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: Prospect (UK) (8-1-08)
That George W Bush's foreign policy has been a total failure is now taken for granted by so many people that one usually hears it stated as a simple truth that need not be argued at all.
It has happened before. When President Harry S Truman said in March 1952 that he would not seek re-election, most Americans could agree on one thing: that his foreign policy had been a catastrophic failure. In Korea his indecision had invited aggression, and then his incompetence had cost the lives of some 54,000 Americans and millions of Korean civilians in just two years of fighting—on both counts more than ten times the number of casualties in Iraq. Right-wingers reviled Truman for having lost China to communism and for his dismissal of the great General Douglas MacArthur, who had wanted to win it back, with nukes if necessary. Liberals despised Truman because he was the failed shopkeeper who had usurped the patrician Franklin Roosevelt's White House—liberals always were the snobs of US politics.
Abroad, Truman was widely hated too. The communist accusation that he had waged "bacteriological warfare" to kill Korean children and destroy Chinese crops was believed by many, and was fully endorsed by a 669-page report issued by a commission chaired by the eminent British biochemist Joseph Needham. Even more people believed that Truman was guilty of having started the cold war by trying to intimidate our brave Soviet ally, or at least that he and Stalin were equally to blame.
How did this same Harry Truman come to be universally viewed as a great president, especially for his foreign policy? It is all a question of time perspectives: the Korean war is half forgotten, while everyone now knows that Truman's strategy of containment was successful and finally ended with the almost peaceful disintegration of the Soviet empire.
For Bush to be recognised as a great president in the Truman mould, the Iraq war too must become half forgotten. The swift removal of the murderous Saddam Hussein was followed by years of expensive violence instead of the instant democracy that had been promised. To confuse the imam-ridden Iraqis with Danes or Norwegians under German occupation, ready to return to democracy as soon as they were liberated, was not a forgivable error: before invading a country, a US president is supposed to know if it is in the middle east or Scandinavia.
Yet the costly Iraq war must also be recognised as a sideshow in the Bush global counteroffensive against Islamist militancy, just as the far more costly Korean war was a sideshow to global cold war containment. For the Bush response to 9/11 was precisely that—a global attack against the ideology of Islamic militancy. While anti-terrorist operations have been successful here and there in a patchy way, and the fate of Afghanistan remains in doubt, the far more important ideological war has ended with a spectacular global victory for President Bush.
Of course, the analogy with Truman is far from perfect: the Soviet Union was a state, not a state of mind. But even so, once Bush's victory is recognised, the errors of Iraq will be forgiven, just as nobody now blames Truman for having sent mixed signals on whether Korea would be defended. Of course, the Bush victory has not yet been recognised, which is very odd indeed because it has all happened in full view...
Posted on: Thursday, July 31, 2008 - 17:54
SOURCE: Chicago Tribune (7-30-08)
Looking out at the crowd of 200,000 that stood between him and the Brandenburg Gate last week, Barack Obama remarked on the difference between himself and other American leaders who had spoken in Berlin. Inviting his listeners to look beyond that difference, Obama emphasized, "I know that I don't look like the Americans who've previously spoken in this great city."
This was not, strictly speaking, true. In September 1964 an American who "looked like" Obama addressed a capacity crowd at the Waldbuhne, an open-air concert space in Berlin. At the invitation of West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at a commemoration ceremony for President John F. Kennedy, who was and remains a hero in Berlin for his denunciation of communism and the Berlin Wall. It was JFK, not MLK, who Obama's spinmeisters were aiming to associate with the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate last week. It was Kennedy's 1963 rally at the Brandenburg Gate that Obama tried to recreate.
There are many photographs of Kennedy's 1963 speech at the Brandenburg Gate and of Kennedy gazing over the wall into East Berlin. King did more than look: He went. Invited by an East German church official, King was determined to speak directly to East Berliners. The U.S. State Department was equally determined that he would not. The American embassy confiscated King's passport and recalled his German guide and translator. Undeterred, King went to the wall. King had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; surely someone would recognize him at Checkpoint Charlie? But his face was not enough for the East Germans. Informed that he had to prove his identity, King flashed his American Express Card.
Three hours later, King preached a sermon of non-violence and universal brotherhood to an overflow crowd in East Berlin's Marienkirche, praising the American students who had demonstrated in the American civil rights movement that they "would rather go to jail than live with degradation but without equality" and promising the East Germans that "we will [all] be free one day."
Obama's omission has gone largely unremarked. Ironically, it is unlikely that the association with King is one the Obama campaign is eager to invoke. It is noteworthy that in Obama's speech—a speech that invoked the speeches of several Americans in Berlin in addition to JFK—there was no echo of King in Berlin. Was it an oversight? Perhaps, but it was, nonetheless, an oversight that reveals certain racial truths about the politics of our time.
White politicians need leave no stone unturned in their efforts to associate themselves with King's legacy in particular and the civil rights movement in general (Just last week, presumptive GOP presidential candidate John McCain, who as a U.S. representative voted against making King's birthday a federal holiday in 1983, praised King in a speech before the NAACP).
Rather than claim King's legacy, the first African-American presidential nominee has to keep a steady distance from the tradition of activism and the struggle for equality that he embodies....
Posted on: Thursday, July 31, 2008 - 17:16
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (7-31-08)
Send me a postcard, drop me a line,
Stating point of view.
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, Wasting Away.
-- the Beatles,"When I'm 64"
I set foot, so to speak, on this planet on July 20, 1944, not perhaps the best day of the century. It was, in fact, the day of the failed German officers' plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
My mother was a cartoonist. She was known in those years as"New York's girl caricaturist," or so she's called in a newspaper ad I still have, part of a war-bond drive in which your sizeable bond purchase was to buy her sketch of you. She had, sometime in the months before my birth, traveled by train, alone, the breadth of a mobilized but still peaceable American continent to visit Hollywood on assignment for some magazine to sketch the stars. I still have, on my wall, a photo of her in that year on the"deck" of a"pirate ship" on a Hollywood lot drawing one of those gloriously handsome matinee idols. Since I was then inside her, this is not exactly part of my memory bank. But that photo does tell me that, like him, she, too, was worth a sketch.
Certainly, it was appropriate that she drew the card announcing my birth. There I am in that announcement, barely born and already caricatured, a boy baby in nothing but diapers – except that, on my head, I'm wearing my father's dress military hat, the one I still have in the back of my closet, and, of course, I'm saluting."A Big Hello -- From Thomas Moore Engelhardt," the card says. And thus was I officially recorded entering a world at war.
By then, my father, a major in the U.S. Army Air Corps and operations officer for the 1st Air Commando Group in Burma, had, I believe, been reassigned to the Pentagon. Normally a voluble man, for the rest of his life he remained remarkably silent on his wartime experiences.
I was, in other words, the late child of a late marriage. My father, who, just after Pearl Harbor, at age 35, volunteered for the military, was the sort of figure that the -- on average -- 26-year-old American soldiers of World War II would have referred to as"pops."
He, like my mother, departed this planet decades ago, and I'm still here. So think of this as… what? No longer, obviously, a big hello from Thomas Moore Engelhardt, nor -- quite yet -- a modest farewell, but perhaps a moderately late report from the one-man commission of me on the world of peace and war I've passed through since that first salute.
On Imagining Myself as Burnt Toast
Precisely what do I mean to say now that I'm just a couple of weeks into my 65th year on this planet?
Let me start this way: If, on the evening of October 22, 1962, you had told me that, in 2008, America's most formidable enemy would be Iran, I would have danced a jig. Well, maybe not a jig, but I'll tell you this: I would have been flabbergasted.
On that October evening, President John F. Kennedy went before the nation -- I heard him on radio -- to tell us all that Soviet missile sites were just then being prepared on the island of Cuba with"a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere." It was, he said, a"secret, swift and extraordinary buildup of communist missiles -- in an area well known to have a special and historical relationship to the United States and the nations of the Western Hemisphere." When fully operational, those nuclear-tipped weapons would reach"as far north as Hudson Bay, Canada, and as far south as Lima, Peru." I certainly knew what Hudson Bay, far to the north, meant for me.
"It shall be the policy of this nation," Kennedy added ominously,"to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union." And he ended, in part, this way:"My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can foresee precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred…"
No one could mistake the looming threat: Global nuclear war. Few of us listeners had seen the highly classified 1960 SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) in which the U.S. military had made its preparations for a massive first strike of 3,200 nuclear weapons against the communist world. It was supposed to take out at least 130 cities, with estimated casualties approaching 300 million, but, even without access to that SIOP, we -- I -- knew well enough what might be coming. After all, I had seen versions of it, perfectly unclassified, in the movies, even if the power to destroy on a planetary scale was transposed to alien worlds, as in that science fiction blockbuster of 1955 "This Island Earth," or imputed to strange alien rays, or rampaging radioactive monsters. Now, here it was in real life, my life, without an obvious director, and the special effects were likely to be me, dead.
It was the single moment in my life -- which tells you much about the life of an American who didn't go to war in some distant land -- when I truly imagined myself as prospective burnt toast. I really believed that I might not make it out of the week, and keep in mind, I was then a freshman in college, just 18 years old and still wondering when life was slated to begin. Between 1939 and 2008, across much of the world, few people could claim to have escaped quite so lightly, not in that near three-quarters of a century in which significant portions of the world were laid low.
Had you, a seer that terrifying night, whispered in my ear the news about our enemies still distant decades away, the Iranians, the... are you kidding?... Iraqis, or a bunch of fanatics in the backlands of Afghanistan and a tribal borderland of Pakistan... well, it's a sentence that would, at the time, have been hard to finish. Death from Waziristan? I don't think so.
Truly, that night, if I had been convinced that this was"my" future -- that, in fact, I would have a future -- I might have dropped to my knees in front of that radio from which Kennedy's distinctive voice was emerging and thanked my lucky stars; or perhaps -- and this probably better fits the public stance of an awkward, self-conscious 18-year-old -- I would have laughed out loud at the obvious absurdity of it all. ("The absurd" was then a major category in my life.) Fanatics from Afghanistan? Please…
That we're here now, that the world wasn't burnt to a crisp in the long superpower standoff of the Cold War, well, that still seems little short of a miracle to me, a surprise of history that offers hope… of a sort. The question, of course, is: Why, with this in mind, don't I feel better, more hopeful, now?
After all, if offered as a plot to sci-fi movie directors of that long-gone era -- perfectly willing to populate Los Angeles with giant, mutated, screeching ants (Them!), the Arctic with "The Thing From Another World," and Washington D.C. with an alien and his mighty robot, capable of melting tanks or destroying the planet ("Klaatu barada nikto!") -- our present would surely have been judged too improbable for the screen. They wouldn't have touched it with a ten-foot pole, and yet that's what actually came about -- and the planet, a prospective cinder (along with us prospective cinderettes) is, remarkably enough, still here.
Or to put this in a smaller, grimmer way, consider the fate of the American military base at Guantanamo -- an extra-special symbol of that"special and historical relationship" mentioned by Kennedy between the small island of Cuba and its giant"neighbor" to the northwest. In that address to the nation in 1962, the president announced that he was reinforcing the base, even as he was evacuating dependents from it. And yet, like me in my 65th year, it, too, survived the Cuban Missile Crisis unscathed. Some four decades later, in fact, it was still in such a special and historical relationship with Cuba that the Bush administration was able to use it to publicly establish all its new categories of off-shore injustice -- its global mini-gulag of secret prisons, its public policies of torture, detention without charges, disappearance, you name it. None of which, by the way, would the same set of directors have touched with the same pole. Back in the 1950s, only Nazis, members of the Japanese imperial Army, and KGB agents could publicly relish torture on screen. The FOX TV show"24" is distinctly an artifact of our moment.
A Paroxysm of Destruction Only a Few Miles Wide
Of course, back in 1962, even before Kennedy spoke, I could no more have imagined myself 64 than I could have imagined living through"World War IV" -- as one set of neocons loved to call the President's Global War on Terror -- a"war" to be fought mainly against thousands of Islamist fanatics scattered around the planet and an"axis of evil" consisting of three relatively weak regional powers. I certainly expected bigger, far worse things. And little wonder: When it came to war, the full weight of the history of most of the last century pointed exponentially in the direction of a cataclysm with few or no survivors.
From my teen years, I was, you might say, of the Tom Lehrer school of life (as in the lyrics from his 1959 song,"We Will All Go Together When We Go") -- and I was hardly alone:
We will all fry together when we fry.
We'll be french fried potatoes by and by.
There will be no more misery
When the world is our rotisserie.
Yes, we will all fry together when we fry…
And we'll all bake together when we bake,
They'll be nobody present at the wake.
With complete participation
In that grand incineration,
Nearly three billion hunks of well-done steak.
I was born, after all, just a year and a few weeks before the United States atomically incinerated Hiroshima and then followed up by atomically obliterating the city of Nagasaki, and World War II ended. Victory arrived, but amid scenes of planetary carnage, genocide, and devastation on a scale and over an expanse previously unimaginable.
In these last years, the Bush administration has regularly invoked the glories of the American role in World War II and of the occupations of Germany and Japan that followed. Even before then, Americans had been experiencing something like a"greatest generation" fest (complete with bestselling books, a blockbuster movie, and two multi-part greatest-gen TV mini-series). From the point of view of the United States, however, World War II was mainly a"world" war in the world that it mobilized, not in the swath of the planet it turned into a charnel house of destruction. After all, the United States (along with the rest of the"New World") was left essentially untouched by both"world" wars. North Africa, the Middle East, and New Guinea all suffered incomparably more damage. Other than a single attack on the American fleet at Hawaii, thousands of miles from the U.S. mainland, on December 7, 1941, the brief Japanese occupation of a couple of tiny Aleutian islands off Alaska, a U-boat war off its coasts, and small numbers of balloon fire bombs that drifted from Japan over the American west, this continent remained peaceable and quite traversable by a 35-year-old theatrical caricaturist in the midst of wartime.
For Americans, I doubt that the real import of that phrase World War -- of the way the industrial machinery of complete devastation enveloped much of the planet in the course of the last century -- ever quite came home. There had, of course, been world, or near-world, or"known world" wars in the past, even if not thought of that way. The Mongols, after all, had left the steppes of northeastern Asia and conquered China, only being turned back from Japan by the first kamikaze ("divine wind") attacks in history, typhoons which repelled the Mongol fleet in 1274 and again in 1281. Mongol horsemen, however, made their way west across the Eurasian continent, conquering lands and wreaking havoc, reaching the very edge of Europe while, in 1258, sacking and burning Baghdad. (It wouldn't happen again until 2003.) In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the British and French fought something closer to a"world war," serial wars actually in and around Europe, in North Africa, in their New World colonies and even as far away as India, as well as at sea wherever their ships ran across one another.
Still, while war may have been globalizing, it remained, essentially, a locally or regionally focused affair. And, of course, in the decades before World War I, it was largely fought on the global peripheries by European powers testing out, piecemeal, the rudimentary industrial technology of mass slaughter -- the machine gun, the airplane, poison gas, the concentration camp -- on no one more significant than benighted"natives" in places like Iraq, the Sudan, or German Southwest Africa. Those locals -- and the means by which they died -- were hardly worthy of notice until, in 1914, Europeans suddenly, unbelievably, began killing other Europeans by similar means and in staggering numbers, while bringing war into a new era of destruction. It was indeed a global moment.
While the American Civil War had offered a preview of war, industrial-style, including trench warfare and the use of massed firepower, World War I offered the first full-scale demonstration of what industrial warfare meant in the heartlands of advanced civilization. The machine gun, the airplane, and poison gas arrived from their testing grounds in the colonies to decimate a generation of European youth, while the tank, wheeled into action in 1916, signaled a new world of rapid arms advances to come. Nonetheless, that war -- even as it touched the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- wasn't quite imagined as a"world war" while still ongoing. At the time, it was known as the Great War.
Though parts of Tsarist Russia were devastated, the most essential, signature style of destruction was anything but worldwide. It was focused -- like a lens on kindling -- on a strip of land that stretched from the Swiss border to the Atlantic Ocean, running largely through France, and most of the time not more than a few miles wide. There, on"the Western front," for four unbelievable years, opposing armies fought -- to appropriate an American term from the Vietnam War -- a"meat grinder" of a war of a kind never seen before."Fighting," though, hardly covered the event. It was a paroxysm of death and destruction.
That modest expanse of land was bombarded by many millions of shells, torn up, and thoroughly devastated. Every thing built on, or growing upon it, was leveled, and, in the process, millions of young men -- many tens of thousands on single days of"trench warfare" -- were mercilessly slaughtered. After those four unbearably long years, the Great War ended in 1918 with a whimper and in a bitter peace in the West, while, in the East, amid civil war, the Bolsheviks came to power. The semi-peace that followed turned out to be little more than a two-decade armistice between bloodlettings.
We're talking here, of course, about"the war to end all wars." If only.
World War II (or the ever stronger suspicion that it would come) retrospectively put that"I" on the Great War and turned it into the First World War. Twenty years later, when"II" arrived, the world was industrially and scientifically prepared for new levels of destruction. That war might, in a sense, be imagined as the extended paroxysm of violence on the Western front scientifically intensified -- after all, air power had, by then, begun to come into its own -- so that the sort of scorched-earth destruction on that strip of trench-land on the Western Front could now be imposed on whole countries (Japan), whole continents (Europe), almost inconceivable expanses of space (all of Russia from Moscow to the Polish border where, by 1945, next to nothing would remain standing ). Where there had once been" civilization," after the second global spasm of sustained violence little would be left but bodies, rubble, and human scarecrows striving to survive in the wreckage. With the Nazi organization of the Holocaust, even genocide would be industrialized and the poison gas of the previous World War would be put to far more efficient use.
This was, of course, a form of"globalization," though its true nature is seldom much considered when Americans highlight the experiences of that greatest generation. And no wonder. Except for those soldiers fighting and dying abroad, it simply wasn't experienced by Americans. It's hard to believe now that, in 1945, the European civilization that had experienced a proud peace from 1871-1914 while dominating two-thirds of the planet lay in utter ruins; that it had become a site of genocide, its cities reduced to rubble, its fields laid waste, its lands littered with civilian dead, its streets flooded by refugees: a description that in recent times would be recognizable only of a place like Chechnya or perhaps Sierra Leone.
Of course, it wasn't the First or Second, but the Third"World War" that took up almost the first half-century of my own life, and that, early on, seemed to be coming to culmination in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Had the logic of the previous wars been followed, a mere two decades after the"global," but still somewhat limited, devastation of World War II, war's destruction would have been exponentially upped once again. In that brief span, the technology -- in the form of A- and H-bombs, and the air fleets to go with them, and of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles -- was already in place to transform the whole planet into a version of those few miles of the Western front, 1914-1918. After a nuclear exchange between the superpowers, much of the world could well have been burnt to a crisp, many hundreds of millions or even billions of people destroyed, and -- we now know -- a global winter induced that might conceivably have sent us in the direction of the dinosaurs.
The logic of war's developing machinery seemed to be leading inexorably in just that direction. Otherwise, how do you explain the way the United States and the Soviet Union, long after both superpowers had the ability to destroy all human life on Planet Earth, simply could not stop upgrading and adding to their nuclear arsenals until the U.S. had about 30,000 weapons sometime in the mid-1960s, and Soviets about 40,000 in the 1980s. It was as if the two powers were preparing for the destruction of many planets. Such a war would have given the fullest meaning to"world" and no ocean, no line of defenses, would have left any continent, any place, out of the mix. This is what World War III, whose name would have had to be given prospectively, might have meant (and, of course, could still mean).
Or think of the development of"world war" over the twentieth century another way. It was but a generation, no more, from the first flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk to the 1,000-bomber raid. In 1903, one fragile plane flies 120 feet. In 1911, an Italian lieutenant in another only slightly less fragile plane, still seeming to defy some primordial law, drops a bomb on an oasis in North Africa. In 1944 and 1945, those 1,000 plane air armadas take off to devastate German and Japanese cities.
On August 6, 1945, all the power of those armadas was compacted into the belly of a lone B-29, the Enola Gay, which dropped its single bomb on Hiroshima, destroying the city and many of its inhabitants. All this, again, took place in little more than a single generation. In fact, Paul Tibbets, who piloted the Enola Gay, was born only 12 years after the first rudimentary plane took to the air. And only seven years after Japan surrendered, the first H-bomb was tested, a weapon whose raw destructive power made the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima look like a mere bagatelle.
Admittedly, traces of humanity remained everywhere amid the carnage. After all, the plane that carried that first bomb was named after Tibbets's mother, and the bomb itself dubbed"Little Boy," as if this were a birthing experience. The name of the second plane, Bockscar, was nothing but a joke based on similarity of the name of its pilot, Frederick Bock, who didn't even fly it that day, and a railroad"boxcar." But events seemed to be pushing humanity toward the inhuman, toward transformation of the planet into a vast Death Camp, toward developments which no words, not even"world war," seemed to capture.
Entering the Age of Denial
It was, of course, this world of war from which, in 1945, the United States emerged triumphant. The Great Depression of the 1930s would, despite wartime fears to the contrary, not reappear. On a planet many of whose great cities were now largely rubble, a world of refugee camps and privation, a world destroyed (to steal the title of a book on the dropping of the atomic bomb), the U.S. was untouched.
The world war had, in fact, leveled all its rivals and made the U.S. a powerhouse of economic expansion. That war and the atomic bomb had somehow ushered in a golden age of abundance and consumerism. All the deferred dreams and desires of depression and wartime America -- the washing machine, the TV set, the toaster, the automobile, the suburban house, you name it -- were suddenly available to significant numbers of Americans. The U.S. military began to demobilize and the former troops returned not to rubble, but to new tract homes and G.I. Bill educations.
The taste of ashes may have been in global mouths, but the taste of nectar (or, at least, Coca Cola) was in American ones. And yet all of this was shadowed by our own"victory weapon," by the dark train of thought that led quickly to scenarios of our own destruction in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, in movies, and on TV (think, "The Twilight Zone"), as well as in a spate of novels that took readers beyond the end of the world and into landscapes involving irradiated, hiroshimated futures filled with"mutants" and survivalists. The young, with their own pocket money to spend just as they pleased for the first time in history -- teens on the verge of becoming"trend setters" -- found themselves plunged into a mordant, yet strangely thrilling world, as I've written elsewhere, of"triumphalist despair."
At the economic and governmental level, the 24/7 world of sunny consumerism increasingly merged with the 24/7 world of dark atomic alerts, of ever vigilant armadas of nuclear-armed planes ready to take off on a moment's notice to obliterate the Soviets. After all, the peaceable giants of consumer production now doubled as the militarized giants of weapons production. A military Keynesianism drove the U.S. economy toward a form of consumerism in which desire for the ever larger car and missile, electric range and tank, television console and atomic submarine was wedded in single corporate entities. The companies -- General Electric, General Motors, and Westinghouse, among others -- producing the icons of the American home were also major contractors developing the weapons systems ushering the Pentagon into its own age of abundance.
In the 1950s, then, it seemed perfectly natural for Charles Wilson, president of General Motors, to become secretary of defense in the Eisenhower administration, just as retiring generals and admirals found it natural to move into the employ of corporations they had only recently employed on the government's behalf. Washington, headquarters of global abundance, was also transformed into a planetary military headquarters. By 1957, 200 generals and admirals as well as 1,300 colonels or naval officers of similar rank, retired or on leave, worked for civilian agencies, and military funding spilled over into a Congress that redirected its largesse to districts nationwide.
Think of all this as the beginning not so much of the American (half) Century, but of an American Age of Denial that lasted until… well, I think we can actually date it… until September 11, 2001, the day that" changed everything." Okay, perhaps not"everything," but, by now, it's far clearer just what the attacks of that day, the collapse of those towers, the murder of thousands, did change -- and of just how terrible, how craven but, given our previous history, how unsurprising the response to it actually was.
Those dates -- 1945-2001 -- 56 years in which life was organized, to a significant degree, to safeguard Americans from an"atomic Pearl Harbor," from the thought that two great oceans were no longer protection enough for this continent, that the United States was now part of a world capable of being laid low. In those years, the sun of good fortune shone steadily on the U.S. of A., even as American newspapers, just weeks after Hiroshima, began drawing concentric circles of destruction around American cities and imagining their future in ruins. Think of this as the shadow story of that era, the gnawing anxiety at the edge of abundance, like those memento mori skulls carefully placed amid cornucopias in seventeenth-century Dutch still-life paintings.
In those decades, the"arms race" never abated, not even long after both superpowers had a superabundant ability to take each other out. World-ending weaponry was being constantly"perfected" -- MIRVed, put on rails, divided into land, sea, and air"triads," and, of course, made ever more powerful and accurate. Nonetheless, Americans, to take Herman Kahn's famous phrase, preferred most of the time not to think too much about"the unthinkable" -- and what it meant for them.
As the 1980s began, however, in a surge of revulsion at decades of denial, a vast anti-nuclear movement briefly arose -- in 1982, three-quarters of a million people marched against such weaponry in New York City -- and President Ronald Reagan responded with his lucrative (for the weapons industry) fantasy scheme of lofting an"impermeable shield" against nuclear weapons into space, his"Star Wars" program. And then, in an almost-moment as startling as it was unexpected, in 1986, in Reykjavik, Iceland, Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev almost made such a fantasy come true, not in space, but right here on planet Earth. They came to the very"brink" -- to use a nuclear-crisis term of the time -- of a genuine program to move decisively down the path to the abolition of such weapons. It was, in some ways, the most hopeful almost-moment of a terrible century and, of course, it failed.
Thanks largely, however, to one man, Gorbachev, who consciously chose a path of non-violence, after four decades of nuclear standoff in a fully garrisoned MAD (mutually assured destruction) world -- and to the amazement, even disbelief, of official Washington -- the USSR simply disappeared, and almost totally peaceably at that.
You could measure the era of denial up to that moment both by the level of official resistance to recognizing this obvious fact and by the audible sigh of relief in this country. Finally, it was all over. It was, of course, called"victory," though it would prove anything but.
And only then did the MADness really began. Though there was, in the U.S., modest muttering about a"peace dividend," the idea of"peace" never really caught hold. The thousands of weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which had seemingly lost their purpose and whose existence should have been an embarrassing reminder of the Age of Denial, were simply pushed further into the shadows and largely ignored or forgotten. Initially assigned no other tasks, and without the slightest hiccup of protest against them, they were placed in a kind of strategic limbo and, like the mad woman in the attic, went unmentioned for years.
In the meantime, it was clear by century's end that the"peace dividend" would go largely to the Pentagon. At the very moment when, without the Soviet Union, the U.S. might have accepted its own long-term vulnerability and begun working toward a world in which destruction was less obviously on the agenda, the U.S. government instead embarked, like the Greatest of Great Powers (the"new Rome," the"new Britain"), on a series of neocolonial wars on the peripheries. It began building up a constellation of new military bases in and around the oil heartlands of the planet, while reinforcing a military and technological might meant to brook no future opponents. Orwell's famous phrase from his novel 1984,"war is peace," was operative well before the second Bush administration entered office.
Call this a Mr. Spock moment, one where you just wanted to say"illogical." With only one superpower left, the American Age of Denial didn't dissipate. It only deepened and any serious assessment of the real planet we were all living on was carefully avoided.
In these years, the world was essentially declared to be "flat" and, on that"level playing field," it was, we were told, gloriously globalizing. This official Age of Globalization -- you couldn't look anywhere, it seemed, and not see that word -- was proclaimed another fabulously sunny era of wonder and abundance. Everyone on the planet would now wear Air Jordan sneakers and Mickey Mouse T-shirts, eat under the Golden Arches, and be bombarded with"information"… Hurrah!
News was circling the planet almost instantaneously in this self-proclaimed new Age of Information. (Oh yes, there were many new and glorious"ages" in that brief historical span of self-celebration.) But with the Soviet Union in the trash bin of history -- forget that Russia, about to become a major energy power, still held onto its nuclear forces -- and the planet, including the former Soviet territories in Eastern Europe and Central Asia open to"globalizing" penetration, few bothered to mention that other nexus of forces which had globalized in the previous century: the forces of planetary destruction.
And Americans? Don't think that George W. Bush was the first to urge us to"sacrifice" by spending our money and visiting Disney World. That was the story of the 1990s and it represented the deepest of all denials, a complete shading of the eyes from any reasonably possible future. If the world was flat, then why shouldn't we drive blissfully right off its edge? The SUV, the subprime mortgage, the McMansion in the distant suburb, the 100-mile commute to work… you name it, we did it. We paid the price, so to speak.
And while we were burning oil and spending money we often didn't have, and at prodigious rates,"globalization" was slowly making its way to the impoverished backlands of Afghanistan.
A Fierce Rearguard Action for Denial
This, of course, brings us almost to our own moment. To the neocons, putting on their pith helmets and planning their Project for a New American Century (meant to be just like the old nineteenth century, only larger, better, and all-American), the only force that really mattered in the world was the American military, which would rule the day, and the Bush administration, initially made up of so many of them, unsurprisingly agreed. This would prove to be one of the great misreadings of the nature of power in our world.
Since what's gone before in this account has been long, let me make this -- our own dim and dismal moment -- relatively short and sweet. On September 11, 2001, the Age of Denial ended in the"mushroom cloud" of the World Trade Center. It was no mistake that, within 24 hours, the site where the towers had gone down was declared to be"Ground Zero," a term previously reserved for an atomic explosion. Of course, no such explosion had happened, nor had an apocalypse of destruction actually occurred. No city, continent, or planet had been vaporized, but for Americans, secretly waiting all those decades for their"victory weapon" to come home, it briefly looked that way.
The shock of discovering for the first time and in a gut way that the continental United States, too, could be at some planetary epicenter of destruction was indeed immense. In the media, apocalyptic moments -- anthrax, plagues, dirty bombs -- only multiplied and most Americans, still safe in their homes, hunkered down in fear to await various doom-laden scenarios that would never happen. In the meantime, other encroaching but unpalatable globalizing realities, ranging from America's"oil addiction" to climate change, would continue to be assiduously ignored. In the U.S., this was, you might say, the real"inconvenient truth" of these years.
The response to 9/11 was, to say the least, striking -- and craven in the extreme. Although the Bush administration's Global War on Terror (aka World War IV) has been pictured many ways, it has never, I suspect, been seen for what it most truly may have been: a desperate and fierce rearguard action to extend the American Age of Denial. We would, as the President urged right after 9/11, show our confidence in the American system by acting as though nothing had happened and, of course, paying that visit to Disney World. In the meantime, as" commander-in-chief" he would wall us in and fight a"global war" to stave off the forces threatening us. Better yet, that war would once again be on their soil, not ours, forever and ever, amen.
The motto of the Bush administration might have been: Pay any price. Others, that is, would pay any price -- disappearance, torture, false imprisonment, death by air and land -- for us to remain in denial. A pugnacious and disastrous"war" on terrorism, along with sub-wars, dubbed"fronts" (central or otherwise), would be pursued to impose our continuing Age of Denial by force on the rest of the planet (and soften the costs of our addiction to oil). This was to be the new Pax Americana, a shock-and-awe" crusade" (to use a word that slipped out of the President's mouth soon after 9/11) launched in the name of American"safety" and"national security." Almost eight years later, as in the present presidential campaign of 2008, these remain the idols to which American politicians, the mainstream media, and assumedly many citizens continue to do frightened obeisance.
The message of 9/11 was, in truth, clear enough -- quite outside the issue of who was delivering it for what purpose. It was: Here is the future of the United States; try as you might, like it or not, you are about to become part of the painful, modern history of this planet.
And the irony that went with it was this: The fiercer the response, the more we tried to force the cost of denial of this central reality on others, the faster history -- that grim shadow story of the Cold War era -- seemed to approach.
Postcard from the Edge
What I've written thus far hasn't exactly been a postcard. But if I were to boil all this down to postcard size, I might write:
Here's our hope: History surprised us and we got through. Somehow. In that worst of all centuries, the last one, the worst didn't happen, not by a long shot.
Here's the problem: It still could happen -- and, 64 years later, in more ways than anyone once imagined.
Here's a provisional conclusion: And it will happen, somehow or other, unless history surprises us again, unless, somehow or other, we surprise ourselves and the United States ends its age of denial.
And a little p.s.: It's not too late. We -- we Americans -- could still do something that mattered when it comes to the fate of the Earth.
[Note for Readers: Those of you interested in more on these topics might check out The End of Victory Culture, my history of the Cold War Age of Denial, in its latest updated edition. I certainly stole from it for this piece and it's guaranteed to take you on a mad gallop through the various strangenesses of American life, emphasizing popular culture, from 1945 to late last night. It's a book that Juan Cole has labelled a"must read" and that Studs Terkel called"as powerful as a Joe Louis jab to the solar plexus."
On another"front," back in 1982, Jonathan Schell first took up the (nuclear) fate of the Earth in his bestselling book of the same name. He's never put the subject down. He returned to it most recently and tellingly in The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger, the paperback of which is due to be published this September. I am deeply indebted to him for the development of my own thinking on the subject.
On this piece, my special thanks as well to Christopher Holmes for help above and beyond the call of duty.]
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt
Posted on: Thursday, July 31, 2008 - 17:03
SOURCE: Politico.com (7-30-08)
Lamenting the decline of party conventions has become a favorite pastime of political pundits. Every four years, they fill newspapers and television screens with nostalgic paeans to the way real decisions were once made at conventions, with open debate about platforms and candidates, and now every image is scripted for television.
There are no more smoke-filled rooms to speak of. The pundits love to draw a contrast with classic moments such as 1948 in Philadelphia, where Southern Democrats responded to Hubert Humphrey’s call for civil rights by bolting out of the Democratic convention or 1980 in New York City, where Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s supporters fought for a rule that would allow delegates to vote for a candidate other than the one voters had selected in the primary.
But conventions still matter. The central component to a modern convention is the speech. Each candidate delivers a major address to more people than ever in his or her career (in most cases). There are moments when candidacies benefit greatly from these speeches. In 1980, Ronald Reagan sent an important signal to religious conservatives when he ended his speech with a moment of silent prayer. In 2000, George W. Bush spoke about compassionate conservatism with words that helped him win moderate support.
There are also numerous speeches by lesser-known politicians, such as Barack Obama’s 2004 keynote address, that introduce them to the national stage and make them future players in the party.
More common, though, are speeches that harm a candidacy — and even a presidency. George H.W. Bush promised in 1988 that he would never raise taxes, but that promise came back to devastate his presidency when he abandoned it in 1990. Conservatives never forgave him. “Read my lips, no new taxes” has become part of the American political lexicon, a catchphrase for not keeping promises.
Sen. John F. Kerry’s decision to start his 2004 convention speech by giving a military salute and saying, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty,” proved to be disastrous. He hoped, as a veteran, to steal the national security issue away from President Bush, who had avoided service in Vietnam. It didn’t work that way. A crafty Karl Rove jumped on the speech, turning it against Kerry. Republicans accepted the Democratic challenge and focused attention on Kerry’s role as a war protester, as well as on allegations about the truthfulness of his war record.
Another important aspect of the modern convention is the party platform. While these documents are carefully scripted, and often are not followed after the election takes place, they still matter in terms of sending a message about how a party hopes to define itself.
In 1976, Reagan’s supporters pushed through the convention a “Morality in Foreign Policy” plank that offered a stinging critique of the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger policy of détente, easing relations with the Soviet Union. President Gerald Ford said the plank amounted to “nothing less than a slick denunciation of administration foreign policy.” Yet Ford decided not to attack the language, which would have provoked a confrontation with conservatives. Instead, he told his delegates to vote for the language with the goal of making it appear as though it was his idea. The plank helped move the party rightward on foreign policy.
The final reason to watch conventions is for the coverage itself. The media are some of the most important players throughout the campaign. How they define and package a candidate strongly affects the outcome of the race.
Reporters obsessed over Vice President Al Gore’s kiss with his wife, Tipper, following his speech in 2000; the conversation set the tone for coverage that would place great emphasis on his warmth (or lack thereof). George W. Bush used doubts about Gore’s personality to gain a large advantage as the candidate voters would rather have a beer with.
We might not have those old smoke-filled rooms anymore, but there is still a lot to look for as Democrats and Republicans gather late this summer. We live in an age of media-centered, professionally crafted, image-filled politics. Rather than talk about what we don’t have, let’s accept what exists and try to use the events as a piece of the report card we’ll all take with us into the voting booth in November.
Posted on: Thursday, July 31, 2008 - 15:44
SOURCE: Huffington Post (7-30-08)
One of the most compelling figures in the Batman comic books is Two-Face, a character who was introduced in the 1940s who has two sides to his face. One side appears a handsome, well groomed crime fighting attorney who stands for good and justice, and on the other side is a horribly disfigured and frightening monster. Two-Face decides whether he will do good or evil based on the flip of a coin.
Senator John McCain faces a two-face problem in this campaign for the presidency. The indictment of Senator Ted Stevens just added to this problem. Stevens, the senior senator from Alaska, was indicted for failing to disclose substantial gifts from powerful corporate interests in his state.
McCain has been struggling to tap into the "good" face of the conservative tradition. He desperately wants to remind disenchanted conservatives of the legacy of individuals such as Senator Barry Goldwater, President Ronald Reagan, and Speaker Newt Gingrich. These men advocated and promoted a robust set of ideas for the GOP and were committed to challenging liberal Democrats by offering Americans a contrasting world view. Whether one liked or hated them, these Republicans built a conservative movement around arguments about taking an aggressive stand against totalitarianism, the superiority of private markets over government, and the centrality of individual liberty.
Then there is the other side to the face of conservatism, the one whose lineage includes President Richard Nixon and, most recently, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay. This is a very different image of the Republican Party, one that has caused almost as much anger with conservatives as with liberals.
This side of the Republican face symbolizes a conservatism that has become corrupt with power. The Nixon-DeLay side didn't really oppose big government, but rather wanted to control government, expand it, and use it for their own political purposes and self interest. The uglier side of conservatism has produced a cottage industry of books by the right lamenting the decline of their movement.
John McCain has been struggling to keep voters focused on the first side of the conservative face. Indeed, he is counting on this, given that a central part of his own story is that he spent much of his Senate career fighting against people like Senator Stevens and arguing that reforming government was as central to conservatism as tax cuts or a hawkish foreign policy. Until we free government of corruption, McCain has argued, the special interests will never allow for true change in Washington.
Yet McCain has found it almost impossible to get rid of the other side of the conservative face. His campaign operates under the shadow of the 2006 elections, which were as much about Republican corruption as Iraq, the wrongdoing of Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, Randy Cunningham, Mark Foley, and others. During his campaign, McCain's own ties to powerful lobbyists and their role in his campaign have followed him on the campaign trail and raised questions about the authenticity of his arguments about reform.
And here comes the indictment of Senator Stevens, who brings with him the ghosts of 2006 and reminds voters--moderates as well as staunch conservatives--that the Republicans have been involved in the same kind of political corruption they once derided Democrats for having accepted. The Stevens indictment, according to founding conservative Richard Viguerie, is "just a symptom of the corruption that has infected Republicans and Democrats alike...."
Democrats need to be careful since their houses are not so clean either. Even Barack Obama, who
champions change and reform, faces his own ongoing questions about his relationship to the Chicago fundraiser Tony Rezko.
But right now political corruption is a problem that is much more significant for Republicans than Democrats. Republicans held power in Congress for a long period of time and most of the major scandals in the past three years have centered on the GOP. Just this morning, the House Judiciary Committee voted, along party lines, to cite Karl Rove, the former top aide to President Bush, for contempt of Congress.
The cost of these individual scandals to the party, and the conservative movement, becomes clearer every day as McCain finds it difficult to convince voters that behind every promise for change and reform does not lurk an uglier side to the Republican face.
Posted on: Wednesday, July 30, 2008 - 12:17
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (7-29-08)
While the Iraq war has largely faded from our TV screens, some 85% of all voters still call it an important issue. Most of them want U.S. troops home from Iraq within a couple of years, many of them far sooner. They support Barack Obama's position, not John McCain's. Yet when the polls ask which candidate voters trust more on the war, McCain wins almost every time.
Maybe that's because, according to the Pew Center for the People and the Press, nearly 40% of the public doesn't know McCain's position on troop withdrawal. In a June Washington Post/ABC poll, the same percentage weren't sure he had a clear position. When that poll told voters that McCain opposed a timetable for withdrawal, support for his view actually shot up dramatically. It looks like a significant chunk of the electorate cares more about the man than the issue. Newer polls suggest that McCain's arguments against a timetable may, in fact, be shifting public opinion his way.
McCain's Only Chance: Values-plus Voters
Pundits and activists who oppose the war in Iraq generally assume that the issue has to work against McCain because they treat American politics as if it were a college classroom full of rational truth-seekers. The reality is much more like a theatrical spectacle. Symbolism and the emotion it evokes -- not facts and logic -- rule the day.
In fact, the Pew Center survey found that only about a quarter of those who say they'll vote for McCain base their choice on issues at all. What appeals to them above all, his supporters say, is his"experience," a word that can conveniently mean many things to many people.
The McCain campaign constantly highlights its man's most emotionally gripping experience: his years of captivity in North Vietnam. Take a look at the McCain TV commercial entitled"Love." It opens with footage of laughing, kissing hippies enjoying the"summer of love," then cuts to the young Navy flier spending that summer of 1967 dropping bombs on North Vietnam and soon to end up a tortured prisoner of those he was bombing.
McCain believed in"another kind of love," the narrator explains, a love that puts the" country and her people before self." Oh, those selfish hippies, still winning votes for Republicans -- or so McCain's strategists hope.
Obama agrees that the symbolic meanings of Vietnam and the"love generation" still hang heavy over American politics. The debate about patriotism, he observed,"remains rooted in the culture wars of the 1960s… a fact most evident during our recent debates about the war in Iraq."
Obama is right -- sort of. The so-called culture wars have shifted away from social issues to war, terrorism, and national security. The number of potential voters who rate abortion or gay rights as their top priority now rarely exceeds 5%; in some polls it falls close to zero. Meanwhile, Republicans are nine times as likely as Democrats, and far more likely than independents, to put terrorism at or near the top of their most-important list. And Republican voters are much more likely to agree with McCain that Iraq is, indeed, the"the central front in the war on terrorism."
Sociologists tell us, however, that the" culture wars" so assiduously promoted by conservatives are mostly smoke and mirrors. Despite what media pundits may say, the public is not divided into two monolithic values camps. Voters are much less predictable than that. And few let values issues trump their more immediate problems -- especially economic ones -- when they step into the voting booth. The almighty power of the monolithic"values voters" is largely a myth invented by the media.
Yet, the" culture war" story does impact not only debates about the war in Iraq, as Obama said, but all debates about national security. Beyond the small minority who are strict"values voters," there are certainly millions of"values plus" voters. Though they can be swayed by lots of issues, they hold essentially conservative social values and would like a president who does the same. This time around, it's a reasonable guess that they, too, are letting war and security issues symbolize their"values" concerns. Put in the simplest terms: They are the McCain campaign's only chance.
So just how much of a chance does he really have? At this point, only two-thirds of those who say they trust him most on Iraq plan to vote for him. That means less than 30% of all voters are solidly prowar and pro-McCain. But another 12% or so who do not trust McCain on Iraq say they'll vote for him anyway, keeping him competitive in polling on the overall race. Most of them are surely part of the huge majority who, whatever they think of his Iraq specifics, trust McCain most to protect us from terrorism and see him as the person most desirable as commander-in-chief. (There's that"experience" again.)
The crucial voters are the 10% to 20% who want troops out of Iraq soon, won't yet commit to McCain, but"trust him" most to do the right thing on Iraq and terrorism. They are choosing the man, not the policy position, on the war. A lot of them fall among the 5% to 20% -- depending on the poll you pick -- who won't yet commit to either candidate.
McCain can swing the election if his campaign can only convince enough of them to vote with their hearts, or their guts, for the"experienced" Vietnam war hero, the symbol of the never-ending crusade against"Sixties values." So he and his handlers naturally want to turn the campaign into a simple moral drama: Sixties values -- or the nation's security and your own? Take your pick.
Obama's American Values
Could that"values" script get a Republican elected, despite the terrible damage the Republicans have done -- and for which voters blame them -- in the last eight years? Many Democrats apparently think it might. They're afraid, says Senator Russ Feingold, that"the Republicans will tear you apart" if you look too weak and soft. That's why the Democratic Congress, weakly and softly, continues to give the Bush administration nearly everything it wants when it comes to funding the war in Iraq, as well as eavesdropping on citizens at home. And the Democratic presidential candidate now goes along, with little apology.
The Obama campaign recognizes the larger"values" frame at work here. Look at the commercial its operatives made to kick off the general election campaign. In it, Obama says not a word about issues. He starts off by announcing:"America is a country of strong families and strong values." From then on, it's all values all the time.
And the"strong values" the commercial touts are not the ones that won him the nomination either. Not by a long shot. You'll find nothing about" change" or"hope" there. It's all about holding fast to the past. Nor is there a thing about communities uniting to help the neediest. America's"strong values" --"straight from the Kansas heartland" -- are"accountability and self-reliance… Working hard without making excuses." You're on your own. It's all individualism all the time.
Sandwiched between self-reliance and hard work is the only community value that apparently does count:"love of country."
Obama's second ad (which Newsweek described as"largely a 30-second version" of the first) features images of the candidate warmly engaging hard-hatted and hair-netted workers, all of them with middle-aged wrinkles, blue collars, and white skins. Both commercials ran in seven traditionally Republican states as well as 11 swing states. As they were released, Obama gave major speeches supporting patriotism and faith-based initiatives.
As Republican consultant Alex Castellanos put it, the Obama campaign made"an aggressive leap across the 50-yard line to play on Republican turf." Before they sent their man around the world to focus on war and foreign policy, to meet the troops in Afghanistan and General Petraeus in Baghdad, they felt they had to assure the"Kansas heartland" that he shares true American values.
And Obama's message-makers know where that mythical"heartland" really lies: not in Kansas, Dorothy, but on a yellow brick road to an imagined past. The America conjured up in his commercials is a Norman Rockwell fiction that millions still wish they could live in because they feel embittered (as Obama so infamously said) by a world that seems out of control. They prefer a fantasy version of a past America where so many, who now feel powerless, imagine they might actually have been able to shape their own destinies.
Perhaps the frustrated do cling to"guns or religion or antipathy to people who are not like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment," as Obama suggested. But his ad-smiths know that they cling far more to illusions of a secure past, when (they imagine) everyone could count on clear, inviolable boundary lines -- between races and genders, between competitive individuals in the marketplace, between the virtuous self and the temptations of the flesh, between the U.S. and other nations, between civilization and the enemies who would destroy it.
All of these boundaries point to the most basic one of all: the moral boundary between good and evil. McCain and Obama are both wooing the millions who imagine an absolute chasm between good and evil, know just where the good is (always"made in America"), and want a president who will stand against evil no matter what the cost. They want, in short, a world where everyone knows their place and keeps to it, and where wars, if they must be fought, can still be"good" and Americans can still win every time.
The Republicans have a code word for that illusory past:"experience." Their"Sixties versus security" script offers a stark choice: The candidate who clearly symbolizes the crossing of boundaries, most notably the American racial line, versus the candidate whose"experience" and mythic life story are built on the same mantra as his Iraq policy:"No surrender."
The McCain campaign is not about policies that can ensure national security by reaching out and making new friends. It's about a man who can offer a feeling of psychological security by standing firm against old and new enemies.
The Media's"Ordinary American"
Who would choose psychological security over real security? The mainstream media have an answer:"the ordinary American." Now that the"values voter" of the 2004 election has largely disappeared, the media have come up with this new character as the mythic hero for their election-year story.
It began, of course, with Hillary Clinton's primary campaign comeback -- portrayed as a revolt of those"ordinary people," who might once have been Reagan Democrats (and might soon become McCain Democrats), against the"elitists" -- or so the media story went. Her famous "phone call at 3 AM" ad suggested that"ordinary people" value a president tough enough to protect their children. As her husband once put it:"When people feel uncertain, they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right."
Now the"elitist" Obama still has a"potentially critical vulnerability," according to the Washington Post's veteran political reporter Dan Balz:"Voters do not know whether he shares the values and beliefs of ordinary Americans."
Balz's colleague, Post media critic Howard Kurtz, called the second Obama commercial a"White Working-Class Pitch" designed to show that Obama is"on the side of average workers." The New York Times'sJeff Zeleny echoed that view:"One of his most pressing challenges is to assure voters that he is one of them."
The centrist and even liberal media are as busy as conservatives propagating the idea that, to be one of the average, ordinary Americans, you have to prize (white) working-class values considered"Republican turf" since the late 1960s: individualism, self-reliance, hard work for"modest" (which means stagnant or falling) wages, faith, and a patriotism so strong that it will never surrender.
The American Everyman, the hero of this year's media story, is an underpaid worker who may very well vote Republican against his or her own economic interests, and all too often against the interests of loved ones who hope to come home alive from Iraq or Afghanistan.
What about all those Democrats who voted for Obama because he offered a vision of a new politics, a way out of Iraq, and a new path for the United States? What about all those who earn too much or too little, or have too much or too little education, or the wrong skin color, to be part of the white working class? Evidently, they are all extra-ordinary Americans;"outside the mainstream," as media analysts sometimes put it. They may represent a majority of the voters, but they just don't count the same way. They don't fit this year's plot line.
Of course it may turn out that the old melodrama of an"experienced" Vietnam hero against the"summer of love" no longer draws much of an audience, even with both campaigns and the mainstream media so focused on it. No matter how things turn out on Election Day, however, it's beginning to look like the big winner will -- yet again -- be the conservative" culture war" narrative that has dominated our political discourse, in one form or another, for four decades now. With Obama and both Clintons endorsing it, who will stand against it?
For the foreseeable future, debates about cultural values are going to be played out fiercely on the symbolic terrain of war and national security issues. The all-too-real battlefields abroad will remain obscured by the cultural battlefields at home and by the those timeless"ordinary American values" embedded in the public's imagination. It's all too powerful a myth -- and too good an election story -- to go away anytime soon.
Creating New Stories
Yet there is no law of nature that says the"ordinary American," white working class or otherwise, must value individualism, self-reliance, patriotism, and war heroics while treating any value ever associated with the 1960s as part of the primrose path to social chaos. In reality, of course, the"ordinary American" is a creature of shifting historical-cultural currents, constantly being re-invented.
But the 1960s does indeed remain a pivotal era -- not least because that is when liberal, antiwar America largely did stop caring much about the concerns and values of working-class whites. Those workers were treated as an inscrutable oddity at best, an enemy at worst. Liberals didn't think about alternative narratives of America that could be meaningful across the political board. Now, they reap the harvest of their neglect.
It does no good to complain about"spineless Democrats" who won't risk their political careers by casting courageous votes against war. Their job is to win elections. And you go to political war with the voters you have. If too many of the voters are still trapped in simplistic caricatures of patriotism and national security created 40 years ago -- or if you fear they are -- that's because no one has offered them an appealing alternative narrative that meets their cultural needs.
It does no good to complain that such working-class views are illogical or stupid or self-destructive. As long as progressives continue to treat"ordinary Americans" as stupid and irrelevant, progressives will find themselves largely irrelevant in U.S. politics. And that's stupid, because it doesn't have to be that way.
What can be done to change this picture? Facts and logic are rarely enough, in themselves, to persuade people to give up the values narratives that have framed their lives. They'll abandon one narrative only when another comes along that is more satisfying.
Democrats started looking for a new narrative after the 2004 election, when the media told them that"values voters" ruled the roost and cared most about religious faith. The result? Democrats, some of them quite progressive, are creating effective faith-oriented frames for their political messages.
No matter who wins this year's election, the prevalence of the"ordinary American" voter story should be a useful wakeup call: It's time to do something similar on a much broader scale. This election year offers an invaluable opportunity to begin to grasp some of the complexities of culturally conservative Americans. Equipped with a deeper understanding, progressives can frame their programs of economic justice and cultural diversity within new narratives about security, patriotism, heroism, and other traditionally American values.
That will take some effort. But it will take a lot more effort to stave off the next Republican victory -- or the next war -- if the project of creating new, more broadly appealing narratives continues to be ignored.
Posted on: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 - 20:10
SOURCE: Japan Times (7-28-08)
The world can't understand how Robert Mugabe has support left in Zimbabwe. After violence and intimidation against his opponents he was able to steal a victory, but at great cost. Why do his people put up with it and why did he gain over 40 percent of the vote in the first round of the elections, when voting was relatively fair?
Certainly Mugabe still has much support and respect left from when he was leader of the Chimurenga, the guerrilla struggle against the white minority regime that had taken half the land in the country and reserved it for the whites. Many former leaders of revolutionary struggles either fell from power or saw their time was up and resigned. Why does Mugabe still have enough support to hold on?
One answer is the struggle over the land. Land has been central to Zimbabwean politics for centuries. Cecil Rhodes invaded not only for gold but also for land. Earlier the Shona and Ndebele had been fighting over the land. In the late 20th century, Ian Smith's settler government declared independence from Britain and fought for years to keep the land. Guerrillas from Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) fought over the land.
It is still being fought over. In a recent BBC interview, former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda traced the roots of the present crisis to the failure of the British Labour government to continue the work on the land issue done by the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. The issue of the land and its sacredness is central to the struggle over Zimbabwe in a way that few Western peoples other than the Irish could understand.
Why is land so important to the people of Zimbabwe? The answer is in the way of life of the Shona people who constitute over 80 percent of the population, and whose medieval capital gave its name to the country. When missionaries first penetrated Shona country in what is now Zimbabwe, even the Jesuits could not understand Shona spirituality. They tried to teach the Shona about natural religion before trying to convert them. Thus it is common to talk about "the Shona way of life" rather than "Shona traditional religion."
In the 1980s, when Thomas H. Graves, senior minister at St. John's Baptist Church, Charlotte, North Carolina, went to study the problem of evil in the Third World, he found his ideas so challenged by the attitudes of the Shona among whom he lived that he changed the entire focus of his study. He wrote: One finds in the Shona people a steadfastness in the face of suffering that is difficult to imagine. In spite of living in poverty conditions, having recently survived a long struggle for independence, and even more recently having dealt with an extended drought, the Shona seem to be a fairly contented people.
No amount of sanctions or international pressures will be likely to cause the supporters of Mugabe to change their mind about the importance of getting back their land. Mugabe's ZANU-PF party is based in the villages and has strong organizations there, as well as support from traditional rulers.
People who grow their own food and consume it in their own villages are not going to be concerned about the collapse of the national currency on international exchange markets. They are much more likely to be concerned about the threat to their land and their traditional way of life posed by outside pressures. Nor will they care very much about how many slips of paper were anonymously slipped into boxes by supporters of different political parties. Democracy is not traditionally part of the Shona way of life.
Yet those traditionalist supporters of Mugabe and his government are no longer a majority of Zimbabweans, or else the government would not have had to steal the elections. Who are the opposition, and where did they come from?
They are largely the wage-earning urban working class. Morgan Tsvangirai was the most prominent leader of the union movement in Zimbabwe. He represents the modern people, who no longer hoe out subsistence from the soil, and who no longer care as much about the sacred struggle over the land as about the fluctuations of currency on international markets.
Ironically, in large part they came from the very economic success of Mugabe's early years. Mugabe was hailed as an economic moderate who proved that African states didn't necessarily collapse when blacks took over. His example was important in convincing the whites of South Africa to cede power.
The very success of Mugabe in developing Zimbabwe created the urban working class that now opposes Mugabe and wants him removed. Had he quit when he was ahead he would have gone down in history like George Washington and Nelson Mandela, but by clinging to power when his time had passed, Mugabe ruined both his country and his place in history.
Tsvangirai's movement is supported by other labor unions in southern Africa. The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union refused to unload a shipment of Chinese arms being shipped to landlocked Zimbabwe long enough for a South African court to forbid the weapons shipment, despite the South African government's unwillingness to intervene.
In that sense the struggle in Zimbabwe is similar to the struggle against Communism in Eastern Europe, which was led to success by the Solidarnosc union in Poland and the workers it represented. Karl Marx may have been wrong about the working class having an interest in socialism, but he was right that this new class of wage and salary earning people would have a great impact on history. Even in Africa the rise of wage- and salary-earning classes is irrevocably changing the political landscape.
Posted on: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 - 19:25
SOURCE: Jerusalem Post (7-28-08)
May I, an American citizen living in the United States, comment publicly on Israeli decision making?
Yoram Schweitzer wants me not to judge decisions made by the Israeli government.
Schweitzer does not spell out the logic behind his resentment, but it rings familiar: Unless a person lives in Israel, the argument goes, pays its taxes, puts himself at risk in its streets, and has children in its armed forces, he should not second-guess Israeli decisionmaking. This approach, broadly speaking, stands behind the positions taken by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other prominent Jewish institutions.
I respect that position without accepting its discipline. Responding to what foreign governments do is my meat and potatoes as a U.S. foreign policy analyst who spent time in the State and Defense departments and as a board member of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and who as a columnist has for nearly a decade unburdened himself of opinions. A quick bibliographic review finds me judging many governments, including the British, Canadian, Danish, French, German, Iranian, Nepalese, Saudi, South Korean, Syrian, and Turkish.
Obviously, I do not have children serving in the armed forces of all these countries, but I assess their developments to help guide my readers' thinking. No one from these others countries, it bears noting, ever asked me to withhold comment on their internal affairs. And Schweitzer himself proffers advice to others; in July 2005, for example, he instructed Muslim leaders in Europe to be"more forceful in their rejection of the radical Islamic element." Independent analysts all do this.
So, Schweitzer and I may comment on developments around the world, but, when it comes to Israel, my mind should empty of thoughts, my tongue fall silent, and my keyboard go still? Hardly.
On a more profound level, I protest the whole concept of privileged information – that one's location, age, ethnicity, academic degrees, experience, or some other quality validates one's views. The recent book by Christopher Cerf and Victor S. Navasky titled I Wish I Hadn't Said that: The Experts Speak - and Get it Wrong! humorously memorializes and exposes this conceit. Living in a country does not necessarily make one wiser about it.
Ehud Barak, the most highly decorated soldier in Israeli history, made mistakes.
It is a mistake to reject information, ideas, or analysis on the basis of credentials. Correct and important thoughts can come from any provenance – even from thousands of miles away.
In that spirit, here are two responses concerning Schweitzer's take on the Samir al-Kuntar incident. Schweitzer argues that"to fail to do the utmost to rescue any citizen or soldier who falls into enemy hands would shatter one of the basic precepts of Israeli society." I agree that rescuing soldiers or their remains is an operationally useful and morally noble priority, but"utmost" has it has limits. For example, a government should not hand live citizens to terrorists in return for soldiers' corpses. In like manner, the Olmert government's actions last week went much too far.
Another specific: Schweitzer claims that,"relatively speaking, the recent exchange with Hizbullah came at a cheap price. It is debatable whether Kuntar's release granted any kind of moral victory to Hizbullah." If that deal was cheap, I dread to imagine how an expensive one would look. And with Kuntar's arrival in Lebanon shutting down the government in giddy national celebration, denying Hizbullah a victory amounts to willful blindness.
Posted on: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 - 19:20
SOURCE: TomDispatch.com (7-27-08)
Most Americans have a rough idea what the term"military-industrial complex" means when they come across it in a newspaper or hear a politician mention it. President Dwight D. Eisenhower introduced the idea to the public in his farewell address of January 17, 1961."Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime," he said,"or indeed by the fighting men of World War II and Korea… We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions… We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications… We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."
Although Eisenhower's reference to the military-industrial complex is, by now, well-known, his warning against its"unwarranted influence" has, I believe, largely been ignored. Since 1961, there has been too little serious study of, or discussion of, the origins of the military-industrial complex, how it has changed over time, how governmental secrecy has hidden it from oversight by members of Congress or attentive citizens, and how it degrades our Constitutional structure of checks and balances.
From its origins in the early 1940s, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was building up his"arsenal of democracy," down to the present moment, public opinion has usually assumed that it involved more or less equitable relations -- often termed a"partnership" -- between the high command and civilian overlords of the United States military and privately-owned, for-profit manufacturing and service enterprises. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that, from the time they first emerged, these relations were never equitable.
In the formative years of the military-industrial complex, the public still deeply distrusted privately owned industrial firms because of the way they had contributed to the Great Depression. Thus, the leading role in the newly emerging relationship was played by the official governmental sector. A deeply popular, charismatic president, FDR sponsored these public-private relationships. They gained further legitimacy because their purpose was to rearm the country, as well as allied nations around the world, against the gathering forces of fascism. The private sector was eager to go along with this largely as a way to regain public trust and disguise its wartime profit-making.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Roosevelt's use of public-private"partnerships" to build up the munitions industry, and thereby finally overcome the Great Depression, did not go entirely unchallenged. Although he was himself an implacable enemy of fascism, a few people thought that the president nonetheless was coming close to copying some of its key institutions. The leading Italian philosopher of fascism, the neo-Hegelian Giovanni Gentile, once argued that it should more appropriately be called" corporatism" because it was a merger of state and corporate power. (See Eugene Jarecki's The American Way of War, p. 69.)
Some critics were alarmed early on by the growing symbiotic relationship between government and corporate officials because each simultaneously sheltered and empowered the other, while greatly confusing the separation of powers. Since the activities of a corporation are less amenable to public or congressional scrutiny than those of a public institution, public-private collaborative relationships afford the private sector an added measure of security from such scrutiny. These concerns were ultimately swamped by enthusiasm for the war effort and the postwar era of prosperity that the war produced.
Beneath the surface, however, was a less well recognized movement by big business to replace democratic institutions with those representing the interests of capital. This movement is today ascendant. (See Thomas Frank's new book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, for a superb analysis of Ronald Reagan's slogan"government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.") Its objectives have long been to discredit what it called"big government," while capturing for private interests the tremendous sums invested by the public sector in national defense. It may be understood as a slow-burning reaction to what American conservatives believed to be the socialism of the New Deal.
Perhaps the country's leading theorist of democracy, Sheldon S. Wolin, has written a new book, Democracy Incorporated, on what he calls"inverted totalitarianism" -- the rise in the U.S. of totalitarian institutions of conformity and regimentation shorn of the police repression of the earlier German, Italian, and Soviet forms. He warns of"the expansion of private (i.e., mainly corporate) power and the selective abdication of governmental responsibility for the well-being of the citizenry." He also decries the degree to which the so-called privatization of governmental activities has insidiously undercut our democracy, leaving us with the widespread belief that government is no longer needed and that, in any case, it is not capable of performing the functions we have entrusted to it.
"The privatization of public services and functions manifests the steady evolution of corporate power into a political form, into an integral, even dominant partner with the state. It marks the transformation of American politics and its political culture, from a system in which democratic practices and values were, if not defining, at least major contributory elements, to one where the remaining democratic elements of the state and its populist programs are being systematically dismantled." (p. 284)
Mercenaries at Work
The military-industrial complex has changed radically since World War II or even the height of the Cold War. The private sector is now fully ascendant. The uniformed air, land, and naval forces of the country as well as its intelligence agencies, including the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), the NSA (National Security Agency), the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency), and even clandestine networks entrusted with the dangerous work of penetrating and spying on terrorist organizations are all dependent on hordes of"private contractors." In the context of governmental national security functions, a better term for these might be"mercenaries" working in private for profit-making companies.
Tim Shorrock, an investigative journalist and the leading authority on this subject, sums up this situation devastatingly in his new book, Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. The following quotes are a précis of some of his key findings:
"In 2006… the cost of America's spying and surveillance activities outsourced to contractors reached $42 billion, or about 70 percent of the estimated $60 billion the government spends each year on foreign and domestic intelligence… [The] number of contract employees now exceeds [the CIA's] full-time workforce of 17,500… Contractors make up more than half the workforce of the CIA's National Clandestine Service (formerly the Directorate of Operations), which conducts covert operations and recruits spies abroad…
"To feed the NSA's insatiable demand for data and information technology, the industrial base of contractors seeking to do business with the agency grew from 144 companies in 2001 to more than 5,400 in 2006… At the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the agency in charge of launching and maintaining the nation's photoreconnaissance and eavesdropping satellites, almost the entire workforce is composed of contract employees working for [private] companies… With an estimated $8 billion annual budget, the largest in the IC [intelligence community], contractors control about $7 billion worth of business at the NRO, giving the spy satellite industry the distinction of being the most privatized part of the intelligence community…
"If there's one generalization to be made about the NSA's outsourced IT [information technology] programs, it is this: they haven't worked very well, and some have been spectacular failures… In 2006, the NSA was unable to analyze much of the information it was collecting… As a result, more than 90 percent of the information it was gathering was being discarded without being translated into a coherent and understandable format; only about 5 percent was translated from its digital form into text and then routed to the right division for analysis.
"The key phrase in the new counterterrorism lexicon is 'public-private partnerships'… In reality, 'partnerships' are a convenient cover for the perpetuation of corporate interests." (pp. 6, 13-14, 16, 214-15, 365)
Several inferences can be drawn from Shorrock's shocking exposé. One is that if a foreign espionage service wanted to penetrate American military and governmental secrets, its easiest path would not be to gain access to any official U.S. agencies, but simply to get its agents jobs at any of the large intelligence-oriented private companies on which the government has become remarkably dependent. These include Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), with headquarters in San Diego, California, which typically pays its 42,000 employees higher salaries than if they worked at similar jobs in the government; Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the nation's oldest intelligence and clandestine-operations contractors, which, until January 2007, was the employer of Mike McConnell, the current director of national intelligence and the first private contractor to be named to lead the entire intelligence community; and CACI International, which, under two contracts for"information technology services," ended up supplying some two dozen interrogators to the Army at Iraq's already infamous Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. According to Major General Anthony Taguba, who investigated the Abu Ghraib torture and abuse scandal, four of CACI's interrogators were"either directly or indirectly responsible" for torturing prisoners. (Shorrock, p. 281)
Remarkably enough, SAIC has virtually replaced the National Security Agency as the primary collector of signals intelligence for the government. It is the NSA's largest contractor, and that agency is today the company's single largest customer.
There are literally thousands of other profit-making enterprises that work to supply the government with so-called intelligence needs, sometimes even bribing Congressmen to fund projects that no one in the executive branch actually wants. This was the case with Congressman Randy"Duke" Cunningham, Republican of California's 50th District, who, in 2006, was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in federal prison for soliciting bribes from defense contractors. One of the bribers, Brent Wilkes, snagged a $9.7 million contract for his company, ADCS Inc. ("Automated Document Conversion Systems") to computerize the century-old records of the Panama Canal dig!
A Country Drowning in Euphemisms
The United States has long had a sorry record when it comes to protecting its intelligence from foreign infiltration, but the situation today seems particularly perilous. One is reminded of the case described in the 1979 book by Robert Lindsey, The Falcon and the Snowman (made into a 1985 film of the same name). It tells the true story of two young Southern Californians, one with a high security clearance working for the defense contractor TRW (dubbed"RTX" in the film), and the other a drug addict and minor smuggler. The TRW employee is motivated to act by his discovery of a misrouted CIA document describing plans to overthrow the prime minister of Australia, and the other by a need for money to pay for his addiction.
They decide to get even with the government by selling secrets to the Soviet Union and are exposed by their own bungling. Both are sentenced to prison for espionage. The message of the book (and film) lies in the ease with which they betrayed their country -- and how long it took before they were exposed and apprehended. Today, thanks to the staggering over-privatization of the collection and analysis of foreign intelligence, the opportunities for such breaches of security are widespread.
I applaud Shorrock for his extraordinary research into an almost impenetrable subject using only openly available sources. There is, however, one aspect of his analysis with which I differ. This is his contention that the wholesale takeover of official intelligence collection and analysis by private companies is a form of"outsourcing." This term is usually restricted to a business enterprise buying goods and services that it does not want to manufacture or supply in-house. When it is applied to a governmental agency that turns over many, if not all, of its key functions to a risk-averse company trying to make a return on its investment,"outsourcing" simply becomes a euphemism for mercenary activities.
As David Bromwich, a political critic and Yale professor of literature, observed in the New York Review of Books:
"The separate bookkeeping and accountability devised for Blackwater, DynCorp, Triple Canopy, and similar outfits was part of a careful displacement of oversight from Congress to the vice-president and the stewards of his policies in various departments and agencies. To have much of the work parceled out to private companies who are unaccountable to army rules or military justice, meant, among its other advantages, that the cost of the war could be concealed beyond all detection."
Euphemisms are words intended to deceive. The United States is already close to drowning in them, particularly new words and terms devised, or brought to bear, to justify the American invasion of Iraq -- coinages Bromwich highlights like"regime change,""enhanced interrogation techniques,""the global war on terrorism,""the birth pangs of a new Middle East," a"slight uptick in violence,""bringing torture within the law,""simulated drowning," and, of course," collateral damage," meaning the slaughter of unarmed civilians by American troops and aircraft followed -- rarely -- by perfunctory apologies. It is important that the intrusion of unelected corporate officials with hidden profit motives into what are ostensibly public political activities not be confused with private businesses buying Scotch tape, paper clips, or hubcaps.
The wholesale transfer of military and intelligence functions to private, often anonymous, operatives took off under Ronald Reagan's presidency, and accelerated greatly after 9/11 under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Often not well understood, however, is this: The biggest private expansion into intelligence and other areas of government occurred under the presidency of Bill Clinton. He seems not to have had the same anti-governmental and neoconservative motives as the privatizers of both the Reagan and Bush II eras. His policies typically involved an indifference to -- perhaps even an ignorance of -- what was actually being done to democratic, accountable government in the name of cost-cutting and allegedly greater efficiency. It is one of the strengths of Shorrock's study that he goes into detail on Clinton's contributions to the wholesale privatization of our government, and of the intelligence agencies in particular.
Reagan launched his campaign to shrink the size of government and offer a large share of public expenditures to the private sector with the creation in 1982 of the"Private Sector Survey on Cost Control." In charge of the survey, which became known as the"Grace Commission," he named the conservative businessman, J. Peter Grace, Jr., chairman of the W.R. Grace Corporation, one of the world's largest chemical companies -- notorious for its production of asbestos and its involvement in numerous anti-pollution suits. The Grace Company also had a long history of investment in Latin America, and Peter Grace was deeply committed to undercutting what he saw as leftist unions, particularly because they often favored state-led economic development.
The Grace Commission's actual achievements were modest. Its biggest was undoubtedly the 1987 privatization of Conrail, the freight railroad for the northeastern states. Nothing much else happened on this front during the first Bush's administration, but Bill Clinton returned to privatization with a vengeance.
According to Shorrock:
"Bill Clinton… picked up the cudgel where the conservative Ronald Reagan left off and… took it deep into services once considered inherently governmental, including high-risk military operations and intelligence functions once reserved only for government agencies. By the end of [Clinton's first] term, more than 100,000 Pentagon jobs had been transferred to companies in the private sector -- among them thousands of jobs in intelligence… By the end of [his second] term in 2001, the administration had cut 360,000 jobs from the federal payroll and the government was spending 44 percent more on contractors than it had in 1993." (pp. 73, 86)
These activities were greatly abetted by the fact that the Republicans had gained control of the House of Representatives in 1994 for the first time in 43 years. One liberal journalist described"outsourcing as a virtual joint venture between [House Majority Leader Newt] Gingrich and Clinton." The right-wing Heritage Foundation aptly labeled Clinton's 1996 budget as the"boldest privatization agenda put forth by any president to date." (p. 87)
After 2001, Bush and Cheney added an ideological rationale to the process Clinton had already launched so efficiently. They were enthusiastic supporters of"a neoconservative drive to siphon U.S. spending on defense, national security, and social programs to large corporations friendly to the Bush administration." (pp. 72-3)
The Privatization -- and Loss -- of Institutional Memory
The end result is what we see today: a government hollowed out in terms of military and intelligence functions. The KBR Corporation, for example, supplies food, laundry, and other personal services to our troops in Iraq based on extremely lucrative no-bid contracts, while Blackwater Worldwide supplies security and analytical services to the CIA and the State Department in Baghdad. (Among other things, its armed mercenaries opened fire on, and killed, 17 unarmed civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad, on September 16, 2007, without any provocation, according to U.S. military reports.) The costs -- both financial and personal -- of privatization in the armed services and the intelligence community far exceed any alleged savings, and some of the consequences for democratic governance may prove irreparable.
These consequences include: the sacrifice of professionalism within our intelligence services; the readiness of private contractors to engage in illegal activities without compunction and with impunity; the inability of Congress or citizens to carry out effective oversight of privately-managed intelligence activities because of the wall of secrecy that surrounds them; and, perhaps most serious of all, the loss of the most valuable asset any intelligence organization possesses -- its institutional memory.
Most of these consequences are obvious, even if almost never commented on by our politicians or paid much attention in the mainstream media. After all, the standards of a career CIA officer are very different from those of a corporate executive who must keep his eye on the contract he is fulfilling and future contracts that will determine the viability of his firm. The essence of professionalism for a career intelligence analyst is his integrity in laying out what the U.S. government should know about a foreign policy issue, regardless of the political interests of, or the costs to, the major players.
The loss of such professionalism within the CIA was starkly revealed in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. It still seems astonishing that no senior official, beginning with Secretary of State Colin Powell, saw fit to resign when the true dimensions of our intelligence failure became clear, least of all Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet.
A willingness to engage in activities ranging from the dubious to the outright felonious seems even more prevalent among our intelligence contractors than among the agencies themselves, and much harder for an outsider to detect. For example, following 9/11, Rear Admiral John Poindexter, then working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the Department of Defense, got the bright idea that DARPA should start compiling dossiers on as many American citizens as possible in order to see whether"data-mining" procedures might reveal patterns of behavior associated with terrorist activities.
On November 14, 2002, the New York Times published a column by William Safire entitled "You Are a Suspect" in which he revealed that DARPA had been given a $200 million budget to compile dossiers on 300 million Americans. He wrote,"Every purchase you make with a credit card, every magazine subscription you buy and medical prescription you fill, every web site you visit and every e-mail you send or receive, every bank deposit you make, every trip you book, and every event you attend -- all these transactions and communications will go into what the Defense Department describes as a ‘virtual centralized grand database.'" This struck many members of Congress as too close to the practices of the Gestapo and the Stasi under German totalitarianism, and so, the following year, they voted to defund the project.
However, Congress's action did not end the"total information awareness" program. The National Security Agency secretly decided to continue it through its private contractors. The NSA easily persuaded SAIC and Booz Allen Hamilton to carry on with what Congress had declared to be a violation of the privacy rights of the American public -- for a price. As far as we know, Admiral Poindexter's"Total Information Awareness Program" is still going strong today.
The most serious immediate consequence of the privatization of official governmental activities is the loss of institutional memory by our government's most sensitive organizations and agencies. Shorrock concludes,"So many former intelligence officers joined the private sector [during the 1990s] that, by the turn of the century, the institutional memory of the United States intelligence community now resides in the private sector. That's pretty much where things stood on September 11, 2001." (p. 112)
This means that the CIA, the DIA, the NSA, and the other 13 agencies in the U.S. intelligence community cannot easily be reformed because their staffs have largely forgotten what they are supposed to do, or how to go about it. They have not been drilled and disciplined in the techniques, unexpected outcomes, and know-how of previous projects, successful and failed.
As numerous studies have, by now, made clear, the abject failure of the American occupation of Iraq came about in significant measure because the Department of Defense sent a remarkably privatized military filled with incompetent amateurs to Baghdad to administer the running of a defeated country. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates (a former director of the CIA) has repeatedly warned that the United States is turning over far too many functions to the military because of its hollowing out of the Department of State and the Agency for International Development since the end of the Cold War. Gates believes that we are witnessing a" creeping militarization" of foreign policy -- and, though this generally goes unsaid, both the military and the intelligence services have turned over far too many of their tasks to private companies and mercenaries.
When even Robert Gates begins to sound like President Eisenhower, it is time for ordinary citizens to pay attention. In my 2006 book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, with an eye to bringing the imperial presidency under some modest control, I advocated that we Americans abolish the CIA altogether, along with other dangerous and redundant agencies in our alphabet soup of sixteen secret intelligence agencies, and replace them with the State Department's professional staff devoted to collecting and analyzing foreign intelligence. I still hold that position.
Nonetheless, the current situation represents the worst of all possible worlds. Successive administrations and Congresses have made no effort to alter the CIA's role as the president's private army, even as we have increased its incompetence by turning over many of its functions to the private sector. We have thereby heightened the risks of war by accident, or by presidential whim, as well as of surprise attack because our government is no longer capable of accurately assessing what is going on in the world and because its intelligence agencies are so open to pressure, penetration, and manipulation of every kind.
[Note to Readers: This essay focuses on the new book by Tim Shorrock, Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
Other books noted: Eugene Jarecki's The American Way of War: Guided Missiles, Misguided Men, and a Republic in Peril, New York: Free Press, 2008; Thomas Frank, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008; Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.]
Posted on: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 - 19:04
SOURCE: Smithsonian Magazine (8-1-08)
But there was a time when the Republican and Democratic conventions were bare-knuckled political brawls. It was democracy at its messiest, as delegates bartered their allegiances, secretly courted candidates, challenged the authority of their party's leadership and even stormed out and held their own protest conventions. At issue was not just the nominee for president but the ideological platforms their chosen candidates would champion. The national conventions emerged as venues for confronting the most pressing issues of the day: the civil rights movement, the size and role of the federal government, reining in the power of the federal courts, how best to confront enemies abroad and when to bring U.S. troops home.
The national conventions thus became crucibles not only for shaping the political parties as we know them today, but for reshaping America itself. With this in mind, we asked four leading authorities to survey the most consequential Republican and Democratic conventions of the 20th century.
1912 Republican Convention [Lewis L. Gould]
Return of the Rough Rider
1948 Democratic Convention [Alonzo L. Hamby]
The South Secedes Again
1964 Republican Convention [Rick Perlstein]
Revolution from the Right
1968 Democratic Convention [Haynes Johnson]
The Bosses Strike Back
Posted on: Monday, July 28, 2008 - 20:18
SOURCE: Frontpagemag.com (7-28-08)
What more can anyone say about the 1960s and all its legacies?
Those who protested some 40 years ago often still congratulate themselves that their loud zeal alone brought needed "change" to America in civil rights, the environment, women's liberation and world peace. Maybe. But critics counter that the larger culture that followed was the most self-absorbed in memory.
Everyone can at least agree that the spirit of the "Me Generation" is not going quietly into the night - especially since that generation ushered in a certain coarseness and self-righteousness that still plagues our politics.
Take grandiose sermonizing about changing the world while offering few practical details how to do it.
Al Gore recently prophesied that America within 10 years could generate all its electrical needs from "renewable resources and carbon-constrained fuels" - mainly wind, solar and geothermal power (which currently together account for less than 10 percent of our aggregate production).
In truth, that daydream has about as much chance of being realized by 2018 as Al Gore this year swearing off the use of polluting SUVs and gas-guzzling private jets as he whizzes to his next environmental pulpit.
Barack Obama, a child during the '60s, is imbued nonetheless with that decade's "hope and change" messianic sermonizing. Now he wants a new mammoth government-funded "civilian national security force," one "that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded" as the Pentagon.
Sounds utopian, but at a time of record aggregate national debt, are we really going to borrow another half-trillion dollars a year to fund a kinder, gentler version of the military?
Mr. Gore and Mr. Obama may mean well. And we may someday rely mostly on wind and solar electrical power, and even benefit by having more aid workers abroad. But they discredit their proposals with '60s-style exaggeration and feel-good fantasies that cannot be realized as promised.
Another permanent '60s legacy is the assumption that the ends justify crude means. The so-called netroots bloggers often celebrate online with glee the illnesses or deaths of supposedly reactionary political opponents.
The crass antiwar group Moveon.org was not just content to object to Gen. David Petraeus testifying before Congress last autumn. In the fashion of 1960s agitprop, it had to go the next step in demonizing at a time of war our top-ranking Iraq ground commander as a traitor - a "General Betray Us" as the group's ad in the New York Times blared.
Due to a "grass-roots effort" to garner thousands of petition signatures, the city of San Francisco will have on the November ballot a measure to change the name of one of its water "pollution control plants" to the "George W. Bush Sewage Plant." What a trend that would be! Should red states follow that pettiness and rename their sewers and dumps after John Kerry or Bill Clinton?
We still suffer from the same 1960s juvenile petulance when the powers that be did not immediately fall in line as protesters demanded.
Now the spirit of that age permeates Congress, whose members won't drill oil off our coasts or the Continental Shelf, or in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Yet in infantile fashion, they rant about "Big Oil's" high gas prices. So, Congress instead threatens to sue the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to be fairer and to pump more oil. And we beg the Saudis to drill and pump more in their waters so we don't have to in ours.
Even in the much-poorer 1960s, it was hard to take seriously the idea of loud middle-class suburban kids as street revolutionaries, given that America was the richest and freest society in history. And it's even harder now when many of them are rich seniors and the country itself is far wealthier....
Posted on: Monday, July 28, 2008 - 19:22
SOURCE: Chronicle of Higher Ed (8-1-08)
"No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public," said H.L. Mencken in the era of Babbitt and the Scopes "monkey" trial. Several generations later, one might speculate that no publisher has ever lost money with a book accusing Americans — particularly young ones — of being stupid.
The most influential book in that genre is surely Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), in which he argues that the American dislike for educational elitism derives from a number of interlocking cultural legacies, including religious fundamentalism, populism, the privileging of "common sense" over esoteric knowledge, the pragmatic values of business and science, and the cult of the self-made man. With some cyclical variation, Americans tend to distrust, resent, and even feel moral revulsion toward "intellectuals."
As an English professor, I can attest to the power of that element in American culture, as can just about anyone in any academic field without direct, practical applications. When a stranger asks me what I do, I usually just say, "I'm a teacher." The unfortunate follow-up remarks — usually about political bias in the classroom and sham apologies for their poor grammar meant to imply that I am a snob — usually make me wish I had said, "I sell hydraulic couplers," an answer more likely to produce hums of respectful incomprehension.
If the situation was bad in Hofstadter's time, it's grown steadily worse over the past 40 years. The anti-intellectual legacy he described has often been used by the political right — since at least the McCarthy era — to label any complication of the usual pieties of patriotism, religion, and capitalism as subversive, dangerous, and un-American. And, one might add, the left has its own mirror-image dogmas.
Now, in the post-9/11 era, American anti-intellectualism has grown more powerful, pervasive, and dangerous than at any time in our history, and we have a duty — particularly as educators — to foster intelligence as a moral obligation.
Or at least that is the urgent selling point of a cartload of books published in the past several months.
For academics on the political left, the last eight years represent the sleep of reason producing the monsters of our time: suburban McMansions, gas-guzzling Hummers, pop evangelicalism, the triple-bacon cheeseburger, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?, creation science, waterboarding, environmental apocalypse, Miley Cyrus, and the Iraq War — all presided over by that twice-elected, self-satisfied, inarticulate avatar of American incuriosity and hubris: he who shall not be named....
Rick Shenkman: On book reviews that get things wrong
Posted on: Monday, July 28, 2008 - 19:21
SOURCE: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (7-28-08)
Barack Obama was way too pro-Reagan during an interview earlier this year with the Reno Gazette-Journal's editorial board, according to Paul Krugman, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University and twice-weekly columnist at The New York Times.
"Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not," said Obama, asserting that Reagan offered a "sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing" in American politics.
Obama's statement hardly seems controversial, given that Ronald Reagan unmistakably changed the course of the United States and considering the weak sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that was manifestly on display in Reagan's four immediate predecessors --- Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter.
Nonetheless, "the furor over Barack Obama's praise for Ronald Reagan is not, as some think, overblown," asserted Krugman. "The fact is that how we talk about the Reagan era still matters immensely for American politics."..
Posted on: Monday, July 28, 2008 - 13:11
SOURCE: The Sunday Times (UK) (7-27-08)
When President Bush came to Britain in June, a number of historians were among the dinner guests at 10 Downing Street. One, David Cannadine, was a mover in setting up a History and Policy Unit, in the hope that, when politicians are contemplating such weighty matters as regime change, knife crime or ID cards, they might call on a historian to evaluate past precedents.
Yet Professor Cannadine has just published a book in which he maintains that the morale of professional historians (whose collective name in AL Rowse’s time was reputedly “a poison”, and is now supposedly “a malice”) is at an all-time low. Andrew Roberts, another Downing Street invitee, agrees. He has called for a regulatory authority for historians and suggests it could be called Ofhist. Its task would be to protect what he designates “proper historians” from incursions by “amateurs” into writing history books, and to restrain literary editors from commissioning “Clist celebs” and the writers of “chick lit” to review such historians’ work.
So, where does the truth lie? Are historians the repository of the nation’s past wisdom, essential policy wonks’ adjuncts? Or an endangered species in need of protection from today’s nasty, dumbed-down world? Let’s attempt a historian’s answer: it depends where you stand. Certainly, if that’s in most parts of Europe, the answer would be that the reputation of British historians has never been higher...
Posted on: Monday, July 28, 2008 - 10:42
SOURCE: Daily Mail (UK) (7-26-08)
The demented Roman Emperor Caligula once mused that if all the people of Rome had one neck he would cut it just to be rid of his troublesome people.
The trouble was there were simply too many Romans to kill them all.
Many centuries later, the brutal Soviet dictator Josef Stalin reflected that he would have liked to deport the entire Ukrainian nation, but 20 million were too many to move even for him.
So he found another solution: starvation.
Now, 75 years after one of the great forgotten crimes of modern times, Stalin's man-made famine of 1932/3, the former Soviet republic of Ukraine is asking the world to classify it as a genocide.
The Ukrainians call it the Holodomor - the Hunger.
Millions starved as Soviet troops and secret policemen raided their villages, stole the harvest and all the food in villagers' homes.
They dropped dead in the streets, lay dying and rotting in their houses, and some women became so desperate for food that they ate their own children.
If they managed to fend off starvation, they were deported and shot in their hundreds of thousands.
So terrible was the famine that Igor Yukhnovsky, director of the Institute of National Memory, the Ukrainian institution researching the Holodomor, believes as many as nine million may have died.
For decades the disaster remained a state secret, denied by Stalin and his Soviet government and concealed from the outside world with the help of the 'useful idiots' - as Lenin called Soviet sympathisers in the West.
Russia is furious that Ukraine has raised the issue of the famine: the swaggering 21st-century state of Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev see this as nationalist chicanery designed to promote Ukraine, which may soon join Nato and the EU.
They see it as an anti-Russian manoeuvre more to do with modern politics than history. And they refuse to recognise this old crime as a genocide...
Posted on: Saturday, July 26, 2008 - 11:12
SOURCE: Jerusalem Post (7-21-08)
Israel has lived the past sixty years more intensively than any other country.
Its highs – the resurrection of a two-thousand year old state in 1948, history's most lopsided military victory in 1967, and the astonishing Entebbe hostage rescue in 1976 – have been triumphs of will and spirit that inspire the civilized world. Its lows have been self-imposed humiliations: unilateral retreat from Lebanon and evacuation of Joseph's Tomb, both in 2000; retreat from Gaza in 2005; defeat by Hizbullah in 2006; and the corpses-for-prisoners exchange with Hizbullah last week.
An outsider can only wonder at the contrast. How can the authors of exhilarating victories repeatedly bring such disgrace upon themselves, seemingly oblivious to the import of their actions?
One clue has to do with the dates. The highs took place during the state's first three decades, the lows occurred since 2000. Something profound has changed. The strategically brilliant but economically deficient early state has been replaced by the reverse. Yesteryear's spy masterminds, military geniuses, and political heavyweights have seemingly gone into high tech, leaving the state in the hands of corrupt, short-sighted mental midgets.
How else can one account for the cabinet meeting on June 29, when 22 out of 25 ministers voted in favor of releasing five live Arab terrorists, including Samir al-Kuntar, 45, a psychopath and the most notorious prisoner in Israel's jails, plus 200 corpses? In return, Israel got the bodies of two Israel soldiers murdered by Hizbullah. Even The Washington Post wondered at this decision.
Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert endorsed the deal on the grounds that it"will bring an end to this painful episode," a reference to retrieving the bodies of war dead and appeasing the hostages' families demand for closure. In themselves, both are honorable goals, but at what price? This distortion of priorities shows how a once-formidably strategic country has degenerated into a supremely sentimental country, a rudderless polity where self-absorbed egoism trumps raison d'être. Israelis, fed up with deterrence and appeasement alike, have lost their way.
Appalling as the cabinet decision was, worse yet is that neither the Likud opposition party nor other leading public Israeli institutions responded with rage, but generally (with some notable exceptions) sat quietly aside. Their absence reflects a Tami Steinmetz Center poll showing that the Israeli population approves the swap by a nearly 2-1 ratio. In short, the problem extends far beyond the official class to implicate the population at large.
Samir Kuntar on arrival in Lebanon, complete with Hizbullah uniform and"Heil Hitler" salute (AFP).
On the other side, the disgraceful celebration of baby-murderer Kuntar as a national hero in Lebanon, where the government shut down to celebrate his arrival, and by the Palestinian Authority, which called him a"heroic fighter," reveals the depths of Lebanese enmity to Israel and its immorality, disturbing to anyone concerned with the Arab soul.
The deal has many adverse consequences. It encourages Arab terrorists to seize more Israeli soldiers, then kill them. It boosts Hizbullah's stature in Lebanon and legitimates Hizbullah internationally. It emboldens Hamas and makes a deal for its Israeli hostage more problematic. Finally, while this incident appears small compared to the Iranian nuclear issue, the two are related.
International headlines along the lines of"Israel Mourns, Hezbollah Exults" confirm the widely held but erroneous Middle Eastern view of Israel as a"spider's web" that can be destroyed. The recent exchange may give the already apocalyptic Iranian leadership further reason to brandish its weapons. Worse, as Steven Plaut notes, by equating"mass murderers of Jewish children to combat soldiers," the exchange effectively justifies the"mass extermination of Jews in the name of Jewish racial inferiority."
For those concerned with the welfare and security of Israel, I propose two consolations. First, Israel remains a powerful country that can afford mistakes; one estimate even predicts it would survive an exchange of nuclear weapons with Iran, while Iran would not.
Second, the Kuntar affair could have a surprise happy ending. A senior Israeli official told David Bedein that, now out of jail, Israel's obligation to protect Kuntar is terminated; on arrival in Lebanon, he became"a target for killing. Israel will get him, and he will be killed … accounts will be settled." Another senior official added"we cannot let this man think that he can go unpunished for his murder of a 4-year-old girl."
Who will laugh last, Hizbullah or Israel?
Posted on: Thursday, July 24, 2008 - 21:20
SOURCE: Christian Science Monitor (7-23-08)
My wife and I have a sworn pact: As soon as she notices that I'm losing it upstairs – or not having fun – she'll force me to retire. And I'll do the same for her.
That's the deal, anyhow.
Retiring is hard. It's an admission – to the world and to yourself – that you may not be the same person you used to be. Nobody wants to think that their skills, energy, or desire has changed. And nobody wants to tell their partner that, either.
It's particularly hard for professional athletes, whose skills seem to deteriorate much more quickly. That's why so many of them overstay their welcome, refusing to quit when they should. It's also why they keep coming back, even after they do retire.
And that brings us to Brett Favre.
Last March, Mr.=2 0Favre held a tearful press conference to announce his retirement from the Green Bay Packers. Favre led the Packers to the 2008 NFC title game, where they fell in overtime to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. But he couldn't run or throw the way he used to, and he knew it. So it was time to move on.
Earlier this month, however, before the 38-year-old Favre had been officially released from his contract, he told the Packers that he wants back in. And now it's the Packers who want to move on, grooming a new quarterback to fill Favre's huge cleats. But they're reluctant to release Favre, because they wouldn't get any compensation from the next team that signed him. And they don't want to trade him to another contender, either.
You can sympathize with both sides here. Clearly, the Packers need to prepare for a future without Brett Favre. But for Favre, the future is now. Just last January, he was a single interception away from the Super Bowl. With the right team around him, who's to say he couldn't get there next year?
Actually, history does. When pro athletes un-retire near the end of their careers, in search of glory, they rarely find it. Instead, they humiliate themselves.
Consider baseball pitcher Roger Clemens, the undisputed king of the long sports goodbye. Clemens retired in 2003, unretired in 2004, retired in early 2006, unretired in the middle of the same season, then retire d again at the end of 2007. Along the way, to be fair, Clemens received his record 7th Cy Young Award. But by the end, his playing was an embarrassment. He won just six games in his final season, plagued by injuries and – later – by allegations of steroid use.
Then there's Michael Jordan. After leading the Chicago Bulls to three NBA championships, Jordan quit to pursue a career in baseball. He came back two years later to win three more championships, then retired again. But when he returned a third time, at the age of 38, his game was gone. He ended his career like Clemens, a proud lion laid low.
Recently Dana Torres came back to break the American swimming record, following two retirements and a pregnancy. This summer, at age 41, she'll become the first US swimmer to compete in five different Olympics.
And I'll be rooting for her. Eventually, though, Favre and Torres could suffer the fate of Clemens and Jordan. With the right team, to be sure, Favre might win another championship. More likely, he'll fade into mediocrity. And it won't be pretty to watch.
So why can't we take our eyes off it? The spectacle of the unretired athlete echoes one of the oldest narratives in Western mythology: An old hero returns, vanquishing his foes and reclaiming a lost love. Think of Orpheus, who descended into the underworld to retrieve Eurydice; or Odysseus, sailing the seas for a decade before reuniting at Ithaca with Penelope.
But in the case of the pro athlete, we fans are the former lover. And we are fickle wives, dumping our heroes as soon as we see that they are human after all. Brett Favre misses the excitement and the adulation of pro football, and who can blame him? But one day, very soon, we'll turn away, in sadness and anger, wondering why he couldn't get out when the getting was good.
And we'll wonder about ourselves, too. In the drama of sports retirements, we see small reminders of a basic human dilemma: When do you quit? I'm trusting my wife to tell me.
Whether I'll listen, of course, is another story altogether.
Posted on: Thursday, July 24, 2008 - 18:42
SOURCE: Email to friends (7-24-08)
" It's time we stop children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going round"
During the late 1960's, those song lyrics served as an anthem for a youth based counterculture that emerged out of the civil rights and anti-war movements. Challenging individualism, consumerism and the ideal of the self-contained nuclear family, hundreds of thousands of young people chose to live in communal spaces where people shared housing, food, child care, and household responsibilities. Some of these communal experiments took place in rural areas and sought complete self-sufficiency by growing their own food, but the majority were formed in cities and towns by people who worked in the mainstream economy, but chose to share their incomes, as well as their living space, with like minded people who saw competitive individualism as a destructive force.
Most of these communal experiments gradually disintegrated as the idealism which inspired them diminished, and as the people who launched them, many of whom were college educated, moved into professional occupations. But though the ideological support for communalism is substantially weaker than it was forty years ago, the number of people living communally is actually far greater! The driving force for this new communalism is almost entirely economic. Because of stagnant wages and rising costs for housing, transportation and health care, large portions of the American working class are no longer able to live in nuclear family units and are sharing living space relatives, friends, and to an increasing degree, with complete strangers.
You can see this not only in the Bronx, where large portions of the population, whether in public housing, privately owned apartment buildings or two and three family houses, are living doubled and tripled up, but in working class suburbs where most people live in detached houses with garages and lawns. In the Springs, a working class neighborhood in East Hampton where I have a vacation house, half of the houses on my block have more than two families living in them. This is not only true of the houses on my street owned by Mexican immigrants, where between two and five families share split level houses originally built for one. but in a number of houses in which white, and mixed race couples, share space.
The days when working class men and women could marry early and to move into their own private home are disappearing fast. The disparity between working class wages and the money needed to purchase and heat a home makes that ideal nearly impossible for a nuclear family without incurring incredible debt For a while, escalating credit card limits and the creation of sub prime mortgages inspired millions of families to take that risk but now those families face interest rates that are in danger of swallowing up their investment and forcing them into foreclosure. When you add to that increasing energy costs, the private home, for most working class people is fast becoming an"endangered species." The only way most working class families will be able to meet their mortgage payments and fuel costs is by sharing those costs with other families, or taking in boarders who pay rent
None of this is going to change any time soon. The days of inexpensive fuel and lavishly available credit are gone, perhaps forever. The entire culture of postwar America, built around the private home and the private automobile, is becoming dysfunctional for large sections of the population. Working class people, and increasingly middle class Americans, will have to share space, and resources and services to have a decent life style. And government needs to adapt to the this through investment in public transportation, high quality affordable health care, and affordable rental housing.
The"ownership society" where the ideal living unit is the private home is no longer compatible with the place of the US in the global economy. Ideals of solidarity and sharing and sacrifice which have long since gone out of fashion, but which are lived realities for many working class people, have to be restored to a place of honor in the American political and cultural tradition
Individualism and consumerism need to be contested in every sphere of our culture, not just because they are morally questionable, but because they increasingly provide poor guidance for how to live well in the world we now inhabit.
Posted on: Thursday, July 24, 2008 - 14:34
SOURCE: Informed Comment (Blog run by Juan Cole) (7-24-08)
I want to weigh in as a social historian of Iraq on the controversy over whether the"surge""worked." The NYT notes:
'Mr. McCain bristled in an interview with the “CBS Evening News” on Tuesday when asked about Mr. Obama’s contention that while the added troops had helped reduce violence in Iraq, other factors had helped, including the Sunni Awakening movement, in which thousands of Sunnis were enlisted to patrol neighborhoods and fight the insurgency, and the Iraqi government’s crackdown on Shiite militias.
“I don’t know how you respond to something that is such a false depiction of what actually happened,” Mr. McCain told Katie Couric, noting that the Awakening movement began in Anbar Province when a Sunni sheik teamed up with Sean MacFarland, a colonel who commanded an Army brigade there.
“Because of the surge we were able to go out and protect that sheik and others,” Mr. McCain said. “And it began the Anbar Awakening. I mean, that’s just a matter of history.”
The Obama campaign was quick to note that the Anbar Awakening began in the fall of 2006, several months before President Bush even announced the troop escalation strategy, which became known as the surge. (No less an authority than Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, testified before Congress this spring that the Awakening “started before the surge, but then was very much enabled by the surge.”)
And Democrats noted that the sheik who helped form the Awakening, Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, was assassinated in September 2007, after the troop escalation began.
The National Security Network, a liberal foreign policy group, called Mr. McCain’s explanation of the surge’s history “completely wrong.”
But several foreign policy analysts said that if Mr. McCain got the chronology wrong, his broader point — that the troop escalation was crucial for the Awakening movement to succeed and spread — was right. “I would say McCain is three-quarters right in this debate,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. '
The problem with this debate is that it has few Iraqis in it.
It is also open to charges of logical fallacy. The only evidence presented for the thesis that the"surge""worked" is that Iraqi deaths from political violence have declined in recent months from all-time highs in the second half of 2006 and the first half of 2007. (That apocalyptic violence was set off by the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra in February of 2006, which helped provoke a Sunni-Shiite civil war.) What few political achievements are attributed to the troop escalation are too laughable to command real respect.
Proponents are awfully hard to pin down on what the"surge" consisted of or when it began. It seems to me to refer to the troop escalation that began in February, 2007. But now the technique of bribing Sunni Arab former insurgents to fight radical Sunni vigilantes is being rolled into the"surge" by politicians such as John McCain. But attempts to pay off the Sunnis to quiet down began months before the troop escalation and had a dramatic effect in al-Anbar Province long before any extra US troops were sent to al-Anbar (nor were very many extra troops ever sent there). I will disallow it. The"surge" is the troop escalation beginning winter of 2007. The bribing of insurgents to come into the cold could have been pursued without a significant troop escalation, and was.
Aside from defining what proponents mean by the"surge," all kinds of things are claimed for it that are not in evidence. The assertion depends on a possible logical fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc. If event X comes after event Y, it is natural to suspect that Y caused X. But it would often be a false assumption. Thus, actress Sharon Stone alleged that the recent earthquake in China was caused by China's crackdown on Tibetan protesters. That is just superstition, and callous superstition at that. It is a good illustration, however, of the very logical fallacy to which I am referring.
For the first six months of the troop escalation, high rates of violence continued unabated. That is suspicious. What exactly were US troops doing differently last September than they were doing in May, such that there was such a big change? The answer to that question is simply not clear. Note that the troop escalation only brought US force strength up to what it had been in late 2005. In a country of 27 million, 30,000 extra US troops are highly unlikely to have had a really major impact, when they had not before.
As best I can piece it together, what actually seems to have happened was that the escalation troops began by disarming the Sunni Arabs in Baghdad. Once these Sunnis were left helpless, the Shiite militias came in at night and ethnically cleansed them. Shaab district near Adhamiya had been a mixed neighborhood. It ended up with almost no Sunnis. Baghdad in the course of 2007 went from 65% Shiite to at least 75% Shiite and maybe more. My thesis would be that the US inadvertently allowed the chasing of hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs out of Baghdad (and many of them had to go all the way to Syria for refuge). Rates of violence declined once the ethnic cleansing was far advanced, just because there were fewer mixed neighborhoods.
This MNF graph courtesy of Think Progress makes the point:
As Think Progress quoted CNN correspondent Michael Ware:
' The sectarian cleansing of Baghdad has been — albeit tragic — one of the key elements to the drop in sectarian violence in the capital. […] It’s a very simple concept: Baghdad has been divided; segregated into Sunni and Shia enclaves. The days of mixed neighborhoods are gone. […] If anyone is telling you that the cleansing of Baghdad has not contributed to the fall in violence, then they either simply do not understand Baghdad or they are lying to you.'
Of course, Gen. Petraeus took courageous and effective steps to try to stop bombings in markets and so forth. But I am skeptical that most of these techniques had macro effects. Big population movements because of militia ethnic cleansing are more likely to account for big changes in social statistics.
The way in which the escalation troops did help establish Awakening Councils is that when they got wise to the Shiite ethnic cleansing program, the US began supporting these Sunni militias, thus forestalling further expulsions.
The Shiitization of Baghdad was thus a significant cause of falling casualty rates. But it is another war waiting to happen, when the Sunnis come back to find Shiite militiamen in their living rooms.
In al-Anbar Province, among the more violent in Iraq in earlier years, the bribing of former Sunni guerrillas to join US-sponsored Awakening Councils had a big calming effect. This technique could have been used much earlier than 2006, indeed, could have been deployed from 2003, and might have forestalled large numbers of deaths. Condi Rice forbade US military officers from dealing in this way with the Sunnis for fear of alienating US Shiite allies such as Ahmad Chalabi. The technique was independent of the troop escalation. Indeed, it depended on there not being much of a troop escalation in that province. Had large numbers of US soldiers been committed to simply fight the Sunnis or engage in search and destroy missions, they would have stirred up and reinforced the guerrilla movement. There were typically only 10,000 US troops in al-Anbar before 2007 as I recollect (It has a population of a million and a half or so). If the number of US troops went up to 14,000, that cannot possibly have made the difference.
The Mahdi Army militia of Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr concluded a cease-fire with US and Iraqi troops in September of 2007. Since the US had inadvertently enabled the transformation of Baghdad into a largely Shiite city, a prime aim of the Mahdi Army, they could afford to stand down. Moreover, they were being beaten militarily by the Badr Corps militia of the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and by Iraqi security forces, in Karbala, Diwaniya and elsewhere. It was prudent for them to stand down. Their doing so much reduced civilian deaths.
Badr reassertion in Basra was also important, and ultimately received backing this spring from PM Nuri al-Maliki. There were few coalition troops in Basra, mainly British, and most were moved out to the airport, so the troop escalation was obviously irrelevant to improvements in Basra. Now PM Gordon Brown seems to be signalling that most British troops will come home in 2009.
The vast increase in Iraqi oil revenues in recent years, and the cancellation of much foreign debt, has made the central government more powerful vis-a-vis the society. Al-Maliki can afford to pay, train and equip many more police and soldiers. An Iraq with an unencumbered $75 billion in oil income begins to look more like Kuwait, and to be able to afford to buy off various constituencies. It is a different game than an Iraq with $33 bn. in revenues, much of it pre-committed to debt servicing.
Senator McCain was wrong to say that US or Iraqi casualty rates were unprecedentedly low in May.
Most American commentators are so focused on the relative fall in casualties that they do not stop to consider how high the rates of violence remain. Kudos to Steve Chapman for telling it like it is.
I'd suggest some comparisons. The Sri Lankan civil war between Sinhalese and Tamils has killed an average of 233 persons a month since 1983 and is considered one of the world's major ongoing trouble spots. That is half the average monthly casualties in Iraq recently. In 2007, the conflict in Afghanistan killed an average of 550 persons a month. That is about the rate recently according to official statistics for Iraq. The death rate in 2006-2007 in Somalia was probably about 300 a month, or about half this year's average monthsly rate in Iraq. Does anybody think Afghanistan or Somalia is calm? Thirty years of North Ireland troubles left about 3,000 dead, a toll still racked up in Iraq every five months on average.
All the talk of casualty rates, of course, is to some extent beside the point. The announced purpose of the troop escalation was to create secure conditions in which political compromises could be achieved.
In spring of 2007, Iraq had a national unity government. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet had members in it from the Shiite Islamic Virtue Party, the Sadr Movement, the secular Iraqi National list of Iyad Allawi, the Sunni Iraqi Accord Front, the Kurdistan Alliance, and the two Shiite core partners, the Islamic Mission (Da'wa) Party and the Islami Supreme Council of Iraq.
Al-Maliki lost his national unity government in summer, 2007, just as casualties began to decline. The Islamic Virtue Party, the Sadrists, and the Iraqi National List are all still in the opposition. The Islamic Mission Party of al-Maliki has split, and he appears to remain in control of the smaller remnant. So although the Sunni IAF has agreed to rejoin the government, al-Maliki's ability to promote national reconciliation is actually much reduced now from 14 months ago.
There has been very little reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite. The new de-Baathification law which ostensibly aimed at improving the condition of Sunnis who had worked in the former regime was loudly denounced by the very ex-Baathists who would be affected by it. In any case, the measure has languished in oblivion and no effort has been made to implement it. Depending on how it is implemented it could easily lead to large numbers of Sunnis being fired from government ministries, and so might make things worse.
An important step was the holding of new provincial elections. Since the Sunni Arabs boycotted the last ones in Jan., 2005, their provinces have not had representative governments and in some, Shiite and Kurdish officials have wielded power over the majority Sunnis Arabs! Attempts to hold the provincial elections this fall have so far run aground on the shoals of ethnic conflict. Thus, the Shiite parties wanted to use ayatollahs' pictures in their campaigns, against the wishes of the other parties. It isn't clear what parliament will decide about that. More important is the question of whether provincial elections will be held in the disputed Kirkuk Province, which the Kurds want to annex. That dispute has caused (Kurdish) President Jalal Talabani to veto the enabling legislation for the provincial elections, which may set them back months or indefinitely.
There is also no oil law, essential to allow foreign investment in developing new fields.
So did the"surge""work"?
The troop escalation in and of itself was probably not that consequential. That the troops were used in new ways by Gen. Petraeus was more important. But their main effect was ironic. They calmed Baghdad down by accidentally turning it into a Shiite city, as Shiite as Isfahan or Tehran, and thus a terrain on which the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement could not hope to fight effectively.
It is Obama who has the better argument in this debate, not Senator McCain, who knows almost nothing about Iraq and Iraqis, and overestimates what can be expected of 30,000 US troops in an enormous, complex country.
But the problem for McCain is that it does not matter very much for policy who is right in this debate. Security in Iraq is demonstrably improved, for whatever reason, and the Iraqis want the US out. If things are better, what is the rationale for keeping US troops in Iraq?
Posted on: Thursday, July 24, 2008 - 14:00
SOURCE: Salon (7-23-08)
But Obama's pledge to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan will not be easy to fulfill. While coalition troop deaths have declined significantly in Iraq, NATO casualties in Afghanistan are way up. By shifting emphasis from Iraq to Afghanistan, would a President Obama be jumping from the frying pan into the fire?...
Obama's determination to put down the tribal insurgencies in northwestern Pakistan and in southern Afghanistan reveals basic contradictions in his announced policies. His plans certainly have the potential to ruffle Afghan and Pakistani feathers, and have already done so in Pakistan.
On July 13, Obama criticized Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai on CNN, saying, "I think the Karzai government has not gotten out of the bunker and helped organize Afghanistan and [the] government, the judiciary, police forces, in ways that would give people confidence." Although the remark had the potential to make for awkward moments between Karzai and Obama during their meeting Sunday, it was welcomed by the independent Afghan press, which applauded the senator for bucking the "self-centered" policies of Bush and his knee-jerk support of Karzai.
After Obama met with Karzai, reporters asked his aide, Humayun Hamidzada, if the criticism had come up. He tried to put the best face on issue, saying the Afghan government did not see the comment as critical, but as a fair observation, since it had in fact been tied down fighting terrorism.
Less forgiving were the politicians in Pakistan, who reacted angrily to Obama's comments on unilaterally attacking targets inside that country. The Democratic presidential hopeful told CBS on Sunday, "What I've said is that if we had actionable intelligence against high-value al-Qaida targets, and the Pakistani government was unwilling to go after those targets, that we should." He added that he would put pressure on Islamabad to move aggressively against terrorist training camps in the country's northwestern tribal areas.
Pakistan, a country of 165 million people, is composed of six major ethnic groups, one of them the Pashtuns of the northwest. The Pakistani Taliban are largely drawn from this group. The more settled Pashtun population is centered in the North-West Frontier province, with its capital at Peshawar. Between the NWFP and Afghanistan are badlands administered rather as Native American reservations are in the U.S., called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, with a population of some 3 million. These areas abut Pashtun provinces of Afghanistan, also a multiethnic society, but one in which Pashtuns are a plurality....
The governor of the North-West Frontier province, Owais Ghani, immediately spoke out against Obama, saying that the senator's remarks had the effect of undermining the new civilian government elected last February. Ghani warned that a U.S. incursion into the northwestern tribal areas would have "disastrous" consequences for the globe....
In Iraq, he is listening to what the Iraqis want. In Pakistan, he is simply dictating policy in a somewhat bellicose fashion, and ignoring the wishes of those moderate parties whose election he lauded last February.
Posted on: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 - 18:01