargained away too much.
The GOP also objected to Truman’s sending troops to Korea in 1950 without congressional approval. It was probably opposition by the president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his enormous influence within Congress and without, that tipped the balance against the measure. It failed by only one vote.
Yet most of today’s conservatives uncritically advocate the most luxuriant interpretation of executive power, with no regard for concurrent institutional powers. In fact, only some Democrats are demanding a congressional role for what they believe are treaty arrangements -- as the Constitution dictates....
Posted on: Tuesday, April 29, 2008 - 22:30
SOURCE: New Republic (4-28-08)
Whenever Bill Clinton opens his mouth, he’s accused of saying something dishonest, self-serving, or at best politically unwise. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, I think this has less to do with any difficulty that Clinton has had in accommodating himself to the You Tube era--which is not, after all, such a quantum leap away from the 24/7 news environment in which he successfully conducted his presidency--than with a desire on the part of the Washington media panjandrums to exact some revenge.
For example, in The New Yorker today there is a dig at the former president that repeats Barack Obama’s false claim that jobs “fell through the Clinton Administration and the Bush Administration.” Oddly, the piece--by Ryan Lizza, late of this magazine, and by all accounts a fair and careful reporter--fails to state explicitly, as a factual matter, that Obama was simply wrong about this claim. (See Paul Krugman.) Lizza leaves it to Bill Clinton to do say merely, “Now, if you believe that, you should probably vote for [Obama], but you get a very bad grade in history.” But since the piece generally paints Clinton as concerned only with burnishing his own record, it leaves readers who don’t know better unaware that unemployment really did fall under Clinton, across the board.
The article then moves on to refer to "the mysterious theory that Obama had played the race card against" Bill Clinton. Yet no one who has followed the campaign closely can believe there’s anything “mysterious” about this "theory." Do we need to be reminded of the Obama campaign's well-known memo seeking to construe innocent remarks by Bill and Hillary and their supporters as racist? Indeed, Sean Wilentz documented the effort to unfairly tarnish the Clintons at length in TNR many weeks ago. Now, I realize Wilentz’s case was not convincing to everyone--though even if one strips away Wilentz’s overall argument, one has to contend with the several pieces of hard evidence that he adduced to show how Obama’s team injected allegations of racism into the campaign. So while this “theory” may be unconvincing to some--especially to those predisposed to think highly of Obama--it's certainly not "mysterious."
Meanwhile, TheNew York Times reviews a new book by Carol Felsenthal, whose biographies were once described by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. in TNR as “pathography” (the term is Joyce Carol Oates’s). The target: Bill Clinton in his post-presidency. To her credit, reviewer Janet Maslin thinks little of the book. But she allows Felsenthal to get away with the claim that "all the wondrous works in the years ahead may enhance his reputation as an ex-president but not as a president"--another historically false claim, insofar as it suggests that Clintons’ impeachment (by a Republican-controlled House) and subsequent acquittal (by a Republican-controlled Senate) will come to reflect worse on him than on his Republican and media persecutors. In fact, the opposite has already proven to be the case.
Even more astonishing, Felsenthal approvingly quotes Don Hewitt of “60 Minutes"--why Hewitt has any authority on this matter is not explained--saying that if not for Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, "there’s not one kid who has died in Iraq who wouldn’t be alive today." Not only is the claim based on so many flawed assumptions of causality as to be absurd as a matter of logic; it is also simply vile to blame Bill Clinton's marital infidelity for the deaths of 4000 Americans in a war launched by George W. Bush. Does Monica Lewinsky therefore have their blood on her hands as well?
Someone will have to write a long piece on the resurgent antipathy of late toward Bill Clinton, who after all left the White House with the highest approval ratings of any departing president in Gallup polling history. The new hostility goes beyond the lingering sore feelings among media types about having been bested during the impeachment struggle, or among leftists for his New Democratic heresies. Unintentionally, Hewitt's comment may provide some of the answer, insofar as it suggest that some of this anger is a displacement of hostility toward Bush. But whatever its sources, the newfound Clinton-hatred is most assuredly not a product of the former president's purported negative campaigning against Obama. Quite the contrary, the idea that he has campaigned with particular negativity against Obama is itself the product, in part, of the Clinton-hatred coursing anew through the Washington establishment.
Posted on: Tuesday, April 29, 2008 - 22:12
SOURCE: WSJ (4-26-08)
Today marks the 25th anniversary of "A Nation at Risk," the influential Reagan-era report by a blue-ribbon panel that alerted Americans to the weak performance of our education system. The report warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people." That dire forecast set off a quarter century of education reform that's yielded worthy changes – yet still not the achievement gains we need to turn back the tide of mediocrity.
After decades of furthering educational "equality," the 1983 commission admonished the country, it was time to attend to academic excellence and school results. Educators didn't want to hear this and a generation later many still don't. Our ponderous public-school system resists change. Teachers don't like criticism and are loath to be judged by pupil performance. In educator circles, one still encounters grumbling that "A Nation at Risk" lodged a bum rap.
Others heeded the alarm, though, and that report launched an era of forceful innovation and accountability guided by noneducators – elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists.
Such "civilian" leadership has brought about two profound shifts that the professionals, left to their own devices, would never have allowed. Today, instead of judging schools by their services, resources or fairness, we track their progress against preset academic standards – and hold them to account for those results.
We're also far more open to charter schools, vouchers, virtual schools, home schooling. And we no longer suppose kids must attend the campus nearest home. A majority of U.S. students now study either in bona fide "schools of choice," or in neighborhood schools their parents chose with a realtor's help.
Those are historic changes indeed – most of today's education debates deal with the complexities of carrying them out. Yet our school results haven't appreciably improved, whether one looks at test scores or graduation rates. Sure, there are up and down blips in the data, but no big and lasting changes in performance, even though we're also spending tons more money. (In constant dollars, per-pupil spending in 1983 was 56% of today's.)
And just as "A Nation at Risk" warned, other countries are beginning to eat our education lunch. While our outcomes remain flat, theirs rise. Half a dozen nations now surpass our high-school and college graduation rates. International tests find young Americans scoring in the middle of the pack.
What to do now? It's no time to ease the push for a major K-12 education make-over – or to settle (as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton apparently would) for reviving yesterday's faith in still more spending and greater trust in educators. But we can distill four key lessons:...
Posted on: Tuesday, April 29, 2008 - 21:12
SOURCE: Britannica Blog (4-29-08)
The Democratic contest goes on, but as I predicted in my post two months ago, it is essentially over (“Is the Democratic Race Over?” February 19, 2008). To win the nomination, Hillary Clinton must win both North Carolina and Indiana on May 6. This is a nearly impossible task given the very favorable demographics for Barack Obama in North Carolina. Indiana remains a toss-up.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, however, an ongoing nomination fight that may continue until the last contest in June, when the superdelegates will weigh in and settle the matter, should not hurt the Democrats in the fall campaign. Analysts have failed to distinguish between the party that holds the White House and the challenging party. A bitter, lasting battle hurts the incumbent party because it indicates problems with governing. Examples include Ronald Reagan’s challenge to President Gerald Ford in 1976, Ted Kennedy’s challenge to President Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Pat Buchanan’s challenge to President George H. W. Bush in 1992.
In contrast, struggles within the challenging party often indicate that the prize of the nomination is worth winning. The three greatest victories posted by challenging party candidates in American history all came after nomination struggles that lasted until the party convention. Warren Harding who won 60 percent of the popular vote in 1920 was nominated on the tenth ballot. Franklin Roosevelt who won 57 percent in 1932 was nominated on the fourth ballot and Dwight Eisenhower who won 55 percent in 1952 was nominated only after the convention seated his Texas delegation as opposed to a competing delegation pledged to his rival Robert Taft.
The fundamentals of election 2008 strongly favor a Democratic victory this fall as I explained in my post on the Keys to the White House (“The 13 Keys to the White House: Why the Democrats Will Win,” October 4th, 2007). However, presuming that Obama become the Democratic nominee it remains an unsettled question as to whether the nation is ready to elect an African-American president. According to exit polls, about a fifth of white voters in Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary said that race influenced their choice of candidates; these voters backed Clinton by 3 to 1 over Obama.
Unfortunately, it appears clear that some Republicans will launch a “Swift Boat” style campaign of vilification against Obama with a thinly coded racial animus. This campaign will not come directly from John McCain or Republican leaders. Rather, it will come from “independent groups” like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth or the National Security Political Action Committee that made Willie Horton the most familiar face of the 1988 campaign.
Already, the scurrilous attacks on Obama have begun. Floyd Brown, who created the Willie Horton ad, has put together a new ad that openly associates Obama with allegedly murderous gang members in Chicago. It features a roll call of gang victims and extensive footage of bleak and devastated ghetto neighborhoods in Chicago. It asks “can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?”
It would be a tragedy if voters gave a very unpopular Republican Party another four years in the White House because of the skin color of the Democratic nominee. But I have enough faith in the American people to believe that this will not happen, no matter how many Willie Horton type ads the Republican surrogates chose to run in 2008.
Posted on: Tuesday, April 29, 2008 - 17:24
SOURCE: Weekly Standard (5-5-08)
The president's nomination of generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno to take command of U.S. Central Command and Multinational Force-Iraq, respectively, was obviously the right decision. By experience and temperament and demonstrated success, both men are perfectly suited to these jobs. Given the political climate in Washington, however, their nominations are likely to be attacked with the same tired arguments war critics used to try to drown out reports of progress in Iraq during the recent Petraeus-Crocker hearings. So before the shouting begins again, let us consider in detail one of the most important of these arguments: that no one has offered any clear definition of success in Iraq.
Virtually everyone who wants to win this war agrees: Success will have been achieved when Iraq is a stable, representative state that controls its own territory, is oriented toward the West, and is an ally in the struggle against militant Islamism, whether Sunni or Shia. This has been said over and over. Why won't war critics hear it? Is it because they reject the notion that such success is achievable and therefore see the definition as dishonest or delusional? Is it because George Bush has used versions of it and thus discredited it in the eyes of those who hate him? Or is it because it does not offer easily verifiable benchmarks to tell us whether or not we are succeeding? There could be other reasons--perhaps critics fear that even thinking about success or failure in Iraq will weaken their demand for an immediate "end to the war." Whatever the explanation for this tiresome deafness, here is one more attempt to flesh out what success in Iraq means and how we can evaluate progress toward it.
A stable state. An unstable Iraq is a recipe for continued violence throughout the Middle East. Iraq's internal conflicts could spread to its neighbors or lure them into meddling in its struggles. An unstable Iraq would continue to generate large refugee flows, destabilizing vulnerable nearby states. An unstable Iraq would enormously complicate efforts by the United States or any other state to combat terrorists on Iraqi soil. An unstable Iraq would invite the intervention of opportunist neighbors. The Middle East being an area of vital importance to the United States and its allies, all these developments would harm America's interests.
A representative state. Some war critics (and even some supporters) argue that the goal of "democratizing" Iraq is overoptimistic, even hopeless. So what are the alternatives? Either Iraq can be ruled by a strongman, as it was in the past, or it can be partitioned into several more homogeneous territories, each ruled according to its own desires. Before settling for either of these, we should note that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis continue to manifest their desire for representative government, as evidenced by the 8 million who voted in the last elections, the 90 percent of Sunni Arab Iraqis who tell pollsters they will vote in the upcoming provincial elections, and the sense on the streets that anyone who tries to eliminate representative government will do so at his peril. Beyond that, we must note that neither of the two suggested alternatives is compatible with stability. Nevertheless, let us examine them.
A strongman. Iraq is a multiethnic, multisectarian state just emerging from a sectarian civil war. How could a strongman rule it other than by oppression and violence? Any strongman would have to come from one or another of the ethno-sectarian groups, and he would almost certainly repress the others. Although he might, in time, establish a secure authoritarian regime, the history of such regimes suggests that Iraq would remain violent and unstable for years, perhaps decades, before all opposition was crushed. This option would not sit well with American consciences.
Partition. Partitioning Iraq would generate enormous instability for the foreseeable future. Again, virtually no Arab Iraqis want to see the country partitioned; the Sunni, in particular, are bitterly opposed. But their desires aside, could a partitioned Iraq be stable? The Kurds, after all, already have their region. What would happen if the Shia got all nine provinces south of Baghdad, and the Sunni got Anbar, Salah-ad-Din, and whatever part of Ninewa the Kurds chose to give them? Well, there would be the problem of Baghdad and Diyala, the two mixed provinces, containing mixed cities. Despite the prevailing mythology, Baghdad has not been "cleansed" so as to produce stable sectarian borders. The largely Sunni west contains the Khadimiyah shrine, which the Shia will never abandon, while the largely Shia east contains the stubborn Sunni enclave in Adhamiya. The Sunni in Adhamiya have just gone through many months of hell to hang on to their traditional ground. And there are other enclaves on both sides of the river. Any "cleansing" of them would involve the death or forced migration of tens or possibly hundreds of thousands. Attempts to divide Diyala and even Ninewa would produce similar results. If ethno-sectarian conflict restarted in Iraq on a large scale, cleansing might make this solution more feasible, but at enormous human cost. In the current context, even to seriously propose it threatens Iraq's stability.
A state that controls its territory. We already have an example of a sovereign, quasi-stable state confronting terrorist foes that is theoretically allied to the United States but has no American troops and does not control all of its own territory. It is Pakistan, whose ungoverned territories in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Northwest Frontier Province have become safe havens for the leaders of the global al Qaeda network. If the United States abandoned Iraq before Iraq could control all of its territory with its own forces, we might make way for similar safe havens in the heart of the Middle East. It is clearly not in America's interests to create a Pakistan on the Euphrates.
A state oriented toward the West. It is also clearly against America's interests for Iraq to become an Iranian puppet. Some in the United States, however, see that development as inevitable; they point to geography and religious ties. Some even say that the United States should not only acquiesce in the inevitable but embrace it, reaching out to the Iranians for their assistance in smoothing our withdrawal as they establish their domination. But why? Iran has not dominated Iraq in centuries. True, the Sunni-Shia divide is profound, but so is the Arab-Persian divide. Iraq's Shia, remember, enthusiastically supported Saddam Hussein's war against their Iranian co-religionists in the 1980s--a sectarian "betrayal" for which the Iranians have never forgiven them. Again, American troops and civilians who live day to day with Iraqis throughout the country report a dramatic rise in anti-Persian sentiment, coincident with a rise in Iraqi Arab nationalism. But back in the United States, the debate over Iraq is scarcely tethered to reality on the ground. In the simple terms suitable to that debate, then, suffice it to say that neither shared Shia faith nor a shared border has historically led to Iranian domination of Iraq. There is no reason to assume it will do so now.
An ally in the struggle against militant Islamism. Whatever Saddam Hussein's ties were to al Qaeda before the invasion, the reality today is that an important al Qaeda franchise has established itself in Iraq. It initially had the support of a significant portion of Iraq's Sunni Arab community, but that community--with critical American support--has rejected al Qaeda and united with Iraq's Shia and Kurds to fight it.
As a result, there is no state in the world that is more committed than Iraq to defeating al Qaeda. None has mobilized more troops to fight al Qaeda or suffered more civilian casualties at the hands of al Qaeda--or, for that matter, taken more police and military casualties. Iraq is already America's best ally in the struggle against al Qaeda. Moreover, the recent decision of Iraq's government to go after illegal, Iranian-backed Shia militias and terror groups shows that even a Shia government in Baghdad can be a good partner in the struggle against Shia extremism as well.
Much has been made of the inadequacy of the Iraqi Security Forces' performance in Basra. If the Pakistani army had performed half as well in its efforts to clear al Qaeda out of the tribal areas, we would be cheering. Instead, Pakistani soldiers surrendered to al Qaeda by the hundreds, and Islamabad shut the operation down; it is now apparently on the verge of a deal with the terrorist leader who killed Benazir Bhutto. Iraqi Security Forces who underperformed were fired and replaced, and operations in Basra and elsewhere continue. The United States has given Pakistan billions in aid since 9/11 so that it could fight al Qaeda in the tribal areas. To be sure, it has spent far more billions on the Iraq war. Still, one may wonder which money has produced real success in the war on terror, and which has been wasted.
Stability. Violence is the most obvious indicator of instability and the easiest to measure. The fact that violence has fallen dramatically in Iraq since the end of 2006 is evidence of improving stability. But critics are right to point out that areas tend to be peaceful both when government forces control them completely and when insurgents control them completely. Violence can drop either because the government is winning or because insurgents are consolidating their gains. So in addition to counting casualties and attacks, it is necessary to evaluate whether government control has been expanding or contracting. In fact, it has expanded dramatically over the past 15 months.
At the end of 2006, Sunni Arab insurgents controlled most of Anbar province, large areas of Salah-ad-Din and Diyala, southern Baghdad and northern Babil provinces (the "triangle of death"), and large areas of Baghdad itself including the Ameriya, Adhamiya, Ghazaliya, and Dora neighborhoods, which were fortified al Qaeda bastions. Shia militias controlled Sadr City almost completely--American forces could not even enter the area, and virtually no Iraqi forces in Sadr City operated independently of the militias; the militias also controlled the nearby districts of Shaab and Ur, from whence they staged raids on Sunni neighborhoods; they operated out of bases in Khadimiyah and Shula in western Baghdad; they owned large swaths of terrain in Diyala province, where they were engaged in an intense war against al Qaeda; they fought each other in Basra and controlled large areas of the Shia south.
Today, al Qaeda has been driven out of Dora, Ameriya, Ghazaliya, and Adhamiya; out of Anbar almost entirely; out of the "southern belt" including the former triangle of death; out of much of Diyala; and out of most of Salah-ad-Din. Iraqi and coalition operations are underway to drive al Qaeda out of its last urban bastion in Mosul. Remaining al Qaeda groups, although still able to generate periodic spectacular attacks, are largely fragmented and their communications partially disrupted. Iraqi Security Forces have been on the offensive against Shia militias in the "five cities" area (Najaf, Karbala, Diwaniya, Hilla, and Kut) and have severely degraded militia capabilities and eliminated militia control from significant parts of this area; the attack in Basra resulted in a reduction of the militia-controlled area, including the recapture of Basra's lucrative ports by government forces; tribal movements in Basra and Nasiriya are helping the government advance and consolidate its gains against the militias; and Iraqi Security Forces, with Coalition support, are moving through parts of Sadr City house by house and taking it back from the militias.
The fall in violence in Iraq, therefore, reflects success and not failure. Enemy control of territory has been significantly reduced, and further efforts to eliminate enemy control of any territory are underway. Spikes in violence surrounding the Basra operation reflect efforts by the government to retake insurgent-held areas and are, therefore, positive (if sober) indicators.
As for the argument that this stability is based solely on the increased presence of U.S. forces, which will shortly end, or that it is merely a truce between the Sunni and the Shia as they wait for us to leave--we shall soon see. Reductions of U.S. forces by 25 percent are well underway. The commanding general has recommended that after we complete those reductions in July, we evaluate the durability of the current stability, and President Bush has accepted his recommendation.
Representative government. The Iraqi government is the product of two elections. The Sunni Arabs boycotted the first, with the result that Iraq's provincial councils and governors do not reflect its ethno-sectarian make-up. The second saw a large Sunni Arab turnout and the seating of a multiethnic, multisectarian government in Baghdad. The Iraqi government recently passed a law calling for provincial elections later this year, and the United Nations special envoy to Iraq, Steffan de Mistura, has been consulting with Baghdad about the details of the election, including efforts to ensure that the various committees overseeing it are not unduly influenced by militias or political parties. Surveys show that the Iraqis are nearly unanimous in their desire to vote, particularly in Sunni areas. The Anbar Awakening has turned into a political movement, introducing political pluralism into Sunni Arab politics for the first time. Similar movements, including the splintering of Moktada al-Sadr's "Sadrist Trend," are underway more haltingly among the Shia.
Each of Iraq's elections has been more inclusive than the last. Each has seen more enthusiasm for voting among all groups. Political pluralism is increasing within both sects. Whatever the popularity of the present government of Iraq, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis see elections as the correct way to choose their leaders, believe that their votes will count, and want to participate. The provincial elections this fall--and the national legislative elections next year--will be important indicators of the health of representative government in Iraq, and we should watch them closely. So far, all indications in this area are positive.
Control of territory. The restoration of large urban and rural areas formerly held by insurgents and militias to government control is a key indicator of Iraqi progress. And there are others: the Maliki government's determination to clear Basra and Sadr City of militia influence; Iraqi operations to clear Mosul of al Qaeda fighters; the dramatic growth of the Iraqi Security Forces in 2007 and the further growth underway in 2008. There is anecdotal confirmation of this progress, such as the dramatic decline in the number of illegal militia-controlled checkpoints, most of them set up in and around Baghdad in 2006 for purposes of control, extortion, and murder. Although some war critics claim that the Anbar Awakening has simply put the province into the hands of a new militia, the truth is that the first stage of the movement saw more than 10,000 Anbaris volunteer for the Iraqi Security Forces. Two divisions of the Iraqi army remain in Anbar, and they are mixed Sunni-Shia formations. The Iraqi police force in Anbar, paid for, vetted, and controlled by the Iraqi government, has also grown dramatically. The "Sons of Iraq," who are the security component of the awakening movement, are auxiliaries to these government forces, supplemented by the presence of American troops. In Baghdad's neighborhoods, Sons of Iraq are dwarfed in number by the two Iraqi army divisions stationed in the city (in addition to the mechanized division based just to the north in Taji) and the numerous police and national police formations, all supported by American combat brigades. The Iraqi government is steadily extending its control of its own territory, and has demonstrated a determination to retake insurgent-held areas even from Shia militias.
Orientation toward the West. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Iraq in March 2008 and was warmly received, prompting concern in the United States that the Iraqi government was tilting toward Tehran. War critics, attempting to spin the Iraqi government's offensive against Shia militias in Basra, argued that Iran "supports" both the militias and the principal Shia parties fighting them--the entire operation, they claimed, was simply "Shia infighting" among groups already devoted to Tehran.
A closer examination shows this to be false. While it is true that Iran "supports" both ISCI and Dawa, the two leading Shia parties in the government, with money, and it provides the Sadrist militia not only with money, but with lethal weapons, training, trainers, and advisers inside Iraq to support the militia's fight against the United States and the Iraqi government--nevertheless, Iran does not provide such support to the government of Iraq or to the Iraqi Security Forces, which the United States and its allies have worked hard to develop into effective fighting forces, at the behest of the United Nations and the request of the legitimate government of Iraq. This is not simply "Shia infighting" in which the United States has no stake.
More to the point, we might ask what the Iraqi government itself has done to show its preferences. It has asked the United Nations to endorse the Multinational Force mission supporting it, a mission that includes American forces--but not Iranian ones. It has requested a bilateral security agreement with the United States--and not with Iran. It has determined to purchase American weapons and equipment for its armed forces, to replace the Warsaw Pact gear it had been using--and has not requested equipment from Iran or its principal international suppliers, Russia and China. Baghdad is organizing, training, and equipping its military and police forces to be completely interoperable with the United States--and not with Iran. For a government accused of being in Tehran's thrall, the current Iraqi government appears to have demonstrated repeatedly a commitment to stand with the United States, at least as long as the United States stands with Iraq.
An ally in the war on terror. Al Qaeda has killed many more Iraqis than Americans. Iraq has eight army divisions--around 80,000 troops--now in the fight against al Qaeda, and another three--around 45,000 troops--in the fight against Shia extremists. Tens of thousands of Iraqi police and National Police are also in the fight. Thus, there are far more Iraqis fighting al Qaeda and Shia militias in Iraq than there are American troops there. Easily ten times as many Iraqi as Pakistani troops are fighting our common enemies. At least three times as many Iraqi soldiers and police as Afghan soldiers and police are in the fight. And many times more Iraqi troops are engaged in the war on terror than those of any other American ally. In terms of manpower engaged, and sacrifice of life and limb, Iraq is already by far America's best ally in the war on terror.
These facts will surely not put to rest the debate over definitions and measures of success in Iraq. Certainly, the American people have a right to insist that our government operate with a clear vision of success and that it develop a clear plan for evaluating whether we are moving in the right direction, even if no tidy numerical metrics can meaningfully size up so complex a human endeavor. As shown here, supporters of the current strategy do indeed have a clear definition of success, and those working to implement it are already evaluating American progress against that definition every day. It is on the basis of their evaluation that we say the surge is working.
The question Americans should ask themselves next is: Have the opponents of this strategy offered a clear definition of their own goals, along with reasonable criteria for evaluating progress toward them? Or are they simply projecting onto those who have a clear vision with which they disagree their own vagueness and confusion?
Here is a gauntlet thrown down: Let those who claim that the current strategy has failed and must be replaced lay out their own strategy, along with their definition of success, criteria for evaluating success, and the evidentiary basis for their evaluations. Then, perhaps, we can have a real national debate on this most important issue.
Posted on: Monday, April 28, 2008 - 17:27
SOURCE: Huffington Post (Blog) (4-28-08)
Political pundits have likened Obama's oratory, its style and content, to that of Abraham Lincoln. Most recently, Gary Wills has compared Barack Obama's speech on race in America,"A More Perfect Union," with Abraham Lincoln's 1860 Cooper Union address. In fact, like most of Lincoln's great speeches, Obama's speech evokes history and broader political principles to address contemporary racial divisions. Its title too, which calls on ordinary American citizens to perfect their Union, is reminiscent of Lincoln's Civil War speeches. Like Lincoln, who was dismissed for being a"Black Republican" for opposing racial slavery, Obama ironically stands accused of playing the race card by Sean Wilentz, the Clintons' historian in residence, because he opposes the divisive politics of race.
More interestingly, the Democratic presidential nomination contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton bears some startling similarities to the 1860 Republican presidential race between Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and William Henry Seward of New York. In a series of strange historical coincidences, not only do the leading Democratic contenders for the presidency hail from the same states as their Republican predecessors but their political resumes are analogous too. Like Lincoln, who was a one term Congressman and who opposed the Mexican War of 1846-1848 as a land grab for slavery, Obama is a one term Senator and is known for his early opposition to the Iraq war. Like Lincoln, Obama is known for his soaring oratory and vision of change at a moment of crisis. Like Lincoln, voters view Obama as an unknown quantity but are inspired by him. Physically too, the tall and lanky Obama might well be an African American version of the man whose legacy he explicitly invoked when announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois.
Clinton, on the other hand, looks a lot like Seward did in 1860. If anything, he was even more tested by national politics than she. Seward had been Governor of New York, the man behind the short-lived presidency of Zachary Taylor (1848-1850), and the Senator from New York in the 1850s. He was a leading voice of antislavery in Congress and reviled by southern Democrats on a regular basis. Compared to Lincoln, a small town lawyer, Seward, like Clinton, had been close to the White House, Congressional politics and was the more experienced and allegedly able candidate.
In 1860, however, the Republican nominating convention dumped Seward for the dark horse candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Seward commanded the loyalty of the party faithful but his lieutenants in the convention were completely out maneuvered by Lincoln's supporters from Illinois. The unexpected success of Barack Obama's presidential campaign strongly resembles the ultimate triumph of the Lincoln forces. Lincoln came from behind to defeat the front runner whose candidacy, like Clinton's, had an aura of inevitability about it until the very eve of the Republican convention.
A majority of Republicans in the convention viewed Seward, a veteran of many battles over slavery expansion in Congress, as too polarizing a figure. One of the biggest arguments against Hillary Clinton is precisely that she is too polarizing a figure. Over the years, Seward, like the Clintons, had made many political enemies, some within his own party. Some Republicans voted for Lincoln simply because they would rather not vote for Seward. Most Republicans went for Lincoln in 1860 because they wanted to broaden their party base and appeal to the less antislavery lower north. The solidly antislavery upper north was already in their column. That is same the argument that the Obama campaign is making now. No matter who is the Democratic presidential nominee, the reliably blue states will vote Democratic. But Obama might bring some red states and less partisan voters into the Democratic column. Here is the potential to create a new progressive majority that can shift the terms of political debate and transcend the politics of race. Just as Lincoln's election brought decades of slaveholder dominance of the federal government to an end, Obama can turn the tide on conservative dominance of political discourse in this country. Indeed, the Democratic party today is a counterpart to the mid-nineteenth century liberal Republican party, the party of Lincoln, and the Republican party today is a lot like its historical predecessor, the conservative Democratic party with its political base in the solid south.
During the Civil War, the tried and true Seward recommended negotiations with southern secessionists. It was the political novice, Lincoln, rather than Seward who comprehended the momentous nature of the war and moved toward emancipation, the arming of former slaves, and black citizenship. In the end, Seward and his pro-slavery southern Democratic detractors shared a common political world that Lincoln rejected. While John McCain and Hillary Clinton can vouch for each other's jingoistic patriotism, political experience and military toughness, Obama appeals in Lincoln's words, which Senator Edward Kennedy repeated in his endorsement of him, to the"better angels of our nature." Given the historical record, that might just be the quality that makes a great president.
Posted on: Monday, April 28, 2008 - 15:46
SOURCE: Kansas City Star (4-27-08)
Few policies have done more to destroy community and opportunity for minorities than eminent domain. Some 3 to 4 million Americans, most of them ethnic minorities, have been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of urban renewal takings since World War II.
The fact is that eminent-domain abuse is a crucial constitutional rights issue. On Tuesday, the Alabama Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold a public forum at Birmingham’s historic Sixteenth Street Baptist church to address ongoing property seizures in the state. The church was not only a center of early civil rights action, but also, tragically, where four schoolgirls lost their lives in a bombing in 1963.
Current eminent domain horror stories in the South and elsewhere are not hard to find. At this writing, for example, the city of Clarksville, Tenn., is giving itself authority to seize more than 1,000 homes, businesses and churches and then resell much of the land to developers. Many who reside there are black, live on fixed incomes, and own well-maintained Victorian homes.
Eminent domain has always had an outsized impact on the constitutional rights of minorities, but most of the public didn’t notice until the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London. In Kelo, the Court endorsed the power of a local government to forcibly transfer private property to commercial interests for the purpose of “economic development.”
The Fifth Amendment requires that such seizures be for a “public use,” but that requirement can be satisfied, the Court ruled, by virtually any claim of some sort of public benefit. Many charge that Kelo gives governments a blank check to redistribute land from the poor and middle class to the wealthy.
Few protested the Kelo ruling more ardently than the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In an amicus brief filed in the case, it argued that “[t]he burden of eminent domain has and will continue to fall disproportionately upon racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, and economically disadvantaged.” Unfettered eminent domain authority, the NAACP concluded, is a “license for government to coerce individuals on behalf of society’s strongest interests.”
Some earlier civil rights champions, by contrast, often ignored, or worse helped to undermine, the rights of property owners. Ironically, the same U.S. Supreme Court which handed down Brown v. Board in 1954 also issued Berman v. Parker, in which the Court allowed the District of Columbia to forcibly expel some 5,000 low-income African-Americans from their homes in order to facilitate “urban renewal.” It was Berman that enabled the massive urban renewal condemnations of later decades, which many critics dubbed “Negro removal” because they too tended to target African-Americans....
Posted on: Monday, April 28, 2008 - 14:26
Because it was a beautiful day, I came about an hour earlier so I could walk around the Columbia campus, which unlike Fordham, allows anyone, student or not, to stroll through its gates or sit on the wide, manigificent concrete steps in front of the main administration building, Low Library
For a moment, I thought I was in utopia. The campus was filled with thousands of people of every race and nationality walking to class, taking tours of campus, playing soccer, frisbee and football, sitting, lying in the sun, having conversations and reading books, even participating in a large and passionate anti-war rally. There were people of every conceivable color and complexion, most under thirty, and a proliferation of languages being spoken.
I was dazzled and moved by the spectacle. Here, I thought, was a university that brought together the global community in all its glorious variety.There were far more students- and people- of Black, Asian and South Asian descent that I was accostomed to seeing at Fordham or in my own increasingly gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. Columbia had come a long long way from that fall day in 1962 when the Columbia College class of 1966, of which I was part, arrived on campus, with only 6 Black students out of 660, and an equal, or lesser number of Latinos and Asians
But the longer I stayed on campus, the more my pride in having contributed to this glorious diversity, as a participant in the 1968 protest, turned to dismay. What was missing from this multinational utopia, not only on the campus, but on the surrounding streets, was any working class presence. Of the thousands of people I saw on that glorious afternoon, there wasn't a single person I saw, either on Broadway or the Columbia campus who looked like the people I regularly encountered in the Bronx, whether it was walking up Fordham Road to the "D" train, droving down the Grand Concourse or leading walking or van tours of the Bronx.neighborhoods
There wasn't a single person I saw, male or female, whose faces bore the stress of working two jobs to make sure their families weren't evicted, or who displayed a survivors pride in triumphing over whatever hardtimes came their way. No women under twenty shepharding three or more children to or from school or a trip to the store. No men outside bogegas sipping beer or playing dominos. No girls in tight skirts, wearing bright lipstick and hoop earings, raising their voices in laughter. No tall boys in doo rags walking down the street dribbling a basketball. No Mexican or Salvadorian men congregating on street corner before or after a hard days work. no grandmothers sitting on benches exchanging gossip or watching children play. No SUV's or jeeps driving slowly down the street with rap music blaring at full volume. No men in their early twenties walking slowly with their pit bulls, wearing sleeveless tee shirts tee shirts to show off their muscles. No church ladies talking in animated fashion about Bible study or their preacher's latest sermon. No groups of teenagers, just released from school, gathering in a circle, clapping hands, while one of their number started "Getting Lite," the latest version of a street dance that was sweeping through the Bronx.
These visual symbols of a working class, immigrant presence, which you could see on any spring day outside Fordham's Bronx campus, had been magically excised from the Columbia campus and its surrounding neighborhood, turning it into a place that was as homogenous in class as it was diverse in race.
The process of driving out working class people from anywhere near the Columbia campus, which had begun well before I arrived at the school in 1962, and which I had hoped the 1968 uprising would halt, had been completed with a thoroughness that was truly chilling. By systematically excluding affordable housing from any off campus construction projects, by making sure that no public high school or middle school was built anywhere near the campus, and by allowing market forces to drive rents in the neighborhood so high that immigrant and working class families, and the stores serving that population, could never pay them,, Columbia had created a place where its students and faculty were in no danger of interacting on a regular basis with working class New Yorkers.
The nearest working class families were now living more than ten blocks from the campus, in five story walkups in West Harlem and Manhattan Valley and in housing projects on 125th street and along Columbus Avenue. And these enclaves were in danger as a result of Columbia's new expansion plan.
This was not the community I thought we were creating when we occupied four buildings in the spring of 1968. Columbia is still following the same policies it did when it tried to build a gym in Morningside Park.
Although I got an amazing education at Columbia, I am not proud to be an alumnus of the school. When it comes to dealing with issues of poverty and inequality in New York City, Columbia, 40 years after the historic strike, is still much more part of the problem than part of the solution.
Posted on: Friday, April 25, 2008 - 14:56
SOURCE: International Herald Tribune (4-24-08)
'It's time for Africa to step up." That's what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a news conference last week, speaking of Zimbabwe's post-election deadlock.
President Robert Mugabe most likely lost the March 29 contest, but his handpicked electoral commission has refused to release the results. "Where is the concern from the African Union and from Zimbabwe's neighbors?" Rice asked.
I put the same question to a Ghanaian colleague the other day, and she grimaced. "Everyone wants Mugabe gone, but nobody wants to do anything about it," she said. "Too risky."
Part of the risk, of course, comes from democracy itself. If Zimbabwe successfully topples its longtime tyrant, other African despots fear, their citizens might be emboldened to do the same.
But there's more. Especially in Ghana, sub-Saharan Africa's first independent nation, Mugabe represents one of the last links to the heroic struggle against colonialism. But that struggle brought all kinds of evils in its wake, which many Africans would just as soon forget.
It also brought Mugabe to Ghana, where he worked as a teacher in the late 1950s and met his first wife. Like many other freedom fighters, Mugabe was inspired by the pan-African doctrines of the Ghanaian independence leader, Kwame Nkrumah. To throw off the colonial yoke, Nkrumah believed, African nations had to join together.
"I started telling people how free the Ghanaians were, and what the feeling was in a newly independent African state," Mugabe told a 2003 interviewer, recalling his return home in 1960. "I told them also about Nkrumah's own political ideology. Unless every inch of African soil was free, then Ghana would not regard itself as free."
But Ghana itself wasn't "free." A year after independence, Nkrumah's government enacted a law allowing it to jail anyone suspected of harming national security. By 1960, Nkrumah had bestowed a new title upon himself: Osagyefo, meaning "Redeemer." As the savior of Ghana - and, by extension, of Africa - he could do whatever he wanted to.
So he crushed a railway strike, deeming it a "neocolonial conspiracy." He banned opposition parties, interfered with the courts and jailed several of his leading critics. Two of them died in prison, under mysterious circumstances.
Instead of addressing this painful history, however, most Ghanaians prefer to airbrush it out. The new national currency features drawings of Nkrumah's two prison victims alongside Osagyefo himself, as if the three of them were bosom buddies. At Nkrumah's mausoleum here in Accra, an elaborate exhibit omits any mention of his dictatorial behavior. It does note in small type that Nkrumah was deposed in a 1966 coup, but the visitor is left to wonder why.
So it's no wonder, really, that African leaders are reluctant to condemn Mugabe. Like Nkrumah and so many others, he was a valiant anti-colonial figure who ended up tyrannizing his own people. Who wants to be reminded of that?...
Posted on: Thursday, April 24, 2008 - 22:18
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (4-22-08)
Google"second Gilded Age" and you will get ferried to 7,000 possible sites where you can learn more about what you already instinctively know. That we are living through a gilded age has become a journalistic commonplace. The unmistakable drift of all the talk about it is a Yogi Berra-ism: it's a matter of déjà vu all over again. But is it? Is turn-of-the-century America a replica of the world Mark Twain first christened"gilded" in his debut bestseller back in the 1870s?
Certainly, Twain would feel right at home today. Crony capitalism, the main object of his satirical wit in The Gilded Age, is thriving. Incestuous plots as outsized as the one in which the Union Pacific Railroad's chief investors conspired with a wagon-load of government officials, including Ulysses S. Grant's vice president, to loot the federal treasury once again lubricate the machinery of public policy-making. A cronyism that would have been familiar to Twain has made the wheels go round in these terminal years of the Bush administration. Even the invasion and decimation of Iraq was conceived and carried out as an exercise in grand-strategic cronyism; call it cronyism with a vengeance. All of this has been going on since Ronald Reagan brought back morning to America.
Reagan's America was gilded by design. In 1981, when the New Rich and the New Right paraded in their sumptuous threads in Washington to celebrate at the new president's inaugural ball, it was called a"bacchanalia of the haves." Diana Vreeland, style guru (as well as Nancy Reagan confidante), was stylishly blunt:"Everything is power and money and how to use them both… We mustn't be afraid of snobbism and luxury."
That's when the division of wealth and income began polarizing so that, by every measure, the country has now exceeded the extremes of inequality achieved during the first Gilded Age; nor are our elites any more embarrassed by their Mammon-worship than were members of the"leisure class" excoriated a century ago by that take-no-prisoners social critic of American capitalism Thorstein Veblen.
Back then, it was about masquerading as European nobility at lavish balls in elegant hotels like New York's Waldorf-Astoria, locked down to forestall any unpleasantness from the street (where ordinary folk were in a surly mood trying to survive the savage depression of the 1890s). Today's"leisure class" is holed up in gated communities or houseoleums as gargantuan as the imported castles of their Gilded Age forerunners, ready to fly off -- should the natives grow restless -- to private islands aboard their private jets.
The Free Market as Melodrama
At the height of the first Gilded Age, William Graham Sumner, a Yale sociologist and the most famous exponent of Herbert Spencer's theory of dog-eat-dog Social Darwinism, asked a good question: What do the social classes owe each other? Virtually nothing was the professor's answer.
As in those days, there is today no end to ideological justifications for an inequality so pervasive that no one can really ignore it entirely. In 1890, reformer Jacob Riis published his book How the Other Half Lives. Some were moved by his vivid descriptions of destitution. In the late nineteenth century, however, the preferred way of dismissing that discomfiting reality was to put the blame on a culture of dependency supposedly prevalent among"the lower orders," particularly, of course, among those of certain complexions and ethnic origins; and the logical way to cure that dependency, so the claim went, was to eliminate publicly funded"outdoor relief."
How reminiscent of the"welfare to work" policies cooked up by the Clinton administration, an exchange of one form of dependency -- welfare -- for another -- low-wage labor. Poverty, once turned into the cultural and moral problem of the impoverished, exculpated Gilded Age economics in both the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries (and proved profitable besides).
Even now, there remains a trace of the old Social Darwinian rationale -- that the ascendancy of"the fittest" benefits the whole species -- and the accompanying innuendo that those consigned to the bottom of the heap are fated by nature to end up there. To that must be added a reinvigorated belief in the free market as the fairest (not to mention the most efficient) way to allocate wealth. Then, season it all with a bravura elevation of risk-taking to the status of spiritual, as well as economic, tonic. What you end up with is an intellectual elixir as self-congratulatory as the conscience-cleansing purgative that made Professor Sumner so sure in his cold-bloodedness.
Then, as now, hypocrisy and self-delusion were the final ingredients in this ideological brew. When it came to practical matters, neither the business elites of the first Gilded Age, nor our own"liquidators,""terminators," and merger and acquisition Machiavellians ever really believed in the free market or the enterprising individual. Then, as now, when push came to shove (and often way earlier), they relied on the government: for political favors, for contracts, for tax advantages, for franchises, for tariffs and subsidies, for public grants of land and natural resources, for financial bail-outs when times were tough (see Bear Stearns), and for muscular protection, including the use of armed force, against all those who might interfere with the rights of private property.
So too, while industrial and financial tycoons liked to imagine themselves as stand-alone heroes, daring cowboys on the urban-industrial-financial frontier, as a matter of fact the first Gilded Age gave birth to the modern, bureaucratic corporation -- and did so at the expense of the lone entrepreneur. To this day, that big business behemoth remains the defining institution of commercial life. The reigning melodrama may still be about the free market and the audacious individual, but backstage, directing the players, stands the state and the corporation.
Crony capitalism, inequality, extravagance, Social Darwinian self-justification, blame-the-victim callousness, free-market hypocrisy: thus it was, thus it is again!
At the end of the Reagan years, public intellectuals Kevin Phillips and Gary Wills prophesied that this state of affairs was insupportable and would soon end. Phillips, in particular, anticipated a populist rising. It did not happen. Instead, nearly 20 years later, the second Gilded Age is alive, if not so well. Why such longevity? The answer tells us something about how these two epochs, for all their striking similarities, are also profoundly unalike.
Missing Utopias and Dystopias
As a title, Apocalypse Now could easily have been applied to a movie made about late nineteenth century America. Whichever side you happened to be on, there was an overwhelming dread that the nation was dividing in two and verging on a second civil war, that a final confrontation between the haves and have-nots was unavoidable.
Irate farmers mobilized in cooperative alliances and in the Populist Party. Farmer-labor parties in states and cities from coast to coast challenged the dominion of the two-party system. Rolling waves of strikes, captained by warriors from the Knights of Labor, enveloped whole communities as new allegiances extended across previously unbridgeable barriers of craft, ethnicity, even race and gender.
Legions of small businessmen, trade unionists, urban consumers, and local politicians raged against monopoly and"the trusts." Armed workers' militias paraded in the streets of many American cities. Business and political elites built massive urban fortresses, public armories equipped with Gatling guns (the machine guns of their day), preparing to crush the insurrections they saw headed their way.
Even today the names of Haymarket (the square in Chicago where, in 1886, a bombing at a rally of rebellious workers led to the legal lynching of anarchist leaders at the most infamous trial of the nineteenth century), Homestead (where, in 1892, the Monongahela River ran red with the blood of Pinkerton thugs sent by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick to crush the strike of their steelmaking employees), and Pullman (the company town in Illinois where, in 1894, President Grover Cleveland ordered Federal troops to put down the strike of the American Railway Union against the Pullman Palace Car Company) evoke memories of a whole society living on the edge.
The first Gilded Age was a moment of Great Fears, but also of Great Expectations -- a period infatuated with a literature of utopias as well as dystopias. The two most successful novels of the nineteenth century, after Uncle Tom's Cabin, were Edward Bellamy's utopian Looking Backward and the horrific dystopia Caesar's Column by Populist tribune Ignatius Donnelly. The latter reached its denouement when Donnelly's fictional proletarian underground movement, the"Brotherhood of Destruction," marked its"triumph" with the erection of a giant pyramid composed of a quarter-million corpses of its enemy,"the Oligarchy" and its minions, cemented together and laced with explosives so that no one would dare risk removing them and destroying this permanent memorial to the barbarism of American industrial capitalism.
This end-of-days foreboding and the thirst for utopian release were not, moreover, confined to the ranks of agrarian or industrial trouble-makers. Before"Pullman" became a word for industrial serfdom and the Federal government's bloody-mindedness, it was built by its owner, George Pullman, as a model industrial city, a kind of capitalist utopia of paternal benevolence and confected social harmony.
Everyone was seeking a way out, something wholly new to replace the rancor and incipient violence of Gilded Age capitalism. The Knights of Labor, the Populist Party, the anti-trust movement, the cooperative movements of town and country, the nation-wide Eight-Hour Day uprisings of 1886 which culminated in the infamy of the Haymarket hangings, all expressed a deep yearning to abolish the prevailing industrial order.
Such groups weren't just angry; they weren't merely resentful -- although they were that, too. They were disturbed enough, naïve enough, desperate enough, inventive enough, desiring enough, deluded enough -- some still drawing cultural nourishment from the fading homesteads and workshops of pre-industrial America -- to believe that out of all this could come a new way of life, a cooperative commonwealth. No one really knew what exactly that might be. Still, the great expectation of a future no longer subservient to the calculus of the marketplace and the capitalist workshop lent the first Gilded Age its special fission, its high (tragic) drama.
Fast-forward to our second Gilded Age and the stage seems bare indeed. No great fears, no great expectations, no looming social apocalypses, no utopias or dystopias -- just a kind of flat-line sense of the end of history. Where are all the roiling insurgencies, the break-away political parties, the waves of strikes and boycotts, the infectious communal upheavals, the chronic sense of enough is enough? Where are the earnest efforts to invoke a new order which, no matter how sketchy and full of unanswered questions, now seem as minutely detailed as the blueprints for a Boeing 747 compared to"yes we can"?
What's left of mainstream populism exists on life-support in some attic of the Democratic Party. Even the language of our second Gilded Age is hollowed out. In a society saturated in Christian sanctimony, would anyone today describe"mankind crucified on a cross of gold" as William Jennings Bryan once did, or let loose against"Mammon worship," condemn aristocratic"parasites," or excommunicate"vampire speculators" and the"devilfish" of Wall Street? If nineteenth century evangelical preachers once pronounced anathema on capitalist greed, twenty-first century televangelists deify it. Tempers have cooled, leaving God, like many Americans, with only part-time employment.
The Great Silence
I exaggerate, of course. Movements do exist today to confront the inequities and iniquities of our own Gilded Age. Wall Street bandits are, once in a while, arrested by a sheriff. Some ministers, even born-again ones, do still preach the Social Gospel. But all this seems a pale shadow of what was. Something fundamental about the metabolism of capitalism has changed.
Perhaps the answer is simple and basic: The first Gilded Age rested on industrialization; the second on de-industrialization. In our time, a new system of dis-accumulation looted American industry, liquidating its assets to reward speculation in"fictitious capital." After all, the rate of investment in new plant, technology, and research and development all declined during the 1980s. For a quarter-century, the fastest growing part of the economy has been the finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector.
De-industrialization has set off an avalanche whose impact is still being felt in the economy, in the country's political culture, and in everyday life. It laid the industrial working class and the labor movement low, killing it twice over. This, more than anything else, may account for the great silence of the second Gilded Age, when measured, at least, against the raucous noise of the first. Labor was mortally wounded by direct assault, beginning with President Reagan's decision in 1981 to fire all the striking air traffic controllers. His draconian act licensed American business to launch its own all-out attack on the right to organize, which continues to this day.
In itself, however, resorting to coercion to deal with the opposition hardly distinguishes our own gilded elite from the first one. If anything, we live in less savage times, at least here at home. More fatal by far was the arrival of a new mode of capital accumulation, starkly different from the one that had prevailed a century ago. It eviscerated towns, cities, regions, and whole ways of life. It demoralized people, hollowed out popular institutions that had once offered resistance, and stoked the fires of resentment, racism, and national revanchism. Here was the raw material for mean-spirited division, not solidarity.
Dis-accumulation transformed the working class into a disaggregated pool of contingent labor, contract labor, temporary labor, and part-time labor, all in the interests of a new"flexible capitalism." Ideologues gussied-up this floating workforce by anointing it"free agent" labor, a euphemism designed to flatter the free market homunculus in each of us -- and, for a time, it worked. But the resulting reality has proved a bitter pill to swallow. To be a"free agent" today is to be free of health care, pensions, secure jobs, security in every sense. In our gilded era, downward mobility, lasting a quarter-century and still counting, has marked the social trajectory of millions of people living in the American heartland.
Dis-accumulating capitalism also undermined the political gravitas of poverty. In the first Gilded Age, poverty was a function of exploitation; in the second, of exclusion or marginalization. When we think about poverty, what comes to mind is welfare and race. The first gilded age visualized instead coal miners, child labor, tenement workshops, and the shantytowns that clustered around the steel mills of Aliquippa and Homestead.
Poverty arising out of exploitation ignited widespread moral revulsion and a robust political assault on the power of the exploiters. The perpetrators of the poverty of exclusion of our own time have been trickier to identify. In his 1962 book The Other America, Michael Harrington noted the invisibility of poverty. That was half a century ago and misery still lives in the shadows. Helped along by an ingrained racism, poverty in the second Gilded Age was politically neutered… or worse.
Decline, dispossession, and marginalization: a grim scenario. Yet the new political economy of finance-based dis-accumulation also announced itself as the second coming of democratic capitalism. And in the realm of the collective imaginary, if not in reality, it convinced millions.
The Myth of Democratic Capitalism
Aristocrats don't exist anymore, but it is remarkable how long they lasted as major actors in the country's political dramaturgy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was still denouncing"economic royalists" and"tories of industry" at the height of the New Deal. The struggle against the counter-revolutionary aristocrat, seen to be subverting the institutions of democratic life, piling up unearned riches, supplied the energy powering American reform for generations. In real life, the robber baron industrialists and financiers of Wall Street were no more aristocrats than my grandma from the shtetl. They were parvenus.
For their own good reasons, however, they actively conspired in this popular misperception by playing the aristocratic role for all it was worth. In hindsight, what looks like one of the silliest utopias of the first Gilded Age was enacted by these nouveaux riches, performing in tableaux vivants at gala balls dressed in aristocratic drag, or cavorting in the castles and villas they had transported stone by stone from France and Italy, or showing off at the weddings of their daughters to the offspring of bankrupt European nobility, or parading to New York's Metropolitan Opera in coaches driven by liveried servants and embossed with their family's" coat of arms," complete with hijacked insignia and faked genealogies that concealed their owners' homelier origins.
We may laugh at all this now. Back then, for millions, these aristocratic pretensions confirmed an ancient Jeffersonian suspicion: Capitalists were nothing more or less than camouflaged aristocrats. And mobilizing to rescue the republic and democracy from such a danger was practically an indigenous instinct. However, pushing beyond this horizon of political democracy in the direction of social democracy is a different matter entirely, arousing anxiety about threatening the understructure of private property which is, after all, also part of the American dream. Having an aristocracy to kick around, even an ersatz one, can be politically empowering.
Minus the oddball exception or two, the new tycoonery of the second Gilded Age does not fancy itself an aristocracy. It does not dress up like one or marry off its daughters to fortune-hunting European dukes and earls. On the contrary, its major figures regularly dress down in blue jeans and cowboy hats, affecting a down-home populism or nerdy dishevelment. However addicted to the paraphernalia of flamboyant excess they may be, the new capitalist elite does not pretend these are the insignia of ruling class entitlement.
Once upon a gilded time, the lower orders aped the fashions and manners of their putative betters; today it's the other way around. Indeed, it is no longer even apt to talk of a"leisure class," since our moguls of the moment are workaholics, Olympians of the merger-and-acquisition all-nighter.
Although the economic and political throw-weight of our gilded elite is at least as great as that of its predecessors in the days of J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, an American fear of a moneyed aristocracy has subsided accordingly. Instead, from the Reagan era on, Americans have been captivated by businessmen who took on the rebel role against a sclerotic corporate order and an ossified government bureaucracy that, together, were said to be blocking access to a democracy of the bold.
Often men from the middling classes, lacking in social pedigree, the overnight elevation of people like Michael Milken, Carl Ichan, or"greed is healthy" Ivan Boesky, flattered and confirmed a popular faith in the American dream. These irreverent new"revolutionaries," intent on overthrowing capitalism in the interests of capitalism, made fun of the men in pin-striped suits.
When the captains of industry and finance lorded it over the country in the late nineteenth century, no one dreamed of calling them rebels against an overweening government bureaucracy or an entrenched set of"interests." There was then no government bureaucracy, and tycoons like Russell Sage and Jay Gould were"the interests." They worried about being overthrown, not overthrowing someone else.
Our corporate elite are much more adept than their Gilded Age predecessors were at playing the democracy game. The old"leisure class" was distinctly averse to politics. If they needed a tariff or tax break, they called up their kept Senator. When mortally challenged by the Populists and William Jennings Bryan in 1896, they did get involved; but, by and large, they didn't muck about in mass party politics which they saw as too full of uncontrollable ethnic machines, angry farmers, and the like. They relied instead on the Federal judiciary, business-friendly Presidents, constitutional lawyers, and public and private militias to protect their interests.
Beginning in the 1970s, our age's business elite became acutely politically-minded and impressively well-organized, penetrating deeply all the pores of party and electoral democracy. They've gone so far as to craft strategic alliances with elements of what their nineteenth century predecessors -- who might have blanched at the prospect -- would have termed the hoi polloi. Calls to dismantle the federal bureaucracy now carry a certain populist panache, while huffing and puffing about family values has -- so far -- proven a cheap date for a gilded elite that otherwise generally couldn't care less.
Moreover, the ascendancy of our faux revolutionaries has been accompanied by media hosannas to the stock market as an everyman's Oz. America's long infatuation with its own democratic-egalitarian ethos lent traction to this illusion.
Horace Greely's inspirational admonition to"go West young man" echoed through all the channels of popular culture in the 1990s -- from cable TV shows and mass circulation magazines to baseball stadium scoreboards and Internet chat rooms. Only now Greeley's frontier of limitless opportunity had migrated back East to the stock exchange and into the ether of virtual or dot.com reality. The culture of money released from all ancient inhibitions enveloped the commons.
"Shareholder democracy" and the"ownership society" are admittedly more public relations slogans than anything tangible. Nonetheless, you can't ignore the fact that, during the second Gilded Age, half of all American families became investors in the stock market. Dentists and engineers, mid-level bureaucrats and college professors, storekeepers and medical technicians -- people, that is, from the broad spectrum of middle class life who once would have viewed the New York Stock Exchange with a mixture of awe, trepidation, and genuine distaste, and warily kept their distance -- now jumped head first into the marketplace carrying with them all their febrile hopes for social elevation.
As Wall Street suddenly seemed more welcoming, fears about strangulating monopolies died. Dwindling middle-class resistance to big business accounts for the withering away of the old anti-trust movement, a telling development in the evolution of our age's particular form of"big-box" capitalism. Once, that movement had not only expressed the frustrated ambitions of smaller businessmen, but of all those who felt victimized by monopoly power. It embodied not just the idea of breaking up the trusts, but of competing with or replacing them with public enterprises.
Long before the Reagan counter-revolution defanged the whole regulatory apparatus, however, the"anti-trust" movement was over and done with. Its absence from the political landscape during the second Gilded Age marks the demise of an older middle-class world of local producers, merchants, and their customers who were once bound together by the ties of commerce and the folk truths of small town Protestantism.
Big-box capitalism, the capitalism of Wal-Mart, still incites local uproars that carry a hint of that anti-trust past, but oppositional forces are divided. The capitalism of which Wal-Mart is emblematic generates a dissonant universe of political and cultural desires. It appeals, first of all, to instincts of individual and family material wellbeing which may run up against calls for a wider social solidarity. Moreover, in its own everyday way consumer culture -- more far-reaching than anything imaginable a century ago -- channels desire into forms of expressive self-liberation. Grand narratives that tell a story of collective destiny -- Redemption, Enlightenment, and Progress, the Cooperative Commonwealth, Proletarian Revolution -- don't play well in this refashioned political theater.
The End of the Age of Acquiescence?
However, the wheel turns. The capitalism of the Second Gilded Age now faces a systemic crisis and, under the pressure of impending disaster, may be headed back to the future. Old-fashioned poverty is making a comeback. Arguably, the global economy, including its American branch, is increasingly a sweatshop economy. There is no denying that brute fact in Thailand, China, Vietnam, Central America, Bangladesh, and dozens of other countries and regions that serve as platforms for primitive accumulation. Hundreds of millions of peasants have become proletarians virtually overnight.
Here at home, something analogous has been happening, but with an ironic difference and bearing within it a new historic opportunity. One might call it the unhorsing of the middle class.
During the first Gilded Age, the sweatshop seemed a noxious aberration. It lawlessly offered irregular employment at sub-standard wages for interminable hours. It was ordinarily housed helter-skelter in a make-shift workshop that would be here today, gone tomorrow. It was an underground enterprise that regularly absconded with its workers' paychecks and made chiseling them out of their due into an art form.
Today, what once seemed abnormal no longer does. The planet's peak corporations depend on this system. They have thrived on it. True enough, it has also encouraged the proliferation of petty enterprises -- sub-contractors, consulting firms, domestic service companies -- fertilizing the soil in which our age of democratic capitalism is rooted. But the ubiquity of the sweated economy promises to alter the nation's political chemistry.
Many of the newly flexible proletarians working for Wal-Mart, for auto parts or construction company sub-contractors, on the phones at direct mail call centers, behind the counters at mass market retailers, earn a dwindling percentage of what they used to. Even new hires at the Big Three automobile manufacturers will now make a smaller hourly wage than their grandfathers did in 1948. So too, the relative job security such employees once enjoyed is gone, leaving them vulnerable to the"lean and mean" dictates of the new capitalism: double or triple work loads; or, even worse, part-time work, work always shadowed by indignity and fear; or, worse yet, no work at all.
Meanwhile, the white collar Tomorrowland of"free agent" techies, software engineers, and the like -- not to mention a whole endangered species of middle management -- lives a precarious existence, under intense stress, chronically anticipating the next round of lay-offs. Yet many of them were once upon a time members in good standing of the"middle class." Now, they find themselves on the down escalator, descending into a despised state no one could mistake for middle class life.
"Flexible accumulation" joins this dispossession of the middle class to the super-exploitation of millions who never laid claim to that status. Many of these sweated workers are women, laboring away as home health care aides, in the food services industry, in meat processing plants, at hotels and restaurants and hospitals, because the arithmetic of"flexible accumulation" demands two workers to add up to the livable family wage not so long ago brought home by a single wage earner.
Millions more are immigrants, legal as well as undocumented, from all over the world. They live, virtually defenseless, in a twilight underworld of illegality and prejudice. Thanks to all this, the category of the"working poor" has reentered our public vocabulary. Once again, as during the first Gilded Age, poverty seems a function of exploitation at work, not only the lot of those excluded from work.
Might these developments augur the end of our second Gilded Age; or rather the end of the age of acquiescence? No one can know. Yet anger and resentment over insecurity, downward mobility, exploitation, second-class citizenship, and the ill-gotten gains of our Gilded Age mercenaries and their political enablers already rippled the political waters during the mid-term elections of 2006. This primary season has witnessed a discernable leftward shift of the center of gravity within even the cowed leadership ranks of the Democratic Party, a shift driven in large measure by the sub-prime mortgage collapse and the ominous rumblings of severe recession.
Anger and resentment, however, do not by themselves comprise a visionary alternative. Nor is the Democratic Party, however restive, a likely vehicle of social democratic aspirations. Much more will have to happen outside the precincts of electoral politics by way of mass movement building to translate these smoke signals of resistance into something more muscular and enduring. Moreover, nasty competition over diminishing economic opportunities can just as easily inflame simmering racial and ethnic antagonisms.
Nonetheless, the current break-down of the financial system is portentous. It threatens a general economic implosion more serious than anyone has witnessed for many decades. Depression, if that is what it turns out to be, together with the agonies of a misbegotten and lost war no one believes in any longer, could undermine whatever is left of the threadbare credibility of our Gilded Age elite.
Legitimacy is a precious possession; once lost it's not easily retrieved. Today, the myth of the"ownership society" confronts the reality of the"foreclosure society." The great silence of the second Gilded Age may give way to the great noise of the first.
Posted on: Thursday, April 24, 2008 - 21:57
SOURCE: http://thetyee.ca (4-24-08)
... [A]ll the candidates -- United States senators all -- come from a tiny elite at the very apex of American society. In class terms, they have nothing in common with the struggling masses.
A nation in denial
But American politics has long been grounded in class denial as well as covert racism -- American political rhetoric is deeply debased and so dishonest that whenever someone ventures any truth-telling about the hidden injuries of race or class, she or he is roundly denounced as out of touch and elitist.
Thus Obama recently ventured that many economically marginal whites turn to Jesus and their guns in bitter frustration. He should have added "and to racism" to his analysis, but he encoded this element of his discussion even when he was being relatively frank.
And didn't Clinton jump to that tune. Straight away it was into the bar, onto gun culture and pretend identification with all those white people -- ilk of her ilk -- unlike that elitist snob Obama. She didn't have to add that he was being an uppity nigger -- that was understood in the fraternity of plain white folks Clinton pretended to represent.
This is a good example of the pseudo-populism of American political rhetoric and presentation of self. George W. Bush, a rich oilman who comes from an aristocratic Connecticut family and attended Yale, pretends to be a down-home, drawling wood-chopping Texas rancher. (It worked for the actor and General Electric shill, Ronald Reagan, on his California ranch.) Nelson Rockefeller, third generation Standard Oil scion and the most important American collector of African Art, Modern Art and fancy mistresses, used to campaign at Coney Island in rolled up shirtsleeves, slapping people on the back awhile saying "Hiya', fella." Harry Truman, an excellent amateur pianist who worked hard to master Rachmaninoff, would only play the Missouri Waltz in public.
You get the picture. What you hear ain't what you get.
An old and proven game
As I am an American history professor as well as sometimes journalist, let me venture into deep background on pseudo-populism.
In the first three decades of the 19th century, the Jeffersonian party -- precursor to the Democrats, broadened the suffrage to include all white males, not just property owners or taxpayers, as in the past. However, most of these men did not vote. Indeed the Jefferson Democrats had basically eliminated their aristocratic Federalist opponents, and they nominated their presidential candidates -- all from Virginia as it happened -- in their congressional caucus. Few voters bothered to show up at the polls, as there was no real contest.
That changed after the election of 1824, in which Andrew Jackson, a rough-hewn Tennessee slaver-holder and popular Indian-killing war hero, was denied the nomination by the caucus in favour of John Quincy Adams, son of a president and gentlemanly Massachusetts statesman. In 1828, Jackson ran against the eastern establishment, claiming to represent the little people against the effete, out-of-touch snobs. Voter participation swelled dramatically and Jackson won big. In office, he then destroyed the Bank of the United States, the symbol of aristocratic control, running against Chestnut Street (the Philadelphian predecessor to Wall Street). And he did this all in the name of the little guy.
In fact Jackson represented big slaveholders and state and local bankers who chaffed at the control of any central bank. He accomplished the first economic deregulation of the sort that modern Republicans favour, which led to wild inflation and the crash of 1837. The pseudo-populist Jacksonian rhetoric was power to the people and democratic equality. The name of the actual game was rapid wealth accumulation by the rising American economic elites displacing the old-fashioned and more restrained merchant elite.
By 1840, after three years of depression, the opposition gentlemen re-gathered, but they ran their candidate, a Virginia aristocrat named Harrison, as a man born in a log cabin and given to drinking hard cider (the boilermaker of 1840). They mimicked the pseudo-populism of the Jacksonians, thus proving it had become the dominant political discourse.
American political rhetoric and ideological clarity has never recovered. Pseudo-populism has been the language of political elites ever since. If I were a really tedious political historian I would give you chapter and verse of this dreary history, but I will resist.
Pseudo-populism is dishonest because American politicians feel compelled to pretend to be just folks rather than the elite power holders they are. And it offers phony identification and panaceas. And it is duplicitous because it serves to cover race and class discrimination, while the wealthy aggrandize their power and privileges.
On this score, Canadian politicians pander nearly as dreadfully. However, I sometimes think back fondly of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, an elitist, aristocratic Platonic elder, who rarely pretended to be just like us. Remember when he rolled down his car window and told protesting strikers to eat shit? No American politician would get away with such open contempt for working people, however indifferent or hostile they are in their hearts and in the legislation they propose and refrain from proposing.
Posted on: Thursday, April 24, 2008 - 17:04
SOURCE: Oxford University Press blog (4-24-08)
Reporters were not invited to the April 6th fund-raiser in San Francisco, where Senator Barack Obama answered a question by remarking that given the long economic decline of small towns in Pennsylvania it was “not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustration.” Mayhill Fowler, who had been following the campaign as a blogger for the HuffingtonPost.com, attended the event. Regarding herself as a “citizen journalist,” she felt unbound by the rules that restricted traditional reporters. She posted blogs quoting the senator’s remarks on April 7th and 10th that drew little notice, but on April 11th she included the controversial comments that exploded into an issue in the Pennsylvania primary. Her blogs also included sound recordings of the entire event. The incident made politicians from across the political spectrum realize that nothing they say will ever be off-the-record for bloggers armed with cell phone cameras and digital recorders. This development will undoubtedly cause politicians to recalculate their strategies of dealing with the media, and force the media to adjust to the new reality.
The phenomenon is not unprecedented. New technology has been disrupting the rules that politicians have forged with the press since the days when the telegraph arrived on the political scene in the 1840s. Before that first form of electronic communication, politicians thought in terms of party newspapers, whose chief duties were to publish their speeches, defend their policies, and promote their candidacies. Everyone knew where those papers stood politically, and how their reporters were inclined. Politicians trusted reporters from their own party’s papers to be discreet, and avoiding talking to reporters from the opposition papers. But then wire services adopted an impartial style of reporting so they could sell news to papers of all political hues. This gave birth to what became known as objective journalism, where reporters recorded what they heard, without taking sides on its substance. To gather news and foster candor in this new environment, reporters over time worked out careful ground rules with their political sources, so that both sides knew what they meant when remarks were off-the-record, not for attribution, and on deep background.
But politicians have always taken some time to adjust to new media. “I distrust all telegraphic reports,” John C. Calhoun said in the Senate shortly before his death in 1850. Senator Henry Clay showed similar resistance. When Clay delivered his last stump speech in Lexington, Kentucky, he refused to talk so long as an Associated Press reporter took notes in the audience. The reporter left but then pieced together the speech by interviewing those who heard it. Swearing profusely, Senator Clay expressed his outrage that a reporter for unknown papers would presume to report what he had said to his own constituents without first obtaining his consent. The rules of the game as Clay had so long played it, had passed away, just as the bloggers are changing the rules today.
Posted on: Thursday, April 24, 2008 - 16:57
SOURCE: Open Democracy (4-20-08)
There have been many suggestions among media and military analysts since 2003 of possible parallels between the war in Iraq and the United States imbroglio in Vietnam that ended so humiliatingly in 1975. The argument is most prominently made by critics of both wars, though it has also been articulated by defence scholars or officials concerned that the US learns the "right" lessons from its costly Vietnam experience.
Three aspects of this approach are notable, however. First, fewer such comparisons have been made with the conflict in Afghanistan, which arguably in some respects offers a closer "fit" with the Vietnam war than does Iraq. Second, the Vietnam precedent is invoked as if the devastating wars in that country started only with the significant American involvement in the mid-1950s and later, and almost completely ignores the earlier, post-1945 clash of arms between Vietnamese nationalists and French colonialists. Third, when parallels (whether Iraqi or Afghan) are drawn, they tend to be presented exclusively from the viewpoint of the Americans. It is as if "only" the United States (and by extension western forces or combatants in general) have the capacity or the interest to draw lessons from the past.
This context makes all the more interesting a report which cites the view of an (anonymous) Taliban media source that much of the military activity in Afghanistan in the coming months will resemble the tactics employed by the Vietminh guerrillas and their renowned military commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, in the war against French control of "Indochina" (see Syed Saleem Shahzad, "The Taliban talk the talk", Asia Times, 11 April 2008).
The reference is startling and ominous. In the early 1950s, the Vietminh - faced with an imbalance between their own forces and conventional French military power - concentrated on attacking isolated garrisons in the northern part of Vietnam well away from the main colonial centres of control: Hanoi, Haiphong and the densely populated Hong (Red) river delta. This strategy, combined with attacks on French supply-lines, gradually wore down the French military and political leadership's resolve.
Now, it seems, the Taliban aim to do the same against an equivalently "asymmetrical" enemy: Nato, and the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) forces in Afghanistan.
The Taliban shifts gear
The Taliban source highlights the success of this kind of strategy against Pakistani army units in the border districts; recent assaults on the key supply-routes delivering equipment and provisions through Pakistan to Afghanistan also fit the pattern. The latter have included the destruction on 24 March of forty petrol-tankers at a border-post, and the detonation on 1 April of a bridge on the Indus highway in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.
Nato's concern with its dependence on the insecure Pakistan-Afghanistan roads is reflected in its agreement with Russia (at the Nato summit in Bucharest on 2-4 April) on the land-transit of "non-lethal supplies" to its troops in Afghanistan. At the same time, other parts of Nato exhibit a blithe confidence in the coalition's capacity to counter such Taliban initiatives; for example the Isaf spokesman Brigadier-General Carlos Branco dismisses Taliban claims of a new strategy and expresses confidence in Nato's superior firepower and ability to counter the movement's initiatives.
Carlos Branco responds to the Vietnam analogy by comparing Giap's use of coordinated guerrilla and conventional attacks backed by a range of weaponry, with the far less effective Taliban campaign. The group, he argues, have little to show for the last few years; Nato's firepower remains clearly superior and Taliban claims of a new approach are boasts without substance.
The director of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), reporting on a seven-day visit to Afghanistan, reaches a somewhat different conclusion. Jakob Kellenberger stated on behalf of his organisation: "We are extremely concerned about the worsening humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. There is growing insecurity and a clear intensification of the armed conflict, which is no longer limited to the south but has spread to the east and west." He continues: "The harsh reality is that in large parts of Afghanistan, little development is taking place. Instead, the conflict is forcing more and more people from their homes. Their growing humanitarian needs and those of other vulnerable people must be met as a matter of urgency."
The ICRC - which has extensive experience in humanitarian work in Afghanistan, including after many other NGOs left in response to deteriorating security there - thus presents a bleaker prognosis than Nato officialdom (see Laura King, "US troops gird for a spring offensive in Afghanistan", Boston Globe, 16 April 2008). But in any case, does what is happening in the country relate at all to the Indochina war of 1945-54 and the tactics of Vo Nguyen Giap and the Vietminh?
The Dien Bien Phu drama
The Vietminh originated as a unified force in the face of Japanese occupation in the early 1940s, under the political leadership of the nationalist-communist leader Ho Chi Minh. After the Japanese collapse and the end of the war in August 1945, the Vietminh came to control substantial parts of northern Vietnam; the return of the French in 1946 to reclaim their colonial lands, however, forced the Vietminh to retreat to rural areas and attempt to wage war from bases there (see David Marr, Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power [University of California Press, 1997]).
In the 1946-50 period the anti-colonial struggle was small-scale as the Vietminh slowly built its support. The Vietminh gained an important external sources of arms after the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war and took control of China (Vietnam's northern neighbour, as well as its ancient and intimate rival) on 1 October 1949. In the next four years, the Vietminh conducted a series of bitterly-fought guerrilla actions which resulted in their securing control of most of the rural areas in the north of Vietnam. But the French retained military superiority and administrative control in the major cities and the densely populated Hong delta. By 1953, the war was stalemated, though heavy French casualties were increasing hostility to the war in France itself.
Most of the fighting had been taking place during the dry winter seasons, but in 1953-54 Giap attempted to open up a new front by aiding the Pathet Lao insurgents in neighbouring Laos. This was potentially disastrous for the overstretched French, who responded by occupying and reinforcing the remote town of Dien Bien Phu. The garrison town was strategically placed to intercept Vietminh supply routes to the Pathet Lao, but also hundreds of kilometres from other French positions.
It was a move too far. The French did not have the resources to supply Dien Bien Phu by air; the Vietminh controlled the access routes, and mounted an epic effort to transfer supplies (a huge amount of them by bicycle) across densely forested and mountainous tracks to encircle and besiege the French forces. After a bitter siege in which many thousands were killed on both sides, the French garrison surrendered in early May 1954. The French may still have controlled Hanoi, Haiphong, Saigon and most of Indochina, but the devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu finally crushed public support in France for the war; within three months, a ceasefire and withdrawal were agreed (see Martin Windrow, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French defeat in Vietnam [Orion, 2005]).
East Asia, West Asia
Three obvious comparisons can be drawn between Indochina and Afghanistan. First, the seasonal nature of both conflicts (in Indochina the fighting was intense during the winter dry season and far less during the summer monsoons; in Afghanistan, the snows limit warfare in winter, so most fighting is done in spring and summer). Second, the Vietminh had opposed the Japanese and the French, so were experienced in fighting foreign enemies long before the Americans emerged to try to subdue them; in the same way, the Taliban can be regarded as inheriting the mantle of the fighters who defeated the forces of the mighty British empire in the 19th century, as well as successors of the anti-Soviet mujahideen of the 1980s. Third, the Vietminh had help from the Chinese communists across the border, just as the Taliban have ample support in western Pakistan.
There are also significant differences. The Taliban do not have a political leader of the power of Ho Chi Minh, nor a military commander with the quite extraordinary capabilities of General Vo Nguyen Giap. The asymmetry of their forces with Nato's may be even greater than with the respective sides in Vietnam (even if the alliance pleads shortages of helicopters and other equipment). Yet the recent experience of the anti-Soviet struggle, the emergence of a new generation of military commanders, and - perhaps above all - the mobilisation of centuries-old memories of opposition to foreign occupations, are potent weapons in the Taliban armoury.
The heart grown tired
In balancing always inexact historical analogies against always singular current circumstances, caution is in order. Yet there is another relevant factor that may indicate the direction of the deeper current of events in Afghanistan: whether Nato can maintain the will to continue to fight and build in Afghanistan for the many years that may be necessary. Three current news items are relevant in this respect.
The first reports a claim that British forces in southern Afghanstan have killed as many as 7,000 Taliban - and no less than 6,000 of them since January 2007 (see Michael Smith, "Army Has Killed 7000 Taliban", Sunday Times, 13 April 2008). The human costs of this carnage are grave enough, but leaving that aside it might be assumed that the figure is regarded as a sign of military success. Not so: the story reflects an intelligent recognition that deaths on this scale "are a boost for the Taliban when fighters recruited from the local population are killed, as the dead insurgent's family then feels a debt of honour to take up arms against British soldiers." The assessment, put bluntly, is that killing Taliban makes even more enemies.
The second news item indicates a recognition in the Pentagon that troop numbers in Afghanistan are inadequate for the task assigned to them, as Taliban militias seek to avoid open conflict with well-armed Nato forces and move to operate in areas where Nato is largely absent (see Jonathan S Landay, "U.S. Seeking Troops To Send to Afghanistan", Miami Herald, 16 April 2008). The Pentagon is seeking 7,000 more troops to supplement the 3,200 United States marines that have been deployed in early 2008 (and are due to return by the year's end, with no replacements yet identified. Even in these circumstances, most Nato allies will not agree to increase their forces.
The small prospect of troop withdrawals from Iraq was still alive until the upsurge in violence there - reflected in the mood of the senatorial hearings of David H Petraeus and Ryan C Crocker, and the statement of George W Bush on 10 April 2008 - effectively killed it (see "A war of decades", 10 April 2008). Thus the combination of military overstretch and a lack of Nato solidarity means that the United States is facing conflicts in two areas without the forces it believes it needs.
The third report concerns the level of US casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan (reflected in new figures released by the Pentagon that barely registered in the media). The US military death-toll in the two main wars is now 4,492; but at least as significant is the huge number of wounded, together with the troops evacuated back to the United States because of accidental injury or mental of physical illness (see Pia Malbran, "Military Releases High Casualty Figures", CBS News, 14 April 2008). The number of those injured in combat now runs to 31,590, and another 38,631 have been returned to the United States for non-combat problems. Some of the latter may have been withdrawn for routine treatment or tests; but the great majority are, at the very least, indirect casualties of war.
Furthermore, a increasing proportion of recent veterans has been reporting to the department of veterans' affairs (DVA) for treatment, frequently for problems originating during active service. The DVA had treated 299,585 from January 2002 to January 2008, 120,049 (40% of the total) for mental-health disorders.
These three stories together portray a very different picture of the strategic predicament of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan (and Iraq) from the optimistic comments of Brigadier-General Carlos Branco - and perhaps a more accurate one. In 1954, the French gave up in the face not just of "external" pressure and setback but of an "inner" corrosion of their resolve. Nato in general and the United States in particular may not yet be at that point: but they face wars that could stretch for decades, and - whether or not they suffer an Afghan or Iraqi equivalent of Dien Bien Phu - their opponents are expecting their hearts eventually to fail.
Posted on: Thursday, April 24, 2008 - 14:39
SOURCE: TPM Cafe (4-23-08)
Ed Kilgore's fascinating and widely read post here at TPM examines Barack Obama's prospects after the Pennsylvania primary by comparing Obama in some ways to George McGovern and proposing, with commenters, a number of strategic alternatives.
The discussion is refreshing but also disconcerting, because, not once in the post or in the 15 astute comments I'd read by the time I wrote this is there any mention that Obama is black. (One commenter did note that Obama took 90% of the black Pennsylvania primary vote, but that's it.)
It's refreshing because Obama's self-understanding and his campaign give race its due while pointing beyond it. But it's also pretty strange to see no mention of race in a discussion of Obama's prospects just after Pennsylvania reminded us of racism's depth and obstinacy among working-class whites in industrial states -- an obstinacy I illustrated here shortly before the primary.
Nixon carried the industrial states against McGovern in 1972, except Massachusetts, not only because he was the incumbent but because too much was being made of race then, in the streets and in McGovernites' color-coding of the Democratic convention. Subtle appeals to racist backlash worked. And McGovern wasn't even black.
The Clintons have made a lot of race this year, too, reminding everyone that Obama is black -- from Bill's bringing up Jesse Jackson's past South Carolina victory when Obama won there, to Sean Wilentz's falsely accusing Obamaites of playing the race card, to Hillary's jumping into the Rev. Wright loop a week late, and so on.
But there's a way that Obama could turn what the Clintons and some Republicans consider a winning issue into a cornerstone of his own strong victory.
So writes Richard Kahlenberg, who has long campaigned for a shift from race-based affirmative-action to class-based preferences that might mitigate the growing inequalities that have left working whites, as someone put it, bitter.
In the current (April 25) Chronicle of Higher Education, Kahlenberg reprises some racial history to argue that Barack Obama's candidacy could show"how to remedy the history of discrimination.. without creating new inequities and divisions. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a strong supporter of race-and gender-based affirmative acion preferences and has shown little openness to new ideas on that front.
"By contrast, Obama... emphasizes [as did Martin Luther King, Jr.] common ground among races.... Nothing would galvanize white working-class voters more than a rejection of... racial preferences in favor of King's Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.
"Obama appears open to that approach. In his Philadelphia speech,.... he observed: 'Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race...' Their resentment builds 'when they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed.' He warned against seeing those resentments as 'misguided or even racist' without understanding that they are 'grounded in legitimate concerns.'
"Moreover, in response to a reporter's question last May, Obama said that his own relatively privileged girls don't deserve affirmative-action preferences, but poor minority and white students do. Emphasizing class would remove such preferences for upper-income members of minority groups -- treatment that Obama concedes makes little sense -- and would, for the first time in 40 years, benefit the vast majority of working-class black people who have been helped little by affirmative action programs....
"It also would be politically popular: While racial preferences are strongly opposed by Americans, income-based preferences are supported by a two-to-one margin.The move would be transformative," Kahlenberg concludes,"recapturing not only the colorblind character of King's vision but also its aggressive assault on class inequality."
But since Obama holds the views Kahlenberg reports, why don't working-class whites know it?
One reason they don't is that some can't see far enough past Obama's blackness to hear anything he's saying. But another is that Obama hasn't spoken all that clearly against racial preferences. No surprise there: He has to play the hand he's been dealt as a black man running for president: He needs to avoid igniting racial controversies. He's understandably reluctant to descend to what might seem like pandering to racists, drawing the inevitable assaults from black Clinton"race industry" loyalists and the worst of the so-called civil-rights establishment.
Another reason whites haven't heard Obama on this is that the Clintons do remind whites that he is black, and they don't take issue with him on racial preferences. After all, the more openly the Clintons defended racial preferences, the more white votes Hillary would lose.
They'd rather remind us that Bill stagily rebuked Sister Souljah (who deserved it) and Jesse Jackson while styling himself a"New Democrat" in 1992. That worked for them then, too, even though no one black was running.
The Clintons' very real racism is the underside of their penitential, preferential color-coding -- a highly symbolic, cheap, and hypocritical handling of race that Obama opposes. The irony and tragedy is that, as I showed yesterday, playing the race card puts Clinton hand-in-glove with those Republicans who endorse her now only because they want to have her to demolish in the fall.
It's a reasonable risk now for Obama to flush her out on this issue of preferences and compulsive color-coding. No one could do it more truthfully or eloquently than he. Whites would hear him, for sure. Blacks wouldn't desert him, because they'd catch every nuance in his presentation.
He might lose a few upscale white liberals who like to indulge racial symbolism in order to feel good about their privileged selves far more than they'd like to make the sacrifices and do the heavily lifting that equality of opportunity really requires. But it's unlikely they'd desert him for Clinton now, and he'd gain tremendous credibility among working-class whites for being substantively trans-racial, in ways that actually benefit them, rather than symbolically trans-racial in color-coded gestures that make the pursuit of equality seem a zero-sum game.
Posted on: Thursday, April 24, 2008 - 12:32
SOURCE: Weekly Standard (4-24-08)
As is so often the case with the antiwar party, this talking point proceeds from assumptions that are false:
* That the Iraqis are not paying their share, do not want to, and can only be forced to so by act of Congress (an argument similar to previous claims that only hard timelines and Congressional threats would force the Iraqis to pass laws, fight militias, and so on, all disproven);
* That the United States is spending money to build schools and hospitals in Iraq when we need schools and hospitals here at home; and
* That we are spending money in Iraq for the benefit of Iraqis rather than Americans, and that it is fit that the Iraqis spend the money or, alternatively, acceptable if the money isn't spent at all.
The reality is:
* The U.S. foreign assistance budget for Iraq has dropped from $16.3 billion in 2004 to a programmed $1.2 billion in 2008; the Iraqi capital budget has grown from $3.2 billion to $13.1 billion in the same period;
* Actual Iraqi spending has risen from $1.2 billion out of $5 billion programmed in 2005 to $4.7 billion out of $10.1 billion programmed in 2007--doubling the budget execution rate in three years;
* Iraqi budgeting for Iraqi Security Forces has risen from $1.6 billion in 2004 to $9.0 billion in 2008--nearly a 500 percent increase; American budgeting for the ISF has dropped from $5 billion in 2004 to $3 billion in 2008--a 40 percent decrease;
* U.S. assistance money in Iraq is not going to build any sort of permanent infrastructure--hospitals, schools, electrical grid, etc. It is focused instead on the Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP--more about that below); on building the capacity of Iraq's government institutions to spend Iraq's money; and on developing the capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces to take responsibility for Iraq's security--all essential elements of creating the conditions for a responsible reduction in American forces over time; and
* The U.S. is not spending money in Iraq to make Iraqis happy--all American aid programs are designed to help America's soldiers succeed in their fight against al Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shia militias.
It is particularly odd that the antiwar party that has been so loudly trumpeting the need to use soft power rather than hard power is now attempting to undo years of effort to develop a sophisticated political-economic-social-military program in Iraq to secure America's objectives. Having failed to force American troops out of Iraq, Congress is now trying to strip them of all the enablers they need to win. And it is not scare-mongering to state a fact that any brigade commander in Iraq will bear out: cutting off assistance, particularly the CERP money that brigade commanders rely on to establish and maintain good relations with local populations who reciprocate by helping track down terrorists and protect key infrastructure (including the "concerned local citizens," now renamed "Sons of Iraq" who are the lynchpin of this effort), will lead to more American casualties.
General Petraeus and many other commanders have repeatedly said that in this war dollars are the best bullets. Why would Congress want to take the best non-lethal weapons out of the hands of our soldiers and force them to use their guns and risk their lives unnecessarily? What sense does it make to hector the Iraqis about their failure to spend their own money and simultaneously cut funding to the American efforts to help the Iraqis do exactly that? How can a political leader simultaneously bemoan the fact that the Iraqi Security Forces are not "stepping up to the plate" adequately and then propose to eliminate resources American soldiers and civilians are using to help the ISF fight better? It is very hard to see in such incoherence anything other than political cynicism....
Posted on: Thursday, April 24, 2008 - 12:12
SOURCE: Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH blog) (4-23-08)
We should reshuffle the cards and try to think about other solutions as well. One of them is a return to the Jordanian option. The Jordanians won’t admit this publicly, yet a Palestinian state in the West Bank is the worst solution for them. They too know that within a short period of time such state would be ruled by Hamas. The moment Jordan—which features a Palestinian majority as well as powerful Muslim Brotherhood opposition— will share a border with a Hamas state, the Hashemite regime will face immediate danger.
Efraim Karsh's Response
[Efraim Karsh is author of the new book Islamic Imperialism: A History. He is a professor and head of the Mediterranean Studies Programme, King’s College, University of London.]
Giora Eiland rightly assumes that an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement is unfeasible in the foreseeable future. This is not because of the weakness of the present Palestinian leadership and its inability to deliver the goods, or the lack of viability of a Palestinian state, as he suggests. It is for the simple reason that there is no fundamental difference between the ultimate goals of Hamas and the PLO vis-à-vis Israel. Neither accepts the Jewish state’s right to exist and both are committed to its eventual destruction. The only difference between the two groups lies in their preferred strategies for the attainment of this goal. Whereas Hamas concentrates exclusively on “armed struggle,” a convenient euphemism for its murderous terror campaign, the PLO has adopted since the early 1990s a more subtle strategy, combining intricate political and diplomatic maneuvering with sustained terror attacks (mainly under the auspices of Tanzim, the military arm of Fatah, the PLO’s largest constituent group and Arafat’s alma mater).
Eiland is also correct about Jordan’s abhorrence of an independent Palestinian state, though this is by no means their worst possible nightmare, as he tends to believe. That would be the incorporation of a huge “fifth column” of some two to three million Palestinians into their kingdom: an assured prescription for Hashemite demise.
From the early 1920s to this very day, the Palestinian leadership has been antagonistic to Hashemite rule in Transjordan (later Jordan) and committed to the vision of “Greater Palestine” comprising both banks of the Jordan River. In 1951, King Abdullah was assassinated by a Palestinian militant, and while successive attempts on the life of his erstwhile successor, King Hussein, came to naught, as did the September 1970 putsch, the Hashemites have never lost sight of the mortal danger to their throne attending the reincorporation of the West Bank into their kingdom. This was especially so after the Oslo accords transformed the area into a full-fledged terror state. Their best hope, therefore, would seem to lie with Israel’s continued security control of this territory, which would leave them to pay the customary lip service to Palestinians’ rights and to bemoan their “oppression,” without incurring the detrimental consequences of renewed annexation.
As for Israel, one need look no further than David Ben-Gurion’s justification (in December 1948) of his preference for an independent Palestinian state over the annexation of Judea and Samaria (the term West Bank was not born yet) to Transjordan: “An Arab state in western Palestine [i.e., west of the Jordan] is less dangerous than a state that is tied to Transjordan, and tomorrow—probably to Iraq [then ruled by the Hashemites].”
Of course, the international circumstances have changed dramatically since then, but the gist of Ben-Gurion’s rationale remains very much intact, albeit in the opposite direction. That is: a Palestinian-dominated militant entity on both banks of the river would pose a far greater threat to Israel’s national security than a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, or perhaps two smaller states in each of these areas.
Posted on: Wednesday, April 23, 2008 - 16:05
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (4-20-08)
Can there be any question that, since the invasion of 2003, Iraq has been unraveling? And here's the curious thing: Despite a lack of decent information and analysis on crucial aspects of the Iraqi catastrophe, despite the way much of the Iraq story fell off newspaper front pages and out of the TV news in the last year, despite so many reports on the"success" of the President's surge strategy, Americans sense this perfectly well. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, 56% of Americans"say the United States should withdraw its military forces to avoid further casualties" and this has, as the Post notes, been a majority position since January 2007, the month that the surge was first announced. Imagine what might happen if the American public knew more about the actual state of affairs in Iraq -- and of thinking in Washington. So, here, in an attempt to unravel the situation in ever-unraveling Iraq are twelve answers to questions which should be asked far more often in this country:
1. Yes, the war has morphed into the U.S. military's worst Iraq nightmare: Few now remember, but before George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, top administration and Pentagon officials had a single overriding nightmare -- not chemical, but urban, warfare. Saddam Hussein, they feared, would lure American forces into "Fortress Baghdad," as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld labeled it. There, they would find themselves fighting block by block, especially in the warren of streets that make up the Iraqi capital's poorest districts.
When American forces actually entered Baghdad in early April 2003, however, even Saddam's vaunted Republican Guard units had put away their weapons and gone home. It took five years but, as of now, American troops are indeed fighting in the warren of streets in Sadr City, the Shiite slum of two and a half million in eastern Baghdad largely controlled by Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. The U.S. military, in fact, recently experienced its worst week of 2008 in terms of casualties, mainly in and around Baghdad. So, mission accomplished -- the worst fear of 2003 has now been realized.
2. No, there was never an exit strategy from Iraq because the Bush administration never intended to leave -- and still doesn't: Critics of the war have regularly gone after the Bush administration for its lack of planning, including its lack of an"exit strategy." In this, they miss the point. The Bush administration arrived in Iraq with four mega-bases on the drawing boards. These were meant to undergird a future American garrisoning of that country and were to house at least 30,000 American troops, as well as U.S. air power, for the indefinite future. The term used for such places wasn't"permanent base," but the more charming and euphemistic"enduring camp." (In fact, as we learned recently, the Bush administration refuses to define any American base on foreign soil anywhere on the planet, including ones in Japan for over 60 years, as permanent.) Those four monster bases in Iraq (and many others) were soon being built at the cost of multibillions and are, even today, being significantly upgraded. In October 2007, for instance, National Public Radio's defense correspondent Guy Raz visited Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad, which houses about 40,000 American troops, contractors, and Defense Department civilian employees, and described it as"one giant construction project, with new roads, sidewalks, and structures going up across this 16-square-mile fortress in the center of Iraq, all with an eye toward the next few decades."
These mega-bases, like "Camp Cupcake" (al-Asad Air Base), nicknamed for its amenities, are small town-sized with massive facilities, including PXs, fast-food outlets, and the latest in communications. They have largely been ignored by the American media and so have played no part in the debate about Iraq in this country, but they are the most striking on-the-ground evidence of the plans of an administration that simply never expected to leave. To this day, despite the endless talk about drawdowns and withdrawals, that hasn't changed. In fact, the latest news about secret negotiations for a future Status of Forces Agreement on the American presence in that country indicates that U.S. officials are calling for"an open-ended military presence" and"no limits on numbers of U.S. forces, the weapons they are able to deploy, their legal status or powers over Iraqi citizens, going far beyond long-term U.S. security agreements with other countries."
3. Yes, the United States is still occupying Iraq (just not particularly effectively): In June 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), then ruling the country, officially turned over"sovereignty" to an Iraqi government largely housed in the American-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad and the occupation officially ended. However, the day before the head of the CPA, L. Paul Bremer III, slipped out of the country without fanfare, he signed, among other degrees, Order 17, which became (and, remarkably enough, remains) the law of the land. It is still a document worth reading as it essentially granted to all occupying forces and allied private companies what, in the era of colonialism, used to be called"extraterritoriality" -- the freedom not to be in any way subject to Iraqi law or jurisdiction, ever. And so the occupation ended without ever actually ending. With 160,000 troops still in Iraq, not to speak of an unknown number of hired guns and private security contractors, the U.S. continues to occupy the country, whatever the legalities might be (including a UN mandate and the claim that we are part of a" coalition"). The only catch is this: As of now, the U.S. is simply the most technologically sophisticated and potentially destructive of Iraq's proliferating militias -- and outside the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, it is capable of controlling only the ground that its troops actually occupy at any moment.
4. Yes, the war was about oil: Oil was hardly mentioned in the mainstream media or by the administration before the invasion was launched. The President, when he spoke of Iraq's vast petroleum reserves at all, piously referred to them as the sacred"patrimony of the people of Iraq." But an administration of former energy execs -- with a National Security Advisor who once sat on the board of Chevron and had a double-hulled oil tanker, the Condoleezza Rice, named after her (until she took office), and a Vice President who was especially aware of the globe's potentially limited energy supplies -- certainly had oil reserves and energy flows on the brain. They knew, in Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's apt phrase, that Iraq was afloat on"a sea of oil" and that it sat strategically in the midst of the oil heartlands of the planet.
It wasn't a mistake that, in 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney's semi-secret Energy Task Force set itself the"task" of opening up the energy sectors of various Middle Eastern countries to"foreign investment"; or that it scrutinized"a detailed map of Iraq's oil fields, together with the (non-American) oil companies scheduled to develop them"; or that, according to the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, the National Security Council directed its staff"to cooperate fully with the Energy Task Force as it considered the 'melding' of two seemingly unrelated areas of policy: 'the review of operational policies towards rogue states,' such as Iraq, and 'actions regarding the capture of new and existing oil and gas fields'"; or that the only American troops ordered to guard buildings in Iraq, after Baghdad fell, were sent to the Oil Ministry (and the Interior Ministry, which housed Saddam Hussein's dreaded secret police); or that the first"reconstruction" contract was issued to Cheney's former firm, Halliburton, for"emergency repairs" to those patrimonial oil fields. Once in charge in Baghdad, as sociologist Michael Schwartz has made clear, the administration immediately began guiding recalcitrant Iraqis toward denationalizing and opening up their oil industry, as well as bringing in the big boys.
Though rampant insecurity has kept the Western oil giants on the sidelines, the American-shaped"Iraqi" oil law quickly became a"benchmark" of"progress" in Washington and remains a constant source of prodding and advice from American officials in Baghdad. Former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan put the oil matter simply and straightforwardly in his memoir in 2007:"I am saddened," he wrote,"that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil." In other words, in a variation on the old Bill Clinton campaign mantra: It's the oil, stupid. Greenspan was, unsurprisingly, roundly assaulted for the obvious naiveté of his statement, from which, when it proved inconvenient, he quickly retreated. But if this administration hadn't had oil on the brain in 2002-2003, given the importance of Iraq's reserves, Congress should have impeached the President and Vice President for that.
5. No, our new embassy in Baghdad is not an"embassy": When, for more than three-quarters of a billion dollars, you construct a complex -- regularly described as"Vatican-sized" -- of at least 20"blast-resistant" buildings on 104 acres of prime Baghdadi real estate, with"fortified working space" and a staff of at least 1,000 (plus several thousand guards, cooks, and general factotums), when you deeply embunker it, equip it with its own electricity and water systems, its own anti-missile defense system, its own PX, and its own indoor and outdoor basketball courts, volleyball court, and indoor Olympic-size swimming pool, among other things, you haven't built an"embassy" at all. What you've constructed in the heart of the heart of another country is more than a citadel, even if it falls short of a city-state. It is, at a minimum, a monument to Bush administration dreams of domination in Iraq and in what its adherents once liked to call"the Greater Middle East."
Just about ready to open, after the normal construction mishaps in Iraq, it will constitute the living definition of diplomatic overkill. It will, according to a Senate estimate, now cost Americans $1.2 billion a year just to be"represented" in Iraq. The"embassy" is, in fact, the largest headquarters on the planet for the running of an occupation. Functionally, it is also another well-fortified enduring camp with the amenities of home. Tell that to the Shiite militiamen now mortaring the Green Zone as if it were… enemy-occupied territory.
6. No, the Iraqi government is not a government: The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has next to no presence in Iraq beyond the Green Zone; it delivers next to no services; it has next to no ability to spend its own oil money, reconstruct the country, or do much of anything else, and it most certainly does not hold a monopoly on the instruments of violence. It has no control over the provinces of northern Iraq which operate as a near-independent Kurdish state. Non-Kurdish Iraqi troops are not even allowed on its territory. Maliki's government cannot control the largely Sunni provinces of the country, where its officials are regularly termed"the Iranians" (a reference to the heavily Shiite government's closeness to neighboring Iran) and are considered the equivalent of representatives of a foreign occupying power; and it does not control the Shiite south, where power is fragmented among the militias of ISCI (the Badr Organization), Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, and the armed adherents of the Fadila Party, a Sadrist offshoot, among others.
In Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has been derisively nicknamed"the mayor of Kabul" for his government's lack of control over much territory outside the national capital. It would be a step forward for Maliki if he were nicknamed"the mayor of Baghdad." Right now, his troops, heavily backed by American forces, are fighting for some modest control over Shiite cities (or parts of cities) from Basra to Baghdad.
7. No, the surge is not over: Two weeks ago, amid much hoopla, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker spent two days before Congress discussing the President's surge strategy in Iraq and whether it has been a"success." But that surge -- the ground one in which an extra 30,000-plus American troops were siphoned into Baghdad and, to a lesser extent, adjoining provinces -- was by then already so over. In fact, all but about 10,000 of those troops will be home by the end of July, not because the President has had any urge for a drawdown, but, as Fred Kaplan of Slatewrote recently,"because of simple math. The five extra combat brigades, which were deployed to Iraq with the surge, each have 15-month tours of duty; the 15 months will be up in July… and the U.S. Army and Marines have no combat brigades ready to replace them."
On the other hand, in all those days of yak, neither the general with so much more "martial bling" on his chest than any victorious World War II commander, nor the white-haired ambassador uttered a word about the surge that is ongoing -- the air surge that began in mid-2007 and has yet to end. Explain it as you will, but, with rare exceptions, American reporters in Iraq generally don't look up or more of them would have noticed that the extra air units surged into that country and the region in the last year are now being brought to bear over Iraq's cities. Today, as fighting goes on in Sadr City, American helicopters and Hellfire-missile armed Predator drones reportedly circle overhead almost constantly and air strikes of various kinds on city neighborhoods are on the rise. Yet the air surge in Iraq remains unacknowledged here and so is not a subject for discussion, debate, or consideration when it comes to our future in Iraq.
8. No, the Iraqi army will never"stand up": It can't. It's not a national army. It's not that Iraqis can't fight -- or fight bravely. Ask the Sunni insurgents. Ask the Mahdi Army militia of Muqtada al-Sadr. It's not that Iraqis are incapable of functioning in a national army. In the bitter Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, Iraqi Shiite as well as Sunni conscripts, led by a largely Sunni officer corps, fought Iranian troops fiercely in battle after pitched battle. But from Fallujah in 2004 to today, Iraqi army (and police) units, wheeled into battle (often at the behest of the Americans), have regularly broken and run, or abandoned their posts, or gone over to the other side, or, at the very least, fought poorly. In the recent offensive launched by the Maliki government in Basra, military and police units up against a single resistant militia, the Mahdi Army, deserted in sizeable numbers, while other units, when not backed by the Americans, gave poor showings. At least 1,300 troops and police (including 37 senior police officers) were recently"fired" by Maliki for dereliction of duty, while two top commanders were removed as well.
Though American training began in 2004 and, by 2005, the President was regularly talking about us"standing down" as soon as the Iraqi Army"stood up," as Charles Hanley of the Associated Press points out,"Year by year, the goal of deploying a capable, free-standing Iraqi army has seemed to always slip further into the future." He adds,"In the latest shift, the Pentagon's new quarterly status report quietly drops any prediction of when local units will take over security responsibility for Iraq. Last year's reports had forecast a transition in 2008." According to Hanley, the chief American trainer of Iraqi forces, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, now estimates that the military will not be able to guard the country's borders effectively until 2018.
No wonder. The"Iraqi military" is not in any real sense a national military at all. Its troops generally lack heavy weaponry, and it has neither a real air force nor a real navy. Its command structures are integrated into the command structure of the U.S. military, while the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy are the real Iraqi air force and navy. It is reliant on the U.S. military for much of its logistics and resupply, even after an investment of $22 billion by the American taxpayer. It represents a non-government, is riddled with recruits from Shiite militias (especially the Badr brigades), and is riven about who its enemy is (or enemies are) and why. It cannot be a"national" army because it has, in essence, nothing to stand up for.
You can count on one thing, as long as we are"training" and"advising" the Iraqi military, however many years down the line, you will read comments like this one from an American platoon sergeant, after an Iraqi front-line unit abandoned its positions in the ongoing battle for control of parts of Sadr City:"It bugs the hell out of me. We don't see any progress being made at all. We hear these guys in firefights. We know if we are not up there helping these guys out we are making very little progress."
9. No, the U.S. military does not stand between Iraq and fragmentation: The U.S. invasion and the Bush administration's initial occupation policies decisively smashed Iraq's fragile"national" sense of self. Since then, the Bush administration, a motor for chaos and fragmentation, has destroyed the national (if dictatorial) government, allowed the capital and much of the country (as well as its true patrimony of ancient historical objects and sites) to be looted, disbanded the Iraqi military, and deconstructed the national economy. Ever since, whatever the administration rhetoric, the U.S. has only presided over the further fragmentation of the country. Its military, in fact, employs a specific policy of urban fragmentation in which it regularly builds enormous concrete walls around neighborhoods, supposedly for"security" and"reconstruction," that actually cut them off from their social and economic surroundings. And, of course, Iraq has in these years been fragmented in other staggering ways with an estimated four-plus million Iraqis driven into exile abroad or turned into internal refugees.
According to Pepe Escobar of the Asia Times, there are now at least 28 different militias in the country. The longer the U.S. remains even somewhat in control, the greater the possibility of further fragmentation. Initially, the fragmentation was sectarian -- into Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia regions, but each of those regions has its own potentially hostile parts and so its points of future conflict and further fragmentation. If the U.S. military spent the early years of its occupation fighting a Sunni insurgency in the name of a largely Shiite (and Kurdish) government, it is now fighting a Shiite militia, while paying and arming former Sunni insurgents, relabeled"Sons of Iraq." Iran is also clearly sending arms into a country that is, in any case, awash in weaponry. Without a real national government, Iraq has descended into a welter of militia-controlled neighborhoods, city states, and provincial or regional semi-governments. Despite all the talk of American-supported"reconciliation," Juan Cole described the present situation well at his Informed Comment blog:"Maybe the US in Iraq is not the little boy with his finger in the dike. Maybe we are workers with jackhammers instructed to make the hole in the dike much more huge."
10. No, the U.S. military does not stand between Iraq and civil war: As with fragmentation, the U.S. military's presence has, in fact, been a motor for civil war in that country. The invasion and subsequent chaos, as well as punitive acts against the Sunni minority, allowed Sunni extremists, some of whom took the name"al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia," to establish themselves as a force in the country for the first time. Later, U.S. military operations in both Sunni and Shiite areas regularly repressed local militias -- almost the only forces capable of bringing some semblance of security to urban neighborhoods -- opening the way for the most extreme members of the other community (Sunni suicide or car bombers and Shiite death squads) to attack. It's worth remembering that it was in the surge months of 2007, when all those extra American troops hit Baghdad neighborhoods, that many of the city's mixed or Sunni neighborhoods were most definitively" cleansed" by death squads, producing a 75-80% Shiite capital. Iraq is now embroiled in what Juan Cole has termed "three civil wars," two of which (in the south and the north) are largely beyond the reach of limited American ground forces and all of which could become far worse. The still low-level struggle between Kurds and Arabs (with the Turks hovering nearby) for the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the north may be the true explosion point to come. The U.S. military sits precariously atop this mess, at best putting off to the future aspects of the present civil-war landscape, but more likely intensifying it.
11. No, al-Qaeda will not control Iraq if we leave (and neither will Iran): The latest figures tell the story. Of 658 suicide bombings globally in 2007 (more than double those of any year in the last quarter century), 542, according to the Washington Post's Robin Wright, took place in occupied Iraq or Afghanistan, mainly Iraq. In other words, the American occupation of that land has been a motor for acts of terrorism (as occupations will be). There was no al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia before the invasion and Iraq was no Afghanistan. The occupation under whatever name will continue to create"terrorists," no matter how many times the administration claims that"al-Qaeda" is on the run. With the departure of U.S. troops, it's clear that homegrown Sunni extremists (and the small number of foreign jihadis who work with them), already a minority of a minority, will more than meet their match in facing the Sunni mainstream. The Sunni Awakening Movement came into existence, in part, to deal with such self-destructive extremism (and its fantasies of a Taliban-style society) before the Americans even noticed that it was happening. When the Americans leave,"al-Qaeda" (and whatever other groups the Bush administration subsumes under that catch-all title) will undoubtedly lose much of their raison d'être or simply be crushed.
As for Iran, the moment the Bush administration finally agreed to a popular democratic vote in occupied Iraq, it ensured one thing -- that the Shiite majority would take control, which in practice meant religio-political parties that, throughout the Saddam Hussein years, had generally been close to, or in exile in, Iran. Everything the Bush administration has done since has only ensured the growth of Iranian influence among Shiite groups. This is surely meant by the Iranians as, in part, a threat/trump card, should the Bush administration launch an attack on that country. After all, crucial U.S. resupply lines from Kuwait run through areas near Iran and would assumedly be relatively easy to disrupt.
Without the U.S. military in Iraq, there can be no question that the Iranians would have real influence over the Shiite (and probably Kurdish) parts of the country. But that influence would have its distinct limits. If Iran overplayed its hand even in a rump Shiite Iraq, it would soon enough find itself facing some version of the situation that now confronts the Americans. As Robert Dreyfuss wrote in the Nation recently,"[D]espite Iran's enormous influence in Iraq, most Iraqis -- even most Iraqi Shiites -- are not pro-Iran. On the contrary, underneath the ruling alliance in Baghdad, there is a fierce undercurrent of Arab nationalism in Iraq that opposes both the U.S. occupation and Iran's support for religious parties in Iraq." The al-Qaedan and Iranian"threats" are, at one and the same time, bogeymen used by the Bush administration to scare Americans who might favor withdrawal and, paradoxically, realities that a continued military presence only encourages.
12. Yes, some Americans were right about Iraq from the beginning (and not the pundits either): One of the strangest aspects of the recent fifth anniversary (as of every other anniversary) of the invasion of Iraq was the newspaper print space reserved for those Bush administration officials and other war supporters who were dead wrong in 2002-2003 on an endless host of Iraq-related topics. Many of them were given ample opportunity to offer their views on past failures, the"success" of the surge, future withdrawals or drawdowns, and the responsibilities of a future U.S. president in Iraq.
Noticeably missing were representatives of the group of Americans who happened to have been right from the get-go. In our country, of course, it often doesn't pay to be right. (It's seen as a sign of weakness or plain dumb luck.) I'm speaking, in this case, of the millions of people who poured into the streets to demonstrate against the coming invasion with an efflorescence of placards that said things too simpleminded (as endless pundits assured American news readers at the time) to take seriously -- like"No Blood for Oil,""Don't Trade Lives for Oil," or""How did USA's oil get under Iraq's sand?" At the time, it seemed clear to most reporters, commentators, and op-ed writers that these sign-carriers represented a crew of well-meaning know-nothings and the fact that their collective fears proved all too prescient still can't save them from that conclusion. So, in their very rightness, they were largely forgotten.
Now, as has been true for some time, a majority of Americans, another obvious bunch of know-nothings, are deluded enough to favor bringing all U.S. troops out of Iraq at a reasonable pace and relatively soon. (More than 60% of them also believe"that the conflict is not integral to the success of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.") If, on the other hand, a poll were taken of pundits and the inside-the-Beltway intelligentsia (not to speak of the officials of the Bush administration), the number of them who would want a total withdrawal from Iraq (or even see that as a reasonable goal) would undoubtedly descend near the vanishing point. When it comes to American imperial interests, most of them know better, just as so many of them did before the war began. Even advisors to candidates who theoretically want out of Iraq are hinting that a full-scale withdrawal is hardly the proper way to go.
So let me ask you a question (and you answer it): Given all of the above, given the record thus far, who is likely to be right?
[Tomdispatch recommendations: For another numbered piece on Iraq, check out Gary Kamiya's eminently sane reprise of the Ten Commandments as applied to the launching of the 2003 invasion -- to be found at Salon.com. ("Commandment I,"Thou shalt not launch preventive wars…"; Commandment VI:"Do not allow neoconservatives anywhere near Middle East policy… Special Bill Kristol Sub-commandment VI a: Stop giving these buffoons prestigious jobs on newspaper-of-record Op-Ed pages, top magazines and television shows. They have been completely and consistently wrong about everything. Must we continue to be subjected to their pontifications?"). Also let me offer a Tomdispatch bow of thanks to Cursor.org's daily"Media Patrol" column. Someone at that site with a keen eye for the less noticed but newsworthy pieces of any day (and an always splendid set of links) makes my life so much easier, when gathering material for essays like this one.]
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt
Posted on: Tuesday, April 22, 2008 - 20:32
SOURCE: PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE (4-20-08)
So here's what we've learned from the latest round of political sniping at Barack Obama: Americans really are bitter. They just don't like to be reminded of it.
For the past week, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have been bashing Mr. Obama's remark that small-town Americans turn to guns and religion because they're bitter about their economic travails. Mrs. Clinton was at it again on Wednesday night in Philadelphia, during her last debate with Mr. Obama before Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary election. "I just don't believe that's how people live their lives," she said. Mrs. Clinton has even declared herself a gun enthusiast, waxing nostalgically about her father teaching her to shoot when she was a girl. Meanwhile, her campaigners are handing out bumper stickers with a pointed message: "I'm not bitter."
Methinks they doth protest too much. Clearly, they're bitter about being called "bitter." And that tells you something important about Americans: they think they should be happy.
Only, they aren't.
Over the past few years, several international studies have shown that Americans are significantly less satisfied than citizens in other well-off countries. According to a 2006 British survey of 80,000 people worldwide, the four happiest countries in the world are Denmark, Switzerland, Austria and Iceland. The United States was 23rd, ahead of the United Kingdom (41st) and France (62nd) but behind Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and Norway.
What accounts for these differences? According to the British study, the best predictor of a nation's happiness was the physical health of its people. Next came the country's Gross National Product, and after that its level of education.
So it's fair to presume that small-town Americans would be even less satisfied than the national norm, just as Mr. Obama asserted. And if we want them to be happier, the best thing we can do is improve their health care, education, and the overall performance of the economy.
We might also start to think about poorer parts of the globe, which are -- surprise! -- significantly less satisfied than we are. Of the 20 least happy countries in the world, 12 come from Africa. Here in Ghana, which has experienced steady economic growth and political stability in recent years, people are the fourth happiest on the continent. But they still rank 89th on the world scale, far less content than people in virtually every Western nation.
That's why nearly half of Ghana's college graduates now reside abroad, mostly in the West. "We are tired of our poor and hopeless conditions of life," wrote an editorialist in the Ghanaian Chronicle earlier this month. "We are crying for relief for the millions of poor and hungry. Our happiness cannot wait."
For visitors from the West, it's always tempting to confuse African politeness and hospitality with contentedness. "These people are poor," we tell ourselves, "but they're happy." Yet the truth is exactly the opposite. Just like you and me, they can't be happy so long as they lack jobs, education and health care.
So yes, small-town Americans are bitter. Compared to their compatriots, they receive inferior services and opportunities. And Mr. Obama should be commended for acknowledging that, no matter what you make of his remarks about guns and religion.
But compared to most of the globe, Americans are pleased as punch.
So the next time you think you're unhappy, my fellow Americans, don't look at the rich guy on the other side of town. Look at the poor guy on the other side of the world, and count your blessings. You're a whole lot happier than he is.
Posted on: Tuesday, April 22, 2008 - 19:32
An early deadline prevents our commenting on the papal visit, the religious theme of the week. So, another topic: Last week we sighted the hard-to-miss, politically-minded preacher Rod Parsley of Ohio, who wants the Christian United States to wage war for the "destruction" of Islam. Suppose he and his "theonomist" allies succeeded? Ex-CIA man and Vancouver professor Graham E. Fuller gets cover treatment in the January/February Foreign Policy, for his mental game treatment of "A World without Islam?" The sub-head reads: "What if Islam had never existed? To some, it's a comforting thought: No clash of civilizations, no holy wars, no terrorists. Would Christianity have taken over the world? Remove Islam from the path of history, and the world ends up exactly where it is today."
That word "exactly" refers to civilizations, wars, and terrorists, and commits Fuller to having to spell things out exactly. "Is Islam, in fact, the source of the problems? If not Islam, Then What?" First, ethnic wars: Religious or not, "Arabs, Persians, Turks, Kurds, even Berbers and Pashtuns would still dominate politics in the Middle East." Before Islam, their ancestors were fighting and, apart from Islam, they still have plenty of issues.
After ethnicity, "it's too arbitrary to exclude religion entirely from the equation." Without Islam, "most of the Middle East would have remained predominantly Christian, in its various sects, as it had been at the dawn of Islam." A few Zoroastrians and Jews were the only representatives of other religions. Would harmony with the West have reigned if Christianity had kept a near-monopoly? Hardly. The Crusades were a Western adventure driven by political, social, and economic needs. Christianity was only a potent bannered symbol, "a rallying cry to bless the more secular urges of powerful Europeans." Eastern Christians would not have welcomed the Westerners, and Western Christians as readily killed the Orthodox and burned their cities as they did those of Muslims.
That was long ago. More recently, in the age of oil, would Christian economic interests in the Middle East have welcomed Western dominators? He cites chapter and verse before he answers "No!" "Then there is Palestine." Would Christians, after millennia of anti-Semitic impulses, have suddenly welcomed Zionists? "And the new Jewish state would still have dislodged the same 750,000 Arab natives of Palestine from their lands even if they had been Christian—and indeed some of them were." No peace there.
As for intra-Christian rivalry, Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity have always had trouble, often lethally expressed. Orthodox Christians mistrust and fear the West as did their ancestors. These Orthodox would dominate a Middle East had it remained Christian. Roll calls: "We would still see Palestinians resist Jews, Chechens resist Russians, Iranians resist the British and Americans, Kashmiris resist Indians, Tamils resist the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, and Uighurs and Tibetans resist the Chinese." Summary: "It is not an entirely peaceful and comforting picture."
Nor would the "New Atheists" who want a non-religious world have anything to offer. The twentieth century horrors "came almost exclusively from strictly secular regimes: Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo, Hitler, Mussolin, Lenin and Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot." In truth, the conflicts of such a world would parallel those of a world with Islam. Rather than seek to "destroy" Islam and the Muslims, one infers, it might be better for all peoples of faith to look more in the mirror and less out the window, to promote peace.
Posted on: Monday, April 21, 2008 - 20:41